Solar geoengineering (also known as solar radiation management) is a technology in its infancy – and it is controversial. It has the potential to reverse or mitigate some of the global warming caused by greenhouse gases by either releasing cooling particles (for instance sulphur) into the stratosphere, or by modifying clouds over the oceans so that they reflect more heat back into space.
But there are major concerns about how politics could influence research and development, and the deployment of solar geoengineering on a global scale. Last year’s special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Global Warming of 1.5 ºC struck a cautionary note: ‘Although some [solar radiation modification] measures may be theoretically effective […], they face large uncertainties and knowledge gaps as well as substantial risks and institutional and social constraints to deployment related to governance, ethics, and impacts on sustainable development.’ One of these risks could be conflict, should a country use geoengineering without global agreement – an action that cause harm to others.
Here we use game theory to better understand these concerns and find out what could happen if countries were able to move the earth’s thermostat in either direction – by using geoengineering technologies to reduce the temperature and counter-geoengineering to turn it back up again.
Solar geoengineering technologies could be cheap. This creates a problem economists call the ‘free-driver effect’. If the cost is not prohibitive, a single nation (or even a single billionaire) could pay to press the button on a geoengineering action that affects the whole planet.
On first impressions it might sound good for a potential global warming fix to be inexpensive and accessible. But a country with an especially strong incentive to cool the planet – one that is suffering badly due to climate change – could go ahead and deploy a technology that will affect us all, effectively taking a unilateral decision on the optimal temperature for the Earth.
Some like it hot(ter)
One idea to counter this ‘free-driving’ effect is to develop counter-geoengineering. While solar geoengineering would cool temperatures, counter-geoengineering might use similar technology to heat the earth up – for example, by injecting short-lived heat-trapping aerosols into the atmosphere, or using a chemical to counteract a sulphate injection.
The possibility of being able to turn the temperature back up might act as a deterrent to free-drivers. Who would want to risk causing an escalation of opposing climate interventions that would only waste resources? The prospect of counter-geoengineering might reintroduce a willingness to collaborate. We tested this possibility using game theory.
The rules of the game
We set up a two-player game. Each player represents a country (or a bloc of countries) and each has a – potentially different – temperature preference for the planet.
It is a two round game. Round 1 is treaty-making. The players can choose to opt into a treaty and collaborate, or they can opt out. There are two treaty options available: the first is a deployment treaty, where countries jointly decide on the climate intervention that maximises the coalition’s overall payoff. The second treaty option is a moratorium treaty, under which the countries commit to abstain from any climate intervention. Whichever decision they make, they will only enter into a treaty if it is in their best interests – all the players are ‘selfish actors’.
Round 2 is deployment, i.e. modifying the global temperature with a climate intervention that is relatively cheap. If the countries entered into a treaty in Round 1, then they either abstain from a climate intervention (opting for the moratorium treaty) or undertake the intervention cooperatively. If no treaty was formed, the players choose their climate intervention levels non-cooperatively.
We played two versions of the game. In one version only solar geoengineering technology was available to the countries – so they could cool the global temperature but not increase it. In the second version they also had access to counter-geoengineering, so they could also turn the temperature up. Comparing the two versions then sheds light on how counter-geoengineering changes the strategic interaction surrounding climate interventions.
The results: arms race or abstinence
The results of the game reveal the importance of the level of agreement over what countries consider the ‘best’ temperature for the planet.
If countries have similar preferred temperatures but do not choose to enter into a treaty, there is a free-rider outcome – countries would benefit from the temperature reduction caused by another country’s geoengineering actions without themselves contributing much to the cost of deployment.
Where countries differ greatly in their preferred temperature, and if counter-geoengineering is not available (which could be because it has not yet been developed), the result is a free-driver outcome, as predicted. The country with the strongest preference for cooling (the free-driver) turns the temperature right down – even if the other prefers it warmer.
In both of these cases, incentives to cooperate are weak.
