The Costs of Fixing Climate Change

I has been my experience that colleagues who do not subscribe to climate change will frequently modify their position in conversation.  They may, in fact believe that the climate is changing, and they may also believe that man is a (if not the) driving force of this change.

But they will then acknowledge that the cost of cutting carbon emissions would be ruinous to the economy.  In other words, their objection to climate change is ultimately a financial objection, not a philosophical objection.  And indeed, common knowledge is that converting from fossil fuels to “renewable” energy sources will be extremely, perhaps unbearably, painful from a cost perspective.

So it was with some surprise that I ran across this article in today’s New York Times, discussing a report claiming that by some accountings that take into consideration the “externalities” associated with fossil fuel combustion – such as improved health outcomes due to reduced pollution, and reduced energy costs driven by reduced scarcity – the cost to covert to renewables might be surprisingly low.  Perhaps even zero.

I recommend that you read the column here:

http://tinyurl.com/k456d37

(My apologies if this is blocked by a pay wall.  Am not sure on Times’ content policy.)

The report being discussed was assembled by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.  Unfortunately I cannot link to their site right now,  but here is a description of the Commission, as well as a link to their site.

http://www.sei-international.org/projects?prid=2046

If nothing else, this is an unambiguously upbeat message, and it is important that it directly addresses some of the “common knowledge” that certain constituencies use to avoid grappling with the significant issues that may arise if we refuse to address our dumping of carbon dioxide into the air.

And as I have said elsewhere, even if one sincerely does not believe that carbon dioxide causes atmospheric climate change, there is unambiguous data demonstrating that it causes ocean acidification that is already affecting ocean life.  In other words, there is no logical reason to dismiss the need to examine our use of fossil fuels, and there are reasons to hope that the report discussed in this column is at least approximately correct in it’s optimistic outlook.

 

Living with our Changing Climate

There is a column in today’s New York Times that is absolutely loaded with fantastic links pertaining to climate science. It’s written by Andrew Revkin, so the column itself is also packed with interesting and useful information as one would expect. Highly recommended and worth investigating.

http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/10/can-humans-get-used-to-having-a-two-way-relationship-with-earths-climate/?rref=science&module=Ribbon&version=origin&region=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Science&pgtype=article

I didn’t see this coming…

Fascinating. A deep sea creature that “def[ies] all existing classifications of life” according to the New York Times, has been discovered off the coast of Australia. The Times coverage is scant, but there is more detail to be had here:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/mushroom-shaped-deep-sea-animal-dendrogramma-baffles-scientists-1.2755448

I always find it very reassuring when we find something utterly unexpected. So many mysteries on the earth, and doubtless in the universe, that we have yet to investigate. Our intellectual curiosity will probably never be satisfied as long as we continue to look around and explore.

Thinking Machines

There is an interesting article on the Atlantic Monthly site about Artificial Intelligence (AI) investigator Douglass Hofstadter.  The article itself is located here and is well worth a read:

http://tinyurl.com/pcfejwf

This column is relevant here for a couple of reasons.

To me, one major takeaway of the column is that Hofstadter’s research is not only qualitatively distinct from what I will call “industrial AI” conceptually, it is intellectually superior.  By which I particularly mean, it is (or will be) vastly more relevant in helping humankind understand ourselves and our world – even though it is quantitatively less productive than industrial AI – if his research is successful and understood.

However, industrial AI (let’s abbreviate it IAI) is more effective at delivering results that can be monetized than anything Hofstadter has done.  And thus, a brute force computing monster like Google can do amazing things, and make lots of money, without really addressing deep questions about learning and thinking that Hofstadter focuses on.

I think that this column indirectly says something in general about questions that are relevant to energy and energy conservation, though I may be making a stretch.  But let me take a shot.

Hofstadter is ultimately interested in figuring out how human beings think (hint, he thinks we are absolutely amazingly evolved analogy machines) whereas IAI is principally concerned with delivering accurate and reliable results.  Which, I would add, is a non-trivial and intellectually interesting field of research.  Nonetheless, Hofstadter is pursuing something more akin to fundamental natural philosophy that could lead to astounding discoveries about how and why we think.  The results-oriented application of his findings would then be layered on top of that conceptual foundation.

Let’s get a little more specific.

I can input an English sentence into Google Translate and it will convert that sentence into serviceable Spanish or French or Chinese or any of a number of foreign languages.  But Google Translate does not know what it is translating, nor does it even know that it is translating.  It is a dumb system that provides pretty smart results.

Hofstadter is looking for something different.  An AI system that would, somehow, “understand” that it was translating, and that would rely upon associations instead of brute force to come up with a workable solution.

Just so.   But the relation to energy?

As I think I have written elsewhere, there seems to be a growing trend to treat energy conservation – via energy policy – sort of like IAI.  Namely, if you throw enough resources and regulations and credentialed “experts” at it, you will get the results that you desire.

