What is Manifold?
Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University. Join him for wide-ranging conversations with leading writers, scientists, technologists, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, and more.
Steve: Thanks for joining us, I’m Steve Hsu.
Corey: I’m Corey Washington. We’re your hosts for Manifold. Our guest today is the journalist and author, Betsy Kolbert or Elizabeth Kolbert as she is known to most of the world. Betsy has one of the shortest Wikipedia entries I’ve ever seen for a famous person. Still I know a few things about her. She’s a staff writer at the New Yorker and has been since 1999. She’s the author of a number of books including Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.
Corey: She’s the winner of numerous awards, among them, two National Magazine Awards and a National Academies Communication Award. She also lives in the oldest house in Williamstown, Massachusetts, built in 1763. Welcome to Manifold, Betsy.
Betsy: Thanks for having me.
Corey: Betsy is one of those people, from what I remember, the exact time and place where we met. It was a cafe in Berkeley, California in 1988.
Corey: I believe it was on Shattuck Street. You had just started as the Albany Bureau chief of the New York Times. You’d come up to Berkeley to visit with your husband, John Kleiner, who’s an old friend of mine from Amherst College. Steve, you asked that’s how I know Betsy.
Steve: Got it. I was at that cafe in 1988, you just didn’t know me then.
Corey: That’s true. Betsy is one of the few people who I’ve known longer than Steve. I think you and I met in 1991.
Steve: Yeah, that’s right.
Steve: ’90 or ’91, yeah.
Corey: Yeah. I just, the …
Betsy: John, you’ve known since ’81.
Corey: Since ’81 yeah. Yeah. John was …
Betsy: Since you’re born, I think.
Corey: Practically. John is one of these characters on campus who he was known simply as Kleiner. You never called him by his first name. It’s just Kleiner. He’s famous because he ended up writing two theses, one in comparative literature and one in physics. He wedded these two really disparate interests in a way that no one I’ve seen before or after.
Corey: One of the great things about being near the end of the lifespan is you think you have things to tell the younger generation, this may or may not be true. I want to ask you, looking back to being 27, 28 years old in 1988, are the things you could see in your interest back then that might have keyed you to the type of career you’ve come to have. Does somebody have certain thoughts in the back of their head and they’re young.
Corey: They may be a political reporter in Albany but they’ve got some other passion percolating back. Did you have any sense that you’d move in this direction back then?
Betsy: That’s a very good question. As you point out, I was the Albany Bureau chief for the Times. That had come about pretty much by happenstance. It was always hard to know when you got an assignment at the New York Times where I’ve even gotten it. It was like the wizard called you into his office and you’ve got an assignment and then you were off or then sometimes within days.
Betsy: I was assigned to Albany. I stayed there for five years. While I was there, I was very interested in politics. It was a great assignment and I wrote more, I think, than most people in Albany about environmental politics. I always had sideline in environmental journalism and that that would become the main line I guess is a little bit surprising but on some level not surprising.
Betsy: I think it probably happens to a lot of people that you go in one direction and there is something percolating underneath, sort of an undercurrent and then eventually, it comes to the surface as it were.
Corey: I recently listened to a podcast with you and Bill McKibben. Is that how you pronounce his name?
Corey: He’s credited with writing the first popular book about climate change that came out in 1989. I think it was called The End Of Nature. Did you read that book?
Betsy: Yes, I read it in Albany. I have a first edition of it. I went out and bought it immediately. It was very influential to me. It was something that influenced me directly. I am one of those people who became aware of climate change through the efforts of Jim Hanson, who’s a major figure in Bill’s book, The End of Nature and through Bill’s writing. Definitely.
Corey: Fast forward up 30 plus years from that point in time. It’s been a pretty eventful year in climate. We’ve just had the second hottest year on record, at the end of the hottest decade on record. Australia is burning or was burning recently with potential …
Betsy: I think it’s still burning.
Corey: It’s still burning.
Betsy: Don’t worry about that.
Corey: I didn’t miss it. With a potential for hundreds of species to be driven to extinction. We’ll come back to this, I think I mentioned this to you in email, but this actually sparked some thoughts I had about extinction, which are probably not profound, but that won’t stop me from sharing them with you.
Corey: A Swedish teenager, Gretta Thunberg has been named TIME’s person of the year. As one of the central people writing about climate these days, this reflect on the situation at the beginning of the third decade of the century, what’s at the top of your mind?
Betsy: What’s at the top of my mind is that even as I think awareness has grown enormously, especially in the last few years and people watching pretty obviously climate-related disasters. I think that public awareness is way up and that’s reflected in opinion polls and things like that. Even as that has happened and there’s a lot of talk and a lot of places about sustainability and I use that word in air quotes.
Betsy: If you actually look at what is happening on the ground, it’s pretty bad. We just hit another record in 2019 in carbon emissions. Even as we become aware of the problem, even as the problem bites more, we are really not doing anything or what we are doing is not nearly sufficient to address the problem. The problem, which is really important to emphasize, I always try to emphasize it, is total emissions. It’s not what we put into the air, CO2, greenhouse gases. They stay there a long time.
Betsy: Really, this problem is cumulative. It just keeps adding and adding. The longer we go on and the more CO2 we put up there, the hotter the world is going to be in the end. That’s just pretty basic geophysics. What we need to be worrying about is how much we’re putting up there. Even if we halved our emissions, let’s say, we would still get to the same place, it would just take us twice as long. Since, we’re growing so fast that wouldn’t be measured in decades.
Betsy: We really need to bring our emissions down to zero. That’s the only way that we’re going to stabilize the climate. It’s going to be a different climate, but at least it would stabilize. What we have right now as we keep adding CO2 to the atmosphere very rapidly is we’re going to have this constantly changing climate. We’re never going to have a climate, a new climate.
