Summer 2020 — the West Coast was on fire. You could drive for dozens of hours and see fires and smoke non-stop. People that had the means and the flexibility escaped elsewhere — and by “escaping” I mean, going from staying at home in one house to another in the midst of a global pandemic. One day of this period culminated in the entire Bay Area sky lighting up an eery, apocalyptic, Mars orange — an unsubtle omen for the years to come.

In a somewhat frenzied attempt to get my head around the situation I wanted to learn more about what we are doing to fight climate change (I was ashamedly ignorant). The more I learned, the more I underwent an emotional rollercoaster of hope and despair. In many ways the problem was a lot more tractable than I thought — there are many thousands of brilliant people working on mitigations around the world. However, the pace of change and adaptability is undoubtedly too slow and too small to meet the challenge.

What is going on here? What is going to happen? Is there a way for us to combat climate change and if so, why aren’t we doing it? And if we can’t get our act together in time (which looks almost certain), what then?

I am writing this post because I think we need to start preparing for a world with climate change. It’s likely we aren’t going to “solve climate change” and I don’t see anyone discussing this.

This post started small but has become much longer than I expected, so here’s a summary:

[Part 1] Climate change’s impact is catastrophic and will continue for the rest of our lives and our kids lives. It looks almost certain we won’t be able to mitigate it sufficiently which means we should start preparing to adapt to a climate change world (e.g., preparing for tens of millions of humans displaced and hundreds of millions with impacted habitability). [Part 2] For both adaptation & for continued mitigation we need to be able to get much faster at building, but unfortunately we have a sclerotic government in the US that impedes this. This is somewhat by design but is a problem in a world of climate change. [Part 3] To address this we need to change government to enable rapid building primarily by ending vetocracies and streamlining decision making. If we are unable to do so, we will continue down our current path of a cyberpunk future of high & low tech / fast progress and decay; a world where it becomes easier to build a spaceship than to fix a commuter rail.

If you are curious to learn more, read on…

PART 1

Climate change: It’s bad. Really, really bad

Let’s begin with how much of a boiling pot of water we’re in. If you’re like me, you know climate change is bad but maybe you gloss over the details. You read articles about how terrible it is. You watch some movies. You follow the news. You see the glaciers melting. But the details escape you and at times it sounds hyperbolic.

Surely it can’t be as bad as we make it out to be, right? We have more electric cars. We have more renewable energy. In 2020 people didn’t leave their houses as much. Various countries are making energy target goals and saying they will do X by year Y. Aren’t we at least on track?

No.

Not even close.

And unfortunately the more you learn, the bleaker it gets.

There are many great resources that explain all the details but let me do a very high level tour of the situation.

The canonical reference for stats on climate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — “the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change.” The number that comes up all the time in climate discussion is how many degrees warmer is the world from “pre-industrial levels” (defined as 1850–1900). According to the IPCC, right now we’re at about 1° above average. We’re almost certainly going to 1.5° between 2030–2052.

Every half degree matters — a lot. Right now the goal is to keep below 2° from pre-industrial levels because if we don’t then really bad things happen all around the world. If we don’t keep it below this level, it’s “essentially impossible” to stop a continuous, calamitous rise.

To not get to 2° we need to do really hard things like reduce CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030 and net zero by 2050. To do this need to bring coal down from 40% of energy used to 1–7%. This includes giant changes like shutting down and replacing “all of the 200 remaining coal-burning power plants” in the US, increasing battery-powered cars to 50% of new cars sold from 2% in 10 years, etc.

Let me repeat that real quick: the way we achieve these goals (and stay below 2° to avert absolutely terrible climate change) requires us to basically stop using coal for energy (the largest single source of power generation in the world) in just a few decades (or to reduce greenhouse production by a similar amount by other means). That’s an extremely, extremely tall order.

If we don’t do this, it’s going to get bad as soon as 2040. That’s less than 20 years from now. And yes, this means way worse than today which is already full of catastrophes around the world.

