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How to Think Differently About Climate
Alex Steffen, 8 Mar 07
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If 2006 was the year climate change broke big, with magazine cover stories and Oscar-winning films, 2007 will be the year the implications begin sink in.

From the Stern Review to the IPCC report to Davos, nearly all the world's credible authorities have now accepted that climate change is real, here and dire. That is an important step, but three more steps remain.

1) Climate change demands that our goal be carbon-negative growth.

The greatest threat we now face is not ignorance but the half-measures and faltering steps that convince people that doing something means you're doing enough.

There are simple standards here: we need to drastically reduce, then eliminate, then reverse our greenhouse emissions, and we need to do so on relatively predictable timelines. Just as we need to aim beyond reducing our overall ecological impact to one planet (and begin healing the systems we are currently destroying, laying on the planet an ecological handprint, if you will), we need to set formal and binding goals that go beyond keeping the damage to a merely disastrous level, and begin to undue the damage we've caused.

(Nor can we trust that some desperate attempt at geo-engineering will save our bacon. If we can't trust our leaders to take common-sense, well-understood steps today, why should we trust them to employ dire, unproven and hubristic steps in the future? Even if employing giant space curtains or dumping mountains of minerals in the sea did not set off some awful unintended consequence (for instance, "seeding" the oceans to increase carbon uptake might very well worsen the ocean acidification which some scientists are already warning could be one of the worst effects of climate change), to advocate for such schemes is to completely ignore the history of such massive scientific projects -- from the development of nuclear energy to the attempt to build a missile defense system -- which have been consistently mismanaged, shrouded in secrecy and perverted to serve the interests of the corporations which build them.)

So, climate negative. Any plan which doesn't measure itself against that bar is no plan at all. To get a sense of how difficult our task will be, take a look at the boldness and complexity of Energy [R]evolution, a blueprint for reducing global CO2 by 50% worldwide by 2050.

Cutting our CO2 in half, the authors say, will take major breakthroughs in solar, wind, geothermal, bioenergy, hydropower, and advanced fossil fuel technologies. It will take behavioral changes. It will take policy shifts, changing the way we tax energy and pollution and incentivize innovation and investment to level the playing field. And it will take proceeding on different paths in different places. It will be, in short, a massive undertaking.

Now imagine that as a half step, and one that will come too late. Imagine not just radical change, but transformation.

2) Climate change demands that we build rapidly towards resilience.

We've written before about climate commitment and the need to go beyond reducing emissions and move towards adapting intelligently to a warming and increasingly unpredictable world. The degree to which this is true is well illustrated by Impacts of Climate Change, a new report by the consultancy Global Business Network on the potential impacts of relatively unrestrained greenhouse gas emissions, which could include what they dryly refer to as "macrosystemic discontinuity," but which we might think of as "hell in a handbasket."

For climate change impacts not only weather, but everything, as these five examples taken from the report illustrate:

Ecosystem collapses
"There is a common pattern we’re seeing in ecosystems around the world: gradual changes in vulnerability accumulate and eventually you get a shock to the system, a flood or a drought, and boom, you’re over into another regime. It becomes a self-sustaining collapse." -- Stephen Carpenter

Water scarcity
Quotes the Pacific Institute saying "as many as 135 million people will die from these diseases by 2020. Even if the explicit Millennium Goals announced by the United Nations in 2000 are achieved...between 34 million and 76 million people will perish from water-related diseases by 2020."

The proper scope of the state
"As Chris Walker of Swiss Re points out, if the state steps in to provide insurance to protect against climate change-driven storms, it will soon become clear that grandmothers in Albany are paying to insure the lifestyle choices of beachside condo-dwellers."

Civil order
"If a developed-world government conspicuously fails to respond to a disaster in a way that meets citizen expectations, the collapse of civil order is likely to ensue very rapidly. While developed countries are likely to be able to restore order relatively quickly, in the longer term such collapses of order can undermine the legitimacy of both political leaders and political institutions."

