The following is a conversation with Bjorn Lomborg
and Andrew Refkin on the topic of climate change.
It is framed as a debate,
but with the goal of having a nuanced conversation
talking with each other, not at each other.
I hope to continue having debates like these,
including on controversial topics.
I believe in the power of conversation
to bring people together,
not to convince one side or the other,
but to enlighten both with the insights
and wisdom that each hold.
Bjorn Lomborg is the president
of Copenhagen Consensus Think Tank
and author of False Alarm, Cool It,
and Skeptical Environmentalist.
Please check out his work at lomborg.com
that includes his books, articles, and other writing.
Andrew Refkin is one of the most respected journalists
in the world on the topic of climate.
He’s been writing about global environmental change
and risk for more than 30 years,
20 of it at the New York Times.
Please check out his work in the Linktree
that includes his books, articles, and other writing.
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in the description.
And now, dear friends, here’s Bjorn Lomberg
and Andrew Rufkin.
There’s a spectrum of belief on the topic of climate change,
and the landscape of that spectrum
has probably changed over several decades.
On one extreme, there’s a belief
that climate change is a hoax.
It’s not human-caused.
To pile on top of that, there’s a belief
that institutions, scientific, political, the media,
are corrupt and are kind of constructing this fabrication.
That’s one extreme.
And then the other extreme,
there’s a level of alarmism
about the catastrophic impacts of climate change
that lead to the extinction of human civilization.
So not just economic costs, hardship, suffering,
but literally the destruction of the human species
in the short term.
Okay, so that’s the spectrum.
And I would love to find the center.
And my sense is,
and the reason I wanted to talk to the two of you,
aside from the humility with which you approach this topic,
is I feel like you’re close to the center
and are on different sides of that center,
if it’s possible to define the center.
I feel like there is a political center
for center-left and center-right.
Of course, it’s very difficult to define,
but can you help me define what the extremes are again,
as they have changed over the years, what they are today,
and where’s the center?
Well, in a way, on this issue,
I think there is no center, except in this,
if you’re looking on social media
or if you’re looking on TV,
there are people who are trying to fabricate the idea
that there’s a single question.
And that’s the first mistake.
We are developing a new relationship with the climate system
and we’re rethinking our energy systems.
And those are very disconnected in so many ways
that connect around climate change.
But the first way to me to overcome this idea
of there is this polarized universe around this issue
is to step back and say, well, what is this actually?
And when you do, you realize
it’s kind of an uncomfortable collision
between old energy norms and a growing awareness
of how the planet works,
that if you keep adding gases that are invisible,
it’s the bubbles in beer.
If you keep adding that to the atmosphere,
because it accumulates, that will change everything,
is changing everything for thousands of years.
It’s already happening.
What do you mean by bubbles in beer?
CO2, carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.
Well, because I like beer.
It’s also in Coca-Cola.
We were talking about Cola before.
And so it’s innocuous.
We grew up with this idea is CO2,
unless you’re trapped in a room suffocating,
is an innocuous gas.
It’s plant food.
It’s beer bubbles.
And the idea we can swiftly transition to a world
where that gas is a pollutant, regulated,
tamped down from the top is fantastical.
Having looked at this for 35 years,
I brought along one of my tokens.
This is my 1988 cover story on global warming.
The greenhouse effect, this cover, 1988.
Jim Hansen, the famous American climate scientist,
really, he stimulated this article
by doing this dramatic testimony
in a Senate committee that summer,
in May, actually, spring, late spring.
It was a hot day, and it got headlines,
and this was the result.
But it’s complicated.
Look what we were selling on the back cover.
What you see is when you get tobacco?
Looking back at my own career on the climate question,
it’s no longer a belief fight over
is global warming real or not?
You say, well, what kind of energy future do you want?
That’s a very different question than stop global warming.
And when you look at climate, actually,
I had this learning journey on my reporting
where I started out with this
as the definition of the problem.
You know, the 70s and 80s,
pollution was changing things that were making things bad.
So really focusing in on the greenhouse effect
and the pollution.
But what I missed, the big thing that I missed
of the first 15 years of my reporting,
from 1988 through about 2007,
when I was, that period I was at the New York Times
in the middle there,
was that we’re building vulnerability
to climate hazards at the same time.
So climate is changing, but we’re changing, too.
Where we are here in Austin, Texas is a great example.
Flash Flood Alley, named in the 1920s, west of here.
Everyone forgot about flash floods.
Built these huge developments, you know,
along these river basins.
Then one side starts saying global warming, global warming.
And the other side is not recognizing
that we built willfully, greedily,
vulnerability in places of utter hazard.
Same things played out in Pakistan
and in Fort Myers, Florida.
And you start to understand
that we’re creating a landscape of risk
as climate is changing.
Then it feels, oh my God, that’s more complex, right?
But it also gives you more action points.
It’s like, okay, well, we know how to design better.
We know that today’s coasts won’t be tomorrow’s coasts.
Work with that.
And then let’s chart an energy future at the same time.
So the story became so different.
It didn’t become like, you know,
a story you could package into a magazine article or the like
and it just led me to a whole different way
of even my journalism changed over time.
So I don’t fight the belief disbelief fight anymore.
I think it’s actually kind of a waste.
It’s a good way to start the discussion
because that’s where we’re at.
But this isn’t about, to me, going forward from where we’re at
isn’t about tipping that balance
back toward the center so much as finding opportunities
to just do something about this stuff.
What do you think, Bjorn?
Do you agree that it’s multiple questions in one big question?
Do you think it’s possible to define the center?
Where is the center?
I think it’s wonderful to hear Andy
sort of unconstruct the whole conversation
and say we should be worried about different things.
And I think that’s exactly,
or we should be worried about things in a different way
that makes it much more useful.
And I think that’s exactly the right way to think about it.
On the other hand, and that was also
where you kind of ended,
we are stuck in a place where this very much
is the conversation right now.
And so I think in one sense,
certainly the people who used to say,
oh, this is not happening,
they’re very, very small and diminishing crowd
and certainly not right.
But on the other hand, I think to an increasing extent
we’ve gotten into a world where a lot of people
really think this is the end of times.
So the OECD did a new survey of all OECD countries
and it’s shocking.
So it shows that 60% of all people in the OECD,
so the rich world, believes that global warming
will likely or very likely lead to the extinction
And that’s scary in a very, very clear way
because look, if this really is true,
if global warming is this meteor hurtling towards earth
and we’re gonna be destroyed in 12 years
or whatever the number is today,
then clearly we should care about nothing else.
We should just be focusing on making sure
that that asteroid gets,
we should send up Bruce Willis and get this done with.
But that’s not the way it is.
This is not actually what the UN climate panel tells us
or anything else.
So I think it’s not so much about arcing against the people
who are saying it’s a hoax.
That’s not really where I am.
I don’t think that’s where Andy
or really where the conversation is.
But it is a question of sort of pulling people back
from this end of the world conversation
because it really skews our way
that we think about problems.
Also, if you really think this is the end of time
and you only have 12 years,
nothing that can only work in 13 years can be considered.
And the reality of most of what we’re talking about
in climate and certainly our vulnerability,
certainly our energy system
is gonna be half to a full century.
And so when you talk to people and say,
well, but we’re gonna, you know,
we’re really gonna go a lot more renewable
in the next half century.
They look at you and like,
but that’s what 38 years too late.
And I get that.
But so I think in your question,
what I’m trying to do,
and I would imagine that’s true for you as well,
is to try to pull people away from this precipice
and this end of the world and then open it up.
And I think Andy did that really well by saying,
look, there are so many different sub conversations
and we need to have all of them
and we need to be respectful of,
some of these are right
in the sort of standard media kind of way,
but some of them are very, very wrong.
And it actually means that we end up doing much less good,
both on climate,
but also on all the other problems the world faces.
Oh yeah, and it just empowers people too.
Those who believe this then just sit back,
even in Adam McKay’s movie, the Don’t Look Up movie,
there was that sort of nihilist crowd
for those who’ve seen it,
who just say, fuck this.
And a lot of people have that,
when something’s too big,
and it just paralyzes you,
as opposed to giving you these action points.
And the other thing is,
I hate it when economists are right about stuff like this.
No, no, there are these phrases,
like I never knew the words path dependency
until probably 10 years ago in my reporting.
And it basically says you’re in a system,
the things around you,
how we pass laws,
the brokenness of the Senate.
We don’t have a climate crisis in America,
we have a decision crisis,
as it comes to how the government works or doesn’t work.
But those big features of our landscape are…
It’s path dependency.
When you screw in a light bulb,
even if it’s an LED light bulb,
it’s going into a 113, 120 year old fixture,
and actually that fixture is almost designed,
if you look at 19th century gas fixtures,
they had this screw in thing.
So we’re on these long path dependencies
when it comes to energy and stuff like that,
that you don’t just magically transition a car fleet.
A car built today will last 40 years,
it’ll end up in Mexico,
sold as a used car, et cetera, et cetera.
And so there is no quick fix,
even if we’re true that things are coming to an end
in 13 years or 12 years or eight years.
So most people don’t believe that climate change is a hoax,
so they believe that there is an increase,
there’s a global warming of a few degrees
in the next century,
and then maybe debate about
what the number of the degrees is.
And do most people believe that it’s human caused
at this time in this history of discussion of climate change?
So is that the center still?
Is there still debate on this?
Yale University, the climate communication group there
for like 13 years has done this Six Americas study
where they’ve charted pretty carefully
in ways that I really find useful,
what people believe.
And we could talk about the word belief
in the context of science too.
And they’ve identified kind of six kinds of us.
There’s from dismissive to alarmed
and with lots of bubbles in between.
I think some of those bubbles in between
are mostly disengaged people
who don’t really deal with the issue.
And they’ve shown a drift for sure.
There’s much more majority now at the alarmed
or engaged bubbles than the dismissive bubble.
There’s a durable, like with vaccination
and lots of other issues,
there’s a durable never anything belief group.
But on the reality that humans are contributing
to climate change, most Americans when you ask them,
and it also depends on how you write your survey.
Think there’s a component.
And this is also true globally.
I mean, when you ask around, I mean,
and this is, if you hear this story
from the media of 20 years,
of course that’s what you will believe.
And it also happens to be true.
That is what the science, I think,
it’s perhaps worth saying,
and it’s a little depressing that you always have to say,
but I think it’s worth saying
that I think we both really do accept
the climate panel science.
And there’s absolutely global warming.
It is an issue, and it’s probably just worthwhile
to get it out of the way.
It’s an issue, and it’s caused by humans.
It’s caused by humans, yeah.
But vulnerability, the losses that are driven
by climate-related events still predominantly
are caused by humans, but on the ground.
It’s where we build stuff, where we settle.
Pakistan, in 1960, I just looked these data up,
there were 40 million people in Pakistan.
Today there are 225 million,
and a big chunk of them are still rural.
They live in the floodplain of the amazing Indus River,
which comes down from the Himalayas.
Extraordinary 5,000-year history of agriculture there.
But when you put 200 million people in harm’s way,
and this doesn’t say anything about the bigger questions
about, oh, shame on Pakistan for having more people.
It just says the reality is the losses that we see
in the news are, and the science finds this,
even though there’s a new weather attribution group.
It’s WXRISK on Twitter.
This does pretty good work on how much of what just happened
was some tweak in the storm from global warming,
from CO2 changing weather.
But, and the media glommed onto that,
as I did in the 80s, 90s, 2000s.
But the reports also have a section on, by the way,
the vulnerability that was built in this region
was a big driver of loss.
So discriminating between loss,
change in what’s happening on the ground,
and change in the climate system,
is never solely about CO2.
In fact, Lorenz Bauer, B-O-U-W-E-R,
I first wrote on his work in 2010 in the New York Times.
And basically, in 2010, there was no sign in the data
of climate change driving disasters.
Climate change is up here, disasters are on the ground.
They depend on how many people are in the way,
how much stuff you built in the way.
And so far, we’ve done so much of that so fast
in the 20th century, particularly,
that it completely dominates, it makes it hard,
impossible to discriminate how much of that disaster
was from the change in weather from global warming.
So a function of greenhouse gases
to human suffering is unclear.
And that’s very much in our control, theoretically.
I mean, the point, I think, is exactly right,
that if you look at the Hurricane Ian
that went through Florida, you have a situation
where Florida went from, what, 600,000 houses
in 1940 to 17 million houses.
Sorry, 10 million houses, so 17 times more
over, what, a period of 80 years?
Of course you’re gonna have, what?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
You’re gonna have lots more damage.
And many of these houses now have been built
on places where you probably shouldn’t be building.
And so I think a lot of scientists are very focused
on saying, can we measure whether global warming
had an impact, which is an interesting science question.
I think it’s very implausible that eventually
we won’t be able to say it has an impact.
But the real question, it seems to me,
is if we actually wanna make sure that people
are less harmed in the future, what are the levers
that we can control?
And it turns out that the CO2 lever,
doing something about climate, is an incredibly
difficult and slightly inefficient way
of trying to help these people in the future.
Whereas, of course, zoning, making sure
that you have better housing rules,
what is it, regulations, that you maybe don’t
have people building in the flash flood,
what was it called?
Flash flood alley.
Flash flood alley.
Yeah, it’s just simple stuff.
And because we’re so focused on this one issue,
we sort of, it almost feels sacrilegious
to talk about these other things that are much more
in our power and that we can do something
about much quicker and that would help a lot more people.
So I think this is gonna be a large part
of the whole conversation.
Yes, climate is a problem, but it’s not the only problem.
And there are many other things where we can actually
have a much, much bigger impact at much lower cost.
Maybe we should also remember those.
Can you still man the case of Greta,
who’s a representative of alarmism,
that we need that kind of level of alarmism
for people to pay attention and to think
about climate change?
So you said the singular view is not the correct way
to look at climate change, just the emissions.
But for us to have a discussion,
shouldn’t there be somebody who’s really
raising the concern?
Can you still man the case for alarmism, essentially?
Or is there a better term than alarmism?
Communication of like, holy shit,
we should be thinking about this.
So I think, I totally understand why Greta Thunberg
is doing what she’s doing.
I have great respect for her because I look at a lot
of kids growing up and they’re basically being told,
you’re not gonna reach adulthood, or at least not,
you’re not gonna get very far into adulthood.
And that, of course, this is the meteor hurtling
towards Earth, and then this is the only thing
we should be focusing on.
I understand why she’s making that argument.
I think it’s, at the end of the day, it’s incorrect,
and I’m sure we’ll get around to talking about that.
And one of the things is, of course,
that her whole generation, I can understand
why they’re saying, if we’re gonna be dead in 12 years,
why would I wanna study?
Why would I really care about anything?
So I totally want to sort of pull Greta and many others
out of this end of the world fear,
but I totally get why she’s doing it.
I think she’s done a service in the sense
that she’s gotten more people to talk about climate,
and that’s good, because we need to have this discussion.
I think it’s unfortunate, and this is just what happens
in almost all policy discussions, that they end up being
sort of discussions from the extreme groups,
because it’s just more fun on media
to have sort of the total deniers
and the people who say, we’re gonna die tomorrow,
and it sort of becomes that discussion.
It’s more sort of a mud-wrestling fight.
So would you think the mud-wrestling fight is not useful
or is useful for communication,
for effective science communication,
on one of the platforms that you’re a fan of,
which is Twitter?
Yeah, I wrote a piece recently in my Sustain What column
saying, if you go on there for the entertainment value
of seeing those knocked-down fights,
I guess that’s useful, if that’s what you’re looking for.
The thing I found Twitter invaluable for,
but it’s a practice.
It’s just like the workouts you do, or, you know,
it’s how do I put this tool to use today,
thinking about energy action in poor communities?
How do I put this tool today, learning about
what really happened with Ian the Hurricane,
who was most at risk?
And how would you build forward better?
I hate build back.
Or you can go there and just watch it
as an entertainment value.
That’s not gonna get the world anywhere.
You don’t think entertainment,
I wouldn’t call it entertainment,
but giving voice to the extremes
isn’t a productive way forward.
It seems to, you know, to push back against
the main narrative, it seems to work pretty well
in the American system.
We think politics is totally broken,
but maybe that works, that oscillation back and forth.
You need a Greta, and you need somebody
that pushes back against a Greta to get everybody’s,
just to get everybody’s attention.
The fun of battle over time creates progress.
Well, and this gets to the, you know,
people who focus on communication science,
I’m not a scientist, I write about this stuff.
If you’re gonna try to prod someone
with a warning, like, this is three years apart.
Nuclear winter, we’ll talk about that.
Global warming, well, yeah, we’ll talk about it.
But look at that, you know, this is three years apart
in the covers of a magazine.
And, but then you have to say to what end
if you’re not directing people to a basket of things to do.
And if you want political change,
then it would be to, you know, support a politician.
If you want energy access,
it would be to look at this $370 billion
the American government just put into play on climate
and say, well, how can my community benefit from that?
And I’ve been told over and over again
by people in government, Jigar Shah,
who heads this giant loan program, the energy department.
He says, what I need now is like 19,500 people
who are worried about climate change.
Maybe because Greta got them worried.
But here’s the thing you could do.
You can connect your local government right now
with these multimillion dollar loans
so you can have electric buses instead of diesel buses.
And that’s an action pathway.
So without, so, you know,
alarm for the sake of getting attention or clicks
to me is not any more valuable than watching an action movie.
And again, I think also it very easily ends up
sort of skewing our conversation
about what are the actual solutions, you know,
because yes, it’s great to get rid of the diesel bus,
but probably not for the reason people think.
It’s because diesel buses are really polluting
in the air pollution sense.
And that is why you should get rid of them.
And again, if you really wanted to help people,
for instance, with hurricanes,
you should have better rules and zoning in Florida,
which is a very different outcome.
So the mud wrestling fight also gets our attention
diverted towards solutions that seem easy, fun, you know,
sort of the electric car is a great example of this.
The electric car has somehow become almost the sign
that I care and I’m really gonna do something about climate.
Of course, electric cars are great
and they’re probably part of the solution
and they will actually cut carbon emissions somewhat,
but they’re an incredibly ineffective way
of cutting carbon emissions right now.
They’re fairly expensive.
You have to subsidize them a lot
and they still emit quite a bit of CO2,
both because the batteries get produced
and because they usually run off of power
Strong words from your in-law.
Okay, let’s go there.
Let’s go electric car.
So educate us on the pros and cons of electric cars
in this complex picture of climate change.
What do you think of the efforts of Tesla and Elon Musk
on pushing forward the electric car revolution?
So look, electric cars are great.
I don’t own a car, but you know, I’ve been driving-
There you go, socially signaling.
Yeah, but yeah, I’ve-
We’re in Texas, it’s okay.
Well, I flew in here, so it’s not like I’m in any way
a virtuous guy on that path.
But yeah, look, they’re great cars
and eventually electric cars will take over
a significant part of our driving
and that’s good because they’re more effective.
They’re probably also gonna be cheaper.
There’s a lot of good opportunities with them,
but it’s because they’ve become reified
as this thing that you do to fix climate.
And right now they’re not really all that great for climate.
You need a lot of extra material into the batteries,
which is very polluting and it’s also,
it emits a lot of CO2.
A lot of electric cars are bought as second cars in the US.
So we used to think that they were driven
almost as much as a regular car.
It turns out that they’re more likely driven
less than half as much as regular cars.
So, 89% of all Americans who have an electric car
also have a real car that they use for the long trips
and then they use the electric car for short trips.
That’s true, 89%.
So the point here is that it’s one of these things
that become more sort of a virtue signaling thing.
And again, look, once electric cars
are sufficiently cheap that people will want to buy them,
And they will do some good for the environment.
But in reality, what we should be focusing on
is instead of getting people electric cars
in rich countries, where because we’re subsidizing
typically in many countries,
you actually get a sort of sliding scale.
You get more subsidy, the more expensive it is.
We sort of subsidize this to very rich people
to buy very large Teslas to drive around in.
Whereas what we should be focusing on
is perhaps getting electric motorcycles
in third world developing cities,
where they would do a lot more good.
They can actually go as far as you need.
There’s no worry about running out of them.
And they would obviously, they’re much, much more polluting
just air pollution wise, and they’re much cheaper
and they use very little battery.
So it’s about getting our senses right.
But the electric car is not a conversation about,
is it technically a really good
or is it a somewhat good insight?
It’s more like, it’s a virtual signal.
So just, I work with economists.
I’m actually not an economist,
but I like to say I claim I kind of am.
But the fundamental point is we would say,
well, how much does it cost to cut a ton of CO2?
And the answer is for most electric cars,
we’re paying in the order of 1000, 2000,
Norway, they pay up to what, $5,000 or thereabouts,
huge amount for one ton of CO2.
You can right now cut a ton of CO2 for about,
what is it, $14 on the Reggie or something?
Yeah, you can do this.
That’s a regional greenhouse gas.
So you can basically cut it really, really cheaply.
Why would we not want to cut dozens and dozens
of tons of CO2 for the same price
instead of just cutting one ton?
And the simple answer is we only do that
because we’re so focused on electric cars.
If I may interrupt, typically European come here in Texas,
tell me I can’t have my Ford F-150, but I’ll-
Oh, now you can have your F-150 Lightning.
Yes, that’s true, I’m just joking, yes.
But what do you think about electric cars,
if you could just link on that moment
and this particular element of helping reduce emissions?
Well, you talked about the middle in the beginning,
and I loved moving to the hybrid.
The Prius was fantastic.
It did everything our other sedan did,
but it was 60 miles per gallon performance,
and you don’t have range anxiety
because it has a regular engine too.
We still have a Prius.
We also inherited my dad,
dear dad’s year 2000 Toyota Sienna,
which is an old 100,000 mile minivan,
and we use it all the time to do the stuff
we can’t do in the Prius.
Taking stuff to the dump.
Oh, you mean in terms of the size of the vehicle?
Yeah, yeah, size and just convenience factor
for a bigger vehicle.
I would love a fully electrified transportation world.
It’s kind of exciting.
I think what Elon did with Tesla,
I remember way, way back in the day
when the first models were coming out.
There were very slick Ferrari-style cars,
and I thought, this is cool,
and there’s a history of privileged markets
testing new technologies, and I’m all for that.
I think it’s done a huge service,
prodding so much more R&D,
and once GM and Ford started to realize,
oh my God, this is a real phenomenon,
getting them in the game.
There was that documentary who killed the electric car,
which seemed to imply that there were fights
to keep this tamp down,
and it’s fundamentally cleaner, fundamentally better
but then you have to manage these bigger questions.
If we’re gonna do a build-out here,
how do you make it fair?
As you were saying, who actually uses transit cars?
And Jagir Shah, that guy at the energy department
I mentioned who has all this money to give out,
he wants to give loans to,
if you had an Uber fleet, those Uber drivers,
they’re the ones who need electric cars as his work,
and there was a recent story, and Grist also,
said that most of the sales of Teslas
are at the high end of the market,
they’re $60,000, $80,000 vehicles.
Like the Hummer, the electric Hummer,
there was a data point on that, astonishing data point,
the battery in that Hummer weighs more than,
I’d have to look it up, it weighs more than a car.
Yeah, I think it might have been a Prius.
And think of the material costs there,
think of where that battery, the cobalt
and the lithium, where does this stuff come from?
