An open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau Re: Climate Change and the collapse of civilization
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE PRIME MINISTER
Dear Prime Minister,
If I may I would like to give you a brief lesson in arithmetic then go on to demonstrate why this lesson is so important given the world situation today. I would like you to imagine that you have discovered a magical investment that allows you to double your money every day. During the first ten days you would find a $1 investment growing as follows: $1, $2, $4, $8, $16, $32, $64, $128, $256, $512, $1024. If you chose to keep that money invested, then after day 20 you would be a millionaire, after day 30 a billionaire and so on. Every ten days would see a tenfold increase in your wealth. Before very long you would own everything on the planet and you would be unable to grow your wealth any more.
This type of growth is known as exponential growth. The example may seem somewhat artificial but was chosen because you are probably unknowingly quite familiar with one of its most important properties: the doubling time. When your financial advisor tells you that if you invest your money at a 6% rate of return you will double your money in 12 years s/he is using this property of exponential growth. The doubling time is roughly the number 70 divided by the annual percentage growth rate and is characteristic of anything which exhibits continuous growth no matter how small. In my example I have chosen one day as the doubling time in order to dramatically highight other important properties of exponential growth.
The first of these is that in a finite system growth must eventually end. The second is that the changes which occur near the end become very large compared to the initial starting value. The third is that, towards the end, time seems to shrink. The fourth is that at any step along the way the amount of growth at that step is greater than all of the growth which occurred to that point i.e. in the example above $16 is greater than $1 + $2 + $4 + $8 and so on. And finally that, in the last step, change is very dramatic before coming to an abrupt end (two days before you owned everything you owned only one quarter of the world and however long it took to reach that point the end would come only two days later).
Let us now apply what we know about exponential growth to that favorite subject of economists and politicians: the economy. For thousands if not tens of thousands of years world economic output was essentially flat. Then since about 200 years ago the world experienced a period of exceptional growth due to the discovery and use of cheap fossil fuels especially oil. During that time economists have convinced themselves and politicians that growth can continue forever. But as we have seen it is a mathematical certainty that economic growth must end. The reason is that economic growth as currently understood involves the consumption and eventual depletion of the planet's resources. The only questions are when and how fast the end will come.
The question of when was addressed in the 1970's. In 1972 a group of scientists at MIT published a document entitled “The Limits to Growth” in which they described a model they had created trying to understand what the future might bring. The standard run or 'business as usual' scenario produced by the model suggested that world output would peak during the first quarter of the 21st century declining thereafter as world resources became depleted. After some delay, world population would similarly decline as the global economy could no longer support existing population levels.
There is plenty of evidence that this is already happening as scientists are warning:
-that the saltwater fishery will no longer exist by mid-century;
-that there may soon not be enough oxygen in the oceans to support marine life;
-that plankton which produce about 70% of the oxygen we need to live are rapidly dying off in the oceans;
-that coral reefs, home to 25% of the world's fish, are dying;
-that groundwater is being rapidly depleted;
-that mineral resources including oil that can be economically recovered are no longer being found;
-that the world has lost a third of its arable land in the past 40 years;
-that world poulation is already 60% larger than the planet can sustain;
-that the sixth mass extinction of life on earth is already occurring.
All of the above strongly suggest that we have very likely reached the final stage in the growth of the economy. It seems to me that there are only two paths forward. We know that some 25 civilizations in the past have collapsed, in many cases because their local environment could no longer support them. This time the local environment has become the planet and the question is: will our existing civilization collapse to something which is more sustainable or are we facing extinction.
Estimating how long we have to change our behaviour can be done as follows. Average annual economic growth during the period from 1850 to 2014 seems to have been about 3.3% but appears to be declining recently so let's be more conservative and assume only 2% annual growth. With this level of growth we will consume more of the earth's non-renewable resources in the next 35 years than we have consumed in all human history to date. This is unlikely because many resources are already nearing depletion and the harder governments try to increase growth the more rapidly will the end come.
But we will also produce more garbage than all of the garbage produced to date. Part of this garbage is the carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere and this must end shortly if we are to have any chance of keeping global warming under 2 degrees.
While we might survive the end of growth, global warming provides a greater existential challenge. We are already seeing that:
-rising sea levels and more drought and other extreme weather conditions are threatening food production and could lead to the migration of millions of people with all of the problems that will bring;
-crop yields decrease with rising temperatures;
-glaciers around the world are receding and threatening the world's surface waters especially in those countries whose rivers are replenished by the glaciers in the Himalayas;
-increasing quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide, are being released from existing and abandoned oil wells and by bacteria converting biomass in the permafrost into methane (we know that one mass extinction was caused by the sudden release of large amounts of methane into the atmosphere).
If we continue burning fossil fuels it seems likely that the global temperature will rise to levels beyond which humans could no longer survive. The more forthright climate scientists say that 1.5 degrees of warming is almost certain, that a 2 degree increase is highly probable and that with current efforts to curb greehouse gases we are a path to a rise of 3 degrees or more. Others are warning that a 10 degree rise is possible. Some scientists are also saying that we will have to stop burning fossil fuels by the end of the next decade or so if we are to contain warming to 2 degrees.
