Breakthrough Institute on Climate Change

I found this article, apparently by Ted Nordhaus and Alex Trembath, to be quite thought-provoking. At times it sinks too deep into the moment’s politics for my taste, given that the issues it raises will probably be confronting us for the whole 21st century. But still, it raises big issues:

• Breakthrough Institute, Is climate change like diabetes or an asteroid?

The Breakthrough Insitute seeks “technological solutions to environmental challenges”, so that informs their opinions. Let me quote some bits and urge you to read the whole thing! Even if it annoys you, it should make you think a bit.

Is climate change more like an asteroid or diabetes? Last month, one of us argued at Slate that climate advocates should resist calls to declare a national climate emergency because climate change was more like “diabetes for the planet” than an asteroid. The diabetes metaphor was surprisingly controversial. Climate change can’t be managed or lived with, many argued in response; it is an existential threat to human societies that demands an immediate cure.

The objection is telling, both in the ways in which it misunderstands the nature of the problem and in the contradictions it reveals. Diabetes is not benign. It is not a “natural” phenomena and it can’t be cured. It is a condition that, if unmanaged, can kill you. And even for those who manage it well, life is different than before diabetes.

This seems to us to be a reasonably apt description of the climate problem. There is no going back to the world before climate change. Whatever success we have mitigating climate change, we almost certainly won’t return to pre-industrial atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, at least not for many centuries. Even at one or 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, the climate and the planet will look very different, and that will bring unavoidable consequences for human societies. We will live on a hotter planet and in a climate that will be more variable and less predictable.

How bad our planetary diabetes gets will depend on how much we continue to emit and how well adapted to a changing climate human societies become. With the present one degree of warming, it appears that human societies have adapted relatively well. Various claims attributing present day natural disasters to climate change are controversial. But the overall statistics suggest that deaths due to climate-related natural disasters globally are falling, not rising, and that economic losses associated with those disasters, adjusting for growing population and affluence, have been flat for many decades.

But at three or four degrees of warming, all bets are off. And it appears that unmanaged, that’s where present trends in emissions arelikely to take us. Moreover, even with radical action, stabilizing emissions at 1.5 degrees C, as many advocates now demand, is not possible without either solar geoengineering or sucking carbon emissions out of the atmosphere at massive scale. Practically, given legacy emissions and committed infrastructure, the long-standing international target of limiting temperature increase to two degrees C is also extremely unlikely.

Unavoidably, then, treating our climate change condition will require not simply emissions reductions but also significant adaptation to known and unknown climate risks that are already baked in to our future due to two centuries of fossil fuel consumption. It is in this sense that we have long argued that climate change must be understood as a chronic condition of global modernity, a problem that will be managed but not solved.

A discussion of the worst-case versus the best-case IPCC scenarios, and what leads to these scenarios:

The worst case climate scenarios, which are based on worst case emissions scenarios, are the source of most of the terrifying studies of potential future climate impacts. These are frequently described as “business as usual” — what happens if the economy keeps growing and the global population becomes wealthier and hence more consumptive. But that’s not how the IPCC, which generates those scenarios, actually gets to very high emissions futures. Rather, the worst case scenarios are those in which the world remains poor, populous, unequal, and low-tech. It is a future with lots of poor people who don’t have access to clean technology. By contrast, a future in which the world is resilient to a hotter climate is likely also one in which the world has been more successful at mitigating climate change as well. A wealthier world will be a higher-tech world, one with many more low carbon technological options and more resources to invest in both mitigation and adaptation. It will be less populous (fertility rates reliably fall as incomes rise), less unequal (because many fewer people will live in extreme poverty), and more urbanized (meaning many more people living in cities with hard infrastructure, air conditioning, and emergency services to protect them).

That will almost certainly be a world in which global average temperatures have exceeded two degrees above pre-industrial levels. The latest round of climate deadline-ism (12 years to prevent climate catastrophe according to The Guardian) won’t change that. But as even David Wallace Wells, whose book The Uninhabitable Earth has helped revitalize climate catastrophism, acknowledges, “Two degrees would be terrible but it’s better than three… And three degrees is much better than four.”

Given the current emissions trajectory, a future world that stabilized emissions below 2.5 or three degrees, an accomplishment that in itself will likely require very substantial and sustained efforts to reduce emissions, would also likely be one reasonably well adapted to live in that climate, as it would, of necessity, be one that was much wealthier, less unequal, and more advanced technologically than the world we live in today.