To build this stuff out, I’m all for it,
but we have to be honest and clear about,
that’s a new resource rush, like the oil rush
back in the early 20th century,
and those impacts have to be figured out too.
And if they’re all big Hummers, for rich people,
there’s so many contrary arguments to that,
that I think we have to figure out a way,
we, I don’t like the word we, I use it too much,
we all do, but.
We all do.
We usually refer, when you say we, we humans.
We society, we the government, yeah.
There has to be some thought and attention put
to where you put these incentives,
so that you get the best use of this technology
for the carbon benefit,
for the conventional sooty pollution benefit,
for the transportation benefit.
Can I step back and ask a sort of big question,
we mentioned economics, journalism,
how does an economist and a climate scientist
and a journalist that writes about climate
see the world differently?
What are the strengths and potential blind spots
of each discipline?
I mean, that’s just sort of,
just so people may be aware,
I think you’ll be able to fall into the economics camp
a bit, there’s climate scientists,
and there’s climate scientists adjacent people,
like who hang, some of my best friends are climate scientists
which is, I think, where you fall in,
because you’re a journalist, you’ve been writing it,
so you’re not completely in the trenches of doing the work.
You’re just stepping into the trenches
every once in a while.
So can you speak to that, maybe Bjorn,
like what does the world look like to an economist?
Let’s try to empathize with these beings that-
That unfortunately has fallen
into the disreputable economics, yeah.
So I think the main point
that I’ve been trying for a long time,
and I think that’s also a little bit
what Andy has been talking about,
for a very long time, the whole conversation was about
what does the science tell us?
Is global warming real?
And to me, it’s much more, what can we actually do?
What are the policies that we can take
and how effective are they gonna be?
So the conversation we just had about electric cars
is a good example of how an economist think about,
look, this is not a question
about whether you feel morally virtuous
or whether you can sort of display
how much you care about the environment.
This is about how much you actually ended up
affecting the world.
And the honest answer is that electric cars right now
in the next decade or so will have a fairly small impact,
and unfortunately right now at a very high cost
because we’re basically subsidizing these things
at five or $10,000 around the world per car.
That’s just not, it’s not really sustainable,
but it’s certainly not a very great way
to cut carbon emissions.
So I would be the kind of guy,
and economists would be the types of people who would say,
is there a smarter way where you, for less money,
can, for instance, cut more CO2?
And the obvious answer is yes.
That’s what we’ve seen, for instance, with fracking.
The fact that the US went from a lot of coal
to a lot of gas because gas became incredibly cheap,
because gas emits about half as much as coal does
when you use it for power,
that basically cut more carbon emissions
than pretty much any other single thing.
And we should get the rest of the world, in some sense,
to frack because it’s really cheap.
There are some problems, and absolutely,
we can also have that conversation.
No technology is problem-free,
but fundamentally it’s an incredibly cheap way
to get people to cut a lot of CO2.
It’s not the final solution
because it’s still a fossil fuel,
but it’s a much better fossil fuel, if you will,
and it’s much more realistic to do that.
So that’s one part of the thing.
The other one is when we talked about, for instance,
how do we help people in Florida who gets hit by a hurricane
or how do we help people that get damaged in flash floods,
the people who are in heat waves,
and the simple answer is there’s a lot of very, very cheap
and effective things that we could do first.
So most climate people will tend to sort of say,
we gotta get rid of all carbon emissions,
we gotta change the engine that sort of powers the world
and has powered us for the last 200 years,
and that’s all good and well,
but it’s really, really hard to do,
and it’s probably not gonna do very much.
And even if you succeed it, it would only help
future victims of future Hurricane Ians in Florida
a tiny, tiny bit at best.
So instead, let’s try to focus on not getting people
to build right on the waterfront
where you’re incredibly vulnerable
and where you’re very likely to get hit,
where we subsidize people with federal insurance again,
which is just actually losing money.
So we’re much more about saying,
it’s not a science question,
I just take the science for granted.
Yes, there is a problem with climate change,
but it’s much more about saying,
how can we make smart decisions?
Can I ask you about blind spots?
When you reduce stuff to numbers, the costs and benefits,
is there stuff you might miss
that are important to the flourishing of the human species?
So everyone will have to say,
of course there must be blind spots.
But I don’t know what they are.
Yeah, I’m sure Andy would probably be better
at telling me what they are.
So we try to incorporate all of it,
but obviously we’re not successful.
You can’t incorporate everything,
for instance, in a cost-benefit analysis.
But the point is, in some way,
I would worry a lot about this
if we were sort of close to perfection, human race,
we’re doing almost everything right,
but we’re not quite right,
then we need to get the last digits right.
But I think it’s much more that,
and the point that I tried to make before,
that we’re all focused on going to an electric car
or something else rather than fracking.
We’re all focused on cutting carbon emissions
instead of reducing vulnerability.
So we’re simply getting orders of magnitude wrong.
And while I’m sure I have blind spots,
I think they’re probably not big enough
to overturn that point.
Andy, why is Bjorn and economists
are all wrong about everything?
Well, the models, we could spend a whole day on models.
They’re economic models.
There’s this thing called optimization models.
There were two big ones used to assess the US plan,
this new big IRA inflation reduction package.
And they’re fine.
They’re a starting point for understanding what’s possible.
But as this gets to the journalism part or the public part,
you have to look at the caveats.
You have to look at what model,
economists expressly exclude things that are not modelable.
And if you look in the fine print on the repeat project,
the Princeton version of the assessment
of the recent giant legislation,
the fine print is the front page,
for me, as a deep diving journalist,
because it says we didn’t include any sources of friction,
meaning resistance to putting new transmission lines
through your community,
or people who don’t want mining in America
because we’ve exported all of our mining.
We mine our cobalt in Congo,
and trying to get a new mine in Nevada
was a fraught fight that took more than 10 years for lithium.
So if you’re excluding those elements from your model,
which on the surface makes this $370 billion package
have an emissions reduction trajectory
that’s really pretty good,
and you’re not saying in your first line,
by the way, these are the things we’re not considering.
That’s the job of a journalist.
You could probably summarize all of human history
with that one word, friction.
Yeah, yeah, well, inertia,
friction implies there’s a force
that’s already being resisted,
but there’s also inertia, which is a huge part of our,
we have a status quo bias.
The scientists that I,
in grappling with the climate problem,
as a journalist, I paid too much attention
to climate scientists.
That’s why all of my articles focused on climate change,
and it was 2006.
I remember now pretty clearly,
I was asked by the Weekend Review section
of the New York Times to write a sort of a weekend
thumb sucker, we call them, on.
You know, you sit and suck your thumb
and think about something.
Why is everybody so pissed off about climate change?
It was after Al Gore’s movie,
the Al Gore movie came out, Inconvenient Truth,
It was big.
Senator Inhofe in the Senate from Oklahoma
wasn’t yet throwing snowballs, but it was close to that,
and so I looked into what was going on.
Why is this so heated?
In 2006, the story’s called Yelling Fire on a Hot Planet,
and that was the first time,
this is after 18 years of writing about global warming,
that was the first time I interviewed a social scientist,
not a climate scientist.
Her name was Helen Ingram.
She was at UC Irvine, and she laid out for me
the factors that determine why people vote
or what they vote for, what they think about politically,
and they were the antithesis of the climate problem.
She used the words, she said people go into the voting booth
thinking about things that are soon, salient, and certain,
and climate change is complex, you know,
has long timescales, and that really jogged me,
and then I, between 2006, 2010,
I started interviewing other social scientists,
this was by far the scariest science of all.
It’s the climate in our heads, or inconvenient minds,
and in how that translates into political norms and stuff
really became the monster, not the climate system.
Is there social dynamics to the scientists themselves?
Because I’ve gotten to witness
a kind of flocking behavior with scientists,
so it’s almost like a flock of birds.
Within the flock, there’s a lot of disagreement,
and fun debates, and everybody trying
to prove each other wrong, but they’re all
kind of headed in the same direction,
and you don’t want to be the bird
that kind of leaves that flock.
So like, there’s an idea that science is a mechanism
will get us towards the truth,
but it’ll definitely get us somewhere,
but it could be not the truth in the short term.
In the long term, a bigger flock will come along,
and it’ll get us to the truth,
but there’s a sense that, I don’t know
if there’s a mechanism within science
to snap out of it if you’re down the wrong track.
Usually you get it right, but sometimes you don’t.
When you don’t, it’s very costly.
And there’s so many factors that line up
to perpetuate that flocking behavior.
One is media attention comes in.
The other is funding comes in.
National Science Foundation or whatever,
European foundations pour a huge amount of money
into things related to climate.
And so, and then your narrative in your head
is shaped by that aspect of the climate problem
that’s in the spotlight.
I started using this hashtag a few years back,
narrative capture, like be wary of narrative capture,
where you’re on a train and everyone’s getting on the train.
And this is in the media too, not just science.
And it becomes self-sustaining
and contrary indications are ignored or downplayed.
No one does replication science
because your career doesn’t advance
through replicating someone else’s work.
So those contrary indications are not necessarily
really dug in on.
And this is way beyond climate.
This is many fields.
As you said, you might’ve seen this in AI.
And it’s really hard to find.
It’s another form of path dependency,
the term I used before.
But breaking narrative capture to me,
for me, has come mostly from stepping back
and reminding myself of the basic principles of journalism.
Journalism’s basic principles are useful for anybody.
Confronting a big, enormous, dynamic, complex thing
is who, what, where, when, why.
Just be really rigorous about not assuming,
because there’s a fire in Boulder County
or a flood in Fort Myers, that climate,
which is in your head,
because you’re part of the climate team
at the New York Times or whatever,
is the foreground part of this problem.
What’s the psychological challenge of that
if you incorporate the fact that
if you try to step back and have nuance,
you might get attacked by the others in the flock?
Oh, I was.
Well, you’ve certainly been to.
Both of you get attacked continuously from different sides.
So let me just ask about that.
How does that feel?
And how do you continue thinking clearly
and continuously try to have humility and step back
and not get defensive in that as a communicator?
I mean, there are other things
happening at the same time, right?
I’m now 35 years into,
almost 40 years into my journalism career.
So I have some independence.
I’m free from the obligations of,
you know, I don’t really need my next paycheck.
I live in Maine now in a house I love.
I own it outright.
It’s a great privilege and honor,
and as a result of a lot of hard work.
And so I’m freer to think freely.
And I know my colleagues in newsrooms,
when I was at the New York Times,
in the newsroom, you become captive to a narrative,
just as you do out in the world.
The New York Times had a narrative about Saddam Hussein.
Drove us into that war.
The Times sucked right into that and helped perpetuate it.
I think we’re in a bit of a narrative, we, the media,
my friends at the Times and others are on a train ride
on climate change, depicting it in a certain way.
That really, I saw problems with how they handled
the Joe Manchin issue in America,
the West Virginia Senator.
They really kind of piled on
and zoomed in on his investments,
which is really important to do,
but they never pulled back and said,
by the way, he’s a rare species.
He’s a Democrat in West Virginia,
and which is a seat that would be
otherwise occupied by a Republican.
There’d be no talk of a climate deal or any of that stuff
But once you’re starting to kind of frame a story
in a certain way, you carry it along.
And as you said, sometimes it breaks and a new norm arrives,
but the climate train is still kind of rushing forward
and missing the opportunity to cut it into its pieces
and say, well, what’s really wrong with Florida?
And it’s for me, when you ask about how I handle
the slings and arrows and stuff,
it’s partially because I’m past worrying about it too much.
I mean, it was pretty intense.
2009, Rush Limbaugh suggested I kill myself
on his radio show.
It’s a really great time.
What was that about?
I had, actually, this was a meeting in Washington in 2009
on population at the Wilson Center.
I couldn’t be there, so actually this is pre-COVID,
but I was zooming in or something, like Skyping in,
and I was talking about, in a playful way,
I said, well, if you really wanna worry about carbon,
this was during the debate over a carbon tax model
for a bill in America, we should probably have
a carbon tax for kids because a bigger family in America
is a big source of more emissions.
And it was kind of a playful thought bubble.
Some right-wing blogger blogged about it.
It got into Rush’s pile of things to talk about.
And the clip is really fun.
Oh, so meaning, so if humans are bad for the environment,
I can imagine Rush, that’s how you know you’ve made it.
He said, Mr. Revkin of the New York,
Andrew Revkin of the New York Times,
if you really think that people are the worst thing
that ever happened to this planet,
why don’t you just kill yourself
and save the planet by dying?
So that was tough for you.
It was tough for my family.
It did generate some interesting calls
and stuff in my voicemail.
But on the left, I was also undercut.
Roger Pilkey Jr., a prominent researcher
of climate risk and climate policy, UC Boulder,
was actively, his career track was derailed purposefully
by people who just thought his message was too off the path.
And you’ve been dealing with this for a very long time.
What do you?
So I just want to get back to, so the science,
I don’t think the science get it so much wrong
as it just becomes accepted to make certain assumptions.
As you just said, we assume no friction.
So there’s a way that you kind of model the world
that ends up being also a convenient message in many ways.
And I think the main convenient message in climate,
and it’s not surprising if you think about it,
the main convenient message is that the best way
to do something about all the things that we call climate
is to cut CO2.
And that turns out to only sometimes be true
and with a lot of caveats.
But that’s sort of the message.
And it takes a long time.
Yes, it’s really, really difficult to do
in any meaningful sort of timeframe.
And if you challenge that, yes,
you’re outside the flock and you get attacked.
So somebody told me once, I think it’s true.
They say at the Harvard Law School,
if you have a good case, pound the case.
If you have a bad case, pound the table.
And so I’ve always felt that when people go after me,
they’re kind of pounding the table.
They’re literally screaming, I don’t have a good case.
I’m really annoyed with what you’re saying.
And so to me, that actually means it’s much more important
to make this argument.
Sure, I mean, I would love everyone just saying,
oh, that’s a really good point, I’m gonna use that.
But yeah, we’re stuck in a situation,
certainly in a conversation where a lot of people
have invested a lot of time and energy
on saying we should cut carbon emissions.
This is the way to help humankind.
And just be clear,
I think we should cut carbon emissions as well,
but we should also just be realistic
about what we can achieve with that
and what are all the other things that we could also do.
And it turns out that a lot of these other things
are much cheaper, much more effective,
will help much more, much quicker.
And so getting that point out
is just incredibly important for us to get it right.
So in some sense, to make sure
that we don’t do another Iraq
and we don’t do another, lots of stupid decisions.
I mean, this is one of the things mankind is very good at.
And I guess I see my role,
and I think that’s probably also how you see yourself
is trying to get everyone to do it slightly less wrong.
So let me ask you about a deep psychological effect for you.
There’s also a drug of martyrdom.
So whenever you stand against the flock,
you wrote a couple of really good books on the topic.
The most recent, False Alarm.
I stand as the holder of truth
that everybody who is alarmist is wrong.
And here’s just simple, calm way
to express the facts of the matter.
And that’s very compelling to a very large number of people.
They want to make a martyr out of you.
Is that, are you worried about your own mind
being corrupted by that,
by enjoying standing against the crowd?
No, no, no.
There’s very little,
I guess I can see what you’re saying
sort of in a literary way or something.
Yeah, something poetic here.
Yeah, there’s very little comfort
or sort of usefulness in annoying a lot of people.
Whenever I go to a party, for instance,
I know that there’s a good chance
people are gonna be annoyed with me.
And I would love that not to be the case.
But what I try to do is,
so I try to be very polite
and sort of not push people’s buttons
unless they sort of actively say,
so you’re saying all kind of stupid stuff on the climate.
And then try to engage with them and say,
well, what is it you’re thinking about?
And hopefully, during that party
and then it ends up being a really bad party for me.
But anyway, so I’ll end up possibly convincing one person
that I’m not totally stupid,
but no, I’m not playing the martyr
and I’m not enjoying that.
It’s so interesting.
I mean, the martyr complex
is all around the climate question.
Michael Mann, at the far end of the spectrum of activism
from where Bjorn is, was a climate scientist,
is a climate scientist who was actively attacked
by Inhofe and West Virginia politicians
and really abused in many ways.
He had come up with a very prominent model
of looking at long-term records of climate change
and got this hockey stick for temperature.
And he definitely sits there
in a certain kind of spotlight because of that.
So it’s not unique at any particular vantage point
in the spectrum of sort of prominent people on the debate.
Andrew, you co-wrote the book,
The Human Planet, Earth at the Dawn of the Anthropocene,
which is the new age when humans
are actually having impact on the environment.
Let me ask the question of,
what do you find most beautiful and fascinating
about our planet Earth?
It’d be cheap to say everything,
but just walking here this morning
under the bridge over the Colorado River,
seeing the birds, knowing there’s bat colonies,
massive bat colonies around here
that I got to visit a few years ago.
I experienced one of those bat explosions.
I’ve been really lucky as a journalist
to have gone to the North Pole,
the camp on the sea ice, with Russian help.
This is a camp that was set up for tourists
coming from Europe every year.
There were scientists on the sea ice
floating on the 14,000-foot-deep Arctic Ocean,
and I was with them for several days.
I wrote a book about that, too, along with my reporting.
Been in the depths of the Amazon rainforest.
When I was very young, I was a crew on a sailboat
that sailed 2 3rds of the way around the world.
I was halfway across the Indian Ocean,
again, in 14,000-foot-deep water.
We were just, there was no wind,
and we were, this was way before I was a journalist,
at 22, 23 years old, and we went swimming,
and swimming in 14,000-foot-deep water,
500 miles from land, the Western Indian Ocean,
halfway between Somalia and the Maldives.
It’s like so mind-boggling, chillingly fantastical thing
with a mask on, looking at your shadow
going to the vanishing point below you,
looking over at the boat, which is a 60-foot boat,
but it just looks like a toy, and then getting back on
and being beholden to the elements,
the sailboat heading toward Djibouti.
The immensity and the power of the elements.
Oh, my God, and then the human qualities are unbelievable.
The Anthropocene, I played a bit of a role as a journalist
in waking people up to the idea that this era
called the Holocene, the last 11,000 years,
since the last Ice Age, had ended.
I wrote my 1992 book on global warming,
thinking about all that we’re just talking about,
thinking about the wonders of the planet,
thinking about the impact of humans so far
in our explosive growth in the 20th century.
I wrote that perhaps earth scientists of the future
will name this post-Holocene era
for its formative element for us,
because we’re kind of in charge in certain ways,
which is hubristic at the same time.
It’s like the variability of the climate system
is still profound with or without global warming.
So this immense, powerful, beautiful organism that is earth,
all the different sub-organisms that are on it,
do you see humans as a kind of parasite on this earth?
Or do you see it as something that helps the flourishing
of the entire organism?
That hasn’t yet.
I mean, aren’t we on the ability
of the collective intelligence of the human species
to develop all these kinds of technologies,
and to be able to have Twitter to introspect onto itself?
Oh, I think we’re doing a, it’s always been.
In a way, we are.
It’s catch-up, we’re always in catch-up mode.
I was at the Vatican for a big meeting in 2014
on Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature,
And it was a week of presentations by Martin Rees,
who’s this famed British scientist, physicist who.
Been on his podcast.
Well, he’s fixated on existential risk, right?
Yes, he is.
So it was a week of this stuff.
And the meeting was kicked off by,
I wrote about it, Cardinal Maradiaga,
who is, I think, from El Salvador.
He’s one of the Pope’s kind of posse.
He gave one of the initial speeches.
And he said, nowadays, mankind looks like a technical giant
and an ethical child.
Meaning our technological wizardry is unbelievable,
but it’s way out in front of our ability to step back
and kind of consider in the full dimensions we need to,
is it helping everybody?
Is it, what are the consequences of CRISPR?
You know, genetics technology?
And there’s no single answer to that.
If I’m in the African Union,
I’m just using this as an example.
CRISPR has emerged so fast.
It can do so much by changing the nature of nature.
We’ll, in a kind of a programming way,
building genes, not just transferring them
from one organism to another.
We’ve only just begun to taste the fruits of that,
And it can wipe out a mosquito species.
We know how to do that now.
You can like literally take out the dengue-causing mosquito.
The scientists have done the work.
And you think, okay, cool.
Well, that’s great.
Now there’s this big fight over whether that should happen.
African Union, and I’m with their view,
says, hey, if we can take out a mosquito species
that’s causing horrific, chronic loss through dengue,
which I had once in Indonesia, it’s not fun,
and we should do it, you know?
What’s the other side of the argument?
The European Union, they’re saying,
using their capital P precautionary principle,
says, no, we can’t meddle with nature.
And this is just like we were talking with climate.
You know, there’s the real-time question
and the long-term question.
And there’s the people who are just facing the need
to get through the day and be healthy and survive
and have enough food,
which is not integrated sufficiently at all
into the climate, stop climate change debate.
And those who like are trying to cut CO2,
which will have a benefit, you know, in the future
by limiting the fat tail outcomes of this journey we’re on.
So when I think about the Anthropocene,
I think about this planet.
I love that we’re here right now.
I love that our species has these capacities.
I would love for there to be a little bit more reflection
in where things come from and where they might go.
Whether you’re a student, a kid, what’s your role?
The wonderful thing about the complexity of it
is everyone can play a role.
If you’re an artist or a designer or an architect
or an economist or a podcaster,
whatever you do, just tweak a little bit
toward examining these questions,
stepping back from the simplistic label-throwing
toward what actually is the problem in front of me,
whether it’s in Pakistan or in Boston or wherever,
you know, Florida.
You know, what do you find beautiful
about this collective intelligence machine we have?
From an economics perspective,
it’s kind of fascinating that we’re able to,
there is a machine to it that we’ve built up
that’s able to represent interests and desires
and value and hopes and dreams in sort of monetary ways
that we can trade with each other,
we can make agreements with each other,
we can represent our goals and build companies
that actually help and so on.
Do you just step back every once in a while
and marvel at the fact that a few billion of us
are able to somehow not create complete chaos
and actually collaborate
and have collaborative disagreements
that ultimately or so far have led to progress?
Yeah, I think fundamentally the point,
apart from the fact that, you know,
we should just be joyful of the fact that humans live here,
I think it’s incredibly important to remember
how much progress we’ve had.
You know, most people just don’t stop
to think about those stats.
You know, I get that in the normal bustle of day,
but just, you know, in 1900,
the average person on the planet lived to be 32 years.
32 years, that was our average life expectancy.
Today it’s about 74.
So we’ve literally got two lifetimes on this planet,
each one of us.
And, you know, every year you live in the rich world,
you get to live three months longer
and the poor world is about four months longer
because of medical advances,
because we get better at dealing both with cancer
and especially right now with heart disease.
These are amazing achievements.
Of course, it’s a very, very small part of it.
We’re much better fed, we’re much better educated.
We’ve gone from a world where virtually everyone
or, you know, 90% were illiterate
to a world where more than 90% illiterate.
This is an astounding opportunity.
And 200 years ago, 95%, 94% of the world
were extremely poor, that is less than a dollar a day.
Today, for the first time in 2015, it was down below 10%.
So, and again, these are kind of boring statistics,
but they’re also astounding testaments
of how well humanity has done.
So just on the point of,
we’ve kind of just been focused
on making our own world better.
And in many ways, you know,
so we’ve hunted a lot of big animals either to extinction
or down to much, much smaller populations.
It’s much smaller populations of fish in the ocean.
