UN Climate Action Summit

Christian Williams

Hello, I’m Christian Williams. I study category theory with John Baez at UC Riverside. I’ve written two posts on Azimuth about promising distributed computing endeavors. I believe in the power of applied theory – that’s why I left my life in Texas just to work with John. But lately I’ve begun to wonder if these great ideas will help the world quickly enough.

I want to discuss the big picture, and John has kindly granted me this platform with such a diverse, intelligent, and caring audience. This will be a learning process. All thoughts are welcome. Thanks for reading.

(Greta Thunberg, coming to help us wake up.)

…..
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

It’s important to be positive. Humanity now has a global organization called the United Nations. Just a few years ago, members signed an amazing treaty called The Paris Agreement. The parties and signatories:

… basically everyone.

By ratifying this document, the nations of the world agreed to act to keep global warming below 2C above pre-industrial levels – an unparalleled environmental consensus. (On Azimuth, in 2015.) It’s not mandatory, and to me that’s not the point. Together we formally recognize the crisis and express the intent to turn it around.

Except… we really don’t have much time.

We are consistently finding that the ecological crisis is of a greater magnitude and urgency than we thought. The report that finally slapped me awake is the IPCC 2018, which explains the difference between 2C and 1.5C in terms of total devastation and lives, and states definitively:

We must reduce global carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and by 100% by 2050 to keep within 1.5C. We must have strong negative emissions into the next century. We must go well beyond our agreement, now.

(Blue is essentially, “we might still have a stable society”.)

So… how is our progress on the agreement? That is complicated, and a whole analysis is yet to be done. Here is the UN progress tracker. Here is an NRDC summary. Some countries are taking significant action, but most are not yet doing enough. Let that sink in.

However, the picture is much deeper than only national. Reform sparks at all levels of society: a US politician wanting to leave the agreement emboldened us to form the vast coalition We Are Still In. There are many initiatives like this, hundreds of millions of people rising to the challenge. A small selection:

City and State Levels
Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, U.S. Climate Alliance
Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy
International Levels
Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD)

RE100, Under2 Coalition (The Climate Group)
Everyone Levels
Fridays for Future, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion
350.org, Climate Reality

Each of us must face this challenge, in their own way.

…..

Responding to the findings of the IPCC, the UN is meeting in New York on September 23, with even higher ambitions and higher stakes: UN Climate Action Summit 2019. The leaders will not sit around and give pep talks. They are developing plans which will describe how to transform society.

On the national level, we must make concrete, compulsory commitments. If they do not soon then we must demand louder, or take their place. The same week as the summit, there will be a global climate strike. It is crucial that all generations join the youth in these demonstrations.

We must change how the world works. We have reached global awareness, and we have reached an ethical imperative.

Please listen to an inspiring activist share her lucid thoughts.

30 Responses to UN Climate Action Summit

  1. Supernaut says:

    While we wait for fusion as a viable source we must use fission to quickly de-carbonize our energy systems; there is no other way.

    • christianbwilliams says:

      I don’t know a whole lot about nuclear power, but it does seem like it will be essential to such rapid complete decarbonization. On the surface though it does seem to be a tough and divisive question. Why do you say there’s no other way? The other forms of renewable energy not productive enough on their own, or not reliable enough? Thanks for your comment.

      • Raymond Lutz says:

        Even if we went all nucular, build rates would be a limiting factor, according to Kevin Anderson (former Tyndall Centre director)

      • Supernaut says:

        What I really meant is that we really won’t solve the global warming problems without it. Renewable energy, while useful in the sense it does not produce CO2, is intermittent (ie, the Sun doesn’t shine at night, and the wind does not always blow; they have a whole lot of other issues as well). Fission can/should be used as baseload, or by itself. The priority should be the prevention of ideological & premature closing of current nuclear plants (yes, I’m blaming Greenpeace, Sierra Club/”Friends” of the Earth & others with deep pockets and deeper political connections), followed by the construction of new plants.

        • christianbwilliams says:

          Well, the intermittency argument is only crucial until we have sufficient batteries for wind and solar. Again something I don’t know enough about, but surely that is possible in a decade.

