Reasons For Optimism: Why Climate Change is not a ‘Zero Sum Game’

by Jonathan Koomey, via CSR Wire

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” — Henry Ford

The Pessimism Trap

One of my students at Yale in Fall 2009 emerged from my lecture summarizing the climate problem and told me it depressed her. “It seems so hopeless,” she said. I acknowledged that the problem was a daunting one, but explained again why I thought it wasn’t insoluble. And the problem of assuming we can’t fix the problem is that we’ll stop trying things that might actually work.  I call this “the pessimism trap.” If we don’t even try, we’re ensuring the bad results we fear will actually come to pass.

Here’s why I think we can still address the climate issue in a way that avoids catastrophe and preserves reasonable continuity for human society.  That outcome is not guaranteed, of course, but I’m still optimistic that we will, at long last, do the right thing.

By we, I mean first the United States, because most of the rest of the world already takes this issue seriously, and U.S. leadership can transform the current stalemate into real movement. I’m hopeful that Winston Churchill’s reading of the American character was correct when he said “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”

To Break the International Logjam, the U.S. Must Step Up to the Plate

To that end, the U.S. needs to adopt a carbon price, set real emissions targets, and begin aggressive mitigation as soon as possible. It also needs to take the international relations aspect of this problem seriously, because the climate problem can’t be solved without international cooperation, and the recent U.S. public debate (such as it was) almost completely ignores this fact.

Each major country or group of countries could by themselves destroy the climate, so we cannot avoid the need for binding international commitments, but those cannot come about without real progress in the US, which stands today as the biggest roadblock to prompt global action.

The Chinese have already indicated, by their substantial investments in renewable energy production, that they are prepared to build the technologies of the future (and to beat us in that game).  If we make a real commitment to meet the constraints of the Safer Climate case, we can give the Chinese a real run for their money, and that’s a race in which the whole planet wins.  Once we realize that this isn’t a “zero sum game”, it opens up possibilities that we haven’t thought of before.

Aggressive Climate Action Easier Than We Think

There is a tendency in formal modeling assessments of the climate problem towards pessimism about the future, as I discussed in Chapters 3 and 4 of Cold Cash, Cool Climate. Our own cognitive limitations make us unable to fully evaluate all of the options before us, and as has been shown many times before, any evaluation of options that excludes important ones will underestimate the possibilities for action and overestimate its cost.

But of course, we always exclude important possibilities (because we can’t think of everything), so this bias is systemic. In addition, the methods used in these analyses embed structural rigidities in the forecasts that wouldn’t actually be present in a world aggressively pursuing the Safer Climate case, like assuming that institutional behavior and the structure of property rights remain constant.

They also ignore critical factors like increasing returns to scale, which make emissions reductions significantly easier as long as we start down a path of implementation that is a promising one. So aggressive climate action will almost certainly be easier than we think, although by no stretch of the imagination should effort at the required level be called “easy”.

Rethinking Our Energy System From the Ground Up

It is for all these reasons that I strongly advocate the “working forward toward a goal” approach to evaluating this problem, which embodies the “can do” spirit of most entrepreneurs and frees us from the mostly self-imposed constraints that prevent us from envisioning a radically different future.

Humans are smart and innovative, and when challenged with a clear goal we almost invariably figure out a way to meet it. We also have at our disposal new tools that give us unprecedented power to reduce emissions and generate wealth at the same time.

For example, the renewable resource base – solar and related sources plus geothermal – is much larger than current human needs, and the last few decades of developments in renewable energy technology can allow us to move past combustion.

But to do so we’ll need to rethink our energy system from the ground up.

We’ll need to radically improve our efficiency of energy use and rely on whole system integrated design to help us get there, tapping increasing returns to scale, exploiting information and communications technology (particularly mobile ICT), and fundamentally altering our institutions.  We’ll also need to rethink the structure of property rights, not just related to climate risks but to broader issues of sustainability (that’s one lever that is usually ignored but has great power to alter the economy’s direction).

Making Fossil Fuels Redundant

To paraphrase former CIA director Jim Woolsey, our goal is to turn fossil fuels into salt. In the old days, salt was an incredibly expensive strategic commodity because it was essential for preservation of meat. Now we buy a pound of it for less than a dollar in the supermarket. That’s because technology has put salt in its place — refrigeration now makes salt obsolete for this previously essential application, and we need to do the same for fossil fuels.

As I explained in Chapter 1 of Cold Cash, Cool Climate, there’s now no doubt that human choices can have consequences that reverberate through generations. With every action, with every day we live, we create the future. Of course, forces beyond human control also have influence, but it is how our choices relate to these external events that determine the outcome.

Of course, this realization cuts both ways.

On one hand, our current path has terrible consequences for the earth and for human society, but on the other hand, it means that there’s nothing preordained about the path we’re on. We have the capacity to change, learn, grow, and alter course, and now’s the time to do it. Ultimately it’s up to us to choose the kind of world we want for our children and grandchildren, and defeatist pessimism is in the way. I, for one, refuse to let it get the better of me.

