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Applying Climate Foresight
Alex Steffen, 11 Aug 04

Climate change is here. Its impacts are being felt everywhere in the world, and it seems more and more clear that the weather is geting weird on us faster than we imagined it would. Climate change is estimated to have caused $60 billion in damage last year alone and killed more than 150,000 people.

Who needs abrupt climate change? Scientists are already ringing the alarm bell as loudly as their professional ethics allow. We'd better take them seriously. Climate change is now threatening to not only melt Greenland's ice cover at an astounding rate, but fry Tokyo, bury Beijing in desert duststorms and dry up the Yellow River, screw up the water cycle of the Great Lakes and wash Bangladesh into the sea. Then it'll get bad.

We must, of course, do everything we can to stave off the worst-case climate scenarios, pursuing radical gains in energy efficiency, coming up with realistic global responses, and changing US policy from aggressive denial to leadership. We ought to be thinking about climate change as a long-term threat on a level with nuclear terrorism and genocide, and acting accordingly to prevent the worst possible extremes.

But we also need to start thinking about how to include climate change when we're making plans. It's here, it's getting worse, and we have to deal with it.

The implications run through every aspect of our society -- from urban planning and social service provision to economic forecasting and security assessments -- and they effect every level of decision-making, from international treaty negotiations to your local city council.

But there's one area, it seems to me, where we need to apply climate foresight immediately. That's in planning to protect ecosystems, biodiversity and natural systems.

The bedrock assumption we have when dealing with natural systems is that the best thing we can do is leave them the hell alone. That's the premise behind the American Wilderness system, and behind much conservation elsewhere. And it's not good enough anymore.


Let me use my home, Seattle, as an example. The Seattle area, it's often remarked, is where the mountains and water meet, wth Puget Sound in front and the Cascades behind.

The sea is rising. This is alarming enough, for a coastal city like Seattle (though aparently not yet alarming enough to change plans for waterfront development). But the effects on marine and shoreline ecosystems could be huge.

Coastal areas need to plan for rising seas to cause more beach erosion, worsening floods, salt water contamination of coastal and island aquifers, and much worse major storms (look here for maps of places in the US which are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise.) All of these will have huge impacts on wetlands, beaches, fish habitat and water quality.

Climate change is hitting the mountains, too. Mountains act like sponges, soaking up water in the wet winters (in the form of snow and ice) and then releasing it in the dry summers (as mountain streams and rivers). There are signs that's already changing, and that warmer weather means more rain, less snow, earlier thaws, worse floods and dry reservoirs in the summer. The economic impacts may be severe, but the environmental impacts could be even worse.

Because temperatures and rainfall change as altitude rises, different species have made their homes in different mountainside niches. As climate changes, though, places which are higher and icier become warmer and more open, while lower elevations become warmer and wetter. The result is that habitats "migrate" upslope. But the trees that live in those habitats have a tough time following. Left to their own purposes, some scientists believe, the mountain wildernesses we love will undergo profound disturbance, with more wildfires, more species lost, and much greater erosion. (Some of the best research in my neck of the woods is being done here.)

So here in Seattle we're faced with a closing vise of rising seas and warming mountains. Any intelligent ecosystem planning has to have the foresight to account for changed realities. I'm nowhere near expert enough to know what we may be forced to do -- build artificial wetlands farther ashore? organize a mass-airlift of mountain plants? start opening frozen zooz and smart-breeding hardier native plants? -- but I can see that we're not taking the task of managing our ecosystems nearly seriously enough.

And in this regard, what's true here, is true everywhere. Protecting nature, from now on, means, in part, exercising climate foresight.

(Oh, and if you're one of those right-wingers who still attacks the validity of climate science, do us both a favor and go do some research before spouting off in our comments section.)

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Skeleton outline of an essay on the likely future of environmentalism as I see it. Section 3, "Gunboat Environmentalism."

It's not pretty, but until this becomes a military matter, it's going to continue puttering along in the gutter. When the terrorist threat is from Bangladeshis demanding CO2 quotas be enforced, then they'll get some attention.

Posted by: Vinay on 11 Aug 04

I've come to the conclusion that nothing positive is going to happen until we get hit with a god-awful piece of environmental blowback. Something undeniable and heartbreaking, and as traumatic as 9/11.

