For some real statistical measurements of climate change mitigation

Published online 24 November 2013.

(FPed at Firedoglake)

There’s some definite hype out there on the climate change mitigation front.   From Truthdig:

WARSAW—For the first time, all countries of the world have agreed to make contributions in cutting greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the planet’s temperature rising above the 2°C danger limit previously agreed by politicians.

Look!  It’s a promise!  Made by politicians!  It is with deepest apologies to the optimists that I find myself in agreement with the Church Lady upon reading this news:

So at any rate, you get my point.  Let’s take a look at yesterday’s Green Diary list, shall we?

Ikea produces enough clean energy to match a third of its global energy use

Much as I appreciate VL Baker’s reportage, I appreciate her skepticism more.  How carefully do you think they’re reporting Ikea’s actual energy usage?  Capitalism is incredibly wasteful, and world society uses more than 89 million barrels of oil every day.  I’m sure Ikea has invented a method of energy accounting that gives the corporate execs great PR.And then we have Wisper’s news: lots of coal mine and coal plant closings.  Maybe this is because other fossil fuel sources are being placed online?  And what guarantees do we have that those coal mines will stay closed?

A couple of days ago, boatsie told us that the NGOs walked out of the conference at Warsaw because the polluters have undue influence upon the proceedings.  Should this be a surprise?

Meanwhile, the coal companies are hoping to stay in business via the newest techno-dream: carbon capture and storage.  As KGrandia points out, carbon capture and storage is risky as hell.

So Todd Gitlin, for his part, tells us we ought to divest from fossil fuels, and Michael Brune tells us they’re developing “clean energy targets.”  But the impression I get from all of this comes in the form of a question: why are all of these rich and powerful people trying to impress us so hard with the illusion that they care?  I’m not even convinced they understand.  I’m seeing a lot of eagerness to present “solutions” without sufficient apprehension of the real-life scale of the problem, and it looks clumsy as hell.  World society doesn’t seem to have a clear picture of where it’s going or what it’s doing.  Public relations anyone?

Three facts dominate our climate change reality.

a) Capitalism is incredibly wasteful.  There is just simply no way that the world needs 89.3624 MILLION barrels/ day of crude oil, yet that’s what the oil producers produced last year, and we can assume that nearly all of that was burned.  This excess is what we get with a system that favors the megalomania of property and profit, rather than the imperatives of global human and non-human survival as determined by the science of ecology.  Individual efforts at conservation, in a capitalist system, just mean that the fossil fuel producers get to sell more of their stuff to some other customer.  I’m sure there’s a ton of room for real conservation, however — just engineer the society so the fossil-fuel based global “markets” (aka transportation networks) disappear, and (as I’ve suggested in other diaries) change the society so that the fossil-fuel based unnecessary careers go away.  Or pass a law saying that the producers can’t produce.  Oh, right.  Capitalism.

b) To really mitigate climate change, we have to keep the fossil fuels in the ground.  This isn’t reported a lot, but it’s true.  Bill McKibben mentioned it briefly in his Rolling Stone piece.  Alternative energy is nice, but it does nothing to halt the megalomania of property and profit that motivates the fossil fuel business.  Conservation and efficiency are nice, but the same principle applies.  Cap-and-trade systems are nice — for the speculators, who profit while the carbon emissions continue to accelerate.  Carbon taxes are nice — but the oil companies will try to circumvent them, the nation-states will see the financial advantages in keeping them low so they can get special privileges from oil companies who “naturally” want to sell fossil fuels, and if the world economy screams loudly enough and the oil companies buy enough politicians, when will the carbon taxes be removed?  Want to do something real? Keep the grease in the ground.  Try an international treaty to phase out fossil fuel production.

c) Climate change is just one aspect of a general global ecological/ economic/ political crisis.  A lot of these solutions assume a sort of ceteris paribus — “if all things remain the same.”  The problem with our “solutions,” then, is that all things don’t remain the same, and until we can change our economic system in some fundamental ways, the future will be one of increasing crisis.  As David Harvey reminds us in his many books, the crises can be moved around from place to place, but they won’t go away.

To sum up: all of the optimistic press releases about climate change now look like PR, we don’t seem to know what we’re doing with climate change, and the social change requirements for climate change mitigation appear quite daunting.  So, below the macaroni, and as a sort of parlor game, I will suggest some statistical measurements that will give us an idea of whether or not what we’re doing has any effect.

In light of these challenges, a lot of what we read about global warming mitigation is going to seem like mere hype.  But we need a solution nonetheless.  So what I am proposing is that we develop realistic statistical measurements, by which climate change mitigation solutions can be assessed.  Here are three possible statistical measurements:

#1: World-society adds 2.3 parts per million of carbon dioxide to the Earth’s atmosphere each year.  A statistical measurement of carbon dioxide mitigation (for this we’ll use the algebraic figure “CO2M”) would assess precisely how much of that 2.3 ppm/ year is being reduced (given the sum total of all of the human race’s mitigation activities).

#2: Since we need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, we’ll need a “ground measurement” (for this we’ll use the algebraic figures “G1,” “G2,” and “G3,” measured in barrels of oil, tons of coal and tar sands, and cubic feet of natural gas) which would measure how much of the Earth’s remaining fossil fuel endowment will stay in the ground when world-society is eventually finished with its use of fossil fuels (given the sum total of all of our mitigation activities).

#3: Since fossil fuel emissions are accelerating, we can use an “acceleration ratio” (A (year)/ A (2012)) to determine how much our mitigation activities have cut into the acceleration rate of global carbon dioxide production, using the carbon dioxide production of the year 2012 as the base standard.

The climate scientists ought to love this stuff.  They’re scientists — they like numbers.  So I’m sure this has been done before, in a different form, by someone else.  Keep in mind that if our data show that measures #1 and #2 are going to be “0” while measure #3 is going to be “1”, then we can say with scientific certainty that our global warming mitigation activities are not going to accomplish anything.  Such a result will be far better than what we have now, when we’re being asked to believe in a lot of hype with no real result on the horizon.  If our data reveal other figures, however, then maybe we are getting somewhere with climate change.  How else would we know?  In the comments section below, feel free to invent your own statistical measurements.


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