ARCS Of Progress – The Arctic World In 2050

Editorial note: This article was first published at Arctic Progress in February 2011. In the next few weeks I will be reposting the best material from there.

The Arctic to become a pole of global economic growth? Image credit – Scenic Reflections.

Behold! Far north along the shores of the Arctic a quiver of upspringing settlements fringes the coast. Boats swarm around canning factories, smoke flutters above smelters, herds of reindeer dot the prairies… And here or there, on every street-corner, glimmer out the lights of theaters where moving-pictures entertain white people through the sunless weeks of the midwinter dancing-time, the singing-time, the laughing-time of Eskimo Land.

– Northward ho!: An account of the far North and its people.

In 2003, Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill wrote the now famous paper Dreaming with BRIC’s, predicting that Brazil, Russia, India and China would overtake the developed G8 nations within a few decades and make astounding returns for faithful investors. The BRIC’s concept entered the conventional wisdom, spawning a host of related acronyms (BASICBRICSA, etc) – and if anything, realizing its promise well ahead of schedule. Last year, China’s real GDP possibly overtook America’s, and Russia’s approached Germany’s.

Yet for all their successes, the BRIC’s may not fulfill their expected roles as the stars of the global economy in the 21st century. The level of education is horrid in Brazil and atrocious in India; without the requisite human capital, these two countries will find it difficult to rapidly “converge” to developed world standards. China is much better off in this respect, but its high growth trajectory may in turn be disturbed by energy shortages and environmental degradation. China produces half the world’s coal, which is patently unsustainable given its limited reserves. But since coal accounts for 75% of China’s primary energy consumption and fuels the factories that keep its workforce employed, there is little it can do to mitigate this dependence. Meanwhile, China’s overpopulation, pollution and climate change predicament is so well known as to not require elaboration. Many other countries flirting around the edges of BRIC status – Indonesia, South Africa, Vietnam, etc. – face serious challenges in the form of low human capital, uncertain energy and food supplies and a rising incidence of AGW-induced droughts, floods and heatwaves.

There is one global region that may hold the key to resolving these intertwined problems – and even to become a major pole of global growth in its own right. For the most part, it is now an empty wilderness, but climate change is opening it up as potential living space. Its exploitation has the potential to halve the length of global freight transport routes while increasing their security, uncover sizable to gigantic new sources of hydrocarbons and minerals, and stabilize global food prices through the expansion of arable land. Its experience of management and conflict resolution may inspire a global model of cooperation – or it may degenerate into an economic, legal, or even military battlefield over shipping routes and sub-sea resources.

This global region is the Arctic Rim, and its adjoining ARCS: Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia. The ARCS of Progress in the 21st century.

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How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Global Warming

I am an idiosyncratic person. I support HBD, but oppose white (or any other) imperialism. My attitudes towards mainstream liberalism and conservatism is to wish a plague on both their houses. I think we’re in for a world of hurt with Limits to Growth but also buy into “cornucopian” ideas like technological singularity and transhumanism. In personal life, I like to have my guns and hit the bong too. Etc.

I recently drove to the beach with a hipster chick who majored in something involving the environment (nothing technical) and recently found a marketing job with a clean energy start-up in SF. She went on and on about how important it is to buy local, observe Earth Hour, the fucking works. Only problem? She drove a four wheel drive. In one of the very few places in the US where you can get by without a car. It reminds me of an old Guardian story about a Swedish feminist police chief (“Captain Skirt”) who ran prostitution rings on the side… But on second thought all this is entirely normal. After all hypocrisy is the grease that smooths society’s wheels.

The greenies at least don’t force people into these ritualistic observances of Earth Hour, as if there’s some deity that could wave a wand and restore CO2 levels back to 1800. The conservatives tend to simply deny reality, deny AGW, as doing otherwise would make them willing accomplices in an impending global catastrophe. Not only is it dishonest but what’s worse many of them savagely smear and attack AGW’ers for the sin of pointing out the stark truth. They would have felt at home within the ranks of the NKVD.

