How’s Your Climate Anxiety?

Note: I initially published this post back in May, on the road, mid-Churchill travel. I’ve since come back and reflected/added to it as my research has progressed.

One of the things that I genuinely do love about my day job (and most of the roles I’ve held previously in regional local government) is the fact that it’s incredibly varied. On any given day, you’re working across numerous diverse areas, and – as a rank generalist – it’s a place I’ve felt pretty comfortable.

The Churchill Fellowship is the first time in over a decade that I’ve had the ability (luxury?) to focus on a single task for a couple of months and actually get a bit deeper than I usually can. As such, it prompted a moment of thought when I caught up with Dr. Jen Roberts at the University of Strathclyde and she asked me “How’s your climate anxiety?”

Anxiety might be a strong word, but for a while – with my relatively shallow view over the energy transition and surrounding environment – I’ve certainly had concerns about the increasing likelihood and impact of a global temperature increase over 1.5C, the speed with which we seem to be overshooting the markers for that increase and the urgency with which we – as society, particularly wealthy Western society – appear to be putting into the task.

I feel like I have a deeper and wider view of the topic now, by virtue of not just my numerous conversations over the past weeks, but also an increased diet of podcasts and reading material relating to the matter. So, when Jen asked the question, I had to stop and consider whether knowing more had made me more or less comfortable about things. And it depends.

There are some things that certainly keep my concern levels high:

  • This reporting from the Guardian
  • The recent Quarterly Essay from Joëlle Gergis
  • Harking back to a previous blog post, the difficulty in achieving lasting, bipartisan positions and multilateral cooperation on the energy transition. I’m not going to wade into Australia’s nuclear debate here, but the role of partisan politics certainly feels greater to me than the role of reasoned discussion in this moment.
  • The simple reality that just about nobody is prioritising the climate impact of projects in their internal or external assessment process (with perhaps the exception of some very passionate individuals). In general, whilst people do care about environmental impacts, it is a little way down the list behind things like:
    • Economics: project profitability for developers, short/medium-term economic impact for government, cost (especially in a cost of living crisis) for consumers.
    • Convenience: unlikely other energy transitions, the current one might actually require us to change behaviours in ways that require us to consume less or behave differently. As a consumer, if it costs more or inconveniences us, we will require greater motivation to actually do it.
      • To be clear, I’m not intending to provide a critique on capitalism or even human selfishness. We probably just need to ensure that we factor these parameters into our thinking when we set societal goals.
  • The scale of the task: It’s huge and we are trying to do a very big thing very fast (which is pretty well a guaranteed recipe for going over time and budget).
    • I’m as guilty of the Planning Fallacy as anyone, and the entire transition is ripe for it.
  • The difficulty associated with a just transition:
    • There is an inherent conflict between doing better at consulting with and including people, and striving for better societal impacts and getting things done quickly. Building trust and consulting well takes a long time – and can’t be rushed. But if you want to get things done quickly… well… there’s a reason we feel that things get built fast in places like Saudi Arabia.
    • At some point there has to be a tradeoff between speed (and the cost and climate impacts on future generations) and justice (impacts on the people here now).
  • The fact that some pretty large emitting economies aren’t on the 2050 track at all.
    • China is aiming for 2060
    • India by 2070
      • To be clear, both of those targets still look pretty ambitious, but we need to remember that there isn’t global commitment to net zero by 2050.
      • Also, before anyone runs the ‘well they aren’t doing it – so neither should we’ argument. The above isn’t a reason that other countries who are more able to transition by 2050 or before shouldn’t still aim for that. We’re collectively increasingly stuffed the further we overshoot the various national and international targets set. (See my point above on selfishness for why this is hard).
  • The cognitive dissonance between visible impacts of climate change being reported the world over, and the willingness to look beyond the economics and convenience.
    • These impacts are significant, and we’re really pushing the planetary boundaries, but – against that backdrop – it’s still all to easy to view the impacts at someone else’s problem and adopt NIMBY/BANANA approaches to things that might be necessary. This goes beyond a general unwillingness to make changes to stop distant islands from sinking beneath the Pacific. One can understand that the multi-generational wealth held in their farmland might evaporate in the next 50 years due to anthropogenic climate change and simultaneously oppose new transmission lines for renewable energy near that property.
      • There is a policy response here, in compensating those impacted – which is a reasonable approach to take. The rub is that it costs money that could also be spent on addressing more short-term issues like healthcare, aged care, education…
    • Some of these issues can be addressed by communicating more effectively with people, and building better trust through the transition process – but this both takes time, and requires a somewhat consistent narrative at a political/policy level. And trust in our institutions.
    • It’s not always straightforward either, looking at data around the impact of natural disasters actually paints a somewhat positive picture (at least in terms of the fatalities they are contributing to).
  • Industry (including polluting industries) have an obvious interest in remaining profitable through the transition
    • The exact degree to which this means that oil and gas companies are simply promoting CCS or blue hydrogen to prolong their productive lives is really difficult to parse out. I am sure the answer is greater than zero – but beyond that it’s hard to quantify how much is corporate cynicism and survivalism and how much is a genuine commitment to stated ESG values.
    • As above though, unless the economics work – either via market forces, or through government subsidies – for-profit corporations are unlikely to sacrifice the nearer-term interests of their shareholders on the altar of the greater good. What is interesting is that some shareholder behaviour is shifting.
  • Some of the big things that we need to do are still being worked out; like:
    • Affordable long-term energy storage. There are plenty of options being proposed, most at pilot scale and many of which are – at least currently – very expensive in terms of financial cost and/or energy. Or, in the case of pumped hydro, out of reach for some geographies (like much of Western Australia).
    • Actually reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere once we get to net zero, or once we are as close are we are likely to get. How do we claw back the emissions from the previous decades and try to do some repair work, rather than just preventing more future damage? There’s a lot of big bets being placed on Direct Air Capture at the moment. And lot of skepticism.
    • Developing a functioning circular economy around turbine blades, batteries and solar panels.
  • In general, government’s approach to the transition, the world over (as with most things) is pretty risk averse. The US might be a bit of an outlier, with the Inflation Reduction Act’s ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ tech-agnostic approach to funding potential solutions; in a sense, they are taking the view that the value of the things that are funded which work will offset the losses from funding some things which don’t. I find it hard to see something like this being politically palatable in many other jurisdictions. That said, I am happier about where Australia sits in this space, following the recent budget announcement, which provides some fairly clear signals.
    • I link this to a general reticence by Government (and I mean that in the most general sense, any elected body really) to make decisions where there are ‘losers’. I might be living in a world of nostalgia – and I’m happy to be challenged and proven wrong – but my view is that modern politics is less willing or able to prosecute the argument for policies that deliver a net societal benefits, but might negatively impact some cohorts. I would argue that declining bipartisanship plays a role here.
    • Because of policy uncertainty, and a degree of technological uncertainty, industry is hesitant about investing in big projects with long pay-back periods. It’s hard to get yourself to FID if you aren’t sure whether a policy change in a decade might wipe you out; this is especially fraught for things that we are looking at as ‘transitional’.
  • It’s complex. So complex. Almost bewilderingly so.
    • If anything, the last couple of months have really just helped to show me the array of things that I don’t know very much about, that form part of this big and complex picture. There is a threshold that I have gone over now where I longer have the bliss associated with ignorance, but am increasingly finding new things that I don’t know very much about. Known unknowns don’t carry with them the same level of bliss.
  • The entire environment around the transition is polarised, politicised and often reported on accordingly. There is a lot of noise and bias, and it’s not always easy to filter out.
    • Critically, if people like me, spending time on this issue are struggling, how do we communicate effectively on this challenging issue with the general public who obviously aren’t spending weeks/months of their lives consuming this stuff?

