From shtetl to Forum

Update (Feb. 4): Immediately after departing Davos, I visited the University of Waterloo and the Perimeter Institute to give three talks, then the Simons Institute at UC Berkeley to give another talk; then I returned to Austin for a weekend with my family, all while fighting off my definitely-not-coronavirus cold. Right now I’m at Harvard to speak at the Black Hole Initiative as well as the Center of Mathematical Sciences and Applications, then my old haunt MIT to speak at CSAIL Hot Topics, then Princeton to give a CS theory seminar—all part of my Quantum Supremacy 2020 World Tour.

Here’s a YouTube video for my Berkeley talk, which was entitled “Random Circuit Sampling: Thoughts and Open Problems.”

All of this is simply to say: I sincerely apologize if I left anyone hanging for the past week, by failing to wrap up my Davos travelogue!

So, alright: having now attended Davos, do I have any insight about its role in shaping the future of the world, and whether that role is good or bad?

Umm. The case against Davos is almost too obvious to state: namely, it’s a vehicle for the world’s super-mega-elite to preen about their own virtue and thereby absolve themselves of their sins.  (Oddly enough, both liberals and conservatives have their own versions of this argument.)

But having attended, I now understand exactly the response that Klaus Schwab, the Forum’s founder and still maestro, would make.  He’d say: well, we didn’t make these people “elite.”  They were already the elite.  And given that an elite exists, would you rather have them at cocaine-filled stripper parties on yachts or whatever, or flocking to an annual meeting where the peer pressure is relentlessly about going green and being socially responsible and giving back to the community and so forth?

See, it’s like this: if you want to be accepted by the Davos crowd, you can’t do stuff like dismember journalists who criticize you.  (While many Saudi princes were at Davos, Mohammad bin Salman himself was conspicuously absent.) While that might sound like a grotesquely low bar, it’s one that many, many elites through human history failed to clear.  And we can go further: if you want an enthusiastic (rather than chilly) welcome at Davos, you can’t separate migrant kids from their families and put them in cages. Again, a low bar but sadly a nontrivial one.

I’m reminded of something Steven Pinker once wrote, about how the United Nations and other international organizations can seem laughably toothless, what with their strongly worded resolutions threatening further resolutions to come. Yet improbably, over the span of decades, the resolutions were actually effective at pushing female genital mutilation and the execution of gays and lesbians and chemical weapons and much more from the world’s panoply of horrors, not entirely out of existence, but into a much darker corner than they’d been.

The positive view of Davos would see it as part of precisely that same process. The negative view would see it as a whitewash: worse than nothing, for letting its participants pretend to stand against the world’s horrors while doing little. Which view is correct? Here, I fear that each of our judgments is going to be hopelessly colored by our more general views about the state of the world. To lay my cards on the table, my views are that

(1) often “fake it till you make it” is a perfectly reasonable strategy, and a good enough simulacrum of a stance or worldview eventually blends into the stance or worldview itself, and

(2) despite the headlines, the data show that the world really has been getting better along countless dimensions … except that it’s now being destroyed by climate change, general environmental degradation, and recrudescent know-nothing authoritarianism.

But the clearest lesson I learned is that, in the unlikely event that I’m ever invited back to Davos and able to attend, before stepping onto the plane I need to get business cards printed.

Daily Updates:
Saturday January 18 (introduction)
Sunday January 19 (Elton John and Greta Thunberg)
Monday January 20 (the $71,000-a-head ski resort conference for Equality)
Tuesday January 21 (Trump! Greta! QC panel!)
Wednesday January 22 (wherein I fail to introduce myself to Al Gore)
Thursday January 23 (wherein I attend the IBM QC panel and “drunkenly unload” at the Canada Reception)
Friday January 24 (second Al Gore session, and getting lost)

It would be great to know whether anyone’s actually reading the later updates, so I know whether to continue putting effort into them!

Saturday January 18

Today I’m headed to the 50th World Economic Forum in Davos, where on Tuesday I’ll participate in a panel discussion on “The Quantum Potential” with Jeremy O’Brien of the quantum computing startup PsiQuantum, and will also host an ask-me-anything session about quantum computational supremacy and Google’s claim to have achieved it.

I’m well aware that this will be unlike any other conference I’ve ever attended: STOC or FOCS it ain’t. As one example, also speaking on Tuesday—although not conflicting with my QC sessions—will be a real-estate swindler and reality-TV star who’s somehow (alas) the current President of the United States. Yes, even while his impeachment trial in the Senate gets underway. Also speaking on Tuesday, a mere hour and a half after him, will be TIME’s Person of the Year, 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg.

In short, this Davos is shaping up to be an epic showdown between two diametrically opposed visions for the future of life on Earth. And your humble blogger will be right there in the middle of it, to … uhh … explain how quantum computers can sample probability distributions that are classically intractable unless the polynomial hierarchy collapses to the third level. I feel appropriately sheepish.

Since the experience will be so unusual for me, I’m planning to “live-blog Davos”: I’ll be updating this post, all week, with any strange new things that I see or learn. As a sign of my devotion to you, my loyal readers, I’ll even clothespin my nose and attend Trump’s speech so I can write about it.

And Greta: on the off chance that you happen to read Shtetl-Optimized, let me treat you to a vegan lunch or dinner! I’d like to try to persuade you of just how essential nuclear power will be to a carbon-free future. Oh, and if it’s not too much trouble, I’d also like a selfie with you for this blog. (Alas, a friend pointed out to me that it would probably be easier to meet Trump: unlike Greta, he won’t be swarmed with thousands of fans!)

Anyway, check back here throughout the week for updates. And if you’re in Davos and would like to meet, please shoot me an email. And please use the comment section to give me your advice, suggestions, well-wishes, requests, or important messages for me to fail to deliver to the “Davoisie” who run the world.

Sunday January 19

So I’ve arrived in Klosters, a village in the Swiss Alps close to Davos where I’ll be staying. (All the hotels in Davos itself were booked by the time I checked.)

I’d braced myself for the challenge of navigating three different trains through the Alps not knowing German. In reality, it was like a hundred times easier than public transportation at home. Every train arrived at the exact right second at the exact platform that was listed, bearing the exact right number, and there were clear visible signs strategically placed at exactly the places where anyone could get confused. I’d entered Bizarro Opposite World. I’m surely one of the more absentminded people on earth, as well as one of the more neurotic about being judged by bystanders if I ever admit to being lost, and it was nothing.

Snow! Once a regular part of my life, now the first I’d seen in several years. Partly because I now live in Texas, but also because even when we take the kids back to Pennsylvania for ChanuChrismaNewYears, it no longer snows like it did when I was a kid. If you show my 2-year-old, Daniel, a picture of snow-covered wilderness, he calls it a “beach.” Daniel’s soon-to-be 7-year-old sister still remembers snow from Boston, but the memory is rapidly fading. I wonder for how many of the children of the 21st century will snow just be a thing from old books and movies, like typewriters or rotary phones.

The World Economic Forum starts tomorrow afternoon. In the meantime, though, I thought I’d give an update not on the WEF itself, but on the inflight movie that I watched on my way here.

I watched Rocketman, the recent biopic/hagiography about Elton John, though as I watched I found that I kept making comparisons between Elton John and Greta Thunberg.

On the surface, these two might not seem to have a great deal of similarity.

But I gathered that they had this in common: while still teenagers, they saw a chance and they seized it. And doing so involved taking inner turmoil and then succesfully externalizing it to the whole planet. Making hundreds of millions of people feel the same emotions that they had felt. If I’m being painfully honest (how often am I not?), that’s something I’ve always wanted to achieve and haven’t.

Of course, when some of the most intense and distinctive emotions you’ve ever felt revolved around the discovery of quantum query complexity lower bounds … yeah, it might be tough to find more people than could fill a room to relive those emotional journeys with you. But a child’s joy at discovering numbers like Ackerman(100) (to say nothing of BB(100)), which are so incomprehensibly bigger than \( 9^{9^{9^{9^9}}} \) that I didn’t need to think twice about how many 9’s I put there? Or the exasperation at those who, yeah, totally get that quantum computers aren’t known to give exponential speedups for NP-complete problems, that’s a really important clarification coming from the theory side, but still, let’s continue to base our entire business or talk or article around the presupposition that quantum computers do give exponential speedups for NP-complete problems? Or even just the type of crush that comes with a ceaseless monologue about what an objectifying, misogynist pig you must be to experience it? Maybe I could someday make people vicariously experience and understand those emotions–if I could only find the right words.

My point is, this is precisely what Greta did for the burgeoning emotion of existential terror about the Anthropocene—another emotion that’s characterized my life since childhood. Not that I ever figured out anything to do about it, with the exception of Gore/Nader vote-swapping. By the standards of existential terrors, I consider this terror to be extraordinarily well-grounded. If Steven Weinberg is scared, who among us has the right to be calm?

The obvious objection to Greta—why should anyone care what a histrionic teenager thinks about a complicated scientific field that thousands of people get PhDs in?—calls for a substantive answer. So here’s mine. Like many concerned citizens, I try to absorb some of the research on ocean warming or the collapse of ice sheets and the melting permafrost leading to even more warming or the collapse of ecosystems due to changes in rainfall or bushfires or climate migrations or whatever. And whenever I do, I’m reminded of Richard Feynman’s remark, during the investigation of the Challenger disaster, that maybe it wasn’t all that interesting for the commission to spend its time reconstructing the exact details of which system caused which other system to malfunction at which millisecond, after the Space Shuttle had already started exploding. The thing was hosed at that point.

Still, even after the 80s and 90s, there remained deep open questions about the eventual shape of the climate crisis, and foremost among them was: how do you get people to stop talking about this crisis in the language of intellectual hypotheticals and meaningless virtue-signalling gestures and “those crazy scientists, who knows what they’ll say tomorrow”? How does one get people to revert to a more ancient language, the one that was used to win WWII for example, which speaks of courage and duty and heroism and defiance in the jaws of death?

Greta’s origin story—the one where the autistic girl spends months so depressed over climate inaction that she can’t eat or leave her room, until finally, no longer able to bear the psychic burden, she ditches school and carries a handmade protest sign to the front of the Swedish parliament—is not merely a prerequisite to a real contribution. It is Greta’s real contribution (so far anyway), and by that I don’t mean to diminish it. The idea was “trivial,” yes, but only in the sense that the wheel, Arabic numerals, or “personal computers will be important” were trivial ideas. Greta modeled for the rest of the world how they, too, would probably feel about climate change were they able to sync up their lizard brains with their higher brains … and crucially, a substantial segment of the world was already primed to agree with her. But it needed to see one successful example of a succesful sync between the science and the emotions appropriate to the science, as a crystal needs a seed.

The thesis of Rocketman is that Elton John’s great achievement was not only to invent a new character, but actually to become that character, since only by succesfully fusing the two could he touch the emotions of the masses. In a similar way, Greta Thunberg’s great accomplishment of her short life has been to make herself into the human race’s first Greta Thunberg.

Monday January 20

Happy 7th birthday to my daughter Lily!  (No, I didn’t miss her birthday party.  We did it on the 18th, right before I flew out.)

I think my goals for Davos have been downgraded from delivering a message of peace and nerd liberation to the world’s powerful, or even getting a selfie with Greta, to simply taking in a week in an environment that’s so alien to me.

Everything in Davos is based on a tiered system of badges, which determine which buildings you can get into to participate in the sessions.  I have a white badge, the highest tier, which would’ve set me back around $71,000 had WEF not thankfully waived its fees for academics.  I should mention that I’m also extremely underdressed compared to most of the people here, and that I spent much of my time today looking for free food.  It turns out that there’s pretty copious and excellent free food, although the sponsors sometimes ask you to leave your business card before you take any.  I don’t have a business card.

The above, for me, represents the true spirit of Davos: a conference at a Swiss ski resort that costs $71,000 to attend, held on behalf of the ideal of human equality.

But maybe I shouldn’t scoff.  I learned today about a war between Greece and Turkey that was averted only because the heads of the two countries talked it over at Davos, so that’s cool.  At the opening ceremony today, besides a beautiful orchestral rendition of “Ode to Joy,” there were a bunch of speeches about how Davos pioneered the entire concept of corporate social responsibility.  I suppose the critics might say instead that Davos pioneered the concept of corporate whitewashing—as with the wall-sized posters that I saw this afternoon, wherein a financial services corporation showcased a diverse cast of people each above their preferred pronouns (he/him, she/her, they/them).  Amazing how pronouns make everything woke and social-justicey!  I imagine that the truth is somewhere between these visions.  Just like the easiest way for NASA to fake a moon landing was actually to send humans to the moon, sometimes the easiest way to virtue-signal is actually to become more virtuous.

Tonight I went to a reception specifically for the academics at Davos.  There, for the first time since my arrival, I saw people who I knew (Shafi Goldwasser, Neha Narula…), and met someone who I’d known by reputation (Brian Schmidt, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of dark energy).  But even the people who I didn’t know were clearly “my people,” with familiar nerdy mannerisms and interests, and in some cases even a thorough knowledge of SlateStarCodex references.  Imagine visiting a foreign country where no one spoke your language, then suddenly stumbling on the first ones who did.  I found it a hundred times easier than at the main conference to strike up conversations.

Oh yeah, quantum computing.  This afternoon I hosted three roundtable discussions about quantum computing, which were fun and stress-free — I spent much more of my mental energy today figuring out the shuttle buses.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog or my popular articles, or a watcher of my talks on YouTube, etc., then congratulations: you’ve gotten the same explanations of quantum computing for free that others may have paid $71,000 apiece to hear!  Tomorrow are my two “real” quantum computing sessions, as well as the speeches by both the Donald and the Greta (the latter being the much hotter ticket).  So it’s a big day, which I’ll tell you about after it’s happened. Stay tuned!

Tuesday January 21

PsiQuantum’s Jeremy O’Brien and I did the Davos quantum computing panel this morning (moderated by Jennifer Schenker). You can watch our 45-minute panel here. For regular readers of this blog, the territory will be familiar, but I dunno, I hope someone enjoys it anyway!

I’m now in the Congress Hall, in a seat near the front, waiting for Trump to arrive. I will listen to the President of the United States and not attract the Secret Service’s attention by loudly booing, but I have no intention to stand or applaud either.

Alas, getting a seat at Greta’s talk is looking like it will be difficult or impossible.

I was struck by the long runup to Trump’s address: the President of Switzerland gave a searing speech about the existential threats of climate change and ecosystem destruction, and “the politicians in many nations who appeal to fear and bigotry”—never mentioning Trump by name but making clear that she despised the entire ideology of the man people had come to hear. I thought it was a nice touch. Then some technicians spent 15 minutes adjusting Trump’s podium, then nothing happened for 20 minutes as we all waited for a tardy Trump, then some traditional Swiss singers did a performance on stage (!), and finally Klaus Schwab, director of the WEF, gave Trump a brief and coldly cordial introduction, joking about the weather in Davos.

And … now Trump is finally speaking. Once he starts, I suddenly realize that I have no idea what new insight I expected from this. He’s giving his standard stump speech, America has regained its footing after the disaster of the previous administration, winning like it’s never won before, unemployment is the lowest in recorded history, blah blah blah. I estimate that less than half of the audience applauded Trump’s entrance; the rest sat in stony silence. Meanwhile, some people were passing out flyers to the audience documenting all the egregious errors in Trump’s economic statistics.

Given the small and childish nature of the remarks (“we’re the best! ain’t no one gonna push us around!”), it feels somehow right to be looking down at my phone, blogging, rather than giving my undivided attention to the President of the United States speaking 75 feet in front of me.

Ok, I admit I just looked up, when Trump mentioned America’s commitment to developing new technologies like “5G and quantum computing” (he slowly drew out the word “quantum”).

His whole delivery is strangely lethargic, as if he didn’t sleep well last night (I didn’t either).

Trump announced that the US would be joining the WEF’s “1 trillion trees” environmental initiative, garnering the only applause in his speech. But he then immediately pivoted to a denunciation of the “doomsayers and pessimists and socialists who want to control our lives and take away our liberty” (he presumably meant people worried about climate change).

Now, I kid you not, Trump is expanding on his “optimism” theme by going on and on about the architectural achievements of Renaissance Florence.

You can watch Trump’s speech for yourself here.

While I wasn’t able to get in to see Greta Thunberg in person, you can watch her (along with others) here. I learned that her name is pronounced “toon-berg.”

Having now listened to Greta’s remarks, I confess that I disagree with the content of what she says.  She explicitly advocates a sort of purity-based carbon absolutism—demanding that companies and governments immediately implement, not merely net zero emissions (i.e. offsetting their emissions by paying to plant trees and so forth), but zero emissions period.  Since she can’t possibly mean literally zero, I’ll interpret her to mean close to zero.  Even so, it seems to me that the resulting economic upheavals would provoke a massive backlash against whoever tried to enforce such a policy.  Greta also dismisses the idea of technological solutions to climate change, saying that we don’t have time to invent such solutions.  But of course, some of the solutions already exist—a prime example being nuclear power.  And if we no longer have time to nuclearize the world, then to a great extent, that’s the fault of the antinuclear activists—an unbelievable moral and strategic failure that may have doomed our civilization, and for which there’s never been a reckoning.

Despite all my disagreements, if Greta’s strident, uncompromising rhetoric helps push the world toward cutting emissions, then she’ll have to be counted as one of the greatest people who ever lived. Of course, another possibility is the world’s leaders will applaud her and celebrate her moral courage, while not taking anything beyond token actions.

Wednesday January 22

Alas, I’ve come down with a nasty cold (is there any other kind?).  So I’m paring back my participation in the rest of Davos to the stuff that really interests me.  The good news is that my quantum computing sessions are already finished!

This morning, as I sat in the lobby of the Congress Centre checking my email and blowing my nose, I noticed some guy playing a cello nearby.  Dozens were gathered around him — so many that I could barely see the guy, only hear the music.  After he was finished, I worked up the courage to ask someone what the fuss was about.  Turns out that the guy was Yo-Yo Ma.

The Prince Regent of Liechtenstein was explaining to one of my quantum computing colleagues that Liechtenstein does not have much in the way of quantum.

Speaking of princes, I’m now at a cybersecurity session with Shafi Goldwasser and others, at which the attendance might be slightly depressed because it’s up against Prince Charles. That’s right: Davos is the conference where the heir apparent to the British throne speaks in a parallel session.

I’ve realized these past few days that I’m not very good at schmoozing with powerful people.  On the other hand, it’s possible that my being bad at it is a sort of mental defense mechanism.  The issue is that, the more I became a powerful “thought leader” who unironically used phrases like “Fourth Industrial Revolution” or “disruptive innovation,” the more I used business cards and LinkedIn to expand my network of contacts or checked my social media metrics … well, the less I’d be able to do the research that led to stuff like being invited here in the first place.  I imagine that many Davos regulars started out as nerds like me, and that today, coming to Davos to talk about “disruptive innovation” is a fun kind of semi-retirement.  If so, though, I’m not ready to retire just yet!  I still want to do things that are new enough that they don’t need to be described using multiple synonyms for newness.

Apparently one of the hottest tickets at Davos is a post-Forum Shabbat dinner, which used to be frequented by Shimon Peres, Elie Wiesel, etc.  Alas, not having known about it, I already planned my travel in a way that won’t let me attend it.  I feel a little like the guy in this Onion article.

I had signed up for a session entitled What’s At Stake: The Arctic, featuring Al Gore. As I waited for them to start letting people in, I suddenly realized that Al Gore was standing right next to me. However, he was engrossed in conversation with a young woman, and even though I assumed she was just some random fan like I was, I didn’t work up the courage to interrupt them. Only once the panel had started, with the woman on it two seats from Gore, did I realize that she was Sanna Marin, the new Prime Minister of Finland (and at 34, the world’s second-youngest head of state).

You can watch the panel here. Briefly, the Arctic has lost about half of its ice cover, not merely since preindustrial times but since a few decades ago. And this is not only a problem for polar bears. It’s increasing the earth’s absorption of sunlight and hence significantly accelerating global warming, and it’s also screwing up weather patterns all across the northern hemisphere. Of course, the Siberian permafrost is also thawing and releasing greenhouse gases that are even worse than CO2, further accelerating the wonderful feedback loop of doom.

I thought that Gore gave a masterful performance. He was in total command of the facts—discoursing clearly and at length on the relative roles of CO2, SO2, and methane in the permafrost as well as the economics of oil extraction, less in the manner of thundering (or ‘thunberging’?) prophet than in the manner of an academic savoring all the non-obvious twists as he explains something to a colleague—and his every response to the other panelists was completely on point.

In 2000, there was indeed a bifurcation of the universe, and we ended up in a freakishly horrible branch. Instead of something close to the best, most fact-driven US president one could conjure in one’s mind, we got something close to the worst, and then, after an 8-year interregnum just to lull us into complacency, we got something even worse than the worst.

The other panelists were good too. Gail Whiteman (the scientist) had the annoying tic of starting sentence after sentence with “the science says…,” but then did a good job of summarizing what the science does say about the melting of the Arctic and the permafrost.

Alas, rather than trying to talk to Gore, immediately after the session ended, I headed back to my hotel to go to sleep. Why? Partly because of my cold. But partly also because of incident immediately before the panel. I was sitting in the front row, next to an empty seat, when a woman who wanted to occupy that seat hissed at me that I was “manspreading.”

If, on these narrow seats packed so tightly together that they were basically a bench, my left leg had strayed an inch over the line, I would’ve addressed the situation differently: for example, “oh hello, may I sit here?” (At which point I would’ve immediately squeezed in.) Amazingly, the woman didn’t seem to didn’t care that a different woman, the one to my right, kept her pocketbook and other items on the seat next to her throughout the panel, preventing anyone else from using the seat in what was otherwise a packed house. (Is that “womanspreading”?)

Anyway, the effect of her comment was to transform the way I related to the panel. I looked around at the audience and thought: “these activists, who came to hear a panel on climate change, are fighting for a better world. And in their minds, one of the main ways that the world will be better is that it won’t contain sexist, entitled ‘manspreaders’ like me.”

In case any SneerClubbers are reading, I should clarify that I recognize an element of the irrational in these thoughts. I’m simply reporting, truthfully, that they’re what bubbled up outside the arena of conscious control. But furthermore, I feel like the fact that my brain works this way might give me some insight into the psychology of Trump support that few Democrats share—so much that I wonder if I could provide useful service as a Democratic political consultant!

I understand the mindset that howls: “better that every tree burn to the ground, every fish get trawled from the ocean, every coastal city get flooded out of existence, than that these sanctimonious hypocrites ‘on the right side of history,’ singing of their own universal compassion even as they build a utopia with no place for me in it, should get to enjoy even a second of smug self-satisfaction.” I hasten to add that I’ve learned how to override that mindset with a broader, better mindset: I can jump into the abyss, but I can also climb back out, and I can even look down at the abyss from above and report what’s there. It’s as if I’d captured some virulent strain of Ebola in a microbiology lab of the soul. And if nearly half of American voters (more in crucial swing states) have gotten infected with that Ebola strain, then maybe my lab work could have some broader interest.

I thought about Scott Minerd, the investor on the panel, who became a punching bag for the other panelists (except for Gore, a politician in a good sense, who went out of his way to find points of agreement). In his clumsy way, Minerd was making the same point that climate activists themselves correctly make: namely, that the oil companies need to be incentivized (for example, through a carbon tax) to leave reserves in the ground, that we can’t just trust them to do the noble thing and write off their own assets. But for some reason, Minerd presented himself as a greedy fat-cat, raining on the dreams of the hippies all around him for a carbon-free future, so then that’s how the other panelists duly treated him (except, again, for Gore).

But I looked at the audience, which was cheering attacks on Minerd, and the Ebola in my internal microbiology lab said: “the way these activists see Scott Minerd is not far from how they see Scott Aaronson. You’ll never be good enough for them. The people in this room might or might not succeed at saving the world, but in any case they don’t want your help.”

After all, what was the pinnacle of my contribution to saving the world? It was surely when I was 19, and created a website to defend the practice of NaderTrading (i.e., Ralph Nader supporters in swing states voting for Al Gore, while Gore supporters in safe states pledged to vote Nader on their behalf). Alas, we failed. We did help arrange a few thousand swaps, including a few hundred swaps in Florida, but it was 538 too few. We did too little, too late.

