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Our Final Exam in Madrid
Reflections from Albert Bates on Joan of Arc, St. Greta and the COP25 catastrophe 
By Albert Bates Posted in Climate Change, Esperanza Project on December 19, 2019
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“Why are we hauling giant container shiploads of Christmas decorations from Vietnam to England? Don’t the English know how to make decorations?”

At this writing, negotiators struggle to get the most out of a relatively ambition-free meeting of the parties to the UN’s Paris Agreement. They’ll burn the candles late into the night as they attempt to craft something more press-release-worthy than what they have at the moment.

Al Gore describes atmospheric rivers and how they fuel California wildfires. (Albert Bates photo)

Draft Agreement 1/CP.25, for instance, calls for all Parties to revise and enhance their Nationally Determined Commitments — their mitigation and adaptation intentions — by October 2020. Regrettably, the draft is not framed as a mandate, merely as advice. It is possible to hope it will be revised to include at least a mandate for the Secretariat to calculate the size of the gap between all nations’ pledges in aggregate and the threshold for human survival, in time for pledge revision at the Paris-mandated 5-year “stocktake” at COP26 next year in Glasgow. In any event, public interest groups like Carbon Tracker and Climate Action Network will dependably be totaling the deficit.

It is good to see ocean ecosystems finally mentioned in some draft provisions. In his public slide show, Al Gore mentioned carbon farming and regenerative agriculture for possibly the first time. The scientific wing of the the UN, the IPCC, produced a trio of reports in the past 18 months to underscore why these areas require attention.

Missing from the discussions are any revisions to exemption for aviation and maritime emissions that represent the largest loophole in the Paris treaty. At a side event on shipping hosted at the airport Marriott, I learned that fuel efficiency for cargo ships had seen a 29% improvement between 2008 and 2015. Of course, one needs to keep in mind Jevons Paradox. Reduced costs bring greater use, and long-haul ocean shipping is expected to continue its exponential growth well into this century. It is unlikely it will be supplanted to any noticeable degree by sail cargo or by offshore hydrogen refueling stations. Asked about whether he thought e-ships would take over seaways the way e-vehicles are taking over highways, the spokesman for shipping giant BIMCO said that hauling Christmas decorations from Vietnam to England has different energy requirements than hauling marble from Brazil to France. Perhaps he is just not familiar with Archimedes’ Principle. The better question might be why are we hauling giant container shiploads of Christmas decorations from Vietnam to England. Don’t the English know how to make decorations?

Loss and Damage

Indemnity for humanitarian loss and damage to property continues to founder on the shoals of deeply divided views about historic responsibilities and a fair deal towards the victims. Personally I see the issue as the rage stage of grieving — blame the bastards who caused it, like the “wealthy,” “developed” countries who through slave trade, sea power, colonialism, and outright theft managed to become “wealthy” (read morally impoverished) and overdeveloped (with abysmal happiness quotients). The Two-Thirds world still seems to envy the One-Third’s addiction to consumerism, jingoism, and racist exceptionalism and want to make up for lost time if they can just get a few more loans or javelin missiles.

The First World players in this blame game have not done themselves any favors by stonewalling, claiming there is no such thing as historic guilt — it is all contextual to the period. I seem to recall Bill Cosby adopted a similar philosophy about sexual mores in the Sixties. How did that go?

Drinking water cartons distributed at the COP25 business summit at the Marriott. A step forward — the container is biodegradable, coated with wax instead of plastic — but the screw-on lid was still plastic enough to choke a seagull or fill the belly of a manta ray. (Albert Bates photo)

Al Gore told a packed auditorium that only since the 1970s have fossil emissions tipped the scales into climate weirding. Before that, the main culprit auguring climate change was land use change. Recall Sumaria, Egypt, China, and other great powers laid low by bad stewardship such as cutting down their forests or salting their soils. We all bear historical, genetic responsibility for what has happened.

Instead of denying culpability, heel draggers like the US, Canada, and Australia might have put the better question: which nations are recklessly causing the climate emergency now? Which have uncontrolled population growth (Africa)? Which insist on more coal-burning power stations (India)? Which are opening trillion-cubic meter pipelines to ship oil and gas for the next 30 years (Russia and China)? Which nations are fishing the oceans to extinction? Cutting down rainforests? Over-farming fragile landscapes?

But honestly, this blame game is just a huge waste of time and effort.

Greta Thunberg, after image by Adam Ferris

Sure we all want to lend a hand to those in dire need, but having pulled a friend from the ledge what can we do if they keep running to jump off it again?

