…I mentioned in a comment the other day that I quote a lot of people on subjects I have questions about but for which I lack answers…& I guess I left out a corollary to that…I tend not to directly include things people say about those subjects that I think suggest they don’t understand the answers we do have…or seem to ignore the questions I think might be worth asking in favor of ones that…well…favor their views…or indeed themselves…I also leave a lot more out of those interminable DOTs of mine than I include because frankly there’s too much going on on any given day & I admit to having an arguably unhealthy interest in what the headlines seem to imply is “the prevailing conversation” of the news cycle
…so…this isn’t a DOT…it’s more by way of being me sort of thinking aloud about some stuff I seldom find space for in those…& it was prompted by me reading something by someone I pretty much never quote in those…namely one ross douthat…who for reasons surpassing my understanding is paid what I imagine to be a healthy salary by the NYT to air his opinions in a way (not to mention a place) that seems to imply that somehow one is supposed to believe he is in fact worth listening to as something other than a cautionary tale about self-regarding hubris…what can I say…people are fucking weird…& some of them write cheques
…anyway…just recently he penned a piece about “don’t look now”…& much like that piece I can’t discuss it without risking spoilers about that movie…which is a shame because most of why I think it might be worth discussing has relatively little to do with the film & quite a bit to do with what I might be inclined (for want of a better phrase) to refer to as “the point”…so I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum…but here goes
…douthat’s piece was entitled “We Need a Second Cut of ‘Don’t Look Up’“…& I don’t know that I can exactly recommend reading it…but before it makes its way to a culmination that includes a condensed version of his suggested “second cut”…which I’m sure he thinks is all sorts of rhetorically cute given that it’s basically a mélange of thematic dog-whistles that pander to people who share his views…rather than serving as evidence that he seems determined to willfully misconstrue a good deal in service to pretending that that point I alluded to doesn’t exist rather than being a thing he’d prefer to remain blind to…he cites something by someone else that appeared in what nymag.com somewhat aggrandizingly calls its “intelligencer” section
Art, though, has a way of escaping the intentions of its creators. McKay’s tweets notwithstanding, his comet scenario is a lousy allegory for the climate challenge, for reasons painstakingly elaborated by New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz in one of the best responses to the movie as a would-be policy intervention.[…from that douthat effort…which not-entirely-coincidentally is painstaking in some respects…but certainly not when it comes to elaboration]
…in so doing he seems to be implying that the thesis of the piece he cites supports the view he’s running with…on account no doubt of the fact that he’s such a smart guy that he understands it…& such a nice chap that he’ll save you the grueling task of actually reading it by summing it up in his witty “second cut” draft…of which more anon…but by way of trying to avoid quoting that painstaking elaboration at excessive length…here’s the part of it that I think might be where it (& by extension douthat) goes off the rails
Nevertheless, Don’t Look Up badly misconstrues the crisis it’s meant to illuminate. Climate change isn’t much like a planet-killing comet. […] McKay’s film skewers social media for privileging ideologically flattering, identity-affirming narratives over honest reckonings with inconvenient truths. […] It is a cinematic elaboration of liberal Twitter’s most ideologically flattering, identity-affirming narratives about climate change.
In the film’s populist, polemical account of the ecological crisis, there is no genuine technical or logistical obstacle to neutralizing the threat, no need for Americans to tolerate significant disruptions to their existing way of life, no vexing question of global redistribution, no compelling benefits from ongoing carbon-intensive growth, and thus no rational or uncorrupted opponent of timely climate action. Don’t Look Up casts the conflict between minimizing climate risk and maximizing near-term economic growth as one pitting the interests of billionaires against those of everyone else […] This is a narrative fit for winning the retweets of middle-class American liberals but not for understanding the world we live in or the forces threatening to end it.[…from the nymag thing]
…leaving aside the part where the word “genuine” is doing a deceptive amount of heavy lifting in the first line of that second paragraph (since on the one hand that would head into spoiler territory for the movie & on the other hand I don’t think the nymag piece is necessarily as vapid as douthat’s column)…I think I’d argue that levitz’s formulation of the relevant issues is every bit as “ideologically flattering” a narrative as he bemoans the film for being…with the ideology he flatters being that opposition to “timely climate action” can lay claim to being both rational & uncorrupt…& in order to make that case (which seems to be effectively what he’s engaged in) he opts for this route
There are a lot of reasons why this is a poor allegory for the climate crisis. We’ll focus on four big ones:
1. Climate change provides no do-or-die deadline.
2. The technology necessary for eliminating climate change — at no cost to human flourishing — isn’t fully developed.
3. Rapid decarbonization will require Americans to tolerate real changes to their ways of life. And some have good reason to resist those changes.
