Ecocide - Give Nature Rights

10/31/2018 , , , , 0 Comments

By giving nature legal rights could we halt the ongoing onslaught on vital ecosystems that sustain us? There is currently an upswing in proposals of giving legal rights to ecosystems all around the world as a response to the ongoing onslaught on the natural world.

Ecocide is the loss or damage to, or destruction of ecosystems of a given territory, such that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants has been or will be severely diminished.

The power of laws to prevent ecocide is that it creates a legal duty of care that holds peoples responsible to account for the wellbeing of ecosystems. Its an evolving legal approach that wants to change the traditional legal systems description of nature as property to only be used for human benefit. And its based in the recognition that humankind and Nature have co-evolved and co-exist on the planet. It's basically an attempt to create better stewardship of ecosystems by using the legal system. Also known as Earth jurisprudence

The basic assumptions are that all living beings have fundamental “rights”, including the right to exist, to have a habitat and to participate in the evolution of life on Earth. These so called rights are limited by the rights of other beings to the extent necessary to maintain the integrity, balance and health of the communities where they exist. 

I have discussed in a previous post about how there are no metaphysical, god given, rights only applicable to humans as believed in the 17th century. Rights are a human construct. So we have to use moral philosophy, ethics, to derive moral values that can guide our conceptions of rights and duties. Most people in the western world today acknowledges that every human has the same fundamental rights independent of sex, ethnicity, sexuality etc. Many countries also have animal rights and environmental protection but to a very limited extent. This reflects how our values have changed over time, yet they are still entirely human centered. A western legacy that is different from native peoples perception of nature.

The idea that a river is a living being is a strange concept to most westerners but it's nothing new to indigenous and traditional peoples. Thats because indigenous philosophical systems tend to see humans as a part of nature not as separate or dominant over nature as the western system does. 

There are several examples of countries that have applied the indigenous idea of “Rights of Nature” to ecosystems. In 2008 Ecuador wrote in Nature rights into the constitution, acknowledging that all life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. And Bolivia adopted its Law under the Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well in 2012. In 2017, New Zealand passed the Te Awa Tupua Bill which granted the Whanganui River the rights of legal personhood. And in India the holy Ganges and Yamuna Rivers where also granted legal personhood status. In practice this means that if the rivers are threatened by human activity there can be a legal case in court on behalf of the rivers. The fact that such rights could become a reality depend to a large extent on indigenous peoples strong connection to the ecosystem. They have a spiritual connection to the river, see it as sacred, and have a wish to protect it from human destruction. 

There is a shift in values all around the world, driven by non-western traditions and peoples, that will influence legal systems around the planet. Because western ideas and philosophy has failed to halt the ongoing destruction of the natural world people have turned to other sources of inspiration. 

The main goal for many proponents is to achieve an international law against ecocide, habitat destruction, that could safeguard current and future humans and Natures wellbeing. A proposal to amend the Rome Statute, Article 5 - crimes against peace, to include an international crime of Ecocide into the UN legal framework was put forward in 2010. If achieved the crime of Ecocide would be included in Article 5 along with the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crime of aggression. The idea is actually not new, but has been downplayed and dismissed since the 1970s.

”The immense destruction brought about by indiscriminate bombing, by large scale use of bulldozers and pesticides is an outrage sometimes described as ecocide, which requires urgent international attention. It is shocking that only preliminary discussions of this matter have been possible so far in the United Nations and at the conferences of the International Committee of the Red Cross, where it has been taken up by my country and others. We fear that the active use of these methods is coupled by a passive resistance to discuss them”.- Olof Palme Swedish prime minister 1972

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Rapid loss of life on Earth

Turtle caught in plastic pollution in the Ocean.

Humanity's population explosion and massive overconsumption of natural resources is killing off wildlife at an unprecedented rate. In the 2018 Living Planet Report by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) we come to understand that there has been a 60% decline in species population sizes since 1970. Especially hard hit are the tropics in South and Central America, which have seen a 89% loss compared to 1970. And freshwater ecosystems, like rivers and lakes, have experienced the largest decline of 83%. We have killed off 83% of all mammals and 50% of all plants since the dawn of civilisation, and its irreversible on human timescales. It is truly a biological annihilation as coined in a scientific study published by Ceballos et al. in PNAS last year.

In 2017 the world lost an amount of forest area equivalent to the size of Italy, destroying habitats, causing biodiversity loss and polluting the environment. There is a growing number of scientists that are now calling for a global deal for nature, creating vast nature reserves to prevent biological armageddon.

The loss of biodiversity is a tragedy in itself but it also threatens the survival of civilisation says experts to the Guardian. People don't understand that biodiversity underpins ecosystem health and thus human health. We already see a dramatic rise in chronic diseases caused by unhealthy diets and pollution. Around 93% of the world's children under the age of 15 years, 1.8 billion children, breathe air so polluted it puts their health at risk and tragically about 600,000 children die from acute lower respiratory infections every year. Studies have also shown that it's not just seabirds that have plastic in their stomachs but we humans have it too

Can we turn this development around? We only have until the year 2020 to get our act together according to the WWF-report or it will be too late. Governments need to increase investments several fold into safeguarding biodiversity on land and in the oceans. Protected areas should be expanded to cover at least 20 percent of natural habitats on land and 30 percent of habitats in the ocean. But I'm having a hard time seeing that happening in a world of depleting resources and growing population. Do we have foresight enough to safeguard life on Earth for our own survival? It remains an open question I guess...

