|Scripps Institution of Oceanography|
I’m inviting you to consider the Keeling Curve, the record of atmospheric CO2 increasing year after year since 1958 and the most well-known evidence for the case of human-induced global warming. The graphic above shows the 1958-now Keeling CO2 numbers from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii tacked onto ice core CO2 measurements going back to 1700.
The scientific consensus is that the year-on-year CO2 increases since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the late 1700s primarily result from combustion of fossil fuels, and that since CO2 is a greenhouse gas, as a consequence we have global warming, aka climate change.
That “combustion of fossil fuels,” releases or expends the energy stored in the carbon fossils. So if we could substitute another form of energy that didn’t release CO2, we wouldn’t have the global harming effect, right? A good argument for switching to solar and wind energies.
But wait a minute, step back a little in looking at the Keeling Curve and ask what else it looks like evidence for, apart from the greenhouse gas thing. Then it becomes obvious that what Keeling most basically demonstrates is that our global “civilization” requires expending more and more energy, year after year. That is what, since our energy source has been fossil fuels, has produced the more and more atmospheric CO2. Shouldn’t we ask why that is happening and what the consequences might be? Regardless of what the energy source might be?
The obvious reason for all that combustion (or other energy use) is that it serves the purpose of consumption. That’s how we make our living, how we get food, clothing, housing, transportation, smart phones, lottery tickets, all that stuff. But year on year increases, along with an increasing yearly rate of increase (note the curvature of the Curve)? Why does this happen?
I submit that the root cause is built in to the foundations of our national economy and the global economy (and culture). Denying that there are any limits to growth, the “Market,” under our current financial/banking/monetary regime, demands perpetual growth – on a finite planet. Or else!
And it is clear from other evidence that this economic system systematically funnels to the top 1% or even 0.1% an excessive proportion of whatever economic returns result from this year on year economic growth. It creates artificial and unjust inequality. Look at this graphic, showing that U.S. worker wages kept pace with their increasing productivity up until the early 1970s. Since then, however, worker productivity – the wealth their labor produces – has gone up and up, but wages (in inflation-adjusted dollars) have stayed flat. U.S. workers are getting less and less of their deserved fair share of the wealth they produce.
A more up to date summary of the situation, from Oxfam: “Billionaire fortunes increased by 12% last year -- or $2.5 billion a day -- while the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity saw their wealth decline by 11%... The number of billionaires has nearly doubled since the financial crisis, with a new billionaire created every two days between 2017 and 2018, yet wealthy individuals and corporations are paying lower rates of tax than they have in decades, thanks in part to the new tax law championed by President Trump.”
That’s why climate change is at bottom a justice issue. The usual framing of talk about climate justice points out how the poor are more likely to be harmed by the effects of climate change. Of course, they are always the first- and worst-harmed in any kind of downturn or disaster. But let’s first ask, Why are they so poor?
So. My conclusion is that Climate Change activist efforts aimed at getting renewable energies adopted – such as the Green New Deal with carbon tax and dividend – are appropriate, would help lessen the effects of Climate Change, and may well work as a first step in achieving the complete transition to a sustainable steady-state economy. But we must realize that market solutions are just that, leaving the Market to do what it wants to do, in too many cases exactly what we are trying to stop. I think major efforts should be directed toward more fundamental changes in our economic/political system. I like the US Green Party stated goal: “Convert the energy industry and banking into public utilities so we have the democratic power and financing to carry through a rapid energy transition.”
(I have to add, however, that I see the rest of the Green Party platform as way too much Utopian Socialist.)
Mike Ensler, Director of the Auburn University Office of Sustainability, has just put out an essay titled “The Sustainability Movement Is a Social Justice Movement,” drawing on Paul Hawken’s book, Blessed Unrest. I especially like this quote from the book:
“There is no question that the environmental movement is critical to our survival. Our house is literally burning, and it is only logical that environmentalists expect the social justice movement to get on the environmental bus. But it is the other way around; the only way we are going to put out the fire is to get on the social justice bus and heal our wounds, because in the end there is only one bus.”
1. The insanity of our current economic system is nowhere more evident than is shown in how it treats oil. One barrel of oil contains the energy equivalent of at least five years of full-time human labor – at just minimum wage (not that $7.25/hr is actually a just wage) being worth around $15,000. But the Market treats that ought-to-be-precious barrel of oil as just another commodity, selling at a ridiculously low $40 to $140 dollars per. See Herman Daly’s recent piece, “Do Red and Green Mix?
I don’t think Daly mentions oil explicitly, but explains clearly why an economic “good” of that type should not be left to the Market. Daly, a former top economist at the World Bank, is perhaps our foremost steady-state economy expert.
2. The Keeling Curve year on year increases in CO2 (plus increases in the rate of increase, last noted by the Scripps Institute at 2.6%) indicate we’re looking here at an exponential function, an exponential rate of growth in atmospheric CO2 and in combustion and consumption.
Bear with me here: Never mind the actual mathematics, the most important thing to know about exponential growth is the Rule of 72: Whatever kind of growth you are considering, if you divide 72 by the expected yearly rate of increase (the per cent number), you get a good-enough idea of how many years it will take for that whatever to double. For example: If you could find a 7% yield investment, you can by the Rule expect your investment to double in value in about 10 years.
Relevance to the climate change issue: Despite the at least half-good Paris Agreement, and pledges to the contrary, most governments in the world seem to be planning and hoping to maintain at least a “moderate” 3% economic growth rate. By the Rule of 72, that would mean a doubling of all that combustion (or other energy use) and consumption (all those smart-phones, cars, lottery tickets etc) in only 24 years. By 2043. Moreover, by 2043, we would have expended more total energy and consumed more of everything than was done in the entire history of humans before 2019.
I hear you saying, “Huh?” Well, just take in what doubling looks like numerically:
1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024 . . . .and note not only that the numbers get rapidly much larger, but that at each doubling point that number is more than all the previous doublings added together.
Even if we manage the transition to renewable energies and avoid global warming, could that kind of exponential growth be desirable? Or even possible? Could solar and wind power keep up We humans are already appropriating for our own uses as much as 40% of Earth's total net primary productivity. That's all of the carbon being stored in all the world's plants through photosynthesis, minus the carbon "respired" back into the atmosphere. Basically, the base of the planetary food and energy chain. See: https://globalchange.mich.edu/globalchange1/current/lectures/kling/energyflow/energyflow.html.
3. About market solutions to the Climate Change problem, it seems relevant to me to see who supports these solutions. A quick google-search lists quite prominently among several environmental activist groups the following: Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Goldman Sachs, and the Ayn Rand Institute.