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#95- What You Need To Know About Climate Change A Conversation with Joseph Romm

 
Nhoj Morley
 
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Nhoj Morley
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05 September 2017 16:01
 

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Joseph Romm about how the climate is changing and how we know that human behavior is the primary cause. They discuss why small changes in temperature matter so much, the threats of sea-level rise and desertification, the best and worst case scenarios, the Paris Climate Agreement, the politics surrounding climate science, and many other topics.

#95- What You Need To Know About Climate Change A Conversation with Joseph Romm

This thread is for listeners’ comments.

 
JasonC
 
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05 September 2017 23:42
 

I was happy to see Sam finally breaking into this topic but disappointed with the choice of Joe Romm. While I can agree with him on all the points he made about climate change, being a protege from the Amory Lovins school of anti-nuclearism he fits in the renewables-can-do-it-all camp vs. the pro-nuclear side. These are the two factions fighting a “war” of ideas on how best to address the solutions side of climate change.

When Sam asked about nuclear, I must have experienced the same cringe he describes when listening to the cable news media discuss firearms. This is not a topic to be taken lightly and skim over. After studying the topic for over 20 years, I still feel there’s so much to learn.

Joe went on the make a point that Germany had 88% renewable power *for one day* during the year. Germany, despite its best efforts, also has some of the dirtiest air in Europe and their electricity supply is almost 10x dirtier than France’s. France, which built roughly 50 nuclear plants in 20 years was able to achieve an 80% CO2 free electric grid by 1985, 4 years ahead of James Hansen’s report about global warming in 1989. Germany hopes to achieve this same feat using only renewables by 2050, 65 years later than France. Even today, consider that wind and solar electricity account for less than 1% of total global primary energy, or 4.5% of global electricity.

Joe is correct in saying a price on carbon would help nuclear energy. But nuclear also got a bit of the shaft when the EPA came out with their Clean Power Plan in 2015 which excluded existing nuclear counting toward meeting the clean energy goals whereas existing hydro, solar, and wind were counted. Only new nuclear plants or new new capacity improvements would be counted for nuclear. Thus the #1 clean energy in America, 63% of all emission free electricity and the billions invested in it suddenly counted for nothing in this plan.

Nuclear energy certainly has had a lot of challenges. It’s history is complicated. But it’s also the only energy source where we really see the magic of E=mc^2. That makes it incredibly dense. If all the energy of a westerner’s lifestyle were to be represented with nuclear fuel, it would be either the size of a pinball or a 12oz can depending on the efficiency of the nuclear system.

There is not going a silver bullet, as it’s been said, to solve climate change. It is the ultimate super wicked problem. But to push this 800 pound gorilla off the table of consideration is like going into a fight with one hand tied behind your back. Joe and others have a history of hypocrisy on this issue whereby R&D + subsidies for renewables are endorsed but the same for nuclear is shunned.  At any rate, I think we’d better be planning for the worst case scenarios as that seems to be our direction.

I won’t get into the other spokes of this topic like used fuel, cost, or safety, but suffice to say the problems nuclear is so often accused of are magnified by nothing more than ignorant hysteria. I know Sam is quite careful in selecting his guests but for the future I might suggest: Bill Gates, Stewart Brand, Ken Caldeira, James Hansen, Dr. AndrĂ© Wakker, Dr. Barry Brook, Ted Nordhaus. Please don’t fall into the trap with UCS, Greenpeace and other anti-nuclear groups.

 
Shortmiddle
 
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06 September 2017 00:12
 

Atheist: Can’t we just agree to be nice to each other and live good lives?
Religious Zealot: No!  It is more important that you admit you are wrong before we can move forward in an agreed cooperation.

When presented with, “Hey, I agree that clean air is good, and pollution is awful.  Because how we got here isn’t relevant, how can we move forward to make the planet cleaner/better?”
Romm screams like a petulant child,  “We can’t.  It’s much more important that you admit I’m right.”

