Maybe We’re Not F*cked: Moving the Climate Conversation Forward
Featuring Jason E. Bordoff, Ted Nordhaus, and Bina Venkataraman
When we think about our environmental future, it’s no wonder that many of us feel an overwhelm bordering on defeat. We’ve been hearing for years about the damage humanity has done to our world and the coming climate apocalypse, which if you listen to some is now impossible to avert. There’s no denying that climate change is a real and significant issue. But is the narrative of climate catastrophism accurate, and is it doing us any good?
Join The Progress Network for a conversation with Ted Nordhaus, cofounder of The Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center, Bina Venkataraman, author of The Optimist’s Telescope and a former senior climate change advisor in the Obama White House, and Jason E. Bordoff, founding director of the Center on Global Energy at Columbia University, about a more helpful approach to meeting the challenge of climate change. The discussion, moderated by our founder, Zachary Karabell, begins with the premise that planetary doom is not inevitable. It might not even be likely.
This conversation was recorded on March 11, 2021.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Hi everybody. Welcome. Welcome. Thanks for joining us. We’re just going to give you know, a couple of minutes for the room to fill up. There’s usually a little bit of a lag from between when we go live and when everyone is able to access the event. So here today, you know, we put a curse word in the event title, but it seems wrong to really say it. So I’m going to say welcome to Maybe We’re Not F*cked: Moving the Climate Conversation Forward. We’re really excited to have this conversation. And we are here with a few people today. One of our panelists, Ted, unfortunately is only going to be able to join us for half an hour. But he has gone above and beyond to be able to join us for that half hour. So thank you very much to Ted and to all of our panelists.
We are The Progress Network. We’re an idea movement for a better future. And if you’re not familiar with us already, you can learn more about us at theprogressnetwork.org. And with that, I’m just going to go straight into panelist introductions—actually, I’m sorry, a quick note about logistics and run of show, and then panelist introductions. I got a little ahead of myself. So we’ll be running for an hour, and we’ll be able to take questions in the last 10 to 15 minutes. Can’t guarantee that everyone’s question will be able to be answered, but we’ll give it our best shot.
And with that, I will go into panelist introductions. So first one with us here today is Jason Bordoff. He’s the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia. He joined there in January 2013, and before that he was a special assistant to the president and senior director for energy and climate change on the staff at the National Security Council. And prior to that, he was holding senior policy positions on the White House’s National Economic Council and Council on Environmental Quality and our second panelist, Ted Nordhaus. He’s a leading global thinker on energy, environment, climate, human development, and politics. He’s the founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, executive editor of the Breakthrough Journal, and coauthor of An Ecomodernist Manifesto. And he has a book called “Breakthrough,” which you might be interested in checking out. And Bina Venkataraman, who’s the editor editorial page editor of The Boston Globe and a fellow at New America. She also teaches at MIT and their Department of Science, Technology, and Society. Her first book was “The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age which is a roadmap for how we can plan better for the future, and think more, you know, in terms of long-term thinking. And last but certainly not least our moderator and the founder of The Progress Network, Zachary Karabell. He’s a columnist, an investor, a very prolific author. You might’ve seen his work anywhere from Slate to Politico. He writes about economics, politics sometimes matters of faith. And with that, I’m going to turn it over to Zachary.
Zachary Karabell (ZK): Thank you. And thank all four of you for being here. Thank you, Ted, for juggling a complicated life. I’m sorry. We only have you for 25 minutes, but 25 minutes of Ted is worth at least an hour and a half of a normal human being. And and then when you quietly go gently, not into that good night, but whatever, we’ll continue the conversation until eight. And then as Emma said, well do questions from the Q&A function. You know, just to pray in this a little bit, I mean, yes, The Progress Network is a creation meant to highlight to a culture that has been relentlessly focused on the downsides and the negatives that, even if those things are true, there’s a panoply of people who are engaged in the work of trying to solve problems and create a future that is one that we would want to live in rather than either resignedly declining into a pessimistic future or giving up in resignation because we think that everything’s going to hell in a hand basket.
It’s not a Pollyannish “things are great.” It’s more of a sensibility, not of outrage, not of continually focusing on everything that’s going wrong, but also focusing on what could go right. Given that the what could go wrong question is asked, and it is asked again, and it is addressed and answered every day in media, in our culture, in our politics, to some degree even, I’m sure, in our own personal lives. So I just wanted to frame it in that sense. And then, you know, we’ll have a, kind of a free-form conversation about this. There’s I suppose, a window more of optimism/hopefulness amongst those who care deeply about climate, about climate change given both the commitment or the renewed commitment of the incoming Biden administration to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords on the one hand, and the recent announcement coming out of China, which is, you know, soon to be the largest emitter of carbon in whatever form that it wants to be more or less carbon neutral by 2060.