So what would I have talked to Gore about, anyway? Would I have reminded him of the central tragedy of his life, which was also a central tragedy of recent American history, just in order to babble, or brag, about a NaderTrading website that I made half a lifetime ago? Would I have made up a post-hoc rationalization for why I work on quantum computing, like that I hope it will lead to the discovery of new carbon-capture methods? Immediately after Gore’s eloquent brief for the survival of the Arctic and all life on earth, would I have asked him for an autograph or a selfie? No, better to just reflect on his words. At a crucial pivot point in history, Gore failed by a mere 538 votes, and I also failed to prevent the failure. But amazingly, Gore never gave up-–he just kept on fighting for what he knew civilization needed to do—and yesterday I sat a few feet away while he explained why the rest of us shouldn’t give up either. And he’s right about this—if not in the sense of the outlook being especially hopeful or encouraging right now, then surely in the sense of which attitude is the useful one to adopt. And my attitude, which you might call “Many-Worlds-inflected despair,” might be epistemically sound but it definitely wasn’t useful. What further clarifications did I need?

Thursday January 23

I attended a panel discussion on quantum computing hosted by IBM. The participants were Thomas Friedman (the New York Times columnist), Arvind Krishna (a senior Vice President at IBM), Raoul Klingner (director of a European research organization), and Alison Snyder (the managing editor of Axios magazine). There were about 100 people in the audience, more than at all of my Davos quantum computing sessions combined. I sat right in front, although I don’t think anyone on the panel recognized me.

Ginni Rometty, the CEO of IBM, gave an introduction. She said that quantum will change the world by speeding up supply-chain and other optimization problems. I assume she was talking about the Grover speedup? She also said that IBM is committed to delivering value for its customers, rather than “things you can do in two seconds that are not commercially valid” (I assume she meant Google’s supremacy experiment). She asked for a show of hands of who knows absolutely nothing about the science behind quantum computing. She then quipped, “well, that’s all of you!” She may have missed two hands that hadn’t gone up (both belonging to the same person).

I accepted an invitation to this session firstly for the free lunch (which turned out to be delicious), and secondly because I was truly, genuinely curious to hear what Thomas Friedman, many of whose columns I’ve liked, had to teach me about quantum computing. The answer turns out to be this: in his travels around the world over the past 6 years, Friedman has witnessed firsthand how the old dichotomy between right-wing parties and left-wing parties is breaking down everywhere (I assume he means, as both sides get taken over by populist movements?). And this is just like how a qubit breaks down the binary dichotomy between 0’s and 1’s! Also, the way a quantum computer can be in multiple states at once, is like how the US now has to be in multiple states at once in its relationship with China.

Friedman opened his remarks by joking about how he never took a single physics course, and had no idea why he was on a quantum computing panel at all. He quickly added, though, that he toured IBM’s QC labs, where he found IBM’s leaders to be wonderful explainers of what it all means.

I’ll note that Friedman, the politics and Middle East affairs writer — not the two panelists serving the role of quantum experts — was the only one who mentioned, even in passing, the idea that the advantage of QCs depends on something called “constructive interference.”

Krishna, the IBM Vice President, explained why IBM rejects the entire concept of “quantum supremacy”: because it’s an irrelevant curiosity, and creating value for customers in the marketplace (for example by solving their supply-chain optimization problems) is the only test that matters. No one on the panel expressed a contrary view.

Later, Krishna explained why quantum computers will never replace classical computers: because if you stored your bank balance on a quantum computer, one day you’d have $1, the next day $1000, the day after that $1 again, and so forth! He explained how, where current supercomputers use the same amount of energy needed to power all of Davos to train machine learning models, quantum computers would use less than the energy needed to power a single house. New algorithms do need to be designed to run neural networks quantumly, but fortunately that’s all being done as we speak.

I got the feeling that the businesspeople who came to this session felt like they got a lot more out of it than the businesspeople who came to my and Jeremy O’Brien’s session felt like they got out of ours. After all, this session got across some big real-world takeaways—e.g., that if you don’t quantum, your business will be left in the dust, stuck with a single value at a time rather than exploring all values in parallel, and IBM can help you rather than your competitors win the quantum race. It didn’t muddy the message with all the incomprehensible technicalities about how QCs only give exponential speedups for problems with special structure.

Later Update:

Tonight I went to a Davos reception hosted by the government of Canada (????????). I’m not sure why exactly they invited me, although I have of course enjoyed a couple years of life “up north” (well, in Waterloo, so actually further south than a decent chunk of the US … you see that I do have a tiny speck of a Canadian in me?).

I didn’t recognize a single person at the reception. So I just ate the food, drank beer, and answered emails. But then a few people did introduce themselves (two who recognized me, one who didn’t). As they gathered around, they started asking me questions about quantum computing: is it true that QCs could crack the classically impossible Traveling Salesman Problem? That they try all possible answers in parallel? Are they going to go commercial in 2-5 years, or have they already?

It might have been the beer, but for some reason I decided to launch an all-out assault of truth bombs, one after the next, with what they might have considered a somewhat emotional delivery.

OK fine, it wasn’t the beer. That’s just who I am.

And then, improbably, I was a sort of localized “life of the party” — although possibly for the amusement / novelty value of my rant more than for the manifest truth of my assertions. One person afterward told me that it was by far the most useful conversation he’d had at Davos.

And I replied: I’m flattered by your surely inflated praise, but in truth I should also thank you. You caught me at a moment when I’d been thinking to myself that, if only I could make one or two people’s eyes light up with comprehension about the fallacy of a QC simply trying all possible answers in parallel and then magically picking the best one, or about the central role of amplitudes and interference, or about the “merely” quadratic nature of the Grover speedup, or about the specialized nature of the most dramatic known applications for QCs, or about the gap between where the experimentalists are now and what’s needed for error correction and hence true scalability, or about the fact that “quantum supremacy” is obviously not a sufficient condition for a QC to be useful, but it’s equally obviously a necessary condition, or about the fact that doing something “practical” with a QC is of very little interest unless the task in question is actually harder for classical computers, which is a question of great subtlety … I say, if I could make only two or four eyes light up with comprehension of these things, then on that basis alone I could declare that the whole trip to Davos was worth it.

And then one of the people hugged me … and that was the coolest thing that happened to me today.

Friday January 24

I attended a second session with Al Gore, about the problem of the world filling up with plastic. I learned that the world’s plastic waste is set to double over the next 15-20 years, and that a superb solution—indeed, it seems like a crime that it hasn’t been implemented already—-would be to set up garbage booms at the mouths of a few major rivers from which something like 80% of the plastic waste in the ocean gets there.

Anyway, still didn’t introduce myself.

I wrote before about how surprisingly clear and logical the trains to Davos were, even with multiple changes. Unfortunately God’s mercy on me didn’t last. All week, I kept getting lost in warren-like buildings with dozens of “secret passageways” (often literally behind unmarked doors) and few signs—not even exit signs. In one case I missed a tram that was the only way out from somewhere because I arrived to the wrong side of the tram—and getting to the right side required entering a building and navigating another unmarked labyrinth, by which point the tram had already left. In another case, I wandered through a Davos hotel for almost an hour trying to find an exit, ricocheting like a pinball off person after person giving me conflicting directions. Only after I literally started ranting to a crowd: ”holy f-ck, is this place some psychological torture labyrinth designed by Franz Kafka? Am I the only one? Is it clear to all of you? Please, WHERE IS THE F-CKING EXIT???” until finally some local took pity and walked me through the maze. As I mentioned earlier, logistical issues like these made me about 5,000 times more anxious on this trip than the prospect of giving quantum computing talks to the world’s captains of industry. I don’t recall having had a nightmare about lecturing even once—but I’ve had never-ending nightmares about failing to show up to give a lecture because I’m wandering endlessly through an airport or a research center or whatever, always the only one who’s lost.

237 Responses to “From shtetl to Forum”

  1. Wyrd Smythe Says:

    Well wishes, and have a blast!

    As an aside, I’ve been delighted how a teenage girl has gotten the better of P45 (POTUS #45) every time. Others should take a leaf from her book…

    Looking forward to the updates!

  2. Edan Maor Says:

    And here I was somewhat sheepishly calling this a “world-famous blog”, not sure whether to imply that I’m (only partially) kidding or not… and you’re literally going to one of the most important forums in the world.

    A huge congrats congrats on your success, much deserved 🙂

  3. Joshua B Zelinsky Says:

    About once a year, you end up doing something where I say to myself “Wow, Scott has done very impressive things and is really getting amazing recognition for it.” And each time I think that that’s probably the absolute limit of where that can be. I confess that I’m still having that thought now, but it is really hard for me to imagine what would more impressive than you being asked to speak at Davos.

  4. Raoul Ohio Says:

    This will be fun!

  5. Boaz Barak Says:

    Enjoy Davos! I’m sure your talk will be one of the most intellectually stimulating ones there. And try to enjoy the other speeches too.. after all, how often is it that you get to see a real-life random orcale? 🙂

  6. James Gallagher Says:

    Enjoy it no need to be nervous you earned your invite. My daughter Erin met Trump, Boris and all the other Western Leaders at No 10 Downing Street last month. No big deal for her really, she thought Melania was sweet, Trudeau was funny and Merkel was serious but impressive.

    I’m still hoping to get an invite to No 10 one day…

  7. Berkeley Professor Says:

    Don’t be sheepish, Scott. Quantum computing is probably far more relevant to the future of mankind than the politics du jour. Keep things in perspective and stride into Davos like you own it.

    And while I think you’re mistaken about both Trump and global warming, I’m happy that you see the importance of nuclear power to our future. There are still big issues with nuclear safety, of course, but also plenty of reason for optimism that we can overcome them in the long term. Advancing the technology of nuclear power is something people of all political stripes ought to agree upon. Why we don’t have a Manhattan Project II to Make Fission Great Again is a mystery to me.

  8. Phillip Dukes Says:

    I’d like to request a topic for some future post. You often speak of the hierarchy of computational problems and it’s possible if unlikely collapse. I would be interested in an exposition on this topic and maybe a (easy to understand) example of a problem representative of each level in the hierarchy.

  9. asdf Says:

    Phlilip Dukes #8:


  10. Rainer Says:

    Hello Scott,

    you are definitely wrong regarding nuclear power.
    The main problem with that technology is that there is no solution for final depot of the nuclear radioactive waste.
    I think, a better idea would be to put much more money in research of green energy.
    Equally important, we, the western world, have to lower our energy consumption significantly.

  11. Scott Says:

    Philip Dukes #8: I meant requests to do Davos-related things at Davos, although you’re right that I never explicitly specified. 🙂

    OK, I’ll take it under advisement that there’s at least one reader who’d like some basic “complexity theory 101” posts from time to time, over and above all the course lecture notes of mine that you can find at

  12. Scott Says:

    Rainer #10: Do some more research, dude! Crucially, don’t trust anything you read unless it was clearly written by someone who deeply knows nuclear physics, even if you (like me) don’t. Or, inductively, if it draws the same broad conclusions as at least a large fraction of the people who deeply know nuclear physics draw.

    If you collected all the high-level nuclear waste now produced on earth each year, it would fit into a 70×70×70 foot cube. Compared to the portion of the earth that gets destroyed each year by oil and gas extraction, to say nothing about the resulting climate change, that’s barely a rounding error. And modern reactors can produce much less waste even than that—especially if they do it the way France does and recycle the spent fuel.

    When will the world see its Greta Thunberg of nuclear power? I.e., the individual able to make hundreds of millions of people feel the above truths in their bones, rather than only being persuaded of them intellectually? Much as Greta has been doing for the other essential truth here, that civilization’s current m.o. is producing an unfolding catastrophe on a scale where, to find its approximate parallel, you’d have to go back past WWII, past the Black Death, past the extinctions of the Ice Ages, all the way to something like the Chicxulub asteroid?

  13. OrionFalcon Says:

    Rainer #10

    I agree with your world-goals, no-doubt, but I disagree with each of your points. I think solving the nuclear waste storage problem is a million times easier than solving our atmospheric greenhouse gas problem. I think nuclear energy must be funded right now. Yes, I suppose I agree that we must build other carbon-free energy sources for easy short-term reduction of CO2 emissions — solar in the sunnier parts of the world would be useful, and both solar and wind can be deployed sooner than any new nuclear powerplants. But, they come with the expensive battery problem; only nuclear, hydroelectric, and geothermal sidestep that.

    Finally, I do NOT want society to have to reduce its energy usage. That would be regressing, whereas having abundant energy actually proves quite useful for accomplishing our goals. Yes, we should make sure we’re using energy efficiently, with new light bulbs and appliances. But we shouldn’t be aiming to ask people to simply “tighten the belt.” For one thing, if you’re relying on people to voluntarily do this, they won’t. If you’re relying on electricity bills skyrocketing to cause people to be stressed with every flick of a light switch, every use of a space heater, every run of the washer/dryer — well, that sounds like a very stressful world, with great cost to human flourishing and productivity, and I’d much rather solve the nuclear storage problem than impose that cost on society.

  14. Vanessa Kosoy Says:

    Scott #12

    Hmm, is it true that global warming is expected cause to more human death and suffering per capita of world population than black death? I am curious about the numbers on this.

    Also, good luck in Davos 🙂

  15. Peter Morgan Says:

    I’m surprised to find that the comments above may have moved my thinking on Nuclear a little. Discussion about energy is always full of hidden costs, however, both on the front end and on the back end: for decades, there has been a lot government support of coal, nuclear, and gas industries, both explicitly and through framing laws to have direct or indirect benefits for those industries (government funding of research, support for exploration, protection from lawsuits for damages, expedited approvals, provision for military or police interventions, government absorbing costs of waste management, …). For wind and solar, there are issues in the provision of power grid support and of storage solutions that are of significant scale, there has already been substantial financial and legislative support for wind and solar, and solar panel waste issues at scale are not more than a decade away, but one does not see in the comments above, nor in many articles on the subject, just what the number comparisons are: when will the support for wind and solar exceed the support already given for coal, nuclear, and gas, for example, both in absolute and in various relative terms? It’s OK, to me, for there to be such support, but does someone have a good source for such a comparison?

  16. Steve P. Says:

    I don’t think anti-nuclear activists are concerned about radioactive waste as much as proliferation, since nuclear war could also lead to extinction with a frighteningly high probability. Of China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, etc. how many weapons programs began or were extended under the guise of peaceful energy generation? If we’d told the rest of the world in 1946 “No you cannot even begin the process of nuclear power or have any reactor whatsoever unless you want to be annihilated” then maybe the nuclear club would be a lot smaller.

  17. Scott Says:

    Steve #16: I like to think of the difference between the two as, nuclear war could destroy civilization as soon as there’s a radical enough change to the status quo, while climate change will destroy civilization unless there’s a radical enough change to the status quo. The latter is, or should be, much scarier.

  18. Scott Says:

    Vanessa Kosoy #14: I’m mostly worried about so-called “tail risk,” of runaway warming basically ending both the natural world and agriculture as human beings have known them. And I’m worried mostly because of an additional thing I believe, which is that one generation’s “tail risks” become the next generation’s “tailbone risks” become the “rump risks” of the generation after that, which indeed is how we got to where we are now. And the world has shown no ability to coordinate on anything as big as decarbonization, to get out of defect-equilibria, and it’s not obvious to me that that will change, even if I imagine the plausibly desperate situations 50 or 100 years from now.

  19. Michael Nielsen Says:

    Scott: you remark that climate change will destroy civilization unless there’s a radical change to the status quo. Can you unpack that? Some background context, which makes me wonder:

    + The WHO’s estimate for climate change induced mortality is 250k per year from 2030 through 2050. That’s absolutely terrible – but tiny compared to the effect of cancer or auto accidents, certainly not civilization ending.
    + Michael Greenstone’s projected estimate for 2100 is 85 deaths per 100,000 people per year. If world population by then is 10 billion (in round numbers) that would be about 8.5 million deaths per year, which is about the ballpark of current cancer deaths. Greenstone, if you don’t know him, led the group that computed the social cost of carbon for the Obama administration.

    (There are lots of caveats about these numbers, which I won’t unpack right here. But I don’t think they’re unrepresentative.)

    None of this is to say that climate change won’t be absolutely terrible, and for many people life-altering or life ending. In places like the Maldives, 1 meter above sea level, it may destroy the country. It’ll likely devastate the Bangladesh plain. But, terrible as those things are, that doesn’t rise to the level of “will destroy civilization”.

    I certainly do agree with you about tail risk. James Hansen has a very striking 2016 paper about the possibility of dramatic increases in the rate of sea level rise. Historically, Meltwater Pulse 1A saw sea level rise ~20 times (!!!) faster than it is today. Something comparable happening today might well rise to the level of civilization-threatening. But the great majority of climate scientists seem to regard these things as tail risks, not things that “will” (to use your word) happen.

  20. Perfecto Says:

    As to the scientific consensus on climate change, I am reminded that in the face of too little data, neural networks tend to overfit (i.e. draw unwarranted conclusions). Larger networks (like more people in the consensus) perform even worse than small ones.

    There is too little data, and the field is too political. Politics is bad for science. All of the current climate alarm can be explained by sociological forces, even if there is no underlying scientific truth.

  21. Jason Braswell Says:

    Hmm. I’m not a “denier”, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to place climate change in the class of existential threats.

  22. Jason Braswell Says:

    And honestly, I have a hard time seeing GT’s presence in the debate as having been a positive one for productive discussion. On the contrary, her rhetoric is exactly the kind that causes people to dig in.

  23. Justin Yirka Says:

    Wow! That’s a ticket that I’d pay more than I currently could for. It looks like you’re the first session of the main program, congrats!

    Do you plan to mostly attend the science-themed sessions? I think that the geopolitics and economics sessions there would be more interesting, personally. It’s the World Economic Forum after all, and you don’t usually see Central bankers and Saudi princes (even if not that Saudi prince) at QIP. Anyways, I’ll be checking here this week for any new trade wars to be announced.

    And I don’t know whether you have any specific goals there (trying to get that Manhattan Project II started). But, everything I’ve read says the real business happens in town, away from the conference, at the parties.
    I’d love to know whether you think people actually engage in the conference’s program, or are people just there to make contacts and billion-dollar deals before flying away in their private helicopters.

  24. Scott Says:

    Michael Nielsen #19: I mostly think about it in terms of the following syllogism:

    (1) Do you agree that 9C warming (to give a relatively loose upper bound) would be the end of agriculture and the natural world as we presently know them, and what one could plausibly call an “end of civilization”?

    (2) Do you agree that, if there’s not a radical course correction at some point in the next century or two, then we’re on track for 9C of warming?

    If someone agrees to (1) and (2), then for me the point has been established, and from then onward it’s just quibbling over factors of 2 or 3 or 4 in how much time we’ve got. And people understandably put huge emphasis on debating those constant factors and narrowing them down. But my perspective has always been that, even if the constant factors turn out to be favorable, so far our species has shown a nearly-perfect record of squandering whatever extra time it’s thereby given. It’s a lot like how it doesn’t matter whether a talk I’m giving turns out to be tomorrow or next week, I’m still going to wait until the night before to start preparing it!

  25. Scott Says:

    Jason Braswell #22: Back in the 90s, I probably would’ve agreed with you. But then the world squandered several crucial decades, eventually deciding that a good response was to put Trump and Jair Bolsonaro and Scott Morrison in charge in order to pretend that none of it was happening. So now I think we’re now well into a timeline where a hail-mary pass is called for—which might take the form of a Lincoln or Churchill or Gandhi or MLK figure. And it’s totally unclear to me that Greta can be that figure, but she strikes me as perhaps the first person in history who has a shot and is trying to take it, with Al Gore as her tragically failed predecessor (or maybe John-the-Baptist figure)…

  26. Scott Says:

    Justin Yirka #23:

      Do you plan to mostly attend the science-themed sessions? I think that the geopolitics and economics sessions there would be more interesting, personally. It’s the World Economic Forum after all, and you don’t usually see Central bankers and Saudi princes (even if not that Saudi prince) at QIP.

    Besides sessions around quantum computing, cybersecurity, the future of technology, etc., I’m also planning to attend some environment sessions, which look like nearly half of the conference.

    While Greta’s session filled up within the first minutes or seconds, I had no trouble whatsoever signing up for some sessions that will feature Al Gore! 😀

      And I don’t know whether you have any specific goals there (trying to get that Manhattan Project II started).

    Besides the selfie with Greta (or, OK, with Al Gore) … just to answer people’s questions about quantum computing and fight the usual miconceptions, make a case if I can for maintaining QC as an open scientific endeavor with free flow of ideas and people around the world, and hopefully learn something new!

      But, everything I’ve read says the real business happens in town, away from the conference, at the parties. I’d love to know whether you think people actually engage in the conference’s program, or are people just there to make contacts and billion-dollar deals before flying away in their private helicopters.

    I’ll be happy to research that question and get back to you—especially if the research involves any free food for me! 😀 (As you can see, I have a slightly different set of priorities from all the billionaires here…)

  27. Jay Says:

    Scott #24, many reasonable minds accept (2), because that’s (very close to) what IPCC predicts (assuming BAU); and many reasonable mind reject (1), because that’s not what IPCC predicts (by far). I too would love to get a better understanding of why you think IPCC is completly wrong on this question.

    (in any case, good luck for your talk)

  28. Ronald Monson Says:

    Michael Nielsen #19: you remark that: “Scott: you remark that climate change will destroy civilization unless there’s a radical change to the status quo. Can you unpack that?”; I note that all your quoted projections involved human costs while failing to mention the consequences to the natural world. Can you unpack that?

    Surely any reasonable definition of civilization includes custodianship of the natural world on scientific, well-being and moral grounds but ultimately for the simple existential one that links humanity’s fate to its own position in the global ecosystem. Under such a definition the evidence is pretty compelling that civilizational collapse is already underway with the recent Australian fires the latest installment. While the human costs have been shattering and well-documented in this particular disaster (~30 dead, ~2K homes lost and widespread health effects from smoke inhalation and water contamination likely to extend over decades) less reported has been the utter devastation and extensive ecosystem collapse it has wrought.

    Current estimates are well over a billion animals dead. A. billion. animals. dead. An area equal to the entire state of Virginia has been razed (with smoke plumes over an area equal to the 11 largest US states) and now characterized by a denuded, eerie silence. Hundreds of (iconic) species have been pushed to endangered status, many endangered species have been pushed to the verge of extinction while unique, 200 million old, critically endangered “dinosaur trees” were only saved by emergency helicopter drops. Many ecologists suspect that several species unknown to science are likely to have been permanently wiped from the face of the earth. As mentioned, this is merely the latest installment in Australia: the first mammalian extinction occurred here a few years ago while hundreds of animals have been on the endangered list as being directly impacted by climate change; unforgivably, the Great Barrier Reef is probably now lost within decades (given it needs global temperature rise to be limited to 1.5C). What sort of civilization allows this to happen?

    Naturally causes are multi-faceted; arsonists, land management and appalling leadership all played their role in these (still burning) fires but by far and away the driving factor in their unprecedented ferociousness has been climate change (and in a way that has been long predicted). Again, how has this been allowed to happen and [why is Australia committing Climate Suicide?](“”) In my opinion there are two fundamental reasons: 1) A prevailing sensibility that only human costs matter, to wit the early “nothing to see here” spin put out by [“ScottyFromMarketing”]( who has belatedly thrown $50 million at ecosystem “restoration” (about the same amount he allocated to a Captain Cook statue) and 2) The proverbial *tragedy of the commons*—Australia only emits ~2% of global CO2 emissions so why should we treat it as a civilizational emergency in relation to, in the scheme of things, such a small, inconsequential, proportion of humanity?

  29. Boaz Barak Says:

    Jay #27 : I don’t know much about the climate prediction literature but my uninformed impression was the opposite – that under most scenarios the IPCC does not predict we’ll reach 9C before 2300 but it is generally accepted that a 9C increase, especially if it happens relatively fast (e.g. within a century) could rise to the levels of civilization ending since there is potential for all sorts of positive feedback loops.

    2300 is far enough away that our chance of predicting what will be the major existential issues facing human civilization are not that much better than the chances of someone in the 1700’s predicting what would be the issues we face today. It’s probably best to focus on the nearer term (e.g. 2100) where as Michael Nielsen #19 says it may not be “civilization ending” but would still be very very bad if the world continues on the current pace. Humanity has actually managed at points to make coordinated efforts to stave off disaster in the past (e.g. no nuclear weapon has been used in war since 1945) and I hope we’ll do so again.

  30. Scott Says:

    Jay #27: I think the IPCC has a long history of being too conservative in its predictions—e.g., severely overestimating how long it would take the Greenland ice sheet to start collapsing, and not predicting the current wildfire crisis that’s destroyed a good chunk of the world’s remaining forests, turning them into more CO2 in the air. And it’s only 2020! If the news at the very dawn of the Anthropocene already looks like something from a dystopian sci-fi novel, can you imagine 2100 or 2200 or 2300 under a status-quo scenario?

