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In Search of Anthropocene Ethics

The current epoch, the Holocene, is about 11,700 years old – and a movement has been afoot for about the past sixteen years to declare that due to human behavior, we have entered a new epoch, called the Anthropocene. The idea is that modern time is not defined so much by the end of the last ice age, as it is defined by human impact on the planet’s environment, topography, geography, climate, etc.

To some folks, the whole concept of human impact on the environment might seem both obvious and shrug-worthy at the same time. We are the environment, after all, right? We are organisms on our planet, fighting for survival, and doing quite well at it, and that’s perfectly natural. But to any reasonable observer of the evidence, we are a mighty peculiar and unique organism, capable of massive destruction to the planetary ecosystem – and that’s where individual ethics come into the picture. We actually get to decide how much impact we have, and how negative it needs to be.

Our impact is not small, or incremental, or glacially slow – it is tremendous both in scope and swiftness. Data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii has shown that the current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is somewhere around 400 parts per million. Before the industrial revolution the planet had a nice steady cycle of atmospheric carbon from anywhere between 200 and 280 parts per million, depending on whether there was an ice age or not, going back hundreds of thousands of years, without any real spikes – certainly nothing coming close to the current surge caused by human activity. We know this because we can study ancient ice bubbles and suck the air out of them. Dr. Charles Miller, a researcher specializing in this type of data says, “current [atmospheric] CO2 values are more than 100 ppm higher than at any time in the last one million years.” Now we can ask ourselves if this is a coincidence – or caused by some type of supernatural phenomena, ghosts maybe? Or we can admit that humans are the culprits due to the surge coinciding with carbon-based industry.

Passing the 400 mark reminds me that we are on an inexorable march to 450 ppm and much higher levels. These were the targets for ‘stabilization’ suggested not too long ago. The world is quickening the rate of accumulation of CO2, and has shown no signs of slowing this down. It should be a psychological tripwire for everyone.

– Dr. Michael Gunson – Project Scientist, Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite mission – NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

That’s just carbon – the big problem that squashes all the other problems with all of its dire consequences. There’s also: (1) that whole thing where we are fishing the fish to death, (2) drastically reshaping the land to extract resources, (3) deciding we don’t really need trees anymore, (4) turning the ocean into a festering cesspool of plastic and sludge, (5) decimating coral reefs, (6) permitting causing extinction rates up 1000 times the rate of pre-human levels, (7) poisoning and eradicating our pollinating species, (8) destroying the nitrogen cycle, (9) destroying the carbon cycle, (10) and we are trying to decide which entire country will entirely sink into the ocean first. That’s just to name ten, I’m sure there’s more deranged shit we are doing to permanently kill everything. We are getting very practiced at it, and practice makes perfect.

I said this was an article about ethics, so perhaps we can stop being pedants about the evidence and move on to what our obligations should be as a result of the evidence. We dislike personal responsibility to the community. At the furthest extremes, there are folks who think we are so insanely incapable of improving our actions and behaviors that we should just un-ironically choose to voluntarily go extinct. I can think of a few folks I hope join that movement, but it strikes me as an illustration of just how much we want to avoid acting ethically in light of our unique impact on the biosphere – perhaps a fear that we are incapable of being better humans.

This might be a perfectly reasonable fear. Despite a large body of ecological ethical philosophy that has popped up for the past 50 years, not much of it has been discussed beyond academia, certainly not in the type of national and international dialogue that is necessary for these ideas about human behavior to reach the individual, common person in a meaningful and considered manner. Science published “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis” in 1967 and “The Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968, but serious efforts at making Anthropocene Ethics a part of the educational system, and a part of the way we are all brought up in the world have not taken hold or become anything close to learning-norms. We have been able to do things about other self-made crises. We have reined in nuclear proliferation, and fight an ongoing battle to keep it that way. We have reduced warfare and poverty in massive amounts. But we remain startlingly incapable of controlling our dominion over the environment. We need to be challenged with the following questions for ourselves:

Why is this not in the curriculum?

I know, due to my K-12 education, that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. But I never learned that melting permafrost in the polar regions is about to lead to worldwide catastrophe. I learned what a “past participle” means. But I never learned that the oceans are acidifying at a rate of 22 million tons per day. I also never learned that a very slight change in the PH levels of the oceans will kill all the oysters, lobsters, and shrimp in the sea. For some reason I learned in school that the state capitol of Delaware is Dover. But wasn’t it just a little bit more urgent for me to know that we destroy a Panama-sized chunk of the world’s forests each year?

We cannot advocate for sound policy or even guide our own individual ethical code in the right direction unless we have a basic awareness of the problem. We can keep leading insular lives while whistling past the graveyard, and that might feel nice for now, but at some point it becomes immoral to keep our eyes forcibly shut to the vast amounts of information just waiting to be shared in classrooms across the globe. There is a slogan among outdoorsmen: “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” We are leaving a hellscape instead.

Why is this not something we discuss among ourselves?

I know what qualifies for water-cooler talk. My office is right next to the water cooler, and so I feel like an expert in the madness of social jabber these days. The hot topic right now is Donald Trump! Man, we can’t get enough of that silly goof’s antics. It’s like talking about how you need to mow the lawn while there’s asteroid falling from the sky – an amazing mismatch of our discussion priorities to the reality of the world. It’s not that we are just averse to discussing negative things. Donald Trump is a negative thing and we have veritable conversational orgies on that topic. So what is the real reason? My first suspicion is polarity. We all agree Trump is a disaster, but for some reason we don’t all agree on the urgency of ecological crisis. My second suspicion is efficacy. Even among those who agree there is an ecological crisis, there is a large percentage who find no reason to have faith in our coming together to do anything about it. So that needs addressing:

Why do we have no faith in ourselves to make a difference?

Here is an example. Despite 70% of Americans believing in climate change, only 6% think “humans can and will reduce” the problem. We have remarkably little faith in our fellow man, and this makes us less likely to change our own behavior. It’s like our own planetary diffusion of responsibility. Throw In The Towel Syndrome. Or maybe it’s this concept that since God is in charge of the climate anyway, we can just shrug and move on like it’s a background theological issue. Either way, if you care about children and lizards and birds and bees, isn’t there a moral imperative to act when crisis knocks at your door and threatens all of your legacy and progeny? Even for those of devout thinking, isn’t procrastination a sin?

Realism, not idealism:

I’m not some wild-eyed optimist. I think controlled catastrophe is just going to be a part of human existence and population growth. I think our effect on this pale blue dot will be pretty consequential and that we might not entirely recognize the world folks inherit from us a hundred or two hundred years from now. But I am a realist. I know that acting to solve a diffuse problem is not automatic or spontaneous, it’s sparked by something specific. I find myself in the unique position of hoping some minor but elucidative tipping point comes along right now in order to wake us all up from this trance and crystallize the stakes we face in the international consciousness. But failing that, staying zipped up about the problem in the meantime is not comforting to me. I’ll be making a conscious effort to be a giant pest. As annoying as a mosquito. Perhaps as annoying as a trillion mosquitoes. I do not think it is inevitable that we force a disastrous inheritance on our children. We can probably reduce that risk from inevitable to merely probable.

Image by Malinda Rathnayake

Staff Writer

Tess Kovach lives in Hartford, Connecticut. She has experience in various forms of rabblerousing, both in government and outside of government. She tweets at @KStreetHipster.

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270 thoughts on “In Search of Anthropocene Ethics

  1. Hi Tess

    Notice that while the article is full of factoids about the damage being done, there is little being said about what our options are. So, what are options? What will it take to stop acidification of oceans, reduction of carbon output etc etc etc? Calculate the human cost for that. Then ask how long it will take for things to get better once we stop doing all those things. More importantly, ask whether any sane morality can demand that everyone give up those things. If Venice is going to go the way of Atlantis whatever we do, do we really owe so much to future generations that we should give up a lot of our current well-being to save them?


    • In reverse order, because your last sentence stunned me:

      1. All we owe to future generations is our humanity. To me, if a little sacrificing on our part can reduce the sum total of their struggles, which will certainly be harder than ours, then I think we are ethically bound to bring some pain upon ourselves. Investment in sacrifice now will reduce pain later.

      2. Can any sane morality demand we sacrifice? Uh. Can any sane morality excuse our trashing the hotel room for the maid to clean up later?

      3. My post isn’t about proposing options for action. It’s about the shame and immorality of inaction as a stain on the legacy of this currently living generation of humans. It’s about not keeping our eyes forcibly shut to the problem. I think of this post as “part B” – if part A is identifying the problem, part B is an attempt to communicate the urgency in a meaningful way to people, and part C is taking action. We aren’t doing the part B very well in my view – failing to educate in even the most basic manner about the severity of the problem.


      • We are currently above the earth’s carrying capacity. The debate is no longer what “little sacrificing” we need to do, and instead is who we need to annihilate.

        The Powers that Be have one idea as to who that is, and I have a different idea.

        But if you aren’t talking about controlled loss of life, you’re talking about uncontrolled loss of life.

        Yes, we know the boomers are a plague of locusts, and that they will be punished by being put into concentration camps (“forced retirement homes”).

        If people knew the severity of the problem (SPOILER ALERT: NORTH CAROLINA DOES, AND SO DOES MIAMI — at least NOAA tells them all the fucking time), they’d do what they always do, bury their heads and try to pretend that Miami Housing is increasing in value, rather than decreasing.


      • Part B is all well and good, but Part C is the only one that actually does anything. You do significantly better by actually working towards a solution. Failing that, you can at least suggest something, especially when you stridently demand that something be done. Urgency without direction is either fake urgency or wasteful urgency.

        As to morality … can any sane morality demand we restore a condemned house, when moving out is an option?


      • So whereas I’m currently a bit too tired to provide links, and perhaps you could disabuse me of my mistakes if I’m wrong, but:

        1a). We may owe something, but from the mere fact that we owe something to future persons it does not follow that we owe as much as we do to those who currently exist. This needs to be argued for.

        1b) Even if we owe to future persons as much as we owe to others, it doesn’t follow that we can just add and subtract total utilities. Straight up aggregative consequentialism is not some default position you can turn to, especially when the crucial matter at stake is whether we should take on some pain to help others.

        1c) Pursuant to the above considerations, it is even more crucial to consider who the we in question are. If you are talking about all people currently alive, we are not just talking about wealthy upper middle class folks like you and I. We are also talking about the global poor. How are the global poor to improve their lot without industrialising? Or how is industrialisation to proceed without increasing carbon and other pollutant output?