By the way, the 2° figure? That’s just average. Some estimates are way worse. The US Army estimates the Arctic will increase 3–6° by 2050! It also gets worse because if we don’t do enormous feats, it will just keep rising — potentially up to 2.8° to 3.2° average by 2100. Of course no one knows what will happen by 2100 since we are heading into completely unknown territory…

What does this look like around the world? The next many decades (likely the rest of your life, dear reader) you’ll see a combination of quick and slow catastrophes in different parts of the world: massive droughts, heat waves that result in mass casualties, dwindling water supplies, disrupted food supplies, energy disruptions (aka brownouts), ocean acidification, wildfires, floods, hurricanes, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. On this last point, sea level rise estimates vary but could be 6–20 feet in our kids lifetimes.

Climate change is going to be so crazy that we’ll continue to see events beyond anything we’ve ever experienced.

Many of these natural disasters will cascade, triggering other natural disasters and resulting in human displacement — i.e., mass migrations and refugees. The World Bank estimates there are hundreds of millions of people at risk of displacement. [1]

One example of this cascading is the “blue ocean event” where the Arctic could be ice-free within the next 20 years. This will then trigger a number of other changes as “there will be nothing to prevent the arctic waters from rising above freezing [- the latent heat] will produce knock-on cascading warming for the globe and weather chaos. This means, in effect, that the Northern Hemisphere’s air conditioner would fail.”

In case it’s not obvious, the impact will also be super pronounced in the United States: as Pro-Publica reports, “between 2040 and 2060 extreme temperatures will become commonplace in the South and Southwest, with some counties in Arizona experiencing temperatures above 95 degrees for half the year.”

One of the more chilling articles on how bad it’s all going to get is from the US Army War College. Their clear-eyed report on climate recites the litany of catastrophes that await us and then expands it with even more worries that are less frequently mentioned: salt water intrusion in water supply, power grid failures, modified insect patterns can increase disease transmission, disruptions to various energy supply chains (e.g., tritium production needed for nuclear power plants), wars in the Arctic… The US Army goes so far as having a scenario plan where half of Bangladesh is displaced.

While we can try to not make it worse, the world’s climate has changed and will continue to change for the decades to come. Will there be millions or tens of millions of climate refugees? How much will food supply chains be disrupted? How fast will sea levels rise? It’s not a question of if. It’s only question now of degree.

What do we do? There’s not a lack of ideas…

So the first thought after the gravity of the situation sinks in is: what can we do? Do people have ideas? How are we going to fix this thing?

Turns out there are tons of brilliant people out in the world working through this with lots and lots of ideas. The ideas span the gamut from smaller scale “just do less of what we’re doing today” to the vastly more radical. People have been shouting about this for decades…

If you keep looking the ideas are everywhere: there are many groups proposing new technologies for non-carbon power, and many ways to capture CO2 from the air. Some other ideas include reducing AC Emissions (turns out HFCs that power air conditioning units are thousands of times worse than CO2), high efficiency farming, marine permaculture, and geothermal energy. Then there’s much more radical ideas around seastedding (i.e., creating new homes on the ocean), underwater cities, and the list goes on…

One giant list of solutions is “Project Drawdown.” This group assesses climate solutions and they have an enormous list of plans for how to reduce greenhouse gases with existing tech and expanded resources. They have plans to reduce the amount of carbon we create and then add various “carbon sinks” to absorb carbon that is left.

The issue is therefore not a lack of ideas. The issue is these changes are not happening at scale. Countries around the world are failing at making big enough changes to meet the goals we need to mitigate climate change.

To get a sense for how far off we are, there are also more systemic proposals for carbon taxing. Under these proposals to really make the change needed according to IPCC we need to price a ton of CO2 at $200 by 2030 and $690–$27,000 by 2100. The proposal under Trump was $7/ton. Under Obama it was $50. That’s an enormous gap from what the challenge requires.

While the mitigation challenges are large, they still need to be pursued. Continuing our current emissions trajectory globally is a recipe for even more catastrophic outcomes if we can’t keep the temperature in check in the coming years. Every fraction of a degree in global temperature matters and if we don’t pursue massive mitigations a world of 3° or more increase is one so dire we don’t even want to contemplate it.

