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Today, the world is on fire.
In southern Europe, literal wildfires are streaking from Portugal to Greece in the UK airport.
Runways have melted as temperatures exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time in the country’s history.
Going back more than 500 years on record in the US this week about one in five.
Americans are living in a place that will be even hotter than 104 degrees.
The UK’s Eric mark.
So, what are we doing about it?
Well, there’s the Senate which is doing close to nothing, there’s the EPA which according to the latest Supreme Court decision can do close to nothing if you turn on the news, you know, on TV the radio, especially if it’s a left-leaning show a show that takes climate change capital s.
Seriously, what you’ll hear is probably some kind of familiar ritual but grief and anguish about the state of the world comments about how this can’t keep happening.
This can’t keep happening.
This is the most Important story on the planet and then, you know, what happens next like the wild thing is you know that several months from now, the news will move on the epicenter of outrage moves as some other issue and in the interim at the national level almost nothing at all will change.
But if you look behind Washington and you look behind these, gloomy headlines, there’s something very interesting happening.
Something that’s not entirely depressing.
In the last decade, the price of solar electricity has declined by 90% an order of magnitude, the efficiency of lithium ion batteries has increased by 90 percent per capita emissions in the US have declined by a quarter since 2005, falling all the way to levels not seen since 1960, and even decades earlier.
These are technological revolutions worth building on but they will actually require that Americans get over their allergy to new construction.
And actually build.
Today’s guest is David Wallace, Wells.
He is a writer for the New York Times and the author of the bestseller.
The uninhabitable Earth in this episode, we talk about the future of a hotter and hotter Planet.
The science of heat the depressing state of climate policy in Washington.
The more hopeful state of climate technology and Global adaptation, the end of old-fashioned environmentalism and the possible future of a new climate movement.
I’m Derrick Thompson.
This is planning.
David welcome to the podcast.
Super happy to be here.
Thanks for having me.
So we have to start with these heat waves that are taking over Europe.
The u.s. much, the Northern Hemisphere.
I do not know enough about climates or meteorology to ask this question in like a smart and sophisticated way and so that leaves the not very smart or sophisticated Way.
Why is it so hot in Europe right now?
Well I mean your intuitions as ale Observer or not in any way wrong which is to say like it is crazy hot in Europe.
It’s also crazy hot in China.
It has been for several months now crazy hot in South Asia and just to bracket that for a second, this means like both China and India and Pakistan.
So together about almost three billion people on the planet have each experienced heat waves lasting longer than 30 days so far this year We often think about China and India is like their two countries which they are, but they’re also like, you know, more than a quarter of the world’s population.
There’s heat waves in the u.s. right now and all of them are pretty extreme.
Some are more extreme than others.
Some are more off the charts than others.
The ones in Europe are getting a lot of attention now because they are so out of the range of our expectations and that means that they’re also much more dangerous.
Which is something we can talk about a little bit later, but the fact that these populations are not used to these temperatures is itself.
A really important thing about How bad they’re going to be, whereas, in a place like India, even if things are really hot people on some level, know how to deal with them.
So, we’re dealing with some pretty unusual in a lot of places, totally unprecedented, temperature events.
Like, in in England, they have some kinds of Records going back hundreds of years.
So we know with some certainty that that island has never seen days as hot as they’ve seen this week in, William Shakespeare’s time, in Queen Elizabeth’s time any time this century This is totally unprecedented and the records are being broken by several degrees in one swoop, which in a normal climate would never happen.
Why is that happening?
One reason, is that parents heating up, that’s important.
It just means that if when you move the bell curve of temperatures, little bit to the right, the things that show up, sort of rarely are like way more extreme than the things that used to show up.
But it also is happening because of some bigger transformations of the climate system notably, having to do with the circulation of the oceans, which is to say the way that Planet moves heat around itself, those are slowing, which means that we’re seeing more and more of these, what are called feet down the events, where it’s not just really hot for a period of time.
It can be for an extended period of time and can produce some really extreme temperatures last summer.
There was one of these quite dramatically in the Pacific Northwest but the truth is that the term can be applied to many of these events.
And even this heat wave in Europe that we’re seeing this week, we’re just crazy as melting the streets and the Tour de France, producing, wild fires, all across the continent and Even like Urban firestorms in London.
Now, all of that is, you know, is crazy, but it actually was also really hot in Europe like a month ago.
So the a couple days ago, they’ve been circulating on social media, this like fake forecast that the UK Met Office, which is like the National Weather Service, put together a few years ago, showing what temperatures could like, look like in 2050, if climate change continued unabated, and today’s temperatures are basically the same, which is scary.
Tough but was really most striking to me about that was I saw the same thing happened in France, like a month ago which is to say that the French Meteorological Society had put together a forecast of what a really scary climate future in 2050.
Would look like and a month ago.
France was having those temperatures.
So we’re in a new state, extremes are more extreme and more common but they’re also some basic changes to the way that weather happens on a planet that are going to make some of these events even more regular and intense than we might have expected without those changes, right?
So this is historically.
But it also is at the same time, maybe a kind of new normal like we’re breaking 600 year old records potentially.
But also there are reasons to think that we’re likely to face these kind of heat domes in the US and Southeast Asia in Europe for the foreseeable future which is really scary and it makes a next question.
I think pretty important which is what does heat do to our bodies scientifically like is it the temperature level?
That’s most dangerous or important or is it humidity or is it something about like recovery I’m I feel like I read something about how, you know, the body can take 100 degrees Fahrenheit for a little bit, but we need to recover at a lower temperature.
Especially at night when we’re sleeping, help me understand.
Like, the smart way to think about what kind of heat is most dangerous for human body.
Well, I think the way that I put it in my book was that like, we are physically heat engines.
We are producing heat all the time, and in order to survive, we need to constantly be cooling off.
So the main thing that he conditions of all of these varieties, Is do is make it harder for us to cool off and that can have a variety of effects on our heart rate on, you know, our liver function on other organs and different people will experience it in different ways which is a meta Point that’s important to make.
