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Ideas for Technological Solutions to Destructive Climate Change – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Ideas for Technological Solutions to Destructive Climate Change – Article by G. Stolyarov II

G. Stolyarov II



Destructive climate change is no longer a hypothesis or mere possibility; rather, the empirical evidence for it has become apparent in the form of increasingly frequent extremes of temperature and natural disasters – particularly the ongoing global heat wave and major wildfires occurring in diverse parts of the world. In each individual incident, it is difficult to pinpoint “climate change” as a singular cause, but climate change can be said to exacerbate the frequency and severity of the catastrophes that arise. Residing in Northern Nevada for the past decade has provided me ample empirical evidence of the realities of deleterious climate change. Whereas there were no smoke inundations from California wildfires during the first four summers of my time in Northern Nevada, the next six consecutive summers (2013-2018) were all marked by widespread, persistent inflows of smoke from major wildfires hundreds of kilometers away, so as to render the air quality here unhealthy for long periods of time. From a purely probabilistic standpoint, the probability of this prolonged sequence of recent but consistently recurring smoke inundations would be minuscule in the absence of some significant climate change. Even in the presence of some continued debate over the nature and causes of climate change, the probabilities favor some action to mitigate the evident adverse effects and to rely on the best-available scientific understanding to do so, even with the allowance that the scientific understanding will evolve and hopefully become more refined over time – as good science does. Thus, it is most prudent to accept that there is deleterious climate change and that at least a significant contribution to it comes from emissions of certain gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere as a result of particular human activities, the foremost of which is the use of fossil fuels. This is not an indictment of human beings, nor even of fossil fuels per se, but rather an indication that the deleterious side effects of particular activities should be prevented or alleviated through further human activity and ingenuity.

Yet one of the major causes of historical reluctance among laypersons, especially in the United States, to accept the findings of the majority of climate scientists has been the misguided conflation by certain activists (almost always on the political Left) of the justifiable need to prevent or mitigate the effects of climate change with specific policy recommendations that are profoundly counterproductive to that purpose and would only increase the everyday suffering of ordinary people without genuinely alleviating deleterious climate change. The policy recommendations of this sort have historically fallen into two categories: (i) Neo-Malthusian, “back to nature” proposals to restrict the use of advanced technologies and return to more primitive modes of living; and (ii) elaborate economic manipulations, such as the creation of artificial markets in “carbon credits”, or the imposition of a carbon tax or a related form of “Pigovian tax” – ostensibly to associate the “negative externalities” of greenhouse-gas emissions with a tangible cost. The Neo-Malthusian “solutions” would, in part deliberately, cause extreme detriments to most people’s quality of life (for those who remain alive), while simultaneously resulting in the use of older, far more environmentally destructive techniques of energy generation, such as massive deforestation or the combustion of animal byproducts. The Neo-Pigovian economic manipulations ignore how human motives and incentives actually work and are far too indirect and contingent on a variety of assumptions that are virtually never likely to hold in practice. At the same time, the artificially complex structures that these economic manipulations inevitably create would pose obstructions to the direct deployment of more straightforward solutions by entangling such potential solutions in an inextricable web of compliance interdependencies.

The solutions to destructive climate change are ultimately technological and infrastructural.  No single device or tactic – and certainly no tax or prohibition – can comprehensively combat a problem of this magnitude and variety of impacts. However, a suite of technologically oriented approaches – pushing forward the deployment and quality of the arsenal of tools available to humankind – could indeed arrest and perhaps reverse the course of deleterious climate change by directly reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases and/or directly alleviating the consequences of increased climate variability.

Because both human circumstances and current as well as potential technologies are extremely diverse, no list of potential solutions to deleterious climate change can ever be exhaustive. Here I attempt the beginnings of such a list, but I invite others to contribute additional technologically oriented solutions as well. There are only two constraints on the kinds of solutions that can feasibly and ethically combat deleterious climate change – but those constraints are of immense importance:

Constraint 1. The solutions may not result in a net detriment to any individual human’s length or material quality of life.

Constraint 2. The solutions may not involve the prohibition of technologies or the restraint of further technological progress.

Constraint 1 implies that any solution to deleterious climate change will need to be a Pareto-efficient move, in that at least one person should benefit, while no person should suffer a detriment (or at least a detriment that has not been satisfactorily compensated for in that person’s judgment). Constraint 2 implies a techno-optimistic and technoprogressive perspective on combating deleterious climate change: we can do it without restrictions or prohibitions, but rather through innovations that will benefit all humans. Some technologies, particularly those associated with the extraction and use of fossil fuels, may gradually be consigned to obsolescence and irrelevance with this approach, but this will be due to their voluntary abandonment once superior, more advanced technological alternatives become widespread and economical to deploy. The more freedom to innovate and active acceleration of technological progress exist, the sooner that stage of fossil-fuel obsolescence could be reached. In the meantime, some damaging events are unfortunately unavoidable (as are many natural catastrophes more generally in our still insufficiently advanced era), but a variety of approaches can be deployed to at least prevent or reduce some damage that would otherwise arise.

