I recently (April 12-13) participated in a two-day workshop, "Exponential climate action for cities" (X-CAC) - an international workshop to explore exponential pathways for cities following a "Global Carbon Law":
"This workshop will bring together leading researchers, tech companies, innovators, and city actors from across the globe to map out the opportunity space for exponential systemic action. We will look at the best examples of rapid emission reductions, the massive opportunities opening up with new technologies, and the role of societal change and policy actions.
The Global Carbon Law ... is a “Moore’s Law for climate”. It points out a roadmap for halving greenhouse gas emissions every decade from 2020, with the target of arriving at net zero emission by 2050. ... For this workshop, we are particularly interested in the role of cities and the ICT sector as key actors, disruptors and catalysts of change. ... very rapid transformations need to happen in cities and countries that are well-off. We now have an extraordinary opportunity to harness the power of the 4th Industrial Revolution and exponential technologies to drive change."
The "Global Carbon Law" was first presented in a short article that was published in the prestigious journal Science last year:
Rockström, J., Gaffney, O., Rogelj, J., Meinshausen, M., Nakicenovic, N., & Schellnhuber, H. J. (2017). A roadmap for rapid decarbonization. Science, 355(6331), 1269-1271.
I have now (after the workshop) read that article but I'd say it's enough to read the information on the workshop webpage and the information on the Stockholm Resilience Center homepage about the Global Carbon Law to understand what it's about. The homepage also has a three-minute and a twenty-minute explanatory movie (both starring the article's first article, scientist-superstar Johan Rockström).
I have mixed feelings about the workshop. I actually had mixed feelings already before the workshop and wrote (in my application to attend the workshop):
"I am somewhat skeptical but also open to being convinced about the soundness of the Global Carbon Law. Can it be for real? Can it be implemented? If so, which are the stakeholders and who needs to be convinced so as to "make it happen”?"
To which I got this answer:
"Hope to be able to address your skepticism about the Global Carbon Law (from our side, the main statement is mainly "this HAS to be done", rather than claiming that it definitely will de done - that depends on political will and engagement from citizens and businesses)."
This basically sums up the Global Carbon Law as well as the main thrust of the workshop. In order to implement the 2015 UN Paris Agreement and maximise the chances that we can limit global warming to below 2 degrees (or preferably below 1.5 degrees) compared to preindustrial levels, we have to keep within a limited cumulative "carbon budget" of 700 Gigatons of CO2 for the remainder of this century. This means we have to decrease annual global CO2 emissions from the current 40 Gigatons to 20 Gigatons in 2030, 10 Gigatons in 2040 and 5 Gigatons of annual CO2 emissions by 2050.
So, the workshop asked, how can ICT be harnessed to "do its magic" as a game changer that can accelerate change, that disrupts and transforms, that can drive value and that can make solutions emerge at scale?
This was a two-day workshop so there's lots I could write about it but I'm going to concentrated on one thing only and that is Kathryn Myronuk's keynote speech. She was presented as a being part of the "founding team and faculty at Singularity University" and a "leading expert on exponentially growing technologies". She several times referred to herself as being part of the "(Silicon Valley) start-up culture".
Singularity University is "a Silicon Valley think tank that offers educational programs and a business incubator" that is marinated in the kind of "singularity thinking" (Nothing is impossible! Computing will solve all problems humanity is facing!) that Ray Kurweil is propagating in his books and talks (see the blog post I wrote after I read his 2005 book "The Singularity is near: When humans transcend biology"). I basically think this kind of thinking and these kinds of people have gotten something very wrong and that it is their mindset that has helped land us in the current untenable situation. I was therefore very interested in understanding how it came to be that they were invited to a workshop where they will help us "fix" the problem of runaway climate change - when the same kind of thinking has previously contributed to runaway industrial production, runaway carbon emissions and runaway climate change.
