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04 Jan 2020, 6:06 pm

So rather than a back and forth about the scientific aspect of climate change, I thought it would be interesting to have a discussion regarding the political aspect of it. So what do you think needs to to be done politically to solve the climate change issue?


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04 Jan 2020, 6:36 pm

I don't know if it's what 'has to be done' but it might be what happens somewhat as a matter of course.

I was watching Mark Blyth's 'How We Got Here and Why' lecture again and caught what he was saying about the next global economic processor and what it might look like. He's thinking that the resurgence of populism, thanks to wage deflation, is going to in some ways pull us back toward nationalist protectionism, maybe not a full 180 to circle back to the late 1970's but enough for a lot of the international accords to be even more worthless.

Mark's prediction was that it just takes three superpowers or local markets to see enough problems in their own country to want to use alternative power sources or go with some form of a green new deal and from there it would get pushed off to the rest of the world. He mentioned that China in 2016 installed more 4th generation solar just in that year than the total of what the USA had up to that point (I'll add China's also been uniquely aggressive on reforestation - mainly to buffer the Gobi desert), that Europe is already on this track, and that it just takes something like no more drinkable water in Miami for America to have enough of an emergency reaction to go gang-busters on solar.

With that he sized up the international treaties in places like Paris and suggested that they're places where so many parties sign off and diffusion of individual responsibility (country per country) and hence global governance just gives each country even more room to weasel out of taking internal action on climate change, thus said emergencies they find themselves in - when the evidence is undeniable - is going to be every bit as prolific as the denial and complaisance up until that point.

The biggest concern there is that it doesn't help us a whole lot if there's a runaway cascade of exploding permafrost in northern Siberia and Canada where more methane gets shoved off into the atmosphere than we'd have ever come close to producing let alone being able to mitigate with any realistic possibility. That might not be an end of humanity but that would clearly mean massive population shifts, global food shortages, and probably a heck of a lot of armed conflict.

If there were any political solutions it might just be do what it takes to stay out of the way of people who are trying to either come up with solutions to the problem. As far as a green new deal now though - it's probably too soon and the behavior of global weather still isn't convincing to enough people to cause a proper emotional reaction and without that reaction it's incredibly unlikely that any spending plan to fix the problem ahead of time will ever get through anyone's congress or parliament.

"The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it, you'll be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privelege of owning yourself" - Rudyard Kipling

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04 Jan 2020, 6:59 pm

Well, what do you mean by "politically"? How do we convince people, or how do we stop it once we have convinced people?

For the former, I think there needs to be more carrot and less stick. If I had a meeting with Donald Trump, I'd talk to him about the business opportunities that the green transition represents and how the USA could take advantage of them, as well as secondary issues like air pollution. Less talk about doom, more talk of a bright future. With Bolsanaro, he made that comment about how others shouldn't lecture Brazil and how he'd like Brazil to teach others about forest management. I'm not sure how sincere he was but I'd at least try massaging his ego a bit and ask him what he can teach me about it.

For the latter, well, that's what I'm much more interested in.

The good news is that there are lots of options open to us, giving us flexibility. The bad news is that this leads to decision paralysis.

So rather than specific technologies, I'm going to focus on problems that need to be solved. I might talk a little about tech, or other policies, where there are issues with some solutions.

1) We must decarbonise our electricity. This can be done through nuclear power, renewables, or carbon capture technology being added to gas plants. The best solution in the UK is probably a mix of the three but there are options, and the best solution will change with geography.

2) We must decarbonise our heating systems. This will probably be done through use of decarbonised energy, but clean hydrogen, biogas, and utilisation of waste heat might have roles to play.

3) We must decarbonise our transport. Road transport can be decarbonised by using batteries or hydrogen fuel cells; current thinking is that batteries will be better for small vehicles but fuel cells for large. Better public transport could help reduce the number of cars on the road, and being produced. We must also provide infrastructure for charging cars. Air transport can be electrified for short distances but probably not long unless we see a technology jump. Likewise for mass sea travel.

4) We must decarbonise our heavy industry. This is very hard as heavy industry often needs a lot of heat, which can't be produced by most electrical heaters. We could try using hydrogen, ammonia, biofuels, and maybe in some cases waste heat from nuclear plants. We could utilise clustering and improve energy efficiency. There might be some newfangled electrical heaters that could do the job. We could also use less stuff but this has obvious downsides - we need things like steel and concrete to build high-rise buildings for example.