          But I agree. If we had changed earlier, perhaps we could have precluded the need for nuclear waste, but we did not. It will probably be necessary. However, it will of course still come down to politics. Bernie has the most aggressive plan, but it excludes nuclear. Hopefully candidates keep an open mind about their decisions.

          Here’s a small comparison of their views: https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/9/6/20852313/cnn-climate-town-hall-nuclear-power-energy. What do you think of this article? Thanks.

  2. John Baez says:

    What’s “RE100”?

    • christianbwilliams says:

      http://there100.org/re100 : “RE100 is a global corporate leadership initiative bringing together influential businesses committed to 100% renewable electricity.” The list of companies is quite impressive.

      Also, everything in that part is a link which tells all about the organization or initiative.

  3. Gamanrad says:

    Fantastic. Just had a brief look through this. I’ve written a book which is a bit like a unified theory. I’ve followed Azimuth and John’s work with admiration (and as a humanities graduate, sometimes without fully understanding the maths, to put it mildly) for a long time and partly on the basis of what he was coming up with, I came up with my own theory. My book has just come out with the Vernon Press. It’s called Love is Green: compassion as responsibility in the ecological emergency. I’d love to have a chance to put the message of the book across here. Do let me know if you want more information.

    • christianbwilliams says:

      Thank you. That sounds like a very nice read.

      Compassion and trust are certainly essential in this time. Eastern philosophy and religion has always emphasized that fulfillment and harmony with the world are inextricable – I wonder how history would be different if these principles had been taken to heart globally, before we began to accelerate.

      I found a link: https://www.vernonpress.com/book/442. Please feel free to tell us more about the book. Thank you again.

  4. Robert Smart says:

    Despair seems appropriate with the Right firmly in the hands of the fossil fuel industry and the Left firmly in the hands of the anti-nuclear greenies. But the Climate Emergency seems like an issue that might get the centre to wake up and smash the extremes. Germany is kindly showing us that buckets of money can’t make renewables work (https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2019/09/05/renewables-threaten-german-economy-energy-supply-mckinsey-warns-in-new-report).
    The traditional nuclear plants, each different, can’t be built out in time, at least in the West. Still there is huge scope for a SpaceX level of advance to start making the identical, factory constructible and shippable systems that are needed. We would also like to be able to use nuclear power to pump CO2 out of the atmosphere, and hence produce liquid fuels for all the vehicles and other engines that aren’t going away any time soon.
    Nuclear power is complex because the atoms keep changing, the chemical reactions keep changing, there are a lot of options for how to do it. We only hear, if we’re lucky, about things people are trying, so it is hard to know how well explored the space of solutions is.
    I thought this video was very interesting: https://youtu.be/pqVt8cxx-44. It also shows how American entrepreneurship might easily beat the Chinese where early decisions are hard to question. A final point: most nuclear waste can be used as fuel in other sorts of reactors. We want to build stuff that does the job now, then figure out how to use the waste in other sorts of reactors as soon as we can. The urgent needs to displace the important.

    • arch1 says:

      Would use of nuclear to pump CO2 out of the atmosphere by the best current methods produce enough waste heat to be of concern?

    • christianbwilliams says:

      Thanks for your comment. I didn’t want to seem to ignore it, so I just want to say that I agree. Now that so many people are caring who did not before, and the conversation is expanding more than ever, it does not seem impossible that the public may reverse this preconceived aversion to nuclear.

      However as you say, the time to build plants is a significant limitation. Do you know of any efforts which are along this idea of “SpaceX” nuclear production? In general, how do you keep up with developments in this sphere? Thank you.

  5. arch1 says:

    Thanks Christian. “Blue is ‘we might still have a stable society’.” is quite an attention-grabber.

  6. Grant Roy says:

    On the national level, we must make concrete, compulsory commitments. 

    Suppose as an Earth we seek to address this issue, then through which lens can we most productively view the problem? I’ve tried to think about this a bit, and the way I see it would be to have a situation in which each nation was represented as a member of a single collective hedge fund, a fund whose goal was not to maximize shareholder returns, but rather to reduce global carbon emissions to X in X years. Each nation has invested some X amount of money in the fund, and the fund is solving a constraint satisfaction problem to meet the goal with the least global economic cost. How does one go about solving this problem?