4. Vapid news anchors and billionaire political donors are not the primary obstacles to climate action.
…now it would probably be unfair to say he doesn’t have any points to make under those headings that might hold (or perhaps more importantly from his point of view, carry) some water…but it doesn’t take much to invalidate a lot of them if you simply tweak his headings a bit…the last one’s probably the easiest to undermine…in rough & ready terms you just swap out the “not” for “symptoms of”…or if you want a modicum of rigor you could instead say that “the output and influence of vapid news anchors (&/or “journalists” of a similar stripe) and the contribution of billionaire political donors (& in particular the efforts of the fossil-fuel-reliant elements of the lobbying system) provide a convenient shorthand for the primary obstacles to a pervasive understanding of the importance of action to mitigate the unavoidable effects of climate change”…of which, again, more anon
…his third heading I’m inclined to think is potentially home to some decent points…because the first part of it is almost certainly true…& not just for americans…rapid (& especially successful) decarbonization would very probably mean a dramatic alteration to enough of the industrial underpinnings of the world that it would necessarily equate to real changes to how we live our lives given how radical a shift they would appear to demand in terms of the context in which those lives would thus be lived…except he basically doesn’t make those sorts of points…presumably because that would risk invalidating the one he’s actually interested in
In many parts of the U.S., the fossil-fuel industry is the primary, if not only, source of middle-class employment available to non–college graduates. The average annual wage in West Virginia’s coal industry far outstrips that of any other private industry in the state. Over the past decade, shale booms brought high-paying jobs to places long forsaken by industrial capital. At present, green energy does not promise comparable gains. In 2019, the median annual wage for a solar-photovoltaic installer in the U.S. was $44,890, while that of a wind-turbine technician was $52,910. Median wages in the fossil-fuel power sector, by contrast, paid between $70,310 and $81,460. Meanwhile, fossil-fuel construction projects tend to be higher paid and more labor intensive than renewable ones.[…he cites sources from the NYT to vox to something on a substack account…but honestly I couldn’t be bothered to add those links to the quote]
…& I think here might be where the “ideological flattery” got to be too much for me…because we know that one of the things steadfastly obstructing the climate-change-related measures proposed as part of the whole build back better bill is a certain gentleman from west virginia…& the fact that it might seem to his constituents that it’s in their interests to keep things that way (& thereby hold the rest of their nation as somewhat of a hostage to fortune precisely as much of a world in need of concerted action looks to that same nation to provide an example of what that might look like) is not only no accident…it’s essentially the same blame-shifting sleight of hand that has so many people fretting over their personal carbon footprint without providing the context of the one that continues to underwrite the profits of the fossil fuel industries…& those who benefit most directly from those…like that same “gentleman”
And that, for me, was the moment when I realized where one of the big problems lie. Our governments are regulating emissions but not the production of fossil fuels.
You see, climate policy and agreements, they are complicated, but what’s simple is that the majority of emissions that are trapped in our atmosphere today, well, they come from three products: oil, gas and coal. For decades, our countries have been negotiating targets. But behind our backs, the fossil fuel industry has been growing production and locking in further emissions.
I started reaching out to climate policy experts from around the world because I wanted to understand what frameworks exist to negotiate who gets to produce what and how much; what policies help governments regulate, constrain the production side of fossil fuels. I found out that very few do.
I will never forget the day that I sat with the Paris Agreement and I searched for the words fossil fuels, oil, gas, coal. They didn’t appear. Not even once in the world’s climate agreement.
The fossil fuel industry has been successful in making itself invisible. I started reaching out and met with, for several years, the CEOs of major oil companies because I wanted to understand what these CEOs see when they read the science. How can they justify expanding oil and gas at this moment in our history? And also because I believe that there are good people everywhere. There are good people stuck in some bad systems.
What I learned is that they know. They know that we’re going to have to wind down fossil fuel production. But they are all holding out hope that they will be the last barrel sold. Or that unproven technologies, like carbon capture and storage, will allow them to continue to increase production.
The problem is the math just doesn’t add up. We are currently on track today to produce 120 percent more fossil fuels in the next decade than the world should burn if we want to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius. In fact, even if we phased out coal overnight, oil and gas in existing projects would take us beyond 1.5 degrees.
