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Victory at hand for the climate movement?

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There are signs the climate movement could be on the verge of a remarkable and surprising victory.  If we read the current context correctly, and if the movement can adjust its strategy to capture the opportunity presented, it could usher in the fastest and most dramatic economic transformation in history. This would include the removal of the oil, coal and gas industries from the economy in just a few decades and their replacement with new industries and, for the most part, entirely new companies. It would be the greatest transfer of wealth and power between industries and countries the world has ever seen.

To understand this incredible potential we first have to step back and understand the unique structure of this social change movement, which may rank among the most influential in history. It is simplistic to characterise it as an alliance of grass-roots organisations and activists pitched against a rich and well-connected adversary. While that is part of the story, it is more accurately understood as an idea whose tentacles reach into every tier of government, the world’s largest companies and financial institutions, and throughout the academic and science communities.

Because of this, it is winning the battle from within: Its core arguments and ideas are clearly right; being endorsed by the world’s top science bodies and any significant organisation that has examined them.

Far from being at society’s margins it has the support, to various degrees, of virtually all governments and many of the world’s most powerful political leaders, including the heads of state of the USA, China and other leading economies. It counts the CEO’s of many global companies and many of the world’s wealthiest people as active supporters – who between them direct hundreds of billions of dollars of capital every year towards practical climate action. And of course, this comes on top of one of the most global, best-funded, broadly-based and bottom-up community campaigns we have ever seen.

That is the reality of the climate movement – it is massive, global, powerful, and on the right side of history.

So why, many ask, has it so far not succeeded in its objective of reducing CO2 emissions? Much has been written on this topic but most of it is wrong. It is simply an incredibly big job to turn on its head the global economy’s underpinning energy system. And so it has taken a while. Considering how long other great social movements took to have an impact – such as equality for women or the end of slavery and civil rights movements – then what’s surprising is not that the climate movement hasn’t yet succeeded. What’s surprising is how far its come and how deeply it has become embedded in such a short time.

And now is the moment when it’s greatest success might be about to be realised – and just in time.

We are at the most important moment in this movement’s history – in the midst of two simultaneous tipping points that create the opportunity, if we respond correctly, to win – eliminating net CO2 emissions from the economy and securing a stable climate, though still a changed one.

I have come to this conclusion after reflecting on a year when an avalanche of new knowledge and indicators made both tipping points clear. The first and perhaps the best understood is the rapid acceleration in climate impacts, reinforcing the view many hold that the scientific consensus on climate has badly underestimated the timing and scale of climate impacts. The melting of the Arctic Sea Ice, decades before expected, was the poster child of this but extreme weather and temperature records across the world, notably in the USA, suggested this Arctic melting is a symptom of accelerating system change.

It also became clear that this was literally just the “warm up” act – that we are currently heading for a global temperature increase of 4°C or more, double the agreed target.

In response came a series of increasingly dire warnings from conservative bodies like the International Energy Agency, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Perhaps most colourfully, the IMF chief and former conservative French finance minister, Christine Lagarde, said that without strong action “future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled”. The World Bank was similarly blunt about the economic consequences of our current path: “there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.”

These and other reports laid out the evidence that the only option was transformational economic change because the alternative was simply unmanageable. Action was no longer a preferred outcome but an essential one. As the World Bank said “the projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur”.  Even the IEA, historically a kind of advocate in chief for the fossil fuel industry, came on board, pointing out that a stable climate and economy requires the majority of the global reserves of fossil fuels to never be burnt.

It is an extraordinary turn around when key mainstream economic institutions lay out the case for dismantling what is arguably the world’s most powerful business sector.

Of particular note in all this, observing both the message and the messengers, is that what was predominantly an ecological question is now primarily an economic one. This is a profoundly important shift, as economic risk is something society’s elites take very seriously. It also unleashes another major potential tipping point which we seen signs of but is not yet in full flight. When non-fossil fuel companies understand the broad economic risk posed by the lack of climate action, they will become genuine and strong advocates demanding climate action – in their own self-interest. This is one to watch carefully as it will see a major shift in the politics when it comes.

