Climate Change: A Moment of Truth

Climate ChangeMartin Rowe

A couple of weeks ago, members of Brighter Green attended the Sustainable Energy for All Forum (SE4All) at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Like many parts of the New York City shoreline, the Navy Yard has been undergoing considerable (re)development—not only in terms of converting old warehouses or brownfield sites into high-priced condominiums or tech start-ups, but also in industry (a new loading dock/pier was being built outside the Duggal Greenhouse, where the Forum was staged).

As a colleague and I waited at the entryway to the Greenhouse for the bus to take us back to the subway station, we fell into conversation with a man standing by a heat vent (it was a chilly morning). His name was Antoine Faye and he is Chief Resilience Officer for Dakar, the capital of Senegal in West Africa. He was set to go to Manhattan to meet with his counterpart, Daniel Zarilli. Both New York City and Dakar are part of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. The aim of the initiative is for major urban centers to develop strategies to cope with the effects of climate change over the next several decades.

Mr. Faye was in a gloomy mood. His appointment, he said, was only for two years, during which time he had to forge a viable future for Dakar, which (like many cities in the developing world) was growing rapidly as populations moved from climate-stressed rural areas into informal settlements nearby in search of work and a livelihood. He told us that one of his major tasks was to figure out how to relocate inland tens of thousands of people from low-lying regions along the shoreline. This was difficult as institutions like the university were already packed with four times the number of people they were built for. He mordantly noted that a further influx of still more unemployed young men would only lead to trouble. Even more depressing from his point of view, he added, was that even were he to come up with a plan for the city, it could simply sit in a drawer and not be implemented precisely because it required forced removal of populations, unemployment, and the kind of tough decisions that not only could end someone’s time in office but throw the entire country into political turmoil.

As he looked out at the bustling Navy Yard, Mr. Faye observed that resilience for a city like New York was a much easier prospect. It had political structures, a private sector, and a civil society that might support the kinds of systemic changes that would enable a city to cope with a meter or so of sea-level rise. (I kept my mouth shut.) Dakar did not, he observed, and so would have to cede part of its land to the sea—perhaps those very areas that formed the more desirable parts of town.

At that point, our bus arrived and we parted ways, but not before my colleague and I had been given much food for thought. It would, indeed, be comforting to believe that New York City’s plans for the next century offer a genuinely resourceful (in both senses of the word) means of responding to climate change (especially in low-lying areas of the Rockaways, Staten Island, lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens that were most affected by Superstorm Sandy). But it’s only human to retain a connection to the sea, to want to rebuild in the same spot you’ve always lived, and to defy nature and the odds: that’s no different in Dumbo or Dakar.

It’s an irony that SE4All took place in industrial Brooklyn—a place that for decades (like so much of New York City’s shoreline) was a place that the well-to-do and respectable avoided. As On the Waterfront or Last Exit to Brooklyn attest, for much of the twentieth century, the harbor and industrial areas were locations where organized crime, violence, prostitution, and the bodies ended up. When NYC developer Robert Moses ringed Manhattan and other boroughs with roads, he reinforced the separation of the shore from the interior, the poor from the rich. Now the shore is being reclaimed for the wealthy—even as it is threatened once again by violence and disruption, this time from climate change.

One final observation: SE4All serves as a forum for philanthropists, investors, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and civil society activists to collaborate on meeting the energy needs of the world’s populations while also reducing our carbon footprint to levels in the timeframe agreed upon by the United Nations. Despite the positive vibes and can-do spirit emanating from the participants on the panels, the globe is failing to meet any of the goals allotted.  And even were renewables to become even cheaper and more widely available, and even if the grid delivery systems and storage capacities improved, and even if governments set a carbon price that pushed the market further away from fossil fuels, and even if developing countries leapfrogged old-school industrialized development based on extraction and the externalization of environmental costs—even if all this happened, it still wouldn’t obviate the terrible decisions that face Dakar now and New York City in the future. That will require the kind of political leadership, civil society engagement, long-term thinking, and realignment of values of what it means to live well that we are woefully ill-equipped for.

Under such circumstances, “resilience” acquires an altogether deeper psychological and even moral underpinning than building climate-surge barriers or phasing in our withdrawal from the coast. It means basing our decisions on equity and shared sacrifice, closing the gap between rich and poor and learning to live with uncertainty and scarcity. To that extent, the Vegan America Project can only offer gestures of support and solidarity, recognizing (humbly) that dietary and lifestyle change will only take all of us (human or otherwise) so far. Much of the remainder is, because of our behavior, now out of our hands.

The Tipping Point and Tiptoeing around the Problem of Climate Change

Climate ChangeMartin Rowe

A January 2017 report by the UK Global Food Security (GFS) programme provides sobering reading for incrementalists, ameliorists, and technologists everywhere. I’m surely not alone in imagining climate change as a series of stepped intensifications and unusual temperature alterations—manageable (if you’re in a rich, developed economy) but not necessarily catastrophic, especially if measures are put in place to mitigate or adapt to those changes.

