What To Do About Climate Change?

Here are the slides for my second talk in the Interdisciplinary Climate Change Workshop at the Balsillie School of International Affairs:

What To Do About Climate Change?

Like the first it’s just 15 minutes long, so it’s very terse.

I start by noting that slowing the rate of carbon burning won’t stop global warming: most carbon dioxide stays in the air over a century, though individual molecules come and go. Global warming is like a ratchet.

So, we will:

1) leave fossil fuels unburnt,

2) sequester carbon,

3) actively cool the Earth, and/or

4) live with a hotter climate.

Of course we may do a mix of these…. though we’ll certainly do some of option 4), and we might do only this one. My goal in this short talk is not mainly to argue for a particular mix! I mainly want to present some information about the various options.

I do not say anything about the best ways to do option 4); I merely provide some arguments that we’ll wind up doing a lot of this one… because I’m afraid some of the participants in the workshop may be in denial about that.

I also argue that we should start doing research on option 3), because like it or not, I think people are going to become very interested in geoengineering, and without enough solid information about it, people are likely to make bad mistakes: for example, diving into ambitious projects out of desperation.

As usual, if you click on a phrase in blue in this talk, you can get more information.

I want to really thank everyone associated with Azimuth for helping find and compile the information used in this talk! It’s really been a team effort!

21 Responses to What To Do About Climate Change?

  1. domenico says:

    I am thinking that the idea to cooling the Earth is interesting.
    The solar panels are local cooling units (transform solar energy in electrical energy), or the wind turbines that transform cinetic energy (obtained from solar absorption) in electric energy instead of thermal energy for friction, and vortexes emission (are other cooling units).
    The only problem is that all the energy is used, and then transformed in infrared energy.
    I think that in a distant future a portion of green energy can be transferred in the space with lasers of right frequency, reducing the effect of the greenhouse effect.
    I think that a local change of the meteorology for great industrial plant (for example California wind farms, or Abu Dhabi solar plant, or Desertec project) can have a meteorologic effect, if there is a energy transfer on a long distance.

    • John Baez says:

      Unfortunately beaming out energy using lasers is not a practical way to cool the planet as much as the planet needs. To see why, consider this:

      • Steve Easterbrook, How much extra energy are we adding to the Earth system?

      The Earth is currently gaining about 18 watts of extra power in heat for each 1 watt of power humans actually use! Thus, to prevent global warming, lasers would need to beam out 18 times more power than all the power our civliization uses now.

  2. Joan says:

    Symphony of Science – Our Biggest Challenge

    I just wanted to send you a link to a really wonderful song that has concerned more lay people than dozens of reports, and that you could possibly use at your talks (but maybe you know it already):

    Thanks for your also wonderful blog.

  3. André Joyal says:

    Thanks for the post John!

    About the economic of fighting climate change, Paul Krugman just published a review called Gambling with Civilisation in the NYRB,



    • John Baez says:

      Thanks, André! That review is very interesting, and I’ll have to get the book it reviews: William Nordhaus’ The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World.

  4. I couldn’t retrieve the McKinsey study. Not sure it it’s an hyperlink problem or if that part of the web site is temporarily down though.

  5. David Lyon says:

    The taiga and tundra of Siberia, Canada, and Greenland, when combined, seem to account for around 30% of the Earth’s surface area. Why can’t we gradually move everyone who lives in the soon to be uninhabitable regions near the equator into the regions which were formerly taiga? One can see from a glance at a globe that the habitable area will grow faster on the high latitude side than it will shrink on the low latitude side because Asia and North America are widest at the top. The Arctic Ocean can become the new Mediterranean Sea. Boom, problem solved! Time for a delicious slice of soylent green pie.

  6. nad says:

    I miss somehow at least a short remark, that there may be some research needed on why people need bigger, faster cars, planes, newer and newer gadgets, more kids, more meat etc. It seems those things are not only but also a way to enhance ones own importance via partially artificial means. Simplifying it looks a bit as if people feel the need to “saliencynate” themselves within an attention economy. I am trying to work this out a bit, but as you can see this is a big construction site.

    • Frederik De Roo says:

      Cars, planes, meat etc are status symbols. I believe that in an evolutionary context showing off status symbols improves chances of reproduction, thus people are biologically wired to act as such unless they are aware of it. I suppose “more kids” is not true in many countries, but I would directly classify it under reproduction.

