A 350-Degree Look at Climate

A 350-Degree Look at Climate

This past fall I introduced author and activist Bill McKibben at Greenbuild. I like Bill. He's a rational bomb thrower who forces people out of their comfort zone. Bill talked about 350.org, an organization he founded that focuses on getting people to think about the mitigation/adaptation limit of CO2 concentration before we begin slipping into unmanageable climate change.

I think 350.org is a cool idea (pun intended), though their exhortations regarding "irreversible damage to our planet" are misplaced -- the planet is fine and can take care if itself, it's humanity that's in danger of suffering "irreversible damage."

Everyone should go to www.350.org to see how s/he can contribute to dialing back our emissions so that we don't overshoot this figure by too much. Overshoot? Sadly, CO2 concentrations passed 350 ppm in 1988. Measurements at the NOAA observatory at Mauna Loa indicate current concentrations are at 386 and climbing, a level that has not been seen for 43 million years!

What's interesting to me is how most discussions on how to deal with climate change focus on second and third order concerns (wedges, carbon taxes, etc.) that ultimately will NEVER solve the problem simply because they are rooted in old thinking.

To clarify, my issue with wedges has nothing to do with engineering; if we could actually implement these strategies with the current setup, they certainly could do the trick. Unfortunately, the structure of our human "laws" -- Egonomics, politics and habit -- will not be able to deliver these wedges under any realistic (or even unrealistic) circumstances. The system simply can't deliver.

Earnest discussions around carbon cap and trade vs. taxation remind me of the histrionics that Tycho Brahe and others went through to defend the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the solar system (sun revolves around earth) against the inconvenient truth of Copernicus' heliocentric model. But how can these ideas be old thinking? In my opinion, internalizing externalities is like continuing to "improve" Windows while still on the DOS platform. Maybe it will work better than what was there before, but ultimately it will become unstable and crash.

Prescriptions rooted in the paradigm and tools of 18th century Egonomics will NEVER solve our problems, even if we could find the political will to price carbon at $1,000 per ton. The very idea that efficiency and renewables require some sort of "payback" is prima facie evidence that the old paradigm has run its course and is no longer a useful framework for the 21st century. The paradigmatic failing of Egonomics is that the impacts of economic transactions are separate from the transaction itself.

So far, we've confused the primacy of human law vs. natural law and managed to fool ourselves that we can somehow negotiate with nature. At some point our geocentric model -- where chemistry, biology and physics somehow revolve around Egonomics, politics and habit -- will be replaced by a heliocentric model, where eco-nomics, politics, etc. revolve around chemistry, biology and physics.

My personal belief is that S.S. LifeAsWeKnowIt hit the iceberg in 1973 and has been going down since, even though most of us have not yet realized it. There is nothing we can do to stop it. All we can reasonably do is be heroes and put people into lifeboats and lifejackets while figuring out how to weather the storm.

In spite of the present and growing chaos, I'm predicting that humanity's difficulties won't really begin until 2050. Though, given the profound non-linearity of natural systems, things could end up spiraling out of control even earlier, not unlike what we saw with meltdown of the financial markets. By 2200, when the population is down to around 1 billion to 2 billion, we'll be able to generate wealth (satisfaction of desires vs. accumulation of stuff) sustainably and live with a profound understanding of our place in the food chain.

Author and profound systems thinker, Donella Meadows once said the most effective way to create change in the system, we must change the way we THINK. Unless we change the way we think, we will not be able to develop the tools needed to find a real solution.

To illustrate the power of shared thinking, right now we THINK that identical pieces of green-printed paper, one with "One Dollar" printed on it, another with "One Hundred Dollars" are different in value by two orders of magnitude. However, there is nothing OBJECTIVE about the difference in value.

Similarly, I would argue that there is nothing objective about why "fuels from heaven"/renewable energy is more expensive than "fuels from hell"/non-renewable energy. Indeed, I would go further to say that any OBJECTIVE analysis would conclude, in fact, that by any measure of human well being (clean air, lack of exploitation of humans and land, etc.), renewables and efficiency are significantly less costly than business as usual.

In the short run, by all means we should tax carbon, implement wedges, stimulate green jobs, but we shouldn't count on these 20th century tools to solve our 21st century problems.