(or “The difference between rust and fire”)
Randall Munroe has given us a great way to look at climate change over a somewhat-deep-time perspective. (Remember, I’m an anthropologist, so 20,000 years is trifling – it’s next to nothing in geologic time, and only about one-tenth of the time since the first Homo sapiens evolved in Africa.) Today’s XKCD walks the viewer through a very nice scale model of the 20 millennia since the last glacial maximum, with some key events from the geological, archaeological and even linguistic record. I’ll admit I haven’t taken the time to fact-check his placement of these events, but the ones I’m familiar with seem to be in about the right place (tragic extinctions of saber-toothed cats and Pokemon, I’m less certain about). Scrolling through 500-year chunks of time, and reading the events therein, leaves one with a clear sense of just how out-of-the-ordinary the change over the last 500 years – and especially the last 100 years – has actually been.
It’s good to see that the associated explainxkcd has not yet descended into a flame war (as of 11am PDT on 12 September 02016). Clear, popular and provocative explorations often attract the attention of professional climate-denier trolls – this even happened to me once, gentle readers, despite the fact that I have “dozens of loyal fans… baker’s dozens… they come in 13s.” Remember, when there is over 97% scientific consensus on something, it is about as close to proven as science can reasonably get.
As Randall Munroe had pointed out previously, the difference between the effects of regular corrosion and a car fire is simply a question of how fast the oxidization is happening.
When it comes to climate change, extinctions and far too many other phenomena, the difference between Anthropocene changes and natural background rates of change are roughly on that scale of difference. It’s time to be in emergency response mode if we are to have any hope of saving what’s left.
Elinor Ostrom’s on-the-ground research showed how actual people within real, living cultures overcome Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” (more accurately, “The Tragedy of Unmanaged, Laissez-Faire, Common-Pool Resources with Easy Access for Noncommunicating, Self-Interested Individuals”). Remember that market economies as we know them have only been around for a few centuries (largely coincident with the Antrhopocene) – other socioeconomic systems represent the vast majority of the time that humans have been humans.
Many commons have flourished for hundreds of years, even in periods of drought or crisis. Their success can be traced to a community’s ability to develop its own flexible, evolving rules for stewardship, oversight of access and usage, and effective punishments for rule-breakers. …[T]he rules for appropriating a resource must take account of local conditions and must include limits on what can be taken and how… Commoners must be able to create or influence the rules that govern a commons. … [T]he authority to appropriate a resource, monitor and enforce its use, resolve conflicts and perform other governance activities must be shared across different levels— from local to regional to national to international.
Two fascinating and promising new articles regarding this fossil of a fuel (both from German Energiewende perspectives):
Craig Morris at Energy Transition makes the argument that, particularly in light of COP21 and the divestment movement, coal’s dropping price may not lead to more demand (as traditional economics would predict), but instead may be a consequence of the fact that no one really likes coal anymore. Even China’s coal use is down 5%, and their coal imports are down 35%. Is “The Invisible Hand” actually getting it right for a change, or is this really just demonstrating the efficacy of national policies in places like China and Germany?
Coal prices are at rock bottom, and coal companies have been hurt badly. (Photo by Marcel Oosterwijk, modified, CC BY-SA 2.0)
This Science Climate Policy editorial notes that, although cheap coal is still Germany’s top energy source (43% in 2015) and top GHG emissions source (40% of carbon emissions), renewables are rapidly overtaking coal there. They are particularly heavy users of some of the least-efficient, dirtiest coal: lignite. Germany has pledged to go to 80% renewables by 2050 (and they’re committed to giving up nuclear power, and it’s not exactly the sunshine state up there, so it’s not as if they’re just doing it because it’s easy). Weaning themselves off coal is the only way they will get there. Agora Energiewende proposes halting all construction of new plants and lignite mines now, and closing down the older lignite plants beginning in 2018.
“The Stone Age did not end because people ran out of stones.”
– Fritjof Capra (from Z. Yamani)
Coal is the fuel that opened the way to the Industrial Revolution, for both good and ill. That was a long time ago, at the beginning of the Anthropocene. It really is time to move on to something better. Germany is one major industrial nation who’s getting serious about doing it, and China appears to be on her way as well. This is a most welcome reflection of the Great Work of our time.