Never so much in common as this

Reminiscent of the fabled National Debt clock, Bloomberg Green sports a running, parts per million CO2 counter that clicks up and down at various speeds depending on, well, you can check it out.

Despite some with fancy hats acting interested in horse racing, versus others in famine-plagued refugee camps, there is a great bit of unanimity of experience in our current moment. Some dissonance concerning the effect of heat on the Miami Grand Prix notwithstanding, the inability to escape the unusual effects of global warming unites us all, on a way. Not the good kind, yet still, unity toutefois.

One of the questions is whether this great common crisis may elicit in us urgency for collective action that serves the greater good. And yes, cynicism circles the globe twice every morning before hopefulness pours its first cup. But this forced grouping of everyone with everyone else no matter your station under the banner of This Is Happening kicks our profit-maximizing distraction seeking onto a side street. And you know how people like to browse.

There are many things to see. Maybe you consider picking up something special – like something for someone everyone else.

Fighting emissions with AI

Fossil fuel-derived emissions, that is. Ahem.

So… some of the coverage of COP28, when it’s not debating whether science supports eliminating all fossil fuels, has of course focused on our latest and shiniest of objects, AI.

Artificial intelligence has been a breakout star in the opening days of COP28, the United Nations climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Entrepreneurs and researchers have dazzled attendees with predictions that the fast-improving technology could accelerate the world’s efforts to combat climate change and adapt to rising temperatures.

But they have also voiced worries about A.I.’s potential to devour energy, and harm humans and the planet.

We should just go with ‘machine learning’ but that train has apparently left the barn, been sold for parts and reassembled as an uncanny train. But there is a direct conflict with using inordinate computer power to push giant algorithms to solve immense problems, namely the word ‘power.’

Leaders at the companies developing A.I. technology have already cautioned that it could someday pose a risk of extinction to humanity, on par with nuclear war. Researchers at COP28 have focused on a different risk — that the computing power required to run advanced A.I. could be enormous. That electricity appetite could send emissions soaring and make climate change worse.

A peer-reviewed analysis published in October estimated that A.I. systems worldwide could use as much energy in 2027 as all of Sweden. That would almost certainly add to emissions, even though countries are lagging on their pledges to cut them. (A Boston Consulting Group study for Google also noted that powering A.I. would quite likely require vast quantities of water and produce an increasing amount of waste.)

So, here’s your query, Alexa/Google/Siri: if super-computing will require all of the energy we produce – what is energy or super-computing for?

Image: remember Fantastic Contraption?

In as much as especially concerning

the future, a significant amount of energy and attention continues to be paid to pointless distractions – and this is certainly not referring to Barbie, good grief, which is entirely legitimate cultural production compared to

Influencers Built This Wellness Startup

Anything related to hyper loops or one-way tunnels, ‘crazy golf’, or fiat money. Hardly an exhaustive list, play along at home.

If the whole artifice rests on ‘there is only so much attention’ (bandwidth in the common parl) then lettuce take that idea to heart. Frivolous at this point is tantamount to dangerous and irresponsible. Concern about not bumming people out in proximity to the imminent collapse of the Gulf Stream leads to, let’s say, an incoherent narrative.

Priority has never been our muse, with one or two exceptions, but let’s get organized. At least theoretically imagining the painful stuff first – what would you be willing to give up? Just go ahead and get it out of the way, at least mentally, because that seems to be what frightens people the most. So, pop the bubble: imagine a world without cruises – no, go deeper – cars! Ouch. But see – that’s where to start.

Even the intention could begin to help (us) re-organize how we think about what we think about. Envision liberation, rather than ignore the possibility of collapse.

Image: Peace. Solemnity. Liberation by Aristarkh Lentulov (1917)

And they just said No

Maybe because it leans the wrong way, against the grain/norm/whatever, but this is the kind of dissonant outcome that can be difficult to fit into the pro-business framing of most news reporting:

The US Supreme Court turned away oil-company appeals that sought a key procedural edge in about two dozen lawsuits blaming the industry for contributing to climate change.

The justices Monday refused to consider shifting the lawsuits into federal court, where corporate defendants often fare better. The companies say the suits are governed entirely by federal law, giving them the right to move them out of state court.

In the lead appeal, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Suncor Energy Inc. sought to transfer a suit by two Colorado counties and the city of Boulder. The lawsuit contends the oil companies should compensate taxpayers for the increased cost of maintaining roads and fighting forest fires.

At issue was a legal doctrine known as removal, which lets defendants in many cases shift the forum for lawsuits filed in state court. In the Colorado case, a Denver-based federal appeals court said Exxon and Suncor lacked grounds to remove the suit because Colorado state law governs the claims.

