Climate Policy Solutions that Save the Planet

Responses must be sufficient, scientifically based, rapidly pursued, address underlying causes, and go beyond seeking to maintain conspicuous excessive consumption by the rich

Earth Meanders,
By Dr. Glen Barry
February 28, 2006

OK, Climate Change Is Real, So Should We All Consume Like Movie Stars?

It has been said that Oscar wins for "An Inconvenient Truth" could spur climate action. This begs the question what type of action? Not all actions would be equally effective, nor prove cumulatively adequate to eventually stop global heating. As the efforts to find climate solutions mount, prepare yourself for ever greater levels of corporate, political and celebrity greenwashing - false claims of environmental sensitivity and climate concerns for the purpose of public relations.

I love you Al. It was me that said "Climate, Forests, Save the Planet Al" on the 2000 election rope line in Madison; as we shook hands, to which you replied "We'll do it together". I think we have both been holding up our part of the bargain. While Mr. Gore has done a great service raising awareness regarding climate change, I am far from convinced that he and his Hollywood friends, with their energy hungry multiple mansions and jet-set life-styles (carbon offsetting or not), have diagnosed planetary climate change solutions, nor are they leading by example. There are serious questions being asked regarding celebrity environmentalist's rich, excessive lifestyles that cannot be pawned off on "I'm offsetting the carbon" of living in opulent luxury. This simply shifts the necessity of actually reducing emissions to others that are less well off.

Hollywood greenies are not enunciating a message of personal and societal sacrifice for the Planet and our children, or leading by example by showing a willingness to live in smaller homes, drive less, fly rarely or appreciably cut their own energy use and emissions; nor raising the politically and religiously complex issues such as population control, carbon rationing, carbon taxes and other fundamentals that are crucial for global ecological sustainability. It is not just about protecting the climate. How are we going to feed, house and clothe the world while shrinking its population, repairing the climate and other planetary ecosystems and learning to live sustainably? The answer is a series of fundamental social changes, not reformist greenwashing where we all aspire to live as movie stars.

Crafting Climate Policy Solutions Adequate to Save the Planet

There is still plenty of climate change debate to come. Now that virtually every sensible scientist and citizen understands climate change, which is an important part of broader global ecological change, is a reality. We are now entering the period of identification and implementation of long-term sufficient policy solutions. There is still plenty of room for humanity to go wrong - moving too slowly, too incrementally, or even wrongly with chimerical techno-fixes, and/or refusing to think outside of the box about profound social, political, economic and ecological change adequate to address the collapse of the global atmosphere and other ecosystems. We can be 100% aware, and yet through poorly conceived and implemented solutions continue our trajectory of greatly overshooting the global ecological system's carrying capacity.

Now that we are at the point of action, not all actions are equal, or even beneficial. Some provide illusory comfort while others get at root causes of climate change. The primary root cause remains too many people consuming too much - with a huge global backlog of applicants for the lifestyle of democratic over-consumption. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that climate change can be remedied without personal sacrifice. This does not mean that as ecological expert (sic) Anne Coulter says we will live in mud huts using candles. But the days of large personal vehicles, McMansions, weekend getaways half way around the world, and the throw away consumer society are over; either by choice or ecologically facilitated social collapse.

We are not being told the truth by the rich and powerful regarding what is necessary to stop global warming. Do not mistake a flurry of celebrity pronouncements and a scramble by politicians to be seen as doing something, anything, to benefit from a "hot" political issue as the systematic, scientifically based climate policy proposals likely to be sufficient to stabilize the climate, maintain the economy, and equitably allow all people to meet basic needs. All of the earnestness of DiCaprio, the showmanship of Al Gore, and political skills of McCain and Lieberman can not save us if we do not get the fundamentals right in battling climate change.

Building Strong Foundations Now for Lasting Climate Change Solutions

Here I will not evaluate every "stabilization wedge" possible to keep warming within a relatively safe range of 2 degrees Celsius - a crucial global temperature ceiling - but I do intend to cut through the star studded greenwash and identify the most basic, fundamental changes in the human condition necessary both to sufficiently address climate change and to ensure global ecological sustainability. Many align with what a panel of scientists has recently presented to the United Nations as a detailed plan for combating climate change, but has gotten little political traction as the rich and powerful hem and haw in order to protect their interests.

Sensible and effective climate change policy solutions choose ecological protection and restoration, emissions cuts, and changes in how we use energy over engineering biosphere processes; and place an equal emphasis upon personal responses like consuming less and having fewer children, and societal policies like providing accessible and reliable mass transit systems, and investing heavily in renewable energy. Each of us is called to this generation's greatest moment; personally, and together with our one human family, working to Save the Earth.

Again, let me make it clear that Gaia or the Earth System is an extremely complex assemblage of biogeochemical processes between forests, oceans, water and air that can never be replicated through engineering. Any proposals to engineer space mirrors, fertilize the oceans with iron, or suck carbon from the atmosphere to be buried are pure folly, and indeed dangerous. Their pursuit will distract from the fundamental, essential and immediate climate policies that must begin in earnest and are discussed here. It is crucial that climate solutions seek to maintain and repair natural ecological patterns and processes, while reducing the cumulative human impact upon the biosphere, not creating some diminished and unknowable "FrankenEarth".

