Archive for the 'global warming' Category

How Not to Be the Next North Korea

Sharon June 20th, 2008

John Feffer has a really, really good article over at Asia Times Online.  It points out the deep danger we’re in - how teetery both the world and America’s food and energy systems are.  It is well worth a read, particularly because of its clear articulation of the bind we’re in - the strategies we’ve used in the past to get out of disaster will only accellerate collapse in the very slightly longer term. 

 The analogy that I’ve been using for some time is to the seawater used to extract oil in the Ghawar and other aging giant oilfields.  Matt Simmons, the world’s expert on this subject, argues that you can make the oil production levels look good for a while - but the seawater you pump in only accellerates the day that disaster strikes.  And that’s true of our agriculture - at this point, we’re in a losing race between expanding food production and climate change - all the conventional strategies for growing more food push us faster and faster towards the day that the planet can produce much, much less food.  Every bite of food we eat now through conventional means takes food out of the mouths of our children.

I think many people, deep in their hearts, think that ecological disasters apply mostly to other people.  But, of course, as Midwesterners are finding out right now, that’s not true. And it isn’t over - every image of floodwaters we see is brown - washing precious topsoil away, and pushing artificial fertilizers into water tables.  And the rest of us will be thoroughly schooled in that lesson as well, most likely. 

So how do we avoid becoming North Korea - are there personal or policy approaches that can fix this?  Could you have guessed that I have some suggestions, some obvious, some perhaps not.

The first one is obvious - we need to get the oil and gas out of agriculture - and rapidly.  Farmers are already struggling to afford the fossil fueled inputs that are required for conventional agriculture, and industrial organic agriculture is almost as dependent on fossil fuels as conventional.  And all the fossil fuels, especially artificial nitrogen,  that we use are preventing future generations from eating.  Heck, it won’t take until future generations grow up - most of us under 50 will probably live to see it.

We’re seeing now just how oil and natural gas costs reverbate through the food system, and while it is possible to use wise forms of management to reduce those reverbations, the only possible way to stabilize the food supply and seperate it from volatile energy prices is to end the dependency of the food supply on fossil fuels.  We know that this is possible - besides the study mentioned in the paper above, other studies, including one last year at University of Michigan and a host of others have shown that organic agriculture can match and exceed yields.  Moreover, organic practices that match yields in optimal seasons often exceed conventional yields in times of plant stress - that is organic soils rich in matter hold up better to drought, heavy rains and other difficult conditions.  It isn’t a panacea, but in a world where drought and flooding are inevitable, we need the best cultural practices possible.

 But doing this involves replacing the oil and gas with *people* - that is, when Cuba moved to organic agriculture, it matched and exceeded agricultural yields on small farms.  But the large collective farms owned by the state never could match up yields - one of the agronomists concluded that “farms of this scale are not easily compatible with organic production.”  And that’s the problem - we can get our need for fossil fuels in agriculture down quite low, but we can’t do it without paying more people a living wage to grow food.  And no, this isn’t just me, the UNESCO report made essentially the same claims.

Which brings me to the second conclusion - gardens are even more essential in the fossil transition than they may be overall.  Think about it - food prices are already high - a shift in our economy towards more agricultural labor, and paying farmers better will keep food prices reasonably high, and involve large scale economic changes. That means the cheapest food out there is going to be food grown by those who are not depending on it to make a living - who grow food for subsistence or for very small scale sales on their own land or on community land.  And because they are less dependent on either hired labor or fossil fuels, gardens are the future of affordable food in the US.  Will they meet every need?  No.  But they can make the difference between getting by and widespread hunger. 

The next point is perhaps a bit less obvious.  A few years ago, in my paper “The Ethics of Biofuels” almost no one noticed that one of my principles was that we had to shift our “biofuel’ priorities from corn and soybeans for ethanol and biodiesel to…trees.  For wood.  And perhaps even more importantly, for climate stabilization and for erosion control and soil repair. The home heating crisis I’ve been discussing for years is beginning.  And there is the real danger that the US will deforest itself nearly as badly trying to keep warm as North Korea did trying to grow food.  The long term consequences of that would be horrifying. 

Thus, instead of pushing to grow food on marginal land, moving Crop Protected soils into production (which we’re seeing now), we need to use hilly and marginal lands to grow forests, ideally forests at least partly composed of edible protein, oil and other crops.   We will need the wood, as home heating moves back to biofuels. We will also need the erosion control - midwestern fields once had hedgerows, that could stop the flow of soil, provide space for wildlife, and wood for stoves.  Bringing back the hedgerows might be a beginning strategy.

