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Gwynne Dyer

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Is This Really a Turning Point?

People who look for silver linings (aka optimists) think that Covid-19 might be the inflection point where we start getting serious about our relationship with the planet. There’s no direct link between coronavirus and climate change, but if a tiny virus can bring our whole bustling civilisation to a halt, then how vulnerable will we be to a disordered environment driven by out-of-control global heating?

Just in time we are being taught humility and perspective, the optimists say. Even better, some of the things we urgently needed to do are now happening without our help. People are learning to work from home, air travel has been closed down, the oil industry is collapsing. Etc., etc.

By contrast, the pessimists (who often refer to themselves as realists) believe that crises don’t make people behave better. The Great Depression led to the Second World War, 9/11 led to wars all over the Middle East, the Crash of 2008 led to ‘austerity’, slow growth, mounting popular anger and the rise of populist regimes across the world. Don’t expect any better from this crisis.

Moreover, they say, most people can only process one problem at a time, and that has the unfortunate ring of truth.

Last year saw an unprecedented upsurge in public concern about climate change – Australian wildfires, record floods all over the place, Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg – but all that has now been pushed aside by the coronavirus. Global heating and its associated disasters will kill far more people in the long run, but Covid-19 is killing them now.

There’s no time for climate this year, and last year’s climate momentum will not automatically return when the virus is under control. Momentum takes time to build, and we are running out of time. There is no magical deliverance on the way, and on balance the current health emergency is setting back the cause of climate sanity, not advancing it.

Nevertheless, we can take some comfort from the fact that behavioural moulds are being broken all over the place, and several generations are learning together that disruptive changes, even very big ones, can be accepted by most people if they understand the need.

A small example from my own trade: this column has appeared in newspapers all over the world for decades, but the relentless retreat of the print media before the online onslaught has eaten deeply into the revenue base of the press everywhere.

Many papers have died, almost all have downsized, and that hit my own income hard. My solution was to do more speaking engagements, which involved more time away from my real job and a lot more travel. No show, no dough, so I did it – but then came coronavirus, social distancing and a temporary halt to air travel. End of that solution. What to do next?

So I put my talks on video and offered them to the usual suspects – universities, schools, libraries, conference organisers – saying I could do a live Q&A session afterwards on some web hosting site for the widely distributed audience. They would never have accepted that arrangement two months ago. Now there is no alternative, so we’re back in business.

Some of this business will go back to the old model when normal service is restored, but I suspect quite a lot of it will not. This is happening all across the business world, and will mean permanent, significant change: more working from home, less commuting, more teleconferencing, less travel. And lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Another positive change coming out of this emergency is that we are finally beginning to take a chunk out of our biggest problem: our heavy dependence on oil. Coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, has been declining fast as an energy source for years in most places, but oil, the second-worst fossil fuel, just kept going up.

In January the world was pumping and burning 100 million barrels of oil a day. (That’s about two litres a day for every man, woman and child.) Demand this month has fallen to 70 million bpd, and while some of it will return when the coronavirus is contained, it will probably never see 100 million again. The inexorable decline of oil has begun.

But those are about the only bright spots. This year is forecast to be the hottest ever, and the major climate summit that was scheduled for November has been postponed until next year. Total annual emissions may be down by a few percentage points this year, but most of the decline is only temporary.

Do not despair. The planet is now hot enough to produce several major local calamities every year, so we’ll quickly get re-motivated to worry about global heating once the current emergency is past. Although probably not fast enough to save us from having to resort to geo-engineering by the 2030s.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Last…advancing it”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Climate Denial: A New Strategy

What a surprise! The annual emissions report by the United Nations is now out, and greenhouse gas emissions are still going up thirty years after we first realised there was a problem with the climate. In fact, they have gone up 15% in the past ten years. So much for the promises of ‘early and deep cuts’ in emissions to avoid catastrophic heating.

Governments have been making these promises since the early 1990s, and they are never kept because the political pressures are far stronger from those who profit in the present – the fossil fuel industries and the automobile, shipping and aviation industries – than from those who are merely frightened for their childrens’ future.

The industries are well organised, have lots of money to spend, and focus tightly on stopping changes that threaten their business model. Private citizens are less organised, have far fewer resources, and have many competing demands on their attention. Inevitably, the industries succeed in sabotaging most attempts to cut emissions.

For a long time, the main strategy of the industries was denial. At first they denied outright that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions were changing the climate. Never mind the science: just listen to this other guy in a white coat who says that it isn’t happening.

That worked for a while, and the initial rapid response to the climate change threat lost speed through the later 90s. Flat denial became increasingly untenable in the early 21st century, however, and the emphasis of the deniers shifted to spreading doubt. The climate is always changing; lots of scientists don’t believe that the warming is caused by human activities; the jury is still out.

Those lies worked for another fifteen years, but gradually the real scientists realised that they had to organise too. There is now no government in the world (except the United States) that still goes along with the denialism. Every major international body has accepted the evidence that climate change is actually happening and that we are the cause.

