Climate Change, Ping-Pong, Morality And More

A friend and I were talking recently about how gathering information about the pervasive nature of climate change is out of reach for most of us. It is not news to anyone that we suffer from an information overload, and it is no different with the matter at hand.

The complexity of climate change means different people – authors, scientists, researchers, journalists, governments etc., – will look at it through discretionary lenses and argue for the positions they take with emphasis. I am not talking about contrarian views. These are people on the same side – talking about the negative effects of human inaction in tackling climate change. The difference in their frames means what they write about inadvertently becomes disparate perspectives that do not come together coherently for an average reader.

Governments and the Longest Game of Ping-pong

Governments talk about how fossil fuels are cheap, abundant, and implemented at-scale, and the transition to a low-carbon future is expensive. This becomes a justifiable position when large portions of their population do not have access to food, clean drinking water, and education among other challenges. This is largely the narrative of the developing nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. When there is only a finite amount of money there to be spent, it is natural that you prioritise. Who is to say what is the right thing to prioritise?

The calls to wean away from fossil fuels are led by the industrialised nations in Europe and North America – whose industries used the same fossil fuels to increase national income for a good part of the last two centuries.

There is no value judgement here. These are the facts.

The politics of climate change means this little game of ‘who pays?’ is the most consequential game of metaphorical ping-pong ever.

Again, when lay people like you and I read this as purveyors of vast amounts of information, we subliminally decide this game will not end soon and go about our business. We need something definitive to happen around us before we do something different – much like how we wait for the clock to turn to a round hour before we start a task, for no apparent reason.

Climate Scientists Live in the Grey

It is a thankless job to be a climate scientist. They spend years studying changes in the natural ecosystems around us, weather patterns and extreme climate events, and attribute it to a rise in temperature largely caused by emissions from human activities. Pause – when yours truly wrote the previous line, I wanted to be careful about what I was implying. My work here is laughably low stakes, but people who understand the responsibility that words carry tend to be careful with it. Naturally, scientists speak about their findings in probabilities.

Unfortunately, there is no room for grey in our black and white world, even if it is that dark shade of grey when you know something is highly likely. We, as a species, do not like grey. Grey is complicated. Grey means we must invest effort to understand. Grey means that we take a position, when the rest of the world settles for the comfortable cold of black or white. Cold comfort is a convenient choice.

Before we talk about what grey is, let us talk about what is undisputed.

  • Greenhouse gases warm the earth’s atmosphere, which is an important reason why life exists on our planet
  • Earth’s temperature has increased and decreased over thousands of years and has been naturally occurring due to a variety of factors
  • Over the last 200 years, the earth is warming at higher-than-normal levels, and every passing decade since the 1980s has been the hottest decade in recorded history
  • Sea levels are rising at an average rate of 0.12 to 0.14 inches since 1993, significantly higher than the 0.06 inches rise observed between 1880 and 2013.
  • The amount of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere is the highest in 800,000 years at 402 parts per million of air
  • Some of this excess CO2 is absorbed by oceans, resulting in ocean acidification

I could go on, but you get the general picture.

Now for the grey –

  • It is highly likely that this 200-year period of increased average temperatures is a consequence of human intervention and the increase in greenhouse emissions from industrialisation
  • It is also likely that the increase in sea levels will significantly alter coastal landscapes across the world and the livelihoods of its residents
  • Marine ecosystems are significantly affected by ocean acidification, and this will have secondary effects on the food we consume and the livelihoods of people dependent on fishing

I could go on, but you get the general picture (x2).

Climate Reality and the Human Brain

Our brains have evolved to condense vast amounts of information into digestible formats it can process. Look around – whatever we see around us, whether it is in our residence or in our office or somewhere on the streets, or by the beach – what we see is a world filled with things that are very different from its fundamental composition. We see wooden furniture and not cellulose. We see glass and not Silica. We see colours and not a stream of colourless photons.

Our brains reconstruct a model of the world around us. The world we perceive is from the electrical pulses that are sent up our brain through our senses, and in return, the brain tells us a story. The story is our one true reality.

I am sure you have had a version of the following example happen to you at some point in your life. You are walking down the road and you catch a glimpse of a strange figure out of the corner of your eye. You are startled and you look again. This time, you realise that it is just a rock or any other common object. What do you think happened there?

