Professor Will Steffen speaks for hundreds of scientists and experts with a warning: global warming may drive societies to collapse. Carroll Muffett from the Center for International Environmental Law explains plastics and climate change. Big oil and gas plan to flood the world with plastic, and heat the world past the brink.
The violent weather is here now and the Polar ice is going to gone. It’s time to talk about it. Our first guest Professor Will Steffen speaks for hundreds of scientists and experts with a warning: global warming may bring societies to collapse.
Then to the other plague driving us toward Hothouse Earth. You have plastic bits in your body. Almost every living thing in the sea does too. Oil and gas companies plan to produce even more – as a way to stay in business when solar, wind and electric cars take the market. Multinational oil giants and petro-countries will still drill and pump, still leak methane and carbon into a damaged atmosphere, but fossil fuels will be hidden in waves of plastic everything. Carroll Muffett from the Center for International Environmental Law explains plastics and climate change.
I’m Alex Smith. Welcome to Radio Ecoshock, where the whole truth leaks out.
STABILIZED EARTH OR HOTHOUSE PLANET: WILL STEFFEN
I have interviewed hundreds of scientists about severe risks from climate change. Until very recently, 99 percent of them attempted a positive note at the end, encouraging us to take steps to avoid climate disaster. Only Utah atmosphere scientist Tim Garrett said a collapse of this system was inevitable. He said this civilization needs to stop anyway – to save a habitable planet.
In principle, we can operate the economy without using fossil fuels.
In principle, the continents can be rearranged so that Europe is at the South Pole.
Neither will happen. Pathways matter.
— Tim Garrett (@nephologue) December 5, 2020
Now Professor Will Steffen and other prominent scientists say it is time to talk about societal collapse. In December, over 250 scientists and experts published a letter in the Guardian Newspaper. The title is: “A warning on climate and the risk of societal collapse”.
Will Steffen is one of the leading authors. Steffen is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University. He directed major international projects including the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, and the ANU Climate Change Institute. Steffen is author of more than 100 scientific articles and papers.
Will Steffen, Australian National University
Australia has become the fire zone; other countries are becoming storm zones. In 2020, the Philippines and Vietnam were hit by multiple super typhoons, while Nicaragua and Louisiana were struck by huge hurricanes several times. Many of those places will take years to recover, But the next big storms will hit them again before they can. How long until a society cannot recover? Because super storms, fires, or drought hit different countries at different times, maybe we should be thinking in terms of “collapses” – plural – rather than one grand end to civilization.
We talk about losing big port cities to sea level rise as the world warms. But this is not a far future event. Look at Venice, where over two decades and billions of dollars they build a defense system. They tried it this year and it could not stop flooding of classical Venice. What if we can’t stop continuing climate damage?
On December 9, the United Nations released their new “Emissions Gap Report”. Despite a reduction in fossil emissions during the pandemic, as the New York Times puts it “The biggest polluters are continuing to pollute.” We are STILL adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Steffen tells us there is extremely strong evidence that we are not going to meet the 1.5 degree C of warming set out by the IPCC. Two degrees of warming is the best we can hope for, and that would be “stabilized Earth”.
Will and I last spoke on Radio Ecoshock in 2018 about one of the land-mark papers in climate science: “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.” My simplistic impression from Figure 2 in that paper was this: due to physics, there is a kind of shelf of warming, where we could land with more greenhouse gases. It would be terrible and deadly to be there. But beyond that “stabilized Earth” shelf, is a cliff leading to “hothouse Earth”. That might not be survivable.
Steffen tells us the fork in the road between stabilized Earth or Hothouse Earth is probably in this decade and possibly in the first half of it. By 2030 our die is cast: either climate hardship or hothouse catastrophe. This statement is so important I’m going to devote next week’s show to exploring what it means, with a replay of my 2018 interviews on that Trajectories paper, and the Planetary Boundaries work that tries to determine WHEN all this could happen, by examining the tipping points of various large systems, like permafrost thaw or Polar ice melt.
WHAT IS “COLLAPSE”?
How did this team of scientists define “societal collapse”? They use an existing definition which is essentially “an uncontrollable decline in many aspects of the society“.
Steffen gives the Soviet Union as an example of at least a partial collapse. That country’s GDP went down and so did life expectancy. In fact, Will Steffen was in Siberia a year or two after the 1990 collapse of the Soviet state, on a research trip. He witnessed a murder in a Siberian restaurant. It was a lawless almost food-less time three years or so after the fall of USSR. Nobody was sure who was in control. Was the KGB (secret police) or the Mafia? That event shows that even large powerful countries are not immune to at least partial societal collapse.
I wonder, even when we know climate change is coming, can we really make a plan to survive the breakdown of society? Isn’t the point that society breaks down and things don’t work anymore?
