The Sheer Scale of Possibility; also Putin, Oil, Ukraine, Climate Reparations, Haiti, Triangulation's Magic Accounts, and Hurricane Brittleness.
A links letter about the breakdown, the upswing and the wild ride ahead.
The world buzzes with happenings at the moment, so I thought I’d do a brief overview of some excellent recent stories and resources — tools for judging the tempo, timing and translucence of change. In short, this is a links letter.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine continuing to dominate the world’s attention, the New York Times covers the even larger story, of Vladimir Putin’s widespread efforts to simultaneously block climate action and undermine democracies. In the team-reported story, How Putin and Friends Stalled Climate Progress A handful of powerful world leaders rallied around Russia and undercut global cooperation, they explore a phenomenon that runs from Modi to Xi to Bolsonaro to Trump. Putin’s authoritarian allies have cost humanity years of action.
Donald Trump’s actions will far outlast his presidency.
Consider one of his earliest decisions, to pull the United States out of the Paris agreement — an agreement his predecessor had just negotiated. It played directly into Putin’s vision of the future. When the nations of the world agreed in Paris to work together to fight climate change back in 2015, Mr. Putin didn’t object to the pact.
But he didn’t need to because the very next year, the newly elected Mr. Trump took a wrecking ball to it when he not only pulled out of the Paris accord but also commenced a sweeping rollback of environmental regulations.
Mr. Trump’s actions continue to shape the world. His rollbacks are projected to add at least 1.8 billion tons of extra carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2035 and lead to thousands of extra deaths annually from poor air quality.
None of this is news. We knew this was coming. As I wrote in 2016, in Trump, Putin and the Pipelines to Nowhere, you can’t understand what Trump’s doing to America without understanding the Carbon Bubble,
If you were going to ask why a country like Russia would risk a war to interfere with American politics, look at what the Russian economy is.
Russia is a petrostate. It’s the number one gas exporter and number two oil exporter in the world, but its economy is otherwise stagnant and out-of-date. Those oil and gas assets are controlled by a small number of oligarchs gathered around Putin, the former head of the KGB. Those oligarchs may be the one group of investors who stands to lose the most from the popping of the Carbon Bubble.
Russia’s major national asset is their potential to develop Arctic oil fields opened up by climate change — which won’t happen if investors pull out of oil. If it’s obvious that this oil is unburnable, there’s no point in building all those oil-drilling platforms and pipelines. But if the perception is that the Carbon Bubble won’t pop for decades, then getting one’s hands on millions of barrels of Arctic oil will pump valuations way up. By one estimate, these oil fields could be worth at least $500 billion.
I don’t have any special insight into what Russia did or didn’t do, but if you’re looking for a reason why they would want to disrupt our election, there’s 500 billion of them.
Now, add in all the other Bubble-expanding projects and ploys, pipelines and hotels, and you begin to see the magnitude of the scam here. The difference between the Carbon Bubble deflating rapidly now and popping spectacularly in a decade or more could mean literally trillions more dollars in profits for the kind of people now helicoptering into Washington.
One certain outcome of the politics of predatory delay is the spread of transapocalyptic pressures. The more we heat the Earth, the more we degrade the biosphere, the more we ignore the need to ruggedize for a changing climate, the more people will find themselves in survival situations, struggling against forces not of their own making and beyond their capacities for adaptation.
The coming COP 27 climate talks are supposed to be centered on redressing this reality. “Loss and damage” offers a conceptual framework for the demands of many poorer, less-polluting countries that wealthier, historically high-emissions nations pay for the tranformation now demanded — for the massive ruggedization and sustainable development efforts it will take to at least blunt the edge of climate and ecological impacts in the Global South. Think of loss and damage transfers as one part investment in geopolitical stability and one part reparations for harm done.
Yet, even the kinds of funds being discussed ($40 billion a year by 2025 was the figure agreed to in Glasgow) are not enough to meet the crisis (the U.N. estimates that at least $200 billion a year is needed). More discouragingly, there’s little evidence that wealthy nations — wracked with economic crises and climate impacts themselves; under pressure from xenophobic,isolationist and climate-reactionary populist movements; focused on the very immediate and expensive need to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty — will even pay what they’ve promised.
Indeed, I don’t know a single person whose wisdom on the subject I’d trust, who thinks it’s at all likely that wealthy countries will ever pay enough to close the adaptation gap.
