The better that one understands a problem, the greater the chance of solving it. So it is with climate change, a crisis demanding far-reaching social transformation.
But just how far-reaching? A broad curriculum that develops activists’ clarity and unity of vision could be an essential pillar to advance the climate movement’s preparation, ambition, and cohesiveness.
The mainstream understanding within the movement is that climate change is the issue—there is no bigger picture—and the solution is a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewables. An all-renewable society will be more equitable by attending to economic and racial injustice in the transition process, but will largely resemble the present one.
A more comprehensive view recognizes climate change as perhaps the most urgent of several interconnected ecological issues that require us to not only transition from fossil fuels to renewables but also to reshape our economic, political, and cultural systems around the reality of ecological limits.
I believe that the analysis that movement holds will determine how it develops and whether it is able to meet the scale of our issues. A holistic, unified understanding of our ecological predicament is thus sorely needed.
The Limits to Growth framework helps us to see the bigger picture. It shows that as exponential growth of the economy and population pushes global consumption beyond ecological limits, we encounter crises driven by pollution, like climate change, or by resource depletion, such as peak oil.
The more recent incarnation of the Limits framework is “planetary boundaries” analysis, which confirms that overwhelming human intervention into global ecosystems is generating multiple crises beyond climate change. Climate activists can draw several lessons here.
The first is that continued economic and population growth is infeasible. A holistic movement for survival would seek to address the overarching threat of ecological overshoot and recognize that whatever special remedy a particular issue requires, such as rebuilding healthy soils to address topsoil erosion, all ecological issues have overconsumption at their root and require wealthy nations to consume less.
A second and related lesson is that creating a sustainable society involves tradeoffs. The lifestyles we know today are based on treating ecological limits as if they don’t exist—a consumer culture made to serve economies that maximize consumption—and this must change fundamentally to restore the natural systems we’ve undermined.
Solutions are thus not as straightforward as unplugging fossil fuel plants and plugging in renewable infrastructure. We must embed the reality of ecological limits into our economic and political systems and our culture, and learn to live within them.
The third concerns our priorities. We must maintain enough social and economic stability to carry the massive sustainability transition to its conclusion. Though depletion issues seem to be overshadowed by pollution crises, resource availability challenges must be factored into activists’ plan for transforming society.
The depletion of oil, which is currently essential to both large-scale food supply systems and producing wind turbines and solar panels, could threaten the transition if not planned for in advance.
Climate activists must come to see themselves as a “new society” movement—nothing less will meet the demands of the problem. This perspective informs us as we dig into the details of the climate crisis: its severity (what level of threat does it pose to humanity), its urgency (the timeline we must adhere to), and the forces driving the problem.
In terms of severity, we should recognize that current warming of one degree Celsius (1C) since industrialization puts us at the edge of the stable Holocene conditions in which our societies and agriculture developed, and that business as usual would result in 4C+ warming within this century.
The previous ice age was about 4C cooler than pre-industrial times, with mile-thick ice sheets covering North America and Europe. Though discussions of “adaptation to climate change” abound, there is no meaningful sense in which humanity can “adapt” to 4C+ warming. Avoiding that outcome justifies large changes in how we live.
The carbon budget concept helps us understand the urgency of the crisis. While any greenhouse gasses emitted by burning fossil fuel and land use change warm the planet, carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years and thus determines long-term temperature rise.
A long-term warming limit corresponds to a finite “budget” of carbon dioxide emissions. Activists tend to focus on ramping up the supply of renewables, but the carbon budget concept emphasizes changes in energy demand rather than energy supply—we need to lower emissions in line with our budget even if that means reducing energy use by phasing out fossil fuels faster than we can replace them with renewables.
Our carbon budget helps establish the timeline we must follow in getting to zero emissions, which is shaped by our approach to the different emissions drivers. The Kaya identity breaks down total emissions into its constitutive parts:
Emissions = Economic output (GDP/person) x Population (number of people) x Energy intensity (Energy/GDP) x Carbon intensity (Carbon/Energy)
If growth is sacred, then the only way to decrease emissions is by reducing energy intensity (through increased efficiency) or carbon intensity (by installing non-carbon sources of energy).
The models projecting a 66 percent or greater chance of limiting warming to 2C envision emissions reaching “net zero” around 2070 (by matching any remaining emissions with deliberate reabsorption strategies).