Is that like, you know, when we talk about some of these impacts, we imagine them as essentially Universal and uniform and we say, like, well if we hit this temperature X number of people will die.
But of course, humans are complicated, the way that we respond to heat is never that simple.
Yeah, we’re moving into Jones but it’s certainly not the case that like, when anybody walks outside, everybody’s going to just drop dead and certainly even those people who are dying in this heat waves and the numbers are not small and Europe, right now, they’re not dying.
All from the same thing, many of them.
Even most of them are dying, not of obvious heat stroke, but of exacerbated, underlying conditions.
People who are sick with other diseases, being pushed over the edge by the heat, because our bodies need to be cooling off in order to operate properly, and is it the temperature or the humidity?
Like, is there a certain aspect of Of the heat picture that is most important when it comes to affecting our bodies ourselves our organs.
In this way, the measure that most scientists use to talk about, it is a combination of heat and humidity is called wet bulb temperature.
And it’s it, I mean, it’s really actually a crazy measure.
It’s like the temperature of a thermometer wrapped in a wet cloth when you swing it around in the air.
That is actually like the technical measure of how dangerous heat and humidity is and it is those things together, which is to say that very high heat with very low.
B is dangerous, especially to vulnerable people particularly the old, but the more that you get both of them in combination, the worse off, you’re going to be.
So at temperature and humidity levels, you know, I actually know that the scale and Celsius, so it’s a little complicated and it does factor in humidity.
So it’s, you know, whatever.
It’s a little hard to talk about it, an American audience, but I temperature and humidity levels that are approaching these, these real limits.
That means that many young Healthy people are said to be unable, to move around outside for a period of a few hours without literally dying.
And that means that they’re there is a sort of a ceiling scientists have given us to say, like, we can’t pass that point.
Without seeing true Mass death and in fact, we are seeing parts of the world hitting those temperatures for brief periods of time.
But that gets to back to something else you mentioned, which is that the duration of the heat is really important and the ability and, you know, because that factors in Our ability to recover.
So I spoke to a really prominent he’d scientist about some of these issues a week or two ago.
I was looking at a big picture way about why these really crazy heat waves in South Asia, actually hadn’t killed all that many people and yes, right.
One of the things that he said to me most memorably was like, you know, you could survive in an oven for 15 minutes and it’s a different thing for an hour and it’s different than for three hours.
And it’s different thing for six hours.
And one of the complicating stories and factors and all of this is, yes, we’re living in hotter on a hot.
Our planet, the heat is more intense, but also many of us are living in urban areas and urban areas, both get hotter during the day because of all the asphalt and concrete, which absorb heat.
But then also, they don’t cool off nearly as much at night as they would if you were living in a rural area because all of that stuff is basically like a heat battery.
That’s just storing it all the time.
And that means that the temperature levels that we used to see at night during really intense heat waves.
We’re not getting and that doesn’t mean again.
That every person in a city that has a crazy Heat Wave is going to die or pass out or have heat stroke.
It does mean that we could be seeing the number of people who are suffering in those ways, you know, multiplying by a factor of two or four or even more than that relatively soon.
So, it’s a complicated picture but the, you know, the big on the big story, it’s like all of the metrics are getting worse for human health.
We’re starting to figure out how to respond to it.
In an interesting way, it may be some of the poorer countries of the world that are showing us how to do that, because it’s interesting because it’s a reverse of the way.
A lot of people in rich countries the world think what?
We think all we need is air conditioning, it turns out a lot of things cheaper.
Than that are doing a relatively good job in the in the parts of the planet that are already hit by most intense heat, but it’s representing a growing threat and even today I think the extreme heat is the biggest climate killer in the u.s. today and so we’re likely to see more of that going forward.
I’d love you to say one more piece on that because it’s really interesting when you juxtapose the fact that according to official records, thousands of people have died in Europe of heat, related causes.
But in India and Pakistan, you just Ed at least according to the official statistics there weren’t nearly as many deaths as a result of heat as a lot of scientists were expecting.
There’s a lot of possible reasons for why that’s the case, but at least one reason might have something to do with human adaptation.
And I want to sort of bracket all this by saying I’m not trying to be pollyannish and say you know it doesn’t matter how hot the world gets because we’ll always find some way to adapt and it’ll be totally fine.
I’m not trying to suggest that but maybe just go one level deeper on why?
Why it might be the case that some people in places like that southeast Asia that are dealing with really, really extreme heat, might have found some subtle ways to adapt to it.
That didn’t necessarily require hunkering down in your apartment or house and dialing up the thermostat or down the thermostat to 65 degrees.
Well, there to begin with there, some not subtle ways which is to say it may be the case that those people who couldn’t have survived those conditions have already died.
And when you look at some of the really punishing heat waves that have hit Europe and recent It’s actually the world’s worst most lethal heat waves.
We’ve seen where in Europe and in the 2000s in 2003 and 2010.
Not only is it the fact that those are hitting populations.
That have been seen he like this before they’re living places that not only don’t have air conditioning, but you’re not used to air.
Conditioning are living in buildings that are not built to cool off.
They’re built to store heat and all these other factors.
But it’s also the case that when you look at successive heat waves even within the same year, the mortality is much lower.
And so this is I mean, it’s a really gruesome term but one of these peace sign - I was speaking to use it to describe the epidemiology this.
These are effectively culling events and one of the things that he said was that by the end of the century, it’s likely that even in a biophysical level putting aside the cultural adaptations that you’re talking about at a by a physical level and maybe the places in the northern hemisphere, across Europe in the US, we will be as adapted to extreme heat as people today in the tropics are, but in between now and then we’re likely to see a lot of quite lethal heat waves to get the population to that.
It and, which is a pretty dark way of thinking about adaptation to your point about Pollyanna thinking, but it is, it is an important fact.
And I think it’s probably true that, you know, when if we fast-forward 50 70 years from now, the same heat that’s hitting the u.k. right now.
We’re Spain and Portugal right now and killing thousands.
