How Houston Sends a Humbling Message About Climate Change

2. September, 2017

People in Houston have been drowning the past few days. Do they care about climate change right now?

No.

They are currently returning to houses that have been massively damaged. Are they caring about climate change now?

No.

These people have real problems at the moment. They don’t have the time, nerve or energy to waste on climate change. In the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that climate change isn’t a “problem”. Talking about it is a waste of time. People need jobs, they need money to pay rent, food, education, Netflix. Climate change is a nice but somewhat irrelevant topic to fill the gaps of boredom between.

So how to prevent climate change when talking about it is a waste of time? We need a new story. People love stories. Compare these two:

  1. If you smoke, your live will be 10 years shorter on average.
  2. My grandmother smoked all her life and she died with 95 in good health.

Both are “true” in the sense that they are facts which have been verified as well as could be. Which one do you like to hear?

So here is my story about climate change:

Climate changes. It changes all the time. Sometimes it’s hotter, sometimes it’s colder. Who cares. People have real problems. People need jobs. How do you create jobs? By doing new stuff.

When everyone has a car, you can’t sell more cars. You simply can’t get most people to buy two cars. You can replace the few that die every year but that’s not growth. That’s simply keeping the level. Today’s cars produce a lot of poisons. That’s bad for everyone. They need gasoline of which the US has only so much. We need to send soldiers to die in far away countries to make sure we get all the oil we need.

That’s a tragedy for the families involved and that’s a lot of our money wasted. This money doesn’t come from some magic place, it’s the money which every American pays in form of taxes.

If we replace all the bad cars with new cars, we will create a lot of jobs. New technologies need to be invented. Better batteries. More efficient and reliable power grids. When was your last power outage?

No more soldiers dying for oil. Cars which refuel themselves over night. No need to stop at dark fuel stations. Yeah, the fuel stations will go away. But a lot of people lost their jobs when we did away with horse carriages. Those were unhappy but overall, it was a change for the better.

Cleaner air. More jobs. Better health. Less power outages. Less traffic noise. Having a job will mean you can afford the new car and get rid of the old junk. With all those new cars, people will ask for better roads. With the new jobs, we can afford that as well. We can then invent technology to recycle millions of cars efficiently and sell that.

Here is how the story works: People have problems that are important for them. We can ignore that (and be ignored) or acknowledge it. Telling them “hey, here are even more problems and who knows how to solve them” isn’t going to work. So we need to paint a picture. One where they can find themselves in. One where they can see some actual problems of themselves solved.

That’s how you prevent climate change.


The End is Nigh, Part 2

16. June, 2013

A while ago, I asked whether wars on water, burning fossil fuel or air conditioning will kill us first.

Turns out it’s probably air conditioning.

Currently, we’re facing a couple of problems. We’re polluting the oceans with plastics, stressing many strands of the food chain and fish much more than we should. Sounds bad but we’ll run out of oil for plastics before we can poison everything and fishing fleets will quickly disappear with their prey – along with a few million people. So that sucks but it’s not a big problem in the sense that it’ll kill us – it will most likely resolve itself by becoming uneconomical.

Same goes for burning fossil fuels. We have a lot of them but the amount is finite and we’ll eventually run out of them. In a few years, the effect on the environment will put a lot of strain on the global economy. We’ll lose ships and planes in storms or they can’t even leave port. But again, as soon as this happens, the supply of fossil fuels will dry up since the platforms to make them available won’t be able to survive the weather we created.

Water? There will be wars over water but they will be pretty local. Israel, for example, will have to build many desalinating plants. And terrorists will love to blow them up. But water is on the radar since everyone involved is aware that access to water is so important.

AC is going to kill us? I must be kidding, right?

No.

First of all, no one believes that air conditioning is a problem. But think about it:

  1. Asia is mostly tropical. People are getting more rich and demand better living conditions.
  2. AC need a lot of electricity which comes from mostly from fossil fuel
  3. The coolants will heat up the planet much more efficiently than any other gas we produce as soon as it leaks and it will – most people in Asia know the concept of recycling but they dump their broken stuff in the forest just like we did a few years ago.
  4. Staying cool is essential to be productive and to be able to concentrate. It’s not (only) a luxury.

Related articles:


Why You Should Bother About 2°

26. January, 2008

So the long term prediction for the climate is that it’ll become 2°C hotter worldwide – on average. “Big deal”, I hear the sceptics say, “between January and Juli, we get 30°C difference. How much is 2°C is going to add to that? A mere 6%!”

Wrong.

If the climate was a linear system, the 6% would be correct. But the climate is not a car which accelerates smoothly. It’s a complex system. Let’s look at a really simple complex system, called the Lorentz attractor:

Example of the Lorentz attractor
This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons which I got from the Wikipedia article mentioned above.

The Lorentz attractor is not a perfect example because it’s not actually a system that flips rarely (if you follow the curves, you’ll see that they go back and forth between the two points all the time instead of staying with one side for some time as our climate does).

Still, it’s a good way to visualize what is going on. Imagine that the lower disc with the fat red circle in the middle is the current weather. Temperature is pretty stable around one spot. Now the system gets jolt and starts to move out of the current equilibrum.

Instead of just dropping into the next equilibrum 2°C away, it starts to move in strange patterns. Instead of the temperature simply raising until it’s 2°C hotter, it’s sometimes much colder, sometimes much hotter. And the change is also not a smooth one. The farther the curve is from the two stable points, the faster it travels. Which means that within a few days, the temperature can drop and raise sharply.

Last week, we had temperatures at 900 in the morning between -1°C and 7°C, a delta of 8°C withing a week. And that’s not the lowest and highest overall temperature, it’s the temperature measured at the same time in the morning.

You should start to worry about the 2°C because they mean we’ll see natural disasters like man has never known before while the climate adjusts to the new average.

Or to put it another way: 2°C means that the earth becomes more hot. It means, if the earth was on a stove, someone is adding more heat or energy to the stovetop. If the earth was a pot with water, that energy would amount to 10.471 zettajoules (one zettajoule is 1 times 10 to the power of 21J) which is roughly the same as the energy the whole earth receives from the sun every day. As a number:

10’471’032’000’000’000’000’000J

The energy released by an average hurricane in one second is a meager 6 terajoule which is a billion times less. Imagine what power a hurricane could get from an athmosphere which has so much more energy to lay waste to our civilization?

Links:

Orders of magnitude (energy)
Thermal energy
Global warming
A Java applet where you can play with the Lorentz attractor