        2)No doubt as above, we could argue that we should sacrifice some thing, but IIRC and correct me if I’m wrong, what is required of people is not just a small sacrifice, but pretty darn hefty. It cannot be taken for granted that morality can be so demanding. The idea is that while we can argue for an obligation to, for instance, help some poor people, this obligation does not scale. There is thus no obligation to reduce ourselves to a barely tolerable existence just to alleviate global poverty. Consider: if we are always obligated to undergo some amount of suffering if we can alleviate an even greater amount, then it is wrong for us to look for meaningful non-charitable work rather than highly paying work as we are enjoying certain psychic luxuries at the expense of starving people in the developing world. It is wrong to go for movies, live in anything larger than a studio apartment, eat tasty food etc etc. If there is no limit to how much we can be required to sacrifice, then we are all obligated to work in the most lucrative job we can find, live as frugally as humanly possible and donate everything else to oxfam or something. And still our lives would be better than the starving poor. Now, maybe morality really is so demanding. But most people would think that insane. Commonsense moral norms are not so demanding.

        3. As others have mentioned below, the what is to be done is crucial if, among the courses of action available to us at the moment, doing nothing is the least bad option. You can’t go around haranguing people for doing nothing if doing nothing is in fact morally acceptable. And moral acceptability is menu dependent. It is acceptable to do nothing (though it may be heroic if we all sacrificed greatly to reduce pollution) if there is no low cost option that could plausibly reduce pollution.


            • No, I don’t.

              If you want to argue that you don’t have an obligation to continue the human race, feel free to do so. But do it tabula rasa, not based on “but I’d have to live in a 2 foot box and eat soylent green!!”

              Seriously, the “how much of an obligation” is dependent on making the argument that “the value of a good life” surpasses our “need to continue the human race”.

              You can even make the argument that “there is some value of ‘shitty conditions’ such that we should just let everyone die rather than suffer them.”


              • It seems that for any Φ, that Φ-ing is extremely burdensome/ requires more moral attention than we are generally capable of is a pro-tanto defeater of any purported obligation to Φ even if the consequences of Φ-ing are very desirable.


    • If Venice is going to go the way of Atlantis whatever we do, do we really owe so much to future generations that we should give up a lot of our current well-being to save them?

      Venice going the way of a fictional city is not the issue. The issue is that the changes to the environment that will cause Venice to go the way of that fictional city are going to produce a great deal of human suffering. They may already be doing so. So the question is, do we owe it to future generations, or even our future selves, to do what we can do alleviate their suffering, even if that requires making some very real sacrifices?

      I think it’s probably worth asking whether there’s any sane ethics that doesn’t demand sacrifices to alleviate suffering when necessary.


      • Are you pro-concentration camps? Because we’re going to have millions of people without places to put ’em, and depending on how that happens, we’re going to have to deal with it in realtime (not a slow ‘n gradual process).


  2. I’m not some wild-eyed optimist.

    I agree. I would actually call the tone of this post wide-eyed pessimism. And I don’t mean that as a knock. Maybe pessimism is warranted. Murali gets at the unexplored conflict in the comment above, though. On the one hand, there is this looming catastrophe big enough to be an existential threat, but we can also avert it if we just all get together now and do the right thing. Also, the right thing just happens to align to a whole set of fuzzy, center-left, developed world, upper-middle class policy preferences. You can see how some folks might find this view worth additional scrutiny.

    The other thing is that by phrasing this post in the second person plural, you are collapsing a whole bunch of perspective. There is no we. There is a planet of 7 billion individual people spread across the planet and organized into communities existing at varying stages of development, economically, spiritually, ethically, etc. The idea that we could all, or at least enough of us, get on the same sheet of music and coordinate a solution sounds great, but whose music? And who is conducting? And who ends up paying for the performance? The devil is in the details.


    • On the one hand, there is this looming catastrophe big enough to be an existential threat, but we can also avert it if we just all get together now and do the right thing. Also, the right thing just happens to align to a whole set of fuzzy, center-left, developed world, upper-middle class policy preferences.

      That’s not what Murali says she says, and it’s not what she says.

      Also, “we” is the first-person plural.


      • ‘We” don’t have anything to do with the reduction of the Amazon rainforest – that’s their doing partly do to poverty, partly due to replacing oil with sugar. ‘Our’ forests are doing better than they’ve done in a 100 years.

        “We” don’t fly all over the world telling people they must sacrifice and reduce their carbon footprint in the name of the Greater Good. (The Greater Good). The last two Secretaries of State (and the next President of the United States) do that.

        “We” don’t encourage people to live downtown car-free and then close off several blocks and a subway station so our betters can get driven in huge SUVs into downtown so they can work for the Greater Good (The Greater Good).


                  • He’s expressed it somewhat… uncharitably, perhaps, but living in a car-dependent, relatively low density suburban area certainly doesn’t suggest making sacrifices, or being part of the solution. But I know nothing about your life, so I can’t say how much you sacrifice.


                    • living in a car-dependent, relatively low density suburban area certainly doesn’t suggest making sacrifices, or being part of the solution.

                      I don’t see how it suggests much either way. Not only do we not know about her present sacrifices; we don’t know about her life overall. Who’s to say how much she commutes, how long any drives she may make to the store are, etc. Are we really going to say that the simple existence of suburbs renders everyone suspect in terms of standing or good faith willingness to sacrifice when it comes to economic impact on the environment/climate?

                      It seem to me we can’t blame everyone in the suburbs for the existence of the suburbs. Some people are going to live there. You have to look at society as it is presently laid out, and say, Okay, taking the way things are as a starting point, what kind of sacrifices will be needed from you f you live like this… and like this… and like this, etc.

                      Anyway, the whole issue seems a non sequitur to me. This post is thinking through how we might ever get people to see the problem as big enough to buy. I don’t see why, if Tess is not presently making the sacrifices reflected in those judgements in her own life, that has any impact on her standing to put those questions into writing. We should see her as looking to see how her own thinking may need to change as much as how everyone else’s may. After all, she’s part of everyone.

                      I read Tess as saying, Okay, let’s have a conversation about what we all need to do and why it’s worth it. Not, Here’s how everyone else but I needs to change their behavior.


                      • “I read Tess as saying, Okay, let’s have a conversation about what we all need to do and why it’s worth it. ”

                        That was the point of my original question to Tess, to which she answered with non responsive response.


                  • I thought it was a pretty good article. The use of “we”, I thought, was obviously referring to humans as a people. Shouldn’t we, on at least some level, believe that all humans are in some way equal and that we should think to some extent about our obligations to all humans?
                    I don’t understand the personal attacks. That’s what I come to this website to avoid.


                  • We are talking about our ethics when it comes to climate change, correct? Ok, we can talk about their ethics on climate change, if talking about our ethics is off limits.

                    Their current ethics on climate change simply won’t do, not with the scope and magnitude of problem that the world is facing. Their ethics must change, and must change quickly. Some say it’s already too late.

                    I will cease talking about our ethics, though, as admonished. Our ethics are not a subject for discussion in polite society.


                    • You’re more than welcome to argue about ethics, . What’s unwelcome is arguing about personally.

                      I’d like it if you’d have offered an argument about ethics. What I don’t like are ad hominem attacks on specific people participating in our community, especially although not exclusively limited to our authors. Pointing out the author’s state of residence does not reach the merits of her argument.


      • That’s not what Murali says she says, and it’s not what she says.

        Didn’t say that he or she did. Periods denote the end of one thought and the beginning of the next.

        Also, “we” is the first-person plural.

        Yes, caught that after the edit function expired.


        • If you want to say you weren’t saying Murali was talking about those problems with her assessment of the situation, okay, though you clearly were. But the sentences have no other possible context than at least that you were doing so.


          • Are you kidding!?

            I wrote a sentence referencing Murali’s comment. Then I wrote a sentence expanding on what I thinknis the central conflict within Murali’s comment. And then I wrote a third sentence bringing in another concern. With the sum total being that elevating a particular response to the level of ecologocal religion glosses over all the unexplored nuance of the relative costs and benefits of various responses.

            Do you have an actual substantive critique to make? I’m not sure what the point of this meta-level nitpicking is.


            • This is post is about whether and how we’re going to get concerned enough with climate to change to do anything remotely difficult about it. The author was not implying that the required actions will be consistent with this or that pre-existing set of policy preferences.

              If you’re not saying there is an implication in what she writes (even if “unexplored”) that they will be, then you are just off railing on your own topic. And the author deserves a defense against that and a clarification that those are not her implications, since what you said could certainly seem to suggest that you are saying that the author was saying or thinks that the solutions will align to a set of center-left developed world upper-middle class policy preferences.

              That’s the point. I don’t care how much of a deficit of substance you feel it has.


    • Who is conducting – nobody specific. Which is part of the problem. International action and coordination is both urgent and impossible. Which is precisely why I think it’s going to have to come from all of us individually having a conscious repulsion to harmful actions. I think that if ecology does not become cultural, almost religious, as if ecological harm is a sin, then we will head boldly toward the entropic disaster we are currently courting.


        • For God(ess?)’s sake Kimmie, that’s a non-problem; easily one of the least difficult questions we face. Get the world’s population to first world economic and civil rights standards and there will be no overpopulation problem; they’ll be begging women on bended knee to have more than 1 kid.


          • I maintain that getting the world’s population to first world economic standards is no mean feat — and may be impossible given current time constraints.
            If the current (globalized!) world economy becomes unfeasible within 5-10 years, do you really think you can get everyone to First World standards???

            You’d be lucky to get IRAN, which has 70% of its people in breeding age.


            • Irrelevant, that’s the hard question. The point is that all the Malthusian doom mongering is pointless. Malthus is dead, his theory is garbage. He assumed humans would breed like animals to consume any given quantity of resources, he was wrong.

              Get basic human rights to women and some modicum of economic development and there will be no Malthusian overpopulation crisis. There’ll just be Ross Douthat in the opinion section of the New York Times sweating and pleading with women to have a few more babies for God’s sake.


              • Do you honestly think it’s appropriate to use “soft-genocide”?
                (Where the people who fail to reproduce are the ones under the most amount of stress — and least genetically capable of handling it?) [This is my response to: “Malthus is dead” — yes, our understanding of how people reproduce has improved. Spawns new questions, though]

                Getting basic human rights to women may actually mean more population, not less — please bear in mind that China has been making most of the gains on the “getting to first world status”, and they’ve been doing forced “birth control” for a looooong time.


                  • That depends on what you consider an “overproduction” now doesn’t it?

                    Imagine that the earth’s current sustainable carrying capacity for people is 2 billion. At that point, any more than 1 baby per 2 people is completely out of the question and an overproduction problem.

                    And you were the one saying that you wanted first world status for everyone.

                    Carrying capacity (food only) for that is about 2.5 billion people (MAX — read no loss of land or salinization of water). Sucker.

                    (We get loads more if we force everyone vegetarian, of course).


                    • My measure is modern tech that requires electricity: MRI-level medical care; 4GLTE tablets and phones; modest options for personal transportation (electric, as I think petroleum is a self-limiting problem in 30-50 years); people can make their own lists. Commercial fusion is still decades away, assuming none of the game-breakers materialize. Fission is strongly disliked. Most renewables suffer problems that can be modeled as depletion, limiting the total amount available. My own back-of-the-envelope estimate is that renewables, assuming the kind of goods/services I mentioned, put the carrying capacity at about 1.2B.