In already forested areas, the struggle is going to be for management.  And that’s going to have to be a big, big focus of our energies.  The thing is, it gets bloody cold up here ,and most of us have gotten used to “room temperature” being a heck of a lot warmer than it was in any other period of human history during northern winters.  The temptation to burn just a little more is going to be vast.  But we can’t - the pollution will be a disaster, and the deforestation worse.

So we’re going to have to strictly self-regulate our forests - and plant new ones as fast as we can.  And since this is not likely to make it on to the public agenda anytime soon, we’re going to have to do it on our own, on the small pieces of soil we tend.

It wouldn’t be easy for us to turn into North Korea - it would take a lot of bad management.  But it wouldn’t be so hard we couldn’t do it, either.  We’ve got to do better.


Kindergarten Ethics and Disasters No Longer Waiting to Happen

Sharon April 29th, 2008

Want to know how the world ends (ok, not ends, but changes in a really hideous way)? 

 Here’s what Russia says about climate emissions:

“Energy must not be a barrier to our comfort. Our emerging middle class… demands lots of energy and it is our job to ensure comfortable supply,” he said.

“We don’t plan to limit the use of fuel for our industries. We don’t think this would be right,” he said, referring to the current round of Kyoto.

Asked if Russia would resist capping the use of fossil fuels, which emit the planet-warming gas carbon dioxide when burned, under a new climate deal after 2012, he said:”In the foreseeable future, this will not be our model, no.”

He pointed out that the United States had also declined to impose emissions caps.

Yup, as long as we’re not going to do shit about cutting our emissions, no one else is either. India made the same case - they’re poorer than we are.  They already use less.  Why, the nations ask, should they stop making emissions when the US won’t?  And meanwhile, the North Pole may lose its ice this summer, and the methane is bubbling out, because America cares about global warming - but not enough.

And this, I fear is what will destroy us all - the simple inability we have to stop lying to ourselves.

What do I mean by lying?  Well, the lie is that we’re special.  And don’t think I’m indicting anyone here but myself - despite my Rioting efforts, I don’t consume a fully fair share of the world’s resources.  The thing is, I need some more to live within the society I live in - I really do need them.   People might well take my kids away if I gave up too much more - it has been known to happen.  And, of course, I couldn’t make my living or do this without them right now.

 But that doesn’t change the fact that other people need what I use  too - or need me not to use so much.  So the lie is this - that others won’t mind if we use just a little extra.  After all, we’re not used to doing without.  Those people in India and Ecuador and Egypt, they are.  They are used to just eating rice, just rice - so it doesn’t matter if I have to take the kids to basketball and the all of my trips there and back use as much grain as a person would eat in a month.  After all, I *need* it.  And even though no rational person would ever suggest that my kids’ need to play basketball is greater than someone in Bangladesh’s need to eat and not drown in rising seas, we still do the math that way.  Even me sometimes.

I’m trying though.  I really am.  The Riot for Austerity helps.  The reminders of hunger and misery help.  And kindergarten ethics helps.  I don’t need to come up with a perfect definition of sustainable, or figure out every detail to know this - we have 6.6 billion people on the planet.  There is enough to go around - enough food, enough energy.  But the way it goes around changes as there are more of us - we have to get better at living together.  The old rule of kindergarten is this - you can’t have it unless there’s enough for everyone to have a fair share.

Believe it or not, that’s pretty much sufficient.  You can’t have it unless there’s enough to around - and if you do have some, you have to leave enough for everyone else to have their share.  And what’s really funny is that you can have a lot with that - one ton of carbon annually, for example, would give you wealth beyond the dreams of avarice by the standards of most people who live today - just not us.  We’re inured to plenty by excess.

With kindergarten ethics there’s enough food for every person in the world to eat to fullness, enough water to have everyone drink their fill and still a bit more to grow good things.  There are fish enough in the ocean for each of us to celebrate and enjoy a lobster or fish dinner once in a while.  There’s enough oil in the wells for us to visit beloved family and friends on occasion, and hold a huge family reunion feast.  There are enough trees for each of us to sit in the shade - all 6.6 billion.  There’s enough wealth for all of us to have clothes enough and shoes and a little house.  There’s enough space for all of us to have public parks and most of us to have a little garden somewhere.  There’s enough.  Not as much as you or I might want, having gotten accustomed to more, but enough to make people in Nigeria cry out with delight.  Enough to impress your own great-grandparents.  And if we don’t honestly believe that the only lives worth living are our own - and thus that no one else’s life is worth valuing - enough for us and our posterity.

