Are Intergovernmental Alliances for Saving Humanity Still Possible? Part 5 of a #RealGreenRevolution

This is the 5th in a 7-part essay on the type of policy innovations that would respond to the truth of the environmental predicament and, also, why most environmental professionals ignore such ideas to promote limited and limiting ideas instead. These ideas on a #RealGreenRevolution provide a contrast to current agendas, with the aim of encouraging a global environmental movement as a rights-based political force.  In this part of the essay, I focus on financing initiatives, geoengineering (climate restoration and repair), reparations and ecocide, migrating ecosystems, nuclear power and the difficult reality of systemic work on climate adaptation – nothing much to argue about then 😉

To receive each part of the essay, subscribe to my blog, using the box on the right (or right at the bottom of this post). To engage with other people who are responding to these ideas, either engage on the Deep Adaptation Leadership group on LinkedIn (where I will check in) or the Deep Adaptation group on Facebook, or by following the hashtag #RealGreenRevolution on twitter. A list of previous parts of this essay is available.

Intergovernmental Climate Emergency funds

Over the past decades many pledges to fund climate action and other international causes, such as poverty reduction, have remained unfulfilled. Even though the pledged amounts fall short of what is required, and are peanuts compared to the bailouts for banks or spending on the military, nevertheless they are retracted when governments seek to cut expenditures on what they consider non-essential. The climate predicament is a shared global concern and therefore efforts on the whole #ClimatePlus agenda need a new global financing system. No longer must we rely on existing government budgets or the benevolence of richer nations and their future politicians. Therefore we need serious consideration of new forms of international seigniorage of monetary instruments.  

One option for this new monetary instrument could be the Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Another option could be a monetary instrument issued in partnership with the Bank of International Settlements through an agency accountable to the UN General Assembly. In either case, a new international agency responsible for managing the issuance and use of the funds would be key, and not only be staffed (and governed) by the specialists in banking or representatives from the richer countries. Instead, a more pluralist organisation like the Interparliamentary Union and a more multidisciplinary organisation like the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) could be given a key role.

The funds from this new agency would be awarded to national governments, regional and local governments, intergovernmental agencies, and not-for-profit organisations that work on all aspects of the ClimatePlus agenda. For-profit entities must be excluded as recipients, as their involvement would incentivise lobbying and public relations efforts that could affect the dispersal of funds in sub-optimal ways. The only area where for-profit corporations might benefit could be from the use of the monetary instruments as a collateral, to accept the first tranche of any losses on ClimatePlus-related investment funds, thus reducing the risk for private investors in such funds. No actual payments would be made to those investment funds unless they lost money, and there might even be investment returns which could be recycled into the system of fund guarantees.

Although this idea might seem remote from the topic of carbon part per million in the atmosphere, it is obvious to anyone after decades of failure that so long as climate summits, G7 summits, and G20 summits, amongst others, do not launch a major new mechanism for delivering on the targets and financial promises, then such promises are primarily theatrics for current politicians will not be honoured.

International Alliance on Arctic Repair

It is important for both the environmental profession and wider society to rapidly develop a very different approach to the matter of geoengineering than has occurred until now. We need rapid testing and deployment of the safest of technologies that can help repair the Arctic ice cap immediately. For example, experts have known for over a decade that Marine Cloud Brightening could be a rapidly deployable, targeted, cheap and safe technology to experiment with in the Arctic Sea region alone. That is where specially designed ships would spray ocean water into the atmosphere over the Arctic Ocean to seed clouds that would replace the lost reflective power of the melted ocean ice. The Arctic is heating at a rate that is considered unprecedented and dangerous by polar experts, destabilising the northern jet stream, leading to heat waves, droughts, floods, deep freezes and unseasonal frosts. Besides such weather being a direct cause of human deaths, Arctic warming damages our food supply and ecosystems. Criticisms against MCB are related to its deployment elsewhere in the world, where it might unhelpfully disrupt weather patterns. Its use in the Arctic is a no-brainer for the survival of hundreds of millions of people who will find some grains suddenly too expensive to buy if we keep having severe weather disruption.

