Sustainable

In 1989, capitalism won. Today its greatest ideological challenge is the planet

George Smiley finally gets his man at the end of John le Carré’s Karla trilogy, but is far from jubilant as the Soviet spymaster defects from East to West Berlin. Reminded by a colleague that he has won his cold war battle, Smiley replies: “Did I? Yes. Yes, well, I suppose I did.”

Smiley’s world-weariness was notable by its absence when the west finally claimed victory in the cold war 30 years ago this week. The Berlin Wall was a symbol of oppression. Its demolition was a euphoric moment.

But everything was black and white back then. Freedom had triumphed over tyranny. Washington had defeated Moscow. The market would extend into parts of the world where it had been off limits. The power of a united Germany would be diluted by a new pan-European currency. Victory for a certain set of American-inspired principles meant ideological conflict was at an end. The demolition of the Berlin Wall marked not just the end of history, but the end of geography and the end of politics as well.

That was the theory. But three decades on, Le Carré’s caution appears to be warranted. Link

Nanoparticles

After years of headlines about air pollution, we’ve been misled on a few things about the world’s biggest environmental health problem. For example, we’re told that “PM2.5” – solid pollution particles measuring 2.5 micrometres or less – can pass through our lungs and into our blood stream.

But, in fact, the vast majority of them can’t.

We’ve also been told NOx gases – including nitrogen dioxide – are the biggest threat to health within cities. However, NOx is responsible for just 14% of deaths attributed to air pollution in Europe.

The biggest killer of all never makes the headlines, isn’t regulated, and is barely talked about beyond niche scientific circles (despite their best efforts to change that narrative): it’s nanoparticles.

PM2.5 may be too small to see, being roughly 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. But, compared to a nanoparticle it’s a relative heavyweight. PM2.5 stomps in at 2,500 nanometres (nm), while the real killers are 100nm or below. This issue is that local authorities consider PM2.5 and any particle smaller than it to be the same – which means that often their reports underrepresent the true risks. Link

‘Insect apocalypse’ poses risk to all life on Earth

The “unnoticed insect apocalypse” should set alarm bells ringing, according to conservationists, who said that without a halt there will be profound consequences for humans and all life on Earth.

A new report suggested half of all insects may have been lost since 1970 as a result of the destruction of nature and heavy use of pesticides. The report said 40% of the 1million known species of insect are facing extinction.

The analysis, written by one of the UK’s leading ecologists, has a particular focus on the UK, whose insects are the most studied in the world. It said 23 bee and wasp species have become extinct in the last century, while the number of pesticide applications has approximately doubled in the last 25 years.

UK butterflies that specialise in particular habitats have fallen 77% since the mid-1970s and generalists have declined 46%, the report said. There are also knock-on effects on other animals, such as the spotted flycatcher which only eats flying insects. Its populations have dropped by 93% since 1967. Link

The 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions

New data from world-renowned researchers reveals how this cohort of state-owned and multinational firms are driving the climate emergency that threatens the future of humanity, and details how they have continued to expand their operations despite being aware of the industry’s devastating impact on the planet.

The analysis, by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute in the US, the world’s leading authority on big oil’s role in the escalating climate emergency, evaluates what the global corporations have extracted from the ground, and the subsequent emissions these fossil fuels are responsible for since 1965 – the point at which experts say the environmental impact of fossil fuels was known by both industry leaders and politicians.

The top 20 companies on the list have contributed to 35% of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane worldwide, totalling 480bn tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) since 1965! Link

The growing wave of climate change lawsuits

In 1998, 46 states and the District of Columbia signed on to the largest civil litigation settlement in US history, the tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. Stunning in its scope and scale, the agreement forced the four largest tobacco companies to stop advertising to youth, limit lobbying, restrict product placement in media, and fund anti-smoking campaigns. It also required them to pay out more than $206 billion over 25 years.

Tobacco companies had in previous decades successfully swatted down hundreds of private lawsuits. But states found an opening by suing companies for the harm they caused to public health. “This lawsuit is premised on a simple notion: You caused the health crisis, you pay for it,” said then-Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore in 1994.