The most controversial part of the article concerns the “apocalyptic” or “millenarian” tendency among enviromentalists: the feeling that only a complete reorganization of society will save us—for example, going “back to nature”.

[…] while the nature of the climate problem is chronic and the political and policy responses are incremental, the culture and ideology of contemporary environmentalism is millenarian. In the millenarian mind, there are only two choices, catastrophe or completely reorganizing society. Americans will either see the writing on the wall and remake the world, or perish in fiery apocalypse.

This, ultimately, is why adaptation, nuclear energy, carbon capture, and solar geoengineering have no role in the environmental narrative of apocalypse and salvation, even as all but the last are almost certainly necessary for any successful response to climate change and will also end up in any major federal policy effort to address climate change. Because they are basically plug-and-play with the existing socio-technical paradigm. They don’t require that we end capitalism or consumerism or energy intensive lifestyles. Modern, industrial, techno-society goes on, just without the emissions. This is also why efforts by nuclear, carbon capture, and geoengineering advocates to marshall catastrophic framing to build support for those approaches have had limited effect.

The problem for the climate movement is that the technocratic requirements necessary to massively decarbonize the global economy conflict with the egalitarian catastrophism that the movement’s mobilization strategies demand. McKibben has privately acknowledged as much to several people, explaining that he hasn’t publicly recognized the need for nuclear energy because he believes doing so would “split this movement in half.”

Implicit in these sorts of political calculations is the assumption that once advocates have amassed sufficient political power, the necessary concessions to the practical exigencies of deeply reducing carbon emissions will then become possible. But the army you raise ultimately shapes the sorts of battles you are able to wage, and it is not clear that the army of egalitarian millenarians that the climate movement is mobilizing will be willing to sign on to the necessary compromises — politically, economically, and technologically — that would be necessary to actually address the problem.

Again: read the whole thing!

8 Responses to Breakthrough Institute on Climate Change

  1. Jonathan Nix says:

    All our options result in complete reorganization of society, so I don’t see a “moderate” path that will be less millenarian. If we do nothing about global warming our society has to deal with cataclysmic changes to the world’s environment. Reducing emissions on the scale necessary to prevent 2°C increase requires a total transformation of our economy in one or two decades. Using carbon capture to “manage” climate change means creating and maintaining a massive new industry whose only output is preventing disaster for generations based on technologies which is in the prototype stage at best.

    Ultimately, arguing against anything that might help is realistically arguing for doing nothing. Yes, the Green New Deal is plainly insufficient, but at least it would help. The response to anything which will help needs to be “Yes and …”

    • John Baez says:

      The best-case scenario Nordhaus and Trenbarth imagine involves limiting global warming to 3°C, not 2°C, and working very hard to adapt and limit the damage. (Let’s face it, human inertia makes staying below 2°C very unlikely at this point.) They consider this to be more like dealing with diabetes — a constant painful struggle to keep from dying — than a “millenarian” scenario. They think it will require all means at our disposal, including nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, and others that most American environmentalists are more comfortable with.

      I agree that bickering about the best approach is less fruitful than actually doing things that can be useful.

    • Wolfgang says:

      ‘All our options result in complete reorganization of society,’

      This will never happen. At least not in the way as it is, hopefully, intended in its meaning. Like, as a complete reorganization of society, which results in better living conditions for the great majority of people. In its other, far more dark meaning, it would request the use of massive force, nothing other than a dictatorship, to make it happen. Which would not create anything else than a huge backlash from people unwilling to adapt or people disprivileged by the process. It will be highly destructive in any possible way. It’s like a local nuclear war would create a nuclear winter, solving any imminent problems with a rise of global temperature.

      That said for the apocalyptic scenario, I don’t think that the diabetes analogy is a better one. We know the causes for diabetes perfectly well, it boils down to essentially only two very clear effects, insulin resistance or failing pancreas cells, but we don’t know all effects influencing the climate so far, not to mention how they interact. I think it is sure to say, that it is a very complex problem. The same for the cure. We know how to treat diabetes. Not by a permanent cure, but essentially perfectly well for the remaining lifespan of an afflicted human. We are not even close to know, like apart from the theoretical idea that the CO2 should get removed from the atmosphere again, what to practically do about this problem. Like in the sense of pursuing something that can be done, and in a way that people will support. World cannot even get rid of nuclear weapons, which is a future problem of possibly even more devastating outcome than climate change, but would be much simpler to address in technical terms. Addressing climate change, to stick in some medical analogy, appears like performing the first heart transplantation. One guesses, that it can be done, one thinks one has the tools necessary for doing it, but the proof is in performing the operation, and by removing the old heart one crosses a point of no return, which makes one restricted to stay on the schedule, otherwise the patient will be surely dead, with an unsure prognosis if the alternative results would not be the same anyhow.