                      Put that population largely in urban/suburban hubs, with sizeable buffers between them, and food/water aren’t issues. Getting from a growth-based economy of 7.5B to a steady-state economy of 1.2B is an interesting problem, though.


                    • Anything less than 2 is population decline so you’d get down that far eventually though if 2 billion was the max sustainable carrying capacity then probably they should say “fish it” and, demote environmental concerns and go for broke to get us access to space because there’s no humane way you’d get down to 2 billion anytime that’d meet sustainability requirements.


                      • It’s my observation that among the reasons the loaded term “genocide” gets used so often when climate topics are brought up:

                        – While education, rule of law, and rising incomes cause the birthrate to depress to replacement level in a known, repeatable fashion, there’s no way we can feasibly make this happen quickly enough worldwide to get the population to 2.5b by 2100. Therefore, if the population is 2.5b in 2100, by definition genocide will have happened somewhere, somewhen.

                        – Even in the best case, between now and then ecosystem distortions will continue to happen, and if we have serious mitigation efforts, they will likely cause economic and physical dislocations as well. Many governments are known to have no particular love for some (or all!) of their own citizens, much less potential refugees that might come from disliked ethnic/religious/tribal groups. Given this, the more severe these stresses become, the more likely that some government, somewhere, will decide to ameliorate the stress by removing the offending people. Thus, genocide.


          • Assume our current population (worldwide) is 7billion.
            Maximum carrying capacity (assuming no landloss, no seawater infiltration, etc) is 10billion, and that’s if we all go vegetarian.

            I don’t think we can wait for feminism and economic development to fix everything. What if our globalized economy collapses in 10 years? Do you really think we’ll have gotten everyone to first world status by then??


      • Which is precisely why I think it’s going to have to come from all of us individually having a conscious repulsion to harmful actions.

        That just restates the question at another level. Who gets to decide what is harmful? And harmful to whom?

        It’s a bit naive to assume that the things which happen to align with our internal sense of righteousness are the exact same things that would have unequivocally good outcomes for the other 7 billion people presently living on this planet, much less generations to come.

        Actually, naive isn’t the right word. It’s solipsistic. Not that there aren’t things that we as individuals could be doing to reduce aptmospheric carbon, but that sort of thing is going to be affecting the margins. The real action is in how quickly places like India and China and other developing countries move away from coal. And that has a cost to the rates of economic development (ie how quickly people living in abject poverty get access to food and shelter and health care services and education).


          • Ok, what is your alternative proposal?

            I’m not sure what you mean by alternative proposal? What were the first proposals? Adopt an ecologically religious mindset and appoint an international climate dictator aren’t proposals. If you want to have a conversation about how to get Americans to burn less fossil fuels, I’m all for it. Likewise, if you want to talk about how to get the public investment/investment climate that would be most conducive to developing greener technologies.

            My problem with the framing of the OP is that it purports to be about an ethical approach, but spends no time talking about consequences or the relative costs and benefits of different actions. Those are the things that define ethical thinking and that make up ethical frameworks. In other words, it’s not enough to want to do good, you have to commit to learning how to do good.

            If you just want to talk about proposals to lower our carbon footprint, that’s simple: a carbon tax. That way individuals can make the sorts of decisions that individuals are actually good at making. That is, they can decide for themselves and their families how to maximize the consumption of the things they want within the constraints of a properly functioning market.

            And before anyone says it, a carbon tax is absolutely politically feasible so long as it is revenue neutral (ie we are willing to give up other stuff to get it). I suspect that we will get there eventually, proving Winston Churchill right.


      • While I agree that there is no realistic chance of international action, everyone around the world just deciding to deal with the problem seems even less likely. Collective Action Problems aren’t amenable to individual-level solutions (barring some special cases that don’t apply here), if they were the world would look very different to how it actually looks.

        Unfortunately, if we are going to get out of this mess I think our only hope is science and engineering; once the price of carbon-zero energy technology gets close enough to that of fossil fuels, we will suddenly see a sharp transition to the new tech. Our best bet is to pour more funding into alternative energy and associated tech and start getting some geoengineering options lined up in case we need to buy ourselves more time. Is this an utterly inadequate response? Absolutely. But let’s face it, it’s not lie humanity is going to do any more than that.


        • You could probably sell collective humanity on ending fossil fuel subsidies and maybe creating a mild penalty for fossil fuel use. But really only once the renewable or nuclear tech gets more viable/undemonized respectively.


    • Wide-eyed pessimism involves understanding that this is going to be a great big controlled death experiment, where the Powers that Be see how many smart people they can kill (because smart people are a threat to their power, and because stupid people are easier to manipulate and control).


    • The use of the editorial/royal ‘we’ has been used as a rhetorical call to action since before Pericles or Cato the Elder as a call to action by society as a whole. Any analysis to be effective must have the problems laid out as a coherent whole. By stating the problems, a call to address life and death threats elevates the debate. Only acting as we the species can mankind eventually mobilize any coherent response as tipping points loom. We won’t save the planet. The planet will be just fine. Earth will last a few more billion years. We are only saving the ecosystem that enables our survival.


  3. So Tess, you asked why this isn’t on most folks radar, why it’s not in the education program, and generally an inference to a call to action in some form. Ignoring the narrow focus on human attention (Trump, etc.) and that most folks don’t think we’d have any success at fixing it, and that humanity has a short attention span, I want to ask something a bit different:

    Why should I do anything about it? I’ll be dead before any major catastrophe (most likely), and I have no kids. So, other than some vague “do good” for the planet, what do I get out of it other than additional massive regulation, costs, and a reduced standard of living? All I see are the negatives. What’s the positive?


    • You might not get anything good out of your sacrifice other than a generalized feeling that you helped, in a small way, to ease the suffering of future generations.


          • So you’re talking about internal displacement. You might want to clarify in the future.

            If it’s all at once, a lot of them are going to die. The gov’t won’t be able to help them…they can’t even handle major hurricanes and flooding. So they’ll starve. Or will get desperate and try to take what isn’t theirs and get shot. Some will live, most won’t. If it’s gradual, more will survive. They’ll be like the Japanese in WW2 America–in camps. There will be riots and fighting and deaths. Oh, it’ll be fun for sure. This is why no one is going to want to take in the rest of the worlds refugees.


            • Florida’s highest point is 312 feet above sealevel, and that’s in the panhandle. America is at the forefront of “seawater created issues” (Louisiana’s about as bad, down near New Orleans, and Texas has its own salinization problems).

              Please note that major hurricanes and flooding are “global warming induced disasters” (So we’ve already done the planning! If you like New Orleans “shelter in place” planning of “fuck it, you all get to die,” that is.)

              I’m just hoping we don’t rebuild 3 or 4 times before we leave… That gets expensive in a hurry!

              Next thirty years are going to be interesting.

              (The fun plan is: Put the boomers into the camps (“forced retirement homes”) so that the East Coasters can have the homes — because they “have families!”)


  4. Tess:

    We all agree Trump is a disaster,….

    No we don’t all agree on that. I was willing to read your article until you went there and after that I quit. Gratuitous Trump bashing doesn’t convince me you are right.


  5. How about this new “ethics,” Dems can collude to try and prosecute folks that don’t agree with climate change?

    Democratic AGs, climate change groups colluded on prosecuting dissenters, emails show


    AG Lynch Testifies: Justice Dept. Has ‘Discussed’ Civil Legal Action Against Climate Change Deniers


    If you can’t win the argument then use the law to harass your opponents.


  6. if a little sacrificing on our part

    How much is a little? Is there a point at which I can say “okay, I’ve met my obligations”? (Or, “given that my obligations are a going concern, I am meeting my obligations as a going concern”?)

    What would that entail? Something as complex as diet changes, solar panels on the roof, and being a single-car family (with a fairly high MPG vehicle)? Something as simple as a child-free lifestyle?

    Support for a government-level push for nuclear power?

    I’d like to push for nuclear power. Let’s do that.


  7. I think it good to move the discussion out of the weeds of pedantry on to a larger plane of how we can produce a more healthful living environment for our children and future generations.
    And it really is “we”. Globalism means that the destruction of one forest anywhere is connected to the network of global commerce everywhere.


    • Well this particular “we” would like to tell the anti-nuclear folks to go pound sand and stop fear mongering. They treat all nuclear power the same, even though there are numerous ways to harness the atom in a safe(r) manner than how it’s been approved today. Lots of of very smart folks are itching to prototype & debug reactors and have a hell of a time getting permission to do so. If we wait for fusion to solve all our ills, it’ll be a long damn wait.


            • No, we are still at the “Proof of Concept” stage. If we were at the prototype stage, we’d have a feckin fusion reactor that produces significantly more power than it consumes and can sustain a reaction for more than a fraction of a second.

              The prototype stage is where we get answers to ‘s question as to whether or not we can keep the neutron flux from destroying the very expensive containment vessel faster than is affordable.


              • This. ITER is a proof-of-concept. The follow-on DEMO is described as a prototype. ITER is currently in the process of putting another slip into their official schedule. Under the proposed revision, first plasma is delayed from 2020 to 2025. Professional energy skeptic Robert Hirsch (see The Impending World Energy Mess for examples) has pointed out recently that as the systems people have started seriously evaluating the various failure modes, the cost of a tokamak-based commercial fusion plant is going up a lot. For example, a superconducting magnet quench — an event that occurs regularly at CERN’s LHC — may be catastrophic in a commercial-scale tokamak (as in ruin-the-device catastrophic).


              • Sorry, I think you just introduced a stage that wasn’t in my flow diagram, and I was saying that we were at the “start” of the prototype stage (aka not even materials-ready, so far as I know).


                • We are nowhere close to the prototype stage. We have a theoretical understanding of what should happen, and the most likely path to achieve that, but the actual engineering to get there is still being worked on.

                  Where we are is probably analogous to building large scale model rockets in the back yard in the effort to reach the moon.


        • 30 years is the tongue-in-cheek universal physical constant for when in the future commercial fusion power happens. ITER’s most recent official schedule says 27, if they hit all of the intermediate milestones. For the record, ITER has never hit a milestone at the original date, so 30 is not unreasonable. Also, there are still game-breakers. If ITER shows that the special structural alloys break down in that neutron flux twice as fast as the systems engineering suggests — not an unusual thing, we’re out at the bleeding edge where systems work is hard — then fusion works but the ongoing capital costs are so high that supporting the needs of the world’s developed economies becomes problematic.


          • Why would they? The Navy has a perfectly good nuclear power source, and the nature of their operations means they have a built in fix for the main problem that plagues reactors on the ground. They can scram a reactor whenever the hell they want & never worry about it overheating since they have a near infinite supply of coolant. Investing in fusion tech for warships is silly for a wet Navy.

            Should the Navy ever put warships in space, then they might invest in fusion power.