Jonathan Koomey is a Professor at Stanford University and an expert on the economics of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of information technology on resource use. This piece was originally published at CSR Wire and was reprinted with permission.

54 Responses to Reasons For Optimism: Why Climate Change is not a ‘Zero Sum Game’

  1. red admiral says:

    I generally agree, blind adherence to anything is counterproductive.

    On the other hand the ‘pessimist’ is usually better informed. Science supports the statement ‘optimism is proportional to the inverse of knowledge’, and more recently, that the less educated more vehemently defend themselves from situations that would serve to enlighten.

    If the corporate representatives we call politicians would actually engage in a meaningful conversation now and again I would feel differently, and even hold some reserved optimism.

    I suspect the longer we keep putting the message “It’s not too late” out there, the longer we have to sit around and do nothing meaningful to slow, much less stop or reverse the trends of unprecedented ecological disruption, climate destabilization, resource depletion, and habitat degradation, all for diminishing marginal return and exacerbated by unchecked population growth.

    I have absolute confidence industrial humans could stop climate change, but in my mind it is useless to study the problem in isolation. It is a system of systems in which everything that stirs, stirs everything else from global economic collapse onward. Most of us want solutions that would allow us to keep on keepin’ on without massive social change.

    I for one would like to see a more meaningful, balanced discussion of solutions (not only technological ones) on this blog in tandem with a greater awareness of peak oil and the implications of investments in ever-greater complexity. Instead what I too often find here is the other end of the very spectrum this article is talking about, blind techno-optimism.

  2. Brooks Bridges says:

    Yes! It’s all so doable. Have to put head in vise at times.

    “working forward toward a goal” or Stehen Covey’s version: “Begin with the end in mind”. And Ford’s quote, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

    A very important post with wonderful links. Should be required reading for Revkin and company.

    Thank you

  3. Ken Barrows says:


    No, I don’t want everyone to freeze (see weekend open thread)to death. Maybe the USA should adopt all the recommendations of the expert. However, the “optimism trap” of thinking a change in technology is going to make everything okay without any other changes brings the lemmings to the edge of the cliff.

  4. Paul Klinkman says:

    China is no angel. They buy gigatons of U.S. coal and then the carbon dioxide drifts back to us eventually. They have a national monopolistic goal of stomping all U.S. solar panel manufacturers out of business, and they back up their goal with $30 billion in interest-free loans for the monopolizing business, no pollution constraints and lots of other government goodies.

    Don’t call an inventor an “entrepreneur”, please!

    Feeding entrepreneurs little cookies while a conga line of bureaucrats spout platitudes is no substitute for a government policy that actively gets meritorious inventions and innovations through the two valleys of death to market. Unfortunately a solid majority of Congress is stone deaf. Ask the Koch brothers why that might be so.

  5. Rah, rah, rah!

    Okay, so now that self-selected Coach Koomey has given us a nice swishy pep talk, we’re all smiley and optimistic. We can go out and run faster, talk smarter, fight harder, and win one of the Gipper.

    Yes, I agree, we should be optmistic in terms of the possibilities – because careful analysis shows that a full sweep of aggressive and appropriate emissions reductions wedges can technically slow the growth of the greenhouse effect in time to prevent the higher levels of climate catastrophe.

    But Coach, we don’t just need a pep talk of branded buzzwords.

    We need real next steps to change the intransigence of U.S. economic, political, and bureaucratic elites. Their continued heads in the sand are a relatively solid basis for informed pessimism, much more than the scope of technical challenges.

    As an aside, that’s why I think the grand coalition of the willing is such a profoundly important approach to start change scaling upward, and to leverage the influence of informed and caring elites.

    Whether one sees the potential of the grand coalition or not… We need a better next step than ‘the US must step up to the plate’. I think most of us – most people in the US, and worldwide – know that piece already.

  6. Jamie Ross says:

    It’s certainly doable in technical terms. That is not the problem.

    The problem is the people that really own this country don’t want to do it.

    How do we get US elites on board?

  7. DRT says:

    Suppose for a moment that we change the intransigence of U.S. economic, political, and bureaucratic elites, and have a grand coalition. Now we can implement new policy. What should the policy be? Yes, we have to stop burning stuff. Yes, a tax on CO2 (Pete Stark/Citizen’s Climate Lobby) is a good start but is it sufficient? Can you apply integrated design to policy and come up with a wholistic, systematic policy that does what is necessary to get the job done?

    It seems to me that we have to apply the GHG tax or fee not only to fossil fuel as it comes out of the ground or is imported, but to emitted or embedded C02 equivalents no matter what the source. The planet does not care whether the GHG is CO2 from my tailpipe or other GHGs produced in the production of solar panels, right? So what is the policy that covers all of it?

