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Book review: Cold Cash, Cool Climate by Jonathan Koomey

Posted on 1 April 2013 by John Cook

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it."
Alan Kay

Jonathan Koomey's new book Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-Based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs puts forth an intriguing idea – entrepreneurs are one of the keys to meaningful, timely climate action. Society needs to make drastic changes to avoid dangerous global warming. However, institutions such as the government and big business only change slowly and incrementally, except under exceptional circumstances.

Koomey argues forcefully that it's the very nature of entrepreneurs that make them an important part of the solution.  While institutions often fear and resist change, entrepreneurs embrace it. The changes required are so large, no part of the economy will be untouched. Most people look at the enormity of this issue and despair. But entrepreneurs are famously scornful of the phrase “it can’t be done” and see opportunity.

This is not to say entrepreneurs are the magic bullet. One of the key points that Koomey makes is that we need to be addressing climate change on many fronts. The key to speeding up the change is to make the systems that are causing the climate problem obsolete more quickly. What entrepreneurs do is develop replacements that are so much better than to existing ways of doing things that people are willing to "upgrade" to gain the advantages of the new technology.

Koomey uses salt as a metaphor. In the old days, salt was indispensable for preserving meat. Then it was made obsolete by a new technology: refrigeration. We need to turn fossil fuel into salt. To achieve this, Koomey runs through a core set of springboard ideas, include a focus on whole system design, the concept of "working forward toward a goal", the critical role of energy efficiency, the importance of accurate emissions inventories, the use of information technology to accelerate institutional change, and the coming explosion in ultra-low-power sensors that scavenge power from light, heat, motion or even stray radio signals.

Now I must confess, economics and business opportunities are not really my forte. However, there's plenty of science in there to sink your teeth into. The first few chapters outline the science in a user-friendly, readable manner, explaining what's happening to our climate and the reasons why we need serious, significant action and fast. My ears did prick up when I reached Chapter 7: Talking to Skeptics. You'll have to indulge me if I excerpt the section titled “There’s an app for that”:

The single most important web site for addressing claims of climate deniers is Skeptical Science. It lists every argument made by the deniers and summarizes what the peer-reviewed scientific literature says about the topic. In fact, Skeptical Science even has apps for iOS, Android, and Nokia phones, so you can access it while on the move. This is especially handy when you’re at a party and someone makes an incorrect statement about climate—you can then quickly find the exact issue and show why their concern is unfounded. John Cook has also summarized some of the key arguments about climate science in teaching materials that are now being translated into many languages and has also recently completed The Debunking Handbook, which is a short summary of how to most effectively respond to the denier’s claims.

Koomey also suggests a higher-level approach that he’s found particularly effective:

If you hear someone using such talking points, try asking the speaker these questions: “Do you feel qualified to judge the current findings of the science on combustion, or gravity, or quantum physics? No? Why then do you opine on a topic that is equally complex but upon which you have no more mastery? Why do you think your judgment on these complex issues is the equal of that of people who have studied the topic for decades?”

Typically the speaker will reply with some statement of authority, like “I’ve studied engineering for years”, or “I’m a weather forecaster”, or “my uncle Joe the physicist said so”. Such responses are beside the point. Unless the speaker is an expert in the field, their opinions should be given no more weight than any other uninformed observer. Would you ask your allergist about the heart surgery your cardiologist recommends?

This book is written for entrepreneurs who are looking for business opportunities in climate change, with Koomey acting in the role of the scientific advisor to a start-up company. But while the book is about technological and business innovation, it ends with the important thought that innovation of our values is also important. Changing the way we think about our responsibility to each other and future generations is just as powerful as new technologies in opening up new possibilities.

Jonathan Koomey's book Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-Based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs is also available as a Kindle ebook.

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Comments 1 to 7:

  1. Koomey also suggests a higher-level approach that he’s found particularly effective:

    If you hear someone using such talking points, try asking the speaker these questions: “Do you feel qualified to judge the current findings of the science on combustion, or gravity, or quantum physics? No? Why then do you opine on a topic that is equally complex but upon which you have no more mastery? Why do you think your judgment on these complex issues is the equal of that of people who have studied the topic for decades?”

