Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Matter of Degree

"Did we really imagine people would feel threatened by the number 2?"

USAnians are a very strange lot, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed on his road trip with Gustave de Baumont in 1831. The Bible-thumping, coon-skinned, populist utopians fascinated him. Tocqueville blithely compared the young country’s despotic democratic government, then hip-deep in the ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples, to a parent protective of “perpetual children.”

Anticipating Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent by 157 years, Tocqueville observed that the US brand of fervent fascism doesn’t try to break wills but rather bends them, allowing government to preside over people like “a flock of timid animals.” 

These timid animals nonetheless hunted the remnant bands of the First Nations like a wolf pack. Adult male scalps fetched about $100 in silver during Tocqueville’s visit, and about half that for women and children. Such hefty sums attracted those given to that particular skill-set and temperament.

Tocqueville said that USAnians with the most education and intelligence were left with two choices. They could join limited intellectual circles to explore the weighty and complex problems facing society, or they could use their superior talents to amass vast fortunes in the private sector (such as becoming scalpers). Tocqueville said that he did not know of any country where there was “less independence of mind, and true freedom of discussion, than in America.” [Joshua Kaplan “Political Theory: The Classic Texts and their Continuing Relevance,” The Modern Scholar. 14 lectures (2005).]

When will these perpetual children come to grips with climate change? Perhaps it will come sifting through the ashes of their million-dollar mortgaged houses and lifetimes of keepsakes, or mucking through what is left of those after a biblical flood goes where none has gone before — perhaps then? Or perhaps, as good children, they will just go back to the Matrix and await the next FEMA check.
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.
— Morphius, The Matrix (1999)

It occurs to us that one of the flaws in climate messaging has to do with numbers. As Bill McKibben famously told Rolling Stone, “And as far as I know, there’s never been a big political campaign built around a scientific data point.” News flash: there still hasn’t. McKibben tried to make that number be 350, as in the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, “above which we can’t have a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed or to which life on earth is adapted."

Unfortunately, by the time he said that, consumer culture had already blown through 350. Oops. That barrier fell in 1990, about the same time he wrote The End of History and we wrote Climate In Crisis. Today we are passing through 410, and moving up that sooty scale nearly twice as fast as we were in 1990.

It is hard to kick for a goal when the goal is behind you.

1975: The year the hockey stick met the blade.
In the UN climate conferences a new number is used — the number 2. That is a nice round number. At first it seems very non-threatening. It refers to an IPCC report’s consensus conclusion that exceeding a 2-degree Celsius increase in average global temperature starting from the 1940 baseline would be “dangerous” and should be avoided. Since the Paris Agreement in 2015, the focus has shifted briefly to the more ambitious goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, if possible.

Regrettably that will not be possible. We are already a full degree above baseline and given the lag time between emissions and warming effect, 1.5 degrees is already in the rear-view and we are now passing 2.

Think of it like you are approaching an intersection in your car and the traffic light turns from green to yellow. You could brake or accelerate to make it through. You decide to step on the gas. Now you are committed. Even if you change your mind and suddenly hit the brakes you won’t stop the car before it is into the crossing, so the only way now is to keep going. We are in that pattern with 2 degrees. We hit the gas a few years ago and there is no stopping now. We will get to 2 degrees, even if nuclear war ended civilization tomorrow.

The authors of a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper, “Well below 2 °C: 
Mitigation strategies for avoiding dangerous to catastrophic climate changes,” Yangyang Xu of Texas A&M and Veerabhadran Ramanathan of Scripps, propose we classify any warming beyond 3 degrees as “catastrophic,” and beyond 5 degrees as “unknown.”

Xu and Ramanathan calculate a 50 percent probability that surface warming will catch up with legacy emissions enough to cross the dangerous threshold by mid-century, and a 5 percent probability of hitting 3 degrees by then. Would you get on an airplane if you thought there was a 5 percent chance that it was going to crash?

On present trajectory, the PNAS paper gives 50–50 odds we will be in catastrophic territory by the end of the century, and a 5 percent probability of being fully in the unknown. Recall for a moment we are not even to the “dangerous” level yet. If you live in Houston, San Juan, Santa Rosa, or Santa Claus’s North Pole workshop, baby you ain’t seen nothing yet.

A majority of USAnians, according a recent Yale survey, don’t see the climate issue as all that important. They are evenly divided on whether it will harm some places within the United States, but only 40% think they personally will be impacted.

Climate scientist Michael Mann, author of the famous “hockey stick” image some 30 years ago, complains that science literacy is too low in the US for most citizens to even gauge the danger. Long true of politicians and reporters, today even those who should know better — like weathermen and school teachers — are criminally ignorant. Mann says:
People will often ask, ‘What’s the tipping point?’ or ‘How much warming before we hit the tipping point?’ The answer is there is no one tipping point. That’s not how it works. Its not binary. We don’t go off a cliff. A much better analogy is we’re walking out onto a minefield. The farther we walk out into that minefield the greater likelihood we set off the explosives.


We are inclined now to conclude the problem really is with the numbers. Did we really imagine people would feel threatened by the number 2? Especially the generations raised on Sesame Street?

As we wrote 28 years ago in Climate in Crisis, in an average day most people on the planet experience more than a 2 degree change in temperature in the first few hours after the sun rises or sets — it is not scary to us. We often experience a change in temperature of more than 2 degrees as we enter or leave a modern office building or bank. How then can most people relate to 2 degrees, or 6 degrees, as an existential threat? The difference is between the global average and your personal skin, but we can relate to our skin, not to global averages.