But unfortunately, the gap between the impending reality of climate change and what we are actually doing to mitigate it is too large. It seems increasingly likely that it’s just going to get worse which means that while we need to continue pursuing climate change mitigations, we need to also start preparing for a world of climate change adaptation.

But what does this mean?

Adapting to climate change

As this summer on the West Coast showed, the consequences of large scale natural disasters can be far reaching. People in California found themselves without anywhere to go to escape when Oregon and Washington also were on fire. For over a thousand miles along the coast there were wildfires and smoke-filled skies.

What do you do if there’s nowhere to go?

The West Coast is not an exception. The whole world is impacted in one way or another. Temperatures in many areas will be too warm and humid to be inhabitable at times. We are expected to see more and more “super temperatures.”

Nobody knows how to deal with this.

On my search for good resources on how humans should build for rapid climate change adaptation, I came up empty. Plenty of links on how bad things are but no plans for what to do when it happens. The closest I found to adaptation was this passage in Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Field Notes from a Catastrophe” and it was fatalistic. When asked how to adapt if droughts get as bad as predicted, the expert in the book says:

“Well, if that happens, forget it. There’s just no way [we] could deal with that. […] But let’s say it’s not that severe. What adaptation are we talking about? Adaptation in 2020? Adaptation in 2040? Adaptation in 2060? Because the way the models project this, as global warming gets going, once you’ve adapted to one decade, you’re going to have to change everything the next decade.

In other words, the best we can do to adapt in a world of climate change is to become faster and better at changing. We’ll have to relocated large numbers of people and constantly re-adapt our environments. This all requires us being faster at building.

For adapting to huge human displacements, we need to be faster at building temporary and permanent housing along with being much faster at building every part of infrastructure we require for daily living (e.g., transportation, sewage, electricity, food, water). Climate change estimates are usually in the tens of millions displaced with hundreds of millions impacted. This will represent a continued increase over the already growing number of forcibly displaced worldwide (70M+as of 2019).

We also need to be able to adapt to increased temperatures and rapid shifts in weather: this means building better air conditioning; building faster desalination and cheap non-carbon energy sources to power it; building to stabilize our food supplies in changing temperatures; building to adapt to rising tide levels (e.g., preventative building); and build replacements to human activities at high temperatures for when humans can’t go outside.

Others will have better and more specific ideas. My main point isn’t to list them but to mention that we need to move into adaptation mode and accelerate development on dozens of fronts at once.

However, this is mostly a wish list since none of this is happening. For people that aren’t prepared to just move into adaptation mode and want to pursue broad climate change mitigation, their lists also remain wish lists because the scale and pace of change is just not happening. This is because there is one missing piece that everyone’s list relies on:

To enable large scale change we need governments that recognize the threat we all face and work to prioritize and accelerate change.

This is true whether want to focus on climate change mitigation or if you believe we should move into adaptation. Either way we need to build and change quickly and at scale.

Let’s suppose you’re bullish on new forms of nuclear energy (most of our existing power plants are many decades old and there are many promising technologic breakthroughs on the horizon). Through hard work and ingenuity a lab discovers a great way of doing cold fusion. Success! However, with current government processes it will then take a decade to build one power plant.

Let’s suppose you are more bullish on urbanization — living in cities is much more energy efficient and can be even better through optimizations. Well that’s all good but if you’re blocked by a 10 year permitting process for one building, your dreams are nothing but that.

The myriad ways that human ingenuity could be used to tackle climate change are all stymied if there is not a government that enables, let alone accelerates progress. And unfortunately, the United States has been on a slow trend of increasing sclerosis. Let’s turn to that next.

PART 2

Sclerosis — A Government unable to effect change

If you look at the world around us you start to see a pattern. We are not able to solve large problems in the United States the way we used to.

