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Chicken little forecast

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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

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Maybe We’re Not F*cked: Moving the Climate Conversation Forward

Is the narrative of climate catastrophism accurate, and is it doing us any good? Three experts balance the struggle ahead with what they're optimistic about.

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?

TPN Members 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, joined us earlier this month to talk about a more helpful approach to meeting the challenge of climate change.

Watch the entire discussion or read an extract from the conversation below. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Zachary Karabell: There is a 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.

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. 

Moving forward is going to be a muddle. That’s actually what progress looks like: one foot in front of the other.

TED NORDHAUS

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.

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.

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.

I want to return to this question of what individuals can actually do. With these massive global trends that are going to evolve over decades-plus, there’s a legitimate human tendency to go, I’ll recycle because I guess I should, because it makes me feel like I’m doing something. Which in and of itself is a kind of not doing anything. How do we get people to think in terms of solutions and agency?

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. 

This notion that we’re doomed to the same trajectory of progress that we’ve been making in the past is fraught.

BINA VENKATARAMAN

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.

Jason Bordoff

Jason E. Bordoff, one of the world’s top energy policy experts, is the Founding Director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus is a leading global thinker on energy, environment, climate, human development, and politics. He is the founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, executive editor of the Breakthrough Journal, and a coauthor of An Ecomodernist Manifesto.

Bina Venkataraman

Bina Venkataraman is the Editorial Page Editor of The Boston Globe and a fellow at New America. She also teaches in Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s department of science, technology, and society. She is the author of The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age.