For the Earth and humanity to have a future there is NO substitute for immediately beginning the process of dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. We know the sooner we start the better. And carbon offsets are no replacement for actual emission cuts. My ecological intuition is that 80% reductions by 2050 are the minimum tenable goal, but it is more important that we get started in earnest now perhaps with more modest goals by 2025 that keep the longer term goal feasible. If international climate negotiations are successful, overall emissions will contract even as poor country's levels of emissions are allowed to rise to converge with the rich, leading to a more equitable, less miserable world.

And if capitalism is to remain relevant and viable, it would be best to do so soon using market mechanisms such as progressive carbon taxes, international carbon markets and personal carbon rationing to address climate change. The ecological imperative to cut emissions is so immense, and the costs of failure so dire, that if political and economic resistance and gridlock continues, there may be no alternative but global political revolution - overthrowing the whole rotten polluting economic and political system in order to save the climate, humanity, global ecological system and all creatures with whom we share Gaia.

The single biggest action to reduce emissions that can be taken at a societal level is to ban new and existing coal plants that do not sequester their carbon pollution. The amount of carbon found in the world's coal reserves is some four times that found in the atmosphere today, and its release will simply kill us. Dirty coal is the single biggest historical contributor of past human carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere. New plants must not be built until carbon sequestration is proven and mandatory (if ever), and old plants dumping their waste into the atmosphere are going to have to be torn down. Coal has no future in post-industrial energy policy. We must learn to cope without its use.

The second greatest historical factor in human-caused rising carbon emissions has been land conversion including both deforestation and carbon released when ancient forests are "selectively" logged for the first time. The age of ancient primary and old growth forest logging is over. All remaining large, contiguous forest wilderness carbon sinks must be maintained in an intact condition without any industrial development. These global ecological reserves are critical for global ecosystem functioning, and those countries forgoing their development must be compensated handsomely for avoided deforestation and diminishment. Let me emphasize, if these last holy ancient forests are lost or diminished the Earth and humanity are doomed.

In general we need more tree planting and restored forests. The focus should be upon allowing core large ancient forests and important remnants to expand and become reconnected. However, the planting of trees is problematic and complex. It appears tree planting and ecological restoration is most suitable for the tropics, as in the boreal region it may lead to more warming as the land's albedo changes. Revegetation should focus upon planting native species where forests occurred in recent history, including regional species that tolerate heat and drought well and helping other species migrate towards the poles. Planting of trees should not be oversold as a climate panacea as their carbon storage is particularly vulnerable to climate change itself.

And finally, there is obviously tremendous work that could and must be done in the development of clean renewable energy sources. Much could be done if fossil fuel and military occupation subsidies were reallocated. I grow tired of repeatedly calling for an Apollo project to put the best minds and resources of the world behind the problem of providing clean renewable energy from the sun, wind and Earth. If initially widespread adoption of renewable energy is more expensive than fossil fuels, we must be willing to pay the price, as this is the cost of an operable atmosphere. Nuclear energy, if pursued, will have little impact upon mitigating climate change. And as I have noted, grave concerns exist with industrial biofuels, which cause more problems than their questionable small positive impact upon climate.

There is tremendous potential to pursue significant advances in energy efficiency and conservation that have only begun to be investigated. Energy saved is the same as energy produced. There is a need to re-design our cities to make them human centered, completely rethink home building both in size and efficiency, and the need to offer citizens workable mass transit solutions that compete in comfort and reliability with the automobile.

And lastly and perhaps most importantly, there are simply too many people consuming too much at the expense of the Earth's natural capital. Immediate steps must be taken to implement population controls, relying initially upon well tested non- coercive methods including making birth control widely available, educating women in developing countries and providing tax, educational and other incentives to have one or at most two children. As a human family we must choose to reduce our numbers by at least three fourths over several generations if there is to be any hope of most people living a comfortable, safe and happy existence in the future. Horrendous imbalances in income distribution lead to much of the world living in miserable conditions while the relatively few consume and pollute excessively - this is unacceptable. As conditions worsen and if these fundamental steps listed here are not taken, having a child may become a privilege, not a right.

To summarize, climate policy solutions that will prove truly adequate to Save the Planet must be based upon responses that address underlying causes and are sufficient to solve the problem at hand. I have proposed difficult but fundamental areas where progress can and must commence immediately, including 1) setting a cap on allowable global temperature rises and allocating emissions accordingly, emphasizing equity for those that have contributed little to the problem historically, 2) no new coal plants and beginning the phase out of coal plants that release carbon into the atmosphere, 3) an end to any industrial logging or other developments in ancient forests, and careful tree planting and forest restoration ecology practices, 4) massively pursuing clean renewable energy development even as we seek ways to dramatically conserve and make more efficient our energy use; and 5) beginning immediately to implement policies that reduce global population and inequities in consumption patterns.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. It is an attempt to identify key fundamental areas that if pursued now would have major impact on the likelihood of humanity alleviating climate change and avoiding global ecological collapse. What is clear is there is no future for the Hollywood, super-sized American lifestyle. These fundamental changes must be made now or being as we know it is over.


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