With much gratitude to Harrison Eggers for his feedback on my rough draft. (I basically plagiarized his email to me in some of these sections.)
I had a conversation about climate change with my dad a little while ago, and he laid out four questions that he wanted answered:
- Is the planet warming meaningfully?
- If so, is this the result of normal, natural cycles of the earth’s temperature, or is this the result of human activity?
- Will this warming naturally correct itself, or will there be harsh consequences?
- If there will be harsh consequences, what is to be done about it?
And those are exactly the correct questions. The first three are about the facts of the matter, and the last is about what these facts mean for our actions. Now I am no climate scientist, so I cannot write authoritatively on the first three questions, and I don’t intend to. I do feel as though I have done due diligence, however, and therefore can say with some confidence that I think the answers to the questions are: 1. The planet is warming meaningfully, 2. This is the result of human activity, and 3. The consequences of this warming will make SARS-CoV-2 seem like a walk in the park.
If we disagree on these points, then by all means let us discuss. But, perhaps another time. For now I’d like to consider the fourth question: according to the premises I have taken to be true, what is to be done about the climate crisis (as it can now be called without fault)?
In this essay I will discuss three groups of policies the United States could implement: incentive shifts, technology, and foreign policy.
When considering real solutions to long-term problems that are at once international and individual, it is wise to attempt to construct solutions that, as much as possible, shift incentives rather than work against them.
This is for the simple reason that people cannot be depended on to sacrifice what is precious to them, nor should they. If you tell me that to solve climate change, we can never use airplanes again, then first, the global economy will come to a far worse screeching halt than 2008, which I care about very much, and second, I will likely never see my brother, sister-in-law, and niece living in Tasmania ever again, which I care about even more. So, I will say I’m sorry, but I want the planes back. If however, you tell me that there is a way to fix climate change, and keep airplanes, and make them even cheaper, then I will ask how I can help.
There are two main groups to consider when shifting incentives: consumers and producers. Suppliers and demanders. I am sure that there are a thousand different ways we could tweak the incentives. Here are just two ways.
Firstly, and almost certainly most controversially, it seems to me reasonable to implement a carbon tax. There are two parts to this idea. One is the theory and the other is the practice. The theory seems rather clear: The climate is an example of the Tragedy of the Commons, and a carbon tax is internalizing the externalities. If we can measure how much carbon a certain product adds to the environment, and then slap on a sales tax proportional to that amount, then voilà, we have just used natural market forces to adjust the incentive of the entire nation’s populace to produce and consume greener products.
The issue is not theory. The issue is practice. There was a tiny word in that paragraph that makes all the difference: “If.” If, if, if. If only we could perfectly and unbiasedly create, maintain, and enforce a carbon tax. It may really not be possible. It may just encourage an underground market, or more experts of the unfortunate dual careers of lobbying and tax evasion. But, assuming a bill comes along that gives a reasonably good solution to the problem of specifics, then I would not oppose it.
But of course, there is the great problem of realpolitik in America. If we are to pass carbon tax legislation, that means we must elect people to office who would pass a carbon tax. And to elect people to office who would pass a carbon tax, we must persuade the public that a carbon tax is a good idea. To persuade the public that a carbon tax is a good idea, we must first persuade the public that the answers given by this article to the first three questions at its beginning are true. And that is a difficult thing to do, for many reasons. There has been little compassion in the public sphere around this issue, and much condemning. Little science and much denouncing. Indeed, virtually everyone I’ve talked with agrees that politics as a whole has been increasingly polarized lately. And of course, we are all generally stubborn, and pretty much don’t want to listen to anyone unless we absolutely have to.
A Carbon Tax works directly with economic forces to shift incentives for both consumers and producers. An alternative would be to create a public certification that companies would be given if they are carbon-neutral or some such measure. This wouldn’t primarily shift incentive for consumers, it would shift incentive for producers. If some companies had this certification and others didn’t, then this would be a major factor in business decisions for some segment of the consumer market. Maybe only a fifth of consumers would care about this. But even so, a fifth of a large market share is a large portion, and it would provide an incentive for companies to shoot for the goal.
There are a few advantages this has over a carbon tax. One, it would be easier to pass, because there is less force in it. And second, it would be less heavy-handed, therefore potentially less disruptive. A carbon tax virtually forces incentive shift, while a certification merely suggests it.
But, because it would be a weaker shift in incentives, it would not be as effective. Less would change. The goal is to change our behavior, so if a measure does not actually accomplish that, there is no reason for it to exist.
Incentive shifts would perhaps do some good, but they really would be useless without new technologies. If we tax carbon, but do not provide carbon-friendly products, then what good have we done? That would just slow down our economy and take more money out of our own pockets. It would not actually fix anything.
The real solution must come in the form of new technologies. And it seems to me that the new technologies must be centered around the great magical force known as electricity. Produce more electricity with less carbon, and use electricity for more products.
We have tried a few things in the past century to produce clean electricity. Solar panels, wind turbines, and the like. These things are interesting and fantastic for small scale, residential use, but they are not the real solution. They will never approach the amount of power that is necessary for a full scale, first world nation. No, there are only two technologies that can be a real, clean replacement for coal. And they are fission and fusion.
