If you’ve studied climate change lately, you may be aware that there’s a gulf between what the public thinks and what the research suggests. There was an article in scientific glory rag Nature a while back about why. The article presents evidence that we resist warnings which are too dire. We subconsciously assume that our world is mostly just, which makes it hard to believe warnings ominous enough to contradict the assumption.
Sadly, climate change is hard to discuss without now and then sounding like an end-times tin-hat nutter. It’s a problem.
Assuming the article is on to something, two questions:
- Why do we think the world is just?
- Why does that belief trump contradictory evidence?
I’ll point out here that probably not everyone thinks the world is just. Sudanese refugees for example. The participants in the Nature study weren’t Sudanese refugees though. They were first-worlders, and that may be a clue to the first question.
First-worlders are on easy street. Our lives are defined by material and technological progress, domestic peace, and plenty of comfort. We think the world is just (or at least stable) because for us, it is.
But how are we able to hold onto that belief so tightly in light of warnings about Climate Change? The evidence that we risk cataclysm isn’t enough. Why?
Here’s my guess: I think our belief in a just world is hard to kill because we’re inundated with scare stories that aren’t true. Because media tells those stories to get eyeballs. Consider any number of stories: 9/11, flu bugs, a democratic president. None have turned out (so far fingers crossed) to be true threats to civilization, but there have been plenty of news stories portraying them that way. We’re swamped with false positives. So you can forgive us for taking doomsaying with a grain of salt. Especially those which have persisted for 40 years without ending the world. Like Climate Change.
Now we come to my point.
We should ask ourselves: what happens if, anonymously marching among the false alarms a real apocalyptic threat were to sneak up? Would we recognize it? Could we distinguish it from the other scary stories? Maybe not, at least not until the consequences were well and truly upon us.
It would behoove to figure out how to make the distinction forthwith because Nature isn’t just – it’s indifferent, and Earth’s history is riddled with, uh, “uncomfortable times”. For example, 250 million years ago, in what’s referred to as the End Permian Extinction, up to 96% of all marine life and 70% of all life on land died. It took tens of millions of years for Earth’s biome to recover. Coincidentally perhaps, one hypothesis for the cause of that die-off is the release of methane from the ocean floor, leading to runaway global warming, a repeat of which climate scientists are increasingly worried about as our oceans warm. Anyway.
Later of course the dinosaurs ate it. In fact there have been 5 major extinction events in Earth’s history, and we’re now told that a 6th has begun.
More than 99% of all species that have ever existed are extinct. It’s inevitable that humanity will face a cataclysmic threat at some point. It would be great if we could see it coming and prepare. I don’t think we’re now capable, because I think climate change is it and we appear to be missing it.
We may be perfectly capable of a transformative effort which would allow us to avoid the worst and adapt to the rest. But it will take a lot more people deciding to become personally involved. By “people” I mean you.
I’d love to live through an effort like that. I can’t think of a more exciting possibility. It’s preferable anyway to the descent into chaos toward which we may be edging.
–From the Sea
Posted August 27, 2012 in Random Thoughts | 1 Comment on Chicken Little Comes Home to Roost
Today I set aside my blather to convey what may be a good idea. I’ve only had like two good ideas ever, and I’ll cut off my own hair and eat it if it helps to make this the third (this is a trick – because I’m hairless). I’d like to implement the idea, but first I want to collect feedback so that I can better understand if there’s any promise in it. That’s what this post is for. I’ve posed some questions at the bottom – please answer them by flooding the comments with constructive criticism.
The idea is a mechanism to promote bike commuting, which is one of the most important things that civilization can do at the moment, not only to address climate change, but to deal with peak oil and to improve the health, happiness, and atmosphere of cities everywhere. The case for bike commuting is overwhelming – read this to familiarize yourself with the arguments.
Anyway, I call my idea Bike Chain Reaction.
How it works: there’s a website, which makes money by selling bike equipment and collecting donations from folks who wish to promote bike commuting. The revenues are used to buy bikes and equipment for car-commuters who, in exchange, pledge to stop driving and start riding to work.