Legacy Guilded Age damage usually allows companies preference to advance appeals claims on practically any point where they are held to account, but this time the court just said no. Of course, Alito recused as a stockholder in at least one of the parties(!) and Kavanaugh would have granted the case. But still, appeal denied.

So maybe the lesson is to keep yelling.

Image: Supreme Court portico, via wikimedia commons

Slutty carbon

Sure, it will bond to any old thing – just a fun-loving, good time chemical element with the symbol C and atomic number 6. Call anytime.

And though carbon is not magnetic, it does attract kooks. Okay, no harm there, chacun à son goût and all that. We’re not all kooks. We even devise ways around it – solar, wind, other means of generating that dirty dirty electricity that we enjoy so much. And you won’t believe what happens next:

This scene from the village council meeting in June helps to explain why opponents of three solar projects proposed in Pickaway County, Ohio, can say they have the support of nearly every local elected official. It shows how a committed group of local residents have dominated the debate by packing county, village and township meetings, and making their displeasure known if officials don’t fall into line.

The prevailing emotion is fear, whether it’s fear of the solar projects—or fear of upsetting the people who oppose the projects.

And the local fight has broad implications. The world needs to increase its reliance on renewable energy, an essential part of avoiding the most destructive effects of climate change. Local opposition shows some of the disconnect between global needs and the concerns of some of the people who don’t want to live next door to wind and solar projects.

It’s a little beyond as well as different from traditional NIMBYism, though also quite similar in several ways, as the locals literally don’t want to be living next to utility-scale solar. They don’t want to see it and they don’t want to hear it. Though it’s not a discussion about energy and how they get it at all. “Just leave us alone,” they might say, then step back inside and to watch the ballgame. And there’s the rub.

Whether we blame them for not wanting to connect their own usage of dirty energy to their passions for their freedom not to see it, or blame the local school district that benefits from the increase in tax revenue for not being more vocal in their support for the solar projects, the moment and the conflicts should be noted. The difficulty of telling nominally self-governing people what to do when their own understanding of any right thing is itself in conflict with abstractions like freedom is certainly one of the more devious tricks slutty carbon has played on us.

It’s sort of a next-level struggle with renewables that has nothing to do with energy – because focused on how we’re gonna watch the game or dry the clothes, or even live that far from the grocery store [don’t get me started], the question changes entirely. At least the NIMBYism is familiar.

Image: Carbon–carbon bonds get a break | Nature

An oil rig in the wind

There’s a broad truth about solar power – that more energy hits the Earth every morning than every person on it uses in 27 years. It’s the challenge of the harnessing that energy and making it available for everyone that continues to vex.

But buried in an article about wind turbines in the Gulf of Mexico is this little corollary gem:

Wind turbines in the Gulf of Mexico could generate up to 508 gigawatts of electricity, according to a 2020 study by the National Renewable Energy Lab, twice as much energy as Gulf states cumulatively consume. The 700,000-acre area the Biden administration now wants to open up for wind farm development could eventually supply enough electricity for over three million homes, according to a White House fact sheet.

Emphasis added. I mean, come on. There it is, and not to mention other recent stories about have these wind turbines installed by oil rig workers, otherwise known as cowboys already accustomed to working on dangerous platforms out in the ocean.

To repeat: come on.

Image source

If it woes, it leads

We’re backing into the climate future/present with woes leading the way. It’s the perfect media framing and supports the status quo – yes everything is awful. We’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas, let’s see how we can keep cheap gas going a little bit longer. It’s this way, in part, because ALL of the progress is boring. For instance, wide bandgap:

Silicon and silicon carbide are useful in electronics because they are semiconductors: They can switch between being electrical conductors, as metals are, and insulators, as most plastics are. This ability makes semiconductors the key materials in transistors — the fundamental building blocks of modern electronics.

Silicon carbide differs from silicon in that it has a wide bandgap, meaning that it requires more energy to switch between the two states. Wide bandgap, or WBG, semiconductors are advantageous in power electronics because they can move more power more efficiently.

Silicon carbide is the senior citizen of WBGs, having been under development as a transistor material for decades. In that time, engineers have started using younger upstart WBG materials, like gallium nitride, or GaN. In the 1980s, researchers used gallium nitride to create the world’s first bright blue LEDs. Blue light comprises high-energy photons; gallium nitride, with its wide bandgap, was the first semiconductor that could practically produce photons with the sufficient energy. In 2014, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for that innovation, which became ubiquitous in devices like TV screens and light bulbs.

Lately, researchers have started using gallium nitride to improve power electronics. The material reached commercial fruition over the past few years in adapters for charging phones and computers. These adapters are smaller, lighter, faster-charging and more efficient than traditional ones that use silicon transistors.

“A typical charger that you buy for your computer is 90 percent efficient,” said Jim Witham, chief executive of GaN Systems, a Canadian company that supplied the transistors in Apple’s gallium-nitride laptop chargers, which were released last fall. “Gallium nitride is 98 percent efficient. You can cut power losses by four times.”