"For countries that are staking their development strategies on tourism (most notably, small island nations in the Caribbean and the Indian and Pacific oceans), the stakes are especially high. Ironically, these countries figure to be among the greatest losers in the reshuffling of tourism that climate change will produce. Warmer winters in North America and Europe will decrease demand for the sunny winter escapes. At the same time, the “beach product offering? is likely to become less attractive as the heat index rises, beaches erode, sea and coral quality decline, and vector-borne diseases increase. (Diseases may also be spread by international tourism, and the industry is uniquely vulnerable to shut-down in the face of local epidemics.)"

Looking at impacts like these -- and we have often taken up the idea of climate foresight here, imagining non-obvious ways in which our world will change with the climate -- we begin to see that maintaining enough stability to buy the time to address the damages we've done our planet will itself be a major challenge, and one we can't tackle soon enough.

That means resilience. That means survivability. That means recognizing how brittle the systems on which we depend actually are, and working quickly and intelligently to replace and retrofit and reimagine them so that they can withstand the kinds of torque a changing planet will put on them.

3) Climate change demands holistic solutions.

We cannot solve the problems climate change is making manifest simply by cutting emissions and building sea walls. That's because climate change is not an issue, it is a symptom: it is not a discrete problem to be solved but part of the warp and weave of problems that define and worsen our civilization's inability to sustain itself. If we want to stave off the collapse that will inevitably come when that which cannot continue does not continue, we need to move forward with a broad front of solutions which interlock to solve many interrelated problems at once.

For instance, some sources say that forest clearance and burning is responsible for a large portion of the CO2 we generate. Mostly, those forests are cleared for commercial logging, ranching and subsistence farming. All three causes are complex, requiring international agreements, consumer and shareholder action to change markets, development assistance, transparency and human rights agreements (to protect activists and enforce existing laws), property rights and land reform (to give peasants the means to stay on their land and the incentive to treat it well) and technological advances to provide alternatives and mitigate impacts. In other words, tackling this aspect of climate change links us by necessity to a host of other issues, and the same is true nearly across the board.

To think that we can "solve" climate change without addressing poverty, human rights, democratization, conflict, epidemic disease, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, food issues and the like is to suffer from carbon blindness. Any climate plan which does not have sustainable prosperity as its ultimate goal will fail, just as surely as any effort to address these other challenges which ignores climate change will fail.

So our situation demands of us that we start speaking differently about climate change and the duties it imposes on us. We need now to imagine and pursue carbon-negative growth, we need to brace for the coming storm, and we need to work to make the world as a whole profoundly more stable, bright and green.


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Great post up to the point of saying that we need to pursue carbon-negative GROWTH. I think the evidence strongly suggests that we badly need to purse carbon-negative DEVELOPMENT while we REDUCE material and energy demands -- which means NOT GROWING.

Posted by: JMG on 8 Mar 07

Maybe "develop sustainability" is a better meme than "sustainable developement"?

We need to grow what needs growing. Other things will die through lack of attention (just like the unattended wolf inside the young person). Maybe.

Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 9 Mar 07

I'd also add that mandates for greatly improved efficiency are critical immediate steps we can take- there are hundreds of wasteful things which can be remedied now without improvements in technology. In autos alone there are multiple changes like weight, retuning for efficiency over performance, rewards for carrying passengers/ridesharing, etc. that could be implemented immediately.
If we break the challenge into two parallel tracks, technology-driven carbon negative strategies and inventive short term efficiency changes we can move faster.
Of course there are obvious draconian changes like population control, rationing and redistributing populations, etc., that will be on the table some day but that's another post...

Posted by: Martin Edic on 9 Mar 07

Great post Alex, as usual.

I was very pleased to see you mention that climate change is not an issue, but a symptom. As we review solutions it is important to note that we cannot accept any of them at face value. We need to go deeper because THAT is where the solutions lie. Biofuels in and of themselves are not "good." It depends on how they are made. Non-organic farming is not "bad" automatically.

We need to evolve our thinking through this climate crisis from flat-earth to whole-earth. All our systems are built as a linear process. Raw materials in, products and waste out. That is the same as our ancestors seeing the earth as flat, because that was all they could see. We need to go deeper and live in the world as we know it to be. We have an awesome task in from of us.

Can you imagine a greater time to be alive?


Posted by: Daniel N. Smith Jr. on 9 Mar 07

This is a great post with some provocative new thinking and language.

