Response to John

It’s taken me a while to get to this…sorry about that.

As I said in my initial (very) brief email response, I’m not really knowledgeable about much of this to properly refute your points, even when my gut says they’re not correct. I’m going to do some research as I go, in an effort to find compelling evidence for one of our viewpoints. I’ll do my best not to be biased in that search. That said, I think it’s basically possible to find evidence for any viewpoint, and I haven’t figured out how to reconcile that issue with being 100% honest in my evidence-based arguments. A quote I got from my dad that is very related is:

For every Ph.D., there is an equal an opposite Ph.D.

That strikes me as very true.

Also, since it feels relevant to this conversation, let me out myself as someone who probably falls into the “radical leftist” camp that you mentioned. That said, I try very hard to understand the evidence/arguments on both sides of an argument before I pick one. I definitely have some views that most people on the far left would disagree with, even though I’m overall very far to that end of the spectrum. It makes me insane when people argue for a stance that they don’t understand. (I’m thinking about writing a blog post on this topic at some point).

Alright, on to the actual content.

Potential benefits of climate change

We went from a cruel world where 99% of the billion or so people were living in privation to a world of seven billion, most of whom have abundant resources to survive and thrive off of.

Agreed. Thought you might enjoy this page on the history of global living conditions from Our World in Data (who I definitely want to work with at some point).

It should be noted that the last few thousand years have had the lowest atmospheric carbon levels of all time - as in, during the entire almost 4 billion years of life on Earth.

If you’re willing to trust NOAA (which I am, generally), the below graph seems to indicate that the last few thousand years didn’t have the lowest atmospheric carbon levels of all time, although they were definitely at the bottom of a trough 10-15,000 years ago…but were closer to a peak than a trough circa 3,000 years ago.

Atmospheric CO2 over time, via NOAA

So while I disagree with some of your time periods there, I agree with this, given s/centuries/millenia/:

we have been coming out of an actual ice age for a few centuries now.

I also agree that the earth was already in the processing of warming, and also that humans have hugely accelerated that process. My intuition says that the change in rate of temperature change is roughly proportional to the rate of change in atmospheric CO2, although I’d have to do more research to verify that.

global forestation is actually at historical (human history, not all time) highs, with countries like Canada having more tree cover today than ever recorded.

I have not been able to find any data corroborating this, although I did many articles/studies saying that the rate of regrowth is outpacing the rate of deforestation (both globally and in high-latitude countries like Canada). If that trend continues for long eough, your statement above would certainly be true.

Your points on natural disasters are really interesting. After doing some research, I only found articles on the economic impact of natural disasters increasing, but no data about the frequency of the disasters themselves. Your explanation of the decreasing temperature differential between the poles and the equator does seem logical. I’m curious to read up on this more.

…in the case of Australia, the recent fires have actually been relatively weak compared to fires over the last 20 years, which have been much more intense and with much greater coverage at their peaks. The same applies to those Amazon rainforest fires a few months ago - they’re horrible, but actually lower than in recent years.

A few things here. My understanding is that a large part of why the fires in Australia were so notable was not that they were unusually large (although the media definitely hyped that part up), but rather that there were fires in unprecedented locations. A rainforest burned that had never before been dry enough to burn. Additionally, severe Australian fire seasons have historically come during an El Niño weather pattern, which was not the case this time.

It looks like you’re right about the Amazon fires―there were fewer total hotspots in 2019 than most years in the 2000s (although I’m curious to see the total burned area year-by-year).

Number of fires Brazil by year

the deaths due to extreme cold have decreased in a larger proportion than the deaths due to extreme heat have increased, therefore, the temperature change has been a net positive in this regard

This feels believable to me, and I agree that that would be a clear positive of warming. I do wonder how many deaths have been caused by increased CO2 levels, and if this position would still stand in that light. I also think that deaths due to heat are generally harder to prevent than deaths due to cold, so the relationship between cold deaths and heat deaths could change as the number of extreme heat events increases.

My main concern is that the greenhouse effect is about the rate of change, not the current level of heat.

Agreed. If we stopped warming at current levels, we’d be pretty fine (at least net, if not individually). That said, there have been a number of studies tying increased CO2 levels to lower brain performance, which is pretty worrisome.

Who says the temperature we had 200 years ago was ideal? Why not 5 degrees lower or higher?

If the ecosystem were able to adapt immediately, I would 100% agree with you. There’s no reason to think that recent (non-greenhouse-effect-induced) temperatures were ideal…but if temperatures changed by 5 degrees in a century or two, much of the world’s flora/fauna would be unable to evolve fast enough to survive, which makes that temperature from 200 years ago pretty ideal indeed.

As you can probably tell, I think anthropomorphic climate change is THE issue we need to be worrying about. I don’t think there’s a single larger threat to humanity in the coming decades/centuries. Climate change could also have massive second-order effects, like increased spread of diseases due to more favorable weather conditions, war/xenophobic policy due to mass migration, etc.

