Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Climate checkpoints and bidding Dave Roberts goodbye

As I’m sure nearly all of you know, one of the most followed and generally reliable voices in the climate discussion, Dave Roberts, will be missing for a year. Dave is taking a sabbatical from the crazy train/open hydrant/treadmill/pick your own metaphor that is social media and writing to work on other projects and spend some time being a human being again. While I am deeply sorry to see him leave the room, I’m confident that he’ll be back next Labor Day, rejuvenated and, hopefully, with even more volume, wit, and edge. We need voices such as his, because the challenge of climate change communication and, therefore, of responding to the mess we’ve created, is very far from over.

You can read Dave’s last Grist post Hope and fellowship on your own. As a way of trying to encourage you to click through and read it, I won’t even excerpt it here.

But I do want to do something a bit unusual and comment on a series of 22 tweets Dave made just before exiting through a trapdoor in the stage floor. His batting average on these was extremely high, which is why I wanted to bring them to your attention, plus they give me a chance to take a climate checkpoint, of sorts. You can find the tweets on his account, David Roberts (drgrist) on Twitter, but I’ve included them here, verbatim, with my comments interspersed.

1. The climate problem is much worse than the deficit problem, by any sane measure.

2. What gets coded as “worse” in politics has more to do with threats or advantages for status quo powers than with objective risk.

3. No one cares about the deficit qua deficit, not really. Its primary use in US politics is as a lever to ratchet down social spending.

Yes, yes, and yes. Nothing to argue with here, and no real need to elaborate.

4. Climate adaptation is much more expensive than mitigation. The more we spend now, the less we’ll spend overall.

Anyone who doubts this should look at a map and check off all the big cities at risk of rising sea level over the coming decades, and try to guesstimate what it will cost to build sea walls around every one or relocate most or all of every one. (For a US-centric view, see Climate Central’s Sea Level Rise ‘Locking In’ Quickly, Cities Threatened.) And tossing in the cost of much higher food prices plus impacts from spreading crop pests and diseases plus other horrors like the pine bark beetle devastating millions of acres of forest in western Canada and the US would only make the exercise that much more depressing and accurate.

5. Much more “big government” will be required to adapt to a warming world than is required to reduce carbon emissions.

6. The choice, then, is bigger, more expensive gov’t now or MUCH bigger, MUCH more expensive gov’t later. There is no third choice.

And here, Dear Readers, is the core issue that I have been banging on for years, the one that I wish many others in my/our position would talk about: The notion endlessly repeated that those of us who are screaming about climate change actually want bigger, more expensive, and more intrusive government is nothing more or less than a straw man argument, a lie trussed up and paraded as a cheap, fear-mongering talking point. Many of us are absolutely terrified of what kind of government we will be forced to live under once mainstream voters and consumers are terrified enough of climate change to demand the kind of action needed for us to minimize the future pain from hell and high water. We are making a high-speed bee-line not for some leftist utopian future, but a right-wing, corporatist’s fondest dream imaginable, one in which huge corporations make obscene profits from emergency adaptation (like building sea walls and relocating climate refugees) and disaster recovery efforts, and government is far more intrusive and far more expensive than anything most of us have ever experienced.

This is why I’ve been talking about the Metricene, a term I coined for the period we’re in now. Forget the Antropocene, the time when humanity’s actions are affecting the environment. We’re in a much more grim time, one in which we have no choice but to try to actively control the environment on a scale never before attempted by human beings. When I say, as I often have, that we’re entering into a period of “living measured lives on a managed planet”, it’s meant to be a shocking wake-up call.

7. The core problem of climate change is time; individually & collectively, we are terrible at assessing risk & benefits far in the future.

Yes, timing is everything, from the basic science of climate, e.g. the long atmospheric lifetime of CO2 which I talk about so often that I need a keyboard macro to insert the text, to infrastructure lock-ins, to the social, political, and economic aspects Dave alludes to above. Looming dangers aren’t acted upon until they are perceived as such, and right now, not nearly enough of us realize what’s going on and how bad it is, which is to say really bad.[1]

8. Climate policy is about pulling future costs & benefits into today’s economy, by hook or by crook.

9. Current status quo interests always have more power than those representing future interests; problem is common but acute wrt climate.

10. Politics is about power far more than persuasion; all activism, advocacy, policy should be focused on shifting balance of power.

Yes, yes, and yes.

11. The biggest opportunities for short-term carbon reductions are on the demand side. No supply-side solution is as fast/cheap.

Clearly true. Trying to get the people who are buying grotesquely inefficient houses and vehicles as I type this, or continuing other wasteful and destructive consumption practices to change their ways is an almost unimaginably difficult challenge. Think I’m kidding? Try to get even very dedicated environmentalists to trade in their non-plug-in, non-hybrid, immense SUV for something a bit less resource rapacious and see how quickly the conversation turns frosty. If that’s not enough of a challenge, try talking to someone who’s been brainwashed by the fossil fuel companies and their minions into thinking that there’s this fiery debate among scientists over whether climate change is real or caused almost entirely by human emissions or a very serious problem. Try getting one one of those people to move their thermostat even two degrees F or drive just a little less.

