Negative Carbon and the World Wars: A Very Brief Historical Study

I’ve been thinking a lot about negative carbon technologies lately. This could be because it looks more and more like we’re going to be needing a lot of negative carbon emissions in the coming decades. Even if everybody follows through on their pledges, the emission reductions agreed to in Paris could still take us to a 3.7 degree global temperature increase. If we’re going to keep the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees, it is looking more and more like we are going to have to take up the slack with something that is going to take carbon out of the atmosphere to compensate for everything we’ve been putting in.

This is not an ideal situation, because it turns out that it’s actually very difficult to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at anything like the rate that will be required. CO2 is a very inert gas, which means that separating it out from the rest of the gases in the atmosphere requires a lot of energy. This leads to a lot of unanswered questions. How, exactly, do you go about taking carbon out of the atmosphere? Nobody has perfected any reliable technique yet, save for a few examples of biomass power generation with carbon capture and storage built in to it. Of course, we may well get over the technological hurdles, but that still leaves us with the fact that all of the techniques proposed thus far look like they’re going to be astronomically expensive. Wikipedia links to three studies assessing the costs of negative carbon technoloies. The estimates range from 54 euros (54 US dollars) per ton of CO2 captured, to $600 per ton. When you consider the fact that the carbon emissions of industrialised countries tend to be measured in gigatons, you see how big the problem is. Taking the United States as an example: To offset the 5.3 gigatons of carbon they emit every year at a cost of $600 per ton, it would cost $3.2 trillion, or about 20 percent of the entire US GDP. Even at the lower estimate of $54 per ton, it would cost $576 billion, or about 3 percent of their GDP.

The technology might get cheaper before we wind up having to use it. But what if it doesn’t? What if our only hope to salvage anything like a healthy climate is going to cost hundreds of billions of dollars, just to offset American emissions? Can we expect governments to spend that kind of money?

With today’s political values, the answer to that question is a resounding “no”. No country is going to spend up to 20 percent of its GDP on pulling carbon out of the atmosphere just because it might be a nice thing to do for future generations. But what if the situation becomes truly dire? How much money would a modern country be willing to spend on carbon mitigation if the world is being ravaged by drought, floods, hurricanes, heat waves, and famines? How much will the United States be willing to spend on pulling carbon out of the atmosphere when Miami starts to sink under the Atlantic ocean. To answer this, we have to look at how governments have spent their money in desperate circumstances in the past. So I did a bit of googling to find out the proportionate costs to the United States of the most expensive wars during the twentieth century. Here’s what I found:

So it is possible to muster the political will to spend ten or twenty percent of a country’s GDP on a single cause if that cause is closely tied with self-preservation from fascist takeover or nuclear annihilation. The good news is that the percent of GDP that the United States spent on its wars during the twentieth century would in some cases be enough to offset its entire carbon footprint, even with a $600 per ton price-tag. If the cheaper estimates are more accurate, then you could do it with a level of spending comparable to what the Americans spent in the cold war.

The bad news is that this comes with a lot of caveats. Firstly, it isn’t exactly clear how even catastrophic climate change compares, on a socio-political level, with a world war. Maybe without a clear human enemy to fight, you can’t muster the same political will. Maybe catastrophic climate change will cause a world war, which will soak up all the resources that could otherwise be used to deal with the root of the problem. Secondly, we have to recognize that funds are not the only constraining variable we need to be talking about. It takes time to up-scale a new technology to the point that it can influence the atmosphere of an entire planet. And shortages of land, labour or raw materials might set a maximum amount of carbon we can sequester per year that is lower than we need. That’s to say nothing about the ethical concerns about negative carbon technologies.

This is just a very basic back-of-the-envelope musing about a topic that is in the climate change news a lot these days. Please don’t take a 1000 word blog post to be a thorough economic or historical analysis. If I were to make one substantive argument out of all this, it’s that in predicting how the climate crisis will unfold, we need to look at times in history when human politics, economics, and psychology has been under a lot more pressure than it is now. Perhaps that pressure can translate into real action. But we probably shouldn’t count on it.

Climate Change and Storylines

The reason for the several-month unannounced hiatus since my last post is that during that time I was finishing, submitting, and defending my PhD thesis. You’ll be happy to know it went well. Perhaps sometime in the next few months, I’ll write a blog post that summarizes it in detail. For now, however, I want to flag up an interesting intersection between my PhD research and my interest in climate change.

My PhD, for those of you who haven’t read my Simpsons-based introduction to it, is about discursive storylines in socio-technical transitions. In more comprehensible terms, that means that I was looking at the ways people understand old and new technologies, when a new technology is in the process of replacing an old one. I did this using two historical case studies of the transition from a rail-dominated transport system to a road-dominated transport system in the United States and the United Kingdom. So essentially I was using a lot of newspaper, magazine, and political archives to look at how people talked about trains and cars while trains were being replaced by cars.