The “problem” is that MCB does not offer either easy or large returns for venture capitalists. Because the technology is simple, while there is no obvious customer to sell an amount of cloud brightening to – unlike the carbon offsets market.  If we focus on helping the world, that situation is actually beneficial, as it means we can have an inexpensive approach to deployment that is not hampered by intellectual property or difficult technological challenges. However, in a world where our conversation about technology is dominated by for-profit interests, this is a problem for MCB. It means that over the years MCB has been getting none of the public relations drive and political lobbying associated with other ‘geoengineering’ technologies that might offer large returns for venture capitalists, such as carbon Direct Air Capture (DAC) machines. These machines consume such huge amounts of energy to power their extraction of carbon from the atmosphere that they only make climate sense if powered by geothermal energy. Therefore a few of the flagship projects have been located in Iceland. The lively crust of the Earth in that area poses some questions about the long term viability of either the machines or the methods of storage of the fixed carbon. Also, most projects are not planned to be in Iceland. Even if they were, the question of what else the energy used to power the machines could be used for is important. Could batteries be charged instead? Could hydrogen be produced instead? DAC machines are attractive to venture capitalists as they offer potential for patenting and for sales of carbon credits to companies and governments that want to look good. Moreover, they offer an enticing story of technological salvation of our modern societies from climate chaos to people not ready to face the real situation humanity is in.

The delusional prominence of DAC machines in the current discussions of ‘climate restoration’ and ‘climate repair’ is the most recent example of how the predominance of business interests in the market economy can lead to unhelpful outcomes. Business interests have been distorting the policy agenda on climate as a long-term challenge since 1997 (as I explained in Part 2 on cap-and-trade); today they risk distorting the policy agenda of climate as a near-term emergency. Therefore, we need international alliances on the matter of geoengineering (whether branded as climate restoration or repair) that are explicitly designed not to be influenced by the venture capitalist interests in certain technologies. Unlike the recent ‘multi-stakeholder’ initiatives gaining attention as potential climate saviours, such alliances need to explicitly limit corporate involvement and influence. We do not have time to relearn the obvious and ancient understandings of why powerful self-interested groups should not be directing policy agendas. Instead, an International Alliance on Arctic Repair could look at a range of ideas, including MCB, reflective mirrors, reflective glass beads, and such like, with full and powerful representation from potentially affected communities. Such an alliance needs sceptics involved, to balance out the techno-extremists who can’t accept the possibility of technological failure in protecting our current way of life. Hopefully the differences and tensions involved will lead to smart decisions. When those decisions are made, projects could have access to funds from new financing mechanisms such as the one I described above. Such an alliance will need backing from an intergovernmental treaty that makes it internationally illegal to undertake geoengineering projects without similar forms of accountable governance.

Whereas many people engaged in climate issues prefer not to look at these topics of geoengineering, to do so can be a complement to bold action on emissions cuts and drawdown, and preparing for the disruptions to come and attempting to regenerate ecosystems and compensate communities for their loss and damage. My suggestion of a ClimatePlus agenda is one where no one part of it is used to undermine commitment to another part, unlike the way some ignorant politicians try to focus on adaptation and geoengineering as alternatives to bold emissions cuts.

International Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Ecocide

It is not possible to take a systemic approach to a widespread and complex problem or dilemma if not inquiring into what went wrong in the first place. Neither would it be a systemic response to the current and future loss and damage from climate chaos if not exploring how we might enable healing, justice and reparations for the harm caused. It is already clear as the appalling climate predicament becomes clear to more of us, that there is going to be a lot more intergenerational anger, as well as anger at the societies that have contributed the most to the damages that are now growing. Whereas that anger may be justified, if it is a widespread social phenomenon that is accompanied by the negative othering of peoples, it could lead to unproductive conflict. There will need to be major public efforts at learning what damage and suffering has occurred and is now inevitable despite our efforts to stop it, why that occurred, who benefited from the destruction, who warned against it, and what financial or other measures can be taken to ameliorate the situation somewhat. Financial reparations directed at locally-led adaptation efforts in the face of climate disruptions will need to be a major part of such a process, perhaps using a new monetary instrument, as described above.