Almost certainly won’t be part of that is of course the other thing you mentioned which is the cultural adaptation and you know there are a lot of different levers there and layers of response but I would just start by saying You know, it’s I spent some time actually recently with a number of people who are from Delhi, who told me that they essentially didn’t leave their houses for a period of two and a half months earlier this spring because the temperatures were everyday over 100 degrees, and if they did go out, it was between 6:00 and 9:00 a.m., and between 9:00 and midnight.
Now, that’s not possible for everybody in India.
It’s not possible for anybody anywhere, especially for the wage earners.
The day laborers, who, you know, who are not protected by labor laws.
That’s really important.
But it’s also The case that as we know from cultural stereotype like the tropics have a way of slowing down the pace of life in response to certain threats, you know, like he and it is the case that many of these places have siestas in the middle of the day.
And it, it is more normal to take breaks.
And you know that is we think of it, you know, there’s a kind of a racist stereotype about it but there’s also some great wisdom in in responding to the cues that the climate is giving you about what What’s happening?
And there are also you know, centuries of experience of what we in the US and Europe.
Would consider really really punishing even lethal heat and people know for instance like you don’t wear jeans, you wear a really light day dress, you hydrate all the time.
And in fact, you know, there is a huge variety of like, essentially Hydration Stations all around.
Even the slums of the biggest cities in India and Pakistan where you’re not just drinking water.
You’re drinking effectively like Improvised Gatorade or things that have you know electrolytes in them and these are not like the government is saying, here’s a new drink.
It’s like no people here.
Been drinking these drinks for hundreds of years and he and they they know what to do.
They know what kinds of foods to cook and coot and to eat and, you know, and they know how to respond.
They also are living in oftentimes much more closely networked families and communities that we are in parts of the US and Europe.
This is something that Eric klinenberg writes about a fair amount, you know, the NYU sociology.
He wrote one book, about a deadly heat wave in Chicago, he wrote another book about loneliness in the u.s. still only.
So he sort of thought about these connections together and it’s not just the case that, you know, that the stereotype we may have of someone living in India and growing up in an extended family Network living in a single house is true, although that can be true for some people.
It’s also the case that even in, you know, migrant worker, labor camps, those people are looking out for one another.
Are in a way that is a little more direct than is often the case in many parts of the US.
And so there’s that sort of support network as well.
That’s really interesting.
So it’s a combination of right at the population level.
There’s some dark news because there’s this sort of calling effect that you mentioned.
I don’t want to say this is a silver lining but knowing that that is the case means at least that we have the opportunity, not the eventuality that the opportunity to create policy around that right to say.
All right, if we know that the southern us is going to get hotter and hotter of the Next few decades, we can identify who the most vulnerable people are and have sort of climate adaptation policies directed towards them.
But you’re right in the bigger picture it’s certainly it’s a dark one.
I would say on top of that.
It’s you know one of the more encouraging things is that the Indian government the Pakistani Pakistani government in particular.
Like they did very little.
So a lot of these measures are actually happening at a kind of vernacular Grassroots level, not at the bottom up.
Well and speaking of the necessity for bottom of policy or about to talk about us governance when it comes to climate change where the Down policy is a little bit lacking, there’s been a few setbacks in US, environmental movements from Washington DC.
In the last few weeks, a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling.
In the case West Virginia versus the EPA Environmental Protection Agency.
And a lot of people reported on this case is just pure Doom for progressives.
In terms of the epa’s ability to regulate energy policy related to climate change.
You pushed back a little bit against the pure, Doom narrative.
In a piece than York Times.
Tell us what this ruling said, briefly and why you think it’s important.
Well, in the really big picture, it’s bad news for the American regulatory state.
It was basically the the Supreme Court took an opportunity to declare that any time, an American regulatory agency was trying to do something new, especially if it was big.
It was going to have to get explicit authorization from Congress.
And that means that functionally given what we know about today’s Congress and the Congress as were likely to see in the near future.
There’s not going to be any new regulatory power, you know, assumed by any of these agencies in the particular context of climate and the EPA.
What happened was under Obama faced with legislative inaction, the EPA basically instituted this, what was called the clean power plan which was a project to essentially regulate American Energy away from coal and particular but to a lesser extent oil and gas and towards Renewables, but that never was implemented.
It was sort of Functionally adopted, but so quickly challenged and chords that before it was ever actually, any any state was actually ever held to it standards, it was moot.
Then when Donald Trump came in he tossed it out and put in what, you know what he I think was called the affordable energy plan or something, an alternative, which was much much weaker, but that also was never implemented.
And so the Supreme Court was like weighing in on these set of policies which were never actually imposed which itself is unprecedented basically like the Supreme Is theoretically not supposed to be adjudicating theoretical disputes?
They’re supposed to be adjudicated actual disputes with actual people who have what I call torts that is like claims against an agency or other.
But what this meant was that the sort of approach that Obama had sketched out in 2015 is now functionally illegal.
Biden had already said that his EPA was not going to reinstitute.
The clean power plan.
We don’t know exactly what they’re cooking up but they’re cooking up an alternative.
And so what this basically, Ali means is that like some tool that may have theoretically been on the table available to Future.
Administration’s is now likely not on the table anymore.
It does not set us back.
It does not like make us produce more carbon than we would be otherwise but we are frozen in a place that’s really not a good place because the policies we’ve implemented and even the kind of remarkable technological progress and Market progress that’s made over the last few years is really far short of where the US wants to go and where anybody in the community.
I’m at movement wants to go.
So this ruling itself didn’t make a huge difference that story, but it meant that we’re sort of, it’s another thing that’s keeping us where we are rather than allowing us to move a little more quickly forward, right?
Frozen, I think is a good word, right?
Legislatively were frozen.
We can’t pass climate change policy.
And so as a result, you have the action moving to the administrative State, the EPA is thinking about ways that it can essentially regulate energy production, but that wasn’t being actualized either.
So essentially, this is a decision Ian, that maintains the frozenness of are already Frozen federal policy.
It’s also the case that in the last few weeks, this is more of a developing story Democrats are facing the demise of their own climate deal.
There was hope that for the last 18 months, Democrats might be able to eat something out by the skin of his teeth.