The US cutting back its emissions might not work on China, Russia or India.  But there is truly no hope if we don’t decide to cut our emissions - and radically.   The elevator is going down, and fast.  Someone can either stop the fucking staring contest and notice what is going on, or we’re all going to the basement, which is an ugly, scary place to be.

 I’m hoping I have a frost tonight. I live in rural upstate New York, and at this point my last frost date looks to be April 13.  Now if you don’t live around here, maybe you don’t know, but my normal last frost date is May 22.  It is hard, of course, to make any generalizations over a couple of years about new normals, but the last three years have had last spring frosts on April 30, May 6 and now maybe April 13.   Don’t get me wrong, I want to plant tomatoes out in April, I really do.  I just don’t like how this is going.  I like my climate, my seasons.  Most of all, I like knowing what I’m leaving my children.  And on some level, even the idiots who lead governments know that Russian and Indian and American children will all inherit the same future.  They just don’t care enough.


Major Global Warming Tipping Point Vastly Closer than Anticipated

Sharon April 17th, 2008

Wow, I thought I’d posted my quotient of hideous news for the day.  And then I spotted this over at The Automatic Earth

“It’s always been a disturbing what-if scenario for climate researchers: Gas hydrates stored in the Arctic ocean floor — hard clumps of ice and methane, conserved by freezing temperatures and high pressure — could grow unstable and release massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Since methane is a potent greenhouse gas, more worrisome than carbon dioxide, the result would be a drastic acceleration of global warming. Until now this idea was mostly academic; scientists had warned that such a thing could happen. Now it seems more likely that it will.”

And for good measure:

“The permafrost has grown porous, says Shakhova, and already the shelf sea has become “a source of methane passing into the atmosphere.” The Russian scientists have estimated what might happen when this Siberian permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes. They believe the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere would increase twelvefold. “The result would be catastrophic global warming,” say the scientists. The greenhouse-gas potential of methane is 20 times that of carbon dioxide, as measured by the effects of a single molecule.”

An older report on the potential problem reports:

“But calculations by Dr Sitch and his colleagues show that even if methane seeped from the permafrost over the next 100 years, it would add around 700m tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year, roughly the same amount that is released annually from the world’s wetlands and agriculture.

It would effectively double atmospheric levels of the gas, leading to a 10% to 25% increase in global warming, he said.”

There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that the release couldn’t take place quite rapidly - over years or decades.  BTW, the last time the methane was released, half the life on earth died.

Of course, the odds can’t be more than 50-50 that’ll happen this time, so why worry?


The Bad, the Worse and the Seriously Ugly

Sharon April 11th, 2008

I have to apologize for the title - I know most of my readers come here for the cheery, uplifting approach that I have, and that the above is a bit of a shock.  I did seriously consider titling this post “Cute Bunnies, Kittens and the Sunshine on my Shoulder” but it seemed too cruel to make you start there and head straight into the bad news on climate change.

Remember climate change?  It isn’t just this blog that has gotten a little bit quieter on this subject lately because there’s so much other, related bad news - I’ve definitely noticed a move from the front pages to the back ones as the economy and the food situation displace climate change as the worst crappy thing going on in the world.  Remember, we can’t take the human interest stories off the front pages - those sell papers.  So there has to be a heirarchy of the awful.  

And it  isn’t that we all don’t care a lot about climate change, of course.  It is just that when the bank is talking about foreclosing and we have to run down and sign up for food stamps, sea level rises at the end of the century look a lot less serious. 

This is, of course, both inevitable and a potential disaster.  Poverty has the potential to reduce our carbon emissions in some respects, and increase them in others.  James Hansen’s recent analysis of the fossil fuels situation, which notes that oil and natural gas alone can’t get us much past 450 ppm of Carbon (although Hansen’s other recent work has emphasized the absolute necessity of getting back to 350ppm - we’re past that already) , but coal can.  But to imagine us leaving the coal in the ground, we haev to imagine a level of self-restraint we haven’t managed when we were rich and flush with energy - it seems difficult for me to imagine that we’re going to be ok with rising electric prices constraining our usage when we’re already struggling.

Which brings me to a list of Unpleasant Truths about how climate change, our response and adaptation are likely to proceed.  Unfortuanately, I could find no pleasant truths to go along with it.  I really wish there were some.