First, let’s level set that we actually used to build way faster. Patrick Collison has collected a large set of impressive projects that were built quickly. A few of the US examples include:

  • The Alaska Highway. Starting in 1942, 1,700 miles of military roadway were built over the course of 234 days, connecting eastern British Columbia with Fairbanks, Alaska.”
  • “Apollo 8. On August 9 1968, NASA decided that Apollo 8 should go to the moon. It launched on December 21 1968, 134 days later.”
  • The Empire State Building. Construction was started and finished in 410 days.”
  • The New York Subway. The first contract was awarded on February 21 1900. 28 stations opened and general operation commenced on October 27 1904, 4.7 years later.”

234 days for a 1,700 mile highway! 134 days for Apollo 8! A little over a year for the Empire State Building!

Meanwhile, San Francisco has taken decades to build a bus lane…

This isn’t news. Many people have written about this extensively. Ross Douthat blames it on a complacent society. Marc Andreessen wrote about it in “It’s time to build!”, a screed against the inaction and incompetence of Western governments in the face of coronavirus. He ascribes this inability to build as a lack of desire to do so.

Everyone has their pet theory but the more I learn the more the clear answer is much more banal — we have created a government that is incapable of creating change — our system and processes are broken. We live in a series of enveloping “vetocracies.”

I have a nice close up view of this in the Bay Area which is a shining example of sclerotic governance. Despite being surrounded by many of the richest companies on earth, we have decrepit infrastructure, soaring housing prices and rampant homelessness.

Take housing in the Bay Area: the limiting factor in all of this isn’t money (developers abound). It isn’t the know how (we know how to build housing). And it’s not the desire (have you seen home prices reflecting pent up demand?). In fact when housing is finally approved, construction can be shockingly fast.

Unfortunately, the problem is we’ve set up our governments biased against action.

Vetocracy

The clearest articulation of why we can’t build comes from Ezra Klein. Klein writes in response to Andreesen that the main problem isn’t desire to change — people have tons of ideas — it’s just they just can’t make the ideas happen. Here’s Klein:

I’ve covered Congress for almost 20 years. The place is littered with proposals to construct universal pre-K and reimagine the health system, to decarbonize the US economy and incentivize drug development through prizes and solve the housing crisis. They just don’t pass. It’s become a running joke in Washington that every week is “infrastructure week.” But we’re not rebuilding American infrastructure.”

The institutions through which Americans build have become biased against action rather than toward it. They’ve become, in political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s term, “vetocracies,” in which too many actors have veto rights over what gets built. That’s true in the federal government. It’s true in state and local governments. It’s even true in the private sector.” (Emphasis added)

Wasn’t this the way government always worked? Klein explains:

“… for most of our political history, two unusual conditions held. First, the parties were ideologically mixed, which made compromise easier. Second, one party was usually electorally dominant, which gave the party in the minority a reason to compromise: If you can’t win, you may as well deal”

Unfortunately today we don’t have this:

“You can see this if you attend a planning meeting in San Francisco and watch the line of people who assemble to oppose even the most modest development. You can see it in California’s inability to build high-speed rail, despite tens of billions of dollars in federal subsidies, because the state got so trapped in its own vetocracy it couldn’t just build the damn thing in a straight line. You can see it in the inability of American cities to build public transit at cost and quality levels that simply rival that of poorer, older European cities, to say nothing of leapfrogging the new development in Asia.”

“But the problem isn’t just progressives who grew afraid of what would happen if government power could be wielded too easily. The problem is also conservatives who want government to work poorly when it’s needed most.”

In an analysis of why Penn Station (the second largest commuter station in the world) took decades to modernize, Mark Dunkelman explains some of the history behind this change. I won’t belabor the article but the main takeaway is that Penn Station took forever because it was a procedural mess. A lot of people wanted to fix but “nobody has leverage to”. There were “so many people [involved] it’s impossible to move.” And so, it didn’t get fixed for decades. DECADES.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t an exception but the rule. “Since 1960s there hasn’t been one major project of “public life” in NY.” That’s over 50 years! The only exception I can think of is the 911 Memorial (which was also a documented procedural mess) and the High Line which repurposed old infrastructure.