I mean, whether or not that happens as a whole other question, which I think we’ll get into but that doesn’t in the moment change the arc of these developments. You know, the planet is warming, the climate is changing, and we’re dealing with the effects of that. The question is, and I want to, I think, turn first to Bina around this catastrophism and the relentless focus on what all the incredible doomsday scenarios are for climate change—oceans rising, cities becoming uninhabitable. I’m in Miami right now, which is probably its own ground zero for rising oceans and changing temperatures. The legacy of say, Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth has been a collective “grab everyone by the shoulders and shake them. This crisis is coming! Pay attention or else.” One the one hand, that kind of legacy has probably galvanized us. But I also think it’s legitimate to ask whether it has enervated us.
Bina Venkataraman (BV): You’re sitting amongst some billions of dollars of real estate that are at risk there in Miami. I’m not going to sugarcoat that. There really is a threat of cities becoming uninhabitable or civilizations being remade. But I have spent a lot of time delving into the behavioral science around how people respond to threats and opportunities in the future and how that intersects with what we need to do about the climate crisis, which is to mobilize our social and political systems and infrastructure to respond to it in a very serious way.
The question of what message works is a very contingent one. If you want to get people to react really quickly to something, outrage can be of great service. Panic, too, gets people to do things that they need to do in short orders of time. But it’s clear that doomsaying and fear alone are not sufficient to motivate the action we need regarding climate change. If you are constantly walking around with a sandwich board saying “the end is nigh”—when you’re constantly painting a picture of a world for people that they can’t impact or influence, that it’s inevitable that there’s going to be crisis after crisis—without the message of what can be done to change course, then you’re not giving people any agency. Instead, people are going to feel like, why not just party? There’s no tomorrow.
There’s a real need, particularly in the climate change conversation we’ve been having over the last couple of decades, to shift toward looking at those points of action and agency. I write in my book, The Optimist’s Telescope, about the difference between a good forecast and having foresight. You can give people predictions of the future. You can tell them the planet is warming by X degrees and that the sea levels will rise by so many feet. But in order to take that seriously and do something with that information, people need to be able to not only imagine an unprecedented level of change, but also an unprecedented level of possible opportunity. What could communities that actually respond to this crisis, that run on clean and green energy, look like? What could truly resilient, inclusive communities look like? Enabling that kind of space to imagine positive futures and not just negative ones I think has been missing for a long time from the climate conversation.
ZK: Ted, you wrote a piece in Foreign Policy recently about China placing a marker in the sand—a bold vision of a non-carbon future articulated by an authoritarian state that has the ability to marshal the resources to actually manifest that vision. Does all of this make you wake up and go, “huh, things are looking up,” or not necessarily?
Ted Nordhaus (TN): First, what Bina said was exactly right. You’re not going to move along the kind of resources that you need to address climate change by trying to scare people straight with apocalyptic stories. People are going to make the commitment that it takes to build a low-carbon, equitable, prosperous global future if there’s sort of some vision of a future that they can see themselves in and want to be a part of. That’s a little different from being totally utopian, which is the other place that a lot of environmental discussion goes—the idea that if the scales fall from all of our eyes, we’ll build the utopia of 100% clean energy tomorrow, and it’s going to be completely equitable.
I may have started this place called The Breakthrough Institute, but the reality is that moving forward is going to be a muddle. It always has been and it always will be. That’s actually what progress looks like: one foot in front of the other. Don’t tell me about what the sea levels or the hurricanes are going to look like in 50 years. Let’s talk about the kind of investments I can make right now to make my community and my country better, and in doing those things, we’ll also address climate change. When we talk about the breakthrough, so to speak, the breakthrough is not zero-one. More clean energy is better than less clean energy. A less hot climate is better than a hotter climate. That’s true today, it’s true at two degrees Celsius, and it’s true at four degrees Celsius, although God forbid we get there.
Also, the solutions have got to work all over the world, not just in really rich places like the US. Poor places need to build a lot more infrastructure, which means steel and concrete and things that aren’t as easy to decarbonize as, say, the electric vehicles that rich people increasingly drive in rich countries. It’s not an easy problem; it’s a hard one, and it’s going to take a long time. We need to make a commitment for the long haul and construct a politics that can last. This politics cannot be catastrophist, which exhausts people, invokes fatalism, and is deeply polarized.
