A comment on one of my Facebook posts helped me to realize it is possible that some readers, especially those born after the 1970s, aren’t familiar with the Club of Rome. The Club was the brainchild of Fiat industrialist and ex-WWII resistance fighter Aurelio Peccei, who was captured and tortured by the Nazis but survived.
Because of his language skills, Peccei was asked to give a keynote speech in Spanish at an international meeting in 1965, which led to a series of invitations ending in the creation of the Club of Rome. His speech, about the seriousness of problems facing mankind and the necessity to act globally, deeply moved those who heard it or read it later. Peccei was asked to form the Club of Rome in order to develop a better pathway for humanity, applying advanced data analysis and regenerative design principles.
Tapping into the newfound ability to forecast world trends using early computers (primitive by today’s standards), the Club commissioned ecologist Donella Meadows, her engineer husband Dennis, and a team of 15 others to undertake a first model, using software developed at MIT by Jay Forrester called World3. They presented their findings at international gatherings in Moscow and Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1971 and in 1972 the Club produced a report called Limits to Growth that shocked the science, economics and public policy communities of that time.
Limits projected that by about the second decade in the 21st century, human population would have exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity and would be “burning the furniture” to find energy, food and nonrenewable natural resources, while the exponentially growing volume of pollutants such as greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals would be heating the planet, fouling human habitat, decimating ocean life, felling ancient forests and forcing mass migrations.
Two of the Limits scenarios forecast “overshoot and collapse” by the mid-to latter-part of the 21st century, while a third (the path not taken) resulted in a “stabilized world.” The leading economists of the day and all the media pundits scoffed, waved their hands wildly, and the Club, along with all the scientists who worked on the project became synonymous with tin-foil-hat eco-wingnuts. The current presidents of the United States and Brazil would no doubt be quick to tell you those Club of Rome studies have been discredited, if they even knew about them.
Ugo Bardi recalls: “[By]the 1990s LTG had become everyone’s laughing stock… In short, Chicken Little with a computer.”
In 1997, the Italian economist Giorgio Nebbia, observed that the negative reaction to Limits came from at least four sources: those who saw the book as a threat to their business or industry; economists who saw it as an encroachment on their profession; the Catholic church, which bridled at the suggestion that overpopulation was one of mankind’s major problems; and finally, the political left, which saw it as a scam by the elites designed to trick workers into believing that Marx and Engels were wrong.
But because the Club was then and continues to be right about the existential threats we are choosing to ignore, I sat up and took notice when I saw a new report this week entitled The Club of Rome Emergency Management Plan, issued in the first week of the annual UN climate summit, #COP24Katowice.
At the top of the first page, Potsdam climate scientist Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber writes, “Climate change is now reaching an end-game scenario, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.”
After that it doesn’t get any lighter.
To avoid the worst of the predicted outcomes, global carbon emissions must be cut by half by 2030, to zero by 2050. This is an unprecedented task, requiring a reduction rate of at least 7% annually; no country has to date achieved more than 1.5%. The only possible response is emergency action that will transform human social, economic and financial systems.
As I have written here before, a 7% decline slope (which holds us below 2 degrees, to get to 1.5 degrees we would need to decline by 11%) translates into halving emissions every 10 years. So half by 2030, a quarter by 2040, and an eighth by 2050. Even that will not be enough to hold to the target. Steep emissions reductions need to be accompanied by rapid deployment of negative emissions technologies, which is the subject of a new book by Kathleen Draper and myself, out from Chelsea Green Publishers in February.
The Club of Rome, never one to care what the deniers might say, goes on:
As a result of inaction, climate change now represents an existential risk to humanity. That is, a risk posing permanent, massively negative consequences which can never be undone.
Decades of exponential growth in both population and consumption are now colliding with the limits of the Earth’s biosphere: the climate system is destabilizing; about half of the world’s tropical forests have already been cleared; in the last 150 years, half of its topsoil has been depleted; nearly 90% of fish stocks are either fully or overfished; and the sixth mass extinction event is well underway.
This situation is exacerbated by a global leadership that has abrogated its moral responsibility to provide security for the world’s people and the planet, even as the risks of irreversible climate change escalate.
The inability of our existing economic and financial systems to provide real quality of life and to ensure decent standards of living across the globe has also created social breaking points. The current neoclassical economic model was designed for an ‘empty’ world with a global population of around 2 billion people, when the bounty of natural resources seemed endless.
To stay well below the 2°C warming limit mentioned in the Paris Agreement, global emissions would have to peak no later than 2020.
Then a second shoe dropped mid-week in a report from the Global Carbon Project that The New York Times described under the headline, “Greenhouse Gas Emissions Accelerate Like a ‘Speeding Freight Train’ in 2018.”
That report, building on a peer-review study published December 5th in Earth System Science Data, said that a three-year plateau in global greenhouse gas emissions did not end in the start of the gradual glide slope Paris calls for and instead bent back up, pretty steeply. All the major polluters except the EU are polluting more in 2018 than ever before, India as much as 8% more than in 2017, and the raw survey data does not yet include so-called “fugitive emissions” (methane leaks) from fracking, flaring and gas pipelines which are only very poorly monitored, if at all.
With the price of natural gas in the Permian Basin falling to negative 25 cents last month, oil companies have been flaring it from tall smokestacks (the better to reach the upper atmosphere and have a warming effect quickly) rather than pay refineries to take it. Flaring as a price-control practice had largely ended 30 years ago in the United States, but has now been revived by the Republican administration, which of course does not believe in global warming.
With India determined to give all its citizens (coal-fired) electricity and China set to become the world’s largest car-maker and road-builder, prospects for a near-term decline in emissions are not great.
Last month the White House published findings by 13 federal agencies predicting that global warming could knock hundreds of billions of dollars off the size of the American economy by century’s end. In actual fact, climate events within the United States occurring at a 1°C temperature increase knocked $306 billion off the economy in 2017, double their 2016 cost, and the predicted expense for 2018 is even higher.
We are paying for this ineptitude, if not through the rising costs of insurance, then through higher taxes, or the ashes of houses, or combing through the wreckage after storm surges.
The Club of Rome provides a laundry list of steps to be taken, and by now it is pretty familiar. One step they have been urging since 1972 does not usually make it into climate reports. They say we need to throw the bums out and elect people who can start to right this foundering ship.
Humanity currently faces systemic collapse on many fronts, such as threats to the philosophical underpinnings of modern society’s democratic institutions and practices that include declining respect for human rights, the rule of law and the proper use of science, and very much needs more enlightened leadership.
It would seem unlikely that such enlightened leadership will be coming from the United States any time soon. We can only hope the leaders gathered this week in Katowice can step up their own game plan.
At a press conference on Saturday, the COP President said that now it is obvious that the difference between 1.5 degree and 2 degrees warmer will be utterly catastrophic, making it imperative that COP24 take the needed steps to hold to 1.5. For a review of where we are at the end of Week One, here is a press conference by Climate Action Network International: