Wendell Berry on “The Idea of a Local Economy”

In these days of international economic crisis–days when the economic underpinnings of the global economy are being exposed as seriously flawed–it is worth looking at other ways forward.  What is new about this global financial crisis is that no one can see how it can be reversed by policy intervention: the fiscal and monetary levers that have been used to stimulate economic growth seem to have been almost entirely exhausted.  Policy-makers are reduced to the expedient of printing money: the last stand of a bankrupt system of thought and practice.  I am ruminating on the need to write a book entitled “The end of economics”; because surely, if economics regards itself as a science, subject to the scientific discipline of “conjecture and refutation” (to quote Karl Popper), then the present extended series of crises begins to look like a serious refutation which threatens the legitimacy of its intellectual foundations.  So it is useful, as I say, to look at other ways forward.

In 2001 Wendell Berry wrote a piece for Orion magazine on “The Idea of a Local Economy.”  He has written many other pieces along these lines, gathered in such publications as “Home Economics” (1987) and “What Matters?  Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth” (2010).   This piece seems to me to be particularly apposite to the times. Wendell Berry is one of those rare writers who think clearly, write beautifully and are fearless in taking disparaged positions on moral grounds.  Often, I find, he simply says (very well) what everyone knows to be true, on the family and community level, but which national populations and their policy-makers find it convenient, for reasons of short-term self-interest, to ignore.  A particular virtue of his critiques is that they don’t remain critiques: he has something to offer in place of the current conventional wisdoms.  He writes on behalf of  ordinary people and their ordinary, human concern for the welfare of their families and neighbours, and for the welfare of the world–a conspicious contribution to the public discourse on how we are to live.

There is a proverb of sorts, variously attributed (I like Benjamin Franklin, as it sounds like him, although it probably wasn’t), to the effect that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”  I leave you to draw the implications.  Wendell Berry offers a different thing.  At the very least he seems to be in and around the right place, which he firmly believes–and I agree–is likely to be local, not global.

Wendell Berry The Idea of a Local Economy

Ian Lowe’s “A Big Fix”

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One of the more unexpected legacies of the Howard era has been the emergence of a coterie of genuine public intellectuals; or rather, people who think for a living and have decided, because of the urgency of the times, to enter the more open eras of public discourse. They have, in fact, created a level of sophistication and interest in public discourse that hasn’t been seen in this country for decades. Clive Hamilton, David Marr, Robert Manne, Stuart Macintyre, Tim Flannery and Ian Lowe come to mind.

In this group the last two are distinguished by their scientific credentials and their ability to write. There are precedents for such commentators in Australia: Francis Ratcliffe’s ‘Flying Fox and Drifing Sand’ and Jock Marshall’s ‘The Great Extermination’ are two of the best of them. Both those books were concerned with environmental problems in Australia, rabbit and flying fox plagues in the first, and Australia’s lamentable record of conservation in the second.

Flannery and Lowe are leaders of the succeeding generation of accomplished Australian writing scientists. It is particularly important that they are writing now, when the greatest problems looming for the international community are, in their impact if not their roots, environmental: climate change, biodiversity loss and peak water. In a recent radio interview, a distinguished water scientist expressed the view that although a wide and authoritative scientific research programme had been carried out on the biophysical foundations of the Murray-Darling Basin, the scientific community had been for less successful at gathering and summarising the research, and communicating it to the Australian public and policy makers. Flannery and Lowe are clearly determined to ensure that that outcomes, so disastrous for our inland rivers, should not be repeated for other environmental policy issues, particularly the last and greatest of them, climate change. As the Australian community engaged in public discourse about these great matters we should all be particularly grateful that they have pursued their course so resolutely and with such academic and intellectual distinction.

Ian Lowe’s monograph, A Big Fix, is the most recent offering in what is becoming a distinguished line of Australian thinking and writing. I have written elsewhere of his fine 2008 essay, Reaction Time: Climate Change and the Nuclear Option. The 2009 monograph is even wider in scope, if that were possible, although it is still centred on the earlier themes. The subtitle of the work is ‘Radical Solutions for Australia’s Environmental Crisis’, but it doesn’t do justice to the scale of the analysis. Lowe’s theme is the global environmental crisis, illustrated by Australian examples. It is a brave, uncompromising and, against all odds, optimistic account of the world crisis. Since this crisis clearly has no precedent in human history, we desperately need informed, principled and integrated accounts of it, including an analysis of its causes and considered, innovative ideas about possible solutions to it. A Big Fix is just such an account.

