Hacking Climate Change

Can we hack our way toward solutions for climate change? While governments dither, Congress negates and the world warms, how about deploying private finance, atmospheric chemistry and every kind of ingenuity to tackle the problem that’s too big to solve?

Political and economic change has been slow in coming for lots of reasons. ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and Shell alone spend tens of millions of dollars per year lobbying to protect oil and gas concerns and to question the climate consensus.  The fault may lie, as Naomi Klein claims in her big new book, with a capitalist economy that favors short-term, non-disruptive fixes and that runs on fossil fuels.  But it may also lie in our brains: we might be hardwired to ignore complicated, slow-moving, author-less threats — and to choose problems like ISIS instead.

But there’s change in the wind. More than 300,000 people marched down 6th Avenue in New York to encourage world leaders to do something. Everyone from the Rockefellers to the World Council of Churches are divesting from fossil fuels (though Harvard President Drew Faust has declined). If we’re coming to realize that climate change is the ultimate big-tent issue, what kind of solutions should we be proposing? What’s the agenda of the new environmental movement?

We’re staying positive and summoning all hands on deck: scientists and engineers, activists and capitalists, pastors and atheists. What will it take to tackle carbon?

Guest List
Jeremy Grantham
investor, co-founder of Grantham Mayo van Otterloo, and the philanthropist behind the Grantham Foundation For the Protection of the Environment.
David Keith
Harvard physicist researching possibilities for solar geoengineering and author of A Case for Climate Engineering from Boston Review Books.
Chloe Maxmin
a senior at Harvard College, co-founder of Divest Harvard, and founder of First Here, Then Everywhere.
Reading List
"As The Planet Warms, So Does the Climate Movement"
Todd Gitlin
In TomDispatch, the sociologist looks at the September march as the start of a genuine, self-recognizing global movement — pretty cool, by our measure:
If what follows sounds circular, so be it: there is a social movement when some critical mass of people feel that it exists and act as if they belong to it.  They begin to sense a shared culture, with its own heroes, villains, symbols, slogans, and chants. Their moods rise and fall with its fate. They take pleasure in each others’ company. They look forward to each rendezvous. And people on every side -- the friendly, the indifferent, as well as the hostile -- all take note of it as well and feel something about it; they take sides; they factor it into their calculations; they strive to bolster or obstruct or channel it. It moves into their mental space.  
"The Race Of Our Lives" (investor letter)
Jeremy Grantham
Grantham's April 2013 letter speaks of the climate and scarcity problem (pdf):
It would be a blessing in disguise for the developed world and the U.S. in particular if China announced a 25-year program of alternative energy (enough of these paltry five-year plans!) that embodied a Manhattan project level of commitment. Within just a handful of years of watching them execute this program, we would calculate the competitive consequences and would be forced defensively to emulate them.  
Hacking the climate: The search for solutions to the world’s greatest challenge
John Harte, "The Grist"
A few local success stories: for example, British Columbia is taxing carbon, and driving innovation all the while; repainting Bay Area roofs a lighter color has diminished smog and lowered temperatures; and spreading compost on American grassland is insulating against drought.
Geoengineering: Testing the Waters
Naomi Klein, "The New York Times"
There's a reasonable wariness of geoengineering in many quarters of the green movement: from old-school environmentalists troubled about the death of ‘the wild’ and a sense of restraint regarding nature, to this, Naomi Klein's critique from the global left:
"But with rogue geoengineers on the loose, it is a good time to pause and ask, collectively, whether we want to go down the geoengineering road. Because the truth is that geoengineering is itself a rogue proposition. By definition, technologies that tamper with ocean and atmospheric chemistry affect everyone. Yet it is impossible to get anything like unanimous consent for these interventions. Nor could any such consent possibly be informed since we don’t — and can’t — know the full risks involved until these planet-altering technologies are actually deployed."