However, with counter-geoengineering technology on the table the strategic interaction changes, with two outcomes. A country that views the free-driver’s deployment of cooling as excessive now has a tool to counteract it – and will use it. Without the opportunity to cooperate, this results in a ‘climate clash’, an escalation of cooling by geoengineering and warming by counter-geoengineering that has no winners and is very harmful.
However, if cooperation is an option, this bleak outlook may be enough to encourage countries to work together. In particular, the free-driver may be ready to compromise on the amount of climate intervention it makes.
Cooperation is not guaranteed, though, and the outcome might still be a destructive climate clash. Even if countries do cooperate, they may take the moratorium route – and this could be worse than the free-driver outcome if it means the world misses the opportunity to potentially reduce the damage from climate change by using solar geoengineering.
How solar geoengineering and counter-measures could and should be used to adjust the planet’s temperature is subject to widely differing opinions and intense debate. Certainly our study emphasises the crucial need to focus on how any geoengineering interventions could be governed, with the welfare of the majority a central goal. Cooperative decisions including a broad set of actors typically are welcome, but our results also point to the importance of getting the content of a treaty right.
Of course, there are limitations to our analysis, not least the fact that the paper’s main analysis was undertaken in a two-player game, when in reality we could face complex negotiations between many countries. Countries may also want to modify aspects of the climate beyond temperature – especially rainfall patterns. And geoengineering could affect human and ecosystem health, by causing acid rain or ozone depletion – further effects that could cause tensions if one country forged ahead at the expense of others.
Daniel Heyen is a postdoctoral researcher at ETH Zurich. He is an applied theorist working at the interface of decision theory and environmental economics. Daniel’s main research interest is in societal decision-making under uncertainty and learning. Key topics of his work are the description of scientific uncertainty, the design of decision rules, and the analysis of active learning and the value of information. Prior to his position at ETH Zurich, Daniel was a postdoctoral researcher at the Grantham Research Institute, funded through a Fellowship from the German Research Foundation. Daniel completed his PhD in economics at Heidelberg University. His background is in Mathematics and Physics.
Joshua Horton is research director of geoengineering at the Keith Group. Josh conducts research on geoengineering policy and governance issues, including the regulation of research, liability and compensation, and geopolitics. Josh previously worked as a clean energy consultant for a global energy consulting firm. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University.
Juan Moreno-Cruz is an associate professor at the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development and the Canada research chair in energy transitions at the University of Waterloo. He is also a CESifo research affiliate. He has a Ph.D. (2010) from the University of Calgary and a B.A. and M.S. in electrical engineering from the Universidad de Los Andes. Previously, he was an associate professor in the School of Economics at the Georgia Institute of Technology (2011-2017), were he remains as an adjunct professor. He is a visiting researcher in the department of global ecology of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, an advisor for Carnegie Energy Innovation, and a research associate of Harvard University’s solar geoengineering research programme.
UN Climate Change News, 29 March 2019 – Just over a decade is all that remains to stop irreversible damage from climate change, world leaders heard this week at a General Assembly high‑level meeting on the relationship between climate change and sustainable development.
The meeting focused on the protection of the global climate for present and future generations, in the context of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
“We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet,” General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés of Ecuador warned the gathering, stressing that 11 years are all that remain to avert catastrophe. Highlighting the meeting’s theme, Ms. Espinosa called for an intergenerational approach to climate change. “Climate justice is intergenerational justice,” she said.
Pointing to intensified calls by youth leaders for action on climate change, she added that 2019 must be a year of climate action at all levels. Drawing inspiration from the thousands of students worldwide demanding tangible action, she called on world leaders to make 2020 the last year carbon emissions increase due to human activities.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said no country or community is immune to climate-related devastation, with the poor and vulnerable the first to suffer and the worst hit.
He launched an appeal for aid for the around three million people affected by cyclone Idai in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, and noted such events are becoming more frequent and will become worse without urgent, immediate action.
He also said that humankind had the tools to address the crisis in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change. “But tools are no use if you don’t use them,” he stressed, adding: “We need action, ambition and political will.”