It could be said that the monograph is a modern attempt to answer the ancient question, “How shall we live?” On one side, Ian Lowe’s message is a clear though not simple: “We are not living sustainably and fundamental change is needed. . .The road we are travelling on now can only end in disaster” (3, 20) . On the other side, “I am incurably optimistic about the future. I don’t discount the difficulty of change, but history shows that human societies can shift radically when we realise the need” (18). It is indeed rare among modern commentators on the global condition to find both propositions argued together, particularly with such lucidity and professional authority. The outlines of this argument are worth sketching.

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Lowe begins with a brief history of the science of sustainability, from Carson and Erlich, to the oil shock of the 70’s, to the Limits to Growth reports and some of its key predictions, in peak oil and climate change; and to important international reports, including the Millenium Assessment Report and the UNEP Global Outlook Series. The picture of the planet presented over decades by the successive research reports is remarkably consistent, and arresting:

“We now have the capacity to reconfigure the natural environment so that it is much less likely to support human life. Successive warnings from such scientific bodies have gone unheeded. Responding is now a matter of urgency: nothing less than the survival of civilisation is at stake.” (16)

These are, to say the least of it, large claims. Lowe brings to them his own authority, as a scientist, and the authority of the scientific community that underpins these reports. His plain speaking is in consequence sobering.

In supporting and exploring these claims. Lowe begins with the elusive notion of sustainability. It is remarkable that a concept which has such currency in modern discourse is so undefined; or, perhaps, defined too much, in too many ways. There is the Brundtland definition, of course, which is relatively straightforward; but definitions since that time have multiplied. Lowe, characteristically, cuts through the competing formulations: “The meaning of ‘sustainable’ is clear: able to be sustained, ideally forever, but certainly at least for the foreseeable future.” This literal conception is then applied to six dimensions—resources; natural systems; society; economy; and cultural and spiritual foundations—to form what Lowe calls ‘criteria’; that is, tests or standards of sustainability. This set of criteria captures at one stroke most of the sustainability schemas previously advanced, such as the triple bottom line. It doesn’t resolve all the conceptual difficulties: what it means to say that an economy is sustained for the foreseeable future, or a society, or a culture, is far less intuitively clear than it is for resources and natural systems (although these applications, too, as will be seen, are far from simple). It is less a definition than a methodological framework, or a plan of attack.

Lowe lays out some of the implications of thinking this way across the five dimensions:

  • Under resources and natural systems attention is given to peak oil and renewable energy (mainly solar); water (both fresh water, as in the Murray-Darling Basin, and groundwater, as in the Great Artesian Basin); natural capital and ecological footprint; and uranium and nuclear power.
  • Under society, the emphasis s on social equity and its implications for education, health and security.
  • Under economy, attention is given to its basis in environmental services; the economics of mining those resources as against other forms of use (such as tourism); science and innovation; economic planning and the free market; and the steady-state economics of Herman Daly. From Daly comes a sustainable decision-making algorithm (34): “Ensure that the total scale of human activity is ecologically sustainable; distribute resources and property rights fairly, both within this generation and between generations; allocate resources as efficiently as possible within these constraints. Free-market economics, of course, navigates solely by the third of these principles, in the belief that the conditions expressed by the other two principles will somehow be simultaneously optimised; a view characterised by Lowe as “a naïve faith in the magic of the market” (33). Naive is, perhaps, a tolerant description; I would be inclined to replace it with ‘illogical’, ‘intellectually incoherent’, ‘damaging’, or all of these.
  • Under cultural and spiritual foundations, Lowe emphasises local rather than imported elements; the central place occupied by consumption; and the decline of the moral underpinnings of modern society.

The discussion makes a first case for the theoretical and applied power of this formulation of sustainability, together with a first exploration of the implications of these principles for the way we are to live. The documented view of the world through the prism of this framework, Lowe asserts, is deeply troubling: “The evidence is clear. The way we are currently living is not sustainable; in fact I believe it does not satisfy any of the main criteria” (14).

