The 2020 Climate Forums, Part 1

Seven hours (minus commercial time) of candidate town halls on climate change.

What I wanted to see was realism, ideas, passion, and purpose on the issues of the climate. I saw a lot of that from almost all the candidates. Plans are something we need to see move through congress, and just because a candidate has a good plan doesn’t mean that happens. But, taken as a starting point, they are still useful and the candidates did a lot to discuss where they’re coming from.

Here’s a ranking of how I saw the candidates who participated. The ranking is in terms of the ideas they brought that differed from the pack, positive or negative, but not as an overall view of their plans. In general, all of their plans are good, particularly compared to inaction, and we need to act. The = # preceding a name means a tie.

  1. Booker
  2. = 1 Warren
  3. Yang
  4. Buttigieg
  5. = 4 O’Rourke
  6. Castro
  7. = 6 Harris
  8. = 6 Sanders
  9. Biden
  10. = 9 Klobuchar

I appreciated Booker and Yang speaking about the role of nuclear power. It’s not a perfect technology, and we should handle the waste responsibly by having a permanent repository, whether that’s Yucca Mountain or somewhere else. But it is carbon-neutral, and it cannot be ignored in our immediate and pressing need to deal with the problem of putting out too much carbon. Those who spoke against it, or who seemed to suggest that a permanent repository is a non-starter seem to deny the fact we already have a wealth of radioactive waste to store, and that even if we phased out all nuclear yesterday, we would still have the responsibility to handle that waste. They lost a point, accordingly.

Booker also spoke credibly on a number of other initiatives including farming, reforestation, and his record as mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

Warren spoke out on the need to do carbon-trade balancing—accounting for carbon in imports and exports, which is important. But she lost half a point for suggesting that all American-invented technologies related to climate would be exclusively manufactured in the USA. If we should eat local, we should also manufacture local, or at least leave the door open to it. (This will happen eventually as automation and fabrication technologies shift, but in the meantime we need to cut carbon more than we need trade protection. Licensing patents and technologies would allow us to spend the fees on other means to create jobs.)

Yang got a half-point for kind-of-implying the need for a treaty on geoengineering, which is something that is necessary and would include the fact that climate change and carbon pollution are already a form of geoengineering, as unintentional as it may be.

Buttigieg, in a question about his use of private flights in campaigning, spoke about the need for ground transportation including trains. Rail is important, so he got a point for that. The fact is that even the airlines should want us to build out rail, so they can save money on vouchers and have improved throughput by having a fully functioning, diverse transportation system. Everyone who complains about leg room or baggage fees should be in favor of rail.

O’Rourke was the only one who favored cap and trade over a direct carbon tax. There are arguments both ways, and either is useful, but I think there are some market effects possible with cap and trade that can be missed with direct taxes. On the other hand, there are hybrid approaches possible. The main downside of the tax approach seems to be that companies will seek to conglomerate on the basis of the tax rather than any inherent economic need, which can worsen an existing and awful feature of our corporate tax code. In any case, point for not bandwagoning on the tax.

Castro lost a point for suggesting that flood insurance should be subsidized in a way that suggested moral hazard. We can’t do that. We just can’t. There are other moves to make for folks who live in places that are no longer viable, but embracing it is simply folly.

Harris also spoke against nuclear power and waste. She did highlight some of her achievements as a district attorney and attorney general.

Sanders was among the candidates who stated unequivocally that some houses shouldn’t be rebuilt, and we have to face that fact. It’s part of the larger issue around rural-vs-urban and balancing freedom and subsidy in ways that make sense, some of which are climate-related and others of which are just fundamental issues we’ve never really worked out as a nation. For example, in some places farmers commute to the farm, rather than living there. On the other hand he was one of the more expressedly opposed to nuclear power. Again, it has problems, but it’s just not reasonable to condemn it given the challenge.

Biden’s main problem is this fundraiser with a fossil-fuel-tied host. That and he didn’t really seem to have a lot to say on the issue beyond a kind of “trust me” outlook.

Klobuchar lost points for her stances on nuclear power and fracking. While natural gas is better than coal when responsibly extracted, it’s not great and there’s plenty of evidence that it’s not responsibly extracted in too many cases. If the industry wants to be a bridge, it needs to show itself to be a safe one, not a rickety one. She did a good job talking about the opportunities with farms, as did several other candidates.


The climate is a big deal, and the Democratic candidates have set themselves apart from the Republicans by showing themselves to be thoughtful and studious on the issues. The challenge will come in implementing any of their plans, should a Democrat be inaugurated in 2021. But that’s always been a challenge, so long as Republicans have denied reality. It’s hard to move a couch when the other person carrying it doesn’t believe in the stairs.

In general, the 2020 Democratic candidates form a healthy slate. Most of the candidates are worth considering, and it’s hard to pick a favorite out of the pack. We will see how the debate goes this Thursday, and one hopes a few of the climate issues (maybe nuclear power, for example) can be brought up to help the candidates further explain how they approach the issue.

As to plans, they will be changed to become law. And they will be changed after they are law. Some changes good, others bad. There will be mistakes and unexpected wins, both. But we have to act on it. The Republicans fail to even propose plans on many of the pressing issues of the day, where for every single one there will be at least a few Democratic proposals.

That failure is a fundamental problem for our nation. The Republicans that cannot plan cannot lead. And yet there they are, in the driver’s seat of our nation, pressing nobs, turning buttons, and doing a whole lot of damage and nothing particularly useful. It is a shame.

Toward a Candidate Consensus on Climate

The climate is a foundational issue. Beto O’Rourke deserves praise for putting a policy out there. Jay Inslee deserves credit for making it the central issue of his campaign.

The basic problem isn’t hard to understand. We burn carbon fuels, and that releases CO₂. The carbon accumulates in the atmosphere, warming the planet. It accumulates in the oceans, making them more acidic. We have to burn less carbon.

Given we still want to have stuff from far away, and that transportation is one of the largest sources of pollution, transportation is a big target to change. Electrification of transport, coupled with renewable generation of electricity, is the logical step toward carbon neutrality.

But we also know that humans are stubborn, particularly wealthy humans that make a lot of money selling carbon. Economists recognized that getting them to go along is difficult because they can simply lie about the science, buy politicians (or even the whole Republican Party), and stall any real change. So, economists propose a variety of pricing systems, whereby carbon emissions are priced.

Think of it like a gold rush. Someone shouts, “There’s gold in them-thar hills,” everyone goes for it. Already there’s some gold in decarbonizing, but there’s less than there would be if the actual costs of carbon were recognized as part of the economy. By adopting some form of carbon pricing, the greed of man is leveraged to turn gas guzzlers into sippers or even into electrics or hydrogen fuelcells.

Think of it like a tower-building contest. Right now, the contestants are paid per foot, so if you have a tower that’s barely over one foot-mark, it would take more effort to get to the next one. By pricing carbon, it’s like changing it to being paid by the inch. If you can add six inches, it doesn’t make another foot, but it’s still worth it. And you add up all the six-inch additions that all the tower-builders can add, and it’s a lot more than if just a few of them could add a whole foot.


But the main thing is focus. We need leaders, both in the White House and in the congress, who will speak often about the need to address the issue. It’s time for legislation. It’s time to reject anyone who calls it a Chinese hoax.

The consensus is to make carbon more expensive, and in doing so to make alternatives, including reductions in use, clean energy, and carbon sequestration more attractive.

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.