So there’s a lot of things
that sort of bear the brunt of our success.
It’s not because we’re evil in that sense,
it’s just because we didn’t care all that much about them.
I think it is important as one funnel of that,
I’m not gonna make a big deal out of it,
but the fact that we’re putting out more CO2
in the atmosphere, because CO2 is,
as you also mentioned before, it’s actually plant food.
If you’re a greenhouse grower,
you know if you put in CO2 in your greenhouse,
you actually get bigger and plumper tomatoes.
And that’s essentially what we’re doing in the world.
This has overall bad consequences
and that’s why we should be doing something about it.
But one of the good side effects is actually
that the world is getting greener.
So we get much more green stuff.
Now, I don’t know, and this is where I sort of show
my economist roots, because if you just measure
all living stuff in tons, so in weight,
there’s actually more living stuff
than there were a hundred years ago.
Because elephants and all these other big fish and stuff
are actually really, really small fraction of the world.
So the fact that we have, yes,
so we have an enormous amount of life stuff,
but that doesn’t even measure it.
It’s mostly just wood and green stuff
that has dramatically increased in the world.
Now, we’re still not there from what it was in 1500.
So we’ve still cut down the world a lot,
but we’re actually making a much greener world.
Again, not because we really cared or thought about it,
but just sort of a side effect of what we’re doing.
I think the crucial bit to remember is when you’re poor
and you worry about what’s gonna happen the next day,
this is just not your main issue.
Am I killing too many large animals in the world?
But when you’re rich and you can actually sit in a podcast
in a convenient place in Austin,
you can also start thinking about this.
So one of the crucial bits, I think,
if we want to get the rest of the world to care
about the environment, care about climate,
care about all these other issues,
we really need to get them out of poverty first.
And it’s a simple point that we often forget.
And get them connected to all these gifts.
I have these memories of,
well, I was reporting on the next big earthquake
that’s gonna devastate Istanbul in 2009.
I was in a slum, immigrant, poor neighborhood,
and walking around with an engineer,
pointing out to the buildings that were gonna fall down.
This is all known.
There was an earthquake in 1999, and the next one’s coming.
One of my advantages in covering climate
is I’ve covered other kinds of disasters, too.
So it keeps my context, you know,
me in touch with other things we can do.
So I’m walking around and interviewing everybody.
I went to this school that’s being retrofit.
They actually were getting ahead of it there.
The World Bank provided some funding
to put in iron bars in the brick building.
And I met these kids.
And they came, when you’re a journalist
with a camera and stuff and a pad,
you get swarmed by kids, mostly in developing countries.
And so these kids are running up to me.
And they weren’t going like, are you American?
Or just, they were saying, Facebook.
And I went, that’s interesting.
And they led me to their little town,
a little community center that had a bank
of eight or 10 pretty flimsy computers.
And they were all there playing a farm,
it was a game that was hot at that time on Facebook.
And you know, my son back in the Hudson Valley,
I remember him playing it.
And I thought, wow, that is so frickin’ cool
that these kids, and actually I became Facebook friends
with a couple of them afterwards.
We traded our, and I thought back to my youth
when we had pen pals.
I would write a letter to a kid in West Cameroon
and he would write back.
It took weeks and it was a crinkly letter
and I never met him.
And now you can kind of connect with people.
And that all, through my blogging,
at the New York Times I was doing my regular reporting
but I still launched a blog in 2007 called Dot Earth,
which was all about where you were just describing,
the newest sphere, the connected world.
That’s a term from these two earliest,
a Russian guy, an early Vernadsky
and a French theologian and scientist,
which is so interesting, Teilhard de Chardin.
They had this idea in the early 20th century
that we’re creating a planet of the mind,
that human intelligence can foster a better Earth.
And I just became smitten with that,
especially meeting kids in Istanbul, slums,
who were on Facebook, looking for connectedness.
What can you do with these tools?
Which is what drives me with my work now.
But then there are these counter-currents
that if the connectedness can cut back,
it allowed Al-Qaeda to recruit,
use decapitation videos to recruit distributed,
disaffected young people into extremism.
And there’s lots of, these systems are not,
they’re just like every other tool, right?
They’re just for good or ill.
And the efficiency thing, the economics of the world,
which I also wrote about a little bit,
late 20th century, it was so cool
that everything became so efficient,
that our supply chains are just-in-time manufacturing,
getting the stuff from where the sources
of the material are to the car factory
and to get the car to the floor
just in time for someone to buy it.
And everyone got totally sucked in by that, including me.
It’s great, super efficient, cheaper.
And then COVID hit,
and the whole supply chain concept crumbled.
And one of the big lessons there, hopefully,
and this is relevant to sustainability generally,
is efficiency matters, but resilience matters too.
And resilience is inefficient.
You need redundancy or a variety of options, right?
Which is not what corporate companies think about,
which is not what, if you’re only focused
on a bottom line, short-term timeline,
those disruptions are not what you’re thinking about.
You’re still thinking about,
can we get that widget here just in time
for this thing to happen?
And then on we go.
So it’s kind of, I love the noosphere,
this noosphere idea, the connectedness is fantastic.
Oh, another thing, like in the early 90s,
when I wrote my first book on global warming,
it was for an exhibition at the Museum of Natural History.
The Environmental Defense Fund was involved.
They were like a partner,
one of these longstanding environmental groups.
And they’re very old-fashioned.
It was mostly lawyers, really,
just using the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act
to litigate against pollution.
And now, EDF is vastly bigger,
and they’re actually, this coming year,
they’re launching a satellite.
An environmental group is launching methane sat,
and it’s providing a view, an independent view
of where there’s this gas.
It’s the same thing, natural gas is basically methane.
So if you have a leak, whether it’s in Siberia
or in Oklahoma, you can cross-reference,
you can ground, you can identify the hotspot,
you can know where the problem is to fix in so many ways.
And that’s just one example.
I’m like, if someone had told me in 1993
that EDF was gonna launch a methane satellite,
I would have laughed out loud.
So technology plays a huge role
if it’s kind of employed with the bigger vision,
So Bjorn, you wrote, one of the books you wrote,
the most recent one, called False Alarm,
How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions,
Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.
Good title, by the way, very intense,
makes me wanna read it.
What is likely the worst effect of climate change?
First, let me just, my editor actually hated the subtitle
because it gives away the whole book, basically.
It tells you what the book tries to make.
I think that’s exactly what it should be.
It’s about getting this conversation out
in the public sphere.
So the worst thing that climate change can do
is like the worst thing that anything can do
is that it wipes out everything and we all die.
So it’s not like, if you’re just looking
for worst case outcomes,
anything can get to the worst case outcome.
Imagine if we, what’s the worst thing
that could happen from HIV?
It breaks down one or more African states
because we don’t fix it, and then you get
sort of biological warfare and terrorism,
throw that in the mix, and then you get someone
who makes a virus and kills the whole world.
You can make worst case scenarios for everything.
Well, let’s just call it, I get the point.
Sorry for the interruption.
And I appreciate worst case analysis
because I am fundamentally a computer scientist,
and that was the thing that defined the discipline
of to measure the quality of the algorithm,
you measure what is its worst case performance.
That’s the big O notation.
That’s how you discuss algorithms.
What is the worst possible thing
in terms of performance this thing can do?
But for climate change, let’s even go crazy.
What is exactly the worst case scenario for climate change?
Because I have to be honest and say,
I haven’t really paid deep attention.
I just have a lot of colleagues
who think about climate and so on,
and there’s a kind of, in the alarmism,
there was a sense, well, this is a very serious problem.
And then the sentence would never finish.
What exactly is the problem?
Well, the extinction of the human species, okay.
With a virus, I understand how that could possibly happen.
What is the mechanism by which the human species
becomes extinct because of climate change?
I’m not sure I would want to be able to argue that
because it really requires you to have
sort of very, very extreme parameter choices
all down the line.
And so it’s more, it’s this kind of idea
that we hit some of these unexpected outcomes.
So for instance, the Western Arctic ice sheet
melts really, really quickly.
It doesn’t look like that can happen really, really quickly,
but let’s just say that this could happen
within 100 years or something.
So we basically get what, seven meters,
what is that, 20 feet of sea level rise.
That will be a real challenge
to a lot of places around the world.
This would have significant costs.
It’s likely, and there’s actually been a study
that’s tried to estimate, could we deal with that?
And the short answer is yes, if you’re fairly well off.
If you’re Holland, you can definitely deal with it.
It’s also likely that most developing countries
are gonna be much closer to Holland
towards the end of the century
because they’ll be much richer.
So they can probably handle it,
but it will be a real challenge.
May I ask a dumb question?
What happens when the sea level rises exactly?
What is the painful aspect of that?
It is that all of your current infrastructure
in a lot of coastal cities around the world
that are literally built on, Jakarta is a good example,
that are literally built on the just inches
above the sea level.
If you then get a sea level rise,
they’ll rise, say, what would, 20 feet?
That would be like a third or a fourth
of a foot every year kind of thing.
I see no evidence that that’s even.
But hold on a second.
We’re not talking about evidence.
We’re talking about worst case analysis and algorithm.
And so basically you would see your infrastructure,
all your stuff, very quickly being very, very challenged.
And you’d basically have to put up huge sea walls
or migrate out of that area.
Well, very quickly as in 50 years or something.
So like, is that, as a human species,
we’re not able to respond to that kind of threat?
Of course we are.
And look, again, the point here is,
then there’s a lot of other arguments.
And I should just put the disclaimer,
this is not what I think is correct,
but you’re asking me what’s the worst case outcome
that you have.
So most of global warming is really about
that we’re used to one way of doing things.
So, you know, we live in Jakarta
because it’s right next to the sea.
We’re used to the sea being at this level.
We grow our crops because we’re used to,
you know, you grow corn here, you grow wheat here
because we’re used to that’s where the precipitation
and the temperature is the right for this kind of crop.
If this changes, and this is the same thing
with houses, if it gets colder, if it gets warmer,
it’s suddenly uncomfortable
because you’ve built your house wrong.
So our infrastructure will be wrong if the world changes,
and that’s what climate change does.
At a large scale.
Yes, and so this is a problem in most of these sentences,
but if you then sort of take it to the extreme
and say, well, imagine that you’re gonna get
a huge sea level rise, imagine that you’re gonna get
a very different sort of precipitation,
for instance, the, what is it?
The rain season, monsoon in the Indian subcontinent
That could affect a lot of agriculture
and make it really hard to imagine
that you could feed India well.
There are these kinds of things where you can imagine
and then that this would be very difficult to deal with.
And then if you add all of it up,
you could possibly get sort of a system collapse
because, you know, you just have too many problems.
Is it possible to model those kinds of things?
What I understand is the sea level rise itself
isn’t the destructive thing.
It’s the fact that it creates migration patterns
and human tension, battle over resources,
and so you start to get these human things,
human conflict, so the big negative impact
won’t be necessarily from the fact
that you have to move your house.
It’s the fact that once you move your house,
that means something else down the line.
And this is secondary, tertiary effects
that can have potentially to wars, military conflict,
can have destabilized entire economies,
all that kind of stuff because of the migration pattern.
Is it possible to model those kinds of things?
So there are people who looked at this
and surprisingly, again, you know,
most people will move within their country
for a lot of different reasons,
but you know, mainly language and political structure.
You have your money, you have your relationships there.
So it’s not like we’re gonna see these big moves,
you know, from the Southern Mexico
and Central America up to the US
or from Africa up to the EU.
That’s not predominantly because of climate.
That’s because there’s a lot of, you know,
there’s a lot of welfare opportunity.
You can make your life much, much better.
You can become much more productive
if you move into a richer country.
So yes, there are these issues.
Again, you’re asking me for sort of
what is it that could really sort of break down the world?
I think the fundamental point is to recognize
that it’s not like we haven’t dealt
with huge challenges in the past
and we’ve dealt with them really well.
So just one fun thing,
I encourage everyone to just look that up on Wikipedia,
the rising of Chicago.
So in the 1850s,
Chicago was a terribly dirty place
and they didn’t have good sewers.
And so they decided,
and we can’t really make up our mind,
they decided to raise Chicago one to two feet.
And so they simply took one block at a time.
They put like 50,000 jacks underneath a building
and they would just raise the building
and then they’d go on to the next building.
They raised all of Chicago one to two feet.
This is, you know, almost 200 years ago.
Of course, we will be able to deal with these things.
I’m not saying it’ll be fun or that it’ll be cheap.
Of course, we would rather not have to deal with this.
But we’re a very inventive species.
And so it’s very unlikely that we’ll not be able to-
What about COVID pandemic just said, hold my beer.
The response of human civilization to the COVID pandemic
seems to have not, they didn’t find the car jacks.
Seems to have not been as effective
as I would have hoped for as a human
that believes in the basic competence of leadership
and all that kind of stuff.
It seems that given the COVID pandemic,
luckily did not turn out to be a pandemic
that would eradicate most of the human species,
which is something you always have to consider
and worry about, that I would have hoped
we would have less economic impact
and we would respond more effectively
and in terms of policy, in terms of socially,
medically, all that kind of stuff.
So if the COVID pandemic brought the world to its knees,
then what does a sea level rise?
I think there’s a different kind of thing
that happened in the COVID.
So politicians, a lot of politicians,
I think made certainly suboptimal decisions.
But I also find the fact that we actually managed
to get a vaccine in a year.
We should not be sort of unaware of the fact that,
yes, we did a lot of stupid stuff
and a lot of people were really, really annoyed,
but fundamentally, we fixed this.
We could have done it better and prettier.
I mean, I rode through the COVID pandemic
in Southern Sweden.
So, and yes, we can have that whole conversation.
It was certainly much easier to live there
than many other places.
But the fundamental point was, we actually fixed it.
So yes, we’ll do, and we’ll do that with climate.
We’ll make a lot of bad decisions
and we’ll waste a lot of money
like we do with all other problems.
But are we gonna fix this?
Can you add on to that uncomfortable discussion
of what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen?
I’m not worried about the sea level rise component.
Certainly not nearly as much as the heat
and disruption of agriculture patterns and water supplies.
And a lot of it relates to, again,
path dependency and history.
Farmers are the heroes of humanity all through history
because they’re incredibly adaptable
if you give them access to resources.
In some cases, it’s just crop insurance,
which is really basically still impossible
to get in big chunks of Africa
to get you through those hard spots.
But the heat issue is the one that’s most,
the most basic element related to global warming
from CO2 buildup is hotter heat waves.
There’s still some lack of evidence
of the intensification,
but the duration and that’s what really matters for heat
is how many days seems to be
very powerfully linked to global warming.
And so how many people die as a result of that is important.
So we’re talking about, maybe you can also educate me,
what’s the average projection for the next 100 years
of the temperature rise?
Is it two degrees Celsius?
Well, yeah, although this gets us into the modeling realm.
You’re assuming, you have to assume
different emissions possibilities.
You have to assume we still don’t know the basic physics,
like how many clouds form in a warming climate
and how that relates to limiting warming.
There are aspects of the fundamental warming question
that are still deeply uncertain.
But the debate is like two, three, or four Celsius.
It’s in that range.
But the thing is, all of those are bad for,
this is an educational question.
It doesn’t seem like that much from a weather perspective
if you just turn up the AC and so on
in your own personal home.
But it is, from a global perspective,
a huge impact on agriculture.
Well, yeah, and getting back to sea level and glaciers,
the melting point of ice is a number.
So if you pass that number, things start to change.
What became known about Antarctica and Greenland more
is that its ocean temperature,
the seawater in and around and under these ice sheets,
because it kind of gets under parts of Antarctica,
is what’s driving the dynamics
that could lead to more abrupt change
more than air temperature.
Glaciers, these big ice sheets live or die
based on how much snow falls
and how much ice leaves every year.
And I was up on the Greenland ice sheet in 2004
and written about it forever since then.
It’s the same amount of water that’s in the Gulf of Mexico
as if God or some great force came down
and flash flows the Gulf of Mexico
and plunked it up on land, that’s the ice sheet.
It’s a lot of water.
That’s 23 feet of sea level rise.
But you were not gonna melt it all.
And the pace at which that erosion begins
and becomes sort of a runaway train
is still not well understood.
That change from like a manageable level of sea level rise
from these ice sheets to something
that becomes truly unstoppable
or that has these discontinuities
where you get a lot more all of a sudden,
isn’t, to me, it’s in the realm of
what I’ve taken to calling known unknowables.
Like don’t count on another IPCC report,
magically including science,
that says, aha, now we know it’s gonna be five feet by 2100.
there’s a lot of negative learning in science.
This may be true in your body of science too.
There’s a guy named Jeremy Bassis, B-A-S-S-I-S,
who wrote a paper about the idea
that you could get this sudden cliff breakdown
of these ice shelves around Antarctica
leading to rapid sea level rise.
He did more modeling in physics
and it turns out that you end up with,
it’s a much more progressive and self-limiting phenomenon.
But those papers don’t get any attention in the media
because they’re not scary.
They’re not scary and they’re sort of after the fact.
Just this past year,
there’s been this cycle around collapse,
the word collapse, and Antarctic ice.
It started actually several years ago
with the idea that the West Antarctic ice sheet
is particularly vulnerable.
And some paper, everyone, the science community,
like the birds, we were talking about flux to it
and some high profile papers are written.
And then a deeper inquiry reveals,
you know, it’s more complicated than that.
And we, the journalists, the media,
pundits don’t pay attention to that stuff.
which is why I started to develop kind of a dictionary.
I call it watch words, like words to,
if you’re out there,
you’re, you know, you’re just a public,
you’re a person and you wanna know what’s really going on.
You hear these words like collapse in the context of ice.
What do you do with that?
And so I’ve created conversations around these words.
Geologists and ice scientists use the word collapse.
They’re talking about a centuries long process.
They’re not talking about the World Trade Center.
And scientists would do well to be more careful
with words like that.
Unless your focus is what we were saying earlier,
your idea that alarming people will spur them to act,
then you use that word carelessly.
Can I just follow up on the other point that you said,
you know, two, three, four degrees,
you know, that doesn’t sound like much.
I can just crank up the air conditioning.
I think that sort of touches
on a really, really important point
that for most rich people,
much of climate change
is not really gonna be all that impactful.
It still will have an impact,
but fundamentally, if you’re well off,
you can mitigate a lot of these impacts.
And there’s a young scientist at Carnegie Mellon,
She just was the lead author on a study
what poor and prosperous households do in a heat wave
when they have access to air conditioning.
In a poor household, you wait,
they found through science,
they delay turning on the air conditioner
four to seven degrees more of heating
before they start to use the air conditioner.
And that can create adverse outcomes.
If you have an asthmatic in the house, an old person,
you’re endangering their lives.
And that’s just a little, tiny, microscopic,
fractal example of this powerful, real phenomenon
that there’s a divide in vulnerability,
and it’s not just based on where you live.
This is families in like Pittsburgh.
No, we’re not talking about, you know, Botswana.
And so that divide in capacity
to deal with environmental stress
is something you can really work on.
And it gets hidden in all this talk of climate crisis.
And that’s one of the important parts is both to say,
look, if 7 billion people, sorry, 8 billion people
will now have all experienced this,
even though for each one of them, it’s manageable,
it’s still a big problem because it’s, you know,
8 billion people living through this.
And the second-
And how’s the air conditioning 8 billion people?
And then it’s the point of getting to realize
it’s very, very much about how do you help the world’s poor?
And that’s very much about making it more affordable,
basically getting them out of poverty.
And remember, getting out of poverty doesn’t just mean
that they can now afford to air condition themselves,
but they get better education,
they get better opportunities,
they get better lives in so many other ways.
And then at the end of it,
it’s not just about making sure
that we focus on this one problem,
but it’s recognizing that these families
and have lots of different issues that they would like us
to focus on climate and heat waves just being one of them.
So, you know, it’s sort of taking progressive steps back
and realizing, all right, okay, this is a problem,
not the end of the world.
And one tiny little last example,
you mentioned Jakarta at the beginning.
It’s really valuable to look around the world
at places that are sort of leading indicator places,
whether it’s sea level rise or heat.
And you could do that.
Jakarta is sinking like a foot a year,
literally a foot a year.
It’s some insane number,
from withdrawing groundwater,
from a gas withdrawal from, it’s a delta,
you know, it’s sediment, it’s built on sediment.
I wrote a piece ages ago,
the New York Times is calling it Delta Blues,
you know, all the musicians.
And in Jakarta, so what are they doing?
They’re moving, they’re moving the capital to another area.
And so that says to me,
there’s a lot of plasticity too.
It’s a city that’s going through this,
that rate of sea level,
of their relationship with the sea level through sinking
is way faster than what’s happening with global warming.
So look there, look to those kinds of places
and you can start to build.
Tokyo had the same thing in the 1930s.
They were also withdrawing lots of water way too fast.
And so, you know, one of the obvious things is
maybe you should just stop withdrawing water so fast.
And again, we seem to almost be intent on finding
the most politically correct way to fix a problem
or, you know, the thing that sort of gets the most clicks
instead of the thing that actually works the best.
So a lot of these things are really, you know,
not rocket science solutions.
Well, we’ll get there.
Let me add one more on top of the pile
of the worst case analysis.
So what people talk about,
which is hurricanes and earthquakes,
is there a connection that’s well understood
between climate change and the increased frequency
and intensity of hurricanes and earthquakes?
I’ve dug in on both a lot.
The earthquake connection to climate change
I’m not worried about compared to just the earthquake risk
that we live with in many parts of the world already.
The Himalayas, even with that earthquake in 2015
in Kathmandu, that whole range is overdue
for major earthquakes.
And what has happened in the last 50 years
since they last had big earthquakes, huge development,
big cities, a lot of informal construction,
like the stuff I wrote about in Istanbul,
where the family builds another layer and another,
they put a floor on every time someone gets married
and has kids, you put another floor in the house.
And unfortunately, that’s, you know,
what was the term, this Turkish engineer,
rubble in waiting.
Rubble in waiting.
It’s rubble in waiting.
And we’re looking at it, you know, I’m videotaping it
and there are people playing there.
So I don’t worry about the earthquake connection
to climate change.
The hurricanes I’ve written about for decades.
And the most illuminating body of science
that I’ve dug in on, literally, related to hurricanes
is this field that’s emerged.
It gets a tiny bit of money compared to climate modeling.
It’s called paleotempestology.
It’s like paleontology, you know.
They look for evidence of past hurricanes
along coasts that we care about.
And they dig down into the lagoons behind,
like the barrier beaches along Florida
or the Carolinas or in Puerto Rico.
And what you have is a history book of past hurricanes.
So there’s this mud, mud, mud, mud, mud, mud, mud,
you know, accumulating over centuries.
And then there’s a layer of sand and seashells.
And what that indicates is that there was a great storm
that came across the beach,
pushed a lot of sediment into the mud.
And then there’s mud, mud, mud, mud, mud, mud, mud.
And when you look at that work,
I first wrote about this in 2001 in the Times,
a long story.
And then I kept track of these intrepid scientists
putting these core tubes down.
It shows you that we’re in a landscape
where big, bad hurricanes are not, they’re the norm.
But something that’s rare and big
is something that’s extreme.
When you think about the word extreme, right,
it means it’s at the end of the spectrum of what’s possible.
Rare in human timescales.
Hurricane Michael, four years ago, devastated.