For decades, climate policy has been designed on a theory that we are going to reduce demand, that the price of carbon is going to go up, and the markets turbocharged by alternatives — wind and solar, now cheaper than fossil fuels — well, the markets are going to constrain supply. The problem is it’s not happening. Not fast enough to keep us safe. Why? Because the markets today are distorted, they’re distorted by tax breaks and fossil-fuel subsidies, but also because of the power of the fossil fuel industry. The influence of the industry, who no longer deny climate change. But they have moved from denial to delusion: that technologies that are not yet proven at scale, that are not yet cost-competitive — are going to fix it. In the future.
I’ve spent 30 years running environmental campaigns, I’ve advised multiple governments on climate policy, I’ve been arrested on the blockades, and I’ve negotiated in the boardrooms of some of the largest banks and corporations in the world. And when I figured out that we don’t have a framework for constraining the production of fossil fuels, I thought I was crazy. And so did some of my colleagues. But here’s the thing. Today we are granting permits, we are spending trillions of dollars to increase the production of products that we say we’re transitioning off of. It’s not a transition if we’re still growing the problem. We have more than enough fossil fuels in existing installations, even if we stopped expansion today, of oil, gas and coal in existing projects to use while we carefully manage a phasedown. And so the world is spending its intellectual, its financial, its technical capital to dig up stuff that we know we can’t burn, and if we do, it will burn us.https://www.ted.com/talks/tzeporah_berman_the_bad_math_of_the_fossil_fuel_industry/transcript
…but sure…there’s still “good reason to resist those changes”…& it’s definitely about the poor west viriginian levitz would like to use to tug on a heartstring or two…& have I mentioned I’ve got a lovely bridge I could sell you?
…meanwhile, you might think that some of what that lady talking about bad math (her talk is dated last october, incidentally) has to say shores up levitz’s point #2…after all she seems pretty clear that the “technologies[…]are not yet proven at scale [nor] cost-competitive”…but that isn’t the part of that formulation I’m inclined to take issue with…that would be the implicit privilege contained in the part where he adds the qualifier “at no cost to human flourishing”…because I’d argue that very much depends on how you define those terms…which human(s) would that refer to…& what constitutes flourishing…perhaps he tells us?
But in the real world, there is a genuine trade-off between minimizing climate risk and maximizing near-term human welfare. Don’t Look Up’s obsession with America’s decadent consumerism is, in some respects, narcissistic. The United States has contributed more to the climate crisis than any other nation. But it will likely account for only about 5 percent of global emissions over the coming century. The battle for a sustainable planet will be won or lost in the global South, where carbon-intensive growth is still needed for much more than improved smartphones. More than 700 million humans still don’t have electricity in their homes. In China and India, carbon-powered growth has been steadily liberating the global poor from grievous deprivations. Technological breakthroughs should eventually make it possible to reconcile the competing goods of mitigating climate risk and lifting global living standards. But they aren’t here yet.[…again, I haven’t bothered to include the links to the bits & pieces he cites in that passage]
…kind of him to acknowledge that that the US “has contributed more to the climate crisis than any other nation”…& he may well be right about how “[t]he battle for a sustainable planet will be won or lost in the global south, where carbon-intensive growth is still needed”…but elsewhere in the same piece he also points out that according to his own formulation of all this
If climate change does not threaten to end the world at a predictable date, it also does not threaten all Earth dwellers equally. The warming we’ve already bought ourselves is enough to “end the world” from the perspective of some low-lying island nations. Yet it is possible to imagine the top 10 percent of America’s income distribution living relatively comfortably in a two- (or perhaps even three-) degree-warmer world. Thus, different regions and class strata each have their own discrete (albeit uniformly unknowable) deadlines for action.[…I’m sure tuvalu & its inhabitants are much comforted at the thought that only 90% of america’s income distribution will be seriously inconvenienced by the events that turn their island into a successor to atlantis]
…which is certainly enlightening in view of what immediately precedes it
