Pluralistic: An end to the climate emergency is in our grasp (12 Jun 2024)

Originally published at: Pluralistic: An end to the climate emergency is in our grasp (12 Jun 2024) – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

Today's links

A windfarm at sunset. In the foreground at the bottom are the silhouettes of a Victorian crowd of spectators watching the turbines. On the left of the image is a carmine-skinned Satanic figure dressed in business casual, jerking his thumb at an oilwell that is gushing crude all over the scene.

An end to the climate emergency is in our grasp (permalink)

The problem with good news in the real world is that it's messy. Neat happy endings are for novels, not the real world, and that goes double for the climate emergency. But even though good climate news is complicated and nuanced, that doesn't mean it shouldn't buoy our spirits and fill our hearts with hope.

The big climate news this past week is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's clarion call about surging CO2 levels – the highest ever – amid a year that is on track to have the largest and most extreme series of weather events in human history:

This is genuinely alarming and you – like me – have probably experienced it as a kind of increase in your background radiation of climate anxiety. Perhaps you – like me – even experienced some acute, sit-bolt-upright-in-bed-at-2AM anxiety as a result. That's totally justifiable. This is very real, very bad news.

And yet…

The news isn't all bad, and even this terrible dispatch from the NOAA is best understood in context, which Bill McKibben provides in his latest newsletter post, "What You Want is an S Curve":

Financiers and their critics should all be familiar with Stein's Law: "anything that can't go on forever will eventually stop." This is true outside of finance as well. One of the reasons that we're seeing such autophagic panic from the tech companies is that their period of explosive growth is at an end.

For years, they told themselves that they were experiencing double-digit annual growth because they were "creating value" and "innovating" but the majority of their growth was just a side-effect of the growth of the internet itself. When hundreds of millions of people get online every year, the dominant online services will, on average, gain hundreds of millions of new users.

But when you run out of people who don't have internet access, your growth is going to slow. How can it not? Indeed, at that point, the only ways to grow are to either poach users from your rivals (through the very expensive tactics of massive advertising and sales-support investments, on top of discounts and freebies as switching enticements), or to squeeze your own users for more.

That's why the number of laptops sold in America slowed down. It's why the number of cellphones sold in America slowed down. It's why the number of "smart home" gizmos slowed down.

Even the steepest hockey-stick-shaped exponential growth curve eventually levels off and becomes an S-curve, because anything that can't go on forever will eventually stop.

One way or another, the world's carbon emissions will eventually level off. Even if we drive ourselves to (or over) the brink of extinction and set up the conditions for wildfires that release all the carbon stored in all the Earth's plants, the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere has to level off.

Rendering the Earth incapable of sustaining human civilization (or life) is the ultimate carbon reduction method – but it's not my first choice.

That's where McKibben's latest newsletter comes in. He cites a new report from the Rocky Mountain Institute, which shows a major reversal in our energy sources, a shift that will see our energy primarily provided by renewables, with minimal dependence on fossil fuels:

The RMI team says that in this year or next, we'll have hit peak demand for fossil fuels (a fact that is consistent with NOAA's finding that we're emitting more CO2 than ever). The reason for this is that so much renewable energy is about to come online, and it is so goddamned cheap, that we are about to undergo a huge shift in our energy consumption patterns.

This past decade saw a 12-fold increase in solar capacity, a 180-fold increase in battery storage, and a 100-fold increase in EV sales. China is leading the world in a cleantech transition, with the EU in close second. Cleantech is surging in places where energy demand is also still growing, like India and Vietnam. Fossil fuel use has already peaked in Thailand, South Africa and every country in Latin America.

We're on the verge of solar constituting an absolute majority of all the world's energy generation. This year, batteries will overtake pumped hydro for energy storage. Every cleantech metric is growing the way that fossil fuels did in previous centuries: investment, patents, energy density, wind turbine rotor size. The price of solar is on track to halve (again) in the next decade.

In short, cleantech growth looks like the growth of other technologies that were once rarities and then became ubiquitous overnight: TV, cellphones, etc. That growth isn't merely being driven by the urgency of the climate emergency: it's primarily a factor of how fucking great cleantech is:

Fossil fuels suck. It's not just that they wreck the planet, or that their extraction is both politically and environmentally disastrous. They just aren't a good way to make energy. About a third of fossil fuel energy is wasted in production and transportation. A third! Another third is wasted turning fossil fuels into energy. Two thirds! The net energy efficiency of fossil fuels is about 37%.

Compare that with cleantech. EVs convert electricity to movement with 80-90% efficiency. Heat pumps are 300% efficient (the main fuel for your heat pump is the heat in the atmosphere, not the electricity it draws).

