Cassandras and What to Do About Them

In their recent book Warnings, former US national security advisors Richard Clarke and R.P. Reddy take an evidence-based approach to identifying persons they call Cassandras. Cassandras are credible forecasters, with solid track records in their fields, who warn of coming existential threats, based on irrefutable data. The book combines case histories of previous Cassandras who were ignored, and current Cassandra scenarios.

A Celebration Society treats many such threats as real and needful of action. Clarke and Reddy argue that governments should spend many additional billions of dollars addressing these threats. However, in today’s world, their proposal may prove sadly unrealistic. If so, what’s to be done?

Fortunately, in at least some cases, the threats can be reframed from cost sinks to profit centers. There is perhaps no better example than that of climatologist James Hansen. Hansen was the original cassandra who warned us of climate change when most were oblivious to the threat. His warnings have generally proven accurate.

Now, Hansen is warning us that present forecasts of 21st century sea level rise are far too conservative. His models show an estimated 5+ meter sea level rise, which would devastate low-lying nations. Considering that even among other nations, most population and industrial centers are coastal, this is truly a threat of global proportions.

The widely hailed Paris Accords have a huge flaw. They lack an enforcement mechanism. Given the budgetary pressures under which nearly all governments operate, it is unlikely that they will spend the money necessary to avert Hansen’s dire forecast, until the threat is literally lapping at their shores.

By then it may be too late. The cost of curing the problem will be far higher than that of preventing it. Is there another way; one that makes mitigation possible without having unrealistic expectations of governments?

Yes! We can turn CO2 mitigation from a cost sinkhole into a profit center. We only need one viable way to do so, and then it can proliferate until CO2 levels actually start to fall.

One such approach is called “Diamonds from the Sky” (or DFTS). According to the American Chemical Society (See: http://bit.ly/2uiVCAw, the process can be deployed worldwide. Says lead researcher Prof. Stuart Licht of George Washington University, ““We calculate that with a physical area less than 10 percent the size of the Sahara Desert, our process could remove enough CO2 to decrease atmospheric levels to those of the pre-industrial revolution within 10 years”.

To my knowledge, no one has disputed the technical viability of DFTS. Some environmentalists have criticized its “moral hazard”. In their view, by suggesting that a technological fix is possible, we grant license to polluters to continue their ways. I consider such criticism foolish.

The CO2 problem is getting worse, not better. Decades of cajoling governments, industry, and the public have failed to stop the rise. When the building is on fire, people should do whatever is necessary to put out the fire. Later, there will be time to explore better safety standards.

Unlike large-scale “geoengineering solutions” such as seeding the oceans with iron particles, this solution carries no side effects except the proliferation of small collector units and increased supplies of carbon fibers. If atmospheric CO2 levels ever drop too precipitously (imagine that!), these units can be dialed down, as required.
While the researchers speak of covering 1/10 of the Sahara Desert in these collectors, that’s probably not the practical way to implement this. Instead, imagine a successor to the Paris Accords, in which each nation agrees to use DFTS or equivalent technology to fulfill its treaty promises. Units could be deployed on rooftops, the sides of buildings, and alongside roads. Again, these would be profit centers. Many new jobs would be created for fiber collectors, at least until it is automated.

Carbon-based fuels will stop being burned when the economics no longer justify their burning. That is already starting to happen. (See: “Oil Can’t Compete With Renewables, Says National Bank of Abu Dhabi” http://bit.ly/2sBMh4X)

DFTS offers a promising and potentially viable way to arrest the damage before countless additional species go extinct. As the world shifts from its present scarcity-based mindset and practices to sustainable abundance, most of the scarcity-based problems will disappear. This should take decades, not centuries. Those who think otherwise fail to appreciate the exponential rate of change now governing almost everything of note on the planet.

Clarke and Reddy have ingeniously started a $10,000 annual prize to identify Cassandras and create awareness of their envisioned threats. That’s half the challenge. The other half is to identify viable technologies to address those threats. This is a key part of A Celebration Society. The book documents existing solutions to multiple seemingly intractable problems.

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