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December 25, 2009

Cold War Over Warming Already Underway?

Seems like it.

Mark Lynas, who worked with the Maldives group at COP15, was literally in the room when the final negotiations took place, and wrote about it for The Guardian. The key section:

To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China's representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. "Why can't we even mention our own targets?" demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia's prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil's representative too pointed out the illogicality of China's position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord's lack of ambition.

China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak "as soon as possible". The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks popping in every corner of the world.

[...] With the deal gutted, the heads of state session concluded with a final battle as the Chinese delegate insisted on removing the 1.5C target so beloved of the small island states and low-lying nations who have most to lose from rising seas. President Nasheed of the Maldives, supported by Brown, fought valiantly to save this crucial number. "How can you ask my country to go extinct?" demanded Nasheed. The Chinese delegate feigned great offence – and the number stayed, but surrounded by language which makes it all but meaningless. The deed was done.

I figured something like this would happen. I just didn't expect the signs to show up so quickly.

December 17, 2009

None More Black

nonemoreblack.pngAn aerosol known as "black carbon," a primary component in soot, looks to be a key driver of anthropogenic global warming in tropical locations around the world -- most notably, in the Himalayan region.

...new research, by NASA’s William Lau and collaborators, reinforces with detailed numerical analysis what earlier studies suggest: that soot and dust contribute as much (or more) to atmospheric warming in the Himalayas as greenhouse gases. This warming fuels the melting of glaciers and could threaten fresh water resources in a region that is home to more than a billion people.

[...] Nicknamed the “Third Pole”, the region in fact holds the third largest amount of stored water on the planet beyond the North and South Poles. But since the early 1960s, the acreage covered by Himalayan glaciers has declined by over 20 percent. Some Himalayan glaciers are melting so rapidly, some scientists postulate, that they may vanish by mid-century if trends persist. Climatologists have generally blamed the build-up of greenhouse gases for the retreat, but Lau’s work suggests that may not be the complete story.

He has produced new evidence suggesting that an “elevated heat pump” process is fueling the loss of ice, driven by airborne dust and soot particles absorbing the sun’s heat and warming the local atmosphere and land surface.

Globally, black carbon looks to be the second most-important warming agent after CO2.

Here's the twist: much of the production of black carbon comes from the combustion of biofuels and diesel, the two leading "greener" fuel technologies.

Aerosols last for months in the atmosphere, as opposed to the decades that greenhouse gases can last. This is good, as it means that policies that reduce the production of black carbon can start showing positive results in a matter of weeks.

Lift '010

Just as a heads-up to anyone planning on being in Geneva (or in a nearby European location) in early May: I'll be speaking at the 2010 Lift conference. The theme is "What can the Future do for you?"

Generations and technologies

How to go beyond the usual clichés on generations, with Seniors unable to benefit from technology and Millenials ruining their future careers on social networks?

The redefinition of Privacy

What is privacy in the 21st Century? Is personal security threatened by the massive collection of personal data?


Since 2006 Web 2.0 has celebrated the so-called "amateur revolution". What did we learn in the past 5 years? Are we reaching the limits of Web 2.0?


Beyond the much talked-about political campaigns on Facebook, how to turn users into engaged citizens in public action?

The old new media

Newspapers are struggling, TV is not sure of what the future holds. What is at stake nowadays when informing, reaching and involving people?

It's shaping up to be a good group of speakers, and I'm definitely looking forward to it. Do let me know if you're going to attend!

December 9, 2009

A Cold War Over Warming


What happens if global efforts to set and abide by strong carbon emissions cuts fail?

The standard answer to a question like this is that "we all suffer." While that's probably true, it misses the point -- we may all suffer, but we don't all suffer equally. Some nations will be hit harder by storms or droughts than others; some nations will have the resources and technologies to adapt better than others. And therein lies the potential for what may end up as a nasty tool of international competition.

There is, I believe, a non-zero chance that an extended period of climate instability could induce a state that believes itself to be better able to adapt to global warming to slow its efforts to decarbonize in order to gain a lead over its more vulnerable rivals.

