By Chris Lang
Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. He has a refreshingly simple approach to the climate crisis. “Because burning fossil fuel is what’s causing global warming,” he writes on his website, “the central focus of my response is to avoid burning it!” He has reduced his own carbon footprint down to two tonnes of CO2 per year, or about 10% of the average in the USA.
Peter Kalmus, climate scientist
Kalmus has written a book titled, “Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution”. The book outlines his low carbon path, and encourages others to benefit from rejecting fossil fuel addiction, over-consumption, and economic injustice.
In the preface to his book, Kalmus writes that,
To continue business as usual is to tacitly place a blind-faith bet on the emergence of some techno-fix; this amounts to magical thinking. And global warming is happening with a rapidity that leaves me speechless. The longer we take to change direction, the more suffering we’ll experience and the longer this suffering will last. And for what? A consumerist lifestyle that doesn’t even make us happy. We must do everything we can to change direction. And a big part of this is imagining, living, and telling the stories of what comes next.
We no longer live in a stable climate. The instability is worsening quickly. This should terrify everyone alive.
And it was all brought to you by the fossil fuel industry, which has known for decades, and did what it could to stop any action.
Henrik Wiig, Economist
Last week, REDD-Monitor wrote about a debate in the Norwegian magazine Bistandsakuelt between Henrik Wiig, an economist and researcher at Oslo Metropolitan University, and two political ecologists, Tor A. Benjaminsen and Hanne Svarstad.
Wiig argues in favour of carbon offsetting because it is cheaper than taking climate action in Norway. Benjaminsen and Svarstad point out the problems with offsets for local communities, and note that “The most effective climate measure is to reduce our own emissions.”
In his response, Wiig repeats the his argument that paying for carbon offsets from forests in Colombia is (300 times!) cheaper per ton of carbon than Norway’s electric car policy.
But he doesn’t address the fact that both carbon offsetting and the electric car policy are inadequate to address the climate crisis. Neither addresses the issue of leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Yes, we should protect rainforests and the communities that live in and around them, and yes we should stop driving cars fueled by petrol or diesel.
As Peter Kalmus points out, in common with other “solutions” promoted by the media and politicians, both of these climate “solutions” boost capitalism. And in doing so, they suppress real solutions requiring “less consumption, more equity, and a rapid, deliberate, just end to the fossil fuel industry”.
REDD and colonialism
Unless COP26’s failure is recognized as a failure, there is no way to learn from it. Allowing global leaders to feel that what happened in Glasgow was acceptable — and spinning it as some sort of success — would be a disastrous mistake. It would give them further license to pander to the fossil fuel industry and fail again next year. At this late stage, until society transitions to emergency mode we will face ever greater consequences.
Wiig pushes on, criticising Benjaminsen and Svarstad for pointing out the problems with forest protection as a market mechanism that diverts attention from Norway’s continued oil extraction. Wiig writes that according to Benjaminsen and Svarstad, “Not even rainforest conservation is an unconditional good.”
Wiig acknowledges that forest conservation often fails to take account of local people. He puts the blame firmly on “politics in developing countries” and is apparently oblivious to the human rights abuses at the hands of international conservation organisations such as WWF.
Wiig argues that forest conservation can be “both fair and effective” and can be “an important tool for reducing oil dependence globally”.
But he doesn’t mention the fact that the oil industry is a major promoter – and buyer – of carbon offsets.
Selling carbon offsets is voluntary, he writes, despite the fact that the Article 6 decision in Glasgow opens the door for the UNFCCC to develop a compliance carbon market. In his comment on REDD-Monitor, Wiig writes that “voluntary [carbon offset] sales are not colonialism” and he compares carbon offsets to commodities such as coffee.
The reality is that for many communities, forest carbon projects are not voluntary. Several REDD projects have been established without the free, prior and informed consent of the communities living in and around the project area. The process is similar to the protected areas that have been created without the free, prior and informed consent of local communities and Indigenous Peoples.
Wiig argues that “We in rich countries can still enforce our own moral demands and our definition of social justice.” And Wiig argues that providers of carbon offsets “will soon find out that it pays to follow our requirements in order to get the best possible price for their climate products”. Later in his article he writes that, “The principle is that there should be more to win than to lose in total, and that those who lose should be compensated as far as practicable.”
Wiig is arguing here that the REDD and carbon “experts” (who are, of course, predominantly white) have the right to decide what’s best for rural communities. If it turns out that communities are worse off after following this advice, they should be “compensated”.
As Larry Lohmann of the UK-based solidarity organisation The Corner House points out, “REDD+ works best when it is most colonialist”. The people paying to protect the forests have to portray the people living in the forests as feckless forest destroyers who are unable to save the forests without REDD money.