Given the heroic, or maybe epic, scale of the "duties (climate change) imposes on us," my great worry is that broadscale support for aggressive carbon-negative strategies will collapse when the evidence of climate change impacts continues to mount. How will we maintain public support for action, when the action-results nexxus will become so murky? Will the experience of a 4-degree warming be enough to get folks to say "Thank goodness we did what was necessary to stave off an 8-degree warming"? I wonder.

On the whole, though, yes. Let's speak differently, live differently, and keep our eyes on the prize. Thanks, Alex.

Posted by: Ted on 9 Mar 07

I second what Dan said earlier. Climate Change is a symptom. A symptom of many things. Of our social and economic inequalities, of our greed, of our ignorance, and sometimes just plain bad luck. Technology is going to be our biggest friend. That and our will.

Posted by: Deepak on 9 Mar 07

Hi Alex,

this is obviously a great website with good contributions, like the one I am commenting on.

It is worth exploring the avenues of technological improvement. You can have a go, that's fine.

However, at the end of the day, something tells me
this approach is bound to fail. How can you change the world without radically changing your operating mode?

It is always more research, more ego, more jobs and more money.

What bothers me, is that almost every contribution of this site talks about a better future, a greener future, but without shedding away the very same inclinations which are responsible for where we are in at the moment.

I leave alone the fact that if you can do the same thing with less ressources, then ultimately you will do more and there will be no improvement at all.

Isn't it a time to say less? Time to take our losses and move on to something else.

Not as an idealistic viewpoint, but because it is the only remaining option except collective death, given the time frame available to us.

Posted by: jm coulomb on 10 Mar 07

JM, I think that WorldChanging may actually be closer to what you propose than you know; the key comes in seeing fewer solutions (your 'less'), more fully interconnected. It's the 'more fully interconnected' that is the 'more'. One visits WorldChanging and sees individual articles about single instances of solutions which span disciplines; what seems like a saturation of trees is, we hope and believe, actually a forest.

I can understand the critique of technophilia. Whether or not it's a problem, to me, depends on one's definition of technology. I actually consider worldviews, metaphors, models, paradigms, to be technologies. Extremely lightweight and efficient ones, to be sure.

It may be that some technologies (worldviews, neo-traditional architectural solutions, the strategies of permaculture) get less sexy coverage than more obvious shiny bits, but if so, then under the very thesis of WorldChanging it is simply a matter of time and understanding before these too get the attention they deserve. Ie, if all solutions are deeply interconnected, then all will pull the others to the foreground even as the ones which do not bear fruit are pruned away.

Ted points out that the lag-time for perceiving whether or not our combined solutions bear fruit is very great. So great, perhaps, that the task of doing so at first will fall to those willing to move forwards fueled by their comprehension of the need for individual and group action, even as the masses around us fail to do so. Given the core intent to do what we can for the survival of our world, differences in methods will fall away as shared experience thins them. I would bid you to stick around, and to keep on poking at what you fear are the weak points, while yet acknowledging that we're in the same boat.

We cannot help but be so.

(Alex, great article; I look forward to (hopefully) meeting you tomorrow at the SXSW WorldChanging gathering! :) )

- Heath

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 10 Mar 07

As a 30-year veteran of the electric power generation industry, I read these kinds of articles with bemusement and a bit of wonder. No offense, but you clearly have not the slightest clue what you are talking about when it comes to realistic energy policy.

Most of the "solutions" you propose are blue-sky BS. Maybe 10% of them will actually work in the long-term; the rest will fail for various reasons, as so many other schemes have failed over the years.

Solar power, for example, will never, ever be a significant source of energy in any nation. This is already well-known in the energy generation field...anybody with a calculator and a bit of data can calculate that solar power will never be net energy positive, ever. Solar power is openly mocked at power engineering and generation conferences. Yet this harsh fact still has yet to penetrate the skulls of the various people still pumping solar power to the gullible masses. Do you folks have any idea how this destroys the credibility of the "green energy" community?

It's also amusing to see that, as usual, you fail to mention the importance of nuclear power, despite the fact that is probably the only non carbon-emitting power source the human race possesses which has a prayer of replacing coal and other dirty fossil fuels.

