Thursday, November 15, 2012

the accelerating melt I

Adam Gibbs photograph via Colossal Nov 2012

The collision with biospherical limits points to the inspiring paradox of the climate crisis: it forces us to grow up.  As the Earth's limits are pushing civilization to a new adaptation, whose social core will be sustainability and degrowth, the crisis turns into an evolutionary opportunity.  Just think: unless we go bust, which I don't believe, the greenest nations will soon harbor the most successful societies.

Before the crisis, science concerned itself with the past and the present.  The future was accessible only in narrow and context-invariant senses, as in the decay of radioactive elements or the movements of planets on their orbital paths.  Through the crisis, the future in all of its contextual complexity, the future of life, for generations to come, has become an object of rigorous study.  The outcome of the crisis is that we can predict things now.  Climate change lets humanity look deep into tomorrow's probability-cone and see the fateful forks looming within.

It is natural to ward these prospects off, to feel overwhelmed by the flood of facts as "too much information".  But the irony of denial is that it invites a Darwin Award.  If civilization followed a regressive Republican path, the track of denial, the global temperature rise would reduce carrying capacity to the point of dieback.  G. P. Peters et al. note in Nature Climate Change that,
observed emission trends are in line with ... the highest temperature projections in the scenarios, with a mean temperature increase of 4.2-5 C in 2100. 
Peters adds that the Representative Concentration Pathways used in the upcoming IPCC Fifth Assessment Report are even more compelling than the old emission scenarios of the IPCC Special Report on Emission Scenarios (SRES, 2000), because now "mitigation efforts consistent with long-term policy objectives are included among the pathways."

What choosing the regressive path means is detailed by H. J. Schnellnhuber and his colleagues at PIK in the recent World Bank report Turn down the Heat.  One detail (p. 61) shall suffice: for U.S. corn, soy, and cotton production, 
yields are projected to decrease by 63 to 82 percent.
But there's an alternative: if civilization chose a progressive path, we would be able to stay within the +2 C boundary and our children would be fine. This path is progressive in the classical sense, as a path along Kantian, Marxist, and Deep Ecological coordinates; it seems it would have to be so, because it is unclear how one will manage to keep within the safe boundary any differently.  The best-case scenario of the IPCC, the SRES B1 storyline in the Fourth Assessment Report, describes the way stations along the progressive path: 
A convergent world ... with rapid change ... toward a service and information economy, with reductions in material intensity ... the introduction of clean and resource-efficient technologies [and an] emphasis ... on global solutions. 
The choice is each society's own to make.  This choice between progress and regress used to be a matter of social justice, a decision between protecting the vulnerable and favoring the privileged.  But accelerating climate change makes this a choice between civil evolution and winning a Darwin Award.

(Part II to be posted Dec 31)