A Catalogue of Game Changers

We’re making progress on addressing climate change, and I’m hopeful that we’ll continue doing so. Yet it’s not clear whether the path we’re currently on will make progress fast enough to avoid very serious risks.  So what would it take for us to make a quantum leap in this effort?  I wouldn’t hazard a prediction about whether that will happen or if so what it will be. But I think we can see a roadmap of the possibilities.  Here are the ones the categories I can identify, though I can’t exclude the possibility of some X-factor that’s not on my list.

Tectonic Shift in Attitudes.  There are still a lot of climate deniers out there, and far more people who think climate change is a problem but don’t view it as that serious or urgent.  We don’t have a very handle on why public attitudes can sometimes shift suddenly, as they did on environmental issues in the 1960s and 1970s, on the role of women in the 1970s and 1980s, or as they did on gay marriage from 2000 to the present. In developing countries, a massive rebellion against air pollution could also spark radical cuts in coal and gasoline use. We can’t rule out the possibility of such shifts in attitudes.

Breakthrough Energy Technologies.  It’s easy to imagine possibilities here.  Super-cheap renewable energy; safe and affordable nuclear or fusion; much cheaper, more efficient energy storage. The price of renewables has come down a lot, which has made them a much more economic alternative. That’s already having a major effect on the energy system. But we could imagine a far greater effect if prices went down a lot more or if storage was cheap enough that the intermittency of the sun and wind were no longer a problem. The point about technology is that its progress is hard to predict: to know that cheap fusion is possible, for instance, we’d have to already know how to do it. Technological miracles sound too good to be true, but they’re not impossible.

Massive Disruption in Oil Markets.  Suppose oil production in the Mideast and Russia collapsed due to political turmoil. Other producers like the U.S. could pick up the slack, but only part it, and prices would spike. All of a sudden, alternatives to oil and natural gas like electric vehicles would be a lot more appealing. This is not an alternative I like to think about, because that degree of political chaos would be terrible for the people involved and destabilizing globally.

Breakthrough in Carbon Removal. I don’t see any scenario where geo-engineering is a real substitute for major reductions in carbon emissions.  But if we figured out a cheap, scalable method of removing carbon from the atmosphere, that would certainly help reach our carbon goals.  I have no reason to think that such technologies are feasible, especially in the short and medium run, but you never know. (I’m not including solar  radiation management as a possibility because of its risks, because it is hard to imagine it as a permanent solution,  and because it would do nothing to prevent ocean acidification. But again, I could be wrong.)

The odds that any of those things will happen in the near future are small, but the odds also rise over longer periods. In the meantime, those of us concerned with day-to-day policy have to keep working on more immediate measures to reduce emissions, hoping that these measures will spark a “virtuous” cycle in which they prompt bigger and better solutions.




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Reader Comments

10 Replies to “A Catalogue of Game Changers”

  1. Dan: A nice, succinct analysis on how we might escape our present straits. Three of the factors you cite, “Tectonic Shift in Attitudes,” “Breakthrough Energy Technologies,” and “Breakthrough in Carbon Removal,” are within the ability of human ingenuity to influence. New energy technologies and carbon removal are both receiving tens of billions in new investment each year hoping to achieve such a breakthrough.

    Unfortunately, very little is being spent on engineering a major shift in attitudes. There has yet to be any kind of sustained, resourced attack on the use of gasoline from a cultural or moral perspective. If, for example, a large-scale, multi-pronged public education effort (comparable in scale to the anti-smoking campaign) caused driving a gas car to be viewed as unconscionable polluting, then the type of shift you mention could well occur with respect to oil usage. Because public opinion engineering has been proven effective, the likelihood of such a shift occurring is considerably higher than achieving a major renewable energy or CCS breakthrough. An analysis of return on investment regarding smoking showed strong ROI on advertising dollars expended. https://adage.com/article/news/funding-anti-tobacco-ads-fell-quitting-rate/232111/

    One important reason why a cultural influencing effort hasn’t occurred is because the gains from such a campaign are difficult to privatize, and so the incentive for private investment in such campaign isn’t there. But the financing problem is (or should be) soluble given its relatively small cost given the scope of the hazard that we seek to avoid.

    It is important to distinguish an anti-gasoline campaign from pro-electric car campaigns. Electric car advertising (which is also vastly under-resourced) presents EVs as a fun, snazzy consumer option, not a necessity for being a good citizen. Appealing to consumer tastes is not the stuff on which “tectonic shifts in attitudes” are built.

