The Power to Solve Climate Change

by Liron 1mo12th Sep 201929 comments

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This is Part V of the Specificity Sequence

Companion post: Examples of Examples

Most people agree that climate change is a big problem we should be solving, but couldn't tell you what specifically "solving climate change" means. By the end of this post, I promise you'll know what specifically "solving climate change" means... and also what it doesn't mean.

The Climate Crisis

The first step is knowing the key specific facts of the climate crisis. I admit I couldn't recite them accurately before writing this post. Here's a quick summary from Tomorrow and NASA (both great friendly explanations worth checking out):

  • Earth's average temperature has shot up by 1°C in the last 50 years.
  • The causal link from greenhouse gas emissions to Earth's rising temperature has been well established.
  • On a 1M-year timescale, Earth's temperature has been fluctuating plus or minus a few degrees tops, so this 1°C change is a big fluctuation.
  • We're predicting it to be as high as a 6°C warming by 2100, so it's actually a huge fluctuation.
  • The current rate of temperature rise is a whopping 20 times faster than the rate at which Earth's temperature historically fluctuates, so it's actually an oh, SHIT fluctuation.

Thiel's Definite vs. Indefinite Attitude

In Peter Thiel's smart and highly original book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, the chapter called "You Are Not A Lottery Ticket" centers around the concept of definite vs. indefinite attitudes:

Under the heading "Can You Control Your Future?" Thiel writes:

You can expect the future to take a definite form or you can treat it as hazily uncertain. If you treat the future as something definite, it makes sense to understand it in advance and work to shape it. But if you expect an indefinite future ruled by randomness, you'll give up on trying to master it.
Indefinite attitudes to the future explain what's the most dysfunctional in our world today. Process trumps substance: when people lack concrete plans to carry out, they use formal rules to assemble a portfolio of various options. This describes Americans today. In middle school, we're encouraged to start hoarding "extracurricular activities". In high school, ambitious students compete even harder to appear omnicompetent. By the time a student gets to college, he's spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse résumé to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he's ready—for nothing in particular.
A definite view, by contrast, favors firm convictions. Instead of pursuing many-sided mediocrity and calling it "well-roundedness," a definite person determines the one best thing to do and then does it. [...] This is not what young people do today, because everyone around them has long since lost faith in a definite world.

When you have a definite attitude, you do stuff like:

  • Claim that skill is more important than luck (or you can "make your own luck")
  • Back a political candidate who has a long-term plan you believe in
  • Start a company to make something people want
  • Work on megaprojects
  • Invest actively in companies and expect a high return

While if you have an indefinite attitude, you do stuff like:

  • Claim that success "seems to stem as much from context as from personal attributes" (a quote from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers)
  • Follow election polls to see which candidate is the most popular this week
  • Graduate from business school and become a consultant
  • Work on a bunch of smaller projects to become well-rounded and keep your options open
  • Invest passively in a portfolio of stocks and bonds and expect low returns

You've probably guessed why Thiel's distinction is relevant to our exploration of specificity: Activating your specificity powers is basically the same thing as switching from an indefinite to a definite attitude.

When a startup lacks a specific story about how they'll create value for specific users, but they're working frantically to build a product anyway, they're revealing an attitude of what Thiel calls indefinite optimism: "The future will be better than the present, even though I can't tell you specifically how." Consistently with my post about judging startup ideas, Thiel says:

A company is the strangest place of all for an indefinite optimist: why should you expect your own business to succeed without a plan to make it happen?

(I consider it ironic that Thiel's Founders Fund has an investment in Golden, but it was a relatively small amount and unrepresentative of their normal decision-making.)

Thiel says that the western world had an era of definite optimism beginning in the 17th century and lasting through to the 1950s and '60s:

In 1914, the Panama Canal cut short the route from Atlantic to Pacific. [...] The Interstate Highway System began construction in 1956, and the first 20,000 miles of road were open for driving by 1965. [...] NASA's Apollo Program began in 1961 and put 12 men on the moon before it finished in 1972.