Can we resettle flood victims in flood plains or drought victims in soon-to-be deserts? Why do we keep spending aid money to dispense cheap plastic stuff like water bottles and tarp shelters that will eventually kill marine mammals?

Greenland and Antarctica right now have added the equivalent of 1 meter of water over the Iberian peninsula — the land area of Spain and Portugal combined. That will eventually erase low lying nations like Kiribati, the Marshalls, and Bangladesh. To ship aid like dike-building equipment to such disaster zones is a fool’s errand. Those folks need to move to higher ground.

This is an emergency and everyone has to get on the same page. We have to consider some rational limit to humanitarian aid; some element of triage. We cannot insure the unsustainable from unsustainability. Loss and Damage provisions need tough love.

Which brings me back to the little saint.

Captains Courageous

At a finance side event I listened to Rob Topol, the 5G project manager at INTEL, quote Confucius: If you want to prosper in one year, plant rice. If you want to prosper for ten years, plant trees. If you want to do well over 100 years, teach a child. Maybe, like Sweden, you should teach them all fluency in a second language by the time they are 15 and educate them on climate science.

(Albert Bates photo)

As I walked into the Blue Zone one day, I saw a huge convergence of journalists and delegates jogging towards a single location just past the place they give you free apples and chocolate bars and across from the Coffee Bike. There was a large crowd all reaching their cellphones up over the circle to try to get a picture of something at the center of the scrum. A little girl there, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment she must be St. Greta.

(Albert Bates photo)

More rapid than eagles her coursers they came. Surrounded by her teenage cadre of School Strikers, and around them her UNFCCC escorts and a burly security detail, the human wedge tried to worm its way to an exit. And still the crowd pushed in, reaching for relics — a hair from her head, a thread from her hem, a look from her eyes into their iPhone. Eyes downward, head lowered, hood drawn over her brow, she was borne forward like the Beatles in A Hard Days Night. This is now her world — Gretamania.

Drawing on the interviews David Wallace-Wells did for New York Magazine when Ms. Thunberg was in New York for the Climate Action Summit last August, David Roberts at Vox wrote a piece called, “Why the right’s usual smears don’t work on Greta Thunberg — she keeps the focus on science, and they hate it.”

Roberts says of Wallace-Wells, “He taps into the heady sense of a movement exploding but also offers a clear glimpse of the intently focused, achingly vulnerable teenager who finds herself at its white-hot center.” Roberts goes on:

Right-wing media’s first instinct is to smear the messenger, to find some behavior on which to hang a charge of hypocrisy or some venal motive that allegedly undercuts moral authority. They have done it to everyone who has stuck their head up on climate change (beginning, famously, with Al Gore) for many decades now, snooping through stolen emails, filing lawsuits, and ruining careers.

They have also been doing it to David Wallace-Wells.

But this is where Thunberg’s autism has proven, as she has put it, a kind of superpower. She has Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that makes her indifferent, often blind, to social cues and incentives as well as inclined to focus intently on a single subject, a tendency Thunberg says is exacerbated by obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Joan of Arc heard voices, had supernatural premonitions, and, given command of the French armies at age 16, inspired the citizens of Orléans to raise urban militias and rally behind the troops, breaking a 2-year seige in 9 days, expelling the English, and crowning King Charles VII. Joan’s story does not end happily, however. She was captured and burned at the stake by the English at age 19. If we love our superhuman heroines, we also like to slay them.

As Wallace-Wells notes, Thunberg fell into a depression when she was younger, after she learned about climate change, and spent a few friendless years eating and speaking little, barely motivated to leave the house. In her own words, her climate activism gave her a sense of focus and meaning that helped lift her out of depression.


Witness Thunberg’s utterly indifferent reaction to the plaudits lavished on her by congressional Democrats. “Please save your praise,” she said. “We don’t want it. Don’t invite us here to tell us how inspiring we are without doing anything about it. It doesn’t lead to anything.”

She’s not intimidated or dazzled by social hierarchy. She just drags the focus, again and again, back to her fixation, what the grown-ups don’t want to talk about: the need for immediate action and their long-standing failure to take any.

When Time picked her for its annual cover, President Cobblepot tweeted. “So ridiculous. Greta must work on her anger management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!”

Christer Söderberg describes biochar benefits in the Green Zone (Albert Bates photo)

“A teenager working on her anger management problem,” read a new version of her Twitter biography. “Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.”