All this leans towards a further breakdown of our already probably crippled ability to secure an Orderly Transition towards global sustainable prosperity, at the very same time as worsening disasters and discontinuities drive hundreds of millions of people into desperation over the next few decades.
Increasingly, we see signs in wealthy nations of people beginning to think of the planetary crisis not as — or at least not only as — a challenge to be met through action, but as a national security threat to to defended against. Not as an emergency but an enemy.
It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way that wind blows. As Adam Tooze writes about Haiti, “This then is [wealthier nations’] answer to the polycrisis on Hispaniola, the Island where the violence of modern history first reached the Americas. Put up walls. Erect check points. Control the flow.”
Remember triangulation? The practice of protecting currently profitable practices from pressure to change by (paradoxically) loudly acknowledging the need to change, then presenting non-disruptive, incremental actions as evidence of progress towards large goals? Well, add the magic of creative accounting, and any company can be a climate leader, quicker than you can say “West Antarctic Ice Sheet.”
Procter & Gamble Co. vowed to cut its heat-trapping emissions in half by 2030, before announcing it had surpassed its target a decade early. Cisco Systems Inc. recently said it had exceeded a goal to reduce its climate pollution by 60% over 15 years. Continental AG, the German tire and auto parts juggernaut, claimed it had slashed greenhouse gases by an astounding 70% in 2020.
These appear to be exactly the kind of giant leaps needed to forestall the most destructive impacts of climate change. But a substantially different picture emerges when using a different accounting method that more accurately measures the pollution from a company’s operations. Procter & Gamble more realistically cut its emissions by 12%, Continental’s pollution fell a more pedestrian 8%, and Cisco’s actually climbed 22%.
In the cases of each of these companies—along with similar claims made by hundreds of others—they’re relying on a common, but controversial, form of climate bookkeeping known as “market-based accounting.”
The problem with triangulation and goal-washing, as I’ve written many times before, is not only that it deceives the public into thinking companies are acting when they’re not, but also that it makes the companies themselves bad at finding the strategies they need to thrive in this new era.
Here are six more links worth checking out:
It’s not all bad news!
Paying supporters got a chance this week to hear a new podcast where I discuss how misgauging the scale of transformation ahead can render us blind to the disruptive possibilities erupting out of the gap between the world we have and the world we need.
In this podcast, I talk about the third great error in climate foresight.
The first error is a false certainty about continuity. I’ve unpacked this one many times elsewhere, and how discontinuity is both irreversible and the defining characteristic of our era.
The second error is a belief that our only path forward is an Orderly Transition. I’ve described this, too, in depth, and how we are in fact facing disruptive transformation and transapocalyptic realities instead.
The third error is believing that every future is one of decline — the despairing idea that the future can only be a small, broken place, dominated by loss and suffering, in cascading tragedies that can never be redeemed.
The losses and tragedies are real. But the losses are not the whole story. Down is not the only direction things can go from here.
I don’t mean those bullshit arguments that climate chaos and ecological collapse have some unacknowledged benefits — “carbon dioxide makes the plants grow faster!” — and that these somehow outweigh the utter tragedy of planetary crisis. Nor do I mean escapist fantasies of technological transcendence and terraforming.
I mean instead that our understanding of the world as continuous and able to change only at a slow, incremental pace undermines our ability to understand exactly how much change is now on the way.
In imagining a world that can only shrink and worsen, we lose sight of our own agency and of the scope, scale and speed of actions that are being released by the fall of predatory delay, continuity propaganda, triangulation and incumbency barriers. We get the future wrong.
The nature of the world around us inclines humanity towards rapidly scaling changes towards sustainability prosperity in rugged systems, for billions of people. The speed of these imminent changes — the churn and disruption already rolling towards us — open up massive possibilities we do not currently see... at least not easily. And the faster it goes, the faster it gets.
This kind of seismic upheaval will bring huge downsides with it, as well, of course. My argument is not that this amplification will “solve” ecological crises and societal instabilities — though it very well could help us limit the extent of the planetary discontinuity we face. My argument is that misgauging the scale of transformation ahead can render us blind to the potentially worldchanging possibilities erupting out of the gap between the world we have and the world we need.
If we are inclined to optimism, we might even understand that the world we can yet make is — even with the worsening of the planetary crisis — in many ways a brighter world than the one we have now: a world that both works better for more people and leaves the future a wider array of good options (the real measure of sustainability).
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