The professional denial industry has done their job too well. A sufficiently large number of people think climate change was made up by scientists to get grants, or by environmentalists who want to get you out of your S.U.V. They'll reflexively spout off about volcanoes and ice age cycles and other F.U.D.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 11 Aug 04

I'm with you, Stefan.

I think that a really smart move would be for environmentalists to prepare a fall-back plan. If the *absolute*requirement* came down the line to cut CO2 emissions to 25% of present levels, as a matter of national emergency, a well thought out plan which had been prepared in previous years would stand an excellent chance of implementation.

To be prepared to take full advantage of that crisis to change the laws to make change real seems like intelligent action to me.

It's too late to talk about prevention. We're now talking about cure, and that's an entirely different order of magnitude of changes.

Posted by: Vinay on 11 Aug 04

The necessary thought experiment is thinking through zero emissions. What does a zero emissions industrial infrastructure look like? Of course, we are already so far down the road of climate change that carbon sequestration and a whole bunch of restoration will probably be required as well.

Possibly easier is imagining an ecological first response. What would a zero emissions refugee camp look like, outlandish as the idea may seem?

Closer to home, the Red Cross, FEMA, and other experts say people should have a flashlight, radio, and extra set of batteries always on hand in case of emergency, be it terrorist attack or natural disaster. The flashlight/radio I have is solar-powered and hand cranked and can charge an extra set of batteries night or day. I use it daily as my bedside radio. Would widespread use of such a product make a significant difference here or abroad in the big picture?

Now think about a solar and crank powered battery charger as a practical source of almost permanent power, 3 volts at a time.

Power to the people, right arm!

Posted by: gmoke on 11 Aug 04

Actually, a zero-emissions industrial infrastructure isn't that hard to imagine, but you have to pick the right starting point.

"Permafacture" is a phrase I coined to describe "Permanent Manufacture", just as permaculture refers to "Permanent Agriculture."

Permafacture requires that all industrial inputs be grown permaculturally, or recycled from existing extraction stocks. Power can be sustainably harvested wood, burned cleanly (or other biomass), solar, wind, whatever you like.

The trick is not thinking about how much of the current plethora of goods and services we could maintain, but rather how high a standard of living could be reached using permafacture: you can clearly get to steel and antibiotics, I think, and after that, the sky's the limit.

It's a thought experiment, of course, but from such thoughts come design realities.

Posted by: Vinay on 11 Aug 04

To speak of other people making changes, to speak of the environmentalists, I think is an outdated notion. Most everyone is on board. The problem now is simply structural and systemic and that will take time. California is trying to make some real changes in vehicle emissions, enough anyway the car companies are threatening legal relief. NY and other eastern downwind states have ganged up against the old coal fired midwest plants to do what Bush has otherwise rolled back. Even my mother is replaceing her light bulbs with 40 watt flourencents. Stuff is happening everywhere with everyone. It wont happen fast enough for many, but it will happen.

Posted by: Stephen Balbach on 12 Aug 04

This last comment is timely, many people ARE now getting the message and climate change is rapidly moving up the average persons agenda. Here in Britain even politicians have to talk about it with some gravity, though the fossil fuel lobby is too strong for them to effectively resist. The key point is, not only won't it happen fast enough for many - it may not happen fast enough for the planet! We need to encourage people to acknowledge the blind fear that siezes us all when we face the issue and use it as an impetus for producing creative solutions, instead of frozen inaction. We may have to cool the planet through other means (e.g. a filter on heat from the sun etc.) while we come to terms with inflated CO2 levels. Agriculture was only discovered when hunter gatherers could find no other way to cope with climatic change in the Middle East a long, long time ago. Just as humans only took responsibility for nature's unruly growth then, a similar barricade has been breached. Necessity is the mother of invention. From now on we are all communaly responsible for this entire planet and every natural interaction that takes place hereupon, whether we like it or not. God knows I hope we accept the fact before it crumbles around our ears. If you are reading this website, of course, you probably have, so well done!

Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 12 Aug 04

Stephen, Daniel, could you show me some evidence that people are on board?

Let's take a simple benchmark: use of compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Significant CO2 savings for near-equal quality of service and greatly reduced cost. Insignificant capital costs, no infrastructure changes. Plug and play green technology

What percentage of households have at least 50% of their light coming from CFLs?

It's low. I can't think of any, outside of the employee housing of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

I think that people pay lip service to green ideas, but that even simple steps towards real change are very, very slow coming.