The second tipping point in 2012 was the clear evidence that a disruptive economic shift is already underway in the global energy market. There are two indicators of this, with the first being the much noted acceleration in the size of the renewable energy market with dramatic price reductions and the arrival of cost competitive solar and wind. It is hard to overstate the significance of this as it changes the game completely, as various recent reports have shown.

Rooftop solar for example has grown so fast it is now eroding the profitability of major utilities by taking away their high margin income – peak pricing – and reducing demand. This is already seeing major economic disruption to companies and national economic infrastructure as this report from UBS on developments in Europe shows, with major shutdowns of coal plants now inevitable.

Of equal importance, and partly triggered by these market shifts, is the awakening of the sleeping giant of carbon risk, with open discussion in mainstream financial circles of the increasing dangers in financial exposure to fossil fuels. This has been coming for several years because of the financial risk inherent in the carbon bubble. As Phil Preston and I argued in a paper in 2010 and I further elaborated in The Great Disruption, the contradiction between what the science says is essential and the growth assumptions made by the fossil fuel industry is so large it represents a systemic global financial risk. This has been well articulated and more deeply explored by groups like Carbon Tracker who have been taking the argument to the mainstream finance sector.

In 2012 this hit home, with significant economic and financial players like the IEA, HSBC and S&P talking about the concept of unburnable carbon and the financial risks in both investing in fossil fuels and in lending to coal, oil and gas projects. HSBC forecast a market value loss of 40-60 per cent for oil and gas majors if the world acted to keep below 2°C. The IEA forecast the revenue loss in that scenario for the global coal industry would be  $1 trillion every year by 2035.

Combined, these two tipping points present the opportunity for the broad climate movement to achieve success, if they are understood and responded to appropriately by the activist, policy and business communities. But first they must be seen for what they are  – indications we are poised on the edge of a truly historic economic transformation – the end of fossil fuels and the building of a huge new industry sector.

To summarise:

• The science shows how we are not just failing to slow down climate change, but are in fact accelerating towards the cliff.

• In response, mainstream organisations focused on the global economy are becoming increasingly desperate in their calls for action, fearing the economic consequences if we don’t. They are arguing that the only way the world can avoid the risk of breakdown is to transform the economy urgently and dramatically.

• Our capacity to do so is now real and practical, with the technologies required already being deployed at very large-scale and at competitive cost. The size of the business opportunity now on offer is truly breathtaking.

• In response, the financial markets are waking up to the transformation logic – if the future is based in renewables and these are price competitive without subsidy, or soon will be, the transformation could sweep the economy relatively suddenly, even without further government leadership.

• This then puts in place an enormous and systemic financial risk – in particular investments in, or debt exposure to, the multi-trillion $ fossil fuel industry.

• This risk is steadily being increased by activist campaigns against fossil fuel projects (worsening each projects’ financial risk) and arguing for fossil fuel divestment (putting investors reputation in play as well).

• In response investors and lenders will reduce their exposure to fossil fuels and hedge their risk by shifting their money to high growth renewables.

• This will then reinforce and manifest the very trend they are hedging against.

• Thus it’s game on.

Is that it? Can we now sit back and expect the market deal with this?

Most definitely not. It is probably true that the market would sort this out by itself if we had 60 years for it to do so. But we don’t. The science is clear that we have less than 20 – and this is where the opportunity for the climate movement emerges and why the choice of focus and strategy is now is so important. The task at hand is clear for policy makers, for business and investors as well as for the activist community.  It’s acceleration of existing momentum – to slow down fossil fuels and speed up clean energy. To make the 60 year process, a 20 year one.

It is now realistic to imagine removing the coal, oil and gas industries from the economy in less than 20 years. Doing so is required if we are to have an 80 per cent or greater likelihood of preventing the climate warming past 2°C, a point past where the system could spin out of control.

What we are now hearing from major international economic institutions is that this is a binary choice. Either this happens or we head for social and economic breakdown. As the World Bank argues, the latter “must not be allowed to occur”.

Timing is the key shift the world needs to make in its thinking – this is no longer about the future, it’s about now. We don’t have 20 years to decide to act; we have 20 years to complete the task. If we follow the science, then in 20 years we must have removed the coal, oil and gas industries from the economy and replaced them. It’s simple, it’s urgent and perhaps most importantly, it’s now achievable.

