Tuesday, October 20, 2015

All I need is a miracle

Nice Dreams, 
Nice Dreams
      - Radio head
I'll see you
In your wildest dream
   -Reverend Horton Heat


          It seems we have a natural tendency to minimize the problem and maximize how well we are doing.  Kevin Anderson has a new piece in line with his earlier one : Real Clothes for the Emperor.   In this one he points out that the IPCC is giving the impression the that 2 degrees can be avoided without serious disruption of our lifestyle and economy.   A closer look at the underlying models, shows assumptions which are somewhat fantastical.  Not only do they assume the invention of new technology to suck the carbon out of the air, some scenarios also have unrealistic assumptions about how quickly we can begin declining - in fact some have the decline starting in the past.  He says:
"...there remains an almost global-scale cognitive dissonance with regards to acknowledging the quantitative implications of the analysis, including by many of those contributing to its development. We simply are not prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly. 
see here
             See also, an interesting interview with  Bill Gates who appears to agree with Anderson that we can't really expect to avoid 2 degrees through an evolutionary change, from coal to natural gas, to current renewable technology.   Like his mentor Vaclav Smil, he does not think that we are ready for the renewable revolution, especially based on current technology.   He points out there is a lot of renewenable boosterism that is counter productive, in that it makes the transition look easy.
"They have this statement that the cost of solar photovoltaic is the same as hydrocarbon’s. And that’s one of those misleadingly meaningless statements. What they mean is that at noon in Arizona, the cost of that kilowatt-hour is the same as a hydrocarbon kilowatt-hour. But it doesn’t come at night, it doesn’t come after the sun hasn’t shone, so the fact that in that one moment you reach parity, so what? The reading public, when they see things like that, they underestimate how hard this thing is. So false solutions like divestment or “Oh, it’s easy to do” hurt our ability to fix the problems. Distinguishing a real solution from a false solution is actually very complicated."
         In the end, though, Gates falls back on his own type of optimism. He puts his faith in the development of a new type of energy system.   He recommends a lot of R and D funding to develop the some new form of energy  one that is cheaper than coal, and zero carbon. He does recognize though that it might not work saying:
"I think if we don’t get that in the next 15 years, then as much as people care about this thing, we will at least run the 2-degree experiment. Then there’s the question of “Okay, do we run the 3-degree experiment? Do we run the 4-degree experiment?”

It is interesting that, even though Gates is somewhat more realistic than the average person, he doesn't suggest a "Plan B", a way of solving the problem which doesn't require a miracle.  
         Assuming that a miracle will occur, whether it is a carbon sucking machine, or a new form of energy, is a form of "optimism bias" which is discussed in a recent presentation by Nate Hagens.  He says that it "feels good" to be optimistic, thanks to dopamine flooding the brain.  see more here.  Optimists get invited to more parties.  Optimists even have healthier hearts.   Arguably evolution has pre programmed us to be optimistic.   So, it is only natural that we would expect things to "work out for the best".  Of course, such optimism can also mean that people refuse to consider or plan for anything but the happiest of futures.  see e.g. Unprepared
"We know that a massive earthquake will hit the Pacific Northwest in the future. More specifically, we know there’s a 37 percent chance of it happening in the next 50 years. It will be deadly and devastating and fundamentally change the lives of residents here.
Yet we are massively unprepared, both on an institutional level, and, often, on a personal level. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has found that fewer than half of Americans have a survival kit or communication plan ready for a disaster. And when asked specifically about whether they have enough food or water to survive a disaster, the numbers drop further."

      This type of happy thinking may also account for our  willingness to pat ourselves on the back for apparent  , but somewhat illusory,  achievements.  In an interesting article about "sustainability" (The Macro ecology of Sustainability), one finds this
"Portland, Oregon offers an illuminating example. The city of Portland and surrounding Multnomah County, with a population of 715,000 and a median per capita income of US$51,000, bills itself and is often hailed by the media as “the most sustainable city in America” (e.g., SustainLane.com, 2008). On the one hand, there can be little question that Portland is relatively green and offers its citizens a pleasant, healthy lifestyle, with exemplary bike paths, parks, gardens, farmers' markets, and recycling programs. About 8% of its electricity comes from renewable non-hydroelectric sources (http://apps3.eere.energy.gov/greenpower/​resources/tables/topten.shtml). On the other hand, there also can be no question that Portland is embedded in and completely dependent on environments and economies at regional, national, and global scales (Figure 2). A compilation and quantitative analysis of the flows into and out of the city are informative (see Text S1 for sources and calculations). Each year the Portland metropolitan area consumes at least 1.25 billion liters of gasoline, 28.8 billion megajoules of natural gas, 31.1 billion megajoules of electricity, 136 billion liters of water, and 0.5 million tonnes of food, and the city releases 8.5 million tonnes of carbon as CO2, 99 billion liters of liquid sewage, and 1 million tonnes of solid waste into the environment. Total domestic and international trade amounts to 24 million tonnes of materials annually. With respect to these flows, Portland is not conspicuously “green”; the above figures are about average for a US city of comparable size (e.g., [32]).

   This article also points out that the climate change , and energy  issues need to be placed into a larger context.   CO2 and climate change, is only one aspect of the picture.  Arguably climate change is one symptom of a larger problem - overshoot - one which is also creating other symptoms - destruction of fisheries, mining of topsoil, deforestation,  mining of groundwater, alarming extinction rates, etc

       Carbon sucking machines, and new energy sources will have little effect on those problems.   All these problems arise from our overshooting the what the biosystem is providing on a sustainable basis.  In other words - too many people, and too high a lifestyle.   Perhaps it would make more sense to focus on ideas that would address them as well.   Things like simplicity, degrowth, and localization.

        These approaches would have the added benefit of providing  appropriate small scale systems which will be needed as we deal with the end of growth.

         Richard Heinberg gave an interesting presentation last month to a group philanthropists, that addresses these issues.   He said

Permit me to make two broad suggestions. First: Think systemically. Symptoms of environmental, social, and financial breakdown abound, and must be dealt with one by one as they arise. But in terms of helping society adapt to limits, the most bang for the buck will probably be gained from efforts that seek to fundamentally redesign systems—transport systems, food systems, communications systems, health care systems, financial systems, indeed the economy itself. These systems arose in their current forms during a century when the increasing availability of cheap, concentrated, and portable energy sources drove innovations in manufacturing and transport, and led to the creation of debt-based money systems and the consumer economy. As our global energy regime changes, and as growth wanes, these systems will come under worsening stress and will have to adapt. It is in the guiding of that adaptation that the greatest opportunities may lie, both for the proliferation of benefits and the prevention of harm.

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