 1. As we get poorer and the economy tanks, it is going to be harder and harder to muster the time, energy, enthusiasm and above all *money* for climate change mitigation projects.  That’s not to say that we might not see some or even many major public works projects.  But right now, our economy is stretched.  With the total cost of the war in Iraq looking to be 4-5 trillion and our ability to borrow from other nations headed into a serious decline,  along with the municipal investments of many towns and cities, our ability to do large scale adaptations is in serious trouble.  The price of energy is also steadily limiting our ability to do a build out.  Absolute shortages of diesel fuel may at some point may create further constraints. 

Officially, we exceeded the May 2005 oil and liquids production peak in January 2008 - which means we’re producing more oil, right?  Ummm…yeah…a big old 0.23%.  Oh, and EIA estimates of production are often revised downward more than that.  Oh, and we didn’t actually produce more conventional crude *oil* - we just produced more “liquids” which is a little different.  There’s a full discussion over here at The Oil Drum.  But the point is that there’s no reason to be getting excited - and demand is growing far faster than supply, which is essentially flat.  We’re in energy trouble.

Meanwhile, we’ve maintained the economy essentially by borrowing from the future a host of ways, among them our failure to maintain our existing infrastructure - estimates suggest that keep the water coming out of pipes and the bridges from falling on people would cost 1.5 trillion additional dollars.  And since the Fed is relentlessly nationalizing the losses of corporations at our expense, it does not take a genius to guess that trillions for a new energy infrastructure and retrofit will be discussed, the possibilities glowingly described, and most of the money won’t emerge unless the economy gets fixed.

2. Reports of a new green economy, and the ability to continue growth have been radically overstated.  People like Alex Steffen and Colin at NoImpactMan (both of whom I think are totally terrific, if not correct on this issue) have argued that we can still have plenty of economic growth and a brand shiny new economy based on renewable energies.  But a closer look at the evidence for this suggests otherwise.  For example, both refer to this site, to reassure us that it won’t cost us anything economically to switch to renewables and use less.  But besides the fact that the underlying assumptions that allow them to perform their calculations aren’t transparent on this site, the maximum imaginable reduction over business as usual emission is 40%.  But 40% not only won’t get us to 350ppm, it won’t keep us below 450, or even 550 over time.  In fact, a University of Victoria study found that the only thing that kept us below 450 was a 100% reduction of industrial emissions, and in fairly short order.  And that is a wholly different animal economically speaking, particularly given constraints on our ability to retrofit and build out new resources.

 The US economy is driven heavily by consumer spending - and the emissions for consumer goods, shipping, shopping, etc… constitute nearly 1/4 of all emissions.  Cut those emissions, and you also cut the driving force of the economy.  A steady-state economy may be possible, but it isn’t easy - even those who advocate it admit that the idea is pretty hypothetical. 

Moreover, fossil fuels have driven the economy as powerfully as they have in large part because their EROEI was so great - they are roughly the equivalent of an extremely high return investment.  The dividends on the oil you use to extract it are huge.  On the other hand, the EROEI of most renewables is fairly low (wind is something of an exception), and will never be cheap.  So more and more of our economic costs get eaten up in expenses, and it is harder and harder to keep the economy afloat.

3. Aren’t just getting poorer now, we’ve been getting poorer for a long time - it just started moving faster. The most recent poll on this subject just matches up with what we all  knew - real wages have been declining for decades, benefits have been reduced, expenses are rising, people are going into debt to maintain and wealth is getting concentrated in the hands of already wealthy people.  What does this have to do with climate change?  Well, a lot, actually.  For example, most incentive strategies for adaptation are directed at homeowners who pay out taxes.  You get them as tax rebates - but most poor people don’t pay taxes, and most people who may be foreclosed, or want to walk away from their houses don’t feel any great incentive to superinsulate them.  And our sheer level of indebtedness means that any major problem in the system is likely to bring people down fast - they simply don’t have any more cushions of credit to fall back on.

Major town and municipal infrastructure investments depend on the property tax rate - and if your town is like mine, a lot of new downward assessments are coming.  As towns start having trouble keeping the buses running and the plows going, I would expect the suggestion that the local community center go solar to rank right up there with the all-Mercedes police car proposal. 

 The psychology of poverty is probably, though, the most important thing.  People who are in or on the verge of crisis just want to maintain and get along.  They can see themselves falling into an immediate abyss, and they don’t care very much about the next terrible thing. 