5) We must decarbonise our agriculture and land use. To an extent this can be achieved through dietary changes as well as changes in farming methods, but I don't think we're going to see a mass conversion to veganism. The big thing is tree planting, which seems to be the least controversial policy suggestion possible in the UK right now - every single party wants to plant an extremely ambitious or infeasible number of trees. We also need to better manage some natural environments such as peatland which are important carbon sinks.

6) Greenhouse gas removal - aside from tree planting, gas-CCUS and perhaps BECCS, this seems like a long shot to me. Regardless, we need enough carbon sinks to counteract our remaining carbon emissions from things like flights.

7) Other tech-neutral policies: some sort of Pigouvian tax for greenhouse gas emissions or an equivalent, support for developing countries to leapfrog to clean technologies, international commitments from at the very least every developed country and every major polluter, massive investment in energy R&D in order to reduce the costs of tackling these challenges, support for first-of-a-kind demonstrations and deployment.

I don't think there's a single case where I'm committed to a technology, although there are a few cases where I'm currently against the technology (e.g. most methods of generating energy from the sea).


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05 Jan 2020, 1:28 am

I really like the idea of this thread EzraS as I think it's the climate conversation that needs to happen. So I'm going to make a distinction here between what needs to happen, and what needs to be done politically to make it happen.

What needs to happen:

1) Renewable Electricity Generation: We need a renewable carbon neutral way of generating enough electricity to meet 50 quads (quadrillion btus) worth of energy demand. Most probable way of achieving this in my opinion is with fusion power, but as that technology is not available we're looking at a combination of basically every power source (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, fission, and yes fossil fuels) to bridge us over.

2) Renewable Biofuel Generation: We need a renewable high-density fuel that is renewable, and burns at high temperature. Electricity is great for a lot of things but it can't be used for everything. Things like ore smelting and rocket/jet propulsion still need fuels to burn. Most likely path to this is with microbial processing and microbial carbon fixation. Algae ponds can fix more carbon and generate more biomass for a comparable land area than traditional farming. Bacteria/yeast can be used to convert biomass sugars into higher density lipids which can be used for fuels.

3) Renewable plastic production/reduced plastic usage We need either a replacement for all our plastics or a renewable way of producing them. In my opinion the problem should be worked from both ends by increasing our bio-plastic production supply while reducing the number of things we use plastic for.

4) Adapting to Sea Level Rise: We need good coastal engineering designs to adapt to rising sea levels. With committed warming sea level rise is inevitable even if we went neutral carbon tomorrow. We won't be neutral carbon for a while so we should plan to adapt to the changes. Fortunately the changes of climate are pretty slow relative to human action. The sea level has risen 9 inches since 1880. That averages to ~0.6 inches per decade. Or for my metric friends 1.5cm every 10 years. Human activity moves much faster than climate, but it helps to be forward thinking. Don't wait for the catastrophic flood to build better levees.

5) Carbon capture/global cooling technology: Aggressive carbon capture technology or global cooling technology may not be absolutely "necessary," but it would be a good arrow to have in our quiver. I think anyone who thinks we can accurately predict all the effects of a warmer world is naive about the difficulty of such predictions. There will be unanticipated consequences. We should adapt as much as possible, but it would be best to have the technology to reverse the progression. Going carbon neutral will not do that, it will only halt the progression.

Now to the second part what to do politically to make these things happen? That is honestly a lot harder. I find a lot of well intentioned programs tend to have unintended negative consequences. Ethanol subsidies sunk a lot of resources into a bio-process that is fundamentally ineffective for a long time. In my opinion best option is to set aside a lot of government research money for unspecific green technology development. Good ideas will find their way to the mainstream, bad ideas will die in development.

A carbon tax would provide an added incentive for companies to non-specifically reduce their carbon usage, and could be used to fund the green research. It needs to be calculated to not be too severe though or you risk backlash. Worse case scenario is a general tax on all energy and material production launches an economic depression and a world war culminating in nuclear holocaust. That is an extreme scenario, but if the economic consequences are too severe there will be severe political backlash.

"Ignorance may be bliss, but knowledge is power."


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05 Jan 2020, 1:43 am

This is a really great thread. Thanks to Ezra for starting it. :)

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