Betsy: People are just starting right along. People often talk about this phrase, the new normal, like the fires in Australia, the new normal. I’m sorry to say is that’s not the new normal. The new normal is going to be a constantly changing normal.
Corey: This actually leads into what I would like us to focus on. I’m a pessimist about the likelihood that humans are going to be willing to take the difficult and painful steps to lower missions. For all the obvious reasons people like to fly. We like cheap energy. Also, I think, it’s a little bit misleading to suggest that everyone that we’re all in this together because some places are going to experience much worse effects than others.
Steve: Some are going to benefit from …
Corey: Some are going to benefit. Yeah. I was recently looking at a map of likely temperature rises and it was very low to zero in the upper central west, north or South Dakota. It was pretty low in Michigan. Whenever I think about these things, I think about my time at Columbia.
Corey: There is a post-doc there made a big impression on me. He was a rabid Russian nationalist. He just adored Vladimir Putin in a way that was really odd for American academics, often politically cynical and almost never nationalistic. His view of climate change was, he believed it was a hoax. If it wasn’t a hoax, it was still okay because Russia was a cold country and it would benefit … anything that benefit Russia was good.
Corey: I just think part of the problem is we don’t suffer equally and so many of the people putting out the biggest emissions like these countries, populations with large emissions are not going to feel as much pain.
Corey: I personally don’t think it’s going to happen, and so I would like, for part of our discussion, to be focused on technological fixes for sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, because I think that’s the only thing that will get carbon down. I don’t know. Are you cynical as I am?
Betsy: I’m very pessimistic. Yes, I don’t know if I’m as pessimistic as you are. I don’t want to have a pessimistic off here. I am very pessimistic. Perhaps, I’m more pessimistic than you are. This just reminded me of the conversation with Dr. Strangelove.
Betsy: Anyway, I think, that if you look at the facts on the ground, once again, we are not doing anything. What we would need to do is not just something but enormous, rebuilding our economy from the ground up. I think the less pessimistic part of me says that would be a good thing to do that would have all sorts of good effects. There are a lot of entrenched interests and a lot of reasons why to be skeptical about whether that’s going to happen anytime in the foreseeable future. How’s that?
Betsy: I am also pretty pessimistic. I somewhat disagree about where this is going to bite the Australians, for example, they might not have thought that it was going to bite them in the ass. I think now, they’re realizing, oh, it is. I don’t think that we can look around and say, there are going to be places that will … some places may “benefit” in the temporary sense, but from a lot of global instability, which I think is an inevitable result of serious climate change, which we’re already starting to see. I’m not sure any place really can say we’re benefiting from that. How is that?
Betsy: All that being said, let’s talk about sucking carbon out of the air. Here, I will tell you the problem with that or the difficulty, the obstacle to that and why it also is a dubious panacea, is it takes a lot of energy, right?
Betsy: At the point where we could produce enough energy to make an appreciable difference in the atmosphere from carbon free sources, because if you’re just burning coal to get carbon out of the air, I can assure you, you’re not going to get a net benefit there. Let’s say, you had a surfeit of carbon free energy. That’s what people are talking about. They’re saying like one day we’re going to have to go carbon free.
Betsy: When we do that, at a certain point, we’re going to have to produce so much carbon free energy that we can devote some of it to suck in CO2 out of the air. That is a scenario that we’re looking at.
Betsy: I think there’s going to be a lot of money and there’s a lot of brain power that’s going to be put into this because it’s already built into a lot of the models. A lot of the models already say you’ve got to get CO2 out of the air. One of the ways that they used to do that is technology and idea. It’s more an idea than an actual technology called BECS, which stands for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.
Betsy: Here, the idea is that you would grow a forest, a fast growing forests, like you would to make paper or whatever. BECS is sucking CO2 out of the air as it grows. Then, you’d burn it for energy instead of natural gas or coal or whatever. You burn wood. Then, you would take that CO2 out of the flue gas and you would very underground. That would be a way to draw down CO2 and shove it under the ground.
Betsy: If you look at any of the climate models for how to keep temperatures below from rising more than 2 degrees C, most of them include a lot of this technology. There’s a lot of debate about whether it’s really feasible or not.
Corey: Are you familiar with Tim Searchinger?
Corey: We had Tim on the show.
Betsy: I don’t know Tim. I don’t know Tim, but I know his work. Yes.
Corey: Yeah. Tim was at Amherst College right around my time. He was describing a system that included two-thirds of that process. Because in the Kyoto protocol, there was a loophole that basically trees cut down here but burned in Europe but not appear on the ledger. They’re cutting down trees and burning them, not take the carbon and shove it into the ground …
Steve: They’re not trapping the exhaust.
Corey: Yeah. It seems like they haven’t read the full memo in this case.
Betsy: Yes. I mean a lot of things that have been done in the name of carbon accounting just to meet some carbon accounting rule that aren’t really solving the problem but are just moving it around. I think that’s what you’re describing here. That’s a very serious problem with the Europeans count bioenergy as carbon neutral. There’s a lot of reasons to be skeptical about that.
Betsy: In a very long term, that might be true, but on the human timeframe, 50, 40, 50, 60 years, the next 40, 50, 60 years, which are crucial. It’s not true because it takes a long time for trees to regrow. That is just a numbers game. It’s a game and it’s a lot of bad things happened in the name of numbers games as we all know
Corey: An article that you write about carbon capture, you also talk about companies that are trying to build systems for doing this. Maybe I don’t want to review your article, but can you tell us what’s in it. There’s an interesting calculation in there as to how much land you might need that would line up these systems to actually make an appreciable dent. I recall it was something on the order of the size of India.