Fission is the answer in the short term, but it has a problem: red tape. Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island stick in our minds because they are spectacular. They show us the true potential of what could go wrong with nuclear reactors. But here’s the thing. Most of the world’s fission reactors are decades old, and significant advances have been made in the field since then. There are now designs for reactors that are essentially meltdown proof, reactors that can reuse nuclear waste, and reactors that can fit on an 18-wheeler.
We still remember and are afraid of the failures of the past, and this has caused us to impose severe governmental regulations that hinder safe innovation. We have loads of ideas, but it is hard to implement these ideas in America. (Sidenote: we know that converting out power grid to nearly all nuclear is not an inherently difficult problem because of France.) We are able to do it, we just have to quickly figure out how to allow for new designs of reactors without compromising the safety given by regulation.
Of course, fission can only be a short term answer. As great as it is, at the end of the day it still produces some form of nuclear waste. This is not as urgent of a problem as climate change, but it is still a problem. Fusion is the long term answer. Of course, there is the whole problem of it not existing yet, and being the white stag of nuclear scientists since the 50s. Yet, in the past decade, we have gotten much, much closer than before. Examples are TriAlpha, Commonwealth Fusion, General Fusion, and HB11. Fusion is the long term solution, but until it is solved, the answer is fission.
Nuclear is the answer to producing electricity, and there is a thousand-thousand answers to how we use that energy. Thunberg’s proposal that we stop flying is no solution at all — the solution is to build an electric airplane.
What we should be doing is building electric cars that are so sexy and fun to drive that they become more desirable than normal cars, and cause people to contribute to lowering our carbon emissions without even caring about carbon emissions. Elon built Tesla to save the planet. (And also get filthy rich while doing it, but hey, that’s fair.) We should build electric bulldozers, electric cranes, electric cargo ships. Things that we can hardly imagine right now.
But again, this side of things — using electricity — only matters if we have solved the other side — cleanly producing electricity. Otherwise, buying a Cybertruck may actually increase carbon emissions, because the electricity it uses was produced by coal. It is only the combination of nuclear + electric products that would make the real difference.
Now, for this article, I am limiting myself to what our government can do. (Which is of course why I’m not mentioning going vegan to prevent cow farts because that would totally fix things1.) If technology is the answer, then how can the government help?
The section on incentive shifts is my answer to how the government can encourage its citizens to use green products. Figuring out government help for producing electricity is trickier. From my understanding, there are several government-funded fusion projects around the world, and all of them have accomplished very little compared to the privately funded ones. When the source of revenue is government grants, the pace is slow.
Yet, maybe there are some policies a government could adopt. The simplest would be to rethink and remake the oversight and bureaucracy surrounding fission power plants, to reduce the the regulation difficulties that currently exist in building a Gen IV fission plant. These difficulties result in higher startup costs and less investors, which means less new power plants. The laws weren’t made for the newer designs that now exist, so they are artificially holding them back. They should be updated.
As for fusion research, maybe instead of providing funding directly, the US declares a competition of several important fusion milestones. The first company to solve any of the milestones gets $100 billion (which, of course, is minuscule compared to what investors will give for a fully fledged reactor). I recognize this is an unusual idea, but I don’t see why creativity ought to be suspicious. We are facing an unusual challenge.
Or, a sure way of helping is by giving money to education, specifically math and physics, and very specifically, applied nuclear physics. Removing barriers to smart people getting educated about a thing is a good way to make that thing improve.
These are just examples of possible ways our government could reliably incentivize technological innovation. I am sure there are better ways out there, but this is merely to get us on the right path.
Finally, we come to the part of the problem that is discussed in America the least, but is by far the most important. Basically, America isn’t the problem. Well, we are. But we are only 14.6% of the problem. If tomorrow we instantly ceased all emissions, we would still be screwed, because the rest of the world is still spewing out carbon.
Any comprehensive plan on climate change that America wants to take must also include some sort of pressure on China, and probably also India and Russia. And any candidate for high office that does not bring this up does not have a full solution.
Now, again we are confronted with the question of how. How do we persuade other nations to also take strong corrective measures that will be super disruptive (especially to China)? Certainly the beginning of an answer is to get our own house in order. We have zero leverage with other countries if we are also to blame.
But if we start taking real steps, our immense power can then be used to influence other nations. I won’t pretend to know how to do this. Maybe it would be some weird trade war thing, maybe it would be diplomats talking endlessly for years behind closed doors, making agonizingly slow but sure progress. I have no clue. But I know that it is a worldwide problem that demands a worldwide solution.2
This is not a full discussion by any means. There is a lot more to be said. Which industries contribute the most carbon, and are in the most need of reform? How can we get more specific on these ideas? What can the measly voter do about it? These are good and important questions, and there are many more.
But as I see it, from the high level, there are three areas of action our elected officials could take. Shifting incentives, supporting needed technologies, and good foreign policy. I don’t pretend to be knowledgeable about how the details of those policies should be implemented, but as far as I can see, those are the main areas we should focus on.
- My professor of climate in college informed the class that bovine methane has a negligible impact on climate change, and the main issue is carbon emissions. So, that is the path I follow.
- A brief aside. I feel some emotions about our country’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. On the one hand, I feel deep shame for being the only nation in the world to withdraw from it. On the other hand, I am aware that this is merely a result of Trump answering the first three questions differently from me, and this is a result of many Americans answering the first three questions differently from me, a situation which, as stated before, has a multitude of reasons for existing.