Maybe it is time for a serious rethink? Is a moral economic policy possible?

Posted by on April 3, 2014

Has anyone failed to notice how full of garbage the ocean has become?  The southern Indian Ocean is a long way from anywhere, but searchers for Malaysian Airlines 370 keep spotting objects that turn out to be fishing nets, plastic jugs, shipping pallets and other refuse.  Nothing that has been anywhere near a plane.  I remember back in the early 1970’s when Jacques Cousteau first complained about how littered the oceans were getting.  It’s clearly got a lot worse since.  But oceanic litter is just a symptom of today’s topic.

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A ‘ghost net’ floating with other debris in the central Pacific in 2009.  Photo © Scripps Institute of Oceanography


Our Environmental Footprint

The human footprint on this planet is enormous, and growing larger every day.  Our footprint is a measure of the extent to which we use the goods and services provided by our planet – our use of food, water, timber, fuel, other resources, our release of pollutants that the planet must detoxify, all expressed in terms of the area of a typical portion of the planet’s biosphere that would be required to replace those resources or repair that pollution.  Our footprint is currently at about 1.4 planets, meaning that we use 40% more per year than the planet can provide in a year.  We’ve been dipping into accumulated planetary capital for some time, and this overdraft living is going to continue in the foreseeable future, growing a bit worse each year.  But it cannot go on indefinitely – the planet is finite.  We need economic policies that acknowledge this fact.

The growth in our footprint is fueled by the continued growth of our global population, 7,223,846,960 this moment according to one population clock, and growing at the rate of about 69 million people per year.  That’s about 190 thousand extra people per day, or the equivalent of adding an entire Barrie, Ontario, every single day of the year.  (You can do the math for your own region, if these places are unknown to you.)

Barrie On from air

Barrie, Ontario, a small city about an hour north of Toronto, with a population of 187,000 in 2011.  The world gains a new Barrie every day of the year as our population grows.

Growth in our footprint is also fueled by our individually growing rates of consumption of food, fuel, and other resources.  Global GDP has grown nearly continuously for at least the last 50 years, at an average rate of growth of over 3% per annum, which translates as just under 2% per annum per capita.  With more and more of us engaging in more and more economic activity, is it any wonder that our footprint is growing rapidly?

per capita gdp 1800 to 2007

The trend in GDP per capita has been rising steeply over at least 200 years – each one of us is generating more economic activity than before.  Image © MJ Perry.

In Our Dying Planet, I spent a short chapter talking about exponential growth.  I did so because we mostly do not understand the power of growth.  Yes, some of us may have mastery of the math, and may be capable of calculating how accumulated interest will grow if we do not pay off our credit cards, but few of us have a visceral appreciation for what growth can do.  We need to appreciate exponential growth far better, because all this growth is taking place on a finite planet, and our footprint is now large enough to seriously sully it.  There are hard limits to growth ahead of us, and applying the brakes sooner than later would be wise.

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CO2 concentration in the atmosphere above Mauna Loa has increased 25% since 1958, and the rate at which it increases is also growing.  Graph courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory.

Climate Change 2014, the latest from IPCC

The latest report from IPCC, titled Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, came out on Monday.  It provides further sobering news concerning the diversity and extent of impacts of a changing climate, all substantially caused by our exponentially growing consumption of fossil fuels, removal of natural forests and manufacture and use of cement.  The concentration of CO2 — the most important of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) — in the atmosphere above Mauna Loa was 400.8 ppm on March 31st.  It has been growing steadily since instruments were first installed in 1958, and the slight upward inflection of the curve shows this growth too is exponential rather than linear.  We are releasing CO2 into the atmosphere at slightly faster rates each year, and impacts on climate are now becoming obvious.