 4. Matt Savinar’s axiom “We’re spending billions to fix problems we’re spending trillions to create” is right on the money here.  It is easy to get impressed by our new commitment.  It is important we look at the amount of money we’re throwing at creating and continuing the problem - and that we look carefully at how much of that money is coming from us.  Colin over at NoImpactMan has a nice rant about the evils of the political destruction of congestion pricing in New York City.  He’s totally on the money.  But that is the point - it isn’t that congestion pricing couldn’t pass, but not only do many of the people who oppose congestion pricing drive into the city and thus fund the opposition, but I’m willing to lay odds that  many of the same people who in principle agree that this is a good idea are giving money to parking lots and garages when they travel into NYC on business.  And that money is going to stop congestion pricing.  

The reality is that most of us, no matter how carefully we try to minimize our impact, are collectively funding the opposition efforts.  We’re still buying gas, even as the oil companies are working against us.  We’re still buying food at the grocery store - even me sometimes. 

The things that need to happen to mitigate climate change are huge - a cessation of the mantra of growth, for example, or the end to the biofuels boom - and the force of opposition to making them happen doesn’t just lie in the evil corporate headquarters of GE or Monsanto, it lies in all of us, who go out and make our money in the existing economy, and put our water filters on our credit cards.  The reality is that we are working much harder at making the problem worse than we are at fixing it.

5. We just did our build out, and it is not going to serve us well.   Take a look at this article on slum housing - and the future of the mass build out we just engaged in.  I think it articulates really well the problems we face, and I’m quoting it at some length because I think this is so important (btw, Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums is a terrific book):

“Let’s now turn to the U.S., which has seen a similar ballooning of urban and core-suburban value. Despite the obvious need for alternative sources of energy and technology which reduces petroleum consumption, how much global and American capital flowed into these investments for the future (recall the slogan, “energy independence is national security”) in the U.S., compared to the trillions pumped into mostly urban real estate?

I haven’t been able to find adequate statistics on these investment flows, but it seems the “investment” in urban-suburban real estate is on the order of 100 times the total capital invested in alternative energy research and development.

How many jobs flow from those thousands of granite countertops and fake “Gone with the Wind” staircases in thousands of McMansions and urban condos, and from the hundreds of strip malls constructed in the past decade? None.

Yes, someone was paid to manufacture and install the construction materials, but now that the building is done, there is nothing to show for those trillions of dollars of investment. Just like the Third World mega-slums, America’s cities and suburbs are now “capital traps” of national savings.

For it isn’t just the capital trapped in empty condo towers and millions (yes, millions, see yesterday’s entry sources) of empty houses and the rapidly enptying office parks and malls–it’s also all the capital trapped in the financial institutions which enabled the real estate bubble to expand so voraciously and profitably that all other investments paled.

It’s no secret that financial firms’ profits have grown to the point that they dominate the S&P 500. Trillions of capital are tied up in U.S. real estate and the mortgage-backed securities and other asset-based financial instruments based on residential and commercial real estate.

What could the nation have gained had those trillions been invested in new production of goods and services? Was the entire real estate bubble a vast, perniciously destructive misallocation of national savings into “capital traps”? I think the answer is clearly “yes.” Now that real estate is starting its long decline from euphoric fantasy to reality, plummeting values of both the real property and the financial house of cards erected on the property are erasing trillions.

How do you extract the capital from a rapidly depreciating asset? It’s human nature to hope “things will turn around next year.” Unfortunately, real estate will not turn around next year, or the year after that or the year after that. Real estate has become a capital sink for the national savings.

This is the clearest exposition I’ve seen of the problem of imagining a renewable build out - we’ve thrown our money away on an infrastructure that is not going to serve us in any way in the future.  Kunstler’s claim that this was the greatest misallocation of resources in history is probably correct. 

 That said, however, I’m more sanguine than Kunstler that we can make something out of some large chunks of our suburban infrastructure - I’m much less hopeful for the Condos in Miami and Vegas.  The suburban infrastructure can, at least, grow food.  But the sheer scale of the problem of adapting an infrastructure made entirely for cheap oil with decreasing amount of energy and money is going to, a minimum, push our creativity.

One corrollary of this point is that we have millions of unoccupied homes and millions of square feet of unoccupied office space.  Anyone who starts any mitigation discussion with the words “build new housing” is out of their freakin’ minds.  We’re going to be living in those houses, so retrofit is the word of the day.  It may have been a wild misallocation of resources, but we simply don’t have enough resources left to throw away what we have.

