This week with Peter Sainsbury on catastrophic ‘Climate Endgame’

Aug 20, 2022
Earth on Fire Australia Asia South East Continent Climate Change
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Scientists call ignoring ‘Climate Endgame’ dangerous. Biden’s persistence navigates the Inflation Reduction Act through Congress. Renewables keep getting cheaper.

Exploring ‘Climate Endgame’ for humanity

‘Could anthropogenic climate change result in worldwide societal collapse or even eventual human extinction?’ When questions such as this have been posed by journalists and environmental activists such as David Wallace-Wells, Jem Bendell and members of Extinction Rebellion, they have been subjected to strenuous criticism by fossil fuel apologists and even some climate scientists who have accused them of (a) not understanding the science, (b) being irresponsibly alarmist, (c) stifling hope, and (d) encouraging community resignation and passivity. What to make of it then when that exact question is posed by world renowned climate scientists in a respected scientific journal?

The authors’ reason for asking the question is not to provide an immediate answer but to suggest that although ‘there are ample reasons to suspect that climate change could result in a global catastrophe’, such catastrophes, particularly those that are low probability but have high impact extreme outcomes, are poorly understood and under-studied. For instance, what might precipitate global climate change catastrophes? When might they occur? What might be their consequences? How are the risks associated with catastrophes spread? How might they amplify each other? How might human responses aggravate the risks? And how can the risks be mitigated and prepared for? In sum, ‘this is a dangerously underexplored topic’ which goes against the principle that ‘prudent risk management requires consideration of bad-to-worst-case scenarios’.

In particular, the authors identify the paucity of quantitative estimates of the global impacts of warming of 3oC. This is a level of warming that is well within the range that might be reached based on nations’ current emissions reduction policies. More worryingly, it’s a level of warming that would likely be exceeded if one or more Earth System tipping points are crossed, possibly leading to a ‘tipping cascade’ followed by transition to ‘Hothouse Earth’ and mass species extinctions. Such a sequence of events will exacerbate (both in magnitude and the range of groups exposed) existing vulnerabilities in human societies, for instance international (possibly nuclear) conflicts, extreme heat waves, infectious diseases, severe economic disruptions, loss of land, water shortages, food insecurity (from ‘multiple breadbasket failures’) and mass migrations.

The authors speculate that ‘Climate Endgames’ may be precipitated at even modest levels of human-induced warming as a result of such Earth System cascades followed by the collapse of both Earth Systems and social systems. According to the authors, global, synchronous system failures could overwhelm societal adaptive capacities and lead to the unravelling of societies across the globe. With regard to climate-induced sickness and death, they refer to the four horsemen of famine and undernutrition, extreme weather events, conflict (‘warm wars’), and vector-borne disease, all potentially further exacerbated by air pollution and sea level rise.

When highly respected scientists identify the need for and begin to develop a lexicon of terms such as ‘Extinction threat’, ‘Extinction risk’, ‘Societal collapse’, ‘Global catastrophic risk’, ‘Global decimation risk’, ‘Endgame territory’ and ‘Worst-case warming’ you begin to suspect that things may be beginning to get just a little bit serious.

The main point of the article is to begin the development of a ‘Climate Endgame’ research agenda for exploration of the worst risks associated with anthropogenic climate change and assessment of the potential for catastrophic outcomes at different levels of warming. Demonstrating great awareness that responding to climate change does not simply involve experts deliberating on technical, scientific issues, it is proposed that the information generated be fed into ‘open deliberative democratic methods that provide a fair, inclusive, and effective approach to decision-making’.

In a chattier article, some of the study’s authors and other prominent climate researchers make some pretty blunt comments about the current situation, including this from Johan Rockström: ‘We have so much evidence that we are coming closer and closer to tipping points and irreversible changes. [The rapid rate of human-caused warming could be] pushing the on-buttons of irreversible trajectories at lower temperature levels than we had previously had reason to be really concerned about. We’re underestimating the risk. Every time, things are happening faster than we had predicted’.