The program will qualify the recipients of the equipment, make sure the pledges are properly carried out, perhaps using the GPS locators that some city bikeshare programs use. If so, total gas/carbon/money saved by the program can be displayed in tickers on the site.
It’ll only work if there’s an effective way to raise awareness for the program. Here’s how: the program will partner with bike stores. When the program purchases a bike, it’ll do so at retail through the nearest partner store. In exchange for the business, stores will promote the program (through in-store displays, etc).
Some bike recipients may be required to periodically write about their experience in making the switch from car to bike, both to create content with which to promote the program and to help others make the same transition.
Pretty straightforward, right?
Ok, what do you think?
- Good idea?
- Would you participate, either as donor or recipient? If not, is there something similar that you would participate in?
- What might ruin the idea, and how could that be fixed?
- How could the idea be made 10 times cooler?
- What haven’t I thought of?
Posted August 08, 2012 in Smashing Ideas | 2 Comments on Bike Chain Reaction: A Social Business to Create Bike Commuters Through Crowdfunding
Because this is a long (but peppy…absorbing…nay bewitching) post, here’s a synopsis:
There are a schmillion people addressing climate change in a schmillion ways, most of which won’t work without Carbon Pricing thanks to a horror I call Whac-a-Gas (if you don’t know what Carbon Pricing is, by Hera and Zeus and all the Gods of Olympus please keep reading). Climateers would be more effective if we briefly put aside our scattershot efforts and collectively pushed for Carbon Pricing. But beware: there’s smart Carbon Pricing and dumb Carbon Pricing, and you should know the difference or I’m coming after you with this:
Note: I discuss some caveats in a section at the end. Don’t give me any lip until you’ve read that part.
We begin with the following picture:
(click the pic to embiggen it)
It shows where our greenhouse gases come from. It’s misleading though, because it’s static, while reality changes. Carbon flows shift, grow, sometimes shrink, and the economy evolves. Keep this in your head for a minute.
Perhaps because the problem is so beastly, many Climateers focus on just one slice of the picture. Some are dedicated wholly to stopping deforestation, or making buildings efficient, or cutting transport emissions. I argue that this domain-specific effort is mostly wasted, not because it’s unnecessary, but because it won’t work without Carbon Pricing. Carbon Pricing means making the gassiest activities more expensive at once so that economies will move away from them – usually through a tax or by selling permits for the right to emit greenhouse gases. Without Carbon Pricing, something I call Whac-a-Gas gets in the way.
Whac-A-Gas refers to the way economies negate carbon cuts by shifting carbon flows. An example is the Keystone XL Pipeline. Many Climateers spent the last months trying to block it, and I agree it shouldn’t be built, but I don’t think fighting it will yield a good return on our effort. Why? Because blocking it may not limit emissions as we assume.
If the Pipeline’s blocked, TransCanada might instead build a line to Canada’s west coast (a contingency plan already in the works). In that case, Climateers’ efforts will have been wasted. There are other alternative plans besides, and any of one of them could neuter our efforts.
But imagine the best-case scenario, in which the oil stays put. Less oil will flow on the world market and it’ll cost more. If the story ended there then I’d go chain myself to a TransCanada front-loader, but it doesn’t because oil isn’t the only fossil fuel. As a result, with higher oil prices, some activity which would have been powered by oil will end up powered by coal, which is a potent contributor to climate change. Like electric cars: they’ll become more viable as gas prices rise, but much of the electricity to power them will come from coal. This substitution effect will at least partly cancel the effect of blocking the pipeline. Whac-A-Gas.
Another example of Whac-a-Gas is the Rebound Effect, which thwarts energy efficiency. It refers to our habit of doing more stuff as stuff gets more efficient. Example: a person who switches from a Hummer to a Prius might drive more miles because it costs less, and the extra driving cancels the benefit of efficiency.
An example from my own life: I bought an electric kettle, which boils water more efficiently than stovetop or microwave. But since it’s also faster, I not only make more tea now, but also warm up my drinking water because I like warm water (I know this is weird). I probably use more energy now than before I got the kettle. Damn that kettle to hell.
