Friday, September 17, 2021

3547. Do We Need to Shrink the Economy to Stop Climate Change?

By Spencer Bokat-Lindell, The New York Times, September 16, 2021

If there is a dominant paradigm for how politicians and economists today think about solving climate change, it is called green growth. According to green growth orthodoxy — whose adherents populate European governments, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the World Bank and the White House — the global economy can both continue growing and defuse the threat of a warming planet through rapid, market-led environmental action and technological innovation.

But in recent years, a rival paradigm has been gaining ground: degrowth. In the view of degrowthers, humanity simply does not have the capacity to phase out fossil fuels and meet the ever-growing demand of rich economies. At this late hour, consumption itself has to be curtailed.

Degrowth is still a relatively marginal tendency in climate politics, but it’s been attracting converts. In 2019, more than 11,000 scientists signed an open letter calling for a “shift from G.D.P. growth” toward “sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being.” And in May, a paper published in the journal Nature argued that degrowth “should be as widely and thoroughly considered and debated as are comparably risky technology-driven pathways.”

Here’s a closer look at the debate.

The case for degrowth

Perhaps the most prominent proponent of the degrowth movement is Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist and the author of “Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World.” Degrowth, as he defines it, “is a planned reduction of energy and resource use designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being.”

His argument against the green growth framework rests on two key premises:

There is no historical evidence that G.D.P. can be completely decoupled from material resource use. In other words, human economies cannot grow infinitely on a planet with finite resources.

  • G.D.P. can be decoupled from greenhouse gas emissions by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, but that decoupling isn’t happening fast enough.
  • The requisite solution, in Hickel’s view, is to reduce resource and energy consumption, which will make it easier to rapidly transition to renewable energy in the short time humanity has left to avert 1.5 degrees of global warming. But this imperative would not apply equally across the globe:
  • Climate change is being driven primarily by the cumulative historical consumption of the Global North, so he argues it is incumbent on rich countries to shrink their economies. (The disproportionate responsibility advanced economies bear for climate change is also why Hickel rejects calls for population control in poorer countries as “completely backward”: “We do have a population problem, it’s true,” he said in 2018. “But it has nothing to do with poor countries. The real problem is that there are too many rich people.”)
  • That retrenchment, in turn, would create space in the global carbon budget for poorer countries to continue growing, which they still need to do to lift their populations out of poverty.

Critics of degrowth have analogized the project to economic austerity or forced recessions, which tend to cause broad-based suffering and worsen inequality. But those negative effects, Hickel says, are merely the predictable disaster that ensues “when growth-dependent economies stop growing.”

Degrowth, by contrast, calls for a different kind of economy altogether, one that could improve people’s livelihoods despite a reduction in aggregate activity: It seeks to scale down “ecologically destructive and socially less necessary production” (such as S.U.V.s, weapons, beef, private transportation, advertising and consumer technologies that are designed to obsolesce) while expanding “socially important sectors” like health care and education.

Among the policies Hickel proposes to create such an economy are shortening the workweek, introducing a job guarantee with a living wage, shifting workers out of declining industries and the decommodification of goods like housing that people need to live dignified lives.

In a recent newsletter, the economist Noah Smith took degrowth’s main arguments to task in a defense of green growth:

  • First, he says economic growth can, in fact, be decoupled from resource use: “We can keep raising everyone’s standard of living without exhausting the planet’s resources. Because growth doesn’t just mean using more and more stuff; instead, it can mean finding more efficient ways to use the stuff we have.” (Hickel dismisses the claim as a hypothetical.)

  • Second, and more directly pertinent to climate change, Smith says that decoupling G.D.P. from greenhouse gas emissions is not just possible, as many degrowthers acknowledge, but already happening: Since 2005, 32 countries, including the United States, have managed to do it, according to the Breakthrough Institute.

Smith agrees with Hickel, though, that emissions decoupling isn’t happening fast enough. The question, then, is whether degrowthers offer the correct prescription for reaching carbon neutrality on a shorter timetable.

My colleague Ezra Klein doesn’t think so. The unacceptably slow pace of the transition to renewable energy, he argued on a recent podcast, is a political problem, not a technological one. And on the politics, degrowth is a much tougher sell than green growth.

