Two futurists on life in a climate-constrained world
This article first appeared on Ensia.
Corporate leaders often make decisions with an eye to the next quarterly report. Politicians and policy-makers look toward the next election. But the environment operates on a much longer time frame.
And as we’re reminded time and again, the decisions we make today may have consequences decades — if not centuries — into the future.
In an effort to look at things with a longer time frame in mind, we invited futurist Jamais Cascio and author Ramez Naam to have a free-flowing conversation about what they think we need to know about our world in the decades to come.
Settling into a discussion centered around climate change, geoengineering, transportation, production and energy, the result is one of the most fascinating conversations you’ll read all year — and hopefully one that will help you think about the world and our place in it for years to come.
Ramez Naam: How pessimistic or optimistic are you about the future of addressing climate change?
Jamais Cascio: That’s a difficult question because some of what I would consider optimistic most other people would consider pessimistic. Our best chance of success would be to go back in time and start fixing things 25 years ago.
Given that’s probably not going to be possible any time soon, we are stuck with a panoply of bad options. It’s a case of, will we be able to follow the least-bad path? But even the least bad path is going to be difficult for many people. It’s going to be deadly for many people.
This also leads us to what I think is going to end up being one of the most troubling aspects of what the next 20 years are going to hold around climate: the lag between action and result. We could stop putting any carbon in the atmosphere, go to complete zero, and there have been some pretty good studies showing that we’d see another 10 years, at least, of warming.
What it comes down to is that we could embark on the most expensive and globally challenging innovation exercise ever and transform our society and not have any kind of result.
Naam: A short-term evident result.
Cascio: Short term. Because of our media policy and our media culture, and because of how the general culture is, that’s very difficult to make that argument.
Naam: Yeah, would voters and citizens have the patience to put up with that? Would they understand that we had done something good?
Cascio: Right, and would they forgive? What I fear is a scenario where we do all the right things, nothing seems to happen as a result, and there’s a backlash against science.
Naam: Yeah, I think that’s quite probable. I guess my optimistic scenarios are also considered pessimistic by most. There’s a lot of talk lately about whether 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is an achievable goal, whether we can stay to underneath 2 degrees Celsius of total warming.
While I think it is physically possible, I think it’s unlikely. I think it’s very likely at this point that we will end up with higher than 450 ppm in the atmosphere, which will put us on a path for probably more than 2 C of warming. I don’t think we will see 3 degrees.
But even beyond 2 degrees I think there will be enormous damage, especially to natural ecosystems and to people who live in least-developed countries. I don’t think it will spell anything like the end of civilization or extinction of the human race. I do think some of the scars that build up from climate change take millions of years possibly to undo or can’t really be undone.
Cascio: I suspect that you are correct that we won’t hit 3 degrees, but not necessarily because we get enough things right. I think that we probably won’t hit 3 degrees for a couple of reasons.
One is that all of the problems that accumulate due to climate disruption will end up lowering overall global productivity, and there’s a very strong correlation between productivity and carbon emissions.
The second is the kind of scenario where we are likely to try some kind of solar radiation management geoengineering — basically, something to try to hold the temperatures down.
Naam: You wrote about a book about geoengineering a few years ago. It was a very balanced book, I thought. What’s your stance on it now?
Cascio: A terrible idea that we’ll probably do because we have to. The big issues around solar radiation management geoengineering from my perspective are less technical and more political. We actually have a pretty good handle on the basic science of it. It’s really the dilemmas around who controls it: who says yes, who says no, who says it’s time to shut it off, who’s liable?
Because if we start doing something like this, no matter how careful and how well-modeled ahead of time, the moment there is any kind of environmental disaster somewhere — certainly if it’s weather related — geoengineering will be blamed. How do you deal with that? Do you ignore the countries that are demanding a response? Not a good idea. Do you pay? That just opens up your wallet to everybody. It’s a difficult problem without a clear answer.
And that’s really the least frightening version of that scenario, because there’s interesting precedent in official government war game–type situations, where the onset of unilateral geoengineering is seen as a provocation to war. Especially if it’s something where China does this and it seems to have an adverse effect on American agriculture, or vice versa.