As Dunkelman explains, the move towards increased stakeholders and a world where “no one has leverage to push things through” is mostly a reaction in the 1960s against Robert Moses — the architect of big buildings that built modern day New York and in the process trampled on poorer communities, destroyed entire neighborhoods and didn’t factor in the environment. He was one person with enormous power. In the the late 1960s as anti-institutional sentiment surged to address an establishment that trampled on community rights, we appropriately instituted more and more checks on power.

The problem is that in a world where anybody can dissent and where nobody can push things through, you get stagnation, particularly in a world of increased polarization which is what we have in the United States today. In San Francisco, one person can literally hold up an entire city-wide process. (The examples for San Francisco are really too numerous to list so just believe me when I say it’s an absolute disaster.) [2]

Our enveloping vetocracies mean that not only can we not change things at scale — we can’t even change small things when lives depend on it. This became evident in 2020 where most governments response to covid involved imposing limitations to shut things down vs. building net new adaptations; it was easier to shut down sectors of the economy like schools and restaurants than to permit new low-risk modifications. [7]

The problem though is the banal workings of government are really hard to fix. If nobody is willing to give up their veto because there is such deep distrust and polarization, what is there to be done?

Note that this isn’t just true in the US (although San Francisco is worse than most). The sentiment that “no matter who I vote for, nothing changes” is not a unique US phenomenon… But this isn’t the case everywhere.

Let’s talk quickly about China.

Can anyone build real shit anymore?

Buzz about the rise of China dominated the late 90s and 2000s. Books and magazines abounded. Kids started learning Mandarin in schools, business people globally flocked to Beijing and Shanghai and US companies all developed “China strategies.” But then the chatter slowed — learning Mandarin stopped being in fashion. The zeitgeist moved on. But China didn’t stop.

On a GDP per capita basis China is still far from being a rich country at about $10K per capita (versus say $64K per capita for Singapore or $63K for the US). However, this average hides the fact that it’s a giant country with very large pockets of incredible progress, more millionaires and engineers than anywhere else in the world and a government that not only is building, but is building more than the rest of the world.

On climate change, China has very clearly recognized it as a real threat that will be massively disruptive and has created long-term strategies to adapt at scale. Yes, China today is the main CO2 emitter in the world (accounts for ~25% of global emissions vs. 12% for US) but it does have 1.4 billion people and is the manufacturer of the world. The fact that it currently is the world’s main greenhouse gas emitter and that it has a terrible environmental record co-exists with the fact that Chinese leadership has an energy industrial policy that has been playing out for years.

Today, China is the main manufacturer of all renewable materials, it’s the leader in new nuclear power plant generation, is investing heavily in new battery technologies and has been locking up key minerals needed for renewables globally. Some stats:

  • China produces 72% of world’s solar modules, 64% of its lithium ion batteries, and 45% of wind turbines.
  • It also produces 70% of the world’s cobalt, 60% of its lithium and has contracts globally with mines everywhere to lock up key minerals that are likely needed for the coming decades.
  • China has 48 nuclear reactors in place with an average less than 10 years (compared to many 30+ years for the US). China has plans to grow nuclear from 5% to 15% of total power by 2050.

China also announced in 2020 that it has the goal of being carbon neutral by 2060 — a massively ambitious target that went unremarked upon.

I’m not saying the United States should adopt Chinese ways — that’s not going to happen nor should it. Discussing all the good and all the terrible things that happen in China is not the purpose of this post — but it is to say that while the US can’t build, China is not standing still.

China builds and it build at a scale that dwarfs every other part of the world and they have been doing so continuously for over three decades. The whole time we couldn’t build one new public structure in NYC, China has literally been building fleets of airports, highway systems and entire new cities.

So, where does that leave us?

Pace Layering — Why this time is different

“But nobody wants to be like China!,” you say! “We are America. Checks and balances are our bread and butter. The process is supposed to take a long time. Government is supposed to be slow! That’s the whole point of the system. In fact, modern times are happening too damn fast!”

Let’s take a minute to talk about pace layers.