Made famous by the processes in post-apartheid South Africa, a truth and reconciliation commission is an official body tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoing by governments or non-state actors (such as corporations), in the hope of resolving current relationships affected by that past wrongdoing. It is now clear being doubt that there has been wrongdoing on a geological scale, as modern humans, led by the economically powerful, have degraded and destroyed ecosystems and harmed people as a result. Severe harm to nature that is widespread or long-term, caused by human activity, whether intentional or not, is termed ‘ecocide.’ An International Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Ecocide (ITARCOE) could convene sharing of not only data but also the stories and emotions involved in past and current harm. It could explore why this situation occurred, with the aim of deeper truth rather than blame. It could foreground the people and cultures that warned against the approaches and practices that caused the ecocide and continue to do so. It could lead to financial reparations, perhaps using funds from the new mechanism described above. In most countries ecocide is not registered as a crime, and neither is it recognised as such at an intergovernmental level. However, this commission could complement processes of legal accountability, where that is possible, for specific wrongs related to existing laws. 

Unless the international climate policy agenda makes real space for climate justice and healing, with a meaningful focus on reparations, and financial backing for decisions, then it will be incomplete. ITARCOE would be one contribution to that.

International Alliance for Migrating Ecosystems

Vegetation helps fix carbon from the atmosphere. If it didn’t, there would be no food chain, no fossil fuels, no humans, and no civilisation as we know it. Therefore, forests have always been seen as the lungs of the world, sucking in carbon and pumping out oxygen. Some estimate that forests take up a third of human-produced carbon dioxide. That means that deforestation is not only tragic for the peoples and species that live in forests or depend on them but is also a major concern for climate stability. That is in addition to how forests maintain rainfall patterns and hold back rainfall in the soils, so water doesn’t flood and erode the soils we need for agriculture (which forests also produced in the first place). With all that in mind, it is sad and frightening that according to the UN, at least 10 of the most famous forests of the world are now emitting more CO2 than they absorb. By modelling current and projected changes, US researchers have assessed that globally forests will become a source, not sink, of carbon within the next 30 years. If more vegetation dies than replaces it then carbon is released, and as soils dry out they release carbon, while as permafrost melts it releases carbon, and as forests and their peaty soils burn they release carbon. Such changes comprise one of the fifteen concerning climatic tipping points that remind us all to wake up from the delusion that any declines or degradation will be slow, steady and reversible. That is why it is important and helpful that forest conservation has been a major focus of agreement at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. However, given the trends towards forests becoming a source of carbon, it is essential that our approach to forests, and ecosystems in general, evolve with knowledge of the current and likely impacts of the changing weather. That means nature conservation needs to evolve into a new paradigm that could be termed ‘adapting conservation’.

The practice of nature conservation grew out of an interest over a hundred years ago in the preserving of landscapes and the species within them, in response to the threats posed by expanding cities as well as agricultural and industrial uses of the land. The key is in the word “conservation.” However, in a world with a changing climate, the goal of preserving species, maintaining ecosystems, and protecting beautiful landscapes will be undermined by attachment to the existing paradigm of conservation. Instead, the plants and animals are becoming unsuited to their changing environments. Therefore, for conservationists to continue regarding certain species as ‘invasive’ and seeking to control them will increasingly be counterproductive to the survival of an ecosystem in a changing environment. Such changes are why bats and birds are changing their migratory habits. It is why some insects, animal and plant species are moving to higher latitudes and altitudes. However, many species cannot move fast enough, nor cross certain barriers (seas, lakes and mountain ranges), and many do not know where might be best to move to. Can humans help the rest of nature cope with the disruptions we have caused? Perhaps, and perhaps not. History of environmental management is filled with disastrous examples of well-meaning humans introducing new species to ecosystems and unwittingly wrecking them in process. Therefore, most efforts at ecosystem migration should be focused on helping trees migrate (as they are slow to propagate and grow), and no longer managing landscapes to prevent a change in the flora and fauna that is occurring naturally due to changing climate. Therefore the conservation profession  needs to move away from trying to maintain landscapes as they once were. That means more research into the translocation of species and major investment in the assisted migration of trees. Any policies and financing for forest conservation need to incorporate this situation.