Betsy: There’s a lot of different techniques that people are pursuing. One is called direct air capture and it is literally, you could take CO2 out of the air. It’s at very low concentrations in the air. This is one thing that climate deniers like to throw up. There’s not actually that much carbon in the air. That’s absolutely true. It just turns out it makes a big difference at even at these very low concentrations.
Betsy: It’s hard to get out of the air because of that because you’re searching for one molecule out of every … right now, we’re at roughly four in 10 parts per million, so that’s what you’re looking for. CO2 is basically an acid and you have to capture with a base. You’re using pretty well known industrial processes.
Betsy: As I said, the problem is they require energy. Of course, you’ve got energy by burning this stuff and putting the CO2 out there and to get it back requires energy. That’s one technique that people are pursuing. A lot of very smart people because as they say, it’s needed and when necessity is as one would hope, the mother of invention.
Betsy: Here’s another method that people are looking at. CO2 binds with certain rocks. There are big deposits of certain kinds of rocks that will react with CO2. If we could bring those rocks to the surface of the earth and crunch them up, they might draw down a lot of CO2, a fair amount of CO2. That’s another technique that people are looking at.
Betsy: Then, this other technique which we talked about is growing trees to take up CO2 and then burning them and then taking the CO2 and burying it underground. That, to do at a scale that is required by some of these models, I mean once again, we’re talking in a very hypothetical zone here. That is where people did the calculations and said, okay, you have to grow a forest the size of India. It has a big land use component to it then
Corey: Which obviously conflicts with the need for food production.
Betsy: Yes. That’s why some people are much more in favor of direct, it’s called either direct capture or carbon dioxide removal. You have units and I’ve seen these units where you are sucking CO2 out of the air. You could put them in a brown field. You could put them anywhere. You wouldn’t be taking arable land out of circulation.
Corey: Fast forward up two or three decades. What do you think the situation is going to look like? You’ve traveled a lot of places when you wrote the Six Extinction. It was like a Betsy Kolbert world tour kind of a guided tour. Give me a sense of what you think will be happening in a couple of different areas. You spent time in Central America. You spent time in Australia, in Greenland.
Betsy: I mean two or three decades is actually a really hard time to make predictions about. I mean, predictions are hard to make, especially about the future. What do we know? We know that the world will be hotter. We have a fair good reason to believe that some of the effects that were not predicted for until the middle of the century, which actually is only in 30 years from now. The things are going to be coming at us faster and more violently than we thought.
Betsy: That includes potentially sea level rise starting … we’re seeing accelerating sea level rise. We’re seeing accelerating melt off of Greenland in particular. If that continues and who knows what the trajectory of that acceleration is going to be, I mean, honestly anyone who tells you that doesn’t know, no one knows. We’re looking at larger and larger sea level rise. A lot of cities, as we discussed, are looking at what the hell are they going to do.
Betsy: Many, many major cities in the world are right at sea level. This includes New York, Miami, your listeners may have read recently that the government of Indonesia is hoping to move the capital from Jakarta because Jakarta is not only at sea level. It’s sinking because of groundwater pumping. That’s the thing that you’re going to see. What are we going to do with these major, major cities that are going to be increasingly vulnerable to sea level rise?
Betsy: Then, the biggie or a biggie, one biggie that stands out there is water shortages. What are we going to do? The fires in Australia, before they had fire, they had drought. They’re in a terrible drought. I was actually just recently in Australia and people were saying all over the place, different parts of the country. If only we got some rain. Towns were running out of water. Farmers were running out of water, selling off their livestock because they just couldn’t keep them going.
Betsy: That’s going to be a huge, huge issue. It’s going to be a huge issue in developed countries like Australia and it’s going to be potentially even future issue in developing countries where they don’t necessarily have the same kind of water infrastructure. That is one thing that I would be looking at very carefully, are we going to start to see more and more water stress and how are people going to respond to that? I think that’s a very scary unknown.
Corey: This was an issue that people brought up I think beginning about two decades ago. There are forecasts about increasing conflicts over water. I don’t know if you remember, there was a whole discussion of when we would start having wars over water.
Corey: I’m not really sure where that discussion went, but it didn’t seem to, at least I couldn’t see that many conflicts that were obviously about water happening. It appears that it may not drive conflicts between countries, but it may put stress on individual countries, infrastructures.
Betsy: Yeah. I mean I don’t know that we do have good data on that as it were because on one hand it’s just hard to decide what started a conflict. People have looked at the war in Syria and it’s very debated. I don’t want to say that this is fixed science, but there was a very serious drought leading up to the war and a lot of people were pushed into the city from the countryside. Farmers, villagers were pushed into big cities. There’s a certain amount of evidence that that was a stressor that helped provoke the civil war.
Betsy: I think it’s very difficult to tease those things out. It also is possible, as you say, that countries don’t go to war over water, but people who don’t have enough water can’t survive. It’s simple as that. What is going to happen as already fragile parts of the world experience greater water stress? I don’t think that’s something that we know the answer to. Maybe you could say, well, it brings people together. They’ve got it all figured out a way to get water infrastructure in there.
Betsy: I think that one has the unhappy feeling that perhaps that’s not the case, that perhaps it will lead to either internal struggle, internal migration that then provokes crises. It’s very hard to say.
Corey: My first awareness of a conflict for water was actually in California. There is lot of discussion among people about how much water was getting sent to LA or the Central Valley. Of course because California is a very civilized, it never got into fisticuffs, but there’s definitely a lot of conflict going back three or four decades in California over this topic.