History gives us many examples of dramatic economic shifts – like the arrival of the computer chip and with it, the internet, the emergence of communications technologies and other facilitators of globalisation. We also have many examples of “whoops” moments – points when we realise after the event something was a very bad idea. Like tobacco, asbestos, lead in fuels and paint, ozone depleting CFCs and various other chemicals. Collectively, this tells us something very important. While each case is different, we are capable of transformational economic change and while it’s often disruptive and always fiercely resisted, we regularly do it. This is much larger in scale but the same processes apply.

We need to keep reminding ourselves that this kind of economic transition is OK. That’s how markets works and while it will be challenging and require huge effort, it will work out. Yes, huge amounts of wealth will be lost and gained in the process, industries, countries and cities will face massive economic and practical restructuring challenges and many people will suffer in the process. But that’s how market shifts happen.

Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase “creative destruction” to describe this process and to explain why it’s the underpinning strength of capitalism, calling it: “A process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”

But while we can be comfortable that this process will deliver the required outcome, it’s not going to be smooth or pleasant for many participants. It will rather be messy, highly controversial and see huge amounts of value and employment both destroyed and created as the economy restructures around the necessary reality of a post fossil fuel economy.  I’m neither relaxed about this nor naïve about the scale of the challenge. I just accept that it’s now inevitable. I also know we can do it and that we simply have no choice.

Of course, the losers will fight all the way to the end, using every argument, manoeuvre and delay they can think of. We should expect nothing else of them and, realistically, most of us would do likewise faced with similar circumstances. But they will still lose.

I do not however think we should demonise the fossil fuel industry or the people involved in it. The job to remove this industry has to be done – the future of civilisation literally depends on it – but we can do this firmly and clearly without making it personal. As I’ve said in recent speeches on this topic – with some humour but a serious message – “we have to remove the coal, oil and gas industries from the economy with love and compassion.” This is the tough love of responsible parenting – the kids don’t like it but it’s still the right thing to do.

So with some surprise, this is where we find ourselves. It still won’t happen without focused and determined effort, but for the first time, we can envisage victory in the decades long fight on climate change. The science is clear, the technology is ready, significant sections of the elite are on side and the financial momentum is with us.

And this time, the economics is playing on the same side as the environment. Just in time.  

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  • Dave Johnson

    “… but we can do this firmly and clearly without making it personal”?

    Isn’t that a line from The Godfather?

    And why not demonize people people who are clearly willing to risk the entire ecosystem for no better purpose than to maintain their own obscene lifestyles?

    These folks are effectively holding a gun to the heads of my children, and if that were literally true both law and custom would permit me to use lethal force in their defense.

    Thus, merely running them out of business comes off as quite temperate, even without getting squishy about their precious feelings.

    So spare me the sentimentality.

  • I disagree with you, Dave, that Paul is being sentimental with his “personal” reference. If the Americans hadn’t initiated their Marshall Plan in Europe and Japan after WW2, how long would it have taken those zones to find their new place in the world economy? Whether we like it or not, the current denizens of the fossil fuel industries are our brothers and sisters and we have to help them find a workable new role in our brave new sustainable world. If we demonise and fight them instead of help them (no matter how hard they fight us), we will only succeed in setting back the accomplishment of our own goals by years if not by decades.

    Yes, it’s very easy to get in touch with the feeling that they “should” pay for their decades of willfully greedily putting profit ahead of prudence. But we truly can’t afford to make them pay anymore than we could afford to make Germany & Japan pay for what they did.

    • Couldn’t have put it better myself Gus!

      And Dave Johnson – we all have that anger on bad days, but as Gus points out, no matter how justified the anger is by the situation, if it doesn’t help us move forward, it doesn’t help. But yes, I have those days!

  • David

    I would add a third leg to your “disruptive economic shift” and that would be the arrival of practical electric vehicles.

  • John

    Unless of course you are Robert Gotleibsen who thinks we will look back at current oil prices as an anomaly as US gas and Canadian tar drives price down fossil fuel prices.

    I hope you are right and Robert is wrong.