ZK: Before we go to Jason, talk for a moment, Ted, about what you think about China’s and Xi Jinping’s 2060 marker. Is that a good thing for a country to commit to something that is far beyond anything that any other government or global groups have committed to? It’s probably not feasible, although we don’t necessarily know what’s feasible until we actually marshal the resources and see.
TN: I’ve always been a skeptic of long-term targets of all sorts, because they’re unenforceable. Whether it’s an emissions target or a net-zero target, or even a clean energy target, tell me what you’re going to do next year, or tell me what you’re going to do in five years. Telling me what you’re going to do in 40 years, when you’re going to be dead, is not very helpful, and no one should believe it. On the other hand, there’s at least two things that are really interesting about the commitment that China has just made.
The first is that when China makes a commitment like that, it’s not the same as Joe Biden saying “we’re going to be a climate leader, and my goal is zero by 2050.” China actually does industrial planning. It’s a centralized economy. So this mobilization of industrial planning resources will probably accelerate the pace of decarbonization even if they don’t hit that zero mark. That’s significant.
The other thing—and this is controversial to say—is one we can thank Donald Trump for. One of the perhaps counterintuitive things that happened as Trump came in and said climate change is a Chinese hoax, we’re out of the Paris Accords, and I’m going to bring back the coal industry (which of course he failed at), is that the whole rest of the world said “enough.” Waiting for the US to lead us all to the promised land on climate change is not going to happen.
We also have to understand China’s climate commitments as part of a broader set of geopolitical stratagems. Chinese leadership looked at all the ways that Trump created a vacuum. If you want the Europeans to shut up about what you’re doing to the Uighurs or protestors in Hong Kong or how you’re militarizing the South China Sea, a pretty good way to do it is to make a really bold, ambitious climate commitment. One thing that’s going to be consistent from the Trump administration to the Biden one is a more hawkish view toward China than we saw in the Obama years, and even going back to Clinton and Bush before him. Whether we will be sitting here five years from now going, “that was the turning point for climate change”—even if it was—or going, “boy, that was the end of the old international liberal order, and this thing that’s coming after it is concerning in ways that don’t have to do with climate change,” is an open question.
ZK: Jason, you recently wrote about Biden rejoining the Paris climate accords. As Ted said, it’s not like the world is going to go, “thank God, the US is back, now we can all get to work doing all this.” But I’m also interested in your thoughts that might build on what Ted said about bold markers. There was certainly talk about a Green New Deal during the election that was going to achieve certain things by a certain date. Should there be more of that now? There was a space race in the Cold War; should there be a decarbonization race and a Cold War Part Two?
Jason E. Bordoff (JB): I agree with what Bina and Ted have said almost entirely. When you have a centralized planned economy that does industrial policy, long-term targets can be more meaningful. We should note that China, to Ted’s point, also does five-year plans, and they’re really important to look at as well. If you want to get a sense of whether they’re taking the 2060 or 2030 targets seriously, let’s see what’s in their five-year plan, because they tend to meet those. Also, China believes in climate change and climate science. When you talk to senior people in government, they view this as industrial policy where they’re trying to lead on what they view as emerging, growing parts of the global economy: batteries, solar, and electric vehicles. It is geopolitical. That’s why you see a disconnect between what they’re doing domestically, as far as local leadership, and what they’re doing internationally. They still are building a fair number of the world’s coal-fired power plants, for instance.
As for bold markers, you open the newspaper any day these days, and everyone—governments and countries and cities—are promising net-zero 2050. That’s good, in part, because it’s a reflection of what’s changing and what you may be optimistic about. One of those things is a new sense of urgency. There is a growing recognition that this is a problem we are way behind on, and the consequences are not going to be good. Another is the clear shift we’re seeing in public opinion, especially in younger demographics, in a rather short timeframe. One of the challenges with climate has always been that if you ask the American people if they believe in climate change, the answer is yes. There’s not a lot of climate denial even going back some years. But if you ask them how important it is on your priority list, relative to lots of other things like the economy and healthcare and everything else, it is pretty low, and that’s what drives political action. That’s changing in a pretty significant way.
However, we also need to understand how staggeringly difficult it is to take a number like net-zero 2050 seriously. It’s not just about the falling costs of solar or batteries. That’s just one part of the problem when we have a world where energy use is rapidly going up, when many parts of the world use a small fraction of the energy that we take for granted. We need to have a more honest conversation about what net-zero 2050 looks like on a global scale across all sectors, not just vis a vis electric cars, but trucks and shipping and aviation and steel and cement, and all the things we know are a lot harder to decarbonize.
