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Hoisted from Comments: What Climate Change Reformers Get Wrong

Summary:
Yves here. As many of you know, I am considerably frustrated with Green New Deal advocates, because I see them as selling hopium. They act as if we can preserve modern lifestyles as long as we throw money, some elbow grease, and a lot of new development (using current dirty infrastructure to build it) at it. We’re already nearing the point where very bad outcomes, like widespread famines and mass migrations due to flooding, are baked in. And even that take charitably assumes that a rump of what we consider to be civilization survives. One impediment in discussing this topic is that too many are focusing on the wrong issues. The fact that Andreas Malm is advocating breaking things as if that solved anything is a sign either of desperation or intellectual bankruptcy (not necessarily mutually

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Yves here. As many of you know, I am considerably frustrated with Green New Deal advocates, because I see them as selling hopium. They act as if we can preserve modern lifestyles as long as we throw money, some elbow grease, and a lot of new development (using current dirty infrastructure to build it) at it. We’re already nearing the point where very bad outcomes, like widespread famines and mass migrations due to flooding, are baked in. And even that take charitably assumes that a rump of what we consider to be civilization survives.

One impediment in discussing this topic is that too many are focusing on the wrong issues. The fact that Andreas Malm is advocating breaking things as if that solved anything is a sign either of desperation or intellectual bankruptcy (not necessarily mutually exclusive).

These two reader comments from a recent post by Thomas Neuburger on Malm’s ideas might help put more focus on the core issues and leverage points.

Grumpy Engineer

Emphasizing “societal change” is almost entirely the wrong approach with climate change. It provides almost zero value. We aren’t dealing with anti-racism efforts here, or talking about gay marriage. Simply changing people’s minds and a few laws isn’t enough. What we ultimately need is equipment change, and on a massive scale.

What do I mean by this? Well, individuals (and businesses) need to be able to get where they’re going without using a vehicle that burns gasoline or diesel fuel. This means disposing of literally millions of cars and trucks and coming up with substitutes (millions of electric vehicles or other alternatives) that still provide adequate transportation.

Individuals (and businesses) need to be able to heat their homes (and facilities) without burning natural gas or fuel oil. This means replacing millions of gas- or oil-burning furnaces with millions of heat pumps (or other alternatives that work better in extreme cold).

Electric utilities are still legally obligated to provide electricity of the correct voltage and frequency 24 hours a day, regardless of electrical demand. They currently use equipment that burns vast amounts of coal and natural gas to make this happen. All of this equipment must be replaced with alternate non-CO2 producing equipment that is equally capable of providing enough power to match demand, regardless of the time of day or state of weather.

Far more than 3.5% of the population is greatly worried about climate change. It could easily be 25% or even 50%. And yet little has changed. Why hasn’t it? Because societal concern isn’t enough. The equipment is what burns the fossil fuels. The equipment is where the CO2 is released into the sky. The equipment must change, and it must change in a way that still lets people live their lives.

The Extinction Rebellion doesn’t get this. They “demand that governments act now“, but don’t talk about what equipment needs to change. They also demand that politicians (who are rightly untrusted) hand responsibility over to “citizens’ councils”, but that’s just asking somebody else to “act now“. What actions would they actually take? What equipment changes would actually happen? It’s completely unspecified. XR is effectively screaming “I’m scared! Do something!“, and that isn’t enough.

Grumpy Engineer’s concerns bring up a second problem: existing infrastructure, and in particular, dispersed single family homes which are hugely inefficient on many levels. As an aside, one of the reasons that apartment living has such a bad name in the US that most were built for poor or young people; they were envisioned as way stations to middle/upper middle class dwelling. As a result, many cringe at the suggestion of living in them because they once were in a unit with thin walls. It’s entirely possible to live nicely in an apartment. I’ve done so repeatedly in New York, Sydney, and London. But it’s hard to overcome prejudice.

Rolf below advocates for what I have long believed is key for us to have any hope of preventing a total train wreck. I’ve been calling it “radical conservation” but his formulation is much more user-friendly.

Rolf

All of the current patterns of modern life in the US — where people live, what they do for work, the distance to their jobs, markets, schools, the types and quantities of food produced, the transport thereof, the density of urban and suburban spaces, on and on and on and on — quite literally, every aspect of modern life, is built around consumption of fossil fuel. Yes, I know that other energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, nuclear, tidal, etc.) are important, and becoming more so. But my point is that what got us here in the first place — everything we recognize as remotely modern, is relatively cheap oil, gas, coal. And we have burned a huge amount of it in getting where we are today.