    PS Dave, you sound like an Iraqi Shiite looking to get revenge on his Sunni countrymen after the war has been won. It does no one any good, so grow up.

    • Brenton Rittberger

      John ,I think if CSG and Tar sands extraction is allowed to go ahead unfettered like as historically nearly all mining and oil wells have done since the industrial revolution and that the EPA remains mute,then yes ,cheap fossil fuel will hit the market,,Personally I would rather chase the Fracking bastards off the planet and go renewables.Fracking is Ecocide…America must Stop Corporate power, America must vote to reform Corporations act so as to stop Corporations funding elections and politicians,Corporations need to be dismantled,and the American workers are paid a fair percentage of profit (no to working poor), America could introduce a total Keynesian ecconomic model.
      We will continue with activism and campaigns but realistically America ..You have the power…I think you should all be forced to vote..

  • Ron Horgan

    This change from fossil carbon to carbon neutral energy seems to be an emergent property of a complex system.
    While some elements are rational developments, e.g, that long term investors will shift money from dying to growing industries, the rate of change and the crumbling from within the carbon industries are surprising.
    Given how resistant many people are to accepting scientific facts this is a heartening development.
    Social opinion is known to suddenly change when about 10-15% of the population are firmly convinced of the new model.
    It seems that we may have reached this social “tipping point” ,and that the burden of convincing the majority of people who wish to continue “business as usual” may be rapidly lifting.

  • I have been a climate campaigner for 5.5 years. The main strategy of the fossil fuel industry in Australia is delay, delay, delay. These guys have lobbyists in every parliament of the Australia. The lobbyist are driven by greed and easy money. The politicians due to the free market neoliberal ideology are easily led. I have spoken to ministers who have climate change as their portfolio and I could not tell me what the current parts per million of carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere. They simply are not serious. These people have chief scientists and a climate commission that they can talk to but they simply don’t because they will give them information that they don’t want to hear, like to avoid 2°C you have to act now. (5 years ago) The fossil fuel industry pours millions of dollars into the 2 main political party campaign funds. This industry is worth trillions of dollars and is driven by men who are payed millions and have massive egos. You can see what people will do the small amounts of money, imagine what they will do for huge amounts of money. Dave is right they are effectively holding a gun to the heads of your children and the sooner you wake up to this the better. Their argument is we can keep burning fossil fuels and someone will come up with a technology fix in the future. When humans have had their backs to the wall in the past we could depend on this type of mindset. However it’s oversimplistic and shows a complete lack of understanding on how ecosystems work. ALL LIFE ON EARTH today depends on ecosystems, not the fossil fuel industry. Make no mistake these guys will destroy the planet for a bag full of money.

    • I’m with Dave and Terry. I greatly admire Paul Gildings understanding of the dangers ahead and his efforts to inform people about global warming, but his optimism borders on the panglossian. We face numerous threats – overpopulation, an economic system that rewards increasing inequality and, of course, global warming. Perhaps there is some hope that the population will stabilise, but I despair of the rest. Sure, eventually people will become aware of the dangers, but in time?
      I was a student in the USA during the sixties, and marvelled at the intelligence and the social capital of the American people. I watched with dismay as, in the early 80’s, the left lost the plot and we saw the beginning of the revenge of the rich upon the poor. A campaign began to dumb down the population, and the Murdoch media remains in the forefront to this day. I am long retired, and I fear not for myself, or indeed for my children. But I have grandchildren.

      • Grok

        To Ian – I think the time is ripe for the baby boomers to get active again. After all, the conditions are almost identical to the 1960s – they are still the largest single demographic block, they still are the wealthiest generation, and retirement, as when they were students, provides them with all the free time they need to organise and protest. And climate change provide a single united cause to get behind. Gen Y ticking boxes on social media websites is never going to achieve anything. And they don’t know any better. So how about it? Let’s start with a ‘grey-in’ at Parliament house and proceed from there…

    • I agree with everything you say, Terry. I don’t underestimate at all the viciousness that the fossil fuel camp has and will resort to in protecting their vested interests. That’s why I used the Marshall Plan as an analogy. They are in many ways just a modern version of Nazis and no doubt many of their leaders will have to treated as criminals. Nevertheless, providing channels for retraining and redeploying the fossil fuel workforce into more sustainable work NOW is a more productive strategy than thinking about it after we have beaten them into some satisfying level of submission. Make it attractive, not frightening, for them to desert their camp and many will be more likely to.

