The Great Pause Week 24: Can we have a hammer and dance for the climate emergency?

If your carbon audit is 5% above where it needs to be, the dance stops and the hammer falls.

Back in Week One (Sunday, March 29, 2020), I embarked upon this Covid journal by reviewing an essay called “The Hammer and the Dance” posted March 19 by Tomas Pueyo. His post had received more than 9 million views and been translated into 29 languages by the time I mentioned it ten days later.

The thesis of the Hammer and the Dance is straightforward, if still only slowly seeping into USAnian consciousness. New Zealand, with proactive epidemic suppression, gave the world a model for flattening the curve. The USA, with very tardy and only grudging mitigation, provided an inverse model — the spike. The “hammer,” in Pueyo’s terminology, was New Zealand’s way: lockdown, quarantining anyone entering the country for two weeks, widespread random testing, contact tracing new cases, and severe rules — with penalties if ignored — for venturing out into the commons. The “dance” was the reward New Zealand and other countries could expect if the hammer worked. Once the lockdown could be lifted, testing and contact tracing would intensify even more, but people could return to work and school if masked and observing distancing rules. Should the positive test ratio climb — above, say, 5% — the hammer would have to come down again until the new outbreak was fully traced and suppressed.

By following a hammer and dance regimen, geographic regions or even entire countries could return to an economic life approaching normal, in fits and spurts, or localities, until a vaccine arrived. Loss of life would be minimized, and actually, the economies of these adherents would suffer far less damage or loss of freedoms than where the regimen was ignored, or even ridiculed.

The hammer and dance model is as valid today as it was in March, Sending children back to school or people into to non-essential jobs, bars, or sports with inadequate virus testing and contact tracing, in some cases even without masks, is proving how very silly it is to try to dance without first learning the steps. The hammer will eventually come down, and the longer the reckless wait, the higher it rises and the harder the shock when it lands. Until a vaccine comes along, the hammer and the dance method is the only possible way to avert dire consequences, many of them life-long or life-ending, and not have to suffer seemingly endless social separation.

This got me wondering whether the climate emergency could be redressed in much the same way. What if we used the hammer and dance to get out of the 21st century alive? If your carbon audit is 5% above where it needs to be, the dance stops and the hammer falls.

Imagine the dance being pretty much what has been happening. Civilization whirls on in its merry way and the tragedy of the commons deepens every year. Each year the droughts, superstorms and wildfires get worse. Each year more species go extinct. Coastlines recede. Glaciers and ice shelves melt. Viral and vector-borne pandemics become more deadly and more frequent. And all the while, governments dither at now-Zoomified climate summits, making self-congratulatory pledges to do too little too late. That is not a good dance to be having. We need new and better steps.

If we consider what a hammer should be, it would have to enforce the goals scientists say we need to reach annually and keep going decade after decade. The Paris Agreement calls for avoiding 2 degrees C warming (1.5 C already being the rear-view mirror and having precipitated the chaos we see around us). To hold at 2 degrees, climatologists say in unequivocal terms with unprecedented consensus, we will need to enter upon a greenhouse gas emissions diet, decarbonizing the atmosphere and ocean at the rate of approximately 9% per year, getting to carbon neutrality globally by 2050 at the latest. Many nations have already pledged to reach that goal by 2040–45, a few (Bhutan, Uruguay, Norway) by 2030 or sooner.

We are off to a good start in 2020, which, fortuitously, is when the Paris Agreement was scheduled to start making progress. We will likely drop emissions by 8-percent this year. However, before we pat ourselves on the back, we might want to look at how we accomplished that amazing feat. We contracted GDP as much as 25% in many places. We closed factories, steel mills and aluminum smelters. We stopped a lot of mining. We curtailed fishing, flying, cruise ships, automobile sales, freeway driving, rail travel, and oil drilling. Tens of millions were thrown out of work and tens of trillions were lost by economies. Yet, even that was not enough. Because we will still be short one needed percentage point, we’ll have to drop emissions 10% in 2021 and then resume at the required 9% weight-loss diet in 2022 and each year thereafter. Where will next year’s 10% drop come from?

