A Guide to Climate Change

What’s your purpose in the fight against climate change?

  1. Where do you and I fit in, or our purpose
  2. What we can do about it today

The Problem

Greenhouse emissions aren’t just about electricity and fossil fuels. There’s so much more to it. The way we produce electricity is 25% of the problem. The remaining 75%? Agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, air conditioning in buildings and a few more small sources. Stopping climate change means attacking all of them, not just electricity.

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from IPCC

Intuition for Climate Change

There are 3 main principles.

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Source

Learn from the past

Before designing our feedback loops, we ought to learn where we succeeded and failed in the past. There are 2 prime examples we can learn from.

  • The failure to stop climate change in the 1980s.

Exxon didn’t care about how much the world would warm, only how much it could be blamed for.

Exxon, an oil and gas company considered responsible for global warming launched a few studies of its own. It didn’t care about how much the world would warm, only how much it could be blamed for.

There’s no local optimum, only a global optimum

One city going emission-free is a great precedent for other cities to follow. However, just one city doing this isn’t good enough — they share the air with neighbouring cities[3] and as long as the total emissions in the world are rising, we are at risk.

Building awareness

What happens if this year the temperatures were cooler than usual?

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from xkcd
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Things to be aware of — Trees

Trees, or forests, are great. They are a natural braking system for our metaphorical car.

Things to be aware of — Beef

How does me eating beef today result in a hotter Earth tomorrow? This makes no freaking sense!

Things to be aware of — Transport

One car, one person vs one full airplane travelling the same distance. What causes more emissions per person?

Things to be aware of — Concrete

Our buildings need concrete, and producing concrete releases CO2.

Things to be aware of — Carbon Footprint

The carbon footprint is a measure of total emissions of a person, an object (like airplanes), or a company.

Things to be aware of — Carbon Offsets

Imagine going to a restaurant and seeing that lovely lasagne on the menu. Looks soo good! You decide to order the lasagne and tell yourself, you’ll work it off by doing extra at the gym tomorrow.

Long term thinking requires a concerted effort

Short term thinking is an evolutionary instinct.

Incentives

For the not-so-average person who understands and can think somewhat long term, awareness suffices. “If we don’t do something about climate change, we might die, and our children definitely will die.” That’s a pretty strong incentive to do something about it.

Most policymakers today will be dead by the time we feel the effects of their climate change policies.

It’s a short term vision, because that’s what the current incentives promote.

In systems with delayed output, the next best thing to measure is the quality of the inputs.

And these are the metrics we ought to judge our political and company leaders by.

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A page from the 2019 Spain Policy Outlook report, BloombergNEF
  1. No New Fossil Fuel Projects Anywhere.
  2. Not a Penny more for Dirty Energy

Fostering Innovation

Not only do we need to get to net zero, but we need to go negative: Removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Incentives to foster innovation will help with the transition plus create new kinds of brakes to stop our car from falling off the cliff.

Innovations in renewables

This is probably where we’re doing the best. The cheaper and more efficient solar and wind get, the more people adopt them. There are a host of other problems to solve though.

  • With variable generation, we need batteries to store energy. We need a lot of batteries. There are some interesting storage mechanisms around, like pumping water up to high ground in times of excess electricity and letting it flow down and power a turbine in times of electricity shortage. The first time I heard about this blew my mind away. The energy generation part is standard, that’s how all dams work. But creating “artificial dams” as a battery? Damn, I love science!
  • Is Hydrogen feasible as a fuel?
  • Do we have backup sources for wind and solar during extended periods of cloudy weather?

Innovations in meat

Lab grown alternatives, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are a big thing because it’s a win for the environment. No cows for beef means no excess methane nor deforestation to create grazing grounds. How can we leverage this innovation better? How can we make it safe for everyone?[9]

Innovations in nuclear

Nuclear feels like the big bad enemy, because of Chernobyl, Fukushima and a few others. Compared to driving, the idea of a shiny green fuel killing us does seem more dangerous. According to the numbers, it isn’t though. And given the energy generation potential, it’s probably a major component to becoming a Type 2 civilization.

Geo-engineering

I consider geo-engineering the backup option. The idea is, just like in the movie Geostorm, we control the climate to make it not too hot, nor too cold. I have no idea, yet, how this would work without consequences in neighbouring areas.

Sustainable processes

Sustainable symbiotic processes, like the Mulberry Dyke Fish Pond popularised in China, are processes that don’t deplete the Earth, and may end up enriching it.

Bioplastics and material innovation

Remember we still have to tackle concrete? Say hello to bioplastics and new composite materials. They may prove to be stronger and cheaper than concrete.

The feedback loop

With all these components in mind, our feedback loop comes together. We build awareness, which elects political leaders aligned with the fight, who foster green innovation and drive more awareness, and pass laws that make it hard for companies and people to thrive while polluting. Given the awareness, we judge these leaders over a longer term, with meaningful metrics, like % reduction in emissions. The policies to drive more awareness get more people aligned to the cause, which stabilises the leaders in power, as long as they are working towards the goal. We stop falling for party tricks like “a cold-winter is proof of no global warming” and do our part for the world, too.

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Our purpose

The most important part is reaching critical mass — building up enough energy to reach activation. I don’t know the exact number, but there’s no harm in overshooting it. Oh, how I wish we could overshoot the number of people aware about the urgency of climate change. The Extinction Rebellion, a socio-political movement that fits this model well — considers the activation energy as involvement of 3.5% of the population. That’s about 2 million people in the UK. Can we reach it?

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from xkcd

Unexplored ideas to tackle

  • Make fossil fuels free. Is it possible to make the cost of fossil fuels free? Not via subsidy, but banning them from trade? If I can obtain fuels for free, (and nobody is paying) there’s zero incentive for any oil and gas company to go through the trouble of extracting it. Does this even work in free markets?
  • Leapfrog zero infrastructure areas. In places with no energy infrastructure, we have an opportunity to leapfrog, leaving coal and oil collecting dust… as fossils. What happened in China with mobile phones, can happen in Africa with energy infrastructure? While the west moved from desktops to laptops to mobile phones, by the time laptops got to China, powerful phones were already available. And China leveraged that. to make a quick jump. Can we do the same for energy infrastructure in zero infrastructure areas? Can we learn from the Scandinavian countries?
  • Carbon Sequestration in trees to inspire tech innovations to move carbon out of the environment.
  • Can we re-engineer the algae that initially formed the Earth’s atmosphere? There only used to be CO2. These microbes turned it into 21% oxygen, causing the oxygen holocaust, or their own death. On wikipedia: The Great Oxidation Event
  • Nuclear as a source of energy for planes and ships. Can we get nuclear efficient and small enough to fit on an airplane?
  • Molten Salt Fusion Reactors, please?

Epilogue

I struggled with this model because it’s not 100% accurate. Inner me screamed a lot at times, saying I’m simplifying this too much! I can’t just expect the right leaders to fix everything, and for everyone to elect the right leaders, and for everyone to even come together. Nor is it guaranteed that awareness suffices. Would you prefer a new car today or an extra year at the end of your life that you may or may not have? Despite all this, and my repeated emphasis of the difficulty, I think the model is useful. [14] It’s a framework on which to lay everything we see happening and where we are lagging in the battle for climate change.

I write about Code and Life philosophies. Sometimes both. | https://neilkakkar.com | Engineer @Bloomberg | Write (Code). Create. Recurse.

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