The main concept of pace layers is that organizations & institutions move with different rates of change: certain layers (nature) move slowly, others a bit faster (government) and then the top ones fastest (e.g., fashion). Stewart Brand, the creator of this framework, describes pace layers in “How Buildings Learn” — layers govern how a house changes: the site changes changes most slowly, then the foundation, then the structure of the house, the skin, the services (e.g., plumbing), the the space plan and then the stuff.

The problem climate change presents is that it breaks our pace layer model. According to pace layering nature should be moving slower than government — government should have time to adapt! Unfortunately, “nature” has accelerated its rate of change while the governmental layer has slowed down. This mismatch results in our current disaster. [3]

To get a sense for how fast climate is changing: “By 2030, Earth’s climate is expected to resemble that of the mid-Pliocene, going back more than 3 million years in geologic time. Without reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions, our climates by 2150 could compare to the warm and mostly ice-free Eocene, an epoch that characterized the globe 50 million years ago.”

The solution to this problem is to adjust the speed of our pace layers: the middle needs to speed up — there is no other way to make the changes needed to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. As mentioned at the outset, to mitigate and adapt to climate change we need to build extremely quickly across many industries that are part of the slower layers (e.g., infrastructure, energy generation, geo-engineering), but to do so we also need to have a regulatory state that encourages (or at least doesn’t hinder) this development.

PART 3

The Paths Ahead

We are at a crossroads. There are multiple paths we could take as a society to address the disruptions we face from climate change.

The first path is the path of cooperation. We need to recognize the interconnectedness of the climate system and work together. This would require extreme central planning since tackling climate problems requires the whole world — we did this when preventing ozone depletion and we can do so again now. Sadly, I don’t see this happening in the near future since people do not recognize the gravity of climate change enough to prioritize the sacrifices required and politicians see it as a second order concern. This shouldn’t be the case and we should continue to try to change this but unfortunately the past few decades of raising alarm bells has not worked.

Our second path is one where we take the more local approach to get our act together and work to reform and accelerate government to help us build.

If this does not happen, the last path is the one we’re currently on, a path where changes happen on the margins without reforming the foundation; a world where you have low-tech and high-tech interwoven— the quintessence of a cyberpunk society all amidst increasing climate catastrophes.

Let’s dig into these last two a bit more.

REFORMING GOVERNMENT

The more local and actionable path of change is one where we work together to reform our government to speed up our ability to mitigate & adapt to climate change. While the path of mitigation involves coordination at a national & multinational level, the path of adaptation is one where state & local governance is paramount.[4] [5]

Government efficiency is a theme that’s been tried time again for decades. One example is then vice-president Al Gore’s 1993 project “From Red Tape to Results” — a “blue ribbon committee” tasked with suggesting how to fix government. The recommendations included “cut red tape”, “put customer first”, “empower employees.” Alas, here we are almost 30 years later talking about the same problems.

The main theme from most government reform proposals not only touch on efficiency but also focus on process. They all generally involve us agreeing to drop our ability to veto.

Here is Ezra Klein’s recommendation:

We should build institutions biased toward action and ambition, rather than inaction and incrementalism.
“At the federal level, I’d get rid of the filibuster, simplify the committee system, democratize elections, and make sure majorities could implement their agendas once elected. As I’ve argued for years, we should prefer the problems of a system where elected majorities can fulfill the promises that got them elected to one where elected majorities cannot deliver on the promises that the American people voted for. The latter system, which is the one Americans live in now, drives frustration and dysfunction.

In a broader study of US governmental disfunction called “Two Years Not Ten Years: Redesigning Infrastructure Approvals”, the proposals include changing how we make decisions to speed them up and also (again) reducing the ability to veto. This includes lowering the statute of limitations, adding forcing mechanisms to make decisions and designating point people to resolve disputes, all with the goal of dropping approval times from 10 years+ to 2.

Finally, what is most important is we need to want to be faster. We need to view a high-functioning and efficient government as an imperative. This bias towards action vs. inaction is something that could not only save lives in the future, it could have saved lives during 2020. One example of this was how after we had a vaccine for covid, the FDA took weeks to meet and review meanwhile thousands more died each day.