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Eating fossil fuels - Failing food security

Silage windrows in a field in Brastad, Lysekil Municipality, Sweden. Credit: W.Carter (CC0 1.0)

Multiple stressors are converging to make the current industrial food system increasingly unsustainable and vulnerable to perturbations. Of course, the food system is in and of itself a leading cause to what is now threatening its future survival. Climate disruption, freshwater depletion, biodiversity loss, soil erosion and falling EROI on fossil fuels all point to the demise of industrial agriculture. This is well understood by biophysical economists and systems ecologists but often neglected in public or political discussions about food security. Most agricultural policies worsen the problem by making small-scale local agroecological farming unprofitable. Thus dooming large swathes of the population to become reliant on a dying system that costs more than it provides in terms of surplus energy.

There is a big misconception in the world about how modern technology has made us more efficient in agriculture. We think that big machines and lots of fertilizers are a better use of resources than employing more people. While large scale farming may seem efficient at first glance our perceptions are opposite of reality. How efficient the production of food is depends on the amount of energy expended on its development. The EROI, Energy Return on Investment, shows us the true nature of our efficiency in producing and consuming food. 

In hunter-gatherer societies, the relevant EROI metric is the caloric value of the food captured or gathered, versus the caloric expenditure of the hunt or gathering expedition. Studies of hunter-gatherers show an EROI of 10:1 to as high as 50:1 (Glaub 2015, Glaub & Hall 2017) depending on effort and final consumption. Large prey eaten directly by the hunting party only would yield a large energy profit while meat provided to support the hunters families would yield lower EROI ranging between 16:1 to 6:1. Nevertheless, this relatively large energy profit ratio probably allowed for the leisure time often associated with gathering societies. But limited capacity for food storage and settlement hinders development of a larger society. 

High population and overexploitation of resources was likely a driver of early domestication. In pre-industrial agriculture, dependent on peasant farmers, the EROI was 5:1 or less (Day et al. 2018) as it required intense efforts over long periods with often variable results. Much time was spent on production of food, fodder and fuelwood. But farming had the benefit of food storage which led to established settlements and concentrated labour. Fuelling population growth and specializations. 

Early industrialized societies benefited from high EROI from fossil fuels and large energy surpluses. Capital and energy substituted for labour. Food, fodder and fuel could be provided with fewer workers, permitting an expansion of non-primary sectors. The range of goods and services expanded. In the United Kingdom, energy and food expenditures fell to 20% as a proportion of GDP in 1830 from 50-80% prior to the industrial revolution (Day et al. 2018). But EROI of global oil reached its maximum value of 50:1 in the 1930s and has fallen since then to about 10-15:1 today (Court & Fizaine 2017). Modern industrial high-tech agriculture now consumes a staggering 10 calories of energy for every calorie of energy (food) delivered to the market, i.e. EROI of 1:10. Rending much of agriculture a net energy loss and completely unviable without fossil fuels.

As EROI of fossil fuels continues to fall an increasing amount of energy will be needed simply to provide energy and food to society. Leaving less energy over for other sectors of the economy such as education, health care etc. The only way to get out of this trap is to switch to renewable energy sources and promote small-scale, local, agroecological food production that can generate high yields but in a more diffused manner. Just like renewable energy technologies. Thus there needs to be a transition from centralised to decentralised energy and food production. Very few believe we can replace all fossil fuels with biofuels or electricity, especially in the agricultural industry that is very reliant on diesel as transport fuel. Furthermore, even if some farms could make such a shift in fuel use they would still be unsustainable if they continue to erode soils, eradicate biodiversity, deplete freshwater sources and pollute the environment. Even FAO recognizes this dilemma and now promotes agricultural practices in line with ecosystem-based management

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Is there such a thing as natural rights?

Garden of Gods. Credit. John Fowler CC-BY 2.0

Europeans have for the last 30 years lived in their own little bubble of financial scams protected by American hegemony, but that is now imploding by debt deflation and utter disgust with the ruling elite. And while criticising the current neoliberal economic paradigm is one step in the right direction there still seems to be an unwillingness to reflect upon our deeper values, about rights and freedoms, that ultimately led us here.

We live on a finite planet that is now full of people but running low on resources. Our social contracts and economic frameworks developed during a time when the world was less crowded and had plenty of resources. Disregarding biophysical realities is not an option anymore. Therefore one must ask, are those social constructs of ours still valid?

Well, we know that our economic framework certainly is not. There's plenty of evidence to prove that. But how about our ideas about so called “natural” rights?

Social contract theory

The political ideology called liberalism, that we now take for granted, arose from 17th century European ideas about natural rights and social contract theory.

The idea and theory of a social contract gained prominence in Europe when it became one of the leading ways of explaining and delimiting peoples duty of obedience to their government and of their right to resist and overthrow government when it became oppressive. It was an attempt to explore the best form of government and its justifications. What should laws require? When do people have a duty to obey decent government? And when may they justly exercise their right to resist oppressive government?

According to the early formulations of social contract theory citizens may justly exercise their right to resist governments that flagrantly and systematically fails to perform its basic tasks or preserve fundamental rights. And laws are only legitimate when they are generated by the institutions and procedures that are part of the terms of the social contract.

Until the end of the 17th century the social contract was understood in communitarian terms. It was not understood in individualistic terms. The government received its legitimate power in a grant from the community as a whole, not from the the individuals comprising that community. And governments only have legitimate authority when that community consents, through its rightful representatives, to transfer its power to the government. Therefore, the right to resist an oppressive government was only justified by the community as a whole, not individual persons.

But then Thomas Hobbes came along and dropped a bombshell in his famous book Leviathan. He rejected the communitarian aspect of the social contract tradition and claimed that rights belonged to individual persons but that they are at constant war with each other, due to human nature being fundamentally egoistic, and therefore needed to grant power to a strong state that in turn would ensure protection. He believed such a social contract therefore needed to be non-liberal and absolutist-authoritarian.