Now another wave of lawsuits is trying to hold powerful institutions accountable for an even bigger crisis, by making them pay and change their ways. At least eight US cities, five counties, and one state are suing some of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies for selling products that contribute to global warming while misleading the public about their harms. In parallel, 21 young people are trying to suspend fossil fuel development as part of their high-profile climate rights case, Juliana v. United States, against the government. (The case is currently awaiting a hearing at the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals.)

And with several new Democratic attorneys general elected in the 2018 midterm elections, even more litigation may be on the horizon. “It feels like there is a lot of climate change litigation right now,” said Paul Sabin, a professor of environmental history at Yale. “But this is only the beginning.” Link

“It is, I promise, worse than you think.” – David Wallace-Wells

I think one of the great lessons of climate change is that even those of us like me who grew up over the last few decades living in the modern world, in cities, and felt the whole time that we had sort of built our way out of nature. And that while there were things to be concerned about, with regard to climate, and other environmental issues, I still had this deep belief that we had built a fortress around ourselves that would protect us against a hostile world.

I felt that even if climate change unfolded quite rapidly, those impacts would be felt far away from where I lived, and the way I lived.

I think, especially with the extreme weather that we’re seeing over the last couple of years, we’re all beginning to relearn the fact that we live within nature, and in fact all of our lives are governed by its forces. None of us, no matter where we live, will be able to escape the consequences of this.

There are still people who focus on sea level rise and imagine that they’ll be fine so long as they don’t live on the coastline. But this is pure fantasy. No one will avoid the ravages of warming, and the reality of this will be impossible to ignore in the coming decades.

Now, there are countries in the world that are going to, at least in the short term, benefit slightly from global warming. Especially in the global north. Russia, Canada, and parts of Scandinavia are likely to see a little bit of benefit from warming, because slightly a warmer climate means greater economic productivity and higher agricultural yields.

But where we’re headed, we’re likely to even pass those optimal levels for those countries. And even in the short term, the balance of benefits and costs is so dramatically out of whack that the overwhelming majority of the world will be suffering hugely from the impacts of climate change. Even if there are a few places that benefit. Link

The Hypocrisy of ‘Davos’

“It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water, right?” Bregman said. “Just stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes. … We can invite Bono once more, but we’ve got to be talking about taxes. That’s it. Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit in my opinion.”

As if to prove his point, one Davos attendee — Ken Goldman, the former CFO of Yahoo — used the question-and-answer period to denounce Bregman and Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of Oxfam International also on the panel, for a “very one-sided panel,” and demanded that they offer solutions to inequality besides higher taxes.

I’ve followed Bregman’s work for some time because of our shared interest in universal basic income (UBI); his book Utopia for Realists is a passionate argument for UBI, open borders, and a 15-hour workweek as important and achievable goals. But with UBI so fashionable in Silicon Valley circles, and global capitalists frequently denounced by right-wing populists as tools striving for open borders, I had thought he was the kind of lefty whose ideas were safe for Davos. Link

Our inability to look beyond the latest news cycle could be one of the most dangerous traits of our generation

For many of us currently in adulthood, how often can we truly say we are thinking about the well-being of these future generations? How often do we contemplate the impact of our decisions as they ripple into the decades and centuries ahead?

Part of the problem is that the ‘now’ commands so much more attention. We are saturated with knowledge and standards of living have mostly never been higher – but today it is difficult to look beyond the next news cycle. If time can be sliced, it is only getting finer, with ever-shorter periods now shaping our world. To paraphrase the investor Esther Dyson: in politics the dominant time frame is a term of office, in fashion and culture it’s a season, for corporations it’s a quarter, on the internet it’s minutes, and on the financial markets mere milliseconds. Link

Meat or two veg? Find out your food’s climate footprint

Avoiding meat and dairy products is one of the biggest ways to reduce your environmental impact, according to recent scientific studies. But what is the difference between beef and chicken? Does a bowl of rice produce more climate warming greenhouse gases than a plate of chips? Is wine more environmentally friendly than beer? To find out the climate impact of what you eat and drink, choose from one of the 34 items in our calculator and pick how often you have it. Link

David Attenborough: collapse of civilisation is on the horizon

The naturalist was chosen to represent the world’s people in addressing delegates of almost 200 nations who are in Katowice to negotiate how to turn pledges made in the 2015 Paris climate deal into reality.

