This has already been posted elsewhere – but it’s a great read and deserving of a posting here.
Too Little, Too Late
Last week, after a great deal of debate, the passengers aboard the Titanic voted to impose modest limits sometime soon on the rate at which water is pouring into the doomed ship’s hull. Despite the torrents of self-congratulatory rhetoric currently flooding into the media from the White House and an assortment of groups on the domesticated end of the environmental movement, that’s the sum of what happened at the COP-21 conference in Paris. It’s a spectacle worth observing, and not only for those of us who are connoisseurs of irony; the factors that drove COP-21 to the latest round of nonsolutions are among the most potent forces shoving industrial civilization on its one-way trip to history’s compost bin.
The core issues up for debate at the Paris meeting were the same that have been rehashed endlessly at previous climate conferences. The consequences of continuing to treat the atmosphere as a gaseous sewer for humanity’s pollutants are becoming increasingly hard to ignore, but nearly everything that defines a modern industrial economy as “modern” and “industrial” produces greenhouse gases, and the continued growth of the world’s modern industrial economies remains the keystone of economic policy around the world. The goal pursued by negotiators at this and previous climate conferences, then, is to find some way to do something about anthropogenic global warming that won’t place any kind of restrictions on economic growth.
What that means in practice is that the world’s nations have more or less committed themselves to limit the rate at which the dumping of greenhouse gases will increase over the next fifteen years. I’d encourage those of my readers who think anything important was accomplished at the Paris conference to read that sentence again, and think about what it implies. The agreement that came out of COP-21 doesn’t commit anybody to stop dumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, now or at any point in the future. It doesn’t even commit anybody to set a fixed annual output that will not be exceeded. It simply commits the world’s nations to slow down the rate at which they’re increasing their dumping of greenhouse gases. If this doesn’t sound to you like a recipe for saving the world, let’s just say you’re not alone.
It wasn’t exactly encouraging that the immediate aftermath of the COP-21 agreement was a feeding frenzy among those industries most likely to profit from modest cuts in greenhouse gas consumption—yes, those would be the renewable-energy and nuclear industries, with some efforts to get scraps from the table by proponents of “clean coal,” geoengineering, fusion-power research, and a few other subsidy dumpsters of the same sort. Naomi Oreskes, a writer for whom I used to have a certain degree of respect, published a crassly manipulative screed insisting that anybody who questioned the claim that renewable-energy technologies could keep industrial society powered forever was engaged in, ahem, “a new form of climate denialism.” She was more than matched, to be fair, by a chorus of meretricious shills for the nuclear industry, who were just as quick to insist that renewables couldn’t be scaled up fast enough and nuclear power was the only alternative.
The shills in question are quite correct, as it happens, that renewable energy can’t be scaled up fast enough to replace fossil fuels; they could have said with equal truth that renewable energy can’t be scaled up far enough to accomplish that daunting task. The little detail they’re evading is that nuclear power can’t be scaled up far enough or fast enough, either. What’s more, however great they look on paper or PowerPoint, neither nuclear power nor grid-scale renewable power are economically viable in the real world. The evidence for this is as simple as it is conclusive: no nation anywhere on the planet has managed either one without vast and continuing government subsidies. Lacking those, neither one makes enough economic sense to be worth building, because neither one can provide the kind of cheap abundant electrical power that makes a modern industrial society possible.
Say this in the kind of company that takes global climate change seriously, of course, and if you aren’t simply shouted down by those present—and of course this is the most common response—you can expect to hear someone say, “Well, something has to do it.” Right there you can see the lethal blindness that pervades nearly all contemporary debates about the future, because it’s simply not true that something has to do it. No divine providence nor any law of nature guarantees that human beings must have access to as much cheap abundant electricity as they happen to want.
Stated thus baldly, that may seem like common sense, but that sort of sense is far from common these days, even—or especially—among those people who think they’re grappling with the hard realities of the future. Here’s a useful example. One of this blog’s readers—tip of the archdruidical hat to Antroposcen—made an elegant short film that was shown at a climate-themed film festival in Paris while the COP-21 meeting was slouching toward its pointless end. The film is titled A Message from the Past, and as the title suggests, it portrays an incident from a future on the far side of global climate change. I encourage my readers to click through and watch it now; it’s only a few minutes long, and its point will be perfectly clear to any regular reader of this blog.
The audience at the film festival, though, found it incomprehensible. The nearest they came to making sense of it was to guess that, despite the title, it was about a message from our time that had somehow found its way to the distant past. The thought that the future on the far side of global climate change might have some resemblance to the preindustrial past—that people in that future, in the wake of the immense collective catastrophes our actions are busy creating for them, might wear handmade clothing of primitive cut and find surviving scraps of our technologies baffling relics of a bygone time—seems to have been wholly beyond the grasp of their imaginations.
Two factors make this blindness to an entire spectrum of probable futures astonishing. The first is that not that long ago, plenty of people in the climate change activism scene were talking openly about the possibility that uncontrolled climate change could stomp industrial society with the inevitability of a boot descending on an eggshell. I’m thinking here, among other examples, of the much-repeated claim by James Lovelock a few years back that the likely outcome of global climate change, if nothing was done, was heat so severe that the only human survivors a few centuries from now would be “a few hundred breeding pairs” huddled around the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Continue reading »