International Alliance on Nuclear Transformation

Because of the high risks and potential benefits, the world urgently needs a new approach to the nuclear sector, beyond limited defence agendas and commercial aims. The history of nuclear power has been shaped by defensive and greedy aspects of human nature, thereby creating an unnecessary hazard to both humanity and the rest of nature. I am referring to, first, the interests of some governments for nuclear power stations to create plutonium so their militaries could make nuclear bombs. That meant choosing the designs of nuclear power stations that, as a bi-product, created the most dangerous and long-lasting nuclear wastes. Today, hundreds of tons of plutonium waste exist in storage situations that pose a high hazard of radioactive pollution. The second issue is that the power stations that were financially more attractive at the time were chosen even though they were not the safest designs. Therefore, today there are hundreds of nuclear power stations around the world which are hazards if a natural disaster strikes or a society is disrupted. For instance, they do not move to cold shutdown on their own, rely on secondary power for cooling, and use pressurised water or gases that increase chances of leaks. They also require water for turbines and cooling so are sited in areas that will likely be flooded in the years to come (or even run out of water at times). For decades, the nuclear industry has been kicking the spent fuel can down the radioactive road by either burying the wastes with at least tens of thousands of years of half-life or leaving them in cooling pools (many of which are at risk of seepage while also open to wildlife that feed on algae and other life within the pools). The technological choices of the past have also provided us with containment issues from past accidents, including Chernobyl and Fukushima.

The current policy discussion on nuclear is very polarised, with some enthusiasts downplaying the risks of hazardous wastes and potential failures in most nuclear technologies. Conversely, many opponents of nuclear power seek to end it altogether without considering whether that prevents us from using up the highly toxic plutonium in a new generation of reactors, thus leaving a much more toxic hazard to future generations and the rest of life on Earth. Add to this polarisation the dark tactics of nuclear-funded public relations campaigns, that seek to undermine any credible threat to the current commercial viability of new build proposals, and we have a toxic environment for policy deliberation. For instance, many nuclear professionals regard the anticipation of worst-case climate scenarios as a threat to their business, as it makes it less likely to obtain approval, capital, and insurance for their projects that require decades of investment. It is one explanation for why the ‘deep adaptation’ field has been subjected to misleading criticism. It is important we rise above the factions dominating nuclear policy deliberations and consider anew what choices would be most beneficial. With that aim, I propose that the reality of entering an era of climate chaos, alongside the energy demands of a decarbonising world, means a three-pronged strategy is needed for the future of nuclear. Such an approach would reflect a transformation in the way nuclear policy has been conducted in recent years.

First, there needs to be a global nuclear power and waste safety task force that is better equipped and legally empowered than current safety authorities and teams. It would develop a long-term plan for coping with rising sea levels and drying riverbeds, and finance necessary changes. It would also be backed by intergovernmental agreements about how countries bring their nuclear power stations to safe shut down in situations where their societies become disrupted through civil conflict or other disruptions. Such an agreement would commit governments to allow an international emergency team to manage the safe shutdown of a power station if a country was not delivering on their safety commitments in a situation of societal crisis. Therefore, this task force would need to maintain the capabilities to deploy anywhere in the world where there is a nuclear power station or above ground nuclear waste facility.

Second, there must be an international ban on the building of any nuclear stations that are not significantly contributing to reducing the plutonium waste crisis. Currently, most of the new nuclear power stations being built around the world use modifications of the existing water-cooled reactors. In the UK, for instance, under-construction Hinkley Point C and proposed Sizewell C should both be cancelled, as a high-hazard technology that carries risk of meltdown during either environmental or societal disruption and generates hazardous wastes.