To get a one degree increase, you have to heat a lot of ocean water and a lot of atmosphere. It took 18,000 years for the Earth to warm 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) from the last Ice Age to the present, about one half degree every thousand years. One degree in a single century is a substantially faster rate of warming, 20 times faster than the average.
At the end of the 21st century the Earth may be warmer than it is now by as much as another 9 degrees (5°C). That would be warmer than it has been in 1,000,000 years.
— Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do

 Fires, floods, hurricanes and submerged cities are more likely to activate dormant flight or fight responses deep in our reptilian brains. There must, at some point, come recognition of the soup we are slowly marinating in. 

Xu and Ramanathan recommend a “three-lever strategy” to limit warming: reducing carbon dioxide emissions to a net of zero; reducing emissions of short-lived but potent “super pollutants” such as methane and hydrofluorocarbons; and extracting and sequestering greenhouse gases from the air. 
Ultimately, we must thin the CO2 greenhouse blanket by removing the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere. Given the near-term risk of exceeding the dangerous to catastrophic thresholds, the timing for pulling these levers is a crucial issue. Ideally, these levers should be pulled immediately by 2020.
To limit warming to 2 degrees, we will need drawdown by some 1 trillion tons of CO2 equivalents before 2100 and bend the warming curve to a cooling trend. As we have written here, geoengineering can’t do that, but Natural Climate Solutions can.

If that doesn’t happen soon, it may be too late to avoid catastrophe. Or whatever comes after that.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Climate Bums

"The US is only pledging about 20% of its fair share. The EU is pledging about 50% of its fair share. China and India are both at more than 100%."

The curve we’ve been forced onto bends so steeply, that the pace of victory is part of victory itself. Winning slowly is basically the same thing as losing outright. We cannot afford to pursue past strategies, aimed at limited gains towards distant goals. In the face of both triumphant denialism and predatory delay, trying to achieve climate action by doing the same things, the same old ways, means defeat. It guarantees defeat.

Some of the better sessions of the Bonn climate talks brought out panels of scientists to debate some really tough problems. These are not the kinds of easy debates favored by clickbait media, such as the latest tasty placebo from Elon Musk or Bill Gates. These tackle the more difficult and nuanced issues like how to forge consensus among 7 billion people and to move rapidly to change the way we inhabit a real world — a world going up in smoke.

In these high altitude venues climate scientists must step out of their specialty and offer policymakers strategies we really can do right now given existing political frictions and lubricants. And then they have to contrast that with what will be required if we are going to survive as a species.

On the 6th day of the conference we went to a press conference by Climate Equity Reference Project (CERP) about a synthesis approach to equity benchmarking — a fancy way of saying we have to decide how best to ration the burden of rapid economic restructuring.

The press conference was to announce a report, Equity and the Ambition Ratchet — Towards A Meaningful 2018 Facilitative Dialogue prepared by the Equity/Effort-sharing Working Group of Climate Action Network International (CAN) with contributions from the scores of non-governmental organizations who attend UN climate conferences.
Fortunately, the Paris Agreement offers ways of securing increased ambition, while taking due account of ”means of implementation and support” and being conducted ”in the light of equity”
Ultimately, the challenges here will crystalize around the 2023 Global Stocktake, but the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue will set important precedents. Thus, it must pioneer a process for assessing the adequacy and fairness not only of collective ambition, but of individual country contributions as well.
To that end, Parties should prepare to justify their efforts as fair contributions to a shared 1.5°C global effort. They should do so in transparent ways, measuring their contributions against fundamental equity principles. If their contributions fall short, they must be prepared to quickly strengthen them.
This justice and equity collective voice is there to insist on the Rio Convention’s core social principles, and to then offer indicators most appropriate to measure success on those terms. 

The commitments captured in the first round of NDCs [Nationally Determined Contributions — the Obama/Clinton voluntary pledge system — ed.] do not come close to keeping temperatures ”well below 2°C,” much less to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Even if all countries were to meet their commitments, the world would still be on track to a devastating 3°C temperature rise or more, with a real chance of tipping the global climate system into catastrophic runaway warming.

Imagine Earth having an atmosphere something like Venus.
Despite today’s unhappy political circumstances, this reality must be universally recognized and turned to action. We must cease to pretend that we are on track. The Parties must very soon increase ambition far beyond the Paris pledges. This increase must begin before 2020, and at the same time FD2018 must focus on ratcheting up the first round of NDCs.
But here is where the talks in Bonn really hit a wall. It is an all-too-familiar wall — one we also hit in Copenhagen, Paris and all the other COPs. Most governments (there are a few exceptions) are unwilling to shoulder more of the burden than they have to. Without any sanctions for low ambition or failing to meet targets, the inertia we’ve witnessed augurs a tragedy of the commons. CAN took a hard look at this and the various ways to bind countries to their fair share.

For now, the sanctions regime relies entirely on shaming.

If we must bring emissions down by 30–50 gigatons, what is the best apportionment? There are two ways to divide that: responsibility and capability.