    I would propose something like the construction of an updated world model, following along the lines of work by Jay Forrester in World Dynamics. There is great work currently being done on the scientific side of climate modeling, but I don’t see the same focus on creating an economic oriented systems model of the world, a model that could serve as an optimization guide for reduced global emissions. I suppose I am imagining a project whereby all of the world’s economic data is integrated into an open carbon model, and that this could provide the basis for making optimal prescriptions for carbon emission reduction with very local granularity.

    This seems like a task well suited to the world’s mathematicians, computer scientists, economists (Renaissance Technologies is the most successful hedge fund ever, which was run by mathematicians and computer scientists. ), etc–who are already better equipped to facilitate international cooperation than perhaps their respective governments are. The world does not actually have to collectively set up some sort of hedge fund, as great as that might be, but I think viewing the problem this way, and really working at it and taking it as seriously as a profit-driven hedge fund would–can be a very productive way to collectively work on this problem.

    • christianbwilliams says:

      Thanks for this very interesting thought. I completely agree.

      The idea of one global mutual fund dedicated to saving the planet is great. Of course it would be very complex and needs account for equity, but I believe much of the pertinent numbers have already been fleshed out. We certainly have to start putting our money where our mouth is, and doing so collectively would definitely help with mutual accountability, trust, and support.

      As for tying it to lowering emissions, that is the big question, the big one we should’ve all been thinking about for decades. Determining how to coordinate our economic priorities with our ecological knowledge is the exact kind of applied theory we need. The new Applied Category Theory community is eager to begin collaborating on projects, and I really hope that somehow this can be our big one.

      Have you discussed this with anyone? Nowadays you can tweet very influential people directly; it’s easy to start a real conversation.

      • Grant Roy says:

        Have you discussed this with anyone? Nowadays you can tweet very influential people directly; it’s easy to start a real conversation.

        I’m afraid I am without social media, a self-imposed exile of some many years now of dubious utility :) I would certainly be eager to discuss something like this with the ACT community in particular if there is interest.

        I can envision something like an Earth Sovereign Wealth Fund, with a focus on atmospheric carbon reduction being a galvanizing force in the world community. Earth is no stranger to complexity, and I suppose I feel like we have the right tools at our disposal now to make a serious effort at getting ahold of this problem at the systems level (ACT, mechanism design from economic theory, agent-models, data, and computational resources, etc).

      • John Baez says:

        I have thought about the idea of a mutual fund devoted to saving the planet, but I got stuck on how it should work. There are huge amounts of money floating around, eager to be invested in something that pays good returns. In China there are whole apartment buildings largely unoccupied, which people build just so people can buy them to invest their money!

        You’d think it would pay to save the planet, but how do we monetize it?

        I lack the financial wizardry required to answer this question.

        As Megadeth so wisely said: “Peace sells…. but who’s buying?”

      • John Baez says:

        The payoffs of adaptation potentially exceed the costs by trillions of dollars:

        See

        • Nicholas Kusnetz, Benefits of investing in climate adaptation far outweigh costs, commission says, Inside Climate News, 10 September 2019.

        for details.

        But the payoffs come decades after the investment! How can get anyone except governments to put in the money up front?

        • “But the payoffs come decades after the investment! How can get anyone except governments to put in the money up front?”

          Well, it’s actually very common for people to invest in such assets, they’re called retirement funds. Maybe someone could make a retirement fund which invests in adaptation?

        • Grant Roy says:

          Well, I would certainly never question the wisdom of Megadeath! :)

          You’d think it would pay to save the planet, but how do we monetize it?

          I wrote this, which is an effort to articulate an idea I had centering around virtual citizenship along with a bit more detailed description of the fund structure I commented on. Maybe discussions can be had by anyone interested? I believe there is a way to do this, and I definitely think it’s the time to do this. Anyway, would be happy to hear anyone’s thoughts.

      • John Baez says:

        John wrote:

        But the payoffs come decades after the investment! How can get anyone except governments to put in the money up front?

