How to fix climate crisis for real idiots

Patrick Wieth
16 min readFeb 12, 2020

Whenever you face a problem and want to solve it, there is a hierarchy that should be considered. Especially if you are a real idiot and we are all real idiots once we deeply acknowledge our limits. So here we go:

  1. physical realm
  2. epistemic sphere
  3. technological reach
  4. ressources limit
  5. time-frame
  6. economic feasibility
  7. sociology
  8. psychology

That’s a lot, but we break it down and then it becomes easy. The first is the physical realm and fixing a problem on the physical realm is not possible. We must accept that. The ultimate example is time travel. People want to travel through time, it is possible but only forward. We do it all the time, but travelling backwards is not possible. Whoever works on finding a way to travel backwards is wasting their time, because causality. The next thing is whatever we can understand. It might be that we don’t understand causality and time travel. In essence we don’t understand how our world really works and time travel is actually possible. However it might be just so far out of our understanding that we just think it is not possible. So if our understanding of reality is correct and there is causality, there can’t be time travelling to the past. If we don’t understand enough of our reality to have a meaningful concept of time travel, then the problem is on the “epistemic sphere”. If it is just impossible in our reality, then the problem is on the “physical realm”.

Either it was colder in the past or our grandparents are exaggerating a bit.

For example some bacteria or viruses enter a host and there are plenty ressources, they populate and grow exponentially and at some point there is not enough food left and the daily stream of new food raining or flowing into the host is also not enough and unfortunately all bacteria have to die. If they knew this from the beginning, maybe they could reproduce less and not die because of their inability to live a sustainable life, but well they are the real idiots here. For us humans there must be problems like this, because our understanding of the world is limited. Some people claim that climate change is too complex and CO2 is not the root source of increasing temperature, they argue that the problem is limited by our ability to understand. However there are about 10k scientists who say otherwise. In addition the greenhouse effect is not totally incomprehensible. So happily we can go downwards in this hierarchy and this is very good news. Because the lower a problem is, the easier it can be fixed or it can be fixed at all.

Number 3 is “technological reach” and it is just what we can do with our technology. We know that fusion power plants are possible to build. But our technology is not there yet. Thus we don’t know exactly how such a power plant will look like and it might be that we also face a “ressources limit”. A ressources limit mainly means that with all ressources within grasp for humans it is not possible to solve the problem. If it turns out that all material on earth is not enough to build a fusion reactor, than it would be on this level. Or if you want to build a second moon that completely consists out of diamonds, well then there are not enough diamonds around to do that. Forging all these diamonds from carbon might be possible, but the time-frame of that is extremely long. “Time-frame” is the next point and these three points belong together. In many cases the ressources we have today might not be enough but the ressources in 1000 years are sufficient for solving a problem. Often it is also a matter of technological reach if it is possible to harvest these ressources. And the technological reach is a matter of the time frame. If you wait long enough there might be a technology that solves the problem, however it might be far out of our scope. So these 3 realms belong together and given enough time it might be able to solve to problem, but within our lifetime there is no way. And again the good news is, that fixing climate change is not in these 3 realms. We have wind power, we have solar power, we have nuclear power, all three are mostly carbon neutral, are available today and we can build these in a reasonable time frame.

If you think the meme game in this article is getting absurd, be assured it has only yet begun.

The final 3 levels are again connected. Some things are possible but do not make economic sense. Some things make economic sense, but cannot be done, because of politics, contracts and social restraints. For example building things like the three gorges dam. It makes sense to build hydro power economically, but not in all societies it is possible to force people out of the valley where the water will be. It might also be that such a project is no longer economically feasible if the compensation is fair. This is why these things are interconnected in the same way the previous three levels were interconnected. So these 8 levels can be divided in 3 meta-levels, a) really not solvable b) not solvable at the current state of the art and c) solution blocked because of social and individual constraints.

So for climate change we arrive at category c), which is very good, because here we are within the reach of our current society. We don’t know how expensive the damage will be, if we don’t act. But some fundamental thing has changed in the last couple of years.

This chart shows how expensive it is to produce electricity with newly build power plants. It factors in inflation and capital cost and does not have subsidies included. Numbers are for the United States. But it is very much the same for other countries like UK, Germany or Japan.