One of the signatories on this warning letter from over 250 experts, Ye Tao, was on Radio Ecoshock a few weeks ago. He was developing very sophisticated equipment when he realized his invention might never be used – because of climate-driven breakdown. At Harvard, Ye Tao is now working on reflective mirrors to help reduce our energy imbalance.
Another signatory, Professor Aled Jones caught my eye. He led a study using the Dawe Global Food Security Model. That showed civilization will collapse by 2040 due to catastrophic food shortages. His paper was “Global food security and food riots – an agent-based modelling approach.”
THE PLASTIC PLAGUE – CARROLL MUFFETT
We are surrounded by plastic everything. Most of us know that isn’t good for us or the Earth. Bits of plastic are filling up land, sea, and pretty well every creature, including our own bodies. But did you know the plastic industry is a major driver behind climate change? And the fossil fuel industry plans to make much, much more of it? This is all in a report “Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet” released by the Center for International Environmental Law, a nonprofit environmental organization.
We reached the President and CEO of the Center, attorney Carroll Muffett.
Every country on the planet signed The Paris Agreement, trying to keep Earth under 2 degrees C. of warming. Scientists warn even 1.5 degrees is dangerous on many levels. Can we reach those goals if the plastic industry reaches theirs? No! Carroll Muffett explains why, listing the many places emissions leak into the atmosphere at every stage of producing plastic. In fact, plastic is about 99% made out of fossil fuels (it could be coal, gas or oil).
In the United States, the main feedstock to make plastic is fracked gas – and their methane leaks into the atmosphere are legendary. Then the pipelines and compressor stations leaks, the storage tanks leak more methane, and making plastic uses a lot more fossil fuels, with a lot more emissions. But it isn’t over. Some places burn (incinerate) waste plastic – releasing toxic particles and a lot more carbon emissions.
It doesn’t stop there. Muffett describes new science suggesting plastic in the oceans can lower photosynthesis in plankton at the root of the food chain, thus reducing the amount of carbon dioxide taken up by the sea. More than half our emissions are currently captured by the oceans, so this is not good news. The CIEL report says:
“Laboratory experiments suggest this plastic pollution can reduce the ability of phytoplankton to fix carbon through photosynthesis. They also suggest that plastic pollution can reduce the metabolic rates, reproductive success, and survival of zooplankton that transfer the carbon to the deep ocean. Research into these impacts is still in its infancy, but early indications that plastic pollution may interfere with the largest natural carbon sink on the planet…”
So even if we don’t count all the sea life killed by eating plastic, from birds to fish to marine mammals – even if we don’t worry about new mountains of plastic waste rising in landfills and other toxic biproducts – just the climate change impact of global plastic production can kill off our hopes for a livable climate.
HOW THE FOSSIL FUEL INDUSTRY INTENDS TO KEEP ON GOING – WITH PLASTIC!
We cheer when coal-fired power plants close, to be replaced by solar, wind or hydro energy. We may be replacing those coal stations with emissions from plastics. The total emissions from the plastic production chain are currently equal to the greenhouse gases coming from hundreds of coal-fired power plants. The industry wants to double that or more, during the next decade or two.
From the executive summary if the CIEL report:
“If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, these emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.
By 2050, the cumulation of these greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons—10–13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget.”
I was stimulated to dig into plastic and climate change after reading an article published December 2nd, 2020 in the Barents Observer, based in Scandinavia. Journalist Atle Staalesen worked under this headline:
“The great global energy shift could push Moscow towards plastics production on Arctic tundra
Russia’s powerful petroleum industry feels a mounting pressure from alternative energy sources, and strong voices now say the country’s vast natural gas resources in the Arctic should be used in petrochemical production.”
That looks like a game plan for big fossil fuel producers to keep drilling, even as we try to slash emissions from the power sector. Now they will sell their products as plastic instead. And the climate will still be wrecked.
This is the hottest year ever recorded in the Arctic, by a long distance. Northern Siberians experienced summer-like days instead of snow. The permafrost below those northern pipelines – in Russia and the United States is thawing, caving in under infrastructure from buildings, to roads, to oil and gas pipelines. But the Russians want to keep their fossil fuel production increasing in the Arctic, so did Donald Trump and many American corporations. Shell has been in the offshore Arctic hunt. In September, during the pandemic, the company announced plans to resume oil and gas exploration off the coast of Alaska – a venture they gave up in 2015 after dangerous conditions and accidents. It’s madness, greedy, desperate madness.
ZERO WASTE COMMUNITIES
The report from the Center for International Environmental Law has a short list of steps individuals and governments can do to avert another climate crisis through plastic production. Here is one: a transition to zero-waste communities. The Zero Waste International Alliance exists, and there is a branch here in Canada. I found listings of cities in several parts of the world of communities with zero waste as a goal. These include Vancouver, Canada, Austin Texas, and San Francisco. But so far I have not found a real Zero Waste community in 2020.