Only very drastic interventions now stand a chance of averting tipping points that will likely send the Earth into an extreme greenhouse state by the end of the century… interventions that can only be implemented at this late stage of the game by some kind of global dictatorship. Desirable or not, justified or not, is irrelevant… it’s not going to happen, the system isn’t going to change. Furthermore, even individual interventions and lifestyle changes are irrelevant, as the Parable of the Beer Yeast demonstrates.

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3000 AD: The Rise Of Polar Civilizations

The river of time flows on, and empires crumble, leaving behind only legend that becomes myth, while new polities arise to take their place. This process of decay and creation is going to receive a boost from “peak energy” and, above all, climate change – which will redraw the maps of power to an extent unprecedented since the end of the last Ice Age. Throughout recorded history, the centers of advanced civilization have seesawed east and west, but remained constrained within a “band of habitability” that did not extend much further north than Oslo, St.-Petersburg, or Harbin. If the pessimistic scenarios of AGW come true, this band will become inverted: the tropics and mid-latitudes will become increasingly drought-stricken, desolate wastelands, perhaps even uninhabitable by 2300, while the Arctic regions, and a thawing Greenland and Antarctica, will become new centers of global civilization.

In this post, with the help of many maps, I will explore what this will mean in more detail than I believe has been done anywhere else on the Web. Needless to say, I am making the assumption that there will be no technological singularity, or other technological breakthrough, that will enable the continuation of modern high-energy civilization. But not will these be any all-out apocalypse. That part of the technological base that does not rely on high levels of energy inputs for its maintenance will survive, that is, railways, electricity generated by hydropower, radios, even elementary computing. So let us venture forth into the brave new world of 3000 AD!

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I’d Sooner See The World Burn Than Compromise With Rogue Scientists

Or at least that’s what seems to be going around in the mind of Condoleezza Rice, if this cable (Cable 1) from September 2008 is anything to go by. After successfully persuading countries like Brazil to let the American scientist Christopher Field run unopposed for an important position in a Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), US diplomats began behind the scenes lobbying to block the appointment of an Iranian scientist as its co-chair, since that would be “potentially at odds with overall US policy towards Iran.” Though Mostafa Jafari is admittedly a “highly-qualified scientist”, he is also “a senior Iranian government employee”, and so “close collaboration and often travel to or extended residencies in each others’ countries” between Field and him simply wouldn’t do. Disgracefully, if true*, Pachauri “agreed to work on this issue.” In the event, an Argentinian candidate was appointed co-chair, while Jafari was relegated to a far more junior position.

That said, it’s not of course the case that the US is uniquely responsible for climate fiasco after fiasco. Obviously, these cables don’t paint the US in a good light, what with its underhanded tactics to force countries into signing up to the Copenhagen Accords (a grossly inadequate treaty because of its soft targets and lack of enforcement mechanisms). But thanks to China’s sabotage** in the closed-door negotiations in Copenhagen – even cajoling developed countries against setting their own targets, while manipulating them into taking the fall in public – this is what we got. And while I understand the position of poor countries like the Maldives or Bolivia that it’s nowhere near enough to prevent devastating AGW, or Addis Ababa’s complaints about the absence of formal US guarantees of financial aid in exchange for their support (Cable 2), nonetheless there is a logic to the US strong-arming poor countries into the Accords since this at least gets “the international community moving in the right direction.” (A bonus in that cable is seeing Ethiopians arguing, just like Russians, for restricting foreign funding of NGO’s on the grounds that it undermines indigenous civil society).

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Simmered to the Edge of the World

When denier ideologues make the transition to accepting the reality of anthropogenic global warming, one of the arguments they start to use tends to go something along the following lines: “Sure, the polar bears might get screwed over, but otherwise things will be just great. Crop yields will increase and northerners will get to have their own sun-drenched beaches”. You wish. New research* indicates that beyond temperature rises of 7C, “zones of uninhabitability” will begin to overspread much of the world (“An adaptability limit to climate change due to heat stress” by Sherwood & Huber 2010). Not a Mediterranean world, more like Mad Max in Waterworld.

