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Volume 1 | Issue 5 | Page 11-12 | Oct 2010
Policy Reform to 350
Copyright 2009 Joel Pett. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we’re at 2100, and the atmospheric CO2 level is slowly subsiding back toward 350, and the worst is over. Let’s try to figure out how we got there—reverse-engineer a century of halting but ultimately decisive progress.

The first decision, clearly, was the most important. In 2011, after 22 years of hemming and hawing and circling, the world’s governments—moved by a series of devastating floods on every continent that galvanized the already growing climate movement around the globe—grudgingly took the initial steps toward imposing a cap on carbon emissions. The fight was by no means easy: developing countries insisted, with reason, that the cap couldn’t hit them yet, and China insisted that it was still a developing country. Still, the climactic political battle with big oil and bigger coal ended decisively—it would be many years before they ceased to be powerful parts of the economy, but the fossil fuel era began to end on that day when the parties signed on at the Nairobi conference center.

A few things happened, and more quickly than anyone but the economists had dared hope. For one, anyone looking at a spreadsheet quickly figured out that future investment had better be green—that coal-fired power was going to get steadily more expensive until it made no sense at all. And so the trajectory of the future began to shift: money started to fall in the direction of the new economic gravity. It started to pool around railroads, and insulation manufacturers, and all the other businesses that featured relatively low energy costs as a selling point.

The effect on consumers was not quite as strong, since few households had CFOs charged with plotting the bottom line return of future expenditures. Still, every family was now getting a rebate check each month for its share of the permits for putting CO2 into the atmosphere, which meant a steady flow of capital. Some of it went for flat-screen TVs, but a nontrivial amount ended up buying solar hot-water heaters, plug-in hybrids, and local tomatoes.

Meanwhile, governments started figuring out where the future was headed too, and the political demand for greater investment in basic research began to grow. Helpfully, with each passing legislative session, the pockets of the wind and solar barons got a little deeper, and they began to exert more and more pressure for switching subsidies away from the “technologies of the past.”

None of it, though, happened anywhere near fast enough to slow down the momentum of the heating. Year after year saw catastrophe after catastrophe. Human-caused temperature change, barely one degree when the decade began, edged toward two degrees, and the toll of damage steadily mounted. Some of it was insidious and daily—like the steady drip-drip of lost agricultural yield as temperatures climbed and water evaporated and the continuing spread of disease-bearing mosquitoes, which damaged not only ever-larger populations but also the development budgets of one nation after another.

As time went on, it became increasingly clear that there was no way simply to pull the internal combustion engine out of the world’s economy, toss in a few solar panels, and continue on as before. Not only was the drag on old economies from changes in the weather creating real friction, but the logic of renewable energy began to assert itself. Sun and wind were everywhere, but diffuse. And so a new kind of power grid began to grow—based on many million rooftops, not a few thousand centralized power stations. Other commodities began to go in the same direction. After a century of agricultural consolidation, for instance, local food networks were spreading fast, replacing much of the oil-starved, monocultural, industrial food system that had dominated the planet since World War II.

If it sounds as if this happened smoothly, however—well, it didn’t. The immense gulf between the rich and poor worlds was the most intractable problem, as people across Asia, Africa, and South America felt themselves being denied the fruits of modern development. The outbreaks of chaos were ugly, as migrants from low-lying areas tried to move inland across India and China and refugees from newly formed African desert edged outward onto land already fully occupied. And there were always the floods, now a perennial feature of any wet part of a planet whose atmosphere was much moister—adding constantly to the woes of already stressed populations.

Europe, Japan, and America—and increasingly China and India—did a little to help, but the technology assistance and crisis aid never came close to matching the damage their carbon emissions had caused. Mortality rates climbed all over the planet, and life expectancy dropped. There was some of the Malthusian horror long predicted, and skirmishes and wars were constantly breaking out. But there was also a much more popular and general political uprising of people around the world who insisted that the push toward climatic stability go faster, no matter the cost. The iconic number 350 came to mean one thing above all: shutting down the coal mines and the tar sands, keeping the carbon in the ground. And within a few decades, this had—more or less—happened. The world was running rough, but still running, with the Internet providing the kind of links that jet planes had once allowed.

At last, the level of carbon in the atmosphere began to plateau. Smaller increases—measured at the station on the side of Mauna Loa where this science had begun in the 1950s—gave way to tiny decreases, as forests and oceans slowly began to suck some of the carbon back below the surface. This did not “make the problem go away,” and, in fact, as the century wore on, researchers began to show that even 350 ppm of CO2 was too much, that we needed to retreat closer to the 280 ppm level that prevailed in the days before the Industrial Revolution. There was no way to refreeze the Arctic, and ocean productivity continued to dwindle because of elevated levels of acid. But at a certain point, the volume of crises began to slowly diminish, both because temperatures had nearly stabilized and because society had been rebuilt in ways that made it more resilient, less vulnerable.