Steve: When you and I were in California, Corey, there was a lot of controversy over the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Do you remember this? Which is up in the Sierras. The idea, Betsy, I don’t know if you remember this, but they were going to dam up this river up in this valley and fill the valley and make a red giant reservoir, which is basically why Northern California has no water problems right now, because they did it.
Steve: At the time everybody said, well, you’re going to remove this … Suddenly, this one valley, which no one had ever heard of before, became like an uber important environmental because obviously I’m sure there are some unique species that we just lost. Basically, nobody as far as I can tell, remembers that controversy, which was in all the papers when you and I were in school. Now they just have good water supply and so there’s a big reservoir there where that valley was.
Betsy: The Hetch Hetchy is very old. The Hetch Hetchy dates to the beginning. It’s probably at least a century old. I’m not sure why it was in the news when you guys were there because it had been in place already for 60, 70 years by the time you guys got there.
Betsy: There are a lot of people who’d like to undam it. It was supposedly one of the most beautiful. It was another Yosemite. It’s as if you were sitting now, let’s just dam up Yosemite and put a reservoir there. There’s still a lot of people feel that the Hetch Hetchy never should have been dammed and who would like to see it undammed but as, as you’re suggesting that ain’t happening anytime soon.
Corey: Again, as a pessimists, I think you really got to just focus on these kinds of solutions and they’re often going to have obvious downsides. They may help mitigate climate rise. If you look around the globe, a lot of coastal cities are threatened. You wrote an article about Miami.
Corey: It seems pretty clear to me that people are not going to move out of Miami on mass. It’s just too nice a place to live. Miami is going to have to change. It’s going to change probably in the same way that New York is going to change. You’re going to be building extra land perhaps to protect existing residential areas. New York is planning to add two blocks to the east of the southern part of Manhattan in addition to seawalls.
Corey: My impression is a lot of people who are climate activists talk of this kind of thing as a kind of moral hazard. If you acknowledge that you’ve got to suck carbon out of the air. You’ve got to build seawalls. You’re taking pressure off from the desire to produce emissions. It just seems like this has given human nature and given the fact that people don’t respond unless as a catastrophe right at their doorstep, it’s where a lot of energy should be placed.
Betsy: I think that there’s a lot to unpack in what you just said. Let me try.
Betsy: One point to make is just starting in Miami. Miami has a unique, almost unique problem. It’s built on limestone. New York is built on bedrock. There, it is conceivable and much debated, I want to say in New York’s plan to sort of extend lower Manhattan and build up lower Manhattan so that we don’t lose Wall Street and things like that. I don’t know. That is in its early phase stages and nothing, no ground has been broken. Whether that is really a viable plan or not, I don’t know. I can’t comment on that.
Betsy: For Miami they have a particular problem because if you put up a seawall and you have this sort of spongy stuff underneath, the water just comes underneath so they cannot put up seawalls. I think everyone there, every civil engineer would tell you that. That’s not a viable alternative for Miami. What Miami is going to do? I certainly agree with you that there will be every effort made to preserve Miami because people live there and they love it and there’s huge economy there.
Betsy: Whether it is physically possible or not, I mean, there are certain problems that just even the most clever engineering can’t solve. Miami is potentially one of the, so we’re going to see. I think that the moral hazard of adaptation versus mitigation, reducing emissions, that debate, I think, is over. I think anyone you talk to, virtually, anyone you’ve talked to who’s really in this world will say, “Obviously, we’re going to have to do both.”
Betsy: The reason that we have to do both is there’s a lot of stuff built in and we’re not avoiding it. We’re not avoiding a lot of sea level rise at this point. Anyone who’s at all realistic will tell you that. The reason why you can’t do one and not the other is because, let’s say for a moment that New York’s plan is viable up to X amount of sea level rise, two feet, whatever it is, three feet.
Betsy: If you keep pouring CO2 into the air, you are going to exceed that very rapidly. There’s no plan that can deal with unlimited climate change. It simply is not possible. If you look at how much ice there is still locked up in Greenland and Antarctica, it’s dozens and dozens of feet of sea level rise. We can’t just adapt our way out of this without also reducing our emissions.
Betsy: I think if you actually blow through all the carbon that we have stored underground, people have done in fossil fuels, people have done in calculations. You will melt all of Antarctica. You will have vast tracks of the earth underwater at that point. These things have to be done in concert because otherwise you’re adapting to this constantly changing environment, which is very, very hard for any major city to do.
Betsy: If you have an infrastructure plan that takes 20, 30 years to implement and by the time you’re done it’s obsolete already. That’s obviously a recipe for disaster.
Corey: One of Steve and mine’s obsessions is with uncertainty. In many ways, science has an attempt to characterize uncertainty and to try to draw some conclusions even though it’s out there. Climate science is hard. It’s not experimental. You don’t bring in a population of rats and run intervention and then try to generalize that to people with a similar intervention.
Corey: It strikes me little like cosmology. It’s very observational. You’re making inferences about the future from the past. There’s a lot of uncertainty in a kind of models. I’m curious as to how you tried to approach that. Climate science is almost the nexus of a perfect storm epistemologically. It’s very political, it’s very uncertain, and you’re supposed to base public policy on this.
Corey: How do you try to approach it given essentially those three constraints? I’m not sure they’re quite constraints, but I think you see what I’m talking about.
Betsy: Yeah. I think that it’s very uncertain timing wise. It’s very uncertain where certain thresholds are. Absolutely. Those things are very uncertain, but certain things are actually very robust about climate science. It’s very robust that you have more CO2 to the air, you get out a certain temperature increase at the end. There’s a range of possibilities, but those are very robust. Okay. That’s one.
