Greta Thunberg’s Climate Emergency Challenge

For the past few months I’ve been struggling to sort out why very little has been being done to address the biggest issue that faces humanity today. That is, the Climate Emergency. I’ve been digging more deeply into the scientific understandings we have gained, and into the range of solutions being proposed, and into the rationales provided as to why the problem and its sub-problems are impossible.

Since I have spent my life working on solving big problems, and participating in efforts to achieve what the conventional wisdom declares as impossible, this is familiar territory. And as an engineer I have a different approach that often creates a more successful result. The core issue is that what makes a problem look impossible quite often is due to unconscious assumptions made in stating the problem itself, or in limitations imposed on the solution without recognizing that they ought to be disregarded.

So starting with this post, I’ve decided to start to present an engineering perspective, one focused on reducing the impossible to possibility, being very careful and as rigorous as I can be with myself.

I found it extremely useful to listen to two speeches by Greta Thunberg over the past few months. Greta is not an engineer or a problem solver, but she is a very clear thinker and speaker. She speaks very simply, without nuance, and very directly. This is refreshing. I’ll summarize two key points she’s made.

  • First, she argues that the science is clear, and pretty simple. And it indicates very clearly where we, as human civilization stand today – what faces us, and more importantly, exactly why it does. The IPCC reports culminating in the latest ones in 2018 and 2019 are very clear, extremely well researched and very thoroughly supported by scientifically sound evidence. She says we must “listen to the science”.
  • Second, she very clearly states what the science indicates must be our goal, as humanity acting collectively, if we want to avoid the worst of the catastrophe facing us over the rest of the 21st century and beyond. She doesn’t state how we must achieve this goal. She just states the goal in very simple terms. Again, based in the science, one can derive a very specific goal we must meet, however we can meet it.

For a concise transcript supporting what follows see the summary transcript of Greta’s speech in Madrid at the COP25 UN meeting, or the video of her short speech. Or for the deeper scientific support, see the 2018 IPCC report (page 108, table 2.2, 67 % likelihood of 1.5 degree limitation) itself, where it specifically states the goal, below.

The goal can be simply stated, in two constraints, using round numbers. The goal comes from IPCC, based on conservative scientific analysis and the vast datasets of data collected over the past 30 years or so by researchers studying the earth’s dynamic response to “greenhouse gases” that stay in the atmosphere once emitted. It’s not the only possible goal, but it seems to be a sound goal that should lead to a good outcome. The goal is stated in measurable and controllable form, appropriate for an engineering project. The measure is based on human emissions of greenhouse gases, in units of GigaTons of CO2-equivalent gas.

  • The Emission Budget Starting now, the entire human species’s activities must not emit any more than about 350 GigaTons of CO2 -equivalent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, ever. That’s our budget. Not an annual budget, but a cumulative budget, at which point we hit a cliff of no return.
  • The Zero Emissions Deadline Our current net human-caused CO2-equivalent emission rate is around 45 GigaTons per year. We must bring this number to zero emissions per year before 2030, that is, over the next ten years at most.

Simple arithmetic shows that we will exhaust the Emission Budget in 8 years, if we just continue with the current emission rate, and if we allow that rate to increase as we have been every year, we have less than 8 years.

Greta also points out additional goals we must address, the problem of mitigating severe impact on vulnerable regions and peoples, due to increasing risks caused by a much higher energy climate system that drives extreme winds, changes in ocean currents, and changes in the water cycle (rain, snow, melt, and drought). That’s because even if we meet the two emissions goals, the climate and circulation of water resources will be altered, irreversibly.

If we meet the emissions goals, these big climate impacts should be of a manageable scale. They can be handled by us as a civilization. Otherwise we will be in uncharted territory, where the changes will be so far outside our scientific understanding as to be unpredictable. Climate and weather systems dynamics are known to be chaotic, such that small changes have catastrophic and irreversible effects. Irreversible means that if we change the greenhouse gases too much, merely bringing them back to the same level again will not return the system to its prior behavior. That is, like letting a pot boil away water, and then cooling the pot again, the water will not return to the pot so that it fills back up the way it was when it started. The planet is not a stable system that restores itself automatically. There is no predictable restoration process. built into nature. If you are flying an airplane and it “stalls”, there is little hope that any control input can restore it to normal flight. or its original flight plan.