  8. Jan says:

    Wonderful Buddhist saying, “To rely on others is to be uneasy”. Nuff said.

  9. john atcheson says:

    Although it’s nice to see a little optimism, the problem has never been that we can’t meet this challenge — we can, and at very low to no cost.

    The problem has been that we won’t solve it, not that we can’t.

    I’ll feel optimism when I see Democrats speaking out on the issue; when I see the news media ridiculing deniers and setting the record straight. rather than reinforcing this faux debate.

    And I see no sign of this. Obama has mentioned this issue exactly once — in an interview with Rolling Stone. The New York Times and most media still seek “balanced” reporting on the issue — which is achieved by putting whacked out iconoclasts with no expertise on an even footing with men and women who have devoted their lives to understanding climate; they continue to misreport stories …

    So, yeah, we CAN solve this. But WILL we?

    Hard to be optimistic about that.

  10. The author states that “Each major country or group of countries could by themselves destroy the climate”. I would like someone, Europe or the USA to put major pressure on Canada. Or more specifically, the Alberta Tar Sands. Besides the fact that getting at the Tars Sands is one of the most environmentally destructive processes ever, there is enough oil up there to account for nearly half of the “carbon budget” that limits the world to 2 degrees of warming.

  11. John McCormick says:

    Is optimism our denial of what we know is coming?

  12. Lollipop says:

    With all due respect, while you are encouraging us to be optimistic about the likelihood something will change and we will avert an even greater disaster, the denialist folks are having a hayday over the latest silliness from Watts et al. I would love to be optimistic. But as long as Watts and his ilk are out there muddying the debate at the behest of the fossil fuel interests, I see no chance we will do anything at all. A Gallup poll today only strengthens my position:

    Also, as nice as it would be to think that implementing a carbon neutral economy would be easy and even profitable, the fact remains that the technologies we need are still expensive, our infrastructure still geared for coal and oil, and our expectations still set on constant growth. That is a heck of a lot to change very quickly.

    I wish I could be optimistic, but I don’t see how optimism is a reality based position.

  13. Just to a little more detail, the specific strategy I was referring to is “a grand coalition of the willing,” discussed here:

    And originally presented at length in Nature Climate Change:
    Bridging the Greenhouse-Gas Emissions Gap
    Kornelis Blok, Niklas Höhne, Kees van der Leun & Nicholas Harrison
    Nature Climate Change 2, 471–474 (2012) doi:10.1038/nclimate1602

    The concept is roughly….

    1) There isn’t enough consensus in the US and around the world to implement strong price signals or regulatory limits for GHG reductions.

    2) Worse, it’s looking like by the time such a functional majority has formed, we will probably have put out too much GHG and it will be too late.

    That’s what’s been keeping me up at night.

    3) A sizable minority of governments, organizations, and individuals, understand the problem and are willing to act now.

    4) If those entities worked together for mutal coordination and support, and JUST DO WHAT THEY (WE) HAVE CONTROL OVER, then (calculations shown in the paper) they (we) can do enough between now and 2020 to keep the planet on track to survival.

    5) This is a stopgap, literally. Big polluters still have to be stopped, and many systems need deep upgrading and reform. Consumption for its own sake needs to replaced by a sustainable concept of deep prosperity. Etc.

    In other words, there is still plenty of fighting that needs to happen.

    The breakthrough concept, as I see it, is that we don’t have to wait to win those fights (with the sad help of worsening global conditions) in order to be on the GHG downward glide path of about 5% reduction per year, from now to 2020.

    If we can survive the gap, there’s a good chance that elite consensus will come around. If we work that gap with a “grand coalition of the willing” – instead of waiting to win big fights as the way to accelerate mitigation – then when elite consensus comes around, it won’t be too late.

  14. Mike 22 says:

    In reply to most of the comments above, I would point out that effective action to date has been lacking because the people lack knowledge of this crisis.

    Those of us (most or all I’ll wager) who have worked educate on this topic will know just how ignorant most people are on this emergency.

    Consider what happens when the majority of voters understand this issue. When people understand this is about the survival of their children and their children’s children.

  15. John McCormick says:

    Mike22, when the majority of voters come to understand what is happening to the earth’s climate, when they understand this is about the survival of their children and their children’s children it will be way past time to react.

  16. M Tucker says:

    Michael Mann from CP post of 4/23/12

    “There’s a tendency for people to be so overwhelmed by the challenge and the threat of climate change that they go from concern to despair. They shouldn’t. While some warming is already locked in, there’s still time to turn the ship around. We can still limit our emissions in the decades to come in a way that prevents some of the most serious impacts of climate change from occurring.”