Category five came ashore in the panhandle of Florida,
leveled that much photographed town, Mexico Beach.
And people were, actually,
the Tallahassee National Weather Service
said unprecedented hurricane.
The damage was unprecedented
because there hadn’t been a community there before.
But the hurricane was not unprecedented at all.
If you look at the history,
and this is published research,
it’s just that no one bothers to,
we have this blind spot for the longer timescale
you need to examine if you’re thinking
about big, bad things that are rare.
And hurricanes are still rare.
I was recently covering Fort Myers, the awful devastation.
There’s a young climate scientist
at Florida Gulf Coast University, Joe Muller,
who’s done that paleotempestology work there,
right in Fort Myers.
She lives there, and she was away in London
at a meeting of reinsurance companies
that reinsure all the world’s big, bad risks
when this was happening.
But she has done the work that shows,
it’s a thousand-year record of past hurricanes,
and it’s super sobering
when you consider how fast people have moved into Florida
and built vulnerably in an area
that hurricanes will hammer.
That’s part of the fundamental dynamics
of the Gulf of Mexico,
and these storms come off of Africa.
It’s a place where they will come.
Now, the question of global warming impact is subtle.
There are aspects of hurricanes that haven’t changed.
There’s aspects like rainfall
that seem pretty powerfully linked to global warming.
A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture,
so when you have a big disturbance
like the heat engine of a hurricane comes through it,
you get more rain.
There’s rapid intensification.
You know how quickly these storms jump
from category one to five or four before they hit
is a new area of science.
So I think it’s still early days in knowing,
because no one was looking for that.
There were no data back 300 years ago
when these big, bad previous hurricanes came
to know whether they were rapidly intensified or not.
So as a journalist, I try to keep track
of what we don’t know, not to be too constrained,
and think about new science as being robust
unless it’s considering and actually actively stating
we don’t really know what’s going on with earlier hurricanes.
And all of that is swamped ultimately, literally,
by the vulnerability, building vulnerability in these areas.
If there’s a marginal change in a storm
and you’ve quadrupled or sextupled how much stuff
and how many people are in the way,
and if some of those people are poor and vulnerable
or elderly and can’t swim,
you’re creating a landscape of destruction.
So a lot of the human suffering that has to do with storms
is about where and how you build
versus the frequency and the intensity of storms.
Still, you didn’t quite answer the question.
When I’m having a beer with people at a bar
and they say, hey, why are you having a beer?
We’re all going to die because of climate change,
usually what they bring up,
and I’m just trying to add some levity here.
No, this is good.
Usually what they bring up is the hurricanes
and the most recent hurricane,
saying they’re getting crazy, hurricanes all the time,
they’re getting more intense, more frequent, and so on.
I’m sure there’s incredible science going on
trying to look at this.
Is there evidence, and is it possible to have evidence
that there’s a connection between
what we can call global warming
and the increased frequency and intensity of storms?
Okay, no, thank you.
Well, you added intensity.
Let me just get into this a tiny bit more.
I mean, hurricanes,
I grew up with them in Rhode Island in my youth,
and there was a very active period of hurricanes
in New England in the 50s and 60s, 70s,
and then in the North Atlantic generally
was very, very active in the 50s when I was a kid,
and the dynamics of them forming off of Africa
and coming here, circling up the coast
was just prime time.
Then there was like what Kerry Emanuel,
who’s the most experienced hurricane climate scientist
around at MIT, he’s in this story,
he’s in my 1988 article.
He and colleagues have found, and others,
that there’s what they call a hurricane drought
from like the 70s through about 1994 in the Atlantic,
specifically the Atlantic Basin,
and there’s been a lot of questions about that.
People thought it was ocean circulation,
something about the currents.
There’s these multi-decadal variabilities
in the oceans, right?
And then now it looks robustly,
I can’t find a climate scientist who disagrees
that the thing that caused the drought
was pollution, smog,
and significantly in Europe.
And you say, well, how does smog in Europe
relate to hurricanes crossing the Atlantic
and getting to the United States?
It’s because of the smog was changing
the behavior of the Sahara Desert,
which is just south of Europe.
And the Sahara Desert kills hurricanes.
Sand and dust coming off the Sahara,
you can see this every year.
When that’s active, it stifles these big storms.
At the point, right in their nursery,
they all form, there’s this area for hurricanes
off of West Africa, that’s like the nursery zone.
And so if you’re stifling those hurricanes
because of pollution in Europe
before the Clean Air Act’s cleanups,
and then that goes away,
none of that has anything to do with global warming.
It’s another kind of forcing in the climate system,
a local one that created a regional dynamic
that created a quiet period
when all these friends in the bar,
maybe they were born in the 90s or whatever,
they grew up in an area of like,
you know, hurricanes weren’t a big deal.
And now we have an end to that drought
because we cleaned up the air pollution,
the sooty kind of air pollution, sulfur-y.
And anyone who says global warming, global warming,
without saying, well, that’s in there too,
is kind of missing that.
And when you look globally,
still, I think, what is it, 90 or so hurricanes a year,
cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons globally.
That hasn’t changed.
The number of these tropical storms
that reach that ferocity has not changed.
It’s just a fundamental dynamic of,
and by the way, on the long-time scale,
the models still indicate as you warm the planet,
and remember, the Arctic warms quicker.
This is something people probably understand.
You’re actually evening out the imbalance
between the heat at the equator
and the cold in the northern part of the hemisphere,
and that calms the whole system down.
So there could be fewer hurricanes later in the century
because of global warming.
And for me, that’s a lot of information,
but if I’m in a bar, I start with, what do you care about?
You care about safety, you care about security,
you care about having everybody safe, not just you.
You get in your car and you can evacuate.
What about the old person or the poor family
who can’t do that, they’re not gonna leave their house?
What are we doing to limit vulnerability now?
I circle back to that over and over again.
I have a pocket card,
I have this graphic card I created about risk,
and what we really care about is climate risk.
Who’s at risk?
What’s driving the risk?
How do you reduce that?
It’s a card, you can almost pull it out in a bar.
I should print them.
You should do that.
It’s like, risk is the hazard.
Climate bar, Pat.
Risk is the hazard, the hazard is a storm.
Times exposure, how many people, how much stuff,
factoring in vulnerability or resilience.
And climate change is changing the hazard for some things,
not for tornadoes, not for everything.
Exposure is this expanding bullseye.
This is another hashtag, expanding bullseye.
Get out there and look for that,
and you’ll see I’m pushing these two geographers
to do this for every hazard.
Wildfire, earthquake, flood, coastal storm,
and we’re building an expanding bullseye in an area,
and nature’s throwing darts.
Some of the darts are getting bigger
because of global warming, some of the darts we don’t know.
What do you do?
What do you do?
Well, you get out of the way.
You don’t wanna be on the dartboard.
And it just simplifies the whole formula.
To me, it’s kind of a transformational potential
to go into a bar.
Maybe I should print these things.
And I should go drink it with you more often.
There should be coasters in bars.
Because that was fascinating about smog.
I mean, it’s nice to be reminded
about how complicated and fascinating the weather system is.
Let me try to answer the questions slightly quicker
before your friends have drunk too much.
Or not enough.
So if you look at the amount of the number of hurricanes,
as Andy rightly pointed out,
it doesn’t look like it’s changing.
So we see more because we have now much better
detection systems with satellites.
But if you look since 1980,
when we have good satellite coverage,
for instance, last year was the year
that had the lowest number of hurricanes in the world.
And you’re sort of like, that’s odd
because it’s probably the year
where I heard the most about hurricanes.
And what that tells you is that
just because you hear a lot about hurricanes
doesn’t actually mean that there is a lot of hurricanes.
You can’t just go that way.
If you remember in the 1990s and 2000s,
there was an enormous amount of talk about how violence,
how crime was getting worse in the US,
while all the objective indicators
showed that it was going down.
But there’s sufficient amount of violence
that you can fill every radio and TV show with a new crime.
And so if you get more and more TV shows
that talk about crime,
actually most people end up thinking that there’s more crime
while the real number is going down.
So the reality here is yes,
climate change will probably affect hurricanes
in the sense that they’ll be the same number
or slightly fewer as Andy was mentioning,
but they will likely be somewhat stronger.
This seems to be the best outcome.
We’re not sure, but this seems to be the outcome.
And it’s important to remember,
stronger is worse than fewer is better.
So overall, climate will make the world a little bit worse.
So that’s the sort of bottom line,
but, and that’s the real issue here,
all the other things,
the fact that people are much more vulnerable
is just vastly outweigh this.
Which is why, if you look at the impact of hurricanes
and impact of pretty much everything,
it is typically going down.
If you look, for instance, in percent of GDP,
you have to look at percent of GDP
because if you have twice as many houses,
obviously the same kind of impact will have twice the impact
or if they’re worth twice as much.
If you do that in percent of GDP,
and even the UN says that’s how you should measure it,
it’s going down.
Why is that?
It’s because we’re becoming more resilient.
Just simply, if you look at what happens
when hurricanes come in,
we have much better prediction in the long run.
That means you now know two or three days out
that there’s a big hurricane that’s likely to come here.
What does that mean?
All the things that can be moved.
So typically all buses, all trucks,
everything that’s not bolted down will leave this area.
And so you will get less damage from that.
You will have more people knowing,
oh, this is gonna be a big one.
They move to their relative somewhere else.
So you’ll have fewer people being vulnerable.
There’s a lot-
If people are responsive and aware.
Yeah, there’s a lot of way you can do this.
So the outcome,
and this is important for the whole conversation,
the outcome is that we’re actually becoming less vulnerable
and that damages are becoming smaller, not bigger.
But had there not been global warming,
it would probably have gone down even faster.
So we would have become even better off quicker
had there been no global warming.
But this is a crucial difference.
And this is what I find really hard to communicate.
Climate change is not this,
oh my God, everything is going off the charts
and we’re all gonna be doomed kind of thing.
Climate change is a thing that means
we’re gonna get better slightly slower.
And that’s a very, very different kind of attitude.
It’s one of the many problems
rather than this is the end of all of us.
And by the way,
if you look at what’s happening in the world,
the data also show that in rich places and poor places,
we still are moving into zones of hazard
faster than climate is changing.
Beth Tellman was at Columbia and she moved to Arizona.
She and colleagues at this outfit called Cloud to Street
did an amazing study showing,
this is a year or so ago I wrote about,
showing, again, we’re moving into zones of hazard,
which it applies to me,
just what Bjorn was saying,
that people wouldn’t be doing that
if they thought that was gonna lead to devastation.
And this is today.
We’re doing this now.
And it’s flood zones, wildfire zones.
So that means there’s these things to do.
There’s so much plasticity in human behavior
and how we build and where we build.
You can make a big, big change in the outcomes.
I mean, one of the things to remember is
people move to where hurricanes hit
because when they’re not there,
it’s a really beautiful place to be.
In many ways, we make the trade-offs and say,
look, I’m happy to have an ocean view
and then maybe a hurricane’s gonna hit.
And of course, it becomes a lot easier
than when the federal government
is actually subsidizing your risk
by saying we’ll insure you really cheaply.
And that’s one of the things that we should stop doing.
We should actually tell people,
look, if you wanna live where hurricanes hit,
maybe you should be more careful.
And by the way, what I was saying about past storms,
the paleotempestology, past fires, it’s the same thing.
We’ve suppressed fire in the United States for 100 years
through much of the West,
through wanting to save the forests,
the whole Smokey the Bear thing, don’t stop.
When these are landscapes that evolved to burn
and what happened in the last 100 years,
a lot of people love the West.
We love these environments.
We love to live with the trees.
The Boulder County area, the explosive development
in zones of implicit hazard leads to big bad outcomes
when conditions align
and climate change is worsening some of those conditions.
And sometimes it’s really counterintuitive.
A wet season builds more grass.
A dry season comes along, parches the grass.
Then comes a human ignition.
It’s almost always human ignitions.
And then you have this disaster
where a thousand homes burn in Boulder County.
And it’s like, there’s so many elements there
that can be worked on that give me confidence
that we can change these outcomes.
Natural disasters are not natural.
Disasters are designed, really, as some people say.
Can I take a quick aside and ask about terminology
of climate change and global warming?
Because we use it interchangeably.
It is an aside, but it’s one that’s worthy of taking.
Do those carry different meanings?
And has that meaning changed over the years?
Between those two terms, are they really equivalent?
Well, some people say there was this industry
or propagandistic shift from,
let’s see, what was it, which came first?
Oh, no, they’re going to climate change now.
Like, it’s a new thing, which is, it’s ridiculous.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988
wasn’t the Intergovernmental Panel on Global Warming.
It was on climate change.
So these terms have been there.
They’ve been sort of evolving.
When I wrote this cover story, it was the greenhouse effect.
And that’s fallen out of favor.
Greenhouse effect is not often talked about.
Well, it’s really, that’s the physical effect
that’s holding in the heat.
But see, there’s terms that mean stuff,
and there’s terms that are actually used in public discourse
to designate a whole umbrella of opinions you have.
And I guess as somebody, me,
who doesn’t pay attention to this carefully,
you have to use terms carefully.
Because people will, you know,
a noob that rolls into the topic will often use terms
to mean exactly what they mean, like literally.
But they actually have political implications,
all that kind of stuff.
So I guess I’m asking, is there like,
are you signaling something by using global warming
versus climate change?
Or people have calmed down in terms of the use of these?
No, no, well, the Guardian newspapers made it worse.
Now they have their style book.
You know, every newspaper has a,
they prescribe, they don’t want their reporters
to use any of those terms anymore.
They call it climate crisis, climate emergency.
It’s literally in their rule book.
Global heating, that sounds more intense.
And that was the point.
Well, I wrote about the global heating thing
more than a decade ago.
That’s been around.
So they’re doing the, what was the movie where the,
the comedy, the rock and roll comedy where he sets his,
To 11, yeah, yeah.
His amplifier goes to 11.
You know, the idea that you turn up the rhetorical volume
and that’s gonna change people is ridiculous.
So for me, I mean, I use global warming
and climate change interchangeably.
And I think it’s fair.
There’s some technical ways that you can differentiate them.
But the reality is that global warming
is probably a better way to describe a lot of it
because this is really what is the main driver
of what we worry about.
Climate change seems a little diffuse,
but you know, it’s convenient to,
when you talk about climate all the time,
that you can call both of them.
But I think the climate crisis and the climate catastrophe
is really sort of, this is the amping up of a catastrophe.
And again, as we’ve talked about before,
if it really were true, we should tell people.
But if it’s not true, and I think there’s a lot of reasons
why this is not a climate catastrophe, this is a problem,
we’re actually doing everyone a disservice
because we end up making people so worried
that they say, we got to fix this in 12 years
or whatever the number is.
And also that it makes it almost impossible
to have a conversation of, you know,
well, maybe we should be focusing on vulnerability first.
And a lot of people, and I think a lot of well-meaning
and well-intentioned people feel that it’s almost
sacrilegious to do, you know,
to say it’s about vulnerability
because you’re taking away the guilt of climate change.
You’re taking away our focus on dealing with climate change,
whereas I think we would say,
no, it’s about stuff that actually works
and, you know, doing that first.
Well, and by making it about carbon dioxide,
you’re implicitly making it about fossil fuels,
which implicitly gives you another great narrative,
good guy, bad guy.
It’s these big companies.
Where’s the source of alarmism?
So is it the IPCC,
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?
Like, there’s a chain here.
Is there somebody to blame along the chain
or is this some kind of weird complex system
where everybody encourages each other?
Can you point to one place?
Is it the media?
Is it the scientists?
I think the UN Climate Panel
is fundamentally a really good climate research group.
You can have some quibbles with the way
that they sort of summarize it
in politically coordinated documents and stuff.
But, you know, fundamentally,
I think they do a good job
of putting together all the research.
This also means it’s incredibly boring to read,
which is why virtually nobody does it.
I’m sure you have,
but I’m pretty sure a lot of climate journalists
have never sort of looked past
at least the summary for policymakers.
So the UN Climate Panel, they do predictions as well?
Well, they pull together all the stuff
that people have published in the period literature
and then try to summarize it and basically tell you,
so what’s up and down with climate change.
They do that in four large volumes
every four to five to six, seven years or something.
And yes, it’s, you know,
I think it’s the gold-plated version of what we know.
There tends to be a lot of,
well, this is what they say.
Actually, they say so many different places
with so many different people
that it’s not quite clear exactly what they’re saying often.
You know, you can sort of find contradictions
between one volume with one set of authors and another.
But yeah, look, I think this is fundamentally
the right way that we know about climate,
but then it gets translated into,
how do you know about this?
When most people don’t read these 4,000 pages,
you read a news story in a newspaper
and that news story will be very heavily slanted towards,
you know, if you say,
so sea levels could rise somewhere
between one and three foot, what do you hear?
Yeah, you obviously hear the three foot.
Three foot is just, you know, more fun, more scary,
more interesting than one foot.
And it’s that way with all of these, you know,
so what’s the prediction for temperature rises?
It’s somewhere from not very scary to pretty damn scary.
And again, you hear the pretty damn scary all the time.
And then there’s obviously always researchers
who are saying, well,
but actually it could be a little more scary than that.
And then there are likewise researchers who say,
well, it’s probably not gonna be as scary as that.
And most of the journalists will, you know, interview-
Do you really put the blame fundamentally on the journalist?
I put it on the media setup.
Look, media is simply trying to get clicks
or sell newspapers.
And if you were just gonna say, this is not a big issue,
it just doesn’t sell anything.
But I think you’re probably much better able to address this.
Well, no, folks can Google for my name, Revkin,
and the words front page thought
in the newsroom every afternoon.
Now we have a 24-7 news cycle, so it’s different.
But back in the day, the New York Times,
when it was a flourishing print institution,
every afternoon there was a front page meeting
and the big poobah editors would go in there
and the desk editors come in with their pitches for the day.
And my friend, Corey Dean,
who was the science editor for a chunk of my time,
you know, I remember having a conversation with her
about some new study of, I think it was Greenland,
the ice sheet, and I laid it out for her.
And she said, where’s the front page thought in that?
So we’re all set up to look for the, that.
And the news environment has gotten so much worse
than 10 or 20 years ago.
At least you had filters and limited number of outlets
and there was some sense you could track what’s good or bad.
There’s lots of problems with that system too.
But now you have an information buffet.
So if you wanna be alarmed
or you wanna be, stay in the tribe
of those who think this is utter bull,
you can find your flow.
And that has led,
but getting back to this specific question,
the 2018 IPCC report, which was a special report
commissioned to learn about the difference
between 1.5 degrees of warming and two,
which sounds so weird and technocratic and complicated.
That’s the one that generated the whole meme
about eight years left.
And that’s the one.
This was the idea that there’s a point we’re gonna,
if we don’t cut emissions in half by whatever it was,
2050, we’re doomed.
That emerged from that specific report.
And it wasn’t something that was in the report.
It was in the spin around the report.
And that’s what captivated Greta appropriately
as a young person going,
and with her unique vantage point and stuff.
And that report, I still need to dig in
and write something deeper about
what happened with that particular dynamics,
created this recent burst of we’re doomed rhetoric
that I think you’re focusing on.
And it’s all in the external interpretations,
which journalism laps up
because we’re looking for the front page thought.
But it’s not just the journalists.
It’s the whole system, NGOs, environmental groups.
If you’re, in developing country,
well-meaning leaders in developing countries,
because of the structure of this treaty
that goes back to 1992,
that’s the Paris Agreement is part of,
they’re now really looking for a way
to portray this as a CO2 problem, not a vulnerability.
Well, there’s a vulnerability aspect,
but like in Pakistan, their climate minister,
which they didn’t even have a climate minister
five years ago,
is blaming everything that happened in Pakistan
on carbon dioxide, warming the climate,
creating this, when a lot of what was going on
was also on the ground.
And you can blame colonialism, Pakistan’s history,
all kinds of things.
But under the treaty, you want it to be about CO2
because that puts the onus on rich countries.
You’re not paying us.
Where’s our money?
And they’re right.
In the context of what everyone agreed to,
there was supposed to be $100 billion a year
from rich countries to poor countries.
Starting in 2020, it didn’t happen.
It’s like, basically, some money is flowing,
but it’s not really people.
Made up money.
Yeah, and so that whole dynamic,
they latch onto the climate science and they,
so they’re there, and they’re very handy, quotable people.
And you have a justice angle.
You have bad guys and good guys,
which fits all of these narrative threads
that come together into this information storm
we’re still living with.
And then, of course, it’s not Pakistan’s fault either.
I mean, it also actually, almost all leaders now
say it’s because of climate, because then it’s not,
we didn’t do anything wrong.
In Germany, for instance, when we had that flood last year,
it’s not impossible that climate had a part in that,
but it’s very, very clear that the main reason
why so many people died in Germany and Belgium
was because the alarm systems didn’t work.
And this was plainly the local leaders in Germany.
Now, if I’m stuck here and basically have caused
the death of 200 people, would I rather say,
yeah, that’s on me, or would I say climate?
And it’s just such an easy scapegoat.
I don’t want to place it all on the journalists, I think,
because there’s a lot of, if I were to think about,
what did you call it, front-page thought,
there’s a lot of really narratives
that result in destruction of the human species,
a nuclear war, pandemics, all that kind of stuff.
It seems like climate is a sticky one.
So the fact that it’s sticky means
there’s other interests at play,
like you guys are talking about,
in terms of politics, all that kind of stuff.
So it’s not just the journalists.
I feel like journalists will try anything
for the front page, but it won’t stick
unless there is bigger interests at play
for which these narratives are useful.
So journalists will just throw stuff out there
and see if it gets clicks.
And it’s like a first spark, maybe.
It’s maybe a tiny catalyst of the initial steps,
but it has to be picked up by the politicians,
by interest groups, and all that kind of stuff.
Let me ask you, Bjorn, about the first part of the subtitle.
How climate change panic costs us trillions.
How does climate change panic cost us trillions?
So we’re basically deciding to make policies
that’ll have fairly little impact,
even in 50 or 100 years,
that literally cost trillions of dollars.
So I’ll give you two examples.
So the European Union is trying to go to net zero.
So our attempt to go halfway there by 2030
will cost about a trillion dollars a year.
And yet the net impact will be almost unmeasurable
by the end of the century.
Why is that?
That’s because the EU and the rich countries
is a fairly small part of the emissions
that are gonna come out in the 21st century.
Now, we used to be a big part of it,
that’s mainly because nobody else,
it was just the US and Europe and a few others
that put out CO2 in the 20th century.
So we used to be big, but in the 21st century,
we’ll be a small bit player.
And so we’re basically spending a lot of money,
and remember, a trillion dollars is a lot of money
that could have been spent on a lot of things
that could have made humanity better,
on something that will only make us tiny bit better.
Now, it will do some good,
but the reasonable estimates is
if you do a cost benefit analysis,
and again, technically it’s really, really complicated,
but the basic idea is very, very simple.
You just simply say, what are all the costs on one side
and what are all the benefits?
So the costs are mainly that we have to live
with more expensive energy,
you have to forego some opportunities,
you have to have more complicated services,
that kind of thing.
The benefit is that you cut carbon emissions
and that eventually means that you’ll have
less climate damage,
you’ll have lower temperature rises and so on.