Your brain told you that there was a strange figure when you first looked. You looked again to be sure about it because a strange figure isn’t supposed to be there. You used your visual sense to fact-check the information and the brain revised its assessment.

Now imagine a scenario where we notice changes in our environment and instead of using our visual sense, we must use common sense and reasoning to fact check. A rock is objectively a rock. How you interpret environmental changes near and far away from you is subjective.

I am not suggesting that the climate scientists speak the absolute truth, but that we need to invest time and effort to fact check and find the best representation of our planet’s reality. We need to find the grey in this black and white world.

I am still talking at the level of acknowledging the problem. What we know with a great degree of certainty is this level of planetary heating will have significant effects on our ability to continue to lead lives like we are used to. Not well into the future, but now and in the next decade.

That is the truth. We need to accept that. Whether you are a climate denier, a sceptic, an alarmist – the fact that our current ways are unsustainable for our planet does not change.

That’s the first battle to be won. Objectively difficult, but relatively easy compared to what comes next.

And Everyone Loses Their Mind

Let me ask you two questions. What do we do differently to stop this from happening? And who pays for it?

Let us take the first question. Scientists are certain that the one mandatory action to break our current climate trajectory is to move away from fossil fuels. A grand hypothetical, but assuming we do decide to move away – where do we get our energy from? We cannot replace current thermal power plants with renewable energy without solving for the latter’s intermittency and absence of large-scale energy storage technology. Sure, there are promising developments, but we are talking about replacing city and national level infrastructure.

Germany was one of the early-shifters to wind-powered electricity infrastructure and they did and are doing very well. But there are challenges –

Yet Germany’s move to a power system largely reliant on weather-dependent renewables is quickly running up against limits—issues that all countries exchanging conventional fuels for wind and solar will eventually face. What happens when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow for hours or even days at a time? And what about the short, dark, cold days of midwinter when renewables of Germany’s power demand?

And it’s not only shortages that are problematic but also surpluses: Stormy days can be so windy that the power flows from wind parks on- and offshore overwhelm the power grid, even triggering its collapse. These electricity tsunamis can threaten the stability of neighboring countries’ energy systems, a brickbat the Poles and Czechs wield. Moreover, when there’s excess power in the grid, prices can go negative, forcing grid operators to pay customers to take the electricity.

The transition from a conventional energy system with 24/7 production to one based on intermittent renewables entails more than just swapping one set of energy sources for another; it demands rethinking and restructuring the entire energy system.

Is Germany Making Too Much Renewable Energy, Foreign Policy

Okay, so fossil fuels are bad, and there is no credible alternative that can fully substitute it just yet. Developed nations are better placed to adopt the next best alternative – meet majority of its energy demand from renewable sources. Most of them are doing that but at a sluggish pace. National emissions are reducing but not at a rate that countries signed up for in the climate agreements. Concerning, but not alarming.

The narrative for developing economies is different. Fossil fuels are bad, there is no credible alternative that can fully substitute it, steps are being taken to increase energy use from renewable sources and the developed nations agreed to support the transition with financial aid and technology transfers in the 2015 Paris Agreement. This is to allow developing nations to focus on economic growth unencumbered and to improve the standards of living of its population.

Long story short, developed economies have not met the floor of $100 billion in annual climate financing to the roughly 150+ developing countries with over 6.5 billion residents. There is also the issue of unequal distribution to the most vulnerable countries and island nations that stand to lose a lot from the adverse effects of climate change. Concerning and alarming.

Low Carbon, Zero Carbon, Decarbonis… I give up

The next big challenge is industries that rely on conventional sources of energy produce goods and services that are integral to our everyday lives. The largest polluting sectors such as cement, steel, aviation, shipping etc., are essential right from movement of produce, parts and supplies to our built environments and machines that we use daily.

Time for another grand hypothetical – let us assume a conscientious multinational in one of these sectors invests large amounts of money and develops the technology to decarbonise production processes. Let us also assume that they manage to significantly reduce their emissions. They inevitably must pass on the costs to someone. There are two choices here – government pays for the costs, or it is passed along to the customer. The latter is only a theoretical choice because we do not live in a world where customers aren’t willing to pay the green premium. Should it be the case, I am certain a lot more industries will be incentivised to lead the transition to more sustainable ways of production.

