Après Nous le Déluge

Climate and Gilets Jaunes

A bit too often perhaps, I open news apps on my mobile phone. I check the BBC app for new Brexit stupidities and I open the NYT app to access amazing Trump stories that no longer seriously amaze anybody. Not very useful, actually. But some days ago, two short messages not too far from each other on the same app woke me up.

Message 1: climate change is appearing to develop quicker and more seriously than previously foreseen. Huge CO2 reductions needed.

Message 2: Macron scraps fuel tax rise in face of Gilets Jaunes protests.

The Unacceptable 4 Cents

Macron’s fuel tax was a minor part of a larger agenda in the framework of climate policy. It would have been around 4 Euro cents per litre (from about €1.42 to about € 1.46 per litre). It sparked violent protests in the context of general dissatisfaction with low incomes, high unemployment, rising taxes and alleged financial advantages for the rich.  In terms of climate policy, the originally planned 4 cents are far less than what effective climate policy would require. Doubling gasoline prices would have been a more effective target. But even 4 cents proved to be unacceptable in the present French political climate.

The Official Climate Collapse

The climate change picture is looking bleaker than ever, for two reasons: the height of the emissions and the consequences observed.

“The new data for 2018, published today simultaneously in the journals Nature, Earth System Science Data and Environmental Research Letters, reveals that global emissions from burning fossil fuels are expected to reach 37.1 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2018. CO2 emissions have now risen for a second year, after three years of little-to-no growth from 2014 to 2016. The rise this year is projected at 2.7 per cent (+1.8 to +3.7 per cent). In 2017 it was 1.6 per cent.” [1]

CO2-emissions in 2018 are higher than ever measured. There is no tendency of reduction. To keep the climate in limits of 1.5 °C, a reduction of 50% of CO2 emissions is required according to official models. Recent publications show that we are well on the road to 3°C increase.

The Real Climate Collapse

But this is not all. Reality may be much more serious than what official models predict. In a recent working paper, Bendell  writes:

“Since records began in 1850, seventeen of the eighteen hottest years have occurred since 2000. Important steps on climate mitigation and adaptation have been taken over the past decade. However, these steps could now be regarded as equivalent to walking up a landslide. If the landslide had not already begun, then quicker and bigger steps would get us to the top of where we want to be. Sadly, the latest climate data, emissions data and data on the spread of carbon-intensive lifestyles, show that the landslide has already begun.” [2]

As is summarised in the same paper, climate models as published by official institutions and individual scientists tend to be conservative in their conclusions and avoid messages that suggest the imminence of disasters. Whereas climate change sceptics from industry and right-wing political parties try to make us believe that climate scientists are being paid for exaggerating climate change and its effects , Bendell convincingly argues that instead there is a systemic reluctance to even appear alarmist. We should therefore rather prepare for uncontrollable climate change than believe in the effectiveness of incremental climate adaptation measures.

Short Term Disruptions Ahead

Bendell argues that, in the face of the disruptions in human societies that can be expected as a result of climate change within less than 10 (!) years time, we need a new approach. The usual conservative approaches will no longer work. Therefore “a new approach which explores how to reduce harm and not make matters worse is important to develop. In support of that challenging, and ultimately personal process, understanding a deep adaptation agenda may be useful.”

A New Agenda, but Old Politics

It is easy to agree that we need an approach that takes the real challenge – a challenge that is much more threatening than officially recognised – seriously. But to me words like “deep adaptation agenda” are more irritating than elucidating. What could it mean? Let us go back to our French example where a minor (almost negligible) policy correction is now leading to a near-collapse of the government, not because the French people are basically against climate policy, but because serious social conflicts, caused by inequality and (feelings of) in justice are blocking any systematic policy change.  France is only one example. We can add many other European countries that are blocked by social conflict or by tendencies towards autocratic leadership (Hungary, Poland) and countries that tend to become less stable every day (UK, Germany, …). Let’s not discuss the US or Russia here.

Après Nous le Déluge

One need not be a pessimist to conclude that the conditions for some form of democratic and rationally based governance on climate issues are not there and won’t be there in time, even if Bendell is right that major destabilisation is to be expected within ten or twenty years from now.

The well-known French expression “Après nous, le déluge” (“after us, the flood”, originally attributed to Louis XV of France who did not care what would come after the chaos of the French revolution) is probably factually correct today. The flood (sea level rise, storms, poverty, war, etc. etc. as a result of climate change) will  come. Just wait.


[1] https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-12/uoea-sgi120318.php

[2] https://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf