Malthus, Mankind, and Mother Earth
A case for optimism in the face of climate change
As a civil-environmental engineer interested in designing better built environments and resilience infrastructure, I meet a lot of people concerned about climate change. While the broad scope and myriad impacts of climate change can certainly make it a large and even looming problem in our psyche, many people around me seem to have taken a concerning stance when it comes to climate change discourse and solutions. Rather than becoming excited about novel technological solutions or new scientific insights, they resign themselves to platitudes about how there are simply too many people in the world, how China is relentlessly emitting, and how X number of companies/billionaires are responsible for Y percent of emissions. The best way I have heard to encapsulate these people’s views on global warming is the phrase “climate change Doomer”.
We’re all familiar with climate change, but if you were born before 1995 you may be asking yourself, “What is a Doomer, anyways?”. Stemming from the word boomer, the Doomer is a person who has a bleak and generally hopeless outlook on the world. They have given up on their agency, and turn instead to substances and other hedonics that leave them feeling empty. The image below is one of the more common characterizations of the Doomer. The meme, popular amongst young people, represents one’s feelings of hopelessness and resignation. The Doomer cares, but knows he can do nothing. He is weary.
While immersed in the angsty echo-chamber that is my generation’s zeitgeist, things certainly begin to feel hopeless. However enticing it may be to slip into lament, these views not only hamper climate change action, they’re seriously unfounded in the facts. In this post, I hope to inspire optimism and confidence in our ability as humans, to change our world for the better.
Let’s start with a review of climate success stories that most people have probably never heard of. Remember how acid rain was going to melt away all our buildings and statues, and kill our aquatic ecosystems? We established a market system of cap and trade through the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments that cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 51% by 2010. How about the hole in the ozone layer that was going to melt Antarctica and burn all of Australia? The Montreal Protocol in 1987 was incredibly effective at reducing our global emissions of CFCs, and was adopted by nearly every country on earth. Just take a look at the graph below. The CFC ban enacted by the Montreal Protocol has already prevented 1.1 °C of warming globally, and may prevent an additional global 1°C and 4°C in the Arctic specifically by 2050. Astoundingly, this future reduction corresponds to an approximate 25% reduction of global warming on the whole.
And it’s not just specific chemical reductions either, general air quality has largely improved in the cities of the developed world, even one’s known widely for their pollution levels. In LA for example, even despite the high wildfire frequency, air quality has steadily improved for 40 years.
This is not to say that climate change isn’t bad, it’s one of the most important problems facing humanity today. The important distinction to make is that we have the power to combat it. Our capacity to replace existing power infrastructure with renewable alternatives has been consistently under-rated by experts for over 20 years. For instance, in 2010 we achieved the World Energy Outlook 2002 prediction for 2030’s built capacity. The graph below is rather telling of our failure to understand the exponential nature of renewables growth.
And it’s not just our ability to reduce the amount of carbon we emit that is improving either, our ability to capture and sequester carbon is also greatly improving. A few years ago, it cost about $1000 to sequester a ton of carbon dioxide. Now, it can cost as low as $250. There is new technology on the horizon as well. In mid September, I met with Laurel Tincher, who works at a carbon removal company named Pull to Refresh. Her team is building a network of autonomous drone ships that will trawl the great pacific garbage patch, planting, growing, and eventually sinking deep sea kelp as a means of carbon sequestration. They estimate that at scale, they could remove a ton of carbon for $100. This pattern of price reduction mimics that of renewable energy, and is likely to accelerate as the market for carbon offsets and climate change mitigation develops and matures.
Why is optimism important? Sometimes, our misunderstandings about how impactful our actions are can lead us to make poor choices. Many climate Doomers have adopted their pessimistic outlook on climate action as a reaction to the unappealing effect:effort ratio of some of the most popular “green” lifestyle choices.
Going on a plant-based diet, biking to work, or even having one child fewer than planned are all examples of these unappealing choices. But are these really how wer’re going to save the earth? In this graph from the Founders Pledge Climate and Lifestyle Report , we can compare these choices to each other, and briefly it may look as though the anti-natalists may have an argument.
That is, until you take into account the potential effect of simply donating through targeted altruism towards green energy, accelerating change and innovation, and leading to a huge reduction of future greenhouse gas emissions. I want to stress that this is not simply carbon offsetting, but rather investing in more efficient means of producing energy per ton of carbon emissions.
In fact, green energy investments are some of the highest return prospects out there, especially compared to their conventional counterparts. This figure from the Imperial CCFI & IEA illustrates the gap nicely.
These poor lifestyle and investment decisions are not the exclusive domain of individuals either, often driven by misinformed and heavily mood associative “green” movements, nations fall prey to the same phenomenon. One key example is the recent recoil of “green” countries away from nuclear power solutions. Nations like Germany and Japan have begun closing down and decommissioning their nuclear power plants and replacing them with conventional coal plants.
The mood associative aversion to nuclear energy will undoubtedly cost more lives in the end, as a result of the long term effects of particulate matter pollution and the secondary effects of global warming. Nuclear energy has some of the best potential for safe and clean power, and because of our misjudgments, we have regulated nearly all innovation out of the field in the name of safety. Often times, the regulatory environment is so smothersome that the only plants that can pass design stages today are ones built on the knowledge from 40 years ago. But this is nothing to lament! Changing this, and ushering in the next age of energy production, could be as simple as the right politician putting words to the page.
So, if you have been feeling like a climate Doomer, I hope that I’ve shown you that by working smart rather than hard, and addressing these problems through investment and intelligent policy, we can actually solve climate change. We don’t need to dismantle capitalism, or reduce the population of the planet. If we’re lucky, we may not have to reduce consumption. The tools to attain this bright future are at our disposal, and we should be excited, rather than resigned to sink beneath the waves. Thanks for reading,
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