Climate scientists have begun talking about a strategic ‘managed retreat’ as a response to climate change. This retreat they say is not an admission of defeat, but rather entails “a coordinated movement of people and buildings away from risks, which, in the context of climate change, are approaching from numerous fronts, including sea level rise, flooding, extreme heat, wildfire, and other hazards.”
NASA is warning of a growing energy imbalance caused by incoming radiation trapped by greenhouse gas.
This energy imbalance is “the most fundamental metric defining the status of global climate change,” according to a Nature Climate Change article.
“Everything else about global climate change” writes Chelsea Harvey—including the warming of the planet—”is a symptom the mismatch of energy in versus energy out.”
New research published in Geophysical Research Letters finds the energy imbalance approximately doubled between 2005 and 2019.
Since I’ve written extensively on environmental issues since the late 80s, when I became one of the founders of our local environmental justice movement, I believe that I may state the following without having to fend off denialists, who label my writing ‘fringe’ and ‘crackpot conspiracy’.
When we talk about a ‘just transition’, we should remember there can be no justice if we are entering a major extinction event, that may include the extinction of human beings, that’s us, within decades.
As Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace puts it, “I wake up with a nightmare.”
Are we already locked in?
Many scientists and activists believe it already too late to do anything practical about the looming climate disaster, we are locked in, they say, to mitigation and adaptation strategies that will of necessity include a staged retreat.
A similar question is posed by the “Deep Adaptation” movement. Its guru, writes Simon Kuper in the Financial Times, “gets criticised for overstating the risk of “near-term societal collapse”. But the truth is most of us probably underestimate it.”
One need go no further than the 1 degree change in temperature of the Southern Ocean over the previous decade (reported to the special Parliamentary Session on Climate Change in the run-up to COP17), to understand the dire consequences of the release of tonnes of methane hydrates sitting on the bottom of the ocean, creating an unstoppable feedback loop in our climate systems.
A new study published in the journal Nature Communications finds that beneath the surface layer of waters circling Antarctica, the seas are warming much more rapidly than previously known. Furthermore, the study concludes, this relatively warm water is rising toward the surface over time, at a rate three to 10 times what was previously estimated.
Tackling historical carbon emissions
Climate change results from the cumulative build-up of GHGs in the atmosphere over time, not emissions in any particular year.
This is why we must urgently tackle our nation’s historical carbon emissions if we are to have any hope of success in reversing the damage. This means offsetting carbon that has already been released into the atmosphere, and doing it the right way, not simply by cooking the books.
Companies such as Microsoft for instance, have already embarked upon decarbonisation plans. The company will not only be carbon negative by 2030 but plans to erase its historical carbon footprint, capturing an amount of carbon equivalent to what it calculates is all of the carbon it has emitted since it was founded in 1975.
South African corporates have been slow to step up to the challenge. Two of the biggest GHG contributors over the past century have been and continue to be Sasol and Eskom — both represent GHG hotspots from outer space.
The Carbon Majors Project is an example of correct quantification of fossil fuel companies’ historical emissions.
Arctic heatwaves, melting permafrost, and Canadian fires do not make for great headlines. The retreat of our civilisation and end of democracy as the Earth becomes less habitable, may just do the trick.
Instead of accepting ministerial lip-service and cowtowing to markets, in effect negotiating our way into 2 degree plus climate change, we should be discussing drastic GHG reductions and urgent decarbonisation. Reductions not simply towards parity — neutrality or zero future carbon emissions, presumably offset on a 1:1 basis –, but actions to tackle historical offsets, at very least on a 1:3 basis or 1:5 basis.
In other words, a carbon negative strategy, for every 1 tonne of CO2 we produce, South Africa should offset by at very least 3 tonnes, reducing our emissions by an order of magnitude. In this way, instead of a ‘staged retreat of civilisation’, we might accomplish a GHG retreat, even a reset of the ‘energy imbalance,’ thus stalling the need for solar shielding interventions and other untested technology.
Despite all the data pointing towards a worst case scenario, South Africa remains trapped in a tedious political debate surrounding a ‘just transition to renewable energy’, as the government drags its heels with a phased approach to the introduction of a carbon tax whose mitigation offsets are not immediately clear.
The country has yet to quantify its historical contribution to global GHG, and the project of auditing represents a challenge to researchers and mathematicians.
Then again, the country has yet to introduce any incentives for the manufacture of electric vehicles and is locked into the internal combustion engine. Many of the plans for the so-called Special Economic Zones, are centred around coal and mineral resource extraction.
What is clear, is the resulting energy imbalance from our country’s GHG contribution is steadily shifting our climate towards a catastrophic collapse of the holocene period. A geological measurement which has defined human habitat for millennia.
As a banner unfurled at Ascot on Sunday reads: We are racing to extinction. And along with it, the extinction of our own democratic freedom struggle.
Questions need to be asked
Is the promise of carbon offsets just another political vaccine, a stratagem to dampen activism without delivering the goods?
How do we know the carbon tax money is not being used on fruitless and wasteful expenditure?
How can we trust the result will not end up before yet another Zondo Commission?
Readers need to urgently question the assumptions made by our government, and especially the whereabouts of an independent monitoring mechanism, one that would need to monitor our nation’s contribution to GHG offsets. Reporting to parliament without delay.
By David Robert Lewis
- This story first appeared on Medialternatives.