    In the decades to come…prevents some of the most serious impacts…

    That statement does not give me a whole heap of confidence BUT I say we start with ending CO2 and work our way down to the other GHG’s. I say no matter how long it takes to eliminate CO2 emissions WE MUST NOT GIVE UP! I say no matter how serious the impacts WE MUST NOT GIVE UP! But I also say we had better prepare all future generations for serious impacts. Especially the ones who are “locked in.” You know, that generation of young folks that will reach childbearing age by about 2030, you know, the largest group of adolescents humans have ever produced in our long and vaunted history so far, you know the ones already in the pipeline, the same ones who seem particularly disengaged from taking action…they had better be prepared for the worst.

    I sure wish Dr Mann, or some other respected expert, would give us a clear idea of exactly what he means by: “In the decades to come, we can still limit our emissions in a way that prevents some of the most serious impacts of climate change from occurring.” It causes me to think he is thinking of a special way to limit emissions that has not been discussed so far. It makes me think that he is saying that even if we get to 450 ppm of CO2 the serious impacts will still not have kicked in yet. It makes me think he is saying that a decade long drought in the American Southwest and Southeast will not lead to impacts that are serious enough to disrupt food and water supply in the US…


    But don’t give up!

  17. SecularAnimist says:

    This article seems written as though the problem is “pessimism” about the difficulty of the task of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy.

    But that task itself is not particularly difficult. In fact it is far easier, and can be accomplished at far lower cost, and much faster, than most people imagine — and will bring innumerable benefits to humanity in addition to eliminating CO2 emissions.

    It’s not the task itself that is the source of pessimism.

    The source of pessimism is the enormously powerful opposition to even seriously beginning that task — the opposition of the fossil fuel corporations, who intend to reap every last trillion dollars they possibly can from continuing business-as-usual consumption of their products for as long as they can, regardless of the effect on the Earth’s climate.

    To make fossil fuels “redundant” means putting the wealthiest and most powerful corporations in the world out of business, and redirecting trillions of dollars in wealth to other sectors of the industrial economy. It means breaking the death-grip of the fossil fuel corporations on US energy policy. That’s the challenge.

  18. I agree with you when you say

    “Most of us want solutions that would allow us to keep on keepin’ on without massive social change.

    I for one would like to see a more meaningful, balanced discussion of solutions (not only technological ones) on this blog in tandem with a greater awareness of peak oil and the implications of investments in ever-greater complexity. ”

    We are going to have to squarely face the social and institutional changes that are needed to reduce emissions substantially, and many of these won’t be easy. If you look at the rest of Cold Cash, Cool Climate, I think you’ll find a clear eyed assessment of the political and other difficulties ahead.

    However, you have erred when you seem to accuse me of “blind techno-optimism”. Those who are familiar with my work know I’m about as realistic as they come when addressing the climate challenge. I’ve been working at it since the late 1980s, so have seen lots of ebbs and flows in the issue. And I’m especially interested in the limitations of real-world policies to effect changes.

    The point of this piece was to counteract defeatist thinking that can cause those working on the issue to become downtrodden and lose heart. We need to give it our best, and keep telling the truth about the problem. The world will eventually come around.

    Politics on some issues can change rapidly under the right conditions, and I’m hopeful that they will for this issue also. But that means organizing, which is why I have grown increasingly supportive of the work of Bill McKibben and We need to create a political force to counteract the nonsense from the other side, so when circumstances start changing the debate (like the drought in the midwest) then we’re ready to show people the path forward. To quote Commander Taggert from Galaxy Quest: “Never give up, never surrender!”

  19. Ken,

    I think you’re on to something by calling out “the optimism trap”. This is a very important concept that can stand next to the pessimism trap. I will think about how to frame it. If you’ve written anything on this I’d love to read it, and will reference whatever you’ve written if I do a post on it.


  20. Kevin,

    Some people DO need a pep talk now and then, and this article is for them.

    And I don’t think “most people” really understand 1) that the US needs to step up to the plate and 2) what stepping up to the plate really means. If we start down a low emissions path then China will start to build more low emissions technologies and drive the world further down the cost curve (because of learning by doing). Then we can begin bilateral negotiations with them (and perhaps reach deals with a few other large countries that are not now moving in the right direction) and break the stalemate.

    As I describe elsewhere in Cold Cash, Cool Climate, the world is path dependent and dominated by increasing returns to scale. That means that as soon as we start to act we open up possibilities that we couldn’t even conceive of before, and that’s a different way to think about the problem than is generally used by academic modelers of the economic costs of emissions reductions.

    If we don’t act, there’s little reason for China to move first, but as soon as we do, they can’t hide behind us anymore (and the fact that they are now the largest emitter means that hiding won’t work for very long in any case).


  21. That is exactly the right question. And the answer is “organize!”. We need to amass political power by creating a global movement, just like Bill McKibben says.

  22. It’s important to understand that there is no one overarching policy that can fix this problem, because we can’t predict in advance what will work and what won’t (I talk about the limitations of our foresight in chapter 4 of Cold Cash, Cool Climate). That means we need to try a lot of things, fail fast, and do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. This is an empirical and evolutionary approach to the problem, and it’s one that accepts the path dependent nature of the world in which we live. Learning by doing only happens if we DO, so taking action is where the focus needs to be. Then we need to evaluate and learn from our mistakes.