As long as you continue to oversell "green" energy sources, while pointedly ignoring the real need for nuclear power, you will never be taken seriously by the people who ultimately make the real decisions about power generation in the world.

You can pass all the green energy laws you want. Dance in the streets and celebrate your victory. Then watch in frustration as the power generation industry ignores you utterly. You are about to find out the limits of political power. A few small blackouts, the threat of electrical grid failure, your big green energy and societal-transformation schemes will be forgotten so fast it will make your head spin.

Get real. Good luck.

Posted by: Jack Levy on 10 Mar 07

I have to agree with Jack Levy on this. In an ideal world all of the ideas being proposed, including the very powerful ones go against the the self-interest of those at the top, no matter how compelling the argument. Here's why:

1) Those at the top have been aware of climate change for as long or longer than we have. It is in their self-interest to know these things. They have the money, power and think tanks to keep their future foresight radar finely tuned. All of this climate data has been on their desks for at least a decade or longer.

2) They have a plan to save *their* butts, and it doesn't include us. Quite simply, they can cut 50% of greenhouse gases by cutting 2/3 of the population. Likely targets of this massive genocide will be consumers who have a large energy signature but contribute little or nothing to their corporate bottom lines - that would include the majority of Americans and Europeans, as well as most of the people in 3rd world countries. The majority of survivors are likely to come from developing nations like India and China where educational levels and basic infrastructure is in place to continue their game of progress, power and control.

3) Once greenhouse gasses and populations are severely cut, they will continue with their game of getting richer, more powerful, etc. This will include new societal and political structures benefiting them way more they it does now, progress into space and beyond. In fact it could be quite utopic for the survivors, as long are you are part of the elite 1-5%.

The rest of us will be either killed off in the great culling, or enslaved by this new "utopia".

The above scenario seems so logical and possible, I'm suprised nobody around here seems to have picked up on it. To me that shows the difference between pie-in-the sky idealism no matter how intelligent, and how the real dirt-meat-bones political-power human game actually works.


Posted by: Charles S on 10 Mar 07

this's a very rich post. thanks.

i don't really care about telling people what to do or how to live their lives or what's right attitude toward living and what's not. i want to concentrate on getting through this century at a decade at a time, so that we make it, and we bring some of the rest of our companions with us.

it seems like the basic thing is, conceptually, that every input comes from somewhere, and every output goes somewhere. changes you need to make to incorporate that concept in your daily business aren't radical, they're practical. radical is what we were doing before and what we're still doing now. radical is the idea that inputs are unlimited and outputs have no impact.

if i were running our world, our giant human operation as a business, based on the faulty planning and terrible results we have to this point, i'd shut us down for a time and bring us back after a serious reorganization. i'd make it a short time, enough to fully remove or replace deadly systems and update and renovate the less dangerous.

i'd say, we badly screwed up. this is what we're going to do, this is how long it will take to do it, and we will keep food on everybody's table and the lights on while we're all involved in making the switch. then we'll see what happens.

i doubt we can honestly say we know what the weather will be like in ten years, or ten years from then, or onward. predictions of a particular technology being available in 20 years are just junk. if it is, it is, and that's great, but if it isn't and our plans depended on it, ho ho ho. another mistake by the great and powerful us.

we should take the economic hit now. put the money out, build disaster-proof low-carbon infrastructure for everybody on the planet, get the local systems fixed, and then bring global capitalism back if it's practical and it's something we still want to do.

the planet's going to be around for a long time. if we put aside the economic flurry for a couple years, five, ten, while we get ourselves right, the earth'll still be there when we're done and hopefully so will we and we can race each other and gamble on the results to our hearts content.

Posted by: hibiscus on 10 Mar 07

jack levy: spoken like a man who gets paid by the kilowatt-hour.

charles s: yeah i've written on the idea, the possibility that the crazy american right is waiting to see if global warming will play out to their advantage, maybe as an opportunity to get rid of "the surplus population". we should just be crushed for this. economically isolated, politically isolated. just crushed. i don't think we will be, because we're too central, because we have veto power, and because it's a minority making it happen through procedure, rather than an open and easily opposed position like "democracy at gunpoint".

Posted by: hibiscus on 10 Mar 07

I agree that the global warming of the planet is a symptom of our past and current consumption and pollution patterns. I believe that we need to take immediate and dramatic action to prevent dire consequences. I would like to invite a conversation of suggested actions/solutions.