For more detailed evidence Lowe turns to Australia’s environmental crisis. Again he draws on the high-level reports, compiled mainly by national government departments or agencies, particularly by successive State of the Environment reports, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics Measures of Australia’s Progress. Five major (not to say iconic) arenas of environmental policy and debate are discussed: the Great Barrier Reef; the Murray-Darling Basin; salinity and land degradation; the biodiversity crisis; and global climate change. The evidence cited is unambiguous: with the exception of urban air quality (which has been improved by motor vehicle exhaust regulation) all the environmental measures show rapid declines: “more threatened species, more degraded land, declining river health and increasing greenhouse gas emission” (40). The policy paralysis induced by free-market ideology is again noted. The active resistance to urgently required action, or a grudging low-level responses, of successive Federal governments is exposed and contrasted with some more useful State initiatives. Even the current Federal government, which came to office on a strong environmental program, is not spared:

“On the whole, the Commonwealth government’s approach to the environment continues to be a disappointment. There is no strategic vision, no sense of urgency and no indication that the government understands the scale of the problems” (57).

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With evidence for serious decline across the Australian environment established, Lowe turns to an analysis of causes—a demanding task, as the variables that might be considered are literally numberless. However, he moves sure-footedly among the most important and most widely accepted of them, and begins to sketch the response to them that the sustainability criteria might require.

These are factors that have long occupied sustainability thinking and writing: population; consumption; life-style choices; technology; and the economic system. To each, however, Lowe brings new insights, linked to emerging evidence. On population, he is firm:“. . .there is no prospect, even in principle, of a sustainable society unless we stabilise the population at a level that can be supported at acceptable social and environmental standards” (61). At the same time, he explicitly requires of an Australian population policy that it include provision for refugees, family reunions, and the immigration of skilled people where there are shortages—all issues of strong debate in recent years.

On consumption, by way of example Lowe provides an analysis of Sydney’s consumption between 1970 and 1990: while the city’s population grew 30% over that period, its total consumption rose 70%. The significance of such increases for a sustainable society lies in the combined effect of population and consumption: “The impact on our environment is determined by how many of us there are and how we choose to live”—a typically blunt but precise formulation.

‘Choose’ is a critical notion. It emphasises that, for wealthy countries such as Australia the answer to the question “How are we to live?” carries dimensions of choice that are denied to poorer countries. Lowe notes the array of sustainable technologies now emerging: solar hot water, rainwater and grey-water use, green buildings, fuel-efficient cars, and so on. And if the choices are there, given the urgency, the question is why more choices for sustainable living are not being taken up?

Part of the answer, Lowe argues, lies in perverse economic incentives. Economic policy should encourage environmentally responsible behaviour: for example, power purchased from renewable sources should cost less, not (as it does at present) more. The general economic principle is that prices should incorporate all the costs to society of the environmental and social impacts any economic activity creates. In theory the revenue that accrues should then be used to remedy those impacts or (less usefully) to compensate those affected by them. Hence electricity sourced from coal-fired stations should be made more expensive than if sourced from wind-farms; the use of carbon, which leads to higher greenhouse emissions, should be taxed; so should land-clearing; the prince of electronic devices should include the cost of their disposal; the cost of motor vehicles should include the cost of the damage they do to community health; and so on. The principle is one of internalising social costs so that price signals and incentives operate to improve environmental outcomes.

All this is well-established in the theory of environmental and natural resource economics. Lowe adopts these principles, along with the challenge of these disciplines to high discount rates in discussing the costs and benefits of development proposals, since such rates favour the present generation over future generations.

Finally, in the analysis of economic causes, Lowe deals with the idea of growth. He aligns his argument with Clive Hamilton’s vigorous challenge to prevailing orthodoxy, Growth Fetish. Interestingly, Lowe draws on a future studies framework called, forbiddingly, Causal Layered Analysis (CLA). CLA identifies three levels in most public policy debates: superficial ‘litany’ discussion; an attempt, at a deeper level, to identify ‘social causes’; and, at the deepest levels, ‘myths and metaphors’ which are largely unrecognised and unexamined. The idea of growth as a fundamental social and economic good, Lowe argues, falls into the third of these categories, and is in consequence enduring, powerful and pernicious. The steady state economics of Daly, in contrast, is based on constant physical wealth (implying comprehensive re-use and recycling), and is opposed to the neo-classical economics based on growth. Lowe concludes:

“The survival of human civilisation depends on us developing beyond the primitive notion that bigger is always better and that faster growth is always better than slower growth. These ideas were not a problem when our numbers were small and our demands limited. The growth of the past means that future growth is now threatening the viability of civilised society. It is impossible to overstate the urgency of our situation (77).”

