By David Roberts

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 Aug 3, 2022
On Top of IT


Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)


Episode Date
The extraordinary potential value of enhanced geothermal power

Geothermal power has conventionally been viewed as a baseload, always-on resource, like nuclear. But new research suggests it could play a much more dynamic & valuable role on the grid than that -- and expand much faster & farther than previously estimated. I chat with one the co-authors.

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Sep 30, 2022
Learning curves will lead to extremely cheap clean energy

A newly published research paper out of Oxford suggests that a rapid energy transition will not "cost" anything -- it will save nearly a trillion dollars relative to the no-transition case. And the faster we move, the more money we save. I talk with complex-systems scientist and co-author Doyne Farmer about his optimistic projections.

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Sep 28, 2022
Focusing on the climate actions that can make a real difference

Two veteran climate experts -- analyst Hal Harvey & journalist Justin Gillis -- have released a new book that seeks to home in on the climate policies that offer the most impact for the least effort. I talk with them about learning curves, performance standards, industrial policy, & more. 

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Sep 13, 2022
The long, sordid (ongoing) tale of California's biggest utility
Reporter Katherine Blunt was still new to The Wall Street Journal when 2018’s devastating Camp Fire broke out in California and she was swept into the biggest story of her career. Alongside colleagues Russell Gold and Rebecca Smith, she wrote a series of pieces on the ongoing travails of Pacific Gas & Electric, or PG&E, the utility whose power lines had started at the Camp Fire.

The Journal's coverage was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize, and Blunt has now expanded it into a new book: California Burning: The Fall of Pacific Gas & Electric — and What It Means for America's Power Grid. It is a rollicking tour through PG&E’s decades-long series of disasters and their roots in the early 20th century.

I am a longtime critic of utilities, but even I was stunned to see all of PG&E’s incompetence and malfeasance gathered together in one place, alongside its well-meaning but serially failed attempts to put things right. It’s a story of failure and redemption, except the redemption keeps being interrupted by more failure.

I couldn't put the book down, so I am eager to talk to Blunt about how the utility’s travails began, why is has struggled so mightily to take control of its fate, and what might come next for the electricity sector’s favorite punching bag.

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Sep 09, 2022
What's up with Manchin's plan to reform energy permitting?

As part of his price for agreeing to pass the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act, Senator Joe Manchin extracted a promise from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to pass a "sidecar deal” addressing the issue of permitting reform.

Earthjustice president Abigail Dillen thinks it's a bad deal. I called her to talk through her reservations about the deal, her larger take on permitting reform, and her thoughts on how to build the renewable energy needed to address climate change.

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Sep 07, 2022
The many social and psychological benefits of low-car cities

A few years ago, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett and their two children moved from Vancouver, Canada, to Delft, a small city in the Netherlands where 80% of journeys are taken by foot, bicycle, or public transit. Their new book, Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives, is about what it's like to live in a truly low-car city, and how other cities can capture some of the same benefits.

Reading the book was a joy for me -- it reinforced so many of my priors! -- so I was excited to talk to Melissa and Chris about how to design streets for people, the connection between urban infrastructure and social trust, the flourishing that Dutch children enjoy, and the myriad evils of cars.

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Aug 29, 2022
Talking through the Inflation Reduction Act with Don't Look Up director Adam McKay
Recently, director Adam McKay — familiar to the climate community for his recent movie Don't Look Up, which he came on Volts to discuss — made a series of comments on Twitter critical of the Inflation Reduction Act, the Democrats’ newly passed tax, health-care, and climate bill.

As is so often the case on Twitter, an extremely heated and unilluminating brouhaha ensued. It turns out that particular platform is not a great place for a good-faith discussion.

I reached out to McKay about the bill and we thought it might be fun, just for kicks, to do another pod, to address his various questions and reservations. Volts listeners have heard me and other energy wonks talk about the bill quite a bit, but I thought it might be interesting to hear it hashed over with someone coming at it from a slightly different perspective.

Anyway, if you have appetite for more IRA talk, it was a fun hour and I think you'll enjoy it!

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Aug 25, 2022
Diving further into the Inflation Reduction Act: Part Two

In this episode, energy modeler and expert Jesse Jenkins is back yet again, completing our two-part discussion of the details of the Inflation Reduction Act. This time around, we get into the tax credits, the green bank, the methane fee, and much more.

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Aug 19, 2022
Diving further into the Inflation Reduction Act: Part One

In this episode, professor and energy expert Jesse Jenkins returns to the pod to dig further into the details of the Inflation Reduction Act. We discuss what the models can and can't tell us, the ugly fossil-fuel leases embedded in the bill, and what to think about the carbon capture provisions.

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Aug 17, 2022
Some thoughts on the Inflation Reduction Act

In this episode, it’s just me by my lonesome, sharing some thoughts about the history and context of the Inflation Reduction Act, the most significant climate legislation ever passed by the US Congress.

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Aug 12, 2022
Volts podcast: how to get urban improvements done quickly
When it comes to reducing transportation emissions, two main ideas compete for mindshare in the climate space. First is switching out internal combustion engine vehicles for electric vehicles. Second is improving the built environment to make walking, biking, and public transit easier, to reduce the amount of miles traveled in cars and trucks altogether.

The conventional wisdom is that the former is faster. There are a few key policy levers that can be pulled to get massive numbers of EVs on the roads, whereas urban improvements proceed one at a time, each facing its own bespoke set of challenges.

But there are people out there at the city level working to increase the speed of those improvements. One of them is Warren Logan, currently a partner at Lighthouse Public Affairs, but before that, policy director of mobility in the Oakland, California, mayor's office, a senior transportation planner for San Francisco, and an intern in the transportation office at Berkeley, California.

In his time working on transportation projects, Logan has given a lot of thought to, and done a lot of work on, improving city processes to make safety and walkability improvements faster and less capital-intensive. He wants cities to free themselves up to make fast, cheap changes that can have big impacts without an enormous investment of time and money.

As listeners will have noticed, I have been somewhat obsessed lately with urban design and transportation issues. I hope you will indulge me in another conversation about the nature of resistance to urban improvements, the kinds of changes that can be made quickly to dramatically improve safety, and the larger need to avoid over-reliance on EVs.

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Aug 10, 2022
Volts podcast: when transmission planning actually goes well
Volts subscribers are well aware that the US, like most places, badly needs more long-distance power lines. Such lines unlock the potential of regions where renewable energy is abundant but people are scarce. They lower system costs for all customers on the grid. They make the grid more reliable and resilient.

However, it is incredibly difficult to build these lines. The process is a bureaucratic tangle, with ubiquitous controversies over how to allocate costs and benefits, and the pace of building is woefully short of what will be needed to help the US hit its carbon emissions targets.

But a ray of sunshine pierced that generally gloomy situation last week, when the market monitor of the midwest wholesale electricity market — the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO — announced the results of its Long-Range Transmission Planning Initiative. It laid out a roadmap that would involve $10 billion worth of investment in some 2,000 miles of new transmission lines, which MISO anticipates could unlock more than 50 gigawatts of pent-up renewable energy.

To someone like me, so accustomed to stories of failure around transmission, it came as a bit of a bolt from the blue. But it is, in fact, the result of years of long, steady work by advocates, stakeholders, and experts — including my guest today.

Lauren Azar is a longtime attorney and consultant working in the electricity industry. During her time as a lawyer, she has also worked as a senior advisor to the US secretary of energy on electricity grid issues, a commissioner on the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, and president of the Organization of MISO States, which was deeply involved in the last round of transmission planning in MISO. There's nobody in a better position to explain what has just happened in MISO and what it means for the larger field of transmission planning, so I'm extremely excited to welcome her on to the pod today.

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Aug 08, 2022
Volts podcast: what to make of the Democrats' last-minute climate bill

In this episode, two Volts favorites — Princeton professor Jesse Jenkins and UC Santa Barbara professor Leah Stokes — join me discuss the Inflation Reduction Act, the somewhat miraculous last-minute agreement between Senators Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer. It represents the tattered remains of Build Back Better, but many if not most of the climate and clean energy provisions remain intact. We discuss what's in the bill and reasons to be excited about it.

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Aug 03, 2022
Volts podcast: a music festival that treads lightly on the earth
Listeners, today at Volts we've got something a little different, a little off our beaten path. It’s an episode about one of my favorite music festivals. It might not seem obvious to you why you should care about a small music festival in the far northwest of the country, but I think if you are patient and listen for a little bit, you'll get a sense of why I’m spending time on it (beyond self-indulgence).

By the time 2011 rolled around, I was more or less done with music festivals. I love live music and have been to many great concerts, but most festival experiences were so hectic, stressful, crowded, dirty, and exploitative that it just no longer seemed worth the effort. (That has only gotten more true in intervening years.) So I was a little skeptical when a friend told me about the Pickathon festival, held every year about 20 miles outside of Portland, Oregon.

For one thing … “Pickathon”? Sounds like one of those twangy festivals with crunchy hippies playing mandolins and banjos. That is not my bag. But he assured me that the lineup is diverse, from all genres, focused on acts that are about to break bigger.

He talked me into going. And listener, it blew my mind.

For one thing, the land itself is gorgeous — it is held at Pendarvis Farm, a sprawling area of pastureland and wooded hills that is used only once a year for gatherings, only for Pickathon.

Every attendee camps (the festival lasts three days), but not in some crowded parking lot. Rather, there is a whole network of trails running through the woods, with established camping spots that have been used and reused since 1999 when the festival started.

Then there’s the crowd. It wasn't jam-packed. You could always get food or drink with very little line. You could always see the band, no matter which band you wanted to see. There were tons and tons of families and children and almost no backward-baseball-cap bros. It felt oddly wholesome.

But perhaps the strongest impression I took away that first weekend was how weirdly, anomalously clean the festival was. One staple of festival life is giant, overflowing trash cans, with food wrappings and disposable cups strewn everywhere. At Pickathon there was none of that. There was virtually no visible trash. Water was free, available at spigots across the grounds.

It all struck me as so intensely human, so humane, that I fell in love and attended almost every year thereafter. (Here’s a 2013 story I did for Grist and a 2017 story I did for Vox, in which I interviewed 20 artists in three days.)

Pickathon is back this year after a two-year hiatus, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk with festival founder Zale Schoenborn about how the festival has evolved since 1999, what's next on the sustainability front, and what's new at the festival this year. Even if you don't happen to live in the Pacific Northwest and can't attend, I think you'll enjoy hearing from someone who has put so much thought into into bringing humans together to commune and celebrate in a socially and environmentally sustainable way.

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Jul 29, 2022
Volts podcast: how Biden can address climate change through executive action
It now seems fairly clear that no climate legislation is going to pass this Congress before the midterm elections. After the midterms, Democrats are highly unlikely to retain control of both houses, so there likely will not be any federal climate legislation in the US for many years to come. This is, obviously, to the country's immense shame.

That means Biden finds himself in the same situation that Obama ended up in: if he wants anything at all to get done on climate change during his term, he's going to have to do it himself, through executive action. He has already begun announcing some executive orders.

However, there is a case to be made that the president has the power to do much, much more. Two senior attorneys at the Center for Biological Diversity — Jean Su, director of CBD’s energy justice program, and Maya Golden-Krasner, deputy director of its Climate Law Institute — have been aggressively making that case for the past three years, laying out a broad suite of actions available to a president and accompanying them with arguments rooting those powers in statutory authority.

They've just released a new report called “The Climate President’s Emergency Powers,” which digs into what it would mean for Biden to declare a state of emergency over climate change and what sort of statutory powers that would grant him.

In this moment of utter legislative failure, I wanted to talk to Su and Golden-Krasner about the kind of things Biden is capable of doing, which actions he ought to prioritize, how he should think about the hostile Supreme Court, and the political optics of governing so aggressively and unilaterally.

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Jul 25, 2022
Volts podcast: David Wallace-Wells on the ravages of air pollution
Back in 2020, I wrote an article about some eye-popping new research on air pollution which found that the damage it is doing to human health is roughly twice as bad as previously thought, and moreover, that the economic benefits of pollution reduction vastly outweigh the costs of transitioning to clean energy.

It seemed to me then that the findings should have gotten more attention in the press, and I wasn't the only person who thought so. Journalist David Wallace-Wells, who made a splash a few years ago with his terrifying book on climate change, The Uninhabitable Earth, also dove in to new air pollution research and produced a magisterial overview for the London Review of Books last year. Recently he revisited the subject for his New York Times newsletter, asking why social mobilization against climate change, which promises millions of deaths in decades, is so much greater than mobilization against air pollution, which kills 10 million a year today.

It's a challenging question, and I'm not certain I have a great answer, so I wanted to talk to David about it — what the new research says about the mind-boggling scope and scale of air pollution’s damage to human welfare, how we ought to think about it relative to climate change, and what scares him most about the process of normalization that allows us to live with 10 million deaths a year.

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Jul 18, 2022
Volts podcast: Lori Lodes on climate activism and the path forward
It is a dark time for climate activists. The immense hope they felt at the introduction of the original Build Back Better bill has curdled. It is still possible that some kind of deal might emerge from the Senate in this final month, but if it does it will be a pale shadow of what it once was.

Meanwhile, the Republican-dominated Supreme Court has just taken away one of the EPA's principal tools for addressing greenhouse gases. And that is, of course, only one tiny sliver of the damage that the court has done and is continuing to do. A Supreme Court that is hostile to climate action seems fated to be a fact of life for at least a generation.

It is not clear what climate activists could have done differently to avert these grim outcomes. And it is not at all clear how they should proceed from here. They have no way of encouraging West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin to be a decent human being and once the reconciliation bill is done, the midterms will be upon us, and all signs point toward disastrous Democratic losses that will take legislation off the table entirely.

What should climate activists be doing right now? How should they be maintaining hope and momentum?

To discuss these difficult questions, I contacted Lori Lodes, the head of the nonprofit advocacy organization Climate Power, which was created by John Podesta and others in the run-up to the 2020 election to ensure that climate had a place on the Democratic agenda. Lodes is a veteran of several difficult Democratic fights going back to Obamacare and is a self-proclaimed lover of political combat, so I was eager to hear from her on what climate activists should be doing, how they should feel about whatever emerges from the Build Back Better negotiations, and how they should move forward in a world where federal action has become all but impossible.

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Jul 06, 2022
Volts podcast: Jay Duffy on the Supreme Court's EPA decision
On June 30th, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling in the case of West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency. There was a great deal of dread in the climate community in advance of the ruling, and a great deal of hyperbolic coverage in its wake. But what did it actually say?

Volts listeners will already be familiar with the case thanks to a pod I did on it a few months ago with Jack Lienke and Kirti Datla, and they will recall that it was somewhat bizarre for the court to take this case at all, since it regards a set of regulations that never were and never will be put into effect. Rather, the court seemed eager to pass judgment on the legal justification that it anticipates EPA might use when regulating greenhouse gases under Biden. It was, in other words, an advisory opinion, which the Supreme Court is not supposed to do.

Nonetheless, it took the case and now it has ruled. The headline is that the majority opinion is not as bad as many anticipated, especially in the wake of the unhinged Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. This was a Chief Justice Roberts special, carefully parsed and hedged.

To get clear on what the ruling does and doesn't actually say, I contacted one of the lawyers on the case, Jay Duffy of the Clean Air Task Force. Duffy was responsible for several of the key briefs and arguments in the case, so I thought he would have a good read, not only on what the Roberts decision says, but what it portends for subsequent cases.

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Jul 04, 2022
Volts podcast: Charles Marohn on unsustainable suburbs
Charles Marohn — “Chuck” to his friends — grew up in a small town in Minnesota and later became an urban planner and traffic engineer in the state. After a few years, he began noticing that the projects he was building were hurting the towns he was putting them in — subtracting more tax value than they added, forcing everyone into cars, breaking apart communities and saddling them with unsustainable long-term liabilities.

He began recording his observations on a blog called Strong Towns. It quickly caught on, and over the years, Strong Towns has grown into a full-fledged nonprofit with an educational curriculum, an awards program, and a rich network of local chapters working to improve the towns where they are located.

Marohn has since written several books, most recently 2021’s Confessions of a Recovering Engineer and 2019’s Strong Towns. Intellectually, he sits somewhat orthogonally to most of the contemporary urbanist community. He’s an avowed conservative and opposes many of the state and federal solutions to the housing crisis favored by today’s YIMBYs.

But there is arguably no one alive in America who has done more to get people thinking about what makes for a healthy community and how the US can begin to repair its abysmal late-20th-century land-use choices. I was excited to talk to Marohn about why suburbs are money-losers, the right way to think about NIMBYs and local control, and why the city planning profession is so resistant to reform.

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Jun 29, 2022
Another note to readers
Readers, I am keenly aware that you subscribed to this newsletter to get articles and podcasts about clean energy, not to hear about my life and travails. And I’ve already sent you one life-and-travails message this year. So I debated with myself a long time about whether to send this one, especially given all the other horrible stuff happening in the world.

But, in the end, there is an unavoidable intimacy to this format and that is one of the things I like about it. I don’t have any bosses or advertisers or funders to report to — there’s just me, trying to create good content, and (some of) you, paying for it. Given that life events are currently affecting my ability to work, I feel I owe you some explanation.

Attentive readers may recall that I’m supposed to be in Italy right now, vacationing with my family to celebrate my oldest son’s high school graduation and impending departure to college.

As fate would have it, that vacation has been canceled. Why? Well, part of it is that, as followers of my tweets may already know, my entire family has Covid at the moment. But the other part, which I haven’t yet shared, is that I also have cancer.

Specifically, I have a relatively rare cancer called urothelial carcinoma — a 4.5-cm mass in my right kidney cavity. It was identified via a CT scan about a month ago. A few weeks ago, I had a procedure: a right ureteroscopy with biopsy and ureteral stent insertion. They also fired some lasers at the mass, which I found oddly gratifying.

The good news is that, somewhat to everyone’s surprise, the biopsy indicates that the cancer is low-grade. The bad news is that the mass is so big that it’s got to come out regardless; my surgical options are no different than if it were high-grade.

Because it has gotten so big, trying to laser it to pieces could take two, three, or even more full surgeries, followed by a lifetime of vigilance, since this type of cancer tends to recur in surrounding tissue via the “field effect.” Recurrence in my kidney or ureter would be bad; recurrence in my bladder (which I only have one of) would be worse.

The other option is just to have my right kidney taken out entirely, which is what I’m scheduled to do next month — what the official documentation refers to as a “nephroureterectomy, robot-assisted,” which I also find oddly gratifying. I like having robots and lasers on my side.

Having a kidney out is not a small thing — it’s a serious surgery — but there are very good chances of full recovery. People lose or donate kidneys all the time and go on to live long, healthy lives. My colleague at Vox, Dylan Matthews, donated one of his kidneys out of pure altruism and wrote a detailed account, which has been a great comfort to me.

To be clear: I’m in no pain. The cancer itself is causing me no symptoms outside of hematuria (bloody urine), which admittedly is no fun, but it was the only way this thing got caught. A tumor in your kidney lining (as opposed to the cavity, where mine is) can grow for a long time and cause no symptoms at all. It’s a good thing my tumor made a ruckus.

Suffice it to say, in the vast hellscape of possible cancers, I could have done a lot worse. I am, in the grand scheme of things, quite lucky.

That said, losing the vacation is a real bummer. For one thing, it was all set up: the plane tickets were bought; the lodgings were booked; the train tickets were reserved; the cars were rented; the tours and outings were all lined up. It was going to be magic. But what really hurts my heart is not getting to send my son off with some indelible memories of his final summer with us. I wanted that time with him so badly.

As a sad, sweet gesture, Mrs. Volts made us reservations at an Italian restaurant in Seattle for last Monday night — the night we were supposed to leave for Italy — but then, over the weekend, the older boy tested positive for Covid. He isolated immediately, but the next day I tested positive and the day after that, Mrs. Volts and the younger boy.

To summarize: rather than nibbling gelato and sipping espresso at a street-side cafe in Florence, we are at the end of a week spent slumping around our house, coughing and snorting and unable to do much but watch TV. (The Old Man is really good.)

One additional downer: remember a while back I told you about my aching wrists and elbows? Yeah, that’s worse than ever. I can type for short bursts, but holding my hands steady in any position for more than about 30 seconds brings sharp pain. This means I can’t really sustain concentrated work on longer writing. I can basically … tweet. And given that tweeting is already what I do when I’m anxious, I’ve been tweeting a lot lately. It’s not great.

I tried some voice control and transcription programs, but I found them weirdly enervating. It is exhausting to talk all the time! But I’m going to have another go at them, since this doesn’t seem to be going away and I still can’t think of a practical way to take six months away from a keyboard to let them rest.

Anyway. I have lived, on balance, an extraordinarily fortunate and privileged life, and I’m still living one, but I tell you — when it rains, it pours.

I will get my kidney out; Covid will pass; I will figure out how to deal with the tendonitis. Some day soon this will all be behind me and I will get back to full productivity, including writing the long explanatory articles that I desperately miss writing. I want to bring in more guest pieces, do more deep dives, and set up some regular features and themes.

But in the meantime, while I am navigating this crapstorm, there might be some slow weeks and months around here. I’m going to try to keep up the podcasting, but it may be a bit more sporadic.

As I said last time, if anyone feels like they’re not getting what they signed up for and wants to unsubscribe, I understand and do not begrudge. Subscriber growth slowed considerably when I shifted from writing to podcasting, as I suspected it might, but it hasn’t yet ever gone down. Y’all have stuck with me and I can not tell you how grateful and humbled I am to have you all here.

In the meantime, my prognosis is good. My health-care providers are good. My insurance is good. My wife is a superhero. I don’t need or want for anything. I just thought I should let y’all know where I’m at. Volts is one of the things that keeps me going, so thank you for reading and listening and just being out there.

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Jun 27, 2022
Volts podcast: Kimberly Nicholas on the best ways to get cars out of cities
In the US, the movement to get cars out of cities is … what’s the nice word? … nascent. But in Europe, where many cities were built before cars and big-box sprawl never completely dominated, there is growing agreement that cars need to be reigned in. It’s partly about fighting climate change, but beyond that it’s about quality of life — living without air and noise pollution, using your legs to get around, and enjoying public spaces.

More and more European cities are discovering what Copenhagen found when it studied the problem in earnest: every mile traveled on a bike adds value to a city, whereas every mile traveled in a car subtracts value.

The pushback against cars in the Europe has been going on for decades now, but there has been little effort to catalogue and rank the various policies and initiatives involved. What works and what doesn’t? What should other cities prioritize?

Into that breach came a recent research paper in Case Studies on Transport Policy that dove into the academic literature (surveying 800 papers) to rank the top car-reducing strategies. It was co-authored by Paula Kuss (based on her master’s research) and Kimberly Nicholas of Sweden’s Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies. Nicholas later wrote a summary of the research for The Conversation that received an enormous amount of attention.

As it happens, driving cars out of cities is one of my enduring obsessions, so I eagerly accepted Nicholas’ offer to review the research, discuss the themes evident in the top-performing policies, and ponder whether such policies could ever take hold in the US. Our conversation was enlightening and heartening, despite making me want to move to Europe.

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Jun 22, 2022
Volts podcast: Dan Pfeiffer on the Democratic Party's megaphone problem
You probably know Dan Pfeiffer best as one of the hosts of the wildly successful Pod Save America podcast, part of the growing Crooked Media empire of which he is a co-founder. Or perhaps you know him as the author of the Message Box newsletter, where he dispenses communications advice to left-leaning subscribers.

But before he was a new media mogul, Pfeiffer was in the thick of politics as a top aide on Obama’s campaign and then in Obama’s White House, where he ran communications and strategy.

Pfeiffer has seen the media war between the parties play out, and he has seen Democrats lose messaging battles again and again. He has first-hand experience of the growing power of the right-wing media machine to spread disinformation, set the agenda for the rest of the media, and deflect accountability.

Now he has written a book on the subject: Battling the Big Lie is an extended examination of the growing imbalance between the conservative movement’s massive media megaphone … and the left’s lack of one.

Listeners know that I have been obsessed with this imbalance for as long as I’ve been following politics, so I was super geeked to talk with Pfeiffer about how right-wing media grew, how it successfully intimidated both mainstream media and social media companies, and how Democrats can begin building a comparable megaphone of their own, before it’s too late.

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Jun 17, 2022
Volts podcast: Johannes Ackva on effective climate altruism
Say you’re a private individual (or a company, or a foundation) who cares about climate change and has some money to spend on it. What’s the best way to spend that money? How can you ensure the largest possible impact?

Similar questions about maximizing philanthropic impact have led to an entire field of study and practice known as “effective altruism,” which seeks to apply logical and empirical rigor to do-gooderism. But it is only very recently that effective altruists have turned their attention to climate change.

One of the leading EA voices on climate is Johannes Ackva. He’s a researcher at Founders Pledge, an organization through which business owners and entrepreneurs donate a portion of their earnings to charity. For years, Ackva has been thinking through the puzzle of how best to channel climate philanthropy, given the structure of the problem and the politics around it.

If you’re interested in what groups Founders Pledge has chosen for its donations, you can find a list on the website, but I was more interested in the thinking that led Ackva to those recommendations. Given the enormous spatial and temporal scales involved in climate change, the many social and political complexities, the extensive and irreducible uncertainties, how can a well-meaning donor have any confidence in their choices?

I found our conversation quite enlightening — a new lens through which to view this familiar problem — it and I think you will too.

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Jun 15, 2022
Volts podcast: Dr. Ye Tao on a grand scheme to cool the Earth
Geoengineering — using large-scale engineering projects to directly cool the Earth’s atmosphere — is an intensely controversial topic in climate circles. On one hand, such schemes strike many people as dangerous hubris, interfering with large-scale systems we don’t fully understand, risking catastrophic unintended consequences. On the other hand, there is good reason to believe that even a wildly successful program of decarbonization will not be enough to avoid devastating levels of heat in the atmosphere.

Dr. Ye Tao was early in his career as a researcher at Harvard’s Rowland Institute, working on nanotechnology, when he became gripped by the problem of climate change. As he dug into the research, he concluded that even rapid decarbonization — especially insofar as it reduces the aerosol pollution that temporarily cools the atmosphere — would leave the Earth roasting in levels of heat hostile to most life forms.

As he reviewed available options for carbon capture and geoengineering, he realized that none of them were safe or scalable enough to do the necessary cooling work in time. So he came up with a technique of his own: mirrors.

The MEER project — Mirrors for Earth’s Energy Rebalancing — is a nonprofit established to advance Tao’s vision, which involves covering some mix of land and ocean with fields of mirrors. The mirrors would reflect solar radiation, and thus heat, back up out of the atmosphere. If 10 to 15 percent of developed agricultural land could be covered with mirrors, Tao has calculated, it would return Earth’s heat to safe preindustrial levels, providing a range of local benefits to agriculture and water in the meantime.

It’s a brash idea, somewhere between crazy and obvious, and I was excited to hear more from Tao about why he thinks it’s necessary, how it would work, the materials that would be required, and how the MEER framework changes the way we view carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

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Jun 08, 2022
Volts podcast: Chris Hayes on how his politics have changed since 2015
I often reflect on a particular moment in the summer of 2015. It was not long after the Supreme Court made gay marriage legal across the nation in Obergefell v. Hodges. And America was in the middle of one of its regular fights over Confederate monuments and flags, which were being pulled down by progressives across the country.

One afternoon I ran across a cartoon — I think it was on Facebook? — showing a Confederate flag being lowered and the LGBTQ flag being raised in its stead.

Hot damn, I thought. Maybe we really do get it right eventually.

I now think back on that moment as the peak of my belief in what you might call the Obama creed, which the nation's first black president repeated in one way or another in virtually every speech: that the essence of America is its continuous struggle toward the egalitarian ideals of its founding. Again and again it delays and falls short and takes two steps back, but it never stops striving, improving, bit by hard-fought bit. The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.

To a first approximation, everything that has happened since then has sucked. We fell into the ugly 2016 Democratic nomination fight, followed by the ugly presidential election, then four years of daily insults to dignity and compassion by Trump, then a plague that we bungled in countless ways and that has killed more than a million of us, and now, the Supreme Court is systematically dismantling the pillars of the modern administrative state while Biden and the Democrats fumble their way through a slow-motion catastrophe, setting up an openly seditious Republican Party to seize near-total power in the coming two elections.

To put it mildly, these developments have been rough on the Obama creed, at least for me and many people I know. Much of what Obama himself did was crushed or reversed by Trump, and Biden has barely begun rebuilding from the wreckage. More than that, America's reactionary minority seems ascendent. And its intentions are clear: to follow Viktor Orban's lead in Hungary. To whittle democracy down until it's entirely hollow, one-party rule in all but name. It finds echoes in similar reactionary backlashes currently rising in nations across the globe.

Is America redeemable? Is white Christian patriarchy ready and willing to destroy the country before it gives up power? Is the arc of history bending, or is it merely flailing back and forth, with no larger purpose or pattern? Is modern multi-racial, multi-cultural democracy still a viable long-term project?

To help ponder these weighty questions, I've turned to the inimitable Chris Hayes, who, as they say, needs no introduction. You've seen his shows on MSNBC, you've listened to his podcast, you've read his essays and books, you know that he is one of the leading liberal voices of our time. He’s also a friend. We are part of the same generation of journalists, living through the same dumpster fires, seeing the same patterns, and our paths have crossed regularly over the years. I’ve also been on several of his shows! We go way back.

I’ve always felt that Chris and I share similar political and intellectual instincts — one of the few people at the commanding heights of US journalism and punditry about whom I can say that — so I’m curious to hear how his political outlook has changed since 2015, whether he still believes in the Obama creed, and what he thinks is coming in America’s near future.

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Jun 03, 2022
Volts podcast: Danny Cullenward on California's shaky climate plans
California has long been known, nationally and internationally, as a leader on climate policy. The sheer scale of its economy and the stringency of its emissions targets have made it a model for other states with climate ambitions. As a role model, its successes (and failures) reverberate far beyond its borders.

So it matters a great deal whether California has a practical plan to meet its aspirations. This year offers something of an answer, and … it’s not great.

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Every five years, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) issues a “scoping plan,” laying out how it intends to meet the state’s targets.

The last one, in 2017, raised serious questions about whether the state’s cap-and-trade system could do the emission-reduction work that the state planned to require of it through 2030. This year’s draft scoping plan (there’s still time for public comment) answers none of those questions, and instead, looking out to 2045, raises new questions about whether carbon-dioxide removal (CDR) can do the work the state plans to require of it.

That’s a lot of questions. To hash through them, and get a sense of just how prepared California is to meet its climate targets, I called up Danny Cullenward, a long-time policy analyst in the state. (Volts fans will remember him from one of the very first Volts posts.) He is currently policy director at the nonprofit CarbonPlan and a research fellow at American University’s Institute for Carbon Removal Law & Policy.

Cullenward and I discussed what policies have worked to reduce emissions in California, whether the cap-and-trade program can do what’s asked of it, why the current scoping plan leans so heavily on CDR, and whether there’s still time to improve the plan before it’s locked in for five years.

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Jun 01, 2022
Volts podcast: Abigail Hopper on the trade case that is crushing the US solar industry
Back in 2012, the Obama administration levied tariffs on solar panels from China, to punish the country for unfairly subsidizing its panels in an attempt to corner the market. In the ensuing years, US imports from China fell off sharply and imports from Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam rose just as quickly.

Early this year, a tiny California-based solar manufacturer, Auxin, filed a trade complaint with the US Department of Commerce, alleging that China is effectively laundering its solar supply chain through third-party countries, thereby illegally circumventing tariffs. It asked Commerce to apply commensurate tariffs on imports from those countries. (Canary Media has extremely thorough coverage of the case, if you want to catch up.)

Commerce is investigating. Meanwhile, the industry has been thrown for a loop — imports have fallen off, projects are being cancelled, and projections of growth are being revised radically downward. The tariffs could be anywhere from 30 to 250 percent, which would radically change the economics of big solar projects, and if applied, will be retrospective over the past two years, which means even existing contracts are in jeopardy. The uncertainty has cast a pall over the entire sector.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has been advocating against tariffs from the beginning and is calling on Commerce to dismiss the complaint. I contacted Abigail Hopper, the head of SEIA, to talk about the merits of the case, whether building a domestic solar supply chain is a good goal, whether tariffs work, and what other policies might be preferable.

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May 25, 2022
Volts podcast: Lauren Melodia and Kristina Karlsson on energy inflation and how to tame it
Americans are struggling with two related problems: one, there’s general inflation, which means pretty much everything is expensive; two, there’s energy price inflation, which means that energy in particular (specifically, oil and gas) is expensive.

This has led some politicians, mainly Republicans-and-Joe-Manchin, to propose a dual solution: cut back on government spending (to tame inflation) and increase domestic oil and gas production (to tame energy prices).

This approach is wrong-headed and counter-productive on both counts. The reasons why are laid out in a new issue brief from the Roosevelt Institute, the first in a series called “All Economic Policy Is Climate Policy” (which, hell yes).

Lauren Melodia, deputy director of macroeconomic analysis at the Roosevelt Institute, and Kristina Karlsson, the institute’s program manager for climate and economic transformation, argue that fossil fuel prices are inherently volatile, and that volatility has serious macroeconomic effects; on the flip side, electricity prices — specifically renewable electricity prices — tend to be far more stable and manageable.

It follows that government spending to build out clean-energy infrastructure is itself anti-inflationary; it removes a source of price instability and replaces it with stability.

This argument is my favorite kind — it put words to something that’s been rattling around in my head for years — so I was excited to talk to Melodia and Karlsson about the volatility of fossil fuels, why we’ve come to accept it as an inevitable fact of life, and why it is, in fact, a choice that we could make differently.

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May 23, 2022
Volts podcast: Jesse Morris on building an operating system for distributed energy
Recent years have seen an explosive rise in distributed energy resources (DERs) — energy devices that are located “behind the meter,” on the customer side, like solar panels, batteries, electric vehicles (EVs), and smart appliances.

Distributed energy has the potential to change the grid for the better, making it cleaner and more resilient, but as things stand, there’s a problem.

Consider an EV. The customer has a relationship to it, a way to see its capacity and behavior; it wants to operate the EV in a way that best serves their own transportation needs. The aggregator — an entity that gathers DERs and treats them as a single entity, to sell their services — has a different relationship with the EV; it wants to operate the EV to meet contractual requirements. The distribution utility has a different relationship; it wants to operate the EV to maintain grid stability. And the market manager (ISO) has yet a different relationship; it wants to operate the EV in the way that best serves the market.

All these entities want different things from the EV, but they’ve all built bespoke systems to track it — systems that do not communicate with one another. Consequently, most DERs are wildly underutilized.

This can not last. Confusion and crossed wires will only grow with distributed energy. What the world needs is a common, transparent, trusted way to track DERs, their capacity and interaction with the grid.

That is what Energy Web, an international nonprofit, aims to provide: “an operating system for DERs” that will assign each DER a record on the blockchain (yes, the blockchain), allowing all interested entities to have a common source of information and tracking.

I am a bit of a skeptic of toward blockchain hype, but this seems like an excellent use of it, which could unlock a much more sophisticated and resilient grid. I’m eager to talk to Energy Web CEO Jesse Morris about what the product is, how it can help DERs, and where we might see it adopted next.

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May 18, 2022
Volts podcast: Doug Thompson defends the deep state
It’s well-understood that the modern US conservative movement is a mix of two primary forces, fiscal and social conservatism. (See: fusionism.) Put more crudely: it’s the oligarchs and the evangelical white nationalists.

The left’s pushback to social conservatism — anti-racism and civil rights more broadly — is well-developed and richly articulated. But what about the oligarchs and their stated mission to, in Steve Bannon’s words, “deconstruct the administrative state”? Where is the left’s defense of the administrative state, or as it’s less fondly known, the bureaucracy, or even less fondly, the “deep state”? Who will speak up for the deep state?

The left has an ambivalent relationship with bureaucracy (which, after all, only overlapped with democracy for the last century or so) and has largely failed to articulate a coherent defense, even as Biden’s administration scrambles to rebuild the agencies Trump decimated.

The right has told a clear, consistent story: government bureaucracies are corrupt, inefficient, incompetent, and expensive. It has been repeated to the point that it is folk wisdom. To this day, the left does not have a similarly clear and consistent counter-story about the merits of bureaucracy, or, to use a less loaded term, administrative capacity.

State administrative capacity may not be well-theorized on the left, but it is nonetheless a necessary condition of virtually all progressives’ solutions to contemporary problems, climate change chief among them. The wealthy can not be taxed, corporations can not be forced to follow the rules, and wealth can not be transferred to those in need without a robust, competent administrative state.

My guest today, Doug Thompson, an associate professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, has been thinking and writing about bureaucracy lately, as part of a larger book project on authoritarianism in America. He wondered why aspiring autocrats invariably degrade administrative capacity the second they are able — what they know about it that small-d democrats don’t seem to — which led him to an investigation of bureacracy that traced through Tocqueville and du Bois.

Anyway, I’m excited to geek out with Thompson about the intense oligarchic hatred of the administrative state, America’s rich and somewhat surprising history with bureaucracy, and the kinds of positive arguments that can be made on behalf of administrative capacity as such.

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May 13, 2022
Volts podcast: Andy Frank on how to sell whole-home retrofits to skeptical consumers
One of the greatest riddles of the decarbonization effort is the residential sector, responsible for about 20 percent of US energy-related carbon emissions. There are about 142 million housing units in the US, around 83 million of which are “owner-occupied.” Substantially changing them involves dealing with 83 million separate owners, each with their own circumstances and preferences.

Residential decarbonization seems incredibly difficult to scale up, and attempts to date have not been particularly successful. At the rate we are going, it will take hundreds of years to decarbonize America’s housing stock.

The crew at New York-based climate tech company Sealed is trying something new, imported from the commercial efficiency market. Rather than trying to persuade homeowners to buy and install things with their own scarce resources, Sealed covers all the upfront costs and coordinates the work with trusted contractors. Homeowners pay the retrofit back out of energy savings, which means Sealed only gets paid if there are, in fact, measurable energy savings.

This kind of pay-for-performance arrangement is called an energy services agreement (ESA). Listeners of my pod with Rob Harmon will recognize the concept: customers are paying for metered energy efficiency, in the same way they would pay for energy.

Sealed started small but is growing quickly, so I’m excited to talk to its president and co-founder Andy Frank about the frustrations and failures of residential energy efficiency to date, what he’s learned about homeowner preferences, and what kind of benefits come along with having a fully electrified home.

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May 09, 2022
Volts podcast: Fran Moore on how to represent social change in climate models
One of my long-time gripes about the climate-economic models that outfits like the IPCC produce is that they ignore politics. More broadly, they ignore social change and the way it can both drive and be driven by technology and climate impacts.

This isn’t difficult to explain — unlike technology costs, biophysical feedbacks, and other easily quantifiable variables, the dynamics of social change seem fuzzy and qualitative, too soft and poorly understood to include in a quantitative model. Consequently, those dynamics have been treated as “exogenous” to models. Modelers simply determine those values, feed in a set level of policy change, and the models react. Parameters internal to the model can not affect policy and be affected by it in turn; models do not capture socio-physical and socio-economic feedback loops.

But we know those feedback loops exist. We know that falling costs of technology can shift public sentiment which can lead to policy which can further reduce the costs of technology. All kinds of loops like that exist, among and between climate, technology, and human social variables. Leaving them out entirely can produce misleading results.

At long last, a new research paper has tackled this problem head-on. Fran Moore, an assistant professor at UC Davis working at the intersection of climate science and economics, took a stab at it in a recent Nature paper, “Determinants of emissions pathways in the coupled climate–social system.” Moore, along with several co-authors, attempted to construct a climate model that includes social feedback loops, to help determine what kinds of social conditions produce policy change and how policy change helps change social conditions.

I am fascinated by this effort and by the larger questions of how to integrate social-science dynamics into climate analysis, so I was eager to talk to Moore about how she constructed her model, what kinds of data she drew on, and how she views the dangers and opportunities of quantifying social variables.

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May 04, 2022
Volts podcast: Nan Ransohoff on how (and why) Stripe is kick-starting the carbon-removal market
In 2019, the payments company Stripe announced that it would spend at least $1 million a year on verified, permanent carbon dioxide removal (CDR). The response was intense, not only from those working on CDR, but from customers, organizations, and companies that wanted to follow suit.

There’s a lot of money and good will floating around these days that isn’t quite sure how to have the biggest climate impact. Stripe had assembled a group of experts to scrutinize CDR technologies and companies. Why not just let Stripe invest the money?

Fast-forward a few years: Stripe has now unveiled a nearly billion-dollar pot of CDR money ($925 million, to be exact). A new Stripe-owned company called Frontier will pool money from Stripe, partners like Alphabet, Meta, and Shopify, and thousands of Stripe customers who donate a small portion of their transaction costs and make it available to CDR contenders.

Frontier is offering what’s called an “advance market commitment,” a guarantee that if companies can figure out ways to verifiably and permanently draw down carbon, no matter the initial price, there will be buyers. This enables companies to get financing and start deploying projects.

Stripe’s head of carbon, Nan Ransohoff, told The Atlantic’s Rob Meyer that a billion is “roughly 30 times the carbon-removal market that existed in 2021. But it’s still 1,000 times short of the market we need by 2050.”

I thought I would get in touch with Ransohoff to ask her how far she thinks private companies can push CDR in the absence of policy, which technologies are showing promise, and whether Stripe is pushing governments to get involved.

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Apr 29, 2022
Volts podcast: Michael Terrell on Google's pursuit of 24/7 clean energy
One of the big energy stories of the last decade is the surprising scale and vigor of the corporate sector’s push into clean energy. In 2020 alone, US corporate and industrial (C&I) buyers procured 10.6 gigawatts of renewable energy — a third of all the renewables capacity added in the country that year.

