I bought the original stabilization wedge format for presenting climate solutions hook, line and sinker. At the slightest provocation, I will administer a “wedgie” – or as my co-workers call it, a “napkin-point presentation” – using the famous wedge schematic to illustrate this or that point about emission trajectories or the effect of a particular energy policy on emissions over time. A giant wedge banner hanging from a building on the central square in Copenhagen filled me with nerdy pride.
But something always bothered me about wedges, and now I know what it is. While we were busy getting our wedges on – passing good policies and implementing solutions – we were also busy investing in new infrastructure that locked in emission increases. We’ve been betting on solutions and the problem simultaneously. The net result is somewhere short of treading water, which means getting further away from a safe stabilization path. You can review the non-progress in “Rethinking Wedges,” published recently in Environmental Research Letters.
The problem is “Business As Usual” (BAU) — the upward-sloping emissions curve at the top of the wedges — and everything it represents about our climate denial. Among its many objectionable qualities, it is imaginary, implausible, immoral, BS. Yes, it’s what we’re doing. But it’s delusional to project what we’re doing out for 50 years. It’s kind of like the economist flying in a 4 engine plane that loses power in one engine, then another, then a third – each time cutting the plane’s speed in half – who said: “At this rate, we’ll be up here almost forever!”
“Business as usual” is not possible; global temperature increases that would result from sustained emission growth over 50 years would be “incompatible with organized global community,” without which we wouldn’t keep generating emissions at ever-increasing rates. It is hard to imagine business as usual, say, amid the “tornadoes of fire” engulfing Australia right now.
Tom Friedman recently said we need to begin “tapping on the brakes” to avoid “the climate cliff” by passing a carbon tax. But the brakes don’t work very well when we’ve got the other foot on the BAU accelerator.
Is it possible to conceive of some bizarre dystopia in which civilization falls apart but we nevertheless manage to keep increasing our emissions? Oh, gosh, maybe, but do we have to? It doesn’t seem very analytically sound to me. And it’s certainly a moral disaster – to imagine that we just keep stoking the fire as it burns up everything dear. Calling this “business as usual” is both intellectually weak and ethically numb.
We smacked our head into the folly of indefinitely increasing consumption curves in the Northwest, when we bought off on the ill-fated “WPPSS” nuclear power program – which touched off the largest municipal bond default in history at the time. And of course we’ve learned more than we ever wanted to know about bubbles in recent years.
“Business as usual” is a lie. It’s a form of climate denial. So why do we use it as our baseline? Sure, it’s “the path we’re on” so in some sense it’s what we have to divert from. But it can’t go where it appears to be headed. It leads inexorably to some kind of forced drop off. We’ll never get anywhere good until we flatly reject it.
No, let me rephrase: We’ll never get anywhere good unless we reject it now, because after a few more years of BAU, stabilization at tolerable levels will be impossible. This is the bottom line of the IEA World Energy Outlook. We don’t have enough time (or money) to keep investing in the problem as we invest in solutions.
There are plenty of grey areas – questions about timing and economics and technology – in the climate solutions game. But this one is black and white, the clear moral line in the shifting sands of climate politics:
We cannot in good conscience continue to make long-term investments that make it worse.
Or, if you will, we should make today’s emission levels the new BAU, smacking down anything that drives emissions higher. And by “smacking down,” of course, we’re not primarily talking about a change in our analytic assumptions. It’s a political change. It’s a moral shift. It’s taking a stance — a hopeful and unyielding one. (But that doesn’t mean we can’t graph it!:)
THis is what Keystone’s about. It’s what Power Past Coal is about. It’s what Do the Math is about. Climate solutions just isn’t a credible proposition until we swear off additional aggravation of the climate crisis – until we declare that the old business as usual is dead.
(One hates to introduce ambiguity when one is drawing lines in the sand, but it must be said that our standards for rejecting fossil fuel infrastructure investment should in fairness be different for rich and poor countries. The Prime Minister of India once proposed that their emissions-per-capita should rise and ours should fall until they reach the same level; then we can all move toward stabilization together. You can see the justice in this. Thing is, then we’d all be toast. [Just toast though - more equitably burnt.] Whatever minimal fossil fuel investment is possible between now and blowing our global emissions budget – maybe four years’ worth at current rates, according to the IEA – surely “belongs” to the least developed countries. But for us: no more, period. In fact, if we accept a flat global BAU as a baseline, rich country BAUs would have to be downward sloping. And then of course, we need to set sail for the stabilization pathway immediately, abandoning the new BAU at the same moment that we re-imagined it.)