            • Navy rather liked the idea of ships that don’t need to refuel.
              Also, the “drawing board” stage costs peanuts. When they were ready to push it into the “proof of concept” stage, the Navy said “maybe later”.

              (This can also be read as “someone bribed/sweettalked” the navy into funding something remarkably silly).


              • Not even close to what happened. The Navy needed a way to power ships that eliminated a large part of the logistics chain, and fission was already in the works. Fusion, except for making impressive bombs, was not even on the table. The materials science and the tech leaps needed to control magnetic flux to the degree necessary to contain a fusion reaction were barely even conceived of when Admiral Rickover took the ball and ran it. Hell, I’d argue that the materials science and control systems necessary still aren’t up to the task (although we at least have a solid idea of where they need to be, unlike back in the 70’s).

                Nuclear fission makes massive sense for a ship, since it eliminates the major problem facing a fission pile, i.e. cooling it during a scram. Fusion power doesn’t have the cooling issue, but so far it has a hell of a restart issue, in that you need a massive amount of power to bring the reaction online. That would be fine when attached to shore power, but at sea, hard to drum up the necessary current when you are a 1000 miles from anywhere. Plus fusion reactors would be a hell of a lot more sensitive to battle damage.


                  • OMG! The Navy is funding a small fusion project 40+ years after they got their nuclear fission program up and running. Clearly the Navy was wrong all those years ago and in the pocket of Big Fission.

                    The first actual, man made contained fusion reaction was done by the Russians in 1968. Fission power was well understand by then, fusion power was something that took massive power to start and contain, could only be sustained for a tiny fraction of a second, and generated next to zero useable energy, and remains that way up to today (although we are getting more energy out, and can keep it together for a larger fraction of a second).

                    The Navy didn’t develop nuclear power, they just did a bang up job debugging it for their particular application. The Navy deciding to back the fusion horse would not have gotten us much closer to a prototype fusion plant than we are today, because the challenges have nothing to do with application, and everything to do with getting the technology up to the task.


                    • The first actual, man made contained fusion reaction was done by the Russians in 1968.

                      I believe Farnsworth and Hirsch were producing neutrons and soft x-rays in a fusor in 1966.

                      Fusion on a tiny scale isn’t hard — you or I could do it in our respective garages for a few thousand dollars spent judiciously on surplus parts. Scaling it up to anything useful has proven rather more difficult.


                    • For all practical purposes, the US Navy invented nuclear power.

                      The motivation for Navy nuclear power was not logistics, it was air independent propulsion for submarines. Attempts by the military to make nuke power a leveraged logistical asset were either minor failures & evolutionary dead ends (the Big E, all the nuke cruisers) or major failures (SL-1). They did go back to the drawing board and got the Nimitz but the logistical advantage is still indirect. (Carriers need to frequently go fast and get going fast fast for flight ops. But they still need the entire rest of the logistic chain for jet fuel and everything else 5K people need)

                      (and really nitpicking scramming the plant whenever we wanted was the first link in the causal chain on how we lost the Thresher. But it is true that the failsafe for navy nukes is the big ocean theory and dilution is the solution for pollution)


                      • Just read the wiki on the Thresher – fascinating.

                        And terrifying, big reason I stayed out of the submarine surface.

                        I don’t know if I’d agree that they invented it, but the Navy was certainly heavily involved in it and drove much of the development. But Kim’s statement that if Rickover & Nimitz had somehow just decided to focus on fusion instead of fission, we’d be running along on baby stars by now ignores a great deal.


                        • A more accurate statement would be that civilian power plant design was heavily influenced by Navy designs (after all, that’s where you found expertise, experience, and money that drove the field).

                          Navy designs, unfortunately, weren’t really optimal for civilian use. Starting with no easy way to deal with failure modes (you can’t just flood it with handy water or drop it to the bottom), and with design criteria (compact, high energy) that weren’t entirely relevant.

                          It’s one reason stuff like PBR’s never took off — a PBR was pointless for the Navy, and the people making civilian designs started with the concepts and designs they were familiar with and knew how to work with — the reactors for ships and subs.

                          They promptly diverged (these weren’t reactors for ships, after all) but the root was there. And nobody wanted to pay to reinvent the wheel (nuclear engineering is kind of costly, you know) so stuff like PBR’s remained more academic play toys while actual commercial stuff started with what was known and proven to work.

                          Although I hear China might change that.


                            • I’m a lot more optimistic these days. Energy generation isn’t amenable to “one big fix” (well, maybe if Lockheed wasn’t clearly BSing about that fusion design of theirs), but there’s been a lot of good development in lots of areas.

                              For instance, I wouldn’t have believed the current cost of solar if you’d told me 15 years ago — the cost per watt is just ridiculously low compared to the most optimistic projection I’d have made in 2000.


                              • It isn’t the cost of solar that concerns me, it’s the efficiency. If the efficiency was rising at anywhere close to the rate the cost is dropping, I’d feel a lot better.

                                As it is, we’d have to deploy a whole lot PV to equal the output of a steam turbine.

                                Solar thermal is much better, as long as you are careful how you aim the reflectors so you don’t fry birds or small aircraft…


                                • Efficiency is…not as important as you think. Not for rooftop solar. Sunlight is free, as it were, and rooftops are basically unused space. 10 to 15% efficiency is frankly fine for rooftop solar — unless you have a tiny roof.

                                  It’s something like 1kW per every 100 (10 to 12 watts per square foot) square feet of roof as a rule of thumb — and most systems run 200 to 400 square feet on homes. That’s not exactly…huge, and tha’s 2kW to 4kW. (Those are the numbers used by a Colorado company, so not exactly sunny New Mexico). Those are for the 10 to 15% efficient panels.

                                  Why do you need huge efficiency when you have, bluntly, completely empty roofs? I mean sure, it’d be nice to get 100% of your household energy from solar 3 to 5 hours a day or have enough to fill a storage mechanism and run grid-free, but that’s really pretty pointless. Offsetting peak use is a lot more useful, and 3 to 4 kW for a small system is a pretty good chunk of your daytime energy bill. (All that AC here in the South, for instance).

                                  Solar thermal is far better for baseload, but rooftop solar is primarily about reducing peak load (which tends to coincide with the sunshine), not getting off the grid.

                                  If you want to do baseload with PV’s, stick them in space.

                                  But for rooftop, 11% efficiency is just fine — and the newer models are 20%.

                                  FWIW, I’m pretty sure the gasoline engine in your car is less than 40% efficient. That’s technology that’s been maturing for a century or so. And nuclear fission runs what — 40%?

                                  For PV’s, increasing efficiency just means more generation in a smaller space — if you’re trying to 100% power a house off of solar, then 10% is way too low. If you’re trying to offset your daytime peak load? You have PLENTY of empty roof at 10%.


                                  • Oh I agree, PV is perfect for rooftop solar! Like, best idea ever, now that the cost is reasonable.

                                    It’s PV solar as a base power that has a way to go.

                                    But yeah, we should be incentivizing the hell out of rooftop solar, & helping utilities encourage it (utilities have legitimate concerns with rooftop solar).


                                    • Oh god yeah. If you want to do base load with PVs, you need to place them in orbit and beam power down. Now it’s getting better (commercial PV is higher than 20%, and there’s some — really expensive — designs that get to 40%) and I suspect there are places where a solar PV plant would work better over solar thermal.

                                      I suspect what you’d see those is something more…mixed. Something more than residential, less than commercial — I mean imagine something like covering parking structures with commercial-grade PV tiles. A parking lot doesn’t use much energy — so they wouldn’t be offsetting, they’d be a peak-load provider. (Heck, the park and ride stuff in the suburbs — huge lots with no big buildings around to cast shade).

                                      Solar thermal is okay (it’s not the best) but really the storage tech is barely there (molten salt suffices, but we really need better) and in some places it makes sense. (There are downsides) but even then, the US grid especially just isn’t made to handle the sorts of things heavy use of renewables does.

                                      If we ever crack room temp superconductors, then something like solar PV might make sense widescale. I mean why not? Roof train tracks with the stuff. Stick it on every rooftop. Roof freaking high-power lines with it for all I care. Make it rain PV panels. :)

                                      You could power the nation using just the parts of Nevada where nothing lives but burnt sand and scorpions.


                                      • That point about the grid is oft overlooked. I think it’s better in the western US, but overall the grid needs work to make distributed renewals workable. I suspect that or @j_a know more about that.


                              • Below 50 $/MWh all-in. That compares with a not too efficient. gas fired combined cycle.

                                Me too, my mouth hit the floor when I saw those numbers.

                                And wind at 70 $/MWh is also incredible. Ten years ago it could barely break 100


                                • I figure the future is a few heavy base-load plants (probably nukes, NG — it’s easier to make clean and cheap. Fusion if anyone ever cracks that) plus reliable hydro (the big dams) coupled with more niche stuff — wind, tidal, solar thermal added to microgeneration aimed at peak load.

                                  Wide scale rooftop PV will cut a ton of peak load demand (and I suspect electric cars and plug-in hybrids will start incorporating rooftop panels — and parking lots PV roofs to sell power to your parked cars), and you’ll see stuff like geothermal where it makes sense.

                                  Solar PV is just going to get cheaper and more efficient. It’s already to the point where if I was buying a new-build home, rooftop solar is a “must have”.


                                  • Second the opinion that rooftop PV is better viewed as local demand reduction. Interesting problem for the urbanistas — the suburbs are much better suited to that model than core urban areas. Reality is 7.5 kWh per-day per-square-meter insolution in the better parts of the country, times 20% efficiency — there’s no substitute for lots of square meters of horizontal space..


                                    • Even in urban cores (complete with shadowing problems) you still have lots of roof space. I mean clearly you can’t offset a 15 story building (or a 100 story one) like you can a two story house, and in the very urban cores (skyscrapers) you’re pretty limited to the tops of buildings and parking structures (even if you cover the streets, you’ve got a lot of shadowing problems).

                                      But even in New York, there’s plenty of less dense areas where rooftop solar can make cost-effective offsets.

                                      But that sort of dense living has it’s own energy savings — you should see some of the newer building designs. (Johnson Space Center built a new building or two lately that hit some ridiculous energy conservation metric. Rooftop solar too, but a ton of it was in design to reduce energy and water use).

                                      It’s harder to make houses like that — I mean I’d pay up front, planning to recoup the investment over years– but lots of home buyers aren’t. Commercial investors are generally more interested in that sort of thing.

                                      I’ve got a pipe dream (on the “we’ve cracked fusion wide open, commercial plants in two years!” level) is solar cells tough enough, flexible enough, cheap enough, and strong enough (with a hefty clear coating obviously) for bike paths. Or roads. You don’t even need high efficiency. 5%, at say…tripling or quadrupling the square mile cost of repaving? Crazy town. Power out the ears.