The UN Secretary-General called on leaders the Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September with concrete, realistic plans to enhance nationally determined contributions by 2020.
He asked leaders to demonstrate how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade and achieve net zero global emissions by 2050, to ensure no one is disadvantaged by climate action and to demonstrate how such action leads to job creation, lower air pollution and improved public health.
Discussions during the Assembly touched on the achievements of the two most recent UN Climate Change Conferences, as well as the expectations for UN Climate Change Conference COP25 in Chile this December.
At COP24 in Poland last year, governments adopted a robust set of guidelines for implementing the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement.
Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who served as President of COP23 in 2017 in Bonn highlighted the fact that whilst the gathering featured disagreements and some finger pointing, the spirit of cooperation and understanding prevailed.
Michał Kurtyka, Secretary of State at the Ministry for Energy and Environment of Poland and President of COP24, said that a people-centred approach to climate change mitigation had emerged in Katowice.
For her part, Carolina Schmidt, Minister for Environment of Chile and President of the upcoming COP25, said discourse now needed to shift towards change and action with the understanding that climate change and poverty are linked.
All three COP Presidents, former and incoming, called on world nations to increase their climate ambition so that 1.5 degrees C goal of the Paris Agreement can be achieved.
Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change, noted that the successes of the last two UN Climate Change conferences had proven that multilateralism is alive and ready to address the challenges of climate change. “But there is no time to lose,” she warned.
Nearly 1.5m students around the world walked out of school on March 15 2019 to protest about the failure of the world’s governments to tackle climate change. The young climate strikers are forcing climate change onto the news agenda but researchers have warned that without a way to mobilise their passion in the long-term, the momentum they’ve generated for climate action could be lost.
In this first issue of Imagine, we asked academics how the strikes can translate into long-term impact. One researcher proposes directly channelling the energy of young people into climate action with a national service for the environment. Others tell us how youth enthusiasm can play an integral part in changing climate policy around the world – and what it all means for tackling this huge issue.
What is Imagine?
Imagine is a newsletter from The Conversation that presents a vision of a world acting on climate change. Drawing on the collective wisdom of academics in fields from anthropology and zoology to technology and psychology, it investigates the many ways life on Earth could be made fairer and more fulfilling by taking radical action on climate change.
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Climate change and the state of the planet in three graphs
Michelle Bloor, Principal Lecturer and Environmental Programme Manager at University of Portsmouth, argues that a volunteer force of conservationists could offer experience and training to young people and ensure there are eager applicants for the vital work of helping the world’s species and habitats most threatened by climate change.
Bloor groups the work a national service for the environment could cover into four categories:
Data collection – by surveying wildlife abundance or measuring water quality in lakes and rivers, volunteers could help scientists understand how ecosystems are changing.
Green construction – restoring wooded habitat could absorb carbon and create corridors which connect pockets of wildlife in fragmented habitats. Large-scale construction projects could involve volunteers working on habitat highways – green corridors which help wildlife cross road networks.
Species reintroduction – helping ecosystem engineers, such as beavers, return could help the process of expanding natural habitats. These animal recruits could create new dams and lakes, which provide new opportunities for more species to thrive.
Reforestation – humans have cut down three trillion trees since the dawn of agriculture – around half the trees on Earth. A mass reforestation effort would need plenty of volunteers worldwide, something a youth volunteer force could supply. In the UK, increasing total forest cover to 18% could soak up one third of the required carbon emission cuts needed by 2050, according to the 2008 Climate Change Act.
A conservation army of millions was active in 1930s America
The idea of enlisting millions of young people in conservation work is not new. It has origins in a public work relief programme from the 1930s. During the depths of the Great Depression and while the Dust Bowl ravaged rural America, US president Franklin Roosevelt implemented a series of reforms as part of the New Deal to implement a more sustainable land policy and revive economic growth. One of those reforms was the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It enlisted 3m young men who planted over two billion trees on more than 40m acres of land between 1933 and 1942. Their aim was to repair ecosystems throughout the US with hundreds of projects in forestry and conservation.