SMH

 
Cath
 
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06 September 2017 01:36
 

I am a grazier and Romm’s comments on the effects of agricultural production rang true from a personal, practical perspective.

The unprecedented extremes of temperature and rainfall my farm has experienced in the last decade here in Australia combined with the poor and arguably inappropriate ability of the free market to deal with animal products as commodities has meant heartbreak for my livestock and an economic roller coaster.

Should a “cap and trade” policy be put in place, could I make a plea that collateral benefits from farmers managing rangeland grazing properties in non-arable areas be accounted for? We risk our lives to control wildfires that could pump massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the air and kill or maim a lot of wildlife.

In reckoning this type of preventative work, how would such a benefit be offset against, say, methane production from free range grazing cattle?

 
RD Barris
 
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06 September 2017 05:01
 

I found a lot of the discussion of the science in this podcast to be pretty persuasive.  But I am not a scientist.  Conversely, I am an economist and a businessman, and therefore I have an informed opinion on much of his discussion of economics and business.  And it is so bad and biased that, frankly, it makes me question the rest of it.

The worst: on the one hand, he discusses how renewables have now “turned the corner” and are more efficient than fossil fuel alternatives without discussing the problem of intermittency and the needs for costly duplicate systems and backups (which cannot be economically handled with batteries in their current state).  He cites Germany as an example where renewables have accounted for a large percentage of electricity needs on certain days, without discussing the fact—I believe—that German carbon production has actually gone up over the last few years because of the need to run coal-fired plants as back-up generators on days when solar and wind are insufficient.  He also doesn’t mention that Germany has, by far, the most expensive electricity of any major European country.

His discussion of alternative energies in emerging markets is also completely economically ignorant.  His interest rate discussion is filled with so many fallacies that it would be far to lengthy to discuss them here.  But, on the face of it, to claim that alternative, distributed power systems are economically preferable to centralized, fossil fuel systems, AND THEN to claim that the developing world needs billions in transfers to make this allegedly economically wise choice, is just flatly contradictory.  Ditto his explanation for why countries like India are continuing to develop centralized, coal-fired plants which, according to Romm, make no economic sense EVEN UNDER TODAY’S CIRCUMSTANCES and which will prove even more wasteful in the future.  Are they just idiots?

His, and Sam’s, discussion of Tesla and its Model 3 is equally ignorant.  Again, too much to cover in these comments, but the economics of these cars is not nearly as compelling as they claim.  They also suffer from their own “intermittency” problem since they cannot function for long-distance travel—and not just due to the lack of infrastructure, but due to sheer inconvenience—which means that the prior Tesla models have been overwhelmingly sold to HNW individuals who have an ICE car as a backup.  (One of the reason why existing Teslas are, on average, driven about 10,000 miles a year—only for commuting.)  Also, the Model 3, at its base price, will lose money for Tesla (just as the relatively low-cost models of Nissan, Renault and GM do) which is why the real, on-the-road price of the Model 3 will be dramatically higher due to necessary options.

In general, the economic discussion suffers from the contradictory claims that alternatives are economically viable BUT we still need subsidies for the industry.  Something like $3 trillion of subsidies over the next 20 years on the basis of current programs.

I am a libertarian.  Like many people of my political persuasion, I believe in anthropogenic climate change.  I also believe in a carbon tax for the reasons mentioned in the podcast and many more reasons, some of which are discussed here:  http://www.economicmanblog.com/climate-change/.  Once we have put in place a carbon tax and the proper incentives, however, I strongly believe that we have to leave it to the market to deal with the problem by finding the most efficient combination of fossil fuels, alternative energy, storage, conservation, etc., etc., etc.