As for the US, the Europeans for one have welcomed us back to the climate change table, but the feeling is also that it’s time to put our money where our mouth is and show them that we’re serious about this, to back the 2030 target we put on the table for the UN meeting this year, for instance, with domestic action. There’s a limit to what the Biden administration can do with executive authority; they can do a lot, but they can’t do enough without congressional action.
So there is are reasons to be optimistic, but we have a lot of work to do, too.
BV: There is something I want to add to what Ted said about progress. A lot of it is incremental and goes unnoticed. That’s part of the challenge we have in solving really complex problems. There’s not a lot of political gain, for example, from not developing in a flood plain and therefore preventing a major disaster from happening. As opposed to, say, standing on the ashes of the World Trade Center and responding to that crisis, which reaps political rewards in a way that incrementally solving problems does not. I do think it’s true that a lot of progress does happen incrementally and we should take better care to notice it—and this relates to this issue of what individuals can do, because part of it is to notice and to hold our political and business leaders accountable for making those kinds of precautionary changes and reforms.
But also, change is non-linear. You’ll see that if you look at the history of social movements, for example, or drastic political changes. There’s a reason why the people who advocate for the Green New Deal invoke the New Deal. Or, look at the COVID-19 rescue package that has just been passed, which is a level of spending that was unfathomable two years ago before this pandemic struck. So this notion that we’re doomed to the same trajectory of progress that we’ve been making in the past is also a bit fraught. If we are just going to make progress at the pace we’ve been making on climate change, we would actually be fucked! We do need a level of political and policy, and cultural and social, response to this that is a more profound than what we’ve seen today. But that’s actually possible. On the eve of the Great Depression, you couldn’t have imagined the New Deal.
How does that relate to this idea of what the individual can do? In the climate community people tend to create an either/or situation where it’s either about individual action or it’s about political action plus economic change in the business sector. The reality is it’s about both, and that both are mutually reinforcing. I don’t think we should pretend that this is about recycling, or if you just bike to work more days of the week that we’re going to solve the climate change problem. Because things need to change at the level of systems—policy incentives, the infrastructure itself. And those things you can’t change just as an individual.
But I think there are two important ways in which individual action can really matter. One is that we create a gateway drug by doing things that have an environmental ethic, that connect with a broader sense of being part of a planet, connected to nature and to other people. Then people develop resolve and interest in the policy and politics of climate change, and in voting to elect candidates that will do right by them in terms of policy and political action. While we have a very individualistic strain in this country, it’s also important to recognize that when you take action as an individual, that can inspire other actions. There’s the concept of behavioral contagion, which has worked with a lot of things, including smoking and all different kinds of public health measures (which we’ve seen in the pandemic). There is a way in which you can influence others’ behavior, and then all your behavior together becomes more than the sum of its parts and a way in which the personal action really connects with the political accountability that’s needed to make change.
ZK: So, Jason, I mean, it’s an interesting point being that it rightly says, look, in the past 12 months, the US government spent close to $5 trillion, between the $2.2 trillion Plan in April, the $900, $800 billion at the end of December, and then another $1.9 trillion now. And then if you add up what European governments have said, I mean, the global government spending on pandemic relief, vaccination, you name it, is surely close to around the $10 trillion that had been talked about as a Green New Deal target. But isn’t part of the challenge of that, when you think about government behavior from a level of urgency, that a pandemic happened with immediacy and urgency much more like Pearl Harbor than a 20-, 30-year gradual, but not inexorable rise in temperature? I mean, do you think that… Is there any government other than China, which can just sort of say, we’re going to do this and then fill in the blanks that could actually motivate and mobilize? And Paris has been an interesting set of guidelines and guideposts, but it hasn’t been, and never was meant to be a mobilizing of spending
JB: No, and I think it’s intentionally not intended to be a mobilizing of spending because most of the capital spent on the energy system is not government spending. So what we need to do is change the incentives that consumers have and firms have to change how we produce and consume energy. I don’t think we’re going to government-spend our way out of the climate problem. It’s a global, system-wide problem. And we need to—every time somebody decides what car to buy, or how they’re going to make their next building and how they’re going to produce the cement and steel for it, and what kind of factory they’re going to build—change the incentives they have, and also change the cost of the available technologies that they have. So that’s really important, right? Climate change is a stock, not a flow problem. What impacts climate change is the sum total of all CO2 emitted because it stays up there a really long time.
