What If We Stopped Pretending?

The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.

Image result for new yorker: What If We Stopped Pretending? The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.
Illustration by Leonardo Santamaria

…Our atmosphere and oceans can absorb only so much heat before climate change, intensified by various feedback loops, spins completely out of control. The consensus among scientists and policy-makers is that we’ll pass this point of no return if the global mean temperature rises by more than two degrees Celsius (maybe a little more, but also maybe a little less). The I.P.C.C.—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—tells us that, to limit the rise to less than two degrees, we not only need to reverse the trend of the past three decades. We need to approach zero net emissions, globally, in the next three decades.

This is, to say the least, a tall order. It also assumes that you trust the I.P.C.C.’s calculations. New research, described last month in Scientific American, demonstrates that climate scientists, far from exaggerating the threat of climate change, have underestimated its pace and severity. To project the rise in the global mean temperature, scientists rely on complicated atmospheric modelling. They take a host of variables and run them through supercomputers to generate, say, ten thousand different simulations for the coming century, in order to make a “best” prediction of the rise in temperature. When a scientist predicts a rise of two degrees Celsius, she’s merely naming a number about which she’s very confident: the rise will be at least two degrees. The rise might, in fact, be far higher.

As a non-scientist, I do my own kind of modelling. I run various future scenarios through my brain, apply the constraints of human psychology and political reality, take note of the relentless rise in global energy consumption (thus far, the carbon savings provided by renewable energy have been more than offset by consumer demand), and count the scenarios in which collective action averts catastrophe. The scenarios, which I draw from the prescriptions of policy-makers and activists, share certain necessary conditions.

The first condition is that every one of the world’s major polluting countries institute draconian conservation measures, shut down much of its energy and transportation infrastructure, and completely retool its economy. According to a recent paper in Nature, the carbon emissions from existing global infrastructure, if operated through its normal lifetime, will exceed our entire emissions “allowance”—the further gigatons of carbon that can be released without crossing the threshold of catastrophe. (This estimate does not include the thousands of new energy and transportation projects already planned or under construction.) To stay within that allowance, a top-down intervention needs to happen not only in every country but throughout every country. Making New York City a green utopia will not avail if Texans keep pumping oil and driving pickup trucks.

Adaptation isn’t enough. We’ve got to throw everything at the climate crisis

Jonathan Franzen is the latest figure to preach the gospel of adaptation. But without cutting emissions, it won’t work


Illustration: Eva Bee/The Guardian

When we’re faced with threats of inundation, our reaction has traditionally been to build walls. Sea-level rises, storms and floods have been held back with solid barriers, seawalls and dykes. We have used walls to keep out people, too: the fact that this has failed throughout the ages has not stopped its recent revival in the United States.

The climate crisis threatens global sea-level rises of well over half a metre if we fail to act, while tidal storm surges will reach many times that height. Fiercer and more frequent hurricanes will batter us, and millions of people who live in areas where crops have failed and wells run dry will be forced to flee their homes. But walls will not work with the climate crisis, even if the temptation to try to keep out the consequences, rather than dealing with the causes, is as strong as ever.

The prospect of a “climate apartheid”, in which the rich insulate themselves from the impacts of the climate emergency while the poor and vulnerable are abandoned to their fate, is now real. According to the UN, climate-related disasters are already taking place at the rate of one a week, though only a few of them – such as Hurricane Dorian – get reported.

Nowhere on Earth will be untouched, with the number of people facing water shortages set to leap from 3.6 billion today to 5 billion by 2050. At least 100 million people will be plunged into poverty in the next decade, and in the decades following that, rising sea levels will swamp coastal cities from Miami to Shanghai, wiping $1tn a year from the global economy. Agriculture will become increasingly difficult, with more people displaced as a result, searching for liveable conditions elsewhere.