        Joshua wrote:

        Well, it’s actually very common for people to invest in such assets, they’re called retirement funds. Maybe someone could make a retirement fund which invests in adaptation?

        How would this work?

        Right now it works like this: suppose New York wants to build a seawall around Manhattan. Their government essentially takes out a loan by selling bonds; the interest costs them money but the government has decided the benefits exceed the costs. My retirement fund will invest in New York’s bonds if it believes New York will survive and pay the interest (called “dividends”).

        Or, if someone starts a company that builds solar power plants, it can sell stock to get going. My retirement fund will buy this stock if it believes this company will make money and its stock will go up.

        In both cases I’m simplifying a process that actually has more layers. But in both cases we have an entity other than my retirement fund that has decided to sell bonds or stock because they’ve decided it’s worthwhile to them. If it’s a company, “worthwhile” means “will help us make a profit”. If it’s government, “worthwhile” means whatever they want — it can mean “will help us prevent a loss”.

        In either case, my retirement fund decides to buy this stuff because they believe they can sell it for more money later on… more or less whenever they want, barring a financial crisis.

        My retirement fund is not going to take my money and spend it on a seawall around Manhattan, because then when I retire they’d have to say “Sorry — we’ve spent your retirement money! But at least Manhattan isn’t underwater!”

        My retirement fund is also not going to take my money and spend it to build solar power plants… because they don’t need to: they can just invest in companies that do. And they do!

        So what are you proposing that’s new?

        I’m especially interested in ways for people to make money by preventing a disaster that will take decades to happen.

        • Grant Roy says:

          I’m especially interested in ways for people to make money by preventing a disaster that will take decades to happen.

          Derivatives are basically financial insurance. One could maybe imagine a fund that sells put options to insure various climate risks, and then allocates all the proceeds to prevent that risk from becoming a reality. It is unusual for derivatives to have time to expiry in the decades, true, but maybe possible. So in this fund structure, you would ideally run net-0 profits over the long-term, if all went well. If you get called on the options?….and you’ve spent all the money?…well disaster has struck and it won’t matter anyway.

        • meygerjos says:

          Hi John,

          You wrote:

          But the payoffs come decades after the investment!

          and cited a piece which argues that the payoffs of adaptation far exceed the costs.

          So basically the problem is that in theory it would be a good business model for a company to work on adaptation, however it’s not clear who would invest when they won’t see payoff for decades. An answer is, retirement funds! A retirement fund would be fine investing in something that doesn’t see payoff for decades, because a retirement fund doesn’t need to see payoff until decades later. (If you wanted to invest some money and see payoff earlier, you wouldn’t put that money in your retirement fund!)

          Your example of investing in a seawall around Manhattan and then not seeing any payoff (“But at least Manhattan isn’t underwater”) doesn’t seem to be a good example of the type of adaptation which the Inside Climate News piece talks about, in which the payoffs exceed the costs.

        • Grant Roy said:

          ” … if all went well. If you get called on the options?….and you’ve spent all the money?…well disaster has struck and it won’t matter anyway.

          I thinks that’s why these kind of investment bets are not common. The #1 rule in Wall Street and the insurance industry is that there must always be a counter-bet to every bet. No one will take up the counter if it involves global destruction, as the counter-bet winner can’t benefit from the outcome.

          But this is all economic game-theory anyways and we all know that’s an intractable pit to fall into.

        • Grant Roy says:

          Paul Pukite wrote:

          No one will take up the counter if it involves global destruction

          I think someone would be willing to assign a probability to the event, and then issue a contract, at least in the OTC market (the price might be unfavorable, but someone would do it if they thought they could assign the probability correctly). Also, there are always synthetic derivatives to play around with and get nearly any sort of thing you want–there’s a lot I think one could do here.

          The number one unspoken rule on Wall Street is to make money at any cost :). No one would have bought the CDOs backed by mortgages if they knew how whacked some of the tranches were. Just fool around with some copulas, smile, and sell to foreign governments and institutional investors :) Of course, I’m not advocating doing what they did, just pointing out that the reality on Wall Street is a lot wilder than I think some people realize. The banks acted without integrity (which shocked precisely no one) knowingly selling crap to everyone. I wouldn’t maybe lead with the tagline ‘world destruction’, but just saying far crazier things have been packaged and sold on the street.