Contrary to rhetoric popular with some progressive politicians and social-media users, climate change provides us with neither a hard deadline nor a clean binary between success and failure. Environmentalists cannot promise that if we act now, everything will be fine, since we have already burned an unsafe amount of carbon and nothing we do now from here on out is likely to prevent the climate from growing ever more inhospitable for the rest of our lives. Nor can Greens warn that if we don’t act soon, all will be lost. We do not know exactly how much carbon we can burn without tripping over a globally catastrophic tipping point. The United Nations’ 1.5- and two-degree warming targets are informed by science but still inescapably arbitrary. All we really know is that the more we limit warming, the less suffering climate change is likely to produce. At the same time, if our concern is merely for averting near-term human extinction, it’s not actually clear that we need to do anything at all. Today, the business-as-usual emissions path is expected to yield three degrees of temperature rise, a scenario that few scientists consider an existential threat to the human species.[…the use of an article specifically expounding on the extent to which the inevitably imprecise nature of estimates “doesn’t mean we have 12 years to act: it means we have to act now, and even if we do, success is not guaranteed” as a link underlying the phrase “inescapably arbitrary” is surely somewhere between alarmingly obtuse & knowingly mendacious…in case you were wondering why I bothered with the links in that passage…which reminds me…that one about the three degree temperature rise…that’s also an “intelligencer” article…one that uses the phrase “after alarmism” as part of its headline & happens to include a passage that runs to “Already, a future without profound climate suffering has been almost certainly foreclosed by decades of inaction, which means the burden of managing those impacts equitably will be handed down, generation to generation, into an indefinite and contested climate future”…which sounds like an “after” to me…but somewhat implies that the author might not entirely grasp the concept of “alarmism”]
…those last two bits come from within his part about point #1…the lack of a “do or die deadline”…which…at least according to my reading of his own words & sources…seems in fact to translate to one of two things…either there isn’t a deadline he can see because he’s expecting to find in the future what would in fact appear to be in the past…or those sorts of deadlines don’t qualify for the “do or die” label because that “top 10 percent of America’s income distribution” wouldn’t find that the “die” bit applied to them…& therefore we should all be relieved to know that we have nothing to worry about since the “mere” “concern” “for averting near-term human extinction” is satisfactorily achieved by the simple expedient of sticking with “business as usual”
…now, I’m not exactly a big deal in business circles…so maybe that sounds like sour grapes because I’m not sure that 10% has a me-shaped spot in it from which to watch how all this shakes out…& maybe I don’t know a whole hell of a lot about things like famine or agriculture or modern technology…fair enough…that’s part of why I like to quote other people much the same way I prefer not to be the smartest person in the room…so it’s handy for me that there’s a lady called sara menker & that the NYT interviewed her…because she used to work at morgan stanley trading commodities, which I imagine puts her somewhat comfortably in that 10% window even allowing for the fact that she doesn’t do that any more…& although she personally lived a relatively privileged life in its capital she also grew up in ethiopia in the ’80s…so she knows a fair bit about famine…& since 2014 she’s been using AI to model & predict trends in agriculture…& in 2017 she did a TED talk predicting a global food crisis within a decade…so she might know a thing or two about a thing or two…& in that NYT interview there were some passages that it struck me both levitz & douthat could do with knowing about
Yeah. Gro [that would be the business she founded doing that AI stuff] came from the financial crisis. The stock prices of all the banks were about to go to zero, and I had a colleague who literally thought the world was coming to an end. He thought the best hedge to make was buying as much gold as possible. All day long, he’d be buying bars of gold, gold coins, gold ETFs. He also bought a lot of guns. And I’m just like, “What are you doing, dude?” I was just viscerally angry at him for thinking that Morgan Stanley’s stock price going to zero was the end of the world. I was like, “First of all, I know what the end of the world looks like. This ain’t it. And second of all, how are you going to feel when you trade a bar of gold for a sack of potatoes?”
How is it that we’ve been talking about food security for decades, and yet every time I ask a question I’m only getting more questions? Every time I seek an answer and I’m trying to find the data, I can’t find what I need? I became really attached to that problem. And I thought, “What can I do for Africa?” So when I quit, it was basically with this very loosey-goosey idea around, “I’m going to start a company and it’s going to do something around data and agriculture.”
You’ve spoken over the years about sort of a food crisis. Do you still believe that we are facing a global food crisis?
If you look at inflationary pressures around the world today and the amount of food inflation that we’re living through, it’s astonishing. Look at how much food prices are up year on year, even in the U.S., and the U.S. is blessed to be literally self-sufficient in every sense of the word when it comes to food. So when you think about how that translates in a world where currencies are getting decimated because of Covid, and the economic realities that exist, our food systems are just strained. And the reason you have inflation is actually because you’re facing an unprecedented number of supply and demand shocks happening at the same time. If you think of the vegetable oil market and Canada’s drought in the last year, or you look at the price of oats, it’s up like 70 percent year on year, because most production is in Canada.