I could cite a slew of other examples, but they all amount to the same thing: when you discourage folks from doing one thing, they’ll do something else, which is probably also gassy.
But even if there were no such thing as Whac-a-Gas, wouldn’t it make more sense to address all emissions at once, if possible, rather than focus one domain or another? If folks dedicated to, for example, greater building efficiency are 100% successful, they will only have fixed a sliver of the overall problem.
So these are the reasons Carbon Pricing is A-Number-One-First-Priority-Mission-Critical:
- It’s the only way to prevent Whac-a-Gas.
- It’s the only way to limit all emissions at once, by incentivizing the whole economy.
How does it do these things? Again, Carbon Pricing means making economic activities more expensive in proportion to their emissions, to make gassy activities less attractive. Since all activities will be covered at once, there won’t be wiggle room for Whac-a-Gas. Oil will be more expensive no matter which pipeline it comes from. Also, every sector of the economy will have an incentive to innovate and reduce emissions, which beats the limited efforts now driving attempts to address Climate Change.
But wait. It’s easy to foresee problems with Carbon Pricing. Specifically:
- Many activities create emissions – to price them all could be a bureaucratic Waterloo.
- Price hikes risk economic damage.
Praise be, there are ways to avoid these problems. First: how to avoid Waterloo?
It turns out that you don’t have to explicitly price every activity. The reason is that about 90% of all carbon emissions have their ultimate origin in just five activities:
Environmental economists call these “upstream activities.” If we raise their costs, the extra costs will be distributed to the rest of the economy as well (see the Caveats section below for more about how it will happen). The cost of downstream activities most reliant on the 5 upstream activities will rise relative to everything else, and the economy will shift away from them.
But that’s the easy problem. The hard problem is avoiding economic damage. A Dividend system can ensure that we do.
Government will collect extra cash through carbon pricing. Where should it go? In a dividend system, each citizen receives a monthly dividend check and that check should be the same for everyone (another option is to cut income taxes). Here’s the reason:
This is fake data I made up to show how the dividend works. Citizens are arranged on the X-axis according to how much extra each spends yearly due to Carbon Pricing. Each blue bar represents the extra cost to one citizen. Because our lifestyles aren’t all equally gassy, the extra costs are spread unevenly – folks with gassier lives pay more.
The height of the pink line is the value of a year’s worth of dividends for one person, it’s the same for everyone, and it’s set so that all the cash that goes in comes right back out. I’ve chosen a value of $100 because that’s the EPA’s best guess about what it should be (but a wide range of other numbers would also work). Folks on the right, where the blue bars are higher than the pink line, put more money into the system than they get out. They live the gassiest lives, and their extra costs will prompt some to change, so they can move to the left. Most are wealthy, so the extra costs won’t be crippling.
Where’s their money going? Answer: to folks on the left, where the pink line is higher than the blue bars. Those folks are less gassy than average and get more money out of the system than they put in as a reward.
(I know these pictures are dumb, but I’ve got a ten-year old trapped inside of me and even the prospect of environmental cataclysm won’t dissuade him)
You might ask: by giving the folks on the left more money, will we make them gassier? No, because relative prices change for everyone. No matter who you are, when you go to the store you see that the price of beef is up compared to chicken, for example. Everyone’s incentivized to change. Some will choose not to, and that’s good; we’ll create a net carbon reduction while preserving freedom of choice. We can adjust the size of the reduction by adjusting the price on carbon.
Getting back to the risk of economic damage, the key point is that the system doesn’t affect citizens’ net buying power because all the money they pay in goes right back to them. It’s just redistributed to create incentives.
The price can increase over years on a schedule, so we can prepare. This is key for folks in the upstream industries. Their businesses will shrink as less-gassy alternatives grow, and we must help them deal with it. This includes retraining programs and help for businesses to remake themselves. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. We can’t treat folks in upstream industries as enemies. Change can be scary and they’re going to bear more of it than anyone else. They should be honored for it and helped, because a) our future hangs on their willingness to change; and b) it’s the right thing to do. We have experience providing this kind of help. For example we helped Tobacco farmers transition to other crops when we shrank the Tobacco industry. We’ll need to use what we learned there and improve on it.
