Escaping BAU - 450ppm, 2 Degrees C, Change Now
By Bill Henderson

16 October, 2007


Last week Tim Flannery revealed that the next IPCC report will reveal that greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere have passed the 450( E)ppm level a full decade ahead of earlier IPCC prediction. 450ppm is the precautionary ceiling to keep temperature rise below a 2 degree C increase above the pre-industrial mean. Limiting the temperature rise to less than 2 degrees has long been considered the bottom line for avoiding dangerous climate change: for avoiding possible latent positive feedback that could lead to runaway climate change, for avoiding an apocalyptic situation where climate change was no longer within our control.

The bitter truth is that GHG emissions continue to rise in spite of attempts at mitigation over two decades. (Remember the Toronto Targets in 88?)

Also last week climate scientist Andrew Weaver and his UVIC team reported that their modeling indicated that a rapid 100% reduction in present greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions plus capture and sequestering of some volume of GHGs already in the atmosphere will be necessary to keep temperatures below 2 degrees by mid century.

In a review of a new book SURVIVING THE CENTURY in this months Nature, our present growth orientated free market economies are indicted because "(p)rogress at weaning the world off its reliance on fossil fuels will continue to be blocked by those who benefit from the persistent under-pricing of carbon".

"The main impediment to tackling global warming is that many of the powerful institutions of the world, whether it be the World Trade Organization, BP or the investment banks that control the world's allocation of capital are resistant to radically changing the way we operate the world economy...

Large companies, the theory goes, are threatened by actions to reduce emissions. The oil and gas industry will suffer if the world moves to renewable energy. Monsanto's profits will fall if we switch from industrial agriculture back to low-input farming methods. The Brazilian government will lose elections if it resists attempts to turn more of the rainforest into soy farms and cattle ranches. Freely operating markets, the book says, do not solve difficult problems. Markets concentrate power, rather than dispersing it, with the result that the success of global capitalism over the last twenty years has produced an elite of immense power and wealth. Aggressive action on climate change threatens this power, and is being resisted at every turn... (M)any of the world's most intractable problems are only solvable if we reduce the power of the global elite, whose influence is holding back any attempt to restructure the world's economic system."

Capturing the sadness, frustration and anger conservation biologist Glen Barry sums up our predicament:

"Climate change is not about on average being 2C warmer. It is about whole countries and regions not having food and water, about an end to ecosystems and agriculture, about enormous and continuous floods and droughts, and so much more. Climate change is about death, destruction and mayhem for billions, maybe for all...

(T)his is the core of my sadness -- this beautiful magnificent Earth and all its bright and brilliant creatures including human good works are going to needlessly end because of greed, vanity and intransigence."

We can't afford to exceed 450ppm, 2 degrees, but emissions aren't being reduced - they're still increasing.

Change can be very difficult in our complex, service sector dominated societies. Jim Hansen hammers away at the importance of understanding climate change as a non-linear process, but Americans and informed publics everywhere also seriously underappreciate that the topography of both market and policy change has valleys and sinks. Path dependence severely limits change in markets and government's ability to even regulate properly let alone take decisive, interventionist action (except maybe when faced with a human enemy like a Hitler). Far from a level playing field where anything is possible, change is difficult and severely constrained down paths formed over decades in the past.

There is a political science understanding of the policy space limitations of present day governments. Thomas Freidman's metaphor of the golden straightjacket is relevant - can any Western government introduce any policy that negatively effects the economy by even single digit percentage points? Almost everybody presently involved in advocating climate change solutions grossly underestimates this foremost impediment to needed emission reduction.

I learned the limitations of governments, the very restricted policy space they have to work in, as an activist in BC's failed forestry revolution in the 90s. For a decade I have predicted that if mitigation is restricted to just incremental change within business as usual (BAU), emission reduction will just be fudged: fossil fuel use will continue to increase along with emissions and we will be toast.

80% by 2050 won't do it - the Governator and all those who would reduce emissions within the present continuing car-sprawl economy are pulling your leg. TEQs or cap and trade even with a Draconian price for carbon won't do it - although these tools could be key if our capacity to change was unblocked. A new Kyoto-plus multilateral treaty is necessary but faces the same fate as Kyoto 1 without a massive reconfiguration of all of the world's economies.

Governance innovation is needed. Governance innovation to escape BAU. Something like Lester Brown's wartime-style coalition government with a mandate, the power and stabilizing ability to reconfigure the American, developed world and developing world economies so that emission reduction of a scale needed becomes a possibility.

The reality is that massive change globally is needed quickly and must realistically begin and be lead by the US. Nothing less. And the powers that be are in denial and will resist radically changing the way we operate the global economy. How are we going to make this change a reality?

Al Gore and the IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize last week. If Mr. Gore chose to show as much leadership in educating Americans about the inconvenient political science truth about climate change mitigation as he has done with the science of climate change there might be a glimmer of hope that reason and not greed, vanity and intransigence will win. Al Gore focusing attention on how to escape BAU is what is needed to unblock our ability to confront the emergency so that we won't continue to drift through another wasted decade.

There are promising new digital tech ways of building a much more robust consensus about expected climate change severity and risk probabilities where virtually all Americans could be on the same page if not in total agreement about both the science and politics of mitigation in time for 08. Our governments don't lead - they are pushed. Powerful elites now control government. Change requires a new turbocharged consensus.

If there is leadership in identifying escaping BAU as THE problem that has to be overcome FIRST, AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, and if such a powerfully informed consensus is built, then there might be hope that those elected in the crucial 08 American elections will win on a platform mandating such a bi-partisan emergency government. The best and brightest could maybe then be employed with some possibility of success in creating a much more begnine but still wealth creating economy. There could be some hope, some possibility of success - if it's not too late - in saving humanity and most of the species with which we share creation from the increasing probability of extinction.


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