Putting the life back in science fiction

Paris aftermath
December 11, 2015, 6:34 pm
Filed under: climate change, futurism, Hot Earth Dreams, Speculation | Tags: , , ,

Friday 11 December 2015: Okay, the negotiation dudes are running over. I’m shocked, shocked that this is happening.

Since I’m so shocked, shocked, and pretend to myself that I know what’s going on, I’ll try my hand at prognosticating what will come out of this. Then we can see what reality dishes up in the next few days.

If you’re really pessimistic, you’ll bet that the talks fall apart over the next 24-72 hours. That would suck, because it’s as good a “beginning of the end of civilization” point as future historians are ever likely to find. After that, there’s no momentum to deal with climate change, and it’s every group for themselves. If we’re lucky, this will end in Hot Earth Dreams territory. It might conceivably be worse, depending on what happens with Arctic methane clathrates.

Still, my guess is that this probably won’t happen, and a deal will be announced, probably Sunday afternoon or so. Here’s what I think will happen, and we’ll see whether I got any of it right.

1. Brinksmanship. For the last few decades, we’ve been engaged in disaster capitalism, with richer countries and corporations forcing their weaker opponents to accept bad deals under the duress of emergencies. Even though it would be cheaper and better for everyone to not do this at the COP21 Conference, I’m equally sure that this hasn’t stopped any negotiator from trying to use the possibility of failure to leverage a deal out of someone. Because of this, any deal will be last second stuff, when negotiators finally stop being assholes for a few minutes and actually bargain in good faith.

2. The deal will be “legally binding,” but not in a useful way.

3. There will be lots of noise about keeping the Earth to 2oC warming. Admittedly, I haven’t analyzed what 2oC looks like in terms of human misery, but my guess is that most people don’t realize just how much of a mess it sets us up for in the next few hundred years. By itself, it probably won’t crash civilization, but it will likely leave us with the biggest migration in human history. Among other things.

Whether the deal will actually keep us to 2oC is another question entirely, and I don’t know if any of us will live long enough to see the answer to that.

4. There won’t be enough money provided by the major polluters (especially the US) to do anything truly substantive. The last I’d heard, pledges were less than 1% of the amount thought to be needed to actually fix the world.

5. At least some major hard decisions will be kicked down the road to COP22 or whenever.

6. The major good effect, to the extent there is one, is that there will be increasing political and social momentum to decarbonize global civilization. Getting people to act is an unfortunately huge accomplishment.

7. If we’re lucky, that decarbonization momentum won’t be gone by April 2016.

Any predictions you want to add? If you’re reading this later on when the talks are over, what do you think (or know) about what actually happened?


12 Comments so far
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I think you have nailed it. At this point I think that we can pretty much write off the US as a “leader” and just hope that other countries efforts at decarbonizing work and that we will buy that technology at the consumer level.

I see the battle shifting to a local level, where PG&E in California increases its efforts to hold onto a monopoly in the face of dirt cheap solar panels and affordable batteries allowing consumers to decouple from the electric grid (unfortunately we’ll get stuffed on the gas). Technology leadership will likely be in Chinese hands.

Fossil fuel companies will not go quietly into the night (they do have a duty to shareholders) but will be increasingly turned into objects of scorn. If cars powered by other means than fossil fuels become viable, their last major hold on consumers will be gone and they will decline. Fast enough? Probably not even close.
I would bet money that they will negotiate geoengineering mitigation as a quid quo pro down the tracks, and legislators will accept that in desperation. OTOH, if Exxon is successfully hit by a RICO action, that could change everything.

Comment by Alex Tolley

To me, the problem with oil isn’t just that it’s a big industry (after all, coal’s dying in the US right now, and it was a huge industry), it’s that it’s intimately tied to military power. Right now, if you lose oil power, you lose the power to send ships, planes, and tanks to work your will, whether it’s stomping heads or providing humanitarian relief. That, and rebuilding cities are going to be two places where it’s going to be really hard to dislodge the oil industry, at least in my opinion. We’ll see.

Comment by Heteromeles

If the only use of oil was for military support, then I don’t mind that use as it is a fraction of all fossil fuel use. The military is also looking for alternatives which has strategic importance to their logistics. Even better, lower demand would mean the US is self sufficient in oil and wouldn’t need to fight wars for control of foreign oil. Win-win!