During the early 19th century the idea of metaphysical natural rights came under attack. Utilitarianist like Bentham rejected the idea that any objective, universal and moral rights possessed by humans in virtue of a common human nature existed. More people agreed with Rousseau's ideas that human nature changed through history. Hume claimed that very few people had actually ever consented to be governed and that it was hard to see how such consent could ever be fairly proved. Furthermore, they argued, that society is much more like an organism which develops without conscious control by its parts than it is like an artificial machine controlled by some outside force. The claim of god given natural rights were believed to have led to bloody wars and revolutions that reigned terror upon Europe and so metaphysical rights and social contract theory were both out of fashion by 1815.

In the Americas, thinkers were slower to reject natural rights and social contract theory than in post-1815 Europe. But by 1861 the idea of natural rights came under scrutiny as it was suspected that the theory had contributed to the South's attempt to secede from the Union and its commitment to states founded on racial slavery. But the doctrine of natural rights continued to be widely popular throughout the period. Many anti-slavery arguments appealed to natural rights. And many pro-slavery arguments did the same, arguing that which legal rights anyone had depended on their natural rights, but slaves were not genuinely human, and so did not have the natural right not to be enslaved!

In Latin America, the idea of natural rights were seen as a obstacle in trying to create a stable government by the 1870s. They rejected the idea in favour for the liberal principles of J.S Mill and Herbert Spencer, as well as those of Auguste Comte´s authoritarian socialism.

The massive and seemingly pointless slaughter of the first world war came to be blamed on the organic theory of the state and society. That blame, along with modernisms distaste for evolutionist models, dethroning Darwin and makine Einstein king of scientific thought, eventually overthrew the organic theory. But utilitarianism continued to predominate in secular moral theory and political thinking, especially after the Great Crash of 1929 when people were sympathetic to socialist and collectivist premises.

But by the 1960s, utilitarianism were overthrown and in the 1970s collectivism was abandoned and replaced by individualism. Natural rights and social contract theory returned to the stage. This was much due to the US unjust war in vietnam killing hundreds of thousands of innocents. People blamed it on deranged utilitarian thought. Unfairly utilitarianism itself was blamed for the US morally corrupt reasoning. And so people turned to Rawls, Nozick and Dworkin's ideas of individual rights trumping collective-utilitarian policies and the Kantian view that governments main duty is to give equal respect to all its citizens.

Modern critique

Given what we know today one must reject the old fashioned ideas of natural rights and social contract that originated from the 17th century and came back to force during the 1960s.

First of all, these ideas came into being in a world that still had plenty of resources and healthy ecosystems to support the population. It was a world were only white men were allowed to take part in discussions, where slavery was rampant, and humans believed themselves to rule over nature.

Our understanding of the world is much better today. We now know that we live in a world that is completely beholden to physical laws such as thermodynamics, conservation of mass, evolution, and diminishing returns of complexity.

We know that there are no such things as objective god given or natural rights, we made them up. We know that people in the past used the claim of natural rights to justify slavery because they didn't want to give up the “free” energy that generated their wealth. Similarly, they didn't recognize that all humans come from a common ancestor and that we are part of the larger animal community. Or that females often chooses the male, not the other way around. Neither did they consider the fact that without healthy ecosystems humans wouldn't survive.

We have to move away from the old reductionist thinking that treats humans and other organisms as isolated parts in a big machinery. We know that the world doesn't work that way. We are part of a whole that interact and feedback on each other. Outcomes are an emergent phenomenon that cannot be derived from studying parts in isolation. Depending on guiding principles, incentive structures, we get different outcomes. Our current incentives tells us to destroy ecosystem for profit so that we can consume even more resources until they run out and we starve. That's simply suicidal.

Moreover, we know that human nature is not just based on selfishness. Humans are capable of both egoistic and altruistic actions but incentives guide them to behave in one way more than the other. It is true in a strict biological sense that humans try to maximize their own and kins net energy in order to survive and thrive but we also know that reciprocity and cooperation has had an evolutionary advantage. By hunting or farming in groups, bigger prey or larger fields can be used to gain a larger energy surplus. Thus being an advantage also to the individual. But a society is much larger than any tribe (say 250 people) and so eventually one cannot rely on personal trust and reciprocity to maintain order. Therefore people invented social constructs like culture and religion to guide human behaviour. Later one, as societies grew ever larger they instituted authorities to oversee that these incentive structures were being followed.

In a full world, there is no room for individual rights over collective outcomes if we wish to avoid mass suffering of both humans and nature. Of course, people will react to this and say “look at all the dictatorships” bla bla etc. But they forget that they will eventually have to kiss their so called “individual rights” goodbye anyway if we continue on the current track. Fossil fuels and other resources are depleting, making us poorer, more unequal and more at risk of death from climate change. Resource limitations often lead to competition, conflict and war. Something we have already started seeing. The neoliberal capitalist ideals born out of the 1960s return to 17th century ideas about natural rights have been an utter failure.

And if we want to talk about rights we must admit that they are made up by humans and can be changed. From an objective perspective, a human has as much right to live as a hedgehog or an oak tree. Either that, or none of us has any rights at all and matters of mass killings or mass extinctions are simply a tragic fate of natural laws.

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Abrupt thaw of permafrost lakes in the Arctic

There's an ongoing debate in the scientific community regarding the threshold value, tipping point, for frozen grounds in the Arctic, permafrost, to start thawing irreversibly. And whether released methane from the permafrost will occur gradually over time or more abruptly. There is more stored carbon in frozens soils than we currently have in the atmosphere.

