How To Help With A Big Global Problem As A Technologist

Does it ever seem to you that people are focusing on the wrong problems and ignoring the real issues? There are many interesting psychological reasons behind this. You can read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman for some of the why but I’m going to suggest some ideas for how to address this tragedy of the commons.

I recently became an uncle and it got me thinking. What sort of environment are we creating for our children? Is it right to bring a new life into this world knowing what it will likely be like when they grow up? Can we change this?

There are many serious problems facing humanity, from antibiotic resistant bacterial evolution to environmental pollution and all-out nuclear war. However, the evidence suggests that the most urgent issue is man-made global warming heating, otherwise known as climate change. To quote Bret Victor:

Climate change is the problem of our time, it’s everyone’s problem, and most of our problem-solvers are assuming that someone else will solve it.

Time for us to step it up a gear. Time for us to take responsibility. Time for us to own the problem and show some initiative.

Motivation

If you’re already on-board with the urgent need for change then you can skip straight to the action below! If you want some more arguments then read on.

The extreme weather events this year are yet another wake-up call and they are clearly getting more frequent. From snow blizzards in the spring to heat-waves, droughts and wild-fires in the summer.

It is very easy to ignore a problem if solving it threatens your livelihood or way of life. However, it is possible to transition to a green economy without losing anything. It is even possible to use it as a catalyst to improve quality of life and create wealth in the process, but time is of the essence.

The worst effects will be felt decades into the future. Unfortunately, this long-term thinking forces us to confront our own mortality, so many people subconsciously ignore it. Despite the far-off consequences, action must be taken now if we are to mitigate the most devastating ramifications.

People are generally bad at making good decisions when the consequences are far-off, even when it comes to their own health and well-being. Just look at the number of people that smoke, when there is overwhelming evidence that it is terrible for you. Part of this can be put down to the fact that an individual is made up of many minds. Our evolution has caused us to have multiple beings within our brains, and they often have conflicting interests and time-frames.

The economic transition is inevitable. The only question is if we can do it quickly enough to avoid the worst of the very serious negative consequences that are forecast by the experts.

There are some powerful vested interests at play that have been blinded by short-term gain and have strong incentives to preserve the status-quo. The defenders of the old way will always put more effort in, as for them it is framed as a loss. However, if we don’t succeed then it is a loss for everyone, so that should provide ample motivation.

We need a new word to describe people who deliberately oppose action on climate change while knowing the truth (for example, by applying for planning to build a wall to protect a golf course against sea-level rise), just so they can increase their already grotesque wealth. Hypocrisy, greed and even evil doesn’t begin to cut it. It is beyond evil, beyond the atrocities of the worst dictators, they are enemies of humanity. They are potential world-enders, by which I mean our world. The planet will be fine without us, it has had a pre-historic climate before.

I have no doubt that the deniers will be proven wrong and the majority who see the truth as it really is will be vindicated. However, that will come as little consolation if the world is in tatters. We’ve already started to see the effects of climate change on increased human migration and it’s only just begun.

Collection of evidence and attribution of blame has also already begun, with the aim of stripping the wealth of the corporations and individuals at fault to pay for the repairs and adaptations that are needed. Although apportioning blame isn’t the most helpful way to solve problems, the funds will be useful. I suspect the reparations from these lawsuits will break records of compensation and make the BP oil spill look like spare change.

Change

Change is desperately needed.

The whole situation is an extreme example of technical debt. We are borrowing from the future to live beyond our means in the present. This is the future-world that our future-selves, our children, and hopefully our grandchildren will have to live in. Only the very old can afford not to worry. We need to pay back our debts and save our future.

If you are interested in the history of environmental inaction then you can read the long but excellent Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change in the New York Times magazine. It is one of only a few times where it has been dedicated to a single topic. It covers how the problem was almost solved in the 1980s, before many of us were even born.

There hasn’t been a significant development in climate science since 1979. The problem has been well-understood for many decades and the solutions have existed for some time. Indeed, emitting greenhouse gases was at one time studied as a weapon of mass destruction for use in war.

In the epilogue of the piece there is a worrying statistic. More carbon emissions have been dumped into the air since the end of 1989 than in the entire history of human civilisation preceding 1989. The amount still continues to rise year-on-year to this day.