The industrial world, one must acknowledge, got to where it is on the sweat of energy slaves. It got there on the other kind too, but those reparations belong in a separate discussion.
“We live like kings today, on the backs of roughly 100 energy slaves each (human metabolism is 100 Watts, but Americans enjoy 10,000 W of continuous power). Our richness is very much tied to surplus energy availability, and that so far has been a story of finite fossil fuels.”
— Tom Murphy, Do the Math 

“Every American thus has a veritable army of invisible servants, which is why even those below the official poverty line live, for the most part, lives far more comfortable and lavish with respect to energy and stuff than kings and queens of old (but obviously not as high in social status). Being long dead and pulled from the ground — and thus a bit zombie-esque — these energy slaves don’t complain, don’t sleep, and don’t need to be fed. However, as we are increasingly learning, they do inhale, exhale, and leave behind waste.
“This all raises the question — or at least should — of whether it might not be a good idea to set the fossil slaves free and let them rest, since they’re going away soon anyhow and when they do we will really need a livable planet. They don’t need jobs, and we don’t need dollars for happiness.”
— Nate Hagens, Bottleneck Foundation

How far back should we go to assign responsibility? To Javad Melikov’s 1863 Baku kerosene factory that caught the eye of the Nobel brothers? To 1859, when Edwin Drake drilled for “coal oil” under Seneca Reservation land in Pennsylvania? To James Watt’s 1776 coal-powered steam engine that more quickly and efficiently pumped water out of coal mines to sustain its fuel source?
Britain tried to keep secret how its machines were made, but people went there to learn about them and took the techniques back home. Sometimes they smuggled the machines out in rowboats to neighboring countries. The first countries after Britain to develop factories and railroads were Belgium, Switzerland, France, and the states that became Germany. Building a national railroad system proved an essential part of industrialization. Belgium began its railroads in 1834, France in 1842, Switzerland in 1847, and Germany in the 1850s.

Thanks largely to the railroad boom, by 1900 the United States had overtaken Britain in manufacturing, producing 24 percent of the world’s output. The Russian federation was by then supplying half the world’s petroleum from its Baku fields in Azerbaijan, where Melikov had made kerosene.

The CAN group proposed the question of responsibility be taken up by the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue with the idea of choosing one of these starting points:

“Responsibility since 1990.” This corresponds roughly to the time when negotiations for an international legal agreement to limit GHGs began in earnest and the risks of rising GHGs were acknowledged by the IPCC. The 1990 date is difficult to defend, given that the UN Framework Convention was itself being negotiated at that time, and its authors cannot reasonably be said to have had 1990 in mind when they inscribed the term “historical” into the text. Still, the 1990 case is arguably fair, but only in cases where the benchmark includes capability weighting. This is because historical responsibility before 1990 is highly correlated with national capability.

“Responsibility since 1950.” This date marks a useful middle setting. It defines a period in which the climate threat was known, in which responsibility is comprehensible in terms of human lifetimes, reflects roughly the useful lifetimes of much infrastructure, and avoids some of the historical discontinuities that occur when, for example, wars remake national boundaries.

“Responsibility since 1850.” This date defines responsibility as cumulative emissions since a date that roughly corresponds to the time at which carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion reached significant levels. This is also the earliest date for which plausible emissions data exist.

Another important consideration is whether a country’s responsibility should be calculated on the basis of production-based or consumption-based accounting. CAN offered an online Climate Equity Reference Calculator that could be toggled either way.

More precisely, a Calculator user selects equity-related settings relating to responsibility and capability, and other key parameters. These settings, taken together, define an “equity benchmark”. This benchmark is then used to estimate national “fair shares” of the global climate-related effort. Again, this effort includes not only mitigation (though most all of our attention is focused on mitigation) but also adaptation and loss & damage.



A second way to assign fair share would be to assess the capability of a country to reach a reasonable degree of well-being for its population (somewhere south of Sweden and north of Yemen). But should you exclude emissions corresponding to consumption below a particular income threshold because they arise from the provision of basic needs? The CAN group defined capability in terms of national income. And, as in tax policy, the key question became how progressively to account for income. CAN suggested four indicative choices worthy of the Dialogue discussions in 2018:

— The “No Progressivity” setting in which there is no income threshold below which individual income is exempted from national capability, either on the basis of a poverty exclusion or a development exclusion. In such a case, when calculating capability, each dollar of income — even for the poorest of the world’s people — counts as much as each dollar of the world’s richest. This approach is inconsistent with the at least mildly progressive perspective that virtually all societies have adopted for the purpose of income taxation, and is impossible to justify in equity terms.

— The “Low Progressivity” setting in which an income threshold is set, one that, while not high enough to be judged progressive in any meaningful sense, is significantly higher than 0. For example, $2,500 has been used to define a useful indicative “Low Progressivity” case.

— The “Medium Progressivity” setting in which the income threshold is significantly higher than $2,500. Rather, in “Medium Progressivity” cases, the income threshold is set at $7,500 (approximately $20/day). This level is just a bit above a global poverty line that reflects empirical observations, so it should actually be taken as a low estimate of “medium” progressivity, and can reasonably be said to represent a “development threshold” below which income is legitimately prioritized for basic living requirements.

— The “High Progressivity” setting in which the income threshold is set at the same “development threshold” level of $7,500 as in the “Medium Progressivity” case, with income above this threshold counting toward national capability at a steadily rising rate, until it reaches an luxury threshold (set for this analysis at $50,000), above which all income is counted towards national capability. These settings increase the overall progressivity of the income calculation just as a graduated tax schedule raises the progressivity of an income tax. Note that this is not an extravagantly progressive setting; the $50,000 figure falls below the income of the highest earning “one percent” of the global population.

The result was sketched in CAN’s pre-Paris report, below, where the national fair shares range is represented by the two green bars (shown here in per-capita terms) selected by the above decisions. This figure includes the 1990 / Low Progressivity benchmark, which is shown (in gray) for purposes of comparison.