There are basically two camps, some believe the permafrost to be stable with a threshold value around <3°C while others claim 1,5°C is enough to start thawing large parts of the frozen grounds and lakes in the Arctic. 

For a lay person this is quite confusing, but it simply means that there isn't enough data to know for sure and so some scientists are more or less conservative in their estimates. Then there is the question of using climate models to try and predict potential threshold values or doing actual fieldwork and extrapolating conclusions from that. To my knowledge, climate models have a pretty bad track record of capturing highly non-linear dynamics in the climate system. For example, Arctic sea ice passed a tipping point in 2007 and is now in a death spiral but models had predicted sea ice to remain until the end of this century. Pretty high margin of error if you ask me. Also, we are learning that there seems to be differences in how permafrost soils and lakes thaw. 

According to a recent field research study funded by NASA of thermokarst lakes, formed by thaw of permafrost below the soil, in Alaska and Siberia the potential for abrupt thaw (decades) is now likely and irreversible. As the Arctic warms more of these lakes are appearing and growing in size which expands the thaw below. It has been estimated that they now cover about 20% of northern permafrost regions. This could double the release from terrestrial landscapes by the 2050s. A carbon cycle feedback that is not yet included into climate models.

"Within decades you can get very deep thaw-holes, meters to tens of meters of vertical thaw"

This is bad news for climate change mitigation efforts. This feedback is significant because methane is about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas. And the lakes are expected to thaw even under the lowest IPCC emissions scenario, adding further warming. Since we most likely are already committed, warming yet to come from current emissions, to 1,5-2°C this extra warming from the permafrost reinforcing feedback could take us above the 2C threshold for potentially catastrophic warming. Unless we rapidly decarbonize our economy and try to take out carbon from the atmosphere by for example large-scale reforestation efforts. Time is not on our side. We need a climate emergency plan.

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Converging crises - Synchronizing failure

Climate mayhem, falling net energy and debt deflation

We are in for another global oil supply crunch from 2018 onwards that many experts say will trigger another severe economic recession if not depression. A fragile global economy, with a massive debt overhang, cannot handle too high oil prices. A large portion of most countries budgets, and individuals budgets as well, are spent on fossil fuel energy. That's why rapid price increases (over $60 per barrel) crushes demand and flips the economy over into a recession. In turn, leading to the bankruptcy of non-profitable unconventional energy ventures like tar sands and fracking. Thus further reducing supply over the long term.

Since the early 1970s global energy costs have steadily increased. Even if oil prices have oscillated with recurring spikes and drops, as the economy tries to adjust, the overall trend is a steady increase. This is due to the fact that extraction has become increasingly difficult and costly, yielding ever lower return on investment. The problem of course is that we built our economies based on cheap energy that yielded relatively high net energy to society. But that is a thing of the past and now we are struggling to afford our current lifestyles. Thats basically why we started this massive global debt bubble, pulling forward future consumption with cheap credit. But costs will eventually have to be paid.

We have now reached a point when all the energy and resources available to society are required just to maintain our existing level of complexity. A phenomenon puzzling many commentators, calling it secular stagnation. All these factors have made the global economy so fragile that even small perturbations from climate change, wars or falling credit could tip the system over into a deflationary spiral. With economic inequalities already increasing, increasing social instability, this is a recipe for disaster. 

No economy will be able to recover unless it transitions to non-fossil fuel energy sources and writes down its debts. And even then net energy will likely be much lower, meaning that society still has to lower its overall consumption of energy and resources. Implying a voluntary measure to reduce organizational complexity in society. Something few previous civilisations managed, perhaps the British did when they dismantled their empire. 

Implication for food security

Global food prices have increased steadily since 2005, about the time of global peak oil, now at 1970s highs or above. Further exacerbating the problem is booming populations, freshwater scarcity and climate change. 

Today’s population levels depend on fossil fuels and industrial agriculture. Especially vulnerable to rising food prices are people with low purchasing power and without subsistence farming to fall back on. We know that food price increases that reach 200 on the FAO index have led to riots and unrest.

Many countries in the Middle East are especially vulnerable due to convergence of several different crises. State revenue losses from falling oil exports, due to depleting resources and higher domestic consumption, with a need to cut food and fuel subsidies usually make people very upset. Especially when, as is the case in the region, people have no way of making a living coupled with overexploited water reservoirs and eroded soils. As if that wasn't enough, scorching heat and significant risk of recurrent droughts makes the entire region utterly unsustainable. Without energy they have nothing. The chances for further conflict and wars in the region are high. Massive, continuing, migration flows towards Europe is to be expected. 

The infamous ‘Doomsday Clock’ is again at two and a half minutes to midnight  -  the closest since 1953

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Faster than forecast - Melting Arctic

Half a truth is often a great lie. - Benjamin Franklin

Abrupt climate change in the Arctic

Ice covers 10 percent of Earth's surface and helps moderate the planet's temperature. Glaciers, sea ice and ice sheets around the world are melting at an alarming rate. Much faster than climate models had predicted, like what Peter Wadhams, expert on ocean and ice physics, discusses in the video clip above. Climate models fail to interpret the real climate system because they ignore nonlinear dynamics, like key carbon cycle feedbacks and tipping points, crucial to the real system.

The Arctic (North of 60° N) is a key strategic region of global importance. Changes in the Arctic impact Earths energy balance, cloud formations, global wind patterns and ocean currents, release of methane, sea level rise, phytoplankton blooms and much more. As seen in the image below.

