Now, I'm not a published author like Sharon, nor the columnist for one of London's biggest newspapers, but I do have an opinion, a blog, and a desire to procrastinate writing an essay. So, I thought I'd spend some time discussing their discussion.
If you haven't read the discussion, you really should (here and here) but I'll summarize quickly. Basically, Monbiot favors a technological green deal, while Sharon argues that the costs for such a green deal come with “an enormous front-load of fossil fuels." Because Sharon doesn't believe we can afford, both financially and climactically, such an expenditure, she instead favors a 5 year plan of personal reduction of carbon emissions. She writes, "This is a drum I keep beating, not because I wish to undermine efforts to expand renewable energy, but because I think living in a 5 degree warmer world with wind turbines will be small, sad consolation." Monbiot believes Sharon's voluntary abstinence plan is pie-in-the-sky thinking, whereas Sharon believes Monbiot's green new deal plan is wishful thinking.
Now while I greatly admire Sharon's work, and find her to be an incredibly interesting writer, we do tend to occupy different spheres of the environmental blogosphere, so it's not particularly surprising that I disagree with her AND Monbiot. But first, let's start with where we agree. One, we all can agree that climate change is real and imminent. And we can all agree that there is a lot we don't know. Based on our limited information, Sharon posits that Monbiot's plan "has a 20% chance of success if it isn’t already too late to invest in a build out [ie a rapid investment in green technology], 0% chance of success if it is too late for a build out, but not too late to stabilize the climate at all with rapid cuts, and 0% chance if we’re already past the tipping points." She argues that her plan has a "10% chance of succes [sic] if we still have time for a build out, a 10% chance of success if we don’t have time for a build out and a 0% chance if we are past the tipping points."
And this is where I find both Monbiot's plan and Sharon's plan troubling: neither plan has a shot of working if we are, in fact, past the tipping point, whatever that is. Put it this way, I think there's a possibility, that even if we attempt Sharon's more conservative plan in terms of mitigation, we could end up with a world that is a few degrees warmer, and WITHOUT wind turbines. We are already seeing shifts in weather patterns, the ice is already melting. It is evident that global warming is not a future event; it's happening now.
The truth is the time is past for a strategy focused solely on mitigation. The focus now needs to shift to adaptation. Solutions that have a zero percent chance of success if we're past the tipping point are no longer acceptable as solutions.
So what exactly is adaptation? To put it simply, if collapse is one side of the coin, adaptation is the flip-side. A neo-Malthusian view of society is represented by a J curve: that is human population grows and grows until we use up all our resources, and then the population collapses and gradually starts to rise again. But collapse is not pre-ordained! The flip-side to Thomas Malthus is Ester Boserup, who argued that "necessity is the mother of invention." A Boserupian view of the world suggests that we throw out the Malthusian J-curve, and replace it with an S-curve. The idea is that when resources start running low, instead of a collapse, societies figure out a way to adapt. So if oil were to run out, a society might collapse, or they might adapt by using different types of energy.
While Sharon is right that the costs for a green deal likely involve a large fossil fuel expenditure upfront, that is very likely the price we are going to have to pay to adapt. In this, I agree with Monbiot that a technological green deal is necessary.
But, once we've gotten our green deal, we don't get to slap each other on the back, and say "Job well done," because the truth is, a green deal is just the STARTING point. It is absolutely crucial that any sensible approach to climate change must focus on a reduction of human vulnerability to climate change.
Just who is vulnerable? According to the IPCC, while all countries are vulnerable to a certain extent, the countries most at risk include the LDCs (least developed countries) as well as the small island states. The risk to small island states is fairly self-evident, but why are least developed countries so at risk? Part of the answer lies in geography: many of the LDCs are in areas where climate change will be particularly problematic: for example, Bangladesh is a flood-prone area as it is, and rising sea-levels will exacerbate those issues, while many of the drought-prone countries in Sub-Saharan Africa could suffer more critical droughts more of the time. But part of the answer is that LDCs lack the infrastructure and the financial wherewithal to reduce vulnerability. The Netherlands suffers from its own geographic problems: as a low-lying country with an incredibly high population density, you might think it was a Malthusian collapse waiting to happen, but instead The Netherlands is the poster child for adaptability. Their climate change strategy has included a $1 billion investment to retrofit their dykes. The difference between the Netherlands and some of the LDCs then is not a difference in geographic vulnerability, but a difference in SOCIAL vulnerability. The Netherlands being a rich country with a stable government has the money and the institutions to adapt, whereas Bangladesh or Malawi might not. Part of our response to climate change must involve increasing adaptational capacity in these socially vulnerable areas.
Not all adaptation will involve technological solutions. In one of the more extreme examples of adaptation, the Maldives is establishing a fund to buy a new homeland should rising sea levels render the small island unlivable. Other means of adaptation might include better response systems to floods and hurricanes (the evacuation strategy prior to Hurricane Gustav is a good example of this kind of social adaptation.)
The point is, the world is not static, nor has it ever been. Much as we might wish that things were different, much as we might wish that we could stabilize the atmosphere, and stop global warming in its tracks, most scientists now believe that even if we were to stop carbon emissions this second, we'd still see a rise in temperatures and sea levels. Thus, we MUST learn to adapt.
For too long adaptation has been put on the back burner, because, OMG, if we teach people to adapt, then maybe people will stop trying to reduce carbon emissions. This approach is nonsensical, dangerous, and if continued, could result in a zero-sum outcome where we've neither built our adaptive capacity, nor reduced our emissions. Luckily, the IPCC is now on board with regards to adaptation, and there's a real chance that the post-Kyoto agreement will give adaptation the attention it deserves.
Sharon sees a real problem with a world that has wind turbines, but is a few degrees higher, and acts like it is fait accompli that such a world wouldn't be worth living in. But the truth is, we don't know what the future will bring. We don't know that a massive green deal would result in temperatures rising by a few degrees. But even if the temperature did rise, we don't know that human beings could not ADAPT to such a world. In any case, I think we had better try. Because the alternative is accepting that we might just be screwed. And frankly, I'm not okay with that being a possible scenario.