The Power to Solve Climate Change

This is Part V of the Speci­fic­ity Sequence

Com­pan­ion post: Ex­am­ples of Examples

Most peo­ple agree that cli­mate change is a big prob­lem we should be solv­ing, but couldn’t tell you what speci­fi­cally “solv­ing cli­mate change” means. By the end of this post, I promise you’ll know what speci­fi­cally “solv­ing cli­mate change” means… and also what it doesn’t mean.

The Cli­mate Crisis

The first step is know­ing the key spe­cific facts of the cli­mate crisis. I ad­mit I couldn’t re­cite them ac­cu­rately be­fore writ­ing this post. Here’s a quick sum­mary from To­mor­row and NASA (both great friendly ex­pla­na­tions worth check­ing out):

  • Earth’s av­er­age tem­per­a­ture has shot up by 1°C in the last 50 years.

  • The causal link from green­house gas emis­sions to Earth’s ris­ing tem­per­a­ture has been well es­tab­lished.

  • On a 1M-year timescale, Earth’s tem­per­a­ture has been fluc­tu­at­ing plus or minus a few de­grees tops, so this 1°C change is a big fluc­tu­a­tion.

  • We’re pre­dict­ing it to be as high as a 6°C warm­ing by 2100, so it’s ac­tu­ally a huge fluc­tu­a­tion.

  • The cur­rent rate of tem­per­a­ture rise is a whop­ping 20 times faster than the rate at which Earth’s tem­per­a­ture his­tor­i­cally fluc­tu­ates, so it’s ac­tu­ally an oh, SHIT fluc­tu­a­tion.

Thiel’s Definite vs. In­definite Attitude

In Peter Thiel’s smart and highly origi­nal book Zero to One: Notes on Star­tups, or How to Build the Fu­ture, the chap­ter called “You Are Not A Lot­tery Ticket” cen­ters around the con­cept of definite vs. in­definite at­ti­tudes:

Un­der the head­ing “Can You Con­trol Your Fu­ture?” Thiel writes:

You can ex­pect the fu­ture to take a definite form or you can treat it as hazily un­cer­tain. If you treat the fu­ture as some­thing definite, it makes sense to un­der­stand it in ad­vance and work to shape it. But if you ex­pect an in­definite fu­ture ruled by ran­dom­ness, you’ll give up on try­ing to mas­ter it.
In­definite at­ti­tudes to the fu­ture ex­plain what’s the most dys­func­tional in our world to­day. Pro­cess trumps sub­stance: when peo­ple lack con­crete plans to carry out, they use for­mal rules to as­sem­ble a port­fo­lio of var­i­ous op­tions. This de­scribes Amer­i­cans to­day. In mid­dle school, we’re en­couraged to start hoard­ing “ex­tracur­ricu­lar ac­tivi­ties”. In high school, am­bi­tious stu­dents com­pete even harder to ap­pear om­ni­com­pe­tent. By the time a stu­dent gets to col­lege, he’s spent a decade cu­rat­ing a be­wil­der­ingly di­verse ré­sumé to pre­pare for a com­pletely un­know­able fu­ture. Come what may, he’s ready—for noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar.
A definite view, by con­trast, fa­vors firm con­vic­tions. In­stead of pur­su­ing many-sided medi­ocrity and call­ing it “well-round­ed­ness,” a definite per­son de­ter­mines the one best thing to do and then does it. [...] This is not what young peo­ple do to­day, be­cause ev­ery­one around them has long since lost faith in a definite world.

When you have a definite at­ti­tude, you do stuff like:

  • Claim that skill is more im­por­tant than luck (or you can “make your own luck”)

  • Back a poli­ti­cal can­di­date who has a long-term plan you be­lieve in

  • Start a com­pany to make some­thing peo­ple want

  • Work on megaprojects

  • In­vest ac­tively in com­pa­nies and ex­pect a high return

While if you have an in­definite at­ti­tude, you do stuff like:

  • Claim that suc­cess “seems to stem as much from con­text as from per­sonal at­tributes” (a quote from Mal­colm Glad­well’s Out­liers)

  • Fol­low elec­tion polls to see which can­di­date is the most pop­u­lar this week

  • Grad­u­ate from busi­ness school and be­come a consultant

  • Work on a bunch of smaller pro­jects to be­come well-rounded and keep your op­tions open

  • In­vest pas­sively in a port­fo­lio of stocks and bonds and ex­pect low returns

You’ve prob­a­bly guessed why Thiel’s dis­tinc­tion is rele­vant to our ex­plo­ra­tion of speci­fic­ity: Ac­ti­vat­ing your speci­fic­ity pow­ers is ba­si­cally the same thing as switch­ing from an in­definite to a definite at­ti­tude.

