Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

"Changing your light bulbs may not be enough to save a single polar bear"

Changing your light bulbs may not be enough to save a single polar bear,
but there are things we can do collectively - and easily - that will
really make a measurable difference in the battle against global
warming. Mark Lynas has a three-part plan.

by Mark Lynas

New Statesman (November 08 2007)

We have about 100 months left. If global greenhouse gas emissions have
not begun to decline by the end of 2015, then our chances of restraining
climate change to within the two degrees "safety line" - the level of
warming below which the impacts are severe but tolerable - diminish day
by day thereafter. This is what the latest science now demands: the
peaking of emissions within eight years, worldwide cuts of sixty per
cent by 2030, and eighty per cent or more by 2050. Above two degrees,
our chances of crossing "tipping points" in the earth's system - such as
the collapse of the Amazon rainforest, or the release of methane from
thawing Siberian permafrost - is much higher.

Despite this urgent timetable, our roads continue to heave with traffic.
Power companies draft blueprints for new coal-fired plants. The skies
over England are criss-crossed with vapour trails from aircraft
travelling some of the busiest routes in the world. Global emissions,
far from decreasing, remain on a steep upward curve of almost
exponential growth.

Sure, there are some encouraging signs. Media coverage of climate change
remains high, and a worldwide popular movement - now perhaps upwards of
a million people - is mobilising. But with so little time left, we must
recognise that most people won't do anything to save the planet unless
we make it much, much easier for them. This essay outlines my three-part
strategy for stopping climate change - the easy way.

Step One: Stop debating, start doing

Although there is now a very broad consensus on climate in the media and
politics, opinion polls show that many people still harbour doubts about
climate change. One of the peculiarities of the climate debate is that
although more than 99 per cent of international climate change
scientists agree on the causes of global warming, the denial lobby still
only has to produce one contrarian to undermine the consensus in the
public mind. Similarly, changes in our understanding can be magnified
and distorted to suggest that, because we don't know everything,
therefore we must know nothing. Thus, data from one glacier that
apparently bucks the global trend can be wielded as a trump card against
all the accumulated knowledge of climate science.

This partly reflects a perhaps healthy scepticism in the public mind
about believing "experts". But there is also a darker force at work:
doubt undermines responsibility for action. If you don't know for sure
that global warming isn't caused by sunspots or cosmic rays, then it's
OK to go on driving and flying without feeling as if you're doing
something bad. When it comes to global warming, many people -
subconsciously at least - actually want to be lied to.

This is where the psychology gets interesting. Most green campaigners
assume that information leads to action, and that deeper knowledge will
undermine denial. Actually, the reverse may well be true: the more
disempowered that people feel about a huge, scary issue like climate
change, the more unwilling they may be to believe it is a problem. This
sounds illogical, but it makes sense. If people don't feel they can do
very much about climate change, they will prefer to cling to any
tempting doubts that are dangled their way. Presenting people with more
gloom-and-doom scenarios, however true they might be, may thus serve to
reinforce denial.

Most campaigners try to mitigate this by also offering people easy
things they can do: the "just change your light bulbs" approach.
However, most people intuitively understand that an enormous problem
cannot be solved by a tiny solution; that changing your light bulbs will
not save a single polar bear. They are right, of course. So how can we
mobilise collective action on a sufficiently grand scale to make a
measurable contribution to solving the problem?

The American political strategists Ted Nordhaus and Michael
Shellenberger make a specific proposal in a recent paper, and this forms
the first plank of my three-part strategy to tackle global warming. Stop
debating, they say, and start doing. Instead of confronting deeply
established patterns of behaviour head on, let's start focusing on
preparing for the impacts of global warming that are already inevitable.
That means working on flood defences for vulnerable towns, helping to
drought-proof agriculture and population centres, and adapting to
sea-level rise in low-lying areas.

By sidestepping the tedious causality argument (is it us or natural
cycles?), focusing on global warming preparedness can also help reopen
the mitigation agenda. Shifting sandbags is empowering because you feel
as if you're doing something tangible and useful. But accepting the need
for adaptation and preparation implicitly involves accepting the reality
of global warming, and therefore the eventual need to cut emissions.
Many more people may be prepared to accept the change - the introduction
of personal carbon allowances, for example - that this will inevitably mean.

In any case, adaptation is now essential because of the one degree or so
of additional global warming that is already locked into the system
thanks to past emissions. With proper planning, we can not only save
thousands of human lives, but also try to protect natural ecosystems by
establishing new "refuge" coral reefs in cooler waters or helping
species to migrate as temperature zones shift.

Step Two: Focus on the big wins

But this is a long-term agenda, and we don't have much time. Hence my
second proposal, which is for a much clearer focus on win-win strategies
for immediate emissions reductions. These are things we would want to be
doing anyway, even if global warming had never been thought of. Reducing
deforestation in the tropics is a big win-win. Inherently desirable,
this by itself would reduce global carbon emissions by ten per cent or
more. All it takes is money: we have to pay countries such as Brazil and
Indonesia to leave their forests alone rather than chop them down to
sell to us as plywood and furniture.

There are obvious win-win strategies in the domestic sector. Better
insulation makes living conditions more comfortable and reduces fuel
bills. Even without climate change we'd still want to be getting cars
out of town centres to reduce air pollution and improve the urban
experience. Getting more children to walk and cycle to school improves
their physical health and helps to tackle obesity. Enforcing speed
limits (and reducing them further) would save hundreds of lives a year,
and give some respite from the incessant noise pollution of speeding

Quality-of-life issues are by their nature subjective, so we need to
focus on things that most people will agree on. Partly, this depends on
how an issue is framed: most people don't want motorists to be
unjustifiably hounded, but nor are they likely to oppose a measure that
is about saving children's lives. The ban on smoking in public, for
instance, was accepted precisely because the issue was correctly framed,
and quickly became imbued with a sense of inevitability.

There is also a high degree of consensus about the desirability of
localisation: protecting and encouraging small shops and local
businesses, privileging farmers' markets over supermarkets, helping
build stronger and more cohesive communities by reducing the need for
travel, and so on. The fact that all of these measures will also reduce
carbon emissions simply underlines the need for a more determined
approach to their implementation. A much longer-term agenda here might
be the reconnecting of people with their place and surroundings, helping
them feel more rooted in their communities and proud of what is
distinctive about their own areas. We are bringing up children who often
have no direct experience of nature any more. Tree houses are replaced
with Nintendos, the unsupervised exercise of playing outdoors replaced
with structured exercise of sporting events. The author Richard Louv
terms this "nature deficit disorder" and asks whether this disconnection
might have something to do with the alienation and boredom that many
youngsters feel today.

Step Three: Use technology

But there are some areas of high-carbon behaviour that people will
always be reluctant to give up, and this brings me to the third and
final part of my strategy to deal with global warming - technology.

Today we face a situation where a global population of potentially nine
billion or so by 2050 continues to demand a steadily increasing consumer
lifestyle. There is nothing we can do to stop this, and nor should we
try. But it does put humanity on a very real collision course with the
planet, so we are going to have to throw every technological tool we
have at the problem to try to meet people's aspirations without
worsening our climatic predicament. Some of this will involve technology
leapfrogging: helping developing countries skip over our dirty phase of
industrialisation, by installing solar power in remote, off-grid areas
of Africa and Asia, for example. We also need to help developing
countries make choices that put fossil fuels at the bottom of the energy
shopping list, by helping them use carbon capture and storage technology
as well as nuclear power. Both have obvious drawbacks, but I would
rather see China building two nuclear reactors a week than two
coal-fired plants.

The localisation agenda can only go so far: in an age of carbon-fuelled
globalisation, we need to figure out ways to transport people and goods
long distances without increasing emissions. Aviation in particular is
crying out for a techno-fix. Humanity went from the first manned flight
in 1903 to putting a man on the moon in 1969. I think we should give the
aviation industry fifteen years to find a low- carbon way to shuttle
people between continents - or get taxed out of existence. I believe
with this kind of incentive, designers would come up with ideas none of
us today could even conceive of.

The technological challenge is not just to come up with new inventions,
but - in the words of Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala from Princeton
University - "to scale up what we already know how to do". In their
concept of "stabilisation wedges", each wedge represents a billion
tonnes of carbon shaved off the upward trend of emissions over the next
fifty years. Building two million one-megawatt wind turbines, for
example, is a wedge, as are two million hectares of solar panels, a
700-fold increase from today's deployment. There are many more wedges in
the fields of transport, power generation and energy efficiency. As the
two researchers say, this reduces a "heroic challenge" merely to a set
of "monumental tasks". No one said it would be easy.

Perhaps the most controversial technological option of all is one that
we need to keep strictly in reserve for real emergencies -
geo-engineering. Here, some proposals have more merit than others,
whether they be seeding the oceans with iron filings or putting up solar
mirrors in space. None of them is an alternative to reducing emissions,
but one just might be a valuable piece of insurance against the
worst-case climate change scenarios. Believe me, pretty much anything is
better than five or six degrees of global warming.

This may seem like a depressing conclusion, but it's really an
optimistic one. If we fail to reduce emissions quickly enough and find
ourselves frying, we must throw everything we possibly can at the
problem to counteract the warming process, however temporarily. At no
point - I repeat, at no point - do we give up and admit that all is
lost. If we go over two degrees, then we have to try and stop ourselves
going over three. If we fail to stabilise emissions by 2015, then we
have to try and stabilise them by 2016 or 2020. If people continue to
demand economic growth, then we have to try to deliver than growth in a
low-carbon way. It will never be too late. As long as people and nature
remain alive on this planet, we will still have everything to fight for.


Mark Lynas is the New Statesman's environment correspondent, and author
of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (2007), published by
Fourth Estate


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