Monday, September 13, 2010

Climate Change: A Conflict Transformation Approach

Part II: Intentional Transformation

There are many instances that provoke a negative impact on our global ecosystem. Many forms of consumption, production, and disposal of essential and non-essential goods in our everyday lives take a minute toll on the ecosystem. All of them added together represent a burden to heavy to carry for the planet.

In accounting terms, we would say that the planet does not have the possibility to reach or maintain a “break-even quantity” (BEQ) of natural resources depleted and natural resources renewed by the planet itself. For example, it would take millions of years to replenish oil reserves. It can be said that it is not indispensable for life on the planet to have those reservoirs. It is precisely the opposite which could be a more determining factor: when was the last time that those fossil reserves were living organisms roaming the planet? Millions of years ago. As most living organisms grow and thrive with the energy from the sun, it can be said, as some experts have analyzed, that petroleum is sunlight that is kept in storage under the earth’s surface. When we transform it into carbon dioxide, we are pouring into the atmosphere the equivalent of ancient sunlight, as if the sun would suddenly warm up and produce more or warmer rays towards the Earth.

In ecological terms, the problem is referred to as carrying capacity: the planet is not being able to renew the resources that we are extracting from it, be it renewable or nonrenewable, such as forests or minerals.

So far, the problem is almost invisible –except for highly contaminated cities like Beijing, Los Angeles, or New Delhi- difficult to measure, and very hard to tell the extent of the consequences of this uniquely human action.

It is not uniquely human to generate carbon emissions. Every time a living organism expires, its decomposition entails releasing a fair amount of carbon into the atmosphere. This explains why, before the Industrial Revolution, it is said that as much as 280 particles of carbon per million were present in the atmosphere. It also includes volcanic eruptions and other forms of gaseous releases around the planet, like gas columns from the ocean floor or geysers.

Since the Industrial Revolution, this amount has climbed to some 380 ppm, and experts forecast that it will reach 450 ppm by mid century. The situation aggravates when considering the sink of carbon from the atmosphere back into the ground, which is a process that is predominantly reliant on forests and other living organisms consuming carbon material. In a way, a human being is a large sink of carbon, and a large consumer of it too. The problem is that most of the carbon we take in, we also release back after transforming it into energy. It is forests which become larger and larger as their carbon intake increases. When forests are cut down at the fast pace at which we are doing it, then we are affecting the demand side of the carbon equation, hence hampering the planet’s carrying capacity even further.

Prior to elaborating public policy suggestions, it is important to consider three non-constraints that are sometimes confused in the discussion about Climate Change.

First, as it has been stated above, there has always been and always will be carbon particles in the atmosphere. Moreover, there have been episodes in the Earth’s history when CO2 ppm has been far greater than it is now or will be during the rest of the century. Of course, there is a tipping point beyond which life as we know it, with large species of reptiles and mammals on the surface of the planet may not be possible. But life will not be extinguished and the life cycle of the planet will not terminate because of excess carbon emissions generated by humans. Again, it could be that human life is compromised by excess carbon particles, but the planet has proven to be self-sufficient at taking care of itself.

Second, and again related to the planet’s life cycle, there is sufficient evidence that there are temperature cycles of heating and cooling every 10,000 years called ice ages. Australian aborigines are believed to have survived the last five ice ages, as they are believed to have settled and roamed this land since some 60,000 years ago. So, a dramatic increase in atmospheric temperature that would trigger a massive melting of poles and glaciers, consequently bringing a surge in ocean levels flooding millions of square kilometers around the planet, both inhabited and uninhabited, would, in turn, force a sudden reduction in human behavior that generates emissions (think, for example, of oil fields being flooded, together with lowlands where rice and beef and sugarcane and soybean are grazed, all existing ocean ports being destroyed, and tens of millions of people in rich and poor countries being displaced or killed by hundred-meter waves all of a sudden). Although it sounds like a cataclysm, it is an event that can be predicted in the following way: there is a temperature tipping point beyond or after which ice melts or freezes. All ice that is warmed up and brought to a constant temperature above 0 ÂșC will become water. If such temperatures are achieved, then all ice in a particular region of the planet will melt irremediably and fairly quickly, not in a matter of years, but in a matter of weeks. In turn, this water surge around the planet will destroy existing vegetation but will promote the growth of new vegetation that, in the course of decades and centuries, will help sink carbon from the atmosphere, therefore reducing global temperatures, forcing ice caps to form and grow around the poles and in high altitude regions in the form of glaciers or lakes.