Third, if private capital is not enough to support the commercial operation of a new generation of nuclear power stations that destroy waste plutonium as a significant part of their fuel source, then funding through novel international mechanisms could be considered. However, in that case they would need to be not-for-profit or state-owned companies, to avoid the ill effects of corporate lobbying on something as important to get policies right on as nuclear power. The technologies I am describing here are molten salt reactors. Unlike the types of nuclear power that exist around the world, the molten salt reactors cannot melt down, do not pressurise any substance, cannot release dangerous isotopes into the air, and can be designed to shut themselves down through the simple effect of gravity when there are any problems and do not need to be located near water, thereby avoiding problems of either flooding or drought. Key is that they can use waste plutonium as a fuel source, and produce far less hazardous wastes, thereby reducing the amount of an extremely hazardous material that would otherwise be hazardous for tens of thousands of years. Due to realistic concerns about the dangers of shipping plutonium to new nuclear reactors, one of the best options would be PRISM reactors built close to the sources of the plutonium wastes while sufficiently far from the coast with worst case sea level rises planned for. Another option are the molten salt reactors that use a less dangerous fuel (not able to be used for weapons) that is created by reprocessing plants similarly located near the plutonium wastes. That is the method being used by the Terrapower and Aurora nuclear power projects. In addition, a new generation of Thorium molten salt reactors would use plutonium in the mix with widely available Thorium to produce low levels of waste, thereby also helping to address the plutonium waste crisis.

My suggestion of a ban on all nuclear power stations other than those helping address the worst nuclear wastes might seem draconian to many people within or supportive of that industry. Yet we should not be adding to the hazards faced by future generations as we enter a disruptive era for humanity. My suggestion of international funding for a new generation of nuclear reactors that do not pose the risks of our current power stations, and help to reduce the plutonium waste issue significantly, will seem reckless and naïve to many in the environmental movement. Yet we should neither ignore the existing power demand that can’t be met by renewables in all locations of the world, nor pretend the plutonium waste problem does not exist, risking a toxic legacy for future generations and the rest of life on Earth. My suggestion for an agency that in some circumstances could override national sovereignty to enter a country and shut down nuclear power stations at risk of meltdown, may seem both unpalatable and overly dramatic to some people; such a rejection    ignores both the extent of the hazard and the increasing risk of societal breakdowns in societies previously considered stable. Unfortunately, this topic will likely still see people speaking from positions that serve their employers or their personal identities as either devoutly green, technologically optimistic, or societally fatalistic. Just as with the situation on geoengineering, we need people engaged in this topic who are neither technophobic or technophilic, and not experiencing a conflict of interest due to their employment or careers.

International Alliance on Climate Adaptation

It is normal for policy wonks and related researchers to define an agenda and then think that it exists and can be worked on well, with the relevant knowledge, guidance and resources. This has never been more so than the idea of adaptation to climate change. Our rapidly destabilising climate is affecting everything in our lives, from the price of food to availability of flood insurance; from the spill-over of wildlife diseases to the motivations of immunologists researching coronaviruses; and from closing windows on the summer smog to the loss of curiosity as anxiety closes minds. The idea that one can talk coherently about how to respond well to the operating environment of human civilisation, is like saying you can predict which butterfly will take to the air at exactly what date and time as the next big quake hits San Francisco. Of course, the butterfly hasn’t even been borne yet (we hope), so one’s hubris of calculation within complex systems would have to be of magical proportion. Yet the hubris of adaptation conversations is normal, and covered over by the reassuring semiotics of policy blah blah. If you read the output from any summit on adaptation to climate change over the past decade, it will repackage existing awesome ideas about gender equity, local participation, democratic accountability. They will emphasise it is important to help organisations and communities to become more agile and resilient in the face of disruptions from strange weather, while proposing nothing significant against the tide of economic globalisation that makes those communities ever more dependent on processes that they have no control over, and which require the smooth operation of complex value chains that are exposed along their length to the direct and indirect impacts of climate chaos. Funded by the same institutions that benefit from that economic globalisation, it is no wonder that so many climate adaptation projects are found by independent researchers as being money-grabbing infrastructure or agricultural commercialisation projects that further marginalise vulnerable communities. Even the hundreds of initiatives that are worthwhile in helping people cope with disruption and uncertainty – for instance getting information on weather and market prices to rural farmers – amount to piecemeal efforts at coping better.