    I think of this problem as an evolutionary test that humans will need to pass to move to the next stage of societal development. I hope and expect we’ll rise to the challenge, but it means defeating some powerful political forces. We have truth and numbers on our side, but they have money, and lots of it. Personally, I’d rather be us than them, but it will be a hard fight.

  23. No, optimism in this context is in knowing that the cause is worth fighting for, and that the world isn’t destroyed yet. We can still make the changes that are needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change, but they aren’t going to be easy. It’s just important not to get discouraged along the way, which is why I wrote this piece.

  24. The reality of what we face is gradually sinking in. I view the recent McKibben piece in Rolling Stone as a milestone, because it sums up the issue about as clearly as can be:
    I’ve been working on this issue since the late 1980s. Back in 1989, we published the first comprehensive analysis of the implications of the 2 degrees C warming limit: 1. Krause, Florentin, Wilfred Bach, and Jon Koomey. 1989. From Warming Fate to Warming Limit: Benchmarks to a Global Climate Convention. El Cerrito, CA: International Project for Sustainable Energy Paths.
    It took 20 years before the G8 nations accepted this normative target in 2009, but the reality of what that target means is just starting to sink in, and that’s why McKibben’s piece is so important. It really lays bare the delusions of the people who think we can burn even all the proved fossil reserves, never mind the resources that are much larger. I explore this issue in some detail in my piece on “Why fossil fuel abundance is an illusion”:

  25. “Never give up, never surrender!”

    We’ve known for a long time (in broad outlines) what to do, but there are limits to how much the path ahead can be specified. That’s because the world is path dependent and dominated by learning by doing effects. So our choices tomorrow depend on our actions today.

    Mann doesn’t have a secret plan, it’s all pretty clearly laid out in the literature. If you look at Joe’s posts on how to solve the climate problem, you’ll have a good top-line summary of what’s needed. For example:

  26. One more comment: The audience for this piece is more the people working on this issue who sometimes get discouraged. I completely agree that the fossil fuel funded denial machine is a huge problem, which is why we need more political organization to fight back.

  27. M Tucker says:

    As Joe says frequently, “the time to act was a long time ago.” The wedge solutions need to be implemented now…not happening.

    By the time big government steps in to attempt to solve this we will all be suffering food, water, and energy shortages or much much higher prices. The future looks grim. Especially if it takes decades.

  28. Merrelyn Emery says:

    So far nobody has picked up on restructuring property rights. I know of no other country that has allowed individuals or companies to own so much of what is normally regarded as common property or the commons. Redefining the limits of private property, and/or rationing and regulating the use of the commons such as water, food, land etc is going to be necessary sooner rather than later and it seems to me, will fly in the face of many USA citizens’ most cherished belief systems, ME

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I agree with everything you say. It’s a real Catch-22, that defeatist pessimism means catastrophe becomes more and more likely, whereas optimism produces a deadly inertia, that we still have time to prevaricate. We must act, now and without delay, but the political system stands in our way. Until the genocidists are removed from power, once and for all, every effort will be sabotaged.Just look at the destruction of the green consensus by the Rightwing Cameron regime in the UK, despite his oleaginous lies to lead the ‘greenest ever Government’. Look at Harper in Canada, look at both your parties and look to poor, self-deluded Australia (currently enjoying a group funk over ‘Olympic failure’)where a whole coterie of ferociously anti-Green regimes have come to power. We can still save ourselves, but we must first remove the Rightwing genocidal obstructionists. That’s a recipe for tremendous social upheaval, but it is the absolutely unavoidable requirement. This global salvage operation will be hard enough without a morally deranged Fifth Column sabotaging every effort.

  30. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Techno-optimism’ is part and parcel of the Right’s ‘cornutopian’ variant of denialism. They envisage a techno-fix to allow them to go on consuming mindlessly and piling up great wealth, forever. It’s a form of quasi-religious delusion, with technology like a Messiah who descends to save the elect, who are raptured to techno-heaven, while the rabble, the ‘moochers’ as the fragrant Ayn Rand dubbed the 99%, are left to scrabble and die in the 1%’s excrement.

  31. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    China is the largest emitter because Western states have transferred their industry there, to produce goods consumed in the West. And Chinese per capita emissions remain low compared to the West, and their share of historical emissions is even lower. Moreover China is rapidly reducing the emissions intensity of its production. Undoubtedly, geo-politics being what it is, picking on China is a negative development. We need international collaboration, not diktat. No US politician appreciates being lectured by other countries, so how can they expect any different from a country that has experienced the greatest economic leap in human history. The Chinese might even imagine that their opinions and experiences have some worth and might be useful to others.