So-called “biodegradable” plastic is not a good solution, Muffett says. With a few rare exceptions, we still get the greenhouse gases in production. more commonly, the biodegradable part is layered into other types of plastic which last a very long time, and cannot be separated. We just need to get away from using plastic altogether, especially in packaging, which accounts for about 40% of all plastic use world-wide. Caroll tells us:
“The truth is: there is no way to recycle our way out of the plastics crisis”.
FIGHTING OFF THE PLASTIC PLAGUE
There is some action to stem the plastic tide (literally!) at both the international and community levels. Last year the Basel Convention added plastics to list of restricted waste. Various groups are working to get U.N. to launch a global plastics Convention. Some communities are resisting new plastics plants, like the battle by residents of St. James Parish Louisiana to stop construction of a Formosa Plastics megaplant there.
But the battle goes on, to stop this expanding plastic madness. The CIEL Executive Summary for their 2019 report says:
“These emissions are rising rapidly: a new Shell ethane cracker being constructed in Pennsylvania could emit up to 2.25 million tons of CO2e each year; a new ethylene plant at ExxonMobil’s Baytown, Texas, refinery could release up to 1.4 million tons. Annual emissions from just these two new facilities would be equal to adding almost 800,000 new cars to the road. Yet they are only two among more than 300 new and expanded petrochemical projects being built in the US alone—primarily for the production of plastic and plastic feedstocks. “
FIND OUT MORE ON PLASTIC ACTION
Here are more places to find more on plastic action: breakfreefromplastic.org, thestoryofplastic.org and on Twitter follow @peakplastic. Greenpeace USA has a good report out: ‘Throwing Away The Future: How Companies Still Have It Wrong On Plastic Pollution ’Solutions’”.
A PLASTIC FREE PRESIDENT
A RELATED STUDY IN NATURE CLIMATE CHANGE
Letter Published: 15 April 2019 Strategies to reduce the global carbon footprint of plastics
Authors: Jiajia Zheng & Sangwon Suh, Nature Climate Change volume 9, pages374–378(2019)
ALEX SAYS: CLIMATE AND PANDEMIC: DENIAL IS HUMAN
How can so many people deny climate change is real, even as they flee the fires or try to clean up after the seventh flood? How can people deny COVID-19 is killing hundreds of thousands? Who is protesting the homes of health officials, saying they would rather die than wear a mask? How can anyone deny election results in America. Take heart, this is human nature, this is what humans under super social stress do, and we’ve been doing it for centuries.
When the Black Death plague was killing up to half the people of Europe, when it first arrived in 1351, society went mad. Hundreds of men went from town to town, assembling in public places to whip themselves in a weird religious delusion. They were the flagellants. For all our fancy talk, humans are animals that get scared when a pandemic strikes. Some of us go a little crazy, and some of us go a lot. Check out my show “Climate Denial Is Human” with medical researcher Ajit Varki. He makes denial make sense. That interview was broadcast January 11, 1017. I’ll put a link to it in this week’s Radio Ecoshock blog, at ecoshock.org.
In the 1600’s, the English lord Francis Bacon asked: why was the population sunk in delusions for centuries? Bacon insisted we should check our beliefs against reality. He is considered by many the Father of science. Today, as disinformation and conspiracies swirl around us, we need to keep checking: what are the facts? What can we prove in reality? Even when we are frightened, we need to observe, measure, and test to know what is real. That is why we need science, whether it is about medicine or climate or the operation of the stars. That’s what I do every week on Radio Ecoshock, the weekly science-based program broadcast by non-profit radio stations in 5 countries, and around the world by the Internet.
I want to thank you for hanging in there through a tough year. I could not keep producing this program without your support, and listeners like you came through. Quite a few shows arrived directly from listeners tips and suggestions. At times I see myself as just an intermediary – between our expert guests and you who search for the real truth, reality here on this outlying planet.
Radio Ecoshock will be back right at the start of 2021 with special guests like Dr. Michael Mann and Dr. Ben Santer. We will dive into the deep end all over again. Next week I will replay my 2018 interview with Professor Will Steffen on one of the most consequential science papers ever: “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.” As we heard in this show, we have 5 years, maybe 10, before our emissions commit us to a stabilized Earth, where life is hard or possible for us, or Hothouse Earth, which may not be viable. That doesn’t mean life could end in 2030. It just means by then we will know what road we are on, and where it goes during the next one or three hundred years. Which road we take is still up to us.
No matter what happens with the pandemic, we are not going back to normal. Normal fossil powered civilization is killing us and the gorgeous creations of nature. The year 2021 may be riotous, society may break down a few times in various places, but we are heading to something completely different. It is natural to feel some disbelief, to be discouraged at times. You are not alone. Be kind to yourself and people around you. Stay safe, stay strong and let’s keep going.
My holiday thanks to listeners who contribute to keep this program going. You can help.