Finally, note that the US has participated in pollution-pricing systems thrice before: for Lead in gasoline, Sulfur Dioxide from coal plants, and Chlorofluorocarbons to prevent ozone depletion. In each case, these systems were effective beyond expectations, because companies are profit machines and cost-cut like bosses. The arc of events was the same in each case: industry grumbled that pollution-pricing would be trouble, and then after it took effect they kicked ass and fixed the problem. We always underestimate ourselves. Now we’re healthier than we would have been without these systems and we’ve saved mountains of shekels on avoided-healthcare costs: the savings has been far greater than the setup cost in each case, according to the economists who study this stuff. Pricing carbon will be harder than all of these because it’s more pervasive, but if we do it right, it’ll work.
As Promised, Caveats
- Is it really that easy? No. The difficulty is the politics, which can have this effect: Carbon Pricing systems are now going live around the world (I count at least 14 at the moment) but they’re not always smartly done: sometimes big emitters successfully lobby for exemptions, sometimes governments don’t include dividends, or they may regulate downstream emitters instead of upstream ones. The only fix for that is for concerned citizens to push for unstupid policies. Important stuff is often hard but you press on anyway.
- What if upstream businesses can’t pass the extra costs on to their customers? Will the system still work? Sometimes businesses won’t be able to pass on the extra cost, as it should be. A business can’t pass on costs when it’ll lose customers by doing so, and that only happens when customers either have a cheaper alternative or the product isn’t important enough to them to justify the extra cost. In the first case, the alternatives will tend to be less gassy (or else their costs would have risen by the same amount), and in the second, it means that the product isn’t important enough to people to justify its carbon footprint. Either way the result will be lower emissions. But again, businesses that can’t pass on costs will suffer as alternatives thrive, and we have to be ready to help their people transition to other things.
- What about imports? Ideally, the whole world would collectively implement carbon pricing everywhere, but that’s unlikely for now, so what to do instead? A partial answer is import taxes: we impose taxes on imports from countries lacking Carbon Pricing systems. Because the US is a massive consumer, an import tax would give an advantage to countries that price carbon and pressure others to follow suit. It’s not a complete solution, but it should be said that no system for regulating carbon will avoid this problem unless it’s a worldwide system.
- What’s better? Cap and Trade or Tax? A difficult question. The arguments against a cap are that it’s more complicated and expensive to implement, it’s hard to install upstream, and it’s prone to loopholes (example: see the disastrous offset program in the EU’s cap and trade system). The arguments against a tax are that it’s untested, it’s politically harder, it’s not clear how high the tax should be, and it doesn’t give companies as much incentive to innovate, because it doesn’t allow them to profit by cutting emissions and selling unneeded permits like a cap system does. There other complications besides, too many to discuss here. I refer you to this article for a nice, multi-perspectived overview of the issue.
- Is it too late? Some scientists warn that we may already be past a climate tipping point condemning us to uncontrollable warming. See here for a hint that it might be happening. If so, then we should focus on adapting to climate change rather than preventing it, paying special attention to our food and water systems, which may be greatly compromised. I don’t know how to deal with this question. But note that carbon pricing will, beyond cutting carbon, stimulate energy diversification, which is a great and valuable thing in any case. Diversification will safeguard us against problems in the world energy market, which is especially important now with peak oil on the horizon. In practice, we have to work on prevention and adaptation at the same time to cover our bases, because we don’t know where we stand in relation to a tipping point.
