Climate Catastrophe: Surviving the 21st Century

Posted on Thursday, February 18th, 2010 at 12:29 am by dpacheco

By Ronnie Cummins and Will Allen

Part 1 of 2
This article was originally published on the Organic Consumers Association website.

“The catastrophic impacts of climate change are not only going to take place in the distant future. They are taking place now.”

 - Vandana Shiva, Soil not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis


Climate Stabilization Requires a Cultural and Political Revolution

The climate, energy, and political catastrophe we are facing is mind-boggling and frightening.   Yet there is still time to save ourselves, to move beyond psychological denial, despair, or false optimism. There is still hope if we are willing to confront the hydra-headed monsters that block our path, and move ahead with a decisive plan of action. The inspirational message we need to deliver is that we’re not just talking about drastically reducing fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution, but rebuilding society, creating in effect a New Woman and a New Man for the 21st Century. What we are witnessing are the early stages of a mass grassroots consciousness-raising and taking back of power from out-of-control corporations, banks, corporate-controlled media, and politicians. This cultural and political revolution will empower us to to carry out a deep and profound retrofitting of industry, government, education, health care, housing, neighborhoods, transportation, food and farming systems, as well as our diets and lifestyles.

The scale of human and physical resources needed to turn our current suicide economy into a green economy is daunting, but absolutely necessary and achievable. The only viable roadmap for survival-an 80-90% reduction in fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050-means we must force a drastic reduction in military spending (current wars and military spending are costing us almost one trillion dollars a year). We must tax the rich and the greenhouse gas polluters, and bring our out-of-control politicians, banks, Federal Reserve System, and corporations to heel.

The good news, as Van Jones and others have pointed out, is that this 21st Century green economy will not only stabilize the climate, but enable us to retrain and reemploy the U.S. workforce, including low-income youth and 16-25 million unemployed workers, as building retrofitters, solar and wind installers, recyclers, organic gardeners, farmers, nutritionists, holistic health care providers, and other green economy workers.

Beyond Copenhagen: Civilization at the Crossroads

The negotiators and heads of state at the December 2009 Copenhagen Climate negotiations abandoned the summit with literally no agreement on meaningful greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane) reduction, and little or no acknowledgement of the major role that industrial (non-organic) food and farming practices play in global warming. Unfortunately the statements and behavior of Copenhagen delegates, and the enormous divisions between the Global South and the industrialized nations, make it clear that galvanizing a legally binding international agreement to drastically reduce greenhouse gas pollution will be a protracted and difficult struggle.

China and the United States are equally and jointly responsible for more than 40% of the current global climate destabilizing GHGs. China’s emissions arise from 20% of the world’s population. U.S. emissions come from 5%. Although China, India, Mexico, Brazil and other developing nations are responsible for a growing discharge of GHGs, most of the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and oceans today are directly attributable to the United States and Europe’s industrial and transportation emissions since the early 1900s.

From an ethical, legal, and survival perspective, North America, E.U. and Japan must lead the way. To avoid a disastrous rise in global temperature (a literal climate holocaust), the wealthy, highly industrialized nations must acknowledge the seriousness of the crisis, cut their emissions, and stop playing blame and denial games with China, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and other developing nations. Major cuts by the developed nations need to start now, and they need to be deep, not 7% as President Obama proposed in Copenhagen, nor the 20% that the E.U. offered.

The hour is late. Leading climate scientists such as James Hansen are literally shouting at the top of their lungs that the world needs to reduce emissions by 20-40% as soon as possible, and 80-90% by the year 2050, if we are to avoid climate chaos, crop failures, endless wars, melting of the polar icecaps, and a disastrous rise in ocean levels. Either we radically reduce CO2 and carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e, which includes all GHGs, not just CO2) pollutants (currently at 390 parts per million and rising 2 ppm per year) to 350 ppm, including agriculture-derived methane and nitrous oxide pollution, or else survival for the present and future generations is in jeopardy. As scientists warned at Copenhagen, business as usual and a corresponding 7-8.6 degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperatures means that the carrying capacity of the Earth in 2100 will be reduced to one billion people. Under this hellish scenario, billions will die of thirst, cold, heat, disease, war, and starvation.

If the U.S. significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions, other countries will follow. One hopeful sign is the recent EPA announcement that it intends to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Unfortunately we are going to have to put tremendous pressure on elected public officials to force the EPA to crack down on GHG polluters (including industrial farms and food processors). Public pressure is especially critical since “just say no” Congressmen-both Democrats and Republicans-along with agribusiness, real estate developers, the construction industry, and the fossil fuel lobby appear determined to maintain “business as usual.”

During the Bush years, scientific warnings and public demonstrations against global warming were ignored or trivialized, even though many of our protests were large and well organized. Now, in theory, we finally have a Congressional majority and a President who claim to be willing to listen and take action to stop global warming. But in order to get their attention, and move from small change to major change, we are going to have to turn up the volume. We have to stop thinking that things are going to get better because Obama is right-minded. Things are going to get better if and when we force Obama and our out-of-control politicians and corporations to bend to the people’s will.

