Robert Tulip Comments on New York Times Article ‘Losing Earth’ Nathaniel Rich

Losing Earth by Nathaniel Rich is an elegy for the inability of the emission reduction movement to slow global warming. The article is an interesting political history of climate activism, but in my view it fails in the core task of policy guidance, failing to address the potential of carbon removal, the security dimension of climate change or the inherent difficulties of emission reduction. These problems illustrate that the barriers to climate action are primarily political, not technical, due to the pervasive assumption that emission reduction is the only means to achieve the goal of climate stability.

The ideology at play in this major New York Times report is that emission reduction is the only real solution to climate change. Any alternative is presented in a negative light, even though information about alternatives is available. Rich relies on James Hansen’s argument that carbon removal would cost trillions of dollars, without any indication that focussed research might cut that bill by orders of magnitude.

Climate change is the primary security problem facing our planet, posing threats of creating many millions of climate refugees and destroying crop yields, with potential to cause famine, war and extinction by tipping earth into a new hothouse stability. Unfortunately, emission reduction cannot stop or even markedly slow climate change, and has manifestly failed as a solution. The inability of emission reduction to solve climate change is shown by the fact that the Paris Accord will at best only slow CO2 growth by 10%. That result is like slowing the speed of an invading army by 10%, only briefly delaying the inevitable path to defeat.

Rich writes that “at the start of the 1980s… if the world had adopted … a freezing of carbon emissions, with a reduction of 20 percent by 2005 — warming could have been held to less than 1.5 degrees.” Here we get the first hints of the intractability of carbon emissions, and how Rich seems to represent a widespread political denial about this intractability. There is no way that countries like India and China will deny energy to the poor to address warming, but Rich appears to slight the aspiration of billions of poor people for access to affordable and reliable grid energy, suggesting a light bulb in every village would drastically increase emissions. The unfortunate political reality is that even an emission freeze is unenforceable, let alone cuts of the speed and scale that would be needed to impact climate. The general public sympathise with emission reduction until they see the costs, leaving such transformative visions incompatible with democratic governance.

Rich maintains the illusion that “a broad international consensus had settled on a solution: a global treaty to curb carbon emissions.” This alleged consensus confuses elite negotiations with popular support. The syndrome at play here is to ignore how the Paris treaty engages in spin and lies. The failure of the global treaty path is vividly displayed by Rich’s conversation with George Bush’s Chief of Staff John Sununu, who bluntly explained why the ‘global treaty emperor’ has no clothes: a global treaty “couldn’t have happened because the leaders in the world… were all looking how to seem like they were supporting the policy without having to make hard commitments that would cost their nations serious resources.”

This observation of political duplicity is a central point whose implications seem lost on some climate activists. Climate treaties are all hat and no cattle, as they say in Texas. When governments enter negotiations only for appearances, UN talks are a waste of time. Signing agreements based on electoral calculations, with no intention to honour their pledges, makes the Paris Accord a Big Lie. The big lie is that Paris committed to the two degree limit, even though the actual pledges lead to four degrees. The so-called ratchet mechanism to ramp up decarbonisation will only prove a political noose.

Climate science failed to gain political traction for reasons explained by the author of a major US climate report in 1983. Paraphrasing, Rich says the official view from the report ‘Changing Climate’ was “better to bet on American ingenuity to save the day. Major interventions in national energy policy, taken immediately, might end up being more expensive, and less effective, than actions taken decades in the future, after more was understood about the economic and social consequences of a warmer planet.”

Rich invites the reader to share his contempt for this policy line, but I am not so sure. Climate scientists have done a great job in explaining the causes of warming, but have not proven up to the task of explaining what to do about it. The rush to focus on emission reduction as the sole climate response has crowded out more considered strategic reflection on how to fix the climate using technological ingenuity.

Fixing pollution can work either by limiting the source or by cleaning up the results, like in sanitation. Global warming is settled science, but the science is far from settled about effective responses, leaving the world highly insecure in the face of major perils. My view is the key strategy will be large scale industrial carbon mining aiming to convert carbon waste into productive assets, including methods that employ the scale, energy and resources of the world oceans. Unfortunately the dominance of emission reduction in the climate debate leaves little oxygen or resources for such innovative discussion.

Advocacy of emission reduction has the perverse effect of making climate an issue of political polarisation. People who are against radical social and economic transformation are hardened in their resistance, seeing climate action as part of a suite of progressive policies, together with other left wing causes like population control, gay marriage, abortion, wealth redistribution, etc. Conservatives who deplore these reforms, whatever their merits, see emission reduction mainly as a way to increase the intrusion of the state into private life, and are therefore highly suspicious of the motives and agenda of the scientific community and its allies. This toxic mistrust makes effective progress almost impossible.

Scientific debate about what will work to stop global warming is as much a question of political science as of physical science. If the political science indicates that a suggested physical strategy will face insurmountable cultural obstacles to implementation, the scientific requirement should be to investigate alternatives. The depth of political opposition to effective emission reduction is illustrated by Sununu’s statement quoted above about the duplicity of political commitment. Opponents have restricted decarbonisation to a token level, while ignorant anti-science denial of climate change grows louder by the day. Against this pessimistic context, the alternative strategy of carbon removal holds out the prospect of helping to depoliticise global warming. Through a strategy of climate restoration, carbon removal stands a good chance of gaining investment from economic and political partners who will not actively support emission reduction, working in concert with dominant prevailing incentives.

Scientific consensus on the greenhouse effect is not matched by consensus on what to do about warming. Instead there is scientific arrogance in the assertion that a global treaty is the best way to fix the climate. The science of politics suggests that political agreements on emission reduction are a dead-end street, assigning too central a role to government intervention in the economy. Instead of decarbonising the economy, a better approach is a long-term focus on removing carbon from the air combined with a short-term focus on reflecting more sunlight. These climate restoration strategies may prove the only way to prevent dangerous tipping points, in view of the strong likelihood of generating accelerating feedback processes.

Emission reduction is needed for pollution control and economic efficiency, but Rich’s assumption that cutting emissions must be central to climate security is debatable. With the total expected emission reduction under the Paris Accord about 5 GT CO2e/y, no emission reduction at all would be needed if carbon removal can develop methods that remove ten times as much carbon as Paris. His article reflects how the debatable focus on decarbonisation has hardened into a political mythology. In accepting secular climate myths, Rich ignores some basic mathematics of climate change. First there is the 10% problem of Paris, that it only addresses 10% of the expected emission growth, a problem which cannot possibly be addressed by doubling down on emission reduction. Second, the key climate security equation is that the only way to put the world on a path back to climate stability is to remove more carbon from air and sea than total emissions. That implication may seem horrifying for the Paris crowd to contemplate, but the global security problems are too serious to allow the unworkable strategies of decarbonisation to dominate the debate on climate change.

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