                                      Of course actually achieving that would require some crazy breakthroughs. (Panels that grow themselves out of feedstock or something like that. Seriously, you’d be using it instead of plywood and shingles to roof your house at that point). Commercial fusion seems more likely. :)


  8. Oh, I also remembered one of my huge disconnects when it comes to this issue.

    I tend to approach Environmental Issues as if they were engineering problems. If we had the right technology and enough of it, we could solve this problem.

    Other people approach it as if it were a morals/ethics problem (see, for example, the title to the post). It becomes less about “how to fix it” and more about communication at that point. More moral/ethical than thou.

    The next time this comes up, it’ll happen again.


    • When we’re above earth’s carrying capacity, we’re less at the “engineering problem” stage, and more at the “who do we kill” stage. That leaves it leaning more towards the morals/ethics side of things.

      (The engineering issue is deciding who to kill… which is fair enough).


    • First, Tess well done summary of the issues. At this point it can seem that the center of gravity of the political/ethical issues should be well past summarizing stage, but for whatever reasons, it’s not. So continuing to restart the discussion seems necessary. Through sheer repetition it may help to focus the discussion.

      Jaybird, I think the engineering vs ethics distinction is on point. Expressed in different terms, some have agued that it will replace the right left spectrum of politics with a “precautionary versus proactionary” spectrum.


      • From my POV, the whole point of the article is “Let’s think about this issue on the ethical-moral level, not just on the engineering or scientific level, and not even on the partisan public policy level.” Agree with the argument or not, it’s certainly worthy of thought and discussion.

        Seems to me that a lot of the back-and-forth in the comments above shoots at a different target.


        • The problem with thinking about this issue on the ethical-moral level is that it eventually turns into the Schaefferian question of “how should we then live?”

          And the answers come up “pretty much like I’m living now, only with more low-flow shower heads”… and, suddenly, we’ve reason to wonder why a problem that could have been solved with some light plumbing was framed as a huge ethical-moral issue.


          • Jay,
            all due respect, but while you go around looking for low-flow shower heads (or flushless toilets, thank toto)…. people are planning for genocide.

            So, we frame it as a huge ethical-moral issue because the Powers That Be (aka people who could kill you or me, or otherwise participate in “cuddly genocide”) have framed it as “meh, we really don’t need that many of you fuckers.”


            • I’d like to ask a favor of you.

              You’ve been on this “genocide” thing for the entire thread all morning and I for one really don’t understand what you’re referring to. I understand about the idea that rising sea levels will displace coastal populations. But after that I’m lost as to what it is that you’re talking about. It leaves the appearance that you’re trying to derail the discussion away from the subject matter of the post (whether ecology should become integrated into our collective ethics, and if so how).

              So here’s what I’m asking by way of a favor. Can you either be a little bit less elliptical about what you’re referring to (maybe with some citations or links to back up your claims) or in the alternative maybe dial back the inflammatory phrases, perhaps in favor of something that is a bit more obviously related to the subject matter of the post?


              • Sorry, I have been going a bit far afield on this, and thus it seems like I’m conflating about ten different things.

                1) The Kochs and their ilk’s general indifference/dislike towards human lives that are less wealthy than their own. (this leads naturally to “war is good because we’ll have less poor people around, AND we get what we want, which is government support for us assraping Nigeria (Okay, so that’s British Petroleum — pick a different example.)”).

                2) Plans on the books for dealing with climate refugees that will predictably cause massive loss of life. (This is Australia).

                3) Forced sterilization of populations. (this is japan) — just want to say that with the loss of foodsources and arable land predicted in southern east asia, it’s a lot more grim of a proposition (you can’t leave Japan because there’s no place to go back to).

                I will attempt to steer clear of being so fuzzy with that term.


                • One big problem – it’s outside the moral/ethical and in the technological except in that it feeds back into the moral/ethical system as an input to the background – is the question of carrying capacity.

                  If a sustainable, carbon-neutral, keep-everyone-fed, planet in 2100 can sustain a maximum of 2.5 billion people, there’s a 500-lb gorilla in the room that will dwarf all other ethical questions. If it’s 12.5 billion, not so much. And if it’s 9 billion, it adds a significant number of questions, but there is at least a potential for solutions that are feasibly implemented in that time frame.


                  • My friend the logistics expert says we’re already above carrying capacity (which means below 7billion).

                    Assume sealevel disasters increase (translation: we lose miami automatically, but we also lose Baltimore’s shipping, and LA’s shipping, and most of our ports, and need to rebuild. We also lose deltas pretty much everywhere)…
                    Assume desertification/loss of cheap fresh water…
                    Assume loss of portions of India due to humidity (yes, I have the papers).

                    Even if we go vegetarian, we have probably a 5 billion carrying capacity max.


            • burning less fossil fuel

              There are typically two approaches to this:

              1. Engineering improvements that allow for the same standard of living (air conditioning in the summer, central heating in the winter!)

              2. We need to change the way we live, specifically with a lower standard of living

              If it’s the former, there’s no need to really consider the ethical-moral level at all.

              So I assume that if we are going to be exploring the ethical-moral level, it’s in service to making the case of how we need to change our standard of living.

              Additionally, I presume that we’re talking about something bigger than low-flow shower heads.


              • I think the “lower” in lower standards of living needs to be better defined.

                Is a 2,000 soft house for a family of four a lower standard than a 3,000? Well, yes, it is.

                It’s also substantially more than what I grew up in, in an upper middle class, private school educatated, Perrier water ice cubes splendor, and 2.5 times the size of the original houses in my very gentrified Houston inner ring suburb.

                And it’s huge for European or Asian standards

                And it requires only 2/3 of the energy to cool or heat. And that is a big improvement.

                What a 2,000 sq house is not is the Middle Ages.

                It all starts with a low-flow shower. Be the change you can be.


                • I suppose I have to virtue signal now.

                  We recycle, we are a one-car family (it’s a Yaris!), Maribou walks to work, I live somewhat close to my work (15 miles?), we have energy star appliances, I take staycations here in town rather than vacations out of town… though, maybe, I should take that one off because I went to Tampa recently to visit relatives and Maribou went to Paris last month… we don’t have children, won’t ever have children, and we buy the “green” electricity from the power company instead of the “brown” (it’s a little more for each KWh, but it allows me to make comments like this one).

                  Now I am pretty sure that what I am doing is one of those things that would have all of us better off if we all did it (well, maybe apart from the “never having children” thing… that’s not a categorical imperative) but I am also pretty sure that if everybody did all of the (non-children) things that we’re doing, that global warming would still be a big problem. Indeed, I’m kind of under the impression that we wouldn’t have put so much as a dent into carbon usage.


              • And #2 is why this is such a touchy subject. After all, diminutions in standards of living is something for other people to do, not for you and me.

                OTOH, if I could telecommute instead of driving to the office more often, I’d be burning less fossil fuel and I’d consider that an improvement to my quality of life. In my case, a significant one. The internet which makes telecommuting possible is generation-old technology now.

                And I stopped driving to downtown appearances and appointments from my exurb, and switched to commuter rail. Still fossil fuel being used in getting me to where I need to be, but less of it on a per-rider basis. Not having to deal with Los Angeles freeway traffic has improved my quality of life too. We’ve had trains that burn diesel fuel for three generations now.

                The technology that makes the photovoltaic solar generators on the roof of my house is relatively new (<10 years) but the idea of the government subsidizing their creation isn't, and a micro-lease to enable me to rent them before I can afford to buy them was a legal rather than a technological innovation.

                So maybe there are some ways to burn less fossil fuel while not diminishing quality of life that don’t demand engineering innovations.


                • Also, there’s the issue about how something that would be a diminution in standards of living for you might be something freaking awesome for me (or vice-versa).

                  Some people might absolutely love the idea of living in a high-rise in a multi-use neighborhood where everybody pretty much has to walk or take public transportation anywhere they’re inclined to go.

                  Some others see might see that as a punishment.

                  And the whole argument about the list of diminutions in standards of living always has echoes of the “you need to change a hell of a lot more than I need to change” that I remember so well from my Southern Babtist days.


                • Burt,
                  there’s also the little matter of “possible” engineering innovations versus “probable” engineering innovations…
                  Solar becoming affordable enough that I have it on my house is on a “you betcha!” (just when) basis…
                  Fusion? not so much…


              • Well, there’s also (3) obtain electricity from non-fossil sources. Ignoring nuclear… Iceland derives essentially all of its electricity from conventional hydro and geothermal sources. Sweden gets about two-thirds of its power from renewable sources. Last year, 50% of the electricity consumed in Scotland was from wind. In the US western interconnect, ~25% of the electricity is from conventional hydro and another 10% from wind and solar. The West has enormous opportunities for non-conventional hydro, and staggering opportunities for distributed solar.

                Sticking to the western interconnect, there are problems but the solutions are straightforward. There have been a variety of nuts-and-bolts studies, all coming to basically the same conclusions. Where to build the backbone grid links is pretty settled. Sufficient pumped-hydro storage can be built — probably for far less than the cost of exotic batteries or other alternatives. The policy changes to make it work on a regional basis are understood.

                The real weakness of (3) is that there aren’t a lot of places in the world where it’s feasible to do the job with renewables over a sane scale (eg, I know lots of East Coast environmentalists who implicitly assume they can rape the western public lands when the time comes). And my own bet is that a lot of places that should be figuring out safe nukes now will wait too long, and won’t be able to build fast enough to avoid a crash.


                • Yeah, before I got to your last paragraph, I started wondering if we had enough non-fossil sources out there. It’s one thing for Cheyenne to get the lion’s share of its power from wind and solar, quite another for (East or West Coast City) to do so.


                  • But the question should be: Should I have Cheyenne be powered through renewables and the East Coast through conventional sources, or should I have Cheyenne and the East Coast powered through conventional sources?

                    Really, there are no purple and yellow KWhs that have to be apportioned equally or the EC people will be sad. If you are reducing the total fuel consumption you are improving the situation over the baseline.


                  • Unless something goes really wrong, by 2020 there will be wind farms in the Rawlins area with 3GW on the face plates whose output will go by HVDC into the lucrative Southern California market. How much such a capability can be expanded will depend a great deal on federal policy and actions. Will the feds get serious about doing something about the hundred-year-old checkerboard of public lands in that part of Wyoming? Will FERC accept dispatching rules that emphasize renewables over hour- or day-ahead markets?


                • I love geothermal, but the number of places you can do that is pretty low, and a lot of those places are either deep under water, or in protected wilderness.

                  We still have the option of tidal/ocean power, if, again, people would stop getting in the way of debugging it with environmental concerns.


                  • I know almost nothing about geothermal. One of the things I do know, however, is that when it was a thing I had to do, finding a carrier to underwrite property and liability for a business that ran on geothermal was very hard. It scared the crap out of them. I have always took that as a sign that it was potentially catastrophically dangerous.


                    • Burt L. might be able to help with this, but it might also suggest that the law isn’t settled and/or it’s a use case that wasn’t thought of when they wrote the existing law and no one’s sure where it fits. And no one wants to be a test case, so it’s easier to just let it go.