To set this in perspective, if you can tolerate some technical diversion: Earth’s long term (geologic) thermostat, the buffer of atmospheric CO2, is fixed by the rate of weathering of silicate rocks on land. That process consumes CO2 (as dissolved carbonic acid), produces aqueous bicarbonate, which is transported by rivers to the ocean. Half of that bicarbonate is used to form carbonate sediment (the rest is released back to the atmosphere). That sediment, deposited on the deep seafloor, is eventually subducted, heated, and decarbonated, and released back to the atmosphere via volcanic activity, thus fully completing the (Urey) cycle. The pace of the weathering process is roughly ~0.3 Gt-C/y. The pre-anthropogenic net balance of all CO2 uptake and release fluxes gives a steady state atmospheric CO2 mass of about 600 Gt-C. This flux wasn’t constant over time, but also varied with the pace of seafloor spreading (icehouse-hothouse transitions), but those changes are extremely slow and long-legged, requiring tens of millions of years. Glacial-interglacial cycles are higher frequency (order of ~100K years), and driven by well-documented changes in our planet’s orbital parameters: so-called Milanković cycles.

Current ‘excess’ (anthropogenic) fluxes from fossil fuel burning alone are on the order of 6.4 Gt-C/y and increasing — i.e., more than an order of magnitude greater than continental weathering. This has created an excessatmospheric CO2 mass of about 160 Gt-C, for a total of about 760 Gt-C (the oceans have also taken up significant C). Comparison of the background, “natural” rate of geochemical kinetics (0.3 Gt-C/y), shows that we have perturbed this system more or less instantaneously by much more than an order of magnitude — a perturbation for which there are very few analogs in Earth’s multi-billion year geologic record. We are thus in uncharted territory. This is part of the problem — the rapidity of such changes, and the complex nature of feedbacks and knockon effects, make this a difficult system to model in a predictive sense.

My point is that in order to put a dent in our current perturbation of this system will involve some radical changes. We need to accept this. Can we accomplish these changes with alternative (“green”) energy sources? This question is not as simple as it seems. Any energy conversion process involves “waste” (entropic losses which limit efficiency), i.e. some “externality” — there is no way around this. In addition, transition to other energy sources will also involve significant constraints and other externalities (availability of rare earths, difficulty in recycling the materials involved, and their relatively short service life, etc.).

There is no magic bullet, in my view. Complete conversion to renewables is unavoidable and must take place ASAP, but even that conversion will (as pointed out elsewhere) involve significant energy expenditure, likely from dirty sources, and will take decades, considering the engineering, logistical, and political hurdles. So, short term, how can we bring about changes without killing the very ecosystem that supports us?

Scale down and slow down. This is primarily a kinetic problem, a problem of rates multiplied by the population involved. An extemporaneous list: Localize, reduce the need for transportation of consumables (at the moment, literally everything). Recognize that there is a cost for everything, so reduce the rate involved and the scale over which that rate is applied. A huge fraction of energy consumption is transportation. Where possible, walk, cycle. COVID demonstrated that at least some jobs could be done remotely, requiring only periodic face-to-face interaction. Redesign urban spaces to create smaller, local markets. Close big box stores and mega-supermarkets, all of which depend on cheap transportation of goods and customers. Return to local farms, or even backyard production. This requires political changes to local zoning, homeowner associations, etc. Difficult, but not impossible. Create goods that last longer, that can be repaired or otherwise renewed. Stop burning waste. In fact, stop producing so much crap in the first place, stop creating livelihoods that depend on production of non-durable stuff of little real social or environmental value. Create structures of locally derived materials (rammed earth, e.g., or other ‘green’ designs) — again these require political changes. Buy renewable fabrics, avoid hydrocarbon-based synthetics. Be satisfied with delivery of goods next week versus next day (sorry Bezos, instant delivery is an incredible waste for most goods, completely unnecessary).

There is a long list of such changes that one can make. Yes, this is a drop in the bucket on a per cap basis. But millions of people doing so does create an immediate change. But public education is key. We must start changing people’s behavior, educate them, and address their ignorance, self-destructive behavior, and wishful thinking. This is something we all can do on a person-by-person basis. People need to understand the severity and necessity of change: the cost of continuing business as usual will be catastrophic. Jimmy Carter urged lower energy consumption decades ago, and was ridiculed for it. And now, here we are. Given the long tails of the carbon cycle, some changes are baked in, and we should also prepare for the worst. We are in trouble, but the biggest problem is people recognizing just how bad things are. There is no planet B.

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