If you try to weigh up all of those,
it’s reasonable to assume that the EU policies
will deliver for every dollar you spend,
it’ll deliver less than a dollar,
probably about 30 cents back on the dollar,
which is a really bad way to spend dollars
because there’s lots of other things out in the world
where you could do multiple.
So for instance, if you think about tuberculosis
or education of small kids or nutrition for small kids
and those kinds of things,
every dollar you spend will do like 30 to $100 worth of good.
So there are much, much better places
where you could spend this money.
Likewise, the US is thinking of going net zero by 2050.
It’s not actually gonna happen,
but it’s sort of a thing that everybody talks about,
Biden is talking a lot about it.
If you look at the models that indicate
how much will that cost,
it’s not implausible that this will cost
somewhere between two and $4 trillion per year
by mid century.
And remember, if the US went carbon neutral today,
by the end of the century,
that would reduce temperatures
by about 0.3 degree Fahrenheit.
So you would just be able to measure it.
It probably wouldn’t in real life,
but you’d just be able to measure it.
Again, this is not saying
that there’s not some good coming out of it,
but you’re basically spending an enormous amount of money
on fairly small benefits.
That’s my main point.
Yeah, this reminds me of what we were saying earlier
about the things that models don’t integrate
and the things that cost benefit leave out
because you really can’t go there.
One of the issues facing the world right now
is the reality that we’re reminded of
that energy availability is a geopolitical destabilizer.
If you have uneven access to energy
and you have Vladimir Putin coming into office
or something else happening that disrupts that system,
you’re vastly increasing poverty.
This is playing out across the world.
Fertilizer prices, fertilizer comes from gas, natural gas.
If you can envision a world later in the century
where we’re no longer beholden on this material
in the ground, at least fossil fuels,
cobalt and lithium for batteries, that’s pretty cool
because you’re taking away geopolitical instability.
And you don’t, but that’s not factored in, right?
That’s like way outside of what you’d factor in.
But it does feel like to me,
if I was gonna make the case for,
you can choose your trillions,
whatever that investing big isn’t for these marginal things.
It’s for looking at the big picture,
a world of abundant energy that doesn’t come
from a black rock or a gooey liquid
that when you burn it creates.
But isn’t that what the proposals are?
Is investing in different kinds of energy,
So what is-
But I don’t think most people are making that case.
What’s in the trillion in the T costs?
What are the big costs there?
So the big cost is that you have
slightly lower productivity gains.
So basically again, and this is sort of the opposite
of what we just talked about by climate change.
We’re gonna get richer and richer in the world.
This is all models, also the UN.
This is really the only way that you can get
big climate changes because everybody gets a lot richer.
So also the developing world gets a lot richer.
So we’re likely to get richer.
But one of the things that drive wealth production
is the fact that we have ample
and cheap and available energy.
If you make that slightly harder,
which is what you do with climate legislation
because you’re basically telling people
you have to use a source of energy
that you’d rather not have used.
Because if people wanted to do it,
we’d already have solved the problem.
So you basically tell them you gotta use this wind turbine
instead of this natural gas plant or that kind of thing.
It’s not that you suddenly become poor or anything.
It simply makes production slightly harder.
What do you do when the wind is not blowing kind of thing?
And of course we have lots of ways
to somewhat mitigate that.
But it’s a little more costly, a little more complicated,
a little less convenient.
And that means you grow a little less.
That’s the main problem with these policies
that it simply makes you somewhat less well-off.
So energy becomes more inefficient.
So let me challenge you here.
Try to steel man some critics.
So you have critics.
I would love you to take it seriously
and sort of consider this criticism
and try to steel man their case.
There’s a bunch.
I could mention this list of criticisms
from Bob Ward in London School of Economics.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with him.
But just on this point,
in terms of one of the big costs being an energy,
he criticizes your recent book in saying,
you consider the 143 billion in annual support
for renewable energy,
but ignore the 300 billion in fossil fuel subsidies.
So a lot of the criticism has to do with,
well, you’re cherry-picking the models,
which the models are always cherry-picking anyway.
But you wanna take those seriously.
So he claims that you ignore,
you’re not fully modeling the costs,
the trade-off here,
how expensive is the renewable energy
and how expensive is the fossil fuel.
Can you steel man his case?
So two things.
The first, the quote,
it’s absolutely true that the world spends
a large chunk of money on fossil fuels,
and that’s just stupid,
and we should stop doing it.
We should also recognize that this is not rich countries.
This is not the countries
where we’re talking about climate change.
This is poor countries.
This is Saudi Arabia.
No, that’s actually not a terribly poor country.
It’s China, it’s Indonesia, it’s Russia.
It’s places where you’re basically paying off
your population, just like that you subsidize bread,
you make sure that they don’t rebel
by making cheap fuels available.
That’s dumb, but it’s not like they don’t know
what they’re doing.
They’re mostly doing this for things
that have nothing to do with climate.
So I totally agree we should get rid of it.
It’s hard to do.
Indonesia’s actually somewhat managed to get rid of it.
if you spend a lot of money on fossil fuel subsidies,
you’re basically subsidizing the rich
because poor people don’t have a car.
It’s the rich people who can now buy very cheap gasoline.
That’s unjust as well.
So it’s dumb in so many different ways.
I would never argue that you shouldn’t do it.
I’ve plenty of times said we should stop that.
But we should also recognize these are mostly regimes
that are not going to be taken over
either by my argument or Bob Ward’s or anyone else’s.
They’re doing this for totally different reasons.
Now, on the model side,
there is virtually no model that don’t show,
economic model that don’t show this has a cost.
And that’s the fundamental point is that the,
this is sort of a basic point from economics.
The system is already working most effectively
because if it wasn’t,
you could actually make money changing over.
So if you want to have a change
outside of what the system is already doing,
it’s because you’re saying you have to do something
that you’d rather not want to do,
namely use an energy source that is less convenient
or less cost effective and so on.
And that will incur a cost.
Now there’s huge discussion about just exactly
how much cost is that.
So there’s definitely a cost.
Is the cost going to be one or 5 trillion?
That’s absolutely a discussion about
where do you take your models from?
I try to do, and again, this is not possible everywhere.
I try to actually take the average
of all of the economic models.
So there’s a group called
the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum,
which tries to pull together all these different groups
that do the modeling.
So some models, a lot of this cost actually comes down to
the fact that we don’t quite know
how much more fossil fuels you’re going to need
in the future.
And so if your projections are
you’re not going to use that much,
the cost of reducing it is going to be very small.
If you think you’re going to use a ton of extra fossil fuels
and you have to reduce that,
the cost is going to be bigger.
So I think-
That’s just one of the variables.
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
And there’s many, many, many more.
I think the point here is to say
that if you take the average of all the best models
sort of aggregated, for instance,
at the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum,
you’re pretty secure ground.
And so again, I would argue that Bob Ward,
yes, I’ve had a lot of run-ins with Bob Ward
and he has a very different set of views on things,
but I just don’t think he’s right
in saying that I’m cherry picking.
And I mean, he also has similar criticism
about the estimate of the EU cost of climate action
based on the NOP 2013 model.
But ultimately these criticisms have to do is like,
what are the sources for the different models?
And just very briefly,
I mean, I’m laying it out very transparently
where I get these estimates from in the book.
I’ve really tried to document this.
And yes, I mean, look,
there’s nobody who sort of has all the information
and gets everything right in all of these areas.
I think most of Bob Ward’s argument
is not a good faith effort
to sort of improve on these estimates.
He’s right in saying some of these estimates,
we only have a few estimates.
And yeah, I’d like to have more of them.
One thing I should mention
is that there is very little interest in general
and there’s very little funding
in finding out how much do our climate policies cost?
Because that’s just inconvenient to everyone
in the whole game.
Who wants to know that, for instance,
would you want to fund something that says
that the Inflation Reduction Act
is not gonna be very effective?
Of course you don’t want to do that, right?
So again, it’s a little bit the flock of birds
will look at something else.
And what I think is that given that we’re paying for it,
and this is public money,
we’re deciding we’re gonna spend money here
rather than there,
let’s at least look at what are the best estimates out there.
I would love to have more estimates.
More estimates is always better.
And just a quick comment on the good faith part.
Me as a consumer looking for truth,
it’s hard to find who’s good faith and not.
So it’s not only are you looking
for sort of accurate information,
you’re also trying to infer
about the communicator of that information.
And it’s very difficult.
You put me on the podcast,
of course I’m gonna say I’m a trustworthy guy.
Well, I mean, and we believe we’re trustworthy too,
but I’ve been reading for various reasons,
but mostly because I’ve been traveling to Ukraine
and thinking just about the people suffering through war.
I’ve been reading a lot about World War II
and Stalin and Hitler.
And from the perspective of Hitler,
he really believed he’s doing good for the world.
And he was communicating from his perspective in good faith.
He started to believe, I think early on,
his own propaganda.
So even your understanding and perception
of the world completely shifted.
So it’s very, very, very difficult
to understand who to trust.
And just because it’s a consensus in a particular community
doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a source of trust.
So it’s a, I mean, basically,
I don’t know how to operate in this world,
except to have a humility
and constantly questioning your assumptions.
But not so much that you’re completely out in the ocean,
not knowing what is true and not.
So it’s this weird, weird world,
because I ultimately, bigger than climate,
my hope is to have institutions that can be trusted.
And that’s been very much under attack
as part of the climate debate,
as part of the COVID debate,
as part of all of these discussions.
And science, to me, is one of the sources of truth.
And the fact that that’s under question now
is something that hurts me on many levels, deeply.
You said something earlier,
I took a note down here,
and I can’t find it, about cooperation.
It was like collaborative cooperation
or something like that?
To me, there was a point, like in 2013,
after just dealing with all,
everything you’ve been grappling with,
what, if you don’t,
if you know you don’t know how this is gonna work out,
what do you work on?
And one morning, I made a list of words
that kind of summarized, basically, system properties
that give you confidence in a system, trust or,
and there, transparency is one,
just as you were saying earlier.
Connectivity is another, so that everyone’s connected.
So, on the subsidy issue, for example,
there are young entrepreneurs in Nairobi
who are selling, ingeniously,
using Nairobi’s digital currency, propane,
the fuel that’s in our backyard barbecue grills,
which comes out of gas wells, but it’s a separate fuel,
in little increments that poor people
can use instead of charcoal.
And LPG subsidies are helping them
get people off of charcoal,
which is a horrific trade from the source
through the warlords in Somalia and elsewhere
who are getting the money to the pollution in houses.
So, having, being sure when we’re having these big debates
about who the World Bank is gonna give loans to,
and drawing a simple line, no more fossil fuel subsidies,
hurts a really good, valuable,
small-scale, but scalable way to have people
not die from cooking smoke in their houses
and take down forests.
But that only is considered if they’re in the conversation.
So, connectivity, full connectivity, digital access.
So, those entrepreneurs are in the mix of people.
When you’re thinking about subsidies,
you’re not just thinking about Big Bad Exxon,
you’re thinking about this little company in Nairobi,
Pago LPG, I think is the name, in India, the same thing.
So, you can list those properties of systems.
And the IPCC wasn’t originally transparent
when I started writing about it in 1988 and 1990.
And now it’s way more transparent.
They have more public review.
So, it’s even better than it was.
It’s like a really good example of a science process
of assessing the science,
providing periodic output to the world,
and iteratively improving the model going forward
because of critique, because of scrutiny,
and finding better ways for that to interface with people
so they have information they can use from that big thing.
And the media are not doing a good job
because of this front-page thotism.
But we can all, I work partially in academia, Columbia,
on an initiative partially in communication innovation.
Like, how can we have an open landscape
of access to information that matters?
What can you do to foster better conversations
so that words like collapse
aren’t just thrown around like emblems?
And so, system properties give you confidence, I think.
And then you don’t have to be flailing around
for Bjorn or Tom Friedman or Catherine Hayhoe.
You can always, right now, find your character to follow.
But I think what would be better
is if you actually develop some skills
to just have a basic ability
to know how to cut to the chase.
Can I just follow up on that?
Because one of the things that I try to do,
and so my day job is actually something else I work with,
I think called the Copenhagen Consensus,
where we work with more than 300 of the world’s
top economists, and we work with
seven Nobel laureates in economics.
And the point there is really to talk about
where can you spend a dollar
and do the most good for the world?
That’s basically the thing that we try to do.
And as you rightly point out,
look, there are lots of different estimates
of what can you do, for instance, on climate?
What can you do on tuberculosis?
What can you do for vulnerability
in all kinds of different ways?
And if these were all sort of,
well, you can spend a dollar here and do 2.36,
but you can spend a dollar here and do 2.34 over here,
I would worry a lot.
But that’s not how the world works,
because we’re terribly inefficient.
So there are literally lots and lots
of amazing things you can do out there.
There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit.
And there’s a lot of not terribly great things
that you can do.
And unfortunately, one of the things
I try to sort of battle is that,
we get a lot of things right,
that’s why the world is a lot better
than what it used to be.
But the things that are sort of left over
are often the boring things
that happen to be incredibly effective
and the exciting things
that are often not that terribly effective.
And so I think one way to look at this
is basically to have people do cost-benefit
across a wide range of areas.
And we try to get a lot of different economists
to do this, and they come up with different numbers
and different models and different results.
But if you sort of consistently get
that some things give you in tens
or maybe even hundreds of dollars back per dollar,
remember, this is not actually you getting rich,
it’s the world getting rich,
that the world gets better worth $100
for every dollar you spend.
And over here, you can spend a dollar
and do somewhere between 30 cents
and maybe a couple of dollars.
You should probably be focused
on the other opportunity first.
And that’s really the point
that I try to make with climate.
There are some smart things we can do
and I hope we get to talk about them in climate.
But there’s also a lot of sort of the standard approaches
to fixing climate,
turns out to be very likely below $1 back in dollar
and certainly not terribly high.
Even if you’re very optimistic,
it’ll be like two or three,
whereas many other things
are just fantastically better investment.
Like the thing I’ve been advocating,
a modest proposal to eat the children
of the poor in England.
Was that in Jonathan Swift’s modest proposal
from a few centuries ago?
So it’s not just cost benefit,
it’s also in the context of what is moral
and all that, the full complexity of it.
You just hit on something really important.
Having been on this beat for so long,
and again, on the disaster beat as well, earthquakes.
I can’t tell you how many disaster science experts
keep telling me, like everyone says preparedness,
invest for preparedness.
A strict cost benefit analysis
will always tell you a dollar invested in resilience
before community gets hit by whatever is worth 10,
you’ll always have to spend 10 after.
And so it’s fine to do the cost benefit stuff,
but it’s just the baseline.
Then you have to look at the social science,
which shows, or history,
which shows you how few times we do it.
It’s like we just don’t do it.
Therefore, you can bang that drum.
Your work is valuable, but it’s really constrained.
Because show me in the world where that does happen,
and then how you turn that success,
which is basically something not happening,
into the story.
Just very briefly, we try to,
so we do this for a lot of countries.
So we did it for Haiti, for instance,
funded by the Canadian Development Ministry,
because they were basically saying,
we spent a billion dollars in Haiti since the earthquake,
and we really can’t tell the difference.
So they wanted to find,
I mean, they actually say that, right?
And so they said, we wanna find out
what are the really smart things you can do in Haiti.
And so we, together with lots of people in Haiti,
and all the business community,
and the political community, and the religious community,
and labor community, and everybody else,
what are the smart things to do?
And then we had economists evaluate it.
And there are a lot of these things that everybody wanted
that were not all that smart.
There’s actually a lot of smart things.
And yes, the politicians didn’t pick most of them.
So our sense is, we try to give people,
you’re thinking about these 70 things,
you should actually just think about these 20 things.
And then we consider ourselves incredibly lucky
if they actually do one of them.
So you wrote the book,
How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place.
So can we just list some of the things?
If you got $75 billion, how do you spend them?
All right, so there’s some incredibly good
and very, very well-documented things
that you could spend money on.
So we have two big infectious diseases
that almost nobody think about,
because we only think about COVID.
But tuberculosis used to be
the world’s biggest infectious disease killer.
It still kills about 1.5 million people every year.
The reason why we don’t really worry about it
is because we fixed it 100 years ago.
We know how to fix it.
It’s just basically getting medication to people.
It’s also about getting them to take it
when they’re sort of been cured,
because you need to take it for four to six months,
and that’s actually hard to do.
So you also need to incentivize that in some kind of way.
It turns out it’s incredibly cheap
to basically save almost all of the 1.5 million people.
These are people that die in the prime of their lives.
They’re typically parents,
so it would also have a lot of knock-on effects.
And basically, we find for a couple billion dollars,
you could save the vast number of these.
Not all of them, but you could save the vast number of them.
It would also improve outcomes in all kinds of other ways.
Likewise with malaria.
It has somewhat better PR.
It’s funny to think of malaria as PR and tuberculosis.
They need to improve their PR department.
Well, but yeah.
Those mosquitoes are the good PR.
By far the biggest infectious disease
that got good PR, if you will, was HIV, right?
And I’m not trying to compare it and say,
oh, it’s worse or better to have HIV
than tuberculosis or anything,
but I’m simply saying we are underfunding
because it doesn’t really get the public attention.
We just, yeah, we don’t really care.
But spending money on that has,
in terms of benefit, a much bigger impact.
So every dollar you spend on TB
will probably do about $43 worth of good.
So it’ll do an amazing amount of good,
basically because it’ll save lives,
it’ll make sure parents stay with their kids
and be more productive in their communities,
and it’ll have a lot of knock-on effects.
And it’s incredibly cheap to do.
Same thing with malaria.
It’s mostly mosquito nets that we need to get out.
And you’re saying, just to contrast with climate change,
the dollar you spend on, no, not climate change,
but decreasing emissions does not have,
does not come close to the $43 benefit?
No, nobody would ever argue that.
So very, very enthusiastic climate advocates
would probably say it’ll do $2 or $3 worth of good
for every dollar.
So, you know, it’s still worthwhile to do.
That’s what they would say.
I would argue, and I think a lot of the evidence
seems to side that way,
that a lot of the things that we’re doing
deliver actually less than a dollar back.
But it’s certainly not nearly the same kind of place.
But there’s many, many other things.
And, you know, just, if you’ll allow me.
Yes, please, I love this.
But yeah, there are lots of other things,
for instance, e-procurement.
So, you know, it’s incredibly boring.
So most developing countries,
well, actually most governments,
spend most of their money on procurement.
It’s typically incredibly corrupt.
So we did this project for Bangladesh, where-
Can you explain procurement?
Yes, so that’s governments buying stuff.
So a large part of the government revenue
is spent on buying anything from, you know,
post-it notes to roads.
And obviously, you know, roads are much,
much more expensive.
It’s mostly infrastructure stuff.
For instance, in Bangladesh,
it would already have been decided
among the ruling elite in that local area,
who’s going to get this.
So they’ll have this bidding competition
where you have to hand in an envelope,
a sealed envelope with your bid on it.
But you put a goon outside the office.
So you literally physically can’t get in
with your bid.
Now, what we found, and this is, you know,
I’m not claiming any sort of ownership to this.
A lot of smart people have done this way before.
We’re just simply proving that it’s a good idea.
It turns out that if you put this on eBay, essentially,
so if you do an e-procurement system
where bidders can come in,
suddenly it becomes harder to put up the goon.
You can still do it, but it’s harder to do it.
It also means you get bids from all over Bangladesh.
And in general, you’ll get bids from all over.
Actually, it turns out you get better quality.
But most important is you get it much cheaper.
So basically you can simply save money.
So we did a scaled experiment in Bangladesh
where we had about 4% go to be e-procurement
and you could compare what it would have cost
and then what it did cost.
And the average reduction was, as I remember, it’s 7%.
And the finance minister loved it, you know,
because that basically gives him a lot more money
or, you know, you can buy more stuff at the same cost.
No, it is corruption.
So it’s basically you get rid of some corruption.
There’ll still be corruption, but less corruption.
Ukraine has actually been big on this.
Yeah, I’ve talked to them.
I talked to the digital transformation minister.
It’s kind of incredible.
I mean, this is before the war, but still working.
It’s like the entirety of the government is in an app.
And that one of the big effects
is the reduction of corruption.
And not like from a, as politicians say,
to say we’ve reduced,
we’ve taken these actions through this.
No, literally it’s just much more difficult to be corrupt.
The incentives aren’t quite there
and there’s friction for corruption.
Yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah.
So basically you can spend a little bit of money
and you can make a huge benefit.
There’s still about 70 countries
that haven’t gone e-procurement.
So obviously they should do that.
Food for small kids, another thing.
So, you know, basically, you know,
it’s morally wrong that people are starving,
but it also turns out
that it’s a really, really dumb thing
not to get kids good food.
Because if you get them good food,
their brains develop more
so that when they get into school, they learn more.
And so when they come out in adult lives,
they’re much more productive.
So we can actually make every kid in,
especially in developing countries,
much more productive by making sure they get good food.
So getting good food is not cost-free.
So it probably costs about $100,
both in, you need some directed advertisement,
you need to make sure
that you actually get some of the food out there,
that you help the families,
and you also make sure you don’t just give it to everyone
because then it becomes a lot more expensive.
If you do that right, it costs about $100 per kid, but.
Per kid, or what do you do?
For two years, so it’s for their first two years of life.
And if you do that, you then get a benefit
in that they become smarter and go longer to school
and they actually learn more
and become more productive of $4,500.
Remember, this is far out into the future.
So this is discounted, the benefit is actually much higher.
And this is one of the things
that we also have a conversation about in climate change
because all, and when you talk about climate change,
cost and benefits, all the costs are now
and all the benefits are in the future,
but it’s just like that in education.
You know, all the costs are now,
all the benefits are far out into the future.
And if you try to do that right,
and that’s a whole other conversation we could have,
then it turns out that for every dollar spent,
you do $45 worth of good.
Again, remember about a third of all kids
that go to school right now
just don’t learn pretty much anything.
And if we could make them more productive
in the school system, we have another proposal
on how to do that in the school system.
But you know, by just simply making sure
that they’re smarter when they get into school.
We’ve been focusing so much
on making the education system better,
which is really hard,
but it’s actually really easy to make the kids smarter.
Then when you say the education system is not working well,
that’s, we’re talking about not the American education
system, we’re talking about globally.
Yes, we’re talking about globally.
You know, so about a third of the teachers
in developing countries have a hard time passing the tests
of the things they have to teach their students, right?
And, you know, all these students have lots of other issues.
You know, there’s, they need to do farm work.
They need, yeah, they’re constantly considering,
should I just go out and start working instead?
You know, there’s constant disruption.
There’s a lot of teachers that don’t show up in India.
You know, you have this absurd situation
where all the teachers are basically paid
and hired for eternity for the rest of their lives.
And so not surprisingly, a lot of them decide not to show up.
So now they’ve hired assistant teachers
that basically have taken over.
So they’re paying for, I think it’s 7 million teachers
that I’m not saying they’re all not working,
but a lot of them are not working as much as they should.
And we now hired another 7 million teachers
that will eventually stop working as well.
They’re working much better right now
because they’re not on permanent contracts,
but eventually they’ll get on permanent contracts
and then you have the same problem again.
There’s lots of these issues.
And, you know, it’s just simply about saying
we can’t fix all problems,
but there are some problems
that are incredibly easy to solve.
And there are some that are incredibly hard to solve.