But the linchpin here as always is Senator, Joe manchin of West Virginia.
That’s a cold heavy State Mansion himself is the founder and part owner of a coal Trading Company.
So right now it looks That only at the EPA level?
Are we a bit stymied but also in terms of legislation were stymied as well.
What do you think of the odds that we get something anything new on the climate front from Democrats before the midterms I would say slim to none but I’ve been saying that for quite a while I mean I think essentially as soon as the Democrats split off the infrastructure package last fall, the chances for climate provision.
We’re really Slim and I think that primarily because you know, this is a little bit reading, tea leaves, it’s a little bit informed.
I know some people in the administration will part of these negotiations but I’m not in those room my rooms myself.
I think that Joe manchin wants to say, no, I don’t think that he has a bill that he’s going to get behind and he’s just waiting for Democrats to get on board.
I think, you know, they’ve tried that the last round of compromise negotiations was inspired by his own framework and then he came out and basically said the to organizing principles of that framework.
That is, you know, tax hikes and energy spending, he wasn’t Been doing at least for the time being until he saw some future inflation numbers now.
If we wait another month for the next set of inflation numbers to come out, even taking him at his word, we’re getting really close to the midterms and the chances that major legislation passes.
Then I think is really slim.
But like I said, I don’t even really trust that he means that.
I think he’s just wanting to be able to say to his voters.
You know, those Democrats are crazy.
I stood up to them and you can thank me for the fact that, you know, we haven’t killed your coal plants which Is remarkable considering?
I mean just to like pause for a second, you know, the people who study the large build back better plan, estimated that it was going to create.
I think eight million jobs there are only two point six million people in all of West Virginia.
So we are, you know, like, even the number of jobs that could be created in West Virginia are are like much bigger than the like the coal jobs, that would be lost there.
So, This is why I’ve heard plans that are just like why doesn’t the federal government just buy the entire coal industry of West Virginia?
Like just spend that this is the opposite of pork, right?
It’s like sort of diabolical.
Pork Bizarro pork, you you take tens of billions dozens of billions of dollars.
You buy off every coal producing plant in West Virginia.
You’re essentially handing, Joe manchin, a blank check saying, please sign whatever climate legislation we have here and your voters will hopefully reward you because they’re getting a enormous cash, influx.
I mean it’s a little A bit diabolical.
It’s a little bit unrealistic.
I’m not sure we can particularly, I’m not sure many senators Democratic senators are ready to do, a state specific stimulus in order to get climate change, legislation passed in the Senate, but to the, to the point that you’re making West, Virginia is small enough.
And the coal industry with in West Virginia is small enough that it raises this question of.
Why don’t we just buy them off?
I want to do a quick sort of settled turn here which is that the picture that Painted not only if heat in Europe, but heat in the world and that only of legislation out of the Senate, but also regulatory policy out of the EPA.
All this sounds like pure Doom and Gloom but something interesting has happened in the u.s. in the last 50 years in the absence of strong legislation in the absence of of a of true leadership I think from the federal level.
And that is that per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the US peaked in the 1970s And they held steady at a pretty high Plateau, for 30 years.
And then, since 2006, or so, they’d Fallen by 25%.
In fact, I just looked this up a few minutes ago and the last year I could find data for 2020 which is a pandemic year.
So but it’s not so different than the years that came before it in 2020 per capita emissions in the US were below our estimated levels of 1917.
So like I’m not hanging like a mission accomplished Banner here.
Like the u.s. is still the world’s largest producer of oil.
It’s still by far the world’s largest historical emitter and yet something seems to have happened in the u.s. in the last 50 years and in particular in the last 15 years that has significantly reduced per capita emissions, what happened.
We’ve got burning so much coal. 2005 was the year of peak coal in the US and actually it’s remarkable and kind of perverse, but the u.s. counts its emissions, reductions against the Earth 2005 because that’s when We picked Cole, the whole rest of the world is counting their emissions, reductions off of 1990 because that was the when the UN started its framework but we’re like we want credit from coming from the highest peak but that’s the main story.
We essentially spent a decade and a half replacing coal with gas.
We’re starting now to see Renewables play a bigger role in that transition.
But the main story is that we went from coal to gas and that is a huge difference in terms of emissions.
It’s also a huge difference in terms of Public Health, the air pollution from coal is so bad that it’s estimated That in Europe, which doesn’t even use all that.
Much it for every thousand people get power from a coal plant, one of them dies every year.
And so you know there’s a really strong Public Health argument for retiring coal and also other fossil fuels, but coal most dramatically and that’s the story there.
I just want to like correct one little thing that you said which is you compared our go ahead.
So 1917 really important to keep in mind, anyone who’s trying to wrap their heads around this story, we think of it as a centuries-long story, we think of it as having started a couple hundred years ago, but half of all of the emissions that have Ever been produced in the history of humanity.
Have come in the last 25 years, which means that anytime you’re comparing something to like pre-World War 2.
It’s just a totally different world however much.
We think the coal mines were dirty and the air was dirty back.
Then we’re like the emission story is of the last 30 or so we really shouldn’t be congratulating ourselves for getting back you know getting or like we shouldn’t be making comparisons back there.
We should be making comparisons more recently.
But you know it’s also the case that when Barack Obama was trying to pass a cap-and-trade plan in 9 2010 they estimated what effect that would have people at the time thought that those effects were ambitiously estimated and we have cut emissions by more since then then they said we were going to if we implemented that policy.
So we were doing better with functionally no policy or more accurate to say a little policy but no major major policy then.
We then we had mostly because of the fracking Revolution like it is the natural gas Revolution or the natural gas technological jump.
Isabel for most of our going Beyond The Benchmark that was set by the Obama Administration on this particular model is the Lion’s Share of it.
And one thing I would say about that is I’m actually closing a piece tomorrow about this, which is most people don’t appreciate that.
Fracking has never made money.
It lot ever like three hundred billion dollars lost as an industry between, I think 2010 and 2020.
Now, this is not primarily Look subsidy its investors losing their shirts.