A few ideas, perhaps radical and unpopular? , might be for the world to take one day a week OFF. Yep, close the store, turn off the businesses, and park the cars. Anyone remember what Sundays were like when the stores were closed and no one worked that day?

And how about shortening store hours, no more 24 hour per day highly illuminated energy guzzler operations. And a social peer pressure system where it is so UNCOOL to be seen driving ALONE in your SUV or vehicle... community rideshare switchboards to match up drivers and riders going to the same destinations...

Dramatically increasing the number of strawbale houses, thus providing more affordable housing which is also remarkably energy efficient?

Or, how about withdrawal of troops and ceasing military actions which would save billions of dollars and ### energy and carbon emissions per day?

OK, now let's hear a few of your wild, creative and perhaps absolutely feasible ideas!

Sky's the limit!

Posted by: Mary Sky on 12 Mar 07

Yes, in fact I do get paid by the Kilowatt-hour :) In fact my entire life's earnings are more or less related to the number and efficiency of kilowatt-hours I've produced.

And those kilowatt hours represent the single greatest boon to mankind, and yes to the environment, that the human race has ever produced. Large-scale electrical power was first developed during the 30's as a "crusade" to free the millions of poor, dirty, and sickly people who lived in a state of toil in the rural areas of this country.

In the modern age it's easy to idealize their lives "in the country" but let me assure you it was not nice at all. Think: no health care, little education, no communication with the outside world. People in that state of toil don't care about the environment, and that was the era when the worst environmental offenses were being committed (as they currently are being committed in China).

Large-scale electrical generation, and the TVA-style projects of the early 20th century, changed ALL that. It was one of the greatest and most noble acts of the USA and other modern nations, that they produced electricity for all their citizens at a reasonable cost.

It is that electricity that allows all of you to enjoy the lives you lead. It is that electricity that allows WORLDCHANGING.ORG to exist, and allows all of you to post your opinions on this board.

You all know that the Internet is the single largest and fastest-growing consumer of electricity in the western world, right? Something like 10% of electricity is not going to the Internet (I'm not sure of the figures but it's a specactular number). Google is now building the largest server farm in the world, up on the columbia river, which will suck down the electricity from an ENTIRE hydroelectric plant.

The quickest way for all of you, on this board, to save a lot of electricity is to turn off your computer. Now. Do it! Come on! Turn off your computer! Goodbye!

But you won't, will you? Because to do so, you cut yourself off from the very debate you claim to care so much about. See the dilemma you've put yourself in? It's all too easy for you to talk about saving energy when it's SOMEBODY ELSE'S energy you want to restrict. But what about when it's YOUR energy...something you really care about?

That same scenario is not playing out in India and China, but now on a much larger scale. Their combined populations add up to 2 billion people--- fully one-third of the human race. As we speak, as you read this, they are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. These people are depserately poor, but very proud, very smart, very capable.

They are now building modern societies and joining the rest of the human race. By doing so they can then join in the effort of cleaning up our poor abused planet. They can start by cleaining up their own nations, which have been devastated, almost stripped, by centuries of overpopulation and poverty.

If and when these people can develop healthy, modern, and yes "clean" economies, when they have enough food and education to calm down the clamoring of their desperate poor, then they too can have the luxury, that we have, of devoting themselves to cleaning up the environment.

But for those 2 billion people to pull themselves out of the muck, they are going to need AMAZING, GARGANTUAN, UNBELIEVABLE amounts of energy. Imagine all of the US, Europe, Japan, and Russia COMBINED. That's how much new energy we are talking about.

This is the point that boggles my mind. How can the people in the green community fail to understand this? The global warming "movement" is about to crash headlong into 2 billion hungry people with spectactular new energy demands. In reading the green community literature, I see not one comment that indicates to me that anybody has the slightest clue how to deal with this.

I'm not trying to be harsh or mean, friends. I just want you to understand that you are missing some huge points.

Nuclear power isn't the worst-case scenario. Nuclear power is the best-case scenario. If somebody tomorrow announced a quick-build, inexpensive new form of nuclear reactor, I would literally faint with relief, relief that now China and India could do a massive nuclear build...the best-case scenario.