The above chart shows that the old paradigm, where solar and wind are just too expensive to be competitive has ended. 10 years ago, wind was about double the price of the best alternatives and solar was 8 times more expensive. Today wind and solar are competitive and don’t depend on fossil fuel prices. In essence only the most advanced gas turbines can compete with these renewables, coal and nuclear are more expensive. Of course there is the problem of storing energy of renewables, since fluctuations are a problem, but it is nothing that will stop this general trend. Especially solar is still getting cheaper and the price of batteries for storing energy is getting cheaper a lot over time. But how can this be? Isn’t the media full of people saying this stuff is too expensive? Sure, there are people whose main motive is not aligned to the best outcome for the whole society. Sometimes something is very good for an individual but not good for the whole society. If you own a lot of stock in coal and the coal power plants are already built, then this type of energy might be the best in your opinion. There might be a reason why some people think that clean coal is the best, but it is no longer the most efficient source of energy, even if you neglect carbon emissions. Also the price for producing electricity from coal in the chart above is without sequestration, so if you want to speak of clean coal, you end up with an even higher price. Sequestration means putting the emitted carbon dioxide back into the earth.

So all of this means it is economically the best to build solar and wind? Well, it is not that easy. The chart shows the price of energy from newly build power sources. The cheapest is to just go with whatever is currently deployed. Especially the renewables have almost all of their cost upfront and are very cheap to run. This means the price per MWh above is calculated over the lifecycle of a power source, but the already deployed sources don’t have any cost for building them, because they are already there. Furthermore if you build solar and wind today, you don’t profit from the increase of efficiency in the future and even worse compete with the solar and wind that is build in the future for a cheaper price. Wait, this sounds like it never makes sense to build new technology, because this will always be the case? No, some special circumstances are necessary for this. Take the silicon chips for example, every 1.5 years the computing power doubles for roughly the same price. Great. So in 1.5 years whatever silicon chips you develop today will be outdated, still it makes sense to run this business, because you need much less than 1.5 years to sell enough chips to make a profit. If you deploy power plants it usually takes more than 10 years to break even. Since solar cells also depend on silicon technology, the tech advances before these 10 years are over. It’s not as crazy as for computer chips, but still it is fast. And finally photovoltaics (the actual right term) is just on a par with the rest regarding its efficiency. So it is not like you totally outcompete the old plants with new ones, as it is the case with new computer chips. These circumstances lead to a market, where it is risky to heavily invest in this technology. Furthermore there is the fluctuation of these types of energy. The more we build, the more we need to buffer it’s fluctuations, which increases the cost. For countries with low percentage of renewables this can be buffered away in the existing supply network, but this ceases once renewables are deployed on a big scale.

This is a very classic meme. More Ice than ever is just a wrong statement. NASA gives the data and it shows that there is surely not more ice than ever but rather the least ice ever (except for pre-historic times). Al Gore’s prediction might be wrong, but he was not referring to all ice caps but rather the antarctic sea ice caps in summer, which were also at the lowest. For the discussion it doesn’t really matter if Al Gore was making a perfect prediction or it is wrong, because the proof for global warming still holds. A lot of Greta Thunberg statements will turn out wrong in the future, too. This is like Bill Gates statement, that 640 KB of memory will always be enough. This statement might be wrong, still the general direction he headed to was very fine. And analogous to the citation of Al Gore, Bill Gates did not say exactly that. It is falsely attributed, he said that 640 KB might last for the next 10 years, which was also wrong. It is alluring to just overthrow a complete hypothesis, just because one follower of it states one thing that is not 100% accurate.

Summed up this means the energy source for carbon neutrality is no longer economically nonsense, but it not yet a no-brainer. At this point we can see, that there are real problems for solving the climate change problem on the economic level. In contrast to all above levels, we have arrived at a level, where serious problems do exist and must be solved. Fun fact: We already know the solution and this is carbon credits or more descriptive, tradeable certificates for carbon dioxide emissions. The concept is very easy, there is a fixed amount of credits, which are defined by the amount of carbon that should be emitted as decided by the governments of the world. If you emit carbon dioxide you have to buy these credits and the profit from the sale is used to subsidize projects and technology that reduces carbon emissions. So on the one hand it limits the carbon that is emitted, because certificates become more expensive, when there are more emissions, hence more buyers. On the other hand it subsidizes solutions to the problem. You as an individual don’t have to do anything, the companies that produce the gas for your car or the propane for your BBQ already buy the certificates and nicely increase the price of their products for you. It is the best solution, because it does not force a specific solution, which might not be ideal, it just turns the external cost of carbon emissions into internal costs, which are then calculated by the individuals making decisions. Therefore the best solution will be found by swarm intelligence (the market) and not by “clever” leaders. This is always the better approach and the reason why the Soviet Union does not exist anymore. Because in the end even the greatest leader is just a real idiot.