    This is the core of my position: what’s terrifying about CO2 concentration is that it simply keeps adding linearly, at least on a timescale of centuries. You’re never past the point of crisis and then free. Without a radical push to decarbonize, it’s only a question of the exact speed with which we’re headed to 9C warming and then beyond. And this is why predicting civilizational collapse under the status quo scenario actually feels a lot like predicting (say) the arrival of quantum computational supremacy. You can easily be off by a factor of 2 or 5 in how long it will take. But I’m trained to look at asymptotics, not at constant factors (especially if the constants look reasonably small), in order to see which of several competing forces eventually has to win (assuming no new force takes over). And the asymptotics of this situation are terrifying.

    As committees go, the IPCC is one of the least bad, but what it produces are fundamentally political compromise documents. The effective collapse of civilization is probably beyond what any such document is going to explicitly talk about, even supposing that the facts on the ground pointed that way. Can you imagine a Roman council of elders factoring a likely total collapse of the Roman Empire into its consensus forecasts?

  31. Richard Says:

    In your panel discussion on Tuesday, what do you think of stressing that, while the basic science is fascinating, the current hype is significantly detached from the current reality, and even the known applications that a functioning quantum computer would have?

  32. Anon Says:

    @ Scott #30

    There’s a number of sources indicating otherwise. finds a number of big errors in standard climate models stemming from simplistic statistical practices.

    Robert Watson famously said the IPCC tends to overstate climate risks.

    Nordhaus disagrees with pro-carbon tax positions hinted at IPCC reports or stated by some contributors – his own model seems to indicate that carbon taxes might well cause more damage than the relatively minor shifts in climate they achieve.

    Of course, there’s also plenty of criticism to the opposite effect – mostly, as you said, that the politics of the process cause the IPCC to err on the conservative side. However, politics can cut both ways – it’s not clear that the IPCC is great at encouraging dissenting (read: conservative) opinions. And even when it does – do the universities, science funding agencies, scientific community etc. tolerate positions that are not at all denialistic, just less alarmist? Would somebody studying the positive effects of increased CO2 levels on crop yields be greeted (and funded, and promoted) as warmly as an academic version of Thunberg?

  33. The same anon Says:

    ETA – The errors discussed in the nature paper happen to be on the “more impact” side.

  34. Scott Says:

    Richard #31:

      In your panel discussion on Tuesday, what do you think of stressing that, while the basic science is fascinating, the current hype is significantly detached from the current reality, and even the known applications that a functioning quantum computer would have?

    We think alike. 🙂 I prepared some remarks this morning, and that’s one part of it—another part is about the need to maintain the free flow of people and ideas and the spirit of basic research, even as corporations and governments invest more heavily in QC.

  35. Jay Says:

    Scott: I don’t buy that the pace of these changes does not matter (one meter in sea level is a big deal if it happens within the next ten years, a non event if it happens throughout the next millenia), and I don’t buy the evidence are firms about ice melting faster than predicted. But wildfire in Australia… you indeed have a point here.

    Boaz: In short, most scenarii are below 8.5 because most scenarii assume we’ll do something about our emissions. We’re not.

  36. colopop Says:

    If anything, it sounds like that Feynman remark is even more relevant to climate change than the original topic. Based on your description, Feynman was wrong about the Challenger disaster; the point of figuring out the problem is to avoid it when we build the next one. But we won’t get to build another Earth.

  37. Scott Says:

    colopop #36: No, Feynman’s (correct) point was that once the Space Shuttle already started exploding, the exact way the explosion unfolded was of limited interest since it was doomed regardless. And that therefore, they ought to focus more on the origin of the failure (which of course turned out to be O-rings that lost their flexibility in cold weather).

  38. colopop Says:

    Scott #37: I tried to find the exact quote to clear up the confusion. I didn’t succeed, but everything else surrounding Feynman and the Challenger investigation has convinced me that I simply misunderstood the presentation of the remark. I really should have learned by now not to bet against Richard Feynman.

  39. Michael Nielsen Says:

    Scott #24: Thanks! I was misunderstanding the timescale of your comments as being about the next few decades (in which case I think it’s a tail risk, albeit one I’m quite worried about), as opposed to the next few centuries. In the latter case, I broadly agree.

  40. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Under RCP 8.5 (the scenario where we keep burning fossil fuels as we currently do), the sea level rise by 2100 is predicted to be between 1.3 and 2.4 metres, with most of the uncertainty coming from whether the ice sheets in Antarctica collapse or not.

    This is not a joke. Even 1.3 metres is enough to destroy an immense amount of coastline. Florida? Forget it. Rio de Janeiro? Gone. Barcelona? It was nice knowing you. These are only the cities that can’t be saved. Even the ones that can be saved will require very expensive coastal defence.

    That’s merely the destruction caused by sea level rise. Under this scenario, average temperature should rise by about 3.7 degrees (with respect to 1986–2005 average). This is enough to make vast areas around the equator uninhabitable. Farther from it, as the planet warms faster in higher latitudes, we’ll have droughts and fires that will make the current crisis in Australia look like nothing. What do you think will happen when a nuclear power faces famine due to widespread crop failure? Perhaps nuclear winter will then finally stop warming.

  41. Mateus Araújo Says:

    2100 might sound so far, but it’s merely 80 years from now. Your children will probably still be alive. Your grandchildren certainly will.

  42. Tue Says:

    Anon in Comment #32 mentions Nordhaus.

    William Nordhaus is a very dangerous man. A man very much of the same ilk as Bjørn Lomborg.
    The line of thinking that these two represent, the scientific quality of their work, is not up to the standard. And the consequences of this intellectual failure… The enormity of it. It’s terrifying. Straight up.

    I’m surprised to find out that so many of you – you with such a capacity for highly abstract thinking (!) – fail so utterly, when it comes down to understanding our own species’ effect on the biosphere. It really is disheartening.

    I’m a bit more optimistic when I see that Scott and Ronald Monson here grasp – also emotionally dare I say – the severity of the situation that we are all collectively in.
    I don’t think you can find a living organism on this planet that can cope with the rate of change in which we are about to enter. Nothing is adapted to be able to cope with what is coming down the tracks. And we still depend upon Nature, you know…

  43. Karen Morenz Says:

    I’m not the most experty expert that ever experted on the topic of climate change, but I do have some understanding of (and publications in) atmospheric chemistry, and I think that a lot of the apocalyptic rhetoric is (1) inaccurate and (2) counterproductive.

    (1) Inaccurate:
    Without going crazy, I’ll point out a few facts.
    – As far as I understand, the amount of burning in the Amazon and Australia this past year was not actually significantly different from the previous few decades. For some reason (Greta effect?) it got loads of press this year, though.
    – No one is about to sink. The ocean has gone up by less than 10 cm. During the last warm period, it was 5m higher than it is today. If it went up that much, that sure would be a problem, since it would displace a population equivalent to the entire population of North America. But so far, we’re not close to that.
    – No one is about to melt either (except maybe the polar bears, sorry polar bears). Global average temperature has risen less than one degree Celsius, and that is largely concentrated at the poles, where it’s risen by almost 4 degrees. So, the fact that the winter seems less cold than it used to when you were younger probably has more to do with your change in body fat percentage than the actual temperature.
    – CO2 has gone up alarmingly, although it is also still much lower than it was in the ancient past. Methane, too, has gone up quite a lot. This could lead to a runaway effect, but the problem is water: Water is also a greenhouse gas, and when the world gets warmer (because our world is so wet) we expect a lot of water to go into the atmosphere. But it might wind up forming more clouds. The effect of clouds on climate overall is one of the biggest uncertainties. More research required.

    Overall, this is still a long way from an apocalypse. Moreover, describing climate change as an “emergency” or “crisis” is inaccurate because an emergency/crisis is an unexpected and sudden new situation which requires immediate decisive action. Climate change is not sudden or new, and although one might have called it unexpected some time before I was born, you’d be hard pressed to do so today. Moreover, in an emergency, you apply whatever solutions you have, even if they are bad. We have some bad solutions: we could sprinkle reflective dust in the upper atmosphere to mimic a volcanic eruption, for example. This is a bad solution because we don’t fully understand what the side effects might be, and because it wouldn’t address all the problems. But it would (probably) slow the warming, and if we were really in a crisis, we would probably give it (or some other bad solution) a shot. Luckily, we are not in a crisis, so the best thing we can do is to implement partial solutions that we know won’t make things worse (e.g. hybrid cars, recycling, renewable energy) and then to continue to fund research to try to come up with better solutions that we actually understand, so that future people can use the technology we discover to solve the problem.

    Moreover, even if it were a literal emergency apocalypse, I would still advocate not talking about it like that because…

    (2) Counterproductive:
    Some psych research suggests that telling people that climate change is the literal apocalypse and everything is so hopelessly bad that we all ought to be panicking all the time makes them:
    a) Likely to lose faith in our credibility as scientists when things don’t seem too different
    b) Likely to decide the situation is hopeless and thus they may as well “party while they still can” and stop worrying about the environment at all
    c) Likely to turn to reassuring idiots such as Trump who will tell them that climate change is all a hoax

    So climate change is a thing that we should worry about, but panicking about it is not doing anyone any favours. And we’d be hard-pressed to all die from it. Now, if you need something new to worry about: declining insect populations…that’s pretty concerning.

  44. Still the same Anon Says:

    @Tue #42

    Thanks for the link! Without degenerating into what is, essentially, name-calling, allow me to bring up a few counter-points.

    First, Prof. Keen mentions carbon tax saving “trillions of dollars by 2100”. That is, well, under-whelming compared to the “wall of ice” picture he paints. I’m perfectly willing to accept one or the other, but together they just don’t make sense. That is, if the projected changes are on the same order of magnitude as covering Europe with a 1km wall of ice, then “trillions of dollars by 2100” is ridiculously low.

    Second, one can completely grasp the potential risks – and yet balk at a particular solution such as heavy carbon taxes. Pre-car London was suffering a serious horse manure problem. It got solved by means other than horse taxes. Not saying the situation perfectly analogous – analogies are not meant to be perfect – but to defend carbon tax you don’t only have to compare it to doing nothing, but also to a number of technological solutions. Oh and also to a radical increase in nuclear power utilization, obviously. If Nordhaus is “dangerous”, isn’t GT too? Incidentally, Lomborg and “his ilk” seem to understand this point well and argue for efforts to ameliorate climate change and its harms other than taxation.

    One is reminded of the plastic bag ban fiasco. Whether or not it was a good idea, in actual reality (e.g., high levels of plastic bag reuse for other purposes, low levels of reuse for alternatives, popularity of the alternatives harmful in the own way such as cotton bags) numerous studies have shown that at least so far the various bans have been causing much more ham than good. Which should be surprising to nobody. It strikes me that the kind of activism GT promotes (by design or not) is more like banning plastic bags or plastic straws (and then allowing the monstrosities which are paper straws to be wrapped in single-use plastic packaging) than like researching silver cloud ionization.

    Finally, it seems worth remarking that the current diversity in climates we inhabit seems at least comparable to much of the changes a +2-4C world is predicted to bring. That is not a crushing point against your position, but it does perhaps provide some perspective.

  45. michael russell Says:


    I need to take issue with your “inaccurate” point about the recent bushfires in Australia. These were definitely much, much worse than comparable bushfires in the recent past.

    Specifically, 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres) have been burned this season. This has mostly been forest. In recorded history, the worst comparable fires have been estimated at most 5 million hectares (12 million acres), which occurred in “Black Thursday” in 1851. It’s hard to compare Australia in 1851 with Australia today, so, since 1900 the worst summers have never burned more than 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres). Personally, I can never remember a case where the fires have been so widespread, and have burned areas which are typically considered rainforest.

    This data is taken from

    Please note when reading this that it is indeed true that the 1974-1975 season is by far the worst bushfire season: 117 million hectares (290 million acres) was burned. However, this was due to an unusually wet winter which lead to strong growth of grass in central Australia. It is more like burning grassland in the southwest of USA, not at all the same as burning forest.

    The recent fires are a big deal. The vast bulk of the conserved forests of New South Wales are gone and I think there are good reasons to worry that they will never properly recover. These fires didn’t happen in a vacuum: the last few years have seen unprecedented rainfall deficits coupled with record high temperatures in the affected regions. If this is what 1 degree C of warming looks like (actually, Australia has warmed by a bit more than 1.5 degrees C), then I shudder to think what 2 degrees C will look like.

    To be honest, I find your entire post Panglossian. It’s just semantics to argue that this isn’t an “emergency” or a “crisis” since “an emergency/crisis is an unexpected and sudden new situation which requires immediate decisive action”. (In any case, the term emergency can be used more generally such as the “Malaya Emergency”, which was pretty slow moving.) I think emergency/crisis accurately captures the degree of disruption to the natural world, and the speed with which this is occurring relative to natural change, and the urgency required to respond.

    As for the “psychological” argument, I am not convinced. One could very easily make counter claims, e.g. if one doesn’t speak accurately about this as a literal apocalypse, no one will bother to do anything about it, people will lose faith in science when the literal apocalypse happens, etc.

  46. Karen Morenz Says:

    Michael Russell #45: I’m not being intentionally obtuse here but I’m kind of confused. The wikipedia page you linked shows several years that have been significantly worse than this one in the late 20th century. Is your argument that they were different terrain? I really don’t know much about fires or Australia so I’d be happy to learn more.

    My point with the psychology thing is that you’ll get a lot more people taking positive action by saying, “The problem is really bad, but if we work together we can fix it!” than, “The problem is really bad, and imminent suffering and death are inevitable.” Moreover, I actually think the former is more accurate (at least for humans, not for some animals, most notably polar bears) – but I agree there is a lot of uncertainty about how bad things could get and if we change nothing at all about our emissions, then that would be very bad. Still, I think prudent optimism is a much better stance than nihilism.

  47. michael russell Says:

    Karen Morenz #46: thanks for the response. Yes, my argument is that the terrain/vegatation are qualitatively different. I admit to being emotional about this, and my first post might have been lacking some coherence.

    It seems I somewhat misread the wikipedia page, and there are several occasions when more area burned than in the current fire season, most notably the 1974-75 fires and the 2002 NT fires. However, these fires occurred in areas that are arid, and I think they were mostly large grass fires, when lush grass growth during a wet winter dries out in the summer. Many fires in the interior of Australia have probably been missed – indeed, the extreme extent of the 1974-75 fires was only detected by satellite.

    Most Australians are more familiar with eucalyptus forest fires, which are qualitatively different. Relatively dense Eucalyptus forests grow up and down the East Coast (Melbourne – Sydney – Brisbane and beyond), and typically require temperate climates with reasonable rainfall (e.g. Canberra has a larger average annual rainfall than London!). Fires in these forests can be fearsome, and loom large in the Australian imagination since so many people live close to forests on the East Coast. The dramatic fires this season have been fires in these types of forest.

    Fires are a regular occurrence in eucalyptus forests, and indeed in some cases they are an important part of the ecology. However, the scale of the fires in the forests this year (and we are only halfway through the season) have far exceeded by roughly a factor of four anything in the historical record. Even looking as far back as 1851, the area burned by these fires is a dramatic outlier. Almost no National Park along the East Coast of NSW has escaped being eviscerated. Because of the simultaneous near-destruction of several National Parks, it is likely that recovery will take a very long time, since there has been nowhere for the animals to move to avoid the flames. Again, in this respect the current fires are an outlier – large fire outbreaks have historically been much more geographically contained.

    Reasonable people can probably disagree on how dire the situation is. I’m naturally inclined to be pessimistic, and I don’t think it’s fair to describe that as nihilism. It may well be that we will avoid the worst-case scenarios, but the degree of warming that is now locked in (absent large scale and completely untested geoengineering) is enough to be very worried indeed.

  48. Anonymous Says:

    Just posting to tell you that I am reading and appreciate your time and effort.

  49. NotAName Says:

    Just to answer the question if anybody is reading… I sure hope many others are reading just as I am. I like your reports from Davos. Have fun there and keep us informed. Thx!

  50. alberto_ol Says:

    I am reading the updates, thanks for your effort

  51. Michele Amoretti Says:

    Dear Scott, thank you so much for spreading the quantum / TCS word at the WEF in Davos and giving us such an amusing (and insightful) report!

  52. Gabriel Says:

    Karen #43:

    > “a lot of the apocalyptic rhetoric is (1) inaccurate and (2) counterproductive.”

    Sure! The IPCC itself says that! In the “summary for policymakers” part of their report, they write: “For most economic sectors, the impacts of drivers such as changes in population, age structure, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, and governance are projected to be large relative to the impacts of climate change.” (Page 19 here: ) Or in simpler words: Climate is just one of many issues for the world, and it actually pales when compared to most other issues for the 21st century (Bjorn Lomborg’s words).

    > “No one is about to sink.”

    Indeed, hysteria regarding rising sea levels is rampant. Even the NYTimes misrepresents research papers. For example, a recent Nature paper finds that many parts of Vietnam will be underwater by 2050 *if we ignore human adaptation*. This simplifying assumption is fine for a research paper (since taking adaptation into account would presumably require their models to be much more complex and less accurate). But it’s not OK for the NYTimes to ignore this important detail. In fact, *today* millions of people in both the developed and the developing world *already* live under the high-tide water level. That includes parts of Vietnam and much of London. Their homes stay dry thanks to dikes.

    This point is made by Bjorn Lomborg in his provocatively titled article “Humans can survive underwater”:

  53. Max Madera Says:

    Please, persevere with your diary. From one of you thankful readers.

  54. Raziel Says:

    Tell Greta to go easy on Madrid Davos.

    Seriously though, I don’t think that mythologizing her at this stage helps anyone and afaik we have zero examples where something like this went well for the person at the base of the myth and plenty of tragic ones – from Jesus to Joan of Arc to Bobby Fisher and countless other young celebrities.
    I hope she has someone close looking out for her interests as even if the most pessimistic climate alarmists are right about literally everything and even if it makes for a great rallying narrative for a good cause – exploiting and amplifying the sense of personal responsibility for an existential risk in a 17 y.o. whose condition/superpower makes them predisposed for taking even the performative exaggerations at face value is more cruel and cynical than any “equality lounge” at Davos (am not talking about you here, I know you relate to her honestly)

  55. asdf Says:

    I’m skeptical of Davos itself, but yeah, I’m watching the updates, hoping some good will come out of it. Thanks for posting them.

  56. barbara Says:

    … whether anyone’s actually reading the later updates … I do and particulary love reading about the gathering via a scientist’s keyboard. Thanks and keep enjoying Davos 🙂

  57. Raziel Says:

    Ronald Monson, 28

    Current estimates are well over a billion animals dead. A. billion. animals. dead.

    Is there a breakdown for that billion ?

    Wikipedia lists the number of insects on earth as being on the order of magnitude of 10e16-10e17 so if that billion is dominated by insects it means roughly a loss of under a millionth of a population – of course the species statistics could be much worse especially since it’s Australia. Still, trying to use big numbers like this to drive an uncalibrated sense of awe is very symptomatic of the discourse around climate change and not for the better.

  58. John Stricker Says:

    @Scott: I have been and will keep reading any and all updates 🙂

  59. Tue Says:

    Thanks for the updates from Davos Scott. I really appreciate your blog.

    Now someone mentioned Bjørn Lomborg.

    Bjørn Lomborg is a charlatan. An enormously successful one at that. He is from my home country and I’ve witnessed his rise to fame from the very beginning, when the prominent neoliberal party in Denmark financed his new think-tank after coming to power in 2000.

    This man has been caught plagiarizing and wrongfully quoting in his formal publications! Caught red-handed! He is simply not academically credible.

    And his message is a supremely dangerous one. He is one of the people responsible for the complete political standstill regarding climate change mitigation during the last 30 years. Carbon emissions have risen 60% during the last thirty years. 60%! This is a colossal political failure.
    And the bill, the bill that we all will pay – most of all the poor and destitute in vulnerable regions of the world – has just kept on rising in the meantime.

    What Lomborg and Nordhaus are doing is comforting, but it is criminal and it is ultimately evil.

  60. wolfgang Says:

    >> unemployment is the lowest in recorded history, blah blah blah
    May not be too important for a tenured professor, but I guess quite important for people who were unemployed but have a job now – and compare this to the prognostications, from smart professors like Paul Krugman, who predicted doom and gloom if he gets elected …

  61. Gabriel Says:

    Tue #59: OK. I’m open-minded regarding Lomborg. Can you say anything concrete regarding the two arguments from him I mentioned above? (1. NYTimes article on future Vietnam flooding, which ignores the fact that people will build more dikes, just like today. 2. IPCC stating that the overall economic impact of global warming will be small compared to other problems.)

  62. tulpoeid Says:

    It’s been a long time since I last checked here … and I’ll be honest, I’m abhorred by the Thunberg adoration. Why, you ask? Because it has nothing to do with the Challenger example quoted in the post.
    In this case, to blindly and uncritically believe everything that every mainstream medium has been parroting (while they mind-numbingly keep claiming that only a few mainstream media are even writing about climate change) cannot be shown to contribute to preventing a tragic accident. On the other hand, it is very probable to lead to sweeping overnight changes that will have nothing to do with climate change aversion but a lot with people who know how to make money out of the energy business.
    I spoke of media because this is what “Thunberg” is. A person that happened to resonate with the public image of a David against a Goliath, picked up by media and amplified through the power that only mass media can muster. Teenagers have been fighting to raise public conscience about climate change for decades now. Are we doing them justice? The big people over at Davos who are pretending to listen to “Thunberg” carefully – have they been known for their compassion before?
    I’m afraid that if we start paying more attention to the calendar of a public mascot than to analyses of ongoing scientific studies (excuse me, but I get this is what you write in the post) then it’s already too late.

  63. Ryan O'Donnell Says:

    I think an even more accurate pronunciation of the Swedish name Thunberg, using anglo syllables, is “toon-berry”. You can hear her pronounce her name here:

    (Apparently her pronouncing ‘Greta’ like ‘gr-yetta’ is a Stockholm-accent thing.)

  64. Sumukh Atreya Says:

    “It would be great to know whether anyone’s actually reading the later updates, so I know whether to continue putting effort into them!”

    I’m reading!

  65. Sigh. Still the same Anon Says:

    @ Tue #59. Sigh. So much for not degenerating into name-calling. I guess your position on Lomborg is clear (incidentally – nice touch on the “now someone mentions Lomborg”. You did. You were the one to bring up his name in this discussion). Now all is missing is some arguments rather than shouting.

    Any comment of substance on the counter-points I have brought up?

    Any cogent explanation how a person famous since 2001-2 is responsible for the politics of the last *thirty* years? Why yes, it is quibbling – but getting such things wrong by so much repeatedly is not a sign of credibility.

    Quite apart from the above – just for the record, would you mind stating Lomborg’s position as your perceive it? I didn’t quite want to argue about him personally, but it seems to me that your presentation of his isn’t aligned with his own statements on global warming. This might not mean you’re wrong – just that more information is needed.

  66. Scott Says:

    Ryan O’Donnell #63: Alas, a cross between “rg” and “rry” is completely outside my phoneme set. I need to pick one or the other.

  67. Scott Says:

    wolfgang #60: According to, unemployment has indeed decreased under Trump … but it decreased even more under Obama. Trump’s claims to have “created the most jobs of any president ever,” etc. are flatly false.

    More importantly, there’s an argument to be made that the entire concept of an “unemployment rate” has become near-meaningless in the gig economy. Like, almost anyone can “choose to enter the workforce” by doing gig work, but shouldn’t they be still be counted as “unemployed” if they can’t make a living wage that way?

  68. michael russell Says:

    Raziel #57: the figure of a billion animal deaths includes mammals, reptiles, and birds. It excludes insects, frogs, and bats. For details of how it was estimated, see

    This piece in Nature is also interesting and touches on why the fires are anomalous:

  69. James Gallagher Says:

    Nice panel discussion with Schenker and O’Brien, you seemed to enjoy it and spoke well.

    But I have to say that you’re setting a bad example for children playing on your phone in front of the president.

  70. James Cross Says:

    wolfgang #60

    BTW, aren’t those labor statistics all fake anyway? Didn’t Trump say that?

  71. Koray Says:


    Curiously, the reason for the crisis between Greece & Turkey in the 70s & the 80’s was… oil in the Aegean sea! Greece apparently found a little bit of oil and due to the nature of the Aegean (Greece controls most of the islands but they’re actually much closer to the Turkish mainland), it became a huge deal. (In the end there was not much oil at all.)

