COP26 Dangerous Omissions: Amplifying Feedbacks, Human Fatalities

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Thirty-three years ago climate scientist James Hansen and other climate scientists testified to a U.S. Congressional Committee and to a Senate Panel.  They presented conclusive evidence of anthropogenic climate change and warned that “planning must begin now for a sharp reduction in the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide.”  In his later research based on Earth’s paleoclimate record, Hansen determined that the tipping point marking the shift to an ice-free planet was when the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases reached approximately 350 parts per million of CO2(ppm) or of CO2 equivalents (the heat-trapping gases methane, nitrous oxide, water vapor).

Alarmingly missing in all the formulas about carbon budgets and zero net emission pledges is the level of greenhouse gas (ghg) concentration in the atmosphere (measured in parts per million CO2, or parts per billion methane), and the dynamic complexity of the climate system, especially the effect of amplifying feedbacks.[1]   Hansen clearly explained the basic facts to the public in his 2009 book Storms of My Grandchildren: the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity.   Real Zero, Not Net Zero” does follow from the science. Real Zero is the demand made in Nigeria by the Oilwatch International network members, community representatives from oil regions, non-governmental organizations, community-based organizations,  and by academia and the media.

What does James Hansen [2] explain about the Earth’s climate system? First, science indicated that steep reductions should have been implemented immediately to prevent positive feedbacks that would eventually cascade global heating beyond human control.  By 1988 there was enough CO2 emitted by fossil fuels to increase heat-trapping to a dangerous level.  As is well known, English industrial production was built on coal.  By the early 19th century, living conditions in England dramatically deteriorated as industrial production inflicted horrific treatment on labourers, chillingly described by Engels [3]. England succeeded in reorganizing the global economy, causing massive human fatalities and environmental ruin… Mike Davis meticulously writes about this in The Late Victorian Holocaust.  Andreas Malm  [4] documents how there were other equally good energy options at the beginning of the industrial revolution, but entrepreneurial ambition and deceit undermined these alternatives.

At present, industrial production in all sectors, including mechanized monocrop agriculture, still relies on fossil fuels. It is largely unquestioned that production is essential in most sectors, essential for GDP and for private profit,  and that industrialization and the market economy (which in itself is highly emitting because of its data centers) can continue as-is until fossil fuels can simply be replaced by renewables.

In his book, Hansen writes that “nature changes carbon dioxide, and climate, by huge amounts. But we must look at time scales (my italics).”  Previous large shifts in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere took hundreds of thousands of years. One ten thousandth of 1 ppm/year created an energy imbalance by 100ppm of CO2 over a million year period, resulting in a huge change.  Compare this to the current, unprecedented rate of CO2 buildup.  At this time, the amount of CO2 concentration  increased in both 2015 and in 2016 by 2.9 ppm in just one year.  The past 25 COP meetings have  postponed or ignored this accelerated pace of emissions.  To repeat, Hansen explained that any further addition above 350ppm increases the global temperature to the level at which Earth will eventually be ice-free, leading to sea-level rise of 75 meters.  The paleoclimate record correlates greenhouse gas concentration, global average surface temperature, and dates.  The record shows that in the past, sea level did increase rapidly at times, by 3 to 5 meters/century – far more than the IPCC worst case projections.

Amplifying feedbacks are environmental reactions to human ghg emissions. During the Holocene era, with its ideal climatic conditions for human life, nature itself  ensured a balance between incoming and outgoing solar radiation.  In the Anthropocene, that balance has altered by increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, resulting secondarily in feedbacks that destroy nature’s ways of absorbing CO2.  Crucial are the carbon “sinks”: forests, soil, and ocean intake of CO2.  “Smoke and mirrors” describes both an amplifying feedback and deceptive climate politics.  Forest fires are a double amplifying feedback as they add to atmospheric CO2 by destroying this natural carbon sink and by causing an albedo effect as the black soot covers Arctic ice. The black surface absorbs heat instead of the white surface mirroring solar radiation back into space.

The second shameful COP26 omission is human fatalities. The words “human death” are not used in describing climate impacts. There is perhaps a Gramscian cultural hegemony of seeing people as inanimate, as “collateral damage” or as “elements”, with brain as electrical circuits and thinking as “artificial intelligence”. There are graphs, charts, statistics about all sorts of climate impacts, abstractions about the fate of our planet, our societies, our economy“civilization as we know it”.  An attempt was made to account for people in 2009 Kofi Annan’s The Global Humanitarian Forum , reporting at the time of the Copenhagen COP meeting that 300,000 people were dying each year due to climate change.  Soon after the organization lost its funding. The WHO/UNEP now reports 150,000 deaths/annually, and a paper published this year in The Lancet reports 5 million climate-related deaths/year.  It is hard to know:  A new method to more accurately determine mortality, the World Mortality Database, found that the  number of people dying in the 2015 Egyptian heat wave was 20,000, not 61.   Human fatalities were front-and-center for Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of Friends of the Earth International and of Environmental Rights Action Nigeria. He said of 2011 COP in Durban: “This is a death sentence for Africa”. Filipino  delegate Yeb Sano at the 2012 COP meeting, held when typhoon Haiyan killed 500 people with hundreds missing, spoke to the delegates:  “Please … let 2012 be remembered as the year the world found the courage to … take responsibility for the future we want. I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”

There are untold fatalities due directly to climate disasters.  There are many other indirect victims: in oil wars,  killing of land defenders, the child deaths due to smoke inhalation from tropical forests burnt to make way for biofuel plantations.