Why does this make a big difference? Because it changes carbon neutral energy sources from being on par with conventional sources to being superior. Which carbon neutral energy source and at which site does not matter. If Russia prefers nuclear power over solar energy, that’s fine. If Saudi-Arabia prefers solar over nuclear it is fine as well. These are good examples, where one thing makes more sense than the other, because environmental differences are big (more sun in the desert than in Murmansk). Once the carbon neutral sources are superior, investing in them makes economic sense. The thing we need for that are carbon credits, certificates that give a price to carbon dioxide emissions. So perfect, the problem is solved? Well, this solution must be deployed world-wide. And guess what, many big players are just saying “well it doesn’t help if we decrease carbon emissions, because China!”. The US being the worst player in this regard. So many others are thinking, well it is not really necessary to do anything as long as the US is not joining the program. Enter the Tragedy of the Commons.

The tragedy of the commons is basically the reason why in shared flats the dishes are never done. When you live in a shared flat and you have just finished your meal, well, then you can wash all the dishes flooding the sink or just put your single plate on top of the pile of undone work. “A single plate does not make a difference” this is the basic thinking. Furthermore “the others are flooding the sink for much longer”, “you have eaten outside the last days”, so it is not your responsibility. These rationalizations are the core ingredients for a race to the bottom. Maybe some members of the flat clean the dishes but at some point in time they realize that they always do the work and stop doing it, because they don’t want to be the only idiots doing it. Then the race to the bottom fully unfolds and close to the bottom people will start arguing that “the dirty dishes are not really a problem” and “if you want to eat you always find something to put your stuff on” and essentially “the dishes are not done that rarely, remember like this event 3 weeks ago, the dishes were done”. “It is just some flat mates are just too hysterical”. At this point deploying a solution is quite hard and this is a key problem in climate crisis discussion. Some folks still argue if climate change is a real thing. If yes, then they argue if it is really man-made. Having doubts is a clever thing, right? Yeah well, at this point it means delaying to work on the problem. Insead of working on a solution the problem is denied. Remember if the dish situation in the flat becomes unbearable enough for some, they might act and solve the problem. If you can just troll enough, then maybe someone else has to pay the cost of solving the problem.

Here we have arrived at the sociology and psychology part of the problem. Social constraints are also commitments to the coal industry, which leads to saying that coal is very clean and of course that our coal is the best coal. Other coal in the world is inferior and so on. Even if coal is now outdated, it might still be used because of these constraints. But keep in mind that proponents of clean coal do not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. If coal was clean, it would be easy to ratify it. We have used the phrase “tragedy of the commons” here, another label would be Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this dilemma you are best off, if you betray your partner, but if the partner also betrays, then both are worse off. So the best situation is achieved if everyone is loyal, but for each individual this situation is not pareto-optimal. This means that your situation can improved if you change your strategy. Unfortunately if everyone changes to betrayal, you are back at the situation that is bad for everyone. Therefore you need to find an agreement, which makes everyone stay loyal. In the context of climate change the Kyoto Protocol is such an agreement. Keep in mind that this Kyoto Protocol is from 1997. Over 20 years ago the countries of the world understood the problem and decided to sign such a contract. Evidence was only piled higher and higher since then and we are still discussing.

If we think about the dish washing in the shared flat again, we arrive at a situation, where the members have agreed to clean the dishes and have a contract. However some members don’t want to join the contract or just join it pro-forma without wanting to fulfill its demands. Over time this will erode the commitment of the honest members, who don’t know if their effort is worth it. This is why the members of the shared flat need to find a solution to this problem. For example removing the dirty dish from the sink and putting it into the room of the dishonest member. This is a great solution, because it disincentivizes the bad behavior. Of course it only works if the dishonest member is known.