    The list of Greek and Turkish pilots who crashed their F16’s and died during mock dog fights since then is very sad and maddening.

  72. Karen Morenz Says:

    Just a thought: Whether Lomborg is a charlatan or not, I think he makes an excellent point that one of the best things we can do to fight climate change is actually fight poverty. The thing is, impoverished people don’t have the resources to give a shit about the environment. As soon as we raise people out of poverty, they start to care. Also, a large fraction of the human population lacks access to education, which means a large fraction of the human geniuses lack access to education. I would really like to have their brains in the fight against climate change. And importantly, unlike climate change, we have a really good understanding of how to fight poverty directly, and we have the resources to do it. Seems like a no-brainer, to me. If you care about climate change, then probably the best thing you personally can do right now is fight poverty. (no, I don’t work for givewell).

  73. Eric Says:

    > It would be great to know whether anyone’s actually reading the later updates, so I know whether to continue putting effort into them!”

    I’m reading and enjoying the updates!

  74. Anon Says:

    As requested, just commenting to say that I’m reading the updates (and enjoying/learning from them)

  75. Jay Says:

    Thanks for the updates.

  76. Bjørn Kjos-Hanssen Says:

    Scott #66: I’d say the Swedish “berg” is like “berry” but with a Spanish “r” and with
    the “y” functioning as a consonant. So it’s just one syllable.

  77. J Says:

    I’m reading the later updates as well.

  78. William Hird Says:

    Hi Scott,
    Following your every utterance 🙂
    Have any idea who might be shelling out $ 71,000 to attend that exclusive conference ? Just curious. 😉

  79. Scott Says:

    William Hird #78:

      Have any idea who might be shelling out $ 71,000 to attend that exclusive conference ? Just curious

    I don’t think many people pay the registration out of pocket! What happens, as I understand it, is that companies buy memberships in the WEF, which then gives those companies the right (for a hefty additional fee!) to send some selected employees to the Annual Meeting. Many of those companies also shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to rent a chalet outside of the Congress Centre (where the meeting is held), where the company can host its own satellite events. I should mention that the majority of the people who come to Davos are not registered for the Annual Meeting itself (meaning that they can’t even get into the Congress Centre)—they’re here to host and/or attend the satellite events.

    It’s weird.

  80. Scott Says:

    James Gallagher #69:

      But I have to say that you’re setting a bad example for children playing on your phone in front of the president.

    As far as I know, there are no children at the Davos meeting, unless you count Greta.

    More importantly, though, I think the truth is just the opposite of what you say: I’d like to raise my kids to be patriotic Americans, by which I mean, devoted to all the founding ideals that Trump despises, like even the President not being above the law. I’d like my kids to be devoted to what America was before Trump, and to what it could again become if everything Trump stands for is repudiated. To afford respect to a man who’s done absolutely nothing to earn any thinking person’s respect, and who soils the office of the Presidency with the language and worldview of an elementary-school bully, would be to set a bad example for my kids.

  81. Shmi Says:

    I tried to repeat Greta’s name several times after my Swedish wife, but she says it’s not even close. Some feats shall forever remain out of reach.

    I am quite convinced that the climate change risks are both grossly underestimated and grossly overestimated.

    I expect the global warming to go faster than even the most pessimistic projections, because this seems to be the trend lately. Despite the NOAA claiming we will not get to the Paleocene/Eocene global maximum 56 million years ago, when the average global temperature was 14F higher than now, I suspect that there will be anthropogenic runaway effects that might get us there in only a few hundred years. Complete Antarctic ice shield melting, with the corresponding sea level rise of 200ft or more, are not out of the question, either.

    I also expect that the dire consequences that the doomsday predictors warn us about will not be nearly as bad. First, the warmer climate is much more hospitable for life on Earth, just think about all the plant and animal species that existed back 56 million years ago! Second, the worst case of the additional sea level rise is only half as much as that from just 20,000 years ago till now, and humans have been able to cope and thrive during this time.

    There will be large migrations of the population, of course, with Alaska, Canada and Russia (or what will be left of these polities given the extreme pressures) ending up accommodating billions of people in the newly inhabitable North, after all the permafrost has melted. There will definitely be a lot of suffering, diseases and deaths as humanity starts dealing with never-before-seen levels of forced migration, but nothing even remotely approaching the catastrophic risks or severe population drops that Greta is so concerned about. Humans are hardy and adaptable creatures, and while the coastal cities will become scuba divers’ paradise, there will be new ones built, even better and more majestic than ever before.

    A real catastrophic risk, at the level of the Permian extinction some 250 million years ago, is not expected even by the most dire projections of the effects of anthropogenic climate change. This might still happen due to other causes, like impact events, extreme volcanism etc, but no amount of human action can prevent those.

    Basically, while it’s good to limit human impact on the environment, especially given that we almost universally underestimate it, even the worst case effects are not nearly as catastrophic as what we are led to believe. Still, kudos to Greta Thunberg for showing all of us how much effect a passionate fearless person can have on the world at large.

  82. Juergen Says:

    Man I liked how you described the German train system. Now I understand why I am always got confused outside home (except Switzerland). It simply is confusing and I though I am too dumb to get how the public transport system works and everybody gets along.

  83. Scott Says:

    Shmi #81: Your comment is one of the most optimistic things I’ve read in a long time. I wish I could fully agree with it. But my main worry is this: while life on Earth has indeed thrived with enormously higher CO2 concentrations and temperatures, it took millions of years for it to evolve to fill the niches thereby created. When the change happens over 100 or 200 years, the impact indeed seems like it will be “Chicxulub-asteroid-like.”

  84. wolfgang Says:

    >> unemployment
    We don’t need to discuss the facts, which one can look up easily,
    and we shall see in November how US voters interpret them.

  85. Scott Says:

    wolfgang #84: Can you clarify what you mean? Do you agree or disagree that unemployment fell faster under Obama than under Trump?

    The idea that “a lie is not a lie if it causes you to win an election” is, of course, precisely why many of us feel a moral imperative to oppose Trump however we can.

  86. Mikko Kiviranta Says:

    Shmi #81, one interesting ingredient in comparisons with the past thermal maxima is the size of the sun. Whether that is important for the Paleocene/Eocene maximum 56 Myr ago with +7C higher temperature and 1 700 ppm CO2 [1] I don’t know, but probably it’s more important for earlier maxima 300 Myr ago and earlier. The sun is a main sequence star and expected to expand into a red giant within ~4 Gyr. The relevant timescales are a noticeable fraction of the solar lifetime.

    But ok, now I notice that eg. fig.1 in ref [2] suggests that maybe the luminosity variance has not been that important. Thanks for triggering me to look this up.

    [1] doi:10.1038/NGEO578
    [2] doi:10.1016/S0277-3791(99)00072-4

  87. asdf Says:

    Re “new technologies like “5G and quantum computing”, I’ll defer to you about quantum computing, but 5G is supposed to be 10x faster than 4G, and 4G lets Twitter send you a megabyte of useless javascript with every 140 character tweet. So if my math is right, 5G will let them send you 10 megabytes of useless javascript with every tweet instead.

    Does anyone really want that? Inquiring minds want to know.

  88. Yuri Matheus Dias Says:

    Following the Davos updates daily! Thank you for these insights, Scott!

  89. Jay Says:

    asdf #87, 5G is necessary for teleoperations that requiere excellent image quality, such as telemedicine.

  90. Scott P. Says:

    I was (and am) a supporter of nuclear power, but two things convinced me it wasn’t the solution to global warming. One is simply the lack of fuel. Unlike oil and gas, there just aren’t that many reserves of uranium around the world. You can (potentially) do some things with breeder reactors, but they come with their own significant problems, and even optimistically we wouldn’t be able to make a major dent in the world’s GG emissions. Solar and wind, by contrast, have large, untapped reserves.

    Second, Fukushima demonstrated that even relatively modern plants run by a country with a reputation for safety aren’t very safe. And they are hideously expensive. It’s hard to make the math work.

    In my view, if we want to focus on the potential of nuclear power, fusion is the way to go.

  91. Scott Says:

    Scott #90: But Fukushima didn’t have a single casualty. Even if it had, it would’ve been localized to a very small region. There’s no risk of the sort of global catastrophe that we now face because of fossil fuels.

  92. Jay Says:

    Scott P. #90, mine google scholar for “uranium from seawater”: it is about 500 times the amount of uranium known to exist in land-based ores, and the overcost is about 100$/kg (which means a few cents/kwh at most). As for Fukushima, it’s of course tragic for the families of the one or two persons dead, and a source of concern for the health of a few dozens more who might develop something in the long term, but wasn’t that also a demonstration of how much safe modern plants are even during natural events severe enough to kill dozens of thousands in arguably our best prepared country? Yeah, that’s sentence is too long.

  93. tue rindom Says:

    Sigh. Still the same AnonComment #65

    It ain’t smearing if it is true. Bjørn Lomborg has been caught doing things that no academic should do. It is public and it is known.

    The primitive cost-benefit analysis that Lomborg uses in his approach to climate change cannot even begin to describe, let alone solve, the thing that he sets out to describe and solve. This, incidentally, is also true of Nordhaus’ methods. They use the wrong tools for the job.

    There are more scientific and analytically sound approaches to describing economics and our place in the physical system that we are a part of; Steve Keen’s work, based in part on Hyman Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis, is one such approach. You should check it out.

    William Nordhaus was instrumental in the public smearing (!) of the Limits To Growth study when it came out almost 50 years ago.
    He managed to get the politicians and the public to turn a blind eye to the reality – that we could describe already back then – without having even understood the study in the first place. This is all out in the public. You can go and see what he said yourself.

    Here we are almost 50 years later, on one of the exact trends which was precisely described in the Limits To Growth study…
    Behold the awesome power of modern PR machinery.

  94. josh Says:

    Scott #85

    Under the link you provided, it is said that:
    – ‘The unemployment rate, which was well below the historical norm when Trump took office, has continued to fall to the lowest rate in half a century.’

    So even if the decrease of unemployment slowed down (which is to be expected once the rate is small anyway), the final rate seems to be lower than the respective rate under Obama.

    Additionally your linked website tells me:
    – ‘One reason employment growth has slowed is a shortage of qualified workers.’ and that the number of available jobs even exceeds the number of people who look for employment. In addition, the number of job openings is the highest within the 19 year period in which this number was determined (hence again, the numbers were worse under Obama).

    The website further mentions
    – ‘The economy grew somewhat faster under Trump’
    – ‘Household income rose briskly under Trump.’
    – ‘poverty declined.’
    etc. etc.

    You said “Trump’s claims to have “created the most jobs of any president ever,” etc. are flatly false.” Well, yes and no. Yes more people got a job under Obama (on average over the last 4 years of his presidency) but now the unemployment rate is even lower and the number of open positions is way higher … if any other person would have made that statement under this circumstances I suspect you would have not accused him of a plain lie.

    There are certainly many, many good reasons to criticize Trump’s politics. But your comments above appear to be the crying wolf variant of criticism and we all know how that story ended. I think criticism of this kind (as well as the sneering on him and his advocates you casually engage in) just helps his supporters and not his opponents.

    Apart from this, I really enjoy reading your Davos diary. Thanks for all the insights.

  95. tue rindom Says:


    to all here who believe that the consequences of climate change are somehow overhyped or overblown:

    Spend 5 min of your life and hear what the chair of the IPCC (a notoriously conservative institution) himself says. Let it sink in.

  96. wolfgang Says:

    @Scott #85

    Unemployment fell during the Obama years with the economic recovery and then it stalled in 2015 around 5%.
    But then it continued to fall again under Trump, which is remarkable considering that i) the Fed ended QE and began to raise rates and ii) the economy outside the US turned sour (in particular China and Europe).
    The unemployment rate now sits at lows not seen since the 1960s …

    But I don’t think we need to have a discussion macro economics (e.g. participation rate, wage growth etc.) – you are at the WEF in Davos (!) and should talk to one of the many experts walking around; Ray Dalio should be there …

    My point was not the rate of change of (un)employment – my point was that for most people priorities are quite different from the worries of a tenured professor or the zukunfts angst of a teenager from Sweden.

  97. Ajit R. Jadhav Says:

    Nice ‘n hot chicken soup!

    PS: Also, a lot of water. And, rest.

  98. William Hird Says:

    Hi Scott,
    The more you describe the conference, the more it sounds like a conference for celebrity Bilderberg Group wannabies. 🙂
    And you are, I believe, correct in thinking that you really don’t want to be schmoozing with those people anyway, your research and university teaching accomplishments will be your professional legacy, your children of course , the personal side. My personal opinion, FWIW, is that you are batting 1000 so far. 🙂

  99. James Gallagher Says:

    Scott #80

    Yeah ok, the criticism of your phone misuse was meant as a bit of fun. 😉

    You should be careful not to upset Donald too much though, since he might withhold funding for the great National Quantum Initiative. It’s ironic really, that two of the less admired politicians on Earth, may be responsible for funding the greatest technological advances in human history, since in the UK, Boris is very keen on the tokamak based fusion experiments in progress at the Culham Centre.

    (But I’m not sure it helps to tell the influential people at Davos that Quantum Computing will be a success even if it has no applications! 🙂 )

  100. Michele Amoretti Says:

    Yesterday (the 21st) most Italian media have emphasized Trump’s denunciation of the doomsayers, in contrast with Greta’s message that has been summarized as “please, listen to what most scientists say about climate change, and worry about it”. I guess their positions are more complex than this.

  101. michael russell Says:

    Scott P @90: I agree with you, but not necessarily for the reasons you mention.

    Nuclear power is technically a great solution to the problem of providing electric power. But there are other considerations apart from technology. I think it’s useful to think about “why aren’t there more nuclear plants?”. The answer seems to me economic and societal.

    In terms of economics, nuclear plants are extremely expensive to build, require significant over-engineering for safety, and take a long time to develop and get regulatory approval. The power they produce, however, has to compete with other sources in the marketplace, which don’t have these drawbacks. Now, one could say that coal and gas generation don’t take into account the externalities of CO2 production, but this is not currently priced. A carbon tax (and carbon border adjustment tax) might help nuclear, but I don’t see this being implemented in the next few years. Perhaps one might be tempted to slash regulations, but nuclear is dangerous, and without these regulations there will inevitably be corner-cutting with potentially disastrous results.

    The societal considerations might seem exasperating – yes, I agree the reaction to Fukushima was over-the-top; nuclear waste storage shouldn’t be such a big deal – but we are where we are. People have irrational fears, e.g. cancer is much more feared than heart disease, but in many cases less deadly. There is no point a government embarking on a long nuclear power project without widespread societal acceptance. To say that we need a Greta for nuclear also, I think, misses the point of what Greta symbolizes: she isn’t a member of the green lantern corps, but rather has appeared at a time when global warming impacts are becoming increasingly serious and apparent. Yes, she may be a “great person of history”, but I believe that there’s a reason why she has appeared now and not 20 years ago.

  102. A1987dM Says:

    @Karen #43:

    This can hardly be explained by body fat.

    (Yes, at first I found it hard to reconcile observations like those with figures I heard of the order of 1 °C. But AIUI now, those figures are global averages over both land and water, and there is very little warming on water, so to convert those figures to the average warming over land you have to multiply them by about 3. And there is not that much warming in tropical regions, so the average warming over land in temperate and higher latitudes is even larger than that. And a small shift in the distributions is more apparent in the tails than in the peak — assuming the shape and of the distributions stay the same, a 5 °C increase of the average means that days hotter than 30 °C are as common as days above 25 °C used to be, nights colder than 0 °C as rare as nights below -5 °C used to be, etc., and my experience of recent climate at latitudes around 45°-50° is more or less like that.)

  103. Yup. That Anon. Says:


    By now I’m not sure you’re arguing in good faith at all rather than repeating a few points that seem for you to contain all there is to say. But I will make one last attempt to try to understand your position fully.

    1) You were the one who brought Lomborg up in this discussion. Sure, let’s assume he’s 100% science devil and also eats puppies. Could you, for the sake of clarity, state his position as you perceive it?

    2) Just to respect truth – would you mind acknowledging that accusing him of controlling the climate change politics of the last thirty years was a wild over-statement? The thirty years part is obviously false – which you haven’t replied to. The level of impact he has had in the last, say, 15 years is debatable. Sure, it seems he got quite popular. Did that change minds? Did that change policy in a world where the Koch brothers already existed? The answers might be yes, or a qualified yes, but that is up to you to justify. All in all, hyperbole in some of your claims hurts the others.

    3) Is the worst influential climate skeptic around the person repeatedly stating that climate change is clearly real, clearly man-made, clearly important – just not so overwhelmingly important as to blind us to a number of other pressing issues (which may, by themselves, ameliorate global warming)? See, I’ve even answered question 1 for you!

    … now back to the issue at hand before it got derailed to Lomborg.

    4) I have read with great interest the link you provided to Prof. Keen’s interview. As I said above, the description of the projected damage was “trillions of dollars by 2100” – while also being described as equivalent to essentially wiping out Europe. Does this strike you as a consistent assessment?

    5) IPCC being described as notoriously conservative was exactly the claim by Scott that got me into the discussion (I’m actually perfectly happy to ignore Lomborg’s existence, and am concerned about climate change as a major threat to civilization. That is not the same as accepting any particular world-view or solution). For you (and Scott, apparently) it is clear that the IPCC has to compromise with conservatives and thus errs on the over-cautious side. For former chairman of the IPCC Robert Watson, it is less clear – for all that he was ousted due, in part, to pressure from oil companies. By the way, he’s on record stating that proactive adaptation and technological solutions are key to addressing the problem. Is he an evil puppy-eater too, now? Also, do you acknowledge that there may be factors pushing the IPCC or some members of it in the overly alarmist direction? This is not the same as denying that is, overall, conservative in its conclusions.

    6) Certainly simple tools can fail. For instance, simply averaging numerous models caused the IPCC to over-estimate heating in some critical regions, as stated in the Nature paper I cited – or is only one of us following the other’s links? Would you say these are “the right tools”?

  104. Karen Morenz Says:

    Rather than linking XKCD as data and trying to describe maps in words, maybe we should just look at the NASA data which has a timelapse of the map over time. That way we’ll surely be talking about the same thing. Yes I understand, the frequency of extreme days has changed, because when you draw an arbitrary line somewhere and then let the gaussian shift, you see a big change in the number of days with temperatures over the line.

    I’m not saying climate change isn’t a major concern: All I’m saying is that we’re probably not all about to die, and we’d be better off telling people that if we work together we can fix it.

  105. fred Says:

    It boggles the mind that no-one (except the “we have to start eating babies” lunatics) ever seems willing to face that the real cause of global warming, the environment turning to a plastic dump, the air becoming unbreathable, is world overpopulation!

    There’s just no freaking way the earth was ever going to sustain 7+ billion humans, even less so when everyone on earth feels entitled to a “consumerist” life style.

    If we don’t find a way to curb births (with all the side effects it entails, like the end of economic growth, how to take care of the elderly), guess what?… nature will do it for us!

  106. Scott Says:

    fred #105: Regarding overpopulation, I guess the obvious response is that the world’s advanced countries (with the sole, interesting exception of Israel) now have below-replacement birthrates, and the more advanced the country, the lower the birthrate. So as countries develop, create career opportunities for women, etc., the world’s population is on track anyway to peak and then start decreasing within a century. Thus, the right way to conceptualize the problem is not so much “overpopulation” per se as: how do we get over the population hump and safely to the other side of it, without all the newly and oldly developed countries destroying the planet along the way? Because the “default” is that they will.

  107. Michael Nielsen Says:

    #105 #106: We’re (likely) past peak births, and will go past peak child in the next few years. The population will continue to increase for a bit, as it ages, but birth rates are now below replacement. Search for “population implosion” and you’ll find quite a few rather worried demographers. This article in Foreign Policy is an example:

  108. JimV Says:

    Thanks for the interesting updates. It is disappointing to hear about Greta’s somewhat closed-mindedness, but I would rather know about it than not know. She still has time to grow and learn. I thought I knew a lot more than I did at her age. I share her sense of hopelessness about our response to global warming, though.

  109. Joshua Cook Says:

    What an extremely diverse comment section, lots to cover. Why am I commenting again? Anyway:

    1. Yeah unemployment has been trending really low for a long time and its super cool. In fact, based on a few news stories I’ve seen, it looks like fast food restaurants are starting to increase wages to avoid costly turnover, especially in local management. But is that due to Trump’s economic policies, financial institutions learning from previous mistakes, or the hyper availability of the internet and its information? Well who’s to say? Though most economic models would suggest Trump’s economic policies have been harmful. I am particularly upset with the weak anti trust for things like the fox disney merger, though that is a very different kind of case to make.

    2. Trump’s funding for technology. Yeah, I mean its relatively cheap and likely to get him applause, of course he would. At the very least he would say he would because many people support it except a small number of extremists who think their specific issue should have all the available resources cause its so important. I mean maybe we shouldn’t take it as a given with this president, but given how obvious it is, I wouldn’t say it deserves much note.

    3. Ooh, nuclear! Yeah, I always loved nuclear, even when I was younger and had much stronger conservative influences (ironically meaning to continue existing destructive policies). Yeah nuclear plants are expensive to build largely because there hasn’t been strong political will to support them and our insanely high standards. Look at energy related accidents: ( Nuclear is like shark attacks, they get coverage because of how infrequently they happen. But dealing with large amounts of energy is inherently dangerous. Fossil fuel related frequently injure humans, often resulting in death. For some recent information ( but historically energy related deaths have been much worse.

    The basic issue is that nuclear scares people, but the toxin exposures from a standard fossil fuels is similar if not worse than recent radiation exposures from high profile meltdowns like Fukushima. The radiation levels around the plant were smaller than the background radiation in places like Denver Colorado.

    #92 is really interesting, if I understand what you claim correctly, that we can extract uranium from seawater in a cost effective way, in which case nuclear power could actually decrease radiation exposure. The main issue I think with policies like this is that scientists researching the issue are rational and know that these types of concerns pose so little ecological impact that they don’t think its worth focusing on when just straight adoption will do the bulk of the good. The issue is that people are irrationally scared of nuclear. Thanks nuclear weapons.

    4. I think the impact of meat on agriculture on ecological diversity is extremely overlooked. I dare you to fly in an airplane over the midwest and look down. The world looks like a quilt from all the farm land. And an extremely large fraction of that land is being used to feed animals who live on other parts of that land. Sure climate change is hurting biodiversity, but so is a lot of our direct farming and eating habits. That’s not even to mention other ecological changes like light pollution.

    Like #81 I actually think long run a warmer planet would be good, but I don’t think the speed its happening will be worth the ecological costs at the current rate. In any case I would rather it not be driven by CO2, but other changes like reforestation of our deserts, especially the relatively young ones in Australia and to a lesser extent the Sahara.

  110. Sniffnoy Says:

    Scott, I’m surprised you weren’t aware of Thunberg’s being less of an anti-global-warming activist and being more of some sort of primitivist. This was all in the demands for the Climate Strike, after all. Frankly it’s not clear to me what Thunberg has done that is supposed to be so impressive? We can hope that maybe she can be convinced that “stop global warming by whatever means” (ideally: the right way, i.e. a CO2 tax) is more important than the sort of primitivism she’s endorsing, but, well… public figures, man. The sort of person who’s optimized for visibility is generally not the sort of person who’s optimized for correctness. (Indeed, you sort of touched on this above.)

  111. A1987dM Says:

    @Karen #104:

    I’m not saying climate change isn’t a major concern: All I’m saying is that we’re probably not all about to die, and we’d be better off telling people that if we work together we can fix it.

    I don’t actually disagree with any of that (I should have mentioned in my previous comment that I do agree with most of yours but I forgot to), but that’s a way weaker claim than “there has been no global warming large enough for a human to notice, and if you think you have it’s just because you got fat”, isn’t it?

  112. Vladislav Says:

    I read that Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai is going to give a talk at Davos about regulation of the AI technology. Is there any chance you may be attending?

  113. Giovanni Says:

    Dear Scott, your updates are vivid and engaging. They give a sincere and unconventional idea of what the Davos forum is. Please continue posting them, if possible. Thank you!

  114. gentzen Says:

    Scott, I fully share Sniffnoy’s surprise. Let me remind you of Greta’s infamous address to the United Nations. Here is the intro:

    My message is that we’ll be watching you. This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!

    You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

    But you just called her a “histrionic teenager”, and tried to explain why she is so important right now, and what she has achieved.

