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A World Drowning in Irony

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

The greatest irony of all — Prometheus gave us fire, which made us great. Now we have to give it back or die.

By Thomas Neuburger

I recently did a piece, "Everything New Is Old Again," about the strange world of climate news we currently inhabit, a world "tucked between the start of a world-historical collapse and stories about it so old they sound not special at all."

This is another tale of disconnect. A number of recent climate articles have reinforced the dissonance between predictions of coming catastrophe on the one hand (though perhaps, in readers' minds, too far off to be taken seriously), and stories that offer hope and renewal, in particular energy renewal and transformation.

The Warnings Just Get Worse...

Recently the IPCC released the latest findings of its Working Group 2, the scientists who evaluate our potential for climate adaptation and resilience. Working Group 3, whose report is due shortly, looks at the potential for mitigation of the crisis. ("Mitigation" means making the crisis less serious. "Adaptation" means dealing with how serious already is.)

From the FAQ section, part of the answer to FAQ 1 says this (emphasis mine throughout):

All life on Earth – from ecosystems to human civilization – is vulnerable to a changing climate. Since the first IPCC reports, the evidence has become stronger: our world is warming and dangerous climate change and extreme events are increasingly impacting nature and people's lives everywhere. This can be seen in the depths of the ocean and at the top of the highest mountains; in rural areas as well as in cities. The extent and magnitude of climate change impacts are larger than estimated in previous assessments. They are causing severe and widespread disruption in nature and in society; reducing our ability to grow nutritious food or provide enough clean drinking water, thus affecting people's health and well-being and damaging livelihoods. In summary, the impacts of climate change are affecting billions of people in many different ways.
Since the Fifth IPCC Assessment Report, published in 2014, a wider range of impacts can be attributed to climate change. In other words: there is new knowledge that climate change caused them or made them more likely. In particular, increasing heat and extreme weather are driving plants and animals on land and in the ocean towards the poles, to higher altitudes, or to the deeper ocean waters. Many species are reaching limits in their ability to adapt to climate change, and those that cannot adjust or move fast enough are at risk of extinction. As a result, the distribution of plants and animals across the globe is changing and the timing of key biological events such as breeding or flowering is altering. These trends are affecting food webs. In many cases, this reduces the ability of nature to provide the essential services that we depend on to survive – such as coastal protection, food supply or climate regulation via carbon uptake and storage.
Changes in temperature, rainfall, and extreme weather have also increased the frequency and spread of diseases in wildlife, agriculture, and people. We see a lengthening wildfire season and increases in the area burned. Roughly half of the world’s population currently experiences severe water shortages at some point during the year, in part due to climate change and extreme events such as flooding and droughts. Drought conditions have become more frequent in many regions, negatively affecting agriculture and energy production from hydroelectric power plants.
People living in cities nowadays face higher risks of heat stress, reduced air quality because of wildfire, lack of water, food shortages and other impacts caused by climate change and its effect on supply chains, transport networks and other critical infrastructure. Globally, climate change is increasingly causing injuries, illness, malnutrition, threats to physical and mental health and well-being, and even deaths. It is making hot areas even hotter and drastically reducing the time people can spend outside, which means that some outdoor workers cannot work the required hours and thus will earn less.
Climate change impacts are expected to intensify with additional warming. It is also an established fact that they are interacting with multiple other societal and environmental challenges. These include a growing world population, unsustainable consumption, a rapidly increasing number of people living in cities, significant inequality, continuing poverty, land degradation, biodiversity loss due to land-use change, ocean pollution, overfishing and habitat destruction as well as a global pandemic. Where trends intersect they can reinforce each other, intensifying risks and impacts, which affect the poor and most vulnerable people the hardest.

Contrary to most people's (understandable) beliefs, the climate crisis in its early stages is here now. (That belief — in a falsehood — is understandable since the world of the wealthy and its media is doing everything possible to delay most people full appreciation of the crisis they're facing now.)

Other commenters are much more dire than the stoic (and world government-financed) IPCC. Yet while we watch, no one is acting on any of this, no one with any real power, making the nearly unstoppable even worse.

Yet the Good News Can't Be Stopped

At the other end of the spectrum are stories like the following:

• "Zapping cow dung with lightning is helping to trap climate-warming methane" (Reuters)

A Norwegian technology company has found a way to stop livestock slurry from releasing methane -- by zapping it with artificial lightning. ...
A manure scrapper collects all the excrement from the barn floor and deposits it in a pit where it is then moved through the N2 machine, housed in a standard-sized shipping container. Nitrogen from the air and a blast from a 50 kilowatt plasma torch is forced through the slurry 'locking in' both methane and ammonia emissions.
"When we add nitrogen from air to the slurry, it changes the environment to stop methanogenesis basically. So it drops the pH down to just below six and we're catching that early. So it stops the breakdown of those methane microbes that then release the gas to the air," Puttick said, adding their patented technology is the only one of its kind.
What comes out of the machine is an odorless brown liquid, called NEO -- a Nitrogen Enriched Organic fertilizer.