It’s not a case of educating the next generation on the issues. We are that generation and it’s on us to fix things. The Paris agreement was a landmark and it doesn’t matter if some short-sighted parties didn’t sign up to it, what matters now is action.

Action

Individual actions are commendable but they are not high-impact enough unless they have reach and scale. This could be influencing others, who in turn influence more people (in other words, network effects). Or it could be using the magnifying power of technology as a lever to enact more change than an individual could.

This is not to say that actions have to be at a national or international level. Local action can be effective and local government can have a lot of say, so it’s worth getting politically engaged at a national and local level.

We need to talk to others and change the conversation. There is a huge amount of political distraction masking the important issues and the news media lap it up. Many people believe the problem is under control. They believe that all parties have the same protective intentions and wildly underestimate the scope of the shortcomings.

The reality is that people will focus on the visible problems and the ones that are easier to solve, or at least easier to envisage a simple solution for. A good example of this is the action on plastic pollution in the oceans after the BBC documentary Blue Planet II highlighted the issue. Easy solution, just stop throwing plastic into the sea!

There are many things that can get in the sea but plastic waste shouldn’t be one of them. Unfortunately, I don’t think that moving from plastic to paper straws will have a huge impact. Charging for plastic bags is a good move though and more packaging should have a charge or deposit.

I recently went to a talk by the executive producer of Blue Planet II (and it was the best talk I’ve been to since I witnessed Al Gore give a live version of An Inconvenient Truth). I got chatting with him afterwards and although he was impressed at the impact they’d had, he was a bit disappointed that the focus was just on plastic and not on the bigger problem of ocean warming and hence coral bleaching. Another project is in the works to remedy this but I won’t say any more on that.

In addition to Blue Planet I and II, another good documentary on the subject is Chasing Coral (it’s available on Netflix along with Chasing Ice, which is also excellent).

Much more needs to be done but we should remain optimistic and emphasise the benefits of why the changes are better than the current situation. We need solutions that are intrinsically better than existing products and don’t force people to compromise or worry. Pessimism paralyses people.

Here are some ideas for actions that you, as a technically sophisticated person, can take today and dare I say it, save the world!

Steps

This post got a bit long so I’ve split the actions into three simple steps (steps two and three are in separate posts):

  1. Understand
  2. Organise
  3. Amplify

The idea is to apply the lessons, techniques and methodologies of agile software development and startups to help speed up fixing this big issue. Old systems work too slowly and we need to act fast.

First you need to understand the problems, which ones are the most important and how to solve them. It’s crucial to realise that the technical solutions are already well-known. They are ready-to-go and just need rolling-out and scaling-up.

Next, we need to organise into groups, as small cross-functional teams have a much better chance than individuals. Open source projects provide a good collaboration model for this.

Finally, use the amplifying power of technology to help people make the best decisions and nudge them in the right direction. Software has a huge magnifying effect and can scale the impact of a small group by many orders of magnitude. We need to start a revolution!

If only the big tech players were more virtuous and had ambitions beyond growing their advertising revenues. If you are a product customer (or even better, an employee or investor) of one of these firms then maybe you can help them understand and improve themselves.

Step 1 - Understand

Read about, explore and understand the problem. Research which actions are effective and which ones are just token gestures that won’t scale. Do the maths (or math) and calculate if the numbers make sense.

There are lots of people who want to solve these problems, for example green political parties. However, sometimes they can be fairly low-tech and could use help from technologists to build tools or even just teach them how to use existing services and applications.

Two things you can read right after this are what a technologist can do about climate change by Bret Victor and Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air by the sadly missed Sir David MacKay (free but also available in hard copy on Amazon). You could help contribute to keeping this excellent resource up to date or to translate it for other locations.

Let’s simplify the options and break this down into three areas of energy, transportation and food.

Energy

Energy is a pretty generic term so let’s be more specific, and no I don’t mean some sort of holistic hippy aura. This is physics.

Electricity

Electricity is such a versatile form of energy, but then as an electrical engineer I would have a soft-spot for it! The main benefit of electrical transmission is that it decouples the means of generation and potential use. The wires act as an abstraction layer. There are lots of ways of generating electricity and practically everything can be powered electrically. By going electric we can address the generation problem on its own and not worry too much about the rest.