Unfortunately that's not likely. What we are facting is unlimited, endless burning of coal, and the massive environmental consequences of that burning. That's the worst-case scenario.

A happy perky green world, with solar panels and wind turbines and conservation, isn't even in the race. That's the hard view of a hard-nosed engineer. I honor you for trying to change that harsh reality, and for pushing the green solutions. I really do hope that windpower can eventually make some dent in the situation. But the hardnosed side of me says "Nope, just pick up a calculator and do the math. The math doesn't lie. Wind power won't be a major player for 50 years, if at all. Solar power won't even be in the game."

That's reality, according to engineering calculations and 50 years of hard reality in the electrical generation industry. Any of you who dream of a different path should be prepared to show how your engineering calculations stack up, and how you have PROVEN your solutions can work in the real world in real day-to-day conditions.

Posted by: Jack Levy on 12 Mar 07

The people at have done the engineering calculations to show the economics of electricity generation via concentrating solar power in equatorial sunny locations and energy transmission via HVDC lines to Europe.
Math does not lie, but Denmark already gets 20% of electrical power from wind, and Spain and Germany are pushing over 5% renewables. Calculations aside, that is an existence proof of the viability of renewables. The US National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has plenty of fact-based analysis showing the solar and wind energy available in the US far outweighs current energy consumption.
As an engineer (BSME, MSCE) I find it ironic that Jack Levy challenges renewable proponents to provide engineering calculations but provides none of his own (or even links to anyone elses).
Arguing that energy conservation requires giving up internet use is such a ridiculous non-sequitur I can hardly believe I am bothering to respond. Moving from a desktop to a laptop can reduce energy use by more than 50%, and turning of your laptop when not in use saves even more. Most people on this board do this already.
Speaking of the existence proofs of the viability of solar energy, I am writing from my passive solar home, which has been using solar energy and saving me money for 15+ years. But maybe Jack Levy's "engineering calculations" show passive solar is impractical too.

Posted by: Tom Volckhausen on 12 Mar 07


I stated very clearly that I was talking about grid electricity, not passive solar, so your point about your house is irrelevant. Passive solar heating of houses is just wonderful and I highly recommend it to anybody who can use it.

But your comment is a perfect example of why electrical generating professionals are so skeptical of people like you. I talk about grid electricity...and you talk about passive solar, which from an engineering perspective is a miniscule drop in the bucket.

You simply aren't addressing the scale of the problem to be solved. China needs a new coal-fired plant every week to suit their energy needs, and you are talking about your solar rooftops? Come on.

Secondly you talk about a predictive study that predicts the economics of solar power if we built solar panels in equatorial sunny regions. Well, so what? Those kinds of predictive studies are a dime a dozen. 90% of them turn out to be bunk. You can write a report to "prove" anything...people "proved" that flying cars would be our primary mode of transportation. Guess what. Their predictions were wrong. Reality takes a harsh toll on such blue-sky schemes.

Here in California, there were solar proponents who, 30 years ago, "predicted" that solar energy would provide 25% of the electricity in the state. Guesss what? Their predictions were bunk.

In fact, after 30 years of endless hype, the amount of solar power TO THE GRID in Californial is almost nonexistent. Just look it up on the web. Yes there is a smattering of solar rooftops, but that is about a million times too small to matter.

That's my calculation Tom. After 30 years of hype, the contribution of solar to the electrical grid is zip. That is the real performance of the solar power industry. The worst performance of any new energy source, ever.

Yes, wind power has promise, but wind power is a maintenance nightmare. Here in California they had a big wind-turbing building boom in the 1980s -- I was here watching -- and again, huge promises. Then a few years later the bearings on the turbines wore out, or rusted, or whatever, and it turned into an enormous junkheap. Maybe Denmark will avoid that fate, maybe they won't. But anyway, what does Denmark do when the wind stops? They import French nuclear power in massive gulps. Without baseload power from nuclear or coal, wind power is utterly useless.

Meanwhile, the energy demands of the internet is certainly NOT minor. It's the single biggest growth of electricity in this country. You talk about moving from desktop to laptop. Ummmmm....Tom, I wasn't talking about *your computer* I was talking about the millions of internet servers that are humming away, 24/7, to provide connectivity. The bytes streaming through your high-speed port, which allow you to read this, come with a enormous energy bill attached.