Anthropogenic warming

I can agree with your premise here that most of the warming going on isn’t from humans, since there’s tons of warming (and cooling) happening all the time. We also agree that the additional warming caused by human activities, on top of the existing warming, has accelerated thing. And I also can certainly accept that we’re coming out of a long cold period in the earth’s history. That said, though, has there been any period in the history of the earth where the temperature rose anywhere near this suddenly and drastically? Given that nothing else (as far as I know) has changed the planet as much or as quickly as humans, it seems safe to say that at least a significant portion of the rapid net warming we’re seeing is due to human activity. Changes in solar radiation, water vapor levels, etc are all contributors, but if there’s no precedent for changes of this time-intensity, I’m inclined to apply Occam’s Razor and look to humans as the reason for the extremely fast change in temperature.

As I said in the last section, I’m not trying to say that warming is a problem, full stop―I’m just saying that on this time scale, it’s an issue because nature won’t have time to adapt.

Renewables vs. Fission

This seems like something that you know more about the details of than I do, but I’ll try to respond as best I can.

  • I agree that there are huge issues with mining. Since it sounds like you have a lot of exposure to mines/mining: do you think it’s economically and technically possible to perform large-scale mining without major negative effects on the environment? Regardless, assuming we’re going to continue to mine metals in rapidly increasing quantities, figuring out ways to at least mitigate the environmental harm it causes seems like an important problem to tackle.

    I both admire and am a little perplexed by your certainty about the success of Redhaven. I admire it because I firmly believe that people who believe they’re going to be wildly successful are far more likely to be just that, and I’m perpelexed by it because there is currently a single company with revenue >$500B―Walmart, with 2.2 million employees―and only ~1% of that is profit. So saying what you said implies that by 2050, Redhaven would be by far the largest company on the planet (at least by today’s standards). That is extraordinarily ambitious, which I say not as an insult, but out of curiosity about where your confidence comes from.

  • Good point on the exponential increases here. This seems to be a trend throughout our correspondence (and many other important things), that things are changing/will change by orders of magnitude, not linearly. I’m sure you’ve seen Paul Graham harp on this before, but only really with COVID-19 has the significance of exponential growth become intuitively clear to me.

    I’m surprised to hear you say wind turbines aren’t recyclable. Do you mean that the materials used to make them can’t be recycled? If so, why not? I was under the impression that most large pieces of metal are recyclable. I think that figuring out how to do a much better job of recycling is going to help the world a lot, and make some people a huge amount of money…our current recycling methods seem ludicrously inefficient. Also, re: wind being worse than solar, at this point I sort of feel like we could use all the help we can get. Even if wind can only produce 1% as much power as solar, if we install large amounts of wind, it could be enough to power 10s of millions of people worldwide. The funny thing with talking on a global scale is that even very small changes in percentages can amount to life-changing differences for huge numbers of people.

  • I find your take on hydro interesting. I agree, that it’s a far less efficient/effective solution than most other renewables, but since it’s not that much work to put into place (especially if it’s only for generating energy and not storing it [aka not pumped hydro]), it feels like we might as well take advantage of it. Again, small percentages are meaningful in a large world.

[Solar is] certainly a lot cleaner and safer than [fossil fuels], and seems to be on track to being cheaper than those en mass. This does not however account for the cost of storage, which will completely invalidate the cheaper idea for the forseeable future.

I’ve seen some pretty convincing proposals for creating massive pumped storage, which could store a huge amount of energy storage. I agree that we definitely won’t have enough battery capacity anytime soon. There are also some interesting liquid hydrogen designs out there…the world can change very quickly when the right incentives are in place, and the incentives for creating new energy storage mechanisms are strong and getting stronger. With that in mind, I’m reluctant to say that renewables aren’t viable due to storage. But I see your point―it’ll take a while to create enough storage capacity to go fully renewable.

I was surprised by your numbers on deaths per kWh by energy source, so I looked it up. The first link I clicked on (from ourworldindata.org) had this chart:

Deaths per TWh by energy source

Which puts nuclear somewhere between 2x less and 6x more deadly than solar, depending which study on deaths from nuclear you look at. All that is to say, I simply don’t think there’s been enough deployment of nuclear OR renewables to say with any real confidence how deadly they would be if they were used on a large scale. It’s definitely important to know which is safer, but we don’t have a lot of ground to stand on at the moment on either side.

When we start talking about the specifics of nuclear, we’re definitely well past my knowledge levels, but I’ll share some general thoughts on what you said.

Nuclear as it stands today has some problems. First, nuclear waste. The idea that humans are capable of truly containing nuclear waste for the 10s (100s?) of thousands of years it takes to become non-toxic is laughable to me. Our track record on this kind of issue is truly awful, in part because the people in charge of disposing of the waste usually aren’t the ones who would be affected by their failure to contain it. Second, politics. Do you have any ideas of how to get around the political taboo that’s been put on nuclear? I don’t think that taboo is deserved, but it’s there, and many great technologies have been waylaid by lack of political support.