Now we have arrived at the very core of the climate change problem. With carbon credits (Kyoto Protocol) it makes sense to deploy renewables, without it is ok, but it makes more sense to just let the old power plants run. Therefore some members of the world’s carbon emitters don’t want to join carbon credits contracts (US) or just don’t meet their goals (Germany). On the sociology level we have already stated what the problem is. It is mostly commitments to coal or oil industry, for example getting rid of coal means layoffs or even high payments, because of premature shutdown of power plants. We have not viewed the last, the psychological level. This is mostly condensed by the saying “Why should I reduce carbon emissions, if the others don’t?”. Or just denying that climate change is real. Keep in mind that the leaders of the world are not super idiots, they are just normal idiots like you and me. They do understand that climate change is real. They also understand this Prisoner’s dilemma / Tragedy of the Commons thing. When they deny climate change, they do not think, that it is not real, they just know that it is beneficial to not act and let the others act. Some idiots will do something about it, you know.

Of course there are also people who are trolled into believing climate change is not real. Or it is not man-made, sure it is not man-made only, there are also other factors, but the man-made contribution is the biggest contribution. So among deniers there are those who understand and deny because they don’t want to act and there are those who are just fooled by the former and fall for it.

Now I’ll try to present an addition to the current solution and it is mostly derived from the solution for the dirty dishes in the shared flat. In the shared flat after a contract has formed and people still don’t do their dishes, it is possible to pick these up and put them into the room of the wrongdoer. For climate change this is not possible, because you cannot pick up the carbon dioxide and put it into some other country or pick up the natural disasters or the increased temperature. The problem here are the ones who don’t want to join the carbon credits club. These benefit off from the majority of nations who will act to stop climate change. They don’t have to invest in emission free energy sources, they can just wait until the technology is really cheap, meanwhile the others bear the associated costs. This demotivates others and makes them argue “why should I, when China/US/Russia does not?”. The idea here is to say that outsiders are just included by international trade. If a country does not want to join the endeauvor of reducing carbon emissions, then the price of emission certificates is just added via trade. Whenever you want to trade goods or services into the international alliance that reduces carbon emissions (Kyoto Protocol), then you have to pay a carbon duty. If the US decides not to participate and they want to sell gas from fracking, then there is a carbon duty placed on the trade, just as if a certificate was bought. Therefore it doesn’t matter if a country like the US does not want to join and does not want to internalize the cost of carbon dioxide emissions. They want to keep the cost external for their own benefit. Fine, but if the rest of the world is in the alliance it is no longer possible to do this, because this carbon alliance will add the cost when trade happens. This works if most countries of the world agree on it, a few ignorants are not a problem.

There are 2 Papers on that and sometimes these are attacked by saying that instead of 97%, there are only 32% of scientists, who agree. This is wrong. 32% are the papers, which conclude if global warming man-made ( The remaining 68% of papers just don’t investigate on this question. These papers are also on climate change, for example conclude how fast temperature rises or something else, but these papers don’t take a position if it is man-made. So these papers are definitely not opposed to man-made climate change. Of the 32% papers, which do position on climate change, 97% say it is man-made, 1.9% reject it and 1% are uncertain. If you are still not convinced, there is also a paper, which investigates this 97% claim

But what about products, that don’t emit immediately but emit carbon indirectly via it’s prerequisite products. Well, it is still known how much energy is roughly needed to produce a silicon chip or a car of a certain kind. Then this just get’s multiplied with the energy mix of that country and there you go. You can easily calculate how much carbon a product has emitted while it was being produced. So this solution of taxing outsiders through trade is great and I should get a Nobel Prize for this idea, I guess. Unfortunately this nice idea I’m presenting here is not a new idea and even the Nobel Prize for this idea was already granted to William Nordhaus in 2018. He had the idea long ago, before I was even born, so I think it is fair that he gets the Nobel Prize.

Ok great, so what does this article say?
1. Climate Change is not a problem on the physical/epistemological realm
2. Climate Change is not a problem on the technological/ressource-limit/time-frame domain.
3. Climate Change is not really a problem on the economic level. Solving it makes economical sense if you consider the whole world and neglect contracts with power providers and exclude subsidies.
4. Climate Change is a problem on the sociological and psychological sphere.
5. Solutions have been presented and selected, we just need to deploy more of these.
6. It looks like most countries of the world are interested in working together and solving this problem.

All this sums up to: There is hope. If we are lucky, not too many will vote for the trolls who deny climate change.