    On the other hand, Greta’s address at Davos was very good. Those were well argued honest words, delivered with appropriate humor and without histrionic acting. Here is the intro:

    One year ago I came to Davos and told you that our house is on fire. I said I wanted you to panic. I’ve been warned that telling people to panic about the climate crisis is a very dangerous thing to do. But don’t worry. It’s fine. Trust me, I’ve done this before and I assure you it doesn’t lead to anything.

    And for the record, when we children tell you to panic, we’re not telling you to go on like before.

    We’re not telling you to rely on technologies that don’t even exist today at scale and that science says perhaps never will. We are not telling you to keep talking about reaching “net-zero emissions” or “carbon neutrality” by cheating and fiddling around with numbers.

    We are not telling you to “offset your emissions” by just paying someone else to plant trees in places like Africa while at the same time forests like the Amazon are being slaughtered at an infinitely higher rate.

    She had clarified before (ahead of that session) what she meant by “technologies that don’t even exist today”, while she read out a speech that delivered her key message: listen to the scientists and act now! Here is the relevant part:

    These numbers also don’t include most feedback loops, non-linear tipping points nor additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution. Most models, however, assume that future generations will, however, somehow be able to suck hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 out of the air with technologies that do not exist today in the scale required – and perhaps never will.

    So Greta did not have nuclear power in mind when she warned against relying on non existent technologies. And her call for “zero emissions” makes sense from that perspective, if you admit that technologies to suck CO2 out of the air in the scale required might never exist.

  115. fred Says:

    Scott #106

    another problem is that the world economy is relying on steady human growth to sustain itself (i.e. keep shareholders happy).

    A decline in birth rate means an aging population, it’s making the age distribution flat.
    So instead of having 3 or 4 young/working/active people contributing (directly, or indirectly) for each elderly (like in India), we’ll end up with a ratio of one to one, and economic growth just stalls (like in Japan).
    Some countries counteract the decline in birth rate with immigration (of mostly unskilled workers), but either there will be a global pressure for the birth rate to go back up, or AI will take over the burden of running societies where there’s a huge elderly imbalance.
    But, as Greta is pointing out, all modern societies are pretending that economic growth rate can be sustained indefinitely, which is indeed a fairy tale (unless you believe in colonizing other worlds… and if we could achieve instant free space travel, at the current birth rate, we’d saturate the entire galaxy in a thousand years!).

  116. lewikee Says:

    That Thursday update hurts… I am surprised Scott didn’t leap from his seat on multiple occasions.

  117. Karen Morenz Says:

    A1987dM #111: I do have trouble believing that you can detect an average less 1 degree difference over the course of your lifetime, given all the other changes in your body, not to mention the seasons, etc. I mean, I always thought it snowed a lot more when I was little: turns out I was just a lot shorter. I also have trouble believing you can detect a 10 cm rise in sea level, given that most waves are bigger than that. I have trouble believing you can detect a change in weather patterns when the manner/extent of change is still a contentious issue of climate scientists with real data. So yeah, I don’t trust individuals’ perceptions as a metric for the amount of climate change. I mean, global warming is definitely a problem, but the argument that, “Look at how hot it is this week, it must be a problem!” is no more valid than the counter argument, “Look how cold it is this week, it must not be a problem!”…basically this boils down to me saying sorta the same as Greta: let’s trust scientific data, not our own feelings.

  118. Dick Says:

    #105. While no problem becomes easier to solve with more people, as long as the richest 10% of the people (i.e. we) produce 50% of the CO2 and the poorest 50% produce 10%, it is rather more important to face the overconsumption of the 10% than talk about population.

  119. Nick Says:

    I imagine IBM executives were saying something similar around 1937: “Sure, this ‘universal computing machine’ can do some interesting things, but does it deliver business value? And if it can do anything and everything, who’s to say that it won’t tabulate your data incorrectly?”

  120. Scott Says:

    Nick #119: What breaks your analogy is that they were not trying to pooh-pooh quantum computing—quite the contrary, they were trying (hard) to sell it, just as a complement to classical computing rather than as a replacement for it. And they’re correct about the last part—just not for quite the reason that was given. To store financial data, you need stability over years, and you could get that either from a classical computer or (in principle) from a fault-tolerant quantum computer (or any quantum computer with stable |0>’s and |1>’s), just probably not from most of the noisier QCs that exist right now. In any case I’m having trouble thinking of reasons why you’d want to store financial records on a QC, even if you can (maybe there’d be some reason in a world with quantum money?). Wherever classical computers will work just as well, they can and should be used in preference to QCs, unless the latter are just being used to do science. (It’s mind-boggling just how much hype that last sentence would cut down in one stroke, were it consistently applied.

  121. A. Karhukainen Says:

    Haha, Thursday’s account, it starts feeling like parody, like reading Stanislaw Lem, or something similar.

  122. barbara Says:

    Karen #117: I trust in data, too. And I trust in Randall Munroe that he has used valid data for this graph: For me, it makes global warming even more visible, than my personal memories …

  123. A G McDowell Says:

    Thanks for the updates – depressing but informative and unfortunately very plausible. For some reason I am reminded of “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,”

  124. eli albert Says:

    to answer your question, I’m avidly reading your updates.

  125. Jay Says:

    Scott #Newer Update for Thursday: Sorry, attending these sessions put you in a quantum superposition. Maybe you’re sad, maybe you laugh loud, who knows? In any case take care not to get entangled with some of these policies, or you might become measured as nonsensical. 😉

  126. Karen Morenz Says:

    barbara #122: Surely that is just another depiction of a 1 degree change over your lifetime?

    Look, I’m not saying global warming is no big deal. All I’m saying it’s not about to literally kill us tomorrow (or even this decade), and if it were, we have some shitty solutions we can try out. But until we’re that desperate, we should have faith in science and keep pouring money into research for better solutions, while also implementing good partial solutions like electric cars and solar panels. The apocalyptic messaging is just making people depressed and unwilling to actually take positive action towards a solution.

    And the thing is, people are REALLY bad at predicting new technologies. It’s really hard to imagine stuff that hasn’t been invented yet. And yet we keep coming up with amazing new technologies that revolutionize our way of life. Basically, I’m an insufferable optimist who thinks we should not give up hope in the creative intelligence of humanity. The best thing we can do for future-us (climate-change-wise and otherwise) is generate more knowledge. And also eradicate poverty.

  127. Scott Says:

    Karen Morenz #126: I would call your worldview “Deutschian” or “Pinkerian”—except that, if you came by it yourself, then we might also call Deutsch’s or Pinker’s worldview “Morenzian”!

    It’s a worldview that profoundly resonates with me in its instincts about which questions to ask, and also about what it really looks like to reduce human suffering—ie, not always the choices that best pull our heartstrings or press our emotional buttons.

    My one really fundamental disagreement with this worldview concerns its optimism! I never felt like the Pinker/Deutsch worldview engaged deeply enough, for my taste, with the bottomless enormities of human stupidity and malice. It’s true that these forces often lie dormant and can occasionally even be defeated in battle. But when stupidity and malice do get the upper hand—and my guess is that they’ll do so “infinitely often in the limit”—oh my f*ing god! 😀

  128. Nick Says:

    Scot #120: Does that break the analogy? A universal computer is certainly less stable than a machine whose sole purpose is to sort records — universality opens up an unimaginably vast world of possible bugs. If you were a business person mainly concerned with sorting records[1], you might be inclined to say that universality is not “commercially valid” and that it’s best in most cases to stick with the reliable old sorting machine.

    Of course, the difference between a sorting machine and a universal machine is qualitative (the universal machine can do things the sorting machine can’t), while the difference between a classical computer and quantum computer is “just” quantitative (doing the same things, but faster in some cases), but that’s the kind of distinction that might not matter to an organization “committed to delivering value for its customers”.

    [1] Sorting records was a really big deal in the early history of computers. See the historical notes in chapter 5 of The Art of Computer Programming.

  129. Scott Says:

    Nick #128: OK, that helped me understand your point better, thanks. The trouble is, IBM is also trying to build universal QCs! Far from rejecting that goal, they’ve been out trying to convince customers that they’ll be the ones to supply it. What IBM rejected (still mistakenly, in my opinion…) was not universality, but the very different concept of quantum supremacy.

  130. This and That | Not Even Wrong Says:

    […] regularly reading Scott Aaronson’s blog, you really should be. Latest entries are a detailed report from Davos and a guest post with a compelling argument about a major factor behind the problem of why women […]

  131. Randall K McRee Says:

    OMG. Scott, you are to be applauded for trying to keep QC claims in line with known reality. It is not just quantum that is suffering. Today I see this:
    Which says:
    Scientists have developed the world’s first fully coupled AI chip that can solve the traveling salesman problem for 22 cities instantly, something that would take about 1,200 years for a high-performance von Neumann CPU

    1,200 years for 22 cities!? Incredible. Cook, “In Pursuit of the Traveling Salesman” pub. 2012 mentions solution of a 85,900 tour. The amount of time is not actually mentioned but since computers have not been around for over 1,000 years, it is obviously much less!

  132. asdf Says:

    Scott, have you seen this wonderful cartoon about how quantum computers try all the answers in parallel? Oh wait, never mind.

  133. jonas Says:

    Yes, we are reading the newer updates. You give nice vivid descriptions of your experiences. Please keep writing the updates, but only so much as they don’t take away your time from tasks that you can do only at the meeting, not later.

  134. Vampyricon Says:

    Just caught up on the updates. I’m not reading them every day, but I am reading them. 🙂

  135. Michael Nielsen Says:

    Karen Morenz #126: you’ve repeated the 10cm number at least twice. Where is that number from?

    I’ve seen varied numbers in different sources. But most are roughly in line with the IPCC’s last assessment report estimate:17-21 cm over the range 1901-2010. Estimates over longer time ranges, up to and including today, are typically closer to 20-25 cm, with current annual increase a little over 3mm. IPCC:

    I don’t this this is crucial one way or the other for your argument, but it seems worth getting right.

  136. Ted Says:

    Scott P. #90: To reiterate Scott (A.)’s point more strongly: the Tohoku earthquake was an absolute worst-case scenario – a freak earthquake (the fourth largest in the world since accurate records have been kept) with an epicenter very close to a major nuclear power plant. If anything was going to trigger a devastating nucear meltdown with millions of casualties, it would be that. And not a single person died. Fukushima Daiichi proved that nuclear power is very, very safe. (Even putting aside the effects of climate change, fossil fuel power plants, on the other hand, directly kill millions of people per year from particulate air pollution, but in less dramatic ways.) You may be right about the economics though.

  137. Jo Says:

    “Just like the easiest way for NASA to fake a moon landing was actually to send humans to the moon, sometimes the easiest way to virtue-signal is actually to become more virtuous.”

    That’s one of the best arguments for “virtue signalling” (or whatever you want to call it) I’ve seen. “Fake it till you make it”, forcing yourself to smile actually makes you happier, etc.

    And your Davos posts are very interesting, thank you!

  138. Jo Says:

    “His whole delivery is strangely lethargic” –> As some point Occam’s razor should come to mind. see these rabbit holes: , .

    Regarding nuclear power, to take France as an example, we have “good” carbon emissions, but not nearly good enough, and we already have 80 nuclear reactors (with uranium coming from more or less war torn regions south of the Sahara) and lots of our industry is delocalized to China, this is also a factor. So not sure that nuclear energy, even if the will was there, would be some sort of silver bullet. One of the tools, maybe…
    And the old plants are *old*, they have more incidents and problems as time passes, they were not designed for running this long, the cost for dismantling them is astronomical…
    The cost for new plants is also astronomical, the new plant in Normandy will cost north of 12 billion euros, how many windmills could have been installed with that money, how many laboratories for fuel cell/solar panels/capture research, how many urban buses, how many low carbon homes…

    TL;DR Nuclear has its own set of problems, not sure this would be the best use of mankind’s efforts.

    To finish I am a bit aghast reading the “soft-denialism” in some/a lot of the comments on this blog post.

  139. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Karen Morenz #126: That’s reasonable, but the problem is that the “new technology” argument is often used as an excuse to not implement good partial solutions.

    The German FDP, for example, is always blocking progress in implementing a carbon tax, getting rid of coal, getting rid of fossil cars, with the excuse that surely somewhen someone will invent something to solve the problem, so why bother?

  140. Ted Says:

    Scott #83: Re “When the change happens over 100 or 200 years, the impact indeed seems like it will be Chicxulub-asteroid-like.” Do we know for sure whether the current rate of change over those short time scales is actually unusual over geologic history?

    I’m very far from an expert and would be happy to hear from someone who is, but my understanding is the following: we know the average global temperature over the past 10,000 years or so at a resolution of just a few years, and we’ve certainly never seen the current growth rate of ~.2 degrees/decade sustained across multiple decades. We also have a pretty good understanding of the global temperature record over the past 500 million years or so, but only at about a ~10,000-year resolution. The temperature has historically been much less stable than the current holocene epoch, although we’ve obviously never seen the current growth rate of ~.2 degrees/decade sustained across that 10,000-year resolution window in world history (or we’d now be Venus). But can we estimate the amplitude and autocorrelation time for the noise around the earlier moving averages well enough to conclude whether 2-degree changes in global temperatures over individual centuries (not sustained trends) are actually historically unusual over geologic time scales? The current holocene epoch is very unusually stable and not at all representative of geologic history, so the noise parameters may have been very different in the past. This question is aimed at anyone who knows the answer, not just at Scott.

    (For the record, I’m a very firm believer in mainstream climate science and am definitely not suggesting that temperature trends over the past 50 years are just a statistical fluke! I’m just curious whether we can draw any lessons from the existence of historical statistical flukes to estimate how quickly living things can evolve in order to keep up with rapidly changing climates.)

    On a very unrelated note, how can we do markup like italics and hyperlinks in this blog? Do HTML or MathJax work?

  141. Colin Zhu Says:

    “It would be great to know whether anyone’s actually reading the later updates, so I know whether to continue putting effort into them!” >> We’ve been reading them. Please continue update. Thank you!

  142. Islander Says:

    Scott #127:
    “….my guess is that they’ll do so “infinitely often in the limit”….”
    If that is true then, as the blue eyed islanders’ puzzle shows, zero or even mutual knowledge cannot propagate to common knowledge even with disclosures made by a “trusted foreigner”. Without such propagation I suspect that there won’t be incentive for action even on real world issues like climate change.
    So I think that the best that a lay person can do is to understand and represent scientific proof to others in the hope that such proof assumes the role of the “trusted foreigner”, however gradual that process may be.
    How much deeper can one engage? Antagonizing the “other side” won’t gain their trust, much less resolve any of their presumed stupidity/malice.

  143. venky Says:

    Best travel writing I’ve read, far better than the New York Times travel section. And they have editors to help the writers!

  144. Michael Nielsen Says:

    Ted #140: In terms of speed of warming, the Dansgaard-Oeschger events saw rises of 5-8C over a period of decades in the Greenland ice cores, during the last ice age.

    In terms of sea level rise, events like Meltwater Pulse 1A (~14,000 years ago) saw rates of sea level rise ~20 times faster than today. Meltwater Pulse 1A saw sea level rise 16-25 meters over about 400 years(!) It is, incidentally, unlikely to be repeated today, since much of the water came from the Laurentide glacial sheet, which no longer exists. Still, one is naturally concerned about the kind of rapid positive feedback effects that presumably caused this.

    It’s interesting that there were several such periods of extremely rapid sea level rise during the end of the last ice age. The graphs here are fascinating:

  145. Michael Nielsen Says:

    Addendum to my last post: often, temperature rises near the poles are more rapid than in more tropical reasons. So those numbers for the D-O events are not global.

  146. Jay Says:

    Jo #138, you’re right it’s not enough to have nuclear electricity, as it’s only half of what most country must do. But the other things we have to do is to replace fossile fuel with electricity so… As for the economical point of view, don’t you feel usefull to mention that, although France had a hard time building its new powerplants, the very same plants are built for one third of the price and one third of the time in China? It’s a french failure, mon cher concitoyen, et non un problème propre à cette technologie. 😉

  147. Andrew Leslie Krause Says:

    I empathize so much with being in unfamiliar/hard-to-navigate places and immense anxiety. I was born and have always been visually impaired (optic-nerve hypoplasia), so am considered ‘legally blind’ by US/UK standards. For most practical things this is fine as I can always get close to see stuff, though it’s awkward at things like buffets or meet-and-greet situations. But probably the thing I hate the most is that I enjoy the idea of conferences and meeting/socializing with people, but I have enormous anxiety around not being able to find places/people or otherwise navigate.

    Sorry for the mini-rant. I just wanted to note how much I empathized with that update haha.

  148. Gary Oas Says:

    So…next year (if invited)?

  149. Scott Says:

    Gary #148: Your question is whether I would return if invited again? Maybe sometime, depending on what the reason was! Next year, though, it would interfere with my teaching (I happened to have a teaching buyout this semester).

  150. Scott Aaronson live-blogs Davos | 3 Quarks Daily Says:

    […] More here. […]

  151. Marnie Dunsmore Says:

    “For years now the media have been writing that the WEF takes place as “capitalism is in crisis”, but while this might be true in general, the vast majority of the WEF participants continue to do well. They have learned to adapt to criticism, be it from the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s or from the far right today. Include the most malleable, shower them with praise, write a communique that you have understood their message, make some cosmetic changes and continue with what you have been doing from the beginning.”

  152. Gabriel Says:

    The river plastic gobbler already exists, and is already being used!

  153. William Hird Says:

    Hi Scott,
    I was just thinking that if you wanted to “break the ice” ( no climate change pun intended) with Al Gore, just go up to him and tell him that the word algorithm was named after him ( al-gore-ithm) for having invented the internet ! 🙂 See if he laughs !

  154. Scott Says:

    William Hird #153: I think it’s safe to assume that he’s heard that one.

    In any case, too late—I just landed in Toronto and will spend the next few days at Waterloo and Perimeter Institute!

  155. Gabriel Says:

    @Karen #43: Regarding hysteria being counterproductive: More than that, hysteria might provide justification for extreme measures that would normally be considered unthinkable. For example, current hysteria might one day lead to making it a crime to bring too many children, as it used to be in China.

    @tue rindom #95: OK. I watched your video. Complete over-the-top hysteria. He says we must (1) immediately (2) completely eliminate all carbon emissions, or else we face (3) total destruction. (OK I’m exaggerating *just a bit* to make my point.)

    How do you explain the fact that the IPCC report itself says otherwise? (As I mentioned in comment #52?)

    Here’s a possible explanation: Statements made by scientists in speeches etc are less reliable that statements made by scientists in properly peer-reviewed publications.

    Indeed, climate change *is* a problem, but we must put things in their proper proportions, and we must cool-headedly calculate costs vs benefits of the different options.

  156. Lubos fan Says:

    1. I’m a huge fan of the quantum computer = massive parallel computer analogy in popular expositions. If you’d listened closer to Trump instead of playing with your phone you might have learned about what he calls truthful hyperbole. Even if a QC can’t guarantee solving NP-hard problems, a path integral does have to compute a weighted sum of complex numbers over all paths, and that should be close enough for journalists.

    2. If you had met Trump, one partial solution to global warming that he and his supporters might get behind would be a moratorium on immigration from low carbon emitting countries to high carbon emitting countries. Plainly this would reduce global emissions.

    3. If the logistics of conference travel is such a nightmare then I encourage you to try video conferencing. A side benefit would be a reduced carbon footprint from less flying. In fact, I wish the NSF, DOD, NIH, etc. would require all academic grant recipients to post any work related air travel so the public could gauge their carbon footprint, make suggestions for reducing it, and separate those genuinely alarmed from globetrotting virtue signalers.

  157. ed Says:

    What an entertaining read. One of your best!

  158. Karen Morenz Says:

    @Scott #127: Thanks! But I can’t claim full credit for my optimism, I did read Pinker’s book (Enlightenment Now).

    @Michael Nielsen #135: Sorry, I thought I already linked the the NASA climate website which presents a lovely representation of the latest data.

    @Mateus Araújo #139: Yes, and that’s annoying. Obviously we should all be implementing the good partial solutions. I thought Germany was doing a pretty good job of this? But I don’t know that much about Europe.

  159. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Lubos fan #156: Trump calls it “truthful hyperbole”? Yeah right. I doubt that he can even pronounce the words, let alone spell them. The senile fool can’t even pronounce “origins”!

  160. STEM Caveman Says:

    > “dichotomy between right-wing parties and left-wing parties is breaking down everywhere (I assume he means, as both sides get taken over by populist movements?)

    If only! A more correct description of this phenomenon was stated nicely by one of your commenters in an old Trump thread:

    re: “truthful hyperbole”, the phrase is from Trump’s ghostwriter, but it describes a ploy that Trump has used time and again to lower the credibility of Mainstream Media. He makes a provocative and basically correct, but controversial or politically incorrect, statement on some subject; the MSM then dutifully produce a spate of “correction” articles demonstrating that Trump, that idiot, is only 90 percent right about some uncomfortable topic (often of huge importance) that has previously been undiscussable by the political elites! This lets Trump simultaneously use the MSM to unwittingly promote his message, while making them looking like fools.

    The essence of this trick is having the facts on your side, but not the kind of fact that the elites like to talk about.

  161. Richard Gaylord Says:

    keep posting. your travel and conference exploits. they make for terrific reading.

  162. Mateus Araújo Says:

    STEM Caveman #160: That’s just wishful thinking. There’s no grand strategy behind it, Trump routinely says outrageously wrong things because he is a pathological liar and a moron. Just to give one example out of hundreds, how could “windmills cause cancer” possibly fit in this strategy? The actual explanation for that is that he hates wind turbines due to his dispute with the Scottish government, and will say anything to cast them in a bad light. He doesn’t care whether it is true or false.

    It is true, though, that he often says outrageous things just for the media attention they get him. But it doesn’t go deeper than that.

    Also, the idea that Trump, a self-proclaimed billionaire, is somehow fighting against “the elites” is just hilarious.

  163. Rainer Says:

    maybe off-topic regarding the evolution of this thread.
    But what exactly is the company “Psiquantum” doing?
    The website is not very informative.

  164. Tue Says:

    “Erst kommst das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral”, Bertol Brecht.

    Gabriel Says: Comment #155 January 26th, 2020 at 4:47 am
    @tue rindom #95: OK. I watched your video. Complete over-the-top hysteria. He says we must (1) immediately (2) completely eliminate all carbon emissions, or else we face (3) total destruction. (OK I’m exaggerating *just a bit* to make my point.)

    That person, who you accuse of complete over-the-top hysteria, is the chairman of the IPCC.
    He is the chairman of the IPCC.
    That clip, that you call over-the-top hysteria, is the friggin’ chairman of an notoriously conservative institution, telling the citizens of the world – in no uncertain terms – that we have to take global climate change seriously, and that have to act now.

    Up-thread someone mentioned soft-denialism. That is a wonderful word. And it is terrifying to see educated westerners pretending that global human caused climate change is not an enormous problem. Even when the scientific principles at work can be described crystal clear!
    It took 25 fruitless COP meetings – 25 years of political inaction – to get to this point. The point where an IPCC chairman goes out and tells it like is. To see the chairman of the IPCC come out in such strong terms, should really get all of you soft-deniers to stop and have a think.

    Right now the effects of human caused climate change are already felt. It is happening as we speak. But you are all – as first world citizens – insulated to the worst effects.

    There will come a point in the very near future, where climate change refugees, will be the ones to suffer de-humanization. I see a nightmare scenario where billions will have absolutely no rights, and the world will have no problem standing by and watching them die en-masse. And all because they had the misfortune to be born at that place in that time.

  165. Raghuveer Parthasarathy Says:

    About the Prince Regent of Liechtenstein claiming that “Liechtenstein does not have much in the way of quantum,” my reconnaissance in Vaduz, Liechtenstein a few days ago uncovered
    an entire Quantum House (photo). Not bad for a country of 35,000. Of course, this was a few days after Davos, so perhaps the prince was inspired to rapidly start building technological infrastructure.

  166. Yoni Says:

    Hi Scott

    As requested (although maybe I’m too late?) – yes I have been reading all the updates, and really enjoying them. I love it wen you write non (or less) technical posts as it gives me the opportunity to read stuff you write without my head wanting to explode (and without feeling horrendously inferior. I spend about 99% of my life being easily the most mathematically and generally technically proficient person in my supposedly mathematically-knowledgeable-person-heavy workplace, and the other 1% reading this and a couple of other blogs where I feel like I might as well be my 9 year old daughter!).

  167. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Karen Morenz #158: No, Germany is not doing a good job. They don’t have climate change deniers in power that are doing their best to increase CO2 emissions, but that’s kind of a low bar.