Posted by: Vinay on 12 Aug 04

What percentage of households have at least 50% of their light coming from CFLs?

Mine does, but I realize I'm something of an outlier.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 12 Aug 04


And that's just the point: there's some serious commercial use and there are outliers, but the bulk of the population gives lip service to the general ideas, but in practice does nothing *even when it is clearly in their own financial interest*.

An even better example is rechargeable batteries. Walk into any store: racks and racks of duracells. Who's buying these things? A NIMH charger and 8 2100 mAh batteris is 20 bucks at Sam's Club and will produce something like 1000 four-AA cycles, or $4000 worth of Duracells.

So who, in god's name, is buying these duracells? Answer? Enough people to keep them universally available. Even though environmentally, technologically, socially and financially better alternatives exist.

You know when I'll say we're taking environmentalism seriously as a people? When the government *BANS* incandescent lighting in general applications. Just flat out bans it, like they did with PCBs or lead-based paint or other hazardous substances.

That's how real change is effected. And, yes, it's the leading edge of what I've been calling ecostalinism, but hey...

the most effective environmental legislation in the world was the ruthless, brutally-enforced, inhumane Chinese one child family laws.

I don't *like* that fact, but it stands. We've got to face it.

Posted by: Vinay on 12 Aug 04

(and, for what it's worth, lead based paints were apparently wonderful - long lasting, easy to apply, incredible coverage, and people would probably still use them if they could).

Posted by: Vinay on 12 Aug 04

What is going on is very simple.

In lighting the simple fact is untill they make an ultra compact flourecent it wont fit even half the light needs in the common home.

Most likely led lights will take over because of that one need... realy itty bitty size.

To shrink the car we must shrink the time it takes to get where people need to be AND make them feel safer less crowded going there. Anything less then that wont work. The only way we will do that in the end is ALOT more roads and faster speed limits. Or alot BETTER roads and faster speed limits.

As for as climate change goes american companies will do plenty of work on the tech needed to deal with it and in fact are BUT not in america. Just as you do work on cold weather gear in a cold weather country you do climatechange work where the climate change is most severe. One hint... that aint america.

Posted by: wintermane on 12 Aug 04

The thing I'm doing is focusing on changing the system that allowed all this to happen. We need political power of a sort that's not been seen before, coupled with an ability to put together ad-hoc Manhattan Projects. Self Organization, a new type of social system that's bottom-up & emergent, not top-down & heirachical, is on the way. Examples can be seen in the Free/Open Source Software community, the blogosphere we're communicating in, social network services & others.

We're still working out the mechanisms of it, which is where I come in. I'm hosting a collection called NetTraq, of new papers as they come out, on the math behind self organization, network theory & related subjects.

I believe exploiting this information & building systems based on it will be the key to our success. We live in a world of networks. We need to harness them & turn them to our purposes, so we can come together & start figuring out how to tackle the really big problems, the sort we know the current systems aren't built to handle.

The Self Organization Project
"we've got math on our side"

Posted by: Tim Keller on 12 Aug 04

Vinay, your ongoing advocacy of ecological authoritarianism is troubling, and probably not even supported by the facts at hand.

China's birth policies have probably not contained that country's population growth.
It is very likely that China is not reporting accurate numbers to the rest of the world, similar to how the Soviet Union often obscured or simply faked demographic data, in order to put a positive and strong front before the world community.

There certainly seems to be a glut of "orphaned" (read: abandoned) Chinese girls, hence the foreign adoption phenomenon.

Posted by: Emily on 12 Aug 04


It seems to me that your haste to connect the fashionable climate change problem to fashionable social network theories has got things a bit confused. "The system that allowed this to happen" is in fact a 'bottom-up' system, the system of the market and free choice. The "political power of a sort that's not been seen before" that will "harness [networks] and turn them to our purposes" and thus ostensibly 'solve' climate change (whatever that will look like) has, in fact, been seen before - it's called authoritarianism.

The "ad-hoc Manhattan Projects" you envision encapsulate the contradiction well enough - the Manhattan Project was a product of a wartime, military command-and-control hierarchy and simply could not have been accomplished (in that short a span) in a decentralized, 'ad-hoc' manner. Moreover, the Manhattan Project had a very 'centralized' goal that did not need to be deployed throughout every aspect of society. Developing and imposing radical new CO2-reducing technologies would require a similarly centralized and authoritarian framework extended to the whole of society, not just the US but the entire world.