As part of the UN’s people’s seat initiative, messages were gathered from all over the world to inform Attenborough’s address on Monday. “Right now we are facing a manmade disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change,” he said. “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

“Do you not see what is going on around you?” asks one young man in a video message played as part of a montage to the delegates. “We are already seeing increased impacts of climate change in China,” says a young woman. Another woman, standing outside a building burned down by a wildfire, says: “This used to be my home.” Attenborough said: “The world’s people have spoken. Time is running out. They want you, the decision-makers, to act now. Leaders of the world, you must lead. The continuation of civilisations and the natural world upon which we depend is in your hands.” He urged everyone to use the UN’s new ActNow chatbot, designed to give people the power and knowledge to take personal action against climate change.

Recent studies show the 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years, and the top four in the past four years. Climate action must be increased fivefold to limit warming to the 1.5C scientists advise, according to the UN. Link

Climate change will make the next global crash the worst …

if policymakers don’t get serious about a carbon tax set.

One of the winners of this year’s Nobel prize for economics – William Nordhaus – says if policymakers get serious about a carbon tax set high enough to price oil, coal and gas out of the market, a crash won’t happen. Here, though, the breakdown in international cooperation and trust becomes really damaging. Ideally, existing global institutions – the IMF, the World Bank, the UN and the World Trade Organization – would be supplemented by a new World Environmental Organisation with the power to levy a carbon tax globally. Even in the absence of a new body, they would be working together to face down the inevitable opposition to change from the fossil fuel lobby.

Instead, the response to climate change looks similar to the response to the financial crisis: fail to recognise there is a problem until it is too late; panic; then muddle through. That’s a sobering prospect. Link

It’s crazy to ignore 95%; a Climate change guide to the policies that work

This gets back to an absolutely fundamental strategic question that everybody who cares about this stuff needs to ask at the beginning, which is: What policies or technologies are going to get the most tons [of carbon reductions] the fastest? That’s the carbon imperative. 

If you delay, if you don’t do the really big stuff now, then your future has to be unfathomably heroic. In fact, even if you had free negative emissions that were infinite, you might not solve the problem, because we’re going to spin some natural systems into an unrecoverable runaway. We defrost the tundra and it releases soil carbon and methane. Or the melting lubricates more melting, and so forth. 

If you start with this fundamental strategic question — most tons fastest — then you realize that carbon sequestration is perhaps something you should think about [with regard to] path dependency, but as a major focus today, while we’re not rapidly shutting down every coal plant and every natural gas facility, not converting the auto fleet, not launching building codes … it’s crazy.

It really is an abnegation of responsibility to focus on the last 5% while you ignore the first 95%. Link

5C Climate Change

China, Russia and Canada’s current climate policies would drive the world above a catastrophic 5°C of warming by the end of the century, according to a study that ranks the climate goals of different countries.

The US and Australia are only slightly behind with both pushing the global temperature rise dangerously over 4°C above pre-industrial levels says the paper, while even the EU, which is usually seen as a climate leader, is on course to more than double the 1.5°C that scientists say is a moderately safelevel of heating.

The study, published on Friday in the journal Nature Communications, assesses the relationship between each nation’s ambition to cut emissions and the temperature rise that would result if the world followed their example.

The aim of the paper is to inform climate negotiators as they begin a two-year process of ratcheting up climate commitments, which currently fall far short of the 1.5-to-2°C goal set in France three years ago. Link

Stop biodiversity loss or we could face our own extinction, warns UN

The world must thrash out a new deal for nature in the next two years or humanity could be the first species to document our own extinction, warns the United Nation’s biodiversity chief.

“The loss of biodiversity is a silent killer,” she told the Guardian. “It’s different from climate change, where people feel the impact in everyday life. With biodiversity, it is not so clear but by the time you feel what is happening, it may be too late.” Link

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