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What, then, is to be placed against this apparently relentless pattern of decline? There is a sense in which through the preceding analysis this question has already been answered. What is required is simply the opposite of the factors which Lowe has identified as lying at the root of the crisis. Thus population must be stabilised, with human flexibilities. Consumption must be held in total to the level that ecosystem services can support. A new sustainability science must be developed to establish these critical thresholds. Waste must be brought to zero through industrial ecology. The loss of natural habitats and the invasion of exotic species must be reversed. A low carbon society based on renewable energy must be created. Global poverty must be addressed and equity in the standard of living across the world’s populations secured. Resource decision-making must be based on a participative political process, informed by professional analysis. In a sense, stated like that, the conclusions of Lowe’s essay are unexceptional: it is difficult to think that any reasonably intelligent person would dispute them. Or is it? Perhaps, in fact, stating such conclusions unambiguously is truly radical, if one takes them seriously, as guides to action. That is particularly true when these conclusions are taken together, as a set of principles and actions: their implications are, as it were, synthetically enhanced.

But in the end action is the crucial issue, and it must be admitted that to a large extent Lowe evades—or at least, doesn’t attempt to take on—the question of how all this is to be done. It is certainly an achievement to identify what has to be done; but simply identifying it doesn’t make it so. If any reader needs evidence for this observation, he or she can simply refer to the outcomes of the recent Copenhagen summit on climate change. Despite the agitation of marginal climate sceptics there was no real disagreement on what needed to be done. Remarkably little, however, in the way of committed action came out of the summit. More conspicuous was the absence of the kinds of international institutions, and, more significantly, the ways in which the international consensus required to underpin that institution, might be developed. Behind the biophysical analyses and derived initiatives is, in the end, the human dimension of human kind. Handling that requires an entirely different framework of reference. Lowe doesn’t attempt to locate or delineate it; but, to do him justice, there’s no reason why he should feel it is his job to do so. It’s not his expertise, as he is the first to accept. Within the range of his expertise, however, his analysis is forthright, timely, and powerful. We would do well to use it as a foundation for principled, practical action in favour of the world.

Reflections on Flannery’s National Library lecture (final)

So where does that leave us?–‘us’ being here simply the population of the world.  Flannery attempts a rallying call to the troops.  Calling, rather oddly, on the nineteenth century campaign to rid the world of slavery, and on the late twentieth century campaign to rid the world of the CFC’s that deplete ozone, he argues for a positive stance.  In effect one has to take a position of this kind; otherwise, why bother to give lectures and write articles at all? 

Yet there are critical issues largely ignored in Flannery’s lecture.  That is understandable, because these issues are largely the human ones, and Flannery is a natural rather than a human scientist. Flannery’s appeal to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is made in order to argue that the world can cooperate on global climate when the issue is sufficiently critical and the evidence sufficiently convincing.  At the time (twenty years ago) the evidence for both the existence of the thinning and disappearance of the ozone layer and its chemical mechanism was still accumulating.  There was, however, no doubt about the reality of the threat to the earth’s biological systems.  As Ian Wills points out, however, in this excellent book Economics and the Environment, the ability of the international community to conclude an effective agreement had less to do with international cooperation than with international business.  The deal that secured the Protocol involved the international manufacturers of CFC’s agreeing to cease making and selling these substances in exchange for rights to make and sell their substitutes.  In addition, the potential disruption to the global economy was far less than is the case for GHGs: CFCs operate in relatively confined segments of the economy.

There is indeed little persuasive evidence that the world community can engage successfully in the kind of strong institutional action needed to stablise the world’s carbon dioxide concentration at 350ppm, as Flannery/Hansen propose, particularly in the short times required.  There remains the possibility of devolving action to the local level where there is at least some evidence of achievement.  But there is doubt that a local strategy can succeed on its own: it needs to be complemented by action by the global community at the international level.

