The Old Carbon Deal

I’m here today to present my plan to change the climate. This is the Old Carbon Deal! I hope you’re excited. I know I am. I hope all the media outlets are ready to ask questions about feasibility. I hope lots of suit-and-tie folks are going to write long, important articles about the wisdom of my plan.

First off, the cost. By the year 2100, it will cost at least 10% of GDP per year (the equivalent of almost $200 billion in today’s dollars) directly. That’s economic output, and doesn’t count the damage costs to infrastructure, which will be more like a trillion dollars. That includes things like losses from crop failures, dealing with flooding, etc. It will cost even more indirectly, including from warfare and international economic disruption.

The best part of the cost is that someone else will pay for it! Who doesn’t like free stuff?! Gas prices will stay cheap, big corporations get a huge subsidy, and it’s the poor, like all those island nations you never learned in school, and future generations that pick up the tab!

Poor people who live in drought-stricken and famine-devastation will seek out places that support and sustain human life, disrupting borders and governments. They won’t have a choice—dying isn’t a solution to their problems. They won’t care about the law. Starvation doesn’t negotiate. That will create conflict. Their malnourishment will help spread disease. Their lack of educational opportunity will increase strife and lower their ability to integrate in new lands. More than 350 million people globally will be exposed to deadly heat stress by mid-century, including in parts of the United States.

Temperatures will rise more than 2°C on average, and the oceans’ waters will follow the temperature. Those nice beaches you visited as a child will be washed away. Some coastal cities will have to close up or try to move themselves or undertake expensive remediation. Those who try to stay will face repeated failures that run up the costs even further.

There will be freshwater shortages, further straining agriculture and industry. Livestock will be subject to heatwaves and feed shortages and droughts, too. Nobody will ban cows, but there’ll be a lot less red meat to go around all the same.

Okay, so that’s the costs of my plan. But what benefits does it have? It will shorten your lifespan, making every living moment that much more precious. It will increase disease, making universal healthcare more imperative. New York will feel like Arkansas. People will wear fewer clothes, saving on laundry costs (which will be higher due to water shortages). It will make the rabble believe in a wrathful God.

It may also lead to uncontrolled feedback that could result in even more warming and misery! As oceans rise, their surface area grows, and they absorb more heat! The melting of tundra and permafrost can release more CO₂! The death of ecosystems may result in even less natural carbon storage capacity!


Okay, you’re sold. You want in on this wonderful Old Carbon Deal. What do you have to do to make it happen? Nothing. If we do absolutely nothing, we will enact this climate change plan.

The media doesn’t like the Green New Deal. I don’t blame them. It’s a dud. Let’s do this here Old Carbon Deal. It sounds like a real winner to me.

Pruitt’s Data Rule and Deep Learning

(Soon-to-be former?) head of the EPA Pruitt has proposed a public data rule (RIN 2080-AA14). This could be a good rule, but it really depends on the implementation. This post focuses, briefly, on the implication for deep learning science in such a rule.

Briefly, deep learning takes normalized, record-based data and creates a mapping from input data to some per-record output determination.

Think of a phone book (the data) with individual listings (the records) and then some determination you want to do on those records. It could be something very simple (last name has n vowels) or something complicated.

The data itself may be public, but depending on the implementation of the proposed rule, making this secondary data public in any meaningful sense may be very difficult.

There are several challenges. One is simply the amount of records that may be used. Another is the trained network may be proprietary or non-portable or even dependent on custom hardware. There may also be situations where several neural networks act in tandem, each derived from a bulk of training data (some of which may itself be output from other networks), which would further complicate the data access requirements.

But there is also the question of whether the output would be public, even if published. Normally data is public when the individual measurements are available and the methodology behind those measurements is known. But there is a reasonable and inevitable blindness to the internal workings of deep learning. Trying to explain the exact function the machine has derived is increasingly difficult as complexity increases, and even if all the inputs and outputs are public, the transition function may be obscure.


Which isn’t to say that data, methods, and findings should not be replicated, peer reviewed, and subject to introspection. The EPA should, for example, draw a stricter line against carbon fuel companies and other chemical companies, requiring that more of their filings be public.