Kathryn's keynote was quite convincing and her spiel is seductive. We humans are so smart and our ingenuity + exponential growth in technology/computing can help us solve any and all problems. She presented three examples to prove her point:
1) Automatic (real-time) translation between languages
Translation between different human languages has been "10 years away" for decades. Finally people started to despair and say that it was never going to happen. But then it did start to happen, e.g. "Microsoft demos breakthrough in real-time translated conversations" (2014) and much has since happened at Microsoft, Skype and Google.
2) Robots that move, climb stairs, open valves and play football
Lots of stuff happens in this space with huge leaps each year.
How do you deliver vaccines in places where there are no roads? The company Matternet delivers stuff by drones. Kathryn said that a 30-kilo drone can deliver a 2-kilo package. Which is a lot more energy-efficient than a 75 kg-person and a 1000+ kilo car delivering two kilos of pizza. In 2017 "Matternet partnered with the Swiss Post to launch the first medical drone delivery network in Switzerland". When I heard these examples, my first thought was: "Wow, we're going to be able to deliver so much more stuff compared to today!". Which implies that there will be rebound effects, e.g. projected saving might be hollowed out (or even reversed) by increased volumes of stuff being delivered.
But my basic critique against The Gospel according to Myronuk is this. While her examples are alluring, they are just examples. The fact that we have or are solving some problems doesn't imply or guarantee that we will solve all problems. I will here draw on Frederich Brooks 1986 paper "No Silver Bullet – Essence and Accident in Software Engineering". I have not re-read the paper recently so the reasoning below is based on my recollection of the (to me) most important points in that paper:
- We are always struggling with many difficult problems in computing.
- Some of those problems later, in hindsight, turn out to have been accidental problems that were "relatively easily solved" as we got access to 10, 100 or 1000 times more computing power.
- Other problem turn out to be essential problems that are much more difficult to "solve" (e.g. significantly improve the outcomes quickly).
- It was once thought that producing bug-free code was an accidental problem that would easily be fixed "soon" or, but, it turned out to be an essential problem having less to do with access to sheer computing power or better software development methods and more to do with unclear specifications, misunderstandings between humans and a host of other problems that hasn't and won't go away anytime soon.
- It might even be worse; it has been said that "software systems grow faster in size and complexity than methods to handle complexity are invented".
- The point is that the fact that we have been able to solve some problems that looked really hard is in no way a guarantee that we will solve all problems. And it's impossible to know which problems are accidental (simple) and which are essential (hard) in advance.
That means that being on the verge of solving the problem of real-time translation between different languages says very little about the potential of computing and "exponential thinking" to solve the climate crisis. I would think it's natural to imagine that that real-time translation will be significantly easier with access to 10 or 100 times more computing power, but it's harder to see how such developments would solve the problem of climate change. It to me seems like the climate crisis (CO2 emissions and their anthropogenic sources) is a very very different, and much harder problem to solve since all industrial activities generate CO2 emissions - including scaling up data center that will make real-time translation between languages possible as well as the scale-up of the industrial capacity to build robots and drones and self-driving cars and so on.
I also don't think solutionst mindset of Myronuk and Singularity University takes Sevareid's law into account, e.g. "The chief source of problems is solutions". Todays problems are the results of yesterday's solutions - for example think of the car as the solution to the problem of horse manure clogging the metropolitan streets at the end of the 19th century. While the car was a solution to that particular problem, that same technology has later created problems of its own, and these problems are a much graver threat to humanity than manure in the city streets ever was... Sevareid's law also means that today's solutions (Matternet and other technological innovations) will be the sources of tomorrow's problems. This is also the message of Michael and Joyce Huesemann in their 2011 book "Techo-fix: Why technology won't save us or the environment" that I wrote about in a blog post back in 2014.