The degrowth movement is “attacking the flaws of the current strategy as not moving fast enough when the impediments are political, but then not accepting the impediments to its own political path forward,” he said. “I think that if the political demand of the movement becomes you don’t get to eat beef, you will set climate politics back so far, so fast, it would be disastrous. Same thing with S.U.V.s. I don’t like S.U.V.s. I don’t drive one. But if you are telling people in rich countries that the climate movement is for them not having the cars they want to have, you are just going to lose.”

This is an argument Hickel takes seriously:

New York magazine’s Eric Levitz agrees that “Americans might well find themselves happier and more secure in an ultra-low-carbon communal economy in which individual car ownership is heavily restricted, and housing, health care, and myriad low-carbon leisure activities are social rights.” But, he adds, “nothing short of an absolute dictatorship could affect such a transformation at the necessary speed. And the specter of eco-Bolshevism does not haunt the Global North. Humanity is going to find a way to get rich sustainably, or die trying.”

At the moment, degrowth has no mass constituency. But some of its animating ideas are nonetheless exerting an influence on political economic thought — particularly the critique of G.D.P. growth as the lodestar of human progress.

“Even within mainstream economics, the growth orthodoxy is being challenged, and not merely because of a heightened awareness of environmental perils,” John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker last year. “After a century in which G.D.P. per person has gone up more than sixfold in the United States, a vigorous debate has arisen about the feasibility and wisdom of creating and consuming ever more stuff, year after year.

What’s the alternative? 

Kate Raworth, an English economist, has identified one option: “doughnut economics.” In Raworth’s view, 21st-century economies should abandon growth for growth’s sake and make it their goal to reach the sweet spot — or the doughnut — between the “social foundation,” where everyone has what they need to live a good life, and the “environmental ceiling.”

“The doughnut model doesn’t proscribe all economic growth or development,” Ciara Nugent explains in Time. “But that economic growth needs to be viewed as a means to reach social goals within ecological limits, she says, and not as an indicator of success in itself, or a goal for rich countries.”

Raworth’s ideas have had real-world impact: Last year, during the first wave of the pandemic, Amsterdam’s city government announced it would aim to recover from the crisis by adopting the precepts of “doughnut economics.” A year before that, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand announced her country would prioritize its residents’ welfare and happiness over G.D.P. growth.

Even in the United States, which has embraced no such policy, G.D.P. growth has slowed in the past two decades, largely because of falling birthrates and a switch in spending patterns from goods to services.

That hasn’t solved the problem of America’s addiction to fossil fuels, of course. “Yet the sorts of policies on offer from degrowth advocates — like universal basic services and shorter working hours — could help address some of the long-standing ills now afflicting a wide range of economies,” Kate Aronoff writes in The New Republic. “Rather than chasing an increasingly far-off goal by trying to coax forth elusive corporate investment with giveaways, governments could start planning for what a fairer lower growth, lower carbon future might look like.”

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

3546. Drought? This Is What Climate Change Looks like in the West

By Karyn Stockdale,, August 24, 2021 

Living back East for a few years, I missed the expansive bright blue skies of the Rockies. Now that I’ve returned to the West, I’m remembering the smoky haze that fills the sky. I’m remembering how the smell of summer has turned into the smell of smoke from wildfires. How the ash from fires hundreds of miles away sometimes coats your car and porch furniture. But it’s getting worse.

I’m used to the seasonality of streams—the spring runoff that slows to a trickle with hot summer days. My kids would wait for the monsoon storms to bring back the water flowing to our arroyo. But it was shocking to see how low the rivers and streams got so early this year. Recently, some southwestern states have seen abundant monsoonal rainfall, with some intense flooding. But in Utah, Nevada, California, and parts of the Northwest, the dryness and record-setting heat waves have intensified large wildfires. The combination of drought and heatwaves are pushing birds to their limits, leading to lethal dehydration.

Welcome drought.

There's a lot to unpack in that word. Decades of drought in the West seems to be hitting a tipping point, garnering national attention. More and more, people are recognizing this isn’t just a drought. This isn’t temporary.