Of late climate models have been leaning to the upper range of the IPCC’s projections for global warming, e.g. the median forecast from a recent MIT study gives a rise of 5C by 2100 (with a 10% chance it will exceed 7C). According to the Sherwood paper, “peak heat stress” (quantified by the wet-bulb temperature) never climbs above 31C across today’s climes, which is safely below the body’s normal temperature of 37C. But with a global temperature rise of 7C possible by as early as the late 21st century – even without accounting for predictable tripwires such as accelerated release of Siberian and Arctic methane – some regions of the world will be subjected to peak wet-bulb temperatures of 35C, inducing “hyperthermia in humans and other mammals, as dissipation of metabolic heat becomes impossible“. With a global temperature rise of 11-12C, a belt of uninhabitability will come to encompass the bulk of today’s densely populated areas.

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Ecotechnic Dictatorship is Our Last Hope of Averting Collapse

As a follow-up to my article on the historical necessity of Green Communism, I would like to  1) refute some common myths and misconceptions about limits to growth-induced collapse, 2) clarify the concept of Green Communism, and 3) elucidate why the only realistic way to prevent collapse now is to force through a “sustainable retreat” by an “ecotechnic dictatorship”.

Let’s take as a starting point our current situation. From the late 1970’s or early 1980’s, calculations indicate that humanity exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of the Earth. Fossil fuel resources are being used up at an unsustainable rate, producing an increase in what William Catton called the “phantom carrying capacity“, which now supports many of the Earth’s surplus billions. However, should the energy base becomes too weak to sustain this phantom carrying capacity, there will be a catastrophic fall of the human population as the Earth system snaps back into equilibrium, producing a massive Malthusian dieoff. The recent peaking of world oil production and accelerated Arctic methane release are but the early portents of hard limits to growth on our finite planet.

We are in a predicament, dependent on an industrial Machine whose insatiable appetite for ever higher levels of material throughput will eventually doom us all. A Machine and its brother, Mammon, with whom we have made a Faustian bargain. We have to somehow wriggle out of this physical and spiritual dependency on our industrial Mephistopheles to avert a collapse of industrial civilization by 2050, but continued dithering and denial makes the changes required ever more drastic year by year. Had the world begun the transition to sustainability in the 1970’s, a great deal of personal freedom and private affluence could have been preserved; as of today, it looks ever likelier than only a Leviathan invested with total power over society can haul us back from the brink of the Olduvai Gorge.

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The Final Gambit: Geoengineering

It is very likely that efforts to prevent CO2 levels from soaring to 450ppm – the level we need to stop at to have any hope of limiting temperature rise to 2C or less – will fail. This will lead to a series of climatic “tipping points”, as Gaia’s stabilizing systems fail to check runaway warming and the Earth veers into a new hothouse steady state in which the Arctic remains unfrozen year round and “zones of uninhabitability” – places where it becomes physiologically impossible for humans to survive during summer days – spread out from the equator. The basic argument is as follows:

  • The current atmosphere CO2 concentration (384ppm) correlates to the Pliocene 3mn years ago, when temperatures were 3C higher and the sea level was 25m higher. [No “hockey stick”, no models even, involved; just paleoclimate].
  • This degree of warming is now inevitable; if all emissions were to stop today, as a rule of thumb, it would take around 30 years for half of that projected warming to occur as the Earth system moves towards the new equilibrium. [Consequences of heat diffusion / laws of thermodynamics].
  • Emissions aren’t stopping, but accelerating, and this will continue with the industrialization of China and India. [Economic growth as linchpin of the System].
  • Global dimming, which had hitherto partially shielded us from the rising temperatures, will start playing a much lesser role. The effects of CO2 are cumulative, soot and SO2 particulates are washed out of the atmosphere within months.
  • Beyond 2C of warming, the Earth will reach tipping points in which GW becomes self-sustaining. Such tipping points include the melting of the Arctic (reduces albedo), release of Siberian methane from melting permafrost, forests around the world turning from carbon sinks to carbon sources due to accelerated decomposition, the possible death of the Amazon rainforest, etc.
  • Though geoengineering may work, as you point out, there are also many arguments against it. It will probably be tried in the end, but only as a last-ditch throw of the dice that cannot be guaranteed to succeed.
  • Furthermore, innate human psychological features such as conservatism, denial, hedonism, and susceptibility to creeping normalcy and “landscape amnesia”, as well as the anarchic nature of the international system, means that the chances of any effective global action being taken in time is near zero.

