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Solstice greetings: predications, participation, and play
December 21, 2022, 4:48 pm ET

Greetings on the solstice. Here in Boston, roughly midway between the equator and the North Pole, the days are short and the outdoors are often uninviting. Like most people, my wife, Lisa, and I spend almost all of our time indoors. Thankfully, we can go to Sportsmen’s Tennis and Enrichment Center.

Both Lisa and I played tennis as children, and we each gave it up for our own reasons. Lisa, who lived in a rural town where no one outside her family played, moved on to more social activities. For me, having gotten good enough to compete in tournaments where no one seemed to be having fun, the game didn’t feel the least bit like play. So when we tried playing tennis together several years ago, we had low expectations.

Much to our delight, Sportsmen’s showed us that tennis could be social, fun, and relaxed. Their goal, which dates to their founding in 1961, is to use tennis to open doors for young people in underserved communities—and they’ve succeeded. Hundreds of kids come after school for homework help and playful exercise. Lisa and I now book a couple of time slots each week over the winter months to go hit balls, enjoy the atmosphere, and see how the kids we saw last year have grown and improved. It is our winter oasis.

Who gets to play

A few years ago, I got a piercing glimpse into the state of youth sports in America. I met with a colleague I knew to be both a sports fan and a doting father. I asked him how his sons were doing. He told me they were both frustrated because they couldn’t play baseball. I didn’t understand. The boys were in grade school, and I was pretty sure neither was sick or hurt. Why “couldn’t” they play baseball? “They didn’t make the team,” he told me.

It turns out that in many communities, kids as young as six have to go through tryouts to play on sports teams. In other words, before kids really know how to play a game, adults are assessing them based on their likelihood of generating wins. My childhood experience with sports was very different. I played baseball, basketball, soccer, and hockey on youth teams in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I grew up. I was fortunate to have coaches (including my father) whose philosophies were similar to those at Sportsmen’s. As I recall, we tried hard, practiced, and improved; some teams won more than they lost, and vice versa. 

During my childhood, my dad also played on a team. Throughout the summer, he and his teammates—some of whom were pretty good friends, others of whom were guys whom my dad seemed to only know through softball—would suit up in their 1970s-style polyester uniforms, and do battle against teams made up of other groups of friends and strangers a couple of evenings a week. This league was so inclusive that one of the teams was made up of inmates from the state prison 40 miles away. The inmates only played home games.

Looking back, I appreciate how easy it was for me to participate in local activities, including sports, arts, clubs, and unstructured groups. By practicing and playing with other kids, and interacting with coaches and other parents, we grew and learned a lot about ourselves and other people in our town. Back then, Sportsmen’s founders appreciated something that I only sensed unconsciously: “[They] knew that quality tennis instruction and interaction with caring adults could develop well-rounded young citizens.” 

One of our ambitions at Probable Futures is to encourage people to find ways to live well in a more challenging physical environment. The more I learn, the clearer it becomes to me that all of the best futures available to people everywhere will require us to get together to both have fun and participate in our communities, things many of us have stopped practicing.

Wagers and fantasies

I haven’t kept in touch with my former colleague, but I would wager that his boys’ early experiences affected their attitudes toward trying, joining, or organizing group activities after being excluded at a young age. Given the trends in America, I would also wager that they are being acculturated to have strong, sophisticated, analytical opinions about professional sports teams and individual players. 

The internet is replete with smart-sounding experts whose vocabulary of “analytics” has gone mainstream and businesses that encourage fans to speculate not just on winners and losers but on the individual acts of individual players. I saw this in full effect when I went back to Ann Arbor recently to spend time with my folks as my dad recovered from ankle surgery, necessitated by a long career of rolled and sprained ankles.

In considerable discomfort, and facing the prospect of staying completely off his foot for six weeks, my dad was glad to have the fall bounty of sports to watch. Baseball, basketball, hockey, football, tennis, and golf were all in full swing. At any hour, we could watch extremely able-bodied athletes competing. It was fun, so long as we didn’t get distracted by the ever-present encouragement to gamble. 

Americans used only to be able to gamble on sports in Las Vegas and Atlantic City legally. Over time, more states encouraged casino construction for tax revenue, and internet entrepreneurs successfully lobbied for regulatory changes. Now most television broadcasts include discussion of gambling odds, and experts (former athletes and coaches who were prohibited from gambling when employed by teams) are asked for specific bets they recommend. Indeed, the channel on which most Michigan sports are broadcast—Bally Sports—is an affiliate of Bally’s, a modern corporate casserole of gambling businesses. This recent press release about the new partnership between Bally’s and the New York Yankees gives you a feel for it:

Under the agreement, Bally’s receives use of New York Yankees trademarks and marketing designations as an official sports betting partner (Bally Bet), an official daily fantasy sports partner (Monkey Knife Fight), an official iGaming partner (Bally Casino), and an official free-to-play gaming partner (Bally Play). Bally’s Casino Atlantic City also becomes a proud partner of the New York Yankees. (source)

I love the use of “proud” in that last sentence.

