The Difficult Problem of Climate Change

by John M Repp

Many people think the problem of climate change will simply require that we change how we get energy; that there is a technological solution. I thought that until recently. We just need to switch from fossil fuels to renewables. Build hundreds of wind farms and put solar panels on roofs everywhere. Electrify our cars, trucks, and trains. Start by withdrawing the subsidies from fossil fuels embedded in the tax system. All it will take is the political will.

We were shocked last summer when a “heat dome” parked itself over the Pacific Northwest. There were temperatures of 121 degrees Fahrenheit recorded in British Columbia. Too much of the fruit crop in Eastern Washington and British Columbia was destroyed. Fires raged for months in Northern California, eventually threatening the world’s oldest trees. In October, there was a deluge in Italy where 29 inches of rain fell in 12 hours. More and more Americans now understand that climate change is affecting their communities.

We know now that the United States government, while studying and writing good scientific reports about the reality of climate change, has been focused quietly on increasing the domestic production of oil. They want to make our country self-sufficient in energy. It is almost as if the energy crises of the 1970’s just happened. James Gustave Speth has made the legal briefs written for Our Children’s Trust into a book: They Knew: The US Governments Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis (2021). Our Children’s Trust is an organization attempting to use the courts to force the government to mitigate climate change to protect the future of our children. 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide would stabilize the climate; today we are at 412 and rising. Even if we did everything that Scientists say we must do, there is a long-time lag. It is going to get much worse soon.

The Guardian of Oct 15, 2021, in advance of the COP26 conference in Glasgow, has put online a spectacular report. They write: “Decades of time has been squandered – US president Lyndon Johnson was warned of the climate crisis by scientists when Joe Biden was still in college and yet industry denial and government inertia means the world is set for a 2.7C increase in temperature this century, even if all emissions reduction pledges are met. …. Every decision – every oil drilling lease, every acre of the Amazon rainforest torched for livestock pasture, every new gas-guzzling SUV that rolls onto the road – will decide how far we tumble down the hill. In Glasgow, governments will be challenged to show they will fight every fraction of temperature rise, or else, in the words of Greta Thunberg, this pivotal gathering is at risk of being dismissed as “blah, blah, blah”.

Global population has grown eight times the size of what it was at the beginning of the fossil-fuel powered industrial age 200 years ago. Our problem is not so much climate change. It is ecological overshoot. Overshoot is what happens when human demand exceeds what the planet can regenerate naturally. Framing the problem as overshoot, rather than just a problem of how we get our energy, changes the task we face. To achieve sustainability: Graham Turner, a senior scientist from Australia has written: “You’d have to halve the birth rate, you’d have to have net zero immigration, you’d have to go totally renewable energy and double efficiencies in every sector of the economy, and the really key thing is you’d have to reduce the working week over time so that it would become half of what it is..” People wouldn’t have the same level of income as now and household consumption would be reduced by half. It would mean people living a 1950s or 1960s-style lifestyle, with one car and TV per household.

This is not a politically popular message. Adding the reality of economic justice, through a wealth tax, progressive income taxes, tight regulation of the banks and financial markets, and corporate reform that makes corporations into cooperatives, can make a necessary change in the standard of living more acceptable. That is the main idea behind “just transition”. Creating stronger communities can compensate for fewer consumer goods.

When climate change starts affecting the food supply, the issue will become front and center. If we don’t deal with climate change soon, billions of poor people will start dying from climate change induced famines. We have passed that point in some areas of the world, hence the migration crises here and in Europe.

A scientific paper entitled “Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition” concludes: “To achieve sustainability and salvage civilization, society must embark on a planned, cooperative descent from an extreme state of overshoot in just a decade or two.” A big question is whether China and the United States will be able to cooperate to do this despite the increasing tension of the two great powers.

We have left the generations following us with a massive challenge. How do we lessen the human impact on the natural world?  How do we make our main task the regeneration of the natural world, rather than the growth of the human economy?