The Global Commission on Adaptation, headed by Bill Gates and Ban Ki-moon, warned this week that we have failed to plan adequately for a crisis that is now upon us. At a series of high-level meetings beginning in the next few weeks, and continuing into next year, world leaders and representatives of civil society and businesses will try to devise a better response. Among the questions they face will be how to set new targets, secure new funding and take more effective action to help the world not just prevent further warming, but to adapt to the impacts already being felt.

Currently, 20 times more is being spent on reducing emissions than building resilience to the effects of rising temperatures and extreme weather, according to the Commission on Adaptation. That seems patently unbalanced, and neglecting adaptation is putting millions of people and their livelihoods in danger now, as well as storing up problems for the future.

What’s more, money invested today will pay dividends in the near future. Spending less than $2tn by 2030 would result in more than $7tn saved in damage avoided and better economic growth. These sums sound huge, but are a fraction of the amount the world will spend on infrastructure in the next decade.

And modern adaptation means more than building seawalls. Restoring natural features, such as mangrove swamps and wetlands, can do far more to protect coastal regions, as well as nurturing biodiversity and tourism. New technology will play a key role, as early warnings of extreme weather give people time to take shelter or protect their property. Engineering climate-ready infrastructure encompasses everything from porous pavements to urban trees to provide shade.

What’s clear is that we need to adapt and build resilience now, because climate change is no longer a comfortably faraway problem. The predicted ravages have come sooner than expected: heatwaves over much of the northern hemisphere last year, floods and extreme weather in south-east Asia, Arctic ice melting at unprecedented levels this summer, and Hurricane Dorian, one of the strongest ever recorded. Worse still, some of these effects are likely themselves to increase temperatures further, in a series of feedback loops. The fires in the Amazon are destroying a vital “carbon sink”. Shrinking ice reveals darker water that absorbs more heat than highly reflective snow. Melting permafrost releases methane, a greenhouse gas many times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

It is tempting, in the face of these events, to suggest that the game is up for trying to prevent climate change. The emissions reductions needed to stop it are so vast, and the changes to our way of life so total, that it may seem like all we can do is adapt to the consequences. The hastening prospect of a “climate apartheid” is morally revolting as well as politically alarming, and could lead to a kind of paralysis.

The view that adapting to inevitable climate change should be our priority, over futile and ruinously expensive attempts to cut emissions, has been spread by those who want to continue to emit CO2, come what may. Fossil fuel companies saw adaptation, along with the idea that we could geo-engineer our way out of trouble, as a way to keep selling oil while paying lip service to the climate science. Now it is gaining traction among more respectable thinkers. Jonathan Franzen, the American novelist and nature lover, whipped up a storm when he suggested in the New Yorker that: “In the long run, it probably makes no difference how badly we overshoot 2C … Every billion dollars spent on high-speed trains … is a billion not banked for disaster preparedness, reparations to inundated countries, or future humanitarian relief.”

It’s true that spending on adaptation is a good deal. It saves lives, and if used wisely could stave off the climate apartheid that experts foresee. But setting up adaptation versus emissions-cutting as an either-or choice is a grave mistake. Trying to adapt to the consequences of climate change while continuing to burn fossil fuels is like trying to mop up an overflowing sink while the taps are still running. As long as we continue to pump CO2 into the air, we are fuelling rises in temperature. We cannot outrun global heating any more than we can hold back the rising sea with dykes. And the fires blazing through the Amazon show that without action, things could easily get much worse.

It can seem that in a world of finite resources, we need to make a binary decision about where to put our efforts. That is an illusion. The truth is that dealing with the climate emergency requires an across-the-board approach, for the simple reason that all of our resources – economic, physical, social – are at stake. If we do not throw everything we can at the problem, there won’t be much left anyway. In short, there is no wall high enough to keep out the consequences of inaction on emissions. SOURCE

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Scientific American: Shut Up, Franzen

Denmark to build 9 renewable energy-producing islands south of Copenhagen

In a bid to bring more renewable energy and greater resilience to the city of Copenhagen, the Danish government has announced plans to build nine new artificial islands as part of what will become the largest and most ambitious land reclamation project in Scandinavia.