                      • I wouldn’t know about the law, but I also wouldn’t think that it’s a legal issue. The technology might be a bit on the exotic side, but as a general rule as long as we aren’t dealing with something experimental, there are legal boxes we would put something like that in — it’d either be governed by a regular negligence standard (what would a reasonable engineer do) or if there are super awful risks inherent in the thing (like blowing up dynamite) then we’d use a strict liability standard.

                        I think what is referring to is a lack of a substantial accumulation of historical data. You know, on the actuarial side of things. There may not be enough experience with geothermal power and the way risks manifest into actual incidents to allow an actuary to quantify the risk in question, so most underwriters will respond to that in a conservative fashion, which manifests in some combination of a) demanding a high premium and b) insisting on significant coverage restrictions. Our Tod is well qualified to address those sorts of concerns.


                        • I’m surprised about what Tod says. It might be a US issue, driven more by liability than property damage concerns.

                          Geothermal plants can’t be less vanilla. The over the ground portion is a steam turbine and a regular generator. The turbine is the same kind as in regular steam plants going back one hundred years. There is no boiler (which is the part more prone to failures) and instead you have pipes coming up and back down from a well dug not very differently than a not very deep oil well.

                          Oldest plants I’ve seen come from the 1970s. I have actually not heard about any major incident in them. There are plenty in Central America and they all get commercial insurance, mostly from the London market (which is where most power plant specialized reinsurers apparently are based).


                    • Geothermal commercial plants is a 1970s technology. Ahuachapan in El Salvador has been running commercially for 41 years. Because it is an old technology it doesn’t use superheated steam like modern plants, thus the steam handling is not more difficult than in the heating applications mentioned here.


                        • 2km seems reasonable. The Norwegians apparently think they can get down to 10km.

                          I’d be curious to how the drilling cost scales? How much is it per meter of drilling? As you get further down, does the cost per meter go up?


                          • That I do not know, but I would guess that yes, at some point the output (volume or temperature) does not justify the drilling.

                            Geo resources are truly renewable because the rain water percolates down and replenishes the source. El Salvador plants have been operating for 40 years without loss of resource


                            • I thought they pumped water back down, instead of relying on the aquifer to naturally replenish? Perhaps it varies depending on the local conditions, regulations, etc.

                              Still, I’m all for geothermal. Much prefer it to coal for base load.


          • Jaybird,

            If you really think this is fixable via light, low-public-sacrifice them fair enough, and I’m glad to hear it.

            But it could also be the case that engineering fixes are what will be needed, but that the necessary fixes will require significant sacrifice on the part of mass publics. Then the moral questions of whether “we” want to make those sacrifices become unavoidable, and whether we care enough about the problem is directly implicated in those.

            So even if you’re right that there are engineering solutions, the ethical frame of this post – do we care? why or why not? how could we get ourselves to care enough collectively to implement the engineering fixes? – could nevertheless be on point, even unavoidable in the course of wrestling with this problem.


            • Mitigatable until technology figures something out? Maybe.

              Fixable? Oh, hell no.

              I suspect that a fix would entail lifestyle changes so drastic that they’re unthinkable with our current culture. The pre-reqs for a new and improved culture that can reasonably sustain the new and improved weltanschauung seems to be to need a catastrophe that is bad enough that I can see how someone might say that I don’t think that the problem is fixable in my lifetime.


  9. One of the assumptions the makes discussion difficult is the assumption that since the problem is both global and severe the solution must be as well.

    Yet we didn’t get fat by eating a single slice of cake. The solution will be less One Big Thing than a million incremental measures.

    It will likely be near invisible- more a set of preferences and priorities than prescriptive measures.

    For instance if our zoning and land use policies no longer favored sprawl, and our budgetary policies no longer subsidized fossil fuels, those would be small increments that pay huge dividends.

    But mostly a different sensibility, an awareness of the finiteness of things, and how everything is connected.


    • Finally, someone that said what I was thinking while reading the OP and comments.

      There are plenty of small things that everyone can do that would do a lot of good cumulatively. More reliance in renewable and distributed energy sources, and a reduction in per capita energy consumption would do wonders

      Specific examples:

      1. Deforestation is not just driven by organic Starbucks coffee. Using wood for cooking is responsible for massive deforestation. Replacing wood stoves with solar ovens would reduce deforestation and improve the health of billions (we in the West have forgotten how bad hearth smoke is for our health).

      2. Using run of River 0.5 and 1MW micro hydro plants would serve millions with minimal ecological impact

      3. Fuel efficiency: I have family in the UK. Their very regular plain Toyota Aris driving in London traffic has probably twice the mpg of my Honda CRV running the Houston highways. Their old Rover did too. Charging for gasoline what they charge in Europe or Lat Am would reduce consumption massively

      4. Insulate your house. I built my own 2,000 sq feet house in Houston. I splurged an extra $ 2,000 in as much insulation as could be packed. My house has non stop A/c day and nite. I never paid more than $200 in electric bill (and I contract a 100% wind power utility, though I’m clear its just a gimmick). A carpenter that came to work in the house pays $500 in his much smaller apartment. Come on, the Germans can build houses that don’t require AC or heating in winter.

      5. More about my only wind utility. I work in utilities. I fully understand my energy is coming from gas plans, but I am sending a price signal to incentivize the building of more wind generation, at a trivial -though not zero- cost to me, trivial because insulation.

      Also, if available, gas water heating is more efficient than electricity. If possible, tankless is even better.

      6. Even more about wind and solar: Ten years ago wind could only compete with fossil fuel or LNG thermal plants. Solar could not compete with anyone. Ten years later, Economies of scale in wind plant manufacturing and improved PV materials are making wind/solar highly competitive without subsidies even against coal and certain gas fired combined cycle facilities. A wind/solar plant combined with a cheap rapid fire aeroderivative gas plant to take over when wind is not available can be cheaper than replacing an existing CC plant with a similar one.

      7. Don’t buy garbage plastic bags. Reuse the bags from the supermarket. And recycle. I recycle more than twice what I send to a land fill. I buy a recyclable bottle of water in the road, I take it home to recycle.

      Reciclyng is probably an area where more governmental nudges would do wonders, btw.

      8. Batteries are improving substantially. Governmental support in R&D for new batteries materials are bringing important break thoughts to the market that should be available, Wotan willing, in the next ten years.

      A lot can be done. We just need to get off the current ideological framework of the discussion, a framework that argues that since so much needs to be done, nothing we can do, short of genocide of going back to the Middle Ages, will work, so why bother.

      It’s also a pity that one of the countries that could have the greatest impact is the one that is still denying climate change is happening, or that it is a problem. When one of the leaders of Congress says this, we do have an issue


      (The other two problem countries, China and India, at least recognize the problem is real. I am not familiar with India, but China is trying to reduce its environmental impact without sacrificing its growth. Massive investments in wind, huge gas pie lines crisscrossing the country, prohibitions on building any more smaller, inefficient coal plants, etc. will pay dividends sooner rather than later. Regretfully for China, it’s non-coal resources are at opposite ends of the country from where the demand is, and power and gas transmission is gridlocked. There is more wind power currently been produced in Inner Mongolia that can be brought to relatively near Beijing, a situation that will last probably another five years)

      Forget about grand plans. Reduce your fishing ecological footprint now.


      • I’d be a lot happier if First World countries didn’t have genocide fucking planned already.

        But we’re above earth’s carrying capacity, in terms of people, and that means that some people are going to have to die and not be replaced. (Please note, even if you take current food supplies — a really silly thing to do, you’re at 10billion carrying capacity. That’s not enough for the world’s population to have one kid, let alone two).

        So, um, yes, there is a lot that we can do… but I doubt that it will be enough.


        • 1. I thought First World countries had genocide fishing planned, but you are saying something different, instead. My bad.

          2. To address -again- the substance of your comment, relatively small increments in living standards dramatically reduce children per female. For instance, in Lat Am Fertility has dropped from 7 to 4 to 2.5 in the last few decades. Look at the graph in page 9 of this Princeton paper. There are countries in Lat Am at below replacement level.


          Or page 13 of this one, for a view since the 50s


          Even in sub Saharan Africa, the region with the highest fertility, the rates are dropping, though the drop there has deaccelerated recently

          So we don’t need to kill people. People are selecting to reduce their fertility on their own. My four grandparents combined (all born in the late XIX century) had more grand children than great grandchildren, and I’m a dude in my 50s (and the youngest of all the grandchildren by a whooping 14 years). My father had four children and three grandchildren.


      • The Germans have built fewer than 25k Passivhaus for a nation of 80 million. And of course, the Germans never lie about their enviromental mitigation efforts.


        • Query: Passivhaus is neat (seems similar to Green/LEED certification), but how well can the standard apply to a retrofit?

          I.E. if I want to move the bulk of San Francisco residentials to Passivhaus, can I remodel the building to meet the standard, and if so, what is the cost compared to just razing the site and building new?

          If it costs a hella lot, at what point do we start telling the various preservation societies that they gotta let it go?


          • I’m in favour of having my cake and eat it too. I’m all for preservation of worthy (ymmv about what is worthy) house stock. At the same time the vast majority of people won’t live in restored San Francisco houses, but in new building stock. Let San Francisco be non-passive, and let the rich people there (is there non rich people moving into San Francisco nowadays?) pay for cooling and heating it. But perhaps the new stock being built in Atlanta could be LEED certificated.

            If I were King of the USA I would require that any rental building with more than eight units had to be LEED certificated. That, or I would require that the landlord paid the HVAC bill.

            My carpenter paid $500/mo in electricity in his rented apartment because the landlord has no incentive to pay perhaps $2,000 to insulate it. There is a plainly seen hidden incentive to make a large fraction of our housing stock less efficient.


      • @j_a

        River run turbines: How do you secure or maintain such things? I like the idea, just wondering about the execution.

        It does remind me of the proposal to place such turbines in the water pipelines heading into Portland from the mountain reservoirs (along with other such pipelines feeding into cities using similar freshwater sources). Lots of potential energy in those pipelines that is untapped.


        • Run of river technically means that there is no reservoir (you might have a small reservoir that allows you hourly regulation for peak shaving purposes)

          In real life applications you tend to have two very different technologies:

          Very low flow, relatively high head, mostly applied in distributed generation, producing 0.5-10 MW (*). They tend to use Pelton turbines, which are not under pressure (they derive from the traditional European mill water wheels

          Very low to zero head, very high flow, Kaplan turbines placed where there is a constant flow available, like the Danube River, or large piped water systems (the Panama Canal turbines the water that flows between sluices por power production). Kaplan turbines is a fancy name for ship propellers running backwards, water flowing makes it spin it instead of the propeller’s spin pushing the water away.

