Probably not, but it’s the best we can do.
Good piece. One thing I'd say more broadly is that, like, degrowth & asceticism & depriving yourself of airplane flights & eating vegan meals and blah blah blah is just not a scaleable solution that billions of people are going to undertake. The US, as I never tire of noting, only emits about 15% of global carbon emissions. And no matter what country you live in, what your standard of living is there- people are just not realistically going to accept big cuts in their lifestyle, however that gets defined. People in India and China (who emit the large majority of carbon emissions) are not going to accept a reduced standard of living. I know that hysterical climate activists are going to freak out that this Will Lead To The End Of the World, but even if that's true.... much of humanity is not gonna accept an ascetic, carbon-neutral lifestyle. This is not scaleable behavior.
Basically, we have to either invent some brand-new carbon capture technology, or we're screwed. The endless shrill hectoring of Greta whatever her name is is a behavioral dead end- it's bizarre & useless. Let it go
The big issue comes down to the difference between a Tesla Model 3 and a BMW i3.
Both are electric cars but the i3 is a small, ugly, slow, enviro-weenie shitbox. Because BMW execs thought that what people want was a penalty box in which to atone for their sins. With the Model 3 Tesla offered a super sophisticated explosively fast super-sedan. Why? Because only a small percentage of the population wants to atone for their sins. They want better.
Induction cooktops, electric cars, heat pumps, etc. are all better than the conventional alternative. They way to sell the public on them is that their lifestyle not only doesn't have to change, it will improve by a lot.
Unfortunately most rank and file environmental activists are folks who get off by doing without.
Something that's going to come back to bite us all in the ass is the way that a lot of leftist policies are being promoted right now emphasize that it won't cause any extra burden for the "average" person, just the 10%/1%/0.1% (depending on the policy and who happens to be tweeting about it). And for some things that is probably right. A lot of social safety net items can be improved and funded without raising the tax burden for the type of person who is volunteering to phone bank for Bernie.
But that type of argument has wiggled its way into the climate change discussion, where it is just amazingly incorrect and actively unhelpful. Hardly a week goes by without seeing someone share some version of the "90% of emissions come from just 10 companies!" meme. But everyone forgets that those 10 companies are all fossil fuel companies. Putting the blame on all of them is like blaming the local gas station for all the carbon released by all of the cars driving on the gas they sell. But there are a lot of people are out there who see things like that and become legitimately convinced that we just need to tax/abolish/punish/whatever some small number of evil corporations and then everything will be fixed. That they, personally, will not have to endure any hardships in their daily life.
That dynamic is going to be ruinous when it comes time to try and pass any serious climate policy. A lot of people who claim to be very invested in curbing the effects of climate change are going to balk at some of the things that would need to be accomplished. (Matt mentioned the opposition to banning gas stoves, but can you imagine the riot if we forced gasoline to increase its price to match the externalities it causes?)
The fact that people are unwilling to pay $100/year for mitigation costs is good evidence of a lack of seriousness and a lack of appetite for any meaningful sacrifice.
The anecdote about stoves, however, is not.
"Nice upscale liberals who care a lot about climate change get very upset if you suggest banning gas stoves."
This is not evidence that people are unwilling to sacrifice: it's evidence that people are not willing to make *obviously meaningless* sacrifices. And that's a healthy thing.
Now, I don't give a toss about stoves (I'm using an electric one myself). But everyone knows that the scale of the problem is so huge that banning every Aga in the world won't matter. And most people also know that the nature of the problem is truly global: solutions are going to require coordinated action by many nations.
If I can sign a treaty with India and China whereby they will halve their use of coal-powered plants in exchange for my junking my gas stove, then of course I'll do it. But until they cut down on coal, my stove does not even register in the global crisis -- it's somewhere out in the 10-to-the-negative-17th range of effect.
Dick Cheney, may he burn in hell, once said the following:
"Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."
He was wrong if "conservation" means, "national and international treaties, policies, plans and regulations for conservation." That kind of conservation is an essential part of any comprehensive energy policy. But if "conservation" means "making trivial life-style changes on a voluntary individual basis," then unfortunately, the worst person in the world made a great point.
People who obsess over their personal energy usage are deluding themselves if they think they are fighting climate change. People who go vegan, one by one, are deluding themselves if they think they are fighting climate change. People who distort their life-styles in order to make trivial changes in their consumption are simply wasting their own lives, and not saving the planet. It's climate-change theater; it's meaningless.
The very start of sanity on climate is realizing that it has to start with treaties, laws, and regulations, from the top down. People who are unwilling to do stupid pointless stunts like individually giving up their gas stove are not the problem. Nor does their unwillingness to do stupid stunts mean that they might not be open to genuine sacrifice if it was meaningful (though, as I conceded, the $100 data does look bad on that front).
The stove anecdote just shows that these people have a sense of the scale of the problem. And that's good.
After the wide-ranging discussion (argument? bickering?) on nuclear power the other day, it prompted me to go wander and do some research, and enhanced geothermal may actually live up to the potential that all of the 4th generation nuclear technologies are supposed to have. (Note those technologies are, like the 3rd+ construction projects, decades behind schedule and vastly over budget, just on the research side!)
That would be a very good thing, not least because it takes advantage of existing infrastructure, capital plant, and workforce skills, and can be used damned near anywhere, with the same quick-ramping capabilities as a mixed-cycle gas plant today!
They purposely saved the comments so us west coasters from Idaho could post first.
Boise has the largest geothermal heating grid in the country (maybe the world). Given all the volcanic activity underneath the North West, geothermal energy could be a big deal.
