Welcome to this series of newsletters on the theme Net Zero by 2050: Technology for a Changing Climate.
In response to the climate crisis, many business and industry leaders have committed their organizations to a ‘Net Zero’ program. By this they mean that their organization will not be emitting greenhouse gases by a specified date — often the year 2050. The purpose of these letters and posts is to help these leaders by providing realistic and practical information to do with net zero technologies. The emphasis is on the word ‘realistic’.
In 2015 the author Wendell Berry said,
So far as I am concerned, the future has no narrative. The future does not exist until it has become the past. To a very limited extent, prediction has worked. The sun, so far, has set and risen as we have expected it to do. And the world, I suppose, will predictably end, but all of its predicted deadlines, so far, have been wrong.
Yogi Berra, the New York Yankees catcher, expressed the same sentiment when he famously said,
It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.
Dennis Meadows — a principal author of the Limits to Growth report — was a little more optimistic. He said that if we throw a ball we do not know exactly where it will land, but we do know roughly where it will hit the ground.
The posts at this site are about the actions we can take over the course of the next thirty years. By then, it is hoped, those actions will have helped avert the worst of the climate crisis. It’s a long shot, but it’s the only shot that we have. In some ways, thirty years feels like tomorrow — there is so much to do, and our progress to date has been so ineffective. The year 2050 seems so close — there is very little time to undertake the sweeping actions needed to avoid the worst of climate change.
But, looked at through another lens, thirty years is a long time. We really have no idea what might take place in the coming decades. Therefore, those of us writing about Net Zero programs need to remain humble, and to be willing to change our ideas and suggestions as circumstances dictate.
In order to illustrate just how careful we need to be when predicting the future consider the events of the years 2020-21. How many experts in December 2019 predicted the following for the first half of the year 2020?
There would be an uncontrolled, world-wide pandemic leading to the deaths of more than two million people.
There would be an associated massive economic recession, leading to the disappearance of thousands of small businesses, unemployment for millions and the near collapse of whole industries such as tourism.
In the United States, statues erected in the 1890s in honor of generals who fought for the institution of slavery would be removed within just a few weeks. These events were themselves triggered by the murder of an innocent black man by a police officer, whose actions were recorded on a mobile phone by a teenage bystander.
Roll forward to the year 2021. How many experts predicted the following:
The pandemic would continue to make millions of people sick, that the death toll would continue to climb, and that the hospital systems would be overwhelmed.
There would be a chronic breakdown in the global supply chains that started off as being a temporary blip but then seemed to steadily get worse.
“Once in a hundred years” weather events would occur every year.
In other words, when talking about the future we need to be cautious, humble and willing to change our minds. Specifically with regard to climate change, we need to ensure that we follow the data and that the models we use are properly benchmarked and evaluated. Climate change must not become a belief system.
We should also recognize that our predictions as to what the future holds are influenced by our general view of the world. Some people have a sunny disposition, others are more dour or despondent. These attitudes will affect how we see the future.
Given the difficulty of forecasting the future it is tempting to give up and just let the future take care of itself. But a more sensible and responsible approach is to form a general opinion as to an outline of the future, but not to worry about the details. Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of the Limits to Growth report, makes a useful point in this regard: we do not know which of the possible futures will happen, but we can define the impossible futures.
Given that outline we can then decide on the action to take. Any attempt to make detailed predictions is a fool’s errand, but, if we work hard enough and if we are willing to face up to uncomfortable truths, then we can see roughly where we are headed. That being the case, we can develop realistic responses to the predicaments in which we find ourselves.
Who are you going to believe — me, or your own lyin’ eyes?
Attributed to Groucho Marx
One item of potentially good news from the years 2020 and 2021 was that members of the public and business communities are becoming increasingly aware that the climate is changing and that human activity is the cause of that change. There are still plenty of deniers, but their task is becoming increasingly difficult. Wildfires, droughts, floods, intense storms have become almost daily headlines. For example, those living in the United States have experienced the following events in the year 2020.
Record wildfires in the California, Oregon, Washington State and Colorado.
So many hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico that we ran out of names and had to start a new name series using Greek letters.
Continuing record high temperatures in the eastern parts of the nation.
Chronic drought in the south-west.
Climate change has moved from the esoteric — concerns such as polar bears on ice floes and the loss of distant coral reefs — to the here and now in the lives of most people.
The pandemic has also provided some salutary lessons. It has reminded us that we are not always in charge and that ‘Nature Bats Last’. It has made some people more aware of the fact that we live inside the natural world, not outside it.
Unfortunately, as we have learned from the pandemic, some people react to bad news by pretending that it’s not happening, or that it is not worth even making a small sacrifice for the good of the community. The fact that being vaccinated became a political issue is to be regretted and does not augur well for how society will react to the much greater changes and sacrifices that climate change calls for.
One of the most encouraging events of the last two years was the manner in which young people of the world are demanding results. They are the ones who will have to live in the world that we are creating/destroying. And they are not happy.
The best known of the youth leaders is Greta Thunberg. She is famous not so much for what she said — her speeches generally just quote the findings in the IPCC reports. What marks her out is the passion and urgency of her message. Here is what she said at the COP24 Climate Change conference in Poland in 2018.
My name is Greta Thunberg. I am 15 years old. I am from Sweden . . . Many people say that Sweden is just a small country and it doesn't matter what we do. But I've learned you are never too small to make a difference. And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to. But to do that, we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.
Young people such as Thunberg are angry about the future that we have created for them, the lack of response by government bodies all over the world, the feeling that their fate is being directed by anonymous corporations who have no interest in their welfare, the selfishness of older people. Above all, they are angry about the amount of time that has been wasted. They are not being nice.
Fast forward to COP26 (November 2021). Thunberg is now an adult. Yet she continues to protest the actions of governments and corporations in general terms. Here is what she said on the streets outside the COP26 meeting rooms.
The COP has turned into a PR event, where leaders are giving beautiful speeches and announcing fancy commitments and targets, while behind the curtains governments of the Global North countries are still refusing to take any drastic climate action.
It is not a secret that COP26 is a failure. It should be obvious that we cannot solve the crisis with the same methods that got us into it in the first place . . . We need immediate, drastic annual emission cuts unlike anything the world has ever seen. As we don’t have the technological solutions that alone will do anything even close to that, that means we will have to fundamentally change our society.
Business companies, particularly oil companies, are often criticized for their role in the climate crisis. Much of that criticism doubtless has merit, but a sense of proportion is needed. The oil companies provide society with fuel and an enormous array of petrochemicals, not because they are being malicious or greedy, but because that is what their customers want.
One of the themes of this site is that it these companies are in a position to provide badly needed leadership. Indeed, as we will see in future posts, they are already doing so.
Referring to the pandemic once more, it was the for-profit pharmaceutical companies that developed vaccines in such as short period of time is encouraging. It suggests that we may be able to find technical responses to climate change that can at least mitigate the predicaments that we face.
There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.
Ken Olson, President Digital Equipment Corporation. 1977.
Predicting the future is something that only the brave or the foolish will attempt. There are too many cases of bright, well-educated people making forecasts that are totally wrong. Still, we have to make some type of estimate as to what the future will look like if we are to get anything done. Indeed, it is by trying different approaches to climate change that the path forward will become better defined. Most responses will not work out, but a few will. There will be some pleasant surprises.
We just need to be humble and willing to change our forecasts as new information comes in. To repeat what was said earlier, climate change should never become a faith system — in either direction.
Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.