The COP (Conference of the Parties) was established after a series of UN environmental meetings beginning in 1972 and culminating in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the 1994 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. In effect, environmental stewardship was subordinated to economic growth, mitigated by sustainability. Eric Toussaint, a founding member of the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt (CADTM), reports fascinating details about the management of the Global Environment Facility, “the amounts of monetary sums related to the implementation of Agenda 21” adopted at the Earth Summit.  The World Bank secured this role by concealing a report about the number of people who would be displaced by the Narmada Dam which the Bank was funding. The Bank later rejected its own World Dams report which recommended a moratorium on large dams.[5]

Jacqueline Medalye was a graduate student when she attended COP16 in Cancun and her article about it is well worth reading for its historical overview about the entire set-up. After the large protests at the previous Copenhagen COP, meetings were situated far from public access. Medalye writes that “the conference was set in an idyllic location offering the eco-vacation of a lifetime. To this end, Cancún was transformed into an environmental fantasyland where delegates, who were secured accommodations in all inclusive ‘eco-resorts’, could purchase carbon offsets to ensure their flight to the COP was carbon neutral, wake up to the sounds of pre-recorded birds singing in a transplanted ‘conservation’ forest, gorge on all-you-can-eat daily vegan, and ‘get back to nature’ ….”

Patrick Bond, professor at the University of Western Cape School of Government in Cape Town, renames COP as Conference of Polluters and Conference of Paralysis. He has written about the 2011 Durban COP and has just reported on the deceptions of technological and market fixes at COP26 (here here.) He has long researched carbon trade and institutionalized environmental racism.[5]

“Net Zero” calculations are based on dates, gigatons of CO2, and percentile reductions. The calculations do not include ghg concentration in the atmosphere or the dynamic feedbacks of CO2 and of other greenhouse gases.  CO2 equivalents in the atmosphere have also steadily increased since the beginning of the industrial revolution.  In 1750 the atmosphere held 731.41ppb methane, and now the figure is 1831.47ppb. As reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA in 2019, the actual ghg concentration, including CO2 equivalents (methane, nitrous oxide), was 500ppm.

The proposed net zero calculations at COP26 do not explain why the dates and amounts of reductions were chosen. What was the temperature, the amount of ghg in the atmosphere, or the kinds of feedbacks already unleashed at the baseline dates?

The pledges are all over the map and are still changing. The timing is crucial because of feedbacks. Scientists warn that feedbacks are unpredictable and can set off cascading chain reactions.  Emitted gases interact within a complex system with varying time scales: a slight rise in temperature is much more dangerous when forests have already dried up because of multi-year droughts. Delaying substantial reductions gambles with “runaway”, uncontrollable climate change.

There are many unanswered questions. Do the reductions include the three exempt sectors – international aviation, international shipping, and the military? Do the national pledges include outsourced emissions? Biden pledged to reduce emissions 50% by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050 from a baseline of 2005, but 2005 was the year that US emissions peaked at just below 6,000 million tonnes of CO2. Announced on October 28: “Putin stunned observers by committing Russia to a target of net zero by 2060 – the same as China and, most recently, Saudi Arabia.”  India pledged net zero by 2070.  The International Maritime Organization pledged a cut of 50% from 2008 levels, but the shipping sector doesn’t yet have technology to reach net zero by 2050. Canada’s target is 40 to 45 per cent reduction below 2005 levels by 2030 and zero by 2050.  The Canadian government speaks through both sides of its mouth when it comes to fossil fuel subsidies, supporting pipelines and tar sands development. Hansen said that development of the tar sands would mean “game over for the planet.” The EU pledged in June to cut 55% in net greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, and zero net emissions by 2050, but the EU substantially outsources industrial production.

Since the U.S. scientists’ 1988 deposition, there has not been a schedule or clear timetable of mandatory reductions, firm regulations, and enforced implementation. There clearly needs to be determination of jurisdictional boundaries regarding decision-making and responsibility for providing necessities at the relevant levels of neighborhood, rural and urban, national, regional, and global communities. With this emergency, shouldn’t energy be triaged and reserved for essential goods and services?

[1] Joel Alden Schlosser, Herodotus in the Anthropocene, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2020. Schlosser  uses the term “dynamic complexity” to conceptualize multiple and changing functions and interactions, applicable to understanding the climate and democracy.

[2]James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity, Bloomsbury, New York, 2009. See especially Chapter 8, p. 140-171.

[3]Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1993.

[4]Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: the rise of steam power and the roots of global warming, Verso: London, 2016.

[5]Eric Toussaint, The World Bank : a critical primer, Pluto Press: London, 2008. P. 183.

[6]Patrick Bond, Rahana Dada, Graham Erion, Climate change, carbon trading and civil society : negative returns on South African investments, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Scotsville, South Africa, 2009.

Judith Deutsch is a psychoanalyst living in Toronto and a past president of Science for Peace.

[Header Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay]

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