But, he says, the shared attitude in the US and Europe has now shifted to indefinite:

The government used to be able to coordinate complex solutions to problems like atomic weaponry and lunar exploration. But today, after 40 years of indefinite creep, the government mainly just provides insurance; our solutions to big problems are Medicare, Social Security, and a dizzying array of other transfer payment programs.

In order to solve the climate crisis, I think we desperately need a cultural shift back to definite optimism. We need specific plans for solving our problems.

Definite Climate Change Solutions

Here are all the efforts I've heard of that are aiming at definite solutions to climate change.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international treaty whose stated objective is:

To stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.

The UNFCCC feels like it comes from an alternate universe containing an adequate civilization sane enough to coordinate top-down solutions in the face of existential threats. In fact, it was ratified in 1994 of the actual timeline we're in by all member states of the United Nations and the European Union.

Under the UNFCCC's guidelines, all 197 parties meet every year and negotiate more specific international treaties. This is how we got the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (84 signatories) and the even-more-of-a-big-deal 2016 Paris Agreement (195 signatories).

But while the UNFCCC provides definite per-country targets for greenhouse gas reduction, it doesn't provide definite mechanisms or incentives for countries to hit the targets.

At one point, the Kyoto Protocol tried to fix the problem by defining binding commitments on 37 countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by specific amounts, but only seven of them ratified that part.

The Paris Agreement doesn't even attempt anything as definite as that:

The Paris Agreement has a 'bottom up' structure in contrast to most international environmental law treaties, which are 'top down', characterized by standards and targets set internationally, for states to implement. Unlike its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, which sets commitment targets that have legal force, the Paris Agreement, with its emphasis on consensus-building, allows for voluntary and nationally determined targets. [Source]

And:

There will be only a "name and shame" system or as János Pásztor, the U.N. assistant secretary-general on climate change, told CBS News (US), a "name and encourage" plan. As the agreement provides no consequences if countries do not meet their commitments, consensus of this kind is fragile. A trickle of nations exiting the agreement could trigger the withdrawal of more governments, bringing about a total collapse of the agreement. [Source]

So guess what? Countries haven't been trying that hard to live up to the UNFCCC's targets:

A pair of studies in Nature have said that, as of 2017, none of the major industrialized nations were implementing the policies they had envisioned and have not met their pledged emission reduction targets, and even if they had, the sum of all member pledges (as of 2016) would not keep global temperature rise "well below 2 °C". Source

Ouch.

But on a positive note, we have this international framework-treaty, the UNFCCC, which is at least trying to define specific targets. That's what the start of a good definite solution looks like, no matter how bad the follow-through has been so far.

Y Combinator's Request for Carbon Removal Technologies

In 2018, Sam Altman and Y Combinator announced an ongoing Request for Carbon Removal Technology Startups. They're interested to fund and advise anyone working in the space, whether it's a for-profit company or nonprofit research. (Consider applying!)

While the 25-year-old UNFCCC has always been focused on renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, YC's Request for Startups focuses entirely on removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, because we're now in a more advanced phase of the climate crisis than we used to be:

"Phase 1" of climate change is reversible by reducing emissions, but we are no longer in "Phase 1." We're now in "Phase 2" and stopping climate change requires both emission reduction and removing CO2 from the atmosphere. "Phase 2" is occurring faster and hotter than we thought. If we don't act soon, we'll end up in "Phase 3" and be too late for both of these strategies to work.

YC names four major categories of frontier technologies which they admit "straddle the border between very difficult to science fiction", but are nevertheless worth exploring:

  1. Ocean Phytoplankton
  2. Electro-Geo-Chemistry
  3. Cell-Free Enzyme Systems
  4. Desert Flooding

In a 2012 Stanford lecture, Thiel lamented that these kinds of definite proposals are outside the Overton window:

It’s worth noting that something like geoengineering [projects to save the environment] would fall in the definite optimistic quadrant. Maybe we could scatter iron filings throughout the ocean to induce phytoplankton to absorb carbon dioxide. Potential solutions of that nature are not even remotely in the public debate. Only radically indefinite things make for acceptable discourse.