  32. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I agree that ‘big polluters have to be stopped’, but, how? Considering that these polluters represent the greatest accumulation of wealth and power in history, and control politics, business and the MSM, how do you stop them, if, as they ever have up until now, they simply refuse to do so? I think that is the crucial question, and its resolution lies as much in the twists and turns of human psyches as it does in the brute realities of economic and political power.

  33. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Enlightenment is to rely on others and feel no unease.

  34. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You are quite correct, but, don’t forget, reality is overrated. Think like Karl Rove, who derided the ‘reality-based community’ or whatever the quote is. We need to make our own reality, like the merry men of the Bush Home for the Morally Suspect. If you remain optimistic, you still die, but at least you die happy, and not of one of those nasty diseases that feed off misery and despair. As for posterity, well, let’s hope they learn some lessons from our experience, although human history makes it hard to be optimistic. Perhaps a group ‘near death experience’ will be the making of us as a species.

  35. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    John –
    I’d agree that the issue is neither one of technology nor of lack of information at the core of the decision-making establishment. Both of those doors are effectively blocked from generating action by some prior consideration.

    Given that just as much amoral power is held in countries around the world by fossil fuel companies as in the US – (mostly far more given their relative scale)
    and given the successes around the world in agreeing and legislating for climate action – (e.g. it’s now a legal requirement in the UK to cut GHG output by at least 3%/yr)
    the idea of the fossil lobby being allowed to dictate a US policy of inaction that is massively against US interests
    – not a generation hence but plainly visible in parched grainfields and charred forests today –
    seems like well designed and well propagandized bullshit. That ‘prior consideration’ is not about the fossil lobby’s preferences but about a greater perceived US national interest.

    I think you’ll be well aware of the significance of the allocation of national carbon emission rights under a global carbon budget, the inevitable need for which was mutually acknowledged at Copenhagen in the form of the agreed 2.0C ceiling on warming. For those who may not be aware of the allocations’ significance, it’s worth noting that under a declining global carbon budget, nations whose present high carbon outputs mean they’ll use more than their allocated rights will be buying in permits from those with surplus – thus effectively raising the cost of their fossil energy for up to 40 years or so. How the carbon rights/entitlements/permits get allocated is thus hugely important for nations’ competitiveness. And that importance is multiplied for the US, with both its very high accustomed fossil fuel use and its economy now within 6 years of being exceeded by that of China, threatening the end of its global dominance.

    So just how important is the allocation of national emission rights ? This is maybe best answered by pointing out that every administration since WW2 has, without exception, had the maintenance of US global dominance as its paramount priority.

    The US is thus in a bind – fearing what climate destabilization will do to the global economy and to America, and fearing what the treaty essential to resolving it might do to US economic competitiveness and so to its chances of maintaining global dominance. It seems very clear that other major nations will not sign up to an allocation that is less than equitable between the nations, and that all nations also need the treaty to be efficient in operation. By far the most widely adopted framework for an equitable and efficient treaty (that govts representing more than half the global population have based their negotiating stances on) is that of “Contraction and Convergence”, whereby while the annual carbon budget contracts over the years, the nations’ carbon emission rights converge from present usage levels to international per capita parity by an agreed date.

    A major block in getting global agreement is the US refusal to include historical emissions in the accounting – which others insist on – but, given good faith, this is readily soluble by an agreement that all nations will undertake verifiable carbon recovery projects to sequester their historic outputs entirely by say 2100. (Depending on the degree to which carbon is recovered in an economically valuable form, this might actually be done at a relatively minor cost).

    For twelve years we’ve have a standoff, with zero interest being shown by the White House as a signal to China of its steadfast will, but this is not a static position since climate destabilization is advancing, and raising the threat to the Chinese govt of widespread crop failure and food price inflation generating untenable political instability. It seems entirely predictable that if the present course was maintained, then when the Chinese population faces sufficiently severe shortages, the govt could be overthrown – at which point China’s bid for global dominance would be over.

    However both America and other nations would be extremely hard hit, and perhaps irretrievably damaged, by allowing climate destabilization to run that far, and there is no certainty at all of the efficacy of US capacity in sulphate geo-engineering as a viable backstop to control the interactive feedbacks’ further expansion.

    Given both the reality of international power rivalries and the critical significance of the treaty allocations, it seems to me that activists have been pushing for years against the wrong door by assuming fossil fuel money was the prime obstruction – i.e. that they’ve been pushing at pile of wood made to look like a door but with a solid stone wall behind it.

    So in answer to your question – “We can solve this – but will we ?”
    I’d have to say that it depends on whether we shift the pressure from the diversionary focus on denialist fossil corporations onto the real objective of demanding that the White House put an end to the shameful Bush policy of a ‘brinkmanship of inaction’ and get on and negotiate an equitable and efficient treaty – that includes the necessary carbon recovery program. – And as the legislature well knows, the US president has full executive authority to sign a treaty including, if he sees fit, terms to heavily penalize the global trade of any nation signing but failing to ratify it within an agreed period.

