[Deep dive] The Climate Tribal Wars

Stop talking 💩 about climate positive solutions.

This past week have been one of those where just about nothing goes according to plan. Here’s a small digest: (1) We had two major problems with the renovation of our new house (solved for now), (2) I had hoped to do an interview on offsets and (3) I had hoped to be able to do another one for next weeks deep dive. None of which ended up happening for various reasons. I think that this week has gotten me more edgy than I otherwise would have been and that is why I decided to write this weeks deep dive on tribalism which annoys the 💩 out of me.

An incident at Clubhouse

There are many things that pisses me off when it comes to the climate crisis. The fossil fuel industry and increasingly the agricultural industry’s resistance and manipulation of politicians for sure is one, but this article is not about that. But a challenge more annoying and less expected: Tribalism.

A couple of weeks ago I was in a Tech News room on Clubhouse and they discussed the article on cow masks that I also had in the newsletter that week. Everyone in there were really excited about the article and how it was going to solve the cow methane problem. Inside my mind though I was shouting: “You idiots! Why don’t you just push regenerative agricultural practices. It will solve the same problem in a natural and less resource intensive way” and I abruptly signed off the room. Following that internal outburst I managed for once to be mindful as my meditation practice teaches me to be and started thinking about why I reacted that way. The cow mask does appear to solve the methane problem to some degree, just as regenerative agriculture solves the methane problem to some degree. Why did I become so angry at the cow mask? There was one explanation that stared me right in the face which was that I had a favorite solution and I couldn’t bear the ignorance of the Tech News room speakers that they didn’t mention my solution. Then I felt ashamed and after that happy that I didn’t say anything, but just left. A rollercoaster ride for sure 🎢 😅.

If you got nothing nice to say…

Tribalism, such as my preference for natural solutions in the agricultural space is everywhere in the climate discourse. No other place is it more prevalent than on #climatetwitter. A classic tribal war that has been waging for a long time is renewables vs nuclear. Here’s a recent classic example of that between Decouple podcast host Chris Keefer (nuclear) and Simon Holmes (renewables). (You don’t have to read the threads now I just use them as an example).

Strong nuclear tribal leaders such as Michael Shellenberger, Chris Keefer etc will argue that nuclear is all we need to solve the climate crisis (almost). Whereas strong renewable tribal leaders such as Mark Z. Jacobson, Simon Holmes will argue that renewables is all we need to solve the climate crisis (almost). While I respect all, none of them are right. Both nuclear and renewables is a viable solution to the climate crisis and we will need both. The middle way is the answer.

Look, I’m an engineer. I love black and white, the answer “5” and “yes/no”, but when it comes to climate most things are grey. There was a point in time when we had enough time to pick the optimal solutions to the climate crisis and that were the time for these pointless debates. Now we have 30 years to change everything we have built the modern civilization on. We don’t have time to discuss optimal solutions anymore, only solutions. And certainly, there won’t be one or even a few silver bullets to solve this. There will be thousands and many of them will just be regular bullets (obviously meant in a figurative way, not as an encouragement to buy and use a gun).

That is why I will argue that if you got nothing nice to say about a particular clearly climate positive solution then don’t say anything at all, because all it does is that it feeds (1) the public confusion and (2) the lobby of the enemy (old fossil fuel, old agriculture etc). In fact I will argue that if you do it anyway then you’re part of the reason why we’re not solving the climate crisis along with climate deniers and skeptics (although not as worse obviously). You only hand more ammo to the enemy this way. And don’t worry, I’ve been guilty at this myself, I’m sure we all have / have had our favorites. There’s nothing wrong with having favorite solutions, but there’s just no need to make the climate crisis harder for all of us to solve.

The bigness of it all

The climate problem is so tremendous unfathomably huge that there are plenty of room for everything that contributes positively to solving it. A good example of that is the nascent carbon removal industry. As I wrote in “Death to net-zero” we will need carbon removal whether we want it or not. We need to remove so much CO2 from the atmosphere that there will be no one carbon removal technology that will win everything. It’s like believing that one shirt will takeover the entire fashion industry. No it won’t! It will be one of a lot of shirts to encompass the entirety of the fashion industry. Most existing carbon removal technologies “only” have the scaling potential to a few gigatons. But if you’re apart of building a gigaton business of any kind, then you have an industry that’s as big as the cement industry is today. So the question is do you really need all that money?

In many cases solutions in the same field even complement each other: Solutions that aims to curb people’s meat eating habits makes the climate problem that the cow mask needs to solve smaller practically without reducing the market for either solution (1 billion cows with 10M added every year is plenty for two big businesses).

It’s not a competition. Not against your “traditional” competitors anyway because the market for all climate solutions is (admittedly in broad terms) all of human economic activity. What you do compete against though is solutions that are not contributing positively towards solving the climate crisis. These must be stopped because they are straight out making the climate problem worse and harder for everybody.

If you see something…

So when is it ok to hand out a good ol’ fashioned word-based thrashing to a “solution”? To me there’s one and only one criteria for that: If the solution is clearly not climate positive. Some cases are more obvious: Biofuels based on food crops, internal combustion engine cars, blue hydrogen (because we don’t have CCUS yet), greenwashing in all forms, pipelines, fossil fuel companies that spend 99% on fossil fuels and 1% on clean energy and say they’re “part of the transition” etc those types of solutions where you can clearly say this thing is not climate positive. I recently started doing a two question check:

  1. Climate positiveness: Does it reduce the carbon footprint of a particular human activity or does it remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere?

  2. Carbon footprint: Is the carbon footprint of the solution smaller than the impact of it’s climate positiveness (1)?

If the answer is yes to all, then it’s climate positive. If the answer is no to just one of them then it’s climate negative. If you see something, say something. Ask for proof that this thing is climate positive or the carbon footpritn. If the people proposing it are for real then they will have that proof ready to go.

There are a class of solutions that are more grey and difficult to measure the impact of. And that is those solutions who’s climate positiveness or carbon footprint may be difficult to measure. (Hint: All are difficult to measure, but some are harder than others). In my mind that does not necessarily mean that they’re not contributing positively to solving the climate crisis, it just means that it’s unclear. And for those types of solutions I think the most important point is to employ common sense. What are the scenarios under which the solution in question will have a positive impact and how likely do you think those scenarios are? And base your thinking on that.

We need everyone

In the end, all the tribalist nonsense only hurts our chances of solving the climate crisis in time because not only does it feed the enemy, but it also create a rift between the public and those of us working in climate. Take the Chris Keefer vs Simon Holmes twitter thread above. What should somebody reading that believe? Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

Come with me, if you want to solve the climate crisis: Stop talking shit about solutions that are clearly climate positive. And start talking shit about those who clearly aren’t.

What do you think about this? Can you come up with a reason why the heated tribalist exchanges are productive?

As mentioned in the weekly climate newsletter on Monday this is the last deep dive I will do on a week-by-week basis and will instead revert to try and do 1-2 of them each month.