Naam: Right. And there is evidence that solar radiation management, while it reduces heat, changes rainfall patterns.
Cascio: Yeah, it changes rainfall patterns. It doesn’t do a thing about ocean acidification. All sorts of questions still remain. But the dilemma’s always going to be, how do we respond to the unexpected? And we haven’t in the last century developed good institutions for that.
Naam: One thing that interests me about geoengineering — particularly the kind where we reflect more sunlight back — is, while I said that I am sort of cautiously optimistic we won’t hit 3 degrees, there is always this worry of positive feedback loops, where warming changes the world in some way that it increases the rate of warming. The Arctic seems to be where people most worry about these.
There are some scenarios there that I think most people think are unlikely, but if they happened would be extremely bad to the point of 30 years’ worth of human carbon emissions going up at one time. So one reason that I think we should be ready with geoengineering is in case something like that does start to happen. We could more rapidly cool the Arctic via that method than any other.
What could be done culturally around climate change? Do you think a movie? Or a really powerful Kanye West album?
Cascio: The possibility of the carbon dioxide reduction geoengineering intrigues me. Because all of the things that we’ve looked at so far, the experiments around algae blooms and discussions of reforestation, they’re all very slow.
But I think you and I have been thinking about the kinds of technologies that could actually accelerate that — things that pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to turn it into stuff. That’s not going to happen next week, but it’s definitely something that’s plausible within a generation.
Naam: To me, that comes down to economics. Right now the cost of reducing carbon emissions by switching to renewable energy, for instance, looks like it’s much lower than the cost of pulling carbon out of the air. Especially when we talk about pulling it out of the open air rather than out of a coal plant power flue.
The question is, if we eventually get to zero or net-zero or close to that and there’s no more decarbonization of energy we can do, but atmospheric concentrations of carbon are 500 ppm, should we do something like that, and what’s the value? Then, who pays for it?
Cascio: What could be done culturally around climate change? Do you think a movie? Or a really powerful Kanye West album?
Naam: [Laughs] Once Kanye runs for president in 2020, I think we’ll solve this problem once and for all.
I’m fascinated by the work of Dan Kahan at Yale, who has studied how people form their opinions about climate change and other issues, like vaccines and genetically modified foods. What he shows is it’s tribal; "motivated reasoning" is the term he and Chris Mooney use for this. What that means is that people have in mind the end result of holding a belief, and they choose their beliefs based on that.
A couple of things are really fascinating in Kahan’s work. One is, you would think that the more scientifically literate someone is in general, the more likely they would be to believe in climate change, and across the general population that’s true. But if you look at staunch Republicans, people who have more scientific literacy are less likely to believe in climate change. The reason is they have picked the belief they want to have, perhaps subconsciously, and then they can use their scientific knowledge to cherry-pick a set of facts that fit their narrative.
I think there are ways to fix markets to create the incentives to solve problems like this, and we need a different message to lead with for conservative and even moderate audiences.
The other is a study done at Duke University by Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay where they brought people in to give them a survey about whether climate change is true. One set of Republicans was told of policy solutions about how to address climate change: "We have to constrain economic growth. It’s going to cost a lot of money. We have to live more modest lives, drive less, etc."
When asked, "Do you believe in climate change?" most said basically "no." Another set of Republicans was given policy solutions such as, "Addressing climate change is something we can do by innovating in green energy and clean technology, and it’s going to open up multibillion-dollar markets for U.S. products." When they surveyed those people, answers were much more likely to be "yes." They’ve heard no new evidence about whether climate change is real, but the outcome of holding that belief seems more amenable to them.
So, you’re asking, "What can we do culturally?" and I want to be careful in how I say this. I think that Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, the authors of "Limits to Growth," all of those folks serve a very important purpose, and they can sway a community and add new perspectives among the left, basically. But their message actually scares conservatives and some moderates away from believing in climate change.
Naomi Klein’s book "This Changes Everything — Capitalism vs. the Climate." When you say "capitalism vs. the climate," you are going to alienate a very large set of people. If I thought she was right, I’d say, "Tough luck, this is what we actually have to do." But I don’t.