But YC's RFS announcement was met with positive headlines like "Carbon removal tech is having a moment" and got 1187 points on Hacker News. While, sadly, it didn't get much attention at all outside the tech community, it's fair to say that using frontier technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere now is acceptable discourse.

Project Drawdown

Project Drawdown evaluates specific solutions to the climate change problem by modeling their expected impact on greenhouse gas reduction. Here's their ranking of 80 solutions.

Can you guess what's the #1 solution they recommend as highest impact in terms of total reduction in atmospheric greenhouse gases?

...

...

...

Ok here are the top five:

  1. Refrigerant Management
  2. Wind Turbines (Onshore)
  3. Reduced Food Waste
  4. Plant-Rich Diet
  5. Tropical Forests

Refrigerant management?! I totally thought the top project was going to be nuclear, but nuclear is only #20. Apparently it's expensive and slow, and not just because of regulations, but also because of technical and economic factors. I'm still optimistic that a nuclear Manhattan Project is a good investment, but I guess it's not a slam dunk compared to the other top-20 projects.

Bret Victor's List

Bret Victor's nicely-designed What Can A Technologist Do About Climate Change? page is a thoughtful list of areas for definite action:

  • Public and private investment
  • Implementation details of efficient clean energy production
  • Transporting energy
  • Coordinating energy consumption
  • Energy-efficient devices
  • Tools for scientists and engineers
  • Media for understanding situations
  • Nuclear power
  • Geoengineering
  • Foundational technology

Without attempting to be comprehensive, he offers many specific ways that technologists can attack the climate change problem.

Tesla

Tesla is the only company with a $44B market cap whose core mission is closely tied to solving the climate crisis. According to its about page, Tesla's mission is to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy.

As we've seen with SpaceX, Elon Musk is a master of running a company according to a definite multi-decade strategy. In his 2006 post, The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan (just between you and me), he lays it out like this:

Build sports car. Use that money to build an affordable car. Use that money to build an even more affordable car. While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options.

From our current perspective 13 years later, we can see that Musk accurately predicted the future by building it:

  • Tesla built home solar panels and Powerwall to enable a home to run entirely on solar energy by collecting sporadic bursts of sunlight and releasing the energy later when it's needed. They also provide industrial-scale solar energy production and storage.
  • Tesla built Gigafactory 1, the biggest battery factory in the world, to provide batteries for its electric vehicles and Powerwalls. Ok, it's actually bigger than all other battery factories in the world combined... ok, it's actually the biggest building in the world in terms of floor space... you get the idea.
  • After building the Roadster (a $100,000 sports car) and Model S (a $75,000 "affordable car"), Tesla built the Model 3, an all-electric luxury sedan that retails at $35,000 USD whose sales completely dominated the Small + Midsize Luxury Cars category in December 2018.

I recommend this incredible WaitButWhy post for a deeper dive into Tesla.

Thiel writes:

A business with a good definite plan will always be underrated in a world where people see the future as random.

This is basically why I'm currently holding a significant amount of Tesla stock. (Plus I think that markets generally don't price in the degree of demonstrated product and engineering excellence.)

What About Cap And Trade?

When I started thinking about how to solve climate change, the first thing that popped into mind is what I tweeted a couple months ago:

The economy is this amazing system we have for balancing all the stuff we care about without guilting anyone into righteous sacrifice. Just internalize the CO2 externality into the economy.

While Project Drawdown purposely doesn't include Cap and Trade in their list— 

We do not model incentive-based policies and financial mechanisms, such as carbon and congestion pricing, because they would be guesses, not models.

—it sure seems like cap and trade would go a long way toward solving the problem: It incentivizes greenhouse gas emitters to reduce emissions, it incentivizes private investment in frontier tech to reduce atmospheric CO2, and it incentivizes a bunch of other creative stuff like private efforts to destroy HFC refrigerants.