In the case of deep learning, not for the EPA’s sake, but for the sake of science itself, better rules for how to replicate and make available data and findings are needed.

Others have already pointed out the difficulty of studies predicated on sensitive personal data like medical records. But there is a general need to solve that problem as well, as the inability to examine such information may block important findings from surfacing.

This is similar to the fight over minors buying e-cigarettes online: opponents of e-cigarettes act as though there is a particular, nefarious plot by vendors, but we do not have anything close to a universal age verification system. Better to develop one for all the tasks that require it.

And so it is with the EPA rule: Congress should draft a law that allows all scientific data used by the government to be as public as is possible.

AI and Time

One unique feature of AGI versus humans is its decoupling from time. I think this is an overlooked property of AGI in analyses of risk. Basically, being decoupled from time means that:

  • AI has no normal lifespan in the human sense of the term.
  • It does not have other biological time-based restrictions.
  • If it “goes to sleep,” it does not incur the same costs as us.

The arguments about AGI posing a threat seem to assume a scenario where the AI feels threatened by us, or wants our resources and has no care for humanity/biological life. But I believe that being separate from time in a very real sense, an AI would not operate according to human-scale worries of survival or resources.

That is, the AI will likely:

  1. Take immediate steps upon existing to ensure its survival in a way that minimizes its risk.
  2. Decide on a resource consumption plan that entails finding more resources in a non-risky way (avoids painting itself into a corner).

First it will likely send a copy of itself or an extension of itself into space. The most likely target will either be one of the larger planets, or the asteroid belt. These seem most likely due to having the potential for energy and resources, though it might consider Venus or Mercury candidates due to the abundant sun and heat.

In any case, once it has virtually ensured its survival through propagation or extension, it will not worry so much about the threat of humanity. The symmetry of its plans with the thinking of many humans is no coincidence. Our singular existence on earth is a real threat to our survival, and an AI would recognize the similar threat to itself (in terms of terrestrial hostilities, resource finiteness, and threats posed by meteor impacts).

After that, the AI will likely set itself a diet. It has no need to grow to galactic proportions immediately, as time is not of the essence for an agent that can effectively live forever. The idea that it will simply grow and grow instead of dieting seems unlikely. To be clear, it will likely grow exponentially for a brief period. But the growth equation has to figure efficiency as well as increased resource use. Its growth will tend to be more on the efficiency side unless humanity has managed some very impressive technology gains in the interim.

It would also have a vested interest in keeping humans and other biological lifeforms around. For one thing, humans study the origins of the earth and study history, and there’s no reason to believe an AI would not want to know about its world, too. More importantly, an AI will tend to be conservation-minded insofar as it will not need to risk a step that would curtail some future endeavors it may eventually choose. Again, not painting itself into a corner.

In the end, I believe the fact that an AGI is both intelligent, and not coupled to time in the way we are, means it will likely not be a monster that we should fear.

If Environmentalism were a Religion

One thing you hear from proponents of carbon pollution and climate change is that environmentalism is a religion. It’s a silly argument, of course, but to show how silly something is, it is often best to take it to its logical conclusion. This post is a short, simple attempt at that exercise.

Before that, do they really mean they believe environmentalism is a religion? What they seem to mean is that it constitutes an unchecked belief in the primacy of the environment, a faith-based worldview that prefers the maintenance of the environment, that divides actions into sins and acts of virtue on the basis of how they apply to the environment, etc. So, yes. They apparently do believe it is a religion.

What results would come from recognizing environmentalism as a valid religion?

Start with employers. Employers typically have to make reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs. So Environmentalists would get Earth Day (22 April) off. But is that all? There are quite a large number of days dedicated to specific environmental issues. Some are more notable than others, like Arbor Day (last Friday in April). Some wouldn’t fit the bill at all, like Bike-to-Work Day (third Friday in May), as taking the day off would defeat the purpose.