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  • sidewalker

    Before joining this conversation, I’d recommend everyone visit the Radio Ecoshock show. There you can listen to what some of the top climate scientists, ecologists and alternative thinkers and doers are telling us about what it will really take to hack climate change. It is definitely not business-as-usual and is closer to a mix of “small is beautiful” technologies (not grand geoengineering dreams) importantly combined with a post-growth model requiring a much more humble consumer lifestyle, probably incompatible with desire insatiable, waste induced capitalism.

    Can we get there without huge social upheaval and conflict? I want to say yes, but I really wonder if a quiet revolution of the type required to drastically change political and economic power structures and consumer behaviour is possible. One reason to despair is the abundant talk of technological solutions and the impoverished discussion of reduction. Declining fertility rates, mentioned by Jeremy Grantham, offers some hope, though this decline does not appear steep enough to keep temperatures from increasing 2 or 3 degrees celsius or more above preindustrial times. Also, it is less about the number of people than the size of their ecological footprint. Many are worried about China only because people there are becoming North American in their buying habits. The inconvenient truth, it seems to me, is that we must learn to live with far fewer material goods and to share far more. Are we ready to have this inconvenient discussion?

    • GuestAug27

      Yes, the prospect of an average Chinese and Indian family consuming as much energy and non-renewable resources as an average family in a “first-world” country is scary. The first-world countries need to cut back on consumption first, before asking countries that consume much less on per-capita basis (like China or India) to cut back. Otherwise, the first world countries look like a bunch of hypocrites.

    • GuestAug27

      I agree that we will need to cut back on consumption. However, to avoid mass unemployment, it will also be necessary to drastically limit working hours, worldwide. Given the current productivity levels, there is no way we can cut back on consumption and still give a 40-hour/week, decent-paying job to anybody who needs one. 24-hour workweek is long overdue.

      • I don’t think so – one huge piece of climate change that many people miss, is food production. We need to grow food locally, and this will mean a LOT more employment.

        Which is a good thing.

        Same thing goes for all the things that we actually need; that we are currently getting too cheaply from overseas, where people are paid sweatshop wages. Clothing, and building materials, and appliances, and soaps, etc. – all will have to be sourced locally.

        • GuestAug27

          What makes you think that producing food in New Jersey will require more people working than producing the same amount of food in California?

  • EastCoastElitist

    Worth reading: Alyssa Battistoni’s essay in Jacobin earlier this year, “Alive in the Sunshine”. Link = https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/01/alive-in-the-sunshine/

    • Max

      Hey, thanks so much. I (Max) loved this one when it came around. UBI — definitely something to consider.

  • Jeremy Grantham – scarcity investing; vs David Keith –
    Moral hazard; vs Chloe Maxmin….

    FTW: Chloe Maxmin (& E.O. Wilson “The Social Conquest of
    Earth”)

  • Potter

    Anyone who has or contemplates having children now must think of the world they will inherit and possibly or probably sink into Malthusian despair. So it was good to hear some good news. I especially loved Chloe Maxim. She gives me hope.

    It’s clear that a lot has to happen on the “macro” level, politically. This is the main benefit, after all, of political organization that “a thousand points of light” cannot accomplish.. We can do small things of course ( if we know)- but give me the good choices and I will make them. I would change my lifestyle. I look at my grandchildren and feel a sadness for what they may have to go through if we collectively do not get it together.

  • By the way, the illustration at the top of this page of the elevated canals – is wishful thinking. Ain’t gonna’ happen.

    We either jack up the buildings and use boats in the streets – or we abandon the lower parts of our cities.

    As to the phosphorus shortage – we simply cannot continue to do factory farming. W will have to grow all food locally, and organically, and we have to get methane from our sewage – and then use it for fertilizer – with plenty of phosphorus in it, so farming is still a huge challenge.

  • GuestAug27

    Think alternative, clean energy and robots, man. Farm work is no fun. I have tried that.