And excellent idea, and nicely implemented. Stopping methane from agriculture matters a lot. This doesn't address directly emitted methane, but cheaply removing methane from dung is a considerable accomplishment.

There's also this:

• "Solid-State Batteries Are Here and They're Going to Change How We Live" (Popular Science)

A team at Harvard University made news in May 2021 when they published findings that their lithium-metal cell held its charge over an astonishing 10,000 cycles.
At 10,000 cycles, we could reset our expectations for battery life, says Xin Li, Ph.D., one of the Harvard researchers behind the battery. “[It] could be as long as 25 years or even half a century.” ...
“This new technology could mean recharging a car in the same time required to fill a gas tank.”

Fewer batteries producing significantly more power — the inverse of planned obsolescence. And this:

• "Rondo tackles industrial heat to drop global CO2 emissions by 1% in the next decade" (Tech Crunch)

In climate circles we spend a lot of time talking about manufacturing and power generation in the effort of cutting CO2 emissions. It’s pretty rare that I get a whiff of a company that has a clear path toward cutting global carbon emissions by a full percent — but that’s what Rondo Energy pitched to its investors and customers, raising $22 million and setting some very excited environmentalists’ hearts a-flutter in the process.
The company’s pitch is pretty straightforward: Industry uses a god-awful amount of heat, which typically used to be delivered through natural gas. ... As [traditional energy] prices started creeping up, the cost of renewable power — solar and wind, primarily — started plummeting. In some parts of California, this has gotten so extreme that during parts of the day, generation outpaces demand and the grid’s capacity to absorb it all by quite a bit. The result is that there are parts of the day where electricity is so cheap it may as well be free — but it has nowhere to go.
Rondo Energy to the rescue. It has developed a new way to store all that power; not in the form of electricity, but in the form of heat. Heat has the benefit of being extremely fast — you don’t have to worry about the speed that a Lithium battery can absorb electricity. Essentially, you just throw the electricity through a massive resistor, which heats up to ridiculous temperatures. Now all you need to do is to capture the heat for later.
“We’re storing heat as very high-temperature energy in solid materials. The truth is, my coffee thermos holds more energy than a laptop battery, a lot more cheaply. For the heating — there’s no magic there: your toaster and hairdryer uses the same technology for generating heat as we do. We developed a new combination of materials for the storage. You can then deliver heat continually by circulating air into the stack of that material and getting superheated air out,” explains O’Donnell. “Then we either turn that heat into steam in a conventional boiler or we deliver directly to users with high-temperature needs, such as making glass or cement. This is a technology that operates at a small fraction of the cost of an electrochemical battery and maybe more significantly, roughly twice the efficiency and half the cost of any hydrogen system.

Another fine idea and implementation. Why spend the money — and carbon — making heat from methane when it could be captured from the grid when supply exceeds demand, stored as heat, and then redelivered to customers, in many cases directly as heat without further conversion.

There are a great many stories like these; I've features some of them in these pages. They inspire hope, and not unwarranted hope in light of the accomplishments they detail.

A World Awash in Irony

So why do we see such a disconnect between the two sets of stories, the stories of hope and despair? I would suggest, first, that as promising as the encouraging stories are, the accomplishments they detail are either (a) not significant enough to affect meaningful climate mitigation, or (b) significant but unimplemented at scale because, frankly, no one with power sees any urgency in implementing them.

Or both. It's entirely possible that the existence of the positive stories, accurate as they are, helps continue the climate apathy that works against their implementation. In other words, the solutions aren't implemented simply because they do offer solutions and comfort, so they demotivate the comfortable, including those in charge (of making sure they make money no matter what).

It's an interesting dilemma. Are positive climate stories a cause of their own ineffectiveness? That's like asking if the growth of an organism is a cause of its death. Or in Shakespeare's phrase, can an organism be "consumed with that which it was nourished by."

In the cases of some organisms, yes — an overpopulation of lab mice is a confined space accelerate all of their deaths. Is that true of positive climate stories as well, that their existence mitigates against their implementation?

If so, it would be one more irony in a world flushed full of them. For example, is mankind's supreme gift, our social adaptability, the reason why this generation won't free itself from the deadly spiral forced on us by the pathological rich who rule us? If so, it would be the first case I know of where species adaptability caused its own inaction.

Another irony, but we live in ironic times, do we not?


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