Twenty-Five percent of the CO2 that’s up there has come from the United States. Today the United States is responsible for 15% of annual emissions that are continuing to add to that sum total, and moving forward, 95% of all emissions will come from outside the United States. So if you want to talk about what climate leadership looks like for the US, I think we need to get our act together at home. And we need a set of… There is a role for government spending, to be sure; a big part of that, I think, should be on R&D and investments in technologies that will be needed to bring the cost down of de-carbonizing and building new industries. Because as I said before, some stuff we know how to do. It’s like solar and wind, and we can probably think about a pathway now that is cost-effective to decarbonize electricity.
Many sources of emissions are more difficult and more costly. If we lead in developing those here at home, not only to bring our own emissions down, but to dramatically lower the cost of those technologies so it’s within the realm of feasibility and affordability for a rapidly emerging economy or a developing nation. You know, I said, the US is responsible for 25% of all CO2 emissions to date. The whole continent of Africa is responsible for 2%, and they’re going to grow for decades to come. That’s a good thing that they’re going to grow, to the extent that they see affordable pathways to grow their energy use for economic development in ways that are reasonably cost-effective relative to a more carbon-intensive alternative. If, I think, countries that have some historic responsibility for the emissions can help make that more affordable, that’s a big role we can play to help demonstrate climate leadership, as well as the commitment we put on the table in Glasgow later this year, for whatever we’re going to do here at home.
ZK: So talk a little bit about the private industry part of it, right? Because there’s certainly been people in whatever we can loosely call the sustainability community that have said, “Hey,” governments, other than European until recently have been, if not behind the eight ball, not even playing the same game of pool, but you have companies and certainly multinationals that have been very aggressive in either setting these markers of a lower carbon future and lower carbon products, because they feel it’s important for consumers and marketing, or because it removes a lot of their variable costs. And, you know, GM saying, we’re going to go to I think 2035, they’re going to go to an all electric vehicle. Other, you know, other parts of the world, certainly, you know, Israel, et cetera, are doing much more battery-power technology you know, maybe government has been over-focused on… And that just the drivers of input costs, variable costs, always being a problem for companies. So if you can get rid of those by doing renewables or just being less energy intensive, all the better. Are we not focusing on that enough? I mean, I guess both Bina and Jason, you can take a whack.
BV: I can start. I mean, Jason has a lot of expertise in this area and I definitely want to hear his answer. I think it’s a symbiosis between government policy and the investment world and the corporate world in terms of how they’re innovating. And for that matter, you know, startups and new innovative enterprises that are developing new technologies or solutions to climate change. And I think we have seen, you know, you see areas you know, for example, you see technology companies for reasons of talent retention or marketing and cost savings, you know, turning to renewables, to power server farms and things like that. And that’s, that trend has been going on for quite a while, that companies have looked at their supply chains or looked at ways to take action on climate change. But I think you can’t underestimate or undersell the rule that either the specter of regulation, the specter of government co-investment, or the reality of those things plays in shaping those policies.
So if you look at the auto industry, for example when President Obama’s fuel emission standards policy was rolled out, which was a dramatic part of his Climate Action Plan, cutting emissions from the transportation sector, the auto industry lined up to be supportive of that and say, “look, we’re going to be innovative, and we’re going to come up with more emissions-free or low-emissions fleets,” there was an about face during the Trump administration. When the Trump administration rolled back fuel emission standards the auto industry was right there supporting that. After November GM clearly had this plan in their back pocket, and they pivoted back to electricity. They knew, you know, Joe Biden was going to be president when they made that announcement.
So I think, uh, I don’t want to be too cynical about this, but I do think, um, you know, I spent the work I did, which pales in comparison to what Jason did, uh, in the Obama White House, the work I did was a lot about trying to motivate the private sector to make commitments that matched the president’s Climate Action Plan. And I do think you know, some of those commitments that were made during that time have been seen through and some of them haven’t. And so, I think it’s a combination of what market forces are at play, you know, the declining cost of renewables certainly plays a role what reputational concerns these companies have, what talent concerns they have and how much they’re having that, like, come-to-Jesus moment about what’s gonna happen to their supply chains, what’s going to happen to their businesses in a material way.
JB: Yeah, no, I did not mean to give the impression that there was not an incredibly important role for government. We don’t solve this problem without government. I would not have created and run an energy research Institute with the word “policy” in it if I didn’t think it was important to spend my career focused on policy. I was specifically referring to the role of government spending, which I think is important, but you know, the amount of government spending, that’s going to be solved to build a clean-energy economy, which is going to be somewhere around $70 trillion between now and 2040, according to the International Energy Agency, most of that will be private capital. And we’re going to need government spending for things where there are market failures, like R&D, or things where there are network externalities and benefits to everyone else like building infrastructure.