45,000x is a big improvement! I hope you’re correct, and I trust that you’ve done the R&D to be confident that your reactor design would really be as scalable and efficient as you say. But again, on the political front, how do you plan on convincing the public that this is really true? I don’t think that pitching most people on a) 45,000x efficiency improvements and b) asteroid mining as the reasons for the viability of your reactor is a good sell, because it’ll seem too good to be true and too sci-fi for the average person to accept. (I acknowledge that you said the thorium/uranium in seawater would last us on the order of 100,000-1,000,000 years, and I agree that for our current issues, that is plenty long enough. If humanity makes it another million years, I’d be somewhat surprised).

I hope you don’t take this as me shooting down your ideas, because I think they’re excellent ones. I’m just wondering how you’re going to make them work not just technologically, but culturally/politically. I don’t really believe in the “build it and they will come” mantra, because I think people are usually more complicated than that. I 100% hope that you’re right, and that your ideas will become reality. You seem much more likely to be able to make that happen than nearly anyone else I’ve spoken to.

Also, total side-note, but I just read up on Dyson spheres, and WOW is that an interesting idea. I doubt I’ll be alive for it if it ever happens, but that would be a sight to see. I’m interested in how the manufacturing for that would work…the sheer levels of production required would be mind-blowing.

Pollution, mental health, and education

  • I addressed your position on storms above, so I won’t repeat myself here. Also, re: CCS, I think that there might be some interesting innovations having to do with the actual carbon that’s captured if we ever do deploy massive CCS. I was wondering the other day if it might be possible to construct roads out of captured carbon.

  • Interesting point about the emissions thus far being worth it because of the number of people that have been lifted out of poverty as a result. I do wonder, though―if things did get as bad as the most extreme climate alarmists are saying, would social order break down, leaving more people destitute than could possibly have been born without the Industrial Revolution? And would that be worse than if those people hadn’t been born in the first place? I think probably not, but it’s an interesting thought experiment. I’ll admit it’s more of a philosophical question than a scientific one.

    Generally, I agree that your position is rational.

  • You may very well be right that toxins/carcinogens are killing people than warming, I’m not sure. But I think you’re overlooking two things here. That 2 degrees of warming (or whatever figure you want to choose) is a global average. The ocean is heating up slower than the land, so the average land temperature has gone up more than 2 degrees. Also, the second order effects of that warming (decreased biodiversity, food shortages, etc) could kill far more people than the pollution, or the warming itself, ever did.

  • Thanks for the clarification that your list of priorities was specifically climate change-focused. But yes, it’s interesting to see how the problems of middle-class people revolve largely around their mental health (even if their problems don’t propagate in a way that makes that obvious). I don’t exclude myself from this, even though I’m overall very lucky to have very supportive and kind people around me. I’m curious to see what we’ll find as more research is done on psychedelics…I’m pretty hopeful that research will continue to show that psychedelics can have huge benefits.

    I also believe some of the most important work here will be around figuring out how to make sure we continue to have close interpersonal relationships. It used to be that it wasn’t really possible for us to not have close interpersonal relationships, but especially in first-world countries it’s decreasingly necessary. It’s pretty easy to go to work, cook, etc all without really being with anyone. This is something I’ve struggled with. I get antsy when I stay in one place for too long, but constantly being in different places makes it hard to form close relationships. I don’t say this to complain (I have more close friends than I could reasonably ask for), but just to give an example of how it’s easy to overlook relationships in favor of work or other pursuits.

  • I think the number one thing we can do to improve education is to encourage kids to pursue learning on their own, whether that be in brick-and-mortar schools or online. IMO, western schools churn out factory workers accustomed to doing what they’re told, not independent and innovative thinkers.

Redhaven

Interesting to hear how you’re approaching school. I’ve heard of other people doing similar things. It takes a level of self-discipline that I don’t think I’ve reached yet, but I’m getting there. I also have so many interests (as I’ve mentioned before) that I find it hard to focus on just a few things, although software definitely gets the bulk of my time.

How’d you find your team? Is it mostly young people? I guess you said you hadn’t experienced much age-ism, but I could imagine older people being reluctant to work for someone y(our) age. Is your team exclusively focused on Redhaven, or do you have employees on the software side too?

You’re right that it’s important to ensure that technology like this ends up in the right hands. The DOE seems like the exact place that this sort of funding is supposed to come from, and I’ve heard that they’ll often give grants to very early-stage companies. I believe that Otherlab companies have gotten a lot of funding there.

I’ve been interested by Patrick Collison’s fast list and the dicussions I’ve seen around it. A lot of people have pointed out that the reason that it was more possible to complete ambitious projects quickly in the past (and still is, in places like China) is because the people in charge were a lot less worried about the safety of the people working for them. And things like eminent domain, which China invokes a lot by my understanding, disproportionately affects impoverished people. Do you see ways to get around those hurdles without humanitarian problems? Do you have a different explanation altogether?


Again, thanks for taking the time to put together a comprehensive response to all these questions. If you get the chance to respond to the personal stuff, I’d be interested to hear it. I’ve sort of blended the personal and business stuff together in this response a bit, because I try to look at those two things as pretty intertwined. I’m a (sometimes excessively) introspective person, and work priorities seem to go hand in hand with personal beliefs and experience.

Jesse