That said, it’s not all doom and gloom. I’m certainly no great techno-optimist, but there are also examples of where things are actually going OK, and we can be optimistic:

  • Just because the climate scientists are concerned, doesn’t mean their assumptions can’t be questioned.
    • I am absolutely not suggesting we don’t take the science seriously. At the same time, the science – as with everything (especially the unscientific garbage often found on social media) should be subject to critical thought.
    • To reiterate, if a lot of climate scientists are worried (and I’ve spoken to a couple of pretty depressed ecologists and environmentalists on my trip), it’s still worth us all thinking about why that might be.
  • We have underestimated how quickly renewables can be brought online.
  • Mark Z Jacobson’s daily posts on LinkedIn about how much renewable energy is feeding the Californian grid, generally demonstrating what can be done with the tech that we currently have.
  • There is significant technological advancement taking place, and we aren’t great at predicting it – much like the renewables roll-out above. I don’t think blind techno-optimism is a viable position, but there is no doubt that the human capacity for innovation will be helpful in addressing these challenges, and may surprise us in its ability to do so.
  • From a ‘just transition’ point of view, I certainly encountered examples in my travels of where things like community benefit funds are giving social licence to big renewable energy projects and genuine benefit back to the hosting communities.
  • When you look at it, some of the data is actually moving the right direction. The good news doesn’t always make the headlines though.
  • Energy efficiency can do a lot (it’s just not very sexy and not attracting big investment); we focus a lot on the supply side, without necessarily looking for the low-hanging fruit on the demand side
  • I am trying to embrace the fact that there are plenty of gaps in my knowledge, my worldview is not set in stone, and will be updated with new information.
    • (If you disagree or can prove wrong anything that I’ve put in here, feel free to reach out and set me straight. I’m certainly not an authority, but I’ve managed to get myself a good balcony view via this Churchill Fellowship work).
  • People that know more and have spent much more time on this stuff than me remain optimistic.
  • Simply giving in to the doom and doing nothing is a pretty lousy way to respond.
    • I had a great conversation with Dr. Eric Brown in a Hammersmith café as part of this trip, and he pointed out that there is value in his nano-contribution (or pico-contribution) to the overall effort to improve the collective situation. There’s plenty outside our locus of control (just about everything I’ve listed above, really). So, it pays to focus on the things that can be influenced and controlled.

I’m well aware that this list of upside is shorter than the bear case above. That does worry me, although I am also aware the the Negativity Bias is a thing. The fact that the odds feel a little stacked against is also a good incentive to try to find out how to make my own nano-contribution as useful as I reasonably can – and that in itself is a good distraction to keep the doomerism at bay.

1 thought on “How’s Your Climate Anxiety?”

  1. Odhran O’Brien

    Thanks Nils, I think you have summarised well the cognitive dissonance many of us feel about climate change. I hope innovation is the answer.

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