The evolution of sports from a physical, social form of play to a digital, commercial form of opinion and speculation may seem far from concerns about weather, carbon, and policy, but its dissociative, passive attitudes undermine society. Perhaps the gravest danger to civilization is the modern tendency to value being smart over trying, to debate the odds instead of changing them, and to sit around being either optimistic (because the professionals will lead us to victory) or pessimistic (because they will drive us into defeat) instead of participating. We’re not going to “beat” or “lose to” climate change. We have already lost some things, and we are going to lose others, but if we participate, cooperate, and play together, we can find new, better ways to live with and in a changing climate and vastly improve the odds that today’s, and tomorrow’s, kids will live well.

J.P.’s backyard

As a young boy, I lived in a neighborhood filled with modest houses with modest front yards and backyards. There were several kids around my age within a block or two, and we would run across the adjoining lawns, playing games. It was pretty great. It would not have been so great if one corner of the block (or a neighbor’s backyard) had a coal-fired power plant on it.

NIMBY is an acronym for “not in my backyard” and describes the attitude of people who do not want pieces of infrastructure (roads, rails, affordable housing, power plants, or really anything at all) near them. It is generally a euphemism because whatever is being proposed is rarely in the effective opponents’ literal backyard. For example, wealthy people who own property on Cape Cod and nearby islands in Massachusetts have been called NIMBYs for their stubborn opposition to windmills miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean because distant white blades would spoil the view they take in for perhaps an hour a day a couple of months a year. 

John Pierpont Morgan (you may know him as J.P.) used his backyard to show up the lesser elites and their antiquated technology in 1882. In order to have the first home lit entirely by electricity, he asked Thomas Edison to install a coal-fired power plant in the backyard of Morgan’s Madison Avenue mansion. The generator belched soot and rumbled, but the rest of the coal-heated and gaslit city did as well, and Morgan was delighted to be a leader in a technological revolution.

Edison was a creative businessman and tinkerer. Although he figured out how to use electricity, he didn’t fully understand it. In particular, he couldn’t get alternating current (AC) to work safely, so he built his business around direct current (DC). DC current loses power quickly in transmission, though, so even a small, dense city required many DC power plants squeezed between buildings, and serving suburban and rural homes was out of the question. In contrast, AC power, which Nikola Tesla figured out how to harness, can carry much more voltage over great distances. Edison’s rival, George Westinghouse, hired Tesla to design AC power systems, and prosperous NIMBYs, freed from worrying about the sources of their power, rejoiced. 

If leaders of a city decided that they wanted to “go electric” for their lighting in 1888, they issued a request for proposals. Edison showed up with a plan that required parcels of land to be freed up for power plants around the city. Westinghouse offered to put one big plant far from the prosperous townspeople and send the juice into homes where it would appear magically at the flick of a switch. Edison, whose zeal for progress and profit met little interference from moral concerns, tried to convince people that AC power was dangerous. To do so, he electrocuted horses and elephants and invented the electric chair, which he gave to prisons that executed inmates on the condition that they use Westinghouse-generated volts.

For a while, what was called “The War of the Currents” was a grisly, two-sided affair, but eventually the contest was a blowout, and the NIMBY side won. Powerful people wanted one power plant that they could put where politically powerless people lived. J.P. Morgan forced Edison’s company into a merger with a Massachusetts company that was expert in AC power, put its board members in charge of the company, now called General Electric, and laid the matter to rest: Power would be produced by big central facilities, and most people wouldn’t have to think about where it came from or how it was made. Until now.

Blue sky thinking

When my collaborators and I started working on Probable Futures a few years ago, world leaders had made pledges to keep global average temperatures less than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, yet the predominant attitude toward climate change among adults was that it didn’t really matter. You could find surveys that showed that a majority of people were concerned about it, but when you looked at actual behavior, there was little action. Carbon emissions kept rising, and people kept moving toward hot, coastal places. General Electric had bought Baker Hughes, an oilfield service company, and at America’s biggest bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, climate was under the purview of the director of reputational risk.