That chart was then refined for COP22 Marrakech and again for COP23 Bonn, with a new dotted line bar that represents full domestic decarbonization in 2030. CAN produced two equity benchmarks (green bars) that bound the “fair share range” and a third benchmark (outside the agreed fair shares range) in which historical responsibility is calculated from 1990 and capacity considered in a less progressive manner (with a $2,500 per person per year poverty exemption threshold). This figure further shows (the two blue bars) the results of considering only capacity (with strong progressivity; light blue) or only historical responsibility (from 1850; dark blue), respectively.

What’s the point? 

The power of this approach comes from how it allows us to escape the pseudo-debate between, on the one hand, the claim that equity is an entirely subjective matter, a mere battle of opinions, and, on the other hand, the claim that one or another equity approach is the precisely “right one.” It does this by providing a quantitative framework within which explicit choices between well-specified approaches — e.g. more or less progressive responsibility and capability indexes — can be assessed and compared without being over-specified and reified.

The exercise also shows that no matter how you slice it, most people in the world — as represented by India and China — are taking responsibility and reducing their fair share. The rogue nations are the United States and the 28 countries of the European Union, taken collectively.

Regardless of whether you base equity on historical responsibility — even as recently as 1990 — or capacity to become more efficient, the US is only pledging about 20% of its fair share. The EU is pledging about 50% of its fair share. China and India are both at more than 100%. Report cards for each country are available from the Equity Workgroup website

What if no one cares?


The following day a #2020Don’tBeLate seminar sponsored by Mission 2020 and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation gave a 90-minute picture of the present consensus view of climate science and what that really implies. Speaking were Christiana Figueres, former head of UNFCCC, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Johan Rockström, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, and Kevin Anderson, Chair of Energy and Climate Change, Tyndall Centre.

Figueres opened with the good news: $130 billion in green bonds issued this year; a dramatic price drop in clean energy — its CAPEX is now below OPEX for even the newest fossil plants, so there is really no economic excuse for not halting pipelines and coal trains and no business case to be made for either new or existing nuclear, oil, coal or gas.

Schellnhuber quipped:
The world is awash with money. You park it in the paradise, or Panama, whatever, you know? People have so much money they do not even know what to do with it, except avoiding taxes of course. That’s a big sport, huh? But otherwise what to do with it? So private money is available if one were to set up a public/private transformation fund.
Figueres handed off to Kevin Anderson to deliver the bad news. He reminded the audience that emissions have been steadily rising since 1990–27 years of abject failure for multilateral UN negotiations. In 2017 they will rise by a breathtaking two percent. Anderson:
The Pope captures this really well in his encyclical where he says “the alliance of technology and economics ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests… whereas any genuine attempt to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions.” Where are those romantic illusions? What are the real romantic illusions? A belief in naive and ephemeral text-book economics; an unshakeable confidence in technical utopia — as an engineer I am quite prone to that one; the deliberate neglect of time; faith in Machiavellian mathematics; and an implicit assumption that nature follows our rules. You’d think that after 13 billion years we’d know that nature will always win out.
My somewhat questionable interpretation from inside the climate community is that in developing 2°C emissions scenarios, we’ve applied questionable assumptions and fine-tuned our analysis to fit with political and economic sensibilities. Universities and NGOs have been corrupted by near-term power — we want to be at meetings in Davos, we want to be with the great and the good in our society, we fear questioning the dominant social paradigm — that is much more important than physics apparently — and we have a naive focus on particular pet technologies whether it is nuclear, wind or solar — its always a supply technology.
Anderson underscored the main point: we are not on track to achieve the principal aim of the Paris climate agreement, keeping global temperature rise to well below 2°C while pursuing 1.5°C. Greater ambition is required. Every few years a consensus report of 2000 scientists (IPCC) pronounces what is technically required to stay within the safe operating boundaries of our climate system. Every time it concludes we are already in great danger and must act quickly.

We must bend the curve away from adding carbon to the atmosphere each year — currently a concave curve pointing up — to subtracting carbon — a convex curve peaking out and trending down. Anderson says to have a realistic chance of going on living, we need to reach a 11 percent decline rate per annum from 2036 (preventing catastrophic climate change above 2 degrees) or, better, a 20 percent decline slope from 2037 (limiting ourselves to dangerous climate change at around 1.5 degrees).

This kind of curve will not be easily achieved. An 11 percent decline slope is the inverse of doubling your fossil economy every 7 years — so, halving every 7 years. Try to imagine half the number of commercial passenger flights in 2025 as today, or half the number of gas-powered engines. Half the number of WalMart SuperStores bringing full cargo ships from Shenzhen to Houston. Then halve that by 2032 and again by 2039. You get the picture.

Anderson says the IPCC got weak knees just thinking about that so Working Group 3 bent the curve back up a bit. The red zone in its chart offers more attractive narratives to policymakers — really just modest tweaks to business as usual.

How can IPCC justify staying above the required curve so long? Anderson says it does that by conjuring up nonexistent “negative emissions technologies” that will be sprinkled around the planet like fairy dust (yellow zone) to reclaim over the long term the fossil emissions we are allowing ourselves in short term (and indeed subsidizing delivery of to the tune of 1 trillion dollars per year).

Anderson says the amount of drawdown required for the fairy dust technologies is roughly equal to the natural carbon absorption capacity of Earth’s biosphere. In other words, by 2040 or thereabouts we will need another Earth to absorb the extra pollution we’ll be adding during the next 22 years.

