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Scientists provide “vital signs” graphics to measure climate action

The Alliance of World Scientists has contributed a paper this week to BioScience, which tries to bring the weight of thousands of scientists behind a fundamental change in the way that humans need to interact with the Earth, invoking a set of “vital signs” which can be constantly monitored to see how we are doing.

Effectively it is putting the names of 11,258 scientists from 153 countries behind a single set of climate change ideas. Having read it we’re not sure that the climate change debate has moved forward with this article, and to us the problem needs to be broken down into small chunks to make each step politically achievable.

Our own preference – endorse renewable energy – is front and center in the paper, but it goes much further and campaigners nearer the political coalface, won’t thank these scientists for effectively embracing something close to socialism, as part and parcel of steps required to fix the earth.

The vital signs they chose to show include graphs on the growth of the human population, the fall in fertility rates of humans, the increase in the number of ruminant livestock, and per capita meat production. Every graph needs to either stabilize or in some cases reverse.

There are more graphs though – they show how GDP growth and tree cover losses go hand in hand; how forest losses and rises in energy consumption are mirror images of one another, how institutional assets, air traffic and CO2 emissions all follow unconstrained and uncontrolled growth.

Finally they parallel CO2, NO2 and Methane to growing warming, a set of graphs we have seen time and time again.

The conclusions however are tough to think through, we must stabilize human population, we have to slash air traffic, eat far less meat, if any at all, and change society’s goal from growing GDP to living in harmony with the planet.

As usual you might trust a scientist to invent a new technology, but you would employ people with a bit more human empathy to sell that technology, and these ideas in this format will drive resistance from conservative political groups. If you make the message unpalatable, you create groups who want to disprove it or pretend it is not true.

Still you won’t want scientists to be bowed by other scientists in the pay of fossil fuel companies, who try to deny climate change, and you don’t want them to say anything less than the full truth.

As a result, some of the attempts to suggest solutions make weak reading – carbon pricing needs to rise, renewables need to be embraced, fossil fuel exploration needs to stop now, investments should be made in carbon extraction at source and in carbon capture, and there is a call for fossil fuel subsidies to be eliminated.

The truth is that public perception of all of those policies at once will be that energy will appear more expensive, and if this comes at a time when renewables are on the rise, then ergo, renewables are more expensive than fossil fuels. That drives the logic of “let’s go back to fossil fuels then” – which is the opposite of what you want. Enlightened policy might be to take carbon taxes from the profits of the fossil fuel companies without letting them charge it on to the consumer, and then running a fossil fuel company is simply less profitable than running a renewables firm, and that gets the job done. But this is policy – how you achieve it – not science, that which needs to be achieved – and in this paper, the two have been mixed up.

People have fossil fuel subsidies not to help the fossil fuel industry, but to keep energy prices low enough for universal electricity. Take away subsidies and you have inequality and old and poor people cannot afford fuel. So you subsidize renewables when there is enough of them, and make sure the old and the poor have access to them at their lower prices, and you can then remove the subsidies from fossil fuels, making them less profitable. Everything is in the timing.

The paper raises issues about short-lived climate pollutants such as methane, black carbon (soot), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which is all well and good, but to keep policy simple and solve CO2 first and foremost, as the greater of many evils, and then chase the lesser evils, makes for clearly observable steps and outcomes that are measurable.

The report goes on about protecting and restoring phytoplankton, coral reefs, forests, savannas, grasslands, wetlands, peatlands, soils, mangroves, and sea grasses, because they contribute greatly to sequestration of atmospheric CO2. that’s a pretty big target and there is no economic quid pro quo in doing that. You cannot make money out of it, so it becomes seen as a form of charitable giving. We need a plan for these things which doesn’t breed resentment in that it does not make each individual poorer. Again the problem is not that people do not agree this is the problem, the issue is how to go about making it happen.

It is true that phytoplankton and similar species such as Prochlorococcus, act as huge carbon sinks, but we still do not know their ability to survive in more acid seas, or warmer seas, and whether one will replace the other in any situations. So we should pay for R&D for this, and it will put us in a better place to make clear decisions at a key moment in the future.

But it makes no sense to split R&D monies with things like this and at the same time invest in the development of carbon capture, because then you are handing the fossil fuel addicted of the world a ready made excuse for continuing to pollute, because the assumption is that we will be able to take out the CO2 later. And it creates R&D spending competition with things like saving coral reefs.

We are not complaining. A group of 11,258 scientists are not a government, and should not make policy or shape it to appeal to voting populations – they should just “tell it like it is,” but from there action must be tailored to be those steps which will most likely find global governmental endorsement.

Deforestation is one area this paper goes on about, and it is clear from the fires in Brazil, that this is politically a very tough subject. It will only be once the US has endorsed renewables, and taken a lead, and when it has a commercial stake in the game, and a market leadership, that the US could “bully” neighboring nations to “borrow some of its technology” in order to do the right thing. As of now that position of power goes to China and separately to the EU, the two leaders in solar and in wind, with the US nowhere in sight.

So putting our own houses in order first will have longer term benefits when doing trade deals with Brazil or other would-be deforesters.

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