A national service for the environment would see individuals taking a direct role in mitigating climate change, but there is also an emerging political project aiming to capitalise on public support for action.
Radical climate action is now a feature of mainstream politics
The Green New Deal is a proposed series of reforms with three broad aims:
To eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from energy, transport, manufacturing and other sectors of the economy within ten years.
To create full employment in the manufacture of clean energy infrastructure and other essential work.
To redistribute wealth and tackle social and economic inequality.
Rebecca Willis, Researcher in Environmental Policy and Politics at Lancaster University says:
Alongside an aim for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and 100% renewable energy, the Green New Deal demands job creation in manufacturing, economic justice for the poor and minorities, and even universal healthcare through a ten-year “national mobilisation”, which echoes president Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.
The carbon price has to be incredibly high and cover a broad swathe of the economy to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Governments haven’t shown a willingness to do this and recent research suggests that even steep prices will not produce the deep emissions reductions required to limit global warming to under 2°C.
Job losses in sectors such as coal mining and manufacturing could erode popular support for a Green New Deal and harm the plan’s commitment to a just transition, he argues. A just transition is a commitment to ensure the costs of a transition from fossil fuels – such as tax rises and redundancies – aren’t forced on working people.
A universal basic income might offer citizens time to engage in fulfilling community-based work that doesn’t generate profit but which has social value. Taking them out of their cars in long lines of commuter traffic and putting them in allotments growing food or in parks enjoying nature could help usher a whole new way of life.
This is arguably the question most often asked of the Green New Deal. Edward Barbier, Professor of Economics at Colorado State University, says it does and has some suggestions:
Pass a carbon tax which will help raise money to pay for a transition to a green economy and also help spur that very change.
Passing a carbon tax is one of the best ways to go. A US$20 tax per metric ton of carbon that climbs over time at a pace slightly higher than inflation would raise around US$96 billion in revenue each year – covering just under half the estimated cost. At the same time, it would reduce carbon emissions by 11.1 billion metric tons through 2030.
But climate justice is still a grey area with the Green New Deal
While one of the central aims of the Green New Deal is to redistribute wealth and tackle social and economic inequality in the US, its impact on poorer parts of the world has perhaps been less discussed.
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, says that climate justice must not end at the borders of a country implementing a Green New Deal. Otherwise, he states, the Green New Deal may become “the next chapter in a long history of US industrial policies that have oppressed people”.
Táíwò believes there is a risk that a Green New Deal could spark a race for vast territory on which to build solar farms or grow biofuel crops. In the process, historic injustices could be perpetuated through “climate colonialism”. He says:
A research institute reported in 2014 that Norwegian companies’ quest to buy and conserve forest land in East Africa to use as carbon offsets came at the cost of forced evictions and food scarcity for thousands of Ugandans, Mozambicans and Tanzanians. The Green New Deal could encourage exactly this kind of political trade-off.
Many of the measures proposed – such as investing in infrastructure and spreading wealth more evenly – will intrinsically work in tension with efforts to decarbonise the economy. They create dynamics that increase energy use at the same time as other parts of the Green New Deal are trying to reduce it. For example, building infrastructure such as new road networks will both create demand for carbon-intensive cement manufacture and opportunities for more people to travel by car.
The Green New Deal is already succeeding in putting climate action where it belongs, as the defining political issue of our time. How strange that we have the current US political environment to thank for this huge step forward.
Michelle Bloor believes that including her vision of a national service for fighting climate change within the aims of a Green New Deal could help galvanise support for the latter, by providing an outlet for some of the enthusiasm of young people who have taken part in the climate strikes. Building a coalition for radical climate action under the Green New Deal is likely to lead the ongoing strategy of the project. Bloor believes that mobilising the growing youth movement is a good place to start.