Component state variables and dynamic processes operating in the Arctic. There are strong couplings, feedbacks and nonlinear behaviors arising from their interactions, which together define the Arctic system. Source: Arctic System Synthesis, 2018

A recent study published by NASA shows how, since 1958, Arctic sea ice cover has lost about 66% of its thickness, averaged across the region at the end of summer. Old ice has shrunk more than 2 million square kilometres and today 70% of the ice cover consist of ice that forms and melts within a single year. Thinner, weaker seasonal ice is much more vulnerable to weather than thick ice and can easily be broken apart by storms. 

That's very bad news for our planet as darker ocean waters absorb more sunlight and triggers further warming. Melting sea ice has already contributed to about 25% of current warming but could add double that amount when the Arctic ocean starts becomes ice free in summer. That's a very strong reinforcing feedback process that accelerates warming which in turn accelerates further ice loss and so on. While in theory, with some sort of risky geoengineering, it would be possible to reverse this trend I really doubt we can do much to stop it. We can't even stop our greenhouse gas emissions from growing every year. No, its too late for Arctic sea ice, what we see now is a death spiral. 

Warming in the Arctic occurs much faster than at lower latitudes, a process known as Arctic Amplification. Arctic temperatures have increased at least 3 times the rate of mid-latitude temperatures relative to the late 20th century, due to multiple reinforcing feedbacks. Even if global temperature increases are contained to +2° C by 2040, Arctic monthly mean temperatures in fall will increase by +5° C. The Arctic is very likely to be sea ice free during summer before 2040, and probably much sooner than that. Not like the IPCC report says, once in every hundred years.

This will impact mid-latitude, like Europe, weather events by causing the jet stream to slow down and become more meandering which causes more persistent weather patterns as high or low pressure weather systems to get stuck in one place for an extended duration. Like what we saw this summer in Scandinavia with persistent heat wave, drought and forest fires i Sweden.

We have also detected a slowing down of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) during the past 150 years since the little ice age, and that enhanced freshwater fluxes from the Arctic and Nordic seas weakened Labrador Sea convection and thus the AMOC. Its been suggested that the lack of a subsequent recovery may have resulted from hysteresis (i.e., instability of thermohaline circulation) or from 21st century melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Another recent Nature article  improved a sea surface temperature proxy for AMOC strength. Their proxy AMOC fingerprint consists of a cooling in the subpolar gyre region due to reduced heat transport, and a warming in the Gulf Stream region due to a northward shift of the Gulf Stream, indicating that AMOC has been steadily weakening since around 1950, strengthened shortly during the 1990s and 2000s, then weakened again. In the short term this could cause a small cooling effect in western Europe while warming the ocean waters in the gulf of Mexico, southeast Americas. Not mentioned in the latest IPCC report. 

Last time Earth went through an interglacial period, and global temperatures were less than 1C warmer than today, sea level rose to +6-9 meters and extreme storms were common. Sea level rise has accelerated as ice sheet loss on Greenland and West Antarctica has accelerated. Also not accounted for in the latest IPCC report.

Huge slabs of Arctic permafrost are slumping and disintegrating, sending large amounts of carbon-rich mud and silt into streams and rivers. Permafrost decay is affecting 52,000 square miles in Canada—an expanse the size of Alabama. According to researchers with the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, the permafrost collapse is intensifying. Similar large-scale landscape changes are evident across the Arctic including in Alaska, Siberia and Scandinavia, the researchers wrote in a paper published in the journal Geology. Arctic permafrost caps vast amounts of old, geologic methane (CH4) in subsurface reservoirs. Thawing permafrost opens pathways for this CH4 to migrate to the surface. The concentration of methane in the atmosphere has risen sharply - by about 25 teragrams per year since 2006. Sub sea methane clathrates could also be seeping out. None of these feedbacks are included in IPCC climate models. 

Melting permafrost is altering the landscape in northern Canada on a grand scale. Credit: Wikimedia
In conclusion, putting too much trust in IPCCs climate models and scenarios is NOT recommended. One should not forget that the IPCC is a political institution and subject to political leaders meddling in the science. I have per email questioned the Swedish meteorological institute that use those models and scenarios as a reference for climate change in Sweden. When I questioned the use of IPCC material due to the fact that they don't include nonlinear dynamics I got a very angry response back that I was dead wrong. Really? So its just me and lots of other international climate experts that are worried that IPCC understates risks and uses incomplete information to draw ridiculous conclusions? Like the fact the we are already committed to 1,5C and most people think its impossible to stay below even 2C. Or the fact that all the low carbon scenarios are based on assumptions of carbon sucking technologies that we haven't tested yet. I'm I really the only one that worries about this? No, of course not. Just read the recent report by David Spratt "What lies beneath - The scientific understatement of climate risks" or take a look at the video clips and you will understand why people are worried.

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The struggle to survive a collapsing society

Mohamed Ataya, a 31-year-old Syrian tends to his plants on the rooftop of his damaged building in the Syrian rebel-held town of Arbin, in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus last week. Ataya, who used to be a professional football player before the war, cultivates seeds for sale. Reddit March, 2017.

The crisis of civilisation

People seem confused, deluded by mainstream media into to wishful thinking, about the current state of affairs in the world. But there is that uneasy feeling that all the alarming reports about peak oil, climate change, desertification, species mass extinction, freshwater scarcity, dying coral reefs, melting of polar ice caps and toxification of our environment are piling up. In fact, we are currently living in a time of a collapsing civilisation, the end to wasteful resource use and reliance on fossil fuels. Everything is becoming increasingly expensive leading to falling standards of living and a majority of the world's population who can barely afford food, shelter or gas for transport anymore. When food becomes too expensive people riot and revolt against the ruling elite. Conflict arises and sometimes it breaks out into wars. Syria being the prime example. For Syrians who are still within the country's borders a total and rapid collapse has long since been underway and is continuing to this day. Look at the man watering his seeds in a city of concrete ruins. Its utterly sad and beautiful at the same time. That is reality. And we will be seeing more of it as entropy starts moving in from the periphery of the global economy towards the centre.