Betsy: You raise the temperature of the earth, you are going to melt a lot of ice. That’s extremely robust as well. Warm air holds more moisture. You’re going to get more evaporation. You’re going to get more water stress and you’re also going to get more flooding. Those are also very robust predictions.
Betsy: Then, the granular stuff about, okay, exactly where is that rain going to fall? Where is that hurricane going to make landfall? All that. That is very difficult. People are willing to roll the dice to a certain extent. I think that when I write about climate change, I’m pretty conservative. I don’t give you the most out there possibilities, but as they say, a lot of it is within a band of uncertainty. Is this robust?
Betsy: It’s basic geo science. I guess I would push back and say it ain’t rocket science. I mean it is actually pretty basic geophysics, which has been understood the first calculations of what would happen if you poured a lot of CO2 into the air were done by Svante Arrhenius back in the 1890s and they were actually pretty good calculations.
Steve: I have to now interject and reveal my, as the online people say, reveal my power level being a physicist and having looked carefully at this in recent years. There is a well understood effect, which is the absorption of CO2 in the atmosphere. It’s confined to a relatively small wavelength band. The effect is logarithmic. A doubling of CO2 density in the atmosphere causes equivalent shift in the temperature.
Steve: That aspect of it is well understood, but that only accounts for about one degree Celsius in, say, one degree Celsius per doubling of CO2. The really dramatic effects come from second order effects, like for example, changing the amount of cloud cover, the distribution of moisture in the atmosphere and things like that. Those are subject to pretty significant modeling uncertainties.
Steve: I believe if you look at the most, maybe I’ve not looked at the most recent one, but the next to most recent IPCC report still has a range of one and a half degrees Celsius to maybe three or four degrees Celsius per doubling of CO2 dense in the atmosphere. It’s a pretty extensive range. Some critics would even say the range could be even larger than what these guys say.
Steve: If I stay toward the low end of their range, then you can talk about a scenario where we do get some climate change maybe in our lifetimes. It isn’t even the catastrophic stuff yet. It’s just still linear, slight increase year by year two millimeters, I think, of sea level rise is what they measure at least recently and it seems to be still kind of linear.
Steve: I wouldn’t discount the tail risk that we encounter some really catastrophic stuff, but it could actually happen after like Corey and I are in our 50s. It potentially could happen after you and I are very alert. You know what I’m saying? It could be toward the end of our lives or after our lives or over. I don’t know. There’s just a tremendous amount of uncertainty in what’s really going to happen.
Betsy: Obviously, you’re right. There’s a big uncertainty range in the doubled CO2 what is the climate sensitivity. I do want to say at this point, we already have observed temperature increase of one degree C. The idea that it’s going to happen to be at the low end of that sensitivity, I don’t think many people in the climate world would say, I think that’s very likely, because of what we are seeing empirically out there already.
Betsy: If you look in sort of the mid-range of that uncertainty, it doesn’t sound like much. Two degrees or whatever, that doesn’t sound like much. Once again, if you look at empirical experience, okay, Australia is on fire, it turns out that our intuitive sense and as a physicist, you would have obviously a way better sense of this than I, our intuitive sense of what that means and what it actually means on the ground.
Betsy: It will be very patchy. I mean, as Corey was suggesting, it won’t be, and as you were suggesting won’t be universally true. That everyone will suffer the same. The unpredictable effects of climate change I think are what … it’s almost like a clan, but it’s the unknown unknowns that I think to me are really the most worrisome. We keep seeing effects that we did not anticipate. We didn’t expect that one. That was something that we just didn’t expect.
Betsy: That is true because of the interaction of the climate in biology. That’s what gets really, really complicated and in my view, pretty scary. The interaction with climate and biology and the introduction of climate and humanity has that socioeconomics. There’s a lot of unknowns there. Imagine that they’re all going to fall the right way. That takes a level of optimism that, to be honest, I don’t have.
Betsy: Many people are, on some level, betting with their feet as it were, but it’s hard for me to sign on to that just say okay, yeah. What are the odds of all of those things falling in the best way? I don’t think they’re very high.
Steve: I haven’t read the recent report, but I just pulled it up online. This is the 2019 IPCC report. In concordance with what you said Betsy. They say one degree of global warming Celsius, a degree of global warming above pre-industrial levels has already been observed error bar on that is about 0.2 degrees Celsius. It is pretty close to one degree Celsius.
Steve: Then, their projection, they say, “Global warming is likely to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052,” you and I are going to be pretty old in 2052, “if it continues to increase at the current rate.” Then, they say that’s a high confidence prediction. “With high confidence in the time range 2030 to 2050, 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
Steve: I mean, again, they could be 100% wrong in either direction, honestly, in my opinion. If I just accept their high confidence range during the rest of our lifetimes, our good brain functioning part of our lives, 1.5 degrees Celsius is what we’re talking about, maybe two degrees Celsius. Right?
Betsy: Yeah, no, absolutely. One of the reasons why this is really an intractable problem you could argue is because it has a big time lag. There’s a big time lag in the system. By the time we’ve guaranteed 1.5 degrees, which is basically now, right now. When you and I can sit here and say … you could say, we’re in our fifties, we’re not going to really suffer the worst of that. That’s absolutely true.
Betsy: That’s why Tom Berg is out there saying, “We are going to suffer that and get your act together.” I have a lot of sympathy for her and for the youth of the world.
Betsy: When I go talk to colleges, I always say to young people, “Yeah, I am not going to separate the worst of it and you may not suffer the worst of it, but you will be looking at a future that’s severely constrained by this and you should be pissed and you should be getting pissed at people like us who are not taking the responsible actions to secure a better future for you.” I think that, is that going to be the next huge generational divide? I don’t know. It should be.