The Norwegian government announced
Friday a bold recommendation for the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund to divest
all its holdings, worth nearly $40 billion, from oil and gas industries. The
proposal, if approved by the nation’s parliament, would see the world’s largest
sovereign wealth fund worth $1 trillion, divest from all fossil fuels. (Photo:
In a move that climate campaigners
say should send a “shockwave” through the global oil and gas
industry, the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund—the largest of its kind in the
world—has recommended the Norway government divest the entirety of the fund’s
$40 billion holdings from the fossil fuel industry.
“If [proposal passes through parliament it
will produce a shockwave in the market, dealing the largest blow to date to the
illusion that the fossil fuel industry still has decades of business as usual
ahead of it.”
—Yossi Cadan, 350.org
In a statement on Friday, Minister of
Finance Siv Jensen explained the decision is meant to “reduce the
vulnerability” of the Norwegian fund “to permanent oil price
decline.” With an estimated $1 trillion in total holdings, Norway’s
Sovereign Wealth Fund is the largest publicly held investment in the world.
According to a spokesperson for the finance ministry, the fund currently has
roughly 66 billion Norwegian krone ($7.5 billion) invested in energy
exploration and production stocks—approximately 1.2% of the fund’s stock
The recommendation from the Norwegian
fund will now be sent to the nation’s parliament for approval.
Climate groups that have pushed
aggressively for divestment from the fossil fuel industry in recent years as a
key way to decrease the threat of greenhouse gases and runaway global warming
celebrated the announcement as a possible crucial turning point.
“We welcome and support this
proposal,” said Yossi Cadan, senior divestment campaigner at 350.org, “if
it passes through parliament it will produce a shockwave in the market, dealing
the largest blow to date to the illusion that the fossil fuel industry still
has decades of business as usual ahead of it. The decision should sound like a
red alert for private banks and investors whose oil and gas assets are becoming
increasingly risky and morally untenable.”
Bill McKibben, one of the group’s
co-founders, called it a “huge, huge, huge
In a statement, 350 added:
In order to avoid the most
catastrophic impacts of climate change and keep global warming below 1.5°C we
have to keep fossil fuels in the ground and shift finance towards sustainable
energy solutions for all. Climate impacts are already hitting home and we have
no time left to lose. Last year Nordic heatwaves, wildfires in the Arctic
Circle and alarming news of the thickest Arctic sea ice starting to break up,
showed how climate change is close to home for Norway. It seems unthinkable for
Norwegian financiers to continue to invest in companies that are causing this
Catherine Howarth, chief executive of
ShareAction, which provides analysis for investors focused on creating a more
sustainable society, said the Norwegian fund’s announcement
“is further evidence that investors are growing increasingly dissatisfied
with oil exploration and production companies.”
Institutional investors that manage
sovereign wealth funds and pensions funds, she added, “are withdrawing
their capital from oil and gas companies on the grounds that
quicker-than-expected growth in clean energy and associated regulation is
making oil and gas business models highly vulnerable. This announcement will
put pressure on investors to ramp up their engagement with integrated oil
majors ahead of [annual general meeting] season” when stock holders gather
to assess and review company performance and strategies.
While the financial reality of the
climate crisis comes into increasing view for global investors and markets,
350.org says that credit belongs to the campaigners from around the world who
have bravely stood up to demand an end to the financial and energy hegemony of
the fossil fuel industry.
At the heart of the global divestment
campaign, the group said, “is a people-powered grassroots movement—it’s
ordinary people pushing their local institutions to take a stand against the
fossil fuel industry —the industry most responsible for the current climate
According to Yale Climate Connections, in a February 20, 2019, Food & Agriculture topic article, it is said that “Researchers look for ways to meet rising global food demand. The challenge: produce 50 percent more food while reducing GHG emissions by one-third.”
Feeding the world’s rapidly expanding population –
currently at 7.6 billion and expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 –
without exacerbating climate change will require the closing of three
significant gaps, according to a new report, “Creating a Sustainable Food Future.”