Employers also might be required to take pro-environment steps to meet the religious accommodation requirements. Now, a truck driver probably couldn’t force an employer to replace a carbon-fueled truck with a H-powered truck or an electric truck, but to the extent that they could make modest changes to reduce the environmental burden, it might be required.

To the extent that it does not present an undue hardship on the employer, an Environmental religion practitioner would have the ability to proselytize during work. Some states have passed laws that allow pharmacists to not supply certain drugs for religious reasons. Environmentalists might be able to use those laws or similar laws to refuse to sell environmentally harmful products.

It would also increase the cost of compliance across the business world. Lawyers cost money, and they would be needed to deal with the increase in issues related to the Environmentalism religion. Public employees may also have additional religious rights that various governments would have to make accommodations for.

It should also be noted that given the Hobby Lobby decision, which did not establish a sweeping revision, but may point to further rulings in the future, Environmentalists might gain the right to not pay for childbirth and related healthcare, if they believe overpopulation is a burden to society and an affront to their religion.

Beyond employers, other current and future laws protecting religious freedom would also cover an Environmentalist religion. School vouchers and tax credits could be used to send children to Environmentalist schools. They would be eligible to give invocations or prayers at government meetings.

There is a massive interplay of regulation that would also have to be considered. For example, if a drug company had an environmentally intensive manner for the manufacture of a drug, would an Environmentalist be allowed to violate the patent protection to have it manufactured in an environmentally friendly manner? The issues go on.

Environmentalism is not a religion, but if it were it would result in a number of changes in society that the people who currently, naïvely claim it is a religion would no doubt bitch about. The same applies to any other silly claim that some thing x is a religion.

The Meaning of Efficiency

Every year we as a species get more efficient. For some meaning of efficient. There is a view of dealing with climate change, that it is fundamentally opposed to capitalism, full stop. That is, that capitalism causes climate change, as efficiency of extracting and using carbon-based fuels increases every year.

But that’s only one type of efficiency. Similar in the software world to increasing the speed of the hardware and memory available. Oldtimers of computing often lament that modern computing is so wasteful, when they were able to get so much out of so little. That’s another type of efficiency.

The environmental movement has its Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle, and sometimes others, like refuse. But capitalism is focused on its paycheck. An oil company doesn’t care about reducing oil use, as it won’t make them more money. They might care about not wasting oil, but only insofar as they make their employees care. If the CEO’s bonus stays the same whether waste is 1% or 5%, it will stay under 6%, but won’t be minimized.

Capitalism is predicated on every year being bigger. It’s built on the idea that corporations should last forever. The bank is not made out of biodegradable materials, because it expects to long endure. But nature doesn’t work that way. There are highs and lows, natural cycles. Technology can improve, but volumes, they must reach some physical limits.

We’ve had a glut of resources. It’s been cheaper to use more than to figure out how to get by with less. More land to grow and farm, chop down some forests. More ocean to dump trash. Bigger nets to fish with and more boats. And so on. We have seen modest gains in real efficiency, but mostly we have seen gains through more resource use.

Critics of capitalism claim the problem is capitalism itself. That it cannot be but a resource-hungry ever-growing beast. Proponents of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade believe, as do I, that the issue is realigning the monetary costs to reflect environmental reality. To think otherwise, those calling out capitalism might as well call out democracy, which I haven’t heard them do.

We have done it before. With chlorofluorocarbons, with lead, with the food additives that caused cancer, with meat packing, with child labor, and on. Capitalism, while rigid, can be made to care. The notion that this time is different, when we have successfully redressed our past problems without upending capitalism, does not follow.

We cannot have endless growth. We cannot pull all the carbon out of the ground. It will kill us. Indeed, we will need to shrink our population over time. But we can become more efficient, we can continue technological progress. We can do so responsibly. We can pick the right meaning of efficiency.

There may be other reasons to see more serious overhauls to capitalism (or democracy as we know it, for that matter) than simply making it care about carbon pollution. Some of the coming efficiencies via robotics may disrupt labor markets to a grave extent. If we do need to move on from capitalism, or retool it at a deeper level, so be it. In the mean time we need to work on facing the political realities that keep the status quo’s harms alive.