When a startup lacks a spe­cific story about how they’ll cre­ate value for spe­cific users, but they’re work­ing fran­ti­cally to build a product any­way, they’re re­veal­ing an at­ti­tude of what Thiel calls in­definite op­ti­mism: “The fu­ture will be bet­ter than the pre­sent, even though I can’t tell you speci­fi­cally how.” Con­sis­tently with my post about judg­ing startup ideas, Thiel says:

A com­pany is the strangest place of all for an in­definite op­ti­mist: why should you ex­pect your own busi­ness to suc­ceed with­out a plan to make it hap­pen?

(I con­sider it ironic that Thiel’s Founders Fund has an in­vest­ment in Golden, but it was a rel­a­tively small amount and un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive of their nor­mal de­ci­sion-mak­ing.)

Thiel says that the west­ern world had an era of definite op­ti­mism be­gin­ning in the 17th cen­tury and last­ing through to the 1950s and ’60s:

In 1914, the Panama Canal cut short the route from At­lantic to Pa­cific. [...] The In­ter­state High­way Sys­tem be­gan con­struc­tion in 1956, and the first 20,000 miles of road were open for driv­ing by 1965. [...] NASA’s Apollo Pro­gram be­gan in 1961 and put 12 men on the moon be­fore it finished in 1972.

But, he says, the shared at­ti­tude in the US and Europe has now shifted to in­definite:

The gov­ern­ment used to be able to co­or­di­nate com­plex solu­tions to prob­lems like atomic weaponry and lu­nar ex­plo­ra­tion. But to­day, af­ter 40 years of in­definite creep, the gov­ern­ment mainly just pro­vides in­surance; our solu­tions to big prob­lems are Med­i­care, So­cial Se­cu­rity, and a dizzy­ing ar­ray of other trans­fer pay­ment pro­grams.

In or­der to solve the cli­mate crisis, I think we des­per­ately need a cul­tural shift back to definite op­ti­mism. We need spe­cific plans for solv­ing our prob­lems.

Definite Cli­mate Change Solutions

Here are all the efforts I’ve heard of that are aiming at definite solu­tions to cli­mate change.

United Na­tions Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change

The United Na­tions Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change (UNFCCC) is an in­ter­na­tional treaty whose stated ob­jec­tive is:

To sta­bi­lize green­house gas con­cen­tra­tions in the at­mo­sphere at a level that would pre­vent dan­ger­ous an­thro­pogenic in­terfer­ence with the cli­mate sys­tem.

The UNFCCC feels like it comes from an al­ter­nate uni­verse con­tain­ing an ad­e­quate civ­i­liza­tion sane enough to co­or­di­nate top-down solu­tions in the face of ex­is­ten­tial threats. In fact, it was rat­ified in 1994 of the ac­tual timeline we’re in by all mem­ber states of the United Na­tions and the Euro­pean Union.

Un­der the UNFCCC’s guidelines, all 197 par­ties meet ev­ery year and ne­go­ti­ate more spe­cific in­ter­na­tional treaties. This is how we got the 1997 Ky­oto Pro­to­col (84 sig­na­to­ries) and the even-more-of-a-big-deal 2016 Paris Agree­ment (195 sig­na­to­ries).

But while the UNFCCC pro­vides definite per-coun­try tar­gets for green­house gas re­duc­tion, it doesn’t provide definite mechanisms or in­cen­tives for coun­tries to hit the tar­gets.

At one point, the Ky­oto Pro­to­col tried to fix the prob­lem by defin­ing bind­ing com­mit­ments on 37 coun­tries to re­duce their green­house gas emis­sions by spe­cific amounts, but only seven of them rat­ified that part.

