[MCN] My take: Fossil fuel combustion and the mother of all economic busts.

Lance Olsen lance at wildrockies.org
Mon Jul 29 09:00:48 EDT 2019

Fossil fuel combustion and the mother of all economic busts. 
We have been “doing something” about human overpopulation all along, just not the way most have imagined

Lance Olsen

William Catton focussed on what follows a boom in the human population. He spelled out the scenario in his 1980 book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. As one reviewer put it, “Catton believed that industrial civilization had sown the seeds of its own demise and that humanity’s seeming dominance of the biosphere is only a prelude to decline <<https://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-02-15/william-catton-s-warning/ <https://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-02-15/william-catton-s-warning/>>>.” 

Catton hasn’t been alone. Many others since Catton have warned or at least implied an increasingly inevitable human population bust. 

For example, in August 2008, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published an article by T. Jonathan Davies and 10 other scientists. In that article, Phylogenetic trees and the future of mammalian diversity, the 11 scientists agreed that, ““Diversity will almost certainly rebound after the current extinction event; however, it may be composed of species descended from a different, as yet unknown, subset of lineages from those that dominate now, and humans will likely not be included among them.” 

But theirs isn’t the sole scenario of a human population bust. It’s also possible that, now, with the added pressure from our booming combustion of fossil fuels, a human population bust could be kicked into gear sometime “by” — a.k.a. before — 2050, or within the next 30 years. 

The stakes are high. The human population boom has been the bedrock of economic boom in sector after sector. For religions, it’s been the source of hope to bigger congregations, for militarists it’s been the source of bigger armies, and for businesses it’s been the source of more customers — and more labor made cheaper by its abundance of supply. It’s also been the bedrock foundation of a profit boom for the fossil fuel combustion industries that now put it at risk. 

In the US alone, the booming human population has been the wellspring for surging numbers of visitors to the likes of Yellowstone National Park, city managers bent on promoting growth, the basis of soaring demand for logging to supply housing for a growing human herd. 

Booms have long enjoyed considerable public approval and political popularity. Over and over again, the long-ongoing human population boom has afforded the political elites and local boosters an opportunity to boast of a booming economy, sometimes raising local and even national concerns that they tout growth at any cost.

Bust, on the other hand, is a dirty four-letter word.

We all know what follows an economic boom

In the preface to his 1992 book on the economic history of the United States, James Grant reminded readers that, “Booms have consequences.” Politicians and local boosters who boast of booms seldom if ever mention consequences, but they’re no secret. In July, 2001, The Economist advised its readers that “It is no coincidence that the deepest and most protracted recessions in recent decades have taken hold in countries that experienced booms.” 

The mother of all economic busts?

Climate scientist Kevin Anderson has advised anyone willing to listen that, if we fire up the fossil fuels enough to hike atmospheric heat by 4C, only around half a billion people will survive. Anderson says, “I think it's extremely unlikely that we wouldn't have mass death at 4C. If you have got a population of nine billion by” — a.k.a. before — “2050 and you hit 4C, 5C or 6C, you might have half a billion people surviving<<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_Anderson_(scientist)>>.”

The consequences of human die off at that scale would sprawl widely across both ecological and economic realms. Just in economic terms alone, it would trigger a mass loss of customers for every business and industry across the world. The numbers of tourists flocking to US national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite would plummet. Vast supplies of housing would be left vacant, and the demand for logging crushed. In an irony to cap all ironies, the mass consumption of fossil energy would hit the floor. All in all, Anderson’s stark scenario would add up to economic catastrophe beyond compare.

It doesn’t have to be that extreme to be extreme

Anderson’s reference to reaching 4C added heat is well within the realm of possibility. But his scenario of mass death doesn’t have to reach the extent he indicates in order to be extreme. For example, if 4C won’t wipe out all but half a billion people, it would still have profound effect if it wiped out all but a billion, or two billion. 

Even if it only wiped out all but 3.5 billion, it would wipe out half of today’s human population. Human die off at even this less extreme scale would put the politically popular cause of economic growth in extremely sharp reverse.

And recent research has turned up signals of economic damage from combustion of fossil fuels, even without mass death. The June 30 2017 issue of Science published a densely detailed article under the title, Estimating economic damage from climate change in the United States. The authors found that the mid-Atlantic and southern states would be hit hard by the heat forced on the region by continued combustion of fossil fuels. 

But the impact wouldn’t stop there. Instead, the impact would ripple across the nation, partly just because of mass migration away from the hardest hit states. When Time Magazine interviewed the lead author, he told Time that  “Conflict and political instability — those kinds of things we don’t see today, but could be baked into the future.” He said, “If we continue to emit, you go into this recession and you get stuck in it forever,” <<https://time.com/4837020/climate-change-economy-recession/ <https://time.com/4837020/climate-change-economy-recession/>>>.”

