Next-level Understanding of Climate Change

I’m always on the lookout for really good articles that can tell us something new about climate change, and especially those that contain useful ideas on what to do about it. Bret Victor has recently published just such an article, “What Can a Technologist Do about Climate Change?

It’s really long, as articles published on the internet go, and very elegantly formatted. This means it won’t do you much good to look at it on a phone, because the screen is too small to read the charts, notes and other illustrations that accompany the text. It’s meant to be seen on a laptop or larger screen and, even if you have to go to a library for that, it’s worth the effort.

For me, toward the end of the article, it bogs down with way too much detail and speculation about programming languages and data handling. However, before it begins to bog down, the article does a great job of summarizing the issue and providing links and charts – even an interactive chart or two – to clarify and define aspects of the problem.

Here’s the pithiest text:

The human race uses 18 terawatts, and will for the foreseeable future. So there are basically only two scenarios for investors as a collective:

(a) invest in clean energy immediately; clean energy takes over the $6 trillion global energy market; investors get a nice piece of that.

(b) don’t invest in clean energy immediately; fossil fuels burn past our carbon budget; investors inherit a cinder.


The primary cause of global warming is the dumping of carbon dioxide into the sky.

The primary cause of that is the burning of coal, natural gas, and petroleum in order to generate electricity and move vehicles around.

[end quotes]

Don’t get the wrong impression. It’s not all pithy quotes suitable for tweeting. The point on investment is accompanied by a clearly understandable chart illustrating, to scale, government spending and private investment compared to the present investment in energy research. The point on carbon dioxide is accompanied by two charts. One shows the percentage of global warming attributed to carbon dioxide. The other shows the human sources of carbon dioxide emissions.

If I had written the article, I would have digressed a bit on the subject of methane emissions. I would certainly have pointed out that methane in the atmosphere has a half-life of around ten years and that it disappears from the atmosphere by reacting with ozone to form water and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide then has its own half-life of around 100 years. That is, every molecule of methane emitted eventually becomes carbon dioxide.

Luckily, I did not write the article, because I would no doubt have gotten us bogged down in a distraction involving methane instead of getting right on to the main topic of carbon dioxide emissions. After all, curbing humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions will automatically reduce humanity’s methane emissions, so the solutions for both types of emissions are largely the same.

I suggest taking time to read through the article thoroughly, and then going back a week later, to see what you missed or misunderstood. There is plenty of material here that calls for discussion, preferably with someone who understands the physics and chemistry of the issues so they can clear up misinterpretations.

Climate change is a complex issue, and no one person, not even Bret Victor, or Steven Hawking, or Neil deGrasse Tyson or anyone, has all the answers. To arrive at such answers as we can, it will indeed take take a mobilization of the society equivalent to mobilization for war. That’s just what this article recommends, and so do I.


One thought on “Next-level Understanding of Climate Change

  1. Mark Z. Jacobson — textbook, numerous articles and papers, plans for converting all 50 US state and 139 countries to 100% renewable energy – particulates in air reflect light, create heat, 2nd biggest cause and could help tremendously if we choose urgently needed transformation.

    also google him in youtube for numerous presentations.

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