Its major Banks losing their shirts but this energy transition Revolution, the fracking Revolution which is now responsible for two-thirds of our oil and 2/3 of our gas has been a money loser.
They’re making some money now because of the energy price spikes of the last year, but you know, from the very beginning of the invention of the technology until 2020, it was for almost everybody involved aside from like the middleman in the wildcatters who are profiting Down the line it was a an industry lab scale, money loser.
And there I was listening to a podcast with a an analyst from Goldman Sachs, their Chief Commodities researcher and he said that he has to mated that the industry as a whole had lost 30 cents on every dollar that was put into it.
So, we hung out, we are now living in a totally different world because of this energy transition, which lost money.
And I think that that’s really useful in thinking about the renewable, In which we’ve been told over the same period of time was too expensive and too burdensome to really focus on.
And, you know, now we’re at a place where 90% of the world lives where renewable energy is cheaper than dirty energy.
The iaea has called solar power at the cheapest electricity in history and it’s only going to get cheaper.
And so to me the logic is really really clear.
The fracking Revolution did do something that reduced our emissions, it got us off cold.
That’s really powerful and important, but it didn’t do so because it was this undeniable Market Force.
So because a small number of people with a lot of money, decided to make it happen.
And in theory, we could be moving the renewable Revolution even faster.
If we are pushing that kind of, that kind of capital into those Investments to Should have been said people, we have this really interesting story, I think which is that if you look at federal policy it’s been an absolute catastrophe.
If you look at the EPA in the last few decades, it basically hasn’t done anything new or particularly useful, but you have this very peculiar revolution in the corporate world, which is peculiar because it’s extremely successful in terms of, it’s sort of utilitarian purpose.
It reduces per capita emissions, but it’s extremely unsuccessful based on it’s sort of for profit purpose.
It loses thirty percent of the investment for the, for the That are that are financing.
You mentioned that, you know, you did looking at other places that are being invested in in the climate text fear and you mentioned that solar energy is cheaper than coal.
Why then is solar energy?
Such a minuscule part of our total energy?
Picture, why aren’t we deploying this technology that we know is cheap?
Well, I think it’s a complicated story.
One is that the price declines?
The solar are so rapid that anybody who’s making investment plans three or four or five years ago was working off a very different Baseline of cost and making very different projections that are making today.
Although it’s now because the IAA just came out with a global report that said, for the first time investment in clean, energy has exceeded new investment in fossil fuel energy which is a major Milestone.
So we are seeing some transition there.
It’s also the case that there are obstacles, you know, it takes time to build infrastructure, their parts of the world, especially Where this kind of massive build out of wind and solar is not possible.
It requires a lot of land to fully power.
The American economy later this Century with solar, which I don’t think we’ll end up doing, but just as a thought, experiment to fully power, it with solar would probably require about 10% of the country’s land and every time we build one of those plants we Face some resistance.
Now, that’s not to say that that can’t be overcome.
People can be persuaded of the benefits of clean technology especially if it’s replacing a big coal plant, but There are regulatory obstacles.
There are cultural obstacles.
Their policy obstacles and then there’s the simple lag time of like, when we see something clearly for the first time, in the first conference room, the first investor seeing that, it’s not like the next day, the whole world is changed.
It takes a long time to cycle through, you know?
All those factors that I talked about, but also, our political economy, which has been for several Generations, especially in the US.
But to a certain extent all around the world, really, really focused on fossil fuel power and it takes a lot of Shake the world off.
You say something?
It’s really important for people that are focused on solar energy being the dominant for the Leading Edge of the clean energy Revolution which is that it just takes up a lot of space, right?
I mean that’s stat, if I recall it’s just absurd extraordinary.
If we powered the all the US Energy needs with just solar, you’d require 10 percent of u.s. land.
That is a lot and that’s like utterly unrealistic to be perfectly.
Well, I mean on some level.
It’s like more realistic in the US than elsewhere if you think about like Like you know, Singapore could never do that.
Indonesia could never do that, India could never do that, you know, parts of sub-Saharan Africa could but maybe less easily 50 years from now.
When they have twice as many people and in a certain way, the u.s. is actually uniquely well positioned to take advantage of renewable opportunities because they have an abundance of land.
And we also have an abundance of wind.
It’s such an interesting point but it makes me think okay.
Solar this extraordinary cost Revolution.
Its cost of solar power has declined by 90% in the last 20 years.
But still these are a small part of total US Energy generation and that’s why there’s some environmentalists who believe very fervently that nuclear power is an absolutely essential part of this equation.
Now this is tough because there are also environmentalist I think that nuclear power is quasi demonic and we’re not going to settle the nuclear question forever here but maybe let’s start with this.
Why did the u.s. basically?
Stop building nuclear power plants, several decades ago.
I think there are two main or are you could maybe three main ways of answering the question?
The first is there is the cultural resistance that you’re talking about where especially coming out of the Cold War.
The Old Guard, environmental movement of the 1970s regarded nuclear power as toxic.
We saw what happened in Chernobyl Three Mile Island.
We got scared just to pause on that for a second.
We talked a little bit about the health effects of air, pollution more people die every day.
From the burning of fossil fuels, every single day then have ever died in all of the nuclear accidents in all of history.
So it’s a really Vivid like picture to think about nuclear meltdown but at a global level it is much much safer than the fossil fuels that we’ve depended on.
For a long time, I think that sort of cultural resistance which also had to do with a sense that it was connected to the defense industry and nuclear war was was an important factor.
I also think that That somewhat related lie.
There was an incredible growth of new regulation and this is, especially true in the US, but it’s not exclusively true in the US.
The cost of new nuclear generation has skyrocketed over the last 50 years, which means that in almost any rich country in the world with the possible exception of South Korea.
It basically has seemed not economically feasible to, you know, to build these new plants in a way that 50 years ago, it did seem feasible and that’s the third point.
So it’s like theirs.
There’s cultural resistance regulatory oversight.
And then the, you know, the these sort of massive cost overruns, which means that even when people do Endeavor to build new plants, they inevitably cost many multiples of what they originally thought they might cost.