The Paris Agree­ment doesn’t even at­tempt any­thing as definite as that:

The Paris Agree­ment has a ‘bot­tom up’ struc­ture in con­trast to most in­ter­na­tional en­vi­ron­men­tal law treaties, which are ‘top down’, char­ac­ter­ized by stan­dards and tar­gets set in­ter­na­tion­ally, for states to im­ple­ment. Un­like its pre­de­ces­sor, the Ky­oto Pro­to­col, which sets com­mit­ment tar­gets that have le­gal force, the Paris Agree­ment, with its em­pha­sis on con­sen­sus-build­ing, al­lows for vol­un­tary and na­tion­ally de­ter­mined tar­gets. [Source]

And:

There will be only a “name and shame” sys­tem or as János Pász­tor, the U.N. as­sis­tant sec­re­tary-gen­eral on cli­mate change, told CBS News (US), a “name and en­courage” plan. As the agree­ment pro­vides no con­se­quences if coun­tries do not meet their com­mit­ments, con­sen­sus of this kind is frag­ile. A trickle of na­tions ex­it­ing the agree­ment could trig­ger the with­drawal of more gov­ern­ments, bring­ing about a to­tal col­lapse of the agree­ment. [Source]

So guess what? Coun­tries haven’t been try­ing that hard to live up to the UNFCCC’s tar­gets:

A pair of stud­ies in Na­ture have said that, as of 2017, none of the ma­jor in­dus­tri­al­ized na­tions were im­ple­ment­ing the poli­cies they had en­vi­sioned and have not met their pledged emis­sion re­duc­tion tar­gets, and even if they had, the sum of all mem­ber pledges (as of 2016) would not keep global tem­per­a­ture rise “well be­low 2 °C”. Source

Ouch.

But on a pos­i­tive note, we have this in­ter­na­tional frame­work-treaty, the UNFCCC, which is at least try­ing to define spe­cific tar­gets. That’s what the start of a good definite solu­tion looks like, no mat­ter how bad the fol­low-through has been so far.

Y Com­bi­na­tor’s Re­quest for Car­bon Re­moval Technologies

In 2018, Sam Alt­man and Y Com­bi­na­tor an­nounced an on­go­ing Re­quest for Car­bon Re­moval Tech­nol­ogy Star­tups. They’re in­ter­ested to fund and ad­vise any­one work­ing in the space, whether it’s a for-profit com­pany or non­profit re­search. (Con­sider ap­ply­ing!)

While the 25-year-old UNFCCC has always been fo­cused on re­new­able en­ergy and re­duc­ing green­house gas emis­sions, YC’s Re­quest for Star­tups fo­cuses en­tirely on re­mov­ing green­house gases from the at­mo­sphere, be­cause we’re now in a more ad­vanced phase of the cli­mate crisis than we used to be:

“Phase 1” of cli­mate change is re­versible by re­duc­ing emis­sions, but we are no longer in “Phase 1.” We’re now in “Phase 2” and stop­ping cli­mate change re­quires both emis­sion re­duc­tion and re­mov­ing CO2 from the at­mo­sphere. “Phase 2″ is oc­cur­ring faster and hot­ter than we thought. If we don’t act soon, we’ll end up in “Phase 3” and be too late for both of these strate­gies to work.

YC names four ma­jor cat­e­gories of fron­tier tech­nolo­gies which they ad­mit “strad­dle the bor­der be­tween very difficult to sci­ence fic­tion”, but are nev­er­the­less worth ex­plor­ing:

  1. Ocean Phytoplankton

  2. Elec­tro-Geo-Chemistry

  3. Cell-Free Enzyme Systems

  4. Desert Flooding

In a 2012 Stan­ford lec­ture, Thiel lamented that these kinds of definite pro­pos­als are out­side the Over­ton win­dow:

It’s worth not­ing that some­thing like geo­eng­ineer­ing [pro­jects to save the en­vi­ron­ment] would fall in the definite op­ti­mistic quad­rant. Maybe we could scat­ter iron filings through­out the ocean to in­duce phy­to­plank­ton to ab­sorb car­bon diox­ide. Po­ten­tial solu­tions of that na­ture are not even re­motely in the pub­lic de­bate. Only rad­i­cally in­definite things make for ac­cept­able dis­course.

But YC’s RFS an­nounce­ment was met with pos­i­tive head­lines like “Car­bon re­moval tech is hav­ing a mo­ment” and got 1187 points on Hacker News. While, sadly, it didn’t get much at­ten­tion at all out­side the tech com­mu­nity, it’s fair to say that us­ing fron­tier tech­nolo­gies to re­move car­bon from the at­mo­sphere now is ac­cept­able dis­course.

