Waking the Frog

ECW Press, 2014

This book addresses the following problem that will be of interest to readers of Solutions: in spite of ever stronger scientific evidence that the climate is warming due to human emissions of greenhouse gases, and that unrestrained greenhouse gas emissions pose a serious threat to the future well-being of the entire human race and of other species on this planet, the political process has been incapable (with few exceptions) of responding in a timely and effective manner. In one sense, this is not surprising: nothing less than a rapid and complete transformation of our deeply entrenched, existing energy system is required. This will not happen by itself—it will require coordinated government intervention. A significant part of the resistance to effective action regarding global warming comes from “free-market fundamentalists”— those who advocate the least possible (or no) role for government and completely unfettered operation of supposedly free markets.

Waking the Frog: Solutions for Our Climate Change Paralysis is directed largely to this group—or, at least, those that could but have not yet been persuaded by the scientific evidence that some moderation in their free-market viewpoints is needed, and that resistance to action to confront global-warming is not justified. The author, Tom Rand is a venture capitalist and managing partner in the private $30 million MaRS Cleantech Fund with a B.Eng (electrical engineering) and a PhD in Philosophy of Mind, dealing with neural networks and the ways in which we form beliefs as primarily ‘pattern recognizers.’ This background served Rand well in writing Waking the Frog, a superbly written and engaging book.

The book is structured as follows: Chapter One, “From Serious Science to the Theatre of the Absurd,” critiques the pseudo-scientific, ideologically-driven arguments of the self-appointed public experts on global warming. Rand debunks their nonsense with simple, persuasive arguments. Chapter 2, “The Siren Song of Denial,” discusses the psychology of denial; conscious versus subconscious processing of information; how we form beliefs; and the various shortcuts (traps) we fall into that “let us avoid careful, effortful thinking.” Rand advocates a role for artists as “the people best able to articulate truths in ways that skirt rational thinking.” Chapter 3, “Complexity and the Myth of the Free Market,” provides an excellent and thorough critique of the more extreme variants of free-market capitalism that so dominate conservative discussion and thinking today. Chapter 4, “Economics: The Dismal Science,” provides a sharp analysis of the supposedly small economic costs of large global mean warming (5-10°C); the importance of risk and uncertainty; and the pervasive practice (among economists) of discounting the future. Chapter 5, “The Fossil Fuel Party,” discusses the scale of the existing fossil fuel energy supply system and its self-reinforcing nature. Concepts such as the culture of contentment and willful blindness are featured in this chapter. Chapter 6, “Waking the Frog and Turning Down the Heat,” outlines various approaches to getting us out of paralysis and unleashing – quickly – the creative forces needed to limit future damage.

Rand argues that the unrestrained free market is leading to disaster, but he is not advocating abolishing it. Rather, he wants to see it shaped and tapped (largely, but not entirely, through putting a sufficiently large price on carbon), so as to unleash its creative forces and mobilize the capital needed to solve the problem. Rand also argues that incremental change can do more harm than good, “by leading us down a blind alley…. by [suckering] us into thinking we’re doing what’s needed when we’re not coming close.”

Rather than asking, “what can we afford on climate mitigation,” Rand advocates deciding on an acceptable global mean warming, deciding on an acceptable risk of not staying below that target, determining (from science) the allowed CO2 emissions consistent with the target and risk threshold, determining how much we need to spend to get there, and finally, committing the necessary policy and capital. Rand estimates that the investment required to transform to a C-free energy system will average about $1 trillion per year over the next few decades—less than 1 percent of the world’s GNP (which stood at $83 trillion in 2012 and is still growing). Rand believes that there is a necessary role for fourth-generation breeder nuclear reactors, carbon capture and storage, and enhanced geothermal systems. Although one may question the legitimacy or economic competitiveness of the first two, Rand’s book brings us to the point where the debate about global warming should be: it avoids silly and outdated arguments about well-established science, rather focusing on what we should be doing about it and how. Waking the Frog would be the perfect gift for those that might still be sitting on the fence, and might even convince some with more entrenched anti-action beliefs.