The most essential things—a culture, a civilization, some semblance of the natural world—had come through the bottleneck more or less intact. It had been a miserable century, but not, in the end, a completely impossible one.

That this is a good news scenario should give us pause. It would be easier, and perhaps more plausible, to write a much uglier forecast. A few things worth noting here: First, action to change the price of carbon comes very early in this scenario, in 2011. It’s pretty clear we need to tip this system quickly in another direction. Second, the decisive interventions aren’t technological as much as political—in many ways, the outcome will be decided by whether people pull together or are pulled apart as a result of the forces we’re unleashing in the atmosphere. There are many variables we can’t predict, including that one. But at least we can have an influence—by building a political movement right now, across borders, faiths, ideologies, and languages, that allows us to understand our novel global predicament.

Comments (2)

Don't forget pesky problem of sea level rise

I applaud Bill's positive creative thinking -- as usual. It is useful to think of the granular, real world path that MIGHT get us out of this looming disaster before it truly implodes. Yet he barely recognizes the issue of sea level rise.
My understanding is that the lag time for full ocean temperature equilibration means that we will continue to get rising sea level for at least a hundred years, even if we solve the CO2 levels as he suggests. (Published work by James Hansen and Susan Solomon, et al suggest it will be many centuries even if we stabilize emissions NOW.)
Even assuming that we slow the sea level rise dynamic, it seems reasonable that we would get a meter plus over the next century. That will still mean profound disruptions, including destruction of major cities, vast migrations, and issues of national security. Not the end of the world, yet much more damaging than the impression than Bill paints.
While we want to give people hope, we also need to educate them about the HUGE lag time in sea level adjustment, due to the melt rates in Greenland, Antarctic, thermal expansion, etc.
That is both reality, and potentially an important motivator to deal with the greenhouse gases now, rather than assuming it will be dealt with by the next generation.

uh, Hansen's 350?

First of all, we shouldn't assume that this is Bill McK's complete vision of getting to 350 - the space is short and he was probably asked for a more utopian vision. So I'm just commenting on his vision in this essay.

Climate change has a spectrum of dangerous consequences spread over centuries into the future but Bill doesn't address the specific danger of runaway warming Hansen warned of in first suggesting that we had to get back under 350 before the Arctic icecap melted iriversibly. If we are trying to get below the 350 atmospheric target before 2100 or even 2050 then the many decade transition from fossil fuel use within a pretty much continuing world economy as we know it makes sense.

Hansen warned of tipping points and a point of no return. No mention of non-linear climate change in Bill's gradual warming. His catastrophes are local and survivable; surpassing 2C doesn't lead to 6C or higher. From what I can see according to the science I read the Arctic icecap is melting even faster than the estimates even several years ago - maybe no summer ice at all in 30 years. The increased heating feeds Arctic amplification. Methane from melting permafrost and shallow ocean bottoms may then be released to the degree that it is a powerful positive feedback. Might not. The icecap melt could also lead to global climate shifts, eg, the slowdown of ocean currents transporting heat is the primary but not only possible consequence. Might not. But 350 was initially a bright line, a precautionary ceiling, a call to get back under a lower level then the present forcing which was melting the Arctic dangerously plain as day; 450 was the target if yours was a gradual, bathtub catastrophe in 2100 climate change danger.

We would all like there to be a climate solution that would be possible while not forcing us out of the particular world we love, are co-evolved with. This is particularily true if we have been made insecure by past threats to our continuing progression through life. Our particular socio-economy which is a very complex organization that must dampen down flux in protecting evolving diversity has a strong bias for gradualism and incremental change. It is not surprising then that there is tremendous pressure to formulate climate solutions as a subset of continuing BAU and this is what is possible and what we do if you choose to focus on the long term climate change dangers and don't quantify and act accordingly to the immediate and urgent tipping point danger.

We could focus upon and build a much more informed scientific consensus on whether we need to get back under 350 as quickly as possible but we don't cause we just don't want to go there. This is society wide denial.
http://www.countercurrents.org/henderson200910.htm )

What if we are near or over that tipping point and the resulting climate dislocation and degradation and destruction of ecosystems is (possibly or to varying degrees probable) civilization or even humanity threatening because of our emissions today and our inability to take appropriate action? Is Bill in denial in this Age of Stupid too?