Why don’t we start with solving the easy and effective ones?
And this of course bears on that whole conversation
on climate change, because in some ways,
you know, that’s also Andy’s point of saying,
look, if you want to save people
from the impacts of hurricanes,
let’s fix this simple, easy things
about vulnerability first.
Whereas we have somehow latched onto this,
let’s fix the hardest thing to do,
which is to get everyone to stop using fossil fuels,
which is basically what’s driven
the last 200 years of development.
That’s going to be, that’s a tall order,
no matter how you look at it.
There’s some really cool elements
that you guys just brought up.
When you mentioned that word moral before,
I wasn’t, I latched onto it because it relates
to these timescales that really are immeasurable.
If you know it’s going to take decades
to confirm the benefit of some investment now,
that implies you’re doing the investment
with some moral imperative,
not because you can do a spreadsheet
and come up with a number.
And that process, letting go of the need
for kind of a mechanistic cost-benefit approach,
thinking about kids’ education in poor countries,
or several things we talked about,
seems to be really important,
and it’s very hard for all of us to do.
Philanthropists suck at it.
I worked at National Geographic Society for a year
building some new programs
when they got a big infusion of money.
They have a whole department that’s called M&E.
It’s measurement and evaluation,
which is if you don’t prove it, it goes away.
I mentioned Spotify earlier,
Spotify killing a climate podcast
because that podcast didn’t measure out
for their impact, you know, what they want to do.
And if we’re always making the judgments
based on strict cost-benefit,
we’re gonna miss larger realities.
Another thing is, a really exciting example
of what you were talking about
in terms of in Ukraine with the trust
and less corruption and stuff was in India.
For all of his issues, Modi recognized
that middle-class people in India cook on LPG, propane,
or on piped gas, natural gas if they’re in cities.
Much cleaner, much healthier in so many ways.
And actually, compared to chopping down trees
and cooking on wood, it’s actually better for the climate
even though it’s a fossil fuel.
So he and others, there was an American scientist,
Kirk Smith, who worked this all out.
If you find a way, they were getting a subsidy.
They had that energy subsidy.
You were talking about many poor countries
subsidize energy just to stay in office, you know,
to make something cheap that everyone wants.
But they wanted to shift the subsidy
away from the middle class to the poor people
who are cooking on firewood and dying young from pneumonia.
And the critical factor was India’s digital currency.
India went to a digital economy.
Very poor families there now, if you have a phone,
you basically, that’s your bank.
And you could make the case to the public
that we’re gonna be starting to shift your LPG,
your propane subsidy to poor people.
But we know they’re poor.
We know they’re not just gonna be using it
behind their restaurant, which was, you know,
when it was a general subsidy, people were hoarding the LPG.
And the system has worked.
They’ve shifted a lot of capacity to cook
on a clean blue flame that turns off and on
in homes that previously, where the woman
would spend hours collecting firewood,
smoky fire, cooking, clean the pots,
and start all over again.
But it’s all built on trust, built on the digital economy,
and the same thing in Nairobi.
So that excites me every day, you know,
with all the doomism.
I just hope people can literally take a breath,
look for these examples that show the potential
when you have a trustworthy system,
when you have a clear path to making lives better,
and then knowing, you know, that kid having electric light
as opposed to a kerosene lamp.
We don’t know how much that’s gonna improve his homework
and lead to a better outcome.
But we know from history that sometimes it does.
Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary General.
So the most powerful story I ever heard
from a UN Secretary General was like 2012
when they were rolling out this Sustainable Energy
for All initiative, which is not just climate.
It was just like getting people energy
they need to survive and thrive.
He was growing up in post-war Korea.
Everyone was poor.
Everything was broken, destroyed.
Sadly, like so much of many parts of Ukraine.
And he would do his homework by kerosene lamp.
He said when he was studying for his finals,
his mom would give him a candle.
This was a brighter flame, you know, better grades maybe.
And he became Secretary General.
It’s a hell of a story.
So which, for climate change,
which policies work, which don’t?
Which are, when we look at this formula of $1 in, $45 out,
for climate change, what dollar in,
what policies for dollar in and dollar out are good
and which are not?
So we actually did a whole project back in 2009
when the whole world circus was coming to Copenhagen
and we were gonna save the world there.
We brought together about 50 climate economists
and three Nobel laureates to look at
where can you spend a dollar
and do the most good for climate?
And what they found was a lot of these things
as we’ve been talking about before,
that basically investing in the current sort of technology
that we’re trying very hard
is at best a pretty dicey outcome.
Much of it’s probably less than a dollar back in the dollar.
There’s some investments on adaptation, for instance,
that’s pretty good,
but it’s, you know, sort of two, $3 back in the dollar.
Oh, what is adaptation?
The obvious thing is that you build a dike
for a sea level rise or that you make people,
you get some apps that people know
that there’s a hurricane coming or that, you know,
so you can adapt to-
Adapting infrastructure, right?
The physical and the digital infrastructure.
The point is that people are really good
at doing this already
because they have a strong incentive to do it.
So the extra thing that governments can do outside
is somewhat good, but it’s not amazing or anything.
What we found by far the best investment in the long run
was on investment in energy innovation.
So, and I think this also sort of corresponds
with what we would think in general.
If we could innovate, so, you know, for instance,
Bill Gates is arguing
we should have fourth generation nuclear.
So the next, more advanced than what we currently have
in third generation nuclear,
which would be a industrial scale process.
You’d just be building these, you know,
modular nuclear power plants.
They would be, instead of being these artwork
that we design once for every different plant,
which is one of the reasons why they’re so expensive,
they would just be mass produced and you’d have one,
you know, they all be recognized in one go.
So it’d be much cheaper.
They would also be passively safe.
So if all the power goes,
they’ll shut down rather than go boom.
So that’s another very good thing.
And then they’ll also be very hard to transform
into nuclear weapons.
So you can actually imagine them being out
in a lot of different places
where we’d perhaps be a little worried
about having, you know, plutonium lying around.
Now, this is all still being worked out,
but imagine if that actually comes out.
And again, remember the other three generations,
we were also told that it’ll be incredibly safe
and it’ll be incredibly cheap.
And it didn’t turn out that way.
So let’s wait, but it could be.
And so the argument is invest in these ideas,
for instance, fourth generation nuclear.
And if fourth generation nuclear becomes cheaper
than fossil fuels, we’re done.
Everyone will just switch,
not just rich, well-meaning Americans or Europeans,
but also the Chinese, the Indians, everybody in Africa,
the rest is Indian subcontinent.
That’s how you fix these issues, right?
So the idea here is to say,
instead of thinking that we can sort of push people
to do stuff they really don’t want to do,
which is basically saying, let’s use more
of the, you know, the solar and wind
that you would otherwise have invested in,
force people to buy an electric car
by giving huge subsidies,
because otherwise they’re clearly not all that interested
in buying it and so on,
then get the innovation such that they become cheaper
than fossil fuels and everyone will switch.
This is how we’ve solved problems in the past,
if you think, in Los Angeles in the 1950s
was hugely polluted place, mostly because of cars.
The sort of standard climate approach today
would be to tell everyone in Los Angeles,
I’m sorry, could you just walk instead?
And of course that just doesn’t work.
That doesn’t pay off.
You never get, you know, politician voted in office
or at least staying in office
if you make that kind of policy.
What did solve the problem was the innovation
of the catalytic converter.
You basically get those little gizmo
and it cost a couple of hundred dollars
and you put it on your tailpipe
and then you can drive around basically almost not pollute.
And that’s how you fix the air pollution in Los Angeles.
Basically, we’ve solved all problems in humanity,
all big, difficult problems with innovation.
We haven’t solved it by telling everyone,
I’m sorry, could you be a little less comfortable
and a little more cold and a little poor
and believing that that can go on for decades.
And while it possibly works in some pockets of the US
and I think actually in large parts of Europe,
at least it used to, the war in Ukraine
is definitely sort of changing that whole perspective.
But yeah, there’s a willingness to say,
we’re gonna, you know, suffer a little
but then we’ll fix this problem.
But the point is we’re gonna be willing to suffer a little
and so fix a tiny bit of the climate problem
instead of actually focusing on innovation.
So what we found was if you spend a dollar on innovation,
you will probably avoid about $11 of climate damage
in the long run, which is a great investment.
And the terrible thing is we have not been doing this.
So because everybody’s focused on saying,
we need the solution within the next 12 years,
it means you’re not thinking about the innovation.
We’re actually spending less money,
not more money on innovation globally.
So everyone’s focusing on reducing carbon emission
versus innovating on alternate energy.
You’re basically focusing on putting
the existing solar panels or wind turbines,
which are either just about inefficient or inefficient,
instead of making the next generation
or it’s more likely the 10th generation after that,
that comes with lots of battery backup power
or fourth generation nuclear,
or Craig Venter has this great idea.
Craig Venter, the guy who cracked
the human genome back in 2000,
he has this idea of growing algae out on the ocean surface.
These algae, they’d be genetically modified
and they would basically soak up sunlight
and CO2 and produce oil.
Then we could basically just grow our own Saudi Arabia
out on the ocean surface and we’d harvest it.
We’d keep our entire fossil fuel economy,
but it’d not be net zero
because we’d just soaked up the CO2 out there.
One dollar invested in the portfolio of different ideas.
Gives $11 back.
I first wrote about that in the New York Times.
It was one of my actual page one stories.
In 2006, it was declining R&D in energy
at a time of global warming.
The baseline is so low for this that it’s a super bargain.
There was, during the energy crisis,
the first energy crisis in the 70s before the current one,
our annual spending in the United States
and constant dollars on R&D,
research and development for energy,
was about $5 billion.
Then it’s just dribbled away since then.
Recently now, there’s a big burst of new money
coming through these new bills that got passed.
But what I was told over and over again
by people in that arena
is you can’t just have these little bubbles of investment.
You don’t get young people
away from thinking about Wall Street for jobs
towards thinking about energy innovation
if there isn’t a future there.
In the United States and Europe,
the presumption was the way to that future
was taxing carbon.
You’d make that so punitive
that you’re basically evening the landscape
for cleaner stuff that’s more expensive.
That has failed completely.
There are little examples in Europe where it’s working.
And what’s happened now is,
well, the United States, this big chunk of money,
is designed to take us over a finish line
that was started with not just innovation,
but with the production efficiency too.
This is one thing I got wrong, I think,
a little bit in my reporting.
I was so fixated on the innovation part,
just because I love science too.
I saw this untapped possibility
that others were saying, no, no, production efficiency,
the more people are producing batteries,
the cheaper they’ll get.
This is Elon Musk’s path and many others.
And it really is both.
So when you were talking about purchasing power
for governments, for example,
that can stimulate production capacity for batteries
or whatever the good thing is and take you down faster.
And it’s all about getting that margin
of the new thing out competing the old.
And it’s not just innovation.
It has so many parts of the pipeline
that need to be nurtured.
So, and the other thing is relative cost.
The United States, when I was writing about this in 2006,
our budget for DARPA,
the Advanced Research Project Agency
for the Defense Department,
just for science, was 80 billion a year,
for health, for medical frontier research
on cancer and stuff, 40 billion.
Energy was two or three.
So we weren’t taking this remotely seriously.
So now if we get that up,
to me there’s like this level,
you know we’re taking something seriously
when it’s like in the tens of billions for R&D.
It’s not that R&D will solve the problem,
but it’s a proxy for what we really care about.
We care a shitload about defense.
What’s the defense budget in the United States now?
Like 800 billion?
It’s some insane number.
Who’s counting when you’re having fun?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
And so innovation is not just like for the better,
you know, camera, the better solar panel,
the better battery.
Social innovation actually matters hugely.
Like the guy in Nairobi I mentioned
with a company doing micropayment gas
to get people off charcoal.
We need that as much as this.
And I actually, I interviewed Bill Gates.
We had to spend an hour with him in Seattle in 2016
when he was rolling out his breakthrough energy thing.
I got to spend, it was 45 minutes,
me and Bill Gates, which was pretty fun.
But I brought this up.
I said, you know, because he’s all about
the new nuclear thing that will solve the world’s problems.
And I, yes, yes, yes, but we also.
Oh, he brought up nuclear?
Sorry to interrupt.
Oh, he did, oh sure, yeah.
So he’s interested in one of the.
Oh, he’s investing heavily in nuclear,
but he invests in everything.
You know, he’s got a big portfolio.
But I brought up a guy I met in India
who runs a little outfit called Selco
that they do really interesting, cool village to village.
They’re like an energy analyst
who’ll come to your house here in the States
and tell you how to weatherize your house,
but they do it at the village scale.
And in a village that has, where they’re milling wheat,
he’ll put in a solar-powered wheat mill.
And you know, that’s not gonna solve the world’s problems,
but it gives them a way to control their energy.
They don’t have to buy something to grind their wheat.
And that needs just as much attention
as the things I really like too, the cool technologies.
And I thought I cornered Bill Gates.
I was like,
because he really does focus on these big wins,
the big, you know, like nuclear,
that will make net zero completely doable.
And I said, well, you know, what about nuclear?
Like New York City, where I was still living at the time,
and I said, it’s got a million buildings.
New York City has one million buildings.
And in 2013, the Bloomberg government analyzed,
they said, looking ahead to 2050,
75% of the buildings in New York City
that will exist in 2050 already exist.
Think about these brave new futures, right?
Like we’re just gonna like come in,
have these shiny, cool passive house cities.
And so I put this to Bill and I said,
so how do you do that?
How do you retrofit all those boilers,
many of which were coal-fired like 20 years ago,
to get a zero energy New York City?
And I kind of thought I had him.
And then he immediately, he kind of sat back and went,
well, but if you have unlimited clean power
coming into that city, that doesn’t really matter.
It’s a pretty good Bill Gates impression.
It was a good answer.
I mean, it was a good answer.
He said, oh yeah, it’s a leaky bucket,
but you know, pour in zero carbon energy,
then it doesn’t matter.
But I still think we have to figure out
the other part too, that end,
how do you innovate at the household level,
at the village level?
It’s much more of a distributed problem, we used to think.
The one big change I’ve had in my own thinking too
is from top down to distributed.
Everything about the climate problem
through the first three decades of my reporting
was that the IPCC will come out a new report,
the framework convention, the treaty will get us on board,
we’ll all behave better.
It has this like top down, you know,
parent to child architecture.
And everything I’ve learned has gone the other way.
It’s distributed capacity for improved lives.
You know, kids getting through school,
women not having to spend three hours collecting firewood.
And if it means propane for that household
in that context, that’s a good thing.
So stop with all your yammering
about ending all fossil fuel subsidies.
And you know, what’s an America look like
that has some climate safe energy future?
Find your part in that.
Don’t get disempowered by the scale of it.
There’s like a thousand things to do
when you start to cut it into pieces.
So it’s very different, it’s not a top down thing.
You know, no one’s gonna magically come in and.
And that’s where I think,
so I agree that everyone should try to play their part
and do, you know, whatever they can.
But I also think, you know, just the sheer incentives,
you know, what we saw happening with shale gas
is a great example.
When shale gas becomes so cheap
that you just stop using coal,
that then you don’t really have to convince,
you know, lots and lots of people,
you know, coal is really bad.
And it wasn’t label a climate.
No, it wasn’t a climate thing, it was an energy thing.
It was totally, and the point is just, you know,
the power of an innovation
is that you almost don’t see it anymore.
It just happens.
And I think that’s really the only way
we’re gonna fix, you know, these big problems.
If you think about, you know,
the nutrition problem back in the 60s, 70s,
you know, we worried a lot about India and other places.
A solution is not worrying,
or the solution was not, you know,
us eating a little bit less
and sending it down to India or wherever.
The solution was the green revolution, right?
It was the fact that some scientists made
ways to make every seed produce three times as much.
So you could grow three times as much food on an acre.
And, you know, that’s what basically made it possible
for India to go from a basket case
to the world’s leading rice exporter.
And that’s how you do these things.
You know, you solve these big problems through innovation.
And again, I’m not saying that, you know,
we’re actually arguing our carbon tax
is a smart thing to do.
You know, that’s what any economist would tell you to do.
But it also turns out that it’s partly,
it’s not gonna solve most of the problem,
and it’s incredibly politically hard to do.
So it may also just be the wrong sort of tree to bark up.
Again, if you can do it, please do.
But this is not the main thing that’s gonna solve climate.
The main thing is that we get these innovations
that basically make green energy so cheap
everyone will just want.
We mentioned nuclear quite a few times.
You know, there was a, for a long time,
it seems to have shifted recently.
Maybe you can clarify and educate me on this.
But for the longest time, people thought that nuclear
is almost unclean energy, or dangerous energy,
or all that kind of stuff.
When did that shift?
What was the source of that alarmism?
And maybe is that a case study of how alarmism
can turn into a productive, constructive policy?
Oh, productive from whose standpoint?
Is it not, is it not?
Well, no, I was trying to,
do you mean productive in terms of yay, we banned it,
or productive for those who want-
Oh, I see, I see what you mean, yes.
I meant productive for human civilization.
No, the alarmism over nuclear power
dominated any alarmism over global warming.
This in the United States, Three Mile Island,
then you had Chernobyl there.
And the traditional environmental movement
won’t, still won’t go there.
They still, the big groups, NRDC, EDF,
that whole alphabet soup of the big greens,
are reluctant to put forward the nuclear option
because they know a lot of their aging donors
basically grew up in the thinking about nuclear
as the problem, not the solution.
I lived for the last 30 years.
I moved to Maine recently,
but I lived in the Hudson Valley,
10 miles from the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant,
which was built in the 60s, 70s, and had some problems.
None of them were to the point of a meltdown
or the threat of it,
even the theoretical possibility of one.
I’ve been in, I was in it twice as a reporter,
looking down in the cooling pool.
I can send you a fun video of bubbles
in the cooling pool with the rods.
And progressively they demonstrated
how to handle waste in the United States.
Now the waste is, because we haven’t figured out
how to move it across state lines,
it’s glassified, it’s put into kind of containers
that sit there at the plant.
We just simply don’t have a long-term solution.
The Nevada politicians were successful
in saying, not here, not Yucca Mountain.
But my wife, who I’ve been married to,
well, I met 30 years ago, and she lives with me.
She’s an environmental educator.
She was very happy when Cuomo shut it down,
said we’re gonna shut it down three or four years ago,
which just happened a year, it actually is shut down now.
It’s being mothballed.
And I was like, that sucks.
But she’s happy.
Yeah, and we still love each other.
And she’s an environmentalist,
so that just speaks to a lot of environmentalists
who still see nuclear as bad.
Oh, totally, oh yeah.
You know, and you bring in the weapons proliferation issues.
But it’s a safety thing, it’s a generational thing.
I think young people are different, I hope.
These small modular reactor designs,
several of which, there’s a couple of PhDs from MIT
who did transatomic power.
They’re both in their early 30s.
We need so much more of them.
And just briefly, the one thing I say about nuclear
is like with so many of these things, like subsidies,
don’t talk to me about yes, no nuclear.
Talk to me about what do you want to do
with existing nuclear power plants?
And what do you want to do
about the possibility of new ones?
Let’s parse this out in chunks
that we can have constructive conversations about.
The idea of no nuclear drives me crazy,
just like no fossil fuel subsidies is silly
in the world we inhabit
that has these pockets of no energy.
So that’s just my sustain what mantras.
Start with some, divide and conquer.
To conquer the dispute over by saying,
let’s at least get real.
This power plant has been in the Hudson Valley for 30 years.
It was the baseload, it was baseload.
Baseload is a real thing.
And guess what has filled the gap
since that power plant has turned off?
Natural gas, natural gas.
And you don’t hear that from the environmental community
that was so eager to turn off the Indian Point.
I think both the point of saying,
the people are saying it’s the end of the world,
but no, I don’t want a nuclear power plant.
It just doesn’t make sense.
And Andy’s absolutely right to talk about,
so existing nuclear power plants,
we already paid for them.
We already have them.
We already committed to decommissioning them eventually.
While they’re running,
they’re pretty much the cheapest power
you can possibly have on the planet
because it costs almost nothing to run them day to day.
So it’s basically cheap or almost free CO2 baseload power.
There’s just nothing there that you should embrace.
Now, new nuclear power plants
turn out to be very expensive currently.
So the one they built in Finland,
some in the UK and France and several other places
turn out to be incredibly expensive.
So they’re much more expensive
than the costliest renewables you can imagine.
So they’re actually not a solution right now.
And that’s why we need the innovation.
That’s why we need the potentially
fourth generation nuclear power.
It’s just simply, it’s a bad deal.
And that’s why nuclear is never gonna win
on its third generation.
Now it may never get there.
But it’s certainly a possibility
and we should be looking into it.
And there are wonky realities that need to be dealt with.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States,
their approval process is still locked and designed
on this 50 year old model of big giant power plants.
There’s an intense discussion right now
about evolving a new regulatory scheme
for small modular ones
because of all these implicit advantages they offer.
And that, so it, along with the innovation,
you need to have this get out of the way
or you’re never gonna have the investment.
So it really is an all of the above thing.
Looking at these as systems problems,
systems solutions is really important.
Let me ask you about Alex Epstein.
So he wrote, I’m not sure if you’re familiar who he is,
but he wrote a couple of books.
It’s just interesting to ask a question about fossil fuels
because we’re talking about reality.
And he’s somebody that doesn’t just talk
about the reality of fossil fuels,
but he wrote a book,
A Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and Fossil Future,
where he makes the case that, as his subtitle says,
global human flourishing requires oil, coal, and natural gas
or more oil, coal, and natural gas, not less.
What do you think about the argument he makes?
So he pushes, we’ve had this kind of,
speaking of the center of this balanced discussion
of the reality of fossil fuels,
but also investing a lot into renewable energy
and then having the $1 to $11 return.
He says, I’m not sure exactly how to frame it,
but investing and maintaining investment of fossil fuels
also has a positive return
because of how efficient the energy is.
I’ve read the first book.
Yeah, I haven’t read, I’ve got his second one.
I’ve been planning to have him on my webcast,
my tiny webcast.
What’s the name of the webcast?
Everything I do is sustain what?
Because it’s like, don’t talk to me about sustainability.
Then we’re talking, you know?
Interrogatory approach to things.
So I think the valuable part of what he has done
is to remind people, particularly in the West or North
or whatever, the developed world,
that everything we take for granted,
low fertilizer, from low fertilizer prices
to air conditioning to everything else
exists because we had this bounty
that we dug out of the ground or pumped out of the ground.
It’s a boon.
It’s been an amazing boon to society, period.
So start there, which means going forward,
what we’re talking about is a substitution
or having your fossil fuels and eating it too,
meaning getting rid of the carbon dioxide.
If you focus on the carbon dioxide,
which is the thing warming the planet,
not the burning of the fuels,
then that’s another way forward
that could sustain fossil fuels.
As far as I can tell from at least the first book,
he makes the moral case that fossil fuels
are essentially a good overall.
I don’t think he adequately accounts for the need
to stop global warming.
I think that we have to slow.
Slowing global warming is a fundamental need
in this century we’re in.
And that’s just not factored into his math.
Well, I think that’s where,
I’ve had a few sort of offline conversation with him.
I think he said, because I mentioned
I’m talking to the two of you,
he said that that’s probably where he disagrees
about sort of the level of threat
that global warming causes.