    Typically the speaker will reply with some statement of authority, like “I’ve studied engineering for years”, or “I’m a weather forecaster”, or “my uncle Joe the physicist said so”. Such responses are beside the point. Unless the speaker is an expert in the field, their opinions should be given no more weight than any other uninformed observer. Would you ask your allergist about the heart surgery your cardiologist recommends?

    Given the above advice, it is difficult to reconcile with other quotes found on this site;

    "In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it." Richard Feynman

    or

    Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. - Richard Feynman

    or

    Kevin C at 00:44 AM on 23 March, 2013

    If it does not have the same title (or has revisions), then presumably the recursive fury paper will need to be withdrawn?

    Papers are not retracted for requiring minor clarifications, or even for being subsequently shown to be completely wrong. Papers are retracted for serious misconduct or fraud.

    So the author wants us to trust the experts only.  But Feynman says to trust the experiments, and that experts can be wrong.

    Kevin C has pointed out that even peer reviewed papers can be wrong, and not withdrawn.

     

    So obviously, the answer is not that simple.

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  2. Kevin,

    The obvious question is "Who is an expert?". We accept advice from range of "experts" all the time, in fields where we have reduced competence - doctors, lawyers, car mechanics, plumbers, dieticians, gym coaches, tax accountants, counsellors, ...

    If we apply Feynman's principle across the board, and eschew consultation with any expert, it actually makes modern life impossible. You might prefer to put Feynman's quotation in some context.

    https://sphaerica.wordpress.com/2010/08/07/the-ignorance-of-experts/

    The way I suggest to get around Feynman is of course to build up a "jury" of trusted experts. In his book Nonsense on Stilts (reccommended), philosopher and scientist Massimo Piglucci suggests criteria for experts:

    • Examine the experts arguments logically
    • Is there agreement with other experts ?
    • Is there independent evidence of expertise (qualifications)?
    • Examine possible biases.
    • What is the track record of the expert?

    This is as simple as getting a second opinion from a doctor or a mechanic. One, of course, one must still Trust, but Verify!, and there is no guarantee of error in a particular case.

    The above list is an expansion of Koomey's question.

    It is also disappointing to see Richard Feynman elevated to the level of infallible sage, a role he would have abhorred. We are as entitled to be as sceptical about Feynman's nostrums as about anyone's.

     

     

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  3. @Kevin:  @shoyemore has given an excellent response, but I wanted to describe my own views on this.  I'm the last person to unquestioningly adhere to the statements of any authority, and I'm all for questioning conclusions of all types, if that questioning is done in an informed manner.  The technique I describe is meant to get people to think about why they think questioning climate science is OK when they don't know the first thing about the topic.  I vividly recall a video in which a questioner in Australia tried to lecture my friend Stephen Schneider about how climate forcings were logarithmic and that this somehow invalidated the whole of climate science (wrong on multiple levels, and Stephen put the questioner in her place).  The questioner would never have done this for a physicist lecturing on gravity, and I want to get people to think about why they think climate change is any different.  From the perspective of a lay person, it isn't much different--there is extensive peer review, and errors are uncovered and corrected over time, just like for all other science.  The incentives are the same as for other areas of science as well, so if they trust that science and related engineering (and they largely should, since it allows technological devices and systems to operate correctly) then they should trust the climate science also.

    Of course, nothing will get in the way of a hard core denier believing what they want to believe, but we all need to find new and different ways to get the people who are "reachable" to rethink their beliefs.  This technique has worked well for me in my lectures, but something different might work better for you.  No one approach will work for all audiences, of course.

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  4. Kevin:

    So the author wants us to trust the experts only. But Feynman says to trust the experiments, and that experts can be wrong.

    Kevin C has pointed out that even peer reviewed papers can be wrong, and not withdrawn.

    There are two pretty fundamental points here. Let's start with the last one and work back.

    It is a common mistake of readers here, and sometimes even authors, to assume that because something is in the peer-reviewed literature it is right. That is clearly false. Just count the proportion of scientific papers (in any field) which are disagreeing with a previous paper and you can see that actually a significant proportion of peer-reviewed papers (in any field) must be wrong.