      • John Baez says:

        I like the diabetes analogy because so many people have type II diabetes but can’t afford treatment and are addicted to sugar, so they don’t make the changes in diet necessary to curtail the problem, and wind up losing sensation in their feet, and still don’t take action, and wind up having a foot amputated. I imagine the history of the 21st century may resemble this.

        But yes: we at least know how to treat diabetes.

        • Bob says:

          The people currently living in the midwest U.S who are preparing for a ‘bomb cyclone’, and recalling the Blizzard of 1888, or the anticyclone of 1917, or the Perfect Storm of 1916, are going to need a better analogy. The notion of global warming is difficult to convey to people who are freezing in a blizzard. In terms of the scale of truthiness (from metaphors, similies, analogies, analogues, models, simulations, theories) diabetes is perhaps not the strongest. Perhaps the difference between heat and temperature can be better communicated better using an economic analogy where “global warming” is comparable to an market trend and “climate change” is comparable to a market volatility? When the economy is over-heated there is more volatility, better explaining the extreme highs and low temperatures we experience as “climate change”. Meanwhile the disaster we are all trying to avoid is a complete meltdown of the Earth climate’s economy, a climate market crash, resulting in a constant sweltering heat death and great depression.

      • Ishi Crew says:

        I know people who have diabetes and one lost his foot. He’s a cab driver. So he is sitting down almost all day. (He lives not far from me, but his block is so dangerous he doesn’t even go home after 10 pm–just sleeps in his cab. That block was where my current landlord used to live—someone burned that place down 2 years ago—500 people displaced. probably smoking crack. 15 minute walk from me. ).

        If it is type 2 diabetes its mostly diet related. type 1 diabetes may be genetic–related to insulin receptor.

        Type 2 i think may be due to diet—i grew up on ‘american diet’ like candy. McDonald’s french fries, and later alcohol —a friend of mine celebrated our elementary school graduation by drinking a bottle of wine in the park. . I decided after that i would never drink again–i got very sick —, tho it didnt work. My area is loaded with K2, fentanyl, PCP, heroin, oxycontin, and so on. I study outside and its hard to avoid this, Everybody will give you this junk , dope, sweets, and junk food.

        ‘welcome to DC’ not joan baez

  2. Ishi Crew says:

    I have read quite a few things from Breakthrough Institute. They remind me of people who want to solve problems like gun violence, obesity, addiction, alcoholism, lung cancer from cigarettes, health care, homelessness and economic inequality, but they all make their money by selling guns, drugs, beer, cigarettes, junk food, as slumlords, etc. The view of people who sell guns and want to stop gun violence is to sell more guns–all teachers should be armed.

    Breakthrough basically promotes nuclear power. On their board is someone from National Review ( a ‘right wing’ magazine founded by William O Buckle ) The respected climatologist James Hansen also says nuclear is neccesary. Breakthrough does not say ‘personal behavior and value change’ is neccesary.

    I’m not sure if anyone on at Breakthrough actually does any science of the kind they promote. They want others to do the ‘hard lifting’ while take a plane to some exotic place.

    They are the flip side of the coin of climate alarmists (eg many millenials–eg greta gundberg of sweden, and Bill McKibbben and the author of the Uninhabitable Earth cited in the article.). All of them say ‘government should do something about this’ . Breakthrough wants hi tech solutions and nukes, millenials want ‘green energy’.

    But they don’t want to do a cost-benefit analyses of their own behavior based on their values.

  3. ecoquant says:

    Thanks, John, for underscoring this important read, one which was on my stack but I hadn’t gotten to read until you highlighted it.

    Their worries coincide with some of the things I’ve said and written in private and in public, and it has cost a break between my view, ever the engineer, and the movement. The best I can do is disengage as I was asked by a movement colleague, who spoke at the Our Children’s Trust rally I helped organized, to “not fight them on this.”

    The biggest troubles to my mind are that (a) achieving the Naomi Klein Nirvana is likely to take something like a century, and we don’t have that time, (b) once achieved we still have the same problem we do now, engineering-wise, but with options present now ruled out by the politics of the resulting New Way, and (c) the millenarian approach to the problem is dichotomous, as they seem willing to give up rather than trade off and compromise, that is, seeking personal purity rather than accomplishing the necessary ends.

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