Slated to begin construction in 2022, the project, dubbed Holmene (the Islets), will comprise 3 million square meters of land and will be located just 10 kilometers south of Copenhagen.

Copenhagen-based architecture and planning firm URBAN POWER designed the project with environmentally friendly targets in mind, from the creation of the biggest waste-to-energy plant in Northern Europe to improved biodiversity. SOURCE

What Would a “Green New Deal” Look Like for Architecture?

The implications of such a plan—championed by new Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—extend well beyond the ecological

people in hard hats on a room next to solar panels

Going forward, the best new buildings will perform like mini power plants that can not only support their own electrical needs but also send excess energy back to the grid. Photo: Caiaimage / Trevor Adeline / Getty Images

Ocasio-Cortez’s plan, which emphasizes decarbonization, job creation, and social and economic justice, is politically audacious—it aims for 100 percent renewable energy within 12 years—but in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s most recent warning that the world has about a decade to get climate change under control if we are to thwart its worst effects. With close to half of all greenhouse gas emissions coming from the built environment, architects and designers should feel welcome wading into the conversation.

In the past, buildings were designed to hold people and things and to receive energy along a one-way artery from a faraway grid. Under a Green New Deal, that way of building would be considered outdated and obsolete. Instead, buildings would be considered mini power plants that can not only produce enough energy to supply their own needs, but also fuel vehicles and send excess energy back to the grid.

 “If you don’t build it to zero-energy now, you run the risk of being obsolete in ten years.”

“There’s a loosening of the boundaries around things that define energy—they’re not siloed anymore,” says Jacob Corvidae, a principal at the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Buildings Practice. “Suddenly, a building is not just a building.” MORE

 

A critical solution to climate change is right here in the West

In pursuit of a ‘Green New Deal,’ don’t forget public lands.

Image result for national parks us
Saint Mary Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana. DAVE SIZER/FLICKR

Despite the willful denunciation of proven climate science by the White House and some members of Congress, there is a hopeful awakening in the United States: Young activists are stepping forward to demand a Green New Deal that guarantees climate action, justice and economic security for all.

It is not a single law, but rather a collection of policies that embody many of the actions needed to expand clean energy, grow job opportunities, reduce climate pollution, improve air and water quality, and enhance the resilience of communities

In any plan to help us transition from an economy built on fossil fuels to one driven by clean energy, our public lands should feature prominently. MORE

Once derided, ways of adapting to climate change are gaining steam

Recognition is spreading that communities need to build resilience to climatic and coastal threats even as the world seeks ways to curb emissions driving global warming.

Image result for climate destruction coastal communities
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy debris and destruction can be seen in and around the houses in Breezy Point, N.Y. Over 100 houses burned to the ground as flood waters isolated the community from fireman.

Signs are emerging that a significant shift is under way, dividing the climate challenge into two related, but distinct, priorities: working to curb greenhouse gases to limit odds of worst-case outcomes later this century while boosting resilience to current and anticipated climatic and coastal hazards with just as much fervor. There’s action from the top down, and—perhaps more significant in the long run—from the bottom up.

The most prominent signs of the rising profile of adaptation came with the launch in October of a Global Commission on Adaptation and a December commitment of $200 billion in climate finance over five years by the World Bank and partners. MORE

 

Cities Prepare to Face New Disasters

You can’t fight nature in terms of the calamities that have hit their cities, but you can learn to accommodate it — or, at least, “Stay out of nature’s way.”

NEW ORLEANS — We rarely do much to protect our cities until disaster strikes. We fool ourselves into thinking we are safe, until a catastrophic event shows us how wrong we are.

New York discovered that grim fact in Superstorm Sandy. Houston in Harvey. San Juan in Maria. And, of course, New Orleans after Katrina.

Cities that have been through a disaster learn one important lesson: “Nature wins.” MORE