This Ironic World: Does Climate Hope Encourage Climate Inaction?

Yves here. Tom Neuberger has articulated a big reason why I feel like tearing my hair out over Green New Deal schemes: they perpetuate the illusion that we can preserve modern standards of living while preventing further climate change and other environmental harm. They are inevitably optimistic on transition times and the need for multiple large-scale changes in infrastructure to occur in parallel, and generally ignore the cost of mining and transporting scarce and damaging-to-source inputs.

Of course, another reason for the hopium is that plenty of ricebowls would need to be broken if societies around the world took serious measures to restrict carbon emissions.

Frankly, we should be and need to be scared shitless.

By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at God’s Spies

Positive climate stories give us hope. Does that hope spur indifference?

The titan Prometheus, bringer of fire to man, as a tragic figure. For stealing fire from the gods, he was severely punished. An eagle sent by Zeus forever eats his liver.

I recently did a piece, “Everything New Is Old Again,” about the strange world of climate news we currently inhabit, a world “tucked between the start of a world-historical collapse and stories about it so old they sound not special at all.”

This is another tale of disconnect. A number of recent climate articles have reinforced the dissonance between predictions of coming catastrophe on the one hand (though perhaps, in readers’ minds, too far off to be taken seriously), and stories that offer hope and renewal, in particular energy renewal and transformation.

The Warnings Just Get Worse…

Recently the IPCC released the latest findings of its Working Group 2, the scientists who evaluate our potential for climate adaptation and resilience. Working Group 3, whose report is due shortly, looks at the potential for mitigation of the crisis. (“Mitigation” means making the crisis less serious. “Adaptation” means dealing with how serious already is.)

From the FAQ section, part of the answer to FAQ 1 says this (emphasis mine throughout):

FAQ 1: What are the new insights on climate impacts, vulnerability and adaptation from IPCC?

Climate change is affecting nature, people’s lives and infrastructure everywhere. Its dangerous and pervasive impacts are increasingly evident in every region of our world. These impacts are hindering efforts to meet basic human needs and they threaten sustainable development across the globe. 

The continued explanation includes phrases like “extreme events are increasingly impacting nature and people’s lives everywhere” … “magnitude of climate change impacts are larger than estimated in previous assessments” … “severe and widespread disruption in nature and in society”. In short, “the impacts of climate change are affecting billions of people in many different ways.”

And worse is coming:

Climate change impacts are expected to intensify with additional warming. It is also an established fact that they are interacting with multiple other societal and environmental challenges. These include a growing world population, unsustainable consumption, a rapidly increasing number of people living in cities, significant inequality, continuing poverty, land degradation, biodiversity loss due to land-use change, ocean pollution, overfishing and habitat destruction as well as a global pandemic. Where trends intersect they can reinforce each other, intensifying risks and impacts, which affect the poor and most vulnerable people the hardest. [emphasis added]

Contrary to most people’s (understandable) beliefs, the climate crisis in its early stages is here now. (That belief — in a falsehood — is understandable since the world of the wealthy and its media is doing everything possible to delay most people’s full appreciation of the crisis they’re facing now.)

Other commenters are much more dire than the stoic (and government-financed) IPCC.

Yet as we watch, no one is acting on any of this, no one with any real power, which makes the nearly unstoppable even worse.

…While the Good News Just Keeps Coming

At the other end of the spectrum are stories like the following:

• “Zapping cow dung with lightning is helping to trap climate-warming methane” (Reuters)

A Norwegian technology company has found a way to stop livestock slurry from releasing methane — by zapping it with artificial lightning. …

A manure scrapper collects all the excrement from the barn floor and deposits it in a pit where it is then moved through the N2 machine, housed in a standard-sized shipping container. Nitrogen from the air and a blast from a 50 kilowatt plasma torch is forced through the slurry ‘locking in’ both methane and ammonia emissions.

“When we add nitrogen from air to the slurry, it changes the environment to stop methanogenesis basically. So it drops the pH down to just below six and we’re catching that early. So it stops the breakdown of those methane microbes that then release the gas to the air,” Puttick said, adding their patented technology is the only one of its kind.

What comes out of the machine is an odorless brown liquid, called NEO — a Nitrogen Enriched Organic fertilizer.

An excellent idea, and nicely implemented. Stopping methane from agriculture matters a lot. This doesn’t address directly emitted methane, but cheaply removing methane from dung is a considerable accomplishment.

There’s also this:

• “Solid-State Batteries Are Here and They’re Going to Change How We Live” (Popular Science)

A team at Harvard University made news in May 2021 when they published findings that their lithium-metal cell held its charge over an astonishing 10,000 cycles.