People like Romm do themselves no favors trying to persuade people like me with arguments that make no sense once he steps out of the field of the physical sciences into the fields of economics and politics.  He also does himself no favors with invoking conspiracy theories involving the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil—has he not noticed that oil companies and Rex Tillerson have been some of the strongest advocates of carbon taxes and the Paris Accords?  All of this by Romm only serves to prove that he has an ideological agenda and it makes us wonder if he isn’t allowing this to color his presentation of the science.

In other words, in the interest of scoring points with progressives who have already fully signed on, he plays right into the hands of his Trumpian opponents.  But then he did say that scientists are not trained in communication and persuasion.

PS.  I you want to have someone on who agrees with the climate science, but who presents an intelligent and articulate alternative case for the response and economics, I recommend Bjorn Lomborg from the Copenhagen Consensus

[ Edited: 06 September 2017 09:09 by RD Barris]
 
Probus
 
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06 September 2017 07:20
 
Shortmiddle - 06 September 2017 12:12 AM

Atheist: Can’t we just agree to be nice to each other and live good lives?
Religious Zealot: No!  It is more important that you admit you are wrong before we can move forward in an agreed cooperation.

When presented with, “Hey, I agree that clean air is good, and pollution is awful.  Because how we got here isn’t relevant, how can we move forward to make the planet cleaner/better?”
Romm screams like a petulant child,  “We can’t.  It’s much more important that you admit I’m right.”
SMH

You find it petulant to insist on not ignoring the actual science… while you at the same time suggest we should sugarcoat the truth, because some people are allergic to the term ‘anthropogenic’. Do I need to spell out, how ironic that is.

How we got here is most relevant. Without acknowledging the fact that human emissions is the main culprit, you can’t rationally defend the urgent measures to drastically lower our greenhouse emissions and rapidly move towards renewable energy technology. Of course, we will run out of fossil fuels at some time in the future… but, it would be excruciatingly difficult to motivate world leaders to make drastic changes if our only objective was clean air or less traditional industrial pollution. In the western world, we don’t really need renewable energy to deal with traditional industrial pollution. Better filters, catalytic converters and using more natural gas would be an easier and more cost-efficient solution (at least in the short to mid term). For example, new cars that run on petrol cause almost no traditional industrial pollution at all. Why would Western countries spend trillions on mitigating pollution in third world countries, if it does not benefit them in any real way? The Paris Agreement, just would not have been possible had our main objective been clean air or less traditional industrial pollution. You just can’t justify the drastic and urgent interventions we need to fight global warming, if you only care about pollution and clean air.

 
After_The_Jump
 
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06 September 2017 07:24
 

@ RD Barris

Once we have put in place a carbon tax and the proper incentives, however, I strongly believe that we have to leave it to the market to deal with the problem by finding the most efficient combination of fossil fuels, alternative energy, storage, conservation, etc., etc., etc.

What if “the market” doesn’t see the need to deal with the problem at all? That’s where I struggle with this part of the discussion - ‘markets’ aren’t sentient beings so markets aren’t making ‘decisions’ based on longitudinal thinking nor are they making decisions based on approximations like sacrificing some degree of profitability in the here and now in order to sustain the entire system for the long term.

More specifically, what happens if the solutions to climate change don’t or won’t garner immediate profitability? it seems you’re saying we should legislate a set of circumstances (carbon tax and proper incentives) that would force climate change solutions to be economically viable - i.e. profitable. That sounds like another way of saying ‘subsidy’. And if the market itself isn’t already motivated to address this problem without proper incentives and/or subsidy in place, then it seems we can’t really rely on the market to do anything if it isn’t forced to do so unless solutions to climate change are economically profitable on their own.

Anyhow, I think a lot of the discussion about economic viability comes down to funding the ‘start up’, for lack of a better term. It seems there are any number of renewable energy solutions which could be profitable…. once the necessary infrastructure has been constructed (or the old energy infrastructure has been properly retrofitted). Is that what you were referring to regarding ‘proper incentives’ - a mechanism to get the project off the ground without placing companies in the position of operating in the red for however many decades it takes to pay off the initial transition investment?