So if we want to build you know, a new hydrogen economy, how are we going to think about the port infrastructure for that, or the pipelines that are needed? How do we think about electric vehicle charging infrastructure to allow greater take-up and demand pull, what Biden’s doing with government procurement to help give demand pull and lower the cost of emerging technologies is all very important. But regulation and standards, whether it’s a carbon price, clean electricity standard, I mean, whatever mechanism—and we can talk about them—you want to choose. You know, we had problems with pollution and acid rain and sulfur dioxide emissions which led to, 50 years ago, 51 years ago, the first Earth Day, people on both sides of the aisle, urban and suburban, Democrat and Republican, coming out in the streets. One out of every 10 Americans saying, like, “we can’t live like this anymore. Someone has to do something about this,” which led Richard Nixon—not a great environmental champion; it was just politically what he had to do—to create the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency. And it was those regulations that said, “you can’t keep emitting pollution; you have to stop.” and we’re going to need government regulation that does something similar for the amount of CO2 we’re putting in the air, and change the incentives that people have to deploy private capital.
ZK: So, one more question before we go to, I think there’ve been eight questions in the chat, and I’m going to have to actually move my computer for a moment because I’m running out of energy, which is so weirdly appropriate given the conversation we’re having.
JB: Breakthroughs in battery storage [inaudible].
ZK: I didn’t get the memo.
BV: You should have been on a treadmill powering your laptop this whole time.
ZK: I should have been doing that the whole time. I wondered about that. There’s also a demographic reality, which is that the population of the planet is ceasing to grow much more quickly than most people thought the population on the planet was going to grow to the point where, you know, we’re almost certainly not going to hit in 2050 the UN projections of 11 or 12 billion that were thought of at the end of the 20th century. You know, we may not even hit 10 billion, you know, maybe we’ll hit nine. That won’t mean that all the people—you talked about this, Jason—that most of the emissions going forward are going to be from quote-unquote, “the world formerly known as developing but surely fewer people. And if you look at Japan today, fewer people, more urbanized, and that assumes that they stay more urbanized post-COVID, is its own partial amelioration here, right? I mean, or is it just that the time at which that population effect is going to come in and lead to reduced energy intensity is just not lined up in time soon enough.
JB: Well, it certainly is not a solution to the climate challenge. I mean, you know, every ton of CO2 adds to the problem. It’s a question of how quickly you see those impacts. And is it a decade? Is it a hundred years? Which is why net zero needs to be the goal. And that’s not going to change without a fundamental change to the global energy system. If you want to know how quickly emissions will rise, you know, you want to know how quickly energy use will rise, there has been a pretty clear historic relationship between GDP growth and population growth, and that tells you pretty closely what’s going to happen to energy growth. And in the past, that has told you what is going to happen with CO2 emissions, because the carbon intensity of the energy use was pretty consistent. That is what’s starting to change, not quickly enough.
And that’s what has to break apart. We are still going to use more energy, but questions about population growth and GDP growth will determine the slope of that growth because we have, you know, many parts of the world that are still developing and still growing their economies. And energy efficiency can play a pretty important role. It doesn’t get talked about enough, actually, to moderate that growth as well. But fundamentally we need to change the energy system and the way we meet those needs, the sources of energy, or how CO2 emissions are otherwise captured or removed.
ZK: Is it just, it’s like a nice idea, but it’s too far away and won’t happen quickly enough? Do you agree with “It’s the GDP, it’s not the people”?
BV: Do I agree with that? I mean, well, you know, there have been these instances where GDP growth has been de-linked from emissions growth, and it does seem to be about gaining efficiencies. Like, I don’t know, at what point in a country’s trajectory of GDP growth it’s possible to de-link it from growth and emissions. And I think a lot is going to be determined by the speed at which technologies that are low-emissions technologies, zero-emissions technologies scale up and and spread throughout the world. So so I think in general, you know, I agree with Jason’s notion of this trend. But I do think, right, we have… There’s just an extraordinary amount of innovative capacity in this country and all around the world.
I mean, the fact that, I mean, just look at the timeframe in which we developed—we developed; I can’t even take credit—this vaccine, the messenger RNA vaccines that were developed with such a high degree of effectiveness for this virus that was only identified, you know, about a year ago. We’re now, you know, giving those vaccines and getting those vaccines. And that is just like an extraordinary rate of technological progress. And I know that this is not, you know, it’s not even related to the world of energy or energy storage, or low-carbon emissions, or carbon removal, or regenerative agriculture. But the fact of the matter is that if we put enough focus and investment into some of these new technologies, I think that there are unimaginable ways in which they can help us reconcile and change some of these sort of… Cut through these Gordian knots, could change some of these dynamics that have been inextricable.