      (Not that biological wiring can’t be circumvented, e.g. about meat I heard a story that in India the higher castes at some point became vegetarian, and gradually this worked its way into society as a whole — if this story is true. On the other hand, maybe the high population density may have helped too, it’s easier to feed vegetarians…)

      • nad says:

        I suppose “more kids” is not true in many countries, but I would directly classify it under reproduction.

        A question here involved is how many kids do you need to produce in order to maintain replacement level. Old age care and education are a second component, which plays a role here. That is if you produce many kids then if they are dying at an early age there is not much sense in educating them costly if resources are scarce. On the other hand if you don’t educate them then chances may be not so good that they may sustain themselves and eventually their old age parents, but this depends of course also on the question of wether high level knowledge is important in a society and if what kind of knowledge is relevant and how learing intensive this is. Thus if you are able to educate many children and bring them into an independent adult stage in a high level knowledge society then this may raise status and finally the survival of your genes. If you are in a low level knowledge society it may be that reproduction itself is already ensuring survival and thus a bigger reproduction rate may already raise status.

    • Leaving the “more kids” part aside, I don’t think people “need” more of those things, they probably just “want’ or “think they want” them. Much of this desire is really induced by marketing campaigns and advertisements at first, and then by the fact that when a majority of people adopts a new tool (a car, or a cell phone, or a computer) then at some point the implicit assumption is that you must have one, and if you don’t it becomes increasingly harder to function in a society that has been rebuilt around these tools. Would anyone from 1913 be able to live in a city like, i don’t know, Boston, today, without re-education ?

      In part you can make the case that this is progress, at least in part, but much more importantly, the fact that people buy more things it is exactly what keeps the economy going and thus allows most people (including probably you and me) to have a job.

      • Frederik De Roo says:

        Much of this desire is really induced by marketing campaigns and advertisements at first

        I agree with this but I think ads are pointed towards human subconsciousnes desire to improve their status (‘keeping up with the Joneses’) and ads only exist because it is beneficial (I would hope so) for the companies selling the producs and thus beneficial for the social status of their management/shareholders/employees.

        much more importantly, the fact that people buy more things it is exactly what keeps the economy going and thus allows most people (including probably you and me) to have a job.

        Can I summarize this as: people work more -> people can buy more -> other people can work more and so on. Ideally then the people producing the goods would also be paid well compared to those who buy them… In some sense, it would also be nice if a better understanding of economic and social behaviour would allow the option to work less and buy less. Perhaps I should better say ‘buy differently’ with less environmental impact.

  7. Dr J R Stockton says:

    “4) live with a hotter climate” should read
    “4) live, or die, with a hotter climate”.

  8. Goff Smeets says:

    Hi John, hope your talk went well. Here’s some input out of sync, oh well. For whatever my imagination is worth, I guess fall back positions to ‘what if global warming continues’ are only two.

    1 is regional geo engineering by those countries who can afford the costs and have the power to withstand to-be-expected protests (collateral damage!, n.i.m.b.y.!, etc.) by their neighbours.

    2 is living with a hotter climate, which means old and/or sick people die sooner and in general they will imitate birds in climate migration.

    1 implies international political business as usual with very unusual results, 2 implies disruption of the usual international policies.

    Another thing is this: confronted with the huge physical overlap & feedback between civilization and nature, people tend to either stress the impact of civilization on nature with figures & statistics which are inevitably subject to discussion & scepsis. Or they tend, for whatever reason, to belittle the overlap and concentrate on the figures & statistics presented to them in order to always succeed in finding flaws in there. ‘What to do about climate change’ comes in great part down to enhancing the Anthropocene concept and find ways to shortcut its belittlement. To illustrate the point: no country, as far as I know, adheres in its constitution to the Anthropocene concept yet they almost all adhere to the concept of climate change. There’s some (inter)national legal work to be done, along with maths, physics and economics.

  9. Million Tadesse, UW says:

    Hi John,

    I read your interesting notes (synthesis) of Radoslav Dimitrov’s talk (works). Being the work shop participant and also had the opportunity to talk to you. I am following your blog now, good work.


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