In a Time of Climate Crisis
by Albert Bates IN 1824, while working in a Paris laboratory making observations of the Earth, Joseph Fourier described the greenhouse effect for the first time: “The temperature [of the surface] can be augmented by the interposition of the atmosphere, because heat in the state of light finds less resistance in penetrating the air, than in re-passing into the air when converted into non-luminous heat.”
It was a remarkably prescient discovery, given the science of the time. Now we know that “heat in the state of light” arrives as high-energy shortwave radiation, able to penetrate
atmospheric clouds (or glass windows). It is transformed by contact into infrared, or what Fourier called chaleur obscure (non-luminous heat), which attempts to depart as low-energy
long-wave radiation, only to bounce back if obstructed (such as by clouds of greenhouse gases). Fourier appreciated the infrared effect from the work of a contemporary, William
Herschel, and was quick to realize that how you warm the Earth is the same as how you warm a greenhouse.
We’ve known this for a while.
The Holocene Epoch provided humans a habitable planet with a very narrow mean annual temperature band of 11- 15°C (52-59°F). That led us to evolve from mammals with a long tail to making colorful handprints on the walls of caves. In 1824, Svante Arrhenius calculated that doubling just one ingredient of the greenhouse—carbon dioxide—from coal burning, would increase global temperature 5°C. That five degree rise would reset Earth’s surface to between 16 and 20°C, beyond the range of human habitability.
In his opus Kosmos, Alexander von Humboldt declared everything—humans, land clearing, plants, oceans, geography, atmospheric changes, and finally, temperature—part of a coupled system. In Venezuela in 1800, he had published a memoir lamenting the devastation to nature caused by the Spanish in their land clearing, ill-conceived earthworks and overfishing, and warned that such unrestrained human meddling would have unforeseeable impacts on “future generations.”
Humboldt explained in fine scientific detail forests’ ability to enrich the atmosphere with moisture and their cooling effect. Conversely, he described the Earth-warming effect of deforestation. He forecast an ecological chain reaction long after his own lifetime from the deforestation he had witnessed.
As we progressed in our ability to harness energy, we moved from a nearly stable world population, fluctuating little over the course of thousands of years, to a steady growth rate of 30 percent every twenty years. From 1850 to 1925, we’d added one billion more people to the planet and 20 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere. We now add one billion people to the planet and 25 to 30 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere every twelve years. During the same time, we have grown prosthetic eyes of a type only Jules Verne might have predicted in the 19th Century. In its pavilion at COP26, Google displayed high resolution time-lapse maps of the Earth’s surface from 1986 to present. In just four days using 10,000 parallel processors at its cloud data centers, Google was able to pull 700 terapixels of data off 654,178 Landsat passes to generate a new ecosystem of apps for forestry, freshwater, ocean, and urban design. There is a Google app that shows, from space infrared imaging, the advancing line of a wildfire as it spreads in your direction. Another allows fishing agencies and NGOs to track individual vessels in real time, regardless of weather or time of day, and determine whether boats in a restricted area are navigating in trawl, longline, or purse seine patterns.
In the early 1980s I was an environmental attorney challenging an agrochemical company over their practice of deep well injection to dispose of unwanted wastes from the manufacture of herbicides and pesticides. The company argued that Tennessee had plenty of surface drinking water and need not be concerned about protecting deep aquifers. I countered by producing experts to talk about population and climate change. At that time conventional wisdom predicted one degree warming per century. The education I got during those proceedings so depressed me that I retired from law and became a mushroom farmer.
In the late ‘80s, I re-gathered all the evidence I had assembled and wrote Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do, with a foreword by Al Gore.
Since that time, I have been somewhat obsessed with the issue of climate. After the International Permaculture Convergence in Brazil, I was able to immerse myself in the
mystery of the Amazonian dark earths, the terra preta do indio, and started attending scientific meetings on biochar and negative emissions. I invited Darren Doherty, Joel Salatin, Kirk Gadzia, Elaine Ingham, Brad Lancaster, and Eric Toensmeier to The Farm to teach our first carbon farming course in 2009. I wrote The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change with a foreword by Vandana Shiva in 2010, and, with Kathleen Draper, Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth in 2018.