As 2022 draws to an end, a lot of good things have happened. The prices of clean energy have fallen, companies have made pledges to limit emissions, and many governments have passed legislation intended to fund, incentivize, and subsidize both the electrification of almost everything and the production of solar and wind power. As a result, pundits like the International Energy Agency tell us that we have already avoided the worst of climate change. 

In fact, emissions are still rising and extremely high levels of warming still have meaningful probability. Pointing that out is now an invitation to be called a pessimist. The American journalist whose climate writing gets the most attention, David Wallace-Wells, wrote a piece in November entitled “Beyond Catastrophe: A New Climate Reality Is Coming Into View.” In it, Wallace-Wells writes, “Thanks to astonishing declines in the price of renewables, a truly global political mobilization, a clearer picture of the energy future and serious policy focus from world leaders, we have cut expected warming almost in half in just five years.”

This is great speculation. And I mean great in both senses of the word. On the one hand, it’s great that smart people working hard to understand the fate of the planet believe that during this century global temperatures are unlikely to pass 3°C and could possibly stay below 2°C (1.5°C is no longer a realistic target). On the other hand, this speculation is like the experts online and on TV predicting who is going to win this weekend’s games and by how much: It is a set of guesses that depend on the actual players. 

And here we get to the crux of this letter: You and I are the players, and our local communities are the arenas. There are millions of relationships, agreements, and allowances that need to materialize for those IEA predictions to come to pass. Those analysts’ optimistic models assume that once prices favor clean energy, the end of fossil fuels is nigh. “The invisible hand” of markets can be so effective that people feel powerless against it. But assuming that communities—driven by economic logic that may not even benefit them directly—will swiftly allow, enable, and even encourage highly visible pieces of infrastructure to cover their roofs, backyards, fields, and horizons is a risky bet.

In the 20th century, when every country had more unused space, GE and Westinghouse could get big loans from big banks, their crews could build a big power plant on cheap land, and the whole system would be fueled by energy-dense coal, oil, or gas extracted from the earth hundreds or thousands of miles away. Most of that infrastructure was invisible to all but the most disadvantaged people, and there was minimal social or political fuss to slow construction, especially after lobbying and a few bribes eased permitting. In contrast, clean energy is much less dense and will take up far more space than fossil fuel infrastructure. Experts’ economic and energy system models are intricate and useful, but they don’t have backyards, neighborhoods, views, or local politics.

How many backyards are we talking about? Energy systems analysts at Princeton’s ZEROLab estimate that the most cost-effective plan for the US to reach net zero emissions requires wind farms to cover an area the size of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee and solar farms over an area the size of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Willingness to site infrastructure is crucial, not just in backyards, but in the ocean and up on our roofs. Forcing all of the infrastructure into the spaces where powerless people live is both immoral and unrealistic.

Who are the people in your neighborhood?

When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
 –“Up on the Roof,” The Drifters

Up on the roof of the building my wife and I share with our upstairs neighbors are solar panels. On hot, sunny days, when the city is begging for electrons to course through the veins of air-conditioning systems, our well-insulated building uses a small fraction of the energy our panels extract from sunlight, lessening the load on the gas power plants that provide most of the electricity in Boston. Over the course of the year, the panels produce about twice as much electricity as we use.

Putting solar panels on our roof in 2017 was an easy decision for us, as we own the top floor unit and it has the right to use the roof. But it took work. No one in our neighborhood full of 150-year-old buildings had installed solar, so someone needed to go to the historical commission to get approval. Thankfully, the city’s commissioners, after debating how the sight lines from the curb would be affected by a bit of equipment four stories up, decided that climate change was worth a small compromise.

Once we got the solar up and running, I investigated moving our home’s heating off of gas. Try as I might, I couldn’t get an HVAC company to have any interest in installing a heat pump. A few weeks ago, I reached out again to a company that had ignored me in 2018. Now they’re happy to do it, as soon as their electricians have a free time slot. We will likely have to wait a few months, but sometime in 2023, our entire building will be fossil fuel free. It’s a step in the right direction, but the transition to clean energy is going to require millions more electricians. 

I went up on the roof recently. The panels are sitting there, doing their passive thing. Over almost five years, they have generated about 40 megawatt hours of electricity. Our local utility would have produced about 37 tons of CO2 to do the same. Unfortunately, as far as I could see, no other roofs have panels on them yet. 

Neighboring buildings often have shared ownership, which complicates even the maintenance of the roof, let alone apportioning the costs and benefits of new infrastructure, but there are programs and policies that can help. I now wish that instead of just putting solar panels on our home, I had tried to organize my neighbors to create a community solar group. My list of 2023 resolutions includes sharing our solar experience with our neighbors. I hope it proves helpful. That hope got a boost recently at a convening organized by the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE).

