Both Ends Against the Middle

In another good catch by Atmoz, Jeffrey Sachs has an opinion piece in Scientific American. Quoth Sachs:

The growing understanding that serious climate-control measures are feasible at modest cost is welcome.

More directly to brass tacks (David Roberts are you listening?):

A promising core strategy seems to be the following. Electricity needs to be made virtually emission-free, through the mass mobilization of solar and nuclear power and the capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants. With a clean power grid, most of the other emissions can also be controlled.

The economics are also favorable. Carbon capture and sequestration at coal-fired power plants might raise costs for electricity as little as one to three cents per kilowatt-hour, according to a special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The mass conversion of the U.S. to solar power might involve an incremental cost of roughly four cents per kilowatt-hour, with overall electricity costs on the order of eight to nine cents per kilowatt-hour. These incremental costs imply far less than 1 percent of the world’s annual income to convert to a clean power grid. The costs in the other sectors will also be small.

It’s both ends against the middle here.

Don’t listen to those who say that everything has to change or we are doomed. The romantic left and the righteous right agree that this is a battle for the soul of civilization. This idea is wrong and dangerous.

It’s just a matter of well-placed and substantial but not overwhelming intervention into commerce. That’s a tall enough order but it’s not at all impossible. Let’s take our medicine and make our corrections so we can get back to making progress on human dignity and peaceful collaboration.

I’m not a middle-of-the-roader about climate change itself. Physics is not susceptible to compromise. We are indeed flirting with an unprecedented catastrophe.

I’m just pointing out that there are apparent agreements among the political extremes that we have to be very careful about buying into. We need good old fashioned rational intervention by the body politic and we no longer have much time to waste about it.

Addressing our problems does **not** require a total reinvention of all the world’s cultures, and that’s a good thing because there isn’t time for that.

I think the people in power have come around to this, and are simply waiting for the current ignorocracy in the US to end before taking action.

Much of the public is still missing the point though: the fix to our problems isn’t easy but it isn’t anywhere near as hard as the no-fix scenario. The fix is technical and regulatory.

The technical/regulatory clean energy strategy is the path that avoids the social upheaval, not the one that demands it. If the word “conservative” still meant anything I would swear it was by far the more conservative strategy. God only knows what some of the people calling themselves “conservative” think they are conserving.

Here’s my nomination for something worthy of conservation:


  1. I remain very skeptical about the idea of “economic growth” in advanced countries, as regular readers know. That said, we can’t sustain a world of haves and have-nots, and we have to get past peak water. Groundwater is as much a one time pleasure as cheap oil and for the same reason.If you think of the 80% of the world that has very little compared to westerners, they need growth if the world is to be stabilized or equitable. Yes, we need to be a less greedy especially about things that really don’t matter very much (e.g., lawns). There are more of them than there are of us, though…

  2. Well, I certainly agree that we don’t have time to reinvent society before we get into solution mode… And I further agree that the current institutions have the tools and policy frameworks to affordably begin implementing the solutions to the climate change challenge… And we can’t just suddenly ditch our existing physical infrastructure legacies in any event… But longer-term, I think you unavoidably have to begin the debate on rethinking some of our societal norms… Note that Sachs himself is calling for global growth in economic output and energy by 2050 of 6x and 4x respectively… That is going to severely stress other looming limits in the system – e.g. water, fish, nitrogen waste, various metals stocks, heavy metal wastes, etc. We can’t just keep bouncing from one inter-related problem to another as though they don’t all have an obvious underlying “cause”… So, pragmatically, yeah, I think you just get on with it w.r.t. to carbon, as you and Sachs are saying… but longer-term we need to begin a much more fundamental dialogue. (And, unfortunately but correctly, this is indeed the “Trojan horse” that the right is agitating about…)Some other comments on Sachs’ piece. He doesn’t even seem to question the idea that we would require 4x as much energy 43 years hence, and what other sustainability issues that would imply… His CO2 targets seem to acknowledge that the current system must be maintained (e.g. “plausibly achievable”…)… So it seems clear to me that he is making the solutions fit the existing “system”, not the physics… So, yeah, you had better believe that the current institutions are up to the challenge, because it is pretty circular…Also, I think that Aaron’s point is important. From my reading of late, Sachs’ target of 450 ppm CO2 may be far too lenient… But even if we take those targets as sufficient, I do not like the way Sachs presents his emission reduction targets… He is apparently only calling for a reduction of total emissions of 44% (from 36GT to 20GT per annum)… Certainly much, much less than IPCC et al, but continuing on with his scenario… Now, certainly we aren’t going to drop by 44% next year and then flatline for the next 41, so he is implicitly calling for eventually much larger cuts than 44% so that he stays within his arbitrary cumulative additional emissions limit of 750 to 1,050 GT CO2… But then he says that we need to cut our CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use by just one third… by 2050… Excuse me if I am totally confused as to what emission reduction targets he is aiming for, and on what path… So, yeah, we have to work within the existing framework from strictly a pragmatic point-of-view of getting going, and the costs of effective action do appear to be quite affordable and realistic in that framework… But I think that as the current pattern of growth keeps bumping into the various realities of physical limits, we are going to have to rethink the framework itself. The stricter the emission reductions required (by physics), the earlier that inevitable dialogue may occur…

  3. Aaron, we may be in awfully deep trouble already, but that only reinforces the idea that we don’t have time to reinvent civilization.Perhaps Sachs is too optimistic about the impacts we already face, but his main point stands: the costs of addressing this issue are large but not overwhelming.My point also stands. The best we can do involves making the best of what we’ve got, not inventing a totally new way of life.

  4. Assuming of course that have not already passed any tipping points. I am not convinced that GIS and WAIS will be stable for the next 30 years at current CO2 levels. Consider the formation of melt water ponds and moulins on GIS. That has substantially happened at less than current levels of CO2.

  5. Assuming of course that have not already passed any tipping points. I am not convinced that GIS and WAIS will be stable for the next 30 years at current CO2 levels. Consider the formation of melt water ponds and moulins on GIS. That has substantially happened at less than current levels of CO2.

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