Why do the good guys have to beat the climate cheats?

There's concrete tradeoff logic lurking beneath the numbers and market abstractions.

Illustration of a wind turbine and solar panel chasing a bag of coal
Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.
  • Filthy-fuel suffering is here today: 95% of humans breathe "dangerously polluted air," and globally "1 in 6 deaths are caused by air pollution."
  • Paying extra for cleaner energy buys reduced suffering for today's kids and all future humans.
  • For more "moral clarity" always look under "the numbers," and put their abstract tacit tradeoffs in concrete and personal terms.

Like the kid in the emperor's new clothes tale, Greta Thunberg sees through the "smart" games that blind us to clear, present, and colossal danger. These number-struck rituals of rationality were built for a world we no longer live in. Here's how to get more "moral clarity" (and avoid sophisticated math-masked moral and mortal mistakes).

Too much climate-crisis thinking presumes we should only do what we know is "right" if that's as cheap as today's bad way. But why is that the correct criteria? Current pollution-cheat prices ignore that the status-quo system can't last long. And that move voids vast avoidable suffering from "smart" considerations.

Here's the concrete tradeoff logic lurking under "the numbers" and market abstractions:

a) Keep using cheap dirty energy and your kids will have worse and shorter lives.

b) Choose higher-and-truer-cost clean energy but your kids live better and longer lives.

What we get for paying extra is reduced suffering — for today's kids, and for all future humans.

"How Dare You" not pay to prevent harming the life chances of the young, Thunberg thundered at the U.N. To keep using filthy fuel is to knowingly increase suffering (surely that "would be evil" declared Thunberg).

Again, using pollution-cheat prices as a barrier ensures ethical errors — moral mistakes that will make billions of lives worse.

Lest you think I'm exaggerating, consider this: "Over the last several decades, policy consensus has cautioned that the world would only tolerate responses to climate change if they were free—or [cheaper than current costs]" from David Wallace Welles's must-read The Uninhabitable Earth. Let's translate: Many of those trained in our governing games feel we should only stop burning the biosphere if it's cheap enough to not hurt profits. Otherwise, burn on. And burden kids with the "planetary overdraft" they'll have to pay dearly for.

Stopping climate change will pump trillions into the economy

Countless cases of similar hidden hideous "logic" exist (e.g. this capitalism-will-save-us piece brags that "solar and wind can now go head-to-head with fossil fuels"). Phrases like "commercially viable" often signal the same ethics error — basically no price in any current market covers actual full clean-up costs.

Status-quo market-thinking stokes this poisonous "planetary overdraft," and most "cheapest option" thinking ignores that mitigation costs ruthlessly compound over time. Every delay increases ultimate costs. And don't forget those "costs" translate to real people really suffering.

And filthy-fuel suffering isn't only a future woe. It has deadly effects right now, we just aren't paying attention. Ninety-five percent of humans breathe "dangerously polluted air," and globally "1 in 6 deaths are caused by air pollution." To not aggressively switch to cleaner, costlier energy risks a best-case death toll of "25 holocausts." Our business-as-usual games will beat the old one-Holocaust "banal evil."

The main old-moral-world case for using lowest-cost energy is to avoid reducing "growth." But that growth-at-all-costs mindset ignores now-known material and moral limits. There is no known way to avoid selectively reducing material growth (today's material burn rate is at 160% of what the Earth can sustain).

Like our physical infrastructure, much of our cognitive infrastructure must be retooled for those now-known material and moral limits we face. You may want to weigh with more care what you're willing to pay to do the "right thing" (e.g., giving our kids better lives).

For more "moral clarity" always look under "the numbers," and put their abstract tacit tradeoffs in concrete and personal terms. That's the same move used in prior Thought Fix posts to reveal errors in typical "discounting" and "growth" arguments. Similar moves can reformulate many worked-in-the-old-world "smart" games.



Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
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Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

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  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:
https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work

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