[ Edited: 06 September 2017 07:48 by After_The_Jump]
 
NL.
 
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06 September 2017 07:28
 

I’ve only made it through the ‘housekeeping’ section thus far, as I’ve spent the last few days running after a preschooler and then shoveling out horse paddocks, and now I feel it is quite possible I will never ever ever have any energy ever again. I’m so frigging tired. What sort of combustion engine do preschoolers contain that keeps them moving at such a pace? Anyways.


To the housekeeping and the usual polite requests for donations - I do feel pretty guilty about not donating (especially since I use up plenty of digital space on this message board), but wanted to put it out there that there may be people like me who, across the board do not donate to anything political, at all, period, blanket statement. I try pretty hard to remain apolitical, and honestly, I don’t want my name attached to a donation list for someone who is known to be involved in moving political thought one way or the other - whether I agree or disagree, again, I just try to make this a blanket thing.


I don’t know if other people struggle with the same issue (again, I’m beginning to feel like a bit of a freeloader,) but if so, I wish Harris would consider selling items such as short essays on Amazon. I am never averse to reading diverse political thought, no matter how much one disagrees with it, so to me purchasing something academic is in a bit of a different category.

 
 
Probus
 
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06 September 2017 08:42
 
RD Barris - 06 September 2017 05:01 AM

I believe—that German carbon production has actually gone up over the last few years because of the need to run coal-fired plants as back-up generators on days when solar and wind are insufficient.

Not according to this article. It seems Germany’s energy consumption has gone up as a whole, and it really has little to do with renewable energy. In fact coal consumption has gone down. It’s important to stress, that only about 12 percent of Germany’s energy consumption is due to renewable energy. I think both proponents and critics of renewable energy, misconstrue the situation in Germany.

His interest rate discussion is filled with so many fallacies that it would be far to lengthy to discuss them here.

Well, you could have mentioned a few.

But, on the face of it, to claim that alternative, distributed power systems are economically preferable to centralized, fossil fuel systems, AND THEN to claim that the developing world needs billions in transfers to make this allegedly economically wise choice, is just flatly contradictory.

I don’t remember him saying that distributed power systems are by default preferable to centralized systems. As I understood his argument… he claimed that in poor countries where a substantial portion of the population has no access to electricity, building distributed power systems is a better solution than spending a fortune on power lines and other power grid related infrastructure. To me, that makes sense since it’s usually rural areas that don’t have access to electricity.

His, and Sam’s, discussion of Tesla and its Model 3 is equally ignorant.  Again, too much to cover in these comments, but the economics of these cars is not nearly as compelling as they claim.  They also suffer from their own “intermittency” problem since they cannot function for long-distance travel—and not just due to the lack of infrastructure, but due to sheer inconvenience—which means that the prior Tesla models have been overwhelmingly sold to HNW individuals who have an ICE car as a backup.

Since the mean number of cars per household (in USA) is 1,9, it’s not very surprising that a majority of Tesla owners have an ICE “backup” car. The range of the Model 3 is 220 miles. Unless you are going on a long road trip that should be more than enough for what an ordinary person needs. Commuting and other short trips are what people mostly use their cars for anyway. How many times a year, does an ordinary family go on a road-trip that requires you to travel more than 220 miles per day? A few times a year, at most. If your electric car can cover all your daily needs, then renting an ICE car a few times a year is no big deal. At least in Europe, many people do that despite having ICE cars. In other words, they have a small “city car” and rent a more comfortable car if they need to travel further. You save money and a small car is more convenient in urban areas anyway.

He also does himself no favors with invoking conspiracy theories involving the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil—has he not noticed that oil companies and Rex Tillerson have been some of the strongest advocates of carbon taxes and the Paris Accords?  All of this by Romm only serves to prove that he has an ideological agenda and it makes us wonder if he isn’t allowing this to color his presentation of the science.