I’m sure others have other lists of reforms that would be worth pursuing. What’s important is that we at least try. Government is how we work together as a society to achieve common goals. If we can’t compromise and if achieving common goals becomes untenable, how do we hope to tackle such enormous issues?

Unfortunately, while it all sounds very reasonable on paper, if you’ve been following the cultural wars of the last 30 years, you recognize it’ll be a miracle to get people to agree to drop their vetoes. Add to this the fact that society is currently reeling from the speed of change brought upon by covid and the move to a networked, digital society with extreme inequality and it looks increasingly unlikely that reforming government processes will win out as the issue of the day.

So that leaves us with the more likely path: effecting change where change can happen.

A CYBERPUNK FUTURE

Humans want to build — we adapt. If change is hard to do in one area, we move to the margins and find the gaps. Even among dysfunctional governments you still find amazing pockets of wonder where the state does not intrude — especially on the internet. Unfortunately, most of the areas where we need change to happen require large groups of people to coordinate and build things in the real world; climate change can’t be solved by tweeting more or making more videos. [8]

While the power of an individual in today’s world is larger than ever, if the system itself is not supportive of change, change ends up being local. There is only so much change a small entrepreneur, a YouTuber or a small business in a garage can have if the system blocks their progress. Change then moves to the periphery or finds ways of embedding into the dysfunctional environment.

What this peripheral creation ends up looking like is cyberpunk: low and high tech coexisting. It’s the quintessential sci-fi dystopia, replicated in movies and books the world over. You get space stations before fixing homelessness, high-end malls next to favela, brand new sky-scrapers in broken cities. It’s so prevalent that it’s basically default.

All of this means there are two main places we’d expect to see change in the years ahead: in more permissive geographies and in areas that bypass established institutions.

In terms of permissive geographies, there are some states that are more pro-building where we’d expect to see more change over time. This is especially true for those that have the rule of law and capital to invest (e.g., Texas). These regions have an opportunity to pave the way and show that rapid building and change are possible.

More interesting are countries that have done well in responding to Covid and showed rational and competent leadership (e.g., Singapore, South Korea). Over the next few decades they are likely to grow in influence and potentially keep attracting talent (especially Korea with rising cultural clout). All of these countries have the rule of law, capital and an openness to building.

There also is China which I foresee only growing in power for the next handful of decades given they’re the largest country that can build quickly at scale — they also could meaningfully mitigate emissions given their scale.

From an industrial perspective, change moves to areas that are novel. For the past few decades this was the internet but that is being increasingly regulated. However, there are still many areas that don’t require mass coordination and where there are opportunities for peripheral creation. Elon Musk’s building tunnels is an example: it’s easier to build a hyperloop underground than it is to build a new freeway above ground and have to contend with established interests. Similarly, it’s easier from a process perspective to build for space than it is to rebuild Caltrain (the Bay Area’s commuter rail).

This has been the case in developing countries for many decades. As Gordon Brander writes: “When states break down, you see the jobs-to-be-done of the state (security, borders) decentralized. Decentralization of all kinds increases inequality, and this is no exception, since you lose economies of scale, and the spaces between compounds become more lawless.” In Mexico there is the concept of “cerradas” or small closed neighborhoods with their own security where people can walk around safely. They use privatized security instead of police. Similarly malls are often some of the safest places to be in countries with a lot of violence given it’s easier to close off and control a small environment than it is to fix systemic problems. You see similar patterns to this emerge in the United States in the last 20 years — it’s no coincidence Uber launched in San Francisco, a city with terrible public transit and taxi services. There was pent up consumer demand for bypassing the inefficiency.

For climate change adaptation, the main way this plays out is in development of small scale infrastructure independent technologies. For example, if power plants are too difficult to build you’ll see more work on small generators; individual solar panels on houses instead of fixing the power grid; smaller water filtrations systems instead of city-wide potable water. An example of this type of advances is how the US Army went from buying about one million water bottles per month in Iraq to adapting lightweight water purifier systems. This form of targeted innovation brought the price down from $5 to 7 cents per gallon.