One of the earliest and most ambitious buyers was Google, which announced in 2012 that it would set out to procure renewable energy equal to its total energy consumption; it achieved that goal in 2017 (and every year since).

Then, in 2020, Google announced a new goal: it wants to run all of its facilities around the world on carbon-free energy, every hour of every day, 24/7. That is a much more difficult undertaking and it involves much more than wind and solar power. (I did a series of posts/pods on the 24/7 target if you want to dig in deeper.)

Last week, Google released a new white paper in which it makes a series of policy recommendations, from clean energy standards to new regional energy markets, that it argues will help it and the rest of the grid reach round-the-clock clean energy.

It seems like a good occasion to connect with Michael Terrell, Google’s director of energy, to ask him how the 24/7 effort is going, what kinds of technologies might help achieve it, and what sorts of policies could help unlock it for the entire grid.

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Apr 27, 2022
Volts podcast: Horace Luke on decarbonizing the world's two-wheelers
Electric vehicles are all the rage these days, but at least here in the western world, most of the attention has focused on four-wheeled passenger vehicles, first Tesla and then all the companies trying to catch up with Tesla. However, across the globe, more than 50 percent of commute miles are undertaken on two-wheelers — scooters, mopeds, and the like. China, India, and Indonesia alone contain more than 500 million two-wheelers; anyone who has visited big cities in those countries has seen the vehicles swarming the streets.

And they are dirty as hell. Their two-stroke motors emit as much as five times the pollutants of the average new car in the US. Millions of people have died from two-wheeler pollution, to say nothing of the climate impacts.

But two-wheelers are difficult to electrify. Their owners tend not to have extra cash; theft is a constant danger; and urban density makes plugging in, especially in a place sheltered from the elements, difficult.

Today’s guest, Horace Luke, set out to solve this problem with his company Gogoro, founded in 2011. The idea was simple: consumers would own the scooters, but Gogoro would own the batteries, which would be made available in stations across the urban fabric, such that riders could easily find one to swap. Consumers would subscribe to the service, effectively ensuring that they would always have a charged battery available.

The company took a different course than he expected — Gogoro ended up building its own scooters, stations, and batteries, doing far more hardware than the software-minded Luke had originally envisioned — but his persistence won out and the model is taking off, preparing to expand from Taiwan (where it started) to a range of other burgeoning megacities in emerging economies.

It’s a clever model, a mental shift that opens up all kinds of new possibilities, so I was excited to chat with Luke about the problem of two-wheelers, the consumer experience of subscribing to Gogoro, and the other kinds of things, outside of transportation, that cities might be able to do with thousands of distributed, swappable batteries.

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Apr 22, 2022
At long last, I have an EV
For years now, I’ve been dithering about getting an electric vehicle (EV). Much of that dithering has been done in public, on Twitter and for various sites I’ve worked for — just a few weeks ago I subjected you to my handwringing about an EV test drive — so I figured I might as well document how the journey finally ended.

Long story short, we bought a used 2017 Chevy Bolt. That is about the least sexy sentence one can write about EVs in the year of our lord 2022, but there you have it.

We thought about leasing or buying one of the fancy new EVs, the Kia EV6 or the Ford Mustang or a Tesla. But we’re pretty cheap and didn’t want to pay that much. And we felt slightly guilty about buying a new car. And those cars feel like statements. As Mrs. Volts put it, “I just don’t want to say that much with my car.”

The Bolt (along with the Nissan Leaf) is the closest thing to an econo-box option in the EV market, and that’s more our speed. We paid $25K — considerably more than we would have paid for the same car 12 months ago, thanks to lingering supply issues, but less than half of a tricked-out, new version of any of the fancier models.

In terms of value, though, there’s a twist — the “cheat code” of the current EV market. As you probably know, there has been a massive recall of Bolt batteries. Every battery in every Bolt from 2017 to 2022 will be replaced, at no charge, by Chevrolet.

That means, at some point in the next year (my local Chevy dealer estimates seven months from now), they’ll call me, I’ll drop the car off at the dealership, they’ll put in a brand new, 260-mile-range battery, and I’ll get it back the next day. Given that the rest of the car is in good shape (~57K miles on the odometer), this will effectively be like getting a new EV for the cost of a used one. Score.

The econo-box of EVs

The car itself is somewhat spartan, if comfortable. It has the “premier” trim, so I got my beloved heated steering wheel, Mrs. Volts her beloved heated seats. It has one-pedal driving and lane assist and parking assist and all-around cameras and Android Auto. The only fancy-pants feature I notice missing is wireless phone charging (which I got used to real quick in the Mustang).

As for acceleration, even if it isn’t the insane road-rocket the Mustang was, it is considerably zippier than either of our aged current vehicles, more than zippy enough to make it fun getting around the city. (It has a “sport” mode, with higher torque and lower range, but I haven’t had occasion to use it yet.)

The interface is lower end, which means it involves more physical buttons and knobs and less screen real estate than newer EVs, but to be honest I like that much better. There’s less occasion and temptation to look at the screen. I can find most stuff I really need with my fingers.

There’s not enough console space and the Bluetooth interface with phones is somewhat janky — listening to music on my phone involves a lot more button-poking than I’d like — but it’s tolerable.

As for accessories, I bought a back-seat cover (for the dogs) and a level-two charger (we had a 220-volt outlet already installed). I can’t think of much else we need. We are now driving (semi-)guilt-free.

Getting an EV is easier than ever

One final note: early in this process I was contacted by a company called Link that is devoted to making it easy for people to get EVs. You can use their site to shop for the EV you want — they offer an advisory service — and then they’ll arrange the lease or purchase for you.

After wasting way too much time shopping around, I told Link I wanted a used Bolt. For a few weeks, they sent me notices of Bolts (that had been inspected) as they came on the market. When we saw one we liked, they did all the purchasing and transferring of titles. They mailed me the paperwork (including detailed inspection reports), I signed and mailed it back, and then the car was dropped off in my driveway. I never had to haggle or talk to a salesperson. All I had to do is register it at the DMV and let the Chevy dealership know I had it. It could not have been easier.

Link is mostly operating on the West Coast for now, but if you have been dithering about an EV like I was, I can’t recommend it enough. (I know other services like this are springing up — it’s a big and eager market, I would think.)

Anyway, that’s the story of how I finally got an EV. You’ll hear no more dithering from me. Instead I’ll to go back to daydreaming about living somewhere where I don’t need a car at all.

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Apr 18, 2022
Volts podcast: Elizabeth Popp Berman on the "economic style of thinking" that consumed US policy

In this episode, sociologist Elizabeth Popp Berman discusses her new book, Thinking Like an Economist, about the “economic style of thinking” and how it took over in US policy circles in the post-war period. It remains embedded there to this day, but alternatives are beginning to emerge.

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Apr 15, 2022
Volts podcast: Paulina Jaramillo on the IPCC's new climate-solutions report

In this episode, Carnegie Mellon professor Paulina Jaramillo discusses the IPCC's working group 3 report, “mitigation of climate change,” of which she was a co-author. It's the most comprehensive look to date at the economic sectors that emit greenhouse gases, the strategies and technologies that can reduce emissions, and the state of play in climate policy around the world.

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Apr 13, 2022
Me, on the Some More News podcast
Earlier this year, I stumbled on the news videos from the team at Some More News. They are like The Daily Show, but longer, smarter, more in-depth, more profane, and free of Jon Stewart’s unfortunate navel-gazing centrism. But still funny as hell!

In other words: they might as well be targeted directly at me. I’ve been gorging on them for months. (You could start with this one on critical race theory.)

Anyway, imagine my delight when I discovered that Some More News also has a podcast, Even More News, and they wanted me to come on it!

So that’s what today’s episode of Volts is: an episode of Even More News that the team has graciously allowed me to send to you on the Volts channel. We talk about IPCC stuff briefly, but I also got to let loose on Joe Manchin, lament Dems’ general media fecklessness, and heap scorn on Elon Musk’s Twitter moves. It was fun to get away from the wonky stuff for a while and just riff. It’s a different side of Dr. Volts! You can decide for yourself whether it’s better or worse.

You should definitely subscribe to Some More News and support the team via Patreon. The left needs much more of this kind of thing — new ways of reaching people where they are.

Also! Last week I was on PBS Newshour to discuss the new IPCC report and the state of clean-energy technology. You can watch here:

I always underestimate the reach of PBS — it’s wild how many people saw this and contacted me! And how many saw it and contacted my parents. Love you, PBS.

Back later this week with some nerdy pods of my own!

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Apr 11, 2022
Me, interviewed by Noah Smith
Economist Noah Smith runs the excellent substack Noahpinion, where he writes and podcasts about … pretty much everything. Economics. Politics. The war. Housing. Technology. On and on. The guy is ludicrously productive.

This week, he interviewed me! We talked about the new IPCC reports, the state of technology, some dumb tweets of mine, and NIMBYs, among other things. It was a fun and wide-ranging conversation. Check it out! (And subscribe to Noahpinion.)

The video is below. The audio is posted as a podcast above.

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Apr 08, 2022
Volts podcast: Matthew Metz & Janelle London on gasoline superusers & smarter EV subsidies

In this episode, activists Matthew Metz and Janelle London discuss their new report on gasoline “superusers” — the subset of drivers who drive long distances each year — and the policy recommendations around EV subsidies that it contains. It's a clever idea I haven't been able to stop thinking about.

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Apr 04, 2022
Volts podcast: Audrey Schulman and Zeyneb Magavi on how to replace natural gas with renewable heat

In this episode, activists and entrepreneurs Audrey Schulman and Zeyneb Magavi discuss their audacious plan to replace the nation's natural gas distribution infrastructure with a series of networked geothermal heat pumps. Basically, neighborhoods would be heated by warm water rather than natural gas. It would be the most efficient collective heating option available in the world.

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Apr 01, 2022
Volts podcast: Rob Harmon on how to scale up energy efficiency

In this episode, entrepreneur Rob Harmon discusses his new method for tracking and monetizing energy efficiency in commercial buildings. Traditionally, efficiency policy has consisted in subsidizing equipment up front. Harmon explains how to get reliable numbers about actual performance and begin to build a market around them. Surprisingly fascinating.

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Mar 28, 2022
Volts podcast: David Hsu on the grassroots policy that lets communities control own energy supply

In this episode, MIT Professor David Hsu discusses a paper he wrote that charts the history, evolution, and current fortunes of community choice aggregation, a tool whereby a community can take ownership over its own energy procurement. It is the rare example of energy democracy breaking out in America's monopoly-dominated system — a good news story in an era of bad vibes.

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Mar 16, 2022
The lovely Ford Mustang Mach-E and the danger of electric cars
(Hey y’all — I’m attempting to dictate this post rather than type it, so please forgive any sins of grammar or structure.)

My family and I own two extremely old cars, a 2001 Honda Odyssey minivan and a 2009 Toyota Prius hybrid. The van is literally falling apart, so we have been looking around lately for a new vehicle. Obviously, we would prefer an EV.

A representative from Ford saw me musing about it on Twitter, contacted me, and offered to loan me a Ford Mustang Mach-E electric vehicle for a week. I've been driving it for a few days and I thought I would report my early impressions, along with some larger reservations.

Holy s*** EVs are fun to drive

I should note up top that I’m not a car guy. I don’t know much about them, don’t much like them, and don’t much like driving them. I never learned to drive a stick shift or change the oil. I don’t drool over muscle cars or know what “hemi” means. Truth be told, I kind of hate car culture.

I should also note that I have only ever driven two EVs in my life. The first was the Kia EV6, which I test-drove last week. The second is this Ford. I can say very little about the fine differences in EV driving experience.

In short, I am the least qualified car reviewer on the planet.

As I said, both of my current cars are extremely old, so I am easily impressed by modern vehicular technology. I still get a kick out of remote key fobs. With this car, when you approach, it lights up, unlocks, and projects a picture of a Mustang on the ground next to the vehicle.

There are heated seats, a heated steering wheel, a wireless phone-charging pad, and a giant touch screen with about 50 menus. It all feels like a spaceship to me.

The first thing anyone notices when they drive an EV for the first time is the acceleration. With either of my gasoline vehicles — even the Prius when it’s driving in electric mode — there is a lag between pressing the accelerator and speeding up. You are always thinking a second or two ahead, about what speed you'll need to be going, and trying to anticipate. With the EV, acceleration is instant. You are going the speed you want to go the second you want to go it. It is wild.

And when you use one-pedal driving mode, when you let off on the accelerator, you immediately slow. It’s difficult to put in words, but it adds up to a sense of much more precise control.

I was driving home from a restaurant on Tuesday evening and fiddling with the Spotify menu when I drifted slightly onto the middle line between lanes. With a tiny little push — boomp — the car nudged me back into my lane, as though it were semi-sentient. I hadn’t even thought about the driver-assist features before that, but my one experience with them so far was reassuring, albeit faintly creepy.

I’m one of those old guys who resists getting a Tesla because I don’t want to be forced to do every-dang-thing with a touch screen. Give me something physical, with feedback that goes beyond a haptic buzz. I like knobs! Ford’s screen has one giant knob toward the bottom, for volume — it’s better than nothing.

In general, Ford has done a pretty good job with its screens and interface. Crucially, unlike in the Tesla, there’s a second screen just under eye level with key information like speed and range. On the bigger center screen, finding the basic stuff is painless. And there are some cool things if you poke around — you can save different profiles (mirror and seat positions, music playlists) that attach to different key fobs. Or you can use your phone as a key fob.

I haven’t used any of these features enough to know how they’ll age, but it’s all pretty dazzling.

The ride is smooth and quiet, the stereo system kicks ass, and that heated steering wheel … I mean, I’ve found nothing to complain about. And I’m pretty good at complaining. Car & Driver named the Ford Mach-E its EV of the year in 2021 and far be it from me to disagree.

It’s not clear Americans can handle this kind of power

However! As I was driving home, hands blissfully warm, thinking I might take the long way so I could drive more, I started feeling some reservations. I started thinking about what it would mean for EVs to become dominant, the default choice, with most people driving them.

For one thing, they make driving much more fun, even for someone like me who has a deep-seated antipathy toward cars and has never enjoyed driving. All the electric gizmos and screens and features, combined with the unbelievable torque and acceleration, make driving feel like a game in which you’ve just leveled up.

It's difficult to believe that if driving is more fun … people won't do it more. And electric or not, less driving is better.

The other thing is, the acceleration puts an enormous amount of power in your hands. For someone like me, who drives fairly carefully and pays attention, it can feel more precise and controlled, and thus safer. But it's not difficult to see how this kind of power could be misused. These cars can leap across intersections, going from standing still to 20 or 30 miles an hour in a second or two. If drivers aren't paying attention, it's a lot easier for an idle mistake to grow more consequential, involving more speed. And the constantly available torque is an invitation to try crazy passing maneuvers on the highway.

The US already has notoriously pedestrian-hostile infrastructure. If that stays the same, if nothing else changes, more torque and power in everyone's hands is going to lead to more collisions.

Driver-assist features might offset this somewhat. I do feel safer knowing that my car will keep me in my lane in normal driving conditions. But there's only so much software can do in the face of bad infrastructure. Lacking much data, we are all going on our guesses and impressions and priors, but my gut feeling is that putting tons more power in drivers’ hands without changing anything else is going to lead to an even more hostile environment for everyone not driving.

Ultimately, my fondest wish is that I lived somewhere where I didn't want or need a car at all. I hate cars. I hate driving. I really hate other people's driving, and other people's cars. EVs are such an enormous leap forward in environmental terms that it feels somewhat perverse to question them, but nonetheless, despite all the hype, despite all the fun, it's worth remembering that the top priority — not just for climate hawks but for humanists of all sorts — should be reducing the need for, and number of, cars.

The top priority should be making land use and planning choices that encourage walkable communities, with amenities mixed in, so people can get out of cars and get onto their feet or bicycles.

EVs are fun to drive. But no kind of driving is better than walking in the fresh air, getting exercise and mixing with your neighbors. I hope EVs don't pull our attention away from that fact.

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Mar 14, 2022
Volts podcast: Jack Lienke & Kirti Datla on the ridiculous (but extremely important) EPA case before the Supreme Court

In this episode, two Clean Air Act experts — Jack Lienke, regulatory policy director at the Institute for Policy Integrity, and Kirti Datla, director of strategic legal advocacy at Earthjustice — discuss the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of West Virginia v. EPA, which would dramatically curtail EPA's powers based on legal justifications that are, charitably, underbaked.

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Mar 11, 2022
Volts podcast: Erin Mayfield on the massive consequences of Build Back Better

In this episode, Dartmouth professor Erin Mayfield discusses some new modeling on the Build Back Better Act, showing how and where it would reduce emissions in the US economy, how it would affect inflation, and how many jobs it would produce.

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Mar 07, 2022
A note to readers
Hey, y’all, just a short note to catch you up on my current situation and my plans for the coming weeks.

Long story short: I have tendonitis in both arms. I’ve had problems with pain in my forearms for years, but it always faded or went away after a while and was manageable. A few months after quarantine started, in 2020, it started getting worse, to the point I had to give up playing bass guitar — my one non-computer hobby. Then, a few months ago, it started getting a lot worse, quickly.

I have been to see two physical therapists, done stretches and exercises, received regular therapeutic massage, bought a split keyboard and a vertical mouse, worn compression sleeves during the day and braces at night, iced both arms every day, taken a bunch of goofball supplements (hoping for some placebo effect at least), and even ordered one of these widgets.

Nothing has worked, at least not yet; it’s just gotten worse and worse. It feels like a boulder rolling downhill. Nothing slows its momentum. (And don’t bother suggesting resentment and self-pity — I’ve tried those too.)

One result is that typing has become a chore. I can get through about a paragraph before my wrists and forearms start to ache and I have to take a break. What’s worse, it has messed up my thinking. Over many years of writing, the act of laying my hands on a keyboard has become a somatic cue that triggers my thinking; I can not write without it. But now it involves pain, and the pain is clouding the thinking.

This has made it difficult to write the next piece in my minerals series. It’s made it difficult to write anything. Just contemplating writing makes my arms ache.

Of all the advice I’ve gotten, one bit seems reliably true: the only thing that fixes this problem is rest. I’ve got to stop doing the repetitive motions that damaged the tissues. In my case, that means I need to cut way back on holding my phone and typing. I’m told these things take from four to six months to heal.

Four to six months of no typing obviously presents something of a challenge for someone who makes his living with a newsletter. Quite a challenge indeed. [eye twitches]

So, just to be fully transparent about it, here’s my plan:

Next week, I’m taking the week off. It’s winter break and my 16-year-old and I are heading down to Bend, Oregon, to see friends and do some snowboarding/skiing on Mt. Bachelor (where it hasn’t snowed in weeks, sigh). I’m going to endeavor to get through the week with a minimum of screens.

After that, I am going to shift — at least temporarily — to doing more podcasting and less writing. This pains me. As much as I make writing a misery for myself, I love it. But working my way into a permanent state of diminished capacity is not something I’m ready for at the tender young age of almost 50. Six months of no typing sounds bad; 20 years of no typing (and no bass playing) sounds way worse.

I’m also going to have a go at dictation software; if I can’t type, I can always speak. I admit this fills me with horror. I hate Siri. I hate Alexa. I hate talking to computers. It’s … demeaning. This has been one of my stalwart Dad Things for years; it’s a running joke in my house. But I’m going to bite the bullet. (By the way, Dragon no longer makes dictation software for Mac and apparently nothing else is as good. Let me know if you’ve heard of alternatives. I’m aware that Mac has built-in dictation, but trust me, it sucks.)

I’m also going to start doing hot yoga again. I did it regularly for years and it was a blessing. It cured my lifelong back pain and generally warded off the decay of my aging body. I stopped doing it early in the pandemic, and it feels like, in the last year or so, all that aging I held off for those many years has found me at once.

Hopefully I can recapture some of the magic. Or at least keep from puking or passing out in my first class back.

So, that’s what I’m thinking, at least for now. I don’t know how this will ultimately impact Volts and I’m somewhat reluctant to make any promises at this point — this thing could get worse or it could get better. I need to put my health first. If any of this, now or going forward, affects anyone’s subscription decisions, no worries, I get it. We here at Volts management apologize for any inconvenience.

With that said, I’m going to sign off, pack for my trip, and try to forget about my arms for a while. I hope you have a pleasant week and that when I return, the climate parts of Build Back Better will have passed.

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Feb 18, 2022
Volts podcast: Gerald Butts and Catherine McKenna on Canada's carbon tax
In this episode, Gerald Butts and Catherine McKenna discuss their experiences passing a carbon tax in Canada, as advisor to prime minister Justin Trudeau and minister of the environment respectively. In particular, we focus on a key feature of the Canadian tax: all the revenue collected goes back to the province from which it was collected, mostly as per-capita dividends. Butts and McKenna believe that feature was central to selling the public on the policy.

Full transcript of Volts podcast featuring Gerald Butts and Catherine McKenna, February 16, 2022

(PDF version)

David Roberts:

In 2015, after nearly a decade of conservative rule, Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party won a majority of seats in the Canadian parliament and control of the federal government. Part of Trudeau’s election platform was a carbon tax.

The proposed tax had a few key features. First, it would only be imposed on provinces that did not have their own pricing system that met a few minimum requirements. And second, all the money collected from a province would be returned to that province as carbon dividends.

After years of vigorous advocacy and negotiations, Trudeau’s liberals got the tax passed through parliament. It was implemented in early 2019, just before another federal election that became widely seen as a national referendum on the tax.

Liberals won again. The carbon tax was affirmed. It’s going to stick — and rise to a whopping $170 a ton by 2030.

This is a startling success story for climate policy that was largely overlooked in the US. We, uh, had some other stuff going on. But it’s worth taking a closer look at how Canada pulled it off.

Two people at the core of the tax pitch were Gerald Butts, who was principal secretary to the prime minister from 2015 to 2019 and Trudeau’s closest personal advisor, and Catherine McKenna, who was the minister of environment and climate change during the same period.

Butts and McKenna were in the trenches and they have the scars to show for it. Both of them noticed the piece I published on Volts in January on carbon tax refunds — and they objected to the conclusion that dividends did not make the carbon tax more popular in Canada.

So I had them on the pod! We talked about how the carbon tax was conceived, what enabled it to secure majority support (yes, they say, refunds were important), and where the politics of carbon pricing stand as we move into the 2020s. Not only were my spirits lifted — it’s nice to know there’s a sane country out there somewhere — I learned an enormous amount. I think you will too.

Without further ado, Catherine McKenna and Gerald Butts, welcome to Volts. Thanks for coming.

Catherine McKenna:

Very happy to be on.

Gerald Butts:  

It's great to be here.

David Roberts:   

When Justin Trudeau announced his candidacy [for prime minister of Canada] in 2015, the carbon tax was part of his initial pitch. How far back does the carbon tax idea go? Who got it in Trudeau’s ear? How long had it been bouncing around up there before it made its debut on the national stage? 

Gerald Butts:  

The first time it was a real issue in Canada was during the federal election campaign in 2008. Important for the context of the story, for reasons I'll go into later, is that the Liberal Party proposed something called the Green Shift, which was an elaborate take on a carbon tax, under the leadership of Stéphane Dion. But it was easily caricatured as a regional wealth redistribution program, because the revenue from the tax was paid into the consolidated revenue fund at the federal government, and it was redistributed by the federal government to programs of its own choosing, not all of which were environmentally related. 

To me, there were a lot of reasons beyond the Green Shift that the Liberal Party lost the election in 2008, but that was the fundamental flaw in the policy.

David Roberts:   

The idea is that you're just taking wealth from carbon-intensive provinces and redistributing it elsewhere.

Gerald Butts:  

Absolutely. That, of course, has a history in this country that goes back to when the current Prime Minister Trudeau’s father was prime minister and he created the National Energy Program. 

The conservative government in 2008, under Stephen Harper — which, to be diplomatic, was not inclined to climate action — easily caricatured this as the second coming of the National Energy Program in Western Canada in particular, and made it out to be that the Liberal Party was after Western money to pay for Eastern programs, which is always death in politics in Canada. 

When we designed our program, there were lots of people within the party who thought we should stay a million miles away from it, because they were convinced that they lost the election in 2008 because of carbon taxes. We were very careful to make sure that any of the revenue collected went back to the province from which it originated. That, I think, was what unlocked the political constituency for carbon pricing in Canada.

David Roberts:   

So that design — money goes back to the province from which it is gathered — was there from the very beginning, as you were working it out. 

Catherine McKenna:  

I came in as first minister of climate change and was given this mandate, and it was very clear that was going to be the hardest thing to land as part of our climate plan. For the first time ever, we went to Paris, we worked really hard to get an ambitious Paris agreement, but then we had to go home and do the work. 

I was stuck with the unenviable task of meeting with provinces and territories all the time and going through interminable discussion on carbon pricing. There was not a lot of appetite, and everyone would bring all the reasons not to do it. We needed to think hard about how we were going to land it. 

It's important to know there were some provinces that had pricing. At that time, Alberta had a progressive government that had brought in a price on pollution. Quebec was in a cap-and-trade system with California, as was Ontario, and BC had a direct price carbon tax. 

So we came to the table with that. Gerry and I spent a lot of time talking about the design. There were a lot of people who at first shied away, didn't want to do it, but when they decided maybe we could do it, they still thought it was okay to take the money and distribute it as the government saw fit. And I knew I couldn't land it, I knew there was no way. As liberals, as progressives, people believe the worst — that you're going to take this money and you're going to have your special things you want to do, which might be really dumb in the perspective of others. 

It was pretty clear, but it was a fight internally, too. Saying all the money was going to go back in a transparent way was just critically important to me. I knew I couldn't land it otherwise. It was still very hard, we had to do good comms, but it was critically important that we could talk to people and say, “you're going to get more money back.”

David Roberts:   

How did it play in the 2015 election, Trudeau’s big triumph? I'm curious how central the carbon tax was in his campaign and in the election generally.

Gerald Butts:  

There were bigger forces in 2015, to be brutally honest. The cornerpiece of our 2015 election campaign was something called the Canada child benefit, which was a progressive benefit given according to family income to people directly in cash. That's what we ran on in 2015: the middle class has been screwed by 25 years of supply-side economics and we're going to do something about it because we know you're hurting. Everything else built out from there. 

In 2015, climate helped us consolidate a progressive community behind the Liberal Party. This is an important piece of the context in Canada. There are a variety of options on the left, one of which is the center left, one of which is the Green Party, which has diminished its political viability over time as the Liberal Party has absorbed progressive environmental policy. 

Everybody wanted to get rid of Stephen Harper in 2015, and there was a debate over whether it was going to be us or the NDP. We put a more progressive policy platform together than they had, and climate was a huge part of that. I have no doubt that it helped consolidate the progressive community and has kept it there through some difficult times. 

David Roberts:   

The Canadian carbon tax is designed as a backstop, which means provinces with their own carbon pricing systems that meet certain minimum thresholds are left alone, and only provinces that don't have a sufficient price have this imposed on them. Was that structure also part of it from the very beginning?

Gerald Butts:  

Definitely. There are two things that Americans can be forgiven for not thinking deeply about when it comes to Canadian politics — probably more than two, but for the purposes of this discussion, there are two. 

One of them is, all of the revenue collected from the carbon price in Canada goes back to the provinces. None of it is spent on federal programming. There were lots of provincial governments who opposed it on ideological grounds but said they were in favor of it in public. But that's that's what we did, and some people, as Catherine said, were not in favor of it. That's the first thing. 

The second thing is, we were coming into power at a time when the four largest provinces already had carbon pricing schemes in place. They were acting in the absence of federal leadership during the Harper years. Had there been no carbon pricing anywhere in Canada, it would have been easy to put a uniform system in place. But we had to create this concept of equivalency, because we didn't want to punish the governments that had led on climate action at the subnational level in Canada. 

Those two things are really important contextual pieces of the Canadian politics of the time to understand.

David Roberts:   

Was there a lot of debate over what the backstop levels are? Because what you choose as your bottom line effectively chooses which provinces are going to get overridden. What was that process like? What are the minimums?

Gerald Butts:  

Catherine could speak to that better than I can. But from my perspective, conceptually, this is why a carbon price was important in the first place, because there would have been nothing to use as a benchmark and nothing to uniformly compare across the country as equivalency. When we say equivalency, what we really mean is an equivalent carbon price through some mix of policy measures at the provincial level.

David Roberts:   

Catherine, how was that hashed out? If you're putting together a baseline that provinces have to meet, you can imagine a baseline being quite elaborate and complicated, or you can imagine a very simple one. Was that done in dialogue with the provinces?

Catherine McKenna:  

At the end of the day, hard things are hard. I sat in so many meetings and we went nowhere. We didn't know where the four provinces that had a price were at. Cabinet ultimately decided we're going to start at $10, because that meant the system that existed would be acceptable for the four provinces.

Now, two of those provinces changed governments, so we lost the pricing that they had, but it showed resilience. This is the way we decided it made sense. 

It was a lot of design work. This is an across-the-board carbon price with all these different jurisdictions, and then we have an output-based pricing system for major emitters as the backstop, and also there's a benchmark on that. Environmentalists would probably love us to go into details. I won't go into details of the design, but in the end, one day, you have to just announce it. You have to do it. 

The provinces were trying to delay. This was in 2016. In 2015, Paris Agreement; 2016, we have some major challenges with you folks, and we're trying to land carbon pricing, but it was clear it wasn't going to happen. Gerry and I had a conversation and I said, “I can't land this on my own. I need the prime minister to be totally with me on this.” 

I was at a meeting of my provincial and territorial counterparts. It was quite a useless discussion, going around the table again, people restating their positions like they do,  negotiations are maybe going backwards. And I said, “you know what, it's been a great discussion, you might want to tune in to the House of Commons because the prime minister is just announcing now that there's going to be a price across the country and it’s starting at $10 and going to $50 in 2022.” (Obviously, I'd talked to some of the key provinces to reassure them that their system was going to be acceptable as long as they continued to go up. Stringency is really important.)

A number of people stormed off. All hell broke loose at the table. It was quite a lot of drama. But that's when it got real. We had many discussions, but suddenly, front page of newspapers: “there's going to be a carbon tax across Canada.” 

That’s the interesting part of this article, which suggests that even giving all the money back can't save a carbon tax. We've been through two elections, and it's held. In the last election, the Conservative Party, which has been extremely difficult, even brought in a weird system that was a fig leaf, maybe, of a carbon tax. In 2019, the majority of Canadians supported a party that had a price on pollution. 

So we were able to land it, but there was a lot of drama between 2016, when it was announced, and getting it done in 2019. There was talk about “technocratic dreams” and “policies can't transcend politics” — but what's missing in that is people. Actually, people are reasonable. We have a prime minister who said this, Jean Chrétien: “Canadians are reasonable, so be reasonable.”

David Roberts:   

The structure of the tax is that 90 percent of the revenue goes straight back to households in the province from which the tax was collected. What about the other 10 percent?

Catherine McKenna:  

That goes to business, indigenous communities, and other organizations, but in a transparent way.

David Roberts:   

For those of us who are not up on Canadian politics, what does it take to pass a law in Canada? Presumably Trudeau can't just stand up and say, “we're doing this now.” It has to be an act of the legislature. Is that just a single majority vote in parliament, or is there more to it than that?

Gerald Butts: 

The situation is much more straightforward if you have a majority government, which we did. We’re a parliamentary democracy, derivative of the British parliamentary system. If there's a majority party in the House of Commons that forms the government, generally they can rely upon passing their own legislation. Our Senate is not elected and therefore doesn't have the democratic authority to question the central purpose of any legislation — so essentially, if it passes through Parliament, it makes it. 

The big caveat is, anybody can litigate any piece of legislation that goes through Parliament in the courts.

David Roberts:   

Just to be clear: not a supermajority in the parliament — you just have more votes for than votes against, and the law passes. Any American listening will be incredulous.

Was there ever a realistic chance that enough members of parliament from your own coalition would rebel against this? Was there ever real doubt that if Trudeau put up a real bill it would pass?

Gerald Butts:  

No. There was doubt that we could manage the politics internally to get a real bill tabled, and that had to do with the federal-provincial dynamics at the time. But it also had to do with the internal management of caucus and cabinet — generally, the disagreements are behind the scenes. People were jumpy. 

David Roberts:   

I bet they weren't making arguments against their own party in the Wall Street Journal, though. 

Gerald Butts:  

No, they were not. 

David Roberts:   

The reason I emphasize this is that, in terms of setting a political context, something that is a fait accompli, definitely going to happen, brings out a different dynamic than something that you might be able to block. 

Gerald Butts:  

Once it's tabled, David. This is a really important distinction. Canada is not this lovely, magical land of unicorns where everything is easy and progressive. That's not the way it works up here. A lot of hard work was done behind the scenes. 

Remember the context: we had come from third place, in an almost extinction-level event for the Liberal Party of Canada, and gone on to form a government for the first time in the country's history. It had never happened before. There were lots of people in that caucus who were veterans of the 2008 election, and members of staff in senior roles who were like, “do we really have to do this?”

Frankly, it was Catherine's leadership, along with the finance minister at the time, Bill Morneau. Finance tends to be the place where people gather to make things not happen; it's like our own Congress within the federal government. Bill was clear from the get-go that he 100 percent stood behind what Catherine wanted to do, and we were going to make it happen come hell or high water.

Of course, it goes without saying the prime minister was behind it too. 

David Roberts:   

If you go to a provincial official and say, “all the tax we collect from your province will be returned directly to the people of your province, and most of them will come out ahead financially,” that sounds like a political home run to a sensible person. So what was all the jumpiness? What were the objections and counter-arguments?

Catherine McKenna:  

I should make a distinction. Caucus was jumpy; provinces were angry. They were just … conservatives. 

It was the weirdest thing, because I designed — with the support of Gerry, Bill Morneau, the Finance Committee, and a bunch of officials — the most small-c conservative policy you could do. I remember meeting George Shultz, and that came up; there are obviously Republicans who supported fee and dividend. 

I wanted to get the politics right, so I gave these folks an opportunity. I said, “go fill your boots, design your own policy.” To be clear, if the provinces that didn't already have a pricing system designed their own, they could keep the revenues. They didn't even have to give it back to the people. They could decide they were going to take the money and put it to their pet projects, that wasn't going to be our problem.

David Roberts:   

If you're going to reject that, you're going to reject any carbon price. You can't get more flexible than that.

Gerald Butts:  

You put your finger right on it. That was precisely our objective. Political context at the time: there were a bunch of conservatives running around Canada saying, “we believe that climate change is happening and it's a bad thing and we should do something about it … but not a tax.”

Our objective was to take all of the objections that have been leveled against previous attempts — be it regional redistribution, tax grab by the government, some nefarious global plot sponsored by the left and George Soros, whatever nutbar theory people wanted to level at it — and say, “no, this is a simple thing. We're going to collect the revenue, and we're going to give it back. If you're against that, you're against everything.”

David Roberts:   

To my question, then, what were their purported objections to this seemingly very reasonable policy?

Catherine McKenna:  

Well, they just lied. It's not a very nice thing to say, but they did. They were so opposed to liberals that they just said it was a cash grab. 

I looked at your article and I said, “this is not the narrative.” It was so important to deal with the lies, to spend a lot of time selling that all the money was going back.

Take Ontario — very important province politically, it's the largest province by population. To be able to say, “this is the amount of money that the average family's going to get back, which is more than you're going to pay” was super important. It was decisive. 

David Roberts:   

In terms of public opinion, you mean?

Gerald Butts:  

Part of my objection to the article is the definition of public opinion. If you ask someone their views on something in a poll, and it's a theoretical prospect, they're going to have one opinion of it. But when they go to decide which political tribe they belong to at the ballot box, that's where the rubber hits the road. 

I never like to have fights with environmentalists, especially in public, but this is a really important thing — the authors of the study were looking at publicly available data. I can tell you from what we were doing internally, within the government, that there was a 25-point difference among voters in support for a carbon tax and a carbon tax with a rebate. Twenty-five points. 

David Roberts:   

Let me back up one second. These conservatives are saying in public, “it's a cash grab, it's going to hurt families, blah blah blah,” all the predictable things conservatives say. But presumably, they're not dumb, they knew what you were telling them, that they're going to get all the money back. So what are they saying to you in private? 

Catherine McKenna:  

They're saying the same things. I couldn’t even believe it.

I would say that to them and then they immediately go to a microphone and they're like, “I just told the minister that this is a cash grab.” It was not super fun, because it was a fight a minute. It ended up becoming a real security issue for me, because people hear things from politicians, and you can inflame people if they think you're going to take money and people are just trying to pay the bills. So I'd have to rush to the mic, too, because they didn't care. 

I remember, in a conservative province where they have a provincial sales tax and generally people don't like taxes, I got someone to do the math for the premier. I said, “you could get rid of your provincial sales tax; you can bring this in. Here's your sales pitch!” And he was still against it.

This is why it's so important, us telling this side of the story. They thought it was a winner to rile people up and lie, saying “you're going to pay more money and you can't understand this anyway.” They would have ministers go fill up their tank and take a picture of them at the gas station, then say, “this is going to cost an average family this much by 2022,” but they wouldn't talk about how you're going to get more money back. It literally was a comms war. We would be on the airwaves, I had to be out getting pounded.

David Roberts:   

You became the face of the whole thing for a while. I imagine that was unpleasant.

Catherine McKenna:  

I'm Irish, I’m a competitive swimmer, I can take it. I didn't love it, that's for sure, but I believed in it. I believed that we needed to take serious climate action, and I felt like I could not lose it. I felt personal responsibility, which was a heavy weight, and I was very worried.

We had this output-based pricing system, which is very complex, because you have to look at particular sectors — cement, aluminum — and design in a way that you're not sending these companies offshore. It took a while; we literally brought it in in 2019, which is the year of the election. 

The reality is, to paraphrase David Axelrod, hard things are hard, and you're always going to take flak, so go do the really hard things that matter. We could have done a crappy, wimpier version, and they didn't care — these guys were going to be out there. (And by the way, it was all guys, a bunch of guys calling themselves the resistance to Justin Trudeau. And Catherine McKenna, I suppose.)

It was a fight worth fighting, but we had to enlist people, and not just environmentalists. (I will give a shout out to our good friend Kat. We all are big fans of Katharine Hayhoe.) Of course we had environmentalists putting out the message. But we got young people, and it was good because at that time you had Greta, and young people marching in the streets. We got doctors, there was a whole campaign of doctors to support us. I got Arnold Schwarzenegger to do a video — as a Republican, he brought this in in a bipartisan way. 

We were just doing whatever we could so that Canadians could hear the message. There was some emphasis on how Canadians didn't know exactly how much money they're getting back. That doesn't matter. Like Gerry said, the fact that you asked them, “do you know exactly how much money you got back?” — that wasn't the thing. In the end, we were able to make carbon pricing a necessary part of a serious climate plan where it wasn't the exact amount you got back that mattered. 

David Roberts:   

One thing I really despair about in the States is our abysmal media situation. Basically, our right wing has captured a large portion of the population and facts don't penetrate at all. I know you have some terrible Murdoch-sponsored media up there, too, but do you feel like when you put a coordinated effort into it you were able to get over the heads of that media machine and reach the public?

Catherine McKenna:  

We have media that fought this the whole time, but it actually goes to our broader strategy. We had to get to real people. As many op-eds as you put in the papers, how many people are reading them? We did them, but I didn't wake up every day thinking about op-eds. I spent a lot of time looking for clips for social media. In the election, the Liberal Party did a lot of social media to reach regular people. 

A really interesting thing happened that was surprising to me, but important. I had pushed to have a check back every month. I wanted someone to arrive at your door and hand you a big fat check. That would be the best, but we couldn't do it. 

But helpfully, we got a lot of free advertising from accountants, because at tax time they would literally advertise “come get your climate action incentive.” (We put a lot of effort into “climate action incentive,” what we wanted to call this thing you’re getting back. It had to be about climate, it definitely couldn't say tax rebate!) 

So you had all of these accountants and accounting firms saying, “We’ll do your taxes, get your climate action incentive, you're going to get this much back in the province.” I would go there and do events, we had local members of parliament doing events to promote it. At tax time people like money back. So that's the good news. 

I spent all my time trying to think about who I could get to sell it.

Gerald Butts:  

Again, we are not the land of unicorns up here. Two-thirds of our daily newspapers are owned by an American hedge fund, the same one that owns American media, i.e. the National Enquirer. They had no shame in how they opposed the carbon price — they printed lie after lie after lie about it.

But it didn't work, because one thing we do have going for us in this country, at least so far, is that we're not tribal when it comes to our partisan affiliation. Most Canadians have voted for different parties at different points in their lives. Some people even vote for different parties at different orders of government simultaneously. I think that's a good thing. Partisan adhesion is not as sticky in Canada as it is in many places.

David Roberts:   

Do you explain that just by reference to the fact that it's a parliamentary system and there are multiple parties, so there's not this constant binary forced on everything?

Gerald Butts:  

No. It's part of it, for sure. What explains it more is that we have more or less built and maintained an excellent public education system that 93 percent of Canadians send their kids to. You're looking for the secret sauce in Canadian policy and why everything from immigration to climate action is possible here? It's because of that basic fact that everybody goes to school together.

David Roberts:   

Carbon pricing was run on in 2015, passed in 2018, and then elections in 2019, so there was no getting around this being at the heart of the election. I was just reading an account of the 2019 election which basically said the big winner was the carbon tax. Two-thirds of voters voted for a party that supported the carbon tax.

If you’re a liberal and a fan of the carbon tax and involved in doing it, you have incentive to play up the extent to which the election was a referendum on the carbon tax, but was it really? Were there other bigger forces, or was it really mainly about the tax this time?

Gerald Butts:  

It was the showdown at the OK Corral about climate in Canada, for sure. There were other things, some of which it's still too soon for me to remember. You may remember a certain story that came out about the prime minister in the middle of the campaign — that took over the news cycle for a few days. 

