Climate Cobras

Movements Start Small #17

Unintended consequences of solutions offered to solve complex problems is a recurring theme here, starting with my first post on the Prius. Economists call these good intentions gone wrong Cobra effects after a policy in India that sought to reduce deadly snakes through a cash bounty. While well intentioned, the incentive led to widespread breeding of snakes as a money making scheme - just making the problem worse.

As the world turns its attention to carbon reductions to limit global warming, the potential for Cobra effects are massive. Energy markets are enormously complex and its consumption is intertwined with everything we do. As we change how we generate, distribute and consume energy to deal with carbon emissions massive economic and societal impacts are inevitable, many of which will be hard to predict.

The simple fact is we need massive amounts of new energy to bring prosperity to the world. But, we also must do it sustainably. New clean energy sources are needed along with carbon sequestration options to limit the harms of fossil fuels, which are not going anywhere fast. Sounds simple, but the specifics are much harder to implement.

The concern is that the most vocal voices tend to demand rigid solutions. Trade-offs are ignored for the sake of an agenda beyond the core goal of climate mitigation. And these positions get repeated so often that conventional wisdom hardens despite an incomplete understanding of the implications. I can see a few large climate cobras currently haunting us and limiting our potential for success.

  1. No nukes. If you want massively scalable energy that emits no carbon, delivers reliable and persistent output, consumes little land and delivers high safety, nothing beats nuclear. A few horrible tragedies have confused us from the facts of an overall very strong and improving safety record. Imagine if we had stopped flying due to poor safety in the early days? But, the marketing war has been lost - mostly due to the work of environmental activists. Greenpeace and the Sierra Club drive the majority of this war but many others have joined the fight. These “green” efforts have probably done more than anything to keep our carbon emissions growing. They spread fear about safety and waste all while protesting any buildout which raises costs and increases timelines. So we shut down existing plants and either get new natural gas plants or highly unreliable and expensive alternatives. Meanwhile micro reactors and new technologies sit in the wings waiting for deployment. It is time to unleash innovation and regulatory reform to allow nuclear to grow.

  2. Plant based everything. Plants are natural. They consume consume carbon from the atmosphere. They are green! What’s not to like? Well, the vast majority of our plant based products are simply industrial creations that emerge from mono crop wastelands showered in petroleum based chemicals and fertilizers that destroy our soils and poison our waterways. Oh and these industrial crops also emit ever increasing amount of nitrous oxide…the most potent greenhouse gas of them all. Yet the “plant based” meme continues to gain traction as the purest good. Don’t believe the hype.

  3. Trees, trees, trees. Planting trees has become the easiest way to signal your do-gooder credentials on climate. Tree planting campaigns intuitively make sense. Rainforests are big carbon sinks after all! What could be wrong with big tree planting campaigns? Once again the complexity of nature and the carbon cycle is easily overlooked. Rows and rows of trees are not a natural ecosystem - they are another mono crop. As a result they over consume water, block soil from growing grasses, disturb the natural ecosystem with invasive species and eventually fall victim to natural burns from overgrowth (re-releasing the carbon). I am biased in this regard as we launched Grassroots Carbon to help restore grasslands (the largest carbon sink in the world!) using rotational grazing to grow native grasses and rich soil. Trees feel natural, grass and cows do not. But done right the latter is far more healing to our planet and restorative to natural ecosystems.

  4. Ban Bitcoin. The climate villain du jour is bitcoin. While the crypto network does indeed consume a large amount of energy, once again the deeper story is being lost. At the most basic level, anything of real value consumes a lot of energy (gold mining, Youtube, banking, traveling, etc.). Bitcoin mining however is a wholly unique consumer of energy. It can be done intermittently and with low access to bandwidth. This combination means bitcoin nodes are constantly seeking the lowest cost power - and can go anywhere to get it. Well, what is the lowest cost of power on the planet right now? Energy waste (like flare gas) is one source (and now being used for bitcoin), but the biggest is wind and solar at peak hours. Often this power is sold at a loss for renewable developers. Batteries are still too expensive to handle the massive excesses at peak times and grids must stay in balance. Bitcoin off taking this power can change the economics of renewables by monetizing it at these peaks. The result will be MORE renewables. And don’t forget, we live in a “petro” dollar world where the US reserve status is based on dollar denominated oil trading (after we gave up on gold in 1971). Just look at the energy consumed to defend the primacy of the US dollar and oil imports in the Middle East over the last five decades.

In all these situations a hidden agenda helps drive a bad narrative. Greenpeace is most worried about nuclear weapons so they must condemn all use of the technology. PETA and animal rights groups drive the plant narrative to protect abuse of cattle, pigs and chicken. Banks and governments have no interest in a decentralized monetary competitor while they print unlimited fiat. And all sorts of people want to make money and defend their turf. You can have all sorts of opinions on these goals - but they are co-opting the climate movement to their ends. As the world goes to set policy paths to a less carbon intensive world, we need much more open dialog and critical thinking on the path ahead. The simple, feel good answers will almost certainly not deliver as promised.

Good Reads

  1. Trade-offs, not solutions. I loved Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions which explains so much about our underlying political conflicts. Coleman Hughes’ profile of Sowell and his contrarian perspective gives the cliff notes.

  2. Tyler Cowen rarely dives into politics, but delves in by framing our current bi-partisan madness as one of silence (the left) vs lies (the right). Neither are good.

  3. Zoning is boring. But, it makes all the difference when it comes to affordable housing. 54% of homes in San Francisco would be illegal to build today.

  4. Population and overconsumption will doom us…so we are told daily. Great profile of the original doom-slayer Julian Simon whose optimism and first principles thinking would be great to have around right now as a counterweight.

  5. 99 Pieces of Unsolicited Advice. Each short, almost all gems.

  6. Gell-Mann amnesia effect. Horrible name for an unbelievably true thing that has massive implications. If anything you have done (or are an expert on) has been covered in the press, you know.