Time for another change of strategy by the fossil fuel industries and their allies, then. If they can no longer hope to discredit the science or confuse the public about the evidence, maybe they can at least deflect and divert the pressure for effective action on climate change on to targets that do not directly threaten the sales of their products.

That’s where we are now, and it was Dr. Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University and director of the Earth System Science Center, who first spotted the new strategy of the fossil fuel industry’s shills.

“There is an attempt being made by them to deflect attention away from finding policy solutions for global warming towards promoting individual behaviour changes that affect people’s diets, travel choices and other personal behaviour,” he told The Observer newspaper early this month. “This is a deflection campaign, and a lot of well-meaning people have been taken in by it.”

What gives the deflectors credibility is that they seem to be on the side of the angels. They’re not denying that climate change is real; they just want you to use your bike more, eat less meat, and recycle your waste. What could be wrong with that?

Nothing, of course. You should be doing all those things: it’s a necessary part of the solution. But they want you to do that INSTEAD of campaigning (or at least voting) for action that directly targets fossil fuel use. If you feel that you’re already doing your bit in the climate emergency by changing your personal behaviour, then the pressure is off them.

They also encourage ‘doomism’: the notion that it’s too late in the game to do anything useful about climate change. “This leads people down a path of despair and hopelessness and finally inaction, which actually leads us to the same place as outright climate-change denialism,” said Mann.

It really is quite late in the game. We would have to cut global emissions by 7% a year (instead of increasing them by 1.5% annually) to avoid breaching the never-exceed limit of two degrees C higher average global temperature. That’s far beyond what we have ever done before, so there is considerable justification for pessimism.

However, pessimism is a luxury we cannot afford. We have to keep working away at the task, because every cut we make in emissions, however inadequate, gives us a little more time to deal with the rest of the problem.

The ‘deflect, divert, distract’ campaign is often hard to distinguish from genuine attempts to change people’s lifestyles in positive ways, and frankly there’s no point in trying. Just do what they’re advocating (bikes, meat, recycling, etc.) and remember to do the hard political and legal work of eliminating fossil fuel use too.

Simple to say, hard to do.
______________________________
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 13 and 14. (“It really…problem”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Climate Denial: A New Strategy

What a surprise! The annual emissions report by the United Nations is now out, and greenhouse gas emissions are still going up thirty years after we first realised there was a problem with the climate. In fact, they have gone up 15% in the past ten years. So much for the promises of ‘early and deep cuts’ in emissions to avoid catastrophic heating.

Governments have been making these promises since the early 1990s, and they are never kept because the political pressures are far stronger from those who profit in the present – the fossil fuel industries and the automobile, shipping and aviation industries – than from those who are merely frightened for their childrens’ future.

The industries are well organised, have lots of money to spend, and focus tightly on stopping changes that threaten their business model. Private citizens are less organised, have far fewer resources, and have many competing demands on their attention. Inevitably, the industries succeed in sabotaging most attempts to cut emissions.

For a long time, the main strategy of the industries was denial. At first they denied outright that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions were changing the climate. Never mind the science: just listen to this other guy in a white coat who says that it isn’t happening.

That worked for a while, and the initial rapid response to the climate change threat lost speed through the later 90s. Flat denial became increasingly untenable in the early 21st century, however, and the emphasis of the deniers shifted to spreading doubt. The climate is always changing; lots of scientists don’t believe that the warming is caused by human activities; the jury is still out.

Those lies worked for another fifteen years, but gradually the real scientists realised that they had to organise too. There is now no government in the world (except the United States) that still goes along with the denialism. Every major international body has accepted the evidence that climate change is actually happening and that we are the cause.

Time for another change of strategy by the fossil fuel industries and their allies, then. If they can no longer hope to discredit the science or confuse the public about the evidence, maybe they can at least deflect and divert the pressure for effective action on climate change on to targets that do not directly threaten the sales of their products.

That’s where we are now, and it was Dr. Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University and director of the Earth System Science Center, who first spotted the new strategy of the fossil fuel industry’s shills.

“There is an attempt being made by them to deflect attention away from finding policy solutions for global warming towards promoting individual behaviour changes that affect people’s diets, travel choices and other personal behaviour,” he told The Observer newspaper early this month. “This is a deflection campaign, and a lot of well-meaning people have been taken in by it.”

What gives the deflectors credibility is that they seem to be on the side of the angels. They’re not denying that climate change is real; they just want you to use your bike more, eat less meat, and recycle your waste. What could be wrong with that?

Nothing, of course. You should be doing all those things: it’s a necessary part of the solution. But they want you to do that INSTEAD of campaigning (or at least voting) for action that directly targets fossil fuel use. If you feel that you’re already doing your bit in the climate emergency by changing your personal behaviour, then the pressure is off them.

They also encourage ‘doomism’: the notion that it’s too late in the game to do anything useful about climate change. “This leads people down a path of despair and hopelessness and finally inaction, which actually leads us to the same place as outright climate-change denialism,” said Mann.