President Obama tried to get congressional approval for a version of Cap and Trade, but he couldn't. President Trump doesn't seem to care for it either. So when it comes to an economic-policy solution for climate change, the world's largest economy is currently doing nothing.

Indefinite Climate Change Solutions

We’ve seen a bunch of definite ways people can help get closer to solving climate change:

  • Work for Tesla
  • Work on any of the areas in Bret Victor’s list
  • Build a company or do research under Y Combinator’s Request for Carbon Removal Technologies
  • Work on a political campaign to support Cap and Trade and other pro-environment policies
  • Donate to Project Drawdown or any other organizations where you can understand the specific causal chain from their work to a better climate

But what does indefinite thinking about climate change look like? For most people, climate change is a very indefinite thing:

  • They can’t summarize the problem like I did in the beginning of this post
  • They can’t name any of the specific actions above that they can take to help solve climate change
  • And to make things worse, they focus on the most useless thing: personal behavior change

Personal Behavior Change

I just Googled for "reduce carbon footprint" to grab a ridiculous example of personal behavior change advice. The top result I got is The 35 Easiest Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint by Columbia University's Earth Institute.

Some of the recommendations are just good advice with no downside:

8. Wash your clothing in cold water. The enzymes in cold water detergent are designed to clean better in cold water. Doing two loads of laundry weekly in cold water instead of hot or warm water can save up to 500 pounds of carbon dioxide each year.

Okay if the enzymes in cold water detergent are designed to clean better in cold water, why not!

But most of the recommendations are asking you to make tradeoffs without acknowledging the downside:

12. If you're in the market for a new computer, opt for a laptop instead of a desktop. Laptops require less energy to charge and operate than desktops.

Wait, if you were going to buy a desktop computer, opting for the same-priced laptop instead will probably get you a noticeably slower machine. They should acknowledge these kinds of cost/benefit tradeoffs. But that's not even the biggest problem I have with personal behavior change recommendations.

The biggest problem with personal behavior change is that it naively feels like definite thinking, but it’s actually vague indefinite thinking, because your causal model of how your actions will affect greenhouse gas concentrations is missing the concept of an economic equilibrium.

Our economy, a free-market economy without Cap and Trade, is a classic tragedy of the commons. A low-greenhouse-gas atmosphere is the commons, and opting for a laptop instead of a desktop (or driving less, or buying less stuff, or eating less meat) is the equivalent of restraining your cows from grazing. It just doesn’t make game-theoretic sense.

When you unilaterally dial back your CO2 emissions a certain amount, it means other actors (people, companies and the government) can get away with that same amount of not dialing back theirs, and they’ll act on that incentive. There needs to be an actual coordination mechanism to solve the problem — you know, the kind of thing government is for.

I've summarized my thoughts about personal behavior change in two tweets:

To end homelessness, should we all give more spare change? To fix the US budget deficit, should taxpayers voluntarily pay higher taxes? Individuals buying carbon offsets is the same flawed logic. The equilibrium movement of a complex system is not a sum of these local nudges.
If stealing were legal, the solution would be law change, not charity to offset theft. Similarly, our economy lets everyone emit carbon for free. Individuals voluntarily offsetting small amounts of carbon is not an effective response to this situation.

When people bring up personal behavior change as a solution to climate change, this is my reaction:

Steve: I should eat less meat because farm animals contribute to climate change!
Liron: Don't bother; for every animal you don’t eat, I’m going to eat three. By the way, did you know Tesla is hiring?

Steve doesn’t feel guilty that he’s contributing to the budget deficit by only paying the minimum taxes that he owes, so we know he understands economic equilibrium dynamics in that domain. I’m trying to do Steve a favor in this domain by tearing his focus away from personal behavior change, and pointing him toward a specific course of action (joining Tesla) that can actually add up to a complete solution even once you zoom out and factor in everyone's economic incentives.