The technology — we do not know if it will work, we are not really sure what it will look like, but we are relying on it already, in our own governments’ position in this policy debate.… If these things don’t work we are locking ourselves into a 3 to 5 degree future.

Instead of that, Anderson proposes industrial countries reduce emissions at 10% or more, per year, starting now, with the aim of a greater than 60 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2025 (7 years from now) and to be fully decarbonized in the energy sector by around 2035–40. For the non-OECD countries he extends the timeline for an extra decade but fully decarbonized by 2050.

John Schellnhuber agreed we have a have a very short time to respond. If we waste time we have to bend the curve much more dramatically. We need to peak GHG emissions by 2020 and halve emissions every decade thereafter.

But nothing works in isolation. Johan Rockstrom reminded the audience:
There is no such thing as delivering on Paris without the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] and there is no such thing as achieving the SDGs without succeeding on Paris, and there is very strong scientific support for this.

Rockstrom observed that we have entered a curve in the solar energy build-out where capacity doubles every 5.4 years. When you have only small numbers — all renewables are 2 percent or less of world energy capacity — that doubling doesn’t seem like much, but follow that curve out a few more doublings. On the present trajectory the energy sector will achieve 100% renewables by 2045. We need the same kind of revolution in food production and buildings, but that will be coming.

And if we do all of this — an energy revolution, an agricultural revolution a technology revolution and a sustainability revolution — we have a 66% chance of staying under 2 degrees.

Prodded by Christiana Fiqueres saying she did not agree with his critique of IPCC, Kevin Anderson challenged Rockstrom’s rosy picture of a renewables revolution.
We are really talking about shifting the productive capacity of society from what it does today and for at least the next 50 years to responding to the climate challenge. Renewables are really important but renewables have really only been in addition to other fuels so far, they have not been substituting, and the climate does not care about renewables — of course I am very much in favor of them. It does not care about energy efficiency. All it cares about is how much carbon you are putting into it. And therefore we have to close down the incumbents. At the moment, every single year we burn more peat, more oil, more gas, more coal. We have never in human history, post-industrial revolution, seen a substitution in energy types at the global level.
Both Rockstrom and Figueres challenged this, and it took John Schellnhuber to give the final word:
We all adopted after the Second World War a culture of convenience and consumption. This is simply the wrong pattern. Along that pattern there is no solution to the climate crisis and to the SDGs.
In principle there is a simple narrative for modernizing our society. It would be renewables, plus distributed storage, plus electro-mobility, plus a cap on air travelling — we have to reduce the flights simply, there is no other way — plus dietary change, and of course, we have to change the construction sector completely. We have to get rid of cement and we have to return to wooden buildings once again.
Under the Paris Agreement the first quarter of 2020 will be the appointed time nations come together to increase ambition. That year (as is each year) is the last time we have to change course before we lock in greater catastrophe. In the run-up to that meeting, next year’s UN agenda will feature the Facilitative Dialogue (#FD2018) to navigate the political minefield our guilty knowledge has strewn.

Albert Bates is an Emergency Planetary Technician, founder of Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology (, and Chief Permaculture Officer for eCO2, a COOL DESIGN services company focusing on climate recovery strategies. Please consider supporting this work by becoming a patron at

Sunday, December 3, 2017


"Physical realities are very slow to change. Minds can change instantly."

Bapu's Charkha by Margaret Bourke-White

But without him how could Hitler have condemned them at Dachau?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone.
He’s the one who gives his body as a weapon of the war
And without him all this killing can’t go on.

He’s the universal soldier and he really is to blame,
His orders come from far away, no more.
They come from him, and you, and me
And brothers can’t you see?
This is not the way we put an end to war.

— Buffy St. Marie, Universal Soldier, 1964

We are sitting out a four hour plane transfer in Abu Dhabi, moving between the UN climate conference in Bonn and the international permaculture conference in Hyderabad, and having time, we’ve listened to the exchange between Guy McPherson and Paul Beckwith via the Nature Bats Last site.

While we may have cause to disagree with both speakers, that does not mean we would follow the fashionable hysteria now making the rounds, of stopping our ears to anything we might disagree with, especially on the basis of its attribution. Rather, we’d prefer to open up to foreign ideas on the assumption that not everything we think we know is right, and more probably there are gaps or errors in our thinking that stand in need of correction.

We disagree with Beckwith, for instance, on the issue of geoengineering. We disagree with McPherson on the shape of the climate change curve and consequently the timing of certain benchmarks. Either could be more right than we are, but we don’t think so.

We have previously posted here that geoengineering is not required to re-stabilize Earth’s climate to the conditions in which mammals such as ourselves evolved. That should really not be an issue at this point.

The point was recently made again by a team of 32 distinguished scientists from 6 countries looking at Natural Climate Solutions. While climate change is indeed an existential threat displaying a nasty exponent of acceleration, it is yet reversible if we humans will make a course correction at once. It is not a question of whether we can, but whether we will. The question turns not on changing physical realities but on changing minds. Physical realities are very slow to change. Minds can change instantly.