At 10,000 cycles, we could reset our expectations for battery life, says Xin Li, Ph.D., one of the Harvard researchers behind the battery. “[It] could be as long as 25 years or even half a century.” …

“This new technology could mean recharging a car in the same time required to fill a gas tank.”

Fewer batteries producing significantly more power — the inverse of planned obsolescence. And this:

• “Rondo tackles industrial heat to drop global CO2 emissions by 1% in the next decade” (Tech Crunch)

Industry uses a god-awful amount of heat, which typically used to be delivered through natural gas. … As [traditional energy] prices started creeping up, the cost of renewable power — solar and wind, primarily — started plummeting. In some parts of California, this has gotten so extreme that during parts of the day, generation outpaces demand and the grid’s capacity to absorb it all by quite a bit. The result is that there are parts of the day where electricity is so cheap it may as well be free — but it has nowhere to go.

Rondo Energy to the rescue. It has developed a new way to store all that power; not in the form of electricity, but in the form of heat. Heat has the benefit of being extremely fast — you don’t have to worry about the speed that a Lithium battery can absorb electricity. Essentially, you just throw the electricity through a massive resistor, which heats up to ridiculous temperatures. Now all you need to do is to capture the heat for later.

“We’re storing heat as very high-temperature energy in solid materials. The truth is, my coffee thermos holds more energy than a laptop battery, a lot more cheaply. For the heating — there’s no magic there: your toaster and hairdryer uses the same technology for generating heat as we do. We developed a new combination of materials for the storage. You can then deliver heat continually by circulating air into the stack of that material and getting superheated air out,” explains O’Donnell. “Then we either turn that heat into steam in a conventional boiler or we deliver directly to users with high-temperature needs, such as making glass or cement. This is a technology that operates at a small fraction of the cost of an electrochemical battery and maybe more significantly, roughly twice the efficiency and half the cost of any hydrogen system. [emphasis added]

Another fine idea and implementation. Why spend the money — and carbon — making heat from methane when it could be captured from the grid when supply exceeds demand, stored as heat, and then redelivered to customers, in many cases directly as heat without further conversion?

There are a great many stories like these; I’ve featured some of them myself. They inspire hope — and not unwarranted hope in light of the accomplishments they detail.

A World Awash in Irony

So why do we see such a disconnect between the two sets of stories, the tales of hope and despair?

I would suggest, first, that as encouraging as the hopeful stories are, the accomplishments are either (a) not significant enough to affect meaningful climate mitigation, or (b) significant but unimplemented at scale because, frankly, no one with power sees any urgency in implementing them.

Or both.

It’s even possible that the existence of the positive stories, accurate as they are, helps continue the climate apathy that works against their implementation. In other words, the solutions aren’t implemented simply because they do offer solutions and comfort, so they demotivate the comfortable, including those in charge (of making sure they make money no matter what).

It’s an interesting dilemma. Are positive climate stories a cause of their own ineffectiveness? Or in Shakespeare’s phrase, can an organism be “consumed with that which it was nourished by” — eaten by what feeds it?

In some cases, yes — an overpopulation of lab mice in a confined space, fed by successful breeding, accelerates all of their deaths. Is that true of positive climate stories as well, that their success in creating hope delays their implementation?

If so, it would be one more irony in a world flushed full of them.

For example, is mankind’s supreme gift, our social adaptability, the reason this generation won’t free itself from the pathological spiral forced by the rich who rule us? If true, this would be the first case I know of where a species’ adaptability caused its own inaction in the face of danger.

The Greatest Irony

Of course, the greatest irony of all is the “gift of fire.”

The titan Prometheus, bringer of fire, as heroic figure. Here the artist emphasizes the gift, not the crime.

Prometheus gave us fire, which made us dominant. Now we have to give it back or die, consumed by that which fed us.

Another irony for an ironic world.

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  1. Will

    thank you! this was a wonderful article, but personally i do find hope more inspiring than being “scared shitless”.. i find fear exhausting, it’s paralysing… fear does not motivate unless it’s running from a dangerous situation. In this case where are we going run to except the mountains?

  2. Kris

    He leaves out possibility c), that these accomplishments are unimplemented at scale because c.1) they (or the magnitude of infrastructure they require) are simply unaffordable, or c.2) the energy and materials required in their manufacture and implementation result in emissions exceeding the amounts they avert or sequester to begin with.

    1. Bellatrix

      Not only unaffordable, also simply unavailable within the proposed timeframes. Copper is an obvious example. Supply needs to double or triple, yet the grade of existing mines has been trending down for decades, it can take more than a decade to get a big discovery into production and regulatory and political risks are increasing. Then there’s nickel, cobalt, graphite, lithium, neodymium, vanadium etc. etc. etc.