Steve: By the way, just to clarify, I don’t know if I read this part. The 1.5 degrees Celsius high confidence, we’ll reach that between 2030 and 2052, that’s assuming we continue to increase carbon, CO2, levels at the current rate.
Betsy: Yes. Which I think is a pretty safe bed between now and 2030 which is only 10 years away. Yeah, no, absolutely. There’s a big intergenerational justice issue here. Very big.
Steve: I’m also a pessimist in the ability of human societies to look far ahead and make decisions for future generations that might cost the existing adults a lot of pain. I agree with you about pessimism in that way.
Corey: At the very least their vacations.
Steve: Yeah, yeah. Convenience. Let me give you a not completely crazy. Within these IPCC parameters, let me give you what I think is a not entirely crazy scenario, which isn’t that negative. Okay. We do hit this 1.5 C increase sometime between 2030 and 2050 but for example, better and better solar technology. Now, we are getting pretty good, so the per kilowatt hour cost of solar is getting down quite a bit, very competitive.
Steve: What’s lacking is battery technology because obviously if you collect a lot of solar power during the day, what are you going to do during the night? You need some way to store it. There’s a decent chance in the next 10, 20 years, which is what we’re talking about here, battery technology improves dramatically. Then, maybe we can bend the carbon curve down from where we are today.
Steve: Maybe by that time, there will be some sea level rise, there will be some extreme weather nastiness, et cetera, but not world ending catastrophic stuff. Some negative climate stuff, which I think will steal the will of people to implement. Okay, we’re going to push out charging stations and an electric car faster.
Steve: The world avoids complete meltdown. In other words, their technology is going to help us. There’s going to be some warming, but 20 years from now, people are taking it pretty seriously. We have qualitatively better technologies to generate power without carbon. Is that impossible? Is that not going to happen?
Corey: No, not at all.
Steve: Yeah, yeah.
Corey: I think it’s quite plausible actually. I’m actually not convinced that you’re going to get out of chaos with a 1.5 or two degree C rising. It’s quite possible human societies may adapt in really surprising ways. I think Canada will become much more populous over time. I think Arizona may cease to be the destination of people leaving the Northeast.
Corey: I don’t know if you saw the article in The TIMES recently, but many people in Phoenix becoming nocturnal because it’s just so hot during the day.
Betsy: Yeah. I think that you may be well be right and maybe there’s a more optimistic way to look and humans are very adaptable and very clever, absolutely. That’s why there are almost 8 billion of us on the planet, et cetera, et cetera.
Corey: I think some people are going to be screwed. Let me say that flat out right. People in South Asia, Africa, there’s going to be massive inequities, and there already are, in how people are going to be effected by this.
Steve: Yeah. I think this, if say two degrees is baked in by the end of our lives, yeah, they’re going to be a billion, maybe multi-billions of poor people in the global south that are going to suffer a lot. There’s probably …
Betsy: I also want to make the point, and I do think we’re seeing this already with just the beginnings of climate disruption, but simply because the world is globalized. People are on the move. They’re on the move for all sorts of reasons. We don’t react very well to that. You might’ve noticed that there’s a wall going up on the southern border.
Betsy: This idea that Canada will become a better place and everyone will move there, and what’s the big deal? That’s nice on some theoretical level, but I don’t see it on a practical level. I think that those dislocations, that’s exactly what worries me. What happens when a billion people are on the move?
Corey: Yeah, I think we’ve probably seen it even in more radical form in Europe. People leaving Africa trying to get to Europe.
Betsy: Yeah, yeah.
Steve: I would almost say that in this mild, maybe you would say somewhat optimistic view of what might happen with climate. It could be that the amount of migration pressure on Europe is actually greater just due to high birth rates right now in Africa. Because if you just look at the birth rates in Africa, there’s going to be an extra billion Africans. It’s quite close to Europe. If you look at the map, they just need to get across the Mediterranean.
Steve: I think migration as pressure on developed societies is not going to go away for sure. Climate may not be the biggest driver of it actually. It could be population, just population demographics.
Corey: Yeah. I expect both will be forces.
Corey: Because a lot of this foreign land in Africa is going to become unviable.
Corey: It’s borderline unviable now.
Steve: Again, I’m not a real expert on climate, but I seem to recall the statement that the effects were least around the equator actually. The heating is mainly concentrated furthest away from the equator.
Corey: No, it was really, really spotty. The map I saw showed lots of warming in Africa.
Corey: We can look at it again.
Steve: Yeah. As dubious as I am about the actual point estimates for average global temperature increase, any geographical stuff, I’m a hundred percent dubious of that they can forecast.
Betsy: Right. This, I think, is even more relevant on some level when it comes to agriculture is precipitation and that is really hard to predict. I think people would probably say the modeling getting better, but is it the absolute temperature or as you’ve seen in Australia to a certain extent, is it not getting any rain?
Corey: Yeah. So far, this conversation has been very anthropocentric focusing almost exclusively on us. The Sixth Extinction is really about nonhuman animals and the effects of climate change on them.
Corey: I’m just curious, you profile a range of scientists looking at a range of species there. Have you stayed in touch with them since then? Have you heard reports on how some of these species are faring, and what they might be doing to protect them?
Betsy: I’ve stayed in touch with some of them definitely. The scary thing about the book is that everything that people were worried about has come true. It’s once again, one of those things where even faster than you thought.
Betsy: For example, there’s a chapter about the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef bleached really badly in 2016, 2017. Big stretches of the reef were very seriously affected, dead, dying. That’s something that people said, once again, that same people were saying, “If we keep going at this rate, we’ll see this in a few decades.” Then they were hit with it way sooner than people thought they were going to see it. That’s something that has happened faster and more furiously.