The point I made...which apparently you missed or don't want to that it's rather amusing that the global warming "movement" talks endlessly about energy efficiency, meanwhile your movement is absolutely dependent on the biggest energy hog of all time...the internet.

You want those ugly middle-americans to stop driving around their gas-hogging SUVs but meanwhile you don't want to give up your kilowatt-hogging internet connection, do you?

Ultimately global warming is going to force some very tough fighting between people protecting their interests. It will be the solar and wind advocates verses the nuclear advocates. Nuclear is going to kick butt. Wind power will be a weak competitor. Solar won't even be in the race.

Posted by: Jack Levy on 12 Mar 07

I agree all! and I want to invite all of you to play an useful domino game here:

by doing this, I want to warn any government that no one can just keep self safe before climate change!

Posted by: keanu on 12 Mar 07

Great article which manages to articulate the nature of our crisis very succinctly. Your point regarding 'the greatest threat we face is not ignorance but half-measures' is true, and it is here that I feel we fall short on good critical analysis of green products, processes, and systems. Worldchanging does an amazing job at staying positive in the face of great crisis, yet we desperately need effective solutions - not just feel-good green-washed slightly better than truly destructive new products.

I was recently at a green event full of self-congratulatory opportunists where the solutions offered were so minimal as to be virtually worthless. The movement must define higher standards for what can be considered 'Green'. When consumers to alleviate their consciences through half measures - the chances that we can actually deal with this crisis decrease.

Although it will be difficult to steer a consumer society through a transition ahead, and your holistic solution is the only answer - we somehow need to divorce a least a part of the green movement from commercial interests so our critique of new systems can be more thorough.

But thank you Alex for an excellent article.

Posted by: jody on 13 Mar 07

(from Jack) Here in California, there were solar proponents who, 30 years ago, "predicted" that solar energy would provide 25% of the electricity in the state. Guesss what? Their predictions were bunk.

Sort of like the predictions a few years back that nuclear power was going to be so cheap that we wouldn't have to meter it.

And yes, the wind turbines in the 80's might have come up with a few rusted bearings, but they don't have a Chernobyl hanging over their heads. But hey, that wasn't really that bad was it? Guess we should thank our hard-nosed engineers for that one too, along with thanking them for the Rural Electrification program.

But there's plenty of hypocrisy to go around, I'll grant you; and plenty of irony also. If these wacky scientists are actually right, some of those most to blame for global warming are some of those we most revere as heroes; the Thomas Edisons, the Orvilles and Wilburs, the Henry Fords. And to "dis" the promise of new technologies, say nanotechnological advances in photovoltaics, just for example, is to say that the ingenuity and resourcefulness they demonstrated is dead. If it was, I wouldn't be sitting here in Chicago, debating some stranger in California about energy and politics, through some freakish, whirring server farm in eastern Washington State.

All that said, if our goal is dramatic reduction in green house gases, it has to be pursued on every front. As an architect, I deal with reducing energy use more than making it, but since almost half of the U.S.'s GHG's come from constructing, heating, cooling and powering buildings, architects and building engineers as a profession have the potential to make an enormous contribution. Reducing power usage in a new building by half that of a building built even 5 years ago is a realistic goal, and one that has in fact been adopted by the AIA. To be honest, it requires a re-examination of almost every feature and system in a building, but it's not like they didn't need it anyway.

Combine those reductions with the type of coal gasification plants that are being developed in Texas, and here in Illinois (with the potential for carbon sequestering), the continued dramatic increase in wind power, some long-overdue reforms in our thick-headed auto industry, a little more spine from our politicians, maybe a place to bury our current nuclear waste, maybe a CO2 tariff on Chinese imports, more conscious life-style choices on everyone's part, and about a thousand other things and we might make a dent.

On second thought Jack, you're probably right, we're screwed.

I just heard an interesting fact the other day that I think relates to this discussion: the U.S. advertising industry is something like a $250 billion dollar a year beast, or almost $1,000 for every man, woman and child. How much of the world makes less in total income than our advertisers spend on each one of us trying to make us buy something?