One possibility is a second viral pandemic, on top of Covid, and still no vaccine for most people. Another possibility is for the nations of the world to hammer away at that low-hanging fruit: mechanized chemical agriculture; concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO); deforestation from periurban sprawl and palm oil; whale hunting; fugitive methane from fracking and pipelines. We could also ramp up our NETs — Negative Emissions Technologies — like biochar, remineralization, holistic grazing, marine permaculture, and tree-planting. As Kathleen Draper and I describe in Burn, those NETs in aggregate have the potential to produce a 110% annual reduction.

To line ourselves up on the 9-percent glide path required to hit the Paris runway and land where we’ll need to be by mid-century, we have the available tools, be they wind farms or biofertilizers, but we need to reforge our plowshares into effective political hammers. The way we’ll do that is through the INDCs — the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.

Recapping the UNFCCC process for newbies, back at COP-19 Copenhagen in 2009, the UN’s plan for mandatory targets backed by both economic incentives and an international sanctions regime was thrown out of the window in favor of a voluntary pledge system. My book, The Paris Agreement (December 2015) describes how that happened in exasperating detail. The pledge system has since matured into INDCs. This year COP26 Glasgow was to have been when those pledges were audited. Unfortunately, the COP has been delayed to November 2021 because of Covid.

In November 2019, the Fundación Ecológica Universal (FEU), a global environmental NGO based in Buenos Aires, published an assessment of national climate pledges. Of the 184 INDCs filed, FEU judged 20% to be “sufficient”; 6% “partially sufficient”; 4% “partially insufficient”; and 70% “insufficient.”

An adequate hammer would be making all pledges sufficient and fulfillment mandatory on penalty of trade sanctions or other deterrents. A good dance could be the dangled rewards of favored trade status, Green Climate Fund development grants, or other goodies that flow to those meeting and exceeding their 9-percent INDC goals.

So, for instance, the small Central American country of Belize (pop. 380,000) has set an ambitious goal of achieving the 1.5 degree limit on global warming, which as I said earlier, is impossible because we are beyond that now and in many regions are already well past 2 degrees of warming. Belize developed its INDC in 2016 with a 2033 neutrality target based upon drawdown forestry projects and emission reduction calculations performed by Climate Analytics under guidance from the Global Climate Change Alliance Caribbean support project. Horizon 2030 is Belize’s national development framework for 2010–2030. To reduce its already relatively low carbon footprint, Belize plans to speed conversion to renewable energy and double its energy efficiency. It will also develop a transport master plan to address its largest source of greenhouse pollution. To get into drawdown territory, Belize has made Natural Climate Solutions a national priority — halting deforestation, restoring degraded forests and substantially increasing afforestation. It will also implement an Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan (ICZMP) to reverse the loss of wetlands and mangrove forests and rebuild coral reefs.

Because it has a large, sparsely populated land area, Belize can devote itself to its plan of soil, river, reef, and forest regeneration for a long time — easily half a century. Hurricanes will set its work back at times, leveling entire forested regions in a single storm, but these events are also opportunities. The windfall can be converted to biochar and bio-oils. Debris can be transformed into long-lasting biofertilizers, biocomposites, biocretes and bio-bitumens. Coastal flooding may bring opportunities for mangrove restoration. Belize’s hammer — outpacing its emissions by reductions and sequestrations — will let it get to the dance.

On the other side of the equation, a climate-scofflaw like the United States might have a bouncer blocking its entrance to the dance. If it cannot achieve and sustain a 9 percent decline slope, it might find its commercial air carriers and cargo ships subject to international boycott, its financial services sector under embargo, or its foreign tourism curtailed until it closes the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, restores the great chestnut and elm forests of its mid-continent, and keylines the deserts of its Southwest.

So, what do you think? Can we have a hammer and dance for the climate emergency? Punish those who would destroy the Earth; reward those willing to join with others to help save it?

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Albert Bates

Emergency Planetary Technician and Climate Science Wonk — using naturopathic remedies to recover the Holocene without geoengineering or ponzinomics.