The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Instead of incremental changes, the report argues, there are tipping points. The organization BBSRC puts it this way:

 

Environmental tipping points occur when a biophysical system experiences a shift from one stable state to another, thereby altering its function. These ‘step-changes’ deviate from the linear way we might usually expect a system to behave, and pose a serious threat to global food security because they could bring about profound changes in the provision of environmental goods and services that are difficult to reverse, which in turn could have serious effects on global food production.

Professor Tim Benton of Leeds University, and an author of the report, adds:

Most people think we live in a “linear world” where small changes have small effects and can be reversed. This report highlights that this may be far from the case: sometimes small changes can have big effects. Climate change may not be about gradual adaptation to a globally changing climate: it might “tip” suddenly into a new and very different state, for example, incremental degradation of soils leading to large scale soil loss under certain conditions, as happened in the Midwest Dust Bowl.

So, my imagination (along with that of many others) is not commensurate with the evidence: which is that a series of ecosystemic shocks and collapses may define the next several decades. In other words, the proverbial and apocryphal frog won’t be slowly heated up over a stove; it will be tossed into a pot of boiling water without its legs. One stable state—comfortable cool—to another—insufferable heat. Adaptation, schmadaption.

Given this reality, the Global Food Security programme offers some recommendations: these involve including food systems in risk management, conducting more research on how to tell when a tipping point is being reached, and doing a cost-benefit analysis on whether it would be better to act now or wait until later to prevent that tipping point.

If these “solutions” strike you as remarkably weak responses to what is clearly a profoundly alarming analysis, then you’re not alone. There is neither  retreat from a tipping point nor is there management: it’s a systemic destruction that, as the report suggests, leads to paradigm shifts and potentially further cyclical changes that are themselves impossible to forecast in their impact. The Dust Bowl was a stable state; so is nuclear winter. Neither is desirable.

Yet, blithely, we—global citizens—continue to consume more animal products and set aside more land, water, fossil fuel, topsoil, and phosphorus for this wasteful and environmentally devastating addiction. All the while we pretend to ourselves that a little more organic farming here or a little more rotational grazing there will slowly and surely ameliorate the situation. This report—like so many others—continues the mantra of “further study and more analysis,” which itself is part of a consciousness that believes, somehow, that someone somewhere will make a decision or invent something that will make climate change “go away” before any “tipping point” is reached, or any public policy is required to force necessary change. Ribbit. Ribbit.

Climate Change and Animal Agriculture

Climate Change IconMartin Rowe

More carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere today than at any time in the last 800,000 years. Models suggest that even if we were to stop all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions tomorrow, the warming effects of almost two centuries of pumping tons of carbon into the air will last decades, with devastating consequences. Given that we’re neither eliminating nor reducing carbon emissions, those increasingly severe effects will likely last long into the next century and indeed may even lead to further release of GHGs independent of any anthropogenic factors.

Because of the potential for runaway climate change (the rain forests dry out and catch fire; the melting tundra releases its vast stores of methane) to reduce the ability of Earth to sustain human life at all, it’s no longer alarmist to think that 200,000 years of homo sapiens and our various civilizations may come to an end within a lifetime, unless we start genuinely thinking beyond what is currently “acceptable,” “feasible,” “sustainable,” and so on.

It’s happened before; Jared Diamond has written about human societies that fell into rapid decline and eventual extinction after consuming too many resources and being unable to sustain that consumption or replace those resources through conquest or colonization. But these losses were local and not planetary. Even a momentary consideration of this possibility offers the kind of realization that Samuel Johnson said “concentrates [a] mind wonderfully.” We must either face difficult, unpalatable, and even excruciating choices now over who gets to live where and how, or we must take the risk and potentially face challenges where there is no element of choice available.

For several years, Brighter Green has been studying the globalization of industrial animal agriculture through the lens of climate change. Animal-based agriculture—both intensive and extensive—contribute anywhere from 14.5 to 51 percent of anthropogenic GHG emissions. A March 2016 report by Oxford University and the American Academy of Sciences suggested that a vegetarian diet—and even more so a vegan one—would dramatically reduce GHG emissions, lower the cost-burden on public health, and allow human beings to be much more productive, among other benefits. So, simply as a means of reducing climate change, veganism is good to think (with).

A few people reading the above will declare that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by careerist scientists eager for government grants who for ideological reasons depress data that contradict the models. The more reasonable skeptics might point out that climate change is real but that humans don’t cause it; or, if we do, that its effects are unknowable and may, indeed, benefit some regions at the expense of others. Some of these might say that veganism is merely a personal choice—as are all diets and lifestyles—and that the rest of the world’s rush to eat more animal products shows that meat-eating is natural. They might add that denying those in the developing world the possibility of eating animal products is, in fact, unjust and imperialist—as is the effort to stop countries from industrializing using the same fossil fuel–based technologies that developed nations employed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Obviously, the Vegan America Project resists such arguments. But our purpose is not to argue the case for climate change or the validity of veganism. As my previous blog suggests, it’s not only a means of thinking about how we might mitigate or adapt to climate change, but it conceptualizes how we’ll mostly likely need to think about a host of other issues: access to potable water, land use, fossil fuels as a whole, energy sources, population pressures, and the rights of the individual and liberal democracy (broadly conceived) in a time of mass migrations and collapsing nation states. These will be realities in the future, because they’re realities now.