Yet those really are, as Dave points out, where we can make huge, immediate improvements and outflank infrastructure lock-in issues. There’s so much low-hanging fruit we can barely count it all, let alone pick it all.

12. The largest scale demand-side solutions require population density (land use, transpo, power). That means cities, cities, cities.

13. Creating high-tech, low-carbon, livable cities should be at the heart of climate policy/advocacy.

14. Sustainable urbanism can (if done right) draw in constituencies that have been missing from the climate fight: POC, creative class, etc.

15. Urban politics are also, at least for now, less polarized along frozen party lines than federal politics. Things happen in cities.

16. The interests fighting against sustainable urbanism (sprawl industry: roads, cars, real estate) are as powerful & malign as FF cos.

True, but there’s one immense counterweight to what Dave says: A very large number of people, particularly in the US, simply don’t want to live in a city. They want to live in the suburbs or the exurbs or rural areas. Period. The only way to get them to move is to force them (read: commit political suicide) or give them such a huge financial incentive that it overcomes their preferences (ditto).

And let us not forget the intersection of two trends: Ever cheaper solar PV and people living in suburbs and driving plug-in cars. In single-family homes in the suburbs you see a high ratio of rooftop space to person in each dwelling, rooftop space that is owned and controlled by whomever owns the building. That means it’s a great opportunity for those people, many of whom are buying plug-in vehicles (people living in apartments have much more limited access to plugs), to add solar panels in an effort to drive their total energy bill even lower. The so-called “death spiral” electric utilities find themselves in is real and just getting started. It’s not hard to imagine current trends continuing until there’s a significant urban/non-urban split in electricity generation, with governments and city dwellers struggling to deal with rising utility costs while those in the suburbs have locked-in prices, ala those PPAs I mention below.

This is why I almost never talk about densification: It’s like saying that if we had cheap hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and a fully built-out refueling infrastructure and no cheaper alternative (like the one EVs will provide in just a few years as batteries continue to drop in price), then we could all drive HFCVs and the transportation part of our mess would be quite nicely fixed.

17. Innovation is badly needed, but tech innovation is only a sliver of the pie. Need inno in biz models, financing, planning & valuing.

17.5 Social & economic innovations are every bit as important as technological innovations.

I could not agree more strongly. This is why I’ve so often talked about how important things like PPAs are. (PPAs are those agreements where some company puts solar panels, which they own and maintain, on your building and you agree to buy the electricity from them at some fixed price for a long time, usually on the order of 20 years.)

We need to view “infrastructure” as not just the physical buildings and roads and the rolling stock of vehicles on our roads. We must think also in terms of economic and financial practices, the experience base of consumers at all scale, from individuals to large corporations and governments. And we need to upgrade our infrastructure everywhere and as quickly as we can manage.

18. A “climate movement” can never succeed; for sufficient progress, sustainability must be woven throughout the socioeconomic fabric.

19. You cannot always know how or when, but every act of good will matters. “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

I suspect Bill McKibben and, just to name one example, might quibble with #18. And #19 makes me want to grind my teeth. We need to be educated, activated, and leaning forward and charging into this problem. We need to be as swift, smart, and savvy as we can, and not rely on general principles that sound suspiciously like joining hands around a campfire.

20. If your ideology is serving to justify being unkind or uncaring, you are doing it wrong.

If you want to be a decent human being, then yes. But far too many entities around us, from individual consumers, voters, and bloggers to pundits to businesses don’t see the world that way. They are perfectly happy running roughshod over and eating the innocent, and then using their bones to pick their teeth. It’s all a matter of their utility function. In their eyes, they’re doing it exactly right. It’s up to us to find a way to either convince them otherwise (good luck) or create a political and/or market situation that forces their hands. I don’t want to capture their hearts and minds; I want to change their actions and will take any legal steps available to achieve that goal. And surely you feel the same way, given the serial horrors are about to unleash upon ourselves, right? Right…?

21. RT @GarLipow: Deploying what we know but are not doing enough of is as much innovation as inventing new social processes or technology.


[1] I’m currently working with a couple of Real Experts behind the scenes to put together an estimate of the temperature increase we’d see if we somehow managed to make the drastic cuts in CO2 and methane emissions outlined in Bill McKibben’s/’s Do the Math video, essentially a crash program that limits our future emissions to 565 billion tons as of the end of 2010. When you include the already realized warming, the current energy imbalance of the environment, and the loss of cooling effect from the disappearance of aerosol emissions, the result is very grim. And that’s without invoking any of the monsters growling under our bed, like the methane hydrate or permafrost feedbacks. I’m not ready to make the full results and spreadsheet available yet — I’m still waiting on responses from said unnamed RE’s — but it looks like even under that wildly optimistic emissions reduction scenario we’ve already sprinted past the 2C guideline with our locked-in warming.

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