We're definitely screwed, or at least deserve to be.

Posted by: Steven HUlt on 14 Mar 07

Sorry about some of the Chernobyl stuff. Upon re-reading, it comes off a little more harshly than was absolutely necessary. My apologies.

Posted by: Steven HUlt on 15 Mar 07

jack levy: the problem with the go-nuclear-and-forget-about-it is that it looks like the energy generation industry has been sitting on its collective butts, happily fending off serious efficiency increases, pushing up the danger, because they've been thinking they have an ace up their sleeve, in nukes.

there is no justification for the amount of energy we use per person in this country. not in the homes, not on the road, not in the offices, not in the factories. in every single category there's a 50% improvement or better ready to be implemented and, no action, and a BIG chunk of that lack of action is caused by the energy industry's lobbyists.

don't tell me the sob stories about the poor people and their need for juice, either. i'm sick of hearing that there's some stupid conspiracy to keep the poor down. the energy companies lately have made quarterly profits big enough to pay for the millennium challenge poverty reduction goals, almost twice over. concerned about the poor poor people? SEND THEM A CHECK.

besides, they don't need straight power; they need good work:watt ratios.

the speed with which china's building plants now is based on the speed at which industrial jobs around the world are being thrown at them. they're racing to keep up with demand from outside the country, but it isn't something that they can use to stay economically strong, because they're poisoning themselves in the process and because we won't be able to continue borrowing more and more money against less and less job quality to buy chinese goods.

something's gotta give and either it's going to be the chinese industrial base, or ours. something tells me transoceanic cargo built by soft-coal plants will be an easy carbon cut to make when people get around to it. they can't possibly get safe nukes online in time to prevent that backlash. everybody not a big market player is already furious with them for acting as the polluted labor camp of last resort for an increasingly self-involved business class.

we're all going to have a hell of a hard time getting through the next 25 years. efficiency will serve us better in difficult times than high output. don't block it, please?

Posted by: hibiscus on 17 Mar 07

also, the internet's power use these days is about video. that's what google's building to carry. we have more than a dozen redundant ways to watch television, all competing. on the net, between bittorrent, googletube, VOD, and the rest ... there's fat to cut. long time before basic text+pictures web sites like this have to beg for fission to save us from ourselves.

Posted by: hibiscus on 17 Mar 07

There may be one issue that is missing and that is overpopulation. There should be a limit for how many children people can have. Otherwise there will be no room left. I say, two children maximum per family. So that when the parents die, they will be replaced evenly by their children.

Overpopulation has been our main contribution to the problems of our society.

Look at the population counter. I have calculated that in approximately 5 days the world grows by a million people. In about 14 years, the world will grow by another billion.

A big population can only cause a mass-scale burning of fossil fuels and removal of wildlife.

There needs to be balance, or we tumble on the other side into a world without fresh air, where skies are hazed, and where we would be stuck in a filthy and a horrendously poor environment.

Overall population awareness is key. Our world is finite! Bring back the balance!

Posted by: James Orman on 19 Mar 07

I so enjoy/hate all of this. It is incredible. So many smart people, trying to do the same thing in different ways. Jack, I hear you. When you look at the scale of the challenge there seems to be no other way. Nuclear Power. I believe it could work if you could unlock the rest of the cycle. No flat-earth linear process, you can't just 'bury' the waste. Just like you can't just 'sequester' the carbon. That is cheating. If we're going to do this WE'VE GOT TO DO IT. Anything else is a half-measure. Waste=food man. As soon as we change our thinking the solution will come.

Like ecosystems though, we need to spend more time as local thinkers. Like forests that develop micro-ecosystems we need to think the same way. That's one of the reasons I love the word glocal. It acknowleges duality and allows you to hold both at the same time, but is more local than global.

For me, I'm running for school board and trying to help kids involved. I helped one HS kid do water testing project for a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) in her city. She showed water with fecal counts 500% over what's swimmable. Raw crap by design. And legal. Not directly relevant to the climate crisis but a symptom just the same. By bringing awareness she is creating space for solutions.

Jack et al: Close the loops and run in circles! Woo Hoo!!


Posted by: Daniel N Smith Jr on 20 Mar 07



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