      There’s a lot of pie in the sky.

    2. jefemt

      I was jumping back onto the interstate from a day’s work in late afternoon Friday fracas, one person per car,
      the caravan of happy idjuts struggling for the Legal Tender (ht Jacson Browne).
      Another caravan of wind generation gear was still proceeding northward, which I had passed in the morning as I was heading north.
      Me in my 1996 particulate-spewing TDI, 45 MPG, the nacelles, propellers, and tower segments towed by big-rigs, each accompanied by three pilot cars, heading for a destination where literally tons of reinforced carbon intensive concrete will be poured to build a sub-terranean bollard system to keep the tower from blowing down.
      Another epiphany moment… every source of centralized or decentralized energy is being created and moved around by oil and gas. No Free Energy Lunch. And the alternative ‘renewables’ generation- while laudable- is spit in the ocen of our daily and growing energy demand.
      How will we move in replacement blades for the turbines post-oil?
      How are families going to heat their homes and cook?
      If systems break down due to war and destabilization, will we be back burning dung in open carbon spewing cook-stoves, like much of the third world still does today in 2022? How denuded will the mountains I was viewing to the south and west of Great Falls become as people try to heat and cook?
      Dystopian looking glass.
      Then I pondered all of the very smart people all over the world putting their hearts and souls into robots that kill, Building Better Bullets, working with passion and purpose —end result destruction— so that the engineer builders can keep the bank at bay, fund a 401K, have a kid, fund the kids life…
      All the effort– not to find clean drinking water solutions for the world, or simple elegant cost effective shelter that is cool or warm, and ways to heat that are sustainable in perpetuity…
      Or regenerative localized agriculture… or schools that teach every kid…

      I’m not scared shitless, I am stunned by what a dumb animal, what a flawed critter- we are.
      And how slow and painful our candle going out will be, and how many innocent lives… non-human and human, will suffer as they too go POOF

      BTW, how’d they generate the power to zap the cow shit?
      How much carbon and energy to build the sea walls that will hold back the salty ocean for a few years?
      Think of how little effort we put into full life cycle analysis of systems… activities.

      We are at Ground Zero, it is Go Time, and we just blunder along in the fog of consumer driven inanity.
      There is no collective direction, agreement , or action.
      The Lemming Congo line to the brink, REFUSING to take a 90 degree turn and navigate a non-fatal New Path.

      All my pondering under the stark and startling disruption to the entire world caused by one arse making a military foray… in 2022 no less.

      Seems like most of our issues are from greed, power, an unwillingness to share, and a fundamental disrespect of our earth and home.

      I was visiting my convalescent aging sister in Crowdorado, and also saw a bunch of other friends. I had two different moms in middle to late middle age — unsolicited, different days– BOTH tell me that it’s game over, do the best you can. This from female nurturers who have borne children- the theoreical bottomless well of hope and resilience.

      That Crowdorado scene, repeated in the rockies, the wasatch, the Cali Coast, Florida, New England, OR/WA —all over the first world… destructive daily dithering — the rat race… and I too am right in there playing the game, Shiva-like…. mostly the problem, very little the solution… my solar panels, walking and biking , eating less, driving as little as possible, eating less and lower on the food chain… Fingers In The Dike.

      I Go

      Perhaps we need to have a general global pot banging strike and take a time-out— not as reactive victims driven by a pandemic and plague, but by a conscientious willful personal and collective act of STOPPING to act.

      Refusal. Just Say No. Eschew it and espit it out. Re-set


      1. Swamp Yankee

        This sums up much of my feeling on the subject, though perhaps a little more frisson of hope thrown in there (not hopium, to be sure!).

        And in New England, as you say.

        Though we did march this weekend against a criminal plan to put irradiated wastewater into Cape Cod Bay, so that was something.

  3. Susan the other

    I enjoyed the link to Dr. Peter Carter and Paul Jay. Calling out the IPCC Report for lacking any hope of implementation. The situation is now beyond the point of no return. The planet will be increasingly difficult to live on. I was almost relieved to hear Carter say that we should focus our CO2 cleanup on the oceans – not just to make them healthy again but to create more capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. It is almost impossible to extract sufficient CO2 from the atmosphere once it has left the smokestack. Let the weather precipitate it down into the oceans and go all out cleaning the oceans. That sounds like the most practical thing I have heard so far. Not sure I followed the new nitrogen zapping technology to lock down methanogenesis – sounded like it might backfire by killing off beneficial bacteria. But the ocean waters are just sitting there waiting for us to do some high-tech dragnet for carbon. Something probably impossible to do in thin air. Everything those 2 guys said was important to remember. And even the slightly cryptic stuff, like how do we help the petroleum producers to survive and join in the cleanup…aka Russia. And I certainly agree with Paul Jay as usual that we must socialize our economies in order to control CO2. But how do we tell our fatuous leaders that this must be done? Hello, Nancy, are you paying attention?