You can see the current energy mix in the UK and the grams of CO2 per kWh by using the GridCarbon app (for iOS and Android). The metric varies a lot but on sunny and windy days it can get below 100 gCO2/kWh.

GridCarbon UK app

GridCarbon UK app

Renewables are clearly the way to go. Countries like Iceland and Costa Rica are doing much better, but then they have favourable geography. It’s not all about terrain, as countries like Australia should be great for renewables but they have a terrible carbon footprint. For more details you can check out a real-time global electricity map and as it is open source, you can help extend it to other regions.

Real-time global electricity and carbon map

You can use this map to help make better decisions, for example what cloud data-centre regions you choose to use. You could even build a database to tell people how carbon-intensive their cloud services are, based on what regions and providers they choose to use. Is your favourite collaboration startup running its backend on dirty coal power? Do they even know this?

The main problem with electricity is that it is difficult to store in large volumes very efficiently. Electrical storage is not as energy-dense as chemical fuels or nuclear power. In the absence of storage, supply must match demand (or demand must match supply - more on that later).

Take the time to understand what changes have the most impact and focus on the big problems, not the trivial. For example, worrying about switching off modern chargers (now that they are extremely efficient) is not helpful. A new switched-mode power supply (SMPS) draws negligible current when not in use, unlike the old bulky and heavy transformers. The lesson here is that technology changes quickly, so you should always measure results and constantly re-evaluate old advice.

A rule of thumb is that if something gets hot (and that’s not its purpose) then it is wasting energy. Energy can’t be created or destroyed (this is elementary thermodynamics) so wasted energy has to go somewhere.

Learn how LEDs have revolutionised lighting and that they are way more efficient and higher performance than previous lighting technology. LEDs out-perform “energy-saving” compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) on every measure and run much cooler than traditional bulbs.

Discover how the cost of solar installations has shrunk so much that they are now economical at scale without subsidies. Learn how the constantly decreasing cost of battery storage has made mainstream electric vehicles, grid-scale installation and off-grid homes possible.

Understand that it is not a technology problem. The technology exists, is proven, is affordable and simply needs scaling. It is an economic and political problem, so learn about the blockers and how you can influence or bypass the process. For an example of how long things can take in a bureaucratic system take a look at the smart-meter roll-out delays in the UK.

There is no need to wait for ubiquitous smart-meters to build technology that responds to demand or uses green energy. There are web APIs available that show the health of the grid and can be used for demand-response applications. You can even just measure the frequency at an electrical outlet for a crude metric of how much load there is. Unfortunately the economic incentives may have to wait a little longer, unless someone can innovate in this area.

Heat

Heat can of course be generated from electricity, but it is commonly generated by the low-tech method of digging up old dead things out of the ground and setting-fire to them. These dead things are relatively easy to store and transport. However, unless they can be synthesised using clean energy at a lower cost than extracting them, then they are a problem. The main issue is that the environmental costs of fossil fuels are externalised and not paid for by the producers. If the true cost was taken into account then synthetic fuels could be cheaper, considering how they can be produced much closer to the customer.

Burning methane gas is much better than coal from a carbon emissions point of view. This is just chemistry. Even better would be burning hydrogen and there are trials underway to convert gas networks to carry it. Hydrogen is commonly produced from methane but if production is centralised then the carbon could be captured and stored (CCS) or used in greenhouses. Hydrogen can of course be made from water using electricity and methane can come from biogas.

Heat pumps are an extremely efficient form of electrical heating and cooling, commonly used in air conditioning and fridges. Pedants will get upset (as they are wont to do), but it aids understanding (and comparison to boilers) to describe heat pumps as over 100% efficient, even if this is not technically correct from a physics point of view. In this terminology, some heat pumps are over 400% efficient! This means that you get four times the heating (or cooling) energy out of them than you put in. This is because they don’t generate heat, they just move it around.

The cooling may come in useful given the consequences of climate change and it is a great load for solar power. However, for heat pumps to work well you need good insulation.

