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Global collapse: fact or fiction (Jorgen Randers)

December 1st 2006 00:37
Jorgen Randers
Summary of the 2006 Templeton Lecture -- "Global collapse: fact or fiction", by Professor Jorgen Randers, Norwegian School of Management -- Footbridge Theatre, University of Sydney -- 6pm, Thursday 30 November 2006.

Randers' field is economics. He was one of the authors of Limits to growth (1972), and was formerly Deputy Director-General of WWF International (the World Wide Fund for Nature).

This lecture is now available in MP3 format from the Usyd podcast page.

In brief

What is "global collapse"? -- Sudden and uncontrollable decline in average welfare.
Can it happen? -- Yes.
If it happens, would we describe it as such afterwards? -- Probably not.
What should be done? -- Try to avert climate change.

Limits to growth (1972)

* First launched the idea of of global collapse. General idea was that it was possible in the next 130 years.
* Was one of the first books to introduce the concept of sustainability (it used the word "equilibrium").
Limits to growth
* Considered what would happen if "ecological footprint" (in terms of pollution and resource draw) was larger than the carrying capacity of the planet. Two main possibilities were: (1) "overshoot and collapse"; and (2) "smooth landing" (ecological footprint approaches then neatly fits itself beneath carrying capacity).
* Considered 13 scenarios, depending on the variables of: pollution; food output; industrial output; population; and non-renewable resource draw. Scenarios included: a resource-scarcity-induced collapse; a pollution crisis; and gradual erasure of ecological footprint.
* Focused on physical constraints (whereas collapse can be caused by any number of factors, including warfare and epidemics).

Concept of global collapse

* Randers began speaking in terms of "human welfare". The measure used in Limits to growth was the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) index, which takes into account such factors as education, longevity, and income. However, when defining global collapse later in the talk, Randers spoke, more nebulously, of decline in "things that people value".
Mathis Wackernagel
Mathis Wackernagel
* Global collapse involves: sudden decline of welfare/value rather than gradual stagnation; and uncontrollability -- once it starts, it will run its course. It's comparable to a market crash. When you're in it, it feels like it'll never end.
* Once you've overshot the carrying capacity of the planet, sooner or later there needs to be a correction.
* Once the collapse has run its course, welfare/value will level out, then begin to rise again.
* "Global" means it affects at least a billion people; "sudden" means over a 25-year-period or less; and "decline" means a 50% decrease in welfare/value. Randers openly notes that this is purely an arbitrary definition.
William Rees
William Rees -- with Wackernagel, one of the originators of the concept of ecological footprint
* Has it already happened? -- On a global scale, no, but in particular places, yes. Randers cites the collapse of the Atlantic cod-fishing industry off Canada; and the Easter Island collapse, with reduction of tree cover leading to faltering of the society.
* The latest measure of "ecological footprint", by Mathis Wackernagel, estimates that we are 30% above carrying capacity, and that the last time humanity was sustainable was in the mid-1980s. Randers accepts the figures are controversial.
* Even under the worst case scenario, Randers sees humanity continuing. For instance, the island of Spitsbergen north of Sweden has had a 12 per cent rise in temperature (over what period?), but still survives.

Could it happen?

* Randers focuses on two factors: oil demand and climate gases. He thinks both problems could very easily be handled by an intelligent global government.
* He doesn't think oil demand will, or even can, trigger a collapse. But he thinks that climate gases are capable, and is on the verge of believing that they will.
* Why won't oil trigger a collapse? -- Because we'll be able to compensate -- with coal, gas, wind and solar. When OPEC increased the price of oil in the 70s and 80s, the world responded by cutting down on consumption. So if oil availability becomes limited, prices will increase and alternative energy sources will be found. Oil consumption will gradually decline from 2010, but total resource usage will increase. Oil scarcity will postpone welfare improvements by a decade or two, but won't lead to collapse.
Graph of carbon emissions by region
Graph of carbon emissions by region
* Carbon dioxide emissions (burning of fossil fuels and land-clearing) can trigger a collapse. Humanity needs to cut its current levels by 80% in order to reach sustainability. Kyoto, if implemented, would cut emissions by 5.2% compared to 1990 levels (I think the figure Randers cites is 9%, presumably compared to now). The first IPCC paper predicted a temperature rise of, says Randers, between 1 and 5 per cent by 2100; the new IPCC paper will probably extend the upper limit or state that an upper limit cannot be set.
* Why will it happen? Because too little action will come too late. And delay does matter in terms of climate change -- CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a century. You need voter support for strong action, but people will only vote if they're scared, if they see visible damage. Furthermore: (1) there are advantages to global warming -- Norwegians aren't worried about it, but are happy about the warmer winters;
Global temperatures over the past century
Global temperatures over the past century
(2) the first affected will be low-lying Pacific islanders, delta dwellers in Bangladesh, people in the arctic, and drought-ridden countries -- typically not the big, powerful countries nor the central groups; (3) the majority of the population doesn't live in contact with nature, but is well-insulated in cities, vs, for instance, the bird-watcher and the skier, who are conscious of change; and (4) any strong action will hit small groups badly in the short term -- a tax on cars emitting carbon dioxide will hit companies and workers -- so small interest groups will be able to hold the fence on strong action.
* There are self-reinforcing effects, and this is part of why decline, once it begins, is unstoppable. Seven main factors have been identified. The three Randers picked on were: (1) increased absorption of solar heat in ice-free Arctic ocean leading to a warmer ocean, more melting ice, and more absorption of solar heat; (2) increased methane from melting tundras leading to higher greenhouse gas levels, higher temperatures, more melting, and more methane; (3) reduced absorption of carbon dioxide in acidic sea water leading to higher carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, more acidic sea water, and lower absorption.

If it does occur, would we recognize it?

* Randers takes the view that root causes will be lost in a maze of other factors. Oil scarcity will not be regarded as the root cause of Iraq, but causation will be attributed to American imperialism, Hussein's tyranny, etc.

What can be done about it?

* In his recent report to the Norwegian government, Randers concludes that at the cost of 1% of GDP you can use existing technology to avert climate change, and achieve 80% reduction by 2050. He also recommends a massive public education campaign. The problem is not resources but willpower: you need voter support, and people won't vote till they're scared.
* Avoiding climate change is highly doable and not terribly expensive. It's mainly a question of leadership.
* Sweden has already committed to 80% reduction by 2050, and elimination of dependence on fossil fuels by 2020.
Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger
* In California, the Governator has appointed a commission to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. He has bipartisan agreement on this, because the voters have been scared by: fires; drought; and brown outs (due to increased air-conditioning usage).
* Globally, leadership could take the form of a special purpose operation. The IPCC is the roots of such a body.
* What percentage increase in temperature is acceptable? Can we sacrifice a few low-lying Pacific islands? WWF wants much less than 2% increase. Other interests want much higher.
* The most effective and grandiose option is the rich world paying for carbon capture facilities that suck the CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it.
* Economic measures (very simple to implement with voter support) would include: increase of energy prices, particularly of fuels that emit greenhouse gases, and thereby "internalizing the externalities", paying for the damage done; or imposing an all-encompassing carbon tax.


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It includes material from the Wikipedia articles Limits to growth, Global warming, Arnold Schwarzanegger and Kyoto Protocol, the Global Footprint Network, and this site.
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3 Comments. [ Add A Comment ]

Comment by Ashish

December 2nd 2006 07:36
Yeah i agree it will happen one way or the other

Comment by Lilla

December 6th 2006 22:26 way or the other...

yes, inevitable and really well presented Adrian...



Comment by Herman

January 12th 2007 00:28
Hi y'all. Global Warming=BIG [problem

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