And as a result especially compared to nuclear today, you know, the sort of per unit cost of nuclear energy is way more expensive than the per unit cost of renewable energy.
Now, that’s not to say that we can’t imagine a green future where nuclear is playing an important role.
You know, as you mention there are some limits, there’s the land use limit to renewable energy.
There’s also this intermittency problem which is that to some degree, you know, when the sun’s not shining the winds not blowing, we have some problems.
Battery tech is helping with that already, it will help more in the future but there are those who think that.
Probably we’re going to max out at something like 80s, maybe, 70, 80 percent of our electricity needs with with Renewables and we’re going to need something to fill in the Gap and nuclear could well, be that it is produces.
No carbon is except in some amount of carbon that’s used to produce it.
You know, and I’m going wait for this is no carbon.
It’s quite reliable and once you built those things you can just run them, maybe not forever.
But for a very, very long time.
What is your outlook for the future of nuclear?
Because I feel like we’re at this interesting.
Maybe cultural blowback moment, where everything that you said, I totally agree with and there’s ways in which all those things are connected.
If there’s cultural resistance you’re going to get more regulation because it’s getting more popular.
If you get more regulation, you’re going to get less learning by doing less tasks it Innovation, to figure out how to make new.
Clear cheaper and so you’re going to build less, you’re going to figure out how to make it cheaper less frequently.
And so the costs are going to continue to be elevated but I wonder whether you feel like we’re at this at this sort of Groundswell moment where because of the war in Ukraine because of this Rising Yen, be yes in my backyard movement in the u.s. we might see a little bit of bottom-up energy around nuclear that we didn’t necessarily see in You see years and my is that just illusory?
Am I just hanging out in the wrong crowds?
Or is, are you starting to see maybe something changing on the nuclear front?
I think it is changing.
I wouldn’t describe it as a Grassroots change.
I would actually describe it as a climate movement change.
I think that at the Grassroots level, a lot of people are still scared of those nuclear Stacks, they don’t like to see them in their town and they were for them to be to be retired.
Even retired early, which is really bad.
When we close like India point of New York, We now have much higher carbon emissions than we had a couple years ago because we close to nuclear power, plant basically that’s going to happen everywhere because we don’t have the capacity to replace it right now.
But I do think that in the climate movement, there is a lot more openness to nuclear power than there was a few years ago.
They may not be the top priority, it may not be like, here’s the path is all the way through nuclear but almost everyone recognizes that we should be thinking about researching especially Next Generation nuclear technologies that could bring those costs.
So, you know, to the extent that there’s a lot of climate movement, resistance to Natural Gas.
There’s actually, I think a lot less of it nowadays to nuclear, especially compared to 5 or 10 or 15 years ago.
And that signals a broader change in these in this, in the movement politics, which is to say, you’re basically seeing an Old Guard environmentalist generation replaced by a younger Rising climate generation and that means that the and what’s the distinction?
What like it, you know, the the old Old stereotype of like tree, huggers people who are prioritizing protection and preservation of the natural world against the predation and incursion of humans.
That was the old guard, that’s what gave rise to the environmental movement in the first place.
I think there’s a lot of wisdom there, although it’s not a worldview that I ascribe to myself.
And in the new moment we’re thinking about priority.
Number one is reducing carbon emissions in order to protect human life and secure some possibility of human flourishing in the decades ahead.
And if you From there rather than from the proposition that human activity in the natural world is destructive, you get to a very different set of conclusions.
You get to a place where there’s a lot more openness to environmental disruption in the name of climate mitigation and resilience.
And I don’t want to oversell that transformation.
It is still the case that there are is a lot of opposition to climate focused projects.
But I think that when you think about the leadership of movements, like asking how old is the head of this group is like a very easy way to know how they’re going to feel about nuclear how they’re going to feel about, you know, other kinds of climate Focus programs that might have a generation ago, seemed totally anathema to the environmental left.
It’s interesting that you see the distinction as old-fashioned environmentalism versus newfangled Pro climate groups, right?
I see in a very similar way, other with slightly different vocabulary.
I think of it as like we used to Has or maybe there still is a dominant strain of environmentalism that’s focused on individual sacrifice.
And even National sacrifice, this sense of we have to give up.
We have to take away and when I read your work and the work of a lot of, you know, younger writers who are writing about and writing about advocating for climate policy, you talk about a transformation, you know, a transformation requires new things.
It requires that we decarbonise the grid.
That we build more solar and more wind and more hydro and more nuclear and maybe geothermal that.
That’s a lot of building.
And we’re going to have an environmentalist movement oriented around building new things.
You need a very different attitude, right?
You can’t have the Sierra Club lobbying to reject a solar farm over here and a solar farm over there.
You need people saying yes to the construction of new cleaner energy Duration.
Even if it does have some local environmental costs because you’re starting from the recognition that well, everything has some costs doing nothing clearly has cost.
We’re seeing in the cost of doing nothing.
When we look at the average temperature and in Heathrow Airport.
And so we have to do something even if there’s going to be a local cost to maybe, you know, some of the species are or some of the existing, you know, ecology how do you feel about that tension as I sort of set it up between the, we Have to take away versus the we have to build in order to provide for a safer and more, abundant future.
I think that there is some sociological Insight in the in the instinct to take away which is to say, it is a recognition that the way that we’ve been living in the past is corrosive to the planet in ways that are going to damage human life going forward.
I think that that is valuable and I don’t want to toss that out but how to secure that future I think you’re absolutely right does require.
We us to do to be much.
Aggressive and interventionist in the environment than we do on the climate left.
At least I’m environmental left, have been comfortable being in the past and, you know, that is, I think a real I think we’re living through that shift.
I don’t know if it is filtered down all the way through to the Grassroots as we’re talking about earlier.
But when I think about really most outspoken climate leaders, you know, most people who are doing work adjacent to the by the administration.
This is you know, They, they believe that what we need to do is rebuild the world and I think one point that you mentioned is really, really important to underscore and highlight, which is there is no attractive comfortable status quo.
