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Kerim's Triptych for Sunday, July 7th, 2024

Kerim's Triptych for Sunday, July 7th, 2024
Terrace rice fields in Yunnan (2003), by Jialiang Gao

Welcome 👋 to Kerim's Triptych

A free newsletter that delivers three fabulous links to your inbox, two or three times a month. (If you didn't intend to subscribe, or you don't want to receive these anymore, there is an unsubscribe link at the bottom.)

1️⃣ Autocracy and Climate Change

This summer has been the hottest one on record, and yet may also be the coolest one young people will remember. I personally don't think it is a coincidence that we are seeing a shift to the political far right just as the world is heating up. It may not be a global conspiracy, but as renewables become cheaper and awareness of climate change becomes more widespread, the fragile alliance between corporations and centrist liberalism is breaking down, at least as far as extractive industries are concerned.

Eve Darian-Smith, author of Global Burning: Rising Antidemocracy and the Climate Crisis (2022), explores "how three leaders of traditionally democratic countries – Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Scott Morrison of Australia, and Donald Trump in the U.S. – came to power on anti-environment and nationalist platforms appealing to an extreme-right populist base and extractive corporations that are driving climate change."

Bolsonaro, Morrison, and Trump are all openly skeptical of climate science. Not surprisingly, all have ignored, weakened, or dismantled environmental protection regulations. In Brazil, that led to accelerated deforestation and large swaths of Amazon rainforest burning.

In Australia, Morrison's government ignored widespread public and scientific opposition and opened the controversial Adani Carmichael mine, one of the largest coal mines in the world. The mine will impact public health and the climate and threatens the Great Barrier Reef as temperatures rise and ports are expanded along the coast.

Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement – a move opposed by a majority of Americans – rolled back over 100 laws meant to protect the environment, and opened national parks to fossil fuel drilling and mining.

Notably, all three leaders have worked, sometimes together, against international efforts to stop climate change.

In May, Trump met with a group of oil executives at Mar-a-Lago and basically promised a tit-for-tat exchange: if they fund his campaign to the tune of one billion dollars, he will roll back environmental regulations. But he probably doesn't need to be bought for such a high price. When he was president he rolled back over a hundred environmental regulations and is likely to do so again.

2️⃣ Whither Fusion?

Early stellarator in 1958 (via Brian Potter)

Recently the Economist ran a special issue on the future of solar power, which has consistently been faster and cheaper to deploy than predicted. This is a far cry from nuclear where the opposite is often the case, although there are some interesting developments in fission reactor design and technology, something my Dad just wrote a book about. But what about fusion reactors? There are regular news stories about big breakthroughs in nuclear fusion, so are we getting closer to seeing a functioning fusion reactor? Brian Potter offers an in-depth discussion of the topic in his newsletter, Construction Physics.

The value of this article is in the details, as Potter does not offer any simple conclusion. But one take-away is that we might be making too much of technological breakthroughs at this early stage:

It's common to hear from fusion boosters that despite the lack of a working power reactor, the rate of progress in fusion has nevertheless been impressive. You often see this graph comparing improvement in the fusion triple product against Moore's Law, suggesting progress in fusion has in some sense been as fast or faster than progress in semiconductors. . . .

I think these sorts of comparisons are misleading. The proper comparison for fusion isn't to a working technology that is steadily being improved, but to a very early-stage technology still being developed. When we make this comparison, fusion's progress looks much less impressive.

In the end, Potter seems excited about the engineering breakthroughs but sanguine about whether or not fusion will ever be economically viable:

The bull case for fusion is that for the last several decades there's been very little serious effort at fusion power, and now that serious effort is being devoted to the problem, a working power reactor appears very close.

The bear case for fusion is that . . . fusion is just another in a long line of energy technologies that boil water to drive a turbine. And the conditions needed to achieve fusion (plasma at hundreds of millions or even billions of degrees) will inevitably make fusion fundamentally more expensive than other electricity-generating technologies.

3️⃣ China's Social-Ecological Systems

Terrace rice fields in Yunnan (2003), by Jialiang Gao

The Sinica Podcast, hosted by Kaiser Kuo, had anthropologist Stevan Harrell on to talk about his book An Ecological History of Modern China. A long interview, Kaiser broke it up into two parts. Here is a link to the first one. It is a broad-ranging interview that covers history as far back as the Qing dynasty and discusses multiple socio-ecological systems around China as well, but of particular interest here is the relationship between democracy and ecology.

Some have argued that it will take autocratic regimes like China to tackle the climate crisis, and it is certainly the case that China's subsidies for solar and battery technologies have already had positive impacts. However, Stevan offers a nuanced take that draws on his systems approach rather than a simplistic cold-war binary of freedom vs. autocracy. He argues that both post-war style "development" approaches which led to the Green Revolution and contemporary autocratic environmentalism suffer from top-down approaches that can lead to systems failure when the voices of local actors (who are usually more aware of the signs of system failure) are ignored.


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