The conservatives had been elected in major provinces (not that there are any minor provinces, coming from Nova Scotia) — they had the governments of Ontario, Alberta, more or less Quebec. And everybody, including of course the leadership of the Conservative Party federally, was saying “we are going to scrap the tax.” There were probably two or three things that decided the 2019 election, but there's no doubt in my mind that that was number one.

Greta Thunberg drew I can't remember how many hundreds of thousands of people to the streets in the middle of Montreal, literally in the middle of the campaign. The prime minister marched in the rally.

And more importantly for this discussion, there's no way we win that fight without the rebate.

David Roberts:   

So the fact that the money goes back to citizens did play a big role in the debate.

Gerald Butts:  

It was decisive.

Catherine McKenna:  

It was key. You could call it out. It was a reasonable policy. They could just say it was a tax grab, and the response had to be, “it's not, and by the way, this is what you get back.” In a way it's kind of good in elections when you have one issue — it doesn't feel good, at the time I was very nervous — but it was good, it focused the mind.

Carbon pricing also became, like, do you want to act on climate? Because the conservatives were so against it.

David Roberts:   

To what extent was public support about the details of this policy, and to what extent did it just become a proxy battle of, “we care about climate change and they don't?”

Gerald Butts:  

It's a great question, David, because this wasn't a detail of the policy — this was the policy, the price and rebate. The difference of one side saying “it's a tax grab” and the other side having to say, “well, look at all the things we're going to spend the money on,” and one side saying “it's a tax grab,” and the other side saying “they're lying to you” — when it's a live-action, kinetic political battle, one of those arguments is winnable, and the other one is not.

David Roberts:   

I feel the need to insert here, just to make myself feel better: not that there's anything wrong with the federal government taxing people and spending money on public purposes.

Gerald Butts:  

Absolutely. Our universal public healthcare system and the public education system that I just alluded to would be impossible without those things.

David Roberts:   

So you win in 2019 on the carbon tax. Is the feeling in Canadian politics now that the main issue is settled, we're just arguing over the details? Or are your right wingers like our right wingers here in the US, that never give up? Are they still after it, or is this a settled question in Canadian politics? 

Catherine McKenna:  

I think the Canadian public bought into a price on pollution — that's what we call it, not the carbon tax. But the conservatives apparently are going to kill themselves over this again. It's kind of funny, the number of stories that have been written about the conservatives tying themselves in knots over this, and conservatives themselves, the more reasonable ones who want to get elected, saying “you do this again, you're going to lose again, can you learn some lessons?” 

It's going to happen, but I don't think that means it's a lost policy. I think that the conservatives are a lost cause. 

Having said that, you always have to be vigilant. You can’t take it for granted. As the price goes up, you have to continuously emphasize you're getting more money back, but you also need to do the other things: make sure that your economy is growing and you're creating jobs and you're showing that you're taking real climate action. It's part of a bigger piece. 

Gerald Butts:  

Yeah, I don't think it's settled. I had hoped it would be settled in the last election. The conservatives had a weird policy that nobody believed they would ever really implement, that they would go to a first ministers’ meeting and say, ”hey, we tried, and now we're going to get rid of the old plan.” I don't think they ever had any intention of implementing it. It was, by my view as someone who has spent a lot of time in government in this country, unimplementable. But that's for them to answer. 

You mentioned the forces of the right wing in the United States — they're the same forces. Catherine and I are both phoning into this lovely discussion from Ottawa where we have MAGA flags and Confederate flags flying on Parliament Hill.

David Roberts:   

I want to hit on the Supreme Court case. Several provinces sued over the tax; the substance of the lawsuit was that this is an unconstitutional power grab by the federal government over things that ought to be provincial, and the Supreme Court ruled in March of last year that, no, it's constitutional. Pretty much settled that. How nervous were you about that? Was that case a big deal, or was it a frivolous lawsuit? 

Gerald Butts:  

It was a pretty huge deal.

Catherine McKenna:  

We definitely needed to win or else it was going to be really bad. 

We are a federation, so we had to demonstrate the reasonableness that the environment is joint jurisdiction between the federal government and the provinces. By saying, “you can do a direct price or you can do cap and trade and design it how you want but you have to meet the benchmark,” we knew that was going to be important, legally. We didn't just say, “okay everyone, too bad, whatever your system is, we're getting rid of it” or “you have to design it just like this.” We were reasonable. That was important. 

But also, the Supreme Court said climate change is a threat of the highest order to the country and indeed to the world. That was critically important, because it was going to be ridiculous at the most basic level if the federal government couldn't attack greenhouse gas emissions within the country. How are you going to have a climate plan? We couldn't comply with the Paris Agreement! If you have a target and you can’t actually reduce emissions because provinces get to do whatever they want and they can continue to slowly [increase emissions], that was going to be a huge problem. 

But the Supreme Court was very reasonable and they actually recognized that pollution doesn't know any borders. We had tailored it in a way that it was narrow, and that was important because they did look at, is the federal government going to come in? This was some of the arguments by conservative provinces, that we're going to regulate everything. We'd have these conservative premiers saying, “they're going to regulate how often you can drive your car.” We had to be careful. 

It was also a very important decision because it does now make it clear that the federal government can take action to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in potentially broader areas where it's in the national interest. I didn't really think we had a chance of losing. 

David Roberts:   

You were pretty confident in the case and in the court itself. What's the situation with partisanship on the Supreme Court in Canada? 

Catherine McKenna:  

It's not a thing. Stephen Harper probably tried to put people that might have been conservative. But the legal profession is different here. How we appoint judges is different. 

David Roberts:   

And the court is trusted by the public as a neutral arbiter. That must be nice.

Gerald Butts:  

As the prime minister said many, many moons ago when he kicked off his leadership campaign in 2012, this country did not happen by accident, and it will not continue without effort. It is a constant struggle, David.

Catherine McKenna:  

The Supreme Court — I wouldn't overstate it. Which sounds like a funny thing to say, it was obviously critically important that it be found constitutional. But at the end of the day, a new government can always change policy. 

That’s why you can't get distracted in some ways by some things. That was really important, because otherwise, you'd have to go back to the drawing table, or win a majority, or get new legislation. But end of the day, you have to convince regular people. 

Maybe 2019 was unusual, because it was such a significant issue, though fought on a variety of different fronts. But I actually think Canadians have come a long way, not just on carbon pricing, but on climate. The town of Lytton literally exploded, it just burned down. We're seeing massive floods, forest fires, droughts, our Arctic is thawing. That doesn't mean that a particular policy will be resilient, but if you talk about it as a reasonable person, and it is well designed — it has to be well-designed policy, you can’t sell something that sucks to the regular person — but we are in a different place from where Canadians were at in 2015.

Gerald Butts:  

And we're at a different place than where Canadians were in 2011. Canada did not look much different on climate change; in fact, in some ways, the Obama administration looked way better than the Harper administration did on climate change.

I guess that's the point, David, of this whole discussion, and why it raised our Canadian version of Irish when we read this study. People can change things in democracies. Sometimes the cards are stacked against you, and sometimes it feels like nothing good can ever happen, but if people put their whole heart and soul into it, they can make change happen. That is possible. It's still possible.

David Roberts:   

Well, we’ll have to agree to disagree about that. When people talk about the difference between the US and Canada on this issue, there's a lot of hand-waving about public opinion and who's sensible and who’s not, but to me, in the end, it all comes back to structures and procedures. You [Canadians] can have a majority that wants a policy, and that will result in the policy passing. We [Americans] have a majority that wants a policy, and we have a situation where 30 percent of the population can elect senators that can go literally block anything. So I think it's less the intangible stuff and more prosaic: we have really stupid rules, and kind of a stupid Constitution. 

I don't know how you get around that. We've done the work trying to change public opinion, it has changed, and we've come up with good policies — we did all the things we’re supposed to do, and now we're facing a situation where one dude from West Virginia, who partly owns coal plants, is literally deciding what and whether we do anything at all on climate change. It’s absolutely absurd.

Gerald Butts:  

That, to me, is one of the central differences between the Canadian and American political systems: the centrality of money. It's insane to me how much money — I remember David Axelrod asked me how much money we were going to spend in the 2015 campaign, and I said “it's probably going to be around $35-40 million.” It ended up being $42 million, in the longest election campaign in modern Canadian history. David said, “I spent more than that in the Democratic primary in Florida.”

David Roberts:   

One of the things that fee and dividend proponents are constantly saying is that it's very important that the rebates be visible, that people know they're getting them. They all are advocating this idea of sending the big Ed McMahon check to the door every month. 

But Canada went with a tax rebate that, unless you're pretty on the ball, would be very easy to not notice. That's the research that was written up in that paper — lots of people just aren't noticing it.

So why bury it in tax rebates? What prompted the decision to shift this summer to mailing checks? Do you anticipate mailing checks to make a big difference?

Catherine McKenna:  

I don’t know why we weren't allowed to. I actually said, “I'll deliver it. I'll go to every Canadian and bring it.” For whatever reason, the bureaucratic system could not do these mailed-out checks. We weren't able to win that. We’ve won it now, in the sense that we recognize that this is important.

Some of it was that people didn't know how much they got. Half of the people didn't know they got a check. To the extent people cared, they would be able to hear the conservatives say, “it's a tax grab,” and then they'd hear me and others saying “actually you’re going to get more money back.” It was very important, I can't emphasize enough. We could not have won if we had said, “actually, you know what, we put it into general revenue and we're going to do this green thing where we're going to give it to green stuff in different places, and I don't know what your provinces get.” That's not sellable. 

I don't want to be too depressed about the situation in the United States because we did live under Donald Trump — being the environment minister, it was hard for us. I actually went to Miami and Houston and hung out with the mayors there and did videos for Canadians to say, “but look, these guys are doing stuff on climate!” You’ll always have the states and cities and businesses that are acting. 

You’ve got to be crafty. We could have done the easy thing. It didn't really occur to me, because I wasn't going to back down on it, but people did want us to not do this, including internally. Some people will just wait out the clock. But we were crafty. 

I know it's much harder in the United States. Comms matters, designing things in a way that can uphold a constitutional challenge matters. I get your Supreme Court, you have challenges, working with states, litigating everything and knowing that it's going to be in place while it's litigated. You have to be crafty, too. I'm hopeful that the US is able to land things.

I'm going to be at Columbia with Jason Bordoff, working on carbon pricing and border carbon adjustments. Maybe the enticement of border carbon adjustments will help on the pricing. The IMF is working on a minimum price floor. So there's action. I'm a realistic optimist or an optimistic realist some days, but I don't want to give up on you guys doing things.

David Roberts:   

One of the things that's not publicly appreciated in these discussions about carbon taxes, because they're so big politically, is that, especially at the level that they're being talked about, they're macroeconomically not that big a deal. If you look at macroeconomic assessments, it's like 1 percent GDP one way or the other, with a lot of uncertainty.

I can understand completely why dividends serve as a great political argument, and also that people in practice maybe aren't that aware of them, because the amount you're paying in tax is not yet very big and the amount you're getting back is not yet very big. The actual amount of money, as opposed to the political symbolism of it all, is relatively modest. 

That said, the tax is about to go way up, to the point that we’ll pretty soon be at levels that Canadians will start noticing the costs, and maybe start noticing the checks back, too. The amounts on both ends are going to get bigger. Is there a next test of the tax?

Gerald Butts:  

I think there’s going to be an annual test. You're right that people are going to feel $170 a ton a lot more than they feel $50. There's no way you'd maintain a political consensus for it if that money weren't being rebated to people, because while you're right at even $170 a ton, at the maybe $3 trillion the Canadian economy will be at the time, it is not that much. But for individual families, it is a lot. 

David Roberts:   

Are you pretty confident that the checks will increase the salience of the dividends? Has there been any testing or polling on that, or is it just gut common sense?

Gerald Butts:  

I can't speak to that, because that policy was announced after I joined the private sector, but I suspect that was the reasoning. There's no reason to believe it won't be the case, but it's going to require a continuous commitment to communication. Of course, 2030 is sooner than it used to be. But it's still a couple of election cycles away, and anything can happen.

David Roberts:   

Well, thank you guys so much for doing this thing in the first place, which, despite your admonitions, still has unicorn vibes to me. Catherine, I wish you all the best in joining the fight down here in the US; we could use some new energy and optimism. Thanks to you both for coming on today. It was really fun. 

Catherine McKenna:

It was great.

Gerald Butts:  

It was  a real pleasure.

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Feb 16, 2022
Volts podcast: Rebecca Dell on decarbonizing heavy industry
In this episode, Rebecca Dell, who runs the industry program at the ClimateWorks Foundation, offers a comprehensive overview of the problems of industrial decarbonization, the most promising technological solutions in steel, cement, and chemicals, and the kinds of policies that could accelerate progress. Incredibly informative.

Full transcript of Volts podcast featuring Rebecca Dell, February 11, 2022

(PDF version)

David Roberts:

For most of the carbon-intensive sectors of the economy — electricity, transportation, buildings — we have a pretty good sense of how to eliminate carbon emissions. None of those sectors will be easy to decarbonize. Every one is an enormous practical challenge. But in each case, the basic path to zero is clear, and it mostly involves switching out fossil-fueled machines with machines that generate or run on clean electricity.

Then there’s that other wedge on the pie chart, the one that gets less attention: industry. Manufacturing, mining, construction, and waste processing are responsible for about a third of global carbon emissions (about a quarter of US emissions).

The path to zero emissions in heavy industry is much murkier than it is for other sectors. Low-carbon alternatives are early in development and commercialization; in some cases, there are no alternatives except to capture and bury the carbon when it’s emitted.

In future pods, I might get deeper into some specific industries (like steel). But for this one, I wanted to attempt a broad overview: What You Need to Know About Decarbonizing Industry.

Nobody knows the sector and its challenges better than Rebecca Dell, who runs the industry program at the ClimateWorks Foundation. Dell previously worked at the Department of Energy, where she helped coordinate Obama’s climate action plan, and before that was a research scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She’s a researcher, author, and, as more attention turns to industry, an increasingly frequent podcast guest. (She was on Canary’s Catalyst pod last month.)

It takes a while — okay, almost two hours — but Dell and I manage to cover all the big industrial sectors, why they emit so much, prospects for reducing emissions, and the policies that could make it happen. If you’re looking for a one-stop-shopping primer on industry and climate, this is for you.

Without further ado, Rebecca Dell, welcome to Volts.

Rebecca Dell:  

Thanks so much for having me. I'm really happy to be here.

David Roberts:

I'm excited for this. We are going to attempt to cover a lot of ground. I want to try to give a 30,000-foot overview of industry and decarbonization; obviously any of the subtopics could be podcasts of their own. 

Among the Volts audience, people are probably basically familiar with the famous Energy Information Administration pie chart of where US greenhouse gases come from. There are wedges for transportation, electricity, buildings, agriculture — I think people mostly have their heads around how to decarbonize those. 

Then there's that big wedge that just says “industry.” My sense is that, to a lot of people, that is a bit of a black box — it’s not clear what's in it or how to approach decarbonizing it. Historically, that has been the neglected stepchild of the decarbonization conversation. But am I right in saying that attention on that little wedge has rapidly increased in recent years?

Rebecca Dell:  

Yes, and for people who work on this area, it's been exciting to see how much new interest has come in the last year or two. 

David Roberts:

Do you have an explanation for why?

Rebecca Dell:

The phenomenon that is more in need of explanation is why so few people were looking at this area until the last year or so, considering that the industrial sector globally, under the most parsimonious accounting, is responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and under a broader definition, it's responsible for more than a third.

David Roberts:   

Does that roughly echo the US pie chart? Or is the US different because we have deindustrialized a little bit?

Rebecca Dell:  

The US is a little lower in terms of the portion of our emissions that come from the industrial sector. But if you add back in the greenhouse gas emissions that come from manufacturing products in other countries that will be consumed in the United States — you can think of those as our imported emissions — then you get back to something pretty close to the global average.

David Roberts:   

So let's say about a third — that's a lot of emissions to neglect for this long. When we say industry, what do we mean by that? What does that category inclue? What are the boundaries? And what, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, are the top line items?

Rebecca Dell:  

That's a really important question, because when we talk about “industry” in the climate community, it’s a piece of stealth jargon. It’s the worst kind of jargon: it's a word that sounds like a normal word, but it actually is a jargon word. 

Basically, what we're talking about when we talk about industry is everything that's not agriculture or energy, which is to say, it's the material economy. It’s mining, manufacturing, construction, waste processing. It's physical stuff, as opposed to energy. 

As you might imagine, there are a lot of fields of human endeavor that are included in that very broad set of activities. It's a very heterogeneous sector. But for all of the millions of different types of activities that are included in the industrial sector, there's an astonishingly short list that are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the greenhouse gas emissions.

David Roberts:   

That's very useful for our podcast purposes.

Rebecca Dell:  

It is. It allows one to simplify one's focus considerably. There are three real standouts here: steel, cement, and commodity chemicals. 

The chemical industry itself is, again, varied and heterogeneous; they produce a lot of different products. But there are about 10 chemicals that are basically the precursors for two products — plastic and fertilizer — that dominate those emissions. You can think of this in four product categories: cement, steel, plastic, and fertilizer. Just making those materials is responsible for two-thirds of all the greenhouse gas emissions from the entire industrial sector.

David Roberts:   

Insofar as you figure out how to decarbonize those, will those lessons be transferable to all those other varied applications? Or are they so heterogenous that you have to do it one by one?

Rebecca Dell:  

The sources of greenhouse gas emissions are different in other areas. For example, a lot of the emissions in the waste processing area are what's called landfill gas: anaerobic digestion of poorly sorted solid waste trash leads to methane emissions. So that's in the one-third that's not accounted for. 

But a lot of it is manufacturing. It’s from lighter manufacturing activities: lower temperature processes, electric drive processes, cooling, motors, that sort of thing. A lot of that will be taken care of as the grid gets cleaner and as things that are relatively easy to electrify become more electrified.

David Roberts:   

If tomorrow, by magic, all electricity became clean, how much of that one-third of emissions would vanish?

Rebecca Dell:  

That's pretty much the difference between the one-quarter and the one-third numbers that I cited. For the one-quarter, the more parsimonious definition is “we are only looking at greenhouse gases that are coming out of smokestacks at factories,” what are called direct emissions. If you add in the greenhouse gas emissions from generating electricity that is consumed at industrial facilities, that gets you from a quarter up to over a third.

David Roberts:   

In terms of that quarter, how much of industry is devoted to fossil fuels themselves: mining, drilling, processing, transporting, refining, etc.? If we shift away from fossil fuels over time, how much of a chunk does that take out of the industry pie?

Rebecca Dell:  


The numbers I cited to you, the quarter and the third, those are global numbers. Here in the United States, we have a very unusual convention of including the fossil-fuel extraction industries as industrial activities. In the whole rest of the world, when people are doing their greenhouse gas inventories, they don't count that as an industrial activity; they count that as an energy transformation activity, so they lump those emissions in with power generation. 

If you look at that pie chart from EIA, or EPA — if you look at a strictly US source — that will include your refining and fossil-fuel extraction emissions, but global numbers don't include any.

David Roberts:   

That seems like a complication in comparing across countries, doesn't it? It's kind of a big chunk to have misfiled in one place or the other.

Rebecca Dell:  

Yeah, but we're America, and we like to do things our way.

David Roberts:   

Why do steel, cement, plastic, and fertilizer produce so many GHGs? 

Rebecca Dell:  

First, because we make them in larger quantities than we make anything else. These are the materials that we make other things out of. We make steel and cement in increments of billions of tons per year. We make commodity chemicals in increments of hundreds of millions of tons per year. These are the only products that we make in those volumes, so of course these are the products that have the biggest greenhouse gas impact. 

Second, all of these industries are a variation on the following theme: you dig something out of the ground and the first thing you do with it transforms a raw material into a useful molecule; everything that's downstream of that in your supply chain is arranging your useful molecules in different combinations and sizes and ratios. But all of that rearranging takes a lot less energy and emits a lot less greenhouse gas than making the useful molecule in the first place.

All of these industries are what we call primary commodity processing industries. In fact, if the big three that we talked about — steel, cement, chemicals — are the highest emitting industries, four through seven or eight are also primary commodity processing, just smaller ones. They're things like aluminum.

David Roberts:   

Let's look at those four: steel, cement, plastic, and fertilizer. Why does making steel specifically produce so much greenhouse gas? What is the traditional steel-making process?

Rebecca Dell:  

Steel emissions are so big because we make 2 billion tons of it per year. That's the best part of a thousand pounds of steel for every human being on Earth, every year. It sounds insane until you look at a suspension bridge, or a runway, or anything in our built environment. Then you have to think, oh yeah, I guess we do use an incredibly large amount of steel. We make everything out of it.

David Roberts:   

What is the raw material, and what is the processing that sends off so much greenhouse gas?

Rebecca Dell:  

With steel, we start with iron ore. Iron ore is iron oxide — iron atoms chemically bonded to oxygen atoms. Your audience may be more familiar with iron oxide by its common name, which is rust. 

Everybody knows that rust does not have the valuable material properties that steel has, so what we're doing when we make steel is stripping off those oxygen atoms and turning it into metallic iron, with a little bit of other elements mixed in to improve its properties. Steel is almost all iron by weight.

The main way we do that chemical reaction today is to use coal. We combine the iron ore and the coal together in a reactor called a blast furnace. We use metallurgical coal, which is also called coking coal. It's a special kind of coal, but it's still a lump of carbon. 

In the blast furnace, part of the coal gets burned for thermal energy to help the reaction go faster. All of those carbon atoms are a more attractive place for the oxygen atoms to go, so the oxygen atoms move from the iron oxide over to the carbon, and we get carbon dioxide. So we're getting carbon dioxide from two different sources. 

This is another theme that we'll see throughout the industrial sector: you have the energy emissions — the coal that you burn to get your reactor hot to make the chemical reaction go — but you also have a set of chemical reactions that are going on in there that are not combustion reactions. They're a different kind of chemical reaction that's also producing greenhouse gases. That’s what we call process emissions: any greenhouse gas emission that comes from doing anything except combustion.

David Roberts:   

My intuition tells me that energy emissions are going to be the easier ones to eliminate, because we have alternative sources of energy that don't emit greenhouse gases. Is that accurate?

Rebecca Dell:  

In many cases, yes.

It would be useful at this point to give a typology of solutions that applies across industries. There are a few buckets of decarbonization pathways that we can use across all of these industries. 

Bucket number one is material efficiency. We can just use less of this material in order to make the products and deliver the services that we want. 

David Roberts:   

Traditionally that's the cheapest, right? It's just changing your behavior, changing your processes, changing design.

Rebecca Dell:  

Yeah, that's a big one. The barriers there are typically not technical. They're barriers that have to do with incentives and social systems and cultural norms. That's very important, and we should definitely do it. 

Bucket number two, carbon capture and storage. You keep doing pretty much what you're doing now, but you figure out a way to collect all the carbon dioxide and put it underground. You don't have to like it, but you have to acknowledge that it exists and is a possibility.

David Roberts:   

I'm very familiar with capturing carbon dioxide off of combustion; that's the standard CCS model. Is capturing the carbon dioxide off of process emissions notably different or more difficult?

Rebecca Dell:  

There's a dumb version of carbon capture where you just take your flue gases at the end of the pipe and put them through some scrubbers and then put them through some amine sorbents, and you can do that on any flue gas. You could imagine doing that on the end of almost any pipe, but each industry has its own version of smarter carbon capture that is engineered to optimize for this industrial process. That varies a lot. 

Bucket three is hydrogen. As your recent guest Panama Bartholomy said, it is the answer to every question in energy before it has even been asked. 

Bucket number four is direct electrification

Bucket number five is bioenergy

Those are your five buckets across all of these industries.

David Roberts:   

Is there significance to the order you put them in?

Rebecca Dell:  

No. Well, I suppose I put bioenergy last because bioenergy cannot ever be more than a small part of the solution. There’s no way to provide enough biomass to do a large portion of the decarbonization in these industries. The IEA estimates that our current total biomass available for energy use on Earth is something like 55 or 60 exajoules of energy. The chemical industry today uses almost 50 exajoules of energy. The steel industry uses another 30 exajoules of energy. There’s just not enough to go around. Bioenergy might show up here or there, but it can't be the bulk solution, because there just aren’t enough joules there.

David Roberts:   

Bucket number one, material efficiency, applied to steel: I can imagine us using less steel. 

Rebecca Dell:  

One point on that: in the United States and in other high-income countries, we already use less steel. As countries get richer, their demand for steel tends to tail off. 

The reason for that is that as you become a middle-income country, that's when you build out an electric transmission and distribution system that actually gets to every house; you move your entire population into modern housing; people start having private vehicles for the first time in significant numbers; you build sanitation systems and aqueducts that bring clean water and public health to people. Once you've done that, your demand for steel is largely a function of population growth and replacing things as they wear out. 

We in high-income countries might have a lot of opportunities to reduce our demand for steel in order to be more material-efficient in our use of it, but there's this huge latent demand for more steel that is represented by the couple billion people on Earth who are still in poverty and have an entirely legitimate desire to have modern housing and sanitation and all of those things.

The other thing about steel, though, is that it's quite recyclable. As you have a lot of stuff for a long time, you develop a stock of steel that you can recycle. If current trends continue, all of the additional demand for steel that's going to come from countries emerging out of poverty can probably be met with recycled steel. The current volume of new steel production probably doesn't have to go up in order to continue to meet global needs, but it probably doesn't have to go down either.

David Roberts:   

Are we currently on a trajectory to hold it steady?

Rebecca Dell:  

If current trends continue. But I don't think I've actually said out loud yet in this interview how much greenhouse gas is emitted by the global steel industry. It’s 3.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. It's more greenhouse gases than are emitted by any entire nation except the United States and China. Even if we're just holding current production constant, that's still an enormous problem to solve.

David Roberts:

By the same token, if you reduce it by even a small fraction, you are reducing a lot of tons.

Rebecca Dell:


David Roberts:

What does smart carbon capture look like in steel? 

Rebecca Dell:

Frankly, there's not a lot of interest in steel CCS around the world right now. I'm happy to explain how it might work and why it would be hard. 

David Roberts:   

My attitude toward CCS is, don't do it unless you have to. If you're telling me you don't have to, I'm happy to put it out of my mind. 

Rebecca Dell:  

I think we can confidently walk past. Let’s move on to hydrogen. Hydrogen is where a lot of the excitement in the steel industry is right now. In my mind, the best argument for hydrogen is that making steel using hydrogen is the smallest increment of technology that we need to get to zero-greenhouse-gas steel.

David Roberts:   

Can you just substitute hydrogen into existing refining processes, or there's more to it than that?

Rebecca Dell:  

No. Today, more than 90 percent of what we call primary steel — steel that's made from iron ore, not recycled — is made with a blast furnace using coal. There's not a lot you can do about the blast furnace on the hydrogen front. 

But about 7 percent is made with an alternative process called direct reduction that uses methane instead of coal. We think that the hydrogen process might be quite similar to direct reduction and use quite similar equipment, so we don't have to start from zero.

This direct reduction process is only 7 percent of global production, but that still makes this a fully commercial, mature technology. You can call up the Midrex Corporation and say, “hello, I would like to buy a shaft furnace,” and they will make you one. 

Basically what we're talking about is reengineering this existing technology of the shaft furnace to use only hydrogen instead of what it currently uses, which is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. If we're going to do that as our main route, we're going to have to build a lot more shaft furnaces. 

So the next option — direct electrification.

David Roberts:   

My favorite.

Rebecca Dell:  

There are a few different ways to do this. The one that's most advanced is something called molten oxide electrolysis, which is pretty much what it sounds like. You take your oxide (iron ore), you heat it up enough to melt it, you put a giant electric field across it, and the electric field is strong enough that it pulls apart the iron and the oxygen. 

This is pretty similar to how we currently make aluminum, so it's not crazy. It's a thing that should be able to be made to work. It's a pre-commercial technology, though — it's not ready for primetime yet. There are some companies that are working on it, it might be ready soon.

David Roberts:   

Are we to a demonstration project yet? Is it happening somewhere?

Rebecca Dell:  

Give it a year and there may be something exciting to announce.

David Roberts:   

Is that the cheapest form of direct electrification, or the most practical?

Rebecca Dell:  

That’s the one that’s closest to being ready to do. People are also thinking about low-temperature forms of electrolysis that you can do without having to melt the iron oxide first, but the one that I just described is the most mature. 

The biggest advantage of the hydrogen route is that it is the smallest increment of technology to get us to truly green steel. The biggest advantage of the direct electrification route is that it will require the least energy. If you are using green hydrogen — taking electricity and converting that into hydrogen — and then using that hydrogen to convert your iron ore into iron, you lose a lot of energy in that extra conversion. If you can just use the electricity directly, you get to keep another third of the energy.

The amount of energy that's involved is enormous. This industry uses a similar amount of global energy to its portion of global greenhouse gases, which is 7 or 8 percent.

David Roberts:   

None of these, except for carbon capture, seem to address existing blast furnace steel production facilities.

Rebecca Dell:  

Yeah, and this is incredibly important for the politics. In the steel industry, as in a lot of these industries, the reason why the facilities that we have today were built in the places that they were built is because they had the best access to raw materials and energy. Why did we put the steel mill there? Because we could get metallurgical coal to that place really cheaply. 

Also like a lot of these industries, most of the production is done at a relatively small number of very large facilities. I've visited a lot of steel mills over the years, and it's not unusual for a steel mill to have 10,000 employees. The biggest one I ever went to had 48,000 employees at one facility. It's the size of a city. 

David Roberts:   

So these are not things that you can move around easily. Switching geographies is not practical.

Rebecca Dell:  

It creates a lot of problems and a lot of social dislocation. The steel industry might not be a huge part of the total US economy today, but for the communities and even the states that are hosting these facilities, one facility is a really important part of your employment. People will fight really hard to keep these facilities, because they're so concentrated and the local community is so dependent on them. If you're moving from a coal-based process to an electricity-based process, frankly, the places that have the best access to metallurgical coal are not typically the same as the places that have the best access to cheap electricity.

David Roberts:   

So CCS is something you can offer these communities and these facilities to say, “you don't have to change anything fundamental, you don't have to move, you can continue to exist here and just bolt this thing onto your facility.”

Rebecca Dell:  

You can potentially maintain existing industrial economies, but it's not easy. 

One of the reasons why CCS is tough in the steel industry is that at what are called integrated steel mills, the traditional type of steel mills that have blast furnaces at them, typically you'll have three or four really big carbon dioxide sources — your blast furnace, some other major process furnaces, and things like that. Together, you have a lot of carbon dioxide coming out in one place, so you can see how it could be cost-effective to collect it all. 

But all of that together is often only half or maybe 60 percent of the carbon dioxide that's coming out of the facility overall. The rest of it is all these small sources — little process heaters here and there — that are distributed by the dozens all over a facility that's the size of a town. Thinking about how you would collect all of the carbon dioxide from all those distributed sources and do that cost effectively is really hard.

David Roberts:   

I came into this interview riding on a wave of green-steel hype, and nothing I'm hearing you say is justifying any of it.  What is all the excitement around steel? It sounds to me like we have no good options. 

Rebecca Dell:  

I didn't say anything nasty about hydrogen, did I?

David Roberts:   

I mean, it's going to substitute for that 7 percent with a special kind of furnace, right? Which is not nothing, but blast furnaces are most of the furnaces. 

Rebecca Dell:  

All of them are going to have to be retired.

David Roberts:   

That sounds like a brutal social and political process.

Rebecca Dell:  

I'm not going to claim that it will be straightforward, but we do have 30 years. Industrial equipment doesn't typically last longer than that. We don't have to do this all at once. But I have never seen a good idea for how we have a climate-safe blast furnace. 

We are in a process of closing most, if not all, of the coal-fired electricity stations around the world, and we all accept that this type of industrial equipment, this particular coal-fired type of furnace, is just not consistent with a climate-safe future. That is also true of blast furnaces.

David Roberts:   

So insofar as there's an elevator-pitch answer in steel, it is shutting down blast furnaces and building new facilities that either can work with hydrogen shaft furnaces or are some directly electrified process that we don't quite have worked out yet.

Rebecca Dell:  

We're getting close, though. That's probably how it's going to go. 

There are some interesting reports that came out in the last few months looking at pathways to steel decarbonization. Several different organizations have done this kind of analysis over the course of the last year, with different methodologies and approaches, and all of them basically come to the same conclusion: no new blast furnaces, and we're going to have to start shutting down the existing blast furnaces in pretty short order.

David Roberts:   

I'm guessing these new, less standardized and commodified processes are more expensive. What kind of delta are we talking about?

Rebecca Dell:  

This is a great question, and there are two answers. 

First, yes, we do expect that green steel and other green commodities will be more expensive than existing dirty means of producing them. Depending on who you ask, and depending on exactly which process you're talking about, those price premiums range from 20 percent up to 200 percent. 

That's okay — we pay for environmental performance all the time. Cars with catalytic converters are more expensive than cars without catalytic converters; we still think it's a good idea to put catalytic converters in our cars.

David Roberts:   

But if you're telling a country that's emerging out of poverty that it's going to be 200 percent more expensive for them to do so, that's not nothing.

Rebecca Dell:  

This leads me to the second point, which is that these industries — steel, cement, commodity chemicals — are incredibly valuable. The whole rest of the economy relies on the material that these industries produce.

However, from an economic perspective, they are extremely low-value-added industries. They have very tight margins. These are your classic commodity industries. The cost of these materials represents a very small part of the cost of the finished goods that are made out of them. 

From the perspective of the guy who owns the steel mill or chemical plant or cement kiln — sometimes it’s a girl, but usually a guy — he's like, “I have commodity-sized margins here. There is no room in my margin to pay for any kind of decarbonization.”

I would encourage you, however, to look at this through the other end of the telescope. Don't look from the perspective of the guy who owns the steel mill; look at it from the perspective of the person who's buying a car made out of steel. Even at a relatively high additional cost for decarbonization, that's only going to add a couple hundred bucks to the cost of your car. The average new car in the United States costs $37,000; $37,200 looks a lot more manageable.

David Roberts:   

This must have political economy consequences, too, right? If the steel mill owners can't get the car buyers on their side to rebel against this, how much power do they have on their own to politically resist these sorts of things? 

Rebecca Dell:  

The real political and economic problem here is not, “how do we afford to pay for decarbonization?” We can 100 percent afford to pay for decarbonization of steel and all of these other industries. The problem is, how do we pass the costs efficiently through the supply chain so that the place they land, the final consumer, is the person in the supply chain who can actually afford to pay.

David Roberts:   

They’re more dispersed the more you pass them down the chain too; less concentrated on any one constituency that might rebel against it.

Rebecca Dell:  

Yes. The policy challenge here is about how you pass those costs through. Ways that you can do that are things like product standards. Why do we have catalytic converters in our cars? In a practical sense, it's because you're not allowed to buy a car that doesn't have one. If you want to make sure that the costs of decarbonization get passed all the way through the supply chain, one way to do that is to have standards that require that products use clean materials.

David Roberts:   

Of course government procurement is always a huge piece of this too. Government can start that process. 

Rebecca Dell:  

Yes, the government can start by applying the standards to itself.

David Roberts:   

That's basically end users voluntarily taking on the cost, right? 

Rebecca Dell:  

I don’t think there's anything voluntary about my catalytic converter.

David Roberts:   

Well, policymakers deliberately choosing to put the costs on the final user so that it's less concentrated. The steel mill owners are all equally affected; none of them are being priced out relative to the others.

Rebecca Dell:  

To be philosophical for a second, there are only two pots of money in society: consumer dollars and taxpayer dollars. The question is, what ratio of consumer dollars to taxpayer dollars do we wish to use? That is going to change depending on circumstances, but that's the question.

David Roberts:   

This helps me have a more realistic view on steel, although it’s slightly dimmed my enthusiasm.

Rebecca Dell:  

I don't want to give you the impression that nothing's happening on steel. The Swedes have a project called HYBRIT, a hydrogen reduction steel project, which is the most advanced in the world. They recently announced that they made one of their mining vehicles entirely out of green steel — the first vehicle in the history of the world to be made out of green steel.

It’s only one vehicle, but the distance between one vehicle and two vehicles is a lot smaller than the distance between zero vehicles and one vehicle, and that distance keeps getting smaller over time. We're making real progress. We're not there yet — it's definitely at an earlier stage than our colleagues who are working on power or transportation — but we're making progress.

David Roberts: 

Let’s move on to cement. What is the raw material and what is the basic processing?

Rebecca Dell:  

The raw material is the main constituent of limestone. Limestone is a very common kind of rock; you can find it pretty much in any country. The main constituent of limestone is something called calcium carbonate. The main ingredient in cement is something called calcium oxide. You can hear right in the words — there is carbon in the limestone, there is no carbon in the cement. 

You dig up the rocks and cook them at 1,500℃, roughly 2,600℉. About 40 percent of your greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fuel to get your rocks that hot, and the other 60 percent, on average, is from burning off the carbon that was in the rock. The carbon coming out of the rock is your process emissions.

David Roberts:   

Once again, it's fairly easy to imagine the energy coming from a different low-carbon source, but the problem comes down to process emissions. When the carbon comes off the limestone and is released, is there some way of capturing it? Is there some way of doing this without releasing the carbon? What are the green cement options?

Rebecca Dell:  

Even if we decide that we don't want to use CCS in any other part of our economy, the place that we are most likely to end up relying on CCS as our primary decarbonization pathway is in the cement industry.

David Roberts:   

Are the emission sources more concentrated in cement than they are in steel?

Rebecca Dell:  

A cement kiln is a much simpler place than a steel mill. We were talking about steel mills with thousands of employees; if you go to a cement kiln, the typical number of guys on shift is maybe 25. You just have one big pipe in a cement kiln, so CCS is a lot more straightforward there. 

People do have ideas for alternative raw materials or alternative cement chemistries that might be able to address this process emissions problem without CCS, but it's probably going to be CCS. Part of that is my assessment of what the technical alternatives are, but an even more important reason is that cement and the thing we like to make out of it, concrete, are foundational to our buildings. It is literally the thing we make foundations out of. Almost every structure in our society relies on concrete, and the type of cement that we use, which is called ordinary portland cement, was first patented in 1824. We're coming up on its 200-year anniversary.

This is a material we feel very comfortable with. We know its material properties really well. And for obvious reasons, the construction industry is incredibly risk-averse about the structural properties of the things that it's building. Even if you have great ideas for alternative cement chemistries, the likelihood that the global construction industry would feel comfortable wholesale shifting over to them in 30 years time is a pretty tall order.

David Roberts:   

I can't imagine the process you would have to go through to demonstrate that your concrete would hold up buildings in every conceivable situation. 

Rebecca Dell:  

We do have performance-based standards for concretes and ways that we test different types. I don't want to say that there's nothing to be done here. 

The main ingredient in cement is something called clinker, and we already use a big range of different clinker factor — that's the percentage of clinker — in different cements around the world. Almost all the carbon dioxide comes from making the clinker. A lot of cement is 95 percent clinker, but it's also very common to use 65 percent clinker cements. You can cut 30 percent off your greenhouse gas emissions by using low-clinker cements, and those things are already technically mature and well-demonstrated — there are big structures made out of them that you can go and visit around the world. 

So there’s an opportunity to make at least 30 percent greenhouse gas emissions reductions, on average, just by going to the lowest clinker factor that's appropriate for whatever you're using. There's no technical barrier. It usually is cheaper. We should do it tomorrow — there's no reason not to. But a 30 percent emissions reduction still leaves you with 70 percent.

David Roberts:   

What about bucket one, using less? Is there a practical way to use a lot less cement? 

Rebecca Dell:  

Oh my god, we are so wasteful in the way that we use concrete. 

People have gone out to actual commercial and multifamily residential buildings and looked at how much structural material, primarily concrete, these buildings are using compared to how much structural material would be needed to support all the loads. They typically find that there is something in the neighborhood of twice as much structural material as is needed to comply with the very safety-protective building codes. 

Almost all of the studies that I've seen have been in Europe or the United States, so it's mostly in high-income countries that these numbers come from. We think the situation is probably even worse in developing countries. 

I live in the San Francisco Bay area. For a commercial or multifamily construction site in this area, certainly it's more expensive here than in other parts of the country, but it's not radically different. Depending on the size of the building, the typical payroll for one of these construction sites might be $5,000-$10,000 an hour. To get one of those mixer trucks full of concrete delivered to your construction site — we're not talking about fancy concrete here, just normal commodity concrete — that's about $1,000. So if you can save five or 10 minutes of time on your job site by wasting a truck full of concrete, you just saved money. 

This goes back to what I was saying about looking through the other end of the telescope. Why would you use materials efficiently when they are so cheap? For private construction here in the United States, the average amount of a construction project that is represented by the cost of the cement is less than 0.5 percent.

David Roberts:   

So cement is so cheap that people overuse it to save time, to save soft costs …

Rebecca Dell:  

To save anything. Everything is more expensive than cement. If you take an 18-wheeler and you fill it up to the statutory maximum weight for driving on an interstate highway in the United States, it will have approximately $2,600 worth of cement in it. It will have a one nice laptop worth of cement.

David Roberts:   

This does seem like an area where markets could work well. You want to put a higher price signal on it and then trust people to figure out how to eliminate some of it. Is that right?

Rebecca Dell:  

It's a good news / bad news situation. Because cement and all of these materials are so cheap, it is very hard to persuade people to use them efficiently. It is very hard to persuade people to value them in terms of the actual value that they provide to their lives. It's a little bit like water or electricity that way. 

However, because they're so cheap, the good news is that even if the green version is a little bit more expensive, or even a lot more expensive, than the dirty version, that doesn't actually make the products that these materials are made out of more expensive.

If we go back to this commercial building I was talking about, 0.5 percent of its costs are cement. Let's say we mandate dumb end-of-pipe CCS, the most expensive, worst engineering option that we can think of, for our cement decarbonization. We involve only lazy engineers in our project.