As I suggested in an earlier blog, it certainly could be argued that there are more moderate ways to achieve lower GHG emissions through diet, by, for instance, eating less meat, as the Chinese government is currently urging its citizens to do. Likewise, “improvements” that bioengineer food animals to stop belching or farting and producing methane, or hooking these animals up to methane-extractors to utilize their GHG emissions for energy, might help. Eating only chickens instead of cows would reduce the carbon footprint somewhat. We might bioengineer we animals as well! And these supposed “solutions” to reduce GHG emissions could, of course, be accompanied by improvements in efficiency in the energy, transportation, and building sectors so we can continue to eat more meat and dairy products and hold or reduce GHG emissions.

At the moment, a general scattershot ameliorism may be all we have available to us. The financial and short-term policy requirements for those seeking election and re-election; the need for publically traded corporations to satisfy the stock market and share holders each quarter, which may depress necessary but expensive and uncertain investments in research and development; a global population eager to consume meat and other products associated with status and success, and a rush to provide as much energy as necessary to meet those aspirations; the task of figuring out how to develop long-term and resilient infrastructure using current technology given the unforeseeable needs of greater human populations in a more uncertain physical environment in two or three decades:—all these work against the systemic change and long-term planning that are necessary in favor of a “do-able” hodge-podge of half-measures and even conflicting impulses that, the data suggest, might not be enough to avert the catastrophe that a seven-degree Celsius global temperature increase would unleash.

Now, it’s true that technology may solve some of our problems, whether we invest substantially in the short run to shift the course of climate change now, or do so through incremental change that would alter outcomes much further down the road. It’s possible that in fifty or a hundred years we may be able to engineer our way out of future warming, and even (unlikely as it may seem now) not merely mitigate but reverse the effects of climate change. But these are enormous and very risky wagers to place.

In the interim, we’re still using finite natural resources on a planet with ecological limits. Do we really want to produce food that is inexpensive and widely available only because of cheap fossil fuels, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water that are either now running out or need to be left in the ground if we are to meet even the most limited of our goals for reducing global temperature rise? Given the reality that many tens of millions of us need to eat fewer animal products, and many tens of millions want to eat more of them, who will decide who eats less and who gets to eat more? How much meat and dairy is enough for us to be well fed, or feel successful, or will be made sick by before we say “enough”? How can the real price be set, how will the externalized costs be paid for, and who will bear the burden of paying for them?

These are genuinely complicated and challenging questions, involving issues of food supply and equity. But am I wrong to feel there’s something wrong-headed or defeatist about saying that they’re too complicated or challenging to be considered? Why should we assume that human behavior and appetites are unchangeable? We’re an adaptable species: why can’t cultures evolve or change to reimagine the status we assign to meat and dairy? Why be so parsimonious and fragile in our vision of the possible when confronted with a challenge as broad and encompassing as climate change? In other words, why not insert equity, animal rights, and a bold imagination into a vision for the future? Why not toughen and tighten the demands that we assign to notions of “sustainability” and “resilience”? Why not offer proscriptions and prescriptions that might be less inadequate to the task at hand?

To that extent, might run a different kind of objection, why only Vegan America? Why not Vegan Earth? As indicated earlier, Brighter Green has conducted many analyses of the role of meat and dairy in developing and industrialized countries, mainly through the lens of climate change. So, we’re aware the world is integrated and trade and communication becoming still more globalized. We know that borders are porous and nation states combine and recombine in trading regions, political unions, and defensive or offensive blocs. Climate change will enhance the need for international cooperation and also exacerbate local, national, and regional tensions.

Furthermore, we know that air or land migration doesn’t stop at national borders, or that pollution and water usage can be contained within political boundaries. Any policy on wild birds, large predators, and marine animals will, of course, necessitate transnational engagement. Nonetheless, we thought it was necessary to choose a country (yes, our Canadian friends, we know that America isn’t a country, but Vegan USA or Vegan United States just isn’t as catchy) because it’s a defined geopolitical unit and, therefore, provides some means of delimiting what is, obviously, an enormous and expansive undertaking.

To that extent, therefore, both “vegan” and “America” are, like the Project itself, essentially heuristic: a way to think somewhere so we might think anywhere. Every nation state is going to have to grapple sooner or later with the very meaning of the nation state in a world where independent survival will require interdependent governments, industries, and peoples to think their way into the future utilizing their own cultural realities and social, natural, political, and financial capital. Vegan America offers one kind of model.

In the next blog, I offer some thoughts on why the United States might be a good place to start this project.