There’s a structural inability of markets to adjust to this type of thing happening, and those weaknesses still exist, and demand is growing faster than we thought on a per-capita basis. Supply tries to keep up, but it’s sort of just this merry-go-round that we’re living in. We haven’t fixed our systems to deal with that, and that’s what keeps me up at night.https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/07/business/sara-menker-gro-intelligence.html
…now, she gave that TED talk back in ’17…& it’s very possible that we know more about the potential impact on our collective ability to feed the world that climate change might have than would have played a part in the modelling they were doing then…which isn’t what you’d call comforting…because this is what she was saying then
Since 2009, the world has been stuck on a single narrative around a coming global food crisis and what we need to do to avoid it. How do we feed nine billion people by 2050? Every conference, podcast and dialogue around global food security starts with this question and goes on to answer it by saying we need to produce 70 percent more food.
The 2050 narrative started to evolve shortly after global food prices hit all-time highs in 2008. People were suffering and struggling, governments and world leaders needed to show us that they were paying attention and were working to solve it. The thing is, 2050 is so far into the future that we can’t even relate to it, and more importantly, if we keep doing what we’re doing, it’s going to hit us a lot sooner than that.
So here’s my concern. We could have a tipping point in global food and agriculture if surging demand surpasses the agricultural system’s structural capacity to produce food. This means at this point supply can no longer keep up with demand despite exploding prices, unless we can commit to some type of structural change. This time around, it won’t be about stock markets and money. It’s about people. People could starve and governments may fall. This question of at what point does supply struggle to keep up with surging demand is one that started off as an interest for me while I was trading and became an absolute obsession. It went from interest to obsession when I realized through my research how broken the system was and how very little data was being used to make such critical decisions. That’s the point I decided to walk away from a career on Wall Street and start an entrepreneurial journey to start Gro Intelligence.
At Gro, we focus on bringing this data and doing the work to make it actionable, to empower decision-makers at every level. But doing this work, we also realized that the world, not just world leaders, but businesses and citizens like every single person in this room, lacked an actionable guide on how we can avoid a coming global food security crisis. And so we built a model, leveraging the petabytes of data we sit on, and we solved for the tipping point.
Now, no one knows we’ve been working on this problem and this is the first time that I’m sharing what we discovered. We discovered that the tipping point is actually a decade from now. We discovered that the world will be short 214 trillion calories by 2027. The world is not in a position to fill this gap.
So 214 trillion calories is a very large number, and not even the most dedicated of us think in the hundreds of trillions of calories. So let me break this down differently. An alternative way to think about this is to think about it in Big Macs. 214 trillion calories. A single Big Mac has 563 calories. That means the world will be short 379 billion Big Macs in 2027. That is more Big Macs than McDonald’s has ever produced.
So how did we get to these numbers in the first place? They’re not made up. This map shows you where the world was 40 years ago. It shows you net calorie gaps in every country in the world. Now, simply put, this is just calories consumed in that country minus calories produced in that same country. This is not a statement on malnutrition or anything else. It’s simply saying how many calories are consumed in a single year minus how many are produced. Blue countries are net calorie exporters, or self-sufficient. They have some in storage for a rainy day. Red countries are net calorie importers. The deeper, the brighter the red, the more you’re importing. 40 years ago, such few countries were net exporters of calories, I could count them with one hand. Most of the African continent, Europe, most of Asia, South America excluding Argentina, were all net importers of calories. And what’s surprising is that China used to actually be food self-sufficient. India was a big net importer of calories.
40 years later, this is today. You can see the drastic transformation that’s occurred in the world. Brazil has emerged as an agricultural powerhouse. Europe is dominant in global agriculture. India has actually flipped from red to blue. It’s become food self-sufficient. And China went from that light blue to the brightest red that you see on this map.
How did we get here? What happened? So this chart shows you India and Africa. Blue line is India, red line is Africa. How is it that two regions that started off so similarly in such similar trajectories take such different paths? India had a green revolution. Not a single African country had a green revolution. The net outcome? India is food self-sufficient and in the past decade has actually been exporting calories. The African continent now imports over 300 trillion calories a year. Then we add China, the green line. Remember the switch from the blue to the bright red? What happened and when did it happen? China seemed to be on a very similar path to India until the start of the 21st century, where it suddenly flipped. A young and growing population combined with significant economic growth made its mark with a big bang and no one in the markets saw it coming. This flip was everything to global agricultural markets. Luckily now, South America was starting to boom at the same time as China’s rise, and so therefore, supply and demand were still somewhat balanced.
So the question becomes, where do we go from here? Oddly enough, it’s not a new story, except this time it’s not just a story of China. It’s a continuation of China, an amplification of Africa and a paradigm shift in India. By 2023, Africa’s population is forecasted to overtake that of India’s and China’s. By 2023, these three regions combined will make up over half the world’s population. This crossover point starts to present really interesting challenges for global food security. And a few years later, we’re hit hard with that reality.https://www.ted.com/talks/sara_menker_a_global_food_crisis_may_be_less_than_a_decade_away/transcript
Until now, countries with calorie deficits have been able to meet these deficits by importing from surplus regions. By surplus regions, I’m talking about North America, South America and Europe. This line chart over here shows you the growth and the projected growth over the next decade of production from North America, South America and Europe. What it doesn’t show you is that most of this growth is actually going to come from South America. And most of this growth is going to come at the huge cost of deforestation. And so when you look at the combined demand increase coming from India, China and the African continent, and look at it versus the combined increase in production coming from India, China, the African continent, North America, South America and Europe, you are left with a 214-trillion-calorie deficit, one we can’t produce. And this, by the way, is actually assuming we take all the extra calories produced in North America, South America and Europe and export them solely to India, China and Africa.
What I just presented to you is a vision of an impossible world. We can do something to change that. We can change consumption patterns, we can reduce food waste, or we can make a bold commitment to increasing yields exponentially.
…now the good news is that even as recently as that NYT interview she seems to believe that that last bit about increasing yields can plausibly support a global population of 9 billion or so…& people are listening to her at least to the extent that her clients include the likes of the US chamber of commerce…so we got that going for us, I guess…but then “we” also seem to think that NFTs are nifty & cryptocurrency &/or blockchain represents the foundation for some sort of techno-utopian web3…which, to drastically curtail what the new scientist had to say on the matter……basically boils down to “take the world wide web as we know it and add blockchains – the technology behind cryptocurrencies like bitcoin – to everything.”…although I’ve yet to have found myself having to endure douthat’s opinion on the subject…so I suppose that’s another small mercy to be grateful for
While Bitcoin has failed in its stated objectives, it has become a speculative investment. This is puzzling. It has no intrinsic value and is not backed by anything. Bitcoin devotees will tell you that, like gold, its value comes from its scarcity — Bitcoin’s computer algorithm mandates a fixed cap of 21 million digital coins (nearly 19 million have been created so far). But scarcity by itself can hardly be a source of value. Bitcoin investors seem to be relying on the greater fool theory — all you need to profit from an investment is to find someone willing to buy the asset at an even higher price.https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/14/opinion/bitcoin-cryptocurrency-flaws.html
But there is one small snag: the technology that ensures that the NFT you’ve bought is a blockchain similar to the ones that power cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin or Ethereum. And the computation needed to provide the certification that is the USP of blockchains requires massive amounts of electricity, which comes with a correspondingly heavy carbon footprint. A single transaction on the Ethereum blockchain, for example, currently requires 232.51 kWh, which is equivalent to the power consumption of an average US household over 7.86 days.https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jan/08/why-the-climate-wrecking-craze-for-crypto-art-really-is-beyond-satire
…beyond satire…if anyone was wondering that’s why I went off on the blockchain tangent…because it seems that for all that douthat & levitz are in agreement that a massive comet headed inexorably towards an impact that would break our world is apparently too flawed a metaphor not to deserve their scorn…it’s genuinely hard to think of a better one…which might be why even in his putative rewrite it’s one that douthat sticks with…& among the dog-whistle-eque salad of buzzwords & jargon in which he outlines the five acts of his proposed “cut”…which as an aside I also found curious given that unlike, say, shakespeare…pretty much all hollywood movies conform to a three act structure…but I digress…in his first act, after the comet is discovered by “amateur astronomy geeks” amidst data “the government collects but doesn’t bother to examine” along with the “doomsday preppers” the group he has in the vanguard of hyping the oncoming disaster is…wait for it…”techbros”…I’d say you couldn’t make it up but ross is surely giving it the ol’ college try…& somehow by the time we get to act 3 fox news’ vilification of the head of NASA is vindicated when his plan to deal with the threat fails despite the fact that “the mainstream media insists his strategy is simply Science and no serious person could oppose it”…gee, who’d a thunk it?
…then, in another so-sharp-he-may-cut-himself “twist” atomizing the comet by using some of the US’s vast stockpile of nukes also fails on account of “the military having failed to inspect its arsenal because that part of the budget was spent hiring TikTok influencers to do a new recruitment pitch for Gen Z”…before china saves the world (but not a good chunk of the US coast) in that fifth act…just before your intrepid correspondent implies that his little thought experiment would see him needing to attend the oscars…which I’m pretty sure in turn implies he looked at the wrong definition of the term conceit
…anyway…to go back & re-examine the utility of a massive oncoming comet as a climate change metaphor…I found, of all things, a climate scientist who might have a legitimate claim to prior art…he seems like a fairly modest guy…not least since he pointed out (in yet another TED talk…this one from 2012) that a good deal of what underlay his studies was very much what you might call settled science by the time he came along
The greenhouse effect had been well understood for more than a century. British physicist John Tyndall, in the 1850’s, made laboratory measurements of the infrared radiation, which is heat. And he showed that gasses such as CO2 absorb heat, thus acting like a blanket warming Earth’s surface.
I worked with other scientists to analyze Earth climate observations. In 1981, we published an article in Science magazine concluding that observed warming of 0.4 degrees Celsius in the prior century was consistent with the greenhouse effect of increasing CO2. That Earth would likely warm in the 1980’s, and warming would exceed the noise level of random weather by the end of the century. We also said that the 21st century would see shifting climate zones, creation of drought-prone regions in North America and Asia, erosion of ice sheets, rising sea levels and opening of the fabled Northwest Passage. All of these impacts have since either happened or are now well under way.
That paper was reported on the front page of the New York Times and led to me testifying to Congress in the 1980’s, testimony in which I emphasized that global warming increases both extremes of the Earth’s water cycle. Heatwaves and droughts on one hand, directly from the warming, but also, because a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor with its latent energy, rainfall will become in more extreme events. There will be stronger storms and greater flooding. Global warming hoopla became time-consuming and distracted me from doing science — partly because I had complained that the White House altered my testimony. So I decided to go back to strictly doing science and leave the communication to others.
By 15 years later, evidence of global warming was much stronger. Most of the things mentioned in our 1981 paper were facts. I had the privilege to speak twice to the president’s climate task force. But energy policies continued to focus on finding more fossil fuels. By then we had two grandchildren, Sophie and Connor. I decided that I did not want them in the future to say, “Opa understood what was happening, but he didn’t make it clear.” So I decided to give a public talk criticizing the lack of an appropriate energy policy.
I gave the talk at the University of Iowa in 2004 and at the 2005 meeting of the American Geophysical Union. This led to calls from the White House to NASA headquarters and I was told that I could not give any talks or speak with the media without prior explicit approval by NASA headquarters. After I informed the New York Times about these restrictions, NASA was forced to end the censorship. But there were consequences. I had been using the first line of the NASA mission statement, “To understand and protect the home planet,” to justify my talks. Soon the first line of the mission statement was deleted, never to appear again.
Over the next few years I was drawn more and more into trying to communicate the urgency of a change in energy policies, while still researching the physics of climate change.[…]
Adding CO2 to the air is like throwing another blanket on the bed. It reduces Earth’s heat radiation to space, so there’s a temporary energy imbalance. More energy is coming in than going out, until Earth warms up enough to again radiate to space as much energy as it absorbs from the Sun. So the key quantity is Earth’s energy imbalance. Is there more energy coming in than going out? If so, more warming is in the pipeline. It will occur without adding any more greenhouse gasses.
The total energy imbalance now is about six-tenths of a watt per square meter. That may not sound like much, but when added up over the whole world, it’s enormous. It’s about 20 times greater than the rate of energy use by all of humanity. It’s equivalent to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day 365 days per year. That’s how much extra energy Earth is gaining each day. This imbalance, if we want to stabilize climate, means that we must reduce CO2 from 391 ppm, parts per million, back to 350 ppm. That is the change needed to restore energy balance and prevent further warming.
The important point is that these same amplifying feedbacks will occur today. The physics does not change. As Earth warms, now because of extra CO2 we put in the atmosphere, ice will melt, and CO2 and methane will be released by warming ocean and melting permafrost. While we can’t say exactly how fast these amplifying feedbacks will occur, it is certain they will occur, unless we stop the warming. There is evidence that feedbacks are already beginning. Precise measurements by GRACE, the gravity satellite, reveal that both Greenland and Antarctica are now losing mass, several hundred cubic kilometers per year. And the rate has accelerated since the measurements began nine years ago. Methane is also beginning to escape from the permafrost.
What sea level rise can we look forward to? The last time CO2 was 390 ppm, today’s value, sea level was higher by at least 15 meters, 50 feet. Where you are sitting now would be under water. Most estimates are that, this century, we will get at least one meter. I think it will be more if we keep burning fossil fuels, perhaps even five meters, which is 18 feet, this century or shortly thereafter.