It’s all trade-offs and I just want to, like, underscore that with a couple of stats, you know, I mentioned earlier that data point about coal killing one.
For every thousand people get power from, it globally fossil fuels are estimated to be killing right now.
As many as eight point seven million people each year through the burn, through Pollution. 8.7 million people, each year?
That is our status quo.
So if you care about people in South Asia, who are dying in Delhi, the average lifespan is 10 years shorter than it would be without air.
Every person in Delhi is losing 10 years of life because of air pollution, and not all those fossil fuels, they have agricultural burning there too.
But globally were talking about a public health catastrophe and you know, No, that is at the scale of the Holocaust.
We’re talking about every year.
You know, there are a lot of ways in which that comparison is not exactly appropriate.
Or, you know, there are major differences if this is not directed killing etcetera, but just to give you a sense of how did he die?
I get the arithmetic is the arithmetic.
Yeah, yeah, I said that is in the US which has clean air 350,000.
People, 350,000 people are dying every year from air pollution which is the same number as died in 2020 and 2021 each from covid.
So, we’re talking about Death at that scale, every single year because of the burning of fossil fuels, this is just a major sign that we like the world we’re in now is not sustainable.
Another way to think about it.
Another thing that makes the same point is that we have at least 800 million and possibly 1 billion people on the planet who don’t have regular access to electricity.
So if what we’re talking about is reducing and pulling back from our access to the fossil fuel, you know, civilization that we’ve come to Depend on that makes a certain amount of cultural sense for people like you and me well off people and well off parts of the US and in Europe.
And I actually think that there’s some things we should be doing to make ourselves at least more efficient on that front.
But when you’re talking about trying to maximize human well-being and human flourishing at a planetary scale, you kind of have to start with like what are we going to do with the most poor people?
And what can we do to make them richer faster so that they can live lives of real dignity as opposed to deprivation.
And you know I think 10 years ago people What if said, well, we probably got to give them some fossil fuels.
I think the really exciting thing about the present moment beyond the cultural shifts that you’re talking about, is the fact that because Renewables are now cheaper than dirty energy.
We can actually say, actually, let’s industrialize, those parts of the world with clean energy.
Let’s make those transitions in a clean way as opposed to a dirty way.
Hoping that 20 years on them, they were going to make the transition to clean energy.
We can just leapfrogged that people used to make fun of.
Leapfrogging the Bose out when it comes to climate, but we’re now in a world where anybody who’s drawing up a picture of a policy future, in any of these countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, southeast Asia, anybody who’s just, like, what should I future look.
Like all of them would say, okay, we just need to be doing a massive build out of Renewables.
We shouldn’t be doing anything with fossil fuels.
Now, they’re complications beyond that political economy.
The tax base, etc, etc.
But like, at a very fundamental level, the fact that anybody considering the math would just say, the solution here is obvious, It’s clean energy, not dirty.
I think marks a really different phase for our climate future and it’s one reason they’re many.
But it’s one reason why I think some of the more apocalyptic scenarios including those that I’ve written about in the past are while still were thinking about considerably less likely than they looked even five years ago.
I’m so interested in fighting this war at the local level persuading people that having renewable energy projects builds near them.
And around them is is good because people don’t like the Aesthetics.
They don’t like local construction.
I think nimbyism not in.
My backyard, is some comes naturally to a lot of people.
They don’t like the nuclear power Stacks.
I get all that I’ve been thinking really hard about like what is an argument to persuade people liberals conservatives moderates that this works with their pre-existing values and virtues and I was talking about this with the writer and entrepreneurs Saul Griffith, whose work you might have come across and he told me this really interesting thing.
I just love to get your your take on it.
He said, Let’s say you’re talking to a bunch of trumpets and moderates, right?
Not liberals, people who just do really do, not prioritize climate change at all.
They’re talking about the case for solar panels on their roofs and maybe wind power in their backyard.
He said every single time you get in your car it’s not an electric car, you are powering that with a natural resource that is making Autocrat sin Russia, Rich B, making the Chinese potentially Rich, that’s making a Ron Rich.
That’s making people who are not our geopolitical friends Rich, right?
If by contrast you buy an electric car and you power it with a solar panel, on your rooftop, you’re keeping that money in the community, the money doesn’t go to Putin.
It doesn’t go to Iran that power stays in your community and then maybe it can power your own.
You can buy the with them.
That you save you can pay for education or you can pay for a nicer Park.
You can make America great by building more energy, renewable energy near to where you live.
And I wonder whether what you think of that sort of political cultural arguments right to essentially power the Green Revolution, through, kind of a make America great again.
Yes, sort of message.
Well, I would say, I think it can be rhetorically powerful, although logically it actually.
Applies more to other parts of the world.
So we’re seeing in Europe right now.
They’re, you know, they’re pretty eager to get up Russian gas because they’re finally realizing what that means for them.
In the poorest parts of the world, actually many of those countries are relatively speaking renewable Rich.
They have a lot of solar in particular, and they got a lot of land, and they’re actually better off in a world powered by Renewables than by one by fossil fuels were, they have to be paying to import it from other countries in the US.
I mean, we technically, we are quote, unquote, energy independent.
That’s, you know, we do.
Port, some some oil, but we are producing most of our energy at home anyway, but I think that if here, there are a lot of other co-benefits 2.2, even if we’re not like really cutting ourselves off from the world, which is to say, I mean, the health benefits that I talked about, you know, are really dramatic and they are not just about death.
So like, you know, when they, when they implemented EZ Pass, You know, like the automatic toll collector in the u.s. rates of premature birth and low birth weight in the areas around those toll plazas went down by between 10 and 15 percent because the cars were no longer idling to drop off their coins or may pay and so they were producing less exhausting the area and that reduce premature birth by.
I think it was 11% and low birth weight by think 13%.
Oh my god.
And that’s just like the effect of like having basically having a rolling you roll through as opposed to pause right?
And I’m sure I’m so fast in my stories like this because there’s just absolutely no way that the person who invented EZ Pass was like, this is a child mortality instrument.