Posted by: John Atkinson on 12 Aug 04

but in practice does nothing *even when it is clearly in their own financial interest*.

I'm an ecological true believer, but in my experience, technological quick fix replacements like compact fluorescent bulbs and rechargeable batteries have not proven to be in my own financial interest. With CF bulbs, I was willing to put up with the heavier initial investment, the weird color, and the couple-second startup lag, but all that *and* watching them burn out every couple years just like incandescents, when they cost ten times as much to replace and clearly involve a much heavier manufacturing process, was more than I could take. My experience with rechargeable batteries was similar: I bought a charger and a full set of batteries and swore I was done with regular batteries. But the rechargeable system really kind of sucked. They didn't last as long, they didn't put out as much power, charging took so long that I had to buy twice as many batteries as I intended to use at any given time, and they tended to wear out after thirty or forty charge cycles. It was a big hassle and I saved little money, if any.

Posted by: Mars Saxman on 12 Aug 04

On lights people tend to use what works best where it works. In the kitchen and bath you will often see 40 watt tube lights as they are both durable long lasting bulbs AND cheap. You will however see most celing lights of small size and lamps and such are incandescent because they are far better for reading and providing spot lightning.

On batteries mars hit it on the head. First off many idiots oversold the benifits of rechargables before they were fully ready for prime time and thus a whole slew of people got a very bad taste with low life low power junk. Only recently have recharables gotten all that good and now you can find fairly good power long life variants.

As for needing a manhatten project of climate... nope. Unlike making the first atomic bomb we have more then enough people already running on the climate dealy and again there is the final nasty fact most environemntalist seem to keep trying to block out. We still dont know how large an effect we are actauly having and thus wether we are making things happen or just riding the crest of what mother nature is making happen. Until we know for sure that we are in charge we cant overlook the very likely possiblity that we are headed there kicking and screaming no matter what we do. And if thats the case we better find out BEFORE we spend the money we will need to deal with that. Because we only have the monet to either deal with trying to stop it OR deal with it when it happens not both.

Posted by: wintermane on 12 Aug 04

Emily, I'm not *in*favor* of ecostalinism. I simply think that it's an inevitable political response to the challenges of the day. Whenever the population in aggregate does things which are bad for society as a whole government steps in to regulate. Consider the "War on Drugs" - civil rights went out the window to defend society against a percieved threat.

The problem is that *effective* ecological legislation requires to power to intrude into every part of a person's life - their right to burn leaves in their back yard, buy specific products, manufacture what they see fit: to protect the earth effectively, whole classes of human activity have to be curtailed by central powers.

You can argue for an eco-utopian vision where clean technologies outcompete *all* dirty technologies, and I'd love to see it, but in the mean time, the EPA bans, and bans, and bans, and bans.

The other extreme is Corporateism, in which the individual isn't represented, and the game is run for the benefit of the corporations.

I, personally, think that the dialectic between corporateism and ecostalinism is rapidly replacing the debate between capitalism and communism. It's likely, in my opinion, to be the defining struggle of the next century, and unless we're extemely nimble, the rights of the individual will be eroded from both sides.

Our constitution is based on the idea of limited government - of the powers delegated to the state being enumerated and clearly defined - and everythng else being left up to the individual. Can that vision really survive in our changing world?

I don't know, but it worries me very, very deeply. Most Greens don't really understand the idea of the state having limited powers, instead trusting the mysterious benevolence of green government, and I think that is potentially very problematic.

An extension of state power in the hands of a green-style government, simply legislating away environmentally harmful practices without regard to the framework of limited government could easily be followed by, say another round of Republicanism in the Bush mould, which could then abuse the hell out of those precedents and ban more or less anything they could concoct junk science to outlaw.

Crazy? Perhaps, but that's what thinking far into the future looks like.

Posted by: Vinay on 12 Aug 04


I have my doubts about the "democratic" aspect of networked socieities, and I think the above link illustrates fairly well that the open source movement is a meritocratic feudalism, not a democracy.


Posted by: Vinay on 12 Aug 04

By the way, Emily, if you compare the population growth rates of China and India, you'll find that (as far as my recall of the numbers goes) that the Chinese program was actually horrendously effective.