Since it's clear now, almost fifty years after The Limits to Growth (1972) was published, that humans will not take preemptive action to avoid a collapse of the system, the global economy will have to shrink. And the process has been underway for some time now, especially since 2008, it's just that some regions will feel it much harder and sooner than others. Nobody is safe from its crushing effects, that's why building resilience is important for every community on Earth.

People who are well aware of the seriousness of our current situation are suggesting radical ideas because they know there will be mayhem as hundreds of millions of people will be displaced due to a rapidly degrading biosphere and unstable climate.

Why not create a climate passport, actually, give it to all those people who cannot live anymore in their original homes, which gives them access to all the countries who destroyed their home, like the United States” - H.J Schellnhuber (Climate Change: A Last Call for the Planet, 2018)

Well, sure... that probably wont happen but it shows the inequality of the issue and where, to the centre of the global economy, people with the possibility to do so will be fleeing as their own areas are devastated. The world's richest 10% account for half the carbon emissions while the poorest 3.5 billion account for just a tenth. 

Now, climate is not the only issue here, it's just one of the symptoms of a full world. Syria suffered lost state revenue from declining oil exports due to a peak in production, massive population growth, reduced food and fuel subsidies, at the same time as they had the worst drought in 900 years. It's a combination of converging crises that crushes nations that lack resilience. This is only one way that collapse manifests. But it will impact every nation, either direct or indirect, and cause instability and hardship for ordinary people while a small percentage of the rich continue to overexploit remaining resources.

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From growth to inequality and collapse

Economic growth as people know it, in terms of GDP, has stagnated and started to turn negative. Most reactions to the absence of growth have consisted in trying to get it back again as fast as possible, whatever the cost, further degrading the biosphere at an accelerated rate. We have seen low interest rates, debt expansion, bank bailouts, government stimulus, land-grabs, tax havens, fiscal austerity, and stock buybacks etc. Most of these things did nothing to increase the wellbeing of ordinary people but greatly profited the richest in society. The massive debt overhang from such policies have now become a burden on the real economy. All it did was to divert people's attention from the inconvenient truth that there will be less material goods and energy flows in the future, not more.

This massive wastefulness of resources comes at a time when we could have used those means to invest in benefitting projects like affordable housing, a basic income, low carbon infrastructure, ecologically sound agriculture, adaptation to climate change etc. Instead we have chosen to let the oceans contain more plastic than fish and species go extinct a thousand times faster than any time in the last 65 million years. The central bank and governments desperate policies after the 2008 financial crisis is the biggest failure in our time. When the next crisis hits, which could be very soon, there will be neither fiscal nor monetary room for manoeuvre.

In his latest paper Tim Jackson show how declining growth in the real economy caused by resource limitations has led to increasing economic inequality. A factor that greatly increases the instability of a society. The rising inequality that has haunted advanced economies over the last decade is a direct consequence of policy decisions trying to promote growth in a dying capitalistic society that cannot be supported by underlying fundamentals. All it has done is to redistribute wealth from the bottom to the top. The growth fetish has hindered ecological investments, reinforced inequality and exacerbated financial instability. The social and ecological prosperity that once was is being undone by this allegiance to growth at all costs. 

As shown in the HANDY-model (2014), overexploitation of both nature and labour leads to a fast total collapse of society. Economic stratification is a symptom often found in many past collapsed societies and is an outcome of elite overconsumption in a society overshooting its ecological carrying capacity. Such a collapse often lead to inequality-induced famine, due to widespread poverty, that causes the loss of workers rather than a collapse of the ecological base itself. Elites consumption keeps growing until the society collapses.

This is a very ugly possibility. And it shows just how important issues of ecological degradation and inequality are for social stability. The fact that we see widespread resource/economic inequality indicate that we, some societies more than other but talking globally, are far gone in the process towards collapse.

However, in another paper by Jackson, there are post-growth scenarios that dont necessarily lead to increasing inequality. Jackson claims that it depends on three structural features of the economy: elasticity of substitution between labour and capital, the dynamics of the capital-to output ratio, and the behaviour of the savings rate. Under conditions more favourable to wage labour (than capital) measures like a tax on capital and a universal basic income can decrease inequality even as growth decline. However, these measures are insufficient to reduce inequality when institutions aggressively favour capital over labour.  

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Complacent adults and brave children

The Roman government kept the populace happy by distributing free food and staging huge spectacles to divert attention from a empire in decline, i.e. to prevent people from revolting. And that's basically the same short-term policies current governments employ to appease the public and distract them from collapse. The public may still voice their grievances but according to history they won't revolt until the bread and circuses stops. A surprisingly effective strategy it seems, even today.

Marx once said that "religion... is the opiate of the masses", meaning that it reduced people's immediate suffering and provided them with pleasant illusions which gave them the strength to carry on. Nowadays, such plesasant illusions are not only provided by religion but also by the entertainment industry, media and medical science in form of legal narcotics.

People were more worried about peak oil and accepted the science of climate change some years ago but then denial increased and they got meme fatigue, tired of reading about it. Looking at google trends on the search word peak oil we can see how interest was high from 2004-2009 but then dropped off significantly.
In the case of climate change the interest is more stable over time but when we look at related topics like global warming we see the same tendency of meme fatigue and denial increasing over time. And similar queries with the biggest increase in search frequency, not top search words, relate directly to climate denial and ignorance on the topic. Especially coming from North Americans, which is a reflection of how indoctrinated they are.