Even under that circumstance, maybe we'll double the cost of the cement — that only adds 0.5 percent to the cost of the building. In fact, it adds less than 0.5 percent to the cost of the building, because all of the construction costs that I've been citing don't include the cost of the land, which is often the most expensive thing.

David Roberts:   

So I was precisely wrong — it's probably going to be difficult to put a pure price signal high enough to make the market work. But you can get away with mandates, because it's not going to affect consumers much.

Rebecca Dell:  

Yes. This is part of what I was saying earlier — these industries are incredibly valuable, but because they're low-value-added, compared to the prices that consumers actually face, these materials are not typically an important line item.

David Roberts:   

Let's talk about chemicals. I know it's a varied category. Are there simple things to say about why chemical processing produces so much greenhouse gas, or does it vary a lot also?

Rebecca Dell:  

The chemical industry is very diverse. I remember talking to a colleague who was a senior sustainability person at BASF, the German chemical giant, and she told me that BASF has an 80/20 problem when it comes to their greenhouse gases. BASF makes approximately 100,000 products. Eighty percent of their greenhouse gases come from not 20 percent of their products, but from 20 products

Again, these are the basic materials that are the ingredients for all their other products — mostly fertilizer and plastic. 

For fertilizer, primarily we're talking about nitrogen fertilizer, so making that cleanly is mostly about making hydrogen cleanly. People do have some ideas for how to make nitrogen fertilizer that's not made out of ammonia, but the main idea is, if you want to make clean ammonia, you just need to start with clean hydrogen.

David Roberts:   

If you solve the green hydrogen problem, you solve the fertilizer problem downstream?

Rebecca Dell:  

Yep. There's not a whole lot to making fertilizer besides making hydrogen.

David Roberts:   

That's convenient. Plastics, I assume, are more difficult.

Rebecca Dell:  

Yes. With plastics, you have the same buckets of solutions we were talking about earlier. We could use less, and definitely we should. 

Plastics are interesting, because they’re carbon-based molecules; they're made out of a carbon-based material. When we make plastics out of fossil fuels, some of the fossil fuels are burned to provide energy, but for more than half of the fossil fuels that we use in plastics production, we're actually taking the carbon atoms and the hydrogen atoms that are in the fossil fuels and we're putting them into the plastic product. We're making the product out of the fossil fuels.

David Roberts:   

So every piece of plastic is, in some sense, carbon sequestration.

Rebecca Dell:  

You know, Shell says that all the time.

David Roberts:   

I take it back. Does it release the carbon when it breaks down?

Rebecca Dell:  

There is a scenario in which, if you collected all the plastic at the end of its life, and you made sure that it was clean and dry and well-segregated, and you put it in a nicely lined hole in the ground, it would be inert in that hole for a very long time and technically you could call that carbon storage. 

But that's not actually what we do with plastic at the end of its life, and the way that we actually treat plastic at the end of its life leads to a lot of greenhouse gas emissions.

David Roberts:   

What do we do? Do we burn it?

Rebecca Dell:  

Some of it we burn. That's like burning fossil fuels directly, and that's a very popular option around the world. 

Here in the United States we mostly put it into mixed garbage. When you have plastic and organic material mixed together in your garbage, the organic material, food waste, will decompose anaerobically. All the carbon atoms that were in that organic material will then leak out as methane instead of as carbon dioxide.

Methane, depending on the timeline you're looking at, is somewhere between 30 and 85 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide that you would get if you properly composted your organics. 

So even if the carbon atoms in the plastic are not decomposing quickly and turning into carbon dioxide, they are leading to methane emissions from trash, which are an important source of overall greenhouse gas emissions.

David Roberts:   

It seems like here, bucket one is the lowest-hanging fruit by far. We're so wasteful. Plastic is so gross and overused.

Rebecca Dell:  

In the United States, the EPA estimates that only 8 or 9 percent of plastic is even collected for recycling, and of that, only about half is actually recycled in any form at all. Almost always, the recycling process is that you have a wide variety of mixed plastic, you melt it down, and when you lump all of these different materials together you get very, very low-quality plastic, radically downcycling. 

Most of the plastics we use are, in theory, infinitely recyclable. If you have a high-purity waste stream, you can melt it down and get new, first-quality products that are just like the old ones. But we don't do that. 

We need to use less plastic, but we also need to have tight regulations on exactly what types of plastic can be used, so that there are only a few types out there and all plastic packaging is the same couple of types, so they can be easily segregated and meaningfully recycled. 

David Roberts:   

We can change the way we design plastic products and the types of plastic we make to encourage more recycling, but obviously you're never going to get to zero that way. Is there a way to avoid, bucket two, or are we stuck with CCS here? Are there real alternatives on the horizon to carbon plastic?

Rebecca Dell:  

Bioplastics are real. I occasionally will encounter a PLA fork or something like that. They're not a meaningful portion of current plastic production. And as we were talking about before, there's just not enough biomass to go around to make large quantities of plastic out of biomass, so that's going to be a niche item forever. 

We can take carbon atoms out of carbon dioxide and turn them into plastic; it requires an eye-watering amount of energy. This is important for carbon-utilization conversations generally: imagine we started with these big, exciting, highly energy-dense fossil fuel molecules; we had a combustion reaction, where we took out all of the energy that was stored in those molecules; and what we were left with was carbon dioxide, which was a combustion product. It's what's left over after you take out all of the energy.

If you want to turn it back into one of these big exciting molecules, you have to put more energy back in than you got out in the first place from burning it. The chemicals industry is the most energy-consuming industry of any industry in the world. It's only the third-most greenhouse gas emitting, because a lot of that energy is stored in the product and doesn't go directly into carbon dioxide.

A couple of years back, the big pan-European chemicals industry trade association published this fantastic report where they said, “okay, you guys want us to decarbonize, let's get serious about what that actually would be. Let's go through one process at a time and talk about the energy and feedstock requirements for the green alternatives in every case.”

What they found was that to produce the basket of chemicals that they were currently producing and to do it using carbon dioxide as their primary source of carbon would require something like 1,900 terawatt-hours per year of clean electricity. The IEA estimates that in their Paris compliance scenario in 2050, the total amount of electricity that is generated and used for all purposes on the continent of Europe is only about 3,400 terawatt hours per year.

More than half of all the electricity would have to go to the chemicals industry if you wanted to make all of your carbon-based chemicals out of carbon dioxide. 

So, it can be done, but we are really in too-cheap-to-meter territory with our electricity if we're doing that.

David Roberts:   

None of those sound like good options. What's your favorite for plastics? 

Rebecca Dell:  

It's got to be using less, material efficiency. I have seen no scenarios where you can get 1.5℃ or even 2℃-consistent reductions in emissions from the chemicals industry without dramatically reducing the amount of plastic that we use and dramatically increasing the quantity and quality of recycled plastic.

David Roberts:   

With steel, you mentioned that when you're developing as a country there are a lot of big one-time uses and then your usage tails off. Is there an arc for plastics?

Rebecca Dell:  

Not that we’ve been able to find. It’s just up and up and up. Since 2015, the rate at which total global plastic production is increasing has stopped accelerating.

David Roberts:   

I guess that's good news?

Rebecca Dell:  

The problem is not getting worse faster. It's just getting worse at the same very rapid rate that it was previously getting worse at. That's the nicest thing I can say about the trend for plastic production volumes.

David Roberts:   

I do want to touch on some policy options. It sounds like if we're looking big picture, at industry decarbonizing by 2030, the most difficult area is plastics. Is that roughly accurate, or they're all difficult?

Rebecca Dell:  

I don't like to think of any of them as difficult. I find that framing both unhelpful and inaccurate, because people just started noticing the importance of the industrial sector about a year ago. I often tell people that where we are in our decarbonization progress in these sectors is similar to maybe where the power sector was in the late 90s. 

I don't know, I was a kid then, but I'm assuming that in the 90s the concept of completely decarbonizing the power sector probably felt pretty hard to people who were out there trying to get solar panels installed and being called silly hippies. We have 20 or 25 years of progress that we've made since then.

It's not going to be easy, it's not going to happen by itself, but we have a line of sight to where we're going. We see how it's going to happen.

The situation in the industrial sector is not that it's somehow inherently harder. We're just at a much earlier stage in our decarbonization journey.

David Roberts:   

We waited a long time to get started, though. We do have to go faster in it than we did in electricity, arguably.

Rebecca Dell:  

That is true. We did take our sweet time to get started.

David Roberts:   

You're closely in touch with political and policy angles on this — do you see urgency around this commensurate with the scale and speed necessary to do it? 

Rebecca Dell:  

I mean, obviously not. Even the parts of the climate challenge that we're doing the best at we're not on track, and this is not one of the parts that we are doing the best at.

It is very clear to me that what we need to do to decarbonize these industries is entirely within our capacities here in the United States and also globally. Please don't interpret what I'm saying as any disrespect to the efforts of the Biden administration. The people who are doing this work in the Biden administration are very, very clear about what the scale of the challenge is, and they are attempting to move as fast as they possibly can. But they would probably be the first people to tell you, “what we're doing is not enough.”

David Roberts:   

Let's look at what we are doing, then. We had executive actions early on, we had the Recovery Act, then we got the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. Are there big pieces of good policy on this that have already been passed? Secondly, are there good pieces of policy on this in Build Back Better that we, like everyone else, are sitting around waiting forever for action on? 

Rebecca Dell:  

The biggest thing that was in the bipartisan infrastructure law is a serious pile of money for commercializing and demonstrating clean industrial technologies. Most of that is going through the Department of Energy, and the way that the money was allocated is pretty flexible. The DOE currently has a lot of discretion about exactly how they spend that money, and there are a few different pots of it, so it's hard for me to give you a dollar amount that will go to the industrial sector, but it will be somewhere between half a billion and a few billion dollars. That's a serious amount of money.

David Roberts:   

It does sound like in some of these markets or sub-markets we are at that point where a visibly successful demonstration project could be triggering, could unleash things.

Rebecca Dell:  

It’s a thing we need really badly, and it's a thing that absolutely requires public money. There's a certain amount of technology risk that the private sector in these industries, in particular, is simply not going to pay for. 

David Roberts:   

What about Build Back Better? Is there some pot of gold at the end of that?

Rebecca Dell:  

It’s a much larger pot of money in Build Back Better. We go from a minimum amount of industrial decarbonization demonstration projects of $0.5 billion currently up to a minimum amount of $4 billion if Build Back Better gets passed. Then the upper limit, depending on how you count it, goes up commensurately. 

The other important thing is that Biden issued an executive order last month on federal sustainability which included for the first time direct instructions for the federal government to buy low-greenhouse gas building materials — read: steel and cement — when it builds stuff with federal money.

David Roberts:   

That’s not a small thing. That's a very big customer, right? 

Rebecca Dell:  

We call the family of policies where the government buys low-greenhouse gas building materials “Buy Clean.” If you look across all levels of government — federal, state, and local — almost half of all the cement in the United States is purchased with taxpayer dollars.

David Roberts:   

In other words, Buy Clean government policy could do a lot.

Rebecca Dell:  

If it's well-structured and aggressively implemented, it could make a huge difference. Build Back Better, in addition to demonstration, has a bunch of money in it to facilitate the implementation of Buy Clean.

David Roberts:   

Just at the federal level, or helping states or cities too? Presumably, government at any level could do a little bit of this.

Rebecca Dell:  

There are a lot of spillover benefits. If the federal government says, “we're going to do this,” that makes it much cheaper and easier for state and local governments to do it, even without direct federal subsidies.

For example, the federal government has to put in place the measuring and reporting frameworks for the greenhouse gas intensity of different products; they have to make sure that the low-carbon products are available wherever federal construction is happening. All of the fixed costs of getting the system up and running can be accepted by the federal government.

David Roberts:   

All of which makes it easier for the next person to do it.

Rebecca Dell:  

There's also a lot of exciting stuff happening at the state level. California was the first state to pass a Buy Clean law, but since then, five other states have passed Buy Clean laws of one type or another.

David Roberts:   

Mostly cement and steel?

Rebecca Dell:  

The specific set of materials that's covered varies from state to state. Some states it's cement only; some states have steel, cement, and other things; in California, unfortunately, it's everything except cement. The cement industry had good lobbyists.

David Roberts:   

Is this the sort of thing where if enough states get in on this, they're eventually going to force a sea change?

Rebecca Dell:  

These are concepts that need to be proved out. If you can have a state policy that leads to widespread use of comparatively very low-greenhouse gas building materials, it becomes a lot easier for the EPA to start regulating related issues. The goal here is to create a virtuous circle of greenhouse gas ambition.

David Roberts:   

On one side you have investment for demonstration projects and setting up these systems; on the other side, for demand-pull, you have Buy Clean. Are there other big-ticket policy items that have not yet been tackled?

Rebecca Dell:  

There are a lot of different ways to structure the investment side. You can do credit subsidies; you can do direct subsidies; you can also do direct federal investment, which we have done a lot of in years past and in fact, the Defense Production Act allows us to do an almost unlimited amount of, if we wanted to. There are a lot of good arguments to be made for direct federal investment in clean production. All of those things are really important. 

There are also some important governance issues. A lot of these industries and markets have had pretty poor enforcement of existing regulations, both around non-greenhouse gas pollution and around labor standards. We have some pretty good rules on the books that are very poorly enforced. If we want the energy transition and the clean transition across the economy to be sustainable politically, we have to be showing people real, direct benefits in their lives and their family's health. That has to be an important part of this conversation. 

Also in the governance bucket, the United States is very bad at industrial policy. It was not always true, but for the last 40 years or so, we've had this weird fantasy that we don't do industrial policy. We definitely do industrial policy, but it's incoherent and easy to be captured by the covered industries because we’re pretending that we're not doing it.

One of the consequences of this is that we have entirely hollowed out the expertise and the governance infrastructure of industrial policy, particularly at the federal level. There's hardly anybody whose job it is to think about these things in the federal government, compared to other countries whose manufacturing sectors we would like to emulate.

David Roberts:   

Look at Germany. It's all very explicit. It's right up front. They're very clear about what they want to do and how they're going to do it. It's so much more sensible.

Rebecca Dell:  

And they spend a lot of money on it. The main applied R&D in the manufacturing sector that's from the German government is a system of things called the Fraunhofer Institutes. They spend almost 3 billion euros a year on the Fraunhofer Institutes.

The analogous thing in the US government is the Advanced Manufacturing Office, which has an annual budget of $400 million. Our economy is five times larger than Germany's, so compared to the overall size of our economy, we are spending less than 5 percent of what they are spending on applied R&D. And that's the piece of industrial policy that we feel most comfortable with!

David Roberts:   

That cuts across every sector, right? We constantly talk about goals and targets, but the capacity to do things on purpose with our economy has been hollowed out. 

Rebecca Dell:  

This is particularly true in the manufacturing sectors.

David Roberts:   

Is that largely because we exported so much of it? 

Rebecca Dell:  

I might make the causal relationship go in the other direction. One of the reasons why we had a lot of deindustrialization was that we didn't have a concerted effort to maintain a vibrant industrial economy. For example, Germany still has most of its steel mills.

David Roberts:   

If anything, we deliberately accelerated the reverse process with trade deals and things like that. That seems like a long-term project, reversing that process. 

Rebecca Dell:  

And an important part of that is rebuilding our governance capacity. It blows my mind that the highest-ranking person in the federal government whose job it is to think about the future of the US manufacturing sector — the head of the Advanced Manufacturing Office at DOE — has the rank of Office Director.

There isn't a single Assistant Secretary anywhere, in any department, on this beat. That is wild. There are 20 million Americans employed in this sector.

David Roberts:   

The final piece I want to look at is international trade. Presumably either we or other countries are going to start using trade deals as an instrument of decarbonization in industry. Is that something we're trying to do, or that people are talking about?

Rebecca Dell:  

It is. You may recall that Donald Trump, when he was president, put tariffs on steel and aluminum, just because he felt like it. Late last year, around the same time as the big climate meeting that happened in Scotland, the US and EU made an announcement about how they are working together on a deal to transform those tariffs into something that is mutual and linked to greenhouse gases. 

There's definitely a lot of work happening in this space. We have not yet settled on what the best policy tools are to promote decarbonization. For solar panels, some people say “we should have free trade in solar panels so that there are cheap solar panels and everybody can have the cheapest possible clean electricity.” Other people say “no, if we want to decarbonize we should have high tariffs on solar panels so that countries can have employment and manufacturing and broader social benefits, which will make the whole country more supportive of solar power.”

We still have a lot of work to do to figure out what a truly climate-safe vision for trade policy is. There's a relatively narrow set of policies that are traditional trade policies. In most cases, for things like tariffs, that's often less important than, what are the international reverberations? What are the trade consequences of purely domestic policies like subsidies and procurement policies? 

David Roberts:   

In terms of stimulating global movement toward industrial decarbonization, our biggest tools are probably still domestic. Doing it as fast as we can and making those products cheaper, rationalizing the industry, etc., is probably going to be a bigger deal than any tariffs we put on.

Rebecca Dell:  

Our goal is usually not that the trade policy itself will promote decarbonization, but that we can put in place trade policies that will prevent international trade from undermining our purely domestic policies, so different countries can push their industries to decarbonize faster without having to worry that dirty production from overseas will flood into the market.

David Roberts:   

How do you prevent industry from just moving, or shifting production? 

Rebecca Dell:  

This is one of the reasons why things like procurement policy are so fantastic, because when the regulation is on the product, not on the facility, there's no incentive to move the facility. The market-creation policies allow you to sidestep some of these difficult questions. 

People talk a lot about how businesses hate regulations. Businesses don't hate regulations; businesses hate regulations that they have to comply with, but their competitors don't. 

David Roberts:   

Well, I can not thank you enough. I know 10 times more about this now than I did when we started, so I really appreciate you taking all the time. Maybe someday we'll drill down a little deeper into one of these many, many rabbit holes that we tripped so lightly over in this conversation.

Rebecca Dell:  

I would be more than happy to talk in greater detail in the future. As you can probably tell, talking about this is one of my favorite things to do.

David Roberts:   

It's so fun. Thanks so much, Rebecca.

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Feb 11, 2022
The minerals used by clean-energy technologies
In a previous post, I offered a broad overview of the problems related to minerals needed for the clean-energy transition. To recap:

clean-energy technologies are more minerals-intensive to build than their fossil-fuel counterparts;

the growth of clean energy will rapidly raise demand for a set of key minerals;

mining and processing of those minerals is geographically concentrated, often in countries with weak labor and environmental protections;

mineral mines and processing facilities often pollute water, scar landscapes, and impoverish communities;

production may not be able to expand fast enough to keep up with demand, which could cause supply constrictions and price fluctuations and slow the transition away from fossil fuels.

That’s the big picture.

In today’s post, I want to take a take a closer look at some of the biggest clean-energy technologies and the minerals required to build them. Specifically, I’ll cover batteries, solar PV, wind, geothermal, concentrated solar, and carbon capture and storage (CCS). I’m not going to get too deep into any one of these — just a quick tour.

I’ll be drawing heavily on a 2020 World Bank report that projects demand for key minerals under rapid decarbonization scenarios from the International Energy Agency (IEA) — specifically the RTS (reference technology scenario, or current policy), 2DS (2-degree scenario), and B2DS (beyond 2-degree scenario, aiming for 1.5). (The World Bank and IEA use the word minerals to refer to the mineral and metal value chain, and I do the same in this post.)

This tour will reveal which minerals are expected to be most in demand — which ones are certain to be needed and which depend on the direction taken by particular technologies. It will help focus attention on possible supply stress points.

It will also reveal that there is enormous uncertainty about the pace and scale of demand growth for specific minerals and minerals generally. Much depends on unpredictable developments in technology, policy, and politics. Epistemic humility is called for, along with policy focused on resilience. (More on policy in the next post.)

One fact that is certain: the more ambitious the world’s decarbonization efforts, the higher mineral demand will rise.

Here’s an overview table of energy sources and technologies and the key minerals they use:

Let’s start the tour with the 800-pound gorilla of minerals demand: batteries.

Batteries are the biggest growth sector for minerals demand

Of all the clean-energy technologies set to boom in coming decades, none will put a strain on minerals supply like batteries, shown as energy storage in the chart above. They account for about half of the projected growth in minerals demand over the next two decades in a rapid decarbonization scenario.

In large part, this has to do with the expected rise in battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs), which represent 90 percent of battery demand growth; the other 10 percent will come from growth in stationary storage, used to balance out wind and solar on the grid.

If the world targets 2°, minerals demand from energy storage will double from the baseline scenario; if the world targets 1.5°, it will more than double again.

Batteries, readers of my battery series will recall, are composed of two electrodes, a cathode and an anode, and an electrolyte through which they exchange ions. (The outlier is redox flow batteries, which pump a liquid electrolyte past electrodes.)

Depending on what those three parts are made of, batteries require different minerals. Many EVs still use lead-acid batteries, which use lead and sulfuric acid, but lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) are expected to rapidly take over the market, so demand for lead-acid batteries won’t grow much.

As for LIBs, most use graphite as the anode, which means graphite will be the most sought-after mineral in energy storage. Cathodes vary more widely. The most common use nickel, with various mixes of cobalt, lithium, and manganese also common. (It should be noted that lithium is used across all LIBs, not just for the cathode.)

It should be noted that these projections out to 2050 are to a large extent guesses, just an extension of the “average” LIB into the future. In fact, LIB technology could evolve a number of different ways, and other storage technologies could play bigger roles in subsequent decades.

“The assumption that Li-ion batteries dominate both the mobile and stationary market for the next decade is conservative,” the World Bank writes. “Post-2030, the scale of uncertainty is much greater, with a wide range of options in both markets.”

Consider the options for LIBs. For cathodes, NMC111 batteries use one part nickel, one part manganese, and one part cobalt, while newer NMC811 batteries use much more nickel and less cobalt. Tesla and other automakers are trying to eventually eliminate cobalt from their batteries; it’s too early to say how far they’ll get.

Right now, almost all anodes are graphite (a market dominated by China) but there is active development of zinc-air batteries that use air as the anode, sodium-ion batteries that use hard carbon as a anode, and solid-state batteries (which replace a liquid electrolyte with a solid one) that use lithium as an anode. What mix of technologies will triumph is still an open question, which means the precise trajectory of graphite demand is tough to predict.

If manufacturers seek to minimize cobalt, demand for nickel will rise. If solid-state batteries catch on, they could reduce demand for graphite. If zinc-air batteries catch on, they could dent demand for lithium, graphite, nickel, and manganese.

Post-2030, other storage technologies like flow batteries or a wide array of long-duration storage techs could become competitive. It depends on the evolution of policy and the electricity mix. Also worth noting: the practice of using second-life EV batteries as a form of grid storage could take off, which would trim total demand for new batteries.)

Finally, LIBs have made substantial advances in materials efficiency and those will likely continue, which could effect how sharply demand rises. (Read this RMI report for a bullish take on improvements in LIBs’ energy density.)

In terms of how geopolitically concentrated and environmentally destructive they are, the big minerals to watch here are graphite, nickel, lithium, and cobalt, but it’s impossible to know their precise mix in advance.

Solar voltaics love aluminum and copper

Solar is another technology that we are confident is going to grow like mad in coming decades, but it’s difficult to predict the exact trajectory of minerals demand.

The World Bank paper looks at four common PV technologies: crystalline silicon (crystal Si), which makes up about 85 percent of the current market, and three different “thin film” technologies that can be printed on flat sheets: copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), cadmium telluride (CdTe), and amorphous silicon (amorphous Si).

All four are made primarily with aluminum, copper, and silver, with different additional minerals contributing to different technologies. In terms of overall size, aluminum and copper are the biggies:

In the comparison below, the World Bank includes two scenarios from the International Renewable Energy Agency, which tends to be more bullish on PV and batteries than IEA — a renewable energy roadmap (rapid decarbonization) scenario and a reference scenario. In IRENA’s roadmap scenario, demand for both minerals rises 350 percent from baseline through 2050.

Depending on which scenario you favor, demand for aluminum and copper from PV is either going to grow a boatload or a mega-boatload.

Aluminum — not itself a raw mineral, but a product of bauxite reduction that produces alumina, which is then smelted — plays a role in almost all energy technologies, but solar is the biggest source of demand in the energy sector, by far.

When it comes to copper, clean-energy technologies — batteries and solar, but also transmission and distribution systems — are the fastest growing source of demand. In a 2-degree scenario, clean energy’s share of total copper demand will rise from today’s 24 percent to 45 percent. It’s going to drive a lot of new copper mining.

Demand for aluminum and copper will likely be robust no matter which way solar PV evolves, but for some minerals, the direction the technology takes has bigger consequences. For example, almost all (97 percent) of the indium used in the energy sector is for solar PV — specifically, thin-film solar PV.

“The current literature expects this subtechnology to grow, and in the model, the three thin film subtechnologies — CIGS, CdTe, and amorphous silicon — are assumed to grow from 20 percent to 50 percent of solar panels,” writes the World Bank. If that doesn’t happen, if old-fashioned crystal-Si panels continue to get ludicrously cheaper and crush all competition, it could cut energy sector demand for indium to very little.

Other minerals like silicon, gallium, and tellurium are also sensitive to the direction of PV markets.

Anyway, in PV, aluminum and copper are the biggies, but several rare earth elements are in play too, depending on future technology choices.

Wind turbines are big on steel

Wind turbines are made mostly of steel for the turbines (the manufacture of which, depending on the details, can involve nickel, molybdenum, titanium, manganese, vanadium, or cobalt), with lots of copper for cabling and iron for other parts.

Most of those materials are common in other clean-energy technologies. The one mineral for which wind is the primary demand is zinc; wind would boost demand at least 80 percent in a 2-degree scenario.

Most onshore wind farms use geared turbines, which “use a gearbox to convert the relatively low rotational speed of the turbine rotor (12–18 rpm) to a much higher speed (1,500 rpm) for input to a generator,” the World Bank writes. Around 80 percent of current global wind capacity is geared turbines, attached to generators that use lots of iron and copper.

In direct-drive turbines, the generator is affixed to the rotor and turns at the same speed. These are more common in offshore installations, due to their lower maintenance requirements. They often use permanent magnets with rare earth elements.

Some minerals will be greatly affected by the ultimate balance of onshore and offshore turbines, like neodymium, a rare earth element used only in permanent magnet direct-drive turbines. A 2-degree scenario in which offshore wind grows faster than expected could spike demand for neodymium almost 50 percent relative to the base case; if onshore grows faster, it could sink neodymium demand by almost 70 percent.

(Read this piece for the bullish case on direct-drive turbines. Another big unknown is the possible penetration of “switched reluctance motors,” which are both cheaper than current induction and synchronous motors and don’t need a gearbox or rare earth elements for a magnet. See here for more on that.)

So for wind: lots more steel, zinc, iron, copper, and, depending on the evolution of turbine technology, a few rare earth elements.

Geothermal, concentrated solar, and CCS are small mineral players

Geothermal power is a relatively tiny portion of global electricity capacity and is likely to remain so even under optimistic growth scenarios.

As it grows, it will demand special steel alloys designed to resist heat and corrosion, which involve several rare earth elements. It also requires nickel, chromium, copper molybdenum, manganese, and titanium.

The only mineral for which geothermal is likely to be a significant chunk of demand is titanium; it is the main user in the energy sector. In a 2-degree scenario, demand for titanium for geothermal will rise 80 percent or more.

Concentrated solar power remains a fairly niche technology — more expensive and geography-dependent than PV — and is expected to grow, but not much. The only minerals of note that it uses are copper and silver, and it is not likely to represent a substantial portion of demand for either.

Carbon capture and storage uses chromium, cobalt, copper, manganese, molybdenum, and nickel, but no one is sure which CCS technology will win out or how much will be built, so it’s anybody’s guess how much.

The big picture

The World Bank’s figures “demonstrate an overall increase in demand for as many as 11 minerals used across a variety of energy technologies, with iron and aluminum showing the highest absolute increase, followed by copper and zinc.”

Here’s a graphic that shows relative increase in demand for a variety of minerals (on the left) and absolute increase in demand on the right.

As you can see, graphite grows by the largest percentage and by the second largest total amount — as a key component of batteries, it is key to the transition.

For some minerals, though demand does not increase a huge amount in absolute terms, they are starting from a small base and markets will grow by close to 500 percent, including lithium and cobalt, or around 200 percent, like indium and vanadium. Those could be stress points.

Some minerals will grow substantially in absolute terms, but relatively little in percentage terms, like copper and zinc, which are used widely outside the energy sector. (Although note: the World Bank analysis does not include copper for transmission lines, which could be a big source of growth.)

And then there’s nickel, somewhere in the middle.

To try to get all this information in one place, the World Bank created a risk matrix for minerals under a 2-degree scenario. Importantly, the matrix doesn’t capture risks related to environmental dangers or possible supply constraints. It only captures demand dynamics.

The horizontal axis — “weighted coverage-concentration index” — measures how cross-cutting a mineral is. To the left are minerals used in fewer energy technologies, whose fates are tied closely to the fate of those technologies; to the right are minerals common to many technologies, for which demand is likely to rise no matter which technologies win out.

The vertical axis — “2018-2050 production-demand index” — is a weighted measure combining relative and absolute demand growth. It captures, roughly, how much demand for the mineral is expected to grow. On the top are minerals that will experience large demand growth; on bottom, less growth.

The four quadrants of this matrix provide a way of categorizing minerals and their demand risks.

Quadrant one contains medium-impact minerals. They are used in a small number of clean-energy technologies and their overall growth will be modest. These include zinc, silver, titanium, and several rare earth elements.

Quadrant two contains high-impact minerals. They are only used in a handful of technologies (principally batteries), but demand is expected to increase rapidly and substantially. These are graphite, lithium, and cobalt — which are among the most environmentally nasty of the bunch in terms of mining and processing.

Quadrant three contains the highest-impact minerals, which are both crucial to a wide array of technologies and expected to grow quickly. For now, that only describes aluminum. It comes from bauxite mines, which are not great (no mines are really great), but it is one of the most recyclable and recycled materials in existence. Almost 75 percent of the aluminum made in history is still in use.

Quadrant four contains cross-cutting minerals, which won’t see dramatically rising demand like quadrants two and three but are vital to a broad array of technologies, which means growth in demand is quite certain and predictable. Copper is the big one here, used in pretty much every clean-energy technology, but nickel is going to grow even more. Lead, chromium, molybdenum, and manganese also qualify.

So that’s the risk matrix. It points to which minerals will be most in demand.

It turns out, as we saw in the previous post, that some of the most important minerals to the clean energy future are geographically concentrated and mined under socially and environmentally dubious circumstances. Processing is almost entirely dominated by China.

What should we do about that? More on that in the next post.

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Feb 07, 2022
Volts podcast: using DOE loan guarantees to accelerate clean energy, with Jigar Shah
In this episode, Jigar Shah, the recently appointed head of the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office (LPO), discusses how he and his team have reformed the office and pulled into into the modern age, the kinds of help LPO is offering entrepreneurs, and the frontier technologies that have him most excited.

Full transcript of Volts podcast featuring Jigar Shah, February 2, 2022

(PDF version)

David Roberts:

Back in 2010, the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office (LPO) briefly became what kids these days call the main character, the focus of a storm of controversy and media attention, thanks to the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a solar company that received the very first loan guarantee under Obama’s Recovery Act and then promptly gone bankrupt.

Despite that wildly overhyped controversy, the LPO did reasonably well under Obama. It ultimately turned a profit for the government and was arguably crucial to the explosive subsequent growth in markets for utility-scale solar and wind.

Under Trump, the LPO basically went dormant, doing little beyond shoveling money into the ill-fated Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia. Now the LPO is being revived, reformed, and reinvigorated by new director Jigar Shah.

Shah has a long history on the business side of clean energy — he was the co-founder and president of Generate Capital and before that founded “no money down” solar pioneer SunEdison — but he’s perhaps best known to energy nerds as the co-host of the late, lamented podcast The Energy Gang. (The team behind The Energy Gang now has a new show: The Carbon Copy.)

He wants to streamline the process of getting loan guarantees from LPO and rethink how the office approaches risk. And he’s got about $40 billion to work with, more if Build Back Better passes. (For the best account of Shah’s new approach, read these two Canary pieces — one, two — from Jeff St. John.)

Under Shah’s leadership, the LPO has been doing due diligence on the hundreds of applications that have flooded in since the office reopened for business. In December, it issued its first new conditional commitment for a loan guarantee, to a plant in Nebraska that will transform methane into hydrogen and carbon black. Many more loan guarantees are in the pipeline.

I’ve been looking forward to chatting with Shah about how the office is reforming under Biden, how to think about risk and communicate it to the public, and the kinds of clean-energy technologies that have him excited these days.

Without further ado, Jigar Shah, welcome to Volts.

Jigar Shah:  

Thanks for having me.

David Roberts:   

I'm a longtime fan of your career and your many podcasts, so it's great to finally get you on here.

Jigar Shah:  

Well, the feeling's mutual.

David Roberts:   

Give us the elevator pitch: What is the Loan Programs Office, what does it do, and what is it meant to accomplish?

Jigar Shah:  

The Loan Programs Office was originally conceived of by Senator Pete Domenici in the 2005 Energy Act. It was first funded in 2009 during the Obama stimulus. 

The main rationale for its existence is that the Department of Energy does so much great work on basic fundamental research; it gets all these technologies to what they call Technology Readiness Level 7, which means that you can actually verify that the technology works; but then they leave them there waiting for the private sector to pick them up and take them the rest of the way. And the private sector is saying, “we're happy to do it, but we can't get any debt for these technologies because the commercial banks are saying, ‘we don't want to spend the effort to understand all the nuances of this and get all the expertise lined up for one project, so until there are 100 projects to do, we’re not in.’”

David Roberts:   

This is the famous “valley of death”?

Jigar Shah:  

That's right. In this case, it's a valley of death that focuses on debt. The vast majority of valley-of-death conversations focus on equity: raising venture capital or raising private equity. In this case, you're talking about debt. 

When you talk about solving climate change, you're generally talking about trillion-dollar scale, and trillion-dollar scale only exists in infrastructure. In venture capital, we had a banner year last year; it was about $60 billion. That's not trillion-dollar scale. 

What does it take for the trillion-dollar-scale people to get comfortable with a technology? That's a commercial debt conversation. 

How do we underwrite a deal for commercial debt? I talked to most of the money center Wall Street banks last year and they said, “Jigar, one thing we will confirm is that the due diligence that comes out of your office is of such high quality that we know that a technology is ready if it gets through your office.”

David Roberts:   

That's one thing that maybe average people don't understand: you're not just handing companies money. The whole process of assessing the company and its technology is a long and labor-intensive process. The bulk of the service you're providing the industry is not even so much the money as the due diligence itself, so they don't have to do it, right?

Jigar Shah:  

That's exactly right. The government process that we take companies through is a lot more efficient and a lot shorter than it used to be, so we've made a lot of strides there, but no one would subject themselves to it if they could walk through the front door of one of these big banks and just get a standard commercial loan. They're going through that process and subjecting themselves to the detailed diligence and the 10,000 expert scientists and engineers we have with the national labs because they know that this is the best way for them to get a loan. An average loan size for us is $500 million.

David Roberts:   

Backing up a little bit: the loan office has been, let's call it “dormant,” for the last four years.

Jigar Shah:  

That’s certainly what the Secretary of Energy called it during her confirmation hearing.

David Roberts:   

Dumping money down the giant Georgia nuclear plant was the only thing it did, I think.

Before that there was the whole stupid Solyndra controversy. But as I understand it, the Loan Programs Office under Obama did well overall — ended up revenue-positive, spurred a lot of new industries. I’m curious what you take from that experience, and in what ways you're trying to improve. What needs to change to make it more modern and more suited to current circumstances?

Jigar Shah:  

There’s a series of questions implied there, so let me take them one by one.

First, Solyndra was one of the first loans that we issued out of the office. The office was very young when we did that loan, and since then, the office has matured greatly. We're up to 170 people from probably 20 people at that time, and we have a lot of processes and procedures. Solyndra wouldn't pass the office in the same way that it did in the past. The office has improved its processes tremendously. 

Even with the Solyndra losses included, we did about $35 billion worth of deals; we've had roughly $1.02 billion of losses, inclusive of Solyndra. That track record is something you would put up against any commercial bank in the space, let alone one that focuses on hard-to-finance deals. There are a lot of people who suggest we're not taking enough risk. 

In terms of what we're doing differently now: in the Obama era, we had a financial crisis, so we actually had a lack of access to commercial debt. When you look at Elon’s famous story of Tesla, he also had a problem getting equity. The money wasn't flowing like it is today with SPACs and etc. 

Fast forward to today: if you have a rock-solid 20-year power purchase agreement with a utility company, you're generally not going to come to the Loan Programs Office, unless you've got some weird long-duration storage technology or something else that has never been commercialized. 

We have to do a lot of things differently. The type of deals we see are far more diverse than just electricity. We see deals in the industrial decarb space, in the broader transportation space. The markets are less formed. For instance, people sign power purchase agreements in the electricity space; remember a lot of that came from PURPA, which is what all the coal plants were based on. But when you look at transportation fuels, for instance, people don't generally sign a 20-year fixed-price contract for aviation fuel. 

We have to change the way that we underwrite deals to figure out how we support those kinds of projects as well as the merchant market. When you look at the Low Carbon Fuel Standard credit program in California, which is driving a lot of projects, the price that gets set for those credits changes every month.

So we have to come up with a new way of evaluating those projects and figuring out how we support them. The Loan Programs Office has gotten far more sophisticated about how it underwrites risk than it was forced to be, frankly — not that they were not capable of it in 2010, they just didn't have to do it in 2010.

David Roberts:   

Is that reflective of changes in technology, or of a change in approach at the LPO to take a broader look at technology, or both?

Jigar Shah:  

All the above. In general, LPO could get away with doing standard, easy-to-finance deals in 2009-2010 because you had a historic credit crunch, and people needed our money. Today, those standard, easy-to-finance deals aren't coming in to the office, so we have to evolve to be relevant. 

But second of all, there were historic amounts of money invested during the Steven Chu era and Moniz era around new technologies, and a lot of those technologies are now mature enough to be able to come to our office. They made a lot of investments in industrial decarb. We had a lot of high-profile failures in carbon sequestration and storage in that era, but the new approaches are being built upon the success stories that we had. One of the success stories that came out of that era was the ADM Class VI wells, which continue to bury 1 million tons of carbon dioxide a year in Illinois.

David Roberts:   

The topic of risk is interesting, especially when it comes to an arm of government. The right-wing critique of the office was, “it's taking too many risks and it's losing money.” But the more educated energy-expert critique was, “it didn't lose enough money. The whole point is to take risks; that's why the thing exists, to take risks that private capital or banks won't take.” 

Talk a little bit about how you think about risk. Is there a percentage of losses that you're targeting? How do you target the right level of risk?

Jigar Shah:  

It's a great question. As a government appointee, your ability to take risk is defined by the amount of support that you're getting. The secretary mentioned the Loan Programs Office in her confirmation hearing and has been talking about it ever since, so we're clearly getting a lot of support. That means the world to all of us, and it gives us the freedom to make the decisions that we think are right for the country and not just right for the political moment. That's valuable. 

We don't view risk on a portfolio basis like that, although it does turn out that we check it that way. We view it on a deal-by-deal basis. 

Everybody in the office gets the same interest rate, which is Treasury’s plus three-eighths of a point, so that's 1.8 percent. Then we add a risk-based charge on top of it, based on the percentage chance that it loses money. The vast majority of our projects are not investment-grade. When you look at the other lending institutions within the government — whether it's the USDA programs, or TIFIA, or some of the other ones — they generally do investment-grade credits. These are people that have triple B or better credit ratings.

Our average credit rating in the office for new projects is double B or single B, because it's by definition misunderstood; otherwise, it wouldn't be coming to our office. Those projects generally have a risk of failure of 15 to 20 percent, depending on all the variables. 

We then add an interest rate adder to the interest rate to be able to compensate the government for that risk of loss. Let's say we'll add another four percentage points to the interest rate, so now it's not 1.8 percent, it's 5.8 percent. That extra money goes into the US Treasury Department. 

Then we do view our performance on a portfolio-wide basis. Today, the program adds about $500 million of interest payments per year to the US Treasury — so we make money for the government. There's a separate component to that: on a portfolio basis, you charge interest rates above the US’s cost of borrowing, to figure out whether we're earning enough “excess” interest to be able to cover any losses we have. 

Then, separately, Congress sometimes appropriates loss capital to us; it's called a credit subsidy. For ATVM, the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program, the Congress has determined that some of these projects are clearly going to be risky, because you’re taking an “if you build it they will come” risk; even if they make a great car, it could be that it's a terrible design and nobody wants to buy it. In that case, they actually allocate cash from the Congress to our program, and we pay that credit subsidy on behalf of those applicants. That basically forms a loan loss reserve in the US Treasury Department for those projects. 

To summarize all that, on balance, we’ve reserved almost $6 billion in loan loss reserves at the US Treasury, and have had a total of $1.02 billion in losses, and we don't expect very much more loss out of the existing $30 billion portfolio.

David Roberts:   

That's the operational way to view risk; the semi-separate question about how to communicate risk and loss and the chances you're taking is … maybe not your job, maybe that's the job of the secretary. But do you feel like the office itself, or the Democratic government culture in general, has learned anything about how to communicate risk? As we saw with Solyndra, it’s so easy to demagogue, and it takes some time to explain why risk is actually a good thing. Have you given that any thought?

Jigar Shah:  

On the political risk side of it, clearly sometimes political arguments move away from logic, and then you end up in a place that's — whatever it is. 

Sticking to the logic side of things, where I'm more comfortable, the way that we've talked about risk is we've talked about opportunity. Think about the sea change that has occurred in the thinking of automakers. Ford Motor Company stock has gone up tremendously in the last year, simply through the firm announcement that they're moving to electric vehicles. That all comes from the risk that we took in 2009 and the opportunities that it has created for millions of Americans as a result. 