Also, as someone who works on gas turbines. The new ones are amazingly efficient when paired as a combined cycle unit. Turbine exhaust is used to create steam for a steam turbine.
Gas Turbines will become even better as far as emissions go as they start using more and more syngas or natgas mixed with hydrogen.
Anyway, thanks for turning on the comments.
If there are any grammatical errors, feel free to point them out.
Lots of people say that climate change is an “existential threat” but, when pushed, blame every drought and hurricane on climate change or say that less pack ice will make it harder for polar bears to hunt. Very few mainstream sources even acknowledge the obvious benefits of a warmer climate— longer growing seasons between frosts, less privation and death for those who struggle to afford heat, more carbon dioxide for plants to turn into food, greater precipitation, etc. I am not saying the benefits outweigh the costs or that we should take a leap in the dark into a warmer future, but I really would like a careful accounting and I haven’t gotten one.
Here are some neglected data points. Winter mortality is significantly higher in Europe, the US, and China than summer mortality. Human beings are native to hot regions of Africa and have expanded across the globe as we have emerged from the ice age. The climate has warned by 0.85 degrees C in the last 140 years, during which time the human population has sextupled. I am somewhat confident that, today, cold causes more human misery than heat. Perhaps if the earth becomes two degrees warmer, heat will cause more misery than cold. It does not follow that aggregate misery would increase, especially when you adjust for the benefits of air conditioning, mechanized farming, and industrial prosperity generally. There’s certainly a point at which warmer temperatures would immiserate human kind. However, I don’t trust the estimates of those who fail to acknowledge any benefits of warmer temperatures and who care deeply about polar bears.
The US currently accounts for about 10% of global emissions and that is dropping. If we zeroed out our emissions tomorrow we (the planet) still wouldn’t meet the 2.0 goal. the reality is that climate change is mostly a foreign policy problem.
"But I think this business of setting targets and reasoning backward to policies has been a profoundly unproductive enterprise."
This is the same approach that the Democrats are taking in their current spending bills: $100B for this thing, $50B for that. They use suspiciously round numbers because there is no real underlying policy as such - just vague notions.
That is not a sound way to solve problems; these are not serious people.
One of the most dumb things about Pastoral Liberal Boomers from the 70s is that they have held onto cold war era forged in late 70s three mile island fear mongering fear of nuclear.
We could solve this Right Now, tomorrow, by telling that wing of the party to politely F off and start building nuclear at scale. But that requires political leadership, which is in very very short supply.
Nuclear + geo + national bill banning localities from blocking rooftop solar (many states do this now) + electric cars would all do a ton. And none of them require massive movement from currently held positions for most folks.
That all said, one resource we really lack these days are politicians who have the gravitas to tell the body politic what they don't want to hear from the bully pulpit - and have people go along. Of course higher gas taxes and prices are needed. And carbon tax would be useful. Don't care if your average joe sixpack won't like it. You know what? He didn't like drunk driving laws, child support laws, seat belt laws, or COVID restrictions either. Don't care - we don't run society on the wants of idiots who would vote to legalize child slavery if it brought down their federal tax rate by 2%.
One huge issue with much of the environmentalist movement is that it's an ideology of sacrifice, which tends to be a hard sell. It's all about giving up stuff people like. I am not saying that it's wrong that such sacrifices would help a lot, it's just that they are political non-starters. In contrast, there are lots of exciting things that can be done to help with emissions. Electric cars are now exciting, not just a poor substitution. I have found someone like Saul Griffith inspiring (not that I agree with everything he says).
Treating elite support for climate action as an exogenous factor seems like a bit of a mistake to me.
Somehow, by the late 2000s-early 2010s, Democratic elites had coalesced behind a position of doing more about climate than the politics alone would justify. Around that same time window, there was a bunch of student climate activism, Al Gore made a movie, Bill McKibben was making noise and intermittently getting arrested.
I agree that elite buy-in is the best thing we have going in terms of chances for combating climate change right now. If you're gonna be Mr. "these activists suck", though, you can't treat elite buy-in as a totally exogenous factor. Was elite buy-in a product in part of the actions people/groups who cared most about climate were taking? Are some forms of protest or communication that clearly don't work to create mass mobilization nonetheless succeeding at reaching the elites? It sure seems like someone did something that worked to create the current atmosphere among elites.
It's amazing people use "America generates 15% of global emissions" as an excuse against acting on climate.
America is 4% of global population, so 15% is almost 4 times its "fair share". Historically its share of emissions was much higher, and Americans still enjoy the wealth generated by those emissions. And even today, its share is above 15% if you count emissions generated for US imports.
But even ignoring that, America is by far the world's richest country, its largest economy, by strongest its strongest military. It's not the #1 emitter...but it's #2. If it's not going to act, who is?!
Didn’t “loud” politics generate the elite consensus on climate in the first place? I’m thinking of student climate organizing in the late aughts, the climate march circa 2014, etc. Even if I find Matt’s argument persuasive and agree that loud politics aren’t helpful now, I think they have had a time and place in generating the type of political environment that gets climate stuff into every bill dems put forward.
This post gets at the limits of popularism as a governing philosophy. On a lot of issues there is no objective right or wrong answer, so what's popular is by definition the right answer in a democracy. But for a lot of problems, there are better and worse solutions, better ways to raise living standards for everyone, better ways to structure incentives, etc., and what's popular or expedient in the short term isn't what's best. Sometimes sheep need a shepherd. Sometimes politicians need to be teachers and leaders, not just lemmings who jump in front of the parade and march whatever direction it's going.
Popularism might be a good incremental tactic in some of those problems, but it's no substitute for an actual vision and ability to communicate that to the public in a way that's compelling, honest and persuasive to many people.