400 ppm: Overcoming the Grind of Reality to Revitalise the Dream

Retrieved from The Guardian


400 ppm: Overcoming the Grind of Reality to Revitalise the Dream

by Miles Ten Brinke

Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter on a Fulbright.

Well friends, its been some time since I’ve last written. So much has happened in these past few weeks, but one story in particular grabs me. I hope you forgive the near cliche of it. Take this piece as a meditation, and a call to action.

In our status quo struggle we’ve crossed the rubicon folks, and in the worst way. We’ve now reached CO2 levels of 400 ppm. That atmospheric concentration hasn’t been seen for millions of years, on a very different Earth. Measured by that cornerstone of global climate science, the Mauna Loa Observatory, this single reading has sparked a fierce debate among climate advocates and activists. The speed of change is atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide has been devastating. The fossil economy status quo marches on, its progression not even halted by economic chaos. Our focus must be on what to do about it.

What does this milestone mean for the Nexus?  A complex question, one we make take decades in attempting to answer. A question the likes of which will hopefully spark up a brilliant global conversation with countless papers, essays, books and most importantly calls to action.

To start with, here’s my easy answer: in sheer practical terms Nexus thinking will have to be increasingly recognised as not only useful but an existential necessity. In a world of increasingly complex weather systems policymakers must become much more acutely aware of the interconnections between these essential resource systems- shifting rains means shifting water consumption and agricultural planning which all shift energy systems. For those of us in the UK, just look to the fluctuations of extreme precipitation over the past few years. British farmers have struggled to keep up with droughts, the flooding and mutations of the seasons. Water crises are springing up and worsening the world over. An integrated strategic policy regime will be essential to manage not just the transition to the new realities of a 400+ ppm planet but everything that comes with it. This not only includes the complex science of feedback mechanisms and tipping points, but of the policy decisions of private and public sectors all around us. There’s more to it than even this.

The hard answer has to do with the contingencies and harsh new realities crossing the 400 ppm milestone portends. The 400 ppm is a somewhat arbitrary marker in terms of policy-having now crossed it does little to impact our current trajectory. Its a symbol, a signpost decades ago folks strove to ensure we’d avoid and one we must now come to terms with. Two thoughts struck me immediately upon first reading the news: the stakes just got orders of magnitude more severe and a numbing sense of impotence. The longer we take to stabilise and then cut emissions, the worse the cumulative and synergistic effects. Worse for me is the bitter taste of it all, that up till now the decades long fight to circumvent destructive anthropogenic climate change has failed spectacularly, devastatingly. With the industrial rise of China and India and many other states on their way it makes one wonder if in fact we should expect emissions to accelerate in the coming years. Its the kind of thing to inspire nihilism in the most passionate of dreamers. Particularly when one looks to the current state of affairs in North America and Europe. These regions and their states locked into other battles and fundamental debates or actively undermining climate, sustainable energy and environmental policy. That nexus of interconnections will in fact exacerbate the dangers.What do you with that, when the victories turn so small and stale and when the path looks irreversible?

In philosophy and fundamental introspection we can find our answers to this. Each of you must sort this in your own way; not along, together with your fellows yes, but recognising there is no universal solution. There is no hope, no meaning but that which we make for ourselves or can recognise in the world.

My personal starting point is the more nihilistic realism- recognising both the grim failures and the brilliant green shoots growing beneath them. Yes, it does not look good right now and yes as far as I can tell today we have little hope of succeeding. At the same time there is an incredible array of people and organisations around the world working on all the different dimensions of these problems every day, dedicating their lives in pursuit of real change. And they are succeeding, constantly. The problem is, that wave which is their collective has yet to crest. And much as before, even when change is achieved it is by no means permanent or always constructive. Just look to the 1992 Rio conference and its aftermath for the former and the historic approach of conservation policy to human-nature bounds for the latter. One of the few certainties I see is that the road ahead holds even more pitfalls and danger than the struggle behind. And such opportunity, such promise.

In accepting what I see as the simple lay of the land as I have to deal with it, my motivation gets much simpler. This reality touches every part of the human experience, a real problem we can fix. As big as the challenges are in climate, environmental, water, energy, etc. policy they are all based on conditions subject to change. Economies boom and bust, politics stagnates and revitalises. And that is the key of it, the world is in constant flux. Transitions of the kind i’m working towards in energy and water have happened before, and will happen again. In a complex sequence of events what once seemed impossible wrecks the incumbent momentum and replaces the establishment. The industrial revolution was fed on coal, the 20th century on oil. Grounded in a realistic understanding of present conditions, we can study and facilitate these transition elements. The energy-water Nexus in all its interconnections will play a vital role.

Revolutions don’t come easy. The cost will be high, hope for success low. To come anywhere close, we face an odyssey. A new 21st century global transition awaits at the end of that horizon.

Dare we try?

~Miles On Water

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