There is, furthermore, a larger question facing the Flannery/Hansen view.  It is worth noting–and it is even remarkable–that their analysis is almost exclusively framed in terms of the supply side of the energy equation.  That is, the global demand trends for energy are assumed to be a given.  The developed world will continue at a high, and increasingly higher, level of energy demand.  The developing world will continue its rapid acceleration of energy demand to at least the levels of the developed world; and that is underpinned by ethical imperatives, the right of developing nations to take their citizens out of poverty as developed nations have done.  With these demand trends taken as a given, the question addressed by Flannery/Hansen is how to meet them with lowest impact on GHG levels–hence the set of strategies they recommend. 

Yet there is surely another way to view this strategy, and it is hardly a new one.  It is simply the question of the link between economic consumption and well-being.  For example, Clive Hamilton’s excellent book, Growth Fetish, points to the lack of clear evidence of a link, on one side, between economic growth and well-being, and on the other the evidence clearly suggesting a link between materialistic values and poor psychological health.  He remarks:  “Modern consumer capitalism will flourish as long as what people desire outpaces what they have.  It is thus vital to the reproduction of the system that individuals are constantly made to feel dissatisfied with what they have. . .in reality economic growth can be sustained only as long as people remain discontented.  Economic growth does not create happiness: unhappiness sustains economic growth.”  He goes on to cite estimates of the World Resources Institute that in the US, Japan and some European countries total wastes and pollutants increased by 28% between 1975 and 1996.  Wastes must be absorbed by environmental systems, or they will accumulate, as the growth and impact of GHG’s demonstrates. It has been estimated that over the last four decades human demand for resources has moved from 70% of the earth’s ability to absorb and regenerate to 120%–human populations are now drawing down the natural capital that sustains them. 

There have been many proposals to ameliorate the impact of over-consumption.  A recent one is that of Thomas Princen, in his book The Logic of Sufficiency.  Princen proposes a principle of sufficiency, which can become a principle of management and ultimately a social organising principle.  It is stated as follows:  “Sufficiency as a principle aimed at ecological overshoot compels decision makers to ask when too much resource use or too little regeneration jeopardizes important values such as ecological integrity and social cohesion; when material gains now preclude material gains in the future; when consumer gratification or investor reward threatens economic security; when benefits internalized depend on costs externalized.”  Princen looks to a revival of what he sees as the three elements inherent in the traditional concept and practice of work: the idea of fit, where individuals seek work that fits their skills and aptitudes; the idea of serving one’s community through production (here Princen is referring to the distinction between producing goods and services which serve the real needs of people, not artificially created feelings of dissatisfaction); and the long-term welfare of present and future generations.  It is here, he argues, that the ecological challenge presented by indefinitely increasing throughput, is ultimately addressed.  Such a view of work “. . .promotes the values of identity, economic independence, and citizenship through self-directed proprietorship.  Inherent in such a vision is self-discipline, striving for purpose, and, not least, limits to ever-increasing material throughput.”  

Surely this is the missing dimension of the Flannery/Hansen analysis.  If increasing energy demands are really a given, the difficulties of achieving a reduction of carbon-dioxide to 350ppm are beyond daunting.  It is with the moderation of demand—in the realisation that well-being and human happiness are not, in the end, bought with material consumption—that the possibility of stabilising the world climate system rests.  The economic system that is built on this value must also change.  But behind this sits the question that has occupied all human societies, and certainly Western civilisation, from its beginnings: what constitutes a good life?  This is a deeply practical and urgent question.  If there is no serious engagement with it, the Flannery/Hansen analysis shows only the environmental fragility of any future that remains open.    

Reflections on Flannery’s National Library lecture (part 2)

It is greatly to Flannery’s credit that, faced with daunting conclusions on this scale he habitually finds grounds for positive thinking and action. That was true of The Weather Makers which ended with a call to arms for household action, still one of the main fronts of climate strategy. In 2006, as the emerging data bean to indicate the dramatic acceleration of the warming trend, his scientific training led him to a pessimistic assessment and into advocacy of nuclear technology as a last line of defence–a not inconsiderable reversal for him, given his long-held green convictions. Even now he seems to be prepared to keep the nuclear option (as in technology, not war, although it is difficult to disentangle the two) on the agenda. But with the publication of Hansen’s paper Flannery’s focus has moved. The critical challenge presented by the paper, and a startlingly new one, is not how to prevent emissions growth, which is the only potentially positive contribution of nuclear technology (and even then, in terms of life-cycle and embedded energy, a matter of continuing controversy). It is how to extract carbon from an already overloaded atmosphere, a task to which nuclear technology can make no contribution. It becomes necessary to turn to other strategies and technologies, some very old, some new, some well understood and tested, others still being proved. Whatever works, is the blunt criterion.

To begin with, Flannery, following Hansen (as he does throughout the lecture) turns to the fuels that are the mainstay of modern economies: coal and oil. There is no doubt coal-fired energy is the single greatest contributing technology to greenhouse gases among all technologies. That is particularly true of electric power stations that burn low-grade brown coal. These are common in the developing world; although Australia, too, to its shame, has its share of them. In this context it is worth remembering that China is reported to be commissioning a new, mid-sized power station, fired by coal, every week. The Flannery/Hansen position is that coal technologies must be phased out, but that this is unlikely to occur at the pace which the new models indicate is required. Weight is therefore given to carbon sequestration as a means to minimise the impacts. Under this proposal no new coal-fired power stations would be built without support from the sequestration technology.

In this, many would argue, Flannery/Hansen have for once allowed wishful thinking to override scientific, or even practical, judgement. There is no proven sequestration project operating anywhere in the world. There are serious challenges facing both CO2 extraction from the coal-firing process and its concentration prior to injection and storage. There are equally serious questions concerning the geological feasibility of storing these emissions for the very long periods of time–far in excess of any social scale we can contemplate–that a coherent climate change policy will require. While not as dangerous to long-term human health as nuclear waste, these stored emissions are nevertheless potentially lethal. Natural leakage of carbon monoxide is known to have been responsible for many deaths. On the timescale of the action required by the Flannery/Hansen position, there is serious doubt that carbon sequestration technology can be developed, tested, proven and safely deployed. It may well be that it cannot be developed at all. 

Oil and gas, the other main fossil fuel culprits, are to be handled by economic instruments, specifically a carbon tax. Weighted against the chief alternative, an emission trading scheme, I agree that a carbon tax is to be preferred. Any emissions trading scheme is complex and expensive to mount, as the EU experience with carbon trading has shown. Special exemptions for exposed industries, such as those now being sought, with flagrant greed and self-interest, by companies associated with the Business Council of Australia, threaten to eviscerate the effectiveness of the proposed trading scheme. A carbon tax, in contrast, is simple and inexpensive to implement. Moreover, it yields a ‘double dividend’, collected tax revenue which can be applied to cushion impacts on the most disadvantaged–the poor and the economically marginalised–and to further the development of renewable technologies. 

Either way, whether economic instruments can lead to material reductions in greenhouse gas levels or not is yet to be seen. Four years of the EU emissions trading operation has not produced unambiguous evidence of reduced emissions in the EU countries trading through it. On the other hand, there is well-documented evidence of financial windfalls gained by companies which were over-allocated emissions permits in the initial handouts and quickly sold them. Carbon offset mechanisms have proved an ecological and regulatory minefield. There is a long way to go before effective trading in greenhouse gases can be said to be in place anywhere in the world. To extend this task to the development and implementation of a truly global emissions trading scheme–the requirement for handling global CO2 levels, since the atmosphere doesn’t recognise national borders–is a formidable challenge to the global community, to say the least of it. 

Renewable energy technologies, particularly wind and solar, are supported under the Flannery/Hansen proposal. In places like Australia, geothermal energy and its associated technologies offer particular promise. There is emerging evidence that, at the household level, wind and solar technologies can be effective. What is would take for these technologies to make an impact on business and industry–by far the greatest users of energy–is not at all clear: the tradeoffs in land use that would require are daunting to contemplate. 

This tripartite approach–carbon sequestration, economic instruments, renewable energy technologies–constitute the main ramparts that Flannery, following Hansen, proposes to build against the tide of increasing greenhouse gas emissions. On the other side of the equation, the extraction of existing CO2 from the atmosphere, Flannery/Hansen offer two strategies. The first centres on the ability of trees to take up and store carbon as they grow. This is hardly a new strategy, but Flannery/Hansen give it new urgency. Their focus is on tropical forests, because it is there that growth is most rapid and the rate of carbon uptake is consequently greatest. The two arms of the strategy are thus the reduction and eventual (but sooner rather than later) halting of tropical deforestation, particularly in Indonesia and Latin America; and the replanting of the vast areas of degraded tropical forests. This strategy doesn’t exclude other forest ecoregions, such as the Taiga: a recent Australian National University study found maximum levels of carbon storage in Australia’s old growth forests, many of which are in temperate (for the time being) zones. But, other things being equal, Flannery/Hansen are pointing out that the best outcomes, in terms of carbon extraction and storage, for a given level of resource expenditure, is a tropical forest strategy. 