Avoid change, and get change 

The first sentence of the executive summary of the IPCC Special Report on 1.5C advises policymakers that, “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”  If we avoid making the sacrifices necessary to that particular set of far-reaching and unprecedented changes, we’ll get another — and nastier — set of far-reaching and unprecedented sacrifices in all aspects of society. In a nutshell, we’ll give up a lot to get a soft-as-still-possible landing, or we’ll give up a lot more in a crash. 

There’s a lot of money at stake

The moneyed world has recently come wide awake to the economic damage made likely by continuing the combustion of fossil fuels. In an article under the headline, Climate change threatens to wreak havoc on the global economy,” the January 25 2019 issue of World Finance magazine advised its readers that, “It is becoming more and more apparent that the developing threat of climate change is not simply damaging the earth’s natural ecosystem, but is also harming the world economy<<https://www.worldfinance.com/markets/climate-change-continues-to-wreak-havoc-on-the-global-economy <https://www.worldfinance.com/markets/climate-change-continues-to-wreak-havoc-on-the-global-economy>>>.”

More specifically, the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, reportedly managing climate-vulnerable assets worth more than twice the value of the entire Chinese economy, has launched a campaign of lobbying governments to get away from thermal coal, and put an end to subsidizing all the fossil fuels, and to get on with putting a price on carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion<<https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/10/business/climate-change-investors-cop24/index.html <https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/10/business/climate-change-investors-cop24/index.html>>>.” This amounts to a direct pushback against policy touted by Trump and the Republicans and, since pushing back, the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change ranks have grown from 415 to 477.

Plainly enough then, the moneyed world’s worries are  beginning to sound a lot like those voiced by advocates of the Green New Deal and campaigners of Fridays for the Future and the Extinction Rebellion.

Where do the politicians stand?

Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee recently grilled Fed Chairman Jerome Powell on the Fed’s response to a changing climate. They made no reference to Kevin Anderson’s dire scenario, or to risk of a recession that goes on forever. They may even have been unaware of either scenario. They did, however, succeed in getting Powell’s opinion that human-caused climate change does pose financial risk.

Republicans, meanwhile, launched a conservation caucus aimed, according to The Hill, at battling the perception that their party doesn’t care about climate change. Like the Democrats, they made no reference to Kevin Anderson’s dire scenario, or to risk of a recession that goes on forever. They too may even have been unaware of either scenario. They did, however, have something to say. Sen. Lindsey Graham said the  Green New Deal is “crazy economics,” adding that “We believe our friends on the other side care about the environment, but they care so much they’re going to destroy the economy in the name of saving the environment<<https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/452399-republicans-form-conservation-caucus-to-take-on-environment-climate <https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/452399-republicans-form-conservation-caucus-to-take-on-environment-climate>>>.”

In an editorial on July 13, 2019, the right-leaning Washington Examiner picked up that accusation with a headline declaring that, “The Green New Deal was never about climate change; it's just AOC's excuse to destroy America's economy<<https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/editorials/the-green-new-deal-was-never-about-climate-change-its-just-alexandria-ocasio-cortezs-excuse-to-destroy-americas-economy <https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/editorials/the-green-new-deal-was-never-about-climate-change-its-just-alexandria-ocasio-cortezs-excuse-to-destroy-americas-economy>>>.”

Interestingly, according to The Hill, the Republican “caucus members on Wednesday stressed that traditional energy sources like coal, oil and gas would remain a part of the mix.” In an irony of all ironies, the Republicans, who have long claimed the role of guardians of the economy and defenders of capital, now push the world closer to 4C ? Huh?
“I just want it to be clear that the mainstream environmental movement has been asking very little of people for decades” said Bea Ruiz, also an organizer with the U.S. national [ Extinction Rebellion ] team. “There’s no element of, ‘We are in an emergency. We all need to do more than what we’re doing.’ There’s a lot of emphasis on positivity and hope.”

“We’re trying to put out there what’s necessary, not what people think is politically possible. And then we’re trying to be part of helping to change what’s politically possible through direct action,” Ruiz said. “We are really, literally, almost out of time, and if we don’t make the reductions that are needed based on the science, we’re going to be in serious trouble. We can’t negotiate with reality.”

Extinction Rebellion’s radical philosophy
July 22 2019

A recent Ambio article by some heavyweights in climate sets out the situation well enough. 

A team including the likes of Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen, Veerabhadren Ramathan, Johan Rockstrom, Marten Scheffer and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber begin the abstract of their article by saying “Over the past century, the total material wealth of humanity has been enhanced …”  

They end it saying,“we risk driving the Earth System onto a trajectory toward more hostile states from which we cannot easily return.”

Their analysis is echoed across the scientists side of the situation. But it doesn’t take a scientist to get the drift of what’s going on. 

Liam Denning is former investment banker, former editor of one of the Wall Street Journal’s most closely read columns —Heard on the Street — and a former columnist for Financial Times. Writing about the Green New Deal for Bloomberg, Denning has come to the conclusion that, “We have built our standard of living on forms of energy that we now know pose a threat to our very existence,” and that, “this is a conversation that is long overdue — and necessarily begins with a shout, not a whisper.”


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