Betsy: In the book, I talk about the Sumatran Rhino, efforts to save the Sumatran Rhino, which is a species that was seen at that point to be down to 200 individuals. I think now people would say it’s down to a hundred individuals. It’s been real a catastrophe. I think that the odds of that species are really, really magnificent species making it through this century, making it to the middle of the century are not great at this point. That’s something that’s very sad.
Betsy: What other species are we talking about? There’s been a lot of bad news lately. Insects are collapsing. In North America, we just got a report that the number of birds in North America had fallen by a quarter over the last few decades. There’s a lot of really bad news about other species that keeps hitting us.
Corey: As far as I understand, some of the theories on insect collapse are that they’re due to land use, changes in pesticides in part. It seems like it’s a combination of factors.
Corey: I’m not sure if you know this, but I was really curious about whether there have been aggressive efforts to preserve some of these species essentially in the freezer, storing DNA, storing cell lines in the freezer of the laboratory. Because it seems like it’s probably not too far away for the technology to bring back some of these species, whether by cloning them and transplanting the fabricated gametes into other hosts. Or, maybe some kind of artificial preserve. Was there any discussion of that?
Betsy: Yeah. In San Diego, there’s a thing called the frozen zoo. They are trying to collect DNA tissue. It’s actually a really interesting question, whether they have insects. I don’t know what their preservation techniques are for insects, but they certainly have. I know they have a lot of birds and now mammalian tissue, amphibian tissue, reptile.
Betsy: Yeah, people are out there trying to freeze as much as much as they can. Yeah. They would not necessarily say, for resurrection purposes, but as things become rare, you might want to go back and look and see what genetics you’re missing that you used to have, so there’s a lot of work being done on that. For example, let’s go see, even in museum samples, can we see where we’ve lost diversity in the genome, things like that. Yeah.
Corey: As I was reading The Sixth Extinction, I realized there was a collision between couple of different priorities in the world. One is preserving the species. Now, there’s the fight against invasive species. I think at some point you say that these species have to move north at about 30 miles a year to survive, which makes them by definition, invasive species in some area by the time they’re going to survive.
Corey: It just occurred to me that we might want to encourage a certain amount of invasion if the risk is that you’re going to lose a megafauna. You don’t want to do this for everything but a megafauna at some point. You have to disrupt some of our principles.
Betsy: I do want to say, I don’t think that people consider, if you used to occupy a contiguous territory and you’re on the move or into climate change, I don’t know what the definition of invasive is. I think it’s rare that people would consider that a range shift. Invasives tend to be things that have moved across entire oceans, entire continents or two continents. I don’t want to say there isn’t a big gray area there, but a range shift versus … you got transported across a continent, across a water body.
Betsy: Those are usually pretty easy for the big invasive species, they’re like the hundred top worst invasive species in the world. Those are very clearly things that humans moved around on ships, usually very long distances. They came to a place, they had no predators. That’s a big part of being very successful. You’ve lost your predators, you left them 5,000 miles behind, and your diseases and your pathogens.
Betsy: If I’m just doing a range shift, my pathogens are coming with me, quite possibly my predators are coming with me. It has a very different biological. I’m carrying with me a whole suite of things that are likely to keep my population in control and why invaders can grow explosively is because they leave all that behind.
Corey: Is there any thought to have controlled range shifts for populations that are facing temperatures that are so high?
Betsy: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. People talk about this. Should you have these planned translocations, get things, move things with the climate. Because another thing that’s happening and much more to be honest concerning then are things going to shift their ranges and be considered invasive is, are things not going to be able to shift their range because there’s a shopping mall in there. Because there’s New York City sitting in place L.A., sitting in place.
Betsy: What are you going to do if you need to shift your range, but you can’t? Should humans be basically lifting you across that obstacle? Yeah, that’s going to be a big topic of conversation. I think people have been opposed to it saying, “How do we know where exactly to move things? Blah, blah, blah.” Yes, that’s definitely a conversation.
Steve: Can we think of any plausible way that the world gets organized in the next decade or two to actually fight climate change? I just read something saying that the outcome of the Paris Accords on climate change basically had no effect whatsoever on the rate of warming that that was basically negligible. Can we imagine a collective action that will actually fix things? Make a difference?
Betsy: I think we can imagine it, absolutely. If you have a good imagination, you can imagine anything.
Steve: How about something Corey would find plausible?
Betsy: That Corey would find plausible? It’s hard. It’s damn hard. Right now, if we had a different group of people in the White House, maybe it would be possible. How’s that? Because I think that the US is still the world’s largest cumulative emitter, though it is no longer the largest emitter on annual basis. China is. The leadership of the US and the leadership of China, they can determine the outcome for everybody else basically.
Betsy: Our leadership, as I don’t need to tell to you is grim. The Trump administration has petition to withdraw from Paris, which you cannot do technically until after the next election. We’ll see what happens. In addition to that, they have just, and I think one … of all the many, many terrible things they’ve done, they’ve tried to unravel literally … I shouldn’t say literally, they’ve tried to unravel every action the Obama administration took to try to reduce emissions, and then they’d kept going. They’re now attacking laws that have been on the books.
Betsy: NEPA was one of the first big environmental review laws enacted in 1970. They’re trying to …
Corey: What did it state?
Betsy: NEPA requires environmental review for big projects. You’re putting in a pipeline. All big infrastructure projects have to go through this environmental review process. It can take years and it really slows things down, and of course, pipeline developers hate it, et cetera, but it’s really important for community input, all of those things that … and for slowing down and potentially stopping projects that shouldn’t be built.