If humanity solves the problems of deleterious climate change, it can only be with the mindset that solutions are indeed achievable, and they are achievable without compromising our progress or standards of living. We must be neither defeatists nor reactionaries, but rather should proactively accelerate the development of emerging technologies to meet this challenge by actualizing the tremendous creative potential our minds have to offer.

What follows is the initial list of potential solutions. Long may it grow.

Direct Technological Innovation

  • Continued development of economical solar and wind power that could compete with fossil fuels on the basis of cost alone.
  • Continued development of electric vehicles and increases in their range, as well as deployment of charging stations throughout all inhabited areas to enable recharging to become as easy as a refueling a gasoline-powered vehicle.
  • Development of in vitro (lab-grown) meat that is biologically identical to currently available meat but does not require actual animals to die. Eventually this could lead the commercial raising of cattle – which contribute significantly to methane emissions – to decline substantially.
  • Development of vertical farming to increase the amount of arable land indoors – rendering more food production largely unaffected by climate change.
  • Autonomous vehicles offered as services by transportation network companies – reducing the need for direct car ownership in urban areas.
  • Development and spread of pest-resistant, drought-resistant genetically modified crops that require less intensive cultivation techniques and less application of spray pesticides, and which can also flourish in less hospitable climates.
  • Construction of hyperloop transit networks among major cities, allowing rapid transit without the pollution generated by most automobile and air travel. Hyperloop networks would also allow for more rapid evacuation from a disaster area.
  • Construction of next-generation, meltdown-proof nuclear-power reactors, including those that utilize the thorium fuel cycle. It is already possible today for most of a country’s electricity to be provided through nuclear power, if only the fear of nuclear energy could be overcome. However, the best way to overcome the fear of nuclear energy is to deploy new technologies that eliminate the risk of meltdown. In addition to this, technologies should be developed to reprocess nuclear waste and to safely re-purpose dismantled nuclear weapons for civilian energy use.
  • Construction of smart infrastructure systems and devices that enable each building to use available energy with the maximum possible benefit and minimum possible waste, while also providing opportunities for the building to generate its own renewable energy whenever possible.
  • In the longer term, development of technologies to capture atmospheric carbon dioxide and export it via spaceships to the Moon and Mars, where it could be released as part of efforts to generate a greenhouse effect and begin terraforming these worlds.

Disaster Response

  • Fire cameras located at prominent vantage points in any area of high fire risk – perhaps linked to automatic alerts to nearby fire departments and sprinkler systems built into the landscape, which might be auto-activated if a sufficiently large fire is detected in the vicinity.
  • Major increases in recruitment of firefighters, with generous pay and strategic construction of outposts in wilderness areas. Broad, paved roads need to lead to the outposts, allowing for heavy equipment to reach the site of a wildfire easily.
  • Development of firefighting robots to accompany human firefighters. The robots would need to be constructed from fire-resistive materials and have means of transporting themselves over rugged terrain (e.g., tank treads).
  • Design and deployment of automated firefighting drones – large autonomous aircraft that could carry substantial amounts of water and/or fire-retardant sprays.

Disaster Prevention

  • Recruitment of large brush-clearing brigades to travel through heavily forested areas – particularly remote and seldom-accessed ones – and clear dead vegetation as well as other wildfire fuels. This work does not require significant training or expertise and so could offer an easy job opportunity for currently unemployed or underemployed individuals. In the event of shortages of human labor, brush-clearing robots could be designed and deployed. The robots could also have the built-in capability to reprocess dead vegetation into commercially usable goods – such as mulch or wood pellets. Think of encountering your friendly maintenance robot when hiking or running on a trail!
  • Proactive creation of fire breaks in wilderness areas – not “controlled burns” (which are, in practice, difficult to control) but rather controlled cuts of smaller, flammable brush to reduce the probability of fire spreading. Larger trees of historic significance should be spared, but with defensible space created around them.
  • Deployment of surveillance drones in forested areas, to detect behaviors such as vandalism or improper precautions around manmade fires – which are often the causes of large wildfires.
  • Construction of large levees throughout coastal regions – protecting lowland areas from flooding and achieving in the United States what has been achieved in the Netherlands over centuries on a smaller scale. Instead of building a wall at the land border, build many walls along the coasts!
  • Construction of vast desalination facilities along ocean coasts. These facilities would take in ocean water, thereby counteracting the effects of rising water levels, then purify the water and transmit it via a massive pipe network throughout the country, including to drought-prone regions. This would mitigating multiple problems, reducing the excess of water in the oceans while replenishing the deficit of water in inland areas.
  • Creation of countrywide irrigation and water-pipeline networks to spread available water and prevent drought wherever it might arise.

