Our last hope is a managed decline of fossil fuel production

In this global climate emergency, we must stop planning to fail
Photo: Sarah Nichols

"Humankind’s greatest crisis coincides with the rise of an ideology that makes it impossible to address. By the late 1980s, when it became clear that man-made climate change endangered the living planet and its people, the world was in the grip of an extreme political doctrine whose tenets forbid the kind of intervention required to arrest it." - George Monbiot

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Many commentators have been brightsiding last year’s federal election results as a majority of Canadians voting in favour of climate action. The reality, however, is that we have elected a government with a plan to fail.

Developed countries like Canada need to aim for a 60 per cent emission reduction by 2030, but the Trudeau government’s target fall well short of that necessary ambition. In fact they will fail to meet even the old Harper-era targets, while still trying to expand fossil fuel production.

Although nobody today seriously questions whether climate change is happening and is human caused primarily through our use of fossil fuels, Canadians remain in implicatory denial, refusing to consider let alone implement effective mitigation.

As Greta and the kids know only too well, something is seriously wrong.

Market measures wasting time

Back in the 1990s when climate mitigation planning began in earnest, decarbonization was conceived of as renewable energy capacity expanding and outcompeting fossil fuels in existing markets, aided by carbon pricing or governmental incentives for renewables.

These market-focused measures, today, are merely pretend mitigation, wasting more of our precious little time. There is not enough carbon budget left, investment in fossil fuel expansion continues largely unchecked, fossil fuel use is predicted to continue at present levels until at least 2040, and the only mitigation policies and instruments deemed acceptable (such as carbon pricing) are designed not to affect the all-important GDP by even minor percentage points. The systemic change we need is simply not allowed. No surprise that few nations have reduced emissions even to the inadequate levels pledged in international agreements.

Commenting on politicians’ (in)action in Australia, where wildfires seem to be at last awakening public opinion to what is at stake, Brad Zarnett describes the government's plan to fail as immunity via collective failure:

To continue the illusion that we’re doing something, we’ve lumped ourselves into the mix of countries that have signed on to the Paris Accords as it requires little effort on our part and places us in good company with almost every other country on the planet that has failed to meet its non binding targets.

Why are our governments not responding responsibly to the growing climate crisis? Zarnett describes our present neoliberal governance:

The truth is that we exist in a playground, designed by corporations and billionaires, that talks the talk of societal wellbeing while simultaneously dismantling the very regulations that protect us from corporate abuse and greed.

The ‘big stall’

In the Canadian context, a decade ago, powerful corporate lobbyists concocted a "big stall" to in order to continue raking in the profits while keeping our government docile and following a plan to fail. Later, others involved with what would become the new federal Liberal government agreed to include pipeline projects in any national climate plan. Even though climate change is an emergency, the government pushes ahead to twin the TransMountain pipeline and build the Coastal GasLink for LNG.

How is this possible? Tipping points to runaway warming — civilization, if not humanity, threatening — are close to being reached, and we absolutely cannot afford to waste another decade without effective emission reductions.

As we begin 2020, we must have a vision of humanity’s future, an understanding of the climate dangers and how and why mitigation has failed. To achieve effective mitigation, we must escape myopia and denial with a clear-eyed vision of what needs to happen.

We need an immediate switch in our conception of mitigation, from the pretend, demand-side decarbonization orthodoxy to supply-side regulation.

Climate change is now a serious threat to all of our futures. Listen to the children and catch up with the best climate science. Climate is an emergency now requiring urgent, deep systemic change to a global post-carbon socio-economy; otherwise, we are all going to lose big, big time. Carbon lock-in, the Golden Straitjacket and the “tragedy of the atmospheric commons” must be recognized, addressed and conquered urgently so that effective mitigation becomes possible.

We need an immediate switch in our conception of mitigation, from the pretend, demand-side decarbonization orthodoxy to supply-side regulation. Our last hope is a regulated, managed decline of fossil fuel production and use initiated by those national producers wealthy and stable enough to lead. Emissions must be cut with both arms of the scissors.

Canada and Australia must lead. Both are important global producers and exporters who are experiencing rapid and threatening warming; both have socio-economies stable, wealthy and technologically proficient enough to make the transition to a post-carbon economy. The only way out of the atmospheric commons problem is for one or more countries in this position to do the right thing and lead by winding down production.

The only way that either of these governments will be able to initiate a regulated, managed decline is to form emergency wartime-style coalition governments. Emergency government must be agreed to by present powerful actors. Business will have to lead (in their own self-interest) by rolling back their capture of government and insistence upon smaller government and deregulation in the expansion of the global economy. Political actors on the right and left will have to agree on the need for bi-partisan cooperation, on the need for pragmatic emergency action instead of pursuit of ideological victory.

Too late?

But in the bleak beginning of this new decade, foremost climate columnist David Roberts (echoing the novelist Jonathan Franzen) strongly argues that effective mitigation to stay below a 1.5 C rise in global temperature is now a pipedream and we should stop pretending. We've waited too long; emissions would now have to decline at more than 10 per cent per year, which is impossible. The Trudeau government's continuing pretend, strictly within business-as-usual decarbonization will fit perfectly into a global lack of ambition, and we, all of us but mostly the poor today and our kids in their climate chaos future, will lose big time.

Roberts (and Franzen) are far too ideologically careful to even mention managed decline or emergency government but that is what now has to happen urgently — we don't need 100 per cent emission reduction by 2050, we need 10 per cent per year starting immediately, as soon as possible. And that must mean emergency governments regulating a managed decline.

Effective mitigation to stay under 2 C — if not 1.5 C — is still possible, just not likely without leadership, and leadership is increasingly absent with each election and wasted decade.

Russia, the U.S. and the Saudis are not going to lead. What is needed is leadership from Australia and Canada, who are major producers, who are both beginning to experience increased damage and loss from warming, and whose governments, though hobbled by neoliberalism, still have the capacity to choose reasonable, responsible mitigation opportunities to address a problem that everybody now agrees will only get more dire with continued inaction, with continuing pretend mitigation. But can either Australia or Canada get to emergency coalition government where mitigation becomes possible?

Last year Greta and the kids started getting serious about effective mitigation and about our (parents, adults, governments) continuing climate mitigation failure. But marching in optimism that adults and governments will finally act, the kids don't understand how pretend the pretend mitigation is, how difficult it will be to even begin effective mitigation, how insidious the rules of the neolib playground are and how cowardly and myopic our supposed leaders are (especially our duplicitous, divisive prime minister). Effective mitigation to stay under 2 C — if not 1.5 C — is still possible, just not likely without leadership, and leadership is increasingly absent with each election and wasted decade.

How dare we pretend that we are doing what we need to do to protect their future? How dare we pretend that their future means anything but horror and fire, horror and loss, unbelievable catastrophe? How dare we pretend to care if we won't even reasonably consider regulating the end of what has now become a possibly fatal toxin?

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