Sustainability

Five past the hour (a climate change approach for all of us)

If you believe climate change is happening, you might get something out of this.

B Author: Boleh
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This blog is not meant to convince anyone that climate change is real. If you believe climate change is happening, you might get something out of this. If you do not believe in climate change, there is nothing here that will change your mind or harden your stance. This blog is a call to action for everyone who believes.

A comprehensive approach

There have been many extreme weather events in recent months with a heavy toll on humanity. Unfortunately, there are potentially worse ‘tipping points’ ahead. Consider the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, an ocean current that brings warm water from the Gulf of Mexico towards Europe. A newer scientific model suggests that with current global warming, it might stop altogether within our lifetimes which can have disastrous consequences. Complex scientific models are notoriously hard to get right, but given the potential consequences, do we take that chance? There are also other ‘runaway tipping points’ of concern: for example, melting permafrost releases large quantities of methane which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, leading to even more warming. Five pillars needed to tackle the problem are discussed and while none of them are new, the key is to take a prioritized comprehensive approach and to act now. Now is the hour, and hence Five Past the Hour as we are already behind.

Innovate

Sometimes eagerly anticipated technological innovation may seem to take forever (e.g., nuclear fusion) and then we wake up one day and the world’s changed, but not necessarily in the way we expected. Generative AI is one recent example that is happening right now. The iPhone was introduced in 2007 and roughly half the planet had access to smartphones of some form just 14 years later. The Haber and Ostwald processes led to fertilizers and increases in agricultural yields that arguably staved off starvation for a billion people when it was widely projected that population growth would far exceed the capacity of arable land to feed humanity. Not to mention the printing press, the steam engine, and so on. While there are many counter-examples of how innovation yielded negative outcomes (even fertilizer, let alone weapons), given the challenges of greenhouse gases, a series of innovations and subsequent refinements are likely necessary. Granted, innovations will need to be embraced responsibly, but they are likely the durable solutions that allow humanity to move forward sustainably. The solutions come in many forms — from generation, and storage to distribution of renewable energy, as well as new ways of doing things that are much more efficient. But they only come about if there is incentive; we cannot simply ‘will’ nor legislate innovation into existence. A key part of this is creating an environment that fosters innovation. As an example, we see that happening today with rechargeable batteries as news articles are calling out new chemistry or processes almost every week.

Optimize

We are still digging the hole deeper when it comes to sustainability (we cannot simply shut off everything), so optimizing what we do today is a way of slowing the digging until the innovative solutions can be brought to bear at scale. Optimization covers a broad range of actions from reducing waste to production and process efficiency. Even simple actions like being less demanding of the thermostat’s comfort range, and making more sustainable choices (as opposed to eating less or not driving at all) can help. While innovation also plays a part in driving efficiency, the general scope of optimization is to incrementally reduce the footprint, as opposed to banking on completely new solutions. Optimization can be applied to almost everywhere, such as manufacturing, farming, and everyday life choices made by the consumer. The good news here is almost everyone can contribute.

Elucidate

Furthering the ‘in the hole’ analogy, a precursor to ‘stop digging’ is the realization one is in a hole and how deep it is. Elucidation here includes awareness, metrics, and transparency. We mentioned legislation earlier, and even though government action is critical, we need the law makers to see political benefit in such legislation. Awareness is really the first step here; if enough people are aware and believe in the need for change, regulation will follow. Metrics are key to understanding how deep the hole is, and what it takes to get out of it, as well as measuring progress. This is not an easy problem as today’s metrics (like Greenhouse Gas Emission Scopes 1–3) have their own challenges — this topic will be explored in a future blog. Finally, transparency is necessary to help consumers and companies make the right choices, and for accountability.

Prepare

If we assume there is a strong likelihood of significant climate change ahead, which can lead to extreme temperatures and more significantly, changing rainfall patterns, we need to consider the durability of our food supply. We have seen how early, late, too little, or too much rain can have a dramatic impact on crops. The world can tolerate some degree of localized crop failures, as long as there is enough produced in aggregate. Large-scale farming today is mostly designed around maximizing crop production (for given resources), and hence profit. Should there be a new variable added to the equation that also factors in durability in the face of climate change, to protect against total crop failure under unfavorable weather conditions? This will likely require government help in terms of incentives and preparation. For example, if we expect the weather in a region to be significantly drier in the next decade, what crops or seeds should we start building up for? What can be done to help small-scale farmers? This does not happen overnight as the harvesting and processing of potatoes is very different from say wheat. The loss of one crop in one region is survivable at a global scale, but the loss of multiple seasons in multiple regions will lead to famine.

Temper

Tempering, or mitigating is different from optimizing in that it speaks of corrective actions like carbon sequestration to reduce the impact while we seek longer-term solutions. While tempering does not address the root problem, it is akin to taking medication to alleviate the symptoms while the patient recovers. As a durable solution is years off, both optimizing and tempering are actions that buy more time in the hope of delaying a major tipping point until we have a deployed solution. The more esoteric tempering proposals go as far as putting ‘mirrors’ in space to reflect sunlight, while the more down-to-earth ones involve storing carbon dioxide underground as well as using living organisms (reforestation for example) to sequestrate carbon.

Summary

The core thesis is that we need to act, we will need to look at all five pillars and prioritize within each. Innovation may provide the necessary long-term solutions, but until they are in widespread use, we need to look at optimizing and tempering. And given there is a good chance of experiencing climate change, we should diversify and prepare humanity’s food supply to better handle the variability. This is like buying insurance — a modest outlay to protect against a terrible outcome. Elucidation is needed to enable all of the above. Instead of tackling all five simultaneously, it could be argued that we are better off prioritizing the long-term solutions. Prioritization is important, but it should be within each pillar, not by pillar. If we do nothing but bet on every possible innovation, would that lead to a better outcome than doing the most impactful things from each pillar? Most likely, it will not. This blog has been kept short for readability, and more will follow to dive deeper into the pillars above as well as the approach to prioritization.

Call to action

First and foremost, thank you for reading this far. The ask of you is to reflect on this and help improve the approach. Assuming you agree with the core thesis, please do share the message. And act where you can. If you are working on something that can be part of a long-term solution, help optimize or temper the situation, you are already helping. If you are a business decision-maker, consider your legacy — did you act or did you wait for others? Everyone can help elucidate and optimize. Please do not leave it to others, this is for all of us.

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