Wizards and Prophets, the human impact on earth's carbon cycle, the climate Quants cometh!

A newsletter for people "woke" on carbon and climate


The Wizard and the Prophet

“There are two types of people in the world: those who fear the future, and those who embrace it.”

In “The Wizard and the Prophet” Charles C. Mann brilliantly illuminates the contemporary debates about the environment by examining the lives and philosophies of two men, mostly forgotten thinkers who had competing visions for the Earth’s future.

The Wizards are thinkers who push technological innovation to confront the world’s biggest challenges, while those who fear the future, the Prophets, devote themselves to (in Mann’s words) “decrying the consequences of our heedlessness” in advocating technological solutions, whether they seek to feed the planet’s faceless masses or to deal with climate change.

In Mann’s view, the clash between these two sets of visionaries is epitomized by two men whose legacies are still celebrated in their own circles but who are not so well known to the public. One is Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, who used new agricultural methods to save tens of millions from starvation. The other is William Vogt, one of the founding fathers of modern ecology and a fierce critic of the kind of optimism that motivates Wizards like Borlaug and others whose (in Mann’s paraphrase) “faith in human resourcefulness is unthinking, scientifically ignorant, even driven by greed.”

Creed Comments: This is one of my top 10 energy/climate books of all time. What Mann has written is more than just an examination of two philosophies about the earth - it is a lens through which we can see ourselves as either Wizard or Prophet. Do you believe that humans should use technology to innovate and improve life on earth (Wizard)? Or do you believe that humans should respect the natural limits of the earth (Prophet).

Read this book and “find” yourself within the sliding scale of Wizard and Prophet.

Issue No. 26 - May 10, 2020

Welcome to the latest issue of Carbon Creed - a curated newsletter for people “woke” on carbon and climate.

My name is Walter McLeod, and I’m glad you’ve joined our tribe! We hope to hear from you as we navigate this weekly journey through the good, bad and ugly of carbon and climate. 

Last week our open thread “Why do people care more about Covid than Climate?“ got a surprise twitter endorsement:

Thanks for the shout out Governor Whitman!

Save the date!

Our next open thread will post on Friday, May 15th at 9:30am EST.  We had a great discussion last week and want to hear from more of you. So add it to your calendar now and join the conversation!

As always, feel free to ping me anytime at mcleodwl@carboncreed.com.

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Humanity’s immense impact on Earth’s climate and carbon cycle

It is all in the end, a matter of chemistry. Carbon dioxide is a form of what chemists call inorganic carbon—a simple molecule that is pretty inert. Fossil fuels are made of carbon in its organic form—often complex molecules that are far from inert. Combustion turns these organic complexities into inorganic simplicities: carbon dioxide, water vapour and heat.

Of the energy that people pay for 34% comes from burning oil, 27% from coal and 24% from gas. Nuclear power, hydroelectric power and all other renewables combined provide just 15%. The result of all this fossil fuel use is a modern industrial economy and an annual flow of 9.5bn tonnes of carbon out of the ground and into the atmosphere.

Through its effects on the plants, animals and microbes which make up the biosphere, on the climate and on the oceans, this industrial flow of carbon links the Earth’s distant geological past to its future over millennia to come. It is the single clearest piece of evidence for the idea that humans now have a power over the Earth as great as the forces of nature, and that their use of this power has opened up a new geological epoch that some scientists call the Anthropocene.

To appreciate the importance of this industrial carbon flow, you have to understand the carbon cycle in which it sits. At first, this context seems reassuring. Almost all microbes, and all animals, get the energy that they need for life from breaking up food made of organic molecules. The flame-free, internalised form of combustion by which they do so, which biologists call respiration, produces much more carbon dioxide than industry does.

These flows create a system in what is called “dynamic equilibrium”; if you push it away from current conditions, it pulls itself back. If atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels go up, the rate at which carbon dioxide dissolves into the “sinks” provided by the oceans and plants will also, all things being equal, go up. This reduces the surplus, restoring the status quo. Until the 19th century this dynamic equilibrium had kept atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels pretty stable for most of the 10,000 years since the end of the most recent ice age.

Going backwards

What, though, if the Anthropocene transitioned from a past dominated by anthropogenic carbon sources to a future characterised by anthropogenic sinks? There are two reasons why this might be appealing. One is that some fossil-fuel emissions may be very hard to eliminate from the economy. If they could be counterbalanced by “negative emissions” that take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at a similar rate, the Paris goal of stopping any further increase to the carbon-dioxide level would be far easier to meet.