 6.  The bad news about climate change is that it is growing worse faster than anyone - especially the politicians - can keep up with.  For example, areas of the ocean are warming up to four times faster than the most radical predictions.   This is non-trivial for a host of reasons, one of them be the accelleration of the collapse of fish stocks, but more importantly, the oceans are the single largest carbon absorber we have right now - and the warmer it gets, the less able it is to keep absorbing carbon - that is, the warmer the planet gets, the faster you have run to keep in place.  We are now, at best, at the point where we can perhaps avoid the very worst outcomes (that does not mean it will not be truly terrible) if we make “draconian” as Hansen puts it - changes very rapidly.  But we are very close to the point at which very little can be done - on at least one level - at all.  In fact, it is possible we are past that point - although we cannot live our lives as though that is true.

Does that mean that emissions cuts are pointless?  No, they aren’t - the difference between 3 or 4 degrees of warming and 6 are enormous - the difference between living in a vastly changed and deadly world versus a visit to hell.  In fact, it is more and more urgent that we do all we can - and that we do it FAST, before what we do stops mattering entirely.  But that means we have to understand what is going on, transmit that information *AND* (perhaps most difficult), we have to stop picking outside numbers, and start using the precautionary principle, which says that instead of waiting for some perfect certainty in the data that may or may not come in time, we now must work under the assumption that everything is more serious than we know it to be. 

To say the least, getting there will be difficult, if it is even possible.

7. Estimates of the cost of addressing global warming like the Stern report are overwhelmingly based upon old data, older estimates of how Global Warming will work, and other outdated analyses.  And they assume that we are still early on in the GW process - which doesn’t look to be the case.  We can expect climate change to eat up an increasing portion of the GDP every year - that is, every year, we’re going to have to run faster financially just to keep up.

Take the example of the city of Barcelona, which now will have to import water by ship to deal with its extended drought.  The thing is, no city or region or nation is ready for these kinds of disasters to happen over and over and over again.  As Gilda Radner used to say, “It is always something.”  Well, we’re entering the world of “it is always something” - and there will always be a better use for our dollars and energies and times than to deal with climate change - until it is too late.

8. Turning the ship around ain’t going to happen.  Global emissions have been rising - the good news is that it looks like in 2008, the stunning rate of increase (something no report accounted for) in demand may slow down a little.  But that doesn’t mean that the emissions levels are falling - that just means we’re not raising them up quite as fast. Yes, higher energy prices will probably drive us to cut back on our driving - and they will probably also drive people to accept coal plants. 

So is there any hope here?  Yes, I think there is, but I’m increasingly finding myself agreeing with Thomas Homer-Dixon in _The Upside of Down_ where he points out that a collapse isn’t actually the worst possible outcome in some cases.

The thing is, the problem with having a lot of money and high technology is that you can’t not use it.  People get weird - they start saying “but we’ve got nano-technology just sitting there.”  They develop conspiracy theories.  And the comfy and entitled get bitchy when they have to give up priveleges.

The thing about a global depression and major collapse of wealth is that it might actually save us from ourselves.  There is no way to turn the ship around - but there is a way to get the hell off the ship and start looking for safe harbors in the lifeboats - by letting the damn thing go down.  Climate change is a bigger threat to us than hard times - and I’m not minimizing the potential suffering created by a world depression.  But I don’t think there’s any way to stop it except this - make most of us too poor to burn our full share.

Ok, I could use some kittens and puppies right now.


Dissecting the Long Emergency

Sharon March 28th, 2008

If there is one thing Jim Kunstler deserves all the props in the world for, it is his naming and describing the complex, sweeping and all-encompassing crisis we’re facing.  He called the combination of energy, climate and financial crisis “The Long Emergency” and I think that’s turning out to be just about right.  As a prophet, Kunstler is looking pretty accurate in some respects (I’m still kind of skeptical about the Asian pirates marauding across the northwest coast, but maybe I’m wrong ;-).

I’ve been getting emails from people asking me whether the present crisis is “just” financial and whether/how peak oil and climate change are factors.  And this is a fascinating question - because, honestly, it is awfully hard to sort them out.  In fact, it is really all one crisis - I call it (perhaps not as eloquently as Kunstler) the crisis Ourobouros, the great worm that encircles the globe, and does not realize that he is devouring his own tail - it is impossible to entirely find the beginning or end.  But we can take a stab at it.