For governments to pay for the costs of innovation, there needs to be discretionary allocation to research and development of decarbonisation technologies. How many sectors can a government, or for that matter, multiple governments do this for? It is carpet bombing at best or throwing money down the drain at worst. It is hard to pick what to fund or what has the highest likelihood of success because everything is experimental. I agree that there is more nuance to funding innovation, and there are examples of promising technologies commercialised through government and philanthropic funding. It is however safe to assume that the probability of multiple, course-altering technologies arising out of this channel is low.

This is where your cleantech and climate tech startups step in to fill a very relevant, prevalent, and pressing need. Governments support them through subsidies and incentivise the flow of commercial capital into these businesses that solve societal challenges through different financing vehicles.

Governments then can continue to focus on policing and pricing industrial emissions through carbon markets. It is imperative that more countries follow the lead of the European Union and China in developing domestic carbon markets, because it is a flexible system that allows you to tailor programs to different sectors based on how each country defines its priorities.

Irresponsibility in words

I am sorry if your head started to hurt once I got to the part about remedial action. It is very evident that tackling climate change is like trying to solve a gigantic multi-armed bandit problem. Except, each arm is another multi-armed bandit, stuck in a perpetual loop, and our only choice is to solve it when under constant existential threat.

The media coverage of the climate crisis over the last couple of years, and especially since the publication of AR6 by the IPCC’s first working group, has me in knots. You might stand on either side of the debate about whether an ‘end is nigh’ kind of coverage is the right way for people to consume news about the planet. I am very certain that it is far from ideal. I am deliberately not going into what it means for the mental health of the younger generation about the state of the planet that they will grow old into, because to be honest, no one can deny how harmful it is. But that is a personal belief, and I am willing to keep that aside.

I strongly believe that painting a doomsday scenario in a day and age where attention is limited to 5 seconds or less about a very real and very visible existential situation is insidious and I am being kind when I call it that. I agree that the situation is bad, global climate agreements do not hold good outside the dotted lines, the economic growth machine continues to chug along, and extreme weather events that were once-in-a-decade occurrences happen once a year, if we are lucky.

I have a two-part question – who is the intended audience for these articles and what is the underlying message? News houses and media have a civic responsibility to highlight administrative and institutional lapses. When everything about climate change is complex and polarising, especially given the political nature of it, the responsibility should become that of an impartial observer giving a realistic account of the subject’s complexity and the challenges faced by the actors. I am reasonably certain the underlying objective of current coverage is not one of advocacy to influence political action or to speak truth to power.

And the average reader’s anxiety about the future of our planet only increases every day. The media has sure written about that too.

It is not my intention to discount for the media’s role in relaying information. But there should be a sense of pragmatism to the representation, no matter how hard it is. Everything about climate change comes with trade-offs. Governments are locked in negotiations over whether funding should be prioritised for national interests or to finance low-carbon transitions in developing countries. Industries grapple with technology and cost constraints to move ahead with their decarbonising efforts. Sure, there is a lot of culpability with the same actors that are stuck in this loop of negotiations and inadequate progress. The way out of this is increasingly becoming less about accountability and more about acceptance of the situation. We do that and, in good faith, start moving towards improving how our future and our planet’s future will look like.

Consumption with a generous side of morality. Please and thank you.

For lay people like you and I, purveyors of vast amounts information, I only have this to say – We can wait for a breakthrough, any kind of breakthrough, that is a step away from the news that we read about natural disasters, melting ice caps, wildfires, and droughts, across the world. Or we rely on individual action when nations and corporations find it difficult to agree on collective action.

The trade-offs in their cases are a lot more consequential than the trade-offs we individuals must grapple with. For us to sustainably consume, we only have to deal with inconvenience. We trade off continuity for change. That inconvenience and change is fully contained to our lives or our households and doesn’t spill over into our national budgets.

We do not have to become ascetics and shun everything worldly about our life. We can do things to the extent we can. It’s not always black or white. There’s always grey =)

Audit your waste. Think about the environmental costs for the things you purchase and use regularly. If you think they have a high environmental footprint, use them for a lot longer than you would otherwise. Or ensure someone else uses it. Read more about what individuals can do differently. You can start here. Please look for more ways to do what you can regularly. Be deliberate about your climate response.

And most importantly, do not be a d*ck to those that aren’t thinking or acting the same way as you are about climate change. That’s just bigotry. Yeah, you can be a climate bigot too.

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