It’s fires, it’s decreasing water supplies, it’s air quality issues, it’s high temperatures, and unpredictable weather. It’s an era of extremes.

This summer has turned into the worst water year for many farmers and ranchers, for wildlife managers, for businesses and communities concerned about their water supplies. We urgently need to adapt and better prepare for constant drought and for extremes to become more common. As my colleague said recently, “This is climate change stealing your water.”

Climate change is increasingly impacting all of us—threatening the health of millions of birds, our food supplies and economies, our air quality, and the water security for all of us. It’s starting to affect our way of life.

And this affects birds. The future of several bird species, including some protected by the Endangered Species Act, is tied to the health of rivers and lakes. We’ve already lost too many wetlands and riparian habitats across the West and birds are pushed to congregate in high concentrations in the last places left with water. You might recall the death of 40,000 ducks from avian botulism last year due to overcrowded conditions with limited water and habitat left at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.  

How bad is this drought? 2021 is shaping up to be the driest year in the last century.

Everywhere in the West we see signs of the ongoing megadrought. Here are a few indicators that we are concerned about at Audubon:

  • Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River (and in the country), has officially reached its lowest water level in history—and it’s expected to continue dropping.
  • Great Salt Lake reached its lowest lake level ever recorded, and will continue to drop this year, maybe even by a foot more.
  • Years of reduced inflows, along with drought and a warming climate, continue to shrink the Salton Sea in California, impacting the health of surrounding communities and the available habitat and food sources for migratory birds.
  • Our last remaining wetlands in California’s Central Valley—essential Pacific Flyway habitat for waterfowl—are expected to receive only about 57% of their water supply.
  • In rural Arizona, unlimited groundwater pumping (80% of the state has no groundwater management!) is causing wells to go dry and further stressing flows in rivers and streams.
  • The Klamath River Basin’s drought is testing everything:  There's not enough water to meet all the demands from farmers, tribes, and wildlife, including endangered fish.
  • The Southwest’s other major river basin—the Rio Grande—is also historically dry.

At Great Salt Lake, the 17 named islands that usually exist on the lake, where nesting birds are protected from predators, are now peninsulas. In this “Year of the Shorebird” as designated by Utah’s Governor, the decreased water coming into the shrinking lake is affecting the whole ecosystem with potentially hemispheric implications. Great Salt Lake and its surrounding wetlands create vital habitat in the Western Hemisphere for millions of breeding and migrating shorebirds including more than 56% of the global population of American Avocets and nearly 30% of the global population of Wilson’s Phalaropes. If nothing is done to reverse course, Great Salt Lake risks suffering the fate of other large, saline lakes around the world, the loss of which invariably triggers dramatic harm to communities, local business, and human health.

In the West, we are used to competing demands for scarce water for farms, cities and rural communities, hydropower, recreation, and the environment (typically last in consideration) which can lead to conflict. Audubon’s Western Water team continues to push for all of us to face these risks and plan for water shortages with a changing climate in mind.

I keep thinking of that folk song “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More” from my childhood. My extended family lived through the Dust Bowl in Texas and Oklahoma and went into dryland ranching. This year doesn’t feel like business as usual—it feels like the cusp of another Dust Bowl.

New approaches are needed to adapt to, respond to, and mitigate the compounding and extreme risks of climate change to communities, economies, ecosystems, and the water resources that support them.

This is why Audubon is working in state capitals and in Washington, D.C. to advocate for sensible policies and funding that benefit birds and communities alike. We have worked to ensure that the needs of birds and habitat aren’t carved out of policy decisions and water management.

Audubon is also working to secure water to enhance habitats where water is most needed. Working with partners, we continue to enable and secure water flows in rivers in places like Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, California, and Arizona. And through our science, we are improving our understanding of the long-term health of priority places for birds and how we might better manage the limited water availability into the future. 

With drought conditions persisting now into a third decade and climate change increasingly impacting water supplies and habitat in the West, we urgently need inclusive and equitable long-lasting water solutions for climate resilience. Please join us in advocating for policies, funding, and on-the-ground actions that result in sustainable change.