The gaps highlighted in a recent World Resources
Institute (WRI) report involve:
supply, simply producing enough to meet rising demand;
for food production: The report estimates that if current production rates
continue with the same yields, an additional area almost twice the size of
India would be required to produce enough food; and
increased greenhouse gas emissions likely to be produced by the additional food
production needed by 2050.
Feeding a rapidly growing population in a
sustainable way is a challenge, researchers have grappled with for some time.
“If you just wanted to feed the world and you didn’t worry about the
environment at all, you know that’s probably not that hard because we just
basically go and chop down a lot more land, a lot more forest,” says lead
author Tim Searchinger. “But the challenge is inherently producing all that
more food plus not converting additional land – that’s where the challenge is.”
Searchinger is a Princeton University research
scholar who collaborated with an array of international researchers over the
past six years to produce the WRI report. A synthesis version was released in
December 2018, and the roughly 500-page full report is to be published this
Challenges in feeding 10 billion people by 2050
The synthesis report outlines a variety of options
and opportunities to meet the rapidly growing need for nutrition while at the
same time working to mitigate climate change. Ultimately, the authors seek to
answer the question: “How can the world adequately feed nearly 10 billion
people by the year 2050 in ways that help combat poverty, allow the world to
meet climate goals, and reduce pressures on the broader environment?”
“If you want to solve climate change, you have to
solve this question,” Searchinger says. He points to estimates that agriculture
and associated land use change could make up 70 percent of “allowable emissions
from all human sources” by 2050 if current practices continue.
“That would basically leave almost no room for any
other emissions, so it would basically make solving climate change impossible,”
he says. “So we have to figure out a way to do both and figure out a way to
produce 50 percent more food with [approximately] two-thirds fewer emissions –
so that’s the challenge.”
The report joins a growing list of documents
proposing solutions to climate change that revolve around food and agriculture.
Peter de Menocal, dean of science, professor of earth and environmental
sciences, and director of the Center for Climate and Life at Columbia
University, points to Project Drawdown as another analysis focusing on
Project Drawdown includes a ranked list of climate solutions, and three
of the top five involve food and agriculture. The third-ranked solution is to
reduce food waste, number four is a “plant-rich diet,” and fifth on the list is
“tropical forests,” which de Menocal notes is related to palm oil and other
agricultural uses. He emphasizes the need to take real actions soon.
“I think ultimately we’re in for a big surprise, a
big shock if you will, and so I think that transition can be lessened by
becoming aware of what the solutions look like and how individuals can change
their behaviors to align with the fact that we’re living on a single planet
with ever expanding numbers of people,” de Menocal said in an interview.
A menu of sustainable food futures — not a la carte
The WRI report provides a “menu for a sustainable food
future” detailing 22 approaches that could help fill the three gaps, including
ways to increase agricultural efficiency and produce more food while using less
land, fertilizer, and other resources. Along with other measures, the report
focuses on restoring certain types of land, like peatlands and forests;
reducing greenhouse gas emissions; holding steady the use of biofuels;
increasing fish stocks; and reducing the consumption of meat – particularly
ruminants like cows, sheep, and goats.
However, this “menu” isn’t an a la carte array of
pick-and-choose options. “Significant progress in all 22 menu items is
necessary to close the three gaps, requiring action by many millions of
farmers, businesses, consumers, and all governments,” the report cautions.
Getting the cooperation of all stakeholders –
essentially the entire world – is, unsurprisingly, a difficult feat.
Governmental cooperation to preserve land, rather than converting it to
agriculture, is imperative. That’s clearly a challenge for the many leaders who
are under pressure to convert forests and other types of land for agricultural
purposes to meet immediate food needs and produce foods for export.
Political leadership ‘just overwhelmingly
Changing political leadership can also speed-up or
slow-down change. According to Searchinger, Brazil had made a lot of progress
in reducing deforestation, but recent changes in leadership make the future of
such progress uncertain. “Politics is critical,” he says. “Politics is just
overwhelmingly important – this is mustering the political will,” Searchinger
says. “This is true of everything to do with climate change.”