    • Brenton Rittberger

      Totally agree Terry..and they would not blink if grandma had to go in the process.Corporations need to be brought under control asap.

  • Dave Johnson

    All right, let’s try a little serious historical perspective.

    Hitler started a war that killed about 50 million people, and he is rightly regarded as the biggest mass murderer of all time. If he had not had the decency to kill himself, he would have been hanged without apology, right along with the henchmen we did catch.

    Now, climate change threatens to make WWII look like a game of patty-cake, and the leaders of the fossil fuel industry are willfully and aggressively profiting from the process without any hint of apology. Worse, they are spending millions to libel everyone on the other side of the debate.

    So, just where does that put them on the cosmic scale of criminal liability?

    You people sound like the classic abused housewife who remains convinced that her husband really does love her, and that the problem is all her fault for failing to find the right way to talk to him.

    Again, sentimental idiocy.

    Put these people up against the wall, at least metaphorically, if not literally.

    And let us remember that they will never be anything like poor. They will just put on their Golden Parachutes and bail out, leaving us to clean up their mess, while they go sip expensive booze on their private islands.

    If you insist that we need to be the least bit patient with people like that, then you deserve what you get.

    Unfortunately my children don’t deserve that.

    So, excuse me if I am “having a bad day” about it.

  • Dave Johnson

    I might add that I have already cut my carbon footprint by a factor of at least ten, and perhaps more.

    I don’t drive a car.

    The heated part of my dwelling is only 100 square feet, and it is heavily insulated.

    I am a vegetarian, which is as good as taking another car off the road.

    I don’t ride in airplanes.

    And lots of little stuff I won’t bother to list.

    So, how many of you folks can say anything like the same?

    You can talk all you want about how to finesse the goons in charge of the fossil fuel industry, but I have simply stopped buying their products, and that goes straight to their bottom line.

    If everyone were anywhere near as aggressive as I am about it, the fossil fuel industry would be collapsing on itself right now, and they could not do a thing to stop it.

    Call me bad tempered, or childish, or vengeful, if it makes you feel better, but I am the one taking direct, effective action.

    And you will note, if you please, that my methods are utterly non-violent and perfectly legal.

  • Alan Baird

    What an interesting stream of thought! I’m with the anti-panglossians! Nearly all politicians are ‘franchise thinkers’, thoughtlessly parroting the ‘growth-is-good-even-if-it’s-a-cancer’. More people, more stuff, is everybody happy? In observing Labor, I’ve noted that they are generally ‘Liberal-tepid’ (read Conservative-tepid if American), and are quite happy with delaying real action. ‘TINA’ (There Is No Alternative) is in charge and is extremely upset if there IS. Politics today has got itself into this situation via the lobbying industry and if nobody recognises that THIS is the main fly in the ointment, then I’m Martin Ferguson.

    • Dave Johnson

      Excuse me.

      Where, pray tell, do you suppose the money comes from to pay lobbyists?

      Every time you fill your gas tank you are helping to pay a lobbyist to corrupt the political system.

      That is why I simply do not buy the product in the first place.

      It’s the only way to break the cycle.

      Plus, it keeps the money in my pocket, where I like it best anyway.

  • Brevity is power Paul. Remember that. I had to scan the second half of your article after the first half failed to systematically to build your case. I appreciate the insights of Giles Parkinson and I understand that in energy matters analysis needs to be given space for elucidation, but in this piece I feel you’ve indulgently stretched your legs while whatever editorial arrangements/agendas sat idly by. The organisations campaigning on the ground and in the community are not ready for victory, far from it. I’ve just left a climate campaign after developing their online presence through social media and having my recommendations earnestly disregarded. I have made every effort to network groups like Greenpeace Asia Pacific into Queensland where The Great Barrier Reef, one of the key fronts in this war on our future is being fought, but to no avail. Our climate groups like BZE, AYCC, and Friends of the Earth continue to be obsessed with preaching to the choir. I don’t say this as a disgruntled campaigner, I say this as someone with a new perspective on campaigning who has quite quickly developed an excellent track record. My media stunt which I conceived in Brisbane with another stellar online campaigner in December gained national print, TV, and online exposure, has been replicated a number of times around the country, and was listed in Crikey’s all time top enviro stunts. Anyway Paul, next time you write a piece like this, make it brief, edible, and take the time to see that you’ve demonstrated the thesis in your headline.