 I thought for my own edification, and perhaps for others, it might be worth trying to sort out how all three segments of our present situation are working together, and what parts of the hard times facing us are tied into more than one segment of the crisis.  I make no claims that I can provide a perfect explanation, or that I won’t miss some links, but if nothing else, it is an interesting way for me to clarify my own thought.  So I’m going to list present problems one by one, and describe how (if at all) they are tied into each element - financial crisis, climate change, peak oil.  I’ll try and figure out whether what we’re seeing is a cause or effect, and just how closely related they are.  I doubt I’ll even come close to articulating the whole picture - that sounds like a book in itself, and one for someone more knowledgeable than I.  But here goes nothing:

Crisis # 1: Rising Food Prices

Relationship to Climate Change: Super Direct. Climate change is a direct cause of rising food prices, particularly the rise in wheat prices.  Wheat crops were heavily affected by drought in Australia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.  Aquifer depletion in China, along with reduced rainfall is also affecting wheat crops.  Massive growth in  biofuel production, was in part motivated by the (completely erroneous) assumption that biofuels would produce fewer greenhouse gasses than fossil fuels.  Climate instability is also a primary motivator as nations become more concerned with feeding themselves, and restrain exports or raise tariffs, as when Russia raised wheat tariffs and Egypt and India announced they will largely stop exporting rice.

Relationship to Peak Oil: Super Direct. Peak oil is a direct cause of rising food prices.  Biofuels are only a feasible project in a world of declining oil availability - their Energy Returned over Energy Invested is simply too small to make any sense when you’ve got plenty of oil and natural gas.  The mistaken belief that we can keep all the cars going and our basic lifestyle intact has led to a rush to biofuels that has helped driving prices of staples, meat, eggs, milk and other foods up by 50%. In addition, rising fertilizer prices (because of rising prices for natural gas and rising prices for rock phosphates) are also driving food prices up, as are the costs of transporting industrial food over long distances. 

Relationship to Financial CrisisDirect. The financial crisis is in part a result of rising food prices.  Over this winter, we saw more and more people using their holiday gift cards and store credits for groceries - food prices are rising so quickly that they are cutting heavily into consumer spending, which is a substantial part of the economy.   Food price rises have slightly slowed growth in countries whose wealth has been propping up the US economy. This is somewhat speculative, but rising food prices are probably an underlying force fueling the collapse in housing values - the reality is that basic needs like food and housing must both be met, and when you are paying more for one, you can pay less for another.  I’ve written about the relationship between housing and food prices here.

Crisis #2: The Housing Collapse

Relationship to Climate Change: Tenuous.  So far, sea levels haven’t risen enough, and climate change hasn’t been a large enough factor to really motivate large numbers of people to relocate.  Some farmers in Australia, and a few others are starting to see the writing on the wall, but mass migration in the rich world has not yet affected property values.  So far, people are still looking at any given disaster as short term thing.  I don’t expect that to last.  In the long term, climate change will probably dramatically alter housing patterns, and cause some markets simply to collapse.

Relationship to Peak Oil: Substantive.  I’m going out on a limb here, because I’ve seen no research suggesting this to be true, but while the majority of the housing collapse is based on the fact that we had ridiculously overinflated housing prices to begin with, I think that it is also the case that rising energy prices for home heating, cooling, food and other things have begun to eat into not just people’s ability to pay a large chunk of their income towards a mortgage, but also into their belief in housing as a refuge from difficulty.  It isn’t an accident that the housing boom really took off in the US shortly after 9/11, when people turned inwards, hiding from the outside world. Again,  I’m speculating, but I think the outside world has penetrated, and the idea that a home could be a form of protection is wearing off in the face of skyrocketing costs. Also, as energy prices rise, local governments are less able to maintain services -we have seen this with school bus and plowing declines - and thus become lower value regions, although the latter is a tertiary effect.

Relationship to Financial Collapse: Absolutely Direct.  In this case, it operates as both a cause and an effect.  The housing boom and the use of inflated house values to borrow was the cause of the bubble, and the collapse of housing prices is, if there is a single root cause, the cause of the crisis.  But it is also an effect of drying up credit - the less there is to borrow, the smaller the chance people will buy.    The more foreclosed and devalued properties there are, the less reason to buy a new house.  It is vicious circle, and it looks like it has a lot longer to go.

Crisis #3 - Rising Gas Prices

Relationship to Climate Change: Not Much Yet.  We are going to see a strong relationship in both cause and effect here, but so far, the effect has been small.  So far, the major effects of climate change in oil prices are limited to natural disasters affecting refineries, and growing political conflicts over water that threaten economic relationships.  None of these is terribly acute yet.  However, with discussion of carbon taxes in the works and more and more disasters, water shortages and other problems occurring, we may see supply issues more tied to climate change.  More importantly, gas prices have yet to drive off global demand enough to mitigate climate change.  As prices get higher, more effects should be seen - but probably not enough to mitigate things.