    As to how soon we achieve that refocusing of campaigning, well that rather depends on how soon the effectiveness of strategy to date gets reviewed, to see whether all the years of effort have somehow been deflected into achieving nothing much at all . . .



  36. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Merrelyn, the Right has been determined to privatise everything for years. The sorry example of our own country is proof of that. The Right despise everything ‘public’ and will destroy it all eventually, if allowed. The USA is the template, the brutish, Hobbesian dystopia of ‘the war of all against all’, that is the global Right’s ‘shining city on a hill’. There is a very simple pathopsychological reality that underlies all Rightwing thinking and action-fear and hatred of other human beings.

  37. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Mulga, people fear others only when they are separate from others and literally see them as ‘other’. That is the result of the first genotypical design principle which is almost totally dominant in the USA, to the point where many cannot even believe it is possible to have an alternative.

    However, it was not always that way in the USA and one of its main challenges now is to recover its historical, cooperative ‘barn raising’ ethic. I think they can do it but it will be a struggle for many, ME

  38. Lollipop says:

    I just got back from Kroger and between the high cost of food (really high for this area!) and the brown corn and drooping soy, we might be getting there. Three families dropped out of my daughters preschool class year because they couldn’t afford the gas. I just wonder when and how these people will wake up! We don’t have the excuse urban people have about being detached from the land. Plenty of people live in sweltering metal boxes with unreliable air conditioners. People here garden, they hunt, they live off the land quiet literally as farmers. How can they not see it?

  39. DRT says:

    Thanks for your response here and throughout this post. I understand your point about the limitations of foresight, learning by doing, evaluating and moving on.
    (I read your book already, I quite liked it. I’ll give it another go to make sure I got it.) Also I appreciate this post in general. For me it had the desired effect and made me maybe a little less discouraged.

    About my comment above, I think maybe I have not been clear. Maybe policy is not the right word. So I’ll try this. What is the mechanism by which you evaluate the relative success of one venture versus another, where success means reduction in GHG ouput? Then how do you encode that mechanism so that it can be applied evenly across the board?

    Mark Bittman tonight on Marketplace on NPR stated “The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has estimated almost 20 percent of greenhouse gases are attributable to the raising of animals for food….Some researchers claim the real number is more like 50 percent.”

    So from a policy perspective, one policy being advocated is fee and dividend and no doubt fee and dividend would have an impact on meat production, but would the fee get applied to all the GHGs associated with meat production. If it did not then can you really fairly evaluate the GHG contribution of meat production vs. say cement production.

  40. Yes, property rights represent a key degree of flexibility that most people don’t consider, but altering their structure offers many way to change the game so that the more sustainable choices are also the more profitable ones. Most folks assume the way they are now is the way they have to be, but they are a human construct, and can be altered to help guide us towards a better society.

    I’ve written about this several times. Here are two good examples:

  41. Gillian King says:

    I guess it’s easy to feel pessimistic in the US, but here in the southern hemisphere the picture looks a little different.

    Afterall, despite itself, the US cut carbon emissions more than any other country in the world in recent years — down 7.7 percent since 2006. By the end of 2012, US carbon emissions will be the same as in 1996.

    And South Korea recently implemented a carbon price with a vote of 146 in favour and 4 abstaining. Practically unanimious.

    BTW, the article had some interesting ideas, but if Jon thinks he can cheer anyone up by recommending that “the US must step up to the plate” he’s not thinking straight. Martin Seligman has a good understanding of the foundations for optimism. One thing he recommends is to spend time every day dwelling on the gains/positives. Examples of action lets you do exactly this.

  42. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Well argued Jonathan and all power to you, ME

  43. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Gillian, the USA has suffered one of the greatest economic downturns on the globe and is struggling to recover. In addition, it has exported a great deal of its industrial base in its corporate chase for cheaper wages and less regulation. When you take all this into account, its domestic reduction in emissions looks rather less noteworthy, ME

  44. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    That would be the Martin Seligman who established the theory of ‘learned helplessness’ by torturing dogs with electric shocks, then readily offered his expertise to the US and Israeli intelligence forces after 9/11, with catastrophic effects seen at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and unseen in many other places. I’m afraid I’d be wary of accepting any advice from such a source.

  45. Andy Hultgren says:

    Agreed. Politics is reactionary. Especially American politics, especially right now.

    Organization and movement-building are a must. Period.

    Wondering how to strategically invest your time? Here’s a start:
    1) Talk to your family about global warming and climate change. Explain the basics of the science to them, the consequences of not addressing the issue, and the solutions that already exist.
    2) Repeat for your friends.
    3) Repeat for your coworkers.
    4) ORGANIZE: By this point, you’ve had lots of practice talking to lots of people and you’ve worked out some of the kinks in your talking points. You’ve also found some people who are like-minded, maybe some you didn’t know felt that way. Get all those people together and start organizing to influence your immediate community. Your local government. And talk about voting in State/Federal elections.