In case I didn't make my position clear let me repeat what I and many others have been saying: it is a mathematical certainty that economic growth as currently understood must end and very highly probable that the end is happening now.
Frankly I see little evidence that governments understand the problem let alone are taking steps to prepare for what is coming. Take Canada for example. There is much to like in the Pan Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change but I fear that it is too little and possibly too late. The action plan is inherently flawed. It does not impart any sense of urgency in dealing with global warming but more importantly it is built on the underlying but unstated assumption that with a few tweaks here and there we can continue plundering the planet of rapidly depleting natural resources. And of course lots of jobs will be created.
Whether we like it or not a profound change in society is inevitable as a result of ending growth and global warming. Unfortunately I find little or nothing in the document to prepare the public for a future vastly different from the recent past. It leaves the impression that we will simply be able to replace our fossil fuel driven automobiles with electric vehicles and continue business almost as usual. Bringing about such a profound change in the little time we have available is a monumental task which I do not see the document addressing.
According to some sources the world will have to stop burning fossil fuels by 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5°C and by 2050 to stay below 2°C --now considered to be a quite dangerous degree of warming. Let's use our imaginations and see what this all means. In a world without fossil fuels the trains will no longer run, transport trucks will no longer supply food to our grocery stores, the tourist industry will die as planes no longer fly, intercontinental trade will slow down drastically as we turn to sailing ships to transport goods or may well cease altogether as we deplete more and more non-renewable resources.
But you say 'electrification will solve all those problems'. Sorry but that's not likely. There is probably not enough economically recoverable copper to build the electric motors for vehicles, to build the charging stations, to upgrade the electrical grid to allow our present way of life to continue. We will never see ships and airplanes relying on batteries. It may in principle be possible to build a new transportation system by electrifying the railroads but can we afford the cost particularly as the railway companies have been busy tearing up many existing lines. Furthermore will extracting all that copper from the soil require the burning of such a quantity of fossil fuels as to make achieving global warming targets impossible.
Many individuals besides me are warning that our current way of life is unsustainable and that we must transition quickly to a more sustainable future but very few seem to be listening. You and your fellow world leaders can continue to ignore the reality that the economic growth seen during the last two centuries is ending, that collapse is inevitable and will take place probably during your own lifetime, and that continuing to pursue economic growth will only hasten the end. Or you can begin taking the necessary measures to ease the transition to a more sustainable future. The choice is yours.
I fully understand the difficulty of taking action in the face of provincial opposition. I believe that there is now enough evidence about global warming that your government could be brought before the Supreme Court on the grounds that you are not fulfilling the prime responsibility of government, to protect the public, and that failure to act makes your government illegitimate. Your own government website Policy Horizons warns that such a course of action has been taken elsewhere to force action and could happen here. It would be far better if you were to take action voluntarily, if you are convinced by the arguments in this letter, but such a lawsuit remains a possibility.
Forty five years ago politicians listened to economists not scientists and did not act. Five years ago a group of Australian scientists ran the “Limits to Growth” model using modern computers and updated data. They found that the business as usual scenario produced results which accurately reflected what had happened during the intervening 40 years. At the time they warned that the world was on the cusp of global collapse. Of course they were as ignored as the initial scientists. For the sake of my grandchildren please listen to today's scientists, but not all of them. Above all do not rely on economists. Their model of the economy leads them to believe that there are substitutes for arable land and clean water.
Do not rely on the reports of the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change. These reports are widely criticized as being out-of-date, of not paying sufficient attention to lower probability but much higher risk drivers of climate change, and of ignoring mechanisms which could trigger rapid transitions into irreversible climate warming. More importantly the authors' own reticence and political pressure have led them not to be fully forthcoming about the dangers facing us and of offering politicians the opportunity to delay taking action by relying on unproven technologies for reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere after it has been released.
I leave you with one final thought. Do you really want to wake up in the not too distant future and have your children ask you why you didn't take action before it was too late? Remember, it took 200 years to reach the current state. Collapse will happen much faster, perhaps in as few as 35 years. We simply cannot wait until the public is ready. IT IS TIME TO LEAD NOT FOLLOW.
Allan Mau B.A.,B.Sc.,M.Sc.(Ottawa U),D.Phil.(Physics)(Oxford),P.Eng.
A note to others reading this document.
While I am encouraged by the positive response to this letter, it is unfortunately true that politicians will only act in response to public pressure. I am 80 years old and writing about your future, not mine. If you want to avoid the catastrophe that I believe is coming you need to do more than saying you agree with my message. You need to take action. Make sure to pass this message on to others. Make sure you all begin to pressure your members of Parliament to take action. Consult such websites as resilience.org , peakprosperity.com or postcarbon.org for ideas on how to adapt. In my opinion and that of many others, the future lies not in globalization but in resilience at the local level. Speak to your neighbours and discuss how your local community can prepare to survive the chaos that I believe is coming. Good luck in your endeavours.