The important point is that we will have started a process that is out of humanity’s control. Ice sheets would continue to disintegrate for centuries. There would be no stable shoreline. The economic consequences are almost unthinkable. Hundreds of New Orleans-like devastations around the world. What may be more reprehensible, if climate denial continues, is extermination of species. The monarch butterfly could be one of the 20 to 50 percent of all species that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates will be ticketed for extinction by the end of the century if we stay on business-as-usual fossil fuel use.
Global warming is already affecting people. The Texas, Oklahoma, Mexico heatwave and drought last year, Moscow the year before and Europe in 2003, were all exceptional events, more than three standard deviations outside the norm. Fifty years ago, such anomalies covered only two- to three-tenths of one percent of the land area. In recent years, because of global warming, they now cover about 10 percent — an increase by a factor of 25 to 50. So we can say with a high degree of confidence that the severe Texas and Moscow heatwaves were not natural; they were caused by global warming. An important impact, if global warming continues, will be on the breadbasket of our nation and the world, the Midwest and Great Plains, which are expected to become prone to extreme droughts, worse than the Dust Bowl, within just a few decades, if we let global warming continue.
But instead of placing a rising fee on carbon emissions to make fossil fuels pay their true cost to society, our governments are forcing the public to subsidize fossil fuels by 400 to 500 billion dollars per year worldwide, thus encouraging extraction of every fossil fuel — mountaintop removal, longwall mining, fracking, tar sands, tar shale, deep ocean Arctic drilling. This path, if continued, guarantees that we will pass tipping points leading to ice sheet disintegration that will accelerate out of control of future generations. A large fraction of species will be committed to extinction. And increasing intensity of droughts and floods will severely impact breadbaskets of the world, causing massive famines and economic decline.
…at this point he went with a metaphor…& what do you suppose this guy…who’d been trying to tell people this stuff for upwards of a couple of decades at that point…went with?
Imagine a giant asteroid on a direct collision course with Earth.
That is the equivalent of what we face now. Yet, we dither, taking no action to divert the asteroid, even though the longer we wait, the more difficult and expensive it becomes. If we had started in 2005, it would have required emission reductions of three percent per year to restore planetary energy balance and stabilize climate this century. If we start next year, it is six percent per year. If we wait 10 years, it is 15 percent per year — extremely difficult and expensive, perhaps impossible. But we aren’t even starting.
So now you know what I know that is moving me to sound this alarm. Clearly, I haven’t gotten this message across. The science is clear. I need your help to communicate the gravity and the urgency of this situation and its solutions more effectively. We owe it to our children and grandchildren.
…incidentally, that talk was given in 2012…so we’d be somewhere in that 15% window he mentions at this point…in the end, to go back to that nymag piece, levitz’s thesis as to why the film misses its mark is basically this part
If climate change really were akin to the Dibiasky comet, then McKay’s targets would be well chosen. Which means that if (1) global warming were on the cusp of destroying all human life, (2) Americans could unilaterally eliminate such warming using existing technology, and (3) eliminating warming did not require disrupting status-quo living standards or economic arrangements in any way, then America’s inaction could only be explained by some combination of elite treachery and mass delusion — which is to say by a collective failure to “look up” and acknowledge reality.
…as I imagine is probably obvious at this point I tend to think that in fact the film’s allegory is servicable enough for its purposes…which are at heart allegorical…& I think the most obvious allegory that he misses might be in the title itself…which I’d argue serves as a pretty decent indictment of exactly what he & people like douthat are effectively doing their damnedest to get people to internalize as a guiding principle…which is to say that they’re extremely interested in the idea that you ought to take their word for it…& I know we’re all of us short of time one way or another so that’s a pretty tempting prospect…but in the sense of what used to involve a trip to a decent library & negotiating with a card catalogue & the dewey decimal system…that means they’d rather that you “don’t look up” what people who know what they’re talking about have to say on a subject
…in the case of what led to me cobbling the above together, thanks to reading the available transcripts rather than watching the TED talk videos, that part took me something on the order of an hour of my sunday…which is a lot less time than it took me to type up this particular bit of venting…& I’d argue that one of those things is actually an at least halfway sensible use of one’s time…because if it’s true that “if you don’t decide what you will do with the rest of your life, someone else will decide it for you” then maybe it’s worth deciding if you think “being informed” is better considered as something that happens to you passively…or might be worth approaching actively
…or at least it seems that way to me?