Similar criticisms can be levelled at the variants of adaptation called transformative adaptation and deep adaptation. If adaptation that tries to hold together current livelihoods and lifestyles is difficult enough to identify and promote in a hyper complex world, then adding the need for it to not maintain or increase carbon footprints doesn’t reduce the way such complexity renders categorisation and recommendations mere sophistry. Then, faced with the breakdown of those livelihoods and lifestyles as societies stumble and collapse, the idea one can map the range of helpful responses in any confident and meaningful way seems another example of the human mind seeking escape from the terror of vulnerability through stories of knowing and preparation. That is why one of the world’s leading academics on leadership, Professor Jonathan Gosling, has argued, ‘adaptation leadership’ is going to be necessarily emergent and provisional, rather than bombastic, visionary, and deluded (yep, everything else currently described by sycophants as leadership). That means the best thing any of us can do is help loosen the strange ways we humans think and relate that hold us back from sensing what we might need to do differently. One of those strange ways is thinking that a few experts can generalise about complex unpredictable situations on a planet of near 8 billion people. 

This must seem like a rather dark preamble to a proposal on a new international alliance on adaptation. My aim is to preface the argument for why the best thing we can do that is systemic on climate adaptation is organise against stupid things being financed and permitted in the name of adaptation. By stupid, I mean greedy opportunists taking advantage of difficult situations to make money and gain status. One of the biggest ways that is happening at present is the use of the climate crisis to justify massive infrastructure projects. Many such projects are not taking the worst-case climate projections into account, and how that will affect flooding, sea levels, precipitation and such like. In addition, such projects come with a massive carbon footprint and an amount of debt which means that they must have business plans that rely on expansion of the systems that caused the tragic situation in the first place, and push out the people who won’t make the investors any money. Therefore, a global ban on cross-border financing of infrastructure that is not preparing for the bad case scenarios, not low carbon, not with a low impact on biodiversity and not accountable to the people being affected by the project. Such a ban would probably mean no new airports, no new motorways, no new luxury resorts built on flood defences and so on, being funded by foreign money. So that agreement probably won’t happen. Instead, the opposite is likely to happen with government incentives agreed to help private finance flow into adaptation projects, with weak filters or vague commitments on low carbon, local participation and such like. Therefore, this kind of International Alliance will need to arise from civil society organisations and networks that are committed to fighting a good yet futile fight against disaster capitalists profiting from the climate crisis.

One of the most important things to remember for those of us who work on climate adaptation is to not succumb to the project-by-project mentality of humanitarian and development aid. No society transformed itself due to the benevolence of some donors and sporadic grants to well-meaning individuals coming to help. Many individuals benefited from specific humanitarian and development projects, but it is extremely tenuous for people in the field of development assistance to argue that such projects changed societies. Instead, societies change because of the way technologies, economics and politics evolves. Therefore, although it is great to celebrate instances of locally-led adaptation to climate change, it would be NGO make-believe to limit our agenda on how to help people adapt to climate chaos to the promotion of individual instances of success in adversity. Instead, an important focus is on how to reduce the systemic barriers to people attempting to adapt well to their local situations. Therefore, a more comprehensive Real Green Revolution to address the wider ClimatePlus agenda is, I believe, an important way to work on adaptation, whether one is interested in simple, transformative or deep approaches to that adaptation.

You can subscribe to my blog by using the box on the right, or at the bottom of this post. To engage with other people who are responding to these ideas, either visit the Deep Adaptation Leadership group on LinkedIn (where I will check in) or the Deep Adaptation group on Facebook, or by follow the hashtag #RealGreenRevolution on twitter. A list of previous parts of this essay is available.