Relationship to Peak Oil: Umm…duh!  Do I really have to explain this one?  Yes, peak oil is the root here.

Relationship to Financial Crisis: Significant, but mostly concealed. Growth requires energy - and quite a lot of it. I won’t go into detail here, since Gail the Actuary has just done a great talk on this subject which you can read here that covers anything I would say better.

Crisis #4 - Failing to Mitigate Climate Change

Relationship to Climate Change: Well, yes.  This one seems like it would be a “duh” but it actually isn’t just that.  Yes, our failure to mitigate climate change is causing climate change.  But we are also failing to mitigate climate change *BECAUSE* of climate change.  That is, the rising number of natural disasters are making us react to climate change more and more, rather than addressing it.  We are spending more and more of our money and energies that we might use to adapt our infrastructure repairing it and fixing the damage of climate change.  Moreover, because climate change is happening much more quickly than anyone expected, we are still basing our mitigation efforts on inadequate information - that is, we’re still talking about 450 or 550 ppm limits, when 350 ppm is probably more like it.  We still don’t get what we even have to do - and that weakens our ability to do it.

Relationship to Peak Oil: Very Direct.  The reality is that all the discussions of what we potentially could do to mitigate climate change depend on large scale economic growth and lots of cheap energy to do the initial build out.  As energy prices rise and shortages start showing up (mostly so far in the Global South, but not entirely), we’re going to use more and more money and energy on mitigation. Diesel supplies, which are required for global trade, build outs, mining and other projects are showing shortages even in the rich world.  Moreover, our warmongering is the direct cause of 10% of all emissions, and that, of course, is about the oil.  James Hansen recently released an analysis suggesting that there isn’t enough oil in the ground to get us to the worst effects of climate change - but that would only work if we didn’t use the coal.  But higher oil and natural gas prices are likely to drive us steadily towards coal.

Relationship to Financial Crisis: Direct.  Despite all the hype, the payback time of most renewable energies is pretty damn long, compared to oil.  So in order to build out renewable energies you lots of liquid credit dripping off the walls and down into various new industries.  We need people who are willing not to get their money back for a good long time.  Guess what - those people are increasingly in short supply.  So expensive, long term renewable solutions are also likely to be in short supply.  On the domestic level, while some energy consumption drop is likely to happen, there are also likely to be short-term losses, for example as people priced out of heating oil in the northeast burn coal, or as people rely on existing gas guzzlers rather than buying more fuel efficient vehicles.  In the long term, a depression will cut consumption, but also adaptation, which will mitigate climate change and increase unhappiness.  Poorer cities and towns will likely end efficiency programs, nations may permit coal plants again to keep the grid going.

Crisis #5 - Increasing World Political Instability

Relationship to Climate Change: Absolutely Direct.  Climate change is likely to be a political disaster - up to 1.5 billion people without access to safe water, some without any water at all.  More than a billion refugees.  Growing hunger.  Political conflict over resources, land and borders of all sorts.  Some of these wars are already popping up - the conflict in the Sudan, for example.  And a fair bit of anger on these issues is likely to be directed (quite correctly) at the Global North, probably especially at the US.  We can also expect more internal conflicts within nations over resources, such as the ones the US is already seeing over water.  Political unrest is also likely to exacerbate climate change, as oil fields and forests are burned in conflicts and the war machine, which already produces 10% of all greenhouse gasses, expands.

Relationship to Peak Oil: Direct…And Getting More So. Well, I won’t belabor Iraq, but that’s probably just the beginning.  For example, Saudi Arabia recently announced it will no longer grow wheat, its primary staple - probably due to climate change.  Rice prices rose by 30% in a single day this week - and almost 2/3 of the world’s population depends on rice as a staple food, in large part due to climate change and biofuel production.  The rising price of corn is already causing tortilla riots, and that’s directly tied to ethanol production. 

Relationship to Financial Crisis: Tenuous…for the Moment. Even if you don’t think that any attack on Iran will be partly motivated by the Republican administration’s desire to distract from the unfolding financial crisis, our political relationship to Russia and China (among others), is clearly being shaped by America’s declining economic situation.  So far things are in the early stages, but it seems like the balance of world power is shifting, and how that will play out, we do not know.  The one good thing one can say about the coming financial crisis is that if the economy crashes enough we will probably leave Iraq fairly quickly.

I’m sure I could come up with a whole host of other crises to discuss, but this at least gets us a start! 



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