Monday, December 16, 2019

Climate Change and Attitude Change

The old joke about how an optimist and a pessimist can see the same glass of water and say different things about it applies to a lot of things.  The optimist who says it's half full brings a different attitude to the same physical facts that the half-empty pessimist looks at, but draws different conclusions from them. 

Climate change and the effects of rising carbon dioxide levels on global temperatures and weather have led to a widespread attitude of despair, according to Matt Frost, a policy analyst who recently published an article called "After Climate Despair" in The New Atlantis.  His approach to climate change is neither denial nor agreement with the prevailing consensus of certain political groups that we are staring doom in the face.  Instead, it's a good example of how attitude can make a big difference in the interpretation of facts.

The standard high-level public-policy take on climate change goes something like this.  Humankind has foolishly burned itself into an ongoing crisis that will, if not averted by radical and draconian imposition of fossil-fuel bans and restrictions, lead to the downfall of civilization and the destruction of the ecosphere.  The only viable solution is the imposition of a global austerity plan that rolls back global energy use to a level comparable to what it was back somewhere in the 19th century, and even then, it will take decades or centuries before any notable improvement will come.  The fact that the major world governments have not fallen into line and cooperated with this solution is cause for despair, a despair akin to that which relatives of a hopeless drug addict feel when they try to intervene, but the addict goes right on shooting up until he overdoses.

Frost begins by distinguishing between the main factor in climate change—namely, the burning of fossil fuels that increase the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—and the fact that energy abundance and growth is necessary for human flourishing in today's world.  Perhaps the key insight he brings in his set of proposals is that we should look on carbon dioxide emissions not as a horror to be avoided at all cost, nor as totally innocuous, but as waste, similar to sewage, scrap iron, or other byproducts of industrial activity that engineers have learned  how to deal with in the past. 

He examines several proposed solutions that would reduce global warming, and discards them for various reasons.  Switching to burning wood instead of coal and oil and gas is impractical because it would require huge amounts of farmland that we don't have, or that we need already for food.  Throwing tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reduce the influx of infrared radiation, while possibly reducing global temperatures, might screw up the ecosphere even worse than it is now.  The basic approach he recommends is one of energy abundance, and we have plenty of knowhow to bring that about with only minor changes in directions that we're already pursuing.

For one thing, nuclear energy is sadly underutilized in most countries, a notable exception being France.  While nuclear waste is a problem, it's a localized manageable problem and doesn't automatically escape into the air and cause climate change.  Treating carbon dioxide emissions as a waste product similar to sewage would allow the sensible, deliberate implementation of regulations backed by engineering solutions that might lead to sequestering or reuse of the gas, which after all, given sufficient energy, can be reconverted into fuel again.  While such processes are done only on a pilot scale today, if we realize that lower energy prices would make them more practical, we could break through the barrier of despair and do something about carbon in the atmosphere by means of the very energy that the present despairing attitude would have us say good-by to.

Another good point that Frost makes is that these sorts of things can be done on a small scale:  a solar installation here, a carbon-abatement plant there.  These sorts of things don't need any giant global bureaucracy to administer.  While dealing with the present and future consequences of climate change will present challenges that are in some ways unique, throwing up our hands and giving up on civilization is not the answer.  In a sense, engineering got us into the situation we're in today, and as long as we believe engineering can help us deal with the consequential problems, we have a handle on possible paths to solutions.   

As I read Frost's article, it occurred to me that some of what he's proposing has already taken place.  Watt for watt, burning natural gas for energy produces less carbon dioxide emission than burning coal.  An early worrier about climate change in, say, 1990, might have come out in favor of a massive government-directed effort to shut down all our cheaply operating coal-fired power plants and force them to burn expensive natural gas, at the price of raising electricity prices by 300% and causing a recession.  

That didn't happen, but something else did that bureaucrats didn't expect.  The petroleum industry developed fracking and a spectrum of other technologies that led to the exploitation of abundant natural-gas reserves in old oil fields, which has sent natural gas prices plummeting and shuttered coal-fired plants, not because they're illegal, but because they're unprofitable.  As a result, the U. S. power-generation industry is now more carbon-friendly than it used to be as a whole, all without heavy-handed government intervention.

We can't rely on the market to pull this kind of benign trick all the time, but it's an example of how a can-do optimistic attitude toward a difficult situation can lead to surprisingly good results.  Perhaps not all of Frost's specific policy proposals will find favor in the halls of power, but what I hope people do take from him is his attitude.  In the Roman Catholic catalog of sins, despair is the one unforgivable sin, because by definition, if you give up hope of salvation, you can't be saved.  The principle has applications beyond theology.  If we decide that the only way to reduce carbon emissions is to achieve the politically impossible, well, by definition, that's not going to happen.  Frost's advice is to look at the wide array of possible and even local things we can do, and work on those.

Sources:  Matt Frost's article "After Climate Despair:  Embracing Abundance in a Warming World"  appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of The New Atlantis, pp. 3-21.  I also referred to Mr. Frost's webpage at, where from his resumé I learned that he has five children, and is thus invested in seeing the future turn out better than it might. 

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