"Offsetting" Your Own Impact

What about "offsetting" your own impact by paying an organization to reduce a certain amount of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere on your behalf, i.e. buying carbon credits?

But I put "offsetting" in scare quotes because I don't think it's accurate to say that having an individual pay to prevent one ton of CO2 emissions in one place reduces the system equilibrium amount of greenhouse gas emission by one ton of CO2, or even necessarily half a ton. Similarly, I don't think taxpayers voluntarily paying an extra $1k/yr in taxes will actually reduce the budget deficit by $1k/yr/taxpayer. In both cases, some other actor in the system will be getting incentivized to emit more CO2 or to budget for more government spending.

When you just think about one person paying to plant a few trees, it's hard to imagine how the system equilibrium will bounce back against this perturbation. So let's break it down into two possible models: the government-oversight model and the no-government-oversight model.

The Government-Oversight Model

Consider the situation if the US Government were committed to hitting the Paris Agreement target emissions levels each year [graph source]:

In this model, private citizens voluntarily paying to reduce carbon emissions is pointless because it's like paying taxes—everyone already has to do it. Perhaps it's already part of federal discretionary spending, or maybe a Cap and Trade policy has already priced carbon emissions into the goods and services we buy.

Ah, but what if an individual US citizen desires to beat the Paris Agreement targets? Even then, it's tricky to do it by purchasing "offsets". The effect of purchasing "offsets" will depend on the specific government-oversight model of the country where you intervene. For example, if you plant an extra tree in Country X, then you may cause Country X's companies to be allowed to emit more carbon that year.

The No-Government-Oversight Model

Consider the situation where the US Government doesn't bother limiting greenhouse gas emissions, a good approximation of the current Trump administration. The action of a few citizens to offset carbon won't move the needle in solving the climate crisis, until the point where enough citizens are donating that their combined political will can change government policy. So in this model, "offsetting" also has less impact than all the other specific climate change solutions discussed in this post.


Wren is a for-profit startup that launched a few months ago as part of Y Combinator's Summer 2019 batch (not part of YC's Request for Carbon Removal Technologies).

Wren charges about $24/month for the average American to "offset" their carbon footprint.

What's the definite future here? What's the specific causal link between Wren's actions and climate change getting solved? Presumably it's that if a significant fraction of Americans pay $24/month ($288/yr), then the US's net carbon emissions will be a lot lower, and then the US could meet its Paris Agreement targets.

If every American adult were a member of Wren, this should be sufficient to offset the whole US's climate change, and that implies a cost of only $288/yr x $250M = $72B/yr to offset all Americans' carbon.

But consider this cost estimate from Washington governor and former 2020 presidential candidate Jay Inslee's 100% Clean Energy for America Plan (which Massachusetts senator and still-presidential-candidate Elizabeth Warren now endorses):

Climate change cost the U.S. economy at least $240 billion per year during the past decade, and that figure is projected to rise to $360 billion per year in the coming 10 years. We cannot afford the cost of inaction.

If the US only cared about economic self-interest, not solving climate change per se, it's apparently worth paying at least $240B/yr to solve the problem.

So something feels very indefinite to me about Wren's approach to the problem, and "offsetting" carbon in general. If the specific projects Wren funds are such obvious slam dunks, isn't it faster to build up enough political support for a $72B/yr expenditure, rather than collecting it from individuals paying $288/yr at a time?

On the plus side, I'll admit that "offsetting" your own carbon footprint is at least a better option than personal behavior change, for the same reason that lawyers help more by donating to soup kitchens than by volunteering at them. "Offsetting" does let you direct money, the unit of caring, toward solving climate change. It's just that buying individual units of carbon removal is a bad deal because the system-level effect comes out to be so much weaker than an indefinite thinker imagines.


Activating your specificity powers to solve climate change means directing your resources toward efforts that have a systemically definite model of how they actually help. So while this was largely an object-level post about how to solve climate change, I hope it was also a good meta-level demonstration of the power of specificity.

Next post: The Power to Understand "God"

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