Beyond Copenhagen: Making Polluters Pay

Instead of the weak “cap and trade” bill supported by Wall Street speculators, and passed by the House, we need a real tax on GHG pollution. Yes, we can and must directly rebate working class and poor people for increased energy costs, but hundreds of billions of dollars in GHG and corporate taxes annually must be earmarked over the next decade for green infrastructure development, including a new electric grid, a mass transition to organic agriculture, mass transit upgrades, deep retrofitting of the nation’s five million commercial and 83 million residential buildings, and a crash program of alternative energy research and development.

We must continue to expose the worst greenhouse gas polluters, such as utilities companies, petrochemical corporations, car manufacturers, coal and mining companies, the construction industry, and corporate agribusiness, and demand that they begin to retool their industries immediately. We must move beyond polite protest and scattered dissent and dramatically take our message to the streets and the corporate suites, Congress, state legislatures, and our local governments.

The Deadly Greenhouse Footprint of American Consumers

We all know in general that cars, trucks, coal and power plants, household heating and cooling, and manufacturing industries spew a majority of the greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and the oceans. But did you know that U.S. household use of fossil fuels (housing, transportation, and food) accounts for 67% of total energy consumption and 67% of GHG’s emitted? 1

Heating, lighting, and cooling our poorly insulated and designed 113 million homes and apartments and running our electrical and gas appliances consumes 26.6% of total U.S. fossil fuels.

Cruising in our gas guzzling (averaging 22 miles per gallon) and underutilized cars (average 1.4 passengers per journey) burns up another 23.4% of energy.

Eating highly processed and packaged foods and animal products, produced on chemical and energy-intensive factory-style farms, transported over long distances, and throwing our waste foods into the garbage (rather than composting them) eats up another 17.3% of the nation’s energy.

The average U.S. citizen generates 19.6 tons of climate destabilizing greenhouse gases every year, more than twice as much as the European Union and Japan (9.3 tons per capita), and 7.3 times as much as the developing world (2.7 tons per capita).

The Tab for Saving the U.S. from Climate Chaos: $700 Billion a Year

The estimated costs over the next 40-50 years to replace coal and natural gas with solar and wind in electricity generation, at current levels of use, is $15 trillion (which is about the equivalent of U.S. GNP for one year) . 2

We must reduce fossil fuel use by 80-90% in the nation’s five million commercial and 83 million residential buildings (which currently use up 40% or 40 quadrillion BTUs of our total energy), including reducing building size, changing lighting and windows, making wall, ceilings and floors as thick and as airtight as possible (R-50 or R-60), and placing furnaces and ductwork inside the retrofitted space. The estimated costs for this in future decades will amount to another $10-15 trillion This figure is based upon deep retrofitting costs of $50,000 per residential unit, and $600,000-$2,000,000 per commercial building, with two million new more compact units per year replacing old housing and business stock and meeting new 90% fossil fuel reduction standards.

Converting from our current energy and chemical/GMO-intensive food and farming system (which currently accounts for 35% of our greenhouse gases and $800 billion in diet-related health care costs annually) to one which is organic, relocalized, energy-efficient, and carbon sequestering, will cost at least another $100 billion per year, or $5 trillion over 50 years.

Rebuilding our mass transit systems and reorganizing personal transportation (5-15 people in high-mileage “smart jitneys” and electric cars and vans instead of 1.4 passengers in gas guzzlers, along with a massive increase in bicycle use) will cost us at least another $100 billion a year, or $5 trillion over 50 years.

In other words we need to start redirecting $700 billion a year in federal expenditures away from war and corporate welfare, offer training and jobs in a giant green jobs program (similar to the Works Project Administration program of the New Deal era in the 1930s), and build a new green, full-employment economy. Where are we going to get this money? Not by raising taxes on working people and the poor, but by taxing the rich and the greenhouse gas polluting corporations, and guaranteeing loans from a new citizen-controlled Federal Reserve and banking system.

A major part of this transition to an organic and low-carbon economy will require innovative public and private financing for home, transportation, food and farming retrofitting along the lines of the recent PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) program in California. 3 Under this “Slow Money” regime, homeowners, renters, businesses, and farmers can immediately start to reduce their energy bills and carbon footprints and get their homes, businesses, and farms retrofitted for no money down, with low-interest costs being added to their mortgages and tax bills over an extended 30-40 year period.

Can we afford $700 billion per year? Obviously we can, although shortsighted, unsustainable corporate profits will no doubt suffer. Keep in mind that the Pentagon budget, not including the wars for oil and strategic resources in Afghanistan and Iraq, will cost us over $700 billion dollars this year. And don’t forget that Obama and his advisors recently handed over approximately $12 trillion in subsidies and grants to the Wall Street criminals and pathological kleptomaniacs who rule our out-of-control financial system. Clearly, what we are proposing is chump-change compared to our recent corporate giveaways.