Betsy: The Trump administration, this has been on the books as I say, since 1970 and the regs have not been changed very much since 1970. Lo and behold, the Trump administration is trying to just basically rewrite the regs. Unclear, if that’s legal or not, and in favor of the developers of largely fossil fuel infrastructure.
Betsy: The last thing that we need to be doing, building more fossil fuel infrastructure. I think we can all agree on that. Whatever, whether you think this problem is manageable or you think it’s not manageable, building more fossil fuel infrastructure is not the right thing to be doing right now.
Corey: Yeah. This is something that’s been really striking as you must be fully aware. The fact that US has come to produce so much energy from natural gas has become incredibly attractive.
Betsy: And oil.
Corey: And oil, yeah. It’s very difficult, because it’s a boon for us economically, and it’s extremely hard to imagine us turning off that money spigot.
Betsy: Yeah, yeah.
Corey: I’m not really aware of countries foregoing such large segments of their economy willfully. It’s just too attractive.
Steve: I think one example is Germany actually is paying tremendously high prices for their electricity because they have implemented solar and alternative methods for producing that electricity. They are paying an economic price for it and they’re doing it. They’ve created a market for solar panels and things like that. That’s a positive example.
Betsy: That’s true. They have a lot of really dirty coal that they are not using. Yes, there’s one example, we can come one.
Steve: Yeah. It’s possible, but can you come up with a scenario that you would believe that say, 10, 15 years from now, the whole world becomes like Germany? I can imagine it if solar prices continue to come down and battery technology gets really good, then no brainer. You just kind of switch over and that’s the most positive thing I can come up with.
Corey: It’s effective what happened to coal in some sense, natural gas got so cheap that people began to move away from coal. Yeah, if there’s a similar scenario of solar, then I could imagine it happening.
Steve: The Chinese government is, because they have control of their economy, they’re single handedly solving the chicken and egg problem by just putting in massive numbers of charging stations all over the country and giving huge rebates for people who buy electric cars.
Steve: They are going to create that ecosystem basically by force, which western governments can’t do. That will help I think.
Corey: As we talked about in our podcast with Bruno Macaes, they’re also offshoring their energy production via coal to Pakistan. They’re playing both hands. Playing the clean hand in China and the dirty hands in Pakistan.
Steve: Sure. That’s how the incentives work.
Corey: Yeah. Betsy, I don’t want to keep it for too long, but I want to contemplate another very dire dark possibility. You’ve written about both AI and climate change. You’re familiar with the concept of the singularity.
Corey: I want to know, what do you see as a greater threat to humanity over the next hundred years runaway AI technology or runaway climate change?
Betsy: I’m sticking with climate change. I dance with the one who brought you. I’m going to stick with climate change, but I do one thing that I think … I’m by no expert on AI. I think that AI is going to radically change, once again in a social sense, a sense of even if long before we get to the singularity, no one’s going to have a job and that’s already happening.
Betsy: We’re going to see the hollering out of our economy and people keep scratching their heads about why do we have such a strong economy and wage growth is so bad. I’m no economist, but I would strongly suspect that automation and AI play a big role in that. Because you just don’t need any people anymore.
Betsy: The combination of a lot of social change in a very small amount of time combined with climate change, you could say, you could argue and I think it’s a good argument and I’ll make it … and this is the argument that people make for things like the Green New Deal. There’s a huge infrastructure project to be built to alter economy. It would be good for our economy, to give people jobs, up and down the pay scale all over the country. That would be very, very positive thing, both in terms of climate change and in terms of the job market.
Betsy: That’s a win-win. It has that potential way out of this. Then, another one, just last point I will leave you with too is, one of the reasons that economists would say, okay, we’re always going to be leaning towards adaptation measures as opposed to reducing our mission measures is because those dollars too are spent locally and create jobs locally.
Betsy: If I’m going to put a sea wall around Manhattan, that’s a huge number of construction jobs. A lot of people will get behind that. Whereas if I say, okay, everyone in New York, let’s have our emissions, not a lot of people are going to get behind that. You can see there’s an asymmetry there.
Corey: I think there’s also a clear asymmetry of the stuff we already talked about, which is AI’s hollowing out of the employment landscape is going to be very, very selective. As a result, I think, a lot of people who are fairly affluent and have jobs that are hard to automate are obviously not at secret risk.
Betsy: Yeah. I read a very compelling study. I think it was out of MIT about, they had divided jobs into four quadrants. They were all a matter of repetition, how repetitive things were. There are a lot of white collar jobs. They’re not necessarily CEO, but they’re billing, they’re accounting, they’re those sorts of things.
Betsy: You can see it in your own life. The people that used to deal with in your bank or whatever who are not there anymore because we don’t need any people. I agree those are not top one percent jobs, but they’re a big quadrant of white collar jobs that are in danger. Then, the other jobs that are very hard to automate are very at the bottom of the pay scale. They’re people who are home health care workers and things like that. That’s very hard to automate.
Betsy: These MIT guys were seeing, there are going to be at least two kinds of jobs. One white collar, very creative jobs that aren’t repetitious and the very hard to automate because they’re just so in someone’s home, that sort of thing. They’re very, very hard to automate as well.
Steve: Yeah. At the high end, you could have radiologists for example, that are put out of work by.
Betsy: Yes, absolutely.
Corey: That’s already happening. Yeah, AI has been successful there. Maybe not most GPS.
Steve: Even with telesurgery and things like that, you could have, or I don’t know, you could have a robot that’s really good at just closing, so the surgeon goes away and it closes, so who knows.
Betsy: Yeah, no, absolutely. Absolutely.
Corey: Thank you, Betsy. This has been a really, really pleasurable conversation.
Steve: Thank you very much.
Betsy: Thank you, both. It was fun.