In doing so, I noticed something interesting: People’s representations of rail and road transportation typically have only a passing relationship with the reality on those transportation systems themselves. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • In the 1920s, the United Kingdom was faced with a rash of deaths by car accidents. This was horrifying, because that kind of sudden accidental death in a public space was completely foreign at the time. The solution that was most often proposed for this, however, is somewhat counterintuitive from a modern perspective: Both experts and laypeople typically suggested that the answer was to build more roads. This, they argued, would make the road system more efficient and safer, and would virtually eliminate car accidents. Even George Orwell believed this: On page 12 of The Road to Wigan Pier he writes that “The danger of accidents would disappear if we chose to tackle our road-planning problem seriously, as we shall do sooner or later”. What Orwell failed to realize is that building more roads had the effect of encouraging more car travel, which in turn meant more accidents. The basic storyline that roads, not cars, were at fault for car accidents was nevertheless very compelling.
  • During the 1930s, the railroads of the United States petitioned the Federal Government to extend Interstate Commerce Commission regulations to the road transportation industry. Interstate Commerce regulations, which were put in place starting in 1887 to curb price-gouging by monopolistic railways, were now giving the railways a major disadvantage against the new, road-based transportation system. The Congressional debates about extending these regulations to the railways, however, revealed that many congresspeople were still very worried about unleashing the railway monopolies to do as they liked, despite the fact that the railways would never again have a monopoly over anything. The view that the railways were inherently monopolistic and not to be trusted, which was by then several decades old, was firmly engrained in the minds of many American lawmakers.
  • As the first British motorways were being built in the 1950s and 1960s, they were portrayed as a modernising, civilising force that would ensure safe and efficient transportation into the indefinite future. They even made postcards of the motorways. Here’s a quote from the Daily Mail in 1955, predicting what motorways would look like in the future: “Along the wide, multi-track motorways leading to the sea the holiday traffic surges in orderly streams. Police helicopters and convertaplane patrols of the newly merged Royal Automobile Association hover overhead”. Anybody today who has driven on the M25 would scoff at this, but at this time the view that motorways were a futuristic and exciting change was difficult to challenge.

A postcard from Britain’s golden age of motorways.

I have not recounted these anecdotes so that we can scoff at them. Even the most knowledgeable experts can be seen to have indulged in this kind of thinking. The problem, however, is that some problems are simply too big to contemplate rationally. A transportation system is an immensely complicated thing, comprising perhaps more moving parts than anything else humans have ever built. Add to that all the money, laws, and personal motivations associated with it, and you have something that you could not understand thoroughly even if you spent your whole life reading about it; much less if most of your knowledge comes from listening to the news on the radio while driving your car to work.

So because we can’t keep all the relevant facts in our head at any one time, we take a cognitive shortcut. We construct storylines. Marteen Hajer, who developed the concept of storylines to account for environmental politics, describes them as “narratives on social reality through which elements from many different domains are combined and that provide actors with a set of symbolic references that suggest a common understanding” (Hajer 1995, p. 45). We use storylines to fill in the gaps of our limited understanding of complex phenomena. But we don’t all use the same storylines. That’s because we have different assumptions about the world, and different myths that appeal to us. Some people, such as the road boosters in Britain, believe in the inevitability and inherent goodness of technological progress, and so they interpret the facts in a way that can be used to tell that story. Others, such as the American railroads’ detractors, believe in the inherent corruption of big business, and construct storylines with that fact in mind. Similarly, today, people’s predictions about the future tend to line up with science fiction movies: Star Trek, Blade Runner, or Mad Max.

Which brings me to the subject of climate change. It might not be an exaggeration to say that climate change is perhaps the most complex problem that any human mind has ever grappled with. It involves complex interactions between five of the most complex systems we know of: The atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the ecosphere, the geosphere, and what might be called the sociosphere: The halo of human action that surrounds our planet. Each of these systems is difficult enough to model on its own. Keeping track of the interactions between all five of them is virtually impossible.

That’s not to say that we haven’t made progress. Climate science has proved convincingly that fossil fuel emissions are taking us to a very bad place. But figuring out exactly what is going to happen becomes very thorny, especially once you add human societies, the source of the carbon emissions, into the mix. So instead we tell stories. There are a lot of storylines that have emerged in response to climate change, each of which speaks to much older cultural myths. Here are just a few of them:

The Icarus Storyline: Humankind is flying too close to the sun and is about to come crashing back down to the ocean. We aren’t going to solve the problem, and we’re doomed.
The Apollo Storyline: Humankind is infinite in its creativity and ability to solve problems. We will, through some combination of renewable energy and geoengineering, fix climate change.
The Socialist Storyline: We cannot solve climate change so long as we are wedded to an outdated capitalist economic system. We need to throw out the bankers, and then we will have an economy that does not destroy the Earth.

I’m sure you can probably think of a few more. The point I want to make here is that each one of these storylines can be told in a way that is convincing, both in terms of its internal consistency, and its correspondence with observed facts about the world. They all start from largely the same basic information, and fill in the gaps with compelling narratives.

What this suggests is that none of these storylines is likely to be true in its entirety. History is rarely so clean-cut and binary as these storylines make it out to be. (And this is not the first time in history that climate change has been an important problem). It’s complicated, contingent, and it can almost never be expressed in terms of whether a given problem (such as the Mongols, the Black Death, or colonialism), is “solved” or not. Actions have consequences both foreseen and unforeseen, and both positive and negative. And nobody can predict the future.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be worried about climate change. We should be extremely worried about climate change. But let’s acknowledge our own limitations. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. The best we can do is tell each other stories about it. Surely that fact is both scary and motivating enough all by itself for us to go out and do something about it.

Further reading:

Hajer, M.A., 1995. The Politics of Environmental Discourse: Ecological Modernization and the Policy Process. Clarendon Press.
Hajer, M., Versteeg, W., 2005. A decade of discourse analysis of environmental politics: Achievements, challenges, perspectives. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning 7, 175–184. doi:10.1080/15239080500339646