  4. Jeremy Grimm

    Count me among the scared shitless. But the ongoing Climate Chaos is only one of several ongoing and coupled crises. Our Industry plays with CO2 emitting fire. Our Military adds Nuclear Weapons to the list of concerns. Resources are not infinite and easily exploited sources are nearing exhaustion. The emerging new Climate threatens the life we know and creates an environment favoring new forms of life Humankind is unprepared for — expanded range for old parasites, and diseases and new parasites and diseases born in the crucible of change. The climate will select fungi adapted to higher temperatures, including the temperature inside our bodies. Humankind continues to grow its numbers approaching the limits of the currently available food and water. The u.s Empire has constructed a vast interlocking and fragile networks of systems on which the rich who rule us play an insane game of Jenga. My comment offers the merest incomplete sketch of the many crises we face. ‘Tragedy’ — not ‘irony’ is the word the World’s situation conjures.

  5. Thomas Neuburger

    These comments are excellent and helpful — as usual. Thanks, all. Much to keep in mind.


  6. Reaville

    There is no (NO!) doubt that conservation is required to move away from fossil fuels. But a renewable transition is possible, and this article points out the current failure in the lack of government action to achieve scale.

    First, a quibble: Mining minerals for renewables is MUCH less intensive than extracting fossil fuels (this is easily researchable on the web). So, I view remarking that “renewables need mining” as close to concern trolling. Because, you know, since we’re mining renewable energy resources, then it’s the same as fossil fuels. This is false equivalence.

    I really like the writer’s focus on two main points:
    1. Failure to achieve scale when technology indicates it will work, and…
    2. Scaling failure occurs because humans are not able to embrace the scary scope of required change. My view is that entrenched interests don’t want renewables to happen (for example “President Manchin”) and have skillfully manipulated doubt that a transition is possible.

    I agree that the idea that our future will be the “same” as our past is unrealistic. Rationing of energy consumption will (“will” because it’s going to happen) change all of that. Privately, I speak to my friends about a “sudden stop” scenario where some kind of horrific environmental result (melting of permafrost, methane release, etc) requires a civilizational shutdown to save some useful remainder of what we have now. In other words, change comes due to an external forcing function.

    For 30 years, I have understood the consequences of inaction and been stupefied by how the story has played out (“played” doing a lot of work in that sentence). As the writer said, hard to see how we humans break out of the pattern short of a watershed event.

  7. Scott1

    Without peace in Ukraine it is unable to grow food. When this has happened in the past there have been famines. Food is the number one ingredient for peace. Less food equals more war. It is the food chain that has to be seen as the first and last focus determining what is done, in order, to protect it. It is near the late stage for us to save the ocean fisheries from the Chinese fleets of trawlers creating famine in the oceans for other fish. Ought we have gone to war to stop the overfishing of the Chinese? Who was we?
    Climate change is something to be forestalled by engineers. Problem with gasoline and the rest of the fossil fuels was they were simple. Find them, fix them up a bit, put them in a tank here and then into the ship, the plane, the car truck or train.
    When it comes to a Green energy sourcing system there are a multiplicity of sources. Solar is first for being available everywhere. Then there is wind, geothermal, the movements of water. Transmission and distribution has to send electricity where it is needed. There are more decisions to be made. We have to even look ahead to see if we can convert to superconductor motors and superconductor generation and distribution. It is just now been discovered how to get superconductors to work at normal temperatures.
    There is a terrible fear of technocrats. Teamed with bureaucrats they must be short on humor.
    Nuclear power is great. Great until it is not great but poisonous and adrift. We’ve endured about all the tests and accidents we can tolerate. Look to the engineers to design us what won’t give us more three eyed moths and fish, fish high in cesium 137.
    Is it possible we will have a World Energy Corporation we can trust? How many people have degrees in political science? What answers have they got? Whose engineered a financial system better than capitalism? Can capitalism be regulated so as to eliminate the corruption that diverts the money into the pockets of liars and cons?
    I do say that MMT is the Last Idea for how else to pay for the change to change the change?
    P.S. Thanks for your consideration of my questions.

  8. digi_owl

    Frankly there is no way to win this without drastically cutting consumption.

    One reason is simple thermodynamics. There is no process that can be put in place that in the long term will not make it worse while allowing consumption to continue.

    The second is Jevons age old paradox. Any clean energy source put into use at a massive scale will just add to the overall energy usage, it will not reduce our usage of dirty sources.

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