Roberts’ Farewell-for-Now Tweets

Grist collected David Roberts’ cold-turkey summary tweets here.

Worth a read. I totally agree with all of them except #10. You?


  1. If I am violating some kind of copyright by putting them all together, I hope P3 will delete this. Here they are (I have not "improved" though I was tempted to fix "qua" - so pretentious!):

    1. The climate problem is much worse than the deficit problem, by any sane measure.
    2. What gets coded as "worse" in politics has more to do with threats or advantages for status quo powers than with objective risk.
    3. No one cares about the deficit qua deficit, not really. Its primary use in US politics is as a lever to ratchet down social spending.
    4. Climate adaptation is much more expensive than mitigation. The more we spend now, the less we’ll spend overall.
    5. Much more "big government" will be required to adapt to a warming world than is required to reduce carbon emissions.
    6. The choice, then, is bigger, more expensive gov’t now or MUCH bigger, MUCH more expensive gov’t later. There is no third choice.
    7. The core problem of climate change is time; individually & collectively, we are terrible at assessing risk & benefits far in the future.
    8. Climate policy is about pulling future costs & benefits into today’s economy, by hook or by crook.
    9. Current status quo interests always have more power than those representing future interests; problem is common but acute wrt climate.
    10. Politics is about power far more than persuasion; all activism, advocacy, policy should be focused on shifting balance of power.
    11. The biggest opportunities for short-term carbon reductions are on the demand side. No supply-side solution is as fast/cheap.
    12. The largest scale demand-side solutions require population density (land use, transpo, power). That means cities, cities, cities.
    13. Creating high-tech, low-carbon, livable cities should be at the heart of climate policy/advocacy.
    14. Sustainable urbanism can (if done right) draw in constituencies that have been missing from the climate fight: POC, creative class, etc.
    15. Urban politics are also, at least for now, less polarized along frozen party lines than federal politics. Things happen in cities.
    16. The interests fighting against sustainable urbanism (sprawl industry: roads, cars, real estate) are as powerful & malign as FF cos.
    17. Innovation is badly needed, but tech innovation is only a sliver of the pie. Need inno in biz models, financing, planning & valuing.
    17.5 Social & economic innovations are every bit as important as technological innovations.
    18. A "climate movement" can never succeed; for sufficient progress, sustainability must be woven throughout the socioeconomic fabric.
    19. You cannot always know how or when, but every act of good will matters. "What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"
    20. If your ideology is serving to justify being unkind or uncaring, you are doing it wrong.

    As always, I am in large disagreement with the assumption that we can go on as we were. An obese person first needs to stop gaining weight, then stabilize, then lose. Reducing acceleration is not going to come close to being enough. Getting the whole population to abandon passive entertainment and what passes for excitement these days (pyrotechnics, golly!) means accepting that we are in real trouble.

  2. More seriously, Susan, are you suggesting that David is saying "we can go on as we were"?

    As a matter of fact, I say people overestimate the amount of changes we need in our individual economic lives, and underestimate the amount of change we need in our ideological and legal systems.

    But I don't see David saying anything like that.

  3. I am as always piggybacking my own concerns and not suggesting Roberts shares them.

    Examples of how we are going in the wrong direction are everywhere. Witness this on replenishing sand for the Jersey Shore! (garn, paywalled)
    (fabulous pics)

    Consider all sports events, rock concerts, morning TV, Walmart (doing just fine, thank you, strikes not making a dent), fireworks, big cars, and your northern route along with drill baby drill and extreme fossil. Not to mention e-media mestatasization. I may be a bit cross due to being attacked for promoting real science over denial here and there.

  4. I either agree with most/all of these or believe them to be accurate to the extent I'm sure I understand them. Number 10 may have been clear in context and I may agree with it, but I'm not sure what sort of distinctions are being made in re "persuasion" and "power" and I need an example. If it's essentially a proposal that "speak softly, but carry a big stick" should be applied to dealing with politicians and certain business interests, he may have a point. Both can be willfully obtuse when it suits their perceived interests or profit margins. Number 19 looks like yet another variation on "the longest journey begins with a single step" or maybe just "don't give up" or "never surrender," and an attempt to encourage the troops. I appreciate the sentiment but I'm also confident that the ocean would look the same to me even if you subtracted quite a few drops, so I'm not crazy about the imagery. I feel incremental enough as it is. Finally, in re Number 18, I'm guessing there is an implied distinction being made between a popular movement and a popular movement that actually has a lasting effect on our society by causing changes in government, laws, business practices, economic considerations, and on and on, so that in the end there is more than merely a popular movement.

    And I think I agree with MT in that I think we need system changes to accomplish anything useful, and that individual changes won't be that bad if the system changes are successful. More important, if the systems don't change, I don't think individual changes will ever be enough to make a difference.

  5. 6. "The choice, then, is bigger, more expensive gov’t now or MUCH bigger, MUCH more expensive gov’t later. There is no third choice."

    These are only tweets so nuance is probably not going to come leaping out, but "there is no third choice?" David discusses power politics plenty - a wealth of outcomes flow from that. I think maybe he means "there is no third choice that gifts us with a future stable climate". I'm getting increasingly darkmountainish on this: we face a predicament not a problem. For me, that means taking the third choice seriously: the future's going to be really f***ing messy. That may include e.g. a future with no large-scale government capable of enforcing a Draconian carbon policy at gunpoint, just your common-or-garden multipolar set of entities competing for resources, unable and unwilling to cooperate in their (let alone our) collective best interests. Those three tweets (4,5,6) presume a Disney ending to this story. (Er, admittedly with one being a totalitarian world government suppressing renegade coalminers with solar-powered drone warfare. That's not very Disney, is it?)