However, while many westerners seem in denial or complacent about climate change the topic seem to be of growing interest in nations like Kenya, Bangladesh, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, India and Malaysia. Countries that are already hit hard by a changing climate, for example, 40% of Indias population suffer from acute water scarcity. 

So, my theory is that the “comfy” delusional westerners won't revolt until the bread and circuses stop. Not until costs rise even further, in form of direct taxes or indirect by inflation/deflation, and food subsidies stop coming will people rise up and demand change. Despite the gross inequality in modern societies and falling living standards people stay passive like sacrificial lambs . They are simply too comfortable in the current system. But there is yet hope. The younger generation, that have nothing to lose, may yet drive some change. Lets end with "Gretas cry for help"

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Fragile systems under abrupt climate change

We know from our, humanity's, ancient history on this planet that rapid climatic changes ruin agrarian societies. Especially vulnerable are societies that mismanage their resource base and/or live on the margins, for example, in extremely arid regions that are wholly dependent on predictable precipitation patterns. But even societies that manage to survive periods of, say, extreme drought may suffer as they become increasingly fragile to any perturbations to the system.

A changing climate is not bound by any borders and often occur within whole regions or on a global scale. When highly populated areas undergo climatic fluctuations it often cause people to migrate in search of better lands. Which can collapse other, already fragile, societies as the extra pressure from the inflow of people pushes the system over the edge.

This is demonstrated in the German documentary How Climate Made History (2017), above. I highly recommend it and other videos about climate on the youtube channel Hazards and catastrophes. More informative than American or British counterparts.

What can we learn from history? 

Well, first of, Homo Sapiens hunter-gatherers, a generalist species, could adapt easier to extreme environmental conditions than neanderthals which were restricted to specific food sources, methods of hunting, or climates. This ability may have been the result of humans cooperative nature. It had nothing to do with brain size or intelligence.

Second, a relatively stable mild climate and fertile land, with ample and reliable sources of freshwater, plant and animal life, where instrumental to rise of agriculture. People settled and surpluses (food energy) from agriculture could be stored, freeing up time from simply collecting food, and giving rise to specialist occupations. It also gave rise to hierarchies, inequality, as some had more of a surplus than others. Humans also started worshipping the sun (source of energy).

Third, thriving agricultural civilisations were more vulnerable to changes in climatic conditions than nomadic peoples. When the climate changed rapidly and rainfall became unpredictable or rivers dried out people were forced to move in search of new lands to survive. Especially if they managed their lands unsustainably, degraded the land, and were more vulnerable to shocks.

Fourth, in highly populated regions such drastic changes in climatic conditions impacted civilisations both directly and indirectly. High pressure on the land from a large population made societies more susceptible to shocks. As people migrated from poorer lands into other richer areas they tended to destabilise societies that could have survived longer if not for the extra pressure. It also led to unrest and conflict over remaining resources.

Fifth, when civilisations collapsed people spread out to look for resources and knowledge was lost. What we call a dark age occurred.

Implications for modern society

Climate change is occurring rapidly and it is uncertain to what degree we will manage to adapt. We still live in agrarian type societies and are dependent on predictable rainfall, some regions more than others of course. Desertification and water scarcity is a major problem in many parts of the world already. Many societies are extremely fragile to shocks due to overexploitation and land degradation. Crop yields are falling. Seas are rising. Taking for granted that fossil fuels will save us is not a good idea for several reasons. Some societies may succeed better than others in managing their resources but will be vulnerable in other ways, e.g. to climatic changes, financial shocks, trade shocks and/or migration flows. Today there are no new/empty regions to populate once other areas fail. Resources are limited on a global scale.  Tensions over scarcity are rising. Some societies, like Syria, have already collapsed. While others, where most of the remaining resources are located, are having issues with immigration. It will be a very difficult journey for humankind. But as history shows, even if civilisations collapse, humanity survives. We are a tenacious species.

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The big meltdown - 2020?

Charles Blomfield's painting of the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera based on eyewitness accounts

Are we headed for the next succession of financial destruction? It’s been ten years since the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008 that almost ruined western industrial civilisation. And while rich people in the west, at least mainstream media, seem to have the impression that we now are “back to business” lots of people around the globe are suffering from the reality of limits to growth that struck at the heart of the global economy in 08. Even if more fortunate people, like Swedes, can go on deluding themselves (for a little while) that there’s no problem with our current perverse growth paradigm there are people who don't have that luxury. Just take a look at most of the countries in the Middle East and you will quickly understand how peak oil, water scarcity, food crises, overpopulation and climate change can trigger endless misery and suffering (read Nafeez Ahmeds excellent book on this).

Contrary to the dominant narrative of “progress” I see major systemic crises converging towards the year 2020, or sooner! Are we reaching a major tipping point or simply another wave of entropy entering the system?

The symptoms of this can be found in the global economy itself with the rate of global growth stagnating (i.e. energy and debt limits) and tensions between countries competing for limited resources increasing. We also see it in the political sphere where maniacs with empathy deficit disorder get into power as a response to people's frustrations and start talking about all kinds of warfare: cultural, economic and military. We already see social unrest, conflict and trade wars but also talk about military wars connected to resources, mainly oil. Most societies are already very vulnerable, lack resilience to withstand further shocks, so a global financial meltdown could escalate fairly rapidly into chaos and destruction. When people lose everything, and they don't know why, they tend to get angry and violent. How will the US act? Will they unwind the empire, all military bases etc., or spend every bit of their last resources to plunder the planet? The place is more like an oligarchy so the über rich might decide they want the last of the oil, not for the people but for themselves. Europe is a basket case and is likely to break down, every nation on their own eventually. If a economic collapse doesn't do it, the flood of climate refugees will.