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The Deeper Meaning of Climategate

As someone who has stuck his neck out for the imminent reality of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in both his real and online life, it would be fitting for me to comment on the Climatic Research Unit e-mail hacking incident (and as per usual, what was originally meant as a “comment” has blossomed into a long post). Anyhow, at least to me, the Climategate sage illustrates three things.

  1. Part of the “hockey stick” hypothesis – that pre-20th century global temperatures were essentially horizontal – is seriously challenged, perhaps sunk. However, contrary to denier rhetoric, the emails do not discredit AGW theory itself, nor do they lessen the magnitude of our current predicament, nor do they contain any hint of an overarching global conspiracy to enslave us under a green socialist NWO.
  2. Some academics form mafia-like cliques to promote themselves. Having many relatives and acquaintances who work in academia and have, at times, suffered from these cliques, these “revelations” are nothing new to me. Science stopped being purely about science ever since it evolved beyond the preserve of moneyed men with time to kill.
  3. It sheds far less light on the theory of AGW per se, than on some unsavory researchers and the AGW deniers (or “climate skeptics”) themselves. In particular, the ferocity with which the latter have latched on to the stolen emails as “proof” that AGW is a giant scam only testifies to their own paranoid desperation, but one that is disturbingly successful at swaying the public opinion. To the casual observer, this is further evidence for the intractability of our Limits to Growth dilemma; even “social capital”, i.e. the public’s tolerance for necessary but painful decisions, is growing short.

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Documentary Review: BBC Global Dimming

Not only is global warming a real and present threat that may yet in conjunction with impending energy shortages doom industrial civilization, it may have even been dangerously underestimated. “What have you been smoking!?,” you might say to me. Get off the doom train and enjoy the Sun. Unfortunately, we might not have much of it during the next decades – at least metaphorically speaking. To see why, I recommend you watch this video on global dimming or read its transcript.

So here’s the plot-line. After 9/11, the US air fleet was grounded for three days in the name of national security. Though presumably a major inconvenience for travelers, it was a boon for climatologist David Travis who was studying the effects of contrails, or vapor trails, left behind by high-flying aircraft on the world’s climate.

He predicted that removing contrails would have a significant impact on global temperatures, but was shocked to discover that the daily temperature range – the difference between the hottest and coldest temperature measures in a day – shifted up by an unprecedented 1.1C during those three days!

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Top 10 AGW Denial Myths

I’ve long viewed the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) denial movement with a certain sense of bemusement. The causal links are rock-solid – could it really be a coincidence that atmospheric CO2 levels started rising at the very same moment as industrial civilization got into swing, within decades reaching magnitudes big enough to decisively interrupt the glacial-interglacial cycle that previously held steady for hundreds of thousands of years? Is it really surprising that given the heat-absorbing properties of CO2 (known to science since the 18th century), global temperatures entered into a period of steep ascent since the 1970s, rising by around 0.9C from the 1900-1910 period to the last decade? Occam’s Razor anyone? And considering that only 6C or so separate us from the Ice Ages, when ice sheets descended into central Europe, southern England was a polar wasteland scoured by icy, dust-laden winds and dessication affected even the tropics, should not even the possibility of seeing the world warm by up to 6.4C during this century – corresponding to the high end of the IPCC’s forecasts in 2007 – invoke a certain level of concern?

I plan to write more on climate change, since it is going to be one of the key trends of this century (along with resource depletion and growth in computing power). But for now – and to forestall any future objections – I would like to take a moment to expose the top myths and misconceptions of AGW deniers.


It’s all a conspiracy – scientists want research funding and environmentalists want to impose socialism on us.

Frankly the idea that tens of thousands are colluding in a massive conspiracy is risible. If anything it is the denier camp which has economic incentives to promote their views, given the funding they receive from the fossil-fuel industry. The Bush administration scientists pursued a campaign of disinformation and outright censorship regarding AGW. So who are the real conspirators?

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