USA’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)

I have to confess that I haven’t been paying too much attention to the details of Biden’s reconstructed, and dramatically renamed, climate package – the political twists, turns and skulduggery have been too dispiriting – but now that it has, surprisingly but thankfully, been passed by both Houses of Congress, it seems timely to examine what the Act contains, if for no other reason than to see if there’s anything we might copy.

The main point, of course, is that the Act provides a staggering US$386 billion to combat climate change, sorry inflation. The Act’s provisions are expected to reduce US emissions by an additional 1 billion tons per year by 2030 and bring them 40% below the 2005 level by 2030. Other actions across all levels of government and the private sector will be needed to meet the USA’s commitment under the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030.

The World Resources Institute has produced a concise summary of the benefits beyond the emissions reductions which I’ll try to summarise even further:

  1. Lower household electricity costs through tax credits to the power sector for electricity grid improvements, and to support lower-cost clean energy projects and home electrification and efficiency.
  2. Promoting the transition to EVs, which are more expensive to buy but less expensive to run than petrol and diesel vehicles, with tax incentives to reduce the price of new EVs, increase public EV charging infrastructure and develop the domestic production of EVs.
  3. An additional one million high quality jobs in the manufacturing, installation and maintenance of the clean energy sector, plus tax incentives for projects that meet local wage standards and support apprenticeships.
  4. Better health and the prevention of 3,900 premature deaths by 2030 through tax incentives and grants to boost the transition to clean energy generation. Most of the benefits will be enjoyed by communities of colour that are disproportionately sited close to air-polluting fossil fuel facilities. A 100% clean electricity grid in the USA would save 1.9 million lives globally by 2100.
  5. Promotion of equity and justice for low income, Black, Latino and Indigenous communities who are most threatened by the effects of climate change. Apart from the initiatives mentioned above, the IRA will fund projects that tackle environmental and health impacts of pollution and climate change in Tribal and Native Hawaiian communities, and that accelerate the uptake of clean energy technology in disadvantaged communities. On the downside, the Act provides opportunities to lease federal land for oil and gas production. (This is particularly interesting in light of Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, encouraging the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo to reconsider plans to auction 30 oil and gas exploration sites in the Congo rainforest and peatlands.)

The costs of these various programs during 2022-2031 are summarised below.

If you’re wondering how the expenditure of $386 billion can reduce inflation, it’s because the Act contains provisions to make savings of $322 billion on expenditure on drugs and to increase government revenue by $468 billion.

Renewables continue to get cheaper

In 2021, the price of electricity generated by newly installed renewable energy facilities fell by 13-15%.

Since 2010, prices have fallen by 88% for solar photovoltaics, 68% for onshore wind and 60% for offshore wind.

New geothermal and hydropower electricity costs rose by a quarter to a third last year but all new renewable energy sources now provide electricity much more cheaply than any new fossil fuel facilities.

Australia’s favourite tree

On Tuesday night on ABC TV there was the first of a two-part program to find Australia’s favourite tree. The hour-long show described the features, distribution, ecology and cultural significance for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of four trees: Huon pine, Acacia peuce, Mountain ash and River red gum. I imagine another four trees will be in the spotlight next week; you can catch up on ABC iview. A panel of four treeologists will select one of the eight as their favourite but you can have your say from a list of ten that has been whittled down from a much longer list by popular vote.

Jackie’s amazing coat

There’s an interesting anecdote in the March 28 issue of The New Yorker. In 1962 Jackie Kennedy wore a very chic, knee-length leopard skin coat. The point being that this was indeed a wild leopard skin coat, not a synthetic print – in fact, several wild leopards contributed to Jackie’s coat. Needless to say, the First Lady’s endorsement created an upsurge in demand for real leopard skin coats and it’s estimated that a quarter of a million leopards lost their lives and skins to satisfy the dictates of fashion. A decade later the US government put leopards on the endangered species list.

I repeat this story not to sink my claws into Jackie but rather as a reflection on changing times and mores. At least I think they’ve changed – except for a few places that still trade the skins and organs of large cats.

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