As Beckwith and McPherson laid out their battle lines, we found ourselves siding with McPherson in his choice of weapons. He could have challenged the technology Beckwith was favoring, but instead he challenged the philosophy.
Paul Beckwith: I think we need to apply solar radiation management techniques and carbon dioxide removal techniques in order to stabilize the climate system. That is not to say that we don’t need to slash fossil fuel emissions. And we will know that governments are serious about that when we see fossil fuels start to go away.
Martin Halwell: You are a believer in geoengineering?
Paul Beckwith: Well I think it is absolutely necessary. Whether it will work or not is a separate question but I think we have to try.
Guy McPherson: In some ways we’ve been geoengineering since we turned a shovel, since we turned the first blade of earth and released carbon dioxide to the air. And certainly we are geoengineering when we crank up our internal combustion engines and turn on the lights by firing up a coal fired-powered plant. But I think what we are talking about here is something new and different, geoengineering to do something to reverse what the past geoengineering has done, has brought us to. 
And I think the problem has always been doing. You know we keep doing and doing and doing. It is that doing that has us at the edge of the abyss here. And somehow continued doing at the large scale isn’t the answer that we are wishing for. I don’t think we can predict the results, reliably, of solar radiation management, for instance.
And I think this is just desperate times calling for desperate measures — continued doing so we can keep doing what we’ve been doing for some 267 years, since the beginning of the industrial revolution. I just don’t see things positive coming out of that.
The conversation reminded us of something Geshe Michael Roach said in The Diamond Cutter:
The flame of a butter lamp, supported by a thin plant wick, flares and then quickly dies out. Caused things, each supported by their various causes and conditions, also go through a continuous process of rising and quickly dying out. An illusion is something that looks different than something that is actually there. Things brought about by causes also appear to exist in and of themselves to a mistaken state of mind. Dew vanishes quickly. Things with causes are the same. They die away speedily without lasting even into the second instant of their existence. 
Lightning flashes and dies out quickly. Caused things too, rise and die out quickly, depending on the conditions that assembled to bring them about. Clouds are something that gather and fade in the sky depending on the wishes of the serpent beings and such. Things brought about by causes are the same. Depending on the influences of imprints which are either the same for the various members of a group or not, they rise and die out.
Your life will end because you were born and no further reason is needed.
We are passing through the Emirates on our way to India from the COP-23 Climate Conference in Bonn. As Christer Söderberg pointed out, the effort being made at these events is best summed up in three words:
“Bula”, “Vinaka”, and “Talanoa”, a heartfelt and warmly expressed gift of language from the Fiji Islands, hosts for this COP 23: “Bula”: Welcome (also the word for “Life”), “Vinaka”: Thank you, and “Talanoa”: Let’s talk, with deep listening and respect to arrive at a consensus. These three words might be making a bigger contribution to the process than we are ready to admit.
It was on Monday of the second week that a new report from Carbon Brief was announced saying that emissions during 2017 were set to rise two percent. Furthermore, the present “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC’s) towards emission reductions agreed during the COP 21 in Paris in 2015 were only enough to cover some 30% of what is necessary to keep the global mean temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius, now considerably farther from the ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees. Things were not good, and not getting better, the light at the end of the tunnel suddenly seemed very far away.
How do we combine continued economic growth in a fossil fuel driven economy while reducing the emissions caused by those same fossil fuels?
We don’t. That is the basic problem. These two goals cannot co-exist, and there is only one choice….
We began with a quote from Universal Soldier because in that Buffy St. Marie sang a very simple truth. For peace to prevail, no more is needed than the willingness of young men and women to turn their back on military conscription. 

Like thousands of other 17-year-olds, we listened to that call in 1964 and registered as a C.O. Thank you for your service conscientious objectors. You are welcome to board through the priority lane.

For the Anthropocene to be aborted and the Holocene to return no more is needed than to recover the ways of habitation that we, the two-legged ones, practiced in harmony with the natural world for 200,000 years. We can possibly even keep some of our favorite inventions, if we do so gracefully.

It is best to recall as we approach the major holiday season of the Judeo-Christian calendar that in those traditions consumerism was not intended to be venerated, much less worshiped.

This is at the core of permaculture. To achieve sustainability requires little more than to practice sustainability. Universally. Now. It is really very simple. It is not about what we do but how we be. We merely withdraw support for the death machine and stand back.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Diamond Cutter at Apache Pass, Part 4: Permaculture

"There is epigenetic asynchrony in this biome."

This is the fourth and last installment in a series.

Irony seems to stalk Geshe Michael Roach like a puma. It was ironic that while he was studying to be an Episcopalian minister he became a Tibetan Buddhist monk. It is ironic that as a monk practicing the 8-fold-path — which includes Right Livelihood — he became a wealthy diamond merchant and then a sought-after advisor in wealth acquisition. 

It is ironic that after a quarter century of austere, celibate monastic living, he has come under fire, largely without merit, for a wacky marriage and divorce and accusations of inability to hold safe space for his religious pilgrims. 

Reputations come and go. The choices we make and the risks we take can as easily lower us as elevate us, and you can’t always know what may happen when you act from imperfect knowledge. 
Life may be impermanent but then there is permaculture.

As described in the first installment in this series, we were invited at the end of summer to visit Diamond Mountain, sit with Geshe Michael, and walk his land. The geshe sought advice on the best future for this site.

“It may be stupid for this to even be here,” he said. “If so, I want to be told.”

“It may be stupid,” we replied. “But it is too soon to judge.”

Our observations over the following days raised several issues.

First, this is Apachería. It may have been legally purchased from some previous title holders, but it was originally stolen by deceit, murder, the unspeakable torment of innocents, and attempted genocide. That bad blood flows in these streams.

The previous inhabitants had attained harmony with this fragile landscape after twenty generations of assimilation. Europeans have been here as a people only seven generations. To find a multigenerational family here is a rare thing. There is epigenetic asynchrony in this biome.

