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Climate Change is a Problem We Can Choose to Tackle

This article was written by Saul Griffith in March 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Saul Griffith is a remarkable guy: inventor, entrepreneur, Squid Labs, ThinkCycle and Instructables founder, columnist, genius grant winner and now president of the clean energy start-up Makani Power. A couple weeks ago, I did a talk at eTech, and while I was there, I had the fortune to hear Saul give his presentation on energy literacy and climate change.

Saul's essential point is that climate change is a problem we can choose to tackle: that the means are within our control, if we'll learn to think clearly about them. It's a great talk, and like all great talks, there's lots to quibble with in it (I'm sure Worldchanging readers will spring to the task), but at it's core, the message could not be more consonant with our goals as a site. Saul has kindly turned his talk into a series of posts for Worldchanging, which we'll be posting over the course of the week. --Alex

This is an old story, hopefully told in a new way.

Al Gore's documentary "An inconvenient truth" reached many people but his is just the most recent telling of a story that has been told many times before. At the peak of the energy crisis in the 1970’s, Amory Lovins wrote a book called Energy Strategies that largely outlined the problem we have today. In the 1950s Buckminster Fuller wrote many similar treatises on the dangers of over-consumption of energy and materials and its effects on the earth’s ecosystems. At the turn of last century, Henry Thoreau wrote a beautiful book about simple living in the woods of Massachusetts as an antidote to the destructive lifestyle of modern living he perceived at that time. Walden has sold many copies and inspired the modern conservation movements. Muir and Carson should be attributed for their contributions also. 2 millenia ago, in his book "Critias", Plato wrote about the demise of the forests:

“What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all fat and soft earth having wasted away, and only the bare framework of the land being left...there are some mountains which have nothing but food for bees, but they had trees not very long ago, and the rafters from those felled there to roof the largest buildings are still sound.

There are many more books and speeches and documents beside these that are available today to further discuss humanity's influence on the environment. Except for the fact that we now have better information thanks to the concerted efforts of modern science and the many tireless individuals that study the effects of humans on the environment, I'm not telling you a story much different than these.

The principal difference here is that I've approached telling this story as an engineer would approach a challenge. "Tell me what I have to do and I'll make it work" might well be the call cry of engineers. This document is thus set out as a resource and an open document for other people to critique and improve until we can specify the task for engineers. Once we know what we have to do, we will certainly do it.

This document started out as a very cold and impersonal look at the physics, and the thermodynamics of Earth's energy systems. It was clearly apparent that while audiences enjoyed that conversation and it provided valuable perspective, the numbers were too large, and the issues so impersonal, that it was difficult to understand the implications.

In an effort to remedy that this document now has two stories intertwined: The larger, global energy picture, and the more personal energy accounting for all of earth's individuals. The larger story is about very big numbers and very big implications. The personal story is about each of us living and working in this shared planet, and the cumulative effects that each of our lives make.

I remember first watching Al Gore give a tremendous, and important, presentation at a conference with his climate change talk. The immediate questions from that audience were "How does this effect me?" and "What can I do to make a difference?". A few years later the answers to these questions ended up in the credits of his documentary "An Inconvenient Truth". Because the answers to those questions are the only way we as individuals can understand our global challenge, we have tried to bring them into the center of this conversation rather than the appendix. This isn't meant as a gross criticism of Gore, just that I personally want a deeper understanding of the consequences, and to know what to do.

Without doubt, the only way to move forward is to know what the target is, know how to measure progress towards that target, and have the data and information to make good personal decisions as well as good global decisions.


Each of the following steps will be addressed at greater length in its own post:

Step 1 CO2 = Climate
Understand the link between CO2 concentration and climate change. Understand the models, their predictive power, their accuracy.

In laying out the logic of this document we hope to give you the tools to rebuild this story as it relates to you. If you disagree with any specific assumption or piece of information, you have the approach outlined here to return to.

If you believe global warming isn’t happening at all, this logic is still valid for you. You will merely conclude that nothing needs to be done immediately, and you will walk away with a greater understanding of your own energy consumption, ways to save money, and ways to increase the security of energy supplies as fossil fuel supplies slowly dwindle.

If you believe that we should return to pre-industrial levels of CO2 this story is still valid - you will reach more drastic conclusions about the urgency of action, and the things we must start to do. The real point here is that this is an approach which really lays out climate change for what it is. A collective choice for humanity. A choice that determines the aesthetics of our future planet, the way we live, breathe, work, eat, and play.