Economic Policies

  • Redesign of home insurance policies and disaster-mitigation/recovery grants to allow homeowners who lost their homes to natural disasters to rebuild in different, safer areas.
  • Development of workplace policies to encourage telecommuting and teleconferencing, including through immersive virtual-reality technologies that allow for plausible simulacra of in-person interaction. The majority of business interactions can be performed virtually, eliminating the need for much business-related commuting and travel.
  • Elimination of local and regional monopoly powers of utility companies in order to allow alternative-energy utilities, such as companies specializing in the installation of solar panels, to compete and offer their services to homeowners independently of traditional utilities.
  • Establishment of consumer agencies (public or private) that review products for durability and encourage the construction of devices that lack “planned obsolescence” but rather can be used for decades with largely similar effect.
  • Establishment of easily accessible community repair shops where old devices and household goods can be taken to be repaired or re-purposed instead of being discarded.
  • Abolition of inflexible zoning regulations and overly prescriptive building codes; replacement with a more flexible system that allows a wide variety of innovative construction techniques, including disaster-resistant and sustainable construction methods, tiny homes, homes created from re-purposed materials, and mixed-use residential/commercial developments (which also reduce the need for vehicular commuting).
  • Abolition of sales taxes on energy-efficient consumer goods.
  • Repeal or non-enactment of any mileage-based taxes for electric or hybrid vehicles, thereby resulting in such vehicles becoming incrementally less expensive to operate.
  • Lifting of all bans and restrictions on genetically modified plants and animals – which are a crucial component in adaptation to climate change and in reducing the carbon footprint of agricultural activities.

Harm Mitigation

  • Increases in planned urban vegetation through parks, rooftop gardens, trees planted alongside streets, pedestrian / bicyclist “greenways” lined with vegetation. The additional vegetation can absorb carbon dioxide, reducing the concentrations in the atmosphere.
  • Construction of additional pedestrian / bicyclist “greenways”, which could help reduce the need for vehicular commutes.
  • Construction of always-operational disaster shelters with abundant stockpiles of aid supplies, in order to prevent the delays in deployment of resources that occur during a disaster. When there is no disaster, the shelters could perform other valuable tasks that generally are not conducive to market solutions, such as litter cleanup in public spaces or even offering inexpensive meeting space to various individuals and organizations. (This could also contribute to the disaster shelters largely becoming self-funding in calm times.)
  • Provision of population-wide free courses on disaster preparation and mitigation. The courses could have significant online components as well as in-person components administered by first-aid and disaster-relief organizations.

This article is made available pursuant to the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author, Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II). Learn more about Mr. Stolyarov here

Unsustainable: Little Ways Environmentalists Waste the Ultimate Resource – Article by Timothy D. Terrell

Unsustainable: Little Ways Environmentalists Waste the Ultimate Resource – Article by Timothy D. Terrell

The New Renaissance HatTimothy D. Terrell
June 23, 2015
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The memo told me to get rid of my printer — or the college would confiscate it.

The sustainability director — let’s call him Kermit — is an enthusiastic and otherwise likable fellow whose office is next door to mine. Kermit had decided it would be better if the centralized network printers in each department were used for all print jobs. He believed that the environment was going to benefit from this printer impoundment.

Some sustainability advocates object to printers because little plastic ink cartridges sometimes wind up in landfills — but I saw no effort at the college to promote cartridge recycling; the sustainability policy had skipped persuasion and gone straight to confiscation.

Certainly the IT people didn’t want to maintain the wide variety of desktop printers or supply them with cartridges — but the printer on my desk was not college-supplied or maintained, and I provided all my own cartridges. Personal printers were now verboten. Period. The driver behind the policy, apparently, was the rectangular transformer box plugged into the wall, which consumed a trickle of a few watts of electricity 24/7.

A typical household inkjet printer draws about 12 watts when printing, and when it’s not, it draws about 5 watts. At 5 watts per hour, then, with a few minutes a week burning 12 watts, my lightly used inkjet would use around 46 kWh a year, which at the commercial average rate of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour translates to an annual cost of $5.06. There may be side effects, or externalities, to use a term from economics. A 2011 study in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences that renewable energy advocates often cite estimates that the side effects of coal-produced electricity cost about 18 cents per kWh, so assuming that all the electricity saved would have been produced by burning coal (nationwide, it’s actually less than 40 percent), that brings the total annual cost to $13.34.