Some forms of negative emission look fairly benign: farming in ways that make the soil richer in organic carbon; restoring degraded forests and planting new ones. More ambitious is the idea of harnessing photosynthesis to industry; growing plantation crops, burning them to generate electricity and sequestering the carbon dioxide given off underground, rather than letting it out into the atmosphere, an approach called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS.

Then there is the idea of stripping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere with renewably powered open-air chemical engineering: “direct air capture”, or DAC

There are two big problems with these ideas. One is the scale at which they need to operate to make a difference. The second is that imaginary backstops are dangerous. If countries build negative emissions into their thinking, they will cut emissions more slowly on the basis that any overshoot can be mopped up later.  Go deeper here LINK

Creed Comments: The Anthropocene fact that humans are now integral to the processes of the planet does not mean that they can change those processes without great effort - and cost. Nonetheless, it must be done.


Electric F-150 prototype
(image: electrek)

Tiny electric cars for Europe and giant electric pickups for the US

Two very distinct electric vehicle markets are emerging on opposite sides of the Atlantic. EVs in Europe are blurring the lines between minicars, compacts, and electric quadricycles. Meanwhile, bigger is better for EVs in the US.

The size of vehicles known as city cars, or the A-segment, racked up more than 1 million sales in Europe in 2019. 

That segment of small cars is price sensitive, so using a pure electric powertrain could be challenging. These minicars already have a low CO2 footprint, but as European regulations force even greater reductions, EV versions might become a necessity.

(image: electrek)

Supersize please?

Meanwhile, back in the USA, we’re waiting for the electric Hummer, Rivian activity vehicles, and the Tesla Cybertruck.

“The wrong answer is to say everyone has to drive around in little vehicles,” - RJ Scaringe, Rivian Founder

(source: motor1)

The New York Times covered this trend, claiming that we have left behind the vision of EVs as “tiny, faceless transportation pods, their sci-fi bubble shapes a testament to aerodynamic function over stylistic form.”

The next wave of electric vehicles in the US will be 1,000-horsepower Hummers, and beefy electric pickups from Ford, Chevrolet, and Bollinger. The Ford Mustang Mach-E and Tesla Model Y are relative pipsqueaks, just crossovers. Go deeper here LINK.

Creed Comments: The differences in US and EU electric car tastes is stark for sure. But it’s that way with ICE cars too. I say “let freedom (of choice) ring!” DO YOU.



Robert Litterman: Legendary quant investor is taking on climate change

When he managed billions of dollars for Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Robert Litterman used sophisticated mathematical models to control risk. Now he is advising the government, and he believes it isn’t doing enough to avoid serious losses, including taking drastic steps to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

In his work with federal regulators, Mr. Litterman’s main focus is climate change.

“We’ve got to slam on the brakes” on carbon emissions to stop climate change, he said in an interview. “It’s way past time.”

Mr. Litterman now chairs a group working on the risks of climate change for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. In March, he testified before a congressional committee looking into the economic impact of global warming.

Mr. Litterman, who left Goldman a decade ago, told Congress that his analysis of the issue, partly based on models he used to manage risk in financial markets, shows failure to act quickly could result in a “tragic and potentially catastrophic mistake.” The way to offset that risk, he says, is to rapidly decrease emissions of carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas.

One way to curb fossil-fuel emissions, Mr. Litterman says, is through a carbon-tax. The Baker-Shultz legislative plan envisions a $40 per ton tax that would increase every year by roughly 5%. Money collected would be returned to U.S. citizens at a rate of $500 per person a year.

A goal of the tax—which Mr. Litterman thinks might be too low—is to affect incentives for consumers, business owners and investors, possibly changing their behavior.

He concedes, however, that the current economic downturn likely makes a tax on fossil fuels politically unpalatable for the time being.

The problem with many conventional models of climate change, including other carbon-tax proposals, is that they factor too much certainty into future outcomes, according to Mr. Litterman. Because of that, they don’t apply a high enough price on carbon right now.

Instead, the models should take into account periods of extreme volatility in global circumstances—just like the stock market has seen in recent months. The world needs to do the same with climate change, Mr. Litterman argues.

A twist in Mr. Litterman’s model is that over time, as the tax influences behavior and as new carbon-free technologies are implemented, the levy on carbon should decline. But the longer the world waits to curb emissions, the longer it’s going to take to tackle the problem—and the outcome is going to be much worse. Go deeper here LINK.

Creed Comments: Having a great financial mind like Mr. Litterman’s in the climate risk corner, gives significant credibility to the carbon tax cause. I believe we should “pay the public” a dividend to catalyze rapid decarbonization at scale.


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