Posted July 25, 2012 in Smashing Ideas | 11 Comments on How Whac-A-Gas Ruins Everything and Why Only Carbon Pricing Can Fix It
I’ve been drawing analogies between climate change and the civil rights movement lately (here and here), and I’m at risk of overgeneralizing. To reign myself in, here are two ways in which climate change differs from other social problems for which successful movements have been mounted in the past:
- It’s complex – the end goal of the civil rights movement was simple, even if there was resistance to going there. The goal of the climate movement is simple too (reduce carbon emissions), but nonetheless it somehow gets replaced with other, unrelated goals on the way to the public. We often think recycling is a powerful way to address climate change. It’s not. Less than 4% of our carbon emissions originate in waste processing, and the carbon footprint of recycled materials is often the same as that of virgin materials. Recycling is important for a variety of reasons, but it does little to address climate change, at least as we do it now. Same goes for “buying green”: The carbon footprints of green products are often the same as for conventional products, but we don’t know that. The green label on the bottle is vivid and concrete, but the carbon generated in the creation of that bottle isn’t, so we don’t think about it.
- It’s slow – so slow that we have trouble feeling it. The last decade was the warmest in the historical record globally. Children born in the last ten years will know only how it is now. This is their baseline. They won’t remember how much more it used to snow in winter, or how much later spring once arrived. Will they fully appreciate what’s happening? Will they feel it in their guts (I mean, before it gets too late, when they most assuredly will feel it in their guts, in the form of a food-shaped hole there or what have you)
Posted March 11, 2012 in Random Thoughts | 3 Comments on Climate change: not like other problems
Cities would be better off if bikes replaced cars for short trips for most residents. Bikes need less space and less infrastructure, they don’t emit the combustion byproducts that create both health problems and smelly/gritty air, they save us cash on fuel, they save us even more on health care costs (a Portland study found that the city saves 5 dollars on avoided health care costs for every dollar it spends on bike infrastructure), they cut noise pollution, and as most people who experiment with bike commuting find out, they’re just pleasant. When bike to work I arrive more alert, happy, and relaxed than when I drive, which makes sense because you know, exercise.
Bike advocates see bikes lanes as key to getting us on our bikes, because the huge metal cockroaches of our cities (some people call them cars – is my bias showing?) are dangerous to bicyclists and bike lanes provide a critical buffer.
I’m not sure though. The way bike lanes are usually set up, they cause problems, because they leave cars and bikes in close proximity where they get in each other’s way, especially if there are a few drivers or bicyclists who don’t take care to respect each others’ space. A few morons can ruin everything.
So I have an idea: a way to experiment with an alternative way to accommodate bikes in cities. I emphasize experiment. It’s something that a city can try for a week or two and abandon at minimal cost if it doesn’t work out.
Here’s the idea in a few easy steps:
- City government identifies a two-way street that runs the length of the city and doesn’t have too much traffic.
- It places a temporary barrier down the middle of the street.
- One side of the street becomes a one-way street for cars.
- The other side becomes a bicycle highway.
- Caveat: the city has to put gaps in the barrier so that people who normally park their cars in parking garages or whatnot on the bike-side of the street can still get out. Choice of street is probably critical here. There also needs to be some traffic management so that the flow of bikes can be stopped when a car needs to get out. For the experiment, it could simply be volunteers who are interested in the experiment managing traffic manually. Maybe. I don’t know. Getting this part right is the trickiest part and I hope the good traffic engineers of the world will know what to do.
I’m not smart enough to know whether it’ll work, but it’s worth trying. If it fails, it won’t have cost much and city planners will probably learn stuff. If it works, then we have a new, validated method to accommodate bikes that keep cars and bikes more separate than our current system does. Low cost experimentation is the bomb (says this former scientist).
Notes on marketing
- When presenting the project to residents, cities should emphasize its experimental nature so that residents know that they can kill it if it sucks.
- Cities should also run “get out the bike” campaigns so that residents actually use the bike highway during the experiment.
Good idea? Terrible idea?
Alternative bonus idea: if Chicago can put a whole train on elevated tracks, it seems within the realm of possibility to make an elevated bike highway. Is it? I would give up my firstborn child for such a thing, and my mother (sorry mom).
–From the Sea
Posted March 10, 2012 in Smashing Ideas | No Comments on An experiment in bike infrastructure
A new study (summary from USA Today here, original pdf paper here) suggests that the world recession is driving climate change skepticism. If true (I haven’t scrutinized the research because this morning I feel more like editorializing than thinking – hey look I just summed up everything that’s wrong with the blogosphere), it would:
- …be a great illustration of how irrational climate change skepticism often is. Our wallets have nothing to do with climate change and yet they affect our opinions about it. Let’s never forget how faulty our brains are. The capacity to reason is a new evolutionary development and we’re still in the middle of evolving it even as we’re using it. It’s like using a computer before Intel has installed all the transistors on the processor. Good luck with that.