The dean of HGSE, Bridget Terry Long, introduced the Education and Action Forum as “a chance to focus on what the education sector can do to respond to the challenges of climate change.” She explained that schools occupy more than 2 million acres of land in the US alone; they have fleets of diesel-powered buses; they serve millions of meals every day; and, since most people have some relationship with a school, they act as connectors. Higher temperatures are affecting children’s learning and performance on tests, smoky air keeps them trapped inside or forces school closures, and anxiety about the future makes kids doubt that what they are learning in school will even be relevant, lessening their attention and interest.

Kids know we are letting them down, and school administrators can see it. Yet the people who lead schools are experts in education, not infrastructure or climate science. This is the kind of problem optimists implicitly assume will work out and bystanders could worry is hopeless. Thankfully, parents and children in some places have decided to participate.

At the event, Dr. Monica Goldson, CEO of Prince George’s County (Maryland) Public Schools, explained that she knew that her 208 schools needed to address climate issues. The problem was that she didn’t know how to start, given how much else was on her plate. She told the audience how relieved she was when a school board member, leaders of a parent group called Climate Parents for Prince George’s, and an environmental organization asked her if she would like them to create a task force, including students, to research what the school district could do. That volunteer work broke the big existential question of “addressing climate change” about which the CEO worried into a set of tasks, responsibilities, checklists, and other familiar aspects of everyone’s jobs.

LeeAnn Kittle, director of sustainability of the Denver (Colorado) Public Schools, shared how 30 students across eight different schools met online during the pandemic to discuss how they could push their schools to act. They met after they had finished class, school activities, dinner, and homework. Denver Public Schools already had Ms. Kittle leading sustainability, which distinguishes Denver from most other places, but the pressure, motivation, and clarity of the student group (with whom Ms. Kittle met every Wednesday for a year and a half) pushed the administration to take more action. 

Now they are displaying real-time energy production (some from rooftop solar panels) and energy use data in the schools, composting, and building awnings to shade parts of the playground with solar panels on top. What started as a group of 30 intrepid students is now a community in which every student, employee, parent, and community member can see where their energy is coming from, what they are using it for, and how they can affect it. Gradually, the common feeling of climate anxiety is being replaced by coherent action. (Ms. Kittle has asked Probable Futures to present both to teachers and to facilities managers, as our educational platform and climate tools can help both inside and outside the classroom.)

Mitigation requires preparation

In the last couple of years, many professionals have directed their attention to reducing emissions of carbon dioxide (and to a lesser extent, methane). In the language of climate policy, emissions pledges and investments in clean energy are known as “mitigation,” as reducing greenhouse gases mitigates future warming.

The momentum toward a clean energy future is fantastic. Unfortunately, despite ever-increasing disasters and strains on people, plants, animals, and infrastructure, there is less energy going into preparing for the challenges posed by hotter, more unstable weather patterns, which is called “adaptation.” For example, regulatory standards currently being considered by the SEC and regulators elsewhere, many of which are modeled on guidance from the Taskforce for Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, go to great, specific lengths to account for emissions, while physical climate risk is addressed by a few unspecific sentences. All mitigation and no preparation is a bad game plan.

This brings us to the second huge, optimistic assumption that smoothes the modeled curves of future decarbonization: non-economic actions. The economists and engineers who build these models create intricate, interrelated relationships between “the economy” and the energy sector, so the dollars and kilowatt hours move around and add up. In contrast, because these models are built by engineers and economists who don’t know how to predict political upheaval, violence, or migration, or the possible consequences of such phenomena, they rule out the possibility of anything but orderly buying and selling. In reality, however, we won’t get anywhere near zero if we are not prepared for rough weather. Renewables are the fuel of planning, coordinating, and cooperation. In contrast, oil is the fuel of crises.

In the past, strong winds reliably spun in a tight circle around the North Pole, trapping Arctic air above ice-covered seas. As the Arctic has warmed, ice has melted and those winds have weakened, allowing bulges of frigid air to drift southward. In 2021, polar air invaded Texas. The state’s infrastructure, designed to handle the benign local weather that a cooler global atmosphere had produced in the past, was unprepared for these temperatures, and the state’s utilities seized up. If nearby states could have sent electricity into Texas, much suffering could have been averted, but Texan officials have repeatedly refused to integrate their grid with that of their neighbors. In the face of the storm, Texas was on its own, and hundreds of people died. Suddenly, the most valuable thing to have in Texas was a generator and a supply of diesel fuel.

