Editor's Note: Try This at Home
Try this at home. Hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time:
We need to do everything possible to halt the release of carbon pollution into the atmosphere.
We need to do everything possible to adjust to the reality of more carbon pollution in the atmosphere.
It isn’t easy. But that’s the point. Neither is functioning in the Anthropocene.
This issue takes up the challenge of working simultaneously on two sometimes contradictory fronts.
The theme of the deep dives section is, simply and powerfully, “relocate.” If history has a grand lesson, this might be it.
Climate change is remaking the known world, and Earth’s inhabitants are on the move. With that starting point, we prompted writers to imagine a geographically altered world and to explore what smart responses to the shifts might look like.
The conversation opens with sea-level rise. Elizabeth Rush, a noted author and Pulitzer Prize finalist, takes up the question of how and when people will retreat from low-lying coastal areas (page 40). The “if” is notably absent from her story. The only question left, Rush asserts, is whether retreat will be managed or chaotic. She goes on to describe what those opposing scenarios might look like. Her story is grounded in specific US locales from New York’s Staten Island to Louisiana’s coastal islands. But the larger notion of shifting the managed-retreat conversation away from losses and toward a climate-changed future is applicable—well, everywhere.
That theme is echoed in Lauren Oakes’s story about a massive tree-planting program under way in British Columbia (page 68). Instead of simply restoring forests lost to fire and harvesting, Canadian researchers are actively assisting the migration of billions of trees from south to north in a bid to get out in front of climate change.
And if you’re game for a mental stretch, turn to page 50. Seema Jayachandran, an economics professor at Northwestern University, poses a bold question: Could nature reserves be more dynamic if they borrowed a page from the Airbnb business model? It is not, as Jayachandran artfully explains, an abstract theoretical question.
In addition to these deeper dives, this issue also contains an array of stories and innovations, many of which exhibit a kind of built-in cognitive dissonance. For example, in her article on the race to reinvent room air conditioners (page 8), Emily Underwood notes that one of the great ironies of climate change is that as the planet warms, the technology that people need to stay cool will only make the climate hotter. In another, a team of economists argues that we’ve gotten carbon taxes backward. Instead of starting out low and building slowly, they say, we should set a high initial price for carbon, increase it modestly for a decade, and then let it fall. Their model, which runs counter to the conventional climate-economy models used for the past quarter-century, cleverly incorporates future uncertainties.
The challenge herein is neither to shy away from such contradictions nor to let them impede constructive solutions. It is, as F. Scott Fitzgerald aptly remarked, the test of a first-rate intelligence.
1. Idea Watch
The race is on to build an AC unit that doesn’t cook the planet
There's a $1 million prize for anyone that can design a room air conditioner that costs no more than twice what a standard one costs and produces five times less greenhouse gas
The human population curve is on the move
Demography teaches an important lesson about population explosions: they are always temporary
Fly farming is a mini-livestock industry poised to get big
Nascent industrial-scale insect farms are starting to dot the globe, with big livestock-feed and pet-food players such as Cargill, Skretting, Bühler, and Purina getting into the game.
Greening the last mile of e-commerce
Could hubs, nudges, and EV night deliveries crack this surprisingly tough puzzle?
It’s an unsinkable idea
The concept of settling the high seas is back—this time as a sustainable answer to sea-level rise, with an impressive team and UN support.
A memo from the year 2050
Here's how we avoided the worst of zoonotic diseases
2. Deep Dives
Rent, Don’t buy
It's time to design conservation policies that are as dynamic as nature is.
How to Plant the Forests of the Future
In the past, forest restoration could be informed by what once was. Now we have to make hard decisions about what we’re working toward.
Maps of the New World
How do we think about our future place in a geographically altered world? A map is a good place to start.
Buy High, Sell Low
Like it or not, retreat from the coasts has begun. The only question left is whether it will be managed or chaotic.
3. Science Shorts
Researchers have made a rechargeable carbon dioxide-consuming battery
A new long-lasting rechargeable battery could be a way to use carbon dioxide emissions to produce energy.
What if we’ve had carbon taxes backwards all along?
The best way to use a carbon tax to fight climate change would be to set the initial carbon price high, increase it modestly for about a decade, and then let it fall slowly over the next few centuries.
A global diet—designed to protect the planet—is too costly for 1.5 billion people
A new study considers a shortcoming in the influential dietary recommendations from the EAT-Lancet Commission: it doesn't factor in affordability across the globe.
Clear solar cells put the ‘green’ in greenhouses by making them zero-energy
Future greenhouses could be made energy-neutral by integrating semi-transparent organic solar cells into their panels, a study shows.
As coal pollution declines, crops begin to flourish
Reducing our dependence on coal comes with some unexpected agricultural benefits, two recent studies find.
Bread waste could be repurposed for the food industry
We waste hundreds of tons of bread daily. But now a team of researchers has devised a better use for these discarded carbs.
The time to electrify everything is now
Switching to electric cars and home heating will almost always decrease carbon emissions, even with the current energy mix.
To slow permafrost thawing, bring in the horses
New research shows that time-traveling back to the Pleistocene could ensure a cooler future.
Researchers turn used coffee grounds into biodegradable plastic
Coffee grounds contain cellulose, an ingredient for making bioplastics.
In terms of carbon, is this glass of milk half full or half empty?
While the dairy industry's overall emissions have risen over time, the footprint of one liter of milk is now lower than ever before.
Cool new paint can be any color and still lower temperatures
A two-layer colored coating that reflects heat could bring down the electricity used for air-conditioning.
Antioxidants from red wine could help cut food waste
The newly-invented nanofiber mats can emit antioxidants for up to 20 days.
End of life planning . . . for foam furniture and insulation
Researchers have found a way to make valuable plastics out of hard-to-recycle polyurethane foams used in furniture and insulation.
The environmental footprint of paper vs. electronic books
If you read a limited number of books, the paper book will most likely limit your greenhouse gas emissions. But for heavy readers, e-books have a smaller carbon footprint.
As the climate changes, what changes people’s minds?
How far has opinion moved from climate-change denial toward acceptance and, ultimately, action?