In October 2016, Patricia Scotland, Secretary General of the Commonwealth of Nations, invited me and several others to London to advise on a plan to reverse climate change. We came up with a synthesis of concepts that somewhat resembled a permaculture curriculum. Soon after that meeting, Secretary General Scotland became the first official spokesperson to describe permaculture at a United Nations meeting—to the hundreds of heads of state at the Summit in Marrakesh (COP-22). It seemed to me then that we might actually be making some progress.
You say you got a real solution
Well, you know We’d all love to see the plan.
A permaculture plan to reverse climate change has been on the table for several decades. We discuss it every time we gather in our convergences. Regenerative Agriculture. Remineralization. Water systems. Kelp farms. Ecosystem Regeneration. Bioregionalism. Ecovillages. Ecocities. Transition. These are not secrets. We have been writing books about them, making documentaries, teaching workshops, doing
TED talks, hosting international conferences, and growing regional and trade networks to speed our internal spirals of improvement. The permaculture plan involves returning a trillion trees to the forest, a million whales to the ocean, and indigenous wisdom to our everyday lives. It is science-based and forward-leaning.
At Glasgow in 2021, climate scientist Johann Rockström ran through ten new insights, that as he said, “any climate negotiator needs to have in his or her back pocket to be effective.”
The first of the insights is:
“From an earth systems science perspective… 1.5°C is still a possible landing zone,” but immediate and drastic global action is required. This translates to a 2-gigaton CO2e annual reduction pace in emissions from the present rate of 42 GtCO2e/y*—a 5% downward slope.*
“But if you want to have a 2/3 chance of success,” Rockström said, “it requires a doubling, to 4 billion tons of CO2 per year”—a 10-percent annual reduction pace. “The question is how will we do that. From a feasibility perspective… an overshoot is likely.”
Rockström repeated for effect. We need a ten-percent glide path for emissions reductions, “if you want to have a 2/3 chance of success,” he said.
Would you get on a plane if you knew that one in three flights crashed? Would you put money in a bank if you were told you only have a 66% chance of getting it back out?
Those are the odds we are betting the fate of the Earth on. If (and it is a big IF) we can cut our civilizational footprint by ten percent this year, and another ten percent again next year, and so on, then we can still take those odds and get a 2/3 chance our children will make it to the next century.
Consider halving the world’s emissions by 2030, and then to a quarter by 2040, an eighth by 2050 and, by 2060, withdrawing through whatever tools we might invent and deploy, the remainder of today’s emissions, even as our emissions continue their decline to one-sixteenth, one-thirty-secondth, one sixty-fourth, and so on. Can you imagine half the number
of cars on the road? Half the number of flights? Can you then imagine one sixteenth? Or one sixty-fourth?
Perhaps one may believe internal combustion cars will be replaced by solar-powered autonomous vehicles, or that planes will be fueled by blue-green hydrogen, and that a
population of 9 billion will be consuming a plant-based diet with a smattering of farmed fish and lab-cultured animal cells. It is a techno-cornucopian dream.
Sadly, the “renewables revolution” is mostly snake oil, because it is only supplying electricity, and only marginally increasing that supply or availability, in an amount less than
the global growth of electricity demand, never mind energy as a whole. Solar cells and wind generators are not retiring any airplanes or cargo ships. They are not even retiring coal.
Energy demand is still growing faster than renewable buildout, and that gap is being filled by fracked oil and gas that continues to expand to more countries year by year.
The rural US, hit hard by flood, fires, and freezes, still debates whether climate change is a made-up thing. One hundred-fifty million voters turn apoplectic if you use a dog whistle like “socialism.” Congress still has legislative gridlock over the fickle declamations of a lone coal millionaire who lives on a yacht and drives a silver Maserati. He keeps saying a climate-smart budget would push up inflation and points to the 6-percent rise in food prices at the corner grocery. What do you imagine the inflation of food prices will be when there are no more pollinators?
This is the challenge UN delegates were trying to grapple with in November 2021. The plain wording, “accelerating efforts towards the phase-out of coal power and fossil fuel subsidies by 2030” was in the final days of that summit replaced by “accelerating efforts towards the phase-out of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” India wanted “phase-out” changed to “phase-down” which may seem like a minor wording change but what it really meant was coal power would never be eliminated, merely downsized, and
then only the “unabated” kind, which meant older plants with no scrubbers. In order to go home and get some sleep, the plenary agreed to loopholes large enough for delegates to
ride a hydrogen e-bus back to their hotels through.