- …suggest a scary sort of feedback mechanism, since climate change is hurting the world economy (via extreme whether and rising food prices) and will likely do so much more in the future. If climate change slows the economy and economic slowdowns make us skeptical about climate change, where does that leave us? F#ck@d, is where.
Posted March 09, 2012 in Random Thoughts | 1 Comment on Well that’s disturbing
It’s common advice in climate circles to avoid discussing the risks of climate change and instead to discuss solutions, to maintain a positive vibe. The rationale is that people don’t want to hear dark news and won’t be inclined to listen if you dwell on it.
There’s evidence that this is often true. It’s called “motivated avoidance”
However, I’ve also noticed that most folks who get involved in addressing climate change feed on the negative stuff; they dwell on the risks and act to avoid them.
So it seems the demographic most inclined to produce climate activists needs to know the bad news. To me, that’s strong evidence that we should discuss the negative stuff.
Don’t get me wrong, I think we should discuss solutions as well, and we should strike chords of hope. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.
But I think the negative and the positive should be tied together, so that we can feel the contrast between where we are and where we need to go in our guts, and so it can spur us to get off the couch and do something already.
Posted March 08, 2012 in Smashing Ideas | 11 Comments on Balancing the negative and the positive in climate communications
Looking at it, I feel a twinge of hope. It invokes the sun, and blinding light, and its symmetry and geometry sing enlightenment.
It’s pure. It’s beautiful. And it’s a lie.
Only when “Beyond Petroleum” implements a plan to stop selling oil will they have earned that beautiful logo. Until then, they haven’t earned it, it isn’t theirs, and you may feel free to do whatever you want with it.
Posted March 07, 2012 in Random Thoughts | 1 Comment on The greatest most terrible environmental logo ever
I’m not naturally inclined toward activism. I have some British blood and I inherited the stiff upper lip. I keep calm and carry on.
Because of that, along with the standard-issue, lazy self-involvement of first-worlders everywhere, I had never lifted a finger for any cause, until recently.
I haven’t changed. Rather, climate change represents something so threatening that it crosses even my threshold for involvement. It took me a long time to understand how threatening it is, because I’m mostly uninterested in the world’s problems. I didn’t bother to learn. That I did learn was mostly a matter of happenstance.
Few of us understand how great the risk now is. Climate change isn’t just another problem in the long parade of problems that always have and always will beset civilization.
It threatens to undo us. To displace us, to starve us, and ultimately kill us. If the majority keep sitting on the sidelines, there’s a good chance we’re cooked.
I have young nephews, and a niece. They could end up spending the second half of their lives in perpetual suffering, along with most of humanity, thanks to our inaction.
That breaks my heart, every day. If you’re like the average person, concerned about climate change but not personally involved, I’ll be in your grill about your apathy. You’re me two years ago. We can’t afford that.
Posted March 06, 2012 in Random Thoughts | 3 Comments on Can’t Stop Won’t Stop
Racism used to be socially acceptable. Why did it change? Because, as Seth Godin says, we made it shameful to be racist. We changed a norm. We have to make climate denial shameful as well.
How? Consider: when do you feel shame? You feel shame when someone you respect, usually a friend, calls you on your B.S.
If we want to call others on their B.S., we have to make them our friends. That means being kind and respectful and all the other stuff on which friendships are built.
But you ask: what if they don’t want to be friends? Good question, because many won’t. Here’s what you do: you make friends with their friends.
MLK didn’t make friends with many bigots. Instead he convinced their sons and daughters and spouses and siblings that his cause was just, and they in turn called B.S. on the bigotry, around America’s dinner tables and in its backyards.
That’s how it’s going to work for climate change too.
Posted March 03, 2012 in Uncategorizable | No Comments on To end climate denial, make friends