The first step in the problem is understanding the relationship between greenhouse gases (principally CO2) and climate change. This is very well studied and the IPCC has been at the forefront of collecting and vetting this information for humanity. The other goal of laying out the logic this simply is to push the conversation forward for climate change. It is going to have to come down to a choice, where we set a real goal - not a diluted percentage of industrial output goal like the Kyoto goal - but a global CO2 concentration and emissions goal and consequent clean energy production goals. People will do what they need to do once they have a goal in place. We all love challenges.

Step 2 Temperature Choice
Choose the temperature at which you would like to stabilize the earth. Acknowledge the implications of your choice.

As we increase CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, the temperature rises. By halting or reversing the rate at which we emit CO2 to the atmosphere we are in effect choosing the CO2 concentration that the atmosphere will eventually stabilize at. This concentration determines the temperature that the world will stabilize at. The idea is that once you have an understanding of the relationship between CO2 and temperature (with all of its uncertainties) you can make a choice of what temperature you would like to live at, and what effects that has on the environment.

This is a choice that nobody seems to want to make. No one wants to be wrong. No government wants to say "3 degrees more heat is OK", and then find out that it isn't. It's hard not to conclude that the safe and sane choice is the conservative one. Act now, and if we over-estimated the threats and consequences then the next generations can change our estimates and resource use because they will know more than we do now.

Step 2: Choosing a global temperature target.
This choice of temperature is obviously going to be the most difficult choice humanity has ever made.

The first time I publicly gave this talk it was at a technology conference for the programmer / hacker community. The temptation was to say that "Earth's climate is humanity's operating system" and that "what temperature we choose determines what functional calls we have, how stable the platform is, and what chances there are that we crash the OS and have to reboot". That mightn't be the best metaphor for general audiences, but the point of bringing it up here is we need to find the metaphors for every audience. Everyone needs to develop an intuition for what this means to us all.

One principal reason the temperature choice will be difficult is that at different temperatures you have a different set of winners and losers. This is probably only true for small temperature changes where the argument is about how this wine producing region increased in productivity while this rainforest dries out. At larger temperature changes, like those beyond +2 degrees Celsius, I think there is a compelling argument that no one wins. The world changes so much and the struggle for resources for survival will become so great, that no one can hide, and no one wins.

Step 3 Allowable Carbon
Determine from your choice of climate change the amount of carbon you are allowed to release into the atmosphere annually.

Having chosen a temperature, we can infer what CO2 concentration we should aim at for creating equilibrium on the planet. This is a number measured in parts per million (ppm) of CO2. This talk largely ignores the other green-house gases of CH4 and NO2, methane and nitrous oxide respectively. Methane is produced in large quantities by our livestock (sheep and cows in particular) and our landfills, as well as natural sources. Nitrous oxide is a by-product of our nitrogenous fertilizers for agriculture and produced in air travel through the jet-fuel combustion process. The concentrations of these gases is sometimes measured as CO2 equivalent. Methane per molecule is a 21 times more absorbing greenhouse molecule than CO2. Nitrous oxide is even worse, with an effect 310 times that of CO2. Obviously we need to address all of the molecules that contribute to climate change, and work to reduce the concentrations of all of them. This conversation will however focus just on CO2. I'm assuming that if we develop the awareness of climate implied by this document, that will happen in parallel to our focus on the largest contributor, CO2.

Carbon has an atomic weight of 12. Oxygen has an atomic weight of 16. Each time you combust, or burn, a carbon molecule, it is oxidized to become CO2. Some people measure carbon input into the atmosphere in terms of C, others in terms of CO2. To convert between these values multiple Carbon by 3.67, or divide CO2 by 3.67.

C : C02 = 12 : (12 + 16 + 16 ) = 44 hence 44/12 = 3.67.

Step 4 Useable Fossil Energy
Determine from the amount of carbon you can release to the atmosphere the amount of energy available to us from fossil fuels and carbon emitting sources and therefore what “new clean power component we need to generate.

Knowing the concentration we wish to stabilize at, we know how much power we can make burning carbon based fuels, over what time frame we need to reduce it, and to what ultimate value. This is an extremely important number to determine because it sets us our target of how much non-carbon power we will need to produce to support the lifestyles we want to live.

With these choices and their consequences, we can now understand the grand challenge of renewable (or non-carbon emitting) energy, or indeed whether it is a challenge at all.