          The purpose and intent of a climate fund are important enough that I think it warrants trying something, maybe not exactly this, but perhaps some mix of exotic financial instruments to get something started. Certainly happy to kick around ideas.

        • Sorry, I don’t have ideas, largely based on what I know about game theory, the Lucas critique, Goodhart’s law, and Campbell’s law.

        • John Baez says:

          John wrote:

          So basically the problem is that in theory it would be a good business model for a company to work on adaptation, however it’s not clear who would invest when they won’t see payoff for decades.

          Joshua wrote:

          An answer is, retirement funds! A retirement fund would be fine investing in something that doesn’t see payoff for decades, because a retirement fund doesn’t need to see payoff until decades later.

          I tried to explain the problem but apparently not in enough detail.

          This is not how existing retirement funds work. A retirement fund is a big collection of stocks and bonds that’s supposed to keep increasing in value in a more or less exponential rate, so that lots of people can buy into it and sell out of it whenever they want. You can think of it as a slowly rising escalator that connects many levels of a building, which people can hop on and hop off at any time. If you buy into a retirement fund, they don’t tell you now you can’t retire for decades if you want to get your money back, because your investment won’t be worth anything until then.

          I think a retirement fund that funds a project that will only see a payoff 40 years from now would be far less attractive than the ones currently used. Existing retirement accounts like IRAs penalize you from withdrawing your money sooner, but it’s possible, and this is important to people.

          Your example of investing in a seawall around Manhattan and then not seeing any payoff (“But at least Manhattan isn’t underwater”) doesn’t seem to be a good example of the type of adaptation which the Inside Climate News piece talks about, in which the payoffs exceed the costs.

          Actually I think it’s a perfect example! The payoffs to having a seawall around Manhattan exceed the costs. However, the payoffs are of this form: avoiding losses. It will cost much more to abandon office buildings in Manhattan when they flood decades from now, than it will to build a seawall now. (Let’s say this is true: I’m not really interested in whether it’s true, just that situations of this sort exist.)

          I think that’s true for most of the Inside Climate News examples. For example, spending lots of money to make infrastructure resilient now will keep us from spending even more to rebuild it later.

          In short: I believe they’re counting “not having to spend $1 billion that you otherwise would” as a $1 billion payoff. But currently, it’s mainly governments are in the position to spend lots of money up front to avoid future losses. That’s why I mentioned bonds.

          This is the problem I keep trying to explain: how can people make money preventing disasters that will occur decades from now?

          For small disasters one answer is “insurance”, but this is already not working very well for the huge fires and weather disasters we’re starting to have, much less for potential disasters decades from now.

  7. arch1 says:

    I think you’ll also need constraints which are specific to a country (or at least to a country type).

    Where do the profits come from?

    • Grant Roy says:

      I think you meant to reply to my post, so I’ll comment.

      Where do the profits come from?

      There are no explicit profits, the ‘profits’ are implicit with respect to dollars but the success metric is explicit with respect to carbon reduction goals. This would be an investment proposition akin to public schools–they are not explicitly profitable. Their value is recognized widely and so governments choose to invest in them.

      I think you’ll also need constraints which are specific to a country (or at least to a country type).

      This is part of the work, it will be interesting to determine what works and why.

  8. rovingbroker says:

    Christian wrote, “But lately I’ve begun to wonder if these great ideas will help the world quickly enough.
    I want to discuss the big picture, and John has kindly granted me this platform … ”

    Here is an interesting interview with Bill Gates that certainly qualifies as “Big Picture”. Maybe “BIG PICTURE.”

    “Bill Gates: ‘I Don’t See Anything Worthy of the Word Plan’ to Fight Climate Change”

    http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/09/bill-gates-on-addressing-climate-change.html

You can use Markdown or HTML in your comments. You can also use LaTeX, like this: $latex E = m c^2 $. The word 'latex' comes right after the first dollar sign, with a space after it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.