Like the report from IPCC Working Group 1 that appeared late last year, this latest provides lots more evidence of climate impacts than previous reports, but no real surprises for anyone who has been following the emerging story.  The Summary for Policy Makers which forms one part of the release provides a brief summary of the range of impacts, and makes the point that many impacts are already happening although they will be getting worse in the future.  It talks primarily about the human impacts that result from the environmental changes that are occurring: food and water security, reduced quality of life due to lowered health status, increase risk of hazard due to extreme climate-related events such as storms, heat waves, floods, droughts, and sea level rise, differential impacts on the poor, and increased tension and civil conflict.  I particularly liked the final figure in the summary document.

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Figure SPM.9 from IPCC report: Opportunity space and climate-resilient pathways.  Image © IPCC.

The left-hand panel of this figure depicts our global environmental system impacted by multiple anthropological stressors which combine to reduce resilience – the capacity of the system to continue to function effectively as external conditions change.  The center panel portrays the possible set of adaptation and mitigation strategies that human societies may adopt – some are more effective than others at retaining or restoring resilience.  The right-hand panel depicts possible future states for our environment ranging (optimistically) from ones where resilience is actually increased over the current case, to very poor situations in which resilience of the environmental system has been almost entirely lost and conditions for people are very degraded.

It should be clear to all that different societies are currently moving through the “opportunity space” making decisions that are better or worse, and moving towards different end results.  To the extent that the stressors on the global system vary geographically in type and severity, the problems posed will vary among societies.  Many small island states face annihilation as sea level rise submerges their land beneath the waves.  Cities like Chicago and Toronto, high above sea level, will face challenges, but quite different ones to those faced by New York, Yokohama or Manila.  Societies will have to work together to reduce emissions of GHGs, but they will be dealing at the same time with quite different types and levels of impact, and may be differentially motivated to cooperate in emissions reduction as a consequence.

Choices for Canada

Canada, as a lightly populated, energy self-sufficient, food-exporting nation, is in a relatively good situation to deal with climate change.  That does not mean that climate change impacts are not going to be substantial.  Nor will they be easy to adapt to.  Our capital-intensive lifestyles (for most of us, anyway) mean that the extreme weather events we are already seeing will incur major costs for repair of our elaborate infrastructure.  Even if insurance policies or governmental relief funds are adequate, those funds still come from somewhere.  The shift northward in climate zones will make some of our farmland much more arid, and the new, more northern land is going to prove to be of far lower quality thanks to the efficient southward shift of soils during the Pleistocene – farming will become much more challenging.  Despite our abundant supplies of fresh water, increased aridity and warmer summers will likely make water supply a greater issue in some parts of the country than at present.  And the rapid warming of the Arctic is going to have major repercussions on the natural systems on which so many northern people still depend for food and livelihoods.

Arctic-ice-cave-001 Alexandra Kobalenko-Getty

Arctic ice is melting at a record pace, suggesting the region may be ice-free during summer within 30 years. Photo © Alexandra Kobalenko/Getty

While some Canadians are speaking confidently of climate change “opening up” the Arctic to development, they might be wise to reflect on the extent of the changes taking place and the likely repercussions on land and in the lakes, rivers and ocean.  Of course, the Canadian government has such a stellar reputation for its culturally sensitive and effective support of First Nations and Inuit peoples, that I am sure that nobody in the north will be worried about the risks to them or their communities from climate change.

