A hand touching an AI brain.

A businessman touching the brain working of Artificial Intelligence.

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The Climate Crisis Calls for Wisdom—Not Artificial Intelligence

There’s no way we can build out renewable energy fast enough to meet this kind of extra demand—it’s going to be at the bleeding edge of the technically and politically possible to power the things we already do.

We’re getting right to the nub now.

This week the World Meteorological Organization officially certified 2023 as the hottest year in human history. Just to put on the record here what should have been the lead story in every journal and website on our home planet:

Andrea Celeste Saulo, secretary general of the WMO, said the organisation was now “sounding the red alert to the world.”

The report found temperatures near the surface of the earth were 1.45°C higher last year than they were in the late 1800s, when people began to destroy nature at an industrial scale and burn large amounts of coal, oil, and gas.

Last year’s spike was so scary that NASA’s Gavin Schmidt—Jim Hansen’s heir as keeper of NASA’s climate record—wrote in Nature this week that it raised the most profound possible implications. Please read his words slowly and carefully:

It could imply that a warming planet is already fundamentally altering how the climate system operates, much sooner than scientists had anticipated. It could also mean that statistical inferences based on past events are less reliable than we thought, adding more uncertainty to seasonal predictions of droughts and rainfall patterns.

Much of the world’s climate is driven by intricate, long-distance links—known as teleconnections—fuelled by sea and atmospheric currents. If their behavior is in flux or markedly diverging from previous observations, we need to know about such changes in real time.

And now, with equal care, read the words of the biggest oil producer on earth, the CEO of Saudi Aramco, who was in Houston last week for the annual hydrocarbon festival known as CERAWeek.

We should abandon the fantasy of phasing out oil and gas and instead invest in them adequately reflecting realistic demand assumptions.

That is to say, the powers that be want to abandon what the World Meteorological Organization, in their “red alert” report called the “one glimmer of hope”: that renewable energy installations rose 50% last year.

Understand that the battle is fully joined. The fossil fuel industry—as Exxon CEO Darren Woods helpfully explained—is in an all-out fight to derail anything green, because it won’t return “above average profits.” They have plenty of allies: Everyone noted former President Donald Trump threatening a “bloodbath” last week, but fewer noted the actual target of his wrath: electric vehicles. The Biden administration, after listening to the rhetoric at the Houston conference, backed EVs in a straightforward and earnest way today, announcing new rules that attempt to spur the rapid growth of a crucial climate-fighting technology. But of course that produced the requisite reaction: as The New York Timesreported:

The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a lobbying organization, has started what it says is a “seven figure” campaign of advertising, phone calls, and text messages against what it falsely calls “Biden’s E.P.A. car ban” in the swing states Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Arizona, as well as in Ohio, Montana, and the Washington D.C. market.

So, like it or not, the climate crisis is going to be a key part of this election campaign. The November outcome may hinge on whether Americans can imagine making even this small change in the face of the gravest crisis our species has ever wandered into: replacing the gas tank in a car with a battery. That doesn’t seem like much to ask?

It won’t solve the climate crisis, of course—nothing will solve it. But accelerating momentum towards green energy is the likeliest card we have to play in a world where people seem unwilling to moderate their demands for mobility, and indeed for consumption of any kind.

One particularly depressing set of statistics about that ever-increasing demand for more emerged last week, as the energy implications of artificial intelligence started to become clearer. Here’s what Bloombergreported on Wednesday:

John Ketchum, CEO of utility NextEra Energy Inc., told attendees that U.S. power demand, which has been relatively flat for years, is poised to increase by 81% over the next five years. Toby Rice, chief of the largest U.S. natural gas driller, EQT Corp., cited a prediction that AI will gobble up more power domestically than households by 2030.

As Elizabeth Kolbert explained in The New Yorker a few days ago, this “obscene” power demand comes because when you ask AI to, say, help you with your bracket for the NCAA tournament, it has to sort through all human knowledge ever. As even AI apostle Sam Altman explained at Davos this year

“I think we still don’t appreciate the energy needs of this technology.” He didn’t see how these needs could be met, he went on, “without a breakthrough.” He added, “We need fusion or we need, like, radically cheaper solar plus storage, or something, at massive scale—like, a scale that no one is really planning for.”

The truth is, there’s no way we can build out renewable energy fast enough to meet this kind of extra demand—it’s going to be at the bleeding edge of the technically and politically possible to power the things we already do, live drive cars and heat homes. And so, in a rational world, faced with an emergency, we would put off scaling AI for now. The irony, of course, is that’s it’s often been touted as a tool to help solve climate change. But we have the tools we need—plain old intelligence gave us cheap solar panels.

With the able technological assistance of my wife, I asked Anthropic’s AI bot Claude to comment. It was amazing how much he sounded like a PR man; after spinning a lot of jargon-filled guff about how “responsible AI can likely be part of the solution to environmental challenges,” he allowed as how he had no idea how much energy he was using. “In general, the electricity usage of large language models like myself is a relevant consideration from an environmental perspective, but quantifying the exact amount would require additional information I don’t have access to.”

Whatever. What we need is not more intelligence. We need more wisdom, to guide us through this pinch point in the human experiment. Including the wisdom to say no to some things, at least until the emergency subsides.

© 2022 Bill McKibben