Pro­ject Drawdown

Pro­ject Draw­down eval­u­ates spe­cific solu­tions to the cli­mate change prob­lem by mod­el­ing their ex­pected im­pact on green­house gas re­duc­tion. Here’s their rank­ing of 80 solu­tions.

Can you guess what’s the #1 solu­tion they recom­mend as high­est im­pact in terms of to­tal re­duc­tion in at­mo­spheric green­house gases?

...

...

...

Ok here are the top five:

  1. Refriger­ant Management

  2. Wind Tur­bines (On­shore)

  3. Re­duced Food Waste

  4. Plant-Rich Diet

  5. Trop­i­cal Forests

Refriger­ant man­age­ment?! I to­tally thought the top pro­ject was go­ing to be nu­clear, but nu­clear is only #20. Ap­par­ently it’s ex­pen­sive and slow, and not just be­cause of reg­u­la­tions, but also be­cause of tech­ni­cal and eco­nomic fac­tors. I’m still op­ti­mistic that a nu­clear Man­hat­tan Pro­ject is a good in­vest­ment, but I guess it’s not a slam dunk com­pared to the other top-20 pro­jects.

Bret Vic­tor’s List

Bret Vic­tor’s nicely-de­signed What Can A Tech­nol­o­gist Do About Cli­mate Change? page is a thought­ful list of ar­eas for definite ac­tion:

  • Public and pri­vate investment

  • Im­ple­men­ta­tion de­tails of effi­cient clean en­ergy production

  • Trans­port­ing energy

  • Co­or­di­nat­ing en­ergy consumption

  • En­ergy-effi­cient devices

  • Tools for sci­en­tists and engineers

  • Me­dia for un­der­stand­ing situations

  • Nu­clear power

  • Geoengineering

  • Foun­da­tional technology

Without at­tempt­ing to be com­pre­hen­sive, he offers many spe­cific ways that tech­nol­o­gists can at­tack the cli­mate change prob­lem.

Tesla

Tesla is the only com­pany with a $44B mar­ket cap whose core mis­sion is closely tied to solv­ing the cli­mate crisis. Ac­cord­ing to its about page, Tesla’s mis­sion is to ac­cel­er­ate the world’s tran­si­tion to sus­tain­able en­ergy.

As we’ve seen with SpaceX, Elon Musk is a mas­ter of run­ning a com­pany ac­cord­ing to a definite multi-decade strat­egy. In his 2006 post, The Se­cret Tesla Mo­tors Master Plan (just be­tween you and me), he lays it out like this:

Build sports car. Use that money to build an af­ford­able car. Use that money to build an even more af­ford­able car. While do­ing above, also provide zero emis­sion elec­tric power gen­er­a­tion op­tions.

From our cur­rent per­spec­tive 13 years later, we can see that Musk ac­cu­rately pre­dicted the fu­ture by build­ing it:

  • Tesla built home so­lar pan­els and Pow­er­wall to en­able a home to run en­tirely on so­lar en­ergy by col­lect­ing spo­radic bursts of sun­light and re­leas­ing the en­ergy later when it’s needed. They also provide in­dus­trial-scale so­lar en­ergy pro­duc­tion and stor­age.

  • Tesla built Gi­gafac­tory 1, the biggest bat­tery fac­tory in the world, to provide bat­ter­ies for its elec­tric ve­hi­cles and Pow­er­walls. Ok, it’s ac­tu­ally big­ger than all other bat­tery fac­to­ries in the world com­bined… ok, it’s ac­tu­ally the biggest build­ing in the world in terms of floor space… you get the idea.

  • After build­ing the Road­ster (a $100,000 sports car) and Model S (a $75,000 “af­ford­able car”), Tesla built the Model 3, an all-elec­tric lux­ury sedan that re­tails at $35,000 USD whose sales com­pletely dom­i­nated the Small + Mid­size Lux­ury Cars cat­e­gory in De­cem­ber 2018.

I recom­mend this in­cred­ible WaitButWhy post for a deeper dive into Tesla.

Thiel writes:

A busi­ness with a good definite plan will always be un­der­rated in a world where peo­ple see the fu­ture as ran­dom.

This is ba­si­cally why I’m cur­rently hold­ing a sig­nifi­cant amount of Tesla stock. (Plus I think that mar­kets gen­er­ally don’t price in the de­gree of demon­strated product and en­g­ineer­ing ex­cel­lence.)