“Trump hasn’t been roasted that thoroughly since the last time he locked himself in his tanning bed.” — JIMMY KIMMEL

After she delivered her “house on fire” speech at the United Nations in September, President Cobblepot tweeted a clip of her speech with the seemingly sarcastic message: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”

Thunberg changed her Twitter biography to, “a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”

“That’s how you know that these are strange times. In one room, Trump is going after a 16-year-old on Twitter; in the other room, Melania is talking about the perils of cyberbullying.” — JIMMY FALLON

When Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro called her a “pirallha,” (“brat”), Thunberg changed her Twitter description to Pirallha.

“She’s 16, so she’s used to handling temper tantrums from immature boys.” — TREVOR NOAH

Roberts continues:

But, in part through their indifference to social cues, people with autism have a unique capacity to face the facts clearly. And the facts about climate change are fucking terrifying.

This, I think, helps explain why Thunberg has inspired so many people, especially so many young people: There’s a kind of courage in ignoring the pervasive social pressure to calm down about climate change. She takes the facts seriously, even when very few adults are modeling how to do so, even when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient for those around her. She’s vegan, she won’t fly, and she’s devoting her young life to prodding adults into action; the default right-wing accusations of hypocrisy and duplicity simply don’t stick.

The right has established a social environment in which speaking up on climate change leads to bullying and shaming, but those tactics just don’t seem to work on Thunberg. And without them, the right has nothing to fall back on (not one of the hundreds of attacks launched at her has the courage to directly dispute the IPCC report she submitted).

In ignoring social cues, Thunberg has become one: A signal to other young people around the world that, yes, this really is an emergency, and yes, they really can and should speak up.

At COP25 she looked and sounded more grown than one year earlier. Besides picking up a couple inches in height, she had gained experience in that year, including two hair-raising high-speed catamaran crossings of the Atlantic and speeches to many national legislative bodies and multilateral conferences, and it showed. She started her talk saying what she thought she had done wrong with her earlier style, drawing upon emotional triggers like “Our house is on fire,” “I want you to panic,” or “How dare you!” that then became the only 5-second soundbites most people heard or saw rebroadcast, over and over. This time she put the science out front, in clear terms, and it was impeccable.

Since the Paris Agreement, global banks have invested 1.9 trillion U.S. dollars in fossil fuels. One hundred companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. The G20 countries account for almost 80% of total emissions. The richest 10% of the world’s population produce half of our CO2 emissions, while the poorest 50% account for just one-tenth. We indeed have some work to do, but some more than others.

Still, she drew upon at least one emotional point towards the end of her remarks, when she compared inaction on climate change to watching a child wander into a street.

If there is a child standing in the middle of the road and cars are coming at full speed, you don’t look away because it’s too uncomfortable. You immediately run out and rescue that child. And without that sense of urgency, how can we, the people, understand that we are facing a real crisis?

The Global Ecovillage Network signs an M.O.U. with Burkina Faso for trainings. (Albert Bates photo)

She also had a new point to raise, which was to say it is not necessary to wait for governments to act. We, as individuals, all have it within our power to act, without waiting to be told we have to. In this respect, her personal lifestyle changes and willingness to sacrifice her education and any career orientation are exemplary. She is not manipulated. She defies her parents wishes. She writes her own speeches. She speaks truth to power.

She has also shamed the major players into taking the emergency seriously. She turned down a large cash award from from the Nordic Council because she said Nordic countries had a shameful record on divestment and continued to explore for oil. Other investment banks listened. I attended a keynote by Emma Navarro, Vice President of the European Investment Bank in which she ticked off some impressive new goals for her institution:

  • One trillion in green investment over next 10 years
  • No fossil investment (including fracking) from 2021 onward
  • 50% of the investment portfolio will be climate directed by 2025
  • From this moment, no loans of any kind shall violate or impair the Paris Agreement.

Despite the hearty applause, all this new climate finance has yet to pull any parts per million of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is Greta Thunberg’s only test of your honesty and intention.

Until we actually do that, it is just more talk.

Albert Bates is an author, public speaker and self-described “Emergency Planetary Technician.” He is founder of the Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology and a longtime climate science, permaculture and ecovillage educator. Follow him on Blogger and Facebook or Twitter. His Patreon donations help him fund his advocacy work as an urgently important voice in the global climate change discourse; you can also support his work through PayPal at [email protected]. His most recent book, Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth (Chelsea Green Publishing, Feb. 2019) is a game-changer. Donors to his upcoming book, PowerUp!, get an autographed copy off the first press run.

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