Change on the margins and forum shopping jurisdictions will continue for the years ahead. This is all unfortunately much less optimal than what could be achieved by reforming government or mitigating climate change via centralized climate cooperation, but it is more reflective of our current reality.

One of the rays of hope for climate change is that many of the more radical options don’t require the whole world to agree.

Ideas about geo-engineering the world today are copious but often dismissed out of hand. However, in a world where countries fail to take the actions needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change, shouldn’t these ideas be considered?

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, “Ministry for the Future” after a catastrophic heatwave that leaves millions dead, the Indian government says screw it and takes it upon itself to just reshape the environment by flying 8,000 planes into the atmosphere, dropping particles that reflects sunlight by a fraction of a percent.

Note that this is a much worse outcome than a global concerted effort to mitigate climate change and engage in geo-engineering together. However, it is a potential outcome of this bypassing, cyberpunk future. [6]

Conclusion

In today’s climate change discussions most people that aren’t paying close attention assume some deus ex machina event will occur. Like the fears of famine in the 1900s, we pin our hopes on some new technological advance to prove all the doomsayers wrong. We’ve grown used to this ultimate Hail Mary of technology. Unfortunately, we are already in the midst of a series of climate change disasters — the time for a Hail Mary has come and gone.

While we are already on the path of catastrophic decades ahead, without governments that move faster it can get even worse. If this isn’t the way we want it to be we need to work together and change how we operate — government metabolism and efficiency are paramount. We can’t just accept the vetocratic slowness as “just the way things have to be.”

I don’t want to live in a cyberpunk future. It’s easy to ascribe blame to the terrible federal government we’ve lived with for 4 years but that doesn’t explain the 40+ year lull in building and the state and local ills we face. To address our challenges we need to recognize that we need to change how we make decisions and operate as a society. This requires us seeing the systemic issues we face instead of scapegoating specific groups that create on the margins. And it requires us wanting government to work better.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading! If you think I’m wrong / missing great examples / think there are actually entire different paths that I’m not considering? Great! I’m on Twitter @gasca.

Thank you so much to Gordon Brander, Patrick Traughber, GM and Ron Eden for their feedback on the post.

Needless to say, all of this post represents my own views and not those of my employer.

For more, here’s a list of other work I’ve written.

Footnotes:

[1] I haven’t even mentioned all the issues with species extinction and the Anthropocene. For more read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.

[2] How do we account for aging in our democracy? Town hall meetings routinely have all have 50–80 year olds in attendance and are hosted at times that most younger people can’t attend even if they wanted to. When US democracy was created the participants younger. How do we account for this change in incentives? It’s shocking to see how young the Founding Father were: “Some were older, like Thomas Jefferson who was 33, John Hancock who was 39, or Benjamin Franklin who was 70. Others were shockingly young — even teenagers. James Monroe, for example, was 18 and Alexander Hamilton was 21.” (link)

[3] Synthetic biology is also likely to create a discontinuity in the pace layers (e.g., CRISPR, AlphaFold advances) — what happens if you can edit nature directly?

[4] When I say “government” of course there are exceptions — however, if you dig, most areas are those where there are less vetoes that can stop reasonable people from making decisions.

[5] While I focus on governmental speed and enabling building, I’d of course also like better and more rational decisions (I’m looking at you covid rules that close outdoor playgrounds but open indoor bars). However, I think fixing the paralysis is even more important given that there are such a large number of more mundane decisions that are pent up behind reviews.

[6] There’s a footnote in the US Army doc that discusses geo-engineering. Apparently many have been considered historically in the Army but the ideas were discarded since they could double as weapons.

[7] We used to be tougher — see these outdoor schools created over 100 years ago in the Boston winter during a tuberculosis epidemic.

[8] I recently discovered Nancy Risol in Ecuador — one of many indigenous YouTubers in the Americas. She lives in the mountains of Ecuador in an extremely barebones hut and yet has over 2 million YouTuber subscribers and a global audience.

PS:

San Francisco | @gasca on Twitter

San Francisco | @gasca on Twitter