Land use changes are critical especially in certain areas,
such as peatlands, wetland areas covering around 3 percent of the Earth and
storing massive amounts of carbon. When they are damaged, drained, or used for
agriculture, these areas contribute significantly to climate change. According to the International
Union for Conservation of Nature, damaged or drained peatlands are
“annually releasing almost 6 percent of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions.”
Searchinger notes that restoring or rewetting
peatlands previously damaged, drained, or used for purposes like agriculture
can go a long way toward meeting climate change goals and restoring ecosystems.
Some of these opportunities are immediate, such as rewetting peatland areas
that are seldom used for agriculture. “[We have a] huge opportunity to do
something right away just by restoring water to those peatlands,” Searchinger
With food supply problems come ‘human conflict’
In addition to the 22 items listed in the report,
de Menocal notes a few additional food and agriculture-related areas relevant
to climate change and food. He points to climate-related vulnerabilities in the
food system, including food distribution; and points also to threats to the
crops themselves, including environmental shocks, such as crops being decimated
by sudden storms and heat waves.
“Those food shocks are going to become increasingly
frequent and I think that’s going to do two things,” de Menocal says. “One is
it obviously reduces the food supply, but it also introduces uncertainty in the
food supply, and both those things are not great.”
Human conflict goes hand-in-hand with food supply
issues, de Menocal cautions. “With food insecurity comes human conflict,” he
says. “This is something that’s been well documented both in the prehistorical
record but also in the recent historical record such as Syria and of course
migrations out of North Africa into Europe. When people are hungry, they
migrate, and they’ll migrate to places where there’s food, which is typically
the wealthier nations.” He cautions that this migration can also lead to
political instability, and says these types of geopolitical concerns are
monitored not only by climate modelers and researchers, but also by government
intelligence agencies seeking to anticipate and mitigate conflicts.
The need for innovation and change
While analysts work to predict future conflicts and
issues, scientists are striving to make progress in the laboratory. New technological
innovations could help alleviate some major issues, but predicting the
trajectory of scientific developments is a huge challenge since breakthroughs
looking out several decades are unpredictable.
New technology could help improve crop yields; produce
crops with resistance to pests, diseases, and climatic conditions; and even
help develop feed additives to reduce the amount of methane cows emit, among
many possibilities. But technology is a wild card dependent on countless
unknown future factors. Innovations could take the form of anything from
increasing the efficiency of current methods to developing technology far
beyond anyone’s current imagination.
That said, plant-based meat substitutes are one
area of potential innovation. Producing beef and other ruminant meat is
resource-intensive and a major source of greenhouse gases going well beyond
emissions from cows themselves.
Searchinger says a variety of meat substitutes, or
even half meat/half mushroom mixes, have great potential, especially if they
become more economical. They are already a tasty choice, he adds: “Hamburger
substitutes are getting really good.”
He is undaunted by the notion of many people having
to shift their dietary habits. Searchinger points out that most of the world
doesn’t consume much beef, and that people in the U.S. and Europe eat about
one-third less beef today than they did in the 1960s.
Eating less meat is important, de Menocal agrees,
and he encourages his students to consider trying out “Meatless Monday” as part of a campus
initiative. “It’s just introducing people to the idea that you can eat well and
still do well by the planet,” de Menocal says. “Even small changes like that
make a big difference in terms of collective behavior.” Additionally, he points
to meat subsidies as a factor that impact consumption, particularly in the U.S.
These subsidies make meat far more affordable than it is in some other parts of
the world. “As long as there’s no accounting for the accompanying environmental
risks that come with meat production, then I think the price of meat will not
reflect its true cost to society,” de Menocal says.