  • Hi Paul – I had been kind of hopeless about climate change, but in the last couple months I started seeing / thinking many of the same things you write about here. I do think the economics will drive the difference, and much faster than most think. Utilities and fossil fuel companies have not built up any customer goodwill, so other than fear of loss of jobs, they will have nothing to rely on when alternatives come.

  • The article Paul has written gives us a nice prelude to the comments posted by readers. Food for thought and another intellectual perspective put forth while the pressure builds.

    Talking about this problem (still) is not going to resolve it.

    ‘Business as usual’, albeit in a carbon free form, seems to be the preferred option for a safe and successful transition to the brave new world. I wonder.

    I still believe that the paddock Earth is way overstocked. There are simply too many consumers to be sustained, fossil fuel or otherwise. Until humanity realises this critical fact and does something about it, big time, all the waffle and theorising won’t matter jack sh*t.

    Change for a future is going to be a serious challenge for all who live on the planet. We have been talking about this for how long? Meanwhile carbon emissions have increased how much? Apart from a few individuals like Dave Johnson, how many of us have made a serious change to our lifestyles and our carbon footprint to say “I am contributing in a real and meaningful way to creating a safe and secure future for my kids and my grandkids?”

    Somehow we have to reduce the world’s population to about 2.5 to 3 billion. And low impact lifestyles are called for otherwise we repeat the history that has put us where we are now.

    Any suggestions?

    • Ron Horgan

      Hi Glen, I agree with you that population growth is the major problem and that the sustainable figure is probably about 2 Billion.
      However if we damage the atmosphere with fossil CO2 to cause severe global warming the planet will be cooked whatever the population may be.
      Time is short and control of CO2 is the immediate problem.
      To reduce the population to a sustainable level would require a universal one child policy for about 100 years.
      This would have to be on a voluntary basis to be effective.
      For the many people who will find this post unacceptable, please consider the consequences of exceeding our sustainable limit.
      If we fail to manage some transition to safety then the “natural” option is a massive population crash as the elegant and efficient “just in time” globalized food supply fails.
      Some unbalanced dictator with nuclear weapons is all that it would take.
      We have plenty of problems to solve in the next few years.

  • Michelle G

    The whole sustainable population issue really irks me cos it’s the one issue in the of the plethora we face that will take the longest to resolve and it’s impacts are so far outweighed by the notion of continual economic growth. Move to a stable state economy, stop wanton consumerism, those in the devoloped world accept we need to live with less (is one or no TV really such a burden to bear) and regain some sense of what it is that creates happiness and well being and a population of 6-7 billion is less of an issue.

    When people talk about a sustainable population of a couple of billion they never come up with a roadmap outlining how to get there. A one child policy is all well and good but while we slowly dwindle the numbers on earth those still in existence who can still consume and those who can’t aspire to. So how is that a solution?

    Yes there are many problems to tackle simultaneously yes it’s complicated but what is the alternative other than to get in with it, both on a personal level and by pressing constantly for change in our work places, in our recreation, with our friends and families, constantly contacting our political representatives demanding change (how many people reading this have done that this month let alone every week). Change isn’t going to just happen vested interests wont just give up we have to practise it in or lives, demand it from others and accept its a constant uphill battle and keep on at it always.

    • Ron Horgan

      Michelle and Glen, the challenge that we face is one of evolutionary adaption to the reality of living on a finite planet. If we don’t adapt we will all become extinct.
      This is the most important and universal vested interest.
      As this message becomes understood and as people act on it as you have proposed , then we will reach a “tipping point” where opinion will rapidly swing towards taking the necessary actions.
      If the wealthy individual is prospering by drilling holes in the lifeboat, the remainder of the crew must stop him for the common good.
      Necessity is the mother of invention(and survival).
      Perhaps the starting point for our roadmap is to teach that the next 100 years will require all people to make great sacrifices for the long term survival of humanity.
      It will happen because there is no other option.