Well, Steve Koonin is another one.
He’s a brilliant guy.
He lived right close to me in the Hudson Valley.
He was in the Obama administration energy department.
He wrote a bestseller that came out recently
on skepticism about climate.
And there are other smart people who somehow feel
we can literally adapt our way forward
without any constraint on the gases changing the climate.
And I’ve spent enough time on this.
I think I’m a pretty level-headed reporter
when it comes to this issue.
And I think having some sense that we can adapt our way
into the world we’re building
through relentless climate change with no new normal,
remember, more gas accumulating in the air every year.
These are not static moments.
That that’s a good thing to do doesn’t strike me as smart.
I’ll probably say that I think it’s more sort of a,
at least the thing that I take away from Alex
is the fact, as you point out,
that we need to recognize that fossil fuels
is basically the backbone of our society today.
We get 80% of our energy from fossil fuels today.
Still, as we did 50 years ago, 40 years ago.
Yeah, and people have no sense of this, right?
So they have the idea,
because you see so many wind turbines and solar panels
and everybody’s talking about it,
that this is huge, big things.
But the reality is, remember,
only about a fifth of all energy use is electricity.
The rest is in processes and heating,
industrial processes, and so on.
So actually, solar and wind right now
produces 1% of energy from wind and 0.8% from solar.
This is not a huge thing.
It’s a fairly tiny bit.
And growing explosively, but from this-
Yes, it’s absolutely growing.
But actually, it’s growing slower
than what nuclear was growing in the 70s and 80s,
which I thought was a fun point,
not by a little amount, by like two or three times.
So we’re still talking about something
which is somewhat boutique, at least.
And when you then look out into the future,
and I think this is the interesting part of it,
when you look out into the future,
if you look at the Biden administration’s own estimate
of what will happen by 2050,
we will be at, if all countries do all the stuff
that they promised and everything,
we will be at 70% fossil fuels by 2050, globally.
This is just, yes, it’s a better world.
I think it’s good that we’re now down to 70
instead of 80, but it is still a world
that’s fundamentally dependent on fossil fuels
for almost everything that we really like about the world.
And forgetting that, and I think we are doing that
in the sense, as you also mentioned,
that people say, no fossil fuels.
And we’re, in all development organizations,
we’re now telling the poor countries,
you can’t get any funding for anything
that has to do with fossil fuels.
We have literally reduced our investment
in oil and gas by more than half since 2014.
And much of this is because of climate concerns.
This has real world consequences.
This is why energy prices have gone up.
It’s not the only reason, COVID also,
certainly the war in Ukraine,
but this is an underlying systemic reason
why fossil fuel costs will go up dramatically.
Now, a lot of greens will sort of tend to say,
well, that’s great because we want fossil fuels
to be expensive.
We want people to be forced over to renewables,
but that’s very easy to say if you’re rich.
It’s the kind of thing that New Yorkers will say
when you go to rich, well-meaning, green New Yorkers
and say, yes, gasoline should cost $20 a gallon.
Well, you don’t have a car, you just ride the Metro.
It’s very easy for you to say that,
but lots of people, both in the rich world,
but in poor parts of the US, but all around the world,
their lives are basically dependent on fossil fuels.
And so the idea that we’re gonna get people off
by making it so expensive
that it becomes impossible for them to live good lives
is almost morally reprehensible.
And I think Alex has the right point there.
We need to get people to realize
we’re not gonna get off fossil fuels anytime soon.
So we need reasonably affordable fossil fuels
for most of the world.
And that’s, of course, why we need to focus so much more
on the innovation so that we can get to the point
where we no longer need fossil fuels as soon as possible.
But to say to everyone,
look, we’re gonna make fossil fuels expensive
way before we have the solution is just terrible.
And so much is on the rich countries of the world.
I did a conversation recently with Johan Rockström,
who’s a famed sustainability scientist in Stockholm.
Actually, Potsdam now.
And he’s come up with the idea of planetary boundaries.
There’s lots of things he has said that I,
as a journalist, I’m still looking into about that.
Yeah, that there are limits to what Earth can absorb
in human, our use of water, phosphorus,
or carbon dioxide loading in the atmosphere.
There are these tipping, there are these boundaries.
If we cross them, we’re in a hot zone, a danger zone.
He’s an interesting thinker.
But on this point, last year at the Glasgow Climate Talks,
he gave a very important talk about the equity thing here,
that you, he basically laid out a landscape
saying the rich nations of the world
need to greatly ramp up their reduction of emissions
or what they’re gonna pay poor countries to do
to allow poor countries,
some of which have fossil resources, like in Africa,
to have the carbon space,
to own whatever space or time is left
to be able to develop their fossil fuels
as a fundamental right.
Because also, they’re starting from this little baseline.
Ghana hasn’t contributed squat
to the global warming problem in terms of emissions.
Ghana has natural gas.
And right now, this month,
environmental groups are outside the World Bank today,
actually tonight, saying this was on their list
of dirty projects.
World Bank should stop financing Ghana’s right
to get gas out of the ground,
to develop its economy, get its people less poor,
make them more productive, innovative parts of humanity.
To me, that’s really reprehensible.
One of the other projects on their list
as a World Bank kind of gotcha,
like how dare they give money,
was for a fertilizer factory in Bangladesh
that is designed to get three times as much fertilizer
from the same amount of natural gas
as the old plants that are now dormant.
This is in a time when we’re facing high energy prices,
high gas prices, high food prices,
when food insecurity is spreading rapidly,
when a country like Bangladesh has millions of rice farmers
who need urea tablets to put in their rice fields.
And to say how dare they finance that
because there’s a fossil fuel involved is immoral.
So yes, on that point from Alex.
So this is 2022 poll, polls.
Just this is a bunch of different ways
to look at the same basic effect.
In the United States, Democrats, younger Americans
identify dealing with climate change as a top priority.
US adults, 42% say that dealing with climate change
should be a top priority.
11% of Republicans, 65% of Democrats.
And we could see this effect throughout.
46% of Americans say human activity
contributes a great deal to climate change.
By the way, this is a little bit different
than what we were discussing.
I was just looking through different polls.
In the public, there seems to still be uncertainty
about how much humans contribute to climate change
more than the scientific assessment.
It would only be 24% that disagree
with the UN Climate Panel, right?
Three quarters would agree.
Are you uncomfortable about the 29?
No, 29 is actually, it’s exactly right.
I mean, the UN doesn’t say it’s all.
Well, they say that could be the border case.
But anyway, this is interesting.
But to me, across all these polls,
if you look Republican versus Democrat,
Republican, say that 17% say it’s a great deal.
Democrats say 71% say it’s a great deal.
And you just see this complete division.
I think you probably, with the COVID pandemic,
you can ask a lot of questions like this.
Do masks work?
Are they an effective method
to slow transmission of a pandemic?
You’ll probably have the same kind of polls
about Republicans and Democrats.
And while the effectiveness of masks,
to me, is a scientific question.
But, so there’s different truths here, apparently.
One is a scientific truth.
One is a truth held by the scientific community,
which seems to be also different
than the scientific truth sometimes.
And the other is the public perception
that’s polluted or affected by political affiliation.
And then there’s whatever is the narrative
that’s communicated by the media.
They will also have a question,
answer to the question of whether masks work or not.
And they will also have an answer
to the question about all these climate-related things.
So that’s a long way of asking the question
of how is politics mixed into all of this?
On the communication front,
on the figuring out what the right policy is front,
on the friction of humanity
in the face of the right policies.
Well, I’ve written a ton on this.
After I had that conversion about the social science,
when 2006, I began digging in a lot more
on how people hold beliefs and what they do
as opposed to what they think,
and questions about polling.
And there’s two things that come to me
that make me not worry about the basic literacy,
like is climate change X percent of whatever?
I don’t really care about that.
And I’ll explain why.
For one thing, more science literacy,
more basic literacy, like what is a greenhouse gas,
all that stuff.
Dan Kahane, K-A-H-A-N, at Yale.
He’s actually at Yale Law School.
The last decade, he did all this work
on what he calls cultural cognition,
which is, and he did studies that showed
how what you believe emerges based on culture,
based on your background, your red, blue,
or where you are in the country.
And one of the really disturbing findings
was that the people who have the most basic science literacy
like who know the most about greenhouse effect or whatever,
they’re at both ends of the spectrum of views on climate,
dismissives and alarmed.
Steve Koonin, as I mentioned, is a good example.
He’s a brilliant physicist, and he knows all the science,
and he’s completely at the end of skepticism.
Will Happer, who was close to being Trump’s science advisor,
was even more out there, and he’s on,
they’re both on the Jason Committee
that advises the government on big strategic things.
And people who are really alarmed about it
also have the same belief.
So as a journalist, I was thinking,
do I just spend my time writing more explanatory stories
that explain the science better?
Do I dig in on this work to understand
what brings people together?
And then these same surveys, the same science shows you,
if you don’t make it about climate, among other things,
this becomes, you don’t have to worry about this anymore.
If you Google for no red-blue divide climate, Revkin,
you’ll find a piece I did with some really good graphs.
Essentially, it shows that in America,
this is the Yale group again,
their climate communication group.
There’s no red-blue divide on energy innovation, none.
We need more climate energy, clean energy innovation.
There wasn’t even a divide, country by, state by state,
on whether CO2 should be regulated as a pollutant.
But it’s all like, what are the questions you ask?
If you ask about innovation,
if you ask about more incentives for renewable power.
Oklahoma, Iowa, you know,
I did a piece when I was at ProPublica
showing that the 17 states that were fighting Obama
in court over his clean power plan,
were actually, the majority of them
were actually meeting the targets
that the clean power plan had
because they’re expanding wind power already.
Not because of the climate,
because it makes money sense and energy sense.
So you don’t think there’s a political divide in this?
There is on climate, if you call it climate.
If you say it’s a climate,
do you believe in the climate crisis?
You’re not asking,
what kind of energy future do you want in your town?
And so if you ask that question,
the polarization goes away.
I guess what I’m asking, is there polarization on policy?
No, well there, again,
the bipartisan infrastructure law
that was passed last November, that was bipartisan.
All of Congress said yes.
And that’s a trillion dollars,
several hundred billion of which
are for cleaner energy and resilience.
Yeah, but that’s.
And that, but it’s not a climate bill.
And it wasn’t a tax.
So the word climate and similar words
are just used as part of the signaling, like masks.
As Dan Kahan’s work, the guy at Yale,
he really demonstrated powerfully
abortion, gun rights, climate.
And a more parsed level of nuclear power
has enduring camps that for and against.
Why do the camps form?
Some of it’s cultural cognition.
It’s how you grew up.
It’s what you fear.
There’s no common human frame for.
Is it because of like folks,
like certain individuals like Al Gore?
Like he would make a film.
He cares about this thing.
He’s a Democrat.
Therefore I hate this thing.
Therefore I don’t like this thing, yeah.
Oh sure, yeah.
You know, when people get attached to an issue,
if that’s what pops into your head,
when you hear climate, then.
And it got politicized.
It became emblematic.
And the whole vaccine thing.
I mean, I’m not American,
so I should stay a little bit out of this,
but I think it seems to me that a lot of the thing
that people believe and talk about
is really about what they worry that that will lead to
in terms of policy down the line.
So a little bit like, do masks work?
I’m sort of imagining, I don’t know whether this is true,
but I think part of it is if I say masks work,
they’re gonna force me to wear it for the next year.
So it doesn’t work because then I don’t have to wear it
kind of thing.
That it’s really, you’re looking much further down the line.
And certainly on climate, it seems to me
that a lot of the people who say it’s not real,
it’s not because they don’t know it’s,
of course it’s real,
but it’s that they don’t want you to then come
and regulate it really heavily.
Because they don’t like top-down government.
Yeah, and also because they don’t want another tax.
So it’s really, it’s not a science,
it’s not a straight science question.
It really is a question of what do you want to do?
And that’s where I think, Andy,
you’re much, much more right in saying
we should have that discussion.
So what do you wanna do?
Because that will be a much easier conversation to say,
do you wanna do really smart, cheap stuff?
Or do you wanna do pretty dumb, expensive stuff?
When you put it that way, you can get most people on board.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that, I know.
And it gets back to what you said earlier,
that again, you talked about collaborative cooperation
There’s a guy at Columbia, Peter Coleman,
who runs this thing called
the Difficult Conversations Laboratory.
Yeah, that’s awesome.
And when I first heard about it, I was like,
oh man, we need that, you know?
His background’s in psychology and conflict resolution,
mostly at the global scale related to atrocities
that countries are trying to get over.
And there’s a science to how to hold a better conversation,
as you, either through experience or whatever, know.
If you hold a debate,
I wouldn’t wanna be in a debate with Bjorn.
We could find lots of things we disagree on.
But that takes it back to the win-lose model, right?
That’s not how you make progress.
And what Peter, what I learned, absorbed from him,
Peter Coleman, because I was thinking like,
we need room for agreement.
I need to build a room for agreement.
My blog and at the Times and then the stuff I do now,
you know, it’s like, how can we talk and come to agreement?
He says, no, no, you don’t want agreement.
You want cooperation.
That allows you to hold onto your beliefs.
But to, you know, we can disbelieve it.
We can disagree on all these things,
but let’s cooperate on that one thing.
And that’s a really valuable distinction
that’s needed so much in this arena,
because as I said earlier,
you can parse it right down to the whole menu
of things Joe Manchin wanted, you know,
Now we’re gonna have big fights over transmission lines.
We’ve got billions of dollars to spend
expanding America’s grid.
And every community in America is gonna say, not here.
So how do you foster a federal local dialogue
that allows that to happen
if you want to have any hope of a better grid?
So that’s like, those insights come from behavioral sciences
that I think are completely undervalued in this area.
Pilka loves to quote, I can’t, I think it’s Lippert.
Oh, Walter Lippman.
Lippman, yes, that democracy is not about,
you know, everybody agreeing,
but it’s about different people disagreeing,
but doing the same thing.
Doing one thing together.
Yes, I mean, agreeing that we’re gonna do this thing.
So you can disagree, but still do a thing,
you know, possibly for very different reasons.
Yeah, and there’s an amazing video clip
that shows this so powerfully.
2015 was the buildup to the Paris talks
that led to the Paris agreement, you know, this.
And a really talented journalist at CNN at the time,
Don Sutter, who’s from Oklahoma originally,
he saw another Yale study that was a county-by-county study
of American attitudes on global warming,
like right down to the county level.
And there’s this little glowing data point
in Woodward County, Oklahoma.
Woodward County, Oklahoma was ground zero
for climate skepticism, climate denial,
whatever you wanna call it.
And he thought, oh, I’m gonna go there.
And he went there just to meet people on the street,
talk to them about energy and weather.
And he did these little interviews.
And there’s this one with this guy
who’s like a middle-aged oil company employee,
like a business, like an administrator,
Thai kind of guy.
And he starts out the interview,
and the guy is saying like,
you know, well, you know, God controls the environment.
And if you’re watching this, you’re just going,
okay, this is gonna be interesting.
And the backstory, by the way,
is the guy, he paid for the local playground
to have dinosaurs and people,
like toy dinosaurs and people on the playground,
because he believes in creation,
you know, 6,000-year creation.
So that’s the guy, right?
And then he gets to energy, and the guy says,
you know, the same guy who believes
God controls the environment says,
you know, we have half of our roof covered
with solar panels, and we wanna get off the grid entirely.
And when I show this to audiences, I say,
just pause and think about that for a second.
If you went, why do you think that’s happening?
And it’s because he’s independent.
He wants to have his own source of power.
He doesn’t want the government telling him what to do.
He would never vote for Hillary, I guarantee you.
This is 2015.
But he wanted to get off the grid entirely
to be his own, to be himself.
And so then I say, okay, so if you were going
around the country with your climate crisis placard,
and you go to Woodward County,
do you think that would be a productive way
to go to that place and make your case?
And the answer is pretty obvious, no.
If you go in there and you listen,
like listening is such an important property
that we all forget, including journalists,
you’re much more apt to find a path to cooperation.
You could talk to him about, I guarantee,
if I went there today, maybe I should go
to talk about this new bill, $370 billion.
How do we make that work, you know, at the local level?
How do we answer that guy at the energy department,
Jigar Shah, so how do we put this to work
to get our buses off, to get electrified
or transition our street lamps and stuff?
You could have a good chat with him.
If you go in there and say, I’m here to debate you
to death on global warming, forget about it.
Actually, let me ask you a question,
given your roots as a journalist.
So yeah, talking to a guy you disagree with,
that’s one thing.
What about talking to people that might be,
society might consider bad, unethical, even evil?
What’s the role of a journalist in that context?
So climate change is a large number of people
that believe one thing, a large number of people
that believe another thing.
It turns out, even with people that society deems as evil,
there’s a large number of people that support them.
What’s your role as a journalist to talk to them?
Well, I have talked to really bad people.
When I wrote about the murder of Chico Mendes,
a Brazilian Amazon rainforest activist in 1989,
I interviewed the killers.
One was in jail, several of them were just ranchers
who, they had their point of view.
They were there in the Amazon rainforest to,
the word in Brazil and Portuguese is limpar,
to clean the land.
They’re the bandarantes, the pioneers of Brazil.
They go into these frontiers and tame them
like we had in our West.
And they would bring that up too.
They would say to me, well, you did this.
They didn’t say you murdered your Native Americans
and stuff, but they could easily have said that too,
and you deforested all your landscapes.
So who are you to come down here to?
But if I didn’t talk to them,
that would be not a way to do journalism.
But when you talk to them, did you empathize with them
or did you push back?
That’s the ultimate question.
Like if you want to understand,
like if you talk to Hitler in 1941,
you empathize with him or do you push back?
Because most journalists would push
because they’re trying to signal to fellow journalists
and to people back home that this,
me, the journalist is on the right side.
But if you actually want to understand the person,
you should empathize.
If you want to be the kind of person
that actually understands in the full arc of history,
you need to empathize.
I find that journalists, a lot of times,
perhaps they’re protecting their job,
their reputation, their sanity,
are not willing to empathize.
Yeah, well, I think this happened with Joe Manchin.
I’m not doing any kind of equation here
related to Hitler and Joe Manchin or Trump.
I mean, Trump, I interviewed the guy, Will Hepper,
I mentioned, who was a physicist at Princeton
who thinks carbon dioxide is the greatest thing in the world
and we should have more of it in the atmosphere.
I profoundly disagree on that point.
But I interviewed him for an hour
and it was so interesting
because he was trying to kind of rope-a-dope me
into making it about CO2 and climate
because he’s a super smart physicist.
And I kind of said, let’s talk about some other things.
And we started talking about education
and science education.
He went on for like 20 minutes
about the vital importance of better science education
He drew on people he knew from Europe, Hungary,
a bunch of Nobel Prize winners
came from some town in Hungary, at least a couple.
And he said that he learned their teachers.
At any rate, he went at a long exposition on that.
He then defended climate science.
He said, we need more climate science.
He says, I love this stuff.
I love the ocean buoys.
There are now thousands of them in the oceans
charting clear pictures of ocean circulation and satellites.
And he said something really important
that many people discount,
which is we need sustained investment
in monitoring this planet.
We neglect our systems
that just tell us what’s happening in the world.
And that’s happened over and over again.
So if I had left it,
if I had gone into the terrain of the fight over CO2,
some journalist friends might say,
oh, that was a good mashup, you know, matchup.
But I found these really profound and important things
that I wanted the world to know about
in the context of whether Trump
was gonna have him as a science advisor.
And so if I hadn’t gone there,
and a lot of people, if you look back,
I got hammered for doing that, even from friends.
And then later, John Holdren,
who had been Obama’s science advisor for eight years,
he said, I would rather have Will Happer
as Trump’s science advisor than no science advisor.
In other words, there’s a landscape
of things that are important.
He recognized that Happer’s really smart about defense
and all kinds of things, too.
So it’s like, you do have to sort of screw up your,
ideally, screw up your courage,
but then not necessarily get into the,
it’s like with the guy in Oklahoma, you know.
If you go in looking for the differences, you’ll find them.
You can amplify them.
You can leave with this paralyzed sense
of nothing having happened that was useful.
Or you can find these nuggets.
Everyone is a human being.
I can’t play the mind game
of what I would have asked to Hitler, but.
I play that mind game all the time,
but that’s for another conversation.
I had many in my family that have suffered under him.
Nevertheless, he is a human being.
And people sometimes caricature Hitler,
saying that’s when you mention Hitler,
the conversation devolves.
Oh, right, you’ve got a certain point.
But I don’t agree.
I think sort of these extremes
are useful thought experiments to understand,
because if you’re not willing to take your ideals
to that extreme, then maybe your ideals need some rethinking
from a journalistic perspective, all that kind of stuff.
A number of years ago,
my wife and I were with our veterinarian,
who was German-born, Dr. Bach, B-A-C-H.
We were talking about the dog and stuff,
and then we were talking about Trump.
And he just mentioned in passing,
he said, my mother voted for Hitler.
Wow, that hit me like a brick.
Because it was so, at the very least,
understanding how pathways that lead to
people doing things like he did and ordered is essential.
And the only way to understand that is to dig in
and ask questions and get uncomfortable.
It still makes my hair prickle
when I think back to him saying,
yeah, my mom voted for Hitler.
That somehow makes it super real, like, oh, yeah.
Yeah, there’s elections, there’s real people
living their lives and-
Exactly, struggling with a broken economy
and all kinds of-
Having their own little personal resentments
and all that kind of stuff.
Let me ask you about presidents, American presidents.
Who had a positive or negative impact
on climate change efforts, in your view?
Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden.
Or maybe you could say that they don’t have much of an impact.
So, like, they, in public discourse,
presidents have a kind of,
like, we imagine they have a huge amount of impact.
How much impact do they actually have on climate policy?
I don’t know if you have comments on this.
Well, there is a background decarbonization rate
that’s happened for 150 years.
We move from wood to charcoal to coal to oil
and gas is cleaner, it’s more hydrogen, less carbon.
And when you, I asked recently,
I asked some really smart scientists
who study these long trajectories of energy.
When you look at those curves,
is there anything in that curve that says,
oh, climate treaty, 1992?
And it’s really hard.
Or China, I mean, when China came in
with its huge growth in emissions,
that created a bit of a recarbonization blip.
But that was this huge growth in their economy
that pulled a bunch of people out of poverty.
So, yeah, no, presidents don’t really change anything
on timescales that we would measure,
as meaning, where you could parse it out.
I think that’s not to say that Obama’s
and the current focus on the stimulus that’s happening,
which includes a lot more money for research,
et cetera, and innovation.
I do think that will be beneficial
in a very, very long run.
But I have to say, when Obama stood up
and took credit for reductions from moving from coal to gas
because of fracking, that was actually Cheney
who set that in motion.
I was thinking, I would say Bush,
not because I like him or anything,
but he’s the guy who inadvertently started fracking.
It goes further back than that.
It was a federal investment in fracking
in the 60s and 70s.
And then this one guy in Texas, right here in Texas,
George Mischel, who cobbled together technology.
And that led to this real dramatic change from gas to coal
that mostly played out in the Obama years,
but that really was stimulated
by Cheney’s early energy task force, 2001,
when they were getting into office.
And also, Bush did something interesting
in the whole wonky climate treaty process.