The way that the president and the secretary have been talking about it is that this is the single largest wealth-creation opportunity America has in front of it. If we do it correctly, not only do we get to use our technology that we have ourselves invented through our dollars that we put in out of DOE, and we manufacture the products here, and we create the jobs here — but we also help hundreds of countries around the world decarbonize through the export markets for our technology companies. I mean, Tesla is the single largest exporter in California, which itself is the fifth-largest economy in the world.

David Roberts:   

Tesla serves so many contradictory symbolic roles at once. But one of them is definitely: you give Big Money (or Big Debt) permission to come into these markets and that spirals out globally. It's difficult to trace all the consequences from that. 

Jigar Shah:  

Absolutely. The same thing is true for utility-scale solar and wind, which of course is a more boring story. At the time, Europe had a feed-in tariff, which meant it had a guaranteed payment from the government, although it used the utility to pay it. That was not the case in the United States. We had some power purchase agreements, but in general, the whole concept of a feed-in tariff really there. There was a tax equity portion with tax credits. 

When we offered our loan guarantees for solar to SunPower and others — who will tell you that they were essential to be able to build those plants — Bank of America and Citibank and all those banks had not yet gotten their arms around how to support solar and wind, even though Germany and Spain and everybody else had had these big years in 2007-2008. You were sitting in 2012 with $1.5 billion projects such that those companies were forced to sell those projects to Warren Buffett and MidAmerican. And Warren Buffett and MidAmerican always make money. 

It wasn't until 2014 that there was a modicum of a competitive market, that SunEdison had created with the REIT that they created with TerraForm. Then in 2016, you got a lot more liquidity in the market. It wasn't until 2019 that you had full acceptance by all institutional investors such that the interest rates went down to 2.5 percent.

David Roberts:   

There's a certain amount of money set aside in the LPO for fossil fuel technologies like carbon capture. There's a certain amount of money set aside for nuclear. Then everything else competes for the remainder, which is smaller than the amounts set aside for fossil fuel and nuclear. What is the logic of that setup?

Jigar Shah:  

Unfortunately, the truth is that we just used up the renewable energy money. All of our allocations were received in 2009; there was a little bit of reshuffling since then, but most of it's 2009. We had $20+ billion of renewable energy and efficiency money; that money was largely used. We never issued a fossil fuel loan, so that money is all unused. The nuclear part was bigger too — but then of course we had the Vogtle nuclear plant that’s used up a lot of the money — so that money is still there as well. 

What I would say without getting into trouble is that Congress is very supportive of what we're doing. They basically said, “there's a lot of support for the loan program on both sides of the aisle, so get the thing working again. Show us that it's actually working before we allocate more money to that bucket.”

I don't think that's as controversial as it appears, and we are getting it working. We've got 170 hardworking men and women and they've done a great job of fixing the foundation of the program. It resulted in one conditional commitment in 2021, and we'll have a lot more this year. But that belies how much fixing that we did in 2021 so that the foundation was strong enough to have a big year in 2022.

David Roberts:   

Speaking of politics and money, what did the bipartisan infrastructure bill do for the LPO? Secondarily, what's in the as-yet-unpassed Build Back Better bill that relates to the LPO?

Jigar Shah:  

The bipartisan infrastructure legislation has a number of provisions in it that broaden our authority. It took the ATVM program and said, you now can do heavy trucks, light duty trucks, airplanes, battery chargers, locomotives. Somebody even included Hyperloop, which I thought was interesting, but it is what it is. I haven't seen any good Hyperloop applications coming in. 

We also got a broader level of authorities around carbon dioxide pipelines. A lot of the work that we're doing, for instance, is on these industrial hubs, where you're taking some of the places that have the most pollution in the United States, like the LA basin or the coast around Texas or Louisiana, and decarbonizing those. 

The hydrogen hubs, which are also in the bipartisan infrastructure legislation, marry with the carbon dioxide pipeline authority that we have to be able to help decarbonize all that heavy industry. 

There's also one other provision which was little noticed in the legislation that says that if a state entity supports the applicant, it actually moves away from the innovation requirements of our office. That's an interesting nugget that we're trying to figure out exactly what it means. Senator Murkowski had a big role in putting that in.

David Roberts:   

But no new money in the bipartisan bill.

Jigar Shah:  

Yeah, exactly. The new authorities were put into the bipartisan infrastructure legislation, and then the additional money comes into the House Build Back Better bill. Obviously the Senate's working on it. 

Because we make money for the federal government, the Congressional Budget Office has largely determined that new authority that goes into Title 17, in particular, only costs 1 percent in deficit spending of the loan amount we receive. So if we wanted to do an extra $100 billion of loans, it would cost $1 billion of deficit spending.

David Roberts:   

So it wouldn't take very much additional appropriation to vastly increase the amount of capital you have to work with.

Jigar Shah:  

That's right. Again, that's tied up in folks saying, “guys, prove to us that the office is working. Get some conditional commitments out the door and get some of the companies that are in our districts to tell us that you really are open for business. I understand that you're telling me you're open for business, and I see this big graphic that says you're open for business, but I'd like to hear confirmation from our constituents.”

David Roberts:   

Say Build Back Better passes or Congress got excited about this and dumps a bunch of money on you: are there capacity constraints for how much you can get out the door? How much could you possibly deploy before January 2025?

Jigar Shah:  

We've spent a lot of time on that in the office the last five months. The office initially was extraordinarily optimistic about what it thought it could accomplish, which frankly is amazing to see that level of risk-taking from the federal government staff that we have. It's really inspiring to see. But we've been a little more realistic about it in the delivery phase in January. 

We've got about 77 applications that have come in as of December 31, representing roughly $60 billion of requests. I do think that we can get a third of those applications through the system, mainly because the applicants are sophisticated and competent enough to go through all of our stage gates efficiently. Then half of the ones that can't do that quickly will also get through our office, it'll just take them an extra period of time to cure the defaults in their applications. 

We can actually move quite a bit of volume through the process. Note that if we obligated $30 billion of capital, which is a big number, that would make us the single largest provider of this kind of capital in the world. It's not like JPMorgan Chase or some of these other companies are chomping at the bit to do first-of-a-kind deployments; they're coming later in the process. 

It really is significant. When you think about the numbers in relation to each other, the venture capital community put $60 billion to work last year into companies; those companies need to put first-of-a-kind projects out the door. They would take $30 billion from us, they would match it with probably $30 billion of their venture capital as equity, and we put in let's say 50 percent debt. That would be $60 billion of first-of-a-kind projects. 

That would then cascade into second through fifth projects, EPC excellence, learning curve, the six cumulative doublings of experience. And a lot of that learning curve actually comes from a mixture of state and federal policy. The federal government generally likes to give them tax credits and maybe some demonstration dollars, which we have in the new Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations; then the state is the one that does more of the mandates. For instance, you're seeing California, New York, and New Jersey right now looking at green cement mandates, which then allows us to fund green cement manufacturing facilities.

David Roberts:   

Let's talk about some of the technology areas where you are focusing. When you are choosing technology areas, are you choosing purely based on an analysis of what you think is going to be needed? Or is it mostly, what among that set of technologies that will be needed are facing this first-mover problem and specifically need us? Big Solar and Big Wind, I presume, have now grown past the need for you. So what are the on-the-verge-but-not-quite-first-big-demonstration-yet technologies that you're looking around on? 

Jigar Shah:  

For our process, we looked at all of the different sectors where we thought that the technology itself was actually mature and commercialization was the problem, so we needed to lean in. These are things like low-impact hydro; advanced geothermal; some of the battery chemistries that have been around for some time, you’ve seen them SPAC; hydrogen; carbon sequestration storage in some forms; sustainable aviation fuel; small modular reactors. 

All these sectors we tapped down, went across DOE and said, what's ready for primetime? Then I went to all the trade associations for those groups and said “get me all your CEOs on the phone, hold a meeting, invite me to speak, and let's talk about it.”

Some of them were ready. We’ve gotten $10 billion worth of applications from the sustainable aviation fuel and biofuel space; roughly $10 billion of applications from the advanced nuclear space; $5 billion of applications in from the carbon sequestration side; several billion dollars of applications in from transmission, etc. 

There are some places where they weren't ready. I've gotten almost no applications in for geothermal or for hydro.

David Roberts:   

“Ready” means “have their shit together enough to be able to go through the due diligence properly?”

Jigar Shah:  

No, they actually are prepared to go through the office, but they don't have projects ready to go. You can't come in and say, “I have this dream.” You have to say, “I have a utility, I've received the allocation from the Bureau of Land Management for this land, I've got this, I've got that.” Therefore you have something to evaluate. 

Some of the sectors we don't have projects in not because the technology is not mature, but the developer community has not yet developed the projects for us to evaluate. We haven't given up on those sectors; we continue to educate them and make sure that the trade associations and others know what services we offer.

David Roberts:   

Do you think geothermal will come along and be ready for you at some point? Do you have a capsule assessment of that?

Jigar Shah:  

The California RFP for 1,000 megawatts of geothermal is useful. Anyone who wins that RFP will probably come to our office. 

In general, the biggest problem with geothermal — and you see this across all the flexible-baseload technologies, it comes out of the UC Berkeley study or the Princeton study — is that in general, all of them need 7 cents a kilowatt hour. That 7 cents a kilowatt hour is completely justified. So when you look at the modeling, to build more solar and wind at 1.8 cents or whatever it is, you have to build more transmission to transport it from where it blows to where it's needed. That transmission is hard, and if you want to move hard to fast then you have to pay extra for it, so you pay double the cost of the transmission. 

The alternative is you pay for technologies that have more like a 60+ percent capacity factor on existing transmission, and then that's 7 cents. But when you look at the decarbonization strategies that are finally starting to emerge from these utilities who have determined that they're going to be net zero or whatever it is by X date, they have now determined that there is some mix of variable renewable energy and flexible baseload that they need, and that they actually can afford to pay 7 cents for part of their portfolio. 

That has led California to put out this RFP, and you're seeing Nevada and a few other places go “wait a second, we should actually be putting in some of these flexible baseload technologies, because the alternative is we put in natural gas, and then natural gas prices almost doubled, and we're stuck.”

Part of this is not that the technology is not mature but the markets haven't been mature, and LPO does play a big role in that. We've hired people on our platform that have engaged with the utilities in their Integrated Resource Plan process and their other processes and said to them “hey, you should be looking at these types of resources, because otherwise, you're just not going to get there.”

David Roberts:   

Right, unless you build an absolute boatload of transmission, which is more politically and regulatorily difficult in some ways than any of these new technologies.

Jigar Shah:  

More expensive, not more difficult. I'll give you an example. When we came into office, the Department of Transportation announced that they were going to let federal highways be used for right-of-ways for transmission. I said, “huh, what would that cost?” And people are like, “I don't know.” So we hired NREL to figure that out. 

They'll come up with a paper or something on this, but they showed me their preliminary results. They mapped every single highway and they said, “these highways have very limited obstruction, so it may only be 1.2 times the cost of normal transmission” — which, of course, “normal” transmission doesn't exist, because it's hard to build — “and these highways have tons of four-leaf clovers and tons of issues so you have to underground under all those; you can't go over. That's going to cost more like 1.9 times normal.”

Now I have a number, I actually know what it costs. Someone could say “that's too expensive, I don't want to pay for it.” But you can't say that it's impossible to build. You can just say “we can't afford to pay that.” Now you can actually do real trade-off analysis.

David Roberts:   

The model here is a big, capital-intensive project like the one that got your first loan guarantee: the Monolith pyrolysis carbon black / hydrogen project. But of course, one of the trends in energy these days is distributed energy; thousands and thousands of small-scale projects. Intuitively, it doesn't seem like that matches your mission or your capacity that well, but you are trying to figure out how to get some LPO money behind distributed energy. Say a little bit about conceptually how that works.

Jigar Shah:  

Let me give you a little history. In 2009, when we did the rulemaking, these distributed projects were not really contemplated. The rulemaking and the solicitation around this program didn’t cover these kinds of projects. 

Then in 2015 we had a substantial residential solar company come in and try to use the office, so a lot of thinking was done there on the legal side around how to shoehorn — it was very Apollo 13, “here's what we have, figure out a way to make this work,” which was great. There were other folks too, like there was a FIT RAM program in California, so one of the companies came in to do distributed CNI (commercial and industrial) solar. When I came in, I said, “we're going to get a lot of applications that look like this; let's start revving that back up and figuring it out.” 

The harsh reality of the situation is that the government doesn't do things in a vacuum very well, so we had to convince some people to apply to the office. We luckily got a couple of people to apply, and I warned them, “you are going to be a guinea pig here, so it's going to take a while to process your loan.” 

As a result of them applying, we were able to get the nitty-gritty details around what they needed and where they ran afoul of our existing rules. Then we were able to review those existing rules and see whether those were in the statute, meaning they came from Congress, or whether they were self-imposed restrictions. It turns out that the vast majority of them were self-imposed restrictions. 

We have gone through a long process to rewrite the solicitation and to broaden and update it for modern times. It hasn't been substantially updated since 2009. That then allows us to do a lot more of these. 

We still have an innovation mandate, so you can imagine I can't just do standard solar and wind projects that are distributed in nature, or whatever it is. It's the applicants’ responsibility to prove to us what innovation is; we can't make it up for them. But what they have pitched us, which has been very fascinating and very relevant, is DERs, DERMS – distributed energy resources, demand flexibility work.

David Roberts:   

The people applying presumably are aggregators of large numbers of small projects?

Jigar Shah:  

Sure. We've said to them that they have to be innovative, and the innovation that they pitched us is this participation in the FERC Order 2222 markets, which allows for demand flexibility to get equal standing in the wholesale power markets as natural gas peaker plants. 

Then a lot of utility companies have also offered these demand flexibility programs; California, New York has used them to save the grid multiple times. You see companies who’ve SPAC’d that specialize in this; EnerNOC in the old days, Voltus recently, and others. You're starting to see a lot of investor interest as well in these companies. 

So they've come into the office and said, “the underlying technology might be solar plus battery storage and a thermostat and water heater and bidirectional charging using wallbox — but if we're aggregating all these assets up and opting them into a DER framework, which then provides a huge amount of extra reliability to the grid at one-tenth the cost of today's natural gas peakers, does that qualify? And we’re like, “huh, I guess it does.”

David Roberts:   

None of those pieces are particularly innovative. All of those technologies exist now. It's the aggregation and playing in the market that's the innovation.

Jigar Shah:  

The underlying hardware is not innovative, but the software continues to innovate. 

I was one of the first investors in battery storage behind the meter in my previous role, and that software has dramatically changed every year, such that some owners of batteries have hired a new platform to operate their batteries every year, because the software is changing so quickly.

David Roberts:   

It seems like those markets for distributed energy aggregators depend so much on politics and regulation. This is not a free-market situation; you can do that where regulation has permitted you to do it. In a sense, the market is limited by things that you can't really affect. You can help them succeed under those circumstances, but you can't bust the market out of those circumstances. It requires regulatory changes.

Jigar Shah:  

You're right, and that's true for everything, right? The advanced geothermal market isn't going to work unless someone pays 7 cents a kilowatt hour with a dedicated RFP. 

But we do have the ability to nudge in ways that are quite influential. For instance, in this case, the vast majority of the repayment obligation comes from FICO score, not from markets. People are agreeing to pay a fixed price for their new water heater or bidirectional EV charger. Even though they are now registered to operate in these demand flexibility markets, they're agreeing to pay a fixed $20 a month in loan payments to pay us back. 

We can, on the one hand, get a reasonable prospect of repayment without the regulatory changes. On the other hand, the companies that borrow the money from us go to the regulator and say, “I'm adding 20 megawatts a week of load that I control now, you guys should put that into the regulation.” So there's some circularity to this, and someone's got to go first. Clearly, the DOE Loan Programs Office should be the one that goes first.

David Roberts:   

One of the big problems facing clean energy expansion is the availability of minerals. Their production is concentrated in certain countries, which are not necessarily great; processing is concentrated in China, which is not necessarily great. So there's a big focus on finding them, mining them better, refining them better, moving those domestic supply chains, and recycling. Are any of those on your radar?

Jigar Shah:  

They're all on our radar. The one big initiative that was added during the Trump administration was a focus on critical minerals. We have improved a lot of the legal justifications in others. 

We've mapped out every single opportunity in the country that we believe to be commercially ready. A lot of people have mapped out where the minerals are in the United States; we've overlaid that with people who are actively getting the permits and doing all the work to start it. I would say every one of those folks is in our pipeline, and we've already received about $3 or $4 billion worth of loan requests in the critical minerals and battery recycling space.

David Roberts:   

How excited should I be about battery recycling? Is there cool stuff going on in the recycling space, generally?

Jigar Shah:  

Recycling is a big deal, and it's one thing that the US has, frankly, done a terrible job of over the decades. Even in the steel market, or the copper market, we send gargantuan amounts of raw materials to China by accident because we don't want to recycle it here. We just stick it in a shipping container to Malaysia, Malaysia recycles it, and it happens to go to China. 

Why are we doing that? We should do that here. Steel, for instance: we have a huge amount of steel that we could actually melt using an electric arc furnace. For brand new steel, you need pig iron and you need the HYBRIT process and all that, but we could substantially increase the amount of recycled steel we use in this country. We just haven't invested in the infrastructure to do so. 

The same thing is true with battery recycling, copper, heavy metals, cell phone recycling — there's lots we can do here. And that's all eligible within the Loan Programs Office.

David Roberts:   

Looking back now on the performance of the LPO during the Obama years, we can trace pretty clearly that it played a big role in the explosion of a couple of key markets: utility-scale solar, onshore wind, arguably batteries. If I'm in 2032, looking back on the LPO’s performance under Biden, what two or three markets could you envision exploding in the same way due to your work?

Jigar Shah:  

It's a great question and one that I will partially answer and then leave you wanting more for our next podcast session. 

In general, what I have said to my colleagues at DOE is that we actually know how to do this. We have written a lot of white papers out of the Loan Programs Office that have been shared widely across government around what we think the formula is on how to do it. If we agree with the way in which we do it, that forms the new approach to American commercialization. 

Instead of being jealous of Canada or Germany or other countries, we should actually admit that we're really damn good at this, and we should stop self-hating and start owning what we do. It's a combination of tax credits, Loan Programs Office, state regulation; and we should do it in a way that's more methodical than what we perceive to be haphazard, but isn't haphazard.

David Roberts:   

This is uniquely American, I feel like, the way we think about industrial policy — which every country does, and always has, but we're vaguely embarrassed about it, so we don't look directly at it, do it behind our backs. I agree, that's silly.

Jigar Shah:  

Yeah, but not anymore. 

If you look at the big pots of money in the bipartisan infrastructure legislation: you've got hydrogen, we will make that work. Instead of hemming and hawing around green and blue and pink and whatever, what we should be focused on is that we use 10 million tons of hydrogen a year; all 10 million tons of that will be turned into low-carbon hydrogen. We have a pathway to do that, the secretary has laid it out, and with all the applications I've already received in the office, I'm fairly confident that we have a pretty clear pathway of doing it. 

The same thing is true in direct air capture and CCUS, even though a lot of people love to hate it. The Class VI wells that we have in Illinois, which are being replicated in Wyoming, North Dakota, and other places, do work for industrial emissions. I am not going to say that I know how to capture carbon dioxide from power plants and put them into Class VI wells, but from ethanol plants or chemical plants, we know how to do that really well. 

Direct air capture, too. It's like $500 a ton, but we know how to get that down to $200 a ton, and the secretary has announced the Carbon Negative Earthshot which gets it to $100, and there are several people who are telling me that they think they can get it done before 2030. So we're pretty on track there as well. 

One other area that I'm super proud of is the virtual power plant / DER / DERM area. There are millions of Americans who've been left out of this revolution and we are going to get them in, and it's going to be pretty damn cool to watch.

David Roberts:   

You mean lower-income people having access to DERs?

Jigar Shah:  

Lower-income people, people in multifamily housing; a lot of people control loads that they can contribute into these virtual power plants and get paid to do so. Ten percent of our entire electricity bill is used to pay for these reliability / resiliency balancing services. Why pay the natural gas peaker plants for this when you can pay people to have flexible demand for this?

David Roberts:   

You think that's going to overcome all of its many logistical, regulatory, financial obstacles? It's such a tangle.

Jigar Shah:  

It's 90 percent cheaper than what we're doing now, so it literally makes no sense for anyone to ignore it. Why would you not pay the money to individual ratepayers as opposed to paying it to the owners of natural gas peaker plants?

David Roberts:   

Well, Jigar, thank you for coming on, and thank you for taking the reins of this thing and whipping it into shape. I'm super excited to see what happens over the next few years.

Jigar Shah:  

My pleasure. I’m in the luxurious position to evaluate other people's work and not have to do it myself. I appreciate all the hard work that the entrepreneurs are actually doing. 

David Roberts:   

Thanks again, Jigar. We'll talk again soon. 

Jigar Shah: 

Thanks, Dave.

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Feb 02, 2022
Volts podcast: Panama Bartholomy on decarbonizing America's buildings
In this episode, Panama Bartholomy, head of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, discusses the need to decarbonize buildings, the many challenges facing the effort, and the cities and states that are making progress. You better believe we get way into heat pumps and induction stoves.

Full transcript of Volts podcast featuring Panama Bartholomy, January 28, 2022

(PDF version)

David Roberts:

Fossil-fuel combustion in buildings — mostly natural gas for space and water heating — is responsible for around 10 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. Getting to net-zero will require heating, cooling, and powering all those buildings with carbon-free energy.

It’s an enormous challenge — or rather, a huge thicket of challenges. There are technical issues, political issues, public-opinion issues, and policy issues, all of which decompose into dozens of discrete issues of their own.

To help me wrap my head around all of it, I’m eager to talk to Panama Bartholomy, who is, I promise, a real person and not a Dr. Seuss character.

Bartholomy has been wrestling with building decarbonization for decades, at (in reverse chronological order): the Investor Confidence Project, the California legislature, the California Energy Commission, the California State Architect, and the California Conservation Corps. He’s served on a variety of boards, collaborated with various expert organizations, worked on climate issues in over 30 countries, and all kinds of other stuff, but if I tried to include it all I would never get to the conversation.

Bartholomy is currently running the Building Decarbonization Coalition, a multi-sector alliance of companies, nonprofits, and government agencies working on buildings, so he’s up to date on where progress is being made (think New York and California), the biggest political impediments (think the natural gas industry), and whether heat pumps really work in cold climates (think yes, they do).

Without further ado, Panama Bartholomy, welcome to Voltscast.

Panama Bartholomy:  

Thanks, Dave. Good to be here. Long-time listener, first-time caller.

David Roberts:   

Let's talk about buildings. There's so much to get into here, but I want to start with a few broad scene-setting questions. Just to orient us, tell us where buildings fall on the climate policy hierarchy of needs. What portion of the problem are our buildings?

Panama Bartholomy:  

Maslow's hierarchy of needs for buildings and climate, I love it. 

We — by which I mean the building sector — come in right about 25 to 30 percent of overall emissions nationally, and about the same globally. Depending on the state you're in and the grid mix of your electricity, it may be a little higher or lower, but we’re right about in that sweet spot of 20 to 30 percent. 

One of the challenges is that in this sector, unlike industry or the electricity sector or even the transportation sector, you have millions if not billions of little machines that have a lot of consumer choice. You can't just shut down a coal plant and all of a sudden get a lot of benefit. You have to involve a lot of players in this.

David Roberts:   

Yes, this seems like the decarbonization sector that involves the most logistics and the most high-touch human interaction. You have to think about sociology and psychology. It's a tangle.

Panama Bartholomy:  

It is, and that's why I appreciate you spending some time in our funny little corner of the climate world. We need a lot more attention to it. Every time somebody buys a new furnace or a gas water heater or stove, they're locking in 20 or 25 years of carbon emissions from there. So attention is one of the key things that we need on this issue.

David Roberts:   

In recent years there's been something of a consensus forming in carbon circles that electrification is the premier decarbonization strategy. When we look at buildings, is electrifying them the whole game? How far will electrification get us and how big is the remainder once you're done electrifying?

Panama Bartholomy:  

We haven't seen a lot of good alternatives at this point. When you think about electrifying buildings, you’re talking about space heating, water heating, cooking, and probably clothes drying. You do have some arguments with people about their gas fireplaces and their pool pumps, but that's a pretty small amount, all in all. 

When you look at the alternatives, are we going to pump incredibly expensive renewable natural gas through pipes to power those? Are we going to replace the entire gas system with a new hydrogen system to do that? I don't think so. These are pretty low-level technologies, when it comes down to it, in the use of energy, and using expensive fuels just doesn't make sense either from an economic perspective or a climate solutions perspective. 

So electricity is the path we need to go down on buildings. They're making cold-weather heat pumps that can operate well down to -15 degrees, so here in 2022, we have much if not all the technology we're going to need for electrification of buildings. It gets down to an issue of scale and deployment, and how are we going to do it fast enough to meet our climate goals.

David Roberts:   

Here’s a philosophical question: If we are going to electrify all the buildings and then we're going to supply that electricity with zero-carbon renewables or other clean energy, then why do we need efficiency? Why do we need to use less energy in buildings if the energy we're using is clean?

Panama Bartholomy:  

Because even if we're using clean electricity, we don't want to use a ton of it. I consistently look forward to a Star Trek future when we don't have to have conversations about appliances and energy and where it comes from. But the reality is that electricity does cost money here in our reality, and if you're running even a highly efficient heat pump off of a very clean grid in a very cold climate, you just want to use less energy to heat your house. In particular in the colder climates, it's to save money.

David Roberts:   

So we could imagine your Star Trek future where renewable energy has gotten so cheap that we no longer feel the need to ration it. In that theoretical future, will efficiency just fade out, or is there some intrinsic worth to efficiency beyond saving a scarce resource? 

Panama Bartholomy:  

I was raised in California and then Hawaii, so I have a primal fear of being even slightly cold. My wife did her undergraduate work in Minnesota, so whenever I complain about being cold, she mocks me, and I say, just because you were colder at one point in your life doesn't invalidate my feelings and discomfort right now. 

The benefit is going to be one of comfort moving forward. When you talk to the leaders in the energy efficiency community that actually sell efficiencies successfully — and there's only two — they'll say that that's usually what sells efficiency: it’s comfort, it’s air quality, it's a better quality of life, rather than the marginal savings you get from it. 

In the colder and the hotter climes, efficiency is always going to have a role to play, but increasingly people are recognizing that it's less important in the timeframes that we're talking about for addressing climate change than getting off of fossil fuels. We can't just be using less fossil fuels, we need to stop using fossil fuels.

David Roberts:   

I want to talk about the impediments to building decarbonization in three different areas. First, putting aside politics and regulation, what is the biggest technical barrier to building decarbonization? Are there still practical and engineering and technological problems to solve? Or is this all about policy and investment?

Panama Bartholomy:  

What you have is a situation of the technology itself and then market awareness or market familiarity with the technology. 

When you look at low-rise commercial buildings, low-rise multifamily residential buildings, the technology is there. As I mentioned, we have incredibly performing cold-climate heat pumps, and a heat pump is just an air conditioner that runs in reverse, so anybody that installs an air conditioner knows how to install a heat pump. Heat-pump water heater — it's not crazy Vulcan technology. The technology is there for that, and there's enough familiarity with it that if we can put in place the right market signals and the right policies, it'll be an easy shift for the industry. 

For the high-rise, we have a few more challenges. You have the “starchitects” and the good engineering firms that are familiar with doing central hot water heating systems with heat pumps. But by and large, that's one technology where — even though it exists, it's being deployed in countries all over the world — particularly here in America, there's less awareness and history of designers doing central heat-pump water heaters. So that's one area where we still have to come up to speed. 

Then the biggest barrier on the technical side right now is just home wiring and home electrical panels.

David Roberts:   

Upgrading to prepare for electrification, that kind of thing? 

Panama Bartholomy:  

Exactly: undersized electrical panels. If you're adding four new appliances and maybe an electric vehicle, you're going to have to upgrade your electrical panel. Which isn't bad in itself, and for a lot of homes there’s a safety benefit to it as well. The challenge is that in our world, what usually brings that about is a failed furnace or a failed water heater, so it’s an emergency.

David Roberts:   

So these decisions are made under duress, usually.

Panama Bartholomy:

Yeah, exactly. 

David Roberts:

What about the biggest political impediment? Is it consumer ignorance or consumer sentiment? Or is it, as I tend to suspect, opposition from the natural gas industry? 

Panama Bartholomy:  

The biggest political barrier right now is fear. It's the fear of politicians to set out agendas in line with their stated climate goals. Even leadership states like California and New York that have strong climate goals — you think of all the different sectors that are emitting, and well, pretty soon here, we’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels in buildings. 

Yet you see a hesitancy of leadership to set out that vision, and that results in market confusion. You have the manufacturers, the installers, the builders all saying, “well on one hand, it's pretty obvious what you're going to have to do to us through regulation if you're going to meet your climate goals, but on the other hand, you're still allowing new buildings to hook up to the gas system; you're still providing energy-efficiency incentives for gas appliances; you're still putting out billions of taxpayer dollars into affordable housing and school construction and you have no alignment of those policies with your climate policies.” So right now it's fear to step up and set bold policies for buildings that is holding it back. 

You mentioned where that fear may be coming from, and largely it is gas utilities, who don't see themselves in a low-carbon future; in particular, the unions that work within those companies and lay those pipes, or unions that lay pipe in buildings. What we are seeing in both New York and California right now is organized labor starting to come to the table. They use the same language every time we sit down at the table with them: they say, “we see the writing on the wall; we know where this is going, and so we're coming to the table to begin to negotiate what a just transition actually looks like beyond just a slogan.”

David Roberts:   

What is the biggest financial impediment? Is it just a lack of government money, or is there a lack of financing and funding models?

Panama Bartholomy:  

I've spent about 20 years in energy-efficiency policy; I'm a recovering bureaucrat, spent about 15 years in state government in California. Part of the beauty of working in our space is that we are working with technologies that are not a choice for consumers. A lot of people think about building electrification, they draw parallels with the solar industry or the electric vehicle industry or lessons learned from energy efficiency. And while there is stuff to learn from that, the reality is: you don't need to have solar panels in order to stay warm in your house. You don't need an electric vehicle in order to be able to provide hot water for your family. 

So we're dealing with technologies that people fundamentally have a lot of urgency around when they break. The beauty is, they break, and absent any of our electrification goals or our climate goals, that person was going to spend anywhere from $7,000 to $15,000 on a new furnace and air conditioning system.

They were already going to have to spend money, think through what financing options are available to them, etc. So what we need to do in this space is figure out how to add just enough money and just enough access to financing to be able to shift that decision around to the technologies we want. We don't need to pay for the entire water heater; what we need to do is pay a few hundred to a thousand-and-a-half for that water heater in order to help consumers choose a heat-pump water heater rather than going back to another gas water heater. 

We need some incentives, particularly over the next decade, to be able to make it so that the electric choice is the cheaper choice. For low-income and moderate households, we need to be focused on accessible financing models for communities that have historically been left out of capital markets. We've done a big report about what that could look like: how to use tariffed on-bill financing in an effective way to both protect consumers but allow far more people, lower-income and renters, to be able to take advantage of financing to make these upgrades.

David Roberts:   

When I talk about building decarbonization, one of the first questions that always comes up is about renters: unless my landlord has good intentions and is excited about this, there's not much I can do. Is there agency for renters? What should they do? How do you get to landlords?

Panama Bartholomy:  

There's water heating and space heating, and then there's cooking. Water heating and space heating, landlords are generally looking for the cheapest option; something breaks, they need to replace it. What I mentioned in the last answer about making the electric choice the cheapest choice and having good financing for high-efficiency electric appliances: that's what's going to help landlords make the better choice, that they're able to save money up front on these technologies. The same incentive programs and financing that help homeowners are also going to help landlords help renters with that. 

Now, key to that is that we also have in place policies that protect renters so that landlords don't install this technology and then try to raise the rent on them. It’s a key conversation happening right now. 

But I wanted to pull apart cooking, because cooking may be an area where there is more agency than what we've historically expressed, because of the air-quality impacts of cooking with gas. There's now a good 40 years of research showing that there are potentially significant air-quality impacts of burning gas in your home and around your family, and there are laws in this country around habitability that landlords have to follow. They need to provide good environments. 

So if a landlord is providing an environment that does not have good venting over a stove and/or has a stove that you can test and show is emitting dangerous levels of pollution, we are now starting to work with a number of groups across the country about, how do you then turn that into policy? How can you empower local governments to include that in their habitability requirements, which would compel landlords to then make the shift to either a different kind of stove and/or venting?

David Roberts:   

Is that about passing new policies upgrading the habitability standards? Or is there some way to interpret or use existing habitability standards to get at stoves? Are the tools there already?

Panama Bartholomy:  

We believe that the tools are already there, that the habitability standards cover this, and it's a matter of somebody stepping up and testing it. We're engaged with a number of groups doing air-quality testing over a period of time, working with tenant groups, and working with local governments to be able to say, look, this is the data right here. We're potentially having higher pollution coming from stoves in people's homes than the highways or ports next to them; as much as we need to address those, we also need to be addressing this. 

We haven't yet had the first city go ahead and adopt it, but we're in conversation with a number of them and I hope in the near future to be able to talk to you about that.

David Roberts:   

When we talk about building decarb, minds go to the operational emissions: you're running your furnace, you're heating your house, etc. But the other half of the equation is what's called embodied emissions — the emissions represented by the manufacture and transport of the materials used in the building. This seems like something that consumers have very little control over. Who needs to understand embodied emissions, and where's the right lever to take action on that?

Panama Bartholomy:  

The Carbon Leadership Forum, out of your area of Washington, has been the leading voice on the issue of embodied emissions. They've done a ton of good work on this. It's a combination of factors, and it gets down to individual theories of change about how we're going to address climate change. For me, I think we need to be doing as much as we can in the 2020s to invest and incentivize and educate. Then we're looking at a series of regulations in the 2030s that bring along everybody that wasn't incentivized or didn't fall to our education. 

On embodied carbon, it's going to be the same thing. Right now, a lot of the focus on embodied carbon is on the design and construction community: how do we get the specifiers in all these firms, largely on the commercial and multifamily and institutional side, to start to specify different materials? You have leadership systems like LEED and the Living Building Challenge incorporating greater transparency to product design and product development.

David Roberts:   

If you're a big builder, I'm guessing your primary sentiment about this is that you just don't want to waste a bunch of time on it. You don't want to have to do the research on the materials yourself. Is there an easy way for a builder to say to suppliers, “you must meet X standard?” Is there a standard out there yet that they can pin their supply on?

Panama Bartholomy:  

Absolutely. LEED and the Institute for Living Futures have been the two leading groups on this, enforcing through their rating systems a system for manufacturers to be able to report on the environmental impacts of their products. We're getting beyond just recycled content or emissions, we're now getting into a lifecycle analysis of the product. They're providing the model right now for products to be measured against. 

The other place we're seeing it is at the local and state level, but they haven't been able to get much beyond cement, to be honest with you. 

David Roberts:   

Well, that's a big one.

Panama Bartholomy:  

It is. But we need to be getting into steel. There are a number of different large systems. California a couple years ago passed a Buy Clean California bill that required state government to start to reduce the embodied carbon of steel, glass, and a couple other products that they purchase for their own buildings. At the local level, we're seeing local governments pass embodied carbon ordinances that are mostly focused on cement and using low-carbon cement in both public and private buildings.

But it is nascent and we haven't seen anywhere near the attention on embodied carbon that we've seen on operational emissions of buildings. Folks like Ed Mazria out of Architecture 2030 make a compelling point that the bigger carbon problem is the embodied carbon than the operational.

David Roberts:   

Looking down the road at our imaginary future: if you reduce your operational greenhouse gases to nothing through clean electrification and sealing and all that, and then you secure low-carbon materials, you can imagine buildings not just zeroing out their emissions — you can imagine buildings becoming carbon sinks, carbon stores, negative carbon. Is that something people are thinking about, or is it a 2050 type of thing?

Panama Bartholomy:  

No, people are talking about it. It sounds like you are hanging out with some of those starchitects I mentioned earlier. It's not enough to be net-zero anymore, you need to be a carbon-positive community. 

The science is there. You sequester carbon in certain materials that you use in a project, and if you use enough of it, and you zero out your operational, you should be able to do it. 

Again, we need to get it beyond the starchitect buildings to the mainstream, and that's where I fundamentally feel that government has to play a role. The most important thing they can do in 2022 is say to the market, where are we going? How are we going to help create the market to allow the regulations to work when they come into effect?

David Roberts:   

The pandemic has brought a lot of attention to the fact that air quality and ventilation are fairly abysmal in many existing buildings. Now this is becoming a public health issue. Are good ventilation and filtering and air quality in tension with efficiency? Are those necessarily going to mean more energy? How do you see those fitting together?

Panama Bartholomy:  

They're necessary. For 40 years out here in California we've tightened up the building envelope; I say that the folks over at the California Energy Commission belong to the the church of the envelope because of their dedication to it. When you do that, you necessarily start to trap any emissions in your home: all your aerosols, all the furniture you bring into your house, and then microplastics — I think I'm probably one-quarter microplastic at this point because I have two young kids. 

For our world, it's really the pollution that comes from the stove, so potentially dangerous levels of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde coming out. If you don't have venting, and you have a tight envelope, and you're cooking in winterm and you don't want to open the windows, you have a potentially dangerous situation there for your lung health, and, with carbon monoxide, for your overall life. 

So it's a critical piece of energy efficiency, and we're starting to have a pretty brutal conversation in the energy-efficiency community particularly around some of our low-income weatherization programs. What is the morality behind tightening up some of these homes and providing comfort and saving money without addressing some of the pollutants inside those very homes?

It's absolutely critical that we deal with ventilation and removing sources of pollution. We know that stoves are a critical source of pollution, and we know that we have much better technology that just blows the doors off of gas stoves to replace it with.

David Roberts:   

Does this just come down to building in ventilation and airflow standards into our regulations? Is that the long and short of it?

Panama Bartholomy:  

On new construction, yes. Last year, the Energy Commission in California adopted its new building code that'll go into effect in two years, and it's the first time in the world we've seen a building code that's differentiating the ventilation standard it requires based on the type of fuel you're using to cook food. They're saying if you have a gas stove and you’re new construction, under this code you're going to have to have a higher ventilation standard, and therefore a more expensive ventilation system, than an electric one. It's the first time we've recognized in a code the inherent health benefits of cooking without gas. 

For existing buildings, whether you're talking about waste or water treatment, source control is always your best bet, the most affordable way. You just want to find a way to get the gas stove out of the kitchen and get an electric one in there. You're still going to have some emissions from just cooking and, depending on how good a cook you are, from burning. So you do want some ventilation for that, but at least you don't have what are known criteria pollutants from the EPA being emitted into your kitchen in that case. 

I say that because in some situations, these homes are just built in a way that is going to make ventilation systems very hard to retrofit in, and landlords unwilling to do something about it.

David Roberts:   

So you create an incentive for builders or retrofitters: get rid of the gas stove and thereby save money on ventilation spending.

Panama Bartholomy:  

Exactly. The Energy Commission's done that small step; they didn't say “no more gas stoves,” but they said “we recognize gas stoves are dangerous, and therefore you're going to have to deal with it.” So yes, it is a regulatory incentive.

David Roberts:   

I think we can agree that nothing like the scale of action we'd like to see is happening, but there are places that are taking big steps. In New York, the governor laid out some big talk; I'm curious what she said and what authority it carries. What else needs to happen to make it move forward?

Panama Bartholomy:  

Yeah, very impressive first State of the State from Governor Hochul on the environment. I think Politico called her a political juggernaut. 

Unfortunately, her hometown bills couldn't quite get over the hump last weekend. But she put out some big goals for buildings, and it matches well with what's happening in the state right now, which is the beginning of a public process for their big climate scoping plan that's been under development for years, about how they're going to meet their climate leadership legislation. 

What the governor announced is a laundry list; I could take up the rest of the podcast to go through it, so I'll just be brief. She released a comprehensive package of proposals in the State of the State: some that can be carried out through her Public Service Commission, some that will need legislation, and some that will be addressed in the budget.

David Roberts:   

And she has a supportive legislature?

Panama Bartholomy:  

She does. She hasn't really had to test it yet. But what we've seen from the last governor, whose name shall not be spoken, is that he was able to “work well” or bully legislature into carrying out the agenda. We'll see if this governor has a similar success rate with the legislature. But it seems like it. There's been three great pieces of legislation immediately introduced around building electrification, so I think there's a lot of action on it. 

But to your original question, the governor proposed how to bring about 2 million climate-friendly homes by 2030, with at least 1 million of those being all-electric and 1 million being electric-ready, pre-wired so next time any of your gas appliances break, you're ready to go with electric appliances.

David Roberts:   

Does “climate-friendly” have a concrete definition?

Panama Bartholomy:  

I've never seen “climate-friendly” in law yet. I think it was a turn of phrase that her media folks developed for this one.

David Roberts:   

It can mean a lot of different things in practice. 

Panama Bartholomy:  

Yes, indeed. I'm sure the gas companies have a lot to say about “climate-friendly.” 

She called for all new construction in the state to be zero emission no later than 2027, which is in line with what New York City just adopted for all buildings being built in New York City at the end of last year.

David Roberts:   

That's operational, not embodied, emissions?

Panama Bartholomy:

Correct, that's operational emissions. 

David Roberts:

So does that mean the resulting building will not produce carbon on an ongoing basis, or the construction process itself is somehow zero carbon?