Posted by: Vinay on 12 Aug 04

Final note for the moment: excuse me being Mr. Crankypants here, but I do find that occasional iconoclastic venting really is good for the soul. They *do* make tiny, tiny CF lightbulbs - I looked at them in Home Depot this afternoon. Yes, many people find the light a little less pleasant than Halogens. Yes, NICAD batteries kinda sucked. Nickle Metal Hidrides (NIMH) actually rather rock - around a dollar for a AA cell with 2/3 of the capacity of a non-rechargeable AA cell.

Really. These things might not be quite perfect but if we aren't willing to adopt them widely, even with our current levels of consciousness and the financial savings, how exactly were we planning on having this large scale technological change?

Think about this: in terms of cost-per-charge, hell, in terms of cost per unit of service, a NIMH battery in the AA size costs 1% of the equivalent AA duracell battery. 1%. Two orders of magnitude. A factor 100 improvement, dwarfing even RMI's Factor Ten (10XE) efficiency project.

Yet people won't buy them because of the inconvenience involved. Our society runs on either:

built-in lithium polymer batteries (your iPod or cell phone)
alkali batteries

You could argue, successfully, that NIMH just wasn't advanced enough, and in fact lipoly was the only battery technology advanced enough to in fact theaten the alkali cell. But if that's the case, we better accept just how high the bar is for technologies which intend to compete with non-green incumbents if they want to replace them.

Sobering, no?

Anyway, enough for now,


Posted by: Vinay on 12 Aug 04

Actauly it was nicads that poisoned the waters for many people as the early nicads were extremely bad died rather fast lost charge rather fast never held much of a charge( in fact many so called d cell nicads were actauly 123 sized batteries housed in a d cell form factor and so on. The result was alot of people trying rechargables before they wer ready. Nimh batteries are VASTLY better then the early nicads.

As for the itty bitty fc lights the ones I found didnt fit into my lights so I was forced to go back to 40 watt bulbs. The REALY annoying light fixtures to deal with are the dern candelabra form factor bulb thingies. Itty bitty doesnt even begin to describe how small these suckers are and we have a dern 3 bulb 120 watt hall light with them.

Also all our ceiling fan/light fixtures are just a smidge too narrow for a cf light to fit in. In stead of using my 180 watt ceiling lighht tho I use a twin 15 watt fc desklamp aimed at the wall.... but I unlike most people dont care a wit about the lights color. Mind you aiming a fc light at a cream colored wall makes the light MUCH nicer.

Posted by: wintermane on 12 Aug 04

Actauly it was nicads that poisoned the waters for many people
Hmm, that's interesting; it was NiCad batteries that I tried, way back when, and I have paid sufficiently little attention to rechargeable batteries ever since that I didn't actually realize technology had moved on. Perhaps I should give the modern version a try. My camera is about the only thing I use that takes batteries, but boy does it chew its way through a lot of them.
how exactly were we planning on having this large scale technological change?
Short of the seemingly inevitable climate-change driven global economic collapse, I have no idea. That's why I read worldchanging, I guess!
Posted by: Mars Saxman on 12 Aug 04

Nicads suck tail pipe. Less than half the energy density of alkali cells, toxic as all hell, and short service life.

NIMHs, in the AA size, have about 80% of the energy (2300 Mah vs 2800) of an alkali battery, *really*do* work for several hundred charge cycles, don't have memory effects and self-discharge (go flat in devices) more slowly - around 1% a day.

NIMH is absolutely ready for prime time. Sam's Club (yeah, they're evil, but that's where I know the price) sells a 4AA charger with 8 2100 MAH cells for under twenty dollars. I picked up an additional eight 2100 cells today for under ten bucks in a sale.

It's good tech!

Posted by: Vinay on 13 Aug 04

By the way, I want to add a note to the "corporateism vs. ecostalinism" thing. I believe, strongly, that the corporation is a mistake, a legal ghost which is terrifying in it's illusory power. Corporations are the state stepping in to protect investors from the consequences of what was done to make their profits, and they completely cut the chain of responsibility between investment, profits and the law.

Posted by: Vinay on 13 Aug 04

Many of the comments seem draconian and pessimistic. Another approach is to issue an invitation to a better world. (My favorite aspect of this web site.) The changes I've made to my own life - very efficient home, all compact fluorescent lights, hybrid car, growing a high portion of my diet - have allowed large increases in my health, happiness, prosperity and quality of life. To me, practical demonstrations of better ways to live will play a vital role. As we transition to sustainability, most of what we'll leave behind is not all that great.

Posted by: David Foley on 24 Aug 04



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