Then, owing to rapid climate change, the Chiricahuan Desert to the Northeast is being overtaken by the much more severe Sonoran Desert to the Southwest. This change is still in its early stages but the curve of acceleration is exponential. Exponents are deceptive and unforgiving. Apache Pass is a slim wedge that barely holds the separation, for the moment. Wildfires threaten. Springs are drying. Animals are out-migrating. To live here is to buck the prevailing pattern.

To live here is to stand between a living planet and a dead world, just as a titanic battle to decide that fate is about to commence. Apache Pass holds the thin line of green vegetation that separates two raging deserts.
The clientele for conferences and retreats with Geshe Michael’s business brand is more upscale than ecotouristic. Russians, Chinese, Japanese — they are accustomed to hot showers, swimming pools and gourmet fare. Bowie is two hours by interstate highway from the nearest four-star hotel. This is the middle of nowhere.

As permaculturists, we begin with the knowledge that nature is our first client. So we ask. What is it She wants?

It may be that She is tired of the two-leggeds and their disrespect and would just as soon shake them off like fleas, perhaps by making the planet too hot for them to remain.

Or it may be that She would be pleased if this immature species decided to grow up and take some responsibility. It could have a role in healing, one well suited to its talents. That next evolution of humans could start by building the soil here and planting trees. Whether that would be enough to halt the climate juggernaut coming over the mountains is an unanswerable question for now, but the great pure effort required would be worthy in and of itself. It would build character in all who participated. 

With this in mind we made our first recommendations. By no means a final design for the site, we made some preliminary observations and tendered our suggestions for next steps.

First, we suggested that Diamond Mountain not attempt to cater to the desires of its high roller clientele. It should not build a huge hotel and swimming pool. Stay far removed from the casino and golf course developer world.

Second, we recommended that Diamond Mountain not encourage more car traffic through the site by widening and paving the mountain road near Apache Pass. The existing trail needs to be re-surveyed with a keyline management plan so that water from storms — which will likely become more violent and profound — is captured, absorbed, and applied to recharge the aquifer and build soil biology. The washes, which are fountains of life in season, must be protected throughout the year.

Keylining could also allow more surface water features and assist in reforestation, where appropriate. Those forests would generate a wetter climate. They would revive the springs, and with the springs, more wildlife would return.

Cabins, already constructed of native materials, should be fireproofed with geoplasters and living roofs of succulents (Ice Plant, Aeonium and sedums). Landscapes should store water and resist fires by selecting plants with:
  • extensive root systems
  • limited production of dead material
  • high levels of salt
  • ability to withstand drought
  • low levels of oils or resins
  • ability to resprout after a fire
Good examples are the native foods and livestock feeds of the Chiricahua — yucca, agave, purple sage, and blue fescue.

Lastly, an ecosystem regeneration camp should be convened here, inviting participants from around the world to come, camp and re-green these mountains.

Our principal recommendation therefore, is to honor the spirits of the original inhabitants by restoring the ecosystem they knew, one capable of supporting life.

The Pass needs to enter the battle of the deserts with greater greenness and deep reserves of water.

In The Diamond Cutter, Geshe Michael asks what are the principles by which business must be judged. Foremost, businesses should be profitable. It should gain the respect of customers, partners and employees by fairness and generosity. But then, businesspeople should enjoy the money they earn, and don’t work themselves so hard that they never find the time to appreciate the harvest. 

Success in business should be defined, when all is said and done, by time spent in meaningful activity, not just for ourselves, but for the greater social good. In the end we want to be able to look back upon our lives as having been good for others, not merely ourselves.

Yet, the Buddhist idea of limitlessness — at the core of Geshe Michael’s teachings on wealth — comes up against the permaculture principle of limit awareness. Earth is changing, rapidly. Limits have been exceeded in our numbers of humans, our withdrawal of minerals, our cutting of forests, our slaughter of wildlife, and our care of the water. 

If by hosting remote silent retreats, with small cabins built almost invisibly into the landscape, or by bringing together the youth of the world to plant trees, Geshe Michael can teach his students to lead by example, whether in business or in life, there would be great merit. 

Willingness of people to change their habits is more important to reversing climate change than finding more carbon drawdown solutions. The technology is already there. Human willingness isn’t. We, the White Eyes, are still oriented towards materialism as our religion. Too often we seek gain and don’t consider who or what bears the loss. At the end of our individual lives this becomes a cause for regret.

If we could shift that paradigm enough — such that we begin to take responsibility, even to the extent of reoccupying places for 20 generations — then we might have a chance of regaining stewardship and still have something left to steward.

In Zug, while working to develop the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Peter Head observed that
People deal with change in a much more positive way when cultural and natural heritage is retained, looked after and respected. Part of this history lies in that faith institutions are the oldest social service providers we know. They were the original providers of health services, education, nutrition, farming, sanitation and energy. They are also the oldest fundraisers, community mobilizers and human and social capital builders. Their ability to convene people voluntarily to resource critical endeavors –particularly at times of risk–continues today.
Mobilizing faith-based initiatives could be key to achieving the pull back from the Anthropocene that humanity now requires in order to survive. Head says:
With rising numbers of pilgrims visiting sacred cities and sites every year, these locations could become the first powerful demonstrations of transformational practice to deliver sustainable water supply, waste management, low carbon energy, sanitation, eco-mobility and simple low energy accommodation for everyone.
Using a systems approach and resilience, the total cost of these projects can be reduced by up to 40%, which gives a good return on investment and increased beneficial social impact. Pilgrims could take these examples and practices back to their cities of origin and mobilize resources for change there, providing a powerful scaling mechanism.
Last year we described here the Two Mountain policy of Xi Jinping. Xi’s first peak is the mountain of silver — fair and peaceful global trade and commerce. His second is the mountain of gold — restoring traditional harmony between cultural values and nature. In Arizona, we found a third, a mountain of diamond — building a new culture worthy of respect, with the presence of clear mind, the only thing that can cut a diamond.