By thinking about what’s on their plate and what’s
in their fridge, people can take their own steps toward a sustainable food
future. Searchinger urges people to cut down on eating ruminant meat – such as
beef and lamb – and work to avoid tossing out food. “[In the U.S.] people tend
to buy a lot of food and throw it in the back of the refrigerator and
‘rediscover’ things,” he says. Planning meals and shopping more efficiently,
keeping track of food items and using them before they spoil, and being sure to
eat leftovers before they go bad are just a few steps people can take that go a
“If we don’t meet these goals, we won’t solve
climate change,” Searchinger says.
1962, American playwright James Baldwin wrote that “Not everything that is
faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Today, his
words should give us succour. We need more than ever to face the reality of
researcher at IPPR, a think tank. We have been observing warnings of rapid,
negative environmental change from the scientific community. So we decided to
understand what that means for our work, for policy, and for politics.
report released today,
we bring together the latest science on human-induced environmental change and
seek to understand how politicians should respond. We conclude that when it
comes to climate change, political debate has failed us in three different
the term “climate change” no longer captures reality. The scale of
environmental change that our earth is currently experiencing far exceeds it.
We are depleting soil, killing species, damaging oceans. This is happening at a
pace that is unprecedented in human
history and in some cases millions, or even billions, of years.
call this what it is: the age of environmental breakdown – a term that is a
more proportionate description of the totality that the earth presently faces.
political debate does not adequately recognise the consequences of
environmental breakdown. This isn’t just about saving polar bears or the health
impacts of air pollution, however crucial these issues are. It is about higher
incidences of drought, an impaired ability to grow food, cities afflicted by
extreme weather events. It is about the resulting consequences: famines, forced
migration, economic crises – and war.
age of environmental breakdown has inaugurated a new “domain of risk,”
unprecedented in its complexity and the potential severity of its impact.
current political debates skirt around the urgent need to transform our social
and economic systems in response to environmental breakdown. Tinkering in the
margins and providing quick fixes or short term measures will no longer
consequences of environmental breakdown will fall hardest on the poorest, who
are most vulnerable to its effects, and the least responsible for the problem.
poorest half of the global population account for around 10 per cent of yearly
global greenhouse gas emissions; half of global emissions
are attributed to the richest 10 per cent of people. In the UK, per capita
emissions of the wealthiest 10 per cent are up to five times higher than those
of the bottom half.
question of how we confront environmental breakdown, and who will feel its
effects, intersects with inequalities of class, ethnicity and gender.
Environmental breakdown isn’t just about climate change: it’s about justice.
confront environmental breakdown, we need two overall transformations.
first is to make to make societies sustainable and just, bringing human
activity within environmentally sustainable limits while ensuring a decent
quality of life is available to all. This sits at the heart of arguments for a Green New Deal.
Programmes to halt environmental breakdown can and should include measures to
improve social and economic outcomes, including providing good jobs for all,
tackling structural discrimination, and expanding free education.
second is to build societies that are prepared for
environmental breakdown. Infrastructure, markets and political processes need
to be resilient to environmental breakdown resulting from past and future
activity. We don’t talk about this enough. While it may be scary to think about
preparing for environmental catastrophe, it is fast becoming necessary. In
particular, we need to develop a politics that runs counter to the nativist
right, whose programme of anti-migrant and anti-environmental could win big as
the seas rise and the food runs out.
like the rollout of renewable energy and the successful efforts to stem the
breakdown of the ozone layer have made progress towards realising these
transformations. But most efforts have neither adequately focussed on all
elements of environmental breakdown, nor sought to fundamentally transform key
social and economic systems. Little attention has been given to ensuring
societies are robust enough to face the increasingly severe consequences of
generations are now faced with a daunting twin task: preventing environmental
breakdown and responding to its growing impact. IPPR will be exploring how to
help younger generations find the energy that often eludes them as they
confront a rapidly destabilising world.
scale and pace of environmental change confirms that the only credible way
forward is systemic transformation of societies and economies. To change the
path that lies ahead, we must first admit that we are entering an age of
unprecedented breakdown. Time is running out.
Laybourn-Langton is a senior research fellow at IPPR. He tweets @Laurie_L_L