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Global Warming: How Do We Move Forward?

By Joanne Poyourow

13 August, 2010
Transition US

To the 1Sky board of directors:

In your open letter to all people and organizations working to combat global warming, you ask how to move forward with urgency and clarity of purpose.

1) Understand the full scope of the problem.

Global warming is not a standalone issue. At the same time as we are trying to decarbonize our entire society and cope with the erratic weather events of early climate change, we are simultaneously being hit with peak oil and economic contraction.

Peak oil is the understanding that our planet contains a finite supply of oil and we are currently burning our way into the second half of that supply. (ref ASPO and the Department of Energy's EIA). We’ve already used up the easy-to-get-to stuff; thus the second half will be much more expensive to produce, will disappear faster, and will come with shortages, competition and conflict.

All of the growth in our economy since the turn of the last century has been built upon cheap, abundant, supposedly inexhaustible oil -- something we no longer have. The astounding recent growth has been compounded by leveraging with easy credit -- another thing we no longer have. Our growth-paradigm economy is crumbling and indeed, that very presumption is flawed, that we could have an eternally growing economy upon a finite planet.

In short, we are facing change on a scale and magnitude which is almost unimaginable to most of the American public.

2) Confront the full panorama of challenges.

Any solutions posted at this point in time must work for the full panorama of crises: global warming + peak oil + economic contraction. Solutions which work for one and not for the trio will not be viable. Thus ideas such as the 1Sky "investment in a clean-energy infrastructure" are unlikely-to-impossible; while it works for global warming, it doesn't work in an environment of economic collapse. (Your Lesson #3 was telling you this.)

3) Get real about the science.

The Hansen report gave us the 350 number; we cannot fold on that. "Negotiations" will not change basic physics. We cannot negotiate with molecules. We're above 392ppm and we need to return to 350. (Your lesson #4)

Get real about the magnitude of energy we’re talking about. Renewables won't replace fossils, not even close. Because we do not already have renewable energy infrastructure geared up and in place, and the declining side of planetary oil supply is already here (ref), and because renewable energy technologies cannot possibly replace the magnitude of energy to which we have become accustomed (ref), our future will inevitably be one of POWERDOWN -- changing to lifestyles which use less energy overall. (why not nuclear? ref , ref and ref)

As part of moving forward with urgency and clarity of purpose, we need to be honest with the American people that decarbonizing and simultaneously coping with peak oil means POWERDOWN.

4) Be honest about the economy.

People are hurting. They are afraid. They sense that worse is coming (and I believe it is. ref )

More expensive renewable technologies won't be welcomed. But clean tech is inevitable (because of global warming) and higher cost is inevitable (because of peak oil).

Be careful about your language regarding the economy. Understand that the underlying presumption of economic-growth-at-all-costs is what got us into a lot of this mess. Substituting a "clean energy economy" and "green jobs" isn't the right tack because it retains that growth presumption. As part of moving forward with urgency and clarity of purpose, we must educate people that the new economic horizons are more likely to look radically different than the old. (How might they look? more )

5) Get real about the "How To" plan.

Decarbonizing American society -- attaining an eventual 80% decrease in global warming pollution -- is going to take far more than planting a few trees and switching to CFL bulbs. It demands a fundamental restructuring of everything we do from our food choices to agricultural methods to industry to military to overseas manufacturing and imports to individual cavalier attitudes and wasteful habits. Fixing global warming means big, big, big change.

Industry knows this. That is why they’re so hesitant to get behind any sort of real action. I think that at some level the American people know it too.

What they don't know is, the fundamental restructuring is happening anyway. The collapse of the credit system (ref ) and the end of the oil age are forcing our hands. Already significant business and government and individual decisions are being made for budgetary reasons.

We must be candid about the magnitude of change -- AND what changes will need to be made. For example, we do not have a viable alternative for transportation. First, the timeline is too short: we aren't going to be able to replace 256 million vehicles with electric cars and trucks in time for the global warming pollution reduction goals. And when approximately half a vehicle's lifetime consumption of oil is in its manufacturing process, peak oil says we aren't going to be able to replace that fleet. Plus economic woes say that most drivers won't be able to afford the change to cleaner technologies. Thus peak oil combined with decarbonizing our society dictate the end of the cheap, easy, and effortless transportation to which we have grown accustomed over the past 70 or so years. Lack of a viable liquid fuel replacement also means the airline industry is dead (ref ). So is globalization.

Changing our transportation structure to this magnitude means massive changes in our social structures. Suddenly everything -- the bulk of our food, clothing, heating fuels, building materials -- will need to come from much more nearby and local sources.

Since we've gradually outsourced most of our hard goods manufacturing overseas, and we import our food stuffs based upon global resources, we are going to have to rebuild local tooling and local skill base. (In this respect, the Global Work Day concept is a phenomenal approach.) "Jobs" in this post-petroleum, decarbonized future will -- I believe -- look much more like small businesses, local craftsmen, and urban agriculture than like the "green jobs" that 1Sky and others are touting. (more [pdf])

Local means customized to the individual area's resources and circumstances. That’s a polar opposite to the "one size fits all" or "big box" approach which has built the massive corporate system. The big powerful corporate way won't work in this new low-transportation future. Thus the age of the corporate employer is probably ending as well.

Thus when we say "decarbonize society" and "reduce global warming pollution at least 80% by 2050" we must be candid that all this restructuring -- in the midst of the early stages of a Depression -- is behind the statement. Yes, it is urgent and we must begin it now. No, business-as-usual isn't possible (peak oil and the end of easy credit have already wiped that away). Yes, it is inevitable. And that inevitability -- together with concrete action steps for building the new decarbonized, post-petroleum society -- must become part of the How To which is broadcast with every 1Sky blast and at every Global Work Party. (my “How To Get to 350ppm”)

No, it doesn't need to be grim. The Transition movement is a grassroots movement (your Lesson #1) which is active and growing in many towns and cities worldwide including an increasing number of U.S. sites. Transition initiatives are groups of people who are already examining the tri-fold crisis of peak oil + climate change + economic contraction and figuring out what to do about it -- together. They're raising citizen awareness of all of this stuff I've mentioned. They're studying what their local community has as far as post-petroleum resource and skills. They're making plans. They're helping each other learn the skills and put in place the tools of powerdown. And they're having a lot of fun.

The Transition movement asserts that the future with less oil could be better than the present, but only if we engage in designing this transition with creativity and imagination. And it asserts that this transition time -- the time period of changing over from the mess we have now to those decarbonized post-petroleum ways -- contains the potential for an economic, cultural, and social renaissance the likes of which we have never seen.

This too -- this exhilaration, this sense of adventure, ingenuity, and exploration -- must also be part of what we deliver as we sell the message of urgency and the need for legislation to the American people and their political representatives.

Big change is coming, like it or not. Peak oil and economic collapse are seeing to that. It's up to us whether we'll postpone proactive response until the only remaining avenue is victimhood, or whether we'll start now to pave the way to a clean, bright, productive future.


Joanne Poyourow

initiator of Transition Los Angeles