It is apparently inconceivable to Wiig that rural communities might organise under their own initiative to protect their forests, or that deforestation might decrease as a result of increased rainfall, or a change in commodity prices. Without REDD money, according to Wiig and the REDD technocrats, the forests are doomed.
“In rainforests,” Wiig writes, “the story is relatively simple.”
Immigrants from outside, whether they cultivate coca or cocoa by clearing the rainforest, are considered to lack rights. A small number of indigenous peoples have little to lose on forest protection if they do not cut down the forest to sell high-priced wood, such as super-light balsa wood for the manufacture of rotor blades for wind turbines.
It is true that balsa wood is in demand, particularly for building wind turbines, and this is having a serious impact on Indigenous Peoples’ forests especially in Ecuador.
But Indigenous Peoples are suffering the impacts of this balsa wood logging, which is often taking place illegally on their territories.
Population growth in Africa, of course
Wiig raises the alarm of population growth – in Africa, of course. His “solution” is “overall state spatial planning” and selling carbon offsets through tree planting in some areas, “to finance a modern and intensive agriculture that can feed the country’s high population elsewhere”.
But this sort of top-down “spatial planning” is disastrous for local communities and their environments. Industrial tree plantations have resulted in serious environmental and social impacts in several countries in Africa. “Intensive agriculture” is part of an on-going land grab in Africa that is fuelling conflicts.
Once again, Wiig shifts both the problem and the “solution” to the Global South. In doing so, he deflects attention away from over-consumption in the Global North.
As Robert Fletcher, Associate Professor in the Sociology and Development and Change group at Wageningen University, writes in a piece titled, “Why Won’t ‘Overpopulation’ (Finally) Go Away?”,
[A] focus on “overpopulation” distracts attention away from what is the most serious issue to be confronted right now: overconsumption of natural resources fueled by an economic system that demands continual growth, not in order to sustain the global population so much as to accumulate tremendous wealth in the hands of a very few people. Until this obscene inequity, and the economic system driving it, is adequately addressed all the attention to overpopulation in the world will do nothing to halt our environmental crisis.
We cannot offset our way out of the climate crisis
Wiig is convinced that Norway can continue to drill for oil, as long as it buys carbon offsets. This is pure magical thinking. He makes no mention of the carbon budget – the fact that there is a limit to the amount of fossil fuels that the planet can burn if we are to stand a chance of limiting global heating to 1.5°C or even 2°C (neither of which, of course, are safe limits).
We cannot offset our way out of the climate crisis. Apart from anything else, as the climate crisis worsens, tipping points become more likely. The most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states (with high confidence) that,
Abrupt responses and tipping points of the climate system, such as strongly increased Antarctic ice-sheet melt and forest dieback, cannot be ruled out.
The Brazilian Amazon Basin is already a carbon source, not a sink.
Wiig argues that, “It is entirely possible to both reduce oil production and implement forest measures at the same time.” But the reality is that oil companies are buying carbon offsets in order to claim that fossil fuels are “carbon neutral”:
Oil companies are buying carbon offsets in order to continue business as usual for as long as possible. That is the purpose of carbon offsets. That is exactly what they are intended to do.
Rather than limiting the amount of oil extracted and sold by countries like Norway, Wiig argues for more research to improve “current inefficient technology” in order “to find real competitors for oil”.
This is precisely the continuation of business as usual while hoping for a techno-fix that Peter Kalmus warns against in his book. It is more magical thinking, in other words.
We urgently need to leave fossil fuels in the ground now and put in place a just transition away from fossil fuels.
Climate emergency mode
Kalmus argues that there are several litmus tests we can apply to see whether society is shifting away from “business as usual” and into “climate emergency mode”.
The most important litmus test is that politicians will stand up to the fossil fuel industry. Ending fossil fuel subsidies and a moratorium on fossil fuel expansion would be first steps in the right direction.
Another litmus test is that politicians will stop talking about distant goals such as “net zero by 2050” and instead set up year-by-year plans on shrinking the fossil fuel industry and ultimately ending it. Kalmus calls net zero a “deadly scam”.
When carbon offsets are abolished, Kalmus argues, we will know that politicians are at last moving to “climate emergency mode”.
Kalmus writes that carbon offsets “are primarily a tool of large polluters” and that “offsets are abused as part of net-zero pledges to project a good public image”. Offsets are no more than an “accounting tool deployed to avoid making meaningful emissions reductions by the corporations most responsible for the climate crisis,” Kalmus writes.
PHOTO Credit: “Amazon rainforest can’t keep up with climate change”, Leeds University, press release, 8 November 2018.