November 27, 2014

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Reasons For Optimism: Why Climate Change is not a 'Zero Sum Game'

Technology helped us turn salt from an expensive commodity to a low-priced consumer good. We need to do the same with fossil fuels.

Jonathan_koomey

This blog post is the ninth of an eleven-part series on CSRwire that summarizes key lessons from the new book Cold Cash, Cool Climate:  Science-based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs.  

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”--Henry Ford

The Pessimism Trap

One of my students at Yale in Fall 2009 emerged from my lecture summarizing the climate problem and told me it depressed her. “It seems so hopeless,” she said. I acknowledged that the problem was a daunting one, but explained again why I thought it wasn’t insoluble. And the problem of assuming we can’t fix the problem is that we’ll stop trying things that might actually work.  I call this “the pessimism trap.” If we don’t even try, we’re ensuring the bad results we fear will actually come to pass.

Here's why I think we can still address the climate issue in a way that avoids catastrophe and preserves reasonable continuity for human society.  That outcome is not guaranteed, of course, but I’m still optimistic that we will, at long last, do the right thing.

By we, I mean first the United States, because most of the rest of the world already takes this issue seriously, and U.S. leadership can transform the current stalemate into real movement. I’m hopeful that Winston Churchill’s reading of the American character was correct when he said “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”

To Break the International Logjam, the U.S. Must Step Up to the Plate

To that end, the U.S. needs to adopt a carbon price, set real emissions targets, and begin aggressive mitigation as soon as possible. It also needs to take the international relations aspect of this problem seriously, because the climate problem can’t be solved without international cooperation, and the recent U.S. public debate (such as it was) almost completely ignores this fact.

earthEach major country or group of countries could by themselves destroy the climate, so we cannot avoid the need for binding international commitments, but those cannot come about without real progress in the US, which stands today as the biggest roadblock to prompt global action. 

The Chinese have already indicated, by their substantial investments in renewable energy production, that they are prepared to build the technologies of the future (and to beat us in that game).  If we make a real commitment to meet the constraints of the Safer Climate case, we can give the Chinese a real run for their money, and that’s a race in which the whole planet wins.  Once we realize that this isn’t a “zero sum game”, it opens up possibilities that we haven’t thought of before.

Aggressive Climate Action Easier Than We Think

There is a tendency in formal modeling assessments of the climate problem towards pessimism about the future, as I discussed in Chapters 3 and 4 of Cold Cash, Cool Climate. Our own cognitive limitations make us unable to fully evaluate all of the options before us, and as has been shown many times before, any evaluation of options that excludes important ones will underestimate the possibilities for action and overestimate its cost.  

But of course, we always exclude important possibilities (because we can’t think of everything), so this bias is systemic. In addition, the methods used in these analyses embed structural rigidities in the forecasts that wouldn’t actually be present in a world aggressively pursuing the Safer Climate case, like assuming that institutional behavior and the structure of property rights remain constant. 

They also ignore critical factors like increasing returns to scale, which make emissions reductions significantly easier as long as we start down a path of implementation that is a promising one. So aggressive climate action will almost certainly be easier than we think, although by no stretch of the imagination should effort at the required level be called “easy”.

Rethinking Our Energy System From the Ground Up

It is for all these reasons that I strongly advocate the “working forward toward a goal” approach to evaluating this problem, which embodies the “can do” spirit of most entrepreneurs and frees us from the mostly self-imposed constraints that prevent us from envisioning a radically different future. 

solar panelsHumans are smart and innovative, and when challenged with a clear goal we almost invariably figure out a way to meet it. We also have at our disposal new tools that give us unprecedented power to reduce emissions and generate wealth at the same time.

For example, the renewable resource base - solar and related sources plus geothermal - is much larger than current human needs, and the last few decades of developments in renewable energy technology can allow us to move past combustion.

But to do so we’ll need to rethink our energy system from the ground up. 

We’ll need to radically improve our efficiency of energy use and rely on whole system integrated design to help us get there, tapping increasing returns to scale, exploiting information and communications technology (particularly mobile ICT), and fundamentally altering our institutions.  We’ll also need to rethink the structure of property rights, not just related to climate risks but to broader issues of sustainability (that’s one lever that is usually ignored but has great power to alter the economy’s direction).

Making Fossil Fuels Redundant

saltTo paraphrase former CIA director Jim Woolsey, our goal is to turn fossil fuels into salt. In the old days, salt was an incredibly expensive strategic commodity because it was essential for preservation of meat. Now we buy a pound of it for less than a dollar in the supermarket. That’s because technology has put salt in its place — refrigeration now makes salt obsolete for this previously essential application, and we need to do the same for fossil fuels.

As I explained in Chapter 1 of Cold Cash, Cool Climate, there’s now no doubt that human choices can have consequences that reverberate through generations. With every action, with every day we live, we create the future. Of course, forces beyond human control also have influence, but it is how our choices relate to these external events that determine the outcome. 

Of course, this realization cuts both ways.

On one hand, our current path has terrible consequences for the earth and for human society, but on the other hand, it means that there’s nothing preordained about the path we’re on. We have the capacity to change, learn, grow, and alter course, and now’s the time to do it. Ultimately it’s up to us to choose the kind of world we want for our children and grandchildren, and defeatist pessimism is in the way. I, for one, refuse to let it get the better of me.

Next: Creating the future, part 1.

Previously:

Institutionalizing Sustainability: It’s Not Just About Manufactured Products

Using Information Technology To Change The Game

Envisioning the Future We Want to Create

Addressing the Underlying Drivers of Emissions Growth

The Scope of the Problem

So You Want to Solve the Climate Problem...

Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Some Fundamentals

Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-Based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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