    Perhaps you’ve heard of the famous Energiewende and the massive increase in the production of renewable energy. Yeah, that renewable energy replaced nuclear, not coal. The result is that Germany’s emissions only went slightly down. While the UK, for example, killed off coal almost overnight with a carbon tax, Germany is planning to burn coal until 2038.

    As for getting rid of fossil cars, Germany is also taking its sweet time. The market share of EVs is around 2%, similar to the US, and much behind countries such as Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, or China.

    There is some hope, though. The government has finally decided to implement a carbon tax a few months ago, and VW is betting everything on EVs. 2020 will be the make it or break it year.

  168. Gabriel Says:

    Tue #164: Yes, the head of the IPCC! The IPCC report says otherwise, as I said.

    Moreover, his pie-in-the-sky speech completely ignores the fact that reducing carbon emissions entails an economic cost! The economic cost of reducing carbon emissions is in fact tremendous. Even the most optimistic carbon reductions by developed countries (whose cost would be prohibitively high) would only reduce carbon emissions by a tiny bit, which will postpone the rise in temperature only by a short amount.

    People have to stop freaking out, and instead should cold-headedly calculate costs vs benefits of the different ways to help developing countries. Well, actually the Copenhagen Consensus has already done the calculations:

    As you can see, things like free trade, contraception, immunization, can do a lot of help at a very low cost. In contrast, meeting the “2-degree target” will achieve very little at a great cost.

    You mentioned refugees. Do you know what’s *actually* generating tons of refugees in the world right now? Things like failed communistic policies in Venezuela, wars in Syria. These are much larger problems, and they are completely unrelated to climate change.

    Did you notice that fires, hurricanes, droughts, malaria etc leave only a small number of dead people in developed countries? Therefore, the best way to help developing countries against *all* kinds of disasters, whether man-made or not, is to help them rise out of poverty.

  169. Apparently Soft-Denialist Anon Says:


    Frankly – without your admitting to a number of lies or inaccuracies, and with you still avoiding any attempt at understanding your position better, I don’t see why anybody should engage you.

    But congratulations, you and Jo, for being for climate change what SJWs are for justice. Arguments didn’t do the job so the next stage is labeling the “enemy”. Soft-denialists. Wrong-thinkers. Privileged ones, of course. Incidentally, for all you repeat “chairmain of the IPCC” – so was Robert Watson, whose position we (the soft-denialists, see – now we’re an army that you can act against!) seem to share and who was concerned about the IPCC’s tendency to err in favor of exaggerating the risks (as in the unfortunate Himalayan glaciers case).

    As for the position of the IPCC itself (yes, the IPCC itself!) – it was mentioned again and again, and it does not support your extreme view. You are in fact disagreeing with the climate community consensus. Now, you (and Scott, for that matter), seem to hold it as an axiom that the IPCC is significantly biased against the more alarmist position. Maybe. But a number of reasons for the opposite view have been presented. While your failure to address them is not a surprise, I hope Scott’s silence is due to the intensity of Davos. To his honor, he has been rather willing to engage even actual denialists and even quacks of C.Joy’s proportions.

    Which brings me to what might be my main point – again. Let me state my position once more. If it leaves you “slightly aghast” in the words of Jo, consider getting out more in all senses.


    There, happy? Now, comes the thought crime.


    And even worse –


    It might cause more harm than good. It is likely to hurt other potential approaches – in particular, the political goodwill and humanity’s resources might be better employed seeking technological solutions. Scott’s opinion on asymptotics notwithstanding, to most people it is rather clear that rates do matter (Scott – consider regarding it as an application of L’hopital’s rule. We have a few processes blowing up. Understanding the rates is equivalent to understanding the limits). It is thus truly crucial that we engage in thinking about climate change without the kind of blinding panic you seem to experience. So –



    Dear Karen, let me take this opportunity to warn you. If other processes are any kind of indication, by showing yourself to be a “soft-denialist” you’re actively putting your career at risk. Particularly so if you stay in Academia. Do you think that no other readers here share Tue and Jo’s position and extent of feeling? Do you think that none of them might be relevant to your career? That they might not transfer their feeling “slightly aghast” to your scientific achievements?

    Posting as you do openly and not in line with the perceived “consensus” (not the actual consensus expressed in the IPCC reports) is courageous and honest. Thus I hesitate giving the advice of caution – but I feel it must be said. Please weigh whatever might be gained by these posts against your future. It seems a valuable one.

  170. Karen Morenz Says:

    @Apparently Soft-Denialist Anon: Thank you for saying it better than I could. And I do appreciate the warning, as well as the risk. But honesty is an important core value of mine, and it’s kind of like what Scott said in his intro to my guest post: “if everyone like me stopped talking, we’d cede the field by default to the loudest, angriest voices on all sides—thereby giving those voices exactly what they wanted. To hell with that!”

    If academia has been so taken over by the angry voices that me engaging in a civil online debate, and politely explaining my opinions and the scientific data on which I base them – if that is something that makes me ineligible for academia, then academia is probably not a place I want to be anyways. I have the privilege of having other options (like, maybe I’ll go work for a deworming charity, that sounds productive).

    Alternatively, if I have so terribly misunderstood the data that I’m actually just wrong about all this, even after double checking my conclusions when I meet so much disagreement, then I think it’s unlikely I’d make it in academia anyways. Plus, if I am wrong, but I never speak up about what I think, then no one can ever correct me or point out what I missed, and I’ll stay wrong. So, either way, I think there’s not as much to lose as it might appear.

    I could do all this without attaching my name to it, this is true. But I think the openness is a good way to show honesty and good will, and to bring respect and accountability into the debate. I also think it makes people take your words more seriously, if you’re willing to attach your name to them.

    Sidenote: in no way do I identify as a “soft-denialist” or any other kind of denialist. Climate change is real, and it’s a big big problem. Big big problems require careful understanding, clear thinking and rational solutions, not hyperbole and panic, and I will not give in to that.

  171. Karen Morenz Says:

    @Apparently Soft-Denialist Anon: (a few more thoughts)

    I don’t think anything I’m saying is particularly controversial. I do believe we need to implement renewable energy, electric cars, etc, and reduce CO2 emissions. My biggest concern with a carbon tax is that it sends the message that if you’re rich enough, you can morally pollute by just paying it off, and I don’t think that’s quite right (I recall Trudeau buying carbon credits to “offset” the emissions of his campaign jets – money doesn’t erase emissions like that!). I also think not enough attention is paid to fighting poverty from the climate change perspective (because non-impoverished people have a lot more power and freedom to care about the environment), which is aside from the human reasons for fighting poverty.

    I’m just against encouraging panic, because I truly think that’s counterproductive (because it also encourages nihilistic behaviours). Some might disagree with that, and fair enough, but I hardly think we could start hating each other over it.

  172. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Gabriel #168: Could you point out what’s innacurate in what the IPCC chair actually said, as opposed to your hostile mistranslation of his speech?

    It seems you focus only on the cost of reducing emissions. They are far from prohibitively high; electric cars actually save money relative to fossil cars, and renewable energy is often cheaper than fossil energy, much cheaper if you take into account the cost of the diseases caused by air pollution. Contrary to your claims, eliminating the emissions from these two sectors alone would already make a massive difference.

    But what about the cost of doing nothing? Coastal defence for New York city alone should cost $1 billion. Now multiply that by the number of low-lying cities that will need coastal defence. Add to that the massive amount of property that will be destroyed by stronger, more frequent hurricanes, or simply by sea level rise. The total costs have been estimate to be around $8 trillion by 2050.

  173. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Karen Morenz #171: The thing is, money can erase emissions. You can e.g. use it for planting trees, direct carbon capture, or preventing emissions by investing in renewable energy.

    A carbon tax is the cheapest and most effective to reduce carbon emissions, as the statement above by 27 Nobel laureate economists say. Ironically enough, it is the right-wing free-market way to fight global warming, but seems to be radically opposed by right wing politicians and embraced by the left.

  174. OrionFalcon Says:

    I can’t believe someone unironically used the word “manspreading” at all, let alone rudely to your face. Sounds like someone who learned the concept via pop culture and just accepted it without examination.

    I guess they got as far as Davos, so I my first speculation that this lack of empathy won’t serve them well in life seems to be false ^^

  175. Karen Morenz Says:

    @Mateus: My understanding is that planting trees is only effective in some cases, while in other cases forests are not carbon negative. As far as I’m aware no one is using the carbon credits to implement any large scale sequestration, and I’m not convinced this is a winning long term strategy. Trudeau’s carbon tax plan is supposed to be revenue neutral, so it certainly won’t be used for any sequestration. There are definitely some things we can throw money at here, and I’m not against a carbon tax. I just worry that it erroneously gives moral high ground to the rich who can afford to pay to pollute.

  176. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Karen Morenz #175: I don’t see how planting a tree could ever be non-effective. Almost 100% of a tree’s mass comes from CO2 directly captured from the atmosphere. Maybe are you thinking about mature forests? Yeah, if they have stopped growing then they hardly be carbon negative.

    Trudeau’s carbon tax (and carbon taxes in general) are not meant to compensate emissions, but rather to make it everyone’s economic self-interest to reduce emissions. That’s what works in a capitalistic society. Of course the rich can afford to pay it, but then at least they are paying for emissions! The status quo is that they can emit as much as they want without even having to pay for it.

    Perhaps you are making the mistake that many in the left do, trying to fix economic inequality at the same time as global warming.

  177. matt Says:

    Being advanced chimps who can deal with geometrical boundaries of max. a one day walk (in the savanna) or 2 hours (in Davos for instance) we are uncapable of “feeling”=fully understanding consequences of decisions that are beyond that boundaries. If desirable or not, any centralized social regulation which doesn’t take this into account (often called socialism) will fail. On the other hand the best examples how a rapid culture shift can be established are the internet and mobile telephony, basically powered by sex/gossiping drive and carried out in a decentralized manner, the latter intrinsically due to their technical setup. If anything can make a change then it will have to be sexy somehow and be non centralized from the start. (Dialectical fun fact: Nasty things like Facebook, McDonalds, Anheuser-Busch seem to be inevitable at a certain stage of the evolution; come on, basically one brewery for the whole US, is that a sign of civilization?).
    Now what is civilization? Has it grown by 200% since 1950? I am not sure but mankind has.
    Where did mankind grow since then, and where not? Who will be in charge in future because of factual (self)responsibility? Note: I am not talking of guilt, surely I would tend to locate that one elsewhere, just talking of the majority who will be in the driver seat if and when adversity takes over.
    What I am trying to say is that, besides re-defining economical key figures like “growth”, empowering hydrogen economy seems to be the only gift european rooted nations still can hand over to those drivers for the future. (And fusion, 30 years later then).

  178. Sniffnoy Says:

    Anon #169:

    Contrasting a carbon tax with technological solutions makes no sense; there isn’t some budget that they both draw money from. A carbon tax isn’t an alternative to technological solutions, it encourages technological solutions; it creates additional economic incentive to find them. Indeed, the same is true of any sort of solution. I think you are thinking of a carbon tax here in the wrong way — it’s not a solution, it’s the incentive to find those solutions. (Which may be “emit less CO2”, yes, but how? That’s not actually easy to do, and people aren’t going to find ways to manage it if they don’t have a reason to.)

    The logic for a carbon tax is straightforward — it’s just a straightforward Pigouvian tax; internalize externalities, make people pay for the harm they’re causing. But what this means is, if implemented right, a carbon tax should be the only government action needed on the problem, because it provides the incentive for everyone else (“the market”) to do the work of actually solving it. I don’t know why one would contrast a carbon tax with other sorts of solutions. (In reality, of course, one likely also needs the government to undo a bunch of other stupid things they’ve done, but…)

  179. OrionFalcon Says:

    Sniffnoy #178

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    By the way, I have seen both “Carbon Fee” and “Carbon Tax” used in the past, and personally I much prefer “Carbon Fee”. “Tax” makes it sound like we’re okay with carbon flowing everywhere, and we just want our “cut” of the carbon flow, which makes no sense at all. “Fee” really gets at the externality idea … much like a littering fine or a pollution fine, we’re charging companies a fine for 100% of the carbon they emit, and this results in a Fee.

    I actually miss the term “Cap & Trade”, which best captures the “Credit” idea … but rather than push for that, I’ll just stick to “Carbon Fee”.

  180. Karen Morenz Says:

    Mateus: Here’s a CBC article talking about the downfalls of using trees to mitigate climate change. A rough TL;DR is that well managed forests can sequester carbon, but forests are not necessarily carbon negative, and in particular, once they reach a steady state, they’re carbon neutral as decaying trees release carbon back to the atmosphere. Some other studies talk about how efforts to plant trees in non-forested areas sometimes decreases their biodiversity and releases carbon that was stored in other life there (to be eventually recaptured as the trees grow).

    I don’t mean to say that planting trees is a bad idea, but I hope this answers your implied question about how tree planting “could ever be non-effective.” Overall, it’s not a great long-term strategy, and doesn’t truly offset the carbon emissions from fossil fuels pulled from deep underground.

    As for, “Perhaps you are making the mistake that many in the left do, trying to fix economic inequality at the same time as global warming.”

    YES, yes I am!! That is absolutely, exactly the “mistake” I am making! Because unlike climate change, I think that the famine in Sudan (for example) is indeed an emergency, where we can and should be saving lives _right now_.

  181. ...going on Says:

    Now we come to the costs. Of course there are relevant resource pools we have to budget. Public attention and political goodwill are the obvious ones, but carbon tax, whether or not it will in fact encourage innovation (rather than VW-style shenanigans, for instance, or just tax havens) will have a crippling effect on economic growth. There’s simply no way to side-step this issue. One IPCC-endorsed evaluation claims that the taxes required to change 4C warming to a 2C scenario will cost the world 4.8% of its consumption by 2100, whereas the damage mitigation will be about 2.8% output loss.

    Those extra 2% could be used for the goals I’ve mentioned above. They could be used just to make humanity richer. I hear the objection – but those taxes will be returned “to the people”! Indeed, that is the Nobel Laureates’ suggestion in that link by Mateus. Well, a right-wing reply would be “no it won’t be. Goverments don’t do that with large sources of income”.” A left-wing reply would be “then how would those funds allow the government to direct basic research in the appropriate directions or to prepare better for the upcoming challenges? Also, taxes won’t stimulate the government itself to seek better technology”. Whether you believe in the government’s ability to be a non-disastrous coordinator, I don’t see how one can argue carbon tax won’t impact alternative approaches to climate change mitigation. And that doesn’t even enter into the mess that such a tax would actually be if implemented (that’s my libertarian side asserting itself). And we didn’t even talk about non-climate change-related topics! How much would such taxes, aside from their role in climate change mitigation, financially and politically harm developing countries and causes such as deworming or poverty elimination? (dewarming vs deworming!)

    In short –
    I don’t view CO2 emission reduction as the be-all and end-all of climate change control (and what happens to all the CO2 already in the air once you’re done taxing emissions away?.. ).

    I don’t believe carbon taxes would be as straightforwardly efficient at fostering innovation as you seem to profess.

    I don’t believe them to be costless – quite the opposite, and the costs will impair our ability all of those non-emission-reduction things, warming-related or not.

    Finally, I don’t believe such taxes would be implemented well even on their own premises.

  182. Anon Who Needs A Semi-Permanent Designation Says:

    It seems that the first half was eaten by the website gremlins. I hope it appears after moderation. If not, it’s probably all the links – and I will post it link-free.

  183. Anon Who Needs A Semi-Permanent Designation Says:

    @ Mateus Araújo, Sniffnoy

    Thanks for the insightful comments on carbon tax! These are far more productive responses than some offered up-thread.

    There’s a lot to unpack here.

    Foremost, it seems to me (please correct me if I’m wrong) that you’re more or less equating combating climate change with reducing CO2 emissions. As evidence, the link Mateus included deals entirely with, in his words, “cheapest and most effective to reduce carbon emissions”. The question “how much does the enormous amount of reduction required to make a difference actually buy us” isn’t even raised. Sniffnoy’s comments share the same spirit (again, my apologies if I’m mis-representing your position).

    Now, as I see it, the two are not at all the same. There’s a number of courses to alleviate the change or to ameliorate its impacts that are rather disjoint from reducing emissions. Construction projects such as submerged dams in strategic places could impact sea level rise for a fraction of the discussed costs (less than a billion per year, unlike that 8 trillion by 2050 figure). Planned construction in the vast area opening up for habitation could do a lot to relieve migration from the too-arid zones. Changes in humanity’s “agriculture portfolio” to emphasize crops that enjoy hotter, CO2-rich environment (quite a few of those, and while there are debates about currently existing crops and nutritional value, new varieties could be developed) could help with nutrition. Technological improvements in desalination would be obviously useful.

    Similarly, mitigation of the CO2 concentration itself could be done by limiting emissions – but also by improving its absorption. The odds of us successfully doing so via reforestation strike me as low. Perhaps hydroponic forests can do better. Other approaches might use genetically engineered bacteria or algae.

  184. Jo Says:

    @”Anon soft denialist’, @Karen Morentz I’m not sure we can further this debate here, in any case I dont have the mental energy to be fully open and constructive tbh, and I guess my time would be better spent convincing my pickup-driving colleague or disvesting my meagre savings, your time also I would wager.

    Just two points: I would see forests as carbon buffers, helping us weather the storm for a few decades until we get better on other things.

    Second more important point: I disagree with “Big big problems require careful understanding, clear thinking and rational solutions, not hyperbole and panic” .
    This would be true if we were all rational INTJ researchers, but we’re not. Wars (here please understand the current war as a war against warming, not some people…) are won with the help of rational people, but often the ‘impulsion’ is given by political, non rational people.
    That may be one of the problems in this disussion, the global warming problem requires a multi faceted approach. It’s not only climate science, it’s not only “hard” science, it’s also economy, sociology, politics, arts even…It’s hard to have a complete, holistic view of the subject, especially when we are trained to analyze rationally and start from hypotheses etc. This scientific analysis is necessary work*, but it is not nearly enough and is not what will give the necessary ‘impulsion’. Emotions will have to be taken into account. Emotions +move+ people deeper than rational argument.

    *Necessary work although when some people here do a cold blooded cost analysis on (millions) of human lives saved or lost by this or that ‘solution’ I can’t help but think that’s a recipe for disaster.

    @Karen Morentz on another topic I only recently read your blog post on why women leave STEM, and although I disagree with some “details” I must say that you are spot on for the main part of it. As a matter of fact my wife will probably leave academia soon for exactly the reasons you mentioned.

  185. Karen Morenz Says:

    @Jo: Wow, I am sorry to hear that about your wife. I wish I could somehow make a list of all the women and husbands who have reached out to me to say that this is exactly the problem they faced, and why they left/almost left/are about to leave STEM. It’s just mind boggling. STEM needs to do something about this. Out of curiosity, what details do you disagree with?

    WRT climate change, you’re definitely correct that most people make decisions based on emotions. That’s also part of my concern: the emotions of hopelessness and panic are not effective for motivating positive action. And I didn’t just make that up, there are many studies about how to motivate climate action – this one is nice. And here is one more focused on youth.

    Not only that, but in my personal experience it’s also a common problem I encounter when talking to people my age: they see climate change as a hopeless situation and say things like, “May as well party while we can, we’re all gonna die in 20 years anyways.” In extreme cases, they will stop caring about basic, simple things like recycling or using (and hence having to clean) real plates rather than disposable ones. Or, there’s the Greta phenomenon: “No need to go to school, we won’t live long enough to need an education.” (or, “Why go to school when you don’t listen to the educated?“) This is horrifying to me. We need educated people to help fight climate change.

    So I’m not saying, “don’t use emotions to convince people they should act.” By all means, hide the graphs and put up pictures of starving polar bears on very small pieces of ice, and landscapes devastated by forest fires, and Bangladesh completely flooded. But we need to couple it with, “and if we work together, we can fix it. Here are some positive things to do,” not, “and we should panic because we’re all gonna die unless you change everything about your life.”

  186. Michael Nielsen Says:

    Karen Morenz #158: You appear to have misread the data on the NASA website. That shows nearly 25cm rise in sea level based on ground measurements, and nearly 10cm since 1995 alone in the satellite measurements.

  187. Peter Donis Says:

    @Scott: Greta modeled for the rest of the world how they, too, would probably feel about climate change were they able to sync up their lizard brains with their higher brains

    Just came across this post. I’m sorry, but I just can’t let this pass. To me, this comment shows a lack of awareness that I find shocking. If you and Greta Thunberg and all the other people at Davos really believed, in your bones, what you say you believe, you would not have traveled there in the first place. You would have held the conference by video chat over the Internet. You would be working from home instead of commuting to your office. You would be holding science and math conferences over the Internet instead of traveling. You would be avoiding every single gram of CO2 emission that you possibly could. Because you claim that every single gram of CO2 emission matters.

    Seriously: unless and until you and Greta Thunberg and all the other people who constantly bombard us with apocalyptic rhetoric actually start doing all these things (and many, many more that I haven’t even mentioned), I will simply not accept that you actually believe what you say you believe.

  188. Mateus Araújo Says:

    …going on #181: Source on this IPCC cost evaluation?

    Instead of speculating about how a carbon tax couldn’t possibly work, perhaps you should look at how the existing carbon taxes do work. Canada has a carbon tax, and the money is returned to the people. Sweden has a carbon tax, the UK has a carbon tax (where it killed coal almost overnight).

    And you seem to have missed the main point: a carbon tax is not meant to stimulate the government itself to look for technological solutions, but to give a financial incentive for everybody to look for them.

  189. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Anon Who Needs A Semi-Permanent Designation #183: That’s some beautiful newspeak here, saying that doing nothing about climate change and trying to deal with the consequences is “combating climate change”.

    Even in the most optimistic scenario, your “solution” is downright terrible. Building coastal defences at outrageous expense to save a couple of cities? And leaving places that can’t be saved like Florida, Bangladesh, and some Pacific islands to drown? Seriously? And telling millions and millions and people to emigrate to northern Canada and Siberia? Even if Canada and Russia would accept that (they won’t), it is still a major disaster to lose so much inhabitable land.

    In the less optimistic scenario, we lose the Russian roulette game, the Antarctic ice sheets collapse, the permafrost melts supercharging global warming, and the apocalypse comes.

    All this for what? To let our cities stay polluted? To keep destroying our landscape as we mine coal? To keep rich despicable people such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Koch brother?

  190. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Peter Donis #187:

    Of course you would love to see climate activists being holed up in their homes surviving on what they can produce in their gardens. Without electricity as well, no? Doing that they would be dramatically less effective campaigners, and stop bothering you to change your ways.

    The problem is, individual action doesn’t make any fucking difference. The emissions of any single individual are completely negligible. What we need is collective action. That means campaigning. That means getting out there, protesting, annoying people. Indeed, the flight shaming campaign already managed to cause a significant drop in domestic flights in Sweden and Germany.

    That only works with people who care, though. They’re not enough. We need laws to force people and industry to stop polluting, as there are way too many that would rather see the world burn than to suffer minor inconveniences.

  191. Scott Says:

    Peter Donis #187: Let me start with two things about your comment that make no sense just on the face of it, before proceeding to the deeper reason why your comment doesn’t make sense.

    1) Greta, famously, actually is doing as you ask. She refuses to fly airplanes. For godsakes, she traveled to the US and back in a carbon-neutral boat. What more do you want from her?

    2) In my post, I mused that Greta’s significance is that she models how terrified many of the rest of us would be, were we able to sync up our lizard-brains with our higher reasoning faculties. Pay careful attention to the work that the word “would” is doing in that sentence! That most of us haven’t successfully synced up is precisely the point: if we had, Greta would be superfluous.

    Now for the deeper thing. To my mind, the extreme popularity of the move you’re making—namely, shifting the focus from what needs to be done to save the planet, to the motives and personal virtue of those who are trying to save it—is the fundamental reason why the human species is most likely going to fail its biggest test. Indeed, if the same dynamics played themselves out across the universe, I’d find that one of the least surprising solutions imaginable to the Fermi paradox.

    Your game is an unwinnable one: if the people concerned about climate change actually become ascetic treehuggers living off the land, then they’re virtue-signaling crazies who can safely be ignored. If, on the other hand, they continue to participate in fossil-fuel-based civilization (for example, by flying to conferences about climate change), then they’re hypocrites who can also be ignored. Either way, conveniently for you, there’s no need ever to address the truth or falsehood of what they say is happening to the world.