Panama Bartholomy:  

The resulting building. We'll see how it all gets played out. It's a lot of platitudes and speeches for the State of the State address. There's a piece of legislation currently working through the legislature that actually sets 2024 as a zero-emission date for construction. If that one passes, there's a series of definitions in there, but that is from operational emissions rather than embodied or construction emissions. 

She also put up a green electrification fund to electrify low-income homes, about $25 billion for a five-year plan, which is far more visionary than we've seen from anybody else. 

There's a certain law called “obligation to serve”: utilities that provide gas, usually monopolies, are obliged to provide that gas or electricity to ratepayers if requested. If you're far out in the country, you may need to pay for some of that infrastructure, but the utility is obliged to provide it to you. It's a real barrier when you're looking about starting to trim the gas network. So the governor in her address actually proposed to end the “obligation to serve” for existing customers.

David Roberts:   

Just to be clear about this, say you are trying to eliminate part of your gas network and electrify everything in that area; all it would take is one citizen to say to the natural gas company, “I would like to be served by gas” and then basically you can't get rid of it? Is that the legal situation right now?

Panama Bartholomy:  

Yeah. We're seeing it out here in California. Pacific Gas & Electric, largest utility in the country, fourth-largest distributor of natural gas, they are trying to go through figuring out how you can operationalize electrification. They've been doing some pilot programs around going to whole neighborhoods where they have old pipe that's coming up for replacement. It’s going to be millions of dollars in replacement, they've done the analysis, and they said, “okay, if instead we just electrify all the homes on this pipe extension, it's going to be cheaper for us and for ratepayers.” So they go to every single one of those homes and they ask each homeowner, “hey, would you like a free all-electric home?”

We've seen two case studies they've done on this. One of them, it worked. They saved $400,000 on the project compared to the gas pipeline replacement, and it was great. On the other one, out of 150 homes, two people didn't want to give up their gas stoves. PG&E had to go ahead and spend millions to replace pipes that are going to have a 60- to 80-year lifespan, that if we're going to meet our climate goals, we're going to have to early retire, and who's going to pay for that? It's going to be ratepayers paying for that early retirement.

David Roberts:   

So this would be a law to get rid of that obligation.

Panama Bartholomy:  

This would be a law. A piece of legislation has now been introduced in New York legislature to remove that obligation to serve. 

She also has called on the PSC to take a look at the whole approach to pipeline maintenance in New York: how we grade it, how we decide whether or not to replace pipe or look for non-pipe alternatives to it, such as electrification — completely changing our approach to just assuming that we're going to replace old pipe with new pipe. 

I could go on and on. She has a bunch of stuff for training programs for New Yorkers to get a lot more people in. One of the two exciting areas I'll bring up is, she's talked about needing to convene private capital markets. No better place than New York to be doing some of that convening, to be able to bring them in to figure out how they can support this. 

Lastly, she's proposed 1,000 clean, green schools. This is an opportunity to clearly be able to get organized labor more to the table, to be supporting building electrification as well as providing better ventilation and air quality in schools.

David Roberts:   

I always thought that was political gold, just waiting for someone to pick it up. The respiratory health of kids, what's more on people's minds right now?

Panama Bartholomy:  

Exactly. I live in fire country out here in California — we used to call it wine country — and increasingly, our schools and our public facilities are being used as resilience centers in heat waves and firestorms. Getting these schools with solar, batteries, all electric, with great ventilation systems, is unfortunately going to be a critical need as we deal with and potentially adapt to climate change.

David Roberts:   

We could stay on New York forever; it's amazing what's going on there. But what about California? That's the other big state that's come up recently. California is going to just spend a bunch of money on it?

Panama Bartholomy:  

Yep, that's the proposal at this point. Sadly, probably nowhere near as much as we need to, but it's a good start. 

What I would say about the difference between what we're seeing in New York and in California is that in New York, you're seeing some high-level leadership coming directly out of the governor's office. In California, the leadership is bottom-up. 

We have 54 cities across the state that have adopted local gas bans or local building codes that discourage gas. We have agencies like the Air Board and the Energy Commission and the Public Utilities Commission adopting piecemeal policies that are all building toward the direction of requiring electrification and incentivizing it and building the market. But until January 10 of this year, we didn't see anything coming from the governor's office about, “we need to start electrifying, we need to start getting off of fossil fuels.”

On January 10, the governor released his proposed budget for the year and he proposed just over a billion dollars for building electrification, with two-thirds of that going toward existing building low-income housing retrofits. We're starting to see some significant investment, more so than we've seen in the past.

But at this point, I’ve got to say, I think if you put a UFC championship belt on any governor right now, it's Governor Hochul. 

David Roberts:   

New York and California are the leaders on so much carbon and climate stuff. Are they the leaders in this respect too, on buildings? Or is there anyone else that's taking comparable action?

Panama Bartholomy:  

There are. I mentioned local governments, and that's a theme we've seen in addressing climate change for decades now: the locals are the ones that are the most exposed to voters, and yet across the world they have been taking the biggest swings on climate change. They see both the benefits and the risks of climate change more directly than state or federal levels. 

Other states, I would say that Massachusetts, Illinois, and Colorado are stepping up. I'll throw Washington in there as well. Massachusetts is just about to vote on the next three years of their energy-efficiency program, and they have nearly completely shifted the focus of the energy-efficiency program to make it much more electrification-focused.

David Roberts:   

This is a big thing, right? Because efficiency conventionally conceived is not necessarily aligned with electrification or cleaning up sources. Often in tension. I feel like this is something not a lot of people are aware of outside the space.

Panama Bartholomy:  

It very much is, and I think a lot of it is because the energy-efficiency mindset came out of the oil crisis of the 70s — it's just about saving more energy, it's not about ending emissions. The shift to climate-is-existential, I think it's been hard for folks that have been working in this space for 30 years or so. So that'll be great in Massachusetts. 

Colorado and Illinois both passed overall climate legislation last year that had buildings as a specific part of it, and in implementation they're going to be developing comprehensive roadmaps for how to deal with buildings. In Washington they're actually adopting a new building code, and for commercial and multifamily buildings they're proposing electrification mandates within that building code. So your home state up there is one of the leaders. The odd thing is, they're backing off on single-family homes, where it's the easiest to do it, and it's largely because of stoves.

David Roberts:   

It's easier to electrify residential. Big buildings and commercial buildings, industrial buildings, that's doable, it's just more expensive? Or the incentives are wrong? What's the status of bigger buildings? Is this something we know how to do?

Panama Bartholomy:  

It's very much doable, it's being done. I can point you to buildings in Seattle that are all-electric tall towers. One of the leading consulting firms, Ecotope, is out of the Seattle area. It is very possible and being done all over the world. 

The key thing there, though, is awareness. We haven't asked our bread-and-butter design and construction community to care this deeply about climate change before, so they've been focused on efficiency and not on these central heat-pump water heating systems. The HVAC systems — again, heat pumps are basically air conditioners that can run in reverse, so it's not complicated to design that, but there are some differences in a boiler-based water heating system versus a central heat-pump water heating system. It's nothing crazy; it's not Star Wars technology. It's just familiarity with it and being able to design around it. Unfortunately, I think we're going to do a ton of education and incentivizing in the 2020s and then have to require it in the 2030s. 

It's very doable. It's being done. For the folks that know how to do this, we're not seeing a price premium for building all-electric versus building with gas. In fact, Point Energy out of San Francisco did a big study for the University of California system, which has adopted a carbon neutrality by 2025 target, about what it costs to build and operate a building with gas and electric versus just electric. They looked at residential towers, office buildings, and labs, and found that the electric buildings cost the same or cheaper to build and operate than the gas buildings across all three of those building types.

David Roberts:   

Is this one of those things where it's more capital-intensive up front but then you save on operations over the long term? I used to be very taken by that story, but then I realized that, as nice as that thought is, it’s not really what motivates a lot of behavior in markets. People overweight those upfront capital costs. Is that still the situation?

Panama Bartholomy:  

Not in this space. You never want to make generalizations about construction. Every project is different; every time you interact with a supply chain is different than another time interacting with the supply chain. But by and large, our members, who are design and construction folks in this space, that know how to do this, say they don't see a cost premium for the construction of these projects for large, commercial, institutional.

David Roberts:   

There are a lot of states now that are, let's say, pushing the other direction. One of the ways they're doing that is by passing laws that preempt cities from passing gas bans; it's popped up in a lot of red states. Is there anything to say about that other than, “they should stop doing that, that's bad, we should elect somebody who won't do that”? If you're a city who's in one of those states, are there ways around it? Are there other things you can do? How should they deal with that?

Panama Bartholomy:  

That's a great question. What it fundamentally comes down to is taking away local governments’ choice about how to address climate change.

David Roberts:   

By the party that champions local government. Weird.

Panama Bartholomy:  

Yes, weird times, almost like it's disingenuous. 

When you look at what cities can do on climate change, usually transportation and buildings are the largest emissions; it just depends how much infrastructure or industry they have in their boundaries. Transportation emissions are tough; a lot of it is consumer choice. Your land-use choices take a long time to have a big impact. Public transportation is tough and expensive. 

So buildings are one of the key areas where local governments can actually do anything. When you take that tool away, you're really crippling local government's ability to do anything on climate change. 

What we're seeing right now is some creative ways to look around it. Some of the states that have adopted this have focused in on building codes, so you have some cities looking at planning law, health and safety law, instead of our building code law, which has now been preempted by state government. You are seeing some cities trying to look for creative ways around this. 

Ultimately, you know, I love all of our 50 states equally. But when you look at the top 10 states by gas demand, only Texas and Ohio have adopted these bans. The other eight states are climate leaders. They all have climate laws, they have climate targets, and they collectively represent over half the gas demand in the United States in buildings. I think what you're going to see is a coalition of those states changing the marketplace. Smaller states with smaller gas demand are just going to have to deal with the implications of those market changes.

David Roberts:   

A little bit like fuel economy, right? You get enough big states going in the right direction, they end up dragging the market with them. 

Panama Bartholomy:

Very much so.

David Roberts:

I know Biden has done an executive order on federal buildings, and I know there's some money in the infrastructure bill. Are you excited by what's happened so far federally on buildings? Are there particular pieces we should be aware of?

Panama Bartholomy:  

There's more than we've ever seen. And that's great.

David Roberts:   

That's always such a low bar in these conversations.

Panama Bartholomy:  

When you work in climate, you have to be an optimist. Maybe not if you report on climate, but if you work in climate, you have to be an optimist. The numbers are just too stark. 

The fact that we appointed somebody in the White House, Mark Chambers, formerly from New York City, to be the lead on building emissions for the Council on Environmental Quality is amazing. The fact that you have Secretary Granholm going around giving big press events around cold-climate heat pumps and people yelling from behind her, “heat pump nation!” is absolutely incredible. DOE is moving forward on regulations that manufacturers of heating equipment say are going to be pushing the market to electrification. We're seeing a lot of what we need to see. 

It's our fundamental belief that you don't see significant federal action until you see a lot of state action. Federal is the bank, and then the caboose on regulations. We need significant investment from the federal government, and then that investment will help locals and states be able to adopt regulations that will transform the market enough that actors of all colors will come back to Washington and say, “listen, this is too haphazard and patchwork, we need some level of consistency across the country.”

David Roberts:   

If any of us need to feel additional anxiety about Build Back Better, is there anything big on buildings in Build Back Better that you are hoping makes it through this twisted process?

Panama Bartholomy:  

There is, much of it thanks to former guests on this podcast who have done great work in this area, particularly Saul and the folks over at Rewiring America. 

There's $17 billion in there for federal buildings, which I have a hard time getting too excited about when I think about taxpayers looking at it. “Great, so you're going to do a bunch of stuff that you should have been doing the whole time, and now we're supposed to get excited about this? What about the $17 billion to help me with my water heater?”

But there's $12 billion for residential electrification, and that'll be split: about $6 billion coming out of the Department of Energy to provide direct rebates for the whole suite of electrification technologies (water heating, space heating, cooking, and clothes drying); then there's $6 billion that'll be implemented through state energy offices. That'll be focused on what is one of the biggest movements in energy efficiency right now: performance-based energy-efficiency measures.

David Roberts:   

Can you give the capsule summary of what that means?

Panama Bartholomy:  

Historically, we've had widget-based or “deemed” savings for energy efficiency.

David Roberts:   

You just incentivize them to buy the equipment. 

Panama Bartholomy:  

Exactly. And even worse, we give installers money just because they installed the equipment — not necessarily the quality of the installation, the performance of it. How does it perform on the grid when we have grids that have very different greenhouse gas profiles depending on the time of day that the power is being drawn? 

A performance-based energy-efficiency program gives some money up front for an incentive, but the majority of the incentive is paid out based on the actual operations and performance of those systems. How efficient? How much energy did it save? How much carbon did it displace? How many emissions did it avoid? 

There's $6 billion currently in the Build Back Better bill that would go toward supporting states to set up those programs, and that would be run out of the state energy offices in each of the states.

David Roberts:   

And technologically we have what we need to be able to track performance in a way that you can bank on it?

Panama Bartholomy:  

We do. It's amazing some of the technologies out there. Leading firms like Recurve are providing fantastic tools for utilities to be able to pull apart the dynamics around a kilowatt hour saved, and why that kilowatt hour, normalizing for weather, normalizing for occupancy. It's incredible what computers can do nowadays. 

David Roberts:   

I want to take a minute just to talk about heat pumps. They have gone from nowhere to people chanting, “heat pump nation!” It's a thrill. But when I bring them up and talk about them, immediately I hear, “I installed one 10 years ago and my house is always cold,” or “I can't afford to install one because I'd have to get fossil-fuel backup with it.” 

This actually happened to me. Seven or eight years ago, we were going to replace our original oil furnace in our house, which had been there since 1954: big, giant, peach-colored. We wanted to get rid of it. I would have loved to get a heat pump, but the contractors were baffled and resistant, and assured us, if you get a heat pump, you have to get a natural gas furnace to back up the heat pump, and all told it would have been an additional $8,000. So I ended up, to my great and ongoing regret, installing a natural gas furnace. 

I feel like that's a pretty representative experience in terms of a) people not knowing b) contractors not knowing what the hell they're doing, and c) this question of whether heat pumps can do the job, and in what climates. Can we get some clarity on that? How good are heat pumps these days?

Panama Bartholomy:  

Heat pumps are great these days! We have, through the leadership of the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnership, or NEEP, a whole database of cold-climate heat pumps. They pioneered a cold-climate heat pump specification years ago and have been working with manufacturers since then to make sure there's a suite of different cold-climate heat pumps available.

These are heat pumps where the heat pump part of the heat pump can operate down to 14 degrees below zero before electric resistance kicks in, or if you have a gas backup, before that gas backup kicks in. 

The technology is there. What you're talking about is your interaction with the contractor, and that's going to be one of the hardest things about this transition. Try to call up a plumber or an HVAC installer right now: people are just flat busy. They were flat busy before the pandemic, and now we're in the pandemic, everybody wants to renovate their home, which is now their home office, and they're busier than ever. There's no reason contractors should change what they're doing if they're selling and they're booked months out in advance. 

It's going to be up to us who are concerned about climate to give them a reason. It's not going to work to require it right now, because of the shock to the system that'll create for this workforce. It's going to have to be incentives, and then regulation.

David Roberts:   

Let me pause on the shock. Are there just not enough people trained to do it? Or is it about heat-pump manufacturers not being ready to ramp up quickly? Or logistics? What would be the shock if you tried to push it too fast right now?

Panama Bartholomy:  

It's a great question, because there's this fallacy out there that we don't have enough trained workers. The reality is, again, we're not installing crazy alien technology here. A heat pump is an air conditioner that can run in reverse. A heat-pump water heater is a tank of water with a heat pump on top. This is not complicated stuff. Electricians know how to electrician; they know how to run wires. 

It's not an issue of a lack of workforce, it's an issue of incentivizing the workforce in the right way. Right now, the major thing that installers want to avoid is callbacks. They want to be able to go in, put in something, and then not be called back out, which will prevent them from doing another job. If you historically have not cared about the performance of the HVAC system or water heating system that you're installing, it can be a change to all of a sudden now have to care about that performance. 

What we're seeing is a gradual transition of this workforce over to electric installations, but until we send some clear market signals, there's no reason for them to make that shift. You have all the myths that you ran into, like “they can't operate in even Seattle's mildly cold climate; you need gas backup; these things just don't work.” 

One of the other things is, we're just going to have to accept the difficulty of living in the first wave of addressing climate change, and that things are going to be better next decade. Things are going to have a lot of friction and be pretty hard this decade as we help to transition this industry.

David Roberts:   

When I hear pushback against electrification, this is the main thing I hear in terms of substantive objections: If you go to cold climates like the Upper Midwest, and you replace all their oil and natural gas furnaces with electric heat pumps, then in the winter you’re going to get enormous electricity demand that's brand new. You have these electricity systems built for summer peaks suddenly having enormous winter peaks, three times bigger than their historic peaks. 

Some people argue we're simply not going to be able to radically upgrade the entire electricity infrastructure in all these places fast enough; we're going to need, in some places, some alternative to electrification, which usually amounts to some zero-carbon liquid fuel, some hydrogen variant or biomethane, whatever it is.

Basically, we are going to need to keep combustion in some areas because we just don't have the capacity to handle that much winter electricity demand. What do you make of that?

Panama Bartholomy:  

God, I wish that was a real problem. If we were installing so many electric appliances that we were actually causing grid disruption anywhere in the next decade — man, I could go home, that's it, retire, done, we succeeded. 

The reality is, we're not going to stop maintaining the distribution and transmission grids. We're not going to stop building generation in any part of this country. We're not going to have mass-scale electrification at the speed we need in the near-term. We're going to have some time to adjust. 

The people who think electrification is going to happen in a silo have not seen how electricity systems have worked for the whole history of electricity systems. It is an integrated planning effort, and demand is forecasted and then supplied. Now, at some point we can talk about rolling blackouts and weather events, but on the normal, this should be something that grid managers can absolutely handle with the rate of electrification that we could see, even if we had significantly more electrification.

David Roberts:   

Do you think it's fair to say, though, that if you're in one of those cold-weather climates and you see electrification on the horizon, you need to start bulking up your electricity system now? Those things are not fast to accomplish.

Panama Bartholomy:  

Yeah, if you are committing to electrification, you should be incorporating that into your demand models and looking at generation. And, getting back to the beginning of our conversation, you should be thinking about how to incorporate energy efficiency into those projects as well, to limit some of that new demand and ease building electrification into this high winter peak. 

To be honest with you, I think our bigger challenge is going to be electric vehicles — the doubling and tripling.

David Roberts:   

They're additive, right? You get a bunch of electric vehicles in a cold-weather climate alongside a bunch of electrification of heat and cooling, then you're talking about a lot of electricity.

Panama Bartholomy:  

It is. But with cars, average car ownership is about seven years, water heaters about 15 years, furnaces about 20 years. We're going to have quicker turnover of the vehicle fleet than we are of the water heater and furnace fleet.

David Roberts:   

Do you feel confident saying that, in the end, nowhere in the United States will need liquid fuels for heat? You think electrification is going to do it everywhere?

Panama Bartholomy:  

I'd say that for buildings, not necessarily for industrial, or transport. That is a hard decision that we need to make immediately: if you look at trash gas, or cow-crap gas, the rainbow of hydrogens — these are all precious, and they're all expensive. Is the highest and best use of that gas in my moderately efficient water heater in my basement? Or should we be spending it in those areas where it is going to be hard to electrify for the foreseeable future, such as industrial purposes, freight, aviation? That's just a better use for it.

David Roberts:   

So you wouldn't even be into some blending or mixing as an interim measure, to reduce emissions while we wait for electrification?

Panama Bartholomy:  

The challenge there is the expense to ratepayers. You're maintaining two infrastructure systems moving forward, and ratepayers are paying for it. Instead of making some of these decisions and clipping off the branches of the gas system and relieving ratepayers of that, you are just paying and upgrading it — and these upgrades to gas systems, as I said, 60- to 80-year lives for the materials that are used. These are long-term investments, and even if the whole neighborhood is only using gas for cooking, you still have to maintain that gas system to a high level of safety. 

David Roberts:   

It’s interesting to think about the gas system as binary: you either have it or you don't. And if you have a single gas appliance, you have the whole gas infrastructure. It's a sticky dilemma. 

Speaking of that, let's talk for a minute about stoves. Where are we on education? I'm seeing it talked about more. I'm seeing a lot of concerted pushback — natural gas utilities and natural gas businesses out propagandizing all over the place, hiring advertising agencies and Instagram influencers to cook on gas stoves. Where do you see the battle for hearts and minds on stoves?

Panama Bartholomy:  

It's no accident that the gas company is choosing stoves. What's interesting is, it's probably their area of greatest vulnerability.

David Roberts:   

In the grand scheme of things, stoves are not a huge source of demand for natural gas, are they?

Panama Bartholomy:  

Nope — 3 to 5 percent of the average home’s natural gas demand. It's not big, but every mixed-fuel utility that provides both electricity and gas will tell us that their nightmare is that they have to run a gas system just because people aren't willing to give up their gas stove, and charge everybody $180 a month just to cook with gas. 

It's no accident that they're focusing on this. We've been part of a number of studies that have looked at people's attachment to different appliances, and unsurprisingly, those appliances that you interact with the most are the ones you have the greatest attachment to. Water heaters: pretty low level of emotional response. Stoves: really high. And people have had some bad experiences with electric resistance, the coil stoves of the past.

Generally, the two things home or professional cooks care about the most are power and control, which are usually at the heart of all bad relationships. The good news is that we have an alternative that beats gas on both of those things. But we have this impression that gas is better, and you have these things coming from consumers, saying things like, “I deserve a gas stove. I finally saved up enough money, I can finally get a gas stove.”

David Roberts:   

It's definitely seen as a luxury, as an achievement, still.

Panama Bartholomy:  

Very much so. Part of this movement is going to have to be exposing some of the inherent dangers of gas stoves: the air-quality dangers, the safety dangers, whether you have a small child or older relatives in the house, and then just the dangers of piping gas around all of our communities. 

Like electric vehicles, the good news is that we have the high-powered electric vehicles of the kitchen as an alternative. It'd be a bummer if we were like, “no, come back to this coil stove.” That's not going to work. I can’t wait to see the marketing campaign around that.

But gas stoves, because of the air-quality impacts, are also one of the gas company's greatest vulnerabilities. As you start to see more and more attention paid to that, more groups speak out about it, governments begin to address it, their last gasp from a marketing perspective could turn into the final dagger. 

With induction stoves, it's fantastic that we have a product that, once you test drive it, people's hair gets blown back. It's incredible. It's three times as powerful as the best-in-class gas stove, twice as good a control on it, incredibly easy to clean.

David Roberts:   

When I talk to people, that's the first thing I mention. I'm lazy, and I’m the person who cleans the kitchen. We were in a rental for a few months recently and it had a gas stove — god it was a pain in the ass. I was like, how do people live with this? There's so many nooks and crannies; it gets gross so quickly. Induction is this perfectly smooth surface. It really made me appreciate my stove.

Panama Bartholomy:  

Yeah, you just wipe it. We have all these pictures of my two-year-old cooking on the induction stove, putting his hand right next to the pan and cooking eggs. It's fantastic technology.

So the good news is that we have a technology that's better. It's a matter of getting people out there to test drive these things, and getting it in the Home Depots and appliance stores, getting little pop-ups at farmers markets to begin this transition.

David Roberts:   

It doesn't quite carry the air of fanciness of a gas stove, though. We bought a commodity-level, relatively cheap induction stove; there's no fanciness to it. I don't know what you can do about that. You can't really make a high-end one, either, because magnets are magnets; they're all doing the same thing. Even the lowest-end induction stove basically has exactly the power and control. There's a lot of consumer psychology at work here that's difficult to puzzle through.

Panama Bartholomy:  

We need the Ford F-150 commercials for induction stoves. Big man turning big dials! Big power, lightning bolts shooting into the pan!

David Roberts:   

But you don't get any flame. Flame is so darn manly, magnets don't quite do it. 

Where's the industry on this? Do they have a preference what kind of stoves they make?

Panama Bartholomy:  

At this point, they don't. At this point, they have been happy to sell whatever stove a consumer wants to get. They are standing up and taking notice when you have 54 cities in California, most of the Bay Area, basically say, “you're not allowed to build with gas anymore.” Denver, Seattle, for certain building types in New York City now. That's making them take notice. 

It's been interesting to watch, because this is an appliance area that hasn't had to deal with efficiency and energy and environmental regulations a lot. The HVAC and water heater folks, this has been bread and butter for them for 40 years. But the stove folks, they're just like, “whoa, we're a target? Where did this come from?” Just out of nowhere.

David Roberts:   

One of the most outrageous things about this — and I don't know if a lot of people appreciate this — is that in a lot of cases, it is natural gas utilities running these propaganda campaigns, and they are paying for those propaganda campaigns with ratepayer money. In a lot of cases, if you have natural gas, you're paying for that anti-electrification propaganda. Are there legal remedies for that, or what's the right way to deal with that?

Panama Bartholomy:  

There are if your local PUC, PSC, BPU has a spine. The area where we've seen that be expressed the farthest is out here in California, where you've had groups like Earthjustice bring forward motions against companies like Southern California Gas Company around using ratepayer dollars to both lobby against electrification as well as run consumer campaigns against electrification. And you've had, after months and months of delay, mealy-mouthed responses from the Public Utilities Commission that at worst, slap them with a small “don't do it again” penalty, or at best say, “well, technically, under current law, there's nothing that we can do about this.” 

The good news is that you're starting to see a change in leadership at the gas companies. In October, Southern California Gas Company, the largest distributor of gas in the country, released a new report called their Clean Fuels report, and it said that widespread electrification of buildings is the future of California. It's the first time we've seen a gas utility anywhere make these sorts of statements. They think that by 2040, up to 90 percent of all of the space and water heating will be electric in California. 

Then, at the end of the year, they joined PG&E in a filing to the Public Utilities Commission that is on a proceeding that would take away incentives to extend gas lines from gas mains to buildings. They’re called line extension allowances; basically, we use ratepayer dollars to give money to builders to pay for some of the costs of extending gas from the gas main in the middle of the street to a house or a new commercial building. It's a perverse incentive from a climate perspective; we're using ratepayer dollars to put into place infrastructure that’ll make it harder for us to meet our climate goals. 

So the PUC in California has opened up a proceeding to recommend doing away with those, and PG&E and Southern California Gas Company came in and said, for residential buildings, we agree that we should stop incentivizing this. First time in the country.

David Roberts:   

I can understand how an electric and gas utility could come around to the light on this. But if you're a natural gas utility, it's pretty much existential, isn't it? If there's no natural gas, there's no reason for you to exist. Is there a big political difference on those kinds of utilities?

Panama Bartholomy:  

What is the answer to every question in energy right now, before it's asked? Hydrogen! 

If you read through the Clean Fuels report, and you read through most any clean fuels report from a gas company in America right now, they're betting big on hydrogen. It's very much a “don't look behind the curtain” type of scenario, because you don't want to talk about the fact that you're going to have to replace the entire gas system to be able to pipe hydrogen, or how expensive the hydrogen is going to be to produce and use. But what Southern California Gas Company has said is, we need to start refocusing on supplying industrial and commercial clients with cleaner gaseous fuels. 

David Roberts:  

Interesting. That's not crazy.  

Panama Bartholomy:  

Not crazy. Residential makes up 30 percent of their revenue, so it'll be a big cut.

David Roberts:

They're inevitably going to be smaller, if they survive at all.

Panama Bartholomy:  

Yeah, but hydrogen is the hope. It’s the hopium of our time.

David Roberts:   

The most common question I hear about all this is: I'm a homeowner, I'm confused and overwhelmed, what's my priority list? If I'm making an electrification checklist, what do I do first? 

Panama Bartholomy:  

It's going to depend on the age of your appliances. You're looking at your four major appliances: water heater, furnace, stove, and dryer. If you use gas, you want to look at how old those systems are, and you want to replace the oldest one first, if you're looking at it purely from a climate perspective. 

If you're looking at it from a health and safety perspective, you probably want to go with your stove first, because your stove is likely emitting levels of nitrogen oxides, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide that would be considered illegal if they were found outdoors.

David Roberts:   

What if I'm weighing appliance replacement against efficiency upgrades on my envelope, or solar panels on my roof? Are the appliances job one?

Panama Bartholomy:  

It's going to depend a lot on your climate zone. If you're living up in Upper Minnesota, I highly recommend you do some envelope work along with your heat pump. But it's just going to depend on the life expectancy, how much longer you think that furnace or water heater is going to be kicking.

This stuff can be confusing for people. The good news is that we've recognized that consumer education is a critical part of this, and with about 15 other sponsors, we’ve partnered on a campaign. It’s called The Switch Is On campaign. It's just in California as of now. It provides all the basic information you as a consumer need, like, what is a heat pump? What would it cost to put it in? It has all of the rebates available to you based on your zip code, utility, government, etc. We pre-screened hundreds of contractors that know what they're doing on electrification and won't talk the Daves of the world out of putting in a heat pump.

There's about seven other states that are standing up campaigns like this. We also are talking to folks in British Columbia and Australia with similar campaigns. It's a recognized need, and we're trying to provide some of the early resources that consumers need. So yeah, visit the website if you want to see what version one of the electrification consumer education looks like.

David Roberts:   

If you're a city policymaker, mayor or town council, same thing. What's your priority list? What are you going after first? What's the big fish?

Panama Bartholomy:  

There's three things, and in order, but they're interrelated. 

Number one, we need to stop digging the hole. We should not be building any new buildings with gas connections. Every new one you're building is just creating a problem for your community down the road.

We need to deal with existing buildings. So the second thing is, you need to set a date for when you're no longer going to allow gas appliances to be sold in your jurisdiction or in your state.

David Roberts:   

You're going after the supply side.

Panama Bartholomy:  

Exactly. And there are lots of arguments: is it building performance standards, is it time-of-sale requirement. We believe that with a set of complementary policies around it, to build the market and protect people, that appliance bans are the solution we need across the board. 

The key thing is the third thing: we need to build the market so that you can support a ban. We've built up enough of an educated workforce, we've switched electricity rates around, and we’ve brought the cost down so it's comparable or cheaper than gas, etc., to be able to make a mandate work when it goes into effect. 

Those are the three for us: stopping new construction with gas, setting a date for the phaseout of sales of appliances that use gas, and then building the marketplace for electrification. They're all interrelated to each other.

David Roberts:   

Awesome. Well, this is fascinating, I'm sure we could go on for another hour, but I don't want to test my listeners’ already legendary patience. Thanks so much for coming on, and thanks for all your work on this.

Panama Bartholomy:  

Absolutely. Thanks for coming to our funny little corner of the clean energy world, Dave.

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Jan 28, 2022
Do dividends make carbon taxes more popular? Apparently not.
Arguments over carbon taxes go back as far as discussions of climate change itself. Economists have long insisted that pricing carbon is the most efficient way to reduce greenhouse gases. For years, they hijacked the climate discourse, with untold money and effort put behind proposals for various increasingly baroque pricing schemes, to very little effect.

Over time, political experience with carbon taxes has highlighted a truth that should have been obvious long ago: carbon taxes are taxes, and people don’t like taxes. People don’t like paying more money for stuff.

More broadly, carbon taxes are an almost perfectly terrible policy from the perspective of political economy. They make costs visible to everyone, while the benefits are diffuse and indirect. They create many enemies, but have almost no support outside the climate movement itself. All the political intensity is with opponents. (More here.)

One response to this critique that has grown increasingly popular in recent years is the notion of refunding the tax revenue — giving the money back to voters. Various ways to do this have been proposed, the simplest being an equal dividend to each taxpayer. Some proposals have all the tax revenue refunded; some have a limited portion refunded.

The idea is that the tax would discourage carbon-intensive activities, while the dividend would mute political opposition. In most of the proposed schemes, the lower half of the income scale comes out ahead — dividends are larger than tax burdens — and in some cases, up to 80 percent of taxpayers come out ahead. A refunded carbon tax is basically large-scale wealth redistribution from the biggest fossil fuel users to middle- and working-class citizens.

This kind of “fee and dividend” framework is endorsed by the Climate Leadership Council (centrist/bipartisan elites), the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (left-leaning grassroots campaigners), and one-time presidential candidate Andrew Yang, though they differ on important details.

The logic of the policy is compelling to proponents — and to many people who first hear about it — and they feel deeply confident that it will compel the public too. The evidence, however, is mixed.

Do refunds increase the popularity of carbon taxes? At last, some field research.

There are numerous studies showing that, in a polling or focus-group setting, the inclusion of refunds increases public support for a hypothetical carbon tax — see here and here, among others. But that kind of polling has not translated into victories in, for example, Washington state, where a fee-and-dividend policy lost badly in a public referendum in 2016.

More to the point, because there have been so few fee-and-dividend policies implemented in the real world, there’s been very little field testing of the public’s actual response to it.

That brings us to a new paper in the journal Nature Climate Change by political scientists Matto Mildenberger (UC-Santa Barbara), Erick Lachapelle (University of Montreal), Kathryn Harrison (University of British Columbia), and Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen (University of Bern). They do something novel: look at public opinion in the places where carbon fee-and-dividend policies have been implemented.

It turns out there are only two.

Switzerland established a rebate program in 2008. The carbon tax reached 96 Swiss francs (about $105) per tonne in 2018; about two-thirds of the revenue is rebated on a per-capita basis, with everyone (including children) receiving an equal share.

Canada established a rebate program in 2019 as part of its national carbon-pricing strategy. So far, the scheme covers four of 10 provinces, with more than half of the national population. The price was initially set at 20 Canadian dollars (about $16 U.S.) a tonne, rising to CA$50 by 2022; recently the government released a new schedule that would target CA$170 by 2030.

The refund, or Climate Action Incentive Payment, is based on the number of adults and children in the household, with a 10 percent boost for rural households. It is highly progressive; 80 percent of households get more back than they pay.

The Nature Climate Change paper looks at public opinion in both countries. In Canada, it draws on a longitudinal study, which surveyed the same residents — “from five provinces, two subject to the federal carbon tax (Saskatchewan and Ontario), one with provincial emissions trading (Quebec), and two with provincial carbon taxes (British Columbia and Alberta)” — five times from February 2019 through May 2020, during which time the scheme was proposed, debated, passed, and implemented.

In Switzerland, the paper draws on a survey of 1,050 Swiss residents in December 2019.

So what do these surveys tell us? It’s not great.

Refunds don’t change opinions much; many recipients don’t know they exist

In Canada, throughout the period in which the refund was hotly debated, passed, and implemented, public approval … didn’t change much.

What’s more, opinions on the policy were divided primarily not by who got a refund and who didn’t, or who got a bigger refund. They were divided by (say it with me) partisanship:

By wave 5 [of the survey], 75% and 81% of Liberal supporters in Ontario and Saskatchewan respectively supported carbon pricing, compared to 32% and 13% of Conservatives in these same provinces.

Perhaps more importantly, Canadians remain confused and in many cases ignorant about carbon refunds. When asked whether they got one at all, “many Canadians did not know, including 17% in rebate provinces and between 33% and 36% in non-rebate provinces.”

When asked how big their carbon refund was, many in non-rebate provinces reported positive amounts, while those who did receive one underestimated it by as much as 40 percent on average. “Only 24% of Ontario respondents and 19% of Saskatchewan respondents estimated a rebate amount falling within the correct $100 dollar range of their true rebate.” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Conservatives underestimated their rebate more than Liberals.)

You might think, well, Canada’s program is new. What about Switzerland, where they’ve been receiving rebates for over a decade?

It’s … even worse. Only 12 percent of Swiss respondents know that part of the carbon revenue is refunded; 85 percent did not know they’d gotten a refund at all. D’oh!

Additional information about refunds often doesn’t help

You might think, well, the problem is how these countries administer their refunds. In Canada, it’s a line on your tax return. In Switzerland, it’s a discount on your health insurance premiums. Both are clearly marked, but lots of people don’t exactly scrutinize those documents and keep track of every line item. Surely support would rise if people are made aware of the refund they are receiving, yes?

Er, no.

In both countries, a portion of survey respondents were given individualized rebate information — that is to say, they were shown, on the documents in question, exactly how much they had received in annual carbon refunds.

In Canada, this treatment did not raise support for carbon pricing at all. In fact, respondents who were shown what they received were less likely to believe that they had been made whole (this trend was also more pronounced among Conservatives).

“Canadians who learned the true value of their rebates,” the paper reports, “were significantly more likely to perceive themselves as net losers, even though most Canadians are net beneficiaries.” D’oh!

Maybe Switzerland? There, information about rebates mildly increased support for the current policy (“around one fifth of a standard deviation”) but it did not increase support for an increase in the tax at all. And in fact, in a June 2021 referendum, the Swiss voted against an increase in the tax and the rebates.

In short, the available evidence suggests that carbon refunds don’t do much to reshape public opinion on carbon taxes, even among voters with accurate information about the refund they receive.


Perhaps support for these policies will increase over time. Perhaps it would increase if voters didn’t receive just one-time information about refunds, but consistent, repeated information. Perhaps it would increase if the rebates were sent via check rather than buried in bureaucratic documents. (We’ll find out about this — Canada is switching to a checks-by-mail system this summer and researchers are planning more surveys.) Perhaps support would grow if the rebates substantially increased in size.

We can’t know what would happen in these counterfactuals; anything is possible. We can’t know whether some sort of carbon refund scheme might catch on and grow popular at some point. But the current evidence is fairly discouraging for the thesis that rebates will ipso facto increase support for carbon pricing.

The lessons of this research

There was a popular theory among pundits (myself included) when the Democrats took control of the federal government in 2020: the one thing you can’t propagandize voters on is their own lives. If Democrats could improve voters’ social and economic circumstances in tangible ways, it would cut through the disinformation haze and increase public support.

In retrospect, I think that was naive. You can propagandize voters about their own lives. Or, to put it more academically, all of our experiences, even our experiences of our own life circumstances, are mediated. We interpret them through schema and worldviews shaped by our tribes and the stories they tell. These days, we get that stuff through electronic media, with which the world is saturated.

Most people are not aware of exactly how much they pay in gas or carbon taxes a year. Most people do not closely scrutinize their tax returns or health insurance forms. And above all, most people are unaware that they already receive a variety of government benefits, which are often buried in the tax code or otherwise hidden from view. (The best book on this is Suzanne Mettler’s The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy.)

Outside of a focus group, out in the real world, people’s assessments of a carbon refund are less likely to be informed by careful economic cost-benefit analysis than they are to be mediated by identity affiliation. And these days, identity has been subsumed by partisanship.

“[I]n the two federal-tax provinces, supporters of the Liberal Party of Canada were 3 to 8 times more likely to support the carbon tax than Conservative Party supporters,” the paper reports. “Similarly, in Switzerland, left-leaning voters were 48% more likely to support rebates relative to right-leaning voters.”

People’s assessments of a policy tend to echo their tribe’s assessment, which they absorb through media and peers, not through an accounting spreadsheet. The amounts of money generally being discussed in carbon refund policies are not large enough to be life-changing for voters. The signal is not big enough to break through the noise of partisanship.

Mildenberger summed it up for me over email:

The entire [carbon refund] logic requires that large parts of the public understand that they make more money from their cheque than they are paying in taxes. But this is not what we see in Canada. And it's no surprise. As long as one group of actors spends its time sensationalizing and dramatizing the costs of carbon taxes, then many people will think they are not being made whole. Why should we expect — in an American society where even basic facts are politicized and vast portions of the public accept outright misinformation — that carbon taxes will be immune to this? What matters is not the actual material reality of people's circumstances, but their perceptions of those circumstances. (my emphasis)

That last line squarely identifies something that Democrats have long been loath to accept. In a sense, carbon refunds are the latest expression of a long-time technocratic dream: that a policy can be so sensible, such a net benefit for so many people, that it will transcend politics. It will argue for itself and its logic will be irrefutable.

But if we’ve learned anything in these past few years (and I fear we haven’t), it’s that nothing transcends politics. Nothing is experienced directly by voters, not even money showing up in their bank account. Everything is mediated.

Politics in the US has been nationalized and fully subsumed by the culture war. No policy, no matter how cleverly designed, can get around that. In our present partisan and information environment, the measurable effect of a carbon refund on voter finances may carry less weight than advocates hope.

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Jan 24, 2022
Minerals and the clean-energy transition: the basics
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk in the energy world about the minerals needed by clean-energy technologies and whether mineral supply problems might pose a threat to the clean-energy transition.

To hold warming beneath 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels, the world must cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. To do that, it must radically ramp up production of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, electric vehicles (EVs), electrolyzers for hydrogen, and power lines.

Those technologies are far more mineral-intensive than equivalent fossil fuel technologies. “A typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car,” writes the International Energy Agency (IEA), “and an onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired plant of the same capacity.” (The IEA report uses the word minerals to refer to the entire mineral and metal value chain from mining to processing operations, and I do the same here.)

Power transmission and distribution require aluminum and copper. Batteries and EVs require cobalt, lithium, and nickel. Wind turbines require rare earth elements. And so on.

In its encyclopedic 2021 report on the subject, IEA estimates that “a concerted effort to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement would mean a quadrupling of mineral requirements for clean energy technologies by 2040. An even faster transition, to hit net-zero globally by 2050, would require six times more mineral inputs in 2040 than today.”

Some individual minerals will see particularly sharp jumps. The World Bank says, “graphite and lithium demand are so high that current production would need to ramp up by nearly 500 percent by 2050 under a [2 degree scenario] just to meet demand.”

A clean-energy transition sufficient to hit 1.5° will mean an enormous rise in demand for these minerals.

This fact has been seized on by a variety of people to raise questions about the speed and sustainability of the clean-energy transition. Are we just trading one resource curse for another?

So I looked into it. It’s a complicated subject — each of these minerals poses its own specific challenges, with its own specific suppliers, supply lines, customers, and possible pain points. There’s no neat single story here.