          Neither are subject to large pressures or cavitation problems, which are behind most turbine failure or maintenance issues, so the maintenance is very easy. Pelton turbines though are easily eroded by particulates carried in the water. However the maintenance is very easy, replacing individual eroded buckets.


          • @j_a I’m a fluids engineer, so this tweaks my interest. Got any good links to existing projects, or is Google gonna get me there with run of the river?


            • There is loads of real life working applications, and loads of info, but very little of it has been done in the USA. I’ll try to find a couple of good examples today and will post the links here, so keep an eye


    • The reason the solution need sot be international is that fossil fuels are traded internationally. If one country unilaterally cuts coal or oil consumption, that just makes coal and oil cheaper for the other countries.


  10. Humans or at least Americans have so little faith in the ability of humans to do anything about climate change because scientific utopianism no longer really exists. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, the belief that increases in scientific knowledge and technical know-how would lead to universal improvements in living conditions. Nearly every knew discover or innovation was met with enthusiasm. It was a near universal faith in progress and existed in capitalist counties and socialist ones. This is reflected in a lot of popular media.

    This faith in science started to disappear in the 1960s and it was undermined from the right and the left. Part of it was that many people grew very distrustful of experts and other authority figures like scientists. Having faith in humanity being able to do something about climate change requires people to trust scientists and the civil servants carrying out the ideas of the experts. People really aren’t doing anything. If climate change is a big problem as scientists say that the solution is probably going to be equally as big but there isn’t that level of trust in authority figures anymore. Another reason why few people have faith in science is that the anti-science parts of the American population, the Evangelicals, began flexing their muscles again in the 1960s. They were joined by the anti-science Left in the form of the more fringe members of the Counter Culture.


  11. I think Lee and Murali bring up good points though Murali was being contrarian and uncharitable.

    Climate Change exists and the issue seems to be more serious than imagined. A few weeks ago there was a report that it was decades and not centuries away. Maybe NYC will be under water by the time I am in my late 60s. A mere 30 years from now.

    However, the stuff that causes climate change has also made our lives comfortable. Do we need to revert to an agrarian society? I think that will cause a lot of misery. The reason the Kyoto Pritocols are hard to enforce is because India and China and many other countries do not want to be pre-Industrial. They want cars and TV too.

    Lee is right that the adamant nature is about losing faith that science and tech can solve climate change.


    • Its much more about losing faith that science and technology can solve problems. It is also a loss of faith in government or even authority figures in general. People used to accept the word of all sorts of authority figures as a holy writ. If scientists said something than most people would accept it as true. Same with civil servants or business leaders. During the mid-20th century, many people really did believe that civil servants had the best interests of the public in mind and were diligently working to build a better society. The exceptions were on the fringes of politics on the right and the left. The skeptical view towards all sorts of authority figures increased for a wide variety of reasons during the late 1960s and 1970s.

      Solving climate change is going to be an immense task that requires lots of people with wildly different interests working in climate. It might require more than a little self-sacrifice from everybody. Americans might no longer have their cars or low-density exurbs. We might have to eat much less meat and many more vegetables, fruits, and grains. Environmentalists will need to live with nuclear power. The citizens of India and China might have to deal with a slower climb to prosperity. Its also going to requires a lot of good faith and trust in authority figures like scientists and civil servants. The type of hokey trust you see in much mid-century Hollywood media.


      • Lee,
        “We might have to eat much less meat and many more vegetables, fruits, and grains”
        … even with that, you’re cap is pretty much 10billion. We’re at 7billion now.
        Who decides who gets to have babies, and who doesn’t?


      • Most people love science and technology. Just love it. They love it on their smart phones, games systems and tablets. They love to complain about it on their regular and reliable air travel and when talking about the quick and easy, as compared to long and painful, surgery they had. People believe in all sorts of new tech making things better. Heck i know a few veeryyy conservative types who just love wind and solar power and it isnt’ because they were old hippies or anything. The new tech is just delish.


        • They might love tech but they don’t like scientists who sternly warn about the need to take strong steps to reduce climate change and they don’t like the civil servants who would carry it out. There really has been a decreasing amount of trust in all sorts of authority figures for better and worse.

          For most of the 20th century, something like the anti-vax movement would have been unthinkable outside the fringe. Pediatricians extolled vaccination and most people went along without question unless you had some really out there beliefs. Doctors said you should vaccinate your kids and probably close to hundred percent of the population did. Many of us might make fun of the anti-vaxxers but they are more common in 2016 than they were in 1956.

          Civil servants used to be more respected. People thought that they were generally competent people who acted in the best interests of the people even if you did vote for Eisenhower or the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom. Now they are seen as incompetents who do not do their job and can’t do anything else.


          • There have always been anti-sci people out there. Anti vax or anti GMO is the new flavor. Nothing new in general. People have freaked about fluoridation, some still do. Art Bell was a favorite of those not to tightly wrapped for years. That it is good, but not really new.


            • , I think you are really underestimating the problem. Yes, there have always been anti-science people just like there have always been who can’t stand all authority figures even in the most serious of situations and the authority figure is correct. There are many more of them now both in terms of numbers and I think in percentage of the population. Look at how many conservatives dismiss climate change out of hand because it is coded as a liberal cause on this very blog or other blogs.


              • “I’m not anti-science. I’m *PRO*-science!”

                “We should replace a lot of our current fossil fuel burning with nuclear power. Pebble bed reactors are pretty sweet.”

                “ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I JUST CAN’T EVEN!”


                • In a nutshell, this is what drove me away from the mainstream environmental movement. They do a lot of good and their hearts are mostly in the right place, but there’s just an entrenched dogma (sometimes in the background, sometimes it’s coded, sometimes front-and-center) – that technology can never be the right answer, that more engineering is never better – up with which I could no longer put.

                  In retrospect, I probably should have tried to do some grassroots lobbying and work for change from the inside, one mind at a time, but I don’t even play a martyr on TV.


                • Hey, no argument here. If someone says we need to burn less fossil fuel without at least being willing to consider more fission plants on the table in the medium (5-10 years) run, then it becomes difficult for me to take them seriously. Particularly when there are good real-world examples of nations and regions that get a majority of power from fissioning radioactives, notwithstanding real-world counterexamples of yes very real dangers. What is the French Chernobyl? Where is the German Fukushima?


                  • I’ll just note that you live in a state that has decided to reduce their fossil fuel carbon footprint (eg, LADWP’s commitment to be coal-free by 2024) and to not use nukes (San Onefre is gone; Diablo Canyon will be gone in <10 years, rather than spend billions to build the new cooling structures). By your definition, California is not be be taken seriously. When are you going to move?

                    To complete the question, the only place in the US where the pro-nuke path is being taken is the deep Southeast (Georgia and South Carolina; I expect Florida to follow). They’ve got little or no choice — no local coal, no local natural gas, no wind, no undeveloped hydro worth talking about, marginal conditions for solar (cloud cover is a killer).


                      • When Blue Castle Holdings began trying to site a nuclear plant to sell power into Southern California, the closest spot they could find where they could get cooling water was along the Green River in eastern Utah. They put the project on hold because they couldn’t fund both the nuke and the transmission line to move the power. I assume that they’re cheering the HVDC line that’s being independently financed to support transport of wind power from Wyoming (referenced above, it’s the Transwest Express project). If they can piggy-back on that, it solves their transmission problem.


                    • And, of course, they are all using the tired old design.

                      For all the money we have spent/are spending chasing fusion, we could have gotten safer fission reactors prototyped, debugged, and into production.


                                • Except the spent rods weren’t anything close to the danger you implied they were.

                                  This is exactly the crap mentions. Hyperbolic fearmongering by people who don’t know what the hell they are talking about. And to make it worse, those same people like to believe that any time a nuclear physicist or engineer actually tries to correct them, they are ignored as puppets of the government or Big Fission.


                                  • I’m not certain what you’re saying here…
                                    Certainly, that many spent fuel rods are a pretty big danger. That said, the likelihood of them going up due to earthquake related stuff wasn’t very great.

                                    Knowing where the long tails are is important. At least this one wasn’t a nine-tailed kitsune like that BP disaster.


                                    • Sure, if the tank collapses they’re a danger to the people on the site. If the tank collapses and they are not immediately dealt with and gotten into a new tank, they will eventually overheat and the cladding will begin to break down, exposing the spent fuel, which would be bad, & a serious concern, if there was nobody on site to begin dealing with it.

                                      Do you honestly think there aren’t protocols for what to do if the tank fails? Engineers spend an awful lot of time thinking about the long tails, and those costs associated with mitigating them.


                                      • Of course there are protocols. When I make statements saying “fukushima could have been a loooot worse”… that’s because we’re looking at an earthquake situation, and apparently we didn’t design well enough for that.


                                        • It was designed fine for the earthquake. It was the massive tsunami that swept over the seawall like it wasn’t even there that killed it.

                                          As a matter of fact, the original site plans had the plant 25 feet higher up, but it was decided to lower the site so the plant could be anchored into bedrock to improve earthquake survivability (and reduce coolant pump operating costs). And remember, the plant was built in the late 60’s, so it’s design is even older than that.

                                          I’d say that there were lots of lessons learned from the incident, but the reality is everyone knew the weaknesses of the design, and correcting them was non-trivial.


                  • I respectfully disagree.

                    A. The Rocky Mountain Institute is not staffed by idiots. They argue that baseline nuclear power is far more expensive and less useful than more distributed systems. Now, they may be wrong, but they do present arguments that can’t simply be ignored.

                    B. One major factor in the cost of nuclear power is ‘excess’ safety. But since people are actually irrational about radiation, what’s to be done? Override public opposition even if it’s the majority viewpoint?

                    C. As best I can tell, the nuclear industry in the US has been its own worst enemy for quite some time. Blaming liberals for all your problems is easy. Actually working through community concerns and developing support for low-pollution power is the industry’s job.

                    D. Cost overruns in the industry are staggering. Just google nuclear power cost overruns and you will see article after article about just how expensive nuclear power has become.


                    • It’s a chicken & egg problem. Current PBWR designs are the only ones widely approved, but they have issues, so they require lots of excess safety designed in. The desire for excess safety is largely thanks to hyperbolic fearmongering, coupled with incompetent efforts to counter it. There are safer designs available, but they can’t get past the irrational perception of a large enough section of the public. And around it goes.

                      Override public opposition even if it’s the majority viewpoint?

                      You act like this is unheard of? People demand this of government all the time.


                      • Nuclear is the only power generation technology I’m not really familiar with, but there are several aspects about nuclear power that are negatives from a utility perspective:

                        1. Nuclear power all-in (fixed plus variable) prices are not competitive in the current markets. Variable prices are zero, but fixed are extremely high. The current market prices does not cover total costs of a new plant, plus….

                        2. Projects rarely come in time and budget, which adds to 1, plus

                        3. Nuclear plants are large, inflexible and must be run at the base. This crowds out other low cost technologies that could actually be scheduled. In other words, nuclear has to be combined with very flexible yet expensive generation that can actually follow the load, and the total system cost might be higher than in a non nucleR case, plus

                        4. None, of almost none, nuclear plant provisions the decommissioning and clean up costs. If you did, the fixed costs would kill your project.