And and the effects, I mean, of air pollution, I keep coming back to it, but it’s, you know, it affects respiratory disease, that affects cancer, affects mental health, and depression and suicide, and self-harm and effects, you know, ADHD and autism, and, and Asthma, and I mean, everything you could possibly think of as a measure of human flourishing, including income is affected by by air pollution and anything we can can do to clean it up which is a local thing.
It’s like if you live by a highway or if you live by a power plant you are breathing in dirty air.
Actually 92% I think of the country is breathing in dirty air by The Who standard which is astonishing on its own.
You can do something to improve your lives and the lives of your children by cleaning up that are.
It is also the case that almost every Economist who studies.
This says, that in relatively short order, if we undertake this transition energy will also be much cheaper, it’s cheaper in a sort of measured way now, but like actually at the level of The individual consumer.
It may take a few years to play out but say fast forward a decade or 15 years you will already have paid yourself back.
So it’s both it’s like a dollars and cents when it’s a public health win and to your point about when you’re telling a story about taking your car out or whatever, if you’re not powered by solar powers and a wind turbine in your backyard.
There’s actually like an appealingly American self-sufficiency argument not at the national level but at the individual level, which is to say, you know, there’s a lot of talking about using the car, the electric car battery as it Way of storing the solar power or the wind power that you’re collecting at your, in your home so that you don’t have to there.
Isn’t that intermittency problem that when you’re at home at night and then sun is down, you can just be drawing the energy off the battery in your car, which is basically the the data may have changed since I last left.
But something like, it’s left half unused basically at all times.
So there’s an enormous amount of extra capacity there and that means you’re basically making every individual house, a totally self-sufficient system which if you’re like, you know, one of the Bundys or whatever May Come You should find that exciting.
Yeah, this is definitely not how we’re selling it to the Sierra Club.
If you’re one of the Bundys, you’ll find it exciting.
But yeah, but I totally agree.
You need to find Arguments for Republicans.
You have to find ways to get half the country on board with this because like, I’m not worried so much.
I mean, I actually am worried about left nimbys but like Berkeley.
Get some of this.
Brooklyn, get some of this but like, it doesn’t matter if you just win whatever 65% of Berkeley in, Brooklyn, that’s no one.
In this country, like this, the climate change movement, just has to find arguments, That reach toward the middle and restored, the right.
I want to let you go in just a second but I want to end just on.
You know, we’ve talked about reasons to be absolutely despondently pessimistic about federal policy.
We talked about reasons to be slightly more optimistic about corporate technological developments.
When you reach into the optimism jar, right?
Even when temperatures are breaking records in London and Southeast Asia.
What’s the first thing that you pull out?
What makes you most optimistic about?
The course of green technological development in the world.
Well, you know, I think the simple answer is just how fast it’s moving and how rapidly those caustic lines are dropping.
I mean, there’s are basically unprecedented.
Caustic lines in the context of energy transitions in global history.
You know, there’s this famous, curmudgeonly energy, expert, vaclav smil, who you know, talks about energy, transitions is taking Like decades, if not centuries and we’ve seen over the course of a decade at least the possibility of really, you know, a whole new paradigm has emerged just in a decade because of these tossed across declines.
It means that the poorest countries in the world can now excited.
They plan for renewable future and in part because of that.
And in part because we’re realizing some of the limitations of summer are scarier models, it means that a lot of the most extreme warming scenarios that scientist wrote a lot about and talked a lot about as recently as a few years ago.
Really seem implausible and that’s actually to me more important and interesting than the technological progress itself which is to say you know, five years ago, when a scientist said a business-as-usual future is going to be here.
That is no longer our business as usual future, our business as usual future probably has only about half as much warming in it as that, and that is a huge revision to our mental models of where we’re headed.
So, you know, we used to talk about 425 degrees as business as usual.
Now, we’re talking about to 23 degrees is business, as usual.
And to 23 degrees is above the threshold.
The scientists have told us is they’ve called a dangerous.
They’ve called a catastrophic.
You know, there are huge impacts.
It would mean every single coral reef on the planet would die and coral, reefs feed 800 million people for their protein.
It would mean you know, Storms and flooding events that used to hit every Century or going to hit once a year.
It’s going to be 150 million additional people dying of air pollution, you know, there’s some really, really bad Bleak outcomes there but it’s a lot better than where we thought we were headed a few years ago.
And what that means is that we have pulled ourselves out of the range of true apocalypse.
And we are now living or staring at a future in which we are going to be dealing with huge.
Climate challenges and difficulty, and huge climate suffering.
But in which, a lot remains up to us to determine how we navigate that landscape.
And me, personally, I just think a lot more about these days.
Maybe, as a result of some of these changes about the fact that the climate impacts are only half the story and the human response is the other one and we’re not engineering, a great human response right now.
We’re still leaving huge amounts of people.
Vulnerable, we’re not upgrading our infrastructure adequately.
We’re not taking care of The vulnerable elderly, especially, you know, we’re not doing good on GMO crops like there’s a lot of stuff that we’re not doing good on, but at least it’s possible that we can through a sort of kitchen sink, you know, addressing Everything at Once.
Kind of approach, make a world defined by dramatic climate impacts that our grandparents would have been horrified by seem relatively livable and comfortable.
And I do think that’s actually the likely future that we end up in a place where if we were looking at it today and looking At the climate impacts, we would say that’s awful, but our children and Grand children and grandchildren are going to be living in that future and thinking, it’s normal.
And that’s its own kind of indictment.
It has to do with the way that we normalize, you know, suffering and that’s because the whole lot of a whole other podcast about that.
But on some level, it’s also reassuring.
That what we’re talking about is within the manageable Band Of Human Experience, not the end of the world or the human species, which I never thought that was all that likely.
But it was like, It wasn’t totally insane to talk about it as the possibility of years ago.
And now it’s pretty insane to talk about it.
David, I really appreciate you education.
I really appreciate your realism my thinking on this topic in my understanding of this topic is very unsettled and I so appreciate you being here.
So thanks so much, man and we’ll have you back soon.
Thanks for having me and grits, talk.
Thank you very much for listening.
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