My personal interpretation of the information laid out here is that this is the biggest engineering challenge ever faced by mankind. That barely implies that it is also the biggest social, economic and political challenge in history!. I personally would conclude that you should support a concerted effort to meet this challenge in every way possible whilst also learning to live your personal life in healthier and happier ways.

Every choice you make is important here: your choice of how much climate change you can tolerate; your choice of lifestyle and the power generation it implies.

The other intent of laying out this logical framework and making this an open document is that this story needs to be told in different ways by different people in order to tell the story as far and wide as possible. The wisdom of many eyes on this document interpreting it in better ways will surely help humanity face and conquer this challenge. - This is after all about our collective choice, not the choice of any single player in the game. The coal companies get their vote, the environmentalists get their vote, middle Americans get their vote, Indian peasants get their vote. It's everyone's climate. Thats what we have to realize. It's everyone's climate. It's everyone's choice.

Step 5 Clean Energy Sources
Analyse from what sources we can possibly make the clean power component

This step allows us to know where all of the earth's energy resources are, how they can be tapped, and what we can expect of each of them. Even which secondary effects each of those choices might have: how much land area we devote to this or that, or what ecosystem effects solar panels and wind farms have. The important thing here is to know what the possibilities are and to inform wise investment choices in the potential of each one.

Finally we get to the really fun part. This is where the challenge turns to engineering. This is where we get our hands dirty, put our shoulders to the grindstone, and solve the problem.

Step 6 New Energy Mix
Choose a mix of technologies to make “the clean power component” and estimate the industrial and engineering effort to meet the challenge.

Pick your new energy mix, how much wind, how much solar, how much coal, how much gas, how much petroleum, how much nuclear, how much wave, how much tidal, how much geothermal. Once picked we are only a bunch of good new jobs and fulfilling work-days away from meeting our challenge.

"The sun pays all the bills"
- Kim Stanley Robinson.


The personal side of the story:
where does your energy go?

Step 1 My Lifestyle
Calculate my own current energy consumption as a result of my lifestyle.

Step 2 Carbon Calculators
Compare to other people’s “Carbon Calculators”

Step 3 My Share & Energy Demographics
Make it personal: give everyone an equal share of the current total energy resource. Compare my equal share to world’s current demographics.

Step 4 My New Life
Re Evaluate my own personal footprint to see what impact an equal share would have on my lifestyle.

The personal side of the story: Step 1.

Step 1 My Lifestyle
Calculate my own current energy consumption as a result of my lifestyle.

No one is exactly like anyone else. That’s part of why it is fun to be human. We all live in different ways. How we live determines the impact we each have on the environment. In recent times this has led to a public conversation about “Carbon Footprint”. I personally prefer to think about it as your own personal power requirement. Carbon and power are like the chicken and the egg. It is hard to figure out which came first and which one we should think in.

I am definitely unusual. As I write this I am a 34 year old scientist, inventor, and entrepreneur living in California. I have my own company that is trying to invent new ways of harnessing renewable power sources. I live in ‘the Mission’, a small yet colorful district in the city of San Francisco. I rent a small stand-alone house with two bedrooms that I share with my partner. I fly a lot, both for business and pleasure, and generally those trips are combined. I don’t drive very much, and when I do it is mostly in a very efficient Hybrid, or a reasonably efficient vintage VW beetle. I am an omnivore - I eat meat - regularly. I try to commute by bicycle and public ferry most days. I like to think of myself as environmentally aware and as motivated to building a better future for the planet. In spite of all these things, preparing this document has shown me that I am a major part of the energy problem. I don’t buy as many things as most other people, but the things I do buy (like lap-tops and cell phones) are particular energy intensive products.

I have a strong background in mathematics and physics and engineering and a PhD from MIT to show for it. Even with that I find it very difficult to calculate my own ecological footprint to the accuracy I would like, and during the analysis I found myself repeatedly stumbled for lack of information. I am sure it is hard for everyone. I have every modern resource available and I still find this whole issue extremely challenging to understand and deal with.

By calculating in detail my own energy consumption I hope to make more people aware of their own personal environmental impacts. I hope also to induce an improvement in the reporting
of personal environmental impact by the companies that provide us with our material goods.

