It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Great Rationing

We need to begin by acknowledging that our problem has no precedent.

It appears that polite and reasonable pursuit of a transition to sustainability has failed in the face of a sort of twisted unnatural malice accidentally written into law. We are at the mercy of a tyranny of the "fiduciary responsibilities" of the officers of the large corporations that have made the miracle of modern life possible and are increasingly making the doom of the future ever more enormous and inevitable.

These blind and monstrous corporate "responsibilities" dominate the life of the advanced countries and they (and their odd echoes in China) influence many other countries.

The conventional modern view of the world has it that while economic freedoms cross all borders, all other freedoms are contingent, local, tied to geography, that is, tied to a particular nation-state and a particular sovereignty. Thus, we have international governance for trade, but not for, say, immigration, or for that matter, for freedom or for preservation of our environment.

Persons who inhabit the "wrong" nation-state are accorded limited and contingent rights. In America's incredible legal tangle, these rights as accorded to any individual may be entirely self-contradictory as well as capricious: until recently "illegal" immigrants who are now in danger of expulsion for a traffic stop were encouraged to get drivers' licenses and bank accounts and even home mortgages!

So, if there is any future to the world, the homebodies who haven't seen much of it are overrepresented in making the necessary decisions! And it is the political "responsibility" of their elected representatives to maintain an environment favorable to their own nation in competition with all others, as well as responsive to the aforesaid "fiduciarily responsible" corporate monsters.

Looking at the CO2 picture in particular, (and other global issues may have similar features) the trouble is that there may be no solution that can possibly satisfy the major players (The G7, the BRICS, southeast Asia) individually that can actually resolve the problem that the trillion-and-first ton of carbon is probably going to be emitted, and then some.

It's little wonder when you think about it. In round numbers there are 7 billion of us and we have 450 billion tons left to allocate among us. That leaves you and your half share of all your descendants 65 tons of carbon to play with, or 240 tons of CO2.

Now the US has been holding pretty steady at 19 tons per capita. That means if 1) you don't want to cross the trillionth ton boundary (close to the 2 degrees C line) and 2) you are American and 3) you don't want to use more than your fair share and 4) you don't want to change anything until the last minute, you will have to go cold turkey on carbon emissions in twelve years. No car, no electricity, no heating fuel, no imported food, nothing. Your share of what's left of the atmospheric sink will be used up at that point.

Will the world hold us to this? No, they won't. The world is as addicted to American excess as America is. The whole crazy system is currently based on the Chinese lending us the money we paid them to buy stuff they made for us that we don't need so they can afford to build stuff for themselves that they don't need. Somehow if we do this, there is food on the table, and if we don't, there ain't. To those who believe in the Invisible Hand, this must be reasonable because it is happening.


I am beginning to suspect are past the point where we can rely on our governments to fix this situation.

Certainly the corporations won't help.

The Breakthrough Institute keeps telling us to hold our collective breaths for a deus ex machina solution, but it's getting mightly late for our savior to arrive in the form of, say, a safe, scalable backyard nuclear plant or a sunlight to algae to oil process. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for the quick fix if it's there to be had, but we really are talking about an enormous scale. I'm reminded of the avatar in the Douglas Adams' Restaurant at the End of the World, who arrived to late to save anything at all.

Getting back to governments, it begins to look as though the COP cannot work. Governments are beholden to too many interests to behave as sane participants in a shared effort. Everyone is thrilled to let the Chinese and the Yanks share the blame for business continuing as usual. Perhaps our successors will be wiser than we are, but time is very definitely running out.

My modest suggestion is that we work toward a global consensus among the populations of all the countries, and not among the diplomats; further, that allocations will be designated at the individual, not the national level, and that all resulting rules will apply to individuals.

So, suppose each person alive today gets an allocation of 65 tons, and is free to sell it on the open market. That way, poor people who are carbon frugal get an income source, and rich people get to keep using carbon-based energy for a while as the cost goes up. Most of the buyers will presumably be industrial...

I can see several problems with this approach but it has some advantages 1) simple 2) arguably fair 3) market based 4) enforces a strong cap. It would also light a fire under private sector research into carbon free alternatives a lot better than a few DoE grants would.


watchingthedeniers said...

MT, I think you're pretty much spot on. Some time ago I gave up on the idea that global treaties and a "deus ex machina" technology solution was going to solve what is really an intractable problem.

We should also stop thinking in terms of this being purely about mitigation. We're two minutes *past* midnight. Everything needs to be seen in terms of adaptation.

My response has been to start working with others at the local level, and trying to help forge links between

For that I've started the "Generation Adaptation" project with some other readers of my blog (since closed) which focuses on adaptation strategies.

In Australia I've watched with despair the debate around the introduction of a "carbon tax": the governments inability to sell it, the public's reluctance to embrace and the organised campaign of denial and obfuscation.

These leaves me to the sober conclusion that a temperature rise of at least 2c within the next 30-40 years with a possible 4c+ by centuries end.

We have a few decades to do some forward planning and preserve those elements of our lifestyle and culture worth preserving.

There's a PETM type "bottleneck" looming on the horizon.

Paul Kelly said...

"My modest suggestion is that we work toward a global consensus among the populations of all the countries."

Congratulations on adopting the bottom up approach. People power.

Steve Bloom said...

Well, Michael, that's just wrong. Solutions need to be pushed at every level. (See this interesting article, BTW.) Why is this not obvious?

Come to think of it, weren't you just saying recently that upou thought grassroots action was fairly useless?

I wanted to mention that IMHO the trillion-tonne limit seems to be out the window due to the sharp feedback associated with the pulse of Arctic methane that now seems inevitable (paper). The shape of the emissionbs curve matters very much.

Large-scale suffering and death is probably unavoidable, so a lot of what will have to go on is triage.

Michael Tobis said...

I am not saying we should give up.

I am saying we should try to promote a global conversation outside the usual diplomatic circles. They can't negotiate for us. Let's try to engage with people from parts of the world with competing interests, and let's try to find a strategy which isn't so tied to nationality.

Steve L said...

I think we have to invade the imaginations of a large segment of the public, and we need to talk about things in a variety of ways and hope that some of these ways can grab the attention of people who don't pay attention to this stuff. Therefore I promise to write letters to the editors of three different newspapers this week, stealing from the presentation of MT here. Putting things in finite terms like this grabbed me, and perhaps it will have the same effect on others. Permission?

Michael Tobis said...

Please reuse, recycle! I'm not writing this stuff JUST for my ego...