Honest businesses, homeowners, consumers, farmers and industries that reduce their carbon footprint and help develop the green economy can and should receive substantial tax credits. Speculators, mercenaries, toxic polluters, and Masters of War can go to financial hell, where they belong.

The Hidden Greenhouse Gas Damage of Food Inc.

Although transportation, industry, and energy producers are significant polluters, few people understand that the worst U.S. greenhouse gas emitter is “Food Incorporated,” industrial food and farming. Industrial farming accounts for at least 35% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (EPA’s ridiculously low estimates range from 7% to 12%, while some climate scientists feel the figure could be as high as 50% or more). Industrial agriculture, biofuels, and cattle grazing-including whacking down the last remaining tropical rainforests in Latin America and Asia for animal feed and biofuels-are also the main driving forces in global deforestation and wetlands destruction, which generate an additional 20% of all climate destabilizing GHGs. In other words the direct and indirect impacts of industrial agriculture and the food industry are the major cause of global warming.

Currently conventional (energy and chemical-intensive non-organic) farms emit at least 25% of the carbon dioxide (mostly from tractors, trucks, combines, transportation, cooling, freezing, and heating), 40% of the methane (mostly from animal gas, and manure ponds), and 96% of nitrous oxide (mostly from synthetic fertilizer manufacture and use, the millions of tons of animal manure from cattle herds, pig and poultry flocks, and millions of tons of sewage sludge spread on farms). Per ton, methane is 21 times more damaging, and nitrous oxide 310 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide , when measured over a one hundred year period. Damage is even worse if you look at the impact on global warming over the next crucial 20-year period. Many climate scientists now admit that they have previously drastically underestimated the dangers of the non-CO2 GHGs, including methane and nitrous oxide, which are responsible for at least 20% of global warming. 4

A major portion of the CO2e (all GHGs not just CO2) emitted by industrial farming comes from long distance transportation, heating, freezing, and processing. So, the more you cook from scratch, buy locally, and eat raw vegetables and fruits, the less CO2e you produce. The bottom line is that we as a society are what we eat. In the oncoming era of climate chaos and peak oil, we must make the transition to energy efficient, climate adaptable, local and regional based organic farms, urban gardens, and primarily vegetarian diets, or we will likely not survive.

Almost all U.S. food and farm-derived methane comes from factory farms, huge herds of confined cows, hogs, poultry operations, as well as rotting food waste thrown into land-fills instead of being separated out of the solid waste stream and properly composted. To drastically reduce methane releases we need an immediate ban on factory farms, dairies, and feedlots. We also need mandatory separation and recycling of food wastes and green garbage at the municipal level, so that that we can produce large quantities of high quality organic compost to replace the billions of pounds of chemical fertilizer and sewage sludge which are releasing GHGs, destroying soil fertility, polluting our waters, and undermining public health.

Nearly all nitrous oxide pollution comes from dumping billions of pounds of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and sewage sludge on farmland (chemical fertilizers and sludge are banned on organic farms and ranches), mainly to grow animal feed. Since about 80% of U.S. agriculture is devoted to producing meat, dairy, and animal feed, reducing agriculture GHGs means eliminating the overproduction and over-consumption of meat and animal products.

Organic Farming and Ranching Can Drastically Reduce GHG Emissions

The currently catastrophic, but largely unrecognized, GHG damage from chemical farms and industrial food production and distribution must be reversed. This will involve wholesale changes in farming practices, government subsidies, food processing and handling. It will require the conversion of a million chemical farms and ranches to organic production. It will require the establishment of millions of urban backyard and community gardens.

If consumer pressure and grassroots mobilization geared toward changing public policies cannot force U.S. factory farmers to change the way they farm, process, and ship their products it will be almost impossible to deal with catastrophic U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. 5 On a very hopeful note, however, i f farmers do change, and make the transition to organic farming, farm and ranch land can become a significant sink or sequester pool for greenhouse gasses, literally sucking excess greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and the ozone layer and sequestering them safely in the soil, where they belong.  


References:

1. Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change . Pat Murphy. New Society Publishers, pp. 120-127.

2.Ibid,, p. 85

3. “How innovative financing is changing energy in America” by Cisco Devries. Grist, January 27, 2010.

http://www.grist.org/article/2010-01-26-how-innovative-fi…

4. “Los otros contaminantes que cambian el clima” by Jessica Seddon Wallack and Veerabhadran Ramanathan. Foreign Affairs Latinoamerica. Vol. 9 Number 4, 2009. pp. 29-40

5. Nutrient Overload: Unbalancing the Global Nitrogen Cycle . Staff of World Resources Program. 1998-1999

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