    Regarding avenues for influencing local government, I wrote a white paper on the topic for which they posted during a busy time and unfortunately bungled the formatting. However, I’d be happy to email it to anyone interested – just contact me at andyhultgren at gmail dot com.

  46. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Jonathan – that’s a very nicely written and well justified morale raiser. Eventually I guess most campaigners come to realize that the task is worth doing, regardless of the probability of success. But before that point people suffer and lose focus when hope is dimmed, so a regular supply of inspirational texts is actually an operationally valuable resource.

    With regard to restructuring property rights I should be interested to hear your views on the appropriate framework for the allocation of national emission rights under the essential global carbon budget. I’m regularly amused by the proponents of ‘cap & fee’ who innocently urge the distribution of revenues raised from fossil permits to everybody (that is everyone in the US) when in fact they’re calling for the sharing of stolen goods – since most of the atmospheric space used by emissions under a unilateral US initiative on carbon undoubtedly rightly belongs to people of other nations. In terms of equity, and overlooking historic emissions for a moment, the size of America’s population justifies its use of only 5% of the atmospheric space available.

    So how do you envisage the sharing of the global carbon budget between the nations ?



  47. Solar Jim says:

    Jon, thanks for your work on this “issue.” I tend to agree with many, like Mulga, that it is not technocratic. Rather, it is political, due to the inherent aspect of nation-state oligarchic competition based on “fuels-of-war,” which are at the heart of nation-state power paradigms in several fundamental regards. These include mechanized power for “defense,” the corrupt political power of money and the usual arrogance, ignorance and greed.

    Further, the speed of required organizing would seem to require revolution, even based on Bill’s analysis. That is because the (questionably) asserted stated “budget” of 565 gigaton carbon dioxide in that article would seem to be 154 gigaton CARBON (in the ground). Which implies exceeding the asserted temperature limit (2C) into oblivion in little more than a decade (assuming 10 gigaton carbon accelerating emissions today). Based on the science of paleoclimatology, many researchers (Yale, Princeton, UCLA, etc.) estimate we are headed there already at today’s concentration.

    Let’s hope (ah optimism) global socio-political momentum is not as permanently entrenched as the unalterable biogeochemical momentum of the earth system. We seem to live in a time of thresholds, and most understand the “globalized” governance system is rigged for corruption. Only a political threshold, not a technocratic one, might save us now.

  48. Solar Jim says:

    RE: “It’s important to understand that there is no one overarching policy that can fix this problem”

    That is your opinion and seems to assume an ideological bias. For example, if igniting mined petrochemicals were phased out as illegal (like slavery) because of immorality of that activity, then one could indeed make some projections.

  49. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Do you agree with my contention, Mr Jim, that ‘the political’ itself is a manifestation of psychology, which derives from genetic and epigenetic influence, nurturing and family effects and group socialisation?

  50. Solar Jim says:

    Your question is beyond my ability Mulga, at least without further discussion and here is not an appropriate forum. However, I will say that a recent article suggested an ingrained evolutionary design exists in human makeup for one percent to be sociopaths (those without empathy, or sensitivities). They serve evolutionary and contemporary functions (warriors, negotiators, entrepreneurs).

    However, because of the realities of commoditized, technocratic life in globalized “market economics,” as one senator said about speculators in the capitol “Frankly, they run the place.” Whereas, in a small tribe sociopaths are dealt with effectively, rather than rising to the top of political and economic power.


  51. Well done my friend! Completely with you…our challenges are not technological, and in a funny way, not even political…our challenge is to find a new way in which we can all own the problem and the solution…and a prerequisite for that is the simple belief that we can.

  52. Lewis,
    You make an excellent point about the equity issues related to allocation of emissions rights, and we treated this carefully in our 1989 book. There are a lot of more recent treatments (if you search for the work of Paul Baer you’ll find the latest thinking on this issue–he’s not the only one writing about it, of course, but he’s one of the more prominent ones).

    The international equity issues are the trickiest because they involve negotiations between different countries. If we were to get “cap and fee” in the US, that would simplify the bilateral negotiations we need with China, India, Brazil, and some other large emitters, because it would show we are serious. This only indirectly addresses the issue you raise, but I fear it is the best we’re likely to do at this point.


  53. NMatthews says:

    I am not an academic. I am just one of those random people…one of the ones who needs to be educated maybe. Which is why I am here and reading as much as I can. To me, this article has helped me get out of bed today. And to continue to make changes rather than feel so overwhelmed by the issue that I can’t move.

    As everyone talks here, it becomes clear that you all have different opinions but one thing that remains the same is that there is a need for an organisation that challenges politicians and pushes, maybe pushes is not strong enough, for change. Despite your differences of opinion, if all the people commmenting here created an organisation like this along with other like-minded people, of which I know there are many, could that make a difference? Would that not be a good place to start?

    I agree that we can sit and try to figure out what will happen but we need to do something instead. Anything.