    The distinctive feature of the peer-reviewed literature is that by publishing in the peer-reviewed literature you are taking part in a social interaction which has evolved to select good information from bad. Not primarily at the review stage (which is just an initial junk filter), but in the long term response to a paper, which is crudely measured by citations and more accurately by review papers and consensus. (Hence my arugment that we need sociology as well as philosophy of science.)

    Therefore, if someone cites the existance a peer-reviewed paper on either side of the argument as settling an issue, you are right to call them on it. So papers on their own don't settle issues. However, Feynman is no help either, because most of the systems we are interested in are sufficiently complex than any experimental result requires interpretation within the framework of thousands of other results, which are usually more conveniently summarised in terms of theories. To work from experiments alone requires you to rediscover modern science from scratch.

    So either you need to study the literature sufficiently to be able to form a clear picture of the shape of the field, the areas where multiple lines of evidence agree and those where they disagree, the robustness of different observations, the potential confounding factors, and the diversity of opinion and its evolution over time. Something which in my own field took me (I guess) a decade of full time effort, although the process has continued since.

    In other words, the development of expertise. So either you need to become an expert, or trust an expert. Now of course anyone can claim to be an expert without putting in the effort to obtain that expertise. So how are we to tell a real expert from a fake one? The most effective method to have evolved so far is on the basis of contribution to the field.

    This is the same for every field of science. Journals are edited by and grants are awarded by panels recuited from the most prominent contributors to a field. This works because scientists tend to think rather highly of their own ability, are mostly in pretty rigorous competition with one another, and are therefore more than willing to demolish one-anothers work if it has weaknesses. Again, this is true in every field. If you want evidence that the same is true in climate science, read the climategate emails.

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  5. "...entrepreneurs are one of the keys to meaningful, timely climate action. Society needs to make drastic changes to avoid dangerous global warming. However, institutions such as the government and big business only change slowly and incrementally, except under exceptional circumstances."

     

    Funny. 

    I view the nearly unquestioned universal paradigm that new renewable energy development should or must be developed or encouraged through the 'free' market system - a system dominated by carbon interests - to be the major reason that America's transition to a renewable energy future has been such a spectaculer failure to date. Solar makes up less than 1% of our energy generation.  CO2 emissions are almost as high as ever.

     

    The least expensive and most expeditious paradigm to deploy new renewables would be large-scale publicly funded installations.  But I have yet to see a single blog post - anywhere - on the blogosphere devoted to this topic.   Methinks the carbon fuel industry is very happy to keep the national discussion exactly where it has always been - on smale-scale rooftop solar and local wind farms, where the burden of financing crushes most implementation.

     

    Strange is this newfangled aversion to using Federal monies to solve national predicaments, because large-scale Federal programs have been very successful in the past. The Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to millions of households in the twenties.

     

    Hoover Dam was not financed by tax incentives to homeowners. The National Interstate Highway System was not constructed by offering low-interest short-term loans to driveway paving companies so they could lay asphalt in thirty-foot long projects. No, these projects were successful because they were ideally sited, had huge economies of scale, and the financing was borne not on the shoulders of individuals, but shared collectively. So, I feel,  should be our national energy future.

     

     

     

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  6. Gingerbreaker,

    Perhaps you should read the current post on government subsidies on fossil fuels.  Don't you think renewables should be treated the same?

    How were the railroads financed anyway?  Oh yeah, they were financed by the government land give aways.  I guess it just depends how you want your tax dollars spent.

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  7. "Perhaps you should read the current post on government subsidies on fossil fuels. Don't you think renewables should be treated the same?"



    No, I don't.


    Subsidies, tax rebates, incentives etc have failed to encourage the 'free' market to produce a significant amount of renewable energy infrastructure fast enough.  I think if we are going to spend tax monies to build infrastructure, let's skip the recalcitrant middleman, and use tax dollars directly on infrastructure projects.


    What I would like to see is a Federal Renewable Energy Utility at best, and large-scale solar and wind projects at the least. Let's bypass the so-called free market and build the infrastructure we need for tomorrow - today.

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Fixed paragraph formatting.

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