Now the IPCC diagram does not make it simple to place a nation or more local region somewhere within the web of pathways through the “opportunity space”.  But I think it is safe to argue that the Harper government (and, to a degree, governments of other political stripe before them) has not been making wise choices and moving towards high resilience and low risk.  True, they have not stood in the way of Provinces or communities introducing initiatives to adapt to coming climate impacts, or to mitigate their own contributions to GHG emissions.  Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec have all taken steps that make them better off than they would otherwise have been.  But the Harper government has mostly refused to let climate become a topic of discussion, has muzzled science, ignored informed advice, and eliminated many environmental regulations designed to protect resilience in one form or another.  It has also become chief cheerleader, rather than responsible regulator, of the fossil fuel industry that is seeking to triple production from the Alberta tar sands as rapidly as possible and ship the product overseas by any means, to whoever wants to buy it, regardless the environmental cost.  Without even counting the GHG emissions that result from the ultimate use of this fuel offshore, the per capita emissions of Canadians to fuel their energy-intensive lifestyles, and to extract these messy, difficult fossil fuel resources, put us within the top three nations on the planet as major carbon polluters.  It is frankly irresponsible and immoral of our national government to behave the way it has.  The Harper government is misleading Canadians about the reality of climate change, it is creating a more difficult future for Canadians than we needed to have, and it is justifying its actions by wasting government funds in advertising its economic action plan, all the while portraying a move towards a carbon-neutral economy as economic suicide, and a threat to the prosperity that Canadians are enjoying.  (The Harper government seems to forget that most Canadians have not seen much prosperity in these years of stagnant wages and rising costs.)

I’ve finally reached the point where I think it is well past time that Canadians ask themselves some important questions.  Is it possible to have a quality life without continuous growth in personal financial worth?  Is it possible to have a quality life without a sustainable environment in which to live it?  Is it possible that our educated workforce could be employed in high value-added enterprises that would sustain a vibrant economy that was not based on digging up resources to sell them overseas to whomever will buy them?  Is it possible that the vast majority of Canadians could enjoy a quality life even if we closed down the tar sands because digging up fossil fuel in excess of our own energy needs simply enables some other nations’ addiction to energy?  Is it possible that the vast majority of Canadians could enjoy a quality life into a good future if we started now to make decisions that retain environmental resilience instead of GDP growth as our top priority and best measure of success?  Think about these questions, and find out if any of our political leaders are talking about them, or suggesting some approach other than “full steam ahead, dig it up, dust it off, ship it out, and pocket the profits, to hell with the mess left behind.”  That is what I hear every time our esteemed Minister of Environment opens her mouth to report that “Canada is working on climate change”.

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Leona Aglukkaq in Question Period last week defending the Harper record on climate.  She seems uncertain of how many fingers to hold up in answer to the question, ‘how many steps has the government taken to address climate change?’  Photo © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

In 2012, Canada had to be dragged kicking and screaming to a decision that finally end export of asbestos, a known killer product.  We continued the immoral trade long after we banned its use at home.  It would be preferable to see Canada voluntarily cease export of fossil fuels, on the ground that this is the responsible course of action that will encourage other countries to wean themselves off these products.  It would also be good to see Canada working aggressively to shift away from carbon-intensive fuels at home as a way of correcting our own sorry emissions record.  Fossil fuels should be left in the ground until such time that they can be used without releasing carbon to the atmosphere.

Some Good News

Those last few sentences may sound like the ravings of a lunatic naïve about the fundamentals of economics, but it is past time for Canadians who care about their environment to continue unquestioned acceptance of the mantra that we must sustain continued economic growth regardless of the type of economic activity relied upon.  We can build a vibrant economy that provides high-value jobs for Canadians, that protects and restores our environment, that adapts us for the climate change that is now upon us, that minimizes the exploitation of fossil fuels, and that shifts us aggressively to a carbon-free economy.  But we will not begin that journey if we continue to believe that exploiting all our natural resources as rapidly as possible is not only desirable, but necessary to our well-being.  It is past time to question the status quo.  And to remember that we live on a finite planet and must reduce our footprint.

Lest I got you all depressed, here are two pieces of good news to close with.  First, some communities within the US are starting to question the desirability of having tar sands oil flow through pipelines near them.  It may only be nimbyism, but it may be a case of putting their environment ahead of profits for the wealthy.  Second, the Ontario government has just announced an agreement to fund the Experimental Lakes Region, summarily cancelled by the Harper government a year ago, at $2 million per year, about the same level as in the past.  Again, this may be a case of crass political action prior to an election, or it may be a case of a government recognizing that supporting environmental science is a legitimate and necessary role during a time of substantial climate change.

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