In Commanding Hope, B.C. author Thomas Homer-Dixon calls for hard-edged realism to confront climate catastrophe
He says public conversations about our future as societies—and as a species—have been corrupted by dishonesty
When nearly 200 countries came together to negotiate the Paris Agreement in December 2015, it generated widespread hope for addressing the climate crisis.
The agreement set a long-term goal of limiting the increases in global temperature. Its ideal was 1.5 °C—with a firm cap below a 2 °C increase—since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
But many don't realize that these ambitious goals will require a massive amount of carbon sequestration, based on computer projections.
This is detailed in a new book, Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril, by political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University.
"Keeping temperatures from rising above the 1.5-degree target in 2100, for instance, would require removal from the atmosphere of at least a half-trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide, in a global effort starting almost immediately and extending beyond the end of the century," Homer-Dixon writes.
"That amount would fill sixty-five Grand Canyons or a balloon filled with pure CO2 measuring about eighty kilometres in diameter (at sea-level atmospheric pressure), and removing it would entail the largest industrial project in history by far, one that would absorb a large fraction of the world's economic output for decades."
In a phone interview with the Straight, Homer-Dixon cited this as an example of the hard-edged realism that's necessary to minimize the magnitude of climate-induced harm in this century.
In his book, he mentions that one way to achieve this amount of carbon sequestration would be by planting fast-growing trees across huge amounts of land. After they absorbed carbon as they grew, they would be cut down to produce energy.
The carbon dioxide would then be pumped underground.
"It might be enough, but it doesn't look politically and technologically feasible, at least within our current global system and given current commitments to growth and other economic projects," Homer-Dixon said. "Are we going to divert money from hospitals? Are we going to divert money from schools? Are we going to divert money from the military?
"Are we going to divert money even from fossil-fuel industries into growing forests so we can burn them and pump the carbon dioxide underground?" the Metchosin-based author continued. "And yet there it is, in the fine print of all of these models. And it’s something that hasn’t received even a fraction of the attention that it should receive.”
It's time for radical honesty
Homer-Dixon has devoted his academic career to examining how a multitude of variables come together in complex ways to affect our security.
His previous bestsellers—The Upside of Down and The Ingenuity Gap—laid out the magnitude of the world's predicament.
This has also been reflected in climate science.
For example, under the Hothouse Earth Pathway outlined in 2018, crossing temperature thresholds will kick in feedback loops. That has potential to create an ever-warming planet even if carbon emissions were stabilized.
Some of those tipping elements are the jet stream, Greenland's ice sheet, and the Amazon rainforest. Others include melting Arctic sea ice, Antarctic ice sheets, permafrost, and Alpine glaciers. Then, there are changes to the boreal forest, coral reefs, and thermohaline circulation.
In Commanding Hope, Homer-Dixon offers a road map for responding to the growing ecological crisis. And it's anchored by radical honesty.
"I think one of the things that’s really corrupting our public conversations about our future as societies—and as a species—is where we’re lying to ourselves," Homer-Dixon said. "It’s all part of the larger process of lying to ourselves about what’s possible in the future.”
The Straight asked Homer-Dixon how there's any chance of escaping the 21st century without hundreds of millions or a billion climate-related deaths, given the trajectory of rising greenhouse gas emission.
He readily conceded that there may be a slim chance of avoiding many fatalities. And he acknowledged the likelihood of violence, given hardening and divisive world views. But he hasn't lost all hope, at least not yet.
"I don’t want it to be violent," Homer-Dixon said. "I argue against it, but there are a lot of very powerful interests with their own hero stories invested in not changing."
To cite one example, Russian president Vladimir Putin's government is highly dependent on revenues from the fossil-fuel industry. Putin himself has said that it accounts for about 30 percent, down from 40 percent a few years ago.
Will Putin sit by idly as the world adopts measures to sharply curtail the consumption of oil and gas? Will he willingly and peacefully go into the night if his own people, suffering economically, demand that he leave? Not likely.
"What we’re seeing around the world is a rearguard action by fossil fuel interests to try to hold on to or seize state power," Homer-Dixon said. "It’s happening in the United States. Of course it’s happened in Russia. You can even make arguments that this was happening in Australia and, you know, even in Canada.”
In fact, Canada exported $87 billion in oil last year. This speaks to Homer-Dixon's contention that our economy and political system is "extraordinarily influenced by fossil-fuel interests".
"On the other hand, these folks are in retreat," he added. "Economic forces are powerfully operating against them now."
Oil consumption may have peaked
In a recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Homer-Dixon and coauthors Yonatan Strauch and Angela Carter argued that the COVID-19 pandemic "presents activists with several openings to keep oil demand from ever returning to its pre-pandemic peak".
In 2019, the world consumed more than 100 million barrels of oil per day.
"Since we published that piece, both BP and Shell have come out and said they’re starting the transition because they realize the writing is on the wall," Homer-Dixon said.
Strauch, who is Homer-Dixon's graduate student, has studied how quickly coal went into decline.
"Coal is the canary in the coal mine for fossil fuels," Homer-Dixon noted. "It's the leading edge."
And he expects that oil and natural gas will follow.
In fact, Homer-Dixon believes that we may actually be close to an inflection point with overall carbon emissions.
"Once these processes get going, they go a lot faster than people are anticipating."
The challenge will come if this drives a truck through the budgets of countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other oil-dependent nations. And that could lead to significant bloodshed and even wars.
"This could be a much more rapid and rockier process than most people recognize," Homer-Dixon said.
Health risks, financial consequences
At the same time, the pandemic has revealed how quickly the world can pivot in the face of a global crisis.
And the realization that climate change can make people sick—through smoke-filled cities and the rise of unusual diseases, including dengue fever—is far more terrifying than the prospect of rising seas and heat waves, he maintained.
That, coupled with efforts in the financial sector to quantify climate risk, offers the prospect of a dramatic response, unlike anything we've seen before.
The Michael Bloomberg–chaired Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures and the appointment of former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney as the UN special envoy for climate action and finance are accelerating interest in the role of investors in reducing emissions.
"Really, where the action is in the financial markets," Homer-Dixon said. "But it’s not the financial markets independently. It’s what’s happening politically.
"One thing we’re working on in the Cascade Institute is trying to figure out: how can you shift people’s attitudes?" he continued. "This is where the smoke comes in."
Chapter 9 of Commanding Hope examines slow processes versus fast processes, highlighting the types of stresses that produce "social earthquakes".
But there's a limited amount of time to turn the situation around. According to Homer-Dixon, there's no "new normal" as long as more carbon ends up in our ocean-atmospheric systems.
"It’s not going to settle down into a new equilibrium—not for centuries," he declared. "And so the disruption we’re seeing now is just the very beginning of what we can expect to see in the future. It’s not going to get better. It’s going to get way, way worse.
"That’s going to have a mobilizing effect on people," the author continued. "It’s not whether we are going to see this transition in technologies and economies and investments—and the way we generate wealth and what our attitudes are toward consumption. All of that is going to happen. The real question is whether it’s going to be soon enough or not.”