The Carbon Logic Problem Statement | Grist

Written by Branden Barber

Topics: Agribusiness, Coal, Finance, Oil

share this story
facebook twitter email stumble upon
Get Energy Alerts

All too often those debating the solutions and proposed actions to tackle global warming fail to challenge the assumptions. While it’s important to deal with emissions it can be argued that the root causes of emissions lie farther upstream and can more effectively deal with the challenges we are facing. Cutting emissions is good. Investing in clean energy and cutting emissions before the fuel is readied is better. Read on.

The Carbon Logic Problem Statement | Grist. by Ken Ward

An acclaimed mountaineer, a Baptist minister and a distinguished economist were stuck in a pit. The mountain climber said, “Stand back boys, I’ll have us out in a jiffy,” but the walls of the pit were loose shale and she couldn’t gain purchase. Then the minster raised his arms high and in a deep sonorous voice called for deliverance but after an hour of prayer he too admitted defeat. Finally, the economist stood, brushed dirt of a shabby Harris tweed jacket and said, “This is easy. First, assume a ladder.”

Environmentalists are trying to get out of a deep pit too, and in our push for Waxman-Markey we are acting like the mountaineer, minister and economist. We support ACES because, well, it’s there, and we are accustomed to moving doggedly forward for the best we can get. We also hope for deliverance via a gentle greening, where fossil fuels wither away and a sustainable future of vegetable gardens, strong local communities and good jobs blossoms. Finally, we have invested in what may be termed serial delusional assumptions.

  • In the beginning, we thought that Enron and others aiming to cash in on carbon trading (as they did in the sulphur market) would out-muscle fossil fuel giants.
  • We believed that techno-policy crafted by tuned-in elites could be quietly slipped into place, avoiding a flat-out messy and risky political slug-fest.
  • We were convinced that major corporations like BP, GE and WAL*Mart were honest in their pledge to shift away from fossil fuels and had both the means and will to do so.
  • We had faith that a solid majority of the American public, properly educated, would support effective climate action, so long as we did not offend sensibilities with Chicken Little predictions.
  • Finally, we now assume we can fix broken policy somewhere down the line, so anything is better than nothing.

The basic question before us, “how bad does it have to be before we pull out?” ought to excite a passionate and principled debate, but we’ve traveled so far from environmentalist fundamentals that we can manage only flaccid, enervating exchanges. As our major organizations ready themselves to swallow nuclear power in a Boxer-engineered Senate compromise, the few points of eco-logic in this drab, grey landscape are lit by leaders and organizations mostly outside mainstream environmentalism. MoveOn.org campaigns against gutting the Clean Air Act, Green Party leaders and community health advocates offer an articulate challenge to Waxman-Markey, and the wave of support building behind 350.org puts organizations in my home state, like the Mass Council of Churches and Sustainable Business Network, far out in advance of mainline green groups. Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace are the only nationally known environmental organizations honest enough to acknowledge that the king has no clothes.

It seemed clear from the get-go that U.S. environmentalists would eventually find ourselves in such a jam, where the imperatives of pragmatic politics and seductions of techno-solutions would warp our better judgement, unless we stuck to a very clear interpretation of the precautionary principle. Bill McKibben recently remarked that, having already lost the arctic, we’re past the point of precaution; it’s now a stark matter of survival. True enough, but the core logic of the precautionary approach is valid and stands in counterpoint to our present pathway – a fundamental cognitive clash between scientific realism and political pragmatism.

There is no simple answer, but the Faustian Senate bargain before us is so antithetical to environmentalist principles that it ought to cause even the most hardened Hill advocate to pause. In such quiet, personal moments of uncertainty, I suggest it is worthwhile to consider what those trained in the Nader/PIRG tradition call the “problem/solution statement.” The point of the exercise is to maintain an absolute standard of reference for the immensity of the challenge before us and scale of the solution it demands.

Problem Statement. Differences in opinion on the bright line for averting cataclysm (1.5º vs. 2.0ºC limit on temperature increase and 275 vs. 300-350 ppm cap on carbon concentrations) are relatively small in light of overall trends, and our institutional support for the nominal CASE 450 ppm target is a concession we would not make left to our own devices.

The conceptual divergence in taking the next step from temperature/carbon concentration, however, is significant. Our entire enterprise is based on a single metric—emissions. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are absolutely correct in identifying the pollution prevention mindset as a roadblock to understanding the problem. If we conceive climate in terms of smokestacks and tailpipes, we are dealing with the last step in a long series of choices and the solutions we contemplate are thereby cramped. It is seldom acknowledged that fossil fuel interests also promote the pollution prevention paradigm as a fall-back to denial (with the apogee in our simpatico thinking reached when environmentalists agreed to measure oil companies by their success in cutting plant emissions, while ignoring their main business). Relative investment in fossil fuels vs. renewables, as Ted and Michael suggest, is a better method of understanding the problem because it takes in the long lead time in capital investment (and, in their view, pits a positive green future head-to-head against a dirty, inefficient and regressive society of the past).

The better measure, I think, was conceived by Greenpeace International climate campaign Bill Hare and presented in his brilliant, prescient 1989 paper, The Carbon Logic.  Hare, who remains an adviser to Greenpeace, and co-author Malte Meinshausen, both researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, published an updated analysis of the Carbon Logic in the April 30, 2009 edition of Nature, Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2°C, which concludes that “less than a quarter of the proven fossil fuel reserves can be burnt and emitted between now and 2050, if global warming is to be limited to two degrees Celsius (2°C).

An upcoming post will present a solution statement commensurate with this definition of the problem, but that analysis is not necessary to conclude that Waxman-Markey, with its explicit promotion of fossil fuels, stands in flat contradiction to the imperative before us, which is to halt exploration for new fossil fuel deposits and cap extractions at 1/4 of known reserves. If environmentalists do not acknowledge this reality, we are doing nothing but dreaming up imaginary ladders.

Leave a Comment Here's Your Chance to Be Heard!

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.