What About Cap And Trade?

When I started think­ing about how to solve cli­mate change, the first thing that popped into mind is what I tweeted a cou­ple months ago:

The econ­omy is this amaz­ing sys­tem we have for bal­anc­ing all the stuff we care about with­out guilt­ing any­one into righ­teous sac­ri­fice. Just in­ter­nal­ize the CO2 ex­ter­nal­ity into the econ­omy.

While Pro­ject Draw­down pur­posely doesn’t in­clude Cap and Trade in their list—

We do not model in­cen­tive-based poli­cies and fi­nan­cial mechanisms, such as car­bon and con­ges­tion pric­ing, be­cause they would be guesses, not mod­els.

—it sure seems like cap and trade would go a long way to­ward solv­ing the prob­lem: It in­cen­tivizes green­house gas emit­ters to re­duce emis­sions, it in­cen­tivizes pri­vate in­vest­ment in fron­tier tech to re­duce at­mo­spheric CO2, and it in­cen­tivizes a bunch of other cre­ative stuff like pri­vate efforts to de­stroy HFC re­friger­ants.

Pres­i­dent Obama tried to get con­gres­sional ap­proval for a ver­sion of Cap and Trade, but he couldn’t. Pres­i­dent Trump doesn’t seem to care for it ei­ther. So when it comes to an eco­nomic-policy solu­tion for cli­mate change, the world’s largest econ­omy is cur­rently do­ing noth­ing.

In­definite Cli­mate Change Solutions

We’ve seen a bunch of definite ways peo­ple can help get closer to solv­ing cli­mate change:

  • Work for Tesla

  • Work on any of the ar­eas in Bret Vic­tor’s list

  • Build a com­pany or do re­search un­der Y Com­bi­na­tor’s Re­quest for Car­bon Re­moval Technologies

  • Work on a poli­ti­cal cam­paign to sup­port Cap and Trade and other pro-en­vi­ron­ment policies

  • Donate to Pro­ject Draw­down or any other or­ga­ni­za­tions where you can un­der­stand the spe­cific causal chain from their work to a bet­ter climate

But what does in­definite think­ing about cli­mate change look like? For most peo­ple, cli­mate change is a very in­definite thing:

  • They can’t sum­ma­rize the prob­lem like I did in the be­gin­ning of this post

  • They can’t name any of the spe­cific ac­tions above that they can take to help solve cli­mate change

  • And to make things worse, they fo­cus on the most use­less thing: per­sonal be­hav­ior change

Per­sonal Be­hav­ior Change

I just Googled for “re­duce car­bon foot­print” to grab a ridicu­lous ex­am­ple of per­sonal be­hav­ior change ad­vice. The top re­sult I got is The 35 Easiest Ways to Re­duce Your Car­bon Foot­print by Columbia Univer­sity’s Earth In­sti­tute.

Some of the recom­men­da­tions are just good ad­vice with no down­side:

8. Wash your cloth­ing in cold wa­ter. The en­zymes in cold wa­ter de­ter­gent are de­signed to clean bet­ter in cold wa­ter. Do­ing two loads of laun­dry weekly in cold wa­ter in­stead of hot or warm wa­ter can save up to 500 pounds of car­bon diox­ide each year.

Okay if the en­zymes in cold wa­ter de­ter­gent are de­signed to clean bet­ter in cold wa­ter, why not!

But most of the recom­men­da­tions are ask­ing you to make trade­offs with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing the down­side:

12. If you’re in the mar­ket for a new com­puter, opt for a lap­top in­stead of a desk­top. Lap­tops re­quire less en­ergy to charge and op­er­ate than desk­tops.

Wait, if you were go­ing to buy a desk­top com­puter, opt­ing for the same-priced lap­top in­stead will prob­a­bly get you a no­tice­ably slower ma­chine. They should ac­knowl­edge these kinds of cost/​benefit trade­offs. But that’s not even the biggest prob­lem I have with per­sonal be­hav­ior change recom­men­da­tions.

The biggest prob­lem with per­sonal be­hav­ior change is that it naively feels like definite think­ing, but it’s ac­tu­ally vague in­definite think­ing, be­cause your causal model of how your ac­tions will af­fect green­house gas con­cen­tra­tions is miss­ing the con­cept of an eco­nomic equil­ibrium.