Kermit must have calculated that confiscating printers would collectively generate several hundred dollars a year of savings for the college — and allow the college to put another line on its sustainability brag sheet.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with trying to save electricity. But Kermit had forgotten the value of an important natural resource: human time.

Time is a valuable resource: labor costs are a large chunk of most businesses’ costs. The college basically wanted to save electricity by wasting my time — and everyone else’s.

Here’s how that works. Suppose I want to print out a recommendation letter and envelope on college letterhead. Using the network printer involves the following steps:

  1. Walk down hall with letterhead and insert letterhead in single-feed tray.
  2. Return to office.
  3. Hit Enter and walk back to printer.
  4. Discover that page was oriented the wrong way and printed upside down.
  5. Return to office.
  6. Walk back to printer with new letterhead page.
  7. Return to office.
  8. Hit Enter and walk back to printer.
  9. Discover that someone else had sent a job to the printer while I was in transit and printed his test on my letterhead.
  10. Return to office.
  11. Walk back to printer with new letterhead page.
  12. Wait for other guy’s print job to finish.
  13. Insert letterhead, properly oriented.
  14. Run back to office to reduce chances of letterhead being turned into another test.
  15. Hit Enter and walk back to printer.
  16. Pick up successfully printed letter.
  17. Walk back to office, quietly weeping at the thought of repeating the process to print the envelope.

This “savings” turns into more than 12 trips to and from the communal printer, plus any time spent waiting for another print job. The environmentalist may bemoan the two wasted sheets of paper, but he would quickly remember that there’s a recycling bin beside the printer. The more significant cost of this little fiasco is human time.

Let’s suppose that’s a total of six minutes. Of course, I’ve learned the right way to orient paper and envelopes after a mistake or two, and printer congestion is rarely a problem. And I never did higher-volume print jobs, such as tests for classes, on my own inkjet anyway, so the lost time in trotting back and forth would apply mainly to one- or two-sheet print jobs, envelopes, and scanning. Suppose the confiscation of my inkjet means, conservatively, five additional minutes a week during the school year. That’s about three hours a year sucked out of my life, absorbed in walking back and forth.

Suppose, again to be conservative, my time is worth what fast food restaurant workers in Seattle are getting paid right now — $15 per hour. So the university is wasting $45 of my salary to save $13.34 in utilities. Does that sound like the diligent stewardship of precious resources?

(I will assume that any health benefits from the additional walking are canceled out by the additional stress caused by sheer aggravation.)

I am pleased to say that the desktop printer kerfuffle ended with the sustainability director backing down. We were all allowed to keep our printers, and I thereby kept three hours a year to do more productive work. Kermit and I remained on good terms, though he never took me up on my offer to provide an economist’s voice on the sustainability committee.

But we must make the most of small victories, for college and university sustainability proponents march on undeterred. If anything, the boldness and scale (and the waste) of campus initiatives has only increased. The National Association of Scholars (NAS) recently released a report showing that colleges trying to reduce their environmental impact have spent huge amounts of money on sustainability programs for little to no gain.

The unintended consequences of these programs abound. And though each initiative may destroy only a small amount of human time, the collective impact of these microregulations is a death by a thousand cuts.

Many college cafeterias are now “trayless,” in the hopes of reducing dish use and wasted food. But students must manage unwieldy loads of dishes, leading to inevitable spills, or make multiple trips (and student time is valuable, too). One study mentioned in the NAS report found that “students without trays tend to run out of hands and to skip extra dishes — usually healthy dishes such as salads — in order to better carry their entrée and dessert. This leads to students consuming relatively fewer greens and more sweets.”

A college’s “carbon footprint” has also become the object of campus policy. Middlebury College, for example, pledged in 2006 that it would be “carbon neutral” by 2016. So it has spent almost $5 million a year (over $2,000 per student) on things like a biomass energy plant, organic food for the dining hall, and staff and faculty tasked with improving sustainability. All of this has cost the college about $543 per ton of CO2 reduction. So even if one accepts the $39 per ton figure the Obama administration has stated as the value of reducing carbon dioxide emissions (and I, for one, am skeptical), Middlebury has greatly overpaid.

We can all appreciate the desire to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to us. But this doesn’t mean that every environmental sustainability initiative makes sense. Overpaying to reduce CO2 emissions, as with Middlebury, means that the product of hours of our work is needlessly consumed, and we have fewer resources for other valuable pursuits.

Sustainability advocates need to remember that resources include more than electricity, water, plastic, paper, and the like. Humans have value, too, here and now. Chipping away at our lives with little directives to expend several hours saving a bit of electricity, water, or some other resource, is to ignore the value of human life and to waste what Julian Simon called “the ultimate resource.”

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in South Carolina.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.