Keep going, science.

What can you see from your car?

Or truck.

Other cars, lane lines, hopefully*. Traffic lights, parking lots. Some trees, a pedestrian*. A cyclist**.

A sidewalk – don’t stop looking at your phone.

Without a shift in perspective, it’s readily seen how none of this changes until people get out from behind the windshield. And no one will make you – that’s not how this works, at least not here, not yet. The costs could sway your decision-making, you could think about doing something differently. Not because you have to, but because you’re curious. You don’t live out in the country, but you also can’t quite walk to the store, much less to work. Still, you want to check out the view, have a look at the street from up close, from the other side of the windshield.

The prospect of seeing other drivers, reifying our fellow road-users, in recent parlance, into something other than the abstractions that we experience, which allow us to disconnect what we are doing from the consequences of doing it. That abstraction is what has to go. And if it’s only that, maybe we won’t feel like we’re losing so much.

See how fun this is? Fiddling with ways to trick ourselves into doing what’s best. So very child-like, this dependence on unsupportable habits to maintain, to remain in, abstract suspension, protected from the outside and other people, things that don’t actually mean us harm. “But I need to get from here to there,” though I don’t want to re-consider here or there. Just want to stay wrapped in this steel cocoon.

Conveyance. Economic drivers. These notes for later betray an urgency beneath the wheels, outside the windows.

Re-enforcing the Supply lines

So… one man’s colossal miscalculation is another man’s a planet’s sped-up timeline for addressing climate change? I’m not trying not to see it that way, and energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins doesn’t need to convince me. But the winds are at somebody’s back:

Lovins, an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, has been one of the world’s leading advocates and innovators of energy conservation for 50 years. He wrote his first paper on climate change while at Oxford in 1968, and in 1976 he offered Jimmy Carter’s government a blueprint for how to triple energy efficiency and get off oil and coal within 40 years. In the years since there is barely a major industry or government that he and his Rocky Mountain Institute have not advised.
But for much of that time efficiency was seen as a bit of an ugly sister, rather dull compared with a massive transition to renewables and other new technologies. Now, he hopes, its time may have come. Lovins is arguing for the mass insulation of buildings alongside a vast acceleration of renewables. “We should crank [them] up with wartime urgency. There should be far more emphasis on efficiency,” he says.
He sees Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine as an outrage, but possibly also a step towards solving the climate crisis and a way to save trillions of dollars. “He has managed to bring about all the outcomes that he most feared, but he may inadvertently have put the energy transition and climate solutions into a higher gear. Whether or not we end up in a recession because of the disruption, [Putin’s war] may prove to be a great thing for climate economics.”

As he explains, solar and wind are among the cheapest bulk power sources, and Putin’s authoritarian misadventure has put energy externalities in the center of the frame.

Again, it’s the boringest, not-technology solutions that have the greatest effect. And there’s a lot to reckon with in what he says about nuclear:

The most energy-inefficient design of all, he says, may be nuclear power, which is heavily subsidised, costly and pushed by a politically powerful lobby. Using it to address shortages of electricity or to counter climate change, he argues, is like offering starving people rice and caviar when it’s far cheaper and easier to give just rice.

The dated conversation

People are shocked! “Shocked” at gas prices. How long have we been having this conversation? Corollary – how long have we been avoiding this conversation?

Obviously, everyone and their mother is mad, mad, mad about the high price of gas, in part because Americans now are back to driving just about as much as they did before the pandemic. We’re not going to the office, but we’re not staying home. From Virginia to Colorado, drivers are liable to pull up to the pump and be greeted with a sticker of Joe Biden, pointing at their total: “I DID THAT!”

A look back at 2011 suggests an interesting counterfactual: What if, facing those high prices, we had made changes on the demand side instead? Believe it or not, this was what some people thought might happen. President Barack Obama took that moment (and the conditions created by the auto bailout) to set new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, known as CAFE, which put in place ambitious fuel efficiency goals for automakers. “Slowly but surely Detroit is shifting its attention from SUVs to cars,” All Things Considered reported in March of that year.

You won’t believe what happened next! It’s all ugh. I don’t wish anybody ill on this point. It’s certainly not enjoyable to being filling up on $4.39 per gallon multiple times in a week, but come on. The conversation about more roads all-the-time, living rilly rilly far from work, school, shopping goes back quite a bit farther than 2011. It’s not just smaller cars but a whole suite of living conditions that continue to be – ta-da! – unworkable, which should be the new unsustainable. The larger unworkable situation – sprawl, mostly non-existent public transit, and yes, gigantic vehicles – makes $4 gas that much more painful, as well as Groundhog Day all over and over again.

[You] Make it stop.