We are traveling at the moment and don’t have regular opportunities to post, so we have written this series ahead of time, to release in the place of our regular weekly installments. This is the last of the four prepared parts, but our thoughts resume along these lines in real time next week.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Diamond Cutter at Apache Pass, Part 3: Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā

"The things that are seen are temporal; the things that are unseen are eternal. — Saul of Tarsis a.k.a. St. Paul" 

This post is the third in a series.

The Vajracchedikā (Diamond Cutter) is a small book belonging to the Mahaprajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Trancendental Wisdom) part of the canon of Mahayana Buddhism that includes thousands of volumes. The Prajñāpāramitā scriptures ordinarily comprise 21 books, contained in 100 volumes of approximately 1000 pages each. Like many of the sutras, the Diamond Cutter takes the form of a dialog between Shakyamuni Buddha and his students that took place about 2500 years ago in an open courtyard in India.

The Diamond Cutter was first translated into Chinese by Kumāravīha about 300 C.E. and he called it simply the Diamond Sutra. English translations by W. Gremmell in 1912 and D.T. Suzuki in 1935 followed Kumāravīha’s convention. Going back to original texts, Geshe Michael Roach restored its original title.

There are many lessons to be taken from this sacred text. One is that salvation is not, contrary to what the multitude is led to believe, purchasable by good works. It is not by the giving away of worldly treasures, however inconceivably great, that matters, but by practicing and disseminating to others clear mind, compassion and grace —  the buddha-dharma.

The sutra ends with a four-line gatha:

“A shooting star, a clouding of the sight, a lamp,
An illusion, a drop of dew, a bubble,
A dream, a lightning’s flash, a thunder cloud
This is the way one should see the conditioned.”

To W.Y. Evans-Wentz and other Western interpreters, the Diamond Sutra takes its title from the power of the vajra (diamond) to cut things as a metaphor for the type of wisdom that cuts and shatters illusions to get to ultimate reality. Geshe Michael would say this is a close approximation, but misses the essence.

A closer translation has to do with the attributes of Carbon.

The sixth element on our Periodic Table has 6 protons, 6 neutrons and 6 electrons. All carbon is formed in a rare, triple-alpha event that happens at the death of a star. At the moment of death, a “helium flash” lasts only seconds but fuses 60–80 percent of the helium in the star’s core. During the flash, the star’s energy production can reach approximately 100 billion solar luminosities, comparable to the luminosity of a whole galaxy. As the dead star contracts, carbon is expelled from its outer layers and drifts off on the winds and tides of space. Sooner or later those molecules wash up onto the shore of some distant orb, such as Earth.

Carbon forms a building block for organic life because of its versatility. It is stable and tetravalent — making four orbiting electrons available to form covalent (shared-electron) chemical bonds. The atoms of carbon can bond together in different ways, termed allotropes of carbon. Carbon can even form covalent bonds with other carbon atoms, which in turn can share electrons with others and so on, forming long strings, complex branchings and “head-to-tail” rings of carbon atoms. No other element does this.

When a carbonaceous rock slides into a volcanic lava tube or magma chamber, it is heated to thousands of degrees and re-cools slowly under the weight of enormous pressure from overlying rock. Under these temperatures and pressures diamonds form. Amorphous carbon has a density of 1.8–2.1 g/cm3. Biochar, which is crystalized by pyrolysis (heating in the absence of oxygen) at 500 to 1500°C, has a density only slightly greater — about 2.2 g/cm3 (and other miraculous attributes). 

Diamonds have a density of 3.5 g/cm3, nearly double that of normal carbon. On the Mohs hardness scale diamonds are a 10, the hardest substance known. In its purest form, a diamond is perfectly clear in all planes, no matter its thickness —  it is invisible.

How then are diamonds cut? The answer is simple — by other diamonds, typically by finding a weakness, such as a shear plane, in the stone being cut.

When Geshe Michael was told by his lama, Khen Rinpoche, “get a job, oh and by the way, don’t reveal that you’re a Buddhist monk,” he commuted from the Buddhist monastery in New Jersey to the Diamond District of Midtown Manhattan, on West 47th Street between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue. 

He may have thought it amusing to seek work in an industry that bore the same name as a major doctrine of Buddhism. As he tells the story in his autobiography, The Diamond Cutter, restoring the original meaning to the title of the sutra also meant restoring one of the Buddha’s overlooked teachings.

What the English translators missed one hundred years ago was that the Buddha was saying there is something that is harder than a diamond. There is something other than a diamond that can see it and cut it, even though it is perfectly clear and harder than steel.

That which cuts diamonds is the understanding that neither diamond nor cutter have actual existence. That which exists is clear mind. 

We are traveling at the moment and don’t have regular opportunities to post, so we have written this ahead of time, to release in the place of our regular weekly installments. This is third in the series. Next week we will seek a permaculture view of the Diamond Mountain retreat center in Arizona.




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