Alongside this well-known mechanism, Flannery/Hansen place considerable weight on a relatively new application of a process called pyrolysis. Essentially this technology is a method of burning carbon under controlled conditions to produce charcoal (‘biochar’–see Cornell research). Unless further heated, charcoal, Flannery points out, is inert and stable, and can be buried with impunity; in fact, properly crushed, charcoal is known to improve soil structure and fertility. Flannery paints a picture of a future crop harvest, where a pyrolising unit is being towed behind a harvester to render stubble into charcoal, instead of burning it off. Experiments are said to be under way in large-scale pyrolising, such as that associated with municipal waste-water systems. It is, however, a technology that is still in its early stages, and its scope of application is far from certain. Even its energy budget is yet to be established finally: one needs to be confident that it is, in fact, a technology that reduces, not increases, net emissions before it is widely deployed. 

Both tropical forests and pyrolising strategies are clearly in the right direction. However, if Flannery’s numbers are right, at best they offer limited CO2 capture, relative to the requirement. Even if CO2 production is reduced by the other three strategies, it is not at all evident that together they will effect the closing of the gap between production and capture that a stable global CO2 budget demands; certainly, if Hansen’s projections are correct, not in time.

Reflections on Flannery’s National Library lecture (part 1)

A few days ago I listened to a radio replay of the Kenneth Meyer lecture given recently at the Australian National Library by Dr Tim Flannery (webcast here). The topic was, of course, climate change. Flannery has been one of the most persuasive and articulate leaders of the international public discourse on climate change over the past several years. His book The Weather Makers, published in 2005, was one of the first to assemble the scientific evidence on climate change and present it to the general public. In retrospect it is a little shocking to realise first, how long it took for such an account to appear, given what is now becoming clear of the scale and impacts of climate change; and second, how much more critical the picture is now, only three years later.Flannery is well situated to educate the general public on the emerging scientific consensus about climate change. His academic training as a palaeoecologist places him at the centre of the many disciplines required to make sense of the complex scientific data and analysis. His gifts as a speaker and writer are considerable: he is able to present for the general audience the main lines of scientific evidence and its key ideas and findings with clarity and power. A review of The Weather Makers described it as “the Silent Spring of our time.” The reference is appropriate, both in presentation style and in content. After a battering by the scientific critics Carson’s book eventually became the first authentic statement of the modern environment movement, and is still one of its standard-bearers. Flannery’s work on climate change is still in the battering mode, under attacks by a new generation of scientific critics and commercial interests. One can only hope that he, too, with colleagues like the American James Hansen, will ultimately prevail. The alternatives don’t seem to bear thinking about.

Flannery, however, does think about them, explicitly and unblinkingly. It’s not easy to tread the line between realism and hyperbole, and there would be those who would observe some swerving and exploration of blind alleys by Flannery over the past few years. Last year, appointed Australian of the Year by John Howard, in a quixotic (or calculated) political moment, appeared difficult for Flannery, caught between a government fixed on denying climate change and the serious implications of the newly emerging scientific evidence: his public statements mirrored his shock and desperation, as governments around the world continued to dither. Now, however, free of the title and its constraints, and perhaps having had time to assimilate the confronting scientific evidence, he seems to have found his public voice again. This was a fine lecture, important in the public discourse, for both its realism and purpose. On the side of realism, I am reminded of Jack Welch’s business dictum, “See the world the way it is, not the way you want it to be.” That is not to discount the power of vision and imagination but to recognise that we can only start from where we are. And where we are in terms of climate change, Flannery pointed out, is considerably more serious than had been thought even two years ago. The world (or at least that part of it which has concluded that climate change is real and worth worrying about) has been relying for its scientific appraisal on the modelling and projections of the UN International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC has been subjected to sustained attacks by those who believe it has vastly overstated the dimensions and risks of climate change, particularly anthropogenic climate change. Its work is now, Flannery observed, under new challenge, this time by new evidence from present and past events, and not for overstating but for understating. Climate change appears to be happening much faster than any of the IPCC scenarios had contemplated, moving the timetable for urgently required action forward by many decades.

