COP26 – Are we Hopeful or Cooked?

Wildfire
Wildfire: Pixabay

I had first sight of Jane Goodall decades ago at Edinburgh University where an excited audience gathered for her seminar. Looking like a slim owl in brown plumage, she wore a signature ponytail even then, though not yet grey. She spoke of her beloved Gombe National Park in Tanzania and described the pivotal moment when the chimpanzee she called David Greybeard made a tool to catch termites. The observation woke anthropologists to a deeper understanding of our relationship to animals and the realm of nature.

In those days, she spoke mainly to academics and conservationists, but now to a world audience. Then, she spoke about habitat preservation for chimpanzees in Africa, now about the threat to a sustainable planet.

This week thousands of children marched with Greta Thunberg through the streets of Glasgow for a gathering of world leaders at COP26. Some were accompanied by parents, not for security but in solidarity. This week seemed timely to listen to The Book of Hope by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams.

She offers four reasons for hope—human intelligence, nature’s resilience, powerful young voices, and often refers to the ‘indomitable human spirit.’ Examples of that spirit are taken from history earlier in her life—the threat of Nazism and the Cold War. She might have chosen the lamentations of Jews exiled to Babylon or the prayers of enslaved people in the Americas from a long list of tragedy and suffering, although none is particularly apt for our times. Then, we recognized the enemy as the ‘other’ and formed alliances to combat it. Now, we are the enemy, and potential saviors.

To believe we will surrender the most wounding aspects of the economic and social status quo in time to protect life on Earth and intergenerational justice demands a tremendous leap of hope. Faith in institutions that served us in the past now wobbles and nation states seem unfit for global solutions. But cynicism is defeat; only brave hope will do.

Known as an activist, she conceals passion in a measured tone, trying to persuade with old-fashioned grace instead of a strident voice like those on the streets accusing governments and industries of copping out or greenwashing. It takes all kinds of voices to create movement.

Something else I learned about Dr. Goodall in this book. She enjoys a dram of Scotch at bedtime, perhaps as a hopeful toast for a healthy planet in future. ‘Slang-ge-var’ (to pronounce the Gaelic Stàinte mhath).

Still Drinking a Cup of Joy

Coffee - a cup of joy

How often does science news make you feel guilty of environmental harm?  The list of ways we contribute to greenhouse gases that are warming the planet is endless. Carbon-dioxide is the cost of being alive and a consumer, produced from birth until cremation and now exceeding the ability of plants and the oceans to buffer the atmosphere. The news can turn us green to blue, looking for something we love that is innocuous.

What is more innocent than the cup of coffee that gives cheer and brings us together? But that’s on the list, too—starting where the beans are grown (often in land cleared of tropical forest) all the way to my hand and beyond, until the plastic lid is tipped into a landfill or floats to the ocean.

Wait a minute. How much consumption can we surrender for the sake of posterity? We fall into the trap of an overwhelming list that because we can’t do everything we do nothing. It is a dilemma for people who care about human ecology and biodiversity. I think the answer is to do something I can manage because if everyone did a bit the additive impact would make a significant difference. For one person it might be more vegetarian, for another drive/ fly less and others buy consumer products more carefully. We can’t wait for politicians to stop dragging feet, generally old feet habituated to their ways. Even companies are getting into the act, wanting to flaunt greenness to discerning customers.  

That brings me back to coffee where there’s something in a cup to lift spirits.

As forests are cleared and fragmented in Columbia the habitat of jaguars and other charismatic wildlife is depleted. But in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of Columbia some poor farmers have signed up to a program for shade-grown coffee with the Jaguar Friendly label that sells at a premium price. To be certified, they protect high quality forest equal in area to the crop they cultivate.

Coffee produces as much waste as the crop itself, dumping 10 m tons of biomass every year. In an experimental trial in Costa Rica the waste was spread on deforested land where it had a regenerative effect, creating 80% canopy from young trees in two years, four-fold taller than in a control area where there was only 20% cover of the (mostly non-native) grasses. As coffee gives us a buzz, its pulp helps forests to grow faster.

At the other end of the chain, Starbucks sells 4 bn cups per year. Customers at branches in Seattle are now being offered reusable cups (remember them?). This is a challenge when customers want a cup on the go, but let’s wish the ‘borrow’ program success and no guilty feelings to spoil our cup of joy.

The Peril of Faith in a Net-Zero Target for Carbon Emissions

Global warming from power stations generating electricity
Photo: Anon. Pixabay, CCO. Electric Towers during Golden Hour.

“… Our goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 …” Joe Biden (Reuters, February 23, 2021)

A laudable goal reinforced by the President this week on Earth Day. However, the same day, three leading climate experts writing in The Conversation (US edition) condemned ‘net zero’. Of course they weren’t recanting global warming as an existential threat. They fear by putting off to a future gamble what needs to be done today we will lose the race to rein in average global temperature rise by < 2ºC. False hope in unproven technologies promised ‘just over the horizon’ encourages CO2 emissions to soar from business as usual.

Commentators have welcomed the frankness, though one admitted that few people, even those who deeply care, will read a lengthy article. He recommended reaching people through bullet points. I therefore wrote the summary below, hoping to be faithful to the authors while acknowledging I am no expert.

  • James Hansen (NASA) testified to the US Congress in 1988 that greenhouse gas emissions from human sources were already warming the planet
  • Faith in technological salvation has continued to diminish the sense of urgency, postponing solutions to the future
  • The polemical mantra is we can burn now (fossil fuels) and pay later, trusting the ‘wisdom’ of the market
  • From the 1990s, elegant computer models attempt to project emissions from investments in new technology with links to impacts on economies. Testing scenarios in silico (e.g. planting trees, carbon sequestration) offer quick and cheap projections compared to real-life simulations. They continue to be a bedrock even as successive hopes have dashed
  • The first hope: plant trees, though we can’t plant enough in the world to sink all the anthropogenic carbon and the attempt would harm biodiversity and food production
  • The second: improved energy efficiency with a gradual switch from coal to gas (+ nuclear) has hardly shifted the ascending curve
  • The third: carbon capture from power plants with storage underground, a great concept though exceedingly costly to scale up (admitted at Copenhagen Summit 2009)
  • The fourth: a combination of burning wood and farm waste plus carbon storage was a principled achievement for climate justice at Paris 2015, but is it workable?
  • The fifth: direct capture of atmospheric CO2 but only been achieved on a small scale in practice
  • The sixth: geoengineering by injecting sulphuric acid into the stratosphere to reflect back solar radiation, but what could be the unintended consequences?
  • Beautiful in theory, but can a computer algorithm match the deep and dynamic complexity of social and political realities across the globe?
  • The 1992 Rio Summit was supposed to kick start mitigation, but since then, instead of stabilizing, atmospheric CO2 has risen by 60%

The emperors of technology have no clothes. Among the many problems facing humanity, none requires more urgent attention than warming of our planet that is happening too fast for the biosphere to comfortably adapt. Net-zero policies are focused on reigning in emissions targeted to some wobbly date in future. Meanwhile, precious time is lost with irreversible damage to ecosystems.

The authors give stark advice: “The only way to keep humanity safe is immediate and sustained radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in a socially just way.”

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Can’t bear very much reality …

T.S. Eliot: Burnt Norton

If Eliot meant we can’t imagine a world without us, perhaps this poem also speaks to our inability to grasp a world molded by global warming, so utterly beyond our comprehension yet one that generations to come must endure.

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