Oh, come on! Yes, Exxon and other oil companies have somewhat softened their voiced with regard to climate change… but “strongest supporters of carbon taxes and the Paris Accords”? That’s absurd.

 

[ Edited: 06 September 2017 08:45 by Probus]
 
Probus
 
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06 September 2017 08:55
 
After_The_Jump - 06 September 2017 07:24 AM

More specifically, what happens if the solutions to climate change don’t or won’t garner immediate profitability? it seems you’re saying we should legislate a set of circumstances (carbon tax and proper incentives) that would force climate change solutions to be economically viable - i.e. profitable. That sounds like another way of saying ‘subsidy’.

I have always found it quite funny how libertarians seem to accept cap and trade types of taxes while they are fiercely against subsidies. A subsidy is basically a negative tax. Or at least, that’s how a subsidy should work (the subsidies that oil companies receive, are of course a testament to how corrupt the establishment is).

 
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06 September 2017 09:44
 

I didn’t find this podcast particularly challenging as a listener. I’ve probably found more interesting discussions in comment threads. Perhaps I wasn’t the target audience. I guess the climate skeptic website mentioned may be a bit more useful on the specifics.

I do think that Sam was overly-charitable using the word “skeptic” to describe AGW denialists. When you’ve got a massive scientific consensus over time on a particular subject, you don’t call detractors “skeptics”. We don’t call flat-earthers “round earth skeptics”, or 911-“truthers” “911 skeptics”.

I feel, like an earlier commenter, that nuclear was given too wide a berth, and that it’s often confounded by emotion and bad statistical analysis (from a cost and risk POV). But that’s probably best covered in a separate interview, I suspect we would need to get into the weeds a bit.

I’m glad they touched on food security, but I feel that the environment overall wasn’t covered enough in terms of ecosystem impact and species threat, particularly in the ocean. I thought Romm was an oceanographer? Long-term environmental preservation vs short-term economic gain is my main issue with liberterian approaches to climate change. Once all the plankton is gone (for example), no amount of market-driven bio-engineering is going to bring it back (tragedy of the commons etc.)

[ Edited: 06 September 2017 09:56 by murraybiscuit]
 
After_The_Jump
 
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06 September 2017 10:07
 

@ Probus

I have always found it quite funny how libertarians seem to accept cap and trade types of taxes while they are fiercely against subsidies. A subsidy is basically a negative tax.

I’ve found that to be a bit of a universal underlying premise for Libertarianism generally - it seems to be a political position that requires the existence of an already established infrastructure in order to get it off the ground in any functional sense. Yeah, once we’ve got a massive infrastructure in place, and once we’ve got policies in place that seek to root out the impacts of historic discrimination and oppression, then a point-in-time capture of “Libertarian” philosophies make sense to me. But it seems rather empty because it requires ignoring how we got here in the first place, which was decidedly not “Libertarian” in nature, and it seems to ignore how we’re going to maintain it going forward.

Specific to subsidy versus tax: yeah, it seems to me once one has acknowledged needing “incentives” of any kind above and beyond what ‘the market’ would offer generally, that person has acknowledged the need for some kind of ‘artificial’ subsidy in order to ‘control’ the market. And cap-and-trade (and/or a carbon tax generally) is a great example. One could make the argument that it’s not a ‘subsidy’ because it’s simply a reflection of the actual cost of something. But, that’s the whole point - ‘the market’ isn’t assigning that cost (and may never). So if the Government has to mandate that cost and/or ‘incentivize’ people/companies to take on that cost, then either it’s (a) a subsidy, or (b) most other things we call ‘subsidies’ can be re-categorized as ‘incentives’. Health insurance would seem to be an obvious example here - a contingent of the country seems to insist ACA payments for low income individuals are ‘subsidies’ and many of those same folks seem to classify Medicaid and Medicare as “subsidies” too. But they aren’t much different in principle than cap-and-trade plans as far as ‘incentives’ go - those healthcare cost supplements are ‘incentives’ for both (a) high risk people to get insurance (because the traditional market has effectively and intentionally priced them out) and (b) healthcare providers to provide care to those now insured individuals.

