AT the World Bank’s annual meeting held last week in Lima, Peru, Rachel Kyte, the institution’s special envoy for climate change, delivered this whopper in an interview with AFP: “If we accept that we need to have less carbon in our growth, then we might have a financial risk associated with the prominence in our economy of companies who are heavily invested in carbon. That’s the whole question of the carbon bubble.”
“Bubble,” eh? In the words of that timeless sage Inigo Montoya, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
Kyte’s concern is that if the world embarks on a more environmentally sustainable development path, which would necessarily require a massive technological shift away from the use of fossil fuels, the move could wreck the world economy because carbon-based industry is so embedded in it. To a certain extent that is plausible concern, because we ordinarily do not realize just how vital “carbon” is to everyday life. We tend to think of the problem of greenhouse gas emissions in terms of its most obvious sources, oil and coal used to fuel our vehicles and power plants, but our reliance on these natural resources is, of course, much deeper than that. The second biggest use for oil after fuel is the manufacture of plastics; coal is still the most widely used fuel for electricity generation, and its biggest use after that is in the manufacture of steel.
Try to imagine a world without plastics and steel and their many derivatives. It can’t be done. That spectrum of materials isn’t a “bubble” in the global economy; it is an inseparable part of the framework of human civilization. Whether Ms. Kyte or other climate action advocates like it or not, our species, as it is now and as we hope it will be in the future can no more do without those things than a person can live without a spine.
All of which reveals a certain simplistic flaw in Ms. Kyte’s assertion, and in fact, the entire approach to mitigating global warming.
In the much heralded global climate talks to be held in Paris in December, the hoped for outcome is a general agreement whereby countries, in proportion to their contribution to the overall problem, will budget X amount of money annually to reduce carbon emissions by whatever amount is necessary to reduce the rate of atmospheric temperature increase to Y degrees within Z number of years. The target numbers right now are $100 billion per year to reduce carbon emissions to 60 percent or less of 2010 levels, thus limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels by the year 2050.
Assuming that agreement is actually reached – the outcomes of previous climate summits, where agreed “targets” have either been much lower than anticipated or deferred for future discussion suggest that chances are pretty good that it will not be – what is lacking is any sense of just how those numbers will be achieved. It is not, as Ms. Kyte cautioned, just a matter of potentially putting some industries out of business – it is rather the disturbing realization that in order to even come close to achieving what the world’s climate change experts breezily suggest must be done, the whole of human civilization as we know will have to be upended and radically reconfigured.
Ironically, the only people who seem to understand that are those whose questioning of the advertised effects of climate change is dismissed out of hand by the climate change mitigation advocacy; the skeptics are indeed motivated by fear, as the advocates charge, but there’s probably a good reason for that. While it is obvious to everyone that we are wearing out the planet, rushing into large-scale solutions without absolutely understanding the problem, and more importantly absolutely understanding what those solutions really have to be – a fundamental makeover of the human species – in order for them to work is probably not the best approach.
In the end, we may simply have to face the reality that we have doomed ourselves, and that all that is left to us is to enjoy the century or two our species has left. Many people, I suspect, would be content with that – especially if the alternative, the real, effective alternative that would achieve the climate goals we believe we should have, is to change ourselves into something we are not, and may not even be capable of understanding.