Step 2 Carbon Calculators
Compare to other people’s “Carbon Calculators”

By now nearly everyone is aware of the concept of a "Carbon Calculator". There are many freely available on the web. Critiques of the system already get air-time in the press. I will compare a large set of them here to see how they compare using the same data I used myself. The bad news : the results are more variable than they are accurate. Why would I want to show this? If these are going to be the principle tools for the average person to figure out their progress in helping the world, then let's make them precise, and accurate. As all engineers know (and athletes!), you can only improve if you measure well and if you have benchmarks.

Step 3 My Share & Energy Demographics
Make it personal: give everyone an equal share of the current total energy resource. Compare my equal share to world’s current demographics.

It's worth here looking at the demographics of humanity's energy use, and the way our collective behaviour is the contributor. I include this quick study of demographics not to point the finger at any country in particular, but to put things in perspective, to help plan the future. We have to remember that our lifestyles and cultures changed and went in these directions before we knew a lot about climate change and the relationship with personal consumption. Rather than have Europeans thumb their noses at Americans and say "Look how much better we are" it would be hoped everyone says "OK, here we are, how do we all improve"... "what do you know that can help me improve, what do I know that can help you". The thing about living on the same planet tied together with the same atmosphere is that we can't simply ignore our neighbors.
We are all in it together.

Step 4 My New Life
Re-Evaluate my own personal footprint to see what impact an equal share would have on my lifestyle.

I found it very powerful to look at the global power consumption,
and the global population, and determine the average global power consumption per person. I then used this number to re-evaluate my life. Can I reduce my lifestyle to this average? Will it be hard? Easy? will it improve my life or make it less interesting? I'd recommend everyone go through this exercise and make your own choices: it helps you think about what is important to you. I still choose some portion of international travel because my family lives overseas. You might not. What really surprised me is that my new life actually looks a lot better for my health. I can also imagine that it will really improve the quality of my life. People will call me an optimist. I am!

I'm not trying to imply that equal distribution of the earth's energy resources is the right solution, I'm merely using it as a starting point for perspective. It certainly can't hurt to use this as your target.

Science and the scientific method.

Science is interesting. In modern day life we are bombarded with scientific study headlines. "Study shows (insert bizarre phenomena and conclusion)." Because of this, the public might be forgiven for becoming complacent to, or inoculated against, the latest "scientific" finding. Next week's study will likely contradict this week's. In part this is because the modern media does a fairly poor job of communicating science, and mostly because it tries to "dumb it down" or "sensationalize" it. I think the majority of the problem is that there isn't a wide understanding of the difference between "science" and "the scientific method".

Science is the study of some sort of phenomena accompanied by an effort to explain it with a theory. Because of this, great skepticism does and should meet any single scientific study. That skepticism by the rest of the scientific community is really what the "scientific method" is. As a scientist you are obliged to question every assumption and conclusion, and to test and retest them until an established truth emerges. With enough time, and enough questioning, we can build a lot of confidence that the theories are correct. This has been a proven method for generating the incredible amount of knowledge that humanity taps to construct modern life.

This method is particularly easy for easily measurable things like the mass of a neutron or the size of the moon, or for the motions of the planets. More recently it has gotten harder because the complexity of the things that we study has greatly increased. In biology it is very difficult to reach simple conclusions and knowledge because the entire system is so complex and interconnected. This is also true of climate change. The earth's climate is not completely understood. That is true and will likely always remain true. In the science of complex systems we build models. These models explain large data sets by simplifying the problem for us. We can test these models by measuring reality and comparing it with our models. It takes quite a long time to draw strong conclusions, but in the end, through the scientific method, we can have high confidence that the conclusions are generally correct, even if we do not know the exact details.

At right is a paper by Arrhenius, a great scientist of the late 19th century. He is most famous for the Arrhenius equation, but also studied the chemistry of our atmosphere. His study on "Carbonic Acid" (now referred to as CO2) is one of the earliest studies that links climate change with CO2 in the atmosphere.

A century later the scientific method has concluded with great confidence that our CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions are heating our world and endangering our lifestyles and the future of our children. While it remains wise to continue to doubt the headlines of each new "scientific study" it would be very unwise indeed to ignore the results of the collective wisdom of thousands of scientists working together through the scientific method. The conclusion now reached is that our behavior with regards to how we produce our energy and therefore generate CO2, must change. And now.

(Thanks to Worldchanging New Zealand columnist Craig Neilson for his assistance!)

How to Become Energy Literate and Battle Climate Change is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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