As for Sweden, we will see our massive housing bubble pop and a deep recession meanwhile people fleeing from the middle east will want to immigrate here. With the nationalist and xenophobic party, the Sweden Democrats, now being the third largest party things could turn out to their advantage as people become poorer and are likely to blame immigration issues. Similar to what we see in the rest of Europe. There is, however, a fairly strong left still in play in Sweden and to my surprise they got 10% of the votes in this year's election. So perhaps there is still some balance left in the political system, but without any major blocs the grownups in the government has yet to come to an agreement about how to rule, so maybe not. While they argue about who get what seat the world is on fire, and so it goes with large bureaucratic structures that become incompetent. And so the likelihood of social unrest increases.

As for the UN climate targets last chance of bending the emissions curve, I'm pretty pessimistic. A global financial meltdown will put all those hopes on hold and even if action did occur its likely too late to stop the climate from going above the 2C target. Moreover, what we need is not “green growth” but actual downsizing which would happen when the economy contracts. If we won't voluntarily give up consumption, mother nature will do it for us. But of course, it won't be what most people hoped for, it likely won't be a civilised and peaceful decent.

Will there be a global financial meltdown soon? Somewhere between 2018-2020? Well, I don’t know, but what's certain is that something has to give since we live on a finite planet where endless growth is impossible. There's no negotiating with nature.

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Blowing past 2°C, headed for 4-5°C?

Wishful thinking is today so prevalent that it even has infected the brain of people who are trained not to be biased, scientists. I mean sure, economists have always been blissfully ignorant and wrong in their predictions but what I’m talking about is more widespread. It's a deep denial among the people researching our most critical issues: climate change and energy limitations. 

You see it in the media when scientists discuss oxymorons like “green growth”, or proclaim that we can “decarbonize our entire economy within 20 years”, or that “agriculture will save biodiversity”, or that “lab grown meat will solve our food problems” and so on. It's nothings but grasping at straws in a world that is on fire. Such delusional statements are more about belief systems and identities reflecting values than science. It's also because climate scientists have been told by behavioural psychologists not to scare people as it may hamper action. But isn't it odd that the profession that claims to be devoted to curiosity and truth seeking wants to restrict exploration of future possibilities and censor people due to how it might come across to others?

Our climate reality is harsh. Most scientists tend to underestimate our predicament because they are too conservative, not the other way around. But now it's becoming clear, predictions made by oversimplified climate models have underestimated the changes we're already witnessing due to climate change. Earth, the biosphere, ecosystems and human systems such as the economy are dynamic complex systems and their behaviour is nonlinear. A model that does not include critical feedbacks in the system will not be able to accurately predict results in the real world. This has now become obvious as real world observations about the sad state of our climate is pouring in. Climate change is accelerating.

Sea ice in the Arctic is melting at an alarming rate and looks to be completely gone summertime some time in the coming years (2022?), accelerating global warming further. Ice and snow reflect about 80 percent of the Sun’s energy back into space while the darker ocean and land will absorb 90 percent of that heat. The albedo effect due to vanishing sea ice is already responsible for about 25 percent of global warming (Pistone et al. 2014). Greenland shed about 280 gigatons of ice per year between 2002-2016 and the island’s lower-elevation and coastal areas experienced up to 4 meters of ice mass loss (expressed in equivalent-water-height) over a 14-year period (NASA, 2018). Accelerating rates of ice loss also implies accelerated rates of sea level rise. Certain cities will have to be abandoned. In ten years prior to 2016 the Atlantic Ocean soaked up 50 percent more carbon dioxide than it did the previous decade, speeding up the acidification of the ocean (Woosley et al. 2016). And the list goes on and on with increasingly worrisome observations.

With an increase of carbon emissions of 2% in 2017 (Carbon Brief, 2017), the so called “decoupling” of economic activity from emissions is not yet making a net dent in global emissions. Even if we start reducing emissions now it's not going to be enough to prevent dangerous climate change since there is about a decade lag between emissions and resulting warming (Ricke & Caldeira, 2014). We have already (95% probability) gone past the 2°C warming point/UN target (Raftery et al. 2017), and are  likely headed towards 4-5°C (Steffen et al. 2018). That's because the Earth system is dynamic and is more likely to continue warming until it stabilises at another point, which in the Earth's past occurred at about 4-5°C warmer than pre-industrial levels. By the way, it is generally accepted that a 5 degree rise in temperature is not compatible with human civilisation as we know it. At the same time, perhaps a complete collapse of civilisation could prevent the worst climate change outcomes (Garrett, 2012). But no one is going to promote or talk about that in public. Even if diminishing returns on resources, especially oil, likely will shrink our civilisation in the near future, whether we like it or not (Turner, 2014). 

No one likes either outcomes of this predicament and that's why most experts are basically just arguing over different options of removing carbon from the atmosphere through geoengineering. Using machines to suck out carbon, however, is not feasible both in terms of cost and scale and could cause more harm than good. Current technology would have to be scaled by a factor of 2 million times within 2 years. That's just not going to happen. Biological approaches to carbon capture such as planting trees, restoring soils, holistic grazing, and growing seagrass and kelp appear far more promising. 

Anyway, the real issue for ordinary people is how to adapt to a world that is increasingly hostile while using less energy? Not wasting time listening to myths about "green tech" or believing in fantasies like "colonising Mars" or "geoengineering the entire planet"

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