Nonetheless, I’ll try to summarize what I found, starting at the end, with what I think are the key big-picture lessons. In the next post, we’ll get into specific technologies and minerals.

The clean-energy transition will be an environmental boon

Yes, it is true that demand for minerals will rise and that several of those minerals are currently produced in environmentally and socially problematic ways. This is a real problem — or rather, a whole nest of problems, which warrant concern and concerted action.

That being said, it’s important to keep in mind that, even under the grimmest environmental prognostications, the transition to clean energy will be a boon for humans and ecosystems alike.

It will certainly involve lower greenhouse gas emissions. The World Bank says that, under a 2 degree scenario, through 2050, renewable energy and storage would contribute approximately 16 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) greenhouse gases, “compared with almost 160 GtCO2e from coal and approximately 96 GtCO2e from gas.”

If the concern is material intensity, energy researcher Saul Griffith has done some back-of-the-envelope calculations that put the transition in perspective. Here’s what he told me:

Assigning all 328 million Americans equal share of our fossil fuel use, every American burns 1.6 tons of coal, 1.5 tons of natural gas, and 3.1 tons of oil every year. That becomes around 17 tons of carbon dioxide, none of which is captured. It is all tossed like trash into the atmosphere.

The same US lifestyle could be achieved with around 110 pounds each of wind turbines, solar modules, and batteries per person per year, except that all of those are quite recyclable (and getting more recyclable all the time) so there is reason to believe it will amount to only 50-100 pounds per year of stuff that winds up as trash.

That is a huge difference: 34,000 pounds of waste for our lifestyles the old way versus 100 pounds the new, electrified way.

These are only illustrative figures, but they show that the scale of resource extraction in a decarbonized world will be vastly, vastly smaller than what’s required to sustain a fossil-fueled society. Close to 40 percent of all global shipping is devoted to moving fossil fuels around, a gargantuan source of emissions (and strain on the ocean) that clean energy will almost wipe out. In a net-zero economy, there will be, on net, less digging, less transporting, less burning, less polluting.

The fact is, fossil fuels are a wildly destructive and inefficient way to power a society. Two thirds of the energy embedded in them ends up wasted.

That inefficiency has been rendered invisible by fossil fuels’ ubiquity and the lack of alternatives. Now that alternatives are coming into view, it’s clear that any shift away from mining, drilling, transporting, and combusting fossil fuels will dramatically ease human pressure on the biosphere and the atmosphere.

Again — I can not emphasize enough — this is no reason to ignore or gloss over the very real environmental impacts of mineral mining, processing, and transport. Though overall environmental pressure will ease in a clean-energy world, it will be concentrated in new places, among people who may not necessarily enjoy the benefits of the transition.

There are ugly and cruel ways to go about an energy transition, and there are sustainable and equitable ways to go about it. I’m strongly in favor of the latter and encourage everyone to do what they can to bring that about.

Nonetheless, either way, the broader cause is environmentally righteous.

These minerals are not rare and there’s no shortage of them

Another common misconception is that the clean-energy transition could fall short because there simply isn’t enough of certain minerals — this especially comes up around the somewhat misleadingly named rare earth elements (REEs).

It’s not true. Known reserves of all these minerals, including REEs, are much higher than demand, and “despite continued production growth over the past decades, economically viable reserves have been increasing for many energy transition minerals,” IEA writes. Reserves will rise further with new exploration and detection methods.

Currently, demand is forecast to grow much faster than supply. As that happens, there are bound to be chokepoints and price fluctuations.

But those stresses will be temporary, especially if policymakers anticipate and prepare for them. New caches of minerals will be found and recycling will increase in scope and effectiveness. There will be supply problems, but there is no Supply Problem, no global scarcity of any mineral that will put a hard limit on the transition.

Minerals do pose risks to the transition

Temporary minerals shortages or disruptions could result in “more expensive, delayed, or less efficient [energy] transitions,” IEA says. Here’s how it summarizes the risks to the transition posed by minerals supply:

(i) higher geographical concentration of production,

(ii) a mismatch between the pace of change in demand and the typical project development timeline,

(iii) the effects of declining resource quality,

(iv) growing scrutiny of environmental and social performance of production, and

(v) higher exposure to climate risk such as water stress, among others.

None of these risks is prohibitive, but if they are not managed, they could slow the transition. Let’s go through them one at a time.

Geographical concentration

Production of the minerals needed by clean energy technologies is currently more geographically concentrated than oil and gas production.

No single producer dominates in oil and gas markets the way the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) dominates cobalt, China dominates graphite and REEs, and Australia dominates lithium.

Similarly, processing of these minerals — refining and preparing them for industrial applications — is highly concentrated, but mostly in one place: China, which processes around 40 percent of copper and nickel, around 60 percent of lithium and cobalt, and around 85 percent of REEs.

The US, like most developed countries, has become highly import-dependent in minerals. According to a recent commentary from scholars at the Colorado School of Mines’ Payne Institute for Public Policy, “of the 35 critical minerals identified by the US today, 14 had a 100% net import reliance in 2020, and 14 additional minerals have a net import reliance of greater than 50%.”

The risk of this concentration is not so much that any one country will try to pull some kind of Bond-villain crippling of the world economy, but simply that the fewer producers or processors involved, the more it matters when any one of them runs into regulatory changes, trade restrictions, or political instability. When there’s a robust ecosystem of producers, one country’s bumps can be absorbed. But when there’s only a handful, any bump ripples out as rapid fluctuations in price.

These markets are relatively small, but will grow quickly under decarbonization, so more and more countries will be vulnerable to price fluctuations. In the oil and gas world, there are energy-security measures in place, including strategic stockpiles of some fuels, but there’s not much of that in place for minerals, at least not yet. And markets for minerals are in many cases much more opaque than markets for oil and gas, lacking a shared set of metrics and transparent pricing.

At least through 2025, IEA does not expect the level of concentration to change much.

Aggressive investment in alternative supplies can decrease concentration eventually, but in the short term, solutions will involve drawing producers into more transparent market frameworks, pressuring them to improve social and environmental performance, and developing some buffer reserves of critical minerals.

Timing mismatch

Demand for minerals is already rising and will accelerate rapidly in coming years. Unfortunately, exploration, discovery, and exploitation of new mineral resources are marked by substantial lead times, in some cases over 15 years.

“These long lead times raise questions about the ability of supply to ramp up output if demand were to pick up rapidly,” IEA writes. “If companies wait for deficits to emerge before committing to new projects, this could lead to a prolonged period of market tightness and price volatility.”

To keep up with demand, investors need to think ahead. And lead times need to decline, which will involve substantial investment and governance help from wealthy consumer nations to poorer producing nations.

Declining resource quality

In recent years, two trends have driven down the average resource quality of many minerals: first, the known high-quality deposits have been mined, and two, technological advances have allowed the mining of ever-lower-quality resources.

“For example,” IEA writes, “the average copper ore grade in Chile has decreased by 30% over the last 15 years.”

As resource quality declines, the emissions intensity of mining rises, as does the amount of waste. Concerted action and investment will be needed to counteract this trend.

ESG scrutiny

A growing chorus of consumers and investors is calling on the mining sector to take action on its labor and environmental standards and rising carbon intensity. They want companies to disclose concrete plans on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues.

This is a big deal in the sector, as the majority of production of many key minerals now takes place in countries with low governance scores and/or high emissions intensity.

This is something clean energy advocates have been loath to talk about, but given the coming boom in minerals, silence is no longer an option. The Payne commentary says, “reports have found as many as 255,000 artisanal cobalt miners in the [Democratic Republic of Congo], 35,000 of whom are children working in exceedingly harsh and hazardous conditions to produce the materials many people use in their $100,000 electric vehicles (EVs) and other ‘clean’ technologies.”

Lithium, cadmium, and REEs are all produced in ways that damage soil and water and release hazardous chemicals that threaten miners and surrounding communities. ESG pressure from governments and the private sector could have a salutary effect on social and environmental performance, but it could also place upward pressure on prices and additional burdens on small-scale artisanal miners, which could pose political problems in some countries.

Exposure to climate extremes

Production of clean-energy minerals is increasingly exposed to climate extremes.

Lithium and copper are perhaps the two most important minerals in an electrified world. Over half the world’s lithium production takes place in areas under high water stress. In Chile, 80 percent of copper output comes from arid or water-stressed regions.

Other producing regions like Africa, Australia, and China have seen increased extreme heat and flooding. Expanding demand could push production into even more vulnerable areas.

Anyway, those are the risks. In a later post, I’ll get into strategies and policies that can help address those risks.

Minerals are the new geopolitics: like oil & gas, but not

Right now, clean energy is a fairly small source of demand for the minerals discussed above, but its share is projected to grow rapidly under a Paris-compliant scenario, to well over half of global demand for lithium, cobalt, and nickel by 2040.

Just as clean energy will be more important to minerals markets in coming years, so too will minerals be more important to clean energy. The rapid deployment of technologies crucial to decarbonization is going to depend on supply chains that are in many cases dominated by one or a handful of countries, fed by mines with low labor and environmental standards, exposed to rising climate extremes, and vulnerable to political and economic disruptions. All of those risks could slow the transition.

The race for minerals courts some of the same dangers that came with oil and gas. Minerals will become crucial to the global energy system and their distribution — both production and consumption — will shape geopolitics. Unplanned supply disruptions could have global consequences, just as with oil and gas.

But it’s also important to remember that minerals are different from oil and gas in crucial respects. The most important is that fossil fuel technologies require continuous fuel input. If there’s a disruption in oil markets, it is experienced by every driver as an ongoing increase in gas and diesel prices.

Minerals are only essential to building of clean energy technologies, not to operating them. They are a materials input, not a fuel input. Supply disruptions or price fluctuations will affect markets for the technologies, but they will not affect existing users of those technologies. Solar energy from existing panels will not get more expensive just because copper does. This insulates minerals somewhat from the volatile consumer politics of fossil fuels.

Secondly, every country in the world has an established relationship to oil and gas — it’s a producer or it’s not — but minerals and mineral markets are much more varied and dispersed. Countries could consciously decide to become producers by exploiting new reserves; they could invest in processing or manufacturing; supply chains will shift and morph. “Individual countries may have very different positions in the value chain for each of the minerals,” IEA writes. This makes the geopolitics of minerals more complicated than fossil fuel geopolitics.

As we’ll see in the next post, the exact course of minerals markets is difficult to predict in advance, because there is rapid development and innovation going on in clean energy. Exactly what minerals will constitute the final balance in a clean-energy world is unknowable at this stage.

But there are predictable stresses ahead and policymakers should strive above all not to do what they’ve so often done with oil and gas — namely, stumble blindly into crises that end up having terrible economic and political consequences. The speed and success of the clean-energy transition depend on a thoughtful and cooperative approach to minerals supply.

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Jan 21, 2022
Volts podcast: me and Adam McKay in an exciting podcast crossover event
Hey Volties! As you know, last week I interviewed Don’t Look Up director Adam McKay for the podcast.

Then the talented folks at Canary Media’s Carbon Copy podcast (which you should subscribe to) interviewed me — about the movie, climate change in art, and McKay — and interweaved bits of that interview with bits of my interview with McKay.

The result is the first-ever Volts/Carbon Copy crossover episode! They did an amazing job. Even if you’ve already listened to my interview with McKay, I think you’ll get something out of it. If you didn’t have time to listen to that 90-minute conversation and would prefer the 30-minute highlight reel … here it is!

Let me know what you think and if you’d like to see more crossover episodes in the future.

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Jan 20, 2022
Volts podcast: Jason Bordoff & Meghan O’Sullivan on the geopolitics of clean energy
In this episode, international scholars Jason Bordoff and Meghan O’Sullivan discuss the geopolitical tensions that could be caused or exacerbated by the clean-energy transition, including supply constrictions in oil and gas and the geographical concentration of key clean-energy minerals. This episode is a great antidote to the notion that clean energy is going to make for smooth sailing in geopolitics.

Full transcript of Volts podcast featuring Jason Bordoff and Meghan O’Sullivan, January 19, 2022

(PDF version)

David Roberts:

When one contemplates the thorny geopolitics of oil and gas — with its century-long string of crises, conflicts, and moral compromises — it’s easy to think that the transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy will usher in a saner and more peaceful world.

And that may happen, in the long term, once the transition is complete. But the road from here to there, over the course of the next few decades, is likely to be bumpy. Policymakers need to start planning for the predictable disruptions headed our way.

That is the message of a recent essay in Foreign Affairs by Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, and Meghan O’Sullivan, longtime foreign policy operative and professor of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Bordoff and O’Sullivan outline a number of risks the world faces in the short- to mid-term as it endeavors to ramp up clean energy and ramp down fossil fuels.

Investment in fossil fuels could decline faster than demand, which would perversely strengthen the position of Gulf states sitting on the cheapest oil. Production of the minerals needed to build clean-energy technologies is highly concentrated, often in countries with unstable politics and poor or no labor standards, like the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Processing of almost all clean-energy minerals is heavily concentrated in China, giving it enormous leverage and exposing world markets to economic or political upheavals there. Trade sanctions or tariffs could slow the spread of innovations. The US’s inability to get its act together could sour relations with the EU, which is moving ahead with ambitious, coordinated policy.

And so on. Clean energy will eventually diminish the sway of fossil fuel geopolitics, but the transition will create its own geopolitics, its own tensions, disputes, and chokepoints. I’m eager to talk to Bordoff and O’Sullivan about some of those risks and what might be done to prepare for them.

Jason Bordoff and Meghan O'Sullivan, welcome to Volts. Thanks for coming.

Jason Bordoff:  

Great to be with you. Thanks for inviting us.

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

Thank you, Dave.

David Roberts:   

I want to begin by quoting your great piece in Foreign Affairs. You say: “Talk of a smooth transition to clean energy is fanciful. There is no way that the world can avoid major upheavals as it remakes the entire energy system, which is the lifeblood of the global economy, and underpins the geopolitical order.” 

In a sense, the whole piece is addressed at a naive view of what the clean energy transition is going to involve. A lot of people think there's all this messy, nasty geopolitics around oil and gas, and if we just subtract that, then you have a world that's running smoothly and at peace. Can you, at a high level, describe why people have that naive view and why you think it's wrong?

Jason Bordoff:  

You describe the motivation for the piece very accurately. I recall sitting a few years ago at a round table at the Munich Security Conference, talking about Nord Stream 2, a pipeline very much in the news these days as the US and Russia try to see if we can prevent conflict in Europe. There was a comment that I remember: “Why are we spending so much time on this? It won't matter soon anyway, because the geopolitics of oil and gas is simply going to fade.”

That struck me — and Meghan as well, because we've talked a huge amount about it — as simplistic. The geopolitics of energy since at least the Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s, probably much longer, has largely been about oil and gas, whether it's the concerns about OPEC’s control over oil markets, or Russia's gas supply into Europe, or anything else. So it's a hopeful vision to say, when we decarbonize and move away from oil and gas, those geopolitical risks will become a thing of the past. 

We were making two points in the piece. One is that, that end state of beyond oil and gas is pretty far away. There's a multi-decade period when you have the new geopolitics of clean energy layered on top of the old geopolitics of oil and gas — and even a net-zero world is not zero oil and gas, necessarily. 

But also, there will be new risks created by the emergence of clean energy, from critical minerals, to trade conflicts, to new zero-carbon fuels like hydrogen and ammonia that might move around by ship — a range of new issues that we want to make sure people are thinking about, because our concern is that those geopolitical and national security risks, if we're not addressing them, might actually undermine our ability to move as quickly as we need to to decarbonize.

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

Intellectually, in the foreign policy and climate communities, when we first started talking about geopolitics, there was this focus on “what does success look like” — imagining a world, say it's 2050, where the global economy is fully decarbonized. I was part of that effort, along with some of Jason's colleagues from Columbia, and focused on painting that picture. Jason and I both agree that it's feasible, when the world is fully decarbonized, that maybe the geopolitics of energy will be more copacetic. 

But what the piece does, and the focus of Jason’s and my work these days, is to say, that almost feels theoretical. What matters for the short and medium term — not discounting the long term — is what is going to happen in between. Here we're going to have, not the geopolitics of oil and gas gradually and incrementally giving way to the geopolitics of new energies, we're going to have them, as Jason said, layered on top of each other. 

November/December was a great example of this, where you have the COP, and all the enthusiasm and energy around faster decarbonization and how important it is for the world, at the same time where you had an energy crisis unfolding in Europe, where Russia was playing the same old cards in the old geopolitics of natural gas. This is going to be the screenplay of the next couple of decades, where both of these things happen simultaneously.

David Roberts:   

One of the risks you bring up is that, due to social pressure in the developed world and changing social mores, there's a lot of pressure to shut down [fossil fuel] production in some countries. There's a risk that production could decline before demand declines, which will have the effect of empowering those countries that are still producing. Say a little bit about what that might look like in the short term.

Jason Bordoff:  

We're seeing it right now. There is a lot of concern that in the next several years we're going to go through a supercycle of commodity prices — in part because of underinvestment, not entirely because of the energy transition and social pressures, but that's certainly part of it. Also, the pandemic and how quickly you can ramp up investment and supply chains and all the rest. 

We had the IEA tell us very clearly in their landmark Net Zero report that if we were on a pathway for net zero by 2050 — which sadly, we're not, but if we were — we would not need investment in new oil and gas supply. Those broad messages, along with social pressures and divestment pressures and everything else, have some impact, along with the uncertainty over, what is the outlook for oil demand? When is it going to peak and start to decline? That pulls back capital, or maybe raises the cost of capital. 

But oil demand is still going up each and every year. Natural gas demand is still going up each and every year. If you look at the data, the last two years we have been investing as much in oil and gas as we should be if we were on track for net zero by 2050. The problem is, if we were on track for net zero by 2050, we should be investing more than three times as much in clean energy as we are. So we are not investing enough in energy to meet demand. 

Ideally, we would do that not by dramatically ramping up oil and gas spending, but by dramatically ramping up clean energy spending. But it's hard to scale it that quickly, especially if the policy support is not there. So there is a risk that underinvestment could lead to energy crunches and price spikes. 

Again, you see the political response in Europe where there's an energy crisis this winter, in high gasoline prices in the US and the need for the administration to feel it has to release the SPR in response to oil prices that weren't even that high, $80 a barrel. That kind of public concern about higher energy prices risks undermining support for stronger climate policy, I fear.

David Roberts:   

Not just passively undermining. We're seeing this today: every time there's one of these fluctuations or disruptions or price spikes, there are a lot of people out there who want to blame it on the clean energy transition.

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

I’ll add something to Jason's response about the real problem of underinvestment and how this could create some of these imbalances. Your question was about empowering old producers. The underinvestment story is the big story there, but there's also a wrinkle that doesn't get as much attention.

When we look at the scenarios, including the IEA’s net-zero 2050 scenario, they all acknowledge that there will still be some role for oil and gas, even in a fully decarbonized global economy — those carbon emissions should be taken care of by carbon removal or some other technologies that still need to be developed. But that's generally part of the picture. 

So the reality is that there are going to still be some oil producers — a smaller number, collectively producing a smaller amount of oil — in the future. Who are those producers going to be? It's likely going to be those producers that have the lowest-cost production; the oil that has the lowest carbon footprint. Those tend to be the big producers in the Gulf: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, maybe even Iraq.

So even in a fully decarbonized world, those countries are still probably going to have some geopolitical influence, because they're going to be producing a larger share of a much smaller pie.

Jason Bordoff:  

You made an important point, Dave: you're right that often people do point to dislocations and energy crises and attribute everything to the clean energy transition, and that's not right. The Texas energy crisis was blamed on wind, and we know with post hoc analysis it was mostly about failed natural gas production and infrastructure. Some of that's true in Europe as well. 

But I do think there's a broader harbinger of risks that may be to come. A point we make in the piece is that it's hard to imagine why we think it should be smooth to take the global energy system, which is something at massive scale, and turn it on its head almost overnight. Vaclav Smil's work and everything else tells us a quarter century to get to a net-zero economy is really fast by standards and energy history. 

We're going to make missteps. We're going to get policy shifts — we go from Obama, to Trump, to Biden. We're going to get certain technologies wrong. There's not a master planner, so we have individual decisions by individual utilities, individual investors; we build parts of the grid, and then maybe we retire parts before the system's ready to handle it.

We have to think about how to build more tools in to smooth volatility, because we're going to get some things wrong in this transition. To the extent we get them wrong and that leads to price spikes or geopolitical risks, again, that's going to undermine our climate ambition.

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

To underscore the point that Jason just made, one of our concerns is that the geopolitical impacts are not sufficiently understood and that there is risk that these geopolitical impacts end up being the greatest risk to a successful transition. People thinking that high oil prices are because of the clean energy transition haven’t been very accurate thus far, but the perceptions often shape the policy. 

We think about how trade became such an incredibly divisive political issue here in the United States. A lot of the job displacement was actually because of technology and automation — but that doesn't really matter. When we're looking at transition, that's going to be dominantly driven by policy. We want to try to make sure that doesn't happen.

David Roberts:   

Let's pause for a moment and talk about Russia. I can imagine the role the rest of the world plays in the clean energy transition and a happy ending for them at the end of that story. But with Russia, they're totally dependent on gas for their geopolitical power and influence. They're already actively involved in trying to undermine the Western democratic order. As this transition proceeds, it seems like it's going to get pretty existential for Russia. There's a lot of potential for bad things to come out of that: a new Cold War, or for Russia to redouble its efforts at undermining other countries. I can almost figure out how to handle any other country, but what do you do about Russia?

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

This is a good point, and it's particularly apropos today, when we have the US and Russia meeting about geopolitical tensions. If you ask anyone who is likely to be a loser in the energy transition, Russia is always at the top of that list, and there's good reasons for that. 

As you mentioned, the dominance of oil and gas in Russia's economy has only grown since Putin became president. It's been pretty stark, and there is very little indication that the Russian leadership, Putin and the oligarchs around him, have any aptitude for doing the tough reforms that would be required to accommodate Russia to the new energy reality. The power structure now has a lot to do with oil and gas, and that's likely to continue. 

But I'd say there are two important caveats. The first is, as we just discussed, that in the long run this looks pretty bad for Russia — there are a lot of things that we might want to plan for in terms of contingencies — but in the short-to-medium term, it's not necessarily looking so bad, because of the continued need for natural gas and because of Russia's ability to supply that gas at cheap prices. 

The second is that Russia is not like some other countries that we might talk about. It does have areas where it could become quite important and influential in the energy transition and have it be lucrative and also have it be geopolitically influential. The two that come to mind are, first, hydrogen. Russia could become a hydrogen power; it would require a lot of strategy and investment.

The second is nuclear, where Russia already plays an outsized role in global development. Clearly, if the energy transition is going to be successful, there's going to have to be greater use of nuclear power around the world. Russia could find that to be economically useful, and also geopolitically useful. 

To answer “what do we do” directly: the base case that I would plan for if I were still a policymaker would be to game out and prepare for Russia being a spoiler of the energy transition going forward. We saw that when we were looking at the shale gas unconventional boom in the US and the interest in Europe in recreating it there — Russia deployed a lot of tools to undermine the chances of countries in the EU developing their own shale gas. I imagine that, seeing this as existential, Russia would go to even greater lengths.

Jason Bordoff:  

I agree with what Meghan said about nuclear power. I wrote a column in Foreign Policy just a few days ago about why nuclear may finally be having its moment. Part of that is we need all zero-carbon tools on deck, and even then, it's going to be incredibly hard to get where we need to get to. 

But also a foreign policy consideration, which is that if the US doesn't exert more leadership in nuclear power, China and Russia are building the world's nuclear power plants, and that is a national security risk. Meghan’s point that Russia stands to be a loser and therefore will perhaps try to stand in the way of the transition is borne out by history and how it's participated in international climate negotiations and COPs in the past. 

The only thing I'll add is oil. Russia gets more revenue from the sale of oil than it does from the sale of natural gas. We wrote in the piece about why the potential for underinvestment — if that underinvestment in supply gets ahead of demand, you could see more price volatility, more price spikes — could mean we may need OPEC more before we need it less, to manage the energy price spikes that are harmful economically and politically. 

One of the interesting developments in the last several years has been Russia's stepping into a leadership role, where Saudi Arabia and Russia are now positioned as the head of the so-called OPEC Plus alliance — OPEC and a bunch of new member countries. That means if we want OPEC to help at certain points put more oil in the market, which is what the Biden administration has called for in the last year when energy prices went high, you're not only calling Riyadh; what happens in Moscow matters too.

David Roberts:   

This is almost the scariest possible answer: that Russia will be empowered in the short-term and mid-term and fearful of the long-term. That's a recipe for trouble. 

That's a good segue to the next broad topic. One of the things you write about is that the transition to clean energy is going to create new energy powers on several metrics. The first one you mention is one that people maybe don't think about very often, which is the power to set standards for the clean energy economy. Say a little bit about what this means and why standard-setting is a form of power.

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

This is an area where the Chinese have been very forward-looking and active. The United States only recently came to appreciate the power that comes in setting the standards, which is somewhat ironic, because the US has set so many of the standards globally. Maybe it just took it for granted that it could stay in that position. 

Setting the standards in the clean energy revolution has to do with compatibility, safety, materials — there are all kinds of examples we could use. But if we think about electricity and transmission grids and connectivity: around the world, there are many places like the United States that are going to have to revamp their energy architecture, but there are many countries that are going to be building energy infrastructure for the first time. In doing so, depending on what country or what body is governing that infrastructure buildout, and who is most influential in the setting of those standards, you could see how one country may get a competitive leg up. 

This could be a commercial advantage, but it could end up having political advantages as well, if it puts a country — say China, being potentially the most obvious — in a position of denying that country certain inputs that it needs for its energy infrastructure. It could go so far as cyber connectivity and allowing one country to harvest the data of another country. When we think about the clean-energy transition, we obviously are thinking about societies that are even more electrified than the societies we live in today.

Jason Bordoff:  

We highlight one place where it's particularly important; it’s part of the reason we would be concerned about Russia and China building the world's nuclear power plants, setting the norms for nuclear nonproliferation, setting the operational and safety standards. So that matters a lot. 

We know that in the clean-energy transition we're going to have a much more digitalized economy, a range of digital tools that help optimize the electric grid; we're going to need more demand-response tools. There could be commercial advantages if certain firms develop the standards and others have to play catch-up. There's also, of course, a host of cybersecurity implications as we see a much more interconnected grid.

David Roberts:   

The second form of power in the clean-energy economy is minerals and materials supply chains. Right now, countries who happen to be sitting on a lot of oil and natural gas get a lot of geopolitical power out of that. But when we transition to clean energy, we're going to need a few key minerals and materials: lithium, cobalt, copper, etc. 

Currently, supply chains for those minerals are highly concentrated; I think 80 percent of cobalt comes out of the Congo. China dominates the supply chain for lots of minerals, but also dominates the early processing of minerals; 80-plus percent of processing of all those minerals takes place in China. 

What's the danger? What do we worry those countries could do with that power?

Jason Bordoff:  

It's not just clean energy, of course; those critical minerals are essential in lots of technology and electronics applications. We've seen this with semiconductors before. China's embargo on the export of critical minerals to Japan in 2010 tells us what could happen. 

Global trading of critical minerals is going to skyrocket. In IEA’s scenario of what net-zero 2050 looks like, global trade in critical minerals goes from about 10 percent of all energy-related trade to about 50 percent. We're going to need a lot more of all those minerals you just talked about, and they're much more concentrated, so that's important to keep in mind.

As much as we worry about the role of Saudi Arabia or Russia in the oil market, the top three oil producers — the US, Saudi Arabia, and Russia — each produce about 10 percent of the world's supply. When it comes to lithium and cobalt and rare earths, the top producer in each of those produces more than 50 percent of the world's supply. And as you said, the refining and processing is even more concentrated, namely in China. 

So in that sense, you worry about what that kind of dominance of a necessary input to clean-energy technologies could do if there was a conflict. We’re worried about what China might do in Taiwan in the years to come — if there was a conflict of that sort, if they were to cut off that supply, what implications it would have for the global supply chain. It's a real worry. We acknowledge it. 

It is different from oil, however, in a few important respects. One is that these critical minerals are not the daily flow of fuel without which the heat in your house turns off and you freeze in the cold, or your car doesn't work; it's an input to a finished good. So if we didn't have a supply of lithium, it would cause the market for new electric car sales to slow, it would be bottlenecks in the supply chain and everything else; it wouldn't affect your ability to get around today. It's not the electricity your EV needs, it's something that building the next EV needs. So you don't derive the same geopolitical influence from that. 

Also, whereas oil is to be found in certain places, geologically, there are a lot of these critical minerals around the world. It does take time, it's not easy. It's a 10- or 15-year process to develop new mines. But over time, you can diversify the supply chains, build refining capacity elsewhere, the technology to do recycling is getting much better. 

My engineering school colleagues at Columbia and elsewhere are pretty optimistic that the technology is going to improve where you can use much more plentiful minerals to develop batteries. So maybe our dependence on these things will decline over time as well. But if we get on track for net zero or anything close to it, the amount of clean energy that we have to deploy is so massive that we're going to need a lot more of these minerals and materials to come.

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

What we've written about, and the answer that Jason just provided, should bring down people's blood pressure about this in the medium- to long-run. I would underscore in the short- to medium-term, China does have a pretty significant advantage in terms of its dominance of supply chains of these minerals. I do think that is something that is rightly getting the attention of policymakers; it’s going to be a tougher challenge before it becomes an easier challenge. 

The one thing I sometimes hear that we can probably discount a bit is this idea that there's going to be an OPEC, a cartel of these countries that have these kinds of resources. There may be market conditions which could allow for that, but a cartel is also underpinned by common political objectives. So if you think about lithium, what do Bolivia and Australia have in common in terms of, what are they going to bound together on and hold the global economy hostage? It's hard to imagine exactly. 

Secondly, it's interesting to think about countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which produces more than 70 percent of the cobalt in the world today. I don’t imagine the Congo is going to challenge the United States directly, but it probably will be able to use that reality to shine a light on some of its needs and problems, to up its priority in terms of where resources from the rest of the world go when they go to Africa, the attention given to the conflict there. Those things are likely to happen.

So they are going to influence foreign policy, but maybe not in the hostage-taking kind of way that our instinctive reflection back to 1973 makes us think about.

David Roberts:   

When you think about the history of oil and gas, the history of colonialism is highly related. We've seen poorer countries who discover oil or gas basically become resource colonies for the West — they get terrible governance and poverty and we get the resources. If you look at something like Democratic Republic of Congo with 70 percent of the cobalt … seems like a pretty good prediction that we're just going to create a new set of resource colonies. Are there ways in advance to head that off?

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

That is a legitimate concern. I don't have the numbers on the tip of my tongue, but I seem to recall that from what we can discern, the terms of the contracts of the Chinese investment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the cobalt there are really, really unfavorable to the people living in the DRC. So there's legitimate concern for that.

There's another thing that warrants even more concern and it's directly related, and that is this whole idea of the resource curse. Some of the resource-curse material has to do with foreign powers coming in and taking advantage of countries that are less well positioned to negotiate on behalf of themselves. But it turned out that, over time, the resource curse experience and literature focused a lot more on the huge influx of foreign currency that comes suddenly to a country, and their inability to be able to absorb it. Just because of the nature of foreign exchange into many of these economies, which don't have very developed industrial sectors, it creates all kinds of havoc in the economy. 

A lot of it is exacerbated when the country has a large population working in agriculture, or there's a history of conflict, all of these things that many of these countries actually do have. This phenomenon is called the Dutch disease. It's possible that a lot of these countries will be unable to handle that. 

To answer your question about what we might be able to do about that, I would say in the last 20 or 30 years, there's a lot more awareness of the fact that it doesn't have to be a resource curse, that there are a whole series of policies that a government can adopt to mitigate these negative effects. The problem is that it comes back to governance, and a lot of these countries don't have sufficiently well-developed institutions, governments that are willing to create constraints on their own behavior. That's what is needed in order to ensure that these kinds of economic dislocations don't happen.

David Roberts:   

The influx of a bunch of money also reduces domestic pressure to build a more diversified and stable economic base.

Jason Bordoff:  

It's the risk a lot of petrostates face now, trying to think about what a world where they can rely less on petrodollars will look like. They're trying to diversify their economies and as we're seeing, that's hard to do — the resource curse issues, the human rights issues. 

You can hopefully develop global standards. Maybe the best example of this is the Kimberley Process for diamonds. If you have standards and some oversight — that's hard to do — we can avoid some of those issues. 

The other piece of critical minerals is not just the human rights and colonialism concerns, but also the environmental impacts. This is mining, and it does have environmental impacts, and we have to do it at such a larger scale. When you look at how much lithium we need, it is hard to do that level of extraction without environmental impacts.

David Roberts:   

Another source of possible concentration of power is the manufacturing of the components of the clean energy economy. You say in the piece that this is a less-firm sort of power, since manufacturing can and often does spread out, and lots of countries are pursuing their own domestic manufacturing right now.

But it made me wonder whether we know any historical precedent about this. Is it going to be a natural process for the manufacturing of these clean energy components to spread out and become a diverse global market? Or do you think there will in the end be manufacturing superpowers that have some geopolitical power as a result of having a lock on manufacturing?

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

There are a couple of interesting and important aspects to this. If we thought of a world where it was just about competitive edge and what was going to advance the energy transition the most quickly, you probably would have countries that would emerge — I don't know if you would call them manufacturing superpowers, but I think the best example is solar panels and China's dominance of that market. 

Now, if we didn't care about politics and we didn't even care about economics, we just cared about the energy transition, that wouldn't necessarily be such a problem. But there are going to be — we're already starting to see them — political efforts to try to ensure that countries are not reliant on one producer or one manufacturer of particularly critical inputs or elements of the clean energy technologies. 

A pertinent example of that is India. Starting this year, India is putting high tariffs on anything solar that comes from China. The purpose of this is twofold. One, India is incredibly sensitive about its geopolitical relationship with China, particularly after the hot war that threatened to erupt on their border in the last year or so. Secondly, India also wants to build a manufacturing base. It wants the jobs that it perceives will go along with that. 

So what we'll have is maybe more manufacturers, but it'll be less efficient and more expensive and will likely make the energy transition slower than it would otherwise be. Again, it's balancing these two things.

David Roberts:   

The one other source of power you mention, which I thought was intriguing, is that everyone anticipates a huge explosion in the market for zero-carbon fuels derived from hydrogen. You anticipate the emergence of “electrostates” that dominate the production of hydrogen fuels. 

What everybody wants to see is a transition to green hydrogen, which is hydrogen derived from renewable energy. So you might look to states with copious renewable energy to get into that. But the easier and cheaper route into hydrogen is through so-called blue hydrogen, which is made from natural gas, with the emissions allegedly captured and buried. 

I worry about countries with copious natural gas getting into the blue hydrogen game, making plentiful, cheap, blue hydrogen, and then having both economic and political incentive to delay the transition to green hydrogen. How do you see all that playing out?

Jason Bordoff:  

I find this particular dynamic interesting, because you do have to bend your mind a little bit to think about the world, not today, but in the future. Hydrogen is a topic du jour; you couldn't walk five feet at the COP in Glasgow without tripping over a hydrogen display or a new hydrogen company. Because we know that we have to electrify a lot of things, but some things are going to be hard to electrify: steel and shipping, maybe some other things like heavy duty trucks, we'll see if batteries win there. 

Again, I'll just refer to the IEA net-zero scenario, which finds global energy-related trade in hydrogen ammonia going from almost zero today to about a third. We need a lot more. We need fuel — molecules as opposed to electrons — but then we need those fuels to be zero-carbon. That's where you talk about hydrogen and ammonia, both blue and green. 

A big part of what we were trying to do in this piece is deconstruct how an end state of net zero might look vs. the pathway to get there, and how it could be different and how it could be rocky. In zero-carbon fuels, it comes into play in at least two ways. 

One is, you're talking about the emergence and development of a fairly nascent market. The analogy we gave — and it's not perfect, it bears some resemblance — is the early days of the liquefied natural gas market in the 1960s and 70s. When it was just getting off the ground, you had a few dominant producers, a few dominant buyers, and there was a lot more leverage than you have today in a much more integrated and flexible market. There’s a lot of suppliers, a lot of buyers; if someone threatens to cut off your supply, you go buy it somewhere else. 

In the early days, Japan has said it's going to be a big buyer of green ammonia; well, what if Saudi Arabia or Chile or just one or two countries supply that? If your entire steel sector depends on shipments from that country, that's a lot of leverage, and we could see some geopolitical risk there. 

The second is the one you raise, which is the focus on blue hydrogen today. Of course, if we're going to do that — natural gas combined with carbon capture — you have to make sure the oversight is strict, the capture rates are high, the methane leaks are low. You have some states, Qatar and others, that we could see focus on gas as a way to create hydrogen and then either move that fuel around as the fuel, like ammonia, or maybe just build the production facilities to turn the gas into hydrogen ammonia — in which case you still might have a lot of global trade in gas, you're just doing different things with it, you're turning it into a fuel as opposed to putting it in your power sector. 

I do think over time green hydrogen is going to end up winning, just because the costs will come down dramatically. You're right that states may try to stand in the way. To make green hydrogen work, you need a lot of improvements in electrolyzer costs, improvements in efficiency, and then you need really, really cheap renewable energy, and you need a lot of it. You need a lot of electricity. There are only certain places in the world where you have that much cheap renewable electricity, and those could become some of the dominant states producing low-carbon fuels in the years to come.

David Roberts:

Those could be not your usual suspects, right? Like Chile or countries in Africa. They have a lot of sunlight down there.

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

We would be looking at different countries emerging as potentially big actors on this side. Chile is certainly one of them. You need the things that Jason mentioned in terms of having a lot of cheap, renewable energy, but you also need water. Not every place on the earth has those two things in great abundance.

Jason Bordoff:  

We talked about the resource curse. We do talk in the piece about tensions between developed and developing economies, which were on full display at the COP in Glasgow and I think will be next year at the one in Egypt. When you talk to African leaders, who are worried about the impacts of climate and about not getting the support from developed economies they need to transition — some would like to develop their own hydrocarbon resources and monetize them. So what are the sources of revenue that could come from zero carbon rather than oil and gas? You're identifying one, obviously: lots of good renewable energy resources to produce their own energy, which hopefully will grow as they become wealthier. But it's hard to export electricity as electrons; maybe you can export it as fuels. 

The other thing that's interesting is, we just saw this Climeworks project in Iceland, the carbon-removal project. Why Iceland? They have cheap, zero-carbon energy in geothermal, and they have good geologic storage capability. A lot of African countries have that too. 

I was wondering whether you could imagine a source of revenue for some of the developing economies in the world where they are basically building the manufacturing capacity to pull carbon dioxide out of the air. The largest emitters, who are responsible for this problem historically, are sending revenue to those countries — a wealth transfer from rich to poor countries, in part to remove carbon dioxide.

David Roberts:   

When most people think about the future, they imagine increasing globalization of trade in these resources. But there's also a section of your piece about trends and forces working against further globalization in the clean-energy space. One of them is, as you just mentioned, electricity.

The energy game is going to turn to electricity, mostly; electrification is going to be the primary tool against climate change. Every country is going to be trying to electrify, and thereby using more electricity, and therefore electricity is going to be a bigger part of this energy picture. 

As you note, electricity is not really a globally traded commodity. Very little electricity crosses country lines. I've been thinking about that a lot: as more and more of your energy processes are internal to your country, does that reduce the prominence of geopolitics? How do you see that playing out? There are some other trends working against globalization too, if you want to mention them.

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

We can imagine the 2050 world, the fully decarbonized world, being one where a lot of forces favor globalization, because of the need for robust trade in energy technologies and clean energy inputs. But in the interim, and to some extent looking even beyond that, there are several factors that are going to pull away from globalization. Electrification, as you mentioned, is one of the greatest ones. 

We have two statistics in the piece that underscore the point you made. In 2018, less than 3 percent of global electricity was traded across borders. That's compared to two-thirds of oil supplies in 2014. So there's this huge discrepancy. The reasons are simply that it's hard to transport electricity; it's hard to store it and it's hard to ship it.

Jason Bordoff:  

And it’s a much greater security risk, too. You can store oil in salt caverns, you can buy oil from a different supplier. If you depend on your neighboring country to send you electricity to keep the lights on, that country has a lot of power over you.

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

Right. But on the question about to what extent this is going to change things, I think there is going to be an element that's going to be more inward-looking. So if a country is providing more of its own energy sources from within its own borders, it won't have to be accounting for those shipments of oil and gas coming from afar. 

However, it does create some other new concerns. Those have a lot to do with cyber security and the manipulation of electricity grids. Some of these electricity grids will be all contained within countries, but others will cross borders — not in a global sense, but in a sense that may foster more regionalization. 

So if you think about the Northeast of the United States, we get a lot of our electricity from hydro sources in Canada. You can imagine small countries — think about some countries in Latin America — that if they're going to build electricity grids that are reliant on renewable energy, it probably makes sense for these grids to be large enough to serve more than one country. So suddenly, the politics of your neighbors and your relationship with your neighbors are going to be potentially even more important than they were in a world where you were getting your energy sources from halfway around the world. 

There will be a lot of effects like that. The other factors that we mentioned have to do with the protectionism that we've started to see go hand-in-hand with some clean-energy technologies. I gave the Indian example, but there are others. 

David Roberts:   

It's worth noting: lots of protectionism in the Build Back Better Act, right? The Biden administration is actively pursuing that.

Meghan O'Sullivan:  


Jason Bordoff:  

One other striking statistic, to the original question you framed: we were talking about some of the ways global energy-related trade shifts in the IEA net-zero scenario away from oil and gas to critical minerals or hydrogen. But the other finding is that total energy-related trade in a net-zero world is only 38 percent, a little more than a third, of what it would be if the world were to stay at its current trajectory.