It really is quite late in the game. We would have to cut global emissions by 7% a year (instead of increasing them by 1.5% annually) to avoid breaching the never-exceed limit of two degrees C higher average global temperature. That’s far beyond what we have ever done before, so there is considerable justification for pessimism.

However, pessimism is a luxury we cannot afford. We have to keep working away at the task, because every cut we make in emissions, however inadequate, gives us a little more time to deal with the rest of the problem.

The ‘deflect, divert, distract’ campaign is often hard to distinguish from genuine attempts to change people’s lifestyles in positive ways, and frankly there’s no point in trying. Just do what they’re advocating (bikes, meat, recycling, etc.) and remember to do the hard political and legal work of eliminating fossil fuel use too.

Simple to say, hard to do.
______________________________
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 13 and 14. (“It really…problem”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Vegetarians, Carnivores and Technology

“Right now, growing cells as meat instead of animals is a very expensive process,” said Yaakov Nahmias, founder and chief scientist of Israel-based startup Future Meat Technologies. But it will get cheaper, and it probably will be needed.

Global population is heading for 10 billion by 2050. (Current world population: 7.7 billion.) Average global incomes will triple in the same period, enabling more people to eat meat-rich diets.

“We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before,” says Professor Tim Lang of the University of London, one of the 37 scientific co-authors from sixteen different countries who wrote the a report by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health that launches in Jakarta on Friday. But we’ve heard it all before.

It takes seven kilos of grain to grow one kilo of beef. 70% of the world’s fresh water is used to irrigate crops. We have appropriated three-quarters of the world’s fertile land for food production, and we’ll need the rest by 2050. The world’s stocks of seafood will have collapsed by 2050. It’s all true, but we’re sick of being nagged.

And still they bang on. The EAT-Lancet Commission even has a diet that will save the planet. Cut your beef consumption by 90% (i.e. one steak a month). Eat more beans and pulses (three times more) and more nuts and seeds (four times more). Going vegetarian or vegan will help even more. That’s all true too – but I don’t think it’s going to happen.

Or at least, it’s not going to happen by everybody turning vegan, vegetarian, or just ‘flexitarian’. No doubt there will in due course be high taxes on meat and fish, and official propaganda campaigns to persuade people to change their eating habits, and some people will change.

Some people already have: the Vegan Society in Britain claims that the number of vegans in the country has quadrupled in the last four years. But not enough people will switch to a plant-based diet soon enough, or maybe ever. We need to bring the rest of the population along, and few things are more persistent than cultural dietary preferences. Like eating meat.

India is home to almost one-third for the world’s vegetarians, but the local variations are immense and deeply entrenched: 75% of people are vegetarians in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, but fewer than 2% are in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.

The most enthusiastic meat-eaters are in the richer countries, and as other countries join their club (like China), they start eating more meat too. So clearly there would be a huge market for real meat that didn’t come from cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens, but tastes right, feels right in the mouth, and doesn’t trash the environment.

We’re not talking about the famous $325,000 hamburger patty made from beef cells immersed in a growth medium that was triumphantly cooked on television six years ago.

We’re talking about a proper steak with muscle and fat cells and the right shape, taste and texture – but not one produced by the familiar process that uses huge amounts of fertile land, releases large amounts of greenhouse gases, and involves slaughtering live animals. That is Yaakov Nahmias’s goal, and he’s pretty close now.

Future Meat Technologies produces its ‘cell-based meat’ in bioreactors, growing it on lattices that give it shape and texture, but we’re not talking about giant vats in a lab. He plans to give small units to existing farmers, who might still be rearing some beef cattle too for the luxury end of the market.

“With these two plays–a more efficient bioreactor and a distributed manufacturing model–we can essentially drop the cost down to about $5 a kilogram [$2.27 a pound],” said Nahmias. Meat giant Tyson Foods recently put $2.2 million of seed money into his company, and a dozen other start-ups are chasing the same goal: Memphis Meat, JUST, Finless Foods,
Meatable – a total of 30 labs around the world.

How big a threat is this ‘cell-based meat’ to the traditional cattle industry? Big enough that the US Cattlemen’s Association has petitioned the government to restrict the words ‘meat’ and ‘beef’ to products “derived directly from animals raised and slaughtered.” A tricky definition, since it would mean that wild deer are not made of meat, but the ranchers are clearly running scared.

Coming up behind cell-based meat there’s the even newer concept of ‘Solar Foods’: a Finnish company called just that is using electricity from solar panels to electrolyse water and produce hydrogen. The hydrogen is fed to bacteria, and the product is an edible food that is half carbohydrates, half fats and protein.

It is just as good as soya as an animal food, and it uses no land at all. No greenhouse gas emissions either, and the first factory producing it opens in two years’ time. Technology alone can’t save us, but it can certainly shift the odds in our favour.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 14. (“India…Bengal”; and “How…scared”)
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.