I think there are ways to fix markets to create the incentives to solve problems like this, and we need a different message to lead with for conservative and even moderate audiences about innovation, new technology, new science and how this is an addressable problem if we do the right things, as opposed to the gloom-and-doom message, which reduces belief, in my view.
Cascio: I think there’s good evidence on that. I do think that the kinds of changes that we would need to make to markets, to capitalism, that would make these kinds of innovation-driven solutions not just possible but basically all over the place would be so extreme, I think you could question, is this still capitalism?
A lot of what we call capitalism today is extremely short-term focused. When you have an institutional system that is focused on the near term, it’s very difficult to get people to think about complex, longer term consequences and answers. If we can make that kind of change, terrific. But it’s going to be difficult.
Naam: I think there’s more long-term focus in big sectors of the market economy than people think. Insurance and reinsurance is a great one, or anybody who buys a 30-year bond has a certain view of things. And, for that matter, when power companies build a new power plant, they expect it to run for 30 to 40 years. So they’re making investments with that length of time in mind.
Cascio: At what point will we start to see the electric vehicle technology moving into long-haul trucking and other kinds of commercial capital vehicles? That’s really where a lot of the emissions come from for transportation.
Naam: We still have to get the range up and the cost and the recharge time down. There’s a case to be made that electric vehicles might be easier to manage for things like delivery vans than it is for some consumers, because they can control the routes and the charging infrastructure.
Cascio: The charging question is an interesting one for a couple of reasons. The first is the big question of standardization: Eventually we’ll need to settle on a standard that will make it easy for anyone just to pull up.
The second is a more fundamental problem: There is a limit to how much voltage you can push through wires before everything melts. I’ve seen at least one argument that there is a minimum time for recharge of any significant electric vehicle battery that’s going to be at least 15 to 20 minutes.
I think a decade from now we might be talking about utility company bailouts that are necessary economically.
Naam: It’s interesting, too, because at a macro level, we’re doing abysmally overall on decarbonization. But if you look at the leading indicators on electricity, we at least have technology right now that is getting market penetration. So we have this momentum happening in electricity, but electric vehicles were something like 0.04 percent of new car sales this year.
People make arguments around, "The total cost of ownership will become lower for an electric vehicle." I think it’s got to be the up-front purchase price and then the range anxiety and charging anxiety issues. So that’s still a technology hurdle, I think.
Cascio: So do you have an expected surprise — looking ahead 10 to 20 years, something that’s probably not obviously likely, but something that makes you think, "Yeah, we’re probably going to see something like that."
Naam: Here’s one that’s economic. I hear people talk about the carbon bubble, meaning that if you look at trying to stay under 2 degrees Celsius, we can only burn about one-quarter of the $22 trillion worth of carbon reserves that we have in fossil fuels. I think if we look at that in one way it’s an ecological thing, but it really is an economic thing.
Right now we have coal companies that are going bankrupt or their stock prices have plummeted. I think a decade from now we might be talking about utility company bailouts that are necessary economically because utility company bonds are owned by pension and retirement funds.
And these companies that, knowing that climate change was real, went ahead with building coal and a lot of natural gas over the last decade, suddenly are seeing that because of policy and the dropping price of renewables, those resources — that sunk cost — now are underwater assets, and they will be demanding bailouts from their communities and the federal government in order to keep running. It’s a terrible irony to be paying people who have, in some cases, helped cause the problem. But I think it’ll probably be irresistible.
What about you? What surprises do you see?
Cascio: I think it’s likely we’ll see some kind of really interesting manufacturing breakthrough, whether it’s around atomically precise manufacturing or it’s around multi-material 3D printing — something that will radically change the nature of international trade. If you look at the carbon output from transport ships, it’s awful.
If that can be changed, if the economic model that leads us to use these transport ships changes, if we see a growth in local manufacturing because it becomes really inexpensive and easy to do, and the environmental costs are so much lower, that could be a wild card. That could be something that really starts to change our international politics, but also starts to change how we think about our energy use and carbon production.
I have one last question for you. Human civilization: good idea or failed experiment?
Naam: It’s a good idea. I can’t disagree with it in broad strokes. How about you?
Cascio: Jury’s still out.