I here also come to think of Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish who wrote the great article "Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision" 10 years ago. They commented that "Ubiquitous computing [is driven] not so much by the problems of the past but by the possibilities of the future". In other words, the wonderful future of ubiquitous computing is just around the corner and things will be great then. But, they asked [already 10 years ago], aren't we already living in the future that ubicomp researchers imagined 10 years ago [which is now 20 years in the past]? And don't we as researchers have a responsibility to "fix" the present if it didn't turn out to be as great as we prophesied, rather than (again and again) spinning new tales of how great the future will be (later!)? So why are all the challenges we are working towards situated in the future (autonomous cars will decrease traffic accidents and save lives - in the future), instead of us concentrating on fixing what's wrong in our societies and on this planet today?
To conclude and tie back to Myronuk's Singularity visions, I ask why the singularitarians are so quick at conjuring up the future bliss that technology will deliver, but so slow at admitting the problems brought by yesterday's "solutions"? And if yesterday's technological solutions brought both joy and sorrow (sometimes more joy, sometimes more sorrow) - but didn't really "fix" all the problems that ail our societies, why then is the promise that today's technological solutions will fix climate change credible? I assume that while new technologies can have positive effects, their production and use will also have negative effects in terms of carbon emissions and climate change. So it would seem desirable to at least more actively weigh pros against cons and to encourage certain innovations/technologies while simultaneously discouraging other innovations/technologies (something I wrote about together will Björn Wallsten in our 2017 paper "Resource Scarcity and Socially Just Internet Access over Time and Space"). I believe that this simple idea however isn't and perhaps can't really be part of the world view of someone who believes in the singularity and in the blessings of all (digital) technologies. To them, all technology is (potentially) great and all technologies should be encouraged. This is a view I regard as simplistic.
While I appreciated attending the workshop, there were so many hard questions that I think about but that weren't addressed at the workshop. Here are a few of them:
- We've had exponential developments in ICT for decades and we've known about the CO2/climate change problem for decades too. So what has changed now and what is the argument that ICT developments all of a sudden will be a tool that will decrease rather than further increase CO2 emissions?
- Why would we imagine that the factors that tend to incentivise companies to act (e.g. profits) will successfully address also the problem of climate change? Why do we imagine that things that people and companies want also is "what the planet needs"?- Can we decarbonise without decreasing industrial production (and shrinking the economy)? This questions (conundrum) was never really addressed at the workshop and I guess the reason is that it would threaten to divide the audience. See further my blog post about Klein's book "This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate".
- Can we decarbonise/fix the climate without changing our lifestyles? This was another hard-to-handle question that was glossed over.
- Can there be space for (some) economic growth in the global South without sharply reining in economic growth in the global North? Can we sharply rein in economic growth in the global North without having to change our lifestyles drastically?
- I saw many examples of curves where future CO2 emissions changed the direction and suddenly started to point downwards. Such curves do tell a comforting story, but they for the most part remind me of an incantation of a magic formula from a fantasy novel or of "magical thinking", e.g. "if we say it will happen, it will happen".
While I sympathise with the organisers' position that "this HAS to be done", I think it's both unrealistic and too little. Which brings the issue around to tactics. How do you get people, decision-makers and societies to act on the acute long-term danger that climate change represents? While Rockström and workshop organiser Future Earth are upfront about the challenge of global climate change and the misery that would follow should we allow the temperature to rise by 2 degrees or more, I think they aren't upfront about what rapidly decreasing carbon emissions would mean in terms of shrinking economies and in terms of decreased public and private consumption. Is it right to say whatever needs to be said to get everyone onboard, or, is pretending that "this will be relatively painless" the wrong strategy to use? I just don't know, but I do know that I don't personally buy it. Things just don't add up. There is not enough consistency between the magnitude of the threat we are facing and the purported almost non-existent societal and personal effects that would follow from meeting this challenge head-on. The message is instead that we can more or less continue to live as we do today.
Words like "sacrifice", "loss" or "sorrow" are absent. As a culture we just don't seem to be "grown-ups" who can face bad news, but rather children looking for the next sugar rush. The promise is that we can have it all; we can have our sugar rush, but it will from now on be both ecological and healthy so no or few sacrifices are necessary. All we need is political will and corporate & individual action to "make it happen".
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