Hear me out.

We know that while carbon emissions may come from particular locations, the effects of carbon in the atmosphere are global. If only China, or only the US (or Europe, or Japan) cut carbon emissions to zero, the net result would be at best a delay of the onset of significant climate effects. This is one reason why climate negotiations are such a mess -- we don't just have to change our own systems, we have to make sure that (essentially) everybody else is changing their systems, too. No one nation can cut carbon emissions enough to stop global warming by itself. As a result, we could have a situation where we still get bad climate impacts -- that is, climate agreements have effectively failed -- even if some or most of the treaty signatories have met their commitments.

In such a scenario, there's no doubt we'd see widespread calls to decarbonize as swiftly as possible -- but "as swiftly as possible" may itself be problematic, if the effects of climate disaster hit the world's economy hard (as it likely would).

This is the kind of scenario that would push some people to call for geoengineering, and while I do think that would end up being considered, it's not the focus of this essay.

It's very likely that one of the political impacts of climate problems would be to increase tensions between nations. This would come about due to people assigning blame (rightly or wrongly), competition over resources such as arable land, and just the defensiveness and hostility that seems to inevitably happen when a powerful state comes under significant pressure. Even countries that have had historically close relations (such as the US and western Europe, or the US and post-WWII Japan) could see wedges driven between them; countries that have had a more complicated history could see a level of hostility unmatched in recent years.

Just imagine, for a moment, how China would act if it had cause to believe that American or Russian intransigence over carbon reduction was a leading trigger of global warming-induced problems such as droughts and massive dust storms? Or how America would act if they felt they had cause to blame the Chinese or Russians? It's unlikely that this would be enough to bring about a shooting war; at the very least, nuclear deterrence would still apply. But it would definitely lead to angry rivals trying to undermine each other.

In this scenario, the leadership of a powerful state might come to believe that:

  • The effects of decarbonization would be slow and diffuse, but
  • Said powerful state was well-suited to engage in adaptation projects, while
  • The rival(s) of said powerful state were more vulnerable to the impacts of anthropogenic global warming, so that
  • The rival(s) would be weakened relative to said powerful state if the effects of global warming persisted and said powerful state adapted.

    In short, a powerful state believing itself better-able to adapt to or withstand the effects of global warming might see a persistent advantage to its rivals being hurt by global warming, and slow its decarbonization accordingly.

    If all of that sounds ludicrous to you, you've probably forgotten about (or never lived through) the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. This kind of thinking wouldn't be new. The US feared that a Soviet nuclear first strike would sufficiently degrade the potential US response that, in combination with widespread bomb shelters and other civil defense mechanisms, the Soviets could "ride out" retaliation (making the Soviets more willing to launch a first strike). This fear led the US to embrace a "launch on warning" posture, meaning that the US declared that it would launch an attack on the USSR upon receiving alerts that a Soviet attack was starting.

    It doesn't matter whether or not the fears were justified -- simply recognizing the possibility resulted in altered behavior.

    How, then, would the recognition of the possibility of the strategic use of differential climate adaptation change international behavior? What could we as citizens do to prevent this kind of action?

    More troublingly, how could we tell if something like that was happening already?

    The irony in all of this? Geoengineering may start to look like the less politically-fraught alternative.

  • December 1, 2009

    Be Biopolitical At Home

    IEET has announced that Friday's Biopolitics of Popular Culture Seminar (referenced here and here) will be live-streamed for those folks unable to attend in person.

    Those unable to attend the event in person will be able to follow along in real-time.

    In order to make all of the valuable information being presented at this week’s “Biopolitics of Popular Culture” seminar available to as many people as possible, the IEET has arranged to have the entire event live-streamed online.

    It will be shown at this page on the IEET site, and can also be viewed on TechZulu.

    Times are from 8:30am to 5:30pm PST (11:30am to 8:30pm EST) on Friday, December 4, 2009.


    Jamais Cascio

    Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

    Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

    Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

    Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

    Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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