Our econ­omy, a free-mar­ket econ­omy with­out Cap and Trade, is a clas­sic tragedy of the com­mons. A low-green­house-gas at­mo­sphere is the com­mons, and opt­ing for a lap­top in­stead of a desk­top (or driv­ing less, or buy­ing less stuff, or eat­ing less meat) is the equiv­a­lent of re­strain­ing your cows from graz­ing. It just doesn’t make game-the­o­retic sense.

When you unilat­er­ally dial back your CO2 emis­sions a cer­tain amount, it means other ac­tors (peo­ple, com­pa­nies and the gov­ern­ment) can get away with that same amount of not di­al­ing back theirs, and they’ll act on that in­cen­tive. There needs to be an ac­tual co­or­di­na­tion mechanism to solve the prob­lem — you know, the kind of thing gov­ern­ment is for.

I’ve sum­ma­rized my thoughts about per­sonal be­hav­ior change in two tweets:

To end home­less­ness, should we all give more spare change? To fix the US bud­get deficit, should tax­pay­ers vol­un­tar­ily pay higher taxes? In­di­vi­d­u­als buy­ing car­bon offsets is the same flawed logic. The equil­ibrium move­ment of a com­plex sys­tem is not a sum of these lo­cal nudges.
If steal­ing were le­gal, the solu­tion would be law change, not char­ity to offset theft. Similarly, our econ­omy lets ev­ery­one emit car­bon for free. In­di­vi­d­u­als vol­un­tar­ily offset­ting small amounts of car­bon is not an effec­tive re­sponse to this situ­a­tion.

When peo­ple bring up per­sonal be­hav­ior change as a solu­tion to cli­mate change, this is my re­ac­tion:

Steve: I should eat less meat be­cause farm an­i­mals con­tribute to cli­mate change!
Liron: Don’t bother; for ev­ery an­i­mal you don’t eat, I’m go­ing to eat three. By the way, did you know Tesla is hiring?

Steve doesn’t feel guilty that he’s con­tribut­ing to the bud­get deficit by only pay­ing the min­i­mum taxes that he owes, so we know he un­der­stands eco­nomic equil­ibrium dy­nam­ics in that do­main. I’m try­ing to do Steve a fa­vor in this do­main by tear­ing his fo­cus away from per­sonal be­hav­ior change, and point­ing him to­ward a spe­cific course of ac­tion (join­ing Tesla) that can ac­tu­ally add up to a com­plete solu­tion even once you zoom out and fac­tor in ev­ery­one’s eco­nomic in­cen­tives.

“Offset­ting” Your Own Impact

What about “offset­ting” your own im­pact by pay­ing an or­ga­ni­za­tion to re­duce a cer­tain amount of green­house gas from the at­mo­sphere on your be­half, i.e. buy­ing car­bon cred­its?

But I put “offset­ting” in scare quotes be­cause I don’t think it’s ac­cu­rate to say that hav­ing an in­di­vi­d­ual pay to pre­vent one ton of CO2 emis­sions in one place re­duces the sys­tem equil­ibrium amount of green­house gas emis­sion by one ton of CO2, or even nec­es­sar­ily half a ton. Similarly, I don’t think tax­pay­ers vol­un­tar­ily pay­ing an ex­tra $1k/​yr in taxes will ac­tu­ally re­duce the bud­get deficit by $1k/​yr/​tax­payer. In both cases, some other ac­tor in the sys­tem will be get­ting in­cen­tivized to emit more CO2 or to bud­get for more gov­ern­ment spend­ing.

When you just think about one per­son pay­ing to plant a few trees, it’s hard to imag­ine how the sys­tem equil­ibrium will bounce back against this per­tur­ba­tion. So let’s break it down into two pos­si­ble mod­els: the gov­ern­ment-over­sight model and the no-gov­ern­ment-over­sight model.

The Govern­ment-Over­sight Model

Con­sider the situ­a­tion if the US Govern­ment were com­mit­ted to hit­ting the Paris Agree­ment tar­get emis­sions lev­els each year [graph source]:

In this model, pri­vate cit­i­zens vol­un­tar­ily pay­ing to re­duce car­bon emis­sions is pointless be­cause it’s like pay­ing taxes—ev­ery­one already has to do it. Per­haps it’s already part of fed­eral dis­cre­tionary spend­ing, or maybe a Cap and Trade policy has already priced car­bon emis­sions into the goods and ser­vices we buy.

