Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2014/ Climate Change Inertia

Climate Change Inertia

I know this is not a new revelation, but I feel compelled to express my despair; I do not believe we will solve climate change. As far as I can tell, doing so would require sacrifice, which is a dealbreaker off the bat. Fossil fuels are one of the best energy sources we know about: they are compact, transportable, energy-dense. As the Do the Math blog repeatedly emphasizes, even magic bullet solutions like nuclear fusion fall short because electricity depends upon transmission grids, and fossil fuels (being liquid) are going to be difficult to replace in planes, cars, and other modes of transportation that are not easily electrified.

Very few of our institutions reward sacrifice. Capitalism is all about making as much money as possible; more expensive solutions are punished by the market. Democracies fail in the sense that people prioritize short-term gains over long-term ones; expecting people to give up some of their comforts when they already feel deprived is a losing strategy. Geopolitics is all about countries fighting for short-term dominance. Some religious institutions reward sacrifice, but religious institutions are not that influential in determining our day to day actions.

If we cannot be persuaded to act in our own long-term best interests via short-term sacrifices, then what are our options? Disaster is one of them, as argued in Thomas Homer-Dixon's book The Upside of Down. If we have a big splashy disaster that is a direct outcome of climate change, then maybe we can change our patterns. Unfortunately, the disaster has to have Goldilocks properties; if it is too small we ignore it, and if it is too large then it cripples society and we are staring the Calamity in the face. Furthermore, this strategy appears not to be working; we have experienced massive droughts in Russia, massive multi-year droughts in Australia, devastating hurricanes like Sandy and Katrina, and we have done nothing. Part of the reason is that the link between any of these disasters and climate change can be plausibly denied, and finding direct links is really hard.

Another option is a magic bullet solution. Maybe we get nuclear fusion. Maybe we have some renewable energy miracle. I was quite excited to listen to a 2010 Long Now podcast titled Clean Power this Decade, which suggested research at Livermore Labs was getting close to fusion "ignition": the point at which you generated as much power from a controlled nuclear fusion reaction as you input. But as far as I can tell, plans for this program have been mysteriously shelved.

Maybe we already have our magic bullet solution: fracking has temporarily made fossil fuel cheap again, so instead of fretting about Peak Oil we can ignore research and development into sustainable fuel sources. Fracking helps lower energy costs, but fails to address climate change at all, and creates a disincentive to conduct the (expensive!) research and development to find a sustainable magic bullet solution. It is not clear who will fund that development.

Some people think that gradual efficiency improvements will mean we no longer require fossil fuels. I do not believe this story. Mark Jaccard once gave a talk that illustrated how humans react to increased energy efficiencies: instead of reducing our energy usage, energy usage goes up.

There is a conspiracy theory that insurance companies fearmong global warming to drive up their profits. Insurance companies are interesting because they are an institution that rewards sacrifice, or at least rewards conservatism. I tend to dislike insurance companies because they stymie innovation; time and time again I have run into situations where people could use community resources in interesting ways (for example, making use of public spaces that are empty during the evening) but cannot proceed because of insurance or liability concerns. However, insurance companies are good at pricing risk; if they determine that climate change is causing a lot of catastrophes (or if they determine more catastrophes are happening overall regardless of the cause) then those busybee actuaries will make sure insurance rates will go up. What I do not understand is how that relates to reduced carbon emissions; what incentive do insurance companies have to reward payees which emit less carbon? Once again we run into externalities: addressing global warming only helps my insurer if lots of other people are also addressing global warming, and a potential insurance-buyer who emits more carbon is not a higher risk than one who emits less.

Maybe there is no single magic bullet, but instead capitalism will lead to the development of many different solutions that collectively bring down our emissions. Maybe that is our only realistic hope, but I am doubtful that this works as a strategy, because those same markets are also working hard to develop new human desires that increase our energy consumption, and it is not at all clear that carbon-reducing technologies outpacing energy-intensive demand.

One great reason for my pessimism is time. We were talking about climate change in the 1970s, and we did not do anything. Ten years ago we insisted that keeping temperature increases to below two degrees celsius was critical to avoid catastrophic climate change. We blew past that target, and now we are talking about limiting temperature increases to four or five degrees.

The narrative is clear; we keep lowering our expectations, and there is no counternarrative that illustrates we are making meaningful progress to address the problem. We are telling ourselves other stories, few of which are helpful:

I do not see many stories about how we are addressing climate change now, or any stories about how we get to where we are to a world in which we can deal with climate change that does not involve magic shifts in human consciousness. Unless climate change really is much ado about nothing, that indicates to me that we are hurtling straight towards catastrophe.

So what is the fix? What is the path that gets us from where we are now to a future in which global warming does not unleash havoc, and what evidence is there that we are on this path?