                        1-3 might be resolved through engineering: a different technology might be cheaper, and might bring forth plants that can be ramped up and down. But 4 is a socialization of private costs.

                        The fact is that very few private utilities or traditional independent power companies are interested in developing new nuclear projects. Most, if not all, being constructed now are being developed by state owned utilities (like EDF) or guaranteed by the state.

                        Nuclear power today is not commercially competitive. We might decide that climate change makes it necessary, but let’s be clear that it represents an added cost to the consumers or to society vs other alternatives, including renewables.


                        • PBWR is all that, but PBWR is not the only nuclear game in town. There are a number of smaller scale options that have been developed, but I fear that public fears will prevent them from ever being prototyped & developed.


              • You are using an overly strict litmus test. Yeah plenty of conservatives dismiss climate change and largely over tribal issues. That doesn’t make them anti-science in general just on that issue. People hate experts, yeah i’ve heard that. Then when they go for surgery they want the best heart surgeon or Ben Carson for peds nuero surgery. People are fine with experts in general and mostly when they agree with them. On some issues there are other concerns that go beyond strict science v anti science. There are certainly some anti-science peeps out there and always have been. My guess they are more noticeable now due to there love of the Internet and satellites and cell phones to communicate their beliefs.


      • LeeEsq: Solving climate change is going to be an immense task that requires lots of people with wildly different interests working in climate.

        I think the only realistic way of accomplishing that is to change the system so it becomes in everyone’s immediate financial interest. Like phasing out income tax and phasing in a carbon tax (and tariffs). Even if your household saw no net increase in taxes, you’d still have a pretty big incentive to reducing your carbon footprint. It would be in your face on a daily basis and people would naturally gravitate towards saving money, even if they aren’t actually paying any more in taxes than they were before, and even if they don’t believe in AGW to being with.

        It doesn’t necessarily have to be that action, but I think someone on that scale is what’s needed. But, of course, trying to get anything like that passed is pretty much impossible with the current political reality.


      • It might be even more depressing.

        Studies on cognitive dissonance show that outreach efforts – such as the OP! – that dispassionately lay out the crises, showing the evidence they’re happening, and outlining the scope of solutions/mediations actually have a negative effect on naysayers/deniers, actually reinforcing their original beliefs.

        Then the rise in partisanship, where members of one culture are instantly, inherently hostile to anything favored by the other (yes, BSDI, but in the USA the purple is very, very deep red). A lot of climate issues lean blue – in no small part because a lot of people lean blue because of climate issues…

        Hell, this is a notably open forum with a history of a minimum civility and an established willingness to explore deeper issues. And we’ve seen multiple examples of both of these problems in this very thread. How can there be a possibility of carrying the discussion to a successful policy suggestion in the population at large if we can’t even get out of the blocks in this discussion?


      • . The citizens of India and China might have to deal with a slower climb to prosperity.

        Finally, someone comes out and says it. Since this is ostensibly a post about ethics, does anyone want to address the ethics of a bunch of wealthy people commenting on the internet on laptops and iPads deciding that poor people on the other side of the world will just have to stay poorer for longer?

        I know. It’s for their own good. Right?


        • Honestly, it might just be easier to do a massive wealth transfer and have wealthy nations subsidize non-stinky industrialization in non-Western nations.


        • Obviously not China, but plenty of other poor countries with democracies are on board with doing something about climate change. It isn’t’ quite as simple as rich americans wanting to do things to poor people for their own good.


        • Since this is ostensibly a post about ethics, does anyone want to address the ethics of a bunch of wealthy people commenting on the internet on laptops and iPads deciding that poor people on the other side of the world will just have to stay poorer for longer?


          Climate change will negatively effect poor as well as rich people’s lives if unaddressed. Slowing the economic growth of countries dependent on carbon-emitting industries will negatively effect poor as well as rich people if so slowed. Howevah, the downside of not addressing climate change appears to be more costly than the downside of slower carbon-emitting economic growth.


          • So the slow climb for poor people in Bangladesh may not be out of poverty, but out of rapidly rising seas.

            Bangladesh of course, will be one of the first, and worst, hit areas of climate change.
            Trying to pit their prosperity against the need to create a sustainable global environment is absurd.


            • Personally, I agree Chip. We’ll see what j r says.

              From my pov, and along a purely economic calculus, the global cost to both poor and wealthy people resulting from climate change will be far higher than the local cost to poor and wealthy people in industrializing nations. In part because, as you say, there are quite a few industrualizers who’ll suffer the direct effects of climate change in addition to the market-based economic effects.


        • , @greginak;

          It isn’t’ quite as simple as rich americans wanting to do things to poor people for their own good.

          Exactly. It’s not simple at all. It’s about a complicated series of cost-benefit calculations that are themselves further complicated because they involve people living at differing levels of economic development. And let’s not fool ourselves. These decisions are made in Washington and Brussels and London and New York. Sometimes people get on a plane and go somewhere else to announce those decisions, but these decisions are overwhelmingly made by the west (or global north, if you prefer).

          Trying to pit their prosperity against the need to create a sustainable global environment is absurd.

          No. Pretending that there is no conflict is absurd. You don’t believe me? Go read about it for yourself: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-aiib-insight-idUSKBN0IP2S020141106

          India is hoping a new China-backed multilateral lender will fund coal-based energy projects, an official said, putting it in direct conflict with the World Bank, whose chief has maintained that it would stick to its restrictions on such lending.

          A senior Indian official told Reuters the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), sponsored by China, is expected to allow funding of coal-fired power plants that the World Bank has almost totally blocked.

          “When you have 1.3 billion people starved of electricity access and the rest of the world has created a carbon space, at this point denying funding is denying access to cheap energy,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
          Maybe, at the end of the day, the World Bank’s decision to get out of coal is the right decision given the constraints, but let’s stop pretending that we unequivocally have the answers. We don’t and we most likely never will.

          From my pov, and along a purely economic calculus, the global cost to both poor and wealthy people resulting from climate change will be far higher than the local cost to poor and wealthy people in industrializing nations.

          Really? What calculus is this? Show me your equations.


      • You will get used to Art eventually. What Art is trying to say is that while anthropocene ethics might be of concern to you, it really isn’t of concern to most people and is not included in the curriculum for that reason. By calling it an anxiety order he is just expressing his usual contempt for people that disagree with him.


    • This is now the second time in the same comments thread I’ve had concerns about criticism of the ideas in the post (which is entirely fair) getting blurred up against ad hominem swipes against the author (which is not).

      Let’s keep it on the merits, please.


  12. At one point in your post you suggest that Trumpers, Gringrichers, and TedCruzers should be extinct. You’re definitely joking about that and it’s just an aside, but I bring it up because the Anthropocene ethic you’re in search of will probably have to be widely adopted, so widely adopted that you might need to find allies among such people or their supporters. Granted, Trump, Gringrich, and Cruz and their base of supporters probably don’t even recognize there’s a problem, let alone do anything about it. But at least some of them need to be won over. I’m not sure how to do that, and it’s certainly not your responsibility alone. But such people aren’t the enemy, or they aren’t all the enemy, or they don’t all need to be the enemy.

    I feel a little disingenuous writing this because I’m probably temperamentally disposed not to want to do anything to fix the problem. It’s not that I deny there’s a problem or that it’s caused by humans, but I’m kind of skeptical of what “we” should do or what “I” should do, or what others should be compelled to do, although as you note in your response to Notme, your main goal is to encourage people to act willingly and not force them.

    I do realize you’re getting it from all sides on this long thread. I have read all the comments so far. So in a sense I’m piling on by making a comment out of one thing you’ve written while mostly disregarding the rest of your post. But thanks for putting this argument out there. It’s obviously something that needs discussion.


  13. It seems like an affordable electric car is probably inevitable and will make a lot of money. Does anyone know how much difference that will make?

    I mean specifically imagine ten years from now everyone’s driving electric cars- does that get us very far in reducing CO2?


    • This is one of those “it depends” questions. If the electricity used to charge it comes from an old low-efficiency coal-fired plant, the electric car is probably worse for CO2 than regular gasoline. If electricity is from a modern high-efficiency combined-cycle natural gas-fired plant, the electric car is significantly better. If the electricity is from a hydro dam or wind turbine, the electric car is a lot better. Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and South Dakota are good places.


      • This is actually one of the few “clean technology” issues that Jeremy Clarkson got right. Plug-in electric cars aren’t necessarily the weakest link in the chain anymore, but unless you cut out the thing that actually is the weakest link, you don’t make the chain stronger. Generating more iffy power doesn’t help anyone.


    • Not much. The electric car is way more efficient in converting electricity to movement, but thermal power generation efficiency (50% on a good day), plus T&D losses brings you more or less to the same place. Adding renewables to the electricity mix helps of course, but this won’t be the game changer.


  14. This may be a dead thread, but:

    Just yesterday I met with a representative of a company that retrofits old fluorescent lighting with LEDs. Her company has third-party financing with very low cost money, so she will generate a proposal that will replace all our old lighting with new at no cost to us. Indeed we will see a lower power bill right up front.

    Where it gets interesting is that the financing term is five years, and our lease runs out in six. So we’ll get a little of the benefit and our landlord will get the bulk of it by reduced leasing costs. Aha, but the LED company can give us a NPV calculation, and under the lease I can tell the landlord that I’m keeping the LEDs we buy when the lease runs out. And, here in California there’s a new set of regulations kicking in this year on commercial building energy efficiency standards. So if the landlord won’t share the out-year benefits with us, he’ll be forced to put in the new lighting if he kicks us out. Now I have negotiating leverage.

    Building by building, year by year, we can drive down our energy consumption substantially in this country. All it takes is innovation plus regulation plus a little effort by commercial tenants and landlords.


    • I think someone in this thread had made the suggestion that landlords should bear more of the cost for failing to make energy efficient upgrades to their properties. This seems rather in line with that.


      • yeah, but …

        “Should” is doing a lot of work in your comment. Commercial landlords like triple-net leases where all they do is sit there and let the money come in, as if the property were bond debt. Forcing them to lower the environmental impacts of their properties takes regulation. Putting regulations in place that give the tenant negotiating power are even better.


        • Probably doesn’t require new regulation, just an updating of building codes. But I could be wrong. Landlords leaving buildings to be an energy sink seems like an externality that needs addressing?

          , ,care to comment


          • Since the tenant is the one who bears the majority of the cost of low energy-efficiency, it doesn’t make sense to think of it as an externality. A better angle to approach it might be Adverse Selection. If it is hard for a prospective tenant to figure out how energy-efficient a property is, landlords will have little incentive to make their properties more energy-efficient.

            That lens suggests an Energy Efficiency rating for let properties might be the way to go.


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