Improving insulation may be less exciting than some other technologies but it is one of the most effective ways of improving energy efficiency. Building standards have improved, despite the short-sighted cancellation of the zero carbon homes initiative. The main challenge comes from insulating older buildings and crucially, making this economical.

However, it is relatively easy to swap out an old hot-water tank for a new super-insulated smart-tank. These high-tech tanks can learn to heat just the water needed and are a great sink for cheap renewable energy. This demand-response will be essential as the grid greens. If you have solar panels then the tank can use the power from those and when smart-meters are eventually rolled out, it will save you even more money.

Another easy target is to not over-heat or over-cool. It’s odd that people will set an office or train air-conditioning temperature to lower than the point where they would put their heating on in the winter. You could help convey this simple message.

Perhaps an explanation of how a thermostat works would be helpful, but that will have to wait for another post. Temperature is subjective anyway and women feel the cold more than men 1. Some people have more natural insulation but then they may not be the best at making good decisions anyway, for example about their health or what food they eat.

Transport

I’ve written about electric vehicles many times before and the short summary is that electrification of road transportation is inevitable. There are also moves to electrify shipping and many ferries are already battery powered. Air travel still presents a problem until kerosene jet fuel is synthesized but Solar Impulse showed that sustained electric flight is possible.

Places such as Norway and Hong Kong have a very high uptake of electric vehicles, likely due to subsidies or tax-breaks. However, after the high initial (and often subsidised) cost, EVs are very cheap to run. Perhaps some financial innovation could help here?

Rolling out a high-speed charging network is also important. It may be easy to charge at home overnight and even get a fast-charger installed but many people park on the street. It can also be useful to charge when out at the shops, at work or at a service station on a long journey. This helps alleviate so-called range anxiety.

Even Iceland has a network of “On” EV chargers in remote locations and the power is 100% renewable. The highlands and islands of Scotland also have an impressive installation.

The infamous London taxis (tacsis for those of you in Wales 😛) are even going fully electric. The new EV black cab is as iconic as ever and much better that its diesel predecessor. We know from the VW scandal that diesels aren’t clean, even if it’s possible for them to be.

Even if the power used for charging EVs is not as green as it could be, there are still efficiencies from producing at scale and mixing in renewables, and that’s not factoring in the significant benefits of reduced noise and air pollution.

EVs can also be used for demand response and charge on surplus green energy. In the future they could also feedback into your home or the grid in times of energy shortage.

EVs are inherently more efficient as they can use regenerative braking, which recovers the energy from slowing down. The acceleration possible is also crazy, due to the high instant torque of electric motors.

Food

What we eat is a very important area for greenhouse gas emissions. Producing, processing and transporting food is energy intensive work.

Understanding the wildly different carbon footprints of various foods is helpful in making more informed decisions. Clearly a vegan or vegetarian diet is lower impact but meats vary tremendously. Beef is one of the worst, then lamb, pork and chicken. Farmed fish is one of the lowest and conveniently, the foods that are better for the planet are also the ones that are better for you!

The main issue is again thermodynamics. There are losses at every stage so there can’t be as much energy in an animal as the food it eats. It would be more efficient to eat the plants we feed animals. As an aside, this is one of the main plot holes in the Matrix and the Black Mirror episode, 15 Million Merits.

However, there is another problem. Ruminants (cows and sheep) burp out methane as they digest their food. Methane is another greenhouse gas and it is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere but it still has the potential to set off chain reactions and trigger a thermal runaway cascade failure.

On a related note, we spend an awful amount of resources not just on farm animals but also on our pets. Understand why people have pets, what they want from them and try to find better ways to satisfy these needs.

Reducing food waste is also a key area to tackle. Lots of food is needlessly wasted and if that can be lowered then not only will we reduce harmful emissions but we will save money as well. It’s important to do the sums to work out the total cost, for example reducing packaging saves on its cost but may mean that food spoils sooner. There are opportunities in this area for software tooling to help with modelling, calculation and communication.

There is plenty of innovation in “plant-based” foods (vegan isn’t a good term for marketing) and in clean meat. This is meat that is grown without an animal and may help solve the predicted food shortage (which is really just a meat shortage). For examples you could look into the startups in an accelerator such as FoodBytes.

Next Time

In the next post in this series I’ll be covering step two and how to organise into effective groups.