Third, it is important to refer to the thermodynamics principle of entropy that explains how energy will naturally tend to flow from higher to lower temperatures. Similarly, as this principle explains, it is impossible to convert 100% of the energy of a system into work. So, some of the energy will be liberated from the system in the form of heat. This means that no matter how much we try to reduce human-generated emissions, there will always be excess energy from human action. A growing population means a growing bulk of heat emissions that alter the planet’s temperature.

With these three non-constraints in mind, the idea is to create policy recommendations that would enhance the quality of the ecological cycle of life on the planet, so that living beings can thrive in greater happiness.

One, the measure of economic growth in GDP and dollar terms seems to be unsustainable. Although wealth can be created from intellectual innovation, industrial manufacturing still requires natural resources and the process of depletion of those resources has a limit. This means that not all countries can expect to have a per capita GDP like the United States or other rich countries. In order for that to happen, we would exhaust supplies of some raw materials essential for some of those industrial processes.

Two, population growth has been exponential, partly because quality of life and access to health systems allows humans to live far longer than we did only a century ago. This means that, even in poverty-stricken societies, human populations have grown dramatically, putting pressure on local natural resources for those communities to utilize.
Three, attempting to cut carbon emissions drastically could have a negative effect, both in terms of economic impact affecting the most vulnerable communities in their supply of basic goods and their sources of employment, as well as in terms of cost-effectiveness of the measure. This means that if a million dollars will be used to cut down emissions from a particular system, that will result on an economic surplus that might not reach an equivalent accrued social value.

Four, conducting intelligent investment in raising awareness about the problem and its solutions. The most cost-effective way to do this is investing in education, more concretely, in research, development and innovation of new procedures and technologies to improve the generation and consumption of energy, both as individuals as well as communities around the world. As a matter of illustration, we became aware of computers and how they could enrich our lives only when they became widespread in the 1990s. They only became widespread when further research and development that led to greater and faster innovation made them accessible for the masses. At constant prices, computers sold in 1980 would be unaffordable for a high percentage of the population that today owns or has access to computers. Similarly, in the 2000s, telecommunications suffered a similar boom as more money was put into research, development and innovation of new technologies, making them cheaper, better, faster, more accessible.

What will happen, then, when technologies to harvest renewable sources of energy will become as widespread as computers and telecommunications? Could we as policymakers provoke a coordinated effort in that direction? Today, renewable energies are as unaffordable as were computers in 1980 or do not exist like many telecommunication platforms prior to the turn of this century. Government spending can lead to greater research and development of innovative technologies to make energy a lot cheaper than it is today, but most importantly, more renewable, causing a natural shift from contaminating sources like coal and oil to less contaminating sources like solar and wind energy.

Five, implementing coordinated and restorative action towards ecosystems around the planet. It is believed that 95% of forests existing in the United States 400 years ago have disappeared. What would happen to the planet if we continue this trend in Africa, Latin America and South Asia? The question to ask is “what will we say the day we cut down the last tree?” as Jared Diamond provocatively asks in his book Collapse. To make sure we never get to that point, we should think in terms of planting more trees, repopulating forests, afforesting regions that have a greater vocation for forest growth, and preserving nature as an invaluable –in fact, priceless- treasure in our planet.

Six, promoting change in the way we deal with residues in human systems, from water to food rests to plastic containers, paper and metals, without forgetting other more toxic components like radioactive waste or low biodegradable materials, like cement. The principle is to change the mindset from “waste” to “input”, so that anything we discard today in the form or leftover or waste can be used in some other process as input, either through recycling or reusing or transforming.

Seven, raising global awareness at an international policy level about the positive externalities that nature offers in economic terms. To begin with, what would be the cost for human industries to purify and clean all the water and air we consume on a daily basis? In turn, this would become food for thought in terms of the negative externalities that represent the pollution from human behavior on the natural environment. If these elements are brought into an economic equation that can be of common agreement to policymakers with the help of the scientific community, supported on civil society organizations for promotion and spread of the word, then it would be expected that many more people will reduce their material consumption, or will reuse the things they buy in creative and non-contaminating ways, or even profit from the economic value of recycling many products that are gone to waste in large communities worldwide.

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