It's not surprising, but it is striking that you have much more localized energy. The geopolitics of energy will wane in the long term for some reasons. There'll be new risks created too, but part of that is just electricity is inherently more local and less globally traded across borders. That's just going to reduce the importance of energy as a factor in geopolitics.

David Roberts:   

Let's talk about China. So vexing.

On the surface, one of the conclusions of your piece is that some countries are well-positioned to benefit from the clean energy transition and others are not, and two of the countries that are positioned to be winners are the US and China. You might think the US and China then have enormous incentive, being the two biggest economies in the world and the two potential winners here, to cooperate on accelerating this transition. There's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for both of them. Yet an outbreak of cooperation is not what we seem to be witnessing. 

China is such a black box to a lot of Americans, including me. What do you see as their posture on this? Why aren't they going faster? Why aren't they cooperating more? Why isn't it in their interest to go gangbusters after this?

Jason Bordoff:

I do think that China takes climate change seriously; there are not a lot of climate deniers in the Chinese government. At the same time, when climate ambition or environmental concerns generally — it's not just climate, it's local air pollution throughout China, which in some major cities has been getting better, partly because of less coal, partly because they've shifted coal to other parts of the country where there are fewer people, which doesn't help the climate — but when that comes into tension with economic growth, economic growth usually wins. 

So there is this dynamic playing out within China about how quickly they're going to move and what technologies they're going to use. Of course, they use half the world’s coal, so there's no solution without China to dealing with climate. It was encouraging to see their announcement about not financing coal plants overseas — hopefully that will prove to be true. 

One of the reasons for the difficulty in US-China cooperation on climate — even though there are many reasons; this is the ultimate tragedy-of-the-commons problem, it doesn't matter where a ton of carbon dioxide comes from; if one country does this, it's not going to matter if we don't work together — is whether you can segment the issue of climate from the rest of the US-China relationship, which is incredibly contentious and at its lowest point in many decades. 

That was the hope, and that was what John Kerry as climate envoy said the goal would be. It's unclear whether China wants to segment climate, whether it says, well, if we're going to act on climate, we have these other concerns with Taiwan, or human rights, or intellectual property, or anything else. 

It was encouraging to see at the 11th hour an agreement at the COP in Glasgow that the US and China would commit to work together. But the last year would have been better if they'd actually been working together and had something to show for it. Hopefully that will change moving forward. 

The other factor in this is, if some countries are not moving as quickly as one might hope — and by the way, the US may be in that category; we'll see what happens in Washington in the coming weeks and months — increasingly you are going to see certain countries or groups of countries like the European Union either encourage or try to compel other countries to do the same. 

The starting point for that, of course, is the European Union saying it's going to put carbon border adjustments in place. But it's easy to imagine those extending beyond a tool to level the playing field on imports of carbon-intensive products to your country, and turning into coercive measures not that dissimilar from sanctions. If you roll the clock forward and say where could this go, those could be applied against China or, if we don't get our act together, maybe against the US one day.

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

On the point about the bilateral relationship, I do think that the Biden administration, with the appointment of John Kerry, came to this issue thinking: it's so important, we're going to be able to deal with it separately. And the Chinese have resisted that pretty firmly — you're not going to be able to be aggressive on issues like Taiwan, the South China Seas, the Uyghurs, and then expect a kumbaya relationship on climate. 

That's been a disappointment to lots of us, in the sense we hoped that climate would be this island of cooperation in the otherwise contentious relationship, and also because many of us struggle to imagine how the world is going to successfully transition to a zero-carbon economy if there isn't cooperation between the US and China. 

David Roberts:   

Do you interpret that posture of China’s as a rational way for them to balance climate against their other interests? Or do you think that the rational course for China would be to cooperate on climate where there's cooperation available and segment these other issues? In other words, are they angry and that anger is extending to climate? Or are they, do you think, being rational on a bigger scale? 

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

I think it’s twofold. First, China's looking at this relationship and thinking, “where do we have leverage in this relationship?” One of the areas is in climate. The US is really, really keen for China to decarbonize, and even moreso in a Biden administration, because we all know if China doesn't do it, it doesn't really matter who else does it. 

So it would seem to def realist strategic thinking to say, “we're going to separate this area where we know we have a lot of leverage from all these other issues which we see as more existential.” They see Taiwan and other things as more existential to the survival of the Communist Party; climate is important, but not the same as Taiwan. So that is probably what has been going on.

I'm sure there are people within the Chinese government arguing that they need this cooperation as a strategic leveling point in the relationship. This has always been one of the reasons I've thought cooperation is important, even apart from what it means for the climate. If there's one area where two rivals can work together, it is helpful for all kinds of reasons for the rest of their relationship. 

Now we're all faced with the reality that we need to envision a successful global transition and not assume that US-China cooperation is going to underpin it. That doesn't mean there can't be some areas of cooperation — the efforts that produced what was produced in Glasgow were are all worth it — but the reality is, this is going to be an area of intense competition, like many other areas of competition between the US and China.

Trying to figure out how we can compete our way to success rather than compete our way to stalemate is the challenge going forward. That competition is going to be in technology and talent, inputs and markets and standards, it's going to be across the board. Maybe it can be a force for a quicker transition. I certainly hope so.

David Roberts:   

With a lot of these dynamics you're talking about, we're framing the long-term promise of a clean energy-based global energy economy vs. the short- to mid-term bumps and difficulties and frictions getting there. On that note, I have been thinking a lot about what it's going to look like if Trump and the Republicans take power again in 2024. 

We know enough now to have a pretty good sense of what their global posture is going to be. Trump loves Russia, loves autocrats, loves fossil fuels, and has a view of the energy transition which basically says those of us who still have oil and gas should exploit the hell out of it. 

It seems to me, in terms of solving the climate problem and the clean energy transition, Trump and Republicans taking power would result in the US basically being a rogue nation, an impediment on almost every front. I wonder if either of you have had the stomach to think about what that might look like and how to avoid the worst of it.

Jason Bordoff:  

I'm sure we've all thought about what the consequences of that would be. The overall future of the republic and our democratic institutions is perhaps even more concerning to me than what it would mean for climate change. But you're right, it would certainly be a massive setback for the United States on the global stage and put us in the category of countries that would be the target of these sorts of coercive measures. Others would reap many of the economic benefits of leading in clean-energy technology, trying to do the right thing by climate change. 

I don't want to sound Pollyanna-ish or naive, but I'm hopeful that increasingly you do see more on the Republican side of the aisle — and I wouldn't put Trump in this category, but others — who recognize this is a real problem, or recognize that climate change is real and are trying to talk about what the solutions might be, even if those solutions are certainly not at the scale of what they should be.

I guess I'll put it this way. Even in that scenario you talk about, the impacts of climate are going to continue to play out in years to come. I work with students every day on a campus, so does Meghan; I know how passionate they are about these issues, I know how much higher it is on their priority list in terms of what they care about when they go to the ballot box — even if elected leaders for periods of time don't demonstrate that. 

We have this huge gap now between ambition and reality when it comes to climate change. The ambition is getting stronger, not weaker — 2 degrees, well below 2, 1.5, driven by the science — but the reality is not changing: emissions are going up each and every year, pandemic aside. 

So that gap between ambition and reality has to reach a breaking point. One of the two has to give. Either we're going to wake up one day and say, “this was just too hard, we thought we could do it, but guess we'll just be fine with 3 degrees” or whatever it happens to be — I find that hard to believe, given what we are seeing every day and what we know we're going to see in the years to come, and that sense of urgency that particularly the younger generation has. 

Then the reality has to change. The longer you wait to get started, the more disruptive it has to be. That's why we try to talk about some of the economic and geopolitical implications of that disruption — we have to manage them, or you're going to lose support for moving as quickly as we need to.

David Roberts:   

Is there a power out there that could realistically step in if the US basically gives up its leadership role entirely? Does the EU have the geopolitical clout to be the center of leadership on the transition in the way that you would hope the US would be?

Jason Bordoff:  

The EU has been leading in many respects, and it's a pretty sizable amount of global emissions. So if it works collectively, it can do that. I think other countries, like perhaps China or others, might step in as well. 

I do want to say that even in the scenario you describe — which is in many respects a worst-case scenario, from my standpoint at least, for US politics and climate ambition — even if that does not happen, we're still pretty far behind the ball. 

If we pass Build Back Better in DC, which is uncertain right now, that will help a lot; it certainly doesn't get us all the way to being on a pathway to meet our NDCs. We saw just in the last couple of days, the Rhodium Group analysis and some others, emissions and how much they went up last year. So even if it’s not a Trump 2024 scenario, but a Republican more in a traditional model or a Democrat were to win, we're still not doing what we need to do. That has to be addressed too. That's going to catch up to us as well.

David Roberts:   

This is extraordinarily difficult to answer, but: in the long term, if you are viewing the clean energy transition from a purely foreign policy realist perspective — that is to say, you don’t care at all about global welfare, the interests of the US are your top concern — do you think the US is going to benefit from the clean-energy transition? It's pretty well-positioned in a fossil fuel world: it's a giant producer, it's got a giant military, it's got long-term relationships in the Middle East. If you're just trying to talk to a foreign policy realist, do you think the US will be better or worse off in the world in a clean-energy future?

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

As you said, it's a very hard question to answer, because it depends how many things we're going to set aside. But my impulse is that the US is better in a clean-energy future. 

I'm assuming, but you can tell me otherwise, that the counterfactual to your counterfactual would be a world where there is extreme climate change, and that in itself, as we already know, is going to produce all kinds of national security ramifications. One estimate by the World Bank, which is actually a couple of years old so I imagine the estimate has only gotten larger, is that in 2050, there'll be 143 million climate refugees. That is compared to the world today, where there's something like 25 million refugees. 

So we're talking about this exponential increase in just that one area, which is obviously consequential, but that would have huge implications for the US, its security, its borders, its well-being, its global relationships, all of those things. So I definitely think a world where America has been a leader in climate change is good in terms of peace and security if we're talking about imagining 2050 or beyond. 

But I also think, domestically, that it can be good for the United States. There is a piece which we started with, which maybe some people find an inconvenient truth, but in a clean-energy future, there's still some role for oil and gas. So position it in a way that this isn't necessarily a fossil fuel world vs. a clean energy world, that it's a world against carbon emissions. When we frame it like that, there's a lot more scope for people to be contributors to a solution rather than detractors. So there are lots of good reasons why this is in the interest of the United States.

David Roberts:   

I can definitely see why it's in our absolute interest; solving climate change alone is enough. I guess my question was more about our position and power relative to the rest of the world.

Jason Bordoff:  

Meghan made the most important point; it's hard to disconnect your question from a world that suffers the worst impacts of climate change. Would there be people who lose more than the US in the Global South? Yes, but it's going to be pretty painful for everyone, including the US. 

To the extent there's been discussion of national security and climate, it has to date often been about the national security impacts of not doing something about climate change, suffering the impacts of climate change, and then the view is, “if we get our act together and have a successful clean energy transition, geopolitics of energy will be a thing of the past.” That's what we were trying to address: actually, it could be rockier than you think. But certainly the consequences of inaction would be much worse. 

You're right, the US is one of the largest oil and gas producers in the world, it derives a lot of economic benefits from that in states like Texas and others. But it has good resources to lead in a clean-energy economy too. There's no reason the Gulf Coast can't be a leader in global supply of hydrogen and ammonia. We have some of the best capabilities for innovation and new technologies here in the US; there are going to be lots more companies at the scale of Tesla and much bigger. We talked about nuclear as another technology. I think the US is well-positioned in many.

Again, in our piece, we talked about the fact that part of dominance in clean energy is not going to come from the geologic trove you happen to have in the ground like oil and gas, but what you can manufacture cheaply, like a solar panel. There are countries that can manufacture things more cheaply than the US, but nonetheless, the US has a lot of assets, a lot of attributes, with good renewable energy resources, manufacturing resources, ports, geologic storage capability for carbon dioxide capture, that could position it to lead in a clean-energy economy too.

David Roberts:   

It might also be nice for the US to resume a pro-social leadership role in the world; that might also redound to our benefit in terms of gratitude and better relationships. 

Jason Bordoff:  

I wrote a piece on that in Foreign Policy a year or so ago, about the case for green industrial policy. Part of that was some of the economic benefits you could derive at home by leading early in these technologies, like bringing down the cost of green steel, things that have a high green premium today. 

But it is also a form of climate leadership, because it's just not reasonable to expect some of the poorer parts of the world that are growing their emissions at the fastest rate, like Southeast Asia, eventually Latin America, Africa, to pay three times as much for the concrete and steel they need to build cities. If we can build those industries here and we can help drive the cost down because we're investing early, then that also makes that technology more affordable to others. 

I do want to say, though, that again, we shouldn't be Pollyanna-ish about this. We should recognize that there are losers to the transition: not just nation-states, but workers and states and certain industries. We do need a just transition. That phrase means a lot of things, but included in that is, we do need to think about people who work in the oil and gas sector in the US, not to mention countries that are dependent on these revenues, making sure that there are public policies in place to help those communities transition and capture some of the benefits of the kind of economy we could grow in the future. That's really important. We don't take that seriously enough sometimes.

David Roberts:   

Well, thank you two so much for taking all this time. I really appreciate it. I have a feeling this topic will only get more and more prominent and of interest in coming years, so maybe we'll talk again in a few years and see how things are shaping up.

Meghan O'Sullivan:  

Excellent. Thank you very much, Dave. It's great to be on your show.

Jason Bordoff:  

Yes, I love listening to it, so it's great to be on. Thank you.

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Jan 19, 2022
Volts podcast: "Don't Look Up" director Adam McKay on the challenges of making movies about climate change
In this episode, writer and director Adam McKay reflects on the critical and audience reaction to his movie Don’t Look Up. We also talk about making an emotional connection to climate change, some of the other climate-related projects he’s working on (or at least thinking about), and why he ended the movie the way he did.

Full transcript of Volts podcast featuring Adam McKay, January 12, 2022

(PDF version)

David Roberts:

The film Don’t Look Up, available on Netflix as of late last month, has become something of a phenomenon. It has drawn wildly varying, often quite personal and intense, critical responses. Its critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes is just 55 percent.

But climate scientists loved it. I loved it. And the public loved it. Its audience score is 78 percent. In the week of December 27, it broke a Netflix record, with more than 152 million hours of streaming. As of this week, it the second biggest movie ever on the streaming service (just behind Red Notice, just ahead of Bird Box).

Audiences have ignored critics and embraced the film, which is not something you’d necessarily predict for a thinly veiled climate change allegory about the difficulty of grappling with bad news in today’s information environment, especially one with such a (spoiler alert) bleak ending.

It’s not the first successful curveball thrown by its writer and director, Adam McKay. McKay first made a name for himself as head writer on Saturday Night Live. In the early 2000s, he formed a production company with partner Will Ferrell and wrote and directed a string of beloved comedies, from 2004’s Anchorman through 2010’s The Other Guys.

But in 2015, he took a turn, writing and directing an adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short, about the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. It, too, was an unexpected hit, scoring McKay an Academy Award for adapted screenplay. His 2018 film Vice, about Dick Cheney, scored Oscar nominations for picture, director, and original screenplay.

He has demonstrated that, despite what the chattering class often seems to believe, audiences are hungry to confront real issues. All along, he has wanted to find a way to make a movie about climate change. With Don’t Look Up, he finally figured out how.

I’m delighted to get a chance to talk to him, to hear about what he makes of the movie’s critical reception, what his other ideas for climate movies are, and how he navigates the politics of speaking out on serious issues from inside Hollywood.

Welcome, Adam McKay, to Volts.

Adam McKay:  

Thank you, Mr. Roberts, for having me. I've been an admirer of your work for a long time, an avid reader of your writing, and it is a pleasure to be here.

David Roberts:   

Thanks, I'm an avid watcher of your movies. So we have a mutual fan club here.

[Don’t Look Up] has been out on Netflix for a couple of weeks, so we've had enough time now for you to gather some feedback. Let's start with the fact that this movie has gotten more streams than anything in Netflix history. Did I read that right? 

Adam McKay:  

It's a bit crazy. I was shocked by the response from audiences. Netflix uses viewing hours now as their metric — they used to use accounts that signed on, but viewing hours is a more accurate number — and we had the most amount of viewing hours in any single week of any release Netflix has ever put out. 

I understand we're about to pass Bird Box as the number two all-time movie [on Netflix], and we've got a chance to be number one, who knows. 

David Roberts:

Who's number one?

Adam McKay:

It's a movie called Red Notice that just came out. It stars The Rock, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot. If you had told me that our ridiculous-slash-dark climate satire would be contending with Ryan Reynolds, The Rock, and Gal Gadot in an action film, I would have said, “you're nuts.” So it's pretty fantastic. 

More importantly, the moment-to-moment online responses have been incredible — just seeing people excited by it, laughing, a lot of people moved by the ending of the movie, talking about crying, having emotional moments with it. So that's the thing that's been really exciting is seeing this worldwide response to this movie, and a lot of people having the response of, “oh my god, I'm not crazy.” Really cool.

David Roberts:   

Or at least, “we're crazy together.”

On the other hand, there's the critical response, which has been … all over the place. I don't know what I expected, but it's been such a bizarre range. What do you make so far of the critical response?

Adam McKay:  

I've never experienced anything like it. We test these movies, we screen them for audiences, and the last three screenings we had played great — people were laughing the whole way through, at the end there was great discussion. 

Then I saw those critical responses … and in fairness to the critics, I don't expect them to mirror a test audience. They look at it with different eyes. So with all due respect, but some of the reviews were so extreme and angry, and I was like, “whoa, what's going on here?”

But once again, they're critics; they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do. But it really took me back. I just didn't see it coming. You make movies, you get hit with bad reviews, so we were just like, “all right, I guess that's that.” 

Then when the movie came out, the responses were more like what we had experienced. We were like, “oh, good, we're not crazy.”

So it was strange. I've never experienced that kind of disconnect from the screening, watching the movie with people, to the critical response. It definitely was the most surprising I've seen. Once again, nothing but respect for critics. But yeah, it was very surprising and unusual, no question about it.

David Roberts:   

I'm sure you're a self-aware, neurotic guy; you probably have some self-criticisms about the movie. Did any of the criticisms strike home? 

Adam McKay:  

When you make a comedy, right away you subtract 20 points. It's just the way it goes with comedy. So I wasn't expecting us to be lifted on the critics’ shoulders and ticker tape to come down, because I've made plenty of comedies and that's just the way it goes. Which was fine, because we made a direct choice to have this be a comedy. 

I think the ones that surprised me — there weren't a lot, but there were about a dozen that were really angry, and accused the movie of being smug, and said, definitively, “this movie will not relate to people.” “It's too smug, it's too liberal.” “It's not liberal enough.” “It's playing to a small crowd.” Those were odd, because we hadn't experienced that at all with this movie, in any of the screenings we had done — that was never the slightest response we ever had. 

With something like our previous movie, Vice, we knew that was tricky. We knew that was not a fun story. So you know, I read reviews, and some of them were like, “yeah, you're not wrong.” But in this case, I was surprised by the timbre of the reviews, the anger of some of them — once again: not all, some. I have to say that over and over again. 

David Roberts:   

Some of them seemed like, “you think you're so smart. You're not so smart.” A lot of critical reviews struck me as, “here are the ways that I am smarter than this guy who tried to make this movie.” It was a weird critical response.

Adam McKay:  

It was strange, but I think what it points to, now that I've had some time to digest it, is a couple of basic things. Regardless if someone didn't like the movie or liked the movie, there's no question we're living in an incredibly strange time right now. We're looking at a straight shot to American democracy collapsing. The Democrats have face-planted and I don't see much standing in the way of a takeover from the extreme right. 

So that's going on, while this absolutely catastrophic, giant story of the collapse of the livable atmosphere, that is so mammoth it’s hard for even some scientists to fully get their head around, is happening at exactly the same time. It doesn't surprise me that people would be …

David Roberts:   

Don't forget the global pandemic. Toss that in there too.

Adam McKay:  

Oh my god. And by the way, towering, epic income inequality mixed right in.

So we have all this stuff going on, and the idea that people would have passionate responses to “how do you tell these stories?” makes sense. The idea that a lot of people would be on different wavelengths of awareness, or no awareness, or somewhat awareness on those stories we're talking about makes sense. 

By the way, once again, I respect that. I'm not saying that if someone didn't like the movie, it means they don't believe in climate change. Somehow, through the social media lens, it became that I somehow had said that, whereas I never said that. People were piling on — which by the way seems like something directly out of the movie, of course. So I think it makes sense. 

The reason we made the movie is there are varying degrees of relationships with the idea of the climate crisis, and that's one of the problems we're confronting. So now that I have a little distance from it, part of me is like, “why did I think our movie would be any different?” 

David Roberts:   

I could have told you what would happen. From my perspective, as somebody who's been in this game for a long time: you have this huge problem on your mind, you’re yelling and yelling, and no one else is paying attention but other climate people. So you just end up talking to other climate people. You end up arguing with other climate people, and forming teams and factions within the climate movement, because no one else is paying attention. I think that's become part of the culture of the climate movement: your number one priority is to shoot down this new climate advocate who thinks he's smart. I don't fully get it.

Adam McKay:  

When you see Chuck Schumer or some politician talk about the climate crisis, you can just tell from the way they're talking about it: oh, they don't get it. They don't really feel it in their bones. Someone hasn't communicated to them the depth and the urgency of this. 

Even when something happens like those crazy fires in Colorado, where there weren't even trees nearby, the wind blew the embers into the neighborhoods, and the videos are so upsetting; or Kentucky, where it looked like the devil had landed on earth with that massive tornado; Alaska breaking a heat record by 20 degrees; and on and on and on. You see these stories, and then you hear certain people in charge, or even in the media, talk about it, and you're like, “you're not feeling that in your bones.” 

But when you have a movie, you can't say that, because it sounds like you're saying, “you don't get the movie, so you don't care enough about the cause.” I'm like, “hey, I don't fucking care about the movie. Hate the movie. I don't give a shit.” We're not posturing like, “Oh, look how important we are.” We actually think this is a giant thing! All these actors came together — there are easier projects we could have done. You think when we're saying this is a big deal we're positioning ourselves for awards season? 

David Roberts:   

If you're pulling a money grab, maybe climate change is not your go-to. 

Adam McKay:  

I think that's me splitting hairs, though, because the bigger picture here is the crazy appetite of literally hundreds of millions of people, having this very visceral response, and it's fantastic. 

The other joy of the movie was seeing a lot of climate scientists say, “oh my god, I feel seen.” Peter Kalmus wrote a great piece where he's like, “oh, that's it. That's what I've been going through.” George Monbiot wrote a beautiful piece about the emotions he's been carrying.

So the overwhelming story here is, we're overjoyed with the response. We're overjoyed with the release.

At the same time … I already had sympathy for people like yourself, but now I think I get it in a much more personal way.

David Roberts:   

Also, sympathy for politicians trying to broach this. You get all these weird, intense, super-specific responses, I'm sure any politician who says these words publicly gets that same weird range of blowback. So I have some sympathy for them, too … though less.

Adam McKay:  

A little bit less. We did it in the movie. For years I've been like, “why isn't a senator or congressman going to a podium and crying or yelling?” George Monbiot did that, he cried on a show — there's clips all over the place of climate people getting emotional on shows. 

It's funny, because we wrote that in the movie, you’d think I would know that, but the response taught me how deep it is. The challenge of the communication of this is so titanic. How you break through the people framing it as self-interest. “Well, of course, Dave, you have a podcast you do, and you have your own news source, Volts, so of course you think it's a big deal.” It's like, no.

David Roberts:   

Let's go back in time a little bit. You've said in previous interviews that it was an IPCC report that originally grabbed you and shook you by the lapels and got you freaked out about this. That was 2015 or 2016? 

Adam McKay:  

It's a longer road than that. The Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth was the first time where I was like, “oh, wait a minute, that's no joke.” The famous moment where he shows the graph skyrocketing definitely hit me. I started talking about it, wondering what was going on. 

But, in those polling categories they use, where I went from the “somewhat concerned” range to the “very, very concerned” range was the IPCC report and several other reports that came out, culminating in me eventually not being able to sleep and my wife being like, “what's going on?” I'm like, ”this is bad. This is really, really, really bad.” 

I went through a little period where people around me were like, “hey, relax.” I was like, “no, it's really, really bad.” I was late to this incredibly un-fun party. I think you showed up with some onion dip around 2004, but I came in around there, and then every year since it's just been escalating.

Reading David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth — that's definitely what led me to the onramp of, “I’ve got to do a movie about this.”

David Roberts:   

One of the things I'm fascinated by, and one of the things I wrote about in my review, is the difficulty of making art about climate change, the difficulty of telling compelling stories about it in a way that will appeal to a mass audience. Presumably, once you got freaked out about it, you being a movie maker, you started thinking, “how can I get this into a movie?” You've talked about this a little bit, that you had a few ideas or premises come and go. I'm curious what some of your early thoughts were for how you could cram climate into a movie. Did you have other ideas that were developed at all? 

Adam McKay:  

Well, some of them I'm still going to do. I'm actually working on a show with HBO Max called Uninhabitable Earth. It's a Black Mirror-style show, anthology, hour-long episodes, dealing with the climate crisis.

David Roberts:   

But fictional, like Black Mirror

Adam McKay:  

A hundred percent, yeah. Each one will be an hour long, we'll have different directors and writers come in. I already have the first episode outlined. I'm behind — I was supposed to have the script written a month ago. So we're doing that. 

But I can tell you a couple of the ideas. The first idea I had — and who knows, I may still do it — was inspired by the movie Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes that came out in the 80s. I had read that Robert Towne’s initial draft of that script didn't have one single word spoken in it; it was all Tarzan with the apes. Then, of course, the studio made him add all this stuff where he went to England. I actually met Robert Towne about four years ago and I brought that up right away, because I found it really intriguing. 

The idea I had was that it’s 300, 400 years from now, and it's an area on Earth where the climate crisis has fully blossomed — we've gone to 3.5 to 4, sea increase, most of civilization is gone, but there are little outcroppings of people that have hung on.

We focus on one group that lives between a storm and a desert zone. They're in between an area where there's constant tornadoes and hurricanes and another area that's completely arid — let's say it used to be Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada. They're on a runoff area from the storm zone where water flows, and it's created a deep crevasse, and they live in little Anasazi-style cliff dwellings on the side of the crevasse. Because of the water, they have a little civilization of 600 or 700 people. You see the detritus from the former civilization: pieces, scraps of our old civilization that they've used in different ways. 

Then one day the water stops. We don't say it, but you see from the drawings and the songs that this happens occasionally. They’ve discovered that the person who can handle going through the river of water to find what clogged it, it's best if it's a 17-year-old boy, because they're a little more fearless, they're at peak physical health.

So they pick their 17-year-old boy, but there’s a girl who’s in love with him. He leaves to go on the mission, they give him a couple of tools, and she secrets away and follows him. 

We basically follow these two teenagers as they go through the storm zone, and we have different encounters with different pieces of our old civilization. One scene was where they have to get across this massive lake, and in the middle of the lake — I thought it was a cool image — you see a giant white pole sticking out. The boy goes under the water and you just see the city of Chicago there. It's the Sears Tower antenna sticking up. And they have to swim across this lake. 

So it's a lot of different episodic encounters. I don't want to give them away in case I ever do this … which, now that I'm telling you, it was pretty cool actually. It was a big 2 hour 40 minute, no-spoken-dialogue, epic film. That was the one I was going to go after.

Then I started doing the thing, which I know you probably think about a lot, where I'm like, “well, how is this going to play? How are people going to relate to this?” I kept thinking, “it's a little bit like a lot of dystopic sci-fi movies; there have been a lot of those made. Is it too easy to categorize it as that? Is the impact of it lost because it doesn't relate to our world now?”

David Roberts:   

In all those movies, the apocalypse has already happened, so you frequently don't learn much about it. They're rarely about the apocalypse itself.

Adam McKay:  

I had another idea that was about the carbon wars. Twenty years from now, most of the planet knows we have to shut down the carbon release, but there are holdouts. There are rogue nations, and corporations that are basically like nations, that are like, no. So there's a full-on war going on. I had a bunch of cool stuff for that. 

Then I had another idea that was more like a Twilight Zone episode about submarines from different nations fighting over claiming new land underneath the Arctic Circle that they can drill for oil in. One of the subs gets sunk and then frozen in the deep bottom underneath the Arctic. We go to 200 years later, and it's rescued, and some of the people are able to be defrosted using advanced tech. It's about them living in the future utopia that has solved these problems, which I thought was kind of cool. 

Yeah, I may still do that. These are all ideas that are still on the table. I don't think I'm giving away too much. But with each one, I just felt like, man, I don't know. 

When I talked to David Sirota, and he made the joke about how it's like a movie where an asteroid’s going to hit, like an Armageddon, except no one gives a shit, I just laughed, and I like that. I thought: laughter, it’s the best. It does a couple of things. It lets people have a common experience. In order to get a crowd laughing, you have to have a shared, agreed-upon reality. You can't really get 300, 400 people laughing without that agreed-upon reality. 

So I just thought, even my family members who are very right wing and friends of mine who are very progressive, everyone can agree we are living in absolutely unhinged times right now. I thought, maybe that's a good purchase point with this idea. So I ended up doing Don’t Look Up.

David Roberts:   

Did you just hear this joke, or this idea, of Sirota’s and go off completely on that? How much was he involved in the story writing? Or was he just the political consultant guy?

Adam McKay:  

With any idea, you like the idea to not leave you alone. So he said that, I was like, “oh my god, that's perfect, that's exactly what's going on,” and we laughed, and we kicked it around for a second and then I just moved on. I wasn't going to write it. It was a couple weeks later that I was like, wow, that idea keeps coming back to me – why? So I called Sirota and I was like, “Sirota, I think that's the idea.” 

I liked that it was simple. I liked that it wasn't too-clever clever, that it was a big enough entryway for a lot of people to get into it. I've described it as a Clark Kent-level disguise for climate; it's not really trying that hard, and I like that about it. It was big, and I'm a big fan of execution-based ideas. I don't always love big, clever premises. I like where they're kind of simple. 

So then I started banging it out, and I would check in with David. He was involved. I would run it by him, what the outline was. He came up with the idea for the movie within the movie, Total Devastation. He and I kicked around the idea of profitizing the comet and aborting the mission; that's when I knew we had a movie. I would show him each draft. David's a very funny, creative guy. He's a firebrand, but he also has a good pop sense, and he's written some scripts in the past. So he was pretty involved, actually, from the get-go.

David Roberts:   

Is it obvious it’s about climate change? Have you gotten a sense from the viewing public? Because I genuinely don't know. I'm so immersed in climate that of course I see everything through that lens. But if you just walk in as a normie with no background information on the movie, are people thinking “climate change” from this? Do you have any way of knowing?

Adam McKay:  

One thing I love to do is go on Twitter when the movie opens. You see the second-by-second tweeting. Granted, that's a skewed lens, because it's Twitter, it’s social media. But that, coupled with the testing process we do, the screening process, gives me a pretty good idea of how people are seeing it.

What I'm seeing, and what we learned in the screening process, is about 60 to 65 percent right away think climate crisis. Another 25, 35 percent — there's crossover between the two — think Covid, even though the script was written before Covid. 

But the great news is, everyone gets the idea of a society that's broken, corrupted, careerist, distracted, self-interested, all the different layers. I always say it’s David Simon's The Wire grab bag of societal dysfunctions. We tried to touch all those bases.

Everyone gets that. The way we did the movie was, we tried to find the universal dysfunctions across the political spectrum and not dial into the red vs. blue too much, although you can't avoid it. When you talk about the comet denial in the movie, clearly that's hitting the right wing. 

Overall, the people responding to it as a climate crisis allegory, I've been very happy. Someone tweeted the other day that she started watching it with her kids and within 10 minutes the kids were, “oh, this is like the climate.” I have a 20-year-old and a 16-year-old daughter, all of their friends — none of those people read interviews with me, none of those people read the reviews, and they all immediately were like, oh, climate, Covid, science being run over by capitalism and power.

I've been very, very happy with the way that's translated.

David Roberts:   

I think that’s part of the power of it: if you don't watch it through the climate lens, it works broadly as well. I was thinking yesterday that someone looking back 20 years from now at this movie might think, oh, this was about the coup. This was about the authoritarian takeover of America, which people were yelling about, and other people were ignoring them. It works eerily well for that as well. 

Adam McKay:  

To me, there are three giant, hard-to-emotionally-comprehend realities. (Intellectually, we get it.) The climate crisis is the big one. Then you have the coup, the impending collapse of American democracy. Then the third one, for me, is income inequality at a scale we just never talk about, that is breathtaking, worldwide. 

As far as size goes, income inequality is like Venus and the impending collapse of American democracy is like Mars. Then the climate crisis is like Jupiter plus Saturn plus maybe the Sun. There are five or six other ones too. There's the opioid epidemic, which we do nothing about. There's the gun death epidemic, which we do nothing about. 

Someone had said, “hey, relax on calling it a climate crisis, it's really just a snapshot of this time.” I thought, that's a fair point, because the movie is about our reaction to these very fixable crises. As complicated as the climate crisis is, we could deal with it if we wanted to. That's what's so incredibly frustrating. What makes the climate crisis so horrifying is that we do have technologies, we do have strategies that could seriously curb the horror show we're headed toward. 

So I think it's fair to say that the movie is more about this particular screwed-up moment that we're living in.

David Roberts:   

I've seen a lot of climate change documentaries and shows and art, and they're generally pretty bad. I went into this with very low expectations, terrified that you were going to get into albedo effect and biodiversity. I was braced. But it's much more about trying to communicate than it is about the details of the crisis itself. I thought the best part of the movie is the way it shows how the newsertainment blob has this capacity to digest everything and let nothing change it. No matter how loud you yell, it just absorbs it. 

You see it absorb Dr. Mindy, as he becomes unwittingly caught up in it. It just rejects Kate entirely. It has this ability to adapt and absorb and neuter everything. That's to me the most maddening, not just about the climate crisis, but about everything these days: everything is at the same pitch; everything is at the same volume. Everything is the same blur. It's impossible to make anything stick out, to stop or pause on anything or think about anything.

Adam McKay:  

The moment where DiCaprio as Dr. Mindy says on the TV show, “why does everything have to be so clever or likable? Sometimes we just need to be able to say things to each other.” That's it. It's an emotional movie. It's not a narratively complex movie, it's just the emotion of that.

That's exactly it: these formats, these shows, will not let you just say things. It always gets twisted and given a certain color or shading. 

David Roberts:   

It's sitting right there alongside the celebrity love affair — the same tone and same visuals — and the two blur together. I thought another clever part of the movie was that, it's not like Dr. Mindy or any of the protagonists are innocent of this.

One of my favorite moments is when Oglethorpe, the head of NASA — who, by the way, Rob Morgan is amazing; he's such an ace up your sleeve in this movie — is talking about Sting. It had nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but I loved that moment so much.

But at one point, the head of NASA sitting there watching and getting caught up in this celebrity relationship. He finds himself really hoping they'll stay together. He's not immune to it either. It absorbs you no matter what disposition you come to it with.

Adam McKay:  

It's impossible to resist. This is the one thing I've been saying throughout a lot of the press: the movie is not over anyone. I'm in the movie. I eat Taco Bell. I was way into Kyrie Irving returning to the Nets the other day. I'm rooting for Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck to an unhealthy level.

I mean, this stuff is all focus-grouped. It's algorithmically structured. It's like they took the science of slot machines and they've applied it to social media, advertising, the way we consume information. It's irresistible, and we're all part of it. 

But I think it's important to give ourselves a break to some degree on it. It’s going to get us. Life doesn't operate like an action movie where every waking second you're pointed toward the climate crisis, or gun violence, or income inequality, or the collapse of American democracy. There are moments where you're going to obsess about, why did the general charge you for snacks? That's why we have it in there.

David Roberts:   

I loved that bit too, by the way. It spoke to me.

Adam McKay:  

I love the reaction to it. People are trying to figure out why he did charge for the snacks. There are these theories that he represents the military industrial complex, he represents government. So people ask me, and I'm like, “I don't know.” They’re like, “yeah, but you wrote it.” I'm like, “no, I wrote it as that thing that sticks in your head that distracts you.” 

Comedy — the idea that we can laugh, we can be a little silly — took a lot of the edge off of it and opened it up. It's been cool. Once again, not everyone's going to laugh at the same thing. The funny thing with comedy is, everyone thinks their sense of humor is the gold standard. Which, by the way, I wouldn't change that. That's what's incredible about comedy. But it's funny when, some people love the comedy, some people are like “it's dumb,” and they're definitive about it. 

That's fine. That's how comedy goes. But it's been really cool: at Netflix, they do crazy amounts of data — pretty sure they know, statistically, within 96 percent, how I'm going to die — and they said that they've never seen a comedy play across this many countries. I think the movie was number one in 87 countries and top 10 in 90. For people that care about the climate and care about the state of the world, I think that's a very hopeful thing, that this current moment in the world is that universal. I've never experienced that before.

David Roberts:   

Some of the stuff in the movie seems pretty US-specific. The media stuff, at least; I guess I don't really know what media is like in Turkey or whatever, but it felt very America-specific. 

Adam McKay:  

Turns out, it's a lot like it is here. We're doing an adaptation of Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite as a miniseries, and he was saying that to me. He said, “I think you're going to be surprised by how well this plays around the world.” I was like, “really? You think so?” and he was like, “oh, yeah. The problems you have in the movie are everywhere.” And he was right. It's landed in a global way that I'd never anticipated.

David Roberts:   

For me as a moviegoer, this is the first time I've seen these particular dysfunctions put to fiction. They're very specific to our present moment and I've never seen anybody else take them on. I think that's why you're getting these moments of people saying, “oh my god, I feel seen,” because a lot of people are experiencing this. I just haven't seen it portrayed in another movie in quite the same way. 

Adam McKay:  

The models I used for this movie tend to be pretty small. One of my favorite movies of the last 20 years is The Death of Stalin, which I've seen seven times, but that played to a very particular crowd. It's brilliant. We weren't trying to emulate that; our movie is made for a much bigger audience, very consciously. But there's that. There's Thank You for Smoking, which once again, very small audience, brilliant movie, love it. Then you have to really go back to the 60s and 70s, back when movies like this would play big.

David Roberts:   

Network is the obvious predecessor, right? Network is all over this movie.

Adam McKay:  

That's probably my all-time favorite movie. There's movies to die for: the Buck Henry movie, which I love; Wag the Dog; Ace in the Hole; Dr. Strangelove is another obvious one. For anyone who wants to jump all over me, I'm not saying our movie’s as good as Dr. Strangelove, but as far as the style and sensibility of it, people forget how slapstick-y Dr. Strangelove was. So I think that's one to look at. 

But we haven't lived in a time where … I guess Mike Judge would be the guy: Office Space I worship, Idiocracy is brilliant. But neither one of those movies were even remotely commercially successful. They were found after they bombed in their release.

So it was definitely something we were going for on this larger scale. With all these actors, we were hoping to bring in a larger audience. It's been very cool seeing Ariana Grande fans watch this movie and respond to it.

David Roberts:   

I want to ask about the casting and about the crew. It’s A-listers all over the screen, constantly. To what extent did you present this to people as “hey, we want to make a socially conscious climate movie?” Was that part of the motivation of the actors joining up? 

Adam McKay:  

I never framed it like that. I always described the world we're living in right now — it's fun, every time I say it I try and use a different analogy, so what I've been saying lately is, “it's like a bouncy castle full of hyenas and long stem wine glasses.” That's what it's like to be alive right now.

So my pitch to all the actors was, “we're going to try and make a movie that's about this time that's never existed, that's crazy, and we want to try and make it funny, but we also want to make it emotionally moving as well. And yeah, it's about the climate crisis” — everyone knew that, they got that — “but hopefully it's going to have a big feeling to it for people.”

With our casting director, Francine Maisler, we hit a point where we had a bunch of big-name actors, and I remember Francine and I talked about it and she said, “isn't the point of this movie that you kind of go all the way? That the movie is a comment on what's going on, and the movie should have a breadth?” I said, “Yeah, I totally agree.” So usually we would have stopped, because you don't want the movie to be overwhelmed with stars and be distracting, but in this case, we felt like oh, no, that's kind of the point of the movie. 

That's when we got Timothée Chalamet to play the part of Yule, and Ariana Grande came in, and, I'm trying to remember the order, Cate Blanchett, Kid Cudi came on at that point. Normally we wouldn't have filled those roles with recognizable actors, but in this case we just said, let's drive straight through the locked gates.

David Roberts:   

The density of A-listers is so high that it does feel almost like a comment in and of itself. It feels like you're making a point. 

Adam McKay:  

We were joking in the edit, with my editor Hank Corwin, I was saying, “this movie is like a combination of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and Lars von Trier's Melancholia.” That was another part of the movie, too, was the style of how we cut it and put it together. We wanted it to feel kind of jumpy and assaultive, keeping you off balance — sort of like the world feels now, too. 

David Roberts:   

I love the editing. To me, most of the big laughs were from the editing. 

Adam McKay:  

Hank Corwin is one of the great editors of all time. He edited on JFK, he's edited Terrence Malick movies. The guy is a legend. It came from Big Short and Vice: even though those movies had funny things in them, they weren't full-on comedies. I kept telling Hank, “I think your style would work. I think this cut-in-the-middle-of-the-line, this breaking the rhythm of traditional editing, would work really well for comedy.” He's a funny, kind of sheepish, neurotic guy, and he's like, “I don't know. I've never cut a comedy,” and I'm like, “no, Hank, I think it's going to work.” But it's another element of the movie. For some people, they are thrown off by the style. I've seen people complain about it. Some people think it's sloppy unintentionally. 

David Roberts:   

No, every one of them is absolutely perfectly timed. It really gets at the feeling too — you get swept up in these super-intense, crazy moments and then it cuts to this quiet moment where they're trying to