    To my mind, the solution has been obvious from the beginning: resist every temptation from both sides to turn the climate emergency into a personal virtue competition. Just put a price on carbon commensurate with the damage it’s doing—either through a steep carbon tax, or through a cap-and-trade system. Then let the market take care of the rest. The more you flew or drove or used air conditioning, the more you’d be subsidizing the solutions, so there’d be zero praise or blame attached to your personal choices, and yet the world would be saved because economists are right and incentives matter.

    What’s been tragically missing, of course, has been the political will to implement this obvious solution.

  192. Jonathan Taglione Says:

    @Karen Morentz

    On “Why women leave STEM” the part I disagree with (or misunderstood) is “In fact, I think that the plethora of articles suggesting that the problem is sexism actually contribute to our unwillingness to talk about the family planning problem, because it reinforces the perception that that men in power will not hire a woman for fear that she’ll get pregnant and take time off.”

    I’m not sure that a lot of women don’t even try because they heard that there is sexism is STEM (I think that they are aware that alas there can be/is sexism everywhere.) They may choose another path because they are made aware that a career in STEM is difficult/impossible for a woman, be it because of sexism or because of the way the career path is structured. So in my view the articles suggesting that sexism is the cause of the problem may be wrong on the facts but they do not have a nefarious effect.

    Another part, it is not really a disagreement, we live in France and I’m not sure here bias training is really done (it’s “taboo”/unlawful to, for example compile racial statistics … maybe comes from the enlightenment era/french revolution “we are all equal” so no need to talk about it, maybe it comes from the 1940s when such data was misused, to understate a lot… I dont know exactly) … Anyway we dont talk about race or gender, so we cannot even quantify or confirm/infirm that there is a discrimination problem. Result, “no problem” leads to no action, and no (or minimal) bias training. But between unconscious bias and outright racists/misogynists/homophobes I think there is bias. Two times already we saw open positions where the “big bosses” indicated that they would like women to be selected, two times the shortlists and the final positions were filled by men. I’m sure that a lot of competent women applied. I don’t know if the juries were (unconsciously or not) biased but here we are. And of course there won’t be a serious study, real actions or a law on this, since it’s taboo. So in France at least there may be other problems too.

    Regarding emotions and climate change, I agree that panic is bad. Fear is very powerful, ideally it leads to resolve, courage, etc, and not panic. How to motivate people? Two observations, 1) our brains are not wired to think long-term future 2) See how after for instance after a fire/storm/flooding/whatever people talk to each other, help each other etc.. (before reverting to their “normal” self-centered state) … Ideally we can “provoke” this behaviour *before* the storm. The first winds an rains are here, will we take action before the real storm, or not? That is the mankind-scale question.

  193. Karen Morenz Says:

    @Michael Nielsen: You’re right, I just took the number from the top of the page, but it does appear that sea level has been consistently rising for much longer. I wonder why they present it like that.

    @anyone interested in the carbon tax debate: I pretty much agree that a carbon tax seems like the only way to effectively incentivize people to reduce their carbon output. However, I’m currently driving through Northern Ontario (we’re in Dryden, the smallest city to be officially designated a city) and so I’m acutely aware of the segment of the population whose entire lives relies on them being able to drive long distances for food, work, school, healthcare, etc. Rich city people who have the option to just take the bus would find a carbon tax very manageable. Out here, where communities are centred on mining and logging spread out over hundreds of kilometres, there’s no public transit option. There’s no way to go to the closer grocery store. And these people are already struggling as it is.

    Maybe there’s already a solution to this that I haven’t heard of? Maybe it’s just so economically infeasible to live up here that all these people really should just move to the city already? Maybe it’s a small enough number of people that we don’t really care? But my concern with the carbon tax is that I think it will disproportionately affect the people who are already poor and who are not, in fact, the main culprits of carbon emissions, while the rich will be able to continue emitting just as much as they please without sacrificing any comforts.

    Pre-emptively, yes, I realize Canada’s carbon tax is revenue neutral, and everyone gets some set amount back. The problem is, this means it is both not being used to fund actual climate change mitigation strategies, and it still means that people who had no choice but to drive a lot (such as those out here in Dryden) are still paying more than city folks like me who COULD take the subway, but just sometimes don’t feel like it, and drive instead.

  194. Karen Morenz not Morentz Says:

    @Jonathon Taglione: Oh, with that I meant people avoid talking about the challenges associated with motherhood because they fear sexist backlash, and so instead everyone is always talking about sexism and not talking about the maternal wall, because women are afraid to bring it up. No one is afraid to bring up the concept of sexism here. That’s annoying that it seems much less discussed there – I think the reason it’s become such a non-issue here is because we’ve done a really good job talking about it, actually.

    On the other hand, I also think that some women avoid STEM because of the lasting reputation of sexism. I mean, I’m not a very risk-averse person, and even I found it nerve-wracking to be surrounded by all men all the time during my exchange to Waterloo IQC last semester, even though not a single person did anything notably sexist the entire time, and I met some truly excellent feminist allies. But I felt like I needed to be hyper aware because of all the talk of sexism and harassment at universities, which turned out to be unnecessary stress. After I digest I’ll probably write something up about that, hopefully more clearly.

  195. Peter Donis Says:

    @Scott #191:

    Re your 1), how did Greta travel to Davos?

    Re your 2), if you yourself aren’t motivated enough to follow Greta’s example (assuming for the sake of argument that she is a valid example), why should I pay attention to you when you ask me to?

    Regarding the “unwinnable” game you say I’m asking you to play, you left out an obvious alternative that I explicitly gave you: save CO2 emissions by interacting as much as possible over the Internet instead of in person. That doesn’t require you to become a tree-hugging ascetic. It’s an obvious way of saving CO2 emissions that is easily possible with today’s technology. I do it myself several days a week: I telework from home instead of commuting back and forth to the office. Of course I don’t do that because I’m afraid of climate apocalypse (I’m not), I do it because my workplace supports it and it is a huge time saver and avoidance of inconvenience and stress. (And my employer supports it because it reduces overhead costs.) But the fact remains that I am avoiding CO2 emissions every day I telework. There is no reason why a large portion of the work force in a country like the US could not do the same, if employers supported it, and it would have a significant impact.

    Regarding your “obvious” solution, taxing carbon according to the damage it does, the problem is how we determine what that damage is. On net there might not be any damage at all: there are benefits to increased CO2 as well as costs. Also, the “damage” being used to justify this policy is not present, observable damage; it’s hypothetical damage that might or might not occur decades from now. That’s not a viable basis for a huge public policy change like this.

    Regarding humans passing or failing the Fermi paradox test: in my opinion, if we humans do fail that test, it won’t be for the reason you give. It will be that humans are too willing to sacrifice the long-term trustworthiness of institutions for short-term gain. In the case of climate science, we have scientists claiming “the science is settled” when they simply do not have the predictive track record to support that claim. They are invoking the authority of Science when it is not justified. And as a result the public is now losing its trust in Science to the point that they might not listen even in cases in which the authority of Science *can* be justifiably invoked. Furthermore, it is now basically impossible to have a reasonable discussion about how to respond to climate change, because the two extremes–apocalyptic rhetoric vs. total denialism–now dominate the debate.

    What do I think a reasonable discussion about climate change would look like? Something like this: since climate science simply doesn’t have the predictive track record to support narrowly focused public policy changes with huge impact, like taking drastic measures to reduce CO2 emissions, we should admit that and stop focusing the discussion around trying to mitigate climate change, and start focusing the discussion around how to adapt to it. Most of the things we would do to adapt are things we should already be doing anyway: build more nuclear power plants (which, to your credit, you do advocate for); bring more people out of poverty; make our infrastructure more robust; take lessons from places like the Netherlands on how to deal with things like sea level rise. In short: instead of trying to dictate solutions from the top down, focus on giving people the tools they need to adapt to change, and then let them do it.

  196. Peter Donis Says:

    @ Mateus #190:

    I’m not the one saying climate activists should hole up in their homes and live on garden produce. *They* are. But they’re not doing it.

    Regarding “collective action”, what do you think of my suggestion of telework (and more generally, substituting interaction over the Internet for interaction in person wherever possible)? If we’re going to pester and annoy people, why not do it advocating something with obvious benefits in cost and time savings and convenience?

    Basically, you want to use the tools of politics (campaigning, getting out and annoying people) but without recognizing the most fundamental truth of politics: you have to give something to get something. If climate activists were willing to just sit down and *negotiate* with people who don’t share their activism, I think there are plenty of things they could come to agreement on that would both reduce CO2 emissions *and* give the other side something they want. But instead, activists want to pester and annoy people into doing something they want, but give nothing in return. With predictable results.

  197. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Karen Morenz #193: First of all, let’s be real about the impact in fuel prices. At $20 per ton, the carbon tax amounts to 5 cents per litre of petrol. That’s hardly going to make anybody’s life difficult, petrol prices usually fluctuate more than that. Secondly, a redistributive carbon tax would actually give more money to the poor than it takes from that, for the simple reason that rich people emit much more CO2. Think of somebody that doesn’t even own a car, it’s pure profit for them. Thirdly, if you do drive so much that this increase in petrol prices would make a difference for you, you’d be better off financially by switching to an EV anyway, as electricity is much cheaper than petrol (of course, EVs should be subsidized to help with the higher upfront cost).

    It is vital to include some compensation mechanism in the carbon tax, though, in order to not make it socially unfair. Otherwise you’d get so gilet jaunes on your ass, as Macron deservedly did.

  198. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Peter Donis #195: No, they are not saying that you should hole up in your home and live off garden produce. What a ridiculous notion. What they say is that we should listen to the scientists and start reducing emissions now, preferably via a carbon tax.

    Your teleinteraction suggestion doesn’t work with human beings. People need to interact in person.

    What you don’t understand is that this is not a “negotiation”, where climate activists make some sacrifice, and you make some sacrifice in return. No. You should wake up and realize that this is your problem and it is in your interest to do all you can to avoid RCP 8.5. What you’re doing is simply an ad hominem attack, focussing on the personal virtue of climate activists instead of addressing the matter at hand.

  199. Tired-of-semi-amusing-names Anon Says:

    As I’ve said, the links got swallowed for some reason. Maybe I should I call SO “soft-censoring”, now.

    IPCC source: Roberto Roson and Dominique van der
    Mensbrugghe, “Climate Change and Economic
    Growth: Impacts and Interactions,” International
    Journal of Sustainable Economy 4 (2012): 270–85.

    Appears in AR5, D. J. Arent et al., “Key Economic Sectors and Services, Supplementary Material,”
    in Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation,
    and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the
    Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental
    Panel on Climate Change.

    But I’m genuinely curious whether you’ve spent even a second actively steelmanning the opposition and reading the IPCC reports on the impact of carbon tax.

    It takes some creative interpretation to read “improvements in desalination, crop yields and dam construction” as “doing nothing”. I don’t know how many times do I have to shout that I’m all for action on climate change – we just disagree on the best course. If anything, I feel that trusting carbon tax to work in the required direction (defined as actually improving people’s lives, not as only reducing emissions) is more like doing nothing. But sure, go plant some trees and congratulate yourself while novel algae-based bio-reactors promise to be hundreds of times more efficient at CO2 absorption than trees – and don’t take decades to really kick in. Leaving polluted cities indeed…

    So no, I have not missed the main point. You want the tax mechanism to encourage industries (not everyone, right? Not governments, who in fact benefit from the tax not gradually going to zero. Also, importantly, not the vast majority of Earth’s population, that doesn’t have a personal high carbon footprint) to develop relevant innovations. But if goverment-directed research is a necessary component in any future breakthrough significant enough to matter, then you either want the economy to thrive or the tax *not returned to the people*, in fact.

    It’s sort of the same with all your other rethoric. How much of your beloved carbon tax would be enough to prevent how much sea level rise? “Building coastal defences at outrageous expense to save a couple of cities?” – ha! Hunt and Byers, 19, “Reducing sea level rise with submerged barriers and dams in Greenland” suggests dramatically efficient measures to prevent *global* sea level rise for 0.275B $ a year. I’ve said as much above – but of course you haven’t followed that up (to be fair, the link was broken. But it was easily googlable in seconds). (Also to be fair, they also want emissions reduced as a crucial component of the solution, but admit that there’s simply no time to wait for that to happen. Active adaptation and mitigation are called for.)

    Thus, your accusations are apallingly uncharitable. Believe it or not, I’m not in favor of letting Bangladesh drown (Florida, I could be talked into it…). But that is not the question, is it? Given the existing trends, I repeat – how much carbon tax would be enough to prevent how much sea level rise or inhabitable land loss? Depending on the answer, what might be the implications on world economy? On Bangladesh, in particular? UK going rid of coal is great, but is there any impact on third-world economies? I’d be surprised to find there wasn’t. Bangladesh, in particular, has been experiencing a soaring economic growth in recent decades due in a large part to its active trade with the Western world, and I’d be reluctant to hurt it without at least trying to measure effects up. Should I now yell that you want Bangladeshi children to starve?

    Similarly, do I want mass immigration to Canada and Siberia? No. But given the existing trends, I want to at least ask how might some of it happen naturally, due to market forces, and how might we encourage this to happen (e.g., via 3D house printing to assist fast construction in harsh conditions.). Or is finding the slightest positive aspect of the ongoing warming is against the rules?

    “All this for what? To let our cities stay polluted? To keep destroying our landscape as we mine coal? To keep rich despicable people such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Koch brother?” Gasp! You’re onto me! That’s my plan in a nutshell!.. Not at all playing any personal virtue games, are we…

  200. Same Old Anon Says:


    Sure incentives matter and economists are right. Like the incentives of governments to actively improve the situation in ways not purely aimed solely at reduction (mitigation, sequestration, exploitation of positive aspects) – non-existent under the carbon tax model. Or of individuals not creating any significant footprint. All of those are harmed by the economical and political backlash generated by heavy carbon taxes. And if anyone now tells me that the carbon taxes themselves are going to get used to fund basic research in these directions, I’m going to ask them to google “lump-sum rebates”. Either we’re playing the game where people are directly compensated for the ecological harm caused by others – but then the money is not channeled into constructive problem-solving, or we’re hoping for these funds to be advance relevant technologies, but then the public gets nothing back and we’re back to being skeptical about governments actually doing such channeling successfully. By the way, it is this particular point that I was being libertarian about in past posts – not the success of carbon taxes at reducing emissions as such.

    So perhaps we could find middle ground where we all agree that the situation is dire though not perfectly on just how dire it is, we all agree that emission reduction is important but hardly the only game in town, and that more attention should be paid for other avenues of action. But that all of the above is unlikely to be done well due to our stupidity as a species. Could we all get behind the above?

  201. Raziel Says:

    Scott 191

    Just put a price on carbon commensurate with the damage it’s doing—either through a steep carbon tax, or through a cap-and-trade system. Then let the market take care of the rest. The more you flew or drove or used air conditioning, the more you’d be subsidizing the solutions

    Hell being real does not imply it being bound to honor plenary indulgence certificates.

    People already pay for gas and electricity so in order to materially affect consumption the tax would need to be such that it will interfere with everyday functioning and reduce quality of life on a rather disruptive level (the French fuel price riots are a preview, and the French are pretty civilized) and unless accompanied by an aggressively regulated and redistributive economy it will disproportionately affect the already disadvantaged – these consequences are far more certain and more cognitively present than the dangers of climate change, the effectiveness of carbon offsetting or any other intended use for that money, everybody intuitively gets this and this makes it inherently political and adversarial.

    Now for the deeper thing. To my mind, the extreme popularity of the move you’re making—namely, shifting the focus from what needs to be done to save the planet, to the motives and personal virtue of those who are trying to save it—is the fundamental reason why the human species is most likely going to fail its biggest test. Indeed, if the same dynamics played themselves out across the universe, I’d find that one of the least surprising solutions imaginable to the Fermi paradox.

    Granted, scrutinizing motivations and incentives is just a more elaborate form of ad-hominem attacks, but ad-hominem attacks are only a fallacy when levelled against factual arguments that are evaluable independently of the people arguing them and fallacies themselves only matter within a framework of an intellectually honest discourse with a pre-specified scope, whenever something big enough is at stake this framework always goes out the window first. Climate-change agitators were never shy about bundling facts with politics and intersectional struggles, not to mention that the current wave is literally spearheaded by “Look at the frightened girl !” appeal-to-emotion rhetoric. Expecting this kind of dynamic not to emerge would be somewhere between factitious and naive.

    If we want to make progress here we should probably stop talking about lofty but distant subjects of our concerns as “the planet”, “future of humanity” etc. and openly treat it as another problem of economics, culture and by extension politics – until then let “What is the carbon footprint of manspreading ?” become the zen koan of our age.

  202. Scott Says:

    Peter Donis #195: I believe Greta travels by train in Europe—at least, when she’s not hitching rides on the wings of angels. 😀

    I do the vast majority of communication over the Internet, obviously, and also turn down the vast majority of travel requests, which unfortunately still leaves far too many of them. I’m trying to get better at saying “no.”

    But more importantly: you say you don’t need to pay attention to Greta, since even though she actually does everything anyone could reasonably ask to limit her personal emissions while still fulfilling her “duties” as the world figure that she’s become, it’s apparently still not enough. You also don’t need to pay attention to me, who admittedly does little in that direction, having always strongly believed in making this issue about simple economics rather than personal virtue competitions.

    So, the reasonable conclusion to draw is that absolutely no one, by your lights, has “standing” to talk to you about this issue on the merits. And therefore, ironically enough, those concerned about the issue need not pay further attention to you!

  203. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Anon #199: What you propose is literally what I said, doing nothing to combat climate change and trying to deal with the consequences.

    As for the costs of a carbon tax, I still don’t know what you’re talking about. I managed to find this paper and this supplemental material. Both deal solely with the costs of climate change, they don’t calculate the costs of a carbon tax or adapation. The paper paints a rather dramatic picture, with 4.6% loss of the global GDP, and 12.6% loss for the “Rest of East Asia” region, which includes Bangladesh.

    Now how the hell could any carbon tax hurt Bangladesh more than that? And are you seriously suggesting that they would be prefer to be slightly richer than to let their land be swallowed by the sea? Well, we don’t need to speculate, because we have seen time and time again the low-lying countries desperately pleading the rest of the world to become carbon neutral. Of course they’d rather clean up than drown.

    As for the barrier paper, what they are actually proposing is to surround Greenland with barriers to prevent warm sea water from making contact with the ice sheet, in order to slow down its melting. Hopefully we won’t need such desperate measures. Leaving aside their ridiculously optimistic cost prediction of $275 million per year, this doesn’t deal with the melting of the Antarctic ice sheets (I suppose you also want to surround the continent with barriers?), and can’t do anything about thermal expansion of the sea, which is forecast to make the sea level rise by 1.3 metres by 2100. Expensive coastal defence will be needed anyway, and a lot of land that can’t be defended will be lost anyway.

  204. fred Says:

    “not merely net zero emissions (i.e. offsetting their emissions by paying to plant trees and so forth)”

    Mateus #173:
    “The thing is, money can erase emissions. You can e.g. use it for planting trees, direct carbon capture, or preventing emissions by investing in renewable energy.”

    Reality check:

    Just to offset the *US* carbon footprint, you’d have to plant 40 million trees per day, every day (each american would have to plant 40 trees per year).

    The entire global warming effect is 1/1000 of the total solar energy reaching the earth, which seems small… But all the power consumed by humanity (power plants, cars, etc) is a mere 1/10 of that entire global warming effect. So, from an energy point of view, to counterbalance global warming (say, pump out the extra heat) humanity would at least need to expand 10 times the total energy its currently producing/wasting.

  205. Peter Donis Says:

    @Mateus #198:

    RCP 8.5 is a completely unrealistic scenario which is not going to happen. So I’m not worried about it. I’m far more worried about activists trying to dictatorially run society “for the greater good” than I am about climate change.

  206. Peter Donis Says:

    @Scott #202:

    the reasonable conclusion to draw is that absolutely no one, by your lights, has “standing” to talk to you about this issue on the merits

    No, the reasonable conclusion to draw is that you need to talk about the issue on the merits. Trumpeting apocalyptic claims that are not justified by the underlying science is not talking about the issue on the merits. The fact that nobody actually acts in the way they would act if they actually believed the apocalyptic claims (although I will concede that Greta Thunberg comes closer to doing that than anyone else I’ve seen in the public eye) just underscores that those claims are not realistic. So let’s stop talking about them and talk about what *is* realistic.

  207. Mateus Araújo Says:

    fred #204: Of course we’re not going to stop global warming by planting trees or pumping out heat. That’s ridiculous. We will stop global warming by stop emitting CO2, and taking some out of the atmosphere.

  208. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Peter Donis #206,207: I find it beautiful how you deny science on comment 206, and then accuse Scott of denying science on comment 207. RCP 8.5 is precisely what’s going to happen if we don’t get our shit together. It’s what the IPCC says.

  209. Living and Learning Anon Says:


    It really is partially my fault for not stating every number with its reference and just throwing the link at you – but the original link did not survive as I’ve said.
    Page 17, towards the end.

    “mitigation scenarios that reach atmospheric concentrations of about 450 ppm CO2eq by 2100 entail losses in global consumption—
    not including benefits of reduced climate change as well as co-benefits and adverse side-effects of mitigation—of 1% to
    4% (median: 1.7%) in 2030, 2% to 6% (median: 3.4%) in 2050, and 3% to 11% (median: 4.8%) in 2100”.

    So the median cost of the mitigation (which in this context does mean emission reduction) of moving from 4C to 2C by 2100 is estimated as 4.8%. There’s more to say about this as a median evaluation, but uncertainty is so high that we might as well take this number as offered. If you’re allowed to assume worse-than-median outcomes for your argument, I might take 11% as a worst-case estimated.

    As for Roson and van der Mensbrugghe – I now see that the AR5 table slightly updated the numbers (following, it seems, an updated 2012 paper by the authors).
    Page 4, last table row

    and the errata,
    Page 2, Ch. 10 supplementary material, 2)

    The impact for 2.9C warming by 2100 is estimated as 1.8% of world GDP.
    The impact for 5.4C(!) warming by 2100 is estimated as 4.6% of world GDP.
    Roson and van der Mensbrugghe(2012)

    (quite apart from anything else – 4.6% of the world GDP spread over a century is emphatically *not* the apocalypse depicted by some of the posts in this thread. Double it and it is terrible but nowhere near civilization-ending. Triple it and I’d still hesitate describing it as “a world of ash and death” as Scott more or less did once.)

    Now, 4.6%-1.8%=2.8%. 4.8%-2.8% is 2%. Hence my claim that about 2% of the world’s output would have to be forfeit just to bring the emissions to a level projected to result in 2.9C warming.
    My original claim used data comparing 4.9C and 2.3C warming, so this is not extremely precise (the cost is evaluated for 4 vs 2, not 5.4 vs 2.9) but as the gap in warming for the relative benefits from emission reduction is actually higher, I believe I’m the one being generous.

    I stand by my claim that the economic impact of carbon tax is enormous (what is there not to understand about it?!) and well-acknowledged by the community consensus. However, I did not look into the geographical distribution of the damage incurred before, and you seem to be right that East Asia does get it worst. Thank you for this.

    I do, therefore, acknowledge that these regions would be hit hardest (though the same is true, relatively speaking, for practically any level of warming that will occur). It’s not clear to me how to weigh this against the global benefit-cost analysis. It seems obvious that aid in mitigating the harm and CO2 sequestration (as opposed to just emission reduction) should be part of that equation, and financed by the extra 2% productivity.

    I still reject vehemently the description “doing nothing”. Some things I’ve mentioned are indeed “merely” ameliorating the damage. Is supplying some of the poorest countries with cheaper water from desalination “doing nothing”?.. Keep in mind that much of the harm will come to pass anyway. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to invest in these directions anyway? And what’s wrong with only partially dealing with melting glaciers – for a negligible cost?

    But others actively combat climate change by removing CO2 from the air (far better than the trees you’re hung up on… pardon the terrible pun) and yet others are about encouraging innovation that might reduce emissions in ways that the carbon tax does not stimulate at all. If you’re accusing me of proposing to do nothing about change and everything about consequences, I accuse you of favoring doing nothing about consequences (many of which are inevitable), giving no weight to non-climate change-related disasters, and doing only one thing out of many to combat climate change change.

  210. IPCC-Reading Anon Says:


    “RCP 8.5 is precisely what’s going to happen if we don’t get our shit together. It’s what the IPCC says.” – Not even remotely true, but a common mis-representation. See for the official definitions.

    “The RCP8.5, in contrast, is a highly energy-intensive scenario as a result of high population growth and a lower rate of technology development.”

