Climate Change Op-Ed

No long essay this week on ribbonfarm, but I just had an op-ed appear on The Atlantic site, a piece on climate change that’s a response to the (excellent) Bill Gates interview in the print issue.

Why Solving Climate Change Will Be Like Mobilizing for War

What Gates and others are advocating for is not so much a technological revolution as a technocratic one. One for which there is no successful peacetime precedent. Which is not to say, of course, that it cannot work. There is always a first time for every new level of complexity and scale in human cooperation. But it’s sobering to look back at the (partial) precedents we do have.

Go read the whole thing.

I have to thank Sam Penrose and Jim McDermott for helping me think this piece through.

I also strongly recommend the writing of David Roberts on Vox (also this piece on Grist) if you want to dive deeper into the climate change rabbit-hole. Given the length constraint (it’s a ~2000 word piece), I couldn’t fit in all the interesting things I learned research this article.

Some of my recent off-ribbonfarm writing has been a new kind of fun because I’ve taken legible political positions, which I rarely do here. In Breaking Smart, I took a fairly standard libertarian position. Here, I’m taking a left-of-center liberal position. I suppose one of these days, I’ll argue a classic conservative position. Very un-American to pick a side (or not) depending on the specifics of an issue rather than fixed tribal loyalties, but what can I say. I prefer my politics a la carte. 

One learning from doing this off-ribbonfarm stuff is that when political positions are so obviously telegraphed, 80% of readers react very quickly (either negatively or positively) based on the first few dogwhistle phrases they spot. So all nuance is lost. But it’s a good way to filter for people who are worth talking with, since they tend to read more fully and attentively.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Even Bill Gates says “We Need an Energy Miracle”. Well that puts us with all those other doomed civilizations praying to their gods for a miracle. In our case our god is Technology.

    Technology is not going to save us.
    Technology got us here.

    A genuinely rational approach to our environmental problems would look very different to what you and Bill are proposing.

    Climate change is only one of our environmental problems.

    Check out the Dark Mountain Project.

    Peace and love.

  2. “Technology is not going to save us. Technology got us here.”

    Absolutely true …

    … and discovering or inventing a clean, green source of energy would be an ecological disaster. It’s not how you power it, it’s what you do with it …

    …. and because the global supply and global economic matrices are so interconnected, it doesn’t matter what you do. because virtually every human activity (i.e. every dollar spent), results in a loss of global biodiversity … (which is the real problem) …

    … based on LCA analysis …

    … with virtually no exceptions …

    … except one that I am aware of … … …



  3. The low hanging fruit for any lover of markets in this debate is subsidising climate futures markets. Let the better modellers get rich and soon, we can really listen to them. But subsidy is another taboo word.

  4. Earlier today, via Quartz, I got part way through the Atlantic piece thinking “the author really needs to meet Venkat – look at all the terminology (‘corporatist’!) they have in common” and only then looked up at the byline. It seems you have arrived on a larger stage.

    Now that you’ve muddied your hands politically, will you weigh in on the electoral initiatives kerfuffle (content and politics) between Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy and Carbon Washington?

  5. Like many, including presumably Bill Gates, I hope the climate war will be fought with agile, open processes, networked organizational forms, and a great deal more autonomy for low-level actors than technocracies have historically been willing to cede.

    May I ask, which of them do you trust?

    After having seen political, Internet born organizations like the Pirate Party, which were agile, open, networked and what not coming and withering away, relying on processes and media, without any more substance doesn’t cut it for me. If I was to believe in charismatic organizations without charismatic leaders or ingenious mavericks among the many clueless the NASA or CERN come to my mind, both of which were representing a civilizational vanguard and also some global spirit ( even though the NASA likes to use national symbols ). However they are remnants of another age, both founded in the 1950s.

    • Either alone (central authority vs. leaf-node-set), 25%. Together, in an adversarial balance of power, maybe 40%. It’s sort of the basic Boydian formula. Napoleonic top half, Vietcong-ish bottom half. Though more of a blend down.

  6. do u think China – with perkier commands, fiercer bureaucratic rivalries, weaker NIMBYs, more and better practiced engineers, lower social / household consumption commitments – is a likelier deliverer of substitutes for fossil fuel energy?

  7. Interesting article, particularly the discussion of organizational forms.

    We assert that the dangerous overload of woody biomass in the neglected and sick public woodlands of the Sierra Nevada (and beyond) can fuel a fleet of utility-scale baseloaded renewable-energy stations, with the potential to deliver 5 to 10 GW of power—substantially replacing the aging and gross-polluting Western coal fleet, and calling into question the existing plans to replace them with base-loaded natural-gas combined-cycle facilities.

    These stations are large and expensive. Our 400 MW prototype has an estimated “overnight cost” of $1.6 Billion. There are organizational economies of scale at play, both because of replications of design and expertise, and because of the boundary effects in both grid planning and in woodlands planning.

    The public-power model is a useful structure for natural monopolies, which this is. Implementations include large-footprint-Federal (see TVA, BPA, WAPA, etc), more or less large single-entity state and local entities (New York Power Authority, California Department of Water Resources, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Colorado Springs Utilities) or multi-entity collaborations (the Northern California Power Authority and Southern California Power Authority each coordinate several municipal and other public-power entities; Tri-State Generation and Transmission brings together the rural-electric cooperatives and irrigation districts of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and New Mexico (the latter was added after they printed up the letterhead)).

    Our proposal has strong features of the public power approach, in a hybrid structure intended to decentralize (to the site level) substantial management and worker control, with substantial Foundation investment to reflect and empower the strong public interests, including both interests in Healthy Forests and in the rapid addition of current-technology renewable-fuels energy.

  8. Lawrence D'Anna says

    Your asserting without much argument that a lot of central planning and regulation and bureaucratic control is needed. Why? Why not just set carbon taxes high enough to reduce emissions to acceptable levels and let the market figure out the rest? Beside the total level of emissions what other coordination problems are there?

  9. Your last paragraph.. on taking a (mainstream) legible position. The ideas you bring to life on ribbonfarm are illegible to most people. Even though some of those ideas can be deeply unsettling to an “average” person’s worldview. But ribbonfarm is largely free from controversy, because those who would find it controversial do not find it legible. And if they can get themselves to a point where it is legible – it stops being controversial. So all is good.

    Now that you’re writing in places where the writing needs to be legible to a wide audience, do you find that you need to thread more carefully? Do you worry about being misinterpreted?