They assume continued economic and population growth, and that the last two factors alone can save us. But can these technological interventions overcome the effects of growth?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) points out that energy efficiency increases over the past 40 years were overwhelmed by economic and population growth. Models assume continued increases in efficiency, but physical laws ultimately limit how much more efficient we can become.
And bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, a supposedly carbon-negative energy source crucial to the IPCC’s 2C scenarios, doesn’t exist at scale and isn’t likely to.
Through dangerous assumptions, the primacy of growth is built into climate models. With these assumptions stripped away wealthy nations’ emissions would need to reach real zero around 2035, and the need to degrow would be clear.
A holistic understanding of our predicament would clarify activists’ sense of the timeline, solutions, priorities, and complexity of their task. It would make the notion of continued growth obviously untenable.
It would highlight a global decarbonization date for 2C (without significant negative emissions) around 2040. Maintaining enough social stability to make the transition possible would emerge as a priority—in particular, focusing on relocalizing agriculture in anticipation of slowing oil production.
A more complex and realistic understanding of the transition that illuminates the reality of tradeoffs, like reduced consumption, would reveal the need to prepare for the challenges of creating a new society.
To those pushing for a rapid transition to an all-renewable economy, energy literacy is just as important as ecological literacy. Physicists define energy as the capacity to do work—without energy, nothing happens. That goes for both biological systems like ourselves, which need energy to survive, and for economic systems, which constantly require energy to accomplish any activity.
Though climate change is mainly understood as an energy problem, activists’ transition plans haven’t yet incorporated the work of energy analysts who explore the societal implications of large-scale conversions from one energy source to another.
The Industrial Revolution came about because human beings unlocked the concentrated energy available in the form of coal, followed eventually by oil and gas. The ensuing changes to society cannot be understated: mass-production of goods, previously unthinkable mobility, time-saving appliances—millions of people shifted from agrarian lifestyles into cities where jobs now served the mass production process.
This process and the lives we know today were born from energy sources that developed over millions of years—finite conditions we’ve come to see as normal.
The most prominent transition studies, undertaken by researchers Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi, give no indication that these conditions will change in a society powered completely by renewable energy. But energy analysts like Richard Heinberg and David Fridley highlight issues that suggest an all-renewable society will be different than the one we live in today.
Because wind and solar are intermittent, we need to develop strategies to have energy when weather conditions are calm and overcast. But infrastructure solutions like batteries and long-distance transmission lines require energy to build, and the energy costs of making renewables controllable may cut too far into the energy we want for transportation, construction, educating students, and many other things. To some extent we may need to learn to use energy when it is available.
Replacing oil, which powers 95 percent of transportation, is also a challenge. We’ll need to use batteries to power our vehicles in an all-renewable world, but their energy density is much lower than oil, and heavy vehicles would require prohibitively large batteries. It’s therefore unlikely that we’ll have battery-powered heavy trucks or planes, and we may need to adjust to a less mobile society.
Finally, it always takes energy to get energy, a ratio energy analysts call “energy-returned-on-energy-invested” (EROEI or EROI). Studies looking at the net energy generated by an all-renewable system suggest that the EROEI may be significantly lower than a fossil-fueled system. This means that we would have less energy available in a society powered only by renewables, and thus a smaller economy.
Activists must incorporate these analyses into our transition plans and educate the public about the likelihood that an all-renewable society will be different than the one we know today. This is vital to making the transition possible.
Whether looking at our problems through the lens of ecology or energy, it appears likely that establishing a sustainable society will come with tradeoffs.
I believe that if we do not foresee these tradeoffs, plan for them, and educate the public about the challenges ahead, then the unprecedented, massive, and sustained coordination we need to transition in an orderly way may not be possible.
However, additional analyses are also essential. We must have knowledge of how the economy currently works and how it could be restructured to work in the context of shrinking consumption and energy use.
Beyond that, we’ll need to understand the power systems that oppose the transition and how to build a movement that can overcome them. Nothing less than a new Enlightenment will do.
Aaron Karp is an activist generating a discussion within the climate justice movement about the need for degrowth and authentic democracy. He is writing a book about why our ecological crises demand economic and cultural transformation, not just an energy transition, and how the movement can lay the groundwork for these changes. He tweets @LimitsLiberate.