Flannery highlighted two new pieces of evidence in support of this conclusion, one from the present and one from the past. From the present comes the dramatic acceleration of the melting of the Arctic ice. Because of the concentration of the effects of temperature rise at the Poles, the Artic ice, much less extensive than the Antarctic ice, was always predicted to exhibit early warning signs of global warming. The diminishing boundary of summer ice has been observed for at least a decade. The trend, however, accelerated markedly in 2005-2006, and in 2007 jumped to a level that the IPCC models predicted would not occur for some decades. That level has been reached again this year, with the North-West and North-East Passages open and joined for the first time in human history. It now appears likely, from a scientific point of view, that the Arctic ice has crossed the much-anticipated tipping point, where the lower albedo of open water allows the absorption of so much more heat that the winter ice must reform a smaller and smaller scales until it disappears. There now seems to be no intervention that can reverse this feedback mechanism, and the disappearance of the Arctic ice is predicted in a matter of years, not decades. The range of impacts this remarkable event will have on the earth’s biophysical system is still largely unknown.

In a general sense this unpredicted warning points to the central problem of the IPCC modelling, one which the modellers themselves have always recognised. The world climate system is large and immensely complex and operates at the largest scale of global systems. Modelling even the mainly linear evolution of these systems is associated with wide-ranging uncertainties. The non-linear elements of these systems are even more difficult to identify and model. It had always been supposed that there were many more feedback mechanisms operating in the global climate system than had be captured in the IPCC models. In addition, unidentified linkages between sub-systems almost certainly exist. It now appears that these hidden factors are much more widespread and important than had been assumed. The feedback mechanisms seem to be overwhelmingly positive; that is, strengthening of trending directions. The Arctic ice is a graphic demonstration of the need to reconfigure the IPCC models to account for more powerful and accelerated effects.

The second new piece of evidence assembled by Flannery comes from the work of James Hansen and his colleagues, associated with the NASA/Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York. Hansen, as those who have followed climate change for the past two decades will remember, was the first climate scientist to draw attention to the scale and risks of anthropocentric global warming in his 1988 testimony to Congress. As is also well known Hansen was one of those scientists singled out for attention by the successive Bush administrations in their attempt to diminish the impact of the emerging scientific consensus of the reality and seriousness of anthropocentric climate change. In June of this year Hansen and his colleagues published a paper out of the NASA/Goddard Institute entitled “Target atmospheric CO2: where should humanity aim?” The paper examines the climatic history of the earth over the past 65.5 million years. It conclude that the climate system is more sensitive to CO2 accumulation than had previously been thought. Critical to the analysis are ‘slow’ climate feedback processes that are not included in most climate models, but which profoundly affect predictions. These are such processes as ice sheet disintegration, vegetation migration, and greenhouse gas release from soils, tundra or ocean sediments.

Until now an upper limit of 2 degrees centigrade of global warming has been generally thought adequate to limit its impact. Hansen has argued for an upper limit of 1.7 degrees centigrade to avoid irreversible ice sheet and species loss. This has implied a maximum CO2 level of 450 parts per million. Currently we sit at 385 parts per million. The indication of this analysis has been that, although serious and urgent, there is still time to act to prevent the tipping point being reached and seeding dangerous climate change.

The remarkable and challenging conclusion reached by Hansen and his colleagues in the June 2008 study is that, due to the slow feedback impacts, these numbers are probably not right. The evidence from their study of paleoclimatic systems is that 350 parts per million of CO2 seems likely to be closer to the upper limit of safety, if irreversible ice sheet and species loss, with all their attendant impacts on humanity, are to be avoided. At that figure the global system is already in the dangerous zone—past the tipping point. The first critical question is now for how long this post-tipping point level can be maintained before becoming irreversible. The second is not now only how to slow emissions growth, the target adopted by most of the world’s nations who have recognised the need to set emissions policy, for under Hansen’s analysis this must lead to inevitable disaster. It is how to take existing CO2 out of the atmosphere, as fast as possible, while limiting the current net CO2 balance to zero. The stakes, to indulge in severe understatement, have been raised, for the continued well-being of humanity, and of the species who share the planet with us.