    We should take shifting public attitudes seriously as a policy option, and not leave their change to chance. We know from smoking and other campaigns that public attitudes are malleable when consistent and well-resourced effort is applied.

    Matthew Metz
    Co-Executive Director, Coltura

    1. Prof. Farber, most recent California and Florida disasters are proving we are not adapting in time, a failure that the 2006 CALIFORNIA alumni magazine “Global Warning” issue warned us about.

      And the newest October IPCC report proves again that time is running out much faster than anticipated.

      We must produce successful ways to inform, educate and motivate the public immediately if we are ever going to have any chance at all to prevent destruction of an acceptable quality of life for future generations.

      1. Shift public attitudes before its too late? Does anyone sincerely give a shift about climate change? We should get together for Happy Hour and figure this out.

    2. I agree that a lot more needs to be done regarding public opinion. In particular, there re far too many people who are not climate deniers but who don’t understand the urgency of the problem. It should be possible to reach them.

      1. Thank you for your response Prof. Farber.

        I believe Chancellor Christ’s Strategic Planning Steering Committee can expedite making this happen.

        Also, Professor Kammen is an IPCC representative and Professor Reich is about the most vocal and published spokesperson fighting for democracy today. They should also be able to provide support in expediting the implementation of this goal.

      2. One of the firefighting officials at the Camp fire was interviewed on television over the weekend and commented that this should convince everyone that climate change is real and is affecting people now. He said he had been living with climate change for some years now.

    3. If you want a snazzy electric car, consider a gas turbine plug in hybrid (how cool is a sports car with a “jet engine”?). The idea is that the GT part would almost never be used, but would eliminate range anxiety and “finding a charger” anxiety, and it could have a “ludicrous mode” that would blow the doors off a Tesla (again, almost never used, we hope). It could even be multifuel, with an adsorbed natural gas or LNG storage system as well as a tank for (most any) liquid fuel. (We can also discuss steam injection to suppress NOx, but also improve efficiency and boost power.)

      If this interests you, talk to Capstone turbine in Southern California; they make a line of small GTs for standby power, combined power and heat, etc. and are looking for people who have applications. They probably would give an appropriate student project a free turbine.

  2. Three interesting (but unrelated) points:

    1) Various approaches to artificial ocean upwelling (including possibly Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion) may sequester substantial amounts of carbon via increased biological uptake relatively economically.

    2) We get a surprise soon regarding fusion on a number of fronts. A Chinese tokomak has recently achieved ignition DTT (necessary density, temperature and time of confinement). A European tokomak is close behind. An exotic alternative (private start up) cycle (neither D-H or D-T) is also close to ignition and is potentially simpler. The NIF has also achieved DTT. We can’t extrapolate too much, but some of us will probably live to see utility scale fusion (if we can survive till then).

    3) Thorium cycle is still out there and has been actually run critical. The remaining problems are engineering issues and similar, not deep science (like fusion). Thorium is also very difficult to weaponize and produces fewer long lived highly radioactive actinide waste products.

  3. The worst case scenario fact of life that we are proving again today, at the worst possible time, was documented in California Magazine/September October 2006 Global Warning feature:
    “Can We Adapt in Time?”

    This was further confirmed by George Smoot, Cosmologist, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Recipient, Nobel Prize For Physics 2006, in his 2007 EDGE annual question response:
    “Correggio Domani Sara Peggio!” — Courage for Tomorrow Will Be Worse!

    So we are still depending on LBNL to produce Edward Teller’s fusion power plant prediction to provide an acceptable quality of life for future generations!

    1. Teller was also an advocate of thorium cycle reactors, and one was run critical in the 50’s or 60’s, though I’m not sure if Teller (who also warned of climate change due to carbon dioxide in ’58 and ’59) was involved.

      Unfortunately, we are not depending just on LBNL. It is likely that when we can buy a “Mister Fusion”, it will be made in China. There are also a surprising number of other serious “exotic” fusion efforts including a number of non-hydrogen cycles. One of these may pan out.

      The late David MacKay in “Sustainable Energy, Without the Hot Air” https://www.withouthotair.com/ has covered a wide range of options and related information on both the supply and demand side, and is definitely worth reading.

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more