  • Paul, I agree with many of your sentiments and on the need to reduce a likely 60 year timeframe to 20 years or less. However, I could hardly disagree more with your ‘victory is at hand’ assessment of where things are currently at. And I think many of the people you define as enthusiastic members of the climate movement are in truth committed to letting the market fix it (with whatever timeframe that involves). Thus, to my mind, this is classic ‘brightsiding’– the sort of thing that impresses corporates looking for a pet sustainability guru, or a keynote speaker for their next conference. It also risks feeding complacency and delusion.
    Let’s focus a bit more on what people are doing than on what they might be saying. The World Bank might be saying 4 degrees mustn’t be allowed to occur but they are merrily financing dozens of new coal fired power stations around the world. The IEA might be saying that we’d need 2/3rds of remaining fossil fuels to remain in the ground to stay under +2 degrees, but they’re certainly not saying they expect that to happen. On the contrary—their projections confirm we’re on a very different path. And the IEA statement comes with the caveat that the carbon is unburnable unless carbon capture and storage is deployed on a large scale – something the IEA still champions. Ask the IEA what they expect and it’s not a rapid exit for fossil fuel, but responses like: ‘by 2050, we’ll still be relying on fossil fuels for 75% of our energy’
    HSBC might ‘talk’ about unburnable carbon, but they hold the largest share of Rio Tinto Ltd, in recent years they abandoned their own carbon neutrality pledge, and since 2005 they’ve been among the world’s top 20 banks financing coal fired electricity and coal mining. Another with that dubious honour is UBS, which you suggest is warning us of coal’s imminent demise. Sure, UBS might expect shutdowns in some coal-fired power in the EU – perhaps this explains their focus on China (where among banks UBS has been the biggest non-Chinese financier of coal fired power companies). In truth, the coal industry and its financiers have long been resigned to stagnant developed country markets—they’re busy enjoying the coal boom happening elsewhere.
    If we were at the tipping point you claim, you’d be able to point to lots of corporations credibly saying the overall carbon footprint of the products being sold under their brand is shrinking, or will soon. Researching Greenwash, I scoured the world for such climate-friendly heroes – there are next to none. On the contrary, like western governments looking to outsource their emission reductions by importing carbon credits, most multinationals are overwhelmingly disowning a rapidly growing carbon footprint, largely by offshoring ‘non-operational emissions’ to the developing world.
    If we were at the tipping point you suggest, we’d have leading politicians from the two major parties and senior business leaders demanding a halt to the expansion in coal exports – can you name one? Ministers would be amending environmental laws to take the emissions impact of new coal mega-mines into account, not just the impact on water resources. Australia wouldn’t be about to elect a government committed to dismantling a pitifully modest emissions mitigation effort. China wouldn’t still be building a new 1GW coal-fired power station or so each week, global coal use wouldn’t be rising at 5 ½ per cent annually, and emissions wouldn’t be growing at breakneck pace.
    I agree with your assessment that we face a 60 year transition if this is left to the market, and that this timeframe needs to be dramatically reduced. But to suggest that we’re turning the corner on emission reduction—that victory may be at hand—when in reality we’re still galloping down the adaptation path because emissions reduction is too hard politically, seems a bit unfair on your readers.

  • GrahamR

    Graham Richardson What an interesting conversation. In my opinion there is only one problem on the planet – human infestation. No worries, nature will sort this out soon enough, she has already begun her work. Unfortunately, not without great suffering, especially amongst those who might survive when the work is done. This, to me, is Paul’s ‘Great Disruption’ & Hawken’s ‘Blessed Unrest’ – the masses are rising. The ‘inconvenient truth’ is that we will only mobilise once we clearly see that we absolutely have to act in an emergency to save our necks. As Margaret Wheatley notes in her book ‘So Far From Home, lost and found in our brave new world’, we are going down! Yet, we must & we will act as only the ingenious human can & we will & we are. As Bill McKibben notes in his book ‘Eaarth’, in any event, the world will never be the same again & who knows what is on the other side?