ZK: So let’s do some of the questions that have come up so far. One of which is, you know, to you being about what you think about whether or not there’s going to be a real change in Biden land other than Paris and a commitment? You know, is that going to translate into policy that is meaningful? Will there actually be a bill or, I mean, are people going to basically turn around and go, “you got your 1.9,” and you’ll have people like Senator Manchin saying “I’m not going to authorize a massive infrastructure green bill unless Republicans sign on,” and then, no Republicans, and there we are. And obviously, Jason, you’ve thought about this a lot too. So maybe you can both address that question.
BV: Yeah. I mean, a lot of people feel differently about this than I do, but as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter what color dress the climate policy and climate action and investment that you’re making is wearing; the dress does not have to be green in my view. So, you know, if you look at this COVID recovery bill and look at some of the investments that are being made in public transit—more than $30 billion for public transit across states and cities in the US, hundreds of billions of dollars that can be applied by states to infrastructure projects of different kinds—there’s a huge amount of spending there that is climate friendly at a minimum, and can be seen as within the context of how Jason framed this, you know, spending only takes you so far, but are in the context of making our communities more resilient moving people away from car-based fossil fuel transportation.
And so it is already happening that that policy is being passed by this administration. Do I think it’s far enough, fast enough for the problems that we face? No, not at all. I think there are some exceptions to that. I mean, I think it would be really great to see Congress converge around some sort of carbon pricing legislation and, or a clean-energy standard, a national clean-energy standard that would do, you know, would have the effect of doing what the more ambitious, renewable portfolio standards do, where they specify a certain amount of electricity that has to be bought from zero-emission sources in the power sectors. And so legislation like that there have been bipartisan proposals around that. And I think if Joe Biden can make good on the sort of political messaging and framing that he has opened with in talking about climate change, talking about jobs, talking about actually being able to help people transition out of fossil fuel jobs into sort of the new economy and new infrastructure jobs he might be able to win over, you know, the Joe Manchins. He might be able to help them appeal enough to their constituents.
And the question is, how do you do that? Right? Because there’s like a national level at which jobs are lost and gained, but how does that help, you know, the people in West Virginia? How does that help people in particular places who might see a threat from particular kinds of legislation. And so I think those are kind of political questions that need to be grappled with. But I’ve been hopeful, based on the way I’ve seen them come out with with the approach to the policy and the approach to the politics. And I think a lot depends on Congress, you know, a lot depends on what kind of leadership Congress is going to show.
JB: Yeah, I would just say so I agree. And by the way, it’s not just Biden, it’s even before in terms of what can Congress do and what can they get done? The December COVID relief bill included significant government investment in some climate priorities, the two most significant were the phase-down HFCs, of potent greenhouse gas, and the 45Q tax credit for carbon capture and sequestration. Those two things combined more than offset the negative carbon impacts of Trump’s rollbacks of some significant Obama era regulations. So they made a real difference. I think Bina’s right, that we’ll see a big push from this administration in a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure bill for green climate priorities and an extension of tax credits for solar and wind, building retrofits that can put people’s work and reduce energy use in buildings, investments in our electric vehicle charging infrastructure; all of those are important.
The point I made in that Foreign Policy piece, you referenced earlier, Zach was, “what does ambition look like?” The Europeans and the environmentalist have sort of set the main player for the nationally determined contribution. That’s our target for 2030. People will want to see a 50% decline in 2030 relative to 2005. And if you take all of the things that the administration can do with its executive authority, without Congress, you think ambitiously and in the realm of feasible—I don’t think we’re spending trillions and trillions just on clean energy—of what going big on that might look like in an infrastructure bill, and you take state level action, which is also important, that can do a lot, but it doesn’t get you that all the way there. You still need more. And I think to Bina’s point, that means you need congressional, comprehensive climate legislation of some sort, whether it’s a meaningful carbon price or sectoral standards or something else, but we need further action. And that means, as Pollyannish and naive as it sounds to think about working across the aisle, we’re going to have to try,
ZK: So one more question from audience land, and then we’ll wrap up: nuclear. You know, this always comes up as a… Particularly when people think about mitigation versus prevention, right? Why are we not more embracing of any and all that leads to a less carbon-intensive future, rather than having said, you know, “this option, yes; that option, no”?