    That is, RCP 8.5 assumes a number of worst-case scenarios quite apart from the emission levels.

    1) Population growth – 12 billion people by 2100. As an example, Nigeria is forecast to have 1.5B people.
    2) Very low rate of technology growth – that’s not “business as usual”. That’s “innovation stalled across the board”. In particular, it assumes return to coal as the major source of energy.
    3) Stagnation in energy efficiency increases. Basically, you have 19-th century people living on coal with unrealistic growth rates – who have also ceased all research into making anything more efficient.

    Do you stand by your description of RCP 8.5?

  211. Scott Says:

    IPCC-Reading Anon #210: Everything you just described sounds depressingly plausible to me.

  212. Not-Insanely-Depressed Anon Says:


    Except that the UN projection is 11.2 B for 2100, the relevant levels of coal consumption are practically impossible under peak coal projections (in particular, China is expected to begin reducing its coal consumption by 2035), and beyond all that – science suddenly stagnating is not “some people don’t cooperate on emissions”. It’s a world where something else, a major catastrophe, has driven us back in history and society. Yes yes, entirely within your world-view, but then that unknown factor overshadows climate change. Maybe it’s a global pandemic. Or a nuclear war. Or global civilizational collapse. All of which somehow don’t stop global growth.

    For reference: google “GDP per unit of energy use” for the world bank on GDP per energy unit (as usual, there’s link trouble…). This is essentially a linearly increasing function. The trends has been holding for the last few decades, globally as well as in China. You assume that at some point in the next few decades, the graph will experience a radical reversal. It’s not literally impossible. It is certainly not “business as usual”.

  213. Veedrac Says:

    Scott #30: Can I imagine 2300 under the status quo?—what a question. I find your perspective on this refreshingly interesting, but equally baffling.

    2300 is as remote to us as we are to 1740. Why, the 1740s brought us the world’s first animal and water powered cotton mills. Perhaps, by 2020, maybe these machines could have quartered the price of clothing?

    I understand the world can look static on this issue over the past three decades, but it won’t look static in three centuries. If we somehow haven’t killed ourselves with nukes, AI, biotech, or whatever other dumb tail risks we make for ourselves in the meantime, the climate isn’t going to be some technologically impossible challenge, and climate denial clearly need not be.

    Remember that the average person today has had no clear negative repercussions from climate denial. Everything changed when the fire nation attacked.

  214. Gabriel Says:

    Mateus Araújo #172:

    Even if the developed world managed to reduce emissions as in the agreements, that would barely make a dent in the total *world* emissions. That is because developing countries with huge populations, such as Brasil and India, are expected to steeply increase their carbon emissions in the coming decades. (And nobody is cruel enough to tell those countries not to increase emissions, because living conditions over there are already bad enough, and fossil fuels will de indispensable for raising the living standards.)

    Therefore, the emphasis should not be on making fossil fuels more expensive, but on making alternative forms of energy cheaper, via R&D. That’s the only way Brasil, India, Africa, etc will adopt cleaner forms of energy.

    No, solar & wind is currently not cheap, as you say. If they were cheap, the free market would have lead to them being adopted already. But in fact, the only reason they are being used at all is because governments are heavily *subsidizing* them. In fact, the International Energy Agency estimates that by 2040 – after we have spent a whopping $3.5 trillion on solar & wind subsidies – solar and wind will still meet less than 5% of our needs. (Source: Bjorn Lomborg, of course.)

    The main problems with solar and wind are that they are unreliable (there is no sun or wind all the time), they are very dilute (requiring huge areas for plants) and that the power plants must be placed far away from urban areas (so a lot of energy is wasted in conducting the electricity).

    > Coastal defence for New York city alone should cost $1 billion.
    > Now multiply that by the number of low-lying cities that will need coastal defence.

    Now compare that to the $400 billion dollars the US spends on infrastructure anyways *every year*. I agree that the problem is not insignificant. But how serious is it, on a scale from 1 to 10? I would say 3 or 4.

    I will address Lomborg in another comment (sorry, busy with other things…)

  215. chorasimilarity Says:

    Arvind Krishna, mentioned in this post, in the news:

  216. Google AI Quantum vence la carrera hacia la supremacía cuántica con Sycamore (53 cúbits) - La Ciencia de la Mula Francis Says:

    […] para sus clientes. Nos lo contó en su post “From shtetl to Forum,” Shtetl-Optimized, Thursday January 23, 2020. […]

  217. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Fair enough, thanks for the links. Let’s take a 2% loss in global GDP as the cost of the carbon tax then. It sounds like a great deal. For a mere 2% cost we get rid of air pollution, stop giving money to the oil producers, save a lot of coastal areas, and stop playing Russian roulette with the permafrost and the Antarctic ice sheets.

    Note that using the change in global GDP to asses the damage of global warming is not a good tool, though, as it balances regions which will get slight benefits (Russia +2.4%, Europe +1.2%), with regions that will face complete catastrophe (Rest of East Asia -12.6%, Middle East and North Africa -10.3%, Sub-Saharan Africa -8.1%). Even in regions where the impact in the GDP is minimal (United States -0.9%), this is due to gains in productivity in the current cold areas being counterbalanced by losses in the current hot areas. You’re just sacrificing one part of the country to benefit another. Note also that Roson and van der Mensbrugghe do not model the impact of extreme weather events such as the Australian fires and the hurricanes in the US. As they note: “More difficult to deal with (the “unknown unknowns”) are catastrophic or higher frequencies of extreme events. These in the end could lead to discontinuous changes and much higher costs.”

    As for trying to deal with the consequences of climate change, yes, that is doing nothing to combat climate change itself. That means dealing with the root cause, high CO2 concentrations and high temperatures. Sequestering carbon from the air is obviously dealing with the root cause, and will have to be done in any case (and no, just planting trees won’t be enough, there just isn’t enough land to plant the gigantic amount of trees needed. I just gave it as one example of how money can eliminate emissions).

    I don’t focus on dealing with the consequences because that will be done anyway. It’s hard to deny the need of emergency relief. What is being denied (quite successfully I might say) is the necessity and possibility of dealing with the root causes.

  218. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Anon #210: Of course I stand by what I said. In the business-as-usual case there’s hardly any incentive for developing technology for renewable energy and increased efficiency. Remember, no carbon tax. The development of technology is done simply as the market demands, and this is what RCP 8.5 assumes.

    RCP 8.5 doesn’t assume a “return to coal”, rather it assumes that coal will keep getting used as it is today. Perhaps that sounds pessimistic, but this is precisely what Trump and Morrison are trying to do.

    As for the population increase, it is on the high side of the UN estimates, but it’s not unrealistic. Even more so if the Christian fundamentalists succeed in their quest for limiting reproductive rights around the world.

  219. Karen Morenz Says:

    Mateus Araújo #198: What? I think you’ve entirely missed the point, or maybe never been to or thought about one of these communities. If someone increased your largest expense by 5% and you were living paycheck to paycheck, how well do you think that would go for you? Moreover, electric cars are not an option up here because there are no charging stations. Most of the roads don’t even have cell service. They aren’t about to get charging stations. Plus, you can’t (yet) buy a used electric car. People up here are still driving cars from the 70s, 80s, 90s. Things that they know how to fix themselves. Plus, I hear that electric car batteries are a problem with very cold temperatures, but I don’t know much about that. I think you’re not actually addressing the reality of the problem for these people.

    “Secondly, a redistributive carbon tax would actually give more money to the poor than it takes from that, for the simple reason that rich people emit much more CO2.”

    This is only true in the cities. Out here, everyone drives 2 hours for groceries, rich or poor. And the rich are few and far between. And the cost of those groceries is inflated by the transportation costs i.e. cost of gas. Not owning a car is not an option.

  220. fred Says:

    Personally I can’t wait for VR to get good enough to make work commute and most of air travel a thing of the past.

  221. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Gabriel #214:

    Your comment is based on three key misconceptions:

    1 – “Even if the developed world managed to reduce emissions as in the agreements, that would barely make a dent in the total *world* emissions. That is because developing countries with huge populations, such as Brasil and India, are expected to steeply increase their carbon emissions in the coming decades.” Nonsense. Ever heard of the Paris Agreement? If the countries honour their pledges (and the only country reneging on their pledge is the US) total world emissions will peak in the next few years. Brasil and China have pledged to peak their emissions by 2030. India made indeed no such pledge, but its emissions are dwarfed by those of developed countries.

    2 – “Fossil fuels will de indispensable for raising the living standards”. Nonsense. Saudi Arabia’s wealth depends fossil fuels, but there’s no need to destroy the environment to become rich.

    3 – “No, solar & wind is currently not cheap, as you say. If they were cheap, the free market would have lead to them being adopted already.” Your faith in the free market is touching. Read up on the Spanish sun tax for a particularly egregious example of how the playing field is not level. The truth is, fossil fuels receive much more subsidies than renewable energy, to the tune of hundreds of billions per year. Solar is dirt cheap, cheaper than coal in sunny countries such as Chile, or the developing countries near the equator you mean.

    And don’t waste your time quoting Lomborg. I don’t give a frozen cat’s piss about this dishonest prick says.

  222. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Karen Morenz #219: Perhaps you misread my comment? I’m saying that a carbon tax must be redistributive so that the poor are not worse off. And I have seen poverty, probably much more than you. I grew up in Brazil. I visited Morocco, I visited Palestine. I find it shocking that you can’t conceive that someone might be too poor to own a car.

    And rich people always emit more CO2. From flying alone, also from using more electricity, owning several cars and driving them around.

  223. asdf Says:

    If you don’t make it to Davos next year, maybe you can come to the Fibonacci conference instead. It will be as big as the last two put together. (From proof wiki. I actually hadn’t heard that one before).

  224. gentzen Says:

    Rainer #163: I noticed that one of the authors of Single-Shot Decoding of Linear Rate LDPC Quantum Codes with High Performance (which investigates whether “parallelizable decoding schemes of low computational complexity suffice to obtain high performance”) worked for PsiQuantum from Apr. 17 to Sep. 18. Initially I thought it was a good sign that an ex-employee focused on potential real world showstoppers, but a mixed sign that he stayed only 1.5 years. However, there is a harmless explanation: “Upon completion my PhD in 2017, I was awarded the UCLQ Postdoctoral Fellowship in Quantum Technologies. I deferred the Fellowship for a year to work full-time for PsiQ, a Silicon Valley based start-up building a general-purpose silicon photonic quantum computer.”

    This probably still does not answer your question:

    maybe off-topic regarding the evolution of this thread.
    But what exactly is the company “Psiquantum” doing?
    The website is not very informative.

    A better answer seems to be provided in Stealth Quantum Computer Startup Raises $230 Million, Possibly Largest QC Investment to Date:

    PsiQuantum is using a silicon-based photonic approach to manufacture a universal quantum computer in a CMOS silicon fab. O’Brien has spent 20 years working towards scalable QC. According to a recent presentation, the company believes that their approach offers numerous advantages, including, low noise, low temperature operation and no atomic-scale fabrication, among other advantages. Also, because the current computer industry is already based on silicon, this silicon-based method is eminently more manufacturable compared to other methods.

    Before I found the material above, I had asked my local silicon photonics expert on his opinion about addressing the challenges of photonic quantum computing by silicon photonics. But maybe publicly accessible sources are preferable over private opinions. And Jeremy O’Brien really seems to be serious about building a real million qubit quantum computer, instead of just using the money to disrupt existing markets for photonics.

  225. Karen Morenz Says:

    @Mateus #222: I think we’re talking about different things. I’m talking specifically about Canada’s existing carbon tax, and I’m talking specifically about the people who live in remote northern communities who can’t not drive in order to sustain their lives. I asked some questions specifically related to that, about how we manage the carbon tax. This is obviously different than poor people in densely populated areas, and it appears you’re willfully ignoring that. (and yes, poor in Canada is rich compared to poor in many parts of the world…)

  226. Gabriel Says:

    Scott: “[Davos] is a vehicle for the world’s super-mega-elite to preen about their own virtue and thereby absolve themselves of their sins.”

    That’s a ridiculous argument. The world’s super-elite have heavy responsibilities on their shoulders, and their decisions one way or the other will affect millions of people. Of course they need to get together somehow in order to discuss things. The disagreement is of course on what the right decisions are.

    Mateus #221:

    “Fossil fuels will de indispensable for raising the living standards”: In developed economies there is industry and commerce and transportation, all of which use energy to run. If you force everyone to use more-expensive energy, then everyone will have less money to buy stuff from other people, and the economy will slow down. Many businesses will be forced to close, and many people will be unable to find jobs. That’s why cheap energy is important.

    Many third-world countries will undergo developmet in the coming decades, but they will need cheap energy in order to be able to do that, and thus raise everyone’s standard of living.

    (Of course the environment is also important. But the first thing we need to do is *acknowledge* that every decision has pros and cons. Then we need to weigh them against each other.)

    “Read up on the Spanish sun tax…” I don’t understand what your point is. The Spanish are doing even sillier things, like building a super-expensive nationwide high-speed railroad that nobody uses. Financial crisis will come sooner or later.

    “fossil fuels receive much more subsidies than renewable energy”. Hmmm… You have a point. But note that the subsidy *per unit of energy* of solar&wind is many times higher than for fossil fuels.

    Regarding your point 1 I will check and get back to you (one day…)

    “cat’s piss about this dishonest prick says”. Insults and ad-hominems won’t help here, sorry.

  227. Jay Says:

    @Karen Morenz: these northern communities *who can’t not drive*… they are much richer than most indigenous canadians, who can’t drive because they *are* poor. You’re right the former will loose from a carbon tax, but you forgot to mention that the latters will gain much more.

    PS: I found your post about STEM and gender very interesting, and I think it perfectly described the situation my wife and I faced in academia. But this is actually a problem for your thesis (we’re not in STEM).

  228. Zalman Stern Says:

    Is there a reasonable way to get a business card done that illustrates a QM experiment of interest? A double slit business card seems possible… (As in a card with the slits cut and text on how to use it.)

  229. Karen Morenz Says:

    @Jay #227: When I was in Waskaganish, where the stop signs say stop in English, French, and Cree (I guess you need all 3, in case the red hexagon is not sufficiently clear), every house had a car. Not every person, of course. And in that town, you could just walk to groceries and home, if you had a job you could also walk to (maybe grocery store clerk?). But most people worked in things like fishing, logging, and hydroelectric (Quebec is building dams up there) which you need to travel for. I guess they might be relatively rich for a native community, since they have the HydroQuebec jobs coming in. However, I think they would still be severely impacted by the carbon tax, because their groceries (and other essential goods) are already obscenely expensive, even by my Torontonian standards, due to having to be transported hundreds of kilometres (Waskaganish is a 24 hour drive from Toronto (and as a Torontonian, I know for a fact that this is the centre of the universe)).

    But you’re right, I was more worried about the not-necessarily-native people working in remote mining communities, because that’s where I was when I wrote that comment. I’m not sure about the relative poverty of these two groups. From what I can see, it seems pretty similar, but what do I know? And Waskaganish is not necessarily representative of the average native community.

    Re: my article – a very valid criticism is that I’ve conflated/confused STEM and academia. That was messily done on my part. Although I do have one graph about non-STEM academia.

  230. Marnie Dunsmore Says:

    @Karen Morenz #229

    Many Indigenous Canadians do not own a car. Even in Southern Alberta on the Kainai reserve, for example, there are Kainai Blackfoot who do not own a car because they cannot afford one.

    “Abhorrent” living conditions for Indigenous Canadians have been highlighted repeatedly over the last twenty years by the United Nations, and as recently as the fall of 2019:

    “they are extremely vulnerable to forced evictions, land-grabbing and the effects of climate change.”

    “The report also highlights poor water systems on many Canadian reserves.”

    Indigenous Canadians in Quebec do not in generally benefit from the activities of Hydro Quebec. Instead, their land has been unlawfully expropriated by Hydro Quebec, depriving them of their traditional means of earning a living, and forcing them onto a tiny reserve. You can read about that here in this article:

    These facts are quite well known for anyone interested in the rights of Indigenous People in Canada. Yet, you seem to be entirely ignorant of these realities.

    Regarding Justin Trudeau’s newly announced carbon credits, it seems quite irrelevant. He has just announced the Teck tar sands mine which will pour carbon into the atmosphere for the next fifty years. This mine would be the biggest tar sands mine ever and would be located just 16 miles from the border of Wood Buffalo national park (a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the largest untouched fresh water deltas in the world.)

  231. Marnie Dunsmore Says:

    “Here’s how Justin Trudeau, recently re-elected as Canada’s prime minister, put it in a speech to cheering Texas oilmen a couple of years ago: “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there.” That is to say, Canada, which is 0.5% of the planet’s population, plans to use up nearly a third of the planet’s remaining carbon budget. Ottawa hides all this behind a series of pledges about “net-zero emissions by 2050” and so on, but they are empty promises. In the here-and-now they can’t rein themselves in. There’s oil in the ground and it must come out.”

  232. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Gabriel #214.

    The claim about 5% of energy being solar or wind on 2040 seems to be one that is obviously going to be wrong given the data here

  233. funwiththoughts Says:

    >Having now listened to Greta’s remarks, I confess that I disagree with the content of what she says. She explicitly advocates a sort of purity-based carbon absolutism—demanding that companies and governments immediately implement, not merely net zero emissions (i.e. offsetting their emissions by paying to plant trees and so forth), but zero emissions period. Since she can’t possibly mean literally zero, I’ll interpret her to mean close to zero. Even so, it seems to me that the resulting economic upheavals would provoke a massive backlash against whoever tried to enforce such a policy.

    ISTM that she most likely either assumed everyone in the audience understood the issue well enough to infer that she was talking about net emissions, or just forgot a word.

    >Greta also dismisses the idea of technological solutions to climate change, saying that we don’t have time to invent such solutions.

    That’s a pretty uncharitable interpretation. Her only comment relating to this was to say that “most models, however, assume that future generations will, however, somehow be able to suck hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 out of the air with technologies that do not exist today in the scale required – and perhaps never will.” I don’t read that as implying technological solutions are useless or not worth working on, just that we should not assume their feasibility beyond what we can actually demonstrate.

  234. funwiththoughts Says:

    Ahhh, I see she made two speeches at Davos 2020 and I had seen the other one. Ignore my previous comment.

  235. Christopher Blanchard Says:

    Well yes. Your take on Davos is interesting, and I do appreciate people who try to make sense of how and why the others think the way they do. Not – obviously, when they are totally wrong, but the value or not of Davos is not so easy. Thanks.

  236. Christopher Blanchard Says:

    Excuse me. This is long winded – I blame brandy and coffee.

    It is a very interesting blog talk. Quantum computing doesn’t get as much air time – I guess because us lurkers don’t know enough to comment effectively, however, in territory I half understand a couple of points:

    First with nuclear power, which I am basically in favour of (and my fellow Green Party members can be horrified). Neither pro nor anti nuclear really take a cold hard look at the price. I don’t mean money. Using nuclear means two things: first is that every few years we will have a failure, so that a little bit of the world, like Chernobyl or Fukushima, will be poisoned and either made uninhabitable, or with the poison spread about and made temporarily invisible, but still there; and second that there will be weapons proliferation – and I’m gloomily inclined to think somebody’s nuclear war is inevitable, with more land poisoned and a lot of people killed. My take on this is that the horrible damage this will inevitably cause is a lot less than the harm we get from (especially) coal, and from oil and gas, so that a cold, hard look says we should plan for these evil consequences. I do think, with the political party I belong to, that drastic emission cuts, hard carbon pricing, all kinds of renewables, and sensible techno-fixes, might mean we don’t have to face a choice of poisonings, but I am not that optimistic, and we have a better chance anyway, if we plan for the bad.

    Second. The big hole in the IPCC projections isn’t anything to do with climate science. I try to read about their models but I am well out of my depth, so I trust an argumentative consensus (as with your core material). However, they use population projections – 11 billion people, 13 bn, 15 bn, 18 bn; and I am a crabbitt (Glasgow dialect) old malthusian. I don’t believe this is sustainable, and they don’t, can’t, factor in the effects of real crashes. For example, the ruin of the Brahmaputra and Indus lowlands (not to mention similar stuff elsewhere) will displace a billion people or so (including indirect but immediate) and that means war – maybe big, maybe hundreds of small, with lots of killings, and I haven’t seen CO2 projections which take account of mass war zones – as in fewer oil refineries, but every bit of forest burnt down, and so, complicated, on.
    [I should say, sort of by mitigation, that I prefer the later Malthus (sixth edition of the famous essay), where he wrote about social controls on population growth – he used the Switzerland of his time as his big example, with late marriage, only for well “established” and “settled” people, with harsh censure for what his age called the sexually incontinent. He saw, even the great pessimist he was, that population growth could be stopped.]

    Third. Civilisation doesn’t have to end, and that doesn’t mean human extinction, but reasonable (or me-pessimistic) projections mean there will be a lot less of it, and us. This isn’t asymptotics – sorry Scott, we don’t have flow models. Civilizations have collapsed and, so far as it goes, we are into catastrophe theory – and, all right, you can invent some kind of weird integral, but things happen fast. Sistan (all those qanats), Balluchistan, part of Anatollia, those Mississippi citadel builders, Maya (maybe) – never mind repeated Chinese collapses, and the millennial effects of goats on Greece – interesting studies (and I don’t have a link), show a rough cycle from productive mountain, to goat farming, to effective sterility, then some hundreds of years of fallow, and back to productivity. And incidentally, wasn’t the Great China Canal the worst human made ecological disaster before modern times. Civilizations do collapse. And it ain’t on a modelable slope.

    Fourth. I am now sixty-four years old, and in reply to people who suggest Greta Thunberg is stuck in youthful over-certainty – I knew about the possibility of global warming back in 1972, when I was her age.

    And Oh! the economics. A big tax cut injection into the US economy will boost all kinds of growth figures, and will spread out to the rest of us, how could it not, but unless you have a really stupid present/future discount rate in your head, it is a screw-up. And, by the way, everything, carbon taxes, the lot, will cost. So get a sensible discount rate.

    And Oh! the numbers. GDP this and that. How the the hell do we go when many people don’t even understand the difference between GDP and GNP. What economists (and I once got trained that way): what they do is devise data capture schemes and model projections from their results. They are very good at it, but anybody with an ounce of statistical sophistication will know, perfectly well, that if you invent the data capture schemes, most obviously in a regime which favours tobacco and oil wells, then you will get perverse results. That isn’t to say these statistical models are no good. That would be silly, but what economists do is much more extreme. They (not everybody, happily) claim they understand human nature well enough that their data series explains what is happening. Horrible example is the US Cowes Commission, 1949, which was brilliant, despite everything, but did include a bit of input from John von Newman, who had horribly weird ideas about economic behaviour (good with linear formalisms, but horrible with people).

    Thought I should answer Ted as well. We don’t have very long run temperature changes, as he says, but the end of the Younger Dryas (11600 years ago, or so) gave us a world temperature change of about 5C in at most 500, and possibly as little as 100 years, and all humanity’s civilisation, agriculture – everything except Jomon pots, so far as I know, all stems from that – so can you predict what will happen with a comparable big change, now? Pleistocene and later climate models don’t resolve it – we know it happened, but that is it. We might get a convoluted auto-correlation (ice collapse in Canada, warming elsewhere, more movement) but the effects on civilisation ain’t so easy. Simply – 2 degree changes do happen inside centuries – the c.5200 BP changes are about 2C – less drastic than either the start or finish of the Younger Dryas, but real. The holocene, to answer his question, is stable, but them things are all relative. Scuse me, Neilsen answered some of this, but I hadn’t read that far.

    Fermi paradox, There are beautiful books by Dorris Lessing where she describes (amongst other stuff) worlds where, in our example, there are about a million people living on earth, and an interstellar normality in which nobody, or no people, can get away with worse ecological loads. And that’s why nobody communicates very far.

    And incidentally. I am a crusty old left-winger, so redistributive arguments appeal to me, but I would happily prefer a Davos world government, if the realistic alternative was Den Haag and Venice lost under the floods. I don’t mean, just to be clear, a Putin/Trump power grab. Rich and rational people would be better than just ruin.

  237. A. Karhukainen Says:

    People always forget that there are other options for lessening the human impact:

    Also, considering Huaynaputina eruption, I would keep eye on Phlegraean Fields (aka Campi Flegrei), and other beasts. Although I don’t expect that they would save us from our folly, no.

    As what comes to some comments above, I want to remind you that people who are gardening in their plots, do not necessarily try to boast their activism or virtue with it. Maybe they just want to learn a valuable skill for the time when the going gets tough. Also, there are preppers…

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