Cleantech is just getting started – it's still in the hockey-stage phase. That means those efficiency numbers are only going up. Rivian just figured out how to remove 1.6 miles of copper wire from each vehicle. That's just one rev – there's doubtless lots of room for more redesigns that will further dematerialize EVs:

As McKibben points out, there's been a lot of justifiable concern that electrification will eventually use up all our available copper, but copper demand has remained flat even as electrification has soared – and this is why. We keep figuring out new ways to electrify with fewer materials:

This is exactly what happened with previous iterations of tech. The material, energy and labor budgets of cars, buildings, furniture, etc all fell precipitously every time there was a new technique for manufacturing them. Renewables are at the start of that process. There's going to be a lot of this dematerialization in cleantech. Calculating the bill of materials for a planetary energy transition isn't a matter of multiplying the materials in current tech by the amount of new systems we'll need – as we create those new systems, we will constantly whittle down their materials.

What's more, global instability drives cleantech uptake. The Russian invasion of Ukraine caused a surge in European renewables. The story that energy prices are rising due to renewables (or carbon taxes) is a total lie. Fossil fuels are getting much more expensive, thanks to both war and rampant, illegal price-fixing:

If not for renewables, the incredible energy shocks of the recent years would be far more severe.

The renewables story is very good and it should bring you some comfort. But as McKibben points out, it's still not enough – yet. The examples of rapid tech uptake had big business on their side. America's living rooms filled with TV because America's largest businesses pulled out all the stops to convince everyone to buy a TV. By contrast, today's largest businesses – banks, oil companies and car companies – are working around the clock to stop cleantech adoption.

We're on track to double our use of renewables before the decade is over. But to hold to the (already recklessly high) targets from the Paris Accord, we need to triple our renewables usage. As McKibben says, the difference between doubling and tripling our renewables by 2030 is the difference between "survivable trouble" and something much scarier.

The US is experiencing a welcome surge in utility scale solar, but residential solar is stalling out as governments withdraw subsidies or even begin policies that actively restrict rooftop solar:

McKibben says the difference between where we are now and bringing back the push for home solar generation is the difference between "fast" and "faster" – that is the difference between tripling renewables by 2030 (survivable) and doubling (eek).

Capitalism stans who argue that we can survive the climate emergency with market tools will point to the good news on renewable and say that the market is the only way to transition to renewables. It's true that market forces are partly responsible for this fast transition. But the market is also the barrier to a faster (and thus survivable) transition. The oil companies, the banks who are so invested in fossil fuels, the petrostates who distort the world's politics – they're why we're not much farther along.

The climate emergency was never going to be neatly solved. We weren't going to get a neat novelistic climax that saw our problems sorted out in a single fell swoop. We're going to be fighting all the way to net zero, and after that, we'll still have decades of climate debt to pay down: fires, floods, habitat loss, zoonotic plagues, refugee crises.

But we should take our wins. Even if we're far from where we need to be on renewables, we're much farther along on renewables than we had any business hoping for, just a few years ago. The momentum is on our side. It's up to us to use that momentum and grow it. We're riding the hockey-stick, they're on that long, flat, static top of the S-curve. Their curve is leveling off and will start falling, ours will grow like crazy for the rest of our lives.

Hey look at this (permalink)

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This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Ian McDonald’s brilliant new novel, River of Gods: Bollywoodpunk

#15yrsago British cops deliver Catch 22 to photographers: you’re not allowed to know which areas you’re not allowed to photograph

#10yrsago Duration of WWII vs duration of movies about WWII

#10yrsago George Orwell’s National Union of Journalists card

#10yrsago Thai shrimp industry runs on brutal slavery and murder

#5yrsago It Feels Good to Be Yourself: a sweet, simple picture book about gender identity

#5yrsago The latest popular uprising in Hong Kong is fighting to keep Beijing from dragging dissidents to mainland China

#5yrsago When you take a commercial genetic test, you opt your whole family into warrantless state genetic surveillance

#5yrsago Mary Meeker’s 2019 Internet Trends: stalled growth, security dumpster-fires, more online education and fear of regulation

#5yrsago A deep dive into stalkerware’s creepy marketing, illegal privacy invasions, and terrible security

#5yrsago Amazon unveils a new Echo Dot surveillance device for children

#5yrsago Twitter’s anti-Nazi policies result bans on pictures of anti-Nazi books

#5yrsago In homeless LA, the families, retirees and working people who live in their cars are desperate for overnight parking

#1yrago Podcasting "Ideas Lying Around"

Upcoming appearances (permalink)

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Recent appearances (permalink)

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Latest books (permalink)

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Upcoming books (permalink)

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025
  • Unauthorized Bread: a middle-grades graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Enshittification: a nonfiction book about platform decay. Today's progress: 874 words (9764 words total).
  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

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