Ah, but what if an in­di­vi­d­ual US cit­i­zen de­sires to beat the Paris Agree­ment tar­gets? Even then, it’s tricky to do it by pur­chas­ing “offsets”. The effect of pur­chas­ing “offsets” will de­pend on the spe­cific gov­ern­ment-over­sight model of the coun­try where you in­ter­vene. For ex­am­ple, if you plant an ex­tra tree in Coun­try X, then you may cause Coun­try X’s com­pa­nies to be al­lowed to emit more car­bon that year.

The No-Govern­ment-Over­sight Model

Con­sider the situ­a­tion where the US Govern­ment doesn’t bother limit­ing green­house gas emis­sions, a good ap­prox­i­ma­tion of the cur­rent Trump ad­minis­tra­tion. The ac­tion of a few cit­i­zens to offset car­bon won’t move the nee­dle in solv­ing the cli­mate crisis, un­til the point where enough cit­i­zens are donat­ing that their com­bined poli­ti­cal will can change gov­ern­ment policy. So in this model, “offset­ting” also has less im­pact than all the other spe­cific cli­mate change solu­tions dis­cussed in this post.


Wren is a for-profit startup that launched a few months ago as part of Y Com­bi­na­tor’s Sum­mer 2019 batch (not part of YC’s Re­quest for Car­bon Re­moval Tech­nolo­gies).

Wren charges about $24/​month for the av­er­age Amer­i­can to “offset” their car­bon foot­print.

What’s the definite fu­ture here? What’s the spe­cific causal link be­tween Wren’s ac­tions and cli­mate change get­ting solved? Pre­sum­ably it’s that if a sig­nifi­cant frac­tion of Amer­i­cans pay $24/​month ($288/​yr), then the US’s net car­bon emis­sions will be a lot lower, and then the US could meet its Paris Agree­ment tar­gets.

If ev­ery Amer­i­can adult were a mem­ber of Wren, this should be suffi­cient to offset the whole US’s cli­mate change, and that im­plies a cost of only $288/​yr x $250M = $72B/​yr to offset all Amer­i­cans’ car­bon.

But con­sider this cost es­ti­mate from Wash­ing­ton gov­er­nor and former 2020 pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Jay Inslee’s 100% Clean En­ergy for Amer­ica Plan (which Mas­sachusetts sen­a­tor and still-pres­i­den­tial-can­di­date Eliz­a­beth War­ren now en­dorses):

Cli­mate change cost the U.S. econ­omy at least $240 billion per year dur­ing the past decade, and that figure is pro­jected to rise to $360 billion per year in the com­ing 10 years. We can­not af­ford the cost of in­ac­tion.

If the US only cared about eco­nomic self-in­ter­est, not solv­ing cli­mate change per se, it’s ap­par­ently worth pay­ing at least $240B/​yr to solve the prob­lem.

So some­thing feels very in­definite to me about Wren’s ap­proach to the prob­lem, and “offset­ting” car­bon in gen­eral. If the spe­cific pro­jects Wren funds are such ob­vi­ous slam dunks, isn’t it faster to build up enough poli­ti­cal sup­port for a $72B/​yr ex­pen­di­ture, rather than col­lect­ing it from in­di­vi­d­u­als pay­ing $288/​yr at a time?

On the plus side, I’ll ad­mit that “offset­ting” your own car­bon foot­print is at least a bet­ter op­tion than per­sonal be­hav­ior change, for the same rea­son that lawyers help more by donat­ing to soup kitchens than by vol­un­teer­ing at them. “Offset­ting” does let you di­rect money, the unit of car­ing, to­ward solv­ing cli­mate change. It’s just that buy­ing in­di­vi­d­ual units of car­bon re­moval is a bad deal be­cause the sys­tem-level effect comes out to be so much weaker than an in­definite thinker imag­ines.


Ac­ti­vat­ing your speci­fic­ity pow­ers to solve cli­mate change means di­rect­ing your re­sources to­ward efforts that have a sys­tem­i­cally definite model of how they ac­tu­ally help. So while this was largely an ob­ject-level post about how to solve cli­mate change, I hope it was also a good meta-level demon­stra­tion of the power of speci­fic­ity.

Next post: The Power to Un­der­stand “God”