BV: I’m happy to start. It’s the 10th anniversary of the Fukushima disaster in Japan…
ZK: Yeah, the person who asked the question did actually reference that.
BV: Oh really? Yeah. I was in Fukushima on the seventh anniversary of the disaster and you know, in the aftermath of that disaster, for good reason, they decommissioned something like 42, more than 40 nuclear power plants in Japan. And the result of that is that Japan went from being a leader in terms of emissions reductions and climate commitments to having a growth in fossil fuel emissions, replacing a lot of that with liquid natural gas and fossil fuels.
ZK: And Germany as well. Same thing.
BV: Yeah. So I think we have to have realistic conversations. When we talk about decarbonizing the electricity sector in this country by 2035, that is a very… You’re not going to do that if you get rid of the existing nuclear fleet. When it comes to investing in new nuclear, I think that’s where your question really becomes relevant, Zach, because it is, you know, it’s cost prohibitive. And one of the reasons, one of the many reasons it’s cost prohibitive is that people are averse to nuclear, and nobody wants it in their backyard, similar to other energy infrastructure. People don’t tend to want it. Even, you know, out here off of a beautiful vineyard in Cape where people have fought wind farms, offshore wind farms. And sopart of the challenge we have is, how do we do this fast enough without new nuclear?
And I don’t know what the answer is to that and how to overcome that, but it does relate to this idea of what’s imaginable. People really hold it in their memories. It sears people’s memories, the nuclear disasters that have existed, despite the fact that the trend has been safer and safer nuclear reactors with really notable, horrific exceptions. And if there isn’t a better way to prepare for and shore up and create more foresight within nuclear regulatory agencies around the world, if there isn’t a way to better do that within the nuclear industry, then it’s not safe. You know, they’re not wrong to be afraid of it. But there’s a real conundrum there. And I just you know, I think it’s not, it’s not tenable to be anti-nuclear and be realistic about de-carbonization.
ZK: So I think we’re at our extraordinarily [inaudible] witching hour, which is very strange. We didn’t even get an in enough to cover the mitigation versus living-with questions. So maybe we’ll have to continue the conversation at another point. I do think, you know, when people start focusing on these issues with their complexity, I mean, you know, the points you just made are absolutely the ones that need to be part of a mature conversation about what we can do and how we can do it, right, that there are trade-offs and, you know, going away from things that have some positive effects in terms of carbon emissions that you can’t just… It’s not an easy set of choices, right? And, Jason, your point about, there’s a very American tendency to look at our agency in this even though the global reality is going to be far more important in the next 20 years.
That’s not to say that what the United States does is unimportant. It’s just that it’s one factor amongst many, and, you know, we’re not going to wave a magic wand and have Nigeria suddenly become, you know, a middle-class carbon-neutral state. But I do think it’s vital when people think about these things to think about them in terms of, you know, these are large problems, but human beings have been engaged in the process of both creating large problems and solving them for if not forever then for most of what we can record or call history. And that’s important, I think, to remember as a backdrop to all of this, right, that human beings have had a capacity to solve problems, which is no guarantee that they’re gonna have a capacity to solve them in the future. I mean, Bina, you wrote a whole book about this, right? How one looks at the matrix of problems and the ability to constructively solve them is an essential starting point for that solution. And you know, that’s largely why I want to keep having these conversations within this rubric of a progress network, which is, again, by no means to underplay the intensity of the challenges, but it’s also by no means to underplay the incredible capacity of people to meet those challenges, observably, over time. And both of you, I think, are doing absolutely crucial work. Now, Bina you especially, you know, bringing ideas together in a forum and at The Globe, and Jason, with the work you’re doing at Columbia. And, Emma, I want to thank you again for hosting.
These will be recorded as this has been recorded, and we’ll put this up on YouTube and on our own channels. So if you want to watch again and again, and again, you can do that as well.
JB: As long as your battery doesn’t run out.
ZK: That’s right. Which I thought was, I thought was just a perfect, a perfect cherry on…
JB: Can I just say, if it was a nuclear powered laptop, it would not have run out.
ZK: Or Bina’s idea with the treadmill thing, which I’ll take under consideration.
BV: I’m pretty sure solar would have been reliable in Miami, too.
ZK: That’s true. Although, it’s night. So that might’ve been a little bit of an issue. Are we all set, Emma?
EV: We’re all set. Thanks, everyone, for joining us, and we’ll see you next time.
ZK: Okay. Thank you everyone.
JB: Thanks. Good night.
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