[ Edited: 06 September 2017 10:15 by After_The_Jump]
 
easyfencing
 
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06 September 2017 11:54
 

The economics and technical details of renewable sources of energy namely wind and solar power were not properly assessed. It can be proven by hard numbers that renewables in reality have no future, purely for technical reasons nothing else.

 
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06 September 2017 12:18
 
easyfencing - 06 September 2017 11:54 AM

The economics and technical details of renewable sources of energy namely wind and solar power were not properly assessed. It can be proven by hard numbers that renewables in reality have no future, purely for technical reasons nothing else.

Perhaps post the hard numbers first and then let the jury decide…

 
Shortmiddle
 
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06 September 2017 13:28
 
Probus - 06 September 2017 07:20 AM
Shortmiddle - 06 September 2017 12:12 AM

Atheist: Can’t we just agree to be nice to each other and live good lives?
Religious Zealot: No!  It is more important that you admit you are wrong before we can move forward in an agreed cooperation.

When presented with, “Hey, I agree that clean air is good, and pollution is awful.  Because how we got here isn’t relevant, how can we move forward to make the planet cleaner/better?”
Romm screams like a petulant child,  “We can’t.  It’s much more important that you admit I’m right.”
SMH

You find it petulant to insist on not ignoring the actual science… while you at the same time suggest we should sugarcoat the truth, because some people are allergic to the term ‘anthropogenic’. Do I need to spell out, how ironic that is.

Yes.  It’s completely petulant, and I’ve suggested nothing of the sort.

Let’s see if I can offer some more examples of why he (and you) are being absurd…

Let’s say there is an argument about teaching evolution and not creationism in school.  Two people support the teaching of evolution in school.  Person 1 is Christian, and believes creation is a metaphor, so should not be taught.  Person 2, also supports the teaching of evolution, however he demands that the other acknowledge that God doesn’t exist because only then can evolution be properly understood.  Absurd…

Two people walking through the woods come upon a HUGE trash heap.  Person 1 concludes from the evidence that it is the trash of an illegal marijuana grower.  Person 2 doesn’t care, and suggests cleaning it up because clean forests are wonderful.  Person 1, petulantly, refuses to cooperate in the cleanup because person 2 won’t acknowledge his “rightness.”  Seriously?  How do you not see how ridiculous this is? 

I’m lost in the jungle.  I come across a tribe that thinks I must have been created by the river.  I demand that they acknowledge that I was not created by the river before accepting their help. 

When you have a group that will help progress in the direction we need to go, not accepting their help, and risking alienating them for any reason is, yes, “petulant”  ...and I will add “stupid.”

In what universe is being right more important than the positive outcome?  It DOES. NOT. MATTER. how we got here if we can all agree that an unpolluted planet is good, and we should do whatever we can to make sure we always have that.

 
NormLane
 
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06 September 2017 14:19
 

I gradually lost faith in this guy and didn’t finish the podcast. He comes across as a true believer who drank all the Koolaid. It’s all so simple and 100% one-sided. Reality isn’t like that. If someone can’t think of any valid exception to their viewpoint they are not being objective.

As a natural born contrarian, I’m always paranoid about too much agreement on an issue. It’s certainly not healthy in the scientific establishment. My understanding is that a researcher with a perspective different from the “official” line can’t get any funding. No matter what the truth, a lack of opposition weakens the process.

I think there is a serious warming trend and that we are at least partially responsible for it. I feel frustrated that I can’t find anyone I feel is trustworthy to explain the issues. I was looking forward to this podcast as I was counting on Sam to get someone that would talk straight.

If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
Arthur C. Clarke

 
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