    Also: Roberts is into smart cities as a key climate solution. There's a nice summary here of a recent paper by a colleague of mine that kicked off a bit of a brawl in planning circles. The - tentatively concluded - upshot is that if you account for the full range of economic and social effects, the carbon gains are marginal. Cities and towns, obviously, are vital: smart density, not necessarily. But this is getting into social science territory and as MT always points out, we don't have physical reality as our arbiter. Given cities' role in carbon output, though, city policy is going to remain a battleground. Just thought it worth pointing out that smart cities may not be all it's cracked up to be (with the emphasis on *may*; the 'takeaway for practice' from the paper: "urban form policies can have important impacts on local environmental quality, economy, crowding, and social equity, but their influence on energy consumption and land use is very modest; compact development should not automatically be associated with the preferred spatial growth strategy.")

  6. I disagree with the "predicament" diagnosis. The climate problem is definitely a "wicked problem" but the core of the issue can be reduced to the following sentence: human activities are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and it needs to stop.

    In isolation, climate change could be "solved" with air capture and geologic storage. We could pay to make this problem go away (at least for many, many decades). However, the issue is complicated because it gets treated as a general environmental indicator, so people don't just want to talk about carbon, they want to talk about food and oil and water and human health.

    As for the cities and smart growth, I think it's a generally a good idea, but it isn't really a fast or cheap carbon mitigation process. I wouldn't describe it as a "key climate solution." It's more of a comprehensive sustainability strategy.

    I think one of David Roberts' most valuable contributions has been popularizing the "climate hawk" label. I consider myself an environmentalist generally, but I think the "climate hawk" position has a lot of value. Climate change is a problem in need of management; Roberts is correct that there will never be a one page solution and both mitigation and adaptation it will require attention for years. That said, I think it is important to remember that on the physical side the issue is really simple, and it can be addressed with a mix of technology and behavior change. How much we change our behavior vs. how much we change our technology is a decision that will have to be made (culturally, politically, and economically). For example, how do we want to handle individual transport? Should we make very few changes on the vehicles and build an enormous air capture infrastructure? Should we spend trillions of dollars building a hydrogen infrastructure? Or should we focus on switching to electric cars where possible and accept the impacts it would have on our mobility habits? We could address the issue by abandoning personal transport altogether (all behavior change). I acknowledge that there are behavior/technology feedbacks of course and a million other complications.

    To me the "climate hawk" identity is important because, unfortunately, we are not yet at the point where everybody is discussing how the solution is going to go down. We still need to convince a lot of people that there needs to be a solution, and that whatever the solution is, it needs to be effective. Everyone should have a climate change "elevator speech" and mine is much more "climate hawk" and less "sustainability/stewardship."

  7. Thinking about David Roberts in general. I've usually been very impressed by his reporting and always thought he was out of place at Grist. I'll admit to having a very low opinion of Grist in general. I hope that when he returns he will at least stay out of the twitter trenches, because he's much more valuable as a big thinker and essayist. I've thought that he belongs at a more prestigious organization where he might have more reach (Elizabeth Kolbert's series in The New Yorker was a huge turning point in my understanding of climate change). Recently my position has softened on that a little bit for a couple of reasons. First, I didn't really know Robert's history until I read one of his farewell posts; he basically learned on the job there at Grist, and Grist gave him a huge amount of freedom to find his own way. The other reason is that I was thinking about his coverage of coal exports and coal leases. I've seen very little coverage of that in the big press (one bit in NYT maybe). If he weren't in Seattle he might very well not have paid much attention to what a lot of people have treated as a regional issue.

    The more I think about it, the more I think federal coal leases are insane. Is that the next target of the 350/keystone activists?

  8. "Human activities are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and it needs to stop."

    But that's my point: is there actually any evidence we can stop it? I haven't seen much in the last ten years and history doesn't offer any heartening parallels. I have, previously, also held on to "it needs to stop" because it seemed the only sane thing to think. What other option was there - surely not continuing to burn carbon? But, yes, that's an option - even digging more up as it becomes available via melting arctic ice. We are that stupid.

    One might want to argue: going all defeatist - even if there's a strong case for it - can only make things worse. But I can't help but think we need to think very seriously about preparing for options 3,4,5,6 etc.

  9. When what has to happen has to happen, you try to make it happen even if it is unprecedented. Lots of unprecedented things are happening.

    We abolished slavery and child labor on ethical grounds. We can stop damaging the planet on ethical grounds. It awaits the emergence of general understanding of the situation among the general public before it's feasible. In the face of disinformation, that won't happen until things get worse.

    So there is some combination of pain and (geoengineering) risk coming. Maybe you are right - maybe it's all pain.

    In that case there's nothing much to be done, though, until after the catastrophe. Just etch what you know into stone and metal, and bury it...

  10. I'm closing in on 60, and have always been clumsy and lacking in both strength and stamina. I am not a viable specimen in a post-apocalyptic world. My plan, in the event I live long enough to see the collapse, is to say "I told you so" and then die.

  11. I sympathize with your pessimism and I do understand that we are already committed to what will likely be quite noticeable warming.

    Warming beyond that which we are already committed to (via past emissions) is only inevitable due to politics and culture. If we disregard humans and their faulty decision making processes, the problem is very solvable.

    If you're talking to someone who isn't following the climate change discussion very closely, they may not understand the difference between technical and political difficulty. It does them no favors to talk about inevitability and the fall of civilization. They're either going to think you're nuts or they're going to join you in despondency. We need to always reinforce the point that we can make life a lot easier for ourselves (and especially our children and grandchildren) if we just choose to start doing something about it.

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