Coal is dying in the US, but note the demand for export to China and India, as well as Australia’s coal industry renewal under Abbott.

Industry preventing action to strand reserves is to be expected. In the end, low cost alternatives are the way to go. What we need in the US is a Pigovian carbon tax offset with lower labor taxes. Give renewables lots of price incentives and the bulk of fossil fuel use will wither for lack of customers, something legislators cannot easily buy.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Not sure that the US has ever even pretended to want to take a leadership position re: global warming. Not its businesses at least. Plus there’s the timing problem … GW awareness and the coalescence of the uber-right REPs happened at the same time, and DT is on record saying GW is a hoax. So, I’d say that GW buy-in for the sake of humanity is a lost cause in the US. The rest of the world will just have to go without the US on this one. Unless we could see/read success stories … could be small but as long as people can see improvement, then there’s hope, a reason to pursue action. This would also change the challenge to improving on those small successes, i.e., competition rather than survival. (Something near and dear to USian capitalists.)

Comment by SFreader

Um, decarbonization might be a lost cause for the republican wing of Washington DC, but out here in California we’re roaring along, and we’re far from alone. Interestingly, there’s an evangelical backlash against the anti-global warming rant. It appears that at least some of them actually take that “God gave us stewardship of the Earth” thing in Genesis 1 seriously enough to want to go solar and stop global warming. More power to them, I say, even if they also want to have nothing to do with tree-hugging environmentalists like me.

Comment by Heteromeles

Saturday December 12: So the agreement’s been made on Saturday. Yay, I’m wrong on #1! It’s wonderful to have been too pessimistic!

The document is at http://apps.npr.org/documents/document.html?id=2646002-cop21-Final-Draft

It’s 31 pages, and I’m reading it right now.

Comment by Heteromeles

A bunch of reactions to the agreement, now having read the Articles and skimmed the rest of the text:

-Environmental groups seem considerably more enthusiastic about the outcome of this COP than those in the recent past, so I’ll take that as a provisionally encouraging sign even though the text is not super-encouraging.

-“…holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees…” Does that mean that everyone’s planning on ambitious geoengineering now? Because the rest of the text talks about getting emissions sources in balance with sinks only by the second half of the century. I thought we had already emitted enough GHGs to likely drive 2 degrees of warming in the long run. If atmospheric CO2 levels stop increasing only in 2050, it’s much worse.

-Developed countries are supposed to have absolute emissions targets. Developing countries are only supposed to have emissions intensity targets (e.g. less emissions per unit of GDP). That’s pretty bad, though not unexpected. Is China still counted as “developing” for purposes of this agreement? I hold out some hope that domestic Chinese politics and concerns are going to reduce its emissions on an absolute basis.

-China, USA, and India are the three super-spoilers that could wreck the climate unilaterally even if the rest of the world gets on board with emissions targets. China and the USA are actually on an encouraging trajectory in the short term, but neither seems to have strong emissions ambitions at the national level. The encouraging emissions moves are largely byproducts of other trends and I don’t know how long they will be sustained. India seems like an extreme mixture of good and bad: really ambitious renewable energy targets compared with e.g. the USA, but also loudly proclaiming the necessity and right to burn ever-more coal until it’s as rich as the West or until more Indians die of pollution than of energy deprivation, whichever comes first.

-If environmental groups are relatively happy about this agreement, previous ones must have been really weak tea.

Comment by Matt

Now, more about coal specifically. It’s encouraging that India was the only notable coal defender at COP21. If you want to see coal stay in the ground, and I do, then the last year has provided some good-to-great news from the USA, China, Canada, and the UK. Production is falling, consumption is falling, seaborne trade is falling. The last deep pit mine in the UK is closing, UK coal is supposed to all retire by 2025, Ontario ended coal use and Alberta is now planning to end it, US coal producers are in tremendous financial distress, and there are a lot of local initiatives in the US to switch off coal locally and block increased international export capacity for the surplus.