One of the more important decisions made by UN organizers in Glasgow was to issue a full-venue badge to Kim Stanley Robinson. There were two books that came out during
the COVID pandemic that really bring home this issue. The first was Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. The second was Paul Hawken’s Regeneration, the sequel to his global
best-seller, Drawdown. Both are roadmaps as detailed as one could ask for, but as broad as Humboldt’s vision of nature’s interconnectivity.
Robinson combined his recipes into a fiction narrative wherein the world responds to a catastrophic heat wave by forming a sensible bureaucracy, the Ministry for the Future,
to tax emissions and use the revenues to reverse climate change. One chapter lists scores of actual projects around the world that are now engaged in that work. They are available
in the new Google Earth Engine even as I write this, thanks to David McConville at the Buckminster Fuller Institute. Ministry for the Future resembles James Burke’s After the
Warming series on BBC in 1989. There a Planetary Management Authority is established following a disastrous climate refugee slaughter reminiscent of the trenches of World War
One that gave us the Geneva Convention. You can view After the Warming on YouTube, where you can also watch Stan Robinson reading a chapter from his book during a side event in Glasgow put on by Brian Eno.
Or you can plumb the depths in an Annex to the Glasgow Pact that prescribes exactly the same formula—a “Supervisory Body” that collects fees on emissions and uses the revenues
to reverse climate change and aid distressed refugees. The Glasgow Pact calls for that to be rolled out at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh in 2022.
One must ask whether resistance to global authorities, not just in the US but also in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, will doom any sort of global Ministry with tax and spend pretensions. In Regeneration, Hawken dodges that trap, putting the onus for change on everyone. He lays out the causes and cures, not only of climate change but virtually all human ills—population and rights of women; misguided philanthropy; urban design; energy; big food, big pharma, big banking—and what to do about it. The answer is not world
government. It is simpler than that. Individuals just need to stop waiting for Godot and act. Choose differently. Choose better.
We have fallen into a kind of curious trap in the West where we no longer trust government, but we expect billionaires or deca-billionaires or centa-billionaires to solve our
problems, which is both ridiculous and dangerous. History is littered with the ruins of civilizations that went down that hole.
In a few hundred pages Paul Hawken lays out hundreds of fulsome, wholesome, complete, and total solutions to the greatest crisis we have ever faced in the history of our species. If he doesn’t save the world from nuclear weapons, cyberwar, or smallpox, I can forgive him. We at least have the tools we need to repair the climate and cannot say we didn’t know.
At the Indigenous Clean Energy Hub in Glasgow’s Green Zone the discussion went trans-dimensional. There were those who attended in 3D—masked face to masked face with
appropriate social distancing and proof of health. There were those who came into the venue by 4D—via UN web-tv, Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces or YouTube. One of the moderators said we need to respect those who are out of these matrices but inhabit 5D, the spiritual realm in which distinctions between separated individuality are ephemeral anyway.
Stan Stalnaker of Hub Culture said we can’t afford to have a revolution to overthrow the world monetary system— we climate activists have neither time nor ability. Nor can we wait for a technopolis singularity where robots become smart enough to save us all. We can all get to 5D, however, and that can begin with sitting in a forest and listening to the trees.
* GtCO2e/y stands for billion metric tons (petagrams or gigatons) carbon dioxide equivalent per year. By carbon dioxide equivalent I mean all greenhouse gases, such as methane,
nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons, aggregated as if they had the same greenhouse effect as carbon dioxide. There are between 40 and 50 billion tons of greenhouse gases, in CO2e, added by humans to the atmosphere and oceans every year, approximately equal to additions from the natural world. Δ
Albert Bates describes himself as an Emergency Planetary Technician and Climate Science Wonk—using naturopathic remedies to recover the Holocene without geoengineering or ponzinomics. He has been a repeat contributor offering valuable analysis to this publication.
You can follow his weekly articles at Medium or support him through Patreon.
Hawken, Paul, ed. Regeneration: Ending the climate crisis in one generation. Penguin Random House 2021.
Hawken, Paul, ed. Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. Penguin Random House 2017.
Robinson, Kim Stanley, The Ministry for the Future, London: Orbit 2020.
Wulf, A., “The Forgotten Father of Environmentalism,” The Atlantic, December 23, 2015.