It was under Bush that they started to focus on sectors.
Oh, and also on big emitters.
This isn’t about 200 countries.
It’s about basically eight or 10 countries.
Let’s get them into a room
and let’s have these little subrooms
on electrification, on mining, on whatever,
and by parsing it out.
And Obama picked up the same model.
They had different names for it
because presidents always name something different
than the last president.
One was the major economies forum,
and then it was the major emitters, something or other.
And that, getting away from the treaty dots and dashes
toward just sectoral, big sectors that matter,
gas, electrification, makes a difference.
But again, you couldn’t ever measure.
It’s always the lag time would be a point of measure.
And also, I think one very under-reported fact,
so the UNEP, the Environment Program,
they come out with what they call a gap report every year,
where they estimate how much is the world doing
compared to what should it or has it promised to do.
Yeah, and in 2019, so just before COVID hit,
they actually did a survey of the 2010s.
So the last big sort of report on how well are we doing.
And their takeaway quote,
and I’m not gonna get this right,
but it’s pretty much what they said was,
if you take the world as if we hadn’t cared
about climate change since 2005,
we can’t tell the difference between that world
and the world that we’re actually living in.
So despite the fact that we’ve had 10 years
of immense focus on climate, and everybody talks about it,
and the Paris Agreement,
which is perhaps the biggest global sort of agreement
in what we’re gonna be doing, you can’t actually tell.
And that, I think, is incredibly important
because what it tells you is,
all that we’re doing is, not even on the margin,
it’s sort of smaller than that,
and I’m not sure what that is,
but we’re basically dealing in,
for instance, the UK loves to point out
that they have dramatically reduced their carbon emissions,
and they have.
They’ve really dramatically lowered their emissions,
mostly because they’ve de-industrialized.
They basically said, look, we’re just gonna be bankers
for all of you guys,
and then everybody else is gonna produce our stuff,
which of course is great for Britain,
or I don’t know if it’s great for Britain,
but we can’t all do that.
And so most of what we’re trying to do right now
is sort of this virtue signaling.
It makes us feel good.
It’s sort of, yeah, on the margin,
or in the very tiny margin,
but what we basically,
and that was, Andy, your point with China.
The reason why we can’t tell the difference, of course,
is because China basically became the workshop for everyone.
And so not only did they lift
more than half a million people out of poverty,
sorry, half a billion.
Yes, half a billion people out of poverty,
but they also basically took over
most production in the world.
And so, of course, many rich countries could decarbonize,
or at least reduce their carbon emissions
and feel very virtuous about it,
but fundamentally, we haven’t solved
how does the world do this?
And that’s why I think we’re also left with this sense of,
not only are we being told this is an unmitigated catastrophe
and that’s why this is the only thing
we should be focusing on,
but also somehow, and we can all fix it.
And I don’t think we have any sense
of how hard this is actually gonna be.
And that’s, of course, why I would go back and say,
look, the only way you’re gonna fix this
is through innovation,
because if you have something
that’s cheaper than fossil fuels, you’ve fixed it.
If you have something that’s harder
and costlier and more inconvenient,
no, you’re just not gonna make it.
And getting more time by cutting vulnerability.
The pockets of vulnerability on the planet are huge
and they’re identifiable and you know what to do.
What are the biggest pockets of vulnerability?
Well, there’s like-
Infrastructure of cities?
No, it’s where people are living
and what their capacities are.
So moving people, how do you decrease
the vulnerability in the world?
What are the big-
One reason so many people moved out of San Francisco
and adjacent cities into the countryside
and then had their houses burned down
is because they can’t afford to live in the city anymore.
So affordable housing in cities
can limit exposure to, in that case, wildfire.
Durban, South Africa,
that terrible devastating flood they had this year,
past year, who was washed away?
Poor people who don’t have any place to live.
So they settled in a floodplain
along a stream bed that’s livable
when it’s not raining buckets.
And those are vulnerabilities that are there
because of dislocation, housing.
Tacloban, this typhoon that hit the Philippines terribly
ahead of the Paris talks, or was it the previous one?
No, it was in 2013, I believe.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Most of the stories that were written
were framed around climate change
because the Pope made a deal about it.
It was just before the climate talks of that year.
And what happened, partially why there were so many losses,
was Tacloban City had quadrupled in population
in the last 30 years.
And most of the people coming into the city
were poor, looking for work,
and settling in marginal places
where a storm surge killed them.
So those are things we,
whatever the we is in the different places,
really can work on.
And that gives more flex for sure
in thinking about how this long trajectory
that seems so immovable and so hard,
the decarbonization part, there’s no excuse.
I wrote a piece, I guess a year ago.
I said there’s a vulnerability emergency
hiding behind this climate emergency label.
That’s really what needs work.
And also on the Tacloban,
I mean, the hurricane that hit in 2013,
there was almost a similar hurricane
in the early part of 1900s
that hit pretty much the same strength
and it eradicated half the city.
It killed half the city.
And so what’s happened since then is
people just got much, much richer
from early 1900 to 2013.
We’ve just moved a lot of people out of poverty.
Now it’s a lot bigger.
Bangladesh is even a bigger example of that.
In the 1970s, they had horrible cyclones,
one of which was the Beatles,
George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh.
Great album that I still have somewhere.
Hundreds of thousands.
He did a concert, a fundraising concert,
the Concert for Bangladesh
after this terrible cyclone tragedy hit Bangladesh.
And I think there were several hundred thousand
who were killed.
And a couple like that around that time.
Bangladesh has been hit by comparable storms recently.
And it’s terrible.
Every death is terrible, but it’s like 123 deaths.
And it’s not just because of wealth.
It’s because people know what to do.
It’s because there’s cell phones.
It’s because they have elevated platforms
in many communities in the floodplains there
that you know to get to.
So they went from hundreds of thousands of deaths
in a cyclone to 123.
When we were working with Bangladesh,
it’s no longer the problem of people dying.
It’s the fact that their cattle dies.
So, you know, they want cattle places
where you could herd your cattle.
This is their capital.
And it’s not to make fun of it,
but it’s an amazing progress
that you’ve stopped worrying about your parents dying
and you worry about your cows dying.
And when I was talking about social innovation,
the other hour, there’s a model emerging in Bangladesh
for farmers to move from raising chickens, poultry, to ducks.
And it’s working.
And ducks actually fetch a higher price at the market.
And guess what?
When you get flooded-
You can still have your income and your future.
So let me ask you to give advice,
put on your sage, wise hat,
and give advice to young people
that are looking into this world
and see how they can do the most good.
We talked about what is the $1
that can do the most positive improvement
to lead to $40, $45, and so on.
What advice would you give to young people
in high school and college
how to have a positive impact on the world,
how to have a career they can be proud of?
Maybe ask Bjorn first,
and how to have a life they can be proud of.
So I think, and this really pretty well reflects
the whole conversation we’ve had,
we’ve got to sort of take the catastrophism
out of the climate conversation.
And this really matters
because a lot of kids literally think
that the world is gonna end pretty soon.
And that obviously makes any other kind of plan
So first of all, look, you’re not going to die.
That poster that a lot of kids have,
you’re gonna die from old age,
but I’m gonna die from climate.
No, you’re not.
You’re gonna die from old age
and you’re gonna die much older, very likely.
So the reality is the world has improved dramatically
and it’s very likely to improve even more.
So the baseline is good.
This is just the facts.
Then there’s still lots and lots of problems.
And what you should do as a young person
is stop being paralyzed by fear
and then realize what you can do
is basically help humanity become even smarter.
There’s a lot of different places you can do.
I mean, the obvious thing
when you’re talking about climate is,
what if you could become the guy
that develops fourth generation nuclear,
it’s very likely it’s something
that neither of us know anything about right now,
but develop the energy source
that will basically power the rest of humanity.
How cool would that be?
That’s one of the many things you could do.
But again, also remember,
there are lots and lots of other things that need solutions.
So what about you become the guy that makes the,
or the girl that makes the social innovation
in Tanzania or in Kenya, sorry, in Kenya,
or what about if you become the person
who finds a way that is a much cheaper,
more effective way to tackle tuberculosis right now,
it needs four to six months of medication,
that one of the big problems is
once you pop the pills and you’re fresh,
it’s really hard to get people to do it
for the other five and a half months, right?
And you need that,
otherwise you actually have a big risk
of getting a multi-drug resistant tuberculosis,
which is a real scourge on the earth.
So what if you develop that?
So the truth is, not only can your life be much better
when you sort of ditch that doomerism,
but it also becomes much more possible
for you to be a positive part
of making sure that you do that progress.
Why has the world improved so much?
Because our parents and great grandparents,
they made all this work,
this was all their innovations and a lot of hard work.
And I’m incredibly grateful that they’ve done it,
but now it’s kind of time to pay back.
So you got to do this for our grandkids,
you got to make those innovations,
make those policy opportunities,
they’ll make the world an even better place.
And to me, there’s never been a better time
to be effective as a young person
because the internet, connectedness,
you can brainstorm with someone in another country
just as easily as you can brainstorm
with someone down the block when we were kids.
As I said earlier, my pen pal was letters
taking weeks to come.
And so the key properties, ideally,
that young people would do well to cultivate
are, well, certainly adaptability,
because change is changing.
Not just, you know, the rate of change is changing.
These layers of change are all piling up on each other.
Having an ability to understand
the information environment is a fundamental need now
that wasn’t a need when we were growing up.
We read a few newspapers,
my dad would turn on the nightly news,
and Walter Cronkite would say, that’s the way it is.
He would say, that’s the way it is.
And that’s so not the way the media environment is now.
So courses in media literacy should be kind of
fundamental parts of curriculum from like kindergarten on,
or parents can do the same thing.
There’s a woman at URI, University of Rhode Island,
Renee Hobbs, who teaches a course in propaganda literacy.
And she said, you know, the history of the word is not bad.
Propaganda could be good.
It’s pro, it’s for the church.
She did a wonderful chat with the,
she laid this out, and, but understanding
when it is propaganda, like the tobacco, you know,
there is hopefully a difference between that and that,
cigarette ads and journalistically acquired information.
So Akita, everything Bjorn was talking about too,
is just understanding how to not be sucked
into this information environment
and spit out as a paralyzed, doomist entity.
Because once you have an ability to step back,
then you can use Twitter or whatever you’re on
to find people who might have a skillset you don’t have
that is something you need to do
to incorporate, to harness,
to do the thing you want to do in the world.
Finding your way to make the world better.
And it can have nothing to do with climate,
but if it makes a few more people’s lives better,
then overall you’re leading toward
better capacity for all this stuff.
So that, and then the climate problem,
the prismatic giant nature of it
is what makes it so daunting,
but it’s also what gives everybody an opportunity.
Like there’s something for artists, scientists, poets,
everybody needs to get into the game.
I just spent some time with Kim Stanley Robinson
who wrote that book, Ministry of the Future,
which is this sprawling novel about a worst case outcome
where everyone in India is dying.
So fiction can help experiment,
different kinds of fiction, different kinds of arts
can help us sort of experiment
with what the future might look like in different ways.
And just get started.
And the other thing, unfortunately, that’s needed
I think I first said this in 2008
when someone asked me something about climate.
I said, weirdly, you have to sort of have a sense of urgency
but a sense of patience at the same time.
Like, just roll those words around in your mind.
Like, what does that mean?
Urgent and patient.
How could that possibly be?
But actually it really is the reality.
There is an urgency with this building gas
that’s cumulative, that doesn’t go away
like smoke when it rains.
And every year that happens, it’s adding to risk.
And you can kind of wake up completely freaked out urgent
but when you realize energy transitions take time
then you have to sort of find patience
or whatever your word is for that.
Yeah, I think you have to oscillate back and forth
throughout the day, having a sense of urgency
when you’re trying to actually be productive
and have patience so you can have a calm head about you
in terms of putting everything into perspective.
And like you said, with information,
that is interesting,
especially in the scientific community.
I think you’ve spoken about this before.
You know, that there is some responsibility
or at least an opportunity for scientists
to not just do science but to understand the dynamics
of the different mediums in which information is exchanged.
So it could be Twitter for a few years,
then it could be TikTok, then it could be,
you know, I’m a huge believer in the power of YouTube.
Over the next several years, perhaps decades,
I mean, it’s a very interesting medium for education
and communication and for debate and that’s grassroots.
That’s from like the bottom up, you know,
that every scientist is able to communicate their work.
And I personally believe have the responsibility
to communicate their work.
If anything, the internet made me realize
that science is not just about doing the science,
it’s about communicating it.
Like this is not some kind of virtue signaling on my part.
No, no, no.
No, like I feel like if the tree falls in the forest
and nobody’s around to hear it, it really didn’t fall.
Like that’s not, there should be a culture of,
well, at MIT, there’s a place called the Media Lab.
Where they really emphasize,
like you always be able to demo something
to show off your work.
They really emphasize showing off their work.
And I think that was in some part criticized
in the bigger MIT culture that, you know,
that’s like focusing too much on the PR
versus doing the science.
But I really disagree with that.
Of course, there’s a balance to strike.
You don’t want to be all smoke and mirrors,
but there really is a lot of value to communication
and not just sort of some broad.
You almost don’t want to teach a course on communication
because by the time you teach the course,
it’s already too late.
It’s always being on top of how,
what is the language?
What is the culture and the etiquette?
What is the technology of communication that is effective?
I actually had a big conversation about that in my university
because I think, and this is perhaps especially true
for social sciences,
but I think it’s probably true for everyone,
just simply communicating what it is that you’ve done
in research makes it possible for you
to sort of get an outsider’s perspective
and see, did I just go into an incredibly deep hole
that just three other people really care about in the world?
Or is this actually something that matters to the world?
And being able to explain what it is that you’ve done
to everyone else makes, you know,
my sort of sense is if you can’t say it
in a couple of minutes, it’s probably,
it’s not necessarily true,
but it’s probably because it wasn’t all that important.
There was a hashtag generated maybe seven years ago
by a Caltech PhD candidate woman, and it was fantastic.
The hashtag was, I am a scientist because,
and she posted it with a picture of herself
with her answer, you know?
And that, when I talk to scientists
or basically anybody about communicating,
I say don’t start with, I am a phytologist,
and I use a spectrophotometer to do X.
Start with, I am a scientist
because the world is endlessly interesting,
and I just found these salamanders,
which are gonna vanish if we don’t stop this fungus
from coming to the United States, utterly interesting.
And then you’ve got people hooked.
But it’s the motivation part,
because everyone grew up as a kid,
and a kid is basically like a scientist.
Wow, what the hell is this?
How does this work?
So you can connect with people that way.
But this other issue you broached is really important.
And what I love about MIT particularly,
I spent a lot of time there over the decades,
not just talking to the hurricane guy,
Amy Smith, who has the development lab
in the basement there somewhere.
Most of MIT looks like it’s the basement,
but yes, it’s part of the charm.
But it’s the usability function
is part of a lot of that goes on there.
It’s engineering and science.
It reminds me, in 1997,
these two very different scientists,
Dan Kamen at Berkeley and Michael Dove at Yale,
wrote a manifesto.
It was The Virtues of Mundane Science.
That’s what they called it.
It was a prod to the scientific community.
Actually, it’s about useful, utility.
Because the whole arena is set up to advance your career
through revealing new knowledge
that will get you tenure someday.
Actually doing useful science is disincentivized.
Having a conversation,
especially if it involves more than one discipline.
Because as a young scientist,
there were some postdocs at Columbia
who wrote this other manifesto paper saying,
here are the things universities need to do
to foster the collaborative capacity we need
to have sustainable development.
And it was like four or five things
that universities don’t do.
Give you time to become fluent in,
for a physicist to talk to an anthropologist
and understand how anthropology works with sociology,
And then building a relationship with a community
that has a problem that you want to fix takes time.
And so you do these quick turnaround papers
that get you toward your little micro career goal,
but they’re not actually getting you
what you want in the world.
Those are really hard problems going forward.
But starting with that idea of usability,
what can I do with my skill sets?
You know, a lot of great physicists I know
are dug in on string theory and stuff.
And someone has to dig in on that too,
but I’d like to have them pull a little bit
of their brainpower away to think about
some of the practical things Bjorn thinks about too.
So the two of you have been thinking
about some of the biggest questions,
which is life here on Earth.
The history of life here,
the future of life here on Earth.
The existence of Earth itself.
And how to allocate our resources
to alleviate suffering in the world.
So let me ask the big question.
What do you think is the why of it all?
What’s the meaning of it?
What’s the meaning of our life here on Earth?
You waited till the last moment to ask us that question.
Yes, in case there’s, yeah.
In case I can trick you into finding an answer.
Well, so, I mean, again, I’m just gonna take a stab
in this because I think in some ways
it’s the same thing that you were talking about before.
It’s not about getting everybody sort of in the same track
and all agree on something,
but it’s about getting a lot of people
with very different goals and targets
and ways of thinking about the world
to go in the same direction.
So for me, the goal of life, certainly my goal,
but I think for most people,
is to make the world a better place.
It sounds incredibly pedestrian
because it’s become so overused,
but that really and literally is the point.
Your point of your life is to,
when one of your friends is sad,
to make sure that they sort of get out of that
and find out why they’re sad
and maybe move them a little bit in the right direction.
And all the things that we’ve talked about,
stop people from dying from tuberculosis
and live longer lives and fix climate change,
but fix it in such a way
that we actually use resources smartest
because there are lots of problems.
So let’s make sure we deal with them adequately.
This is very unsexy in some sense,
but I think it’s also very basic and really what matters.
Well, you know, biologically evolution has demanded
that life is about finding sources of energy
and perpetuating yourself, right?
So that’s the baseline.
And that’s led us into a bit of a bollocks
because we have this easy energy,
it’s come from the ground so far,
but our brilliance has given this larger awareness
of everything about the planet is transitory.
And so how do you work with that productively
is really an important question.
I could just sort of, you know,
try to be as rich as possible
and use as much energy as possible
and have other people.
I mean, Alex Epstein, I think, again,
this is one of the constraints on my support
for what he says is he’s just talking about growth
and progress in that sense,
but there are consequences
and there are long-term trajectories here
that have to be taken into account too.
So what do you wake up to do?
To me, it’s finding your part of this.
And as Bjorn said,
finding a way to pursue and expand betterment.
When I taught, I was at Pace University for six years
and one of the courses I launched there
was called blogging a better planet.
And it was for grad students, mostly in communication.
It wasn’t an environment, it wasn’t like better planet,
save the climate.
But my task for the students was to blog
about something they’re passionate about, first of all,
because you can’t do this,
just like you can’t do your conversations
if you don’t wake up in the morning
wanting to do what you’re doing, right?
You’re doing this.
I used to call myself a selfish blogger
because I was learning every day.
I still am.
I love this.
My wife laughs, she thinks I work too much,
but I’m always asking those questions, like sustain what?
So my charge to the students was harness a passion,
build a blog, either alone or with others,
that notches the world a little bit
towards some better outcome.
And so there was a musician who did a thing on music,
musicians who use their art for their work
for making the world better.
Some of it was like music therapy,
bands contributing money, whatever.
Another one did, her blog was on comfort food
all around the world.
And I thought it was my favorite, it was a video.
See, I think it should be viral, actually.
It was like looking at the world,
every different cultures, she was in Queens,
so every culture, every cuisine is there in Queens,
200 countries, right?
But she would go and talk to people’s moms
and have them cook the food of that country
that’s their comfort food.
I mean, I just love this
because we all need to eat
and you’re getting this expanded sense of what comfort is
by thinking about what other cultures choose.
And that felt like a great course
because it was not directive,
it was just, it gave them this potential to go forward.
You know, I’d love to think they’ve all gone on
to become a superstar, whatever it is, I don’t know.
That’s the giving, that’s the letting go part.
Even if one did something special,
then that makes me feel job done.
And, you know, after I’d been writing about climate
for 30 years, 2016-ish, I did a lot of writing
about what did I learn, unlearned and stuff.
And I had had a stroke in 2011, which was interesting.
It was the first time I really thought about my brain.
You know, you don’t think about your brain
on a day-to-day basis, but this is my brain telling me,
you know, ding, ding, ding, ding,
some weird shit’s happening.
And when I was thinking about climate
or confronting climate change,
it felt like some of the things I learned
about my own existence, you know, I’m gonna die,
but you don’t really absorb that.
Is that the first time you kind of faced your mortality?
That was like my first, like, yeah,
this is really the shit, you know,
or at least deep disability, if not death,
and that ability is transitory.
And I thought about the climate problem.
We’re not gonna solve the global warming problem,
at least not in our lifetimes.
But you work on making those trajectories sustainable,
you know, the end of life particularly.
You work on making sure other people don’t get strokes
if they can avoid it.
In my case, I wrote about it.
I was blogging about my stroke while I was having it.
I was tweeting about it.
There’s a funny tweet that’s kind of mistyped
because, you know, things weren’t working.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, right, right, right.
So that’s like share your knowledge, share your learning.
And everyone can do this now, like on whatever platform.
And then there’s also this like giving up part,
but not in a depressing,
well, maybe you could call it depressing.
I started to Zoom in years ago
on the idea of the serenity prayer, the sobriety thing.
You know, it’s like know what you can change,
know what you can’t.
Grant me the serenity to accept the things
that cannot change, the courage to change the things
that can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Yeah, see, those three properties
are really important right now.
Some aspects of this, we know absolutely
what we can work on.
Energy transitions take time.
Science can help us discriminate the difference.
And that’s an iterative changing landscape going forward.
But at the same time, science,
like I personally on climate modeling,
or like narrowing how hot it’s gonna get,
or more clarity on when an ice sheet is gonna collapse.
I think those are what I call known unknowables.
So being able to, I’ve seen enough evidence
that those are deeply complex problems
that we’re not gonna get there quickly.
So then that gives you a landscape to act on.
And that, you know, whether you bring God
into the mix is irrelevant.
It’s really know what you can change,
know what you can’t, and know what,
that gives you the quality to work on them.
And serenity is comfort with that this is transitory,
that the human journey, like anyone’s individual journey,
will have some end.
That doesn’t mean it has to be near.
This Anthropocene that I’ve been writing about
for decades can still be a good Anthropocene,
or at least a less bad one in terms of how we get through it.
And you’re also a musician.
So in context, one of my favorite songs of yours,
an album, A Very Fine Line, I should mention
that with the stroke coming close to death,
the lyrics here are quite brilliant, I have to say.
It’s a very fine line between winning and losing,
a very fine line between living and dying,
a very fine line, by the way, people should listen to this.
I can’t play this because YouTube will give me trouble.
A very fine line between loving and leaving.
Most of your life you spend walking a very fine line,
and the rest of the lyrics are just quite brilliant.
It is a fine line.
I’m glad you walked it with me today, gentlemen.
You’re brilliant, kind, beautiful human beings.
Thank you so much for having this quote-unquote debate
that was much more about just exploring ideas together.
Bjorn, thank you so much.
And Andy, thank you so much for talking today.
You know, these kinds of extended conversations
are the more of it the better.
And finding ways to spread that capacity
just to get people out of this win-lose thing
is really important.
So thanks for what you’re doing.
Thanks for listening to this conversation
with Bjorn Lomborg and Andrew Refkin.
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And now, let me leave you with some words
from Henry David Thoreau.
“‘Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.’”
Thank you for listening, and hope to see you next time.