So, we, the people sharing the Earth, need to take control, deliberately, now, staying within understood bounds.

Science doesn’t tell us how specifically to take control. That’s why Greta and most of the scientists working on this problem have no simple answers. There is no single simple answer, just a set of constraints, tight ones.

I think that Greta has done a great job of summarizing the science and the constraints we face in solving them. What she and the scientists have not yet done is to work out a solution. That’s not their skill set.

Who solves these kinds of problems? That is, problems where science describes the problem clearly. The answer is clear.

Engineering and engineers solve such problems. Engineers are different from scientists qualitatively, though they are often lumped together. Rather than describing and modeling systems, engineers are trained to explore the solution space, selecting from known alternatives, to put together a system that will work to solve the presented problem.

This is not what is done by government officials, political organizations, policy wonks, activists, etc. While those professions are important, without engineering at the center they are lacking.

Merely consulting scientists is not the answer – they can describe the problem, explain the workings of climate systems, and to some extent predict what will happen if certain conditions are changed.

This is not what is done by Entrepreneurs, CEOs, Managers or Venture Capitalists FInanciers either. Again, engineering must be at the center of the effort – CEOs, Managers, VCs, financiers are important to support engineering-based solutions when they are implemented, but they have little value without solid engineering and project planning.

So, for this part of Greta’s challenge to us all, ending burning of hydrocarbons and coal by 2030 without exceeding the cumulative emissions budget, we need a workable engineering plan. Of course, this zeroing of carbon burning is only part of what we must do – the resulting climate changes once we eliminate such burning will still be massive. We will need a plan for handling the effect of those climate changes, such as climate refugees, agricultural disruptions due to flooding and drought, etc. over the next decades starting in the 2020’s, and continuing into the rest of the 21st centuruy.

What I’m doing and will be doing

I’ve been researching and learning about the engineering options that we have to achieve the end of all carbon burning by 2030, with the goal of developing a workable plan, at multiple scales — the individual human, the community, the nation, and the world. I’m particularly interested in the individual and the community, because a remarkable portion of the problem can be addressed by individual scale and community scale engineering initiatives. Perhaps that seems counter-intuitive, because so much of current discussion of responses assumes top-down command and control from World Leaders. However, most of the engineering effort must be local, and decentralized, not global and centralized. I will be discussing the global impact of local action more in future posts.

Financing a proposed plan, orchestrating it, distributing the work, etc. are crucial to the feasibility of implementing any plan. However, it is important not to place the cart before the horse. We need to understand the plan first.

That’s what has been ignored for decades. Rather than starting with a plan, focus has been on the politics and financing, without any plan at all. I guess the hope is that once we have “financing” or “political will” or “a treaty”, the plan will be determined by what we can afford, who is put in charge, …

Frankly, that approach is ridiculous. It leads to meaningless debate and polarized discussion, not about achieving a goal, but about kicking the can around. Much of the discussion is focused on placing blame, with the idea that those who are blamed will figure out what to do.

A far more productive approach is to explore the engineering options and construct one or more complete plans that achieve the goal, prior to any process of “execution” of the plan.

So I’m focusing on developing the elements of a feasible plan, based on known, proven technologies and coordinated, but decentralized efforts. Obviously there may be alternative plans to get to the same goal. But today there are none at all, just buzzwords like “hydrogen economy” or “deindustrialization” or “carbon offsets”, even “green new deals”, “Drawdown” and “climate justice”. While these are pretty nice slogans, there is no plan that achieves Greta’s challenge in any of the sloganeering.

I will be diving into the construction of such an engineering plan in my future posts. While I may touch on politics and financing in the process, the plan will not be designed based on political or financing decisions. In my view, those must be tuned to achieve the plan, and not the reverse.