The models informing pledges to reduce emissions and plans to increase clean energy are unrealistic. Similar models assured us for decades that there was no need to do much about climate change. Instead of judging them harshly, being pessimistic, or betting against them, however, it is up to us to do the work that models ignore or take for granted and that the invisible hand cannot do. To both stay resilient in the face of difficult, dangerous weather and make a clean energy system work, we need relationships, agreements, pledges, and trust. (We also need better climate economics and more responsible use of models, but that’s a topic for another letter.)

When it’s sunny on my panels, I can send electrons to you. When it’s cloudy here, perhaps it will be windy where you are, and you can help me out. When a brutal heat wave rolls into town, if we’ve outfitted buildings with excellent insulation and HVAC systems, not only will the kids be alright, but people who risk death from extreme heat will be able to seek shelter in the school gymnasium or perhaps in a museum that has prepared to act as a cooling center. If national, state, and local governments and civic organizations have helped people insulate their homes and offices, the entire system will be able to keep people warm or cool with less energy. When warmer air leads to heavy rains, flooding will be minimal if storm sewers have been updated. 

Investor, worker, consumer, citizen

In addition to the story about my former colleague and his boys’ experience with youth baseball, another experience with him comes to mind often in my work on climate change. He considered himself to be an excellent judge of “stock pickers,” analysts who predict which stocks will go up or down. To him, my work was often vexing, as I tried to figure out issues that were less obviously related to asset prices.

About a decade ago, I started explaining why I thought that the American political system was in peril. This work was not popular with stock pickers. One of the firm’s managing partners told me that if I wanted to talk about politics at work, I should find another line of work. I shared this with the colleague whose boys hadn’t “made the team.” His response stuck with me: “I went to business school so that I would never have to think about politics.” I suspect he didn’t consider his boys’ sports challenges political, either. The founders of Sportsmen’s knew better, and its current leaders know that taking care of a civic institution requires considering climate change. 

Sportsmen’s has seven tennis courts indoors and seven outdoors. This winter, the club will begin construction on a new building to cover four of the outdoor courts. The additional indoor space will ease pressure in the wintertime when adults like us want to play, but the biggest benefit will be in June, July, and August.

Hundreds of kids come to Sportsmen’s summer camp each day to play and learn together. In principle, being outside all day is a great thing for kids cooped up the rest of the year, but Boston summers aren’t what they were when the club was founded. Days above 32°C (90°F) used to be rare. Now they are not only common but are often more humid than before. It’s simply not healthy for kids to be on a tennis court for long in such weather. Wet days no longer offer a reprieve either, as gentle summer showers are replaced by deluges. Like their contemporaries around the world, the children of Boston are finding the outdoors less hospitable. The new structure will have solar panels as well, lightening the financial burden of heating and cooling the rest of the year.

Relationships start with generosity

The passive, dissociative trends evident in sports can be seen in facets of life as varied as politics and food. Polling and elections captivate both politicians and the public, while the infrastructure of government and the practice of governing deteriorate. We spend more time and energy watching cooking contests and scrutinizing restaurants, yet we cook less, eat less healthily, and increasingly take our meals alone. In every facet of life, these trends are lamentable and make dealing with climate change harder, but they are also reversible. In every case, I think that reversal starts with an act of generosity. 

When we started Probable Futures, my collaborators and I thought of it as a gift. We didn’t mean it to sound grandiose, just that we were worried about climate change and had an idea for something we knew how to make and thought others would benefit from. We could have made it a business, but that would have limited who could use it and would not have led to the kinds of relationships that make working on climate change more hopeful and joyful and less lonely. I see that same intention in the parents and students who gave their time, energy, and expertise to their school districts to create a climate action plan, the people who conceived of and promoted community solar, and the volunteers who started and nurtured the Sportsmen’s community. Small, simple acts of generosity encourage others to participate. 

I write these letters every season to reflect, to look ahead, and to share both what I am thinking and what our team is doing. My hope is to encourage people to pay more attention to the marvelous world we inhabit and to participate in its care and flourishing so that together we can improve the odds that the lives of future generations are joyful.

This past year was one of hard work and milestones for Probable Futures, as we completed the public platform, dramatically expanded our community, and began to build new partnerships. If you would like to help Probable Futures reach more people and be more useful, we have an opportunity to volunteer as an alpha user of the Probable Futures Pro tool and climate data API we have developed. We are confident that members of our growing community can find new, productive ways to use climate data.

I hope that you enjoy the final days of 2022 with people you love, eating well and playing, and that you enter the new year in good spirits. Thank you for being part of our community and bringing us into yours.

Onward,

Spencer