And thus, the policy maker might (and probably would) conclude that if $100,000 on energy conservation saves one million kilowatt-hours, then $200,000 will save you two million.

Alas, this is not automatically true.  But why it is not true requires a Hofstadterian investigation into where energy is actually being used, why it is being used, and whether it can be judiciously reduced.  After that, maybe you can or maybe you can’t deliver two million kilowatt-hours of electrical energy savings.  But most essentially, you will know why you can or why you cannot.  It is a deeper and intellectually more profound understanding of the situation.

This is, of course, partially an argument for more control of the framing of technical issues by competent experts, which I have broached elsewhere.

I think, though, that we can broaden this.  The sidelining of Hofstadter (he is not in the mainstream of current AI research) parallels the sidelining of deep competence in many fields of endeavor in the United States today.  Respect for deep competence has been supplanted with respect for, or deference to, gaudy credentials and smartly packaged deliverables.  And so we have semi-competent consultants and policy makers issuing poorly informed advice that is acted upon to the detriment of the enterprise.

This is not a good trend, and it is a difficult one to reverse.  Hofstadter at least shows that the qualitatively superior path can be taken.  This path will not necessarily deliver great immediate profit, but the potential long-term benefits could be enormous.  A smart enterprise, then, should treat consultants with a wary eye, as one option that does not preclude other approaches or ideas.

The Optimism of Tom Friedman…

Today, New York Times’ columnist Tom Friedman weighed in on carbon emissions and the growing role that natural gas can play in our energy future.  The article itself is here:

http://tinyurl.com/p2wm2ja

Although he didn’t write it, the column description on the Times’ web site does more or less capture Friedman’s position:

“The Amazing Energy Race – The United States is falling behind. To catch up, we need to reorder our priorities, find cleaner and smarter fuels and develop new technologies.”

Now, I am not a big Friedman fan, but I will concede that this column makes some good points.  It is true, for example, that burning natural gas results in about half the carbon emissions of burning coal for the same amount of energy (indeed, we show the calculations elsewhere on this web site.)

It is also true that leaked and unburned natural gas (emitted into the atmosphere) has a much higher global warming potential (GWP) than carbon dioxide, which argues for great caution in natural gas extraction and transportation (GWP numbers are also located on another post on this site.)

And Friedman correctly warns that we should not be seduced by low-cost, lower-carbon-emitting domestic natural gas into not pursuing “renewable” energy opportunities such as wind and solar, since natural gas only slows the rate of carbon emissions, it does not address the issue.

Friedman also makes a reasonable political and policy argument as to how a carbon emission reduction program might be implemented without insurmountable obstacles blocking any hope of achievement.

He notes too that the Germans and Chinese among others are becoming heavily invested in renewable energy even as we more or less pay it lip service.

So all in all, a pretty reasonable column.

There is one place, however, where I find Friedman a bit Pollyannaish, and that is his unquestioned faith in our ability to carry out “…continuous innovation in clean power technologies…” and to conjure up “smarter materials, smarter software or smarter designs” in order to produce products that can operate while using less energy.

It is, of course this belief that “continuous engineering innovation” is a function of market forces rather than physics and science that kind of bugs me.  And it doesn’t bug me just because I’m an engineer.

It  bugs me because when policy wonks like Friedman throw “innovation” around like it’s some limitless and undifferentiated commodity, they risk selling policy solutions that will not or cannot be met.  It bugs me because they are unwilling to get their hands dirty and learn what the real world technical limitations are to energy conversion before they start marketing their seemingly clear eyed solutions.  It bugs me because we can’t afford to spend a decade or two or three chasing fantasies like carbon sequestration while “realistic” solutions – whatever that may  be, perhaps solar furnaces and solar hydrolysis factories – are not pursued because they are not cost competitive with the fantasy options.

And so we arrive finally at my point.

The politicization of science has already rendered the public’s discussions of such virtually settled fields as evolution, combustion science and climate science preposterously and idiotically combative.  Not to mention stupendously uninformed.

The subsequent devaluation of scientific expertise has consequently led to policy recommendations that do not defer to scientific consensus.  Rather, policy “experts” simply assume that the science will take care of itself while the “policy” can serve as an ideological stalking horse.

This is backwards.  Those with the expertise should play a much larger role in shaping policy that is realistic, hard-headed and achievable.

We recall that the Manhattan Project was directed by a physicist, not a politician or policy wonk.  That is not to say that the fruits of the Manhattan project were not used by politicians and policy wonks.  But at least the politicians and policy people got out of the way when the hard work needed to be done to figure out the physics and science.

When it comes to “clean” energy, we cannot assume that there will be equivalent breakthroughs to nuclear fission.  Better perhaps to let the brainiacs at MIT and Cal Tech help us understand what nature will allow, rather than to assert that “continuous innovation” will cure what ails us.

We had a Manhattan Project.  Why not a “Cambridge Project” to map out the feasible limits of energy conversion with the physics and technology currently at our command?

Then you could map out an energy policy that, with a little luck, all Americans could invest in.