My hope is that even if it takes decades to effectively end thermal coal use in India and China, a divide and conquer strategy can effectively sunset it faster in the rest of the world. A lot of developing countries don’t have a large domestic coal industry, so there isn’t a domestic constituency to protest imported solar technology over imported coal technology. If the West can keep coal consumption and export capacity down for a few more years, Western-headquartered coal industries will be permanently weakened too. The actual physical equipment will take more money/effort to bring back into use, the grassroots voting constituency for coal will be weakened because of mine closures and layoffs, and coal companies/executives will have much less money to lobby with.

I’m hoping that thermal coal extraction comes to be perceived in the developed world as an unwelcome, dangerous, humorously antiquated industry like asbestos mining and processing. That would make it far more likely that the bulk of rich countries can apply effective pressure to the rest, if they continue to lean heavily on coal. Right now any such effort would be sabotaged by domestic pro-coal constituencies, but once it’s just benighted foreigners and other safely removed Others singing coal’s praises, in-group unity will be easier to achieve.

Do these hopes sound worryingly aggressive? They should worry you a bit. I worry every time I hear someone call for a wartime mobilization to save the climate, because I have seen what war does to civil liberties, empathy, and international solidarity. I am not sure you can mime the urgent national unity without also miming the outwardly directed aggression. But if humanity is collectively incapable of reducing emissions via cooperation and togetherness, maybe competition and tribalism can do a better job. It would be bad but probably not as bad as remaining collectively friendly and tolerant until all the fossils have been burned.

Comment by Matt

Well, I got prediction #1 wrong, but this point I think that predictions 2-6 above are still on track. I’ll have to revisit prediction number seven in about five months.

I’d suggest that environmental groups are looking at this in terms of momentum, not in terms of accomplishment, and they’re cheering hard to add to the momentum for people to do something. All this treaty paper is so much toilet paper if no one is willing to implement it except under duress. Given that controlling greenhouse gases is at least as much a political problem as a technological problem, I’m not surprised at their response.

That said, with this document we’re still in the world of Hot Earth Dreams. By itself, this agreement isn’t sufficient to keep legacy fuels in the ground, so nobody should think that climate change is a solved problem at this point. At best, it’s an agreement to encourage people to tackle it.

In the context of this blog, I’d simply like to quote Article 12 in its entirety:

Article 12
Parties shall cooperate in taking measures, as appropriate, to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information, recognizing the importance of these steps with respect to enhancing actions under this Agreement.”

To me, this looks like something science fiction writers need to get involved in. On an unofficial basis, of course.

Comment by Heteromeles

The fossil industries will of course look for ways to delay climate action and export products they can’t sell at home any more. They’ve been doing that since the original Kyoto Protocol if not before. The good news is that Western coal companies at least are facing shrinking domestic demand, failing to increase exports, losing money, and going bankrupt. The oil & gas companies are even attacking coal to promote natural gas. Of course oil and gas will need to be slashed in turn, but for the next few years I am perfectly happy with this rift between coal and other fossil extractors.

Comment by Matt

Sorry Matt, I took out the comment about the fossil fuels at the end to talk about Article 12 in the previous comment. The part I’d deleted was basically that I’ll be interested to see what wingnuts of the American right do, and I suspect that the fossil fuel industry will continue to use tactics borrowed from the tobacco industry (e.g. fear, uncertainty, doubt, and offshoring the industry to smaller sucker markets).

Otherwise, I mostly agree with you on coal. It’s going to be hard on Appalachia, but then again, mountain top removal is hard on Appalachia.

Comment by Heteromeles

Africa-China coal … Okay China just promised Africa $60B. Africa is a relatively large coal producer. China’s manufacturing which is still relatively new/young and far more more coal-based versus other industrialized nations is probably not going to be keen on switching energy sources very fast. So – I’m guessing investment in Africa is (largely) insurance to guarantee steady coal supply. At the same time, coal dependence is as high as 90% in (South) Africa. So as far as powering infrastructure goes, South Africa is probably in the same boat as China. But, of the two, I think the health/environmental consequences are worse for Africa as the coal extractor/producer. However, since China still doesn’t give a damn about human rights, China will probably push Africa to continue destroying its own ecology via coal mining.

Any guesses how this will play out in 10, 20, 35 years?

Comment by SFreader

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