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kottke.org posts about Alex Steffen

We almost stopped climate change in the 80s. What happened?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 01, 2018

Steinmetz Desert

The New York Times Magazine has devoted its entire issue this weekend to a single article by Nathanial Rich: Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.

The world has warmed more than one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. The Paris climate agreement — the nonbinding, unenforceable and already unheeded treaty signed on Earth Day in 2016 — hoped to restrict warming to two degrees. The odds of succeeding, according to a recent study based on current emissions trends, are one in 20. If by miracle we are able to limit warming to two degrees, we will only have to negotiate the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs, sea-level rise of several meters and the abandonment of the Persian Gulf. The climate scientist James Hansen has called two-degree warming “a prescription for long-term disaster.” Long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario. Three-degree warming is a prescription for short-term disaster: forests in the Arctic and the loss of most coastal cities. Robert Watson, a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has argued that three-degree warming is the realistic minimum. Four degrees: Europe in permanent drought; vast areas of China, India and Bangladesh claimed by desert; Polynesia swallowed by the sea; the Colorado River thinned to a trickle; the American Southwest largely uninhabitable. The prospect of a five-degree warming has prompted some of the world’s leading climate scientists to warn of the end of human civilization.

Is it a comfort or a curse, the knowledge that we could have avoided all this?

Because in the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions — far closer than we’ve come since. During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.

Photo by George Steinmetz, who did the photography for the Times piece.

Update: For a critical reading of Rich’s piece, check out this Twitter thread by Alex Steffen.

I notice that reactions to “Losing Earth” seem divided along a pretty straight-forward line: Those who work in climate science, journalism or advocacy-and those who don’t.

Folks who don’t work on climate for a living seem more positive about the piece than those who do.

There’s a reason for that: It’s a long essay that gets its subject wrong, and the ways it goes wrong are ways many of us who work on climate have seen again and again. It’s work that doesn’t know its history, and so makes old mistakes.

Weirdly central in Nathaniel Rich’s story is the claim that there existed a time before politics, when climate change was not hampered by opposition: “The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way…”

This is simply untrue.

He doubles down on the idea by explicitly exonerating high-CO2 industries + the GOP

“A common boogeyman today is the fossil-fuel industry, which in recent decades has committed to playing the role of villain with comic-book bravado. …Nor can the Republican Party be blamed.”

Robinson Meyer makes a similar point at The Atlantic.

The thrust of this history seems to suggest that powerful figures in the Republican Party were already skeptical of human-caused climate change by 1980. These leaders had not yet converted most Republican rank-and-file voters to their view, and indeed there may have been a few supporters of climate action in the party. But by and large, the most influential administration officials muddied climate science and weakened climate policy.

If Rich seems a little too charitable to the G.O.P, he lets fossil-fuel interests off the hook entirely. It’s likely that oil executives knew humans were triggering climate change before Rich’s story even picks up.

Gates hops on climate change bandwagon

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2010

Over at Worldchanging, Alex Steffen calls Bill Gates’ talk about climate change the most important speech ever given at TED. Gates said that the number one priority for him and the Gates Foundation (the world’s largest philanthropic organization) is to combat human-driven climate change.

He reckons that because population is going to continue to grow for at least four decades, because billions of poor people want more equitable prosperity, and because (as he sees it) improvements in energy efficiency are limited, we have to focus on the last element of the equation, the carbon intensity of energy. Simply, we need climate-neutral energy. We need to use nothing but climate-neutral energy.

PopTech, day 1 wrap-up

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2006

Since my internet access has been somewhat spotty at the conference (I’m trying to pay attention and power is hard to come by here so the laptop is closed most of the time), I’m going to do rolling wrap-ups as I go, skipping around and filling in the blanks when I can. Here we go, soundbite-style:

Alex Steffen: Cars equipped with displays that show gas mileage, when compared to cars without the mileage display, get better gas mileage. That little bit of knowledge helps the driver drive more economically. More visible energy meter displays in the home have a similar effect…people use less energy when they’re often reminded of how much energy they use. (Perhaps Personal Kyoto could help here as well.) At dinner, we discussed parallels between that and eating. Weighing yourself daily or keep track of everything you eat, and you’ll find yourself eating less. In the same way, using a program like Quicken to track your finances might compel you to spend less, at least in areas of your life where you may be spending too much.

Bruce Sterling is the Jesse Jackson of technology. He has this cadence that he gets into, neologism after neologism, stopping just short of suggesting a new word for neologism. Wonderful to experience in person. Perhaps not as upbeat as the Reverend, though.

Bruce also related a story told to him by an engineering professor friend of his. The prof split his class into two groups. The first group, the John Henrys, had to study and learn exclusively from materials available at the library…no internet allowed. The second group, the Baby Hueys, could use only the internet for research and learning…no primary source lookups at the library. After a few weeks, he had to stop this experiment because the John Henrys were lagging so far behind the Baby Hueys that it is was unfair to continue.

Kevin Kelly noted that the web currently has 1 trillion links, 1 quintillion transistors, and 20 exabytes of memory. A single human brain has 1 trillion synapses (links), 1 quintillion neurons (transistors of sorts), and 20 exabytes of memory.

Kelly also said that technology has its own agenda and went on to list what it is that technology might want. One of the things was clean water. You need clean water for industrial manufacturing…so water cleanliness is going to be a big deal in China. In a later talk, Thomas Friedman said, “China needs to go green.”

Hasan Elahi, during his ordeal being mistaken for — what’s the term these days? — an enemy combatant, learned that language translates easier than culture. That is, you can learn how to speak a language fluently way easier than to have the cultural fluency necessary to convince someone you’re a native. In his interrogations, Hasan liberally sprinkled pop culture references in his answers to questions posed by the FBI to help convince them that he was a native. Workers at call centers in India for American companies are not only taught to speak English with an American accent, they also receive training in American geography, history, and pop culture so as to better fool/serve American callers.

“The best laid plans of mice and men turn into a nonlinear system.” — Will Wright, with apologies to Robert Burns.

Speaking of Wright, a couple of Spore trivia bits. The data for a creature in Spore takes up just 3K of memory. And entire world: just 80K. And these worlds are amazingly complex.

Brian Eno: With large groups of people, the sense of shame and the sense of honor that keeps the members of small groups from misbehaving breaks down. The challenge for larger groups is to find ways of making honor and shame matter in a similar respect.

Stewart Brand: “We are terraforming the earth anyway, we might as well do it right.” Stewart also noted that cities are very effective population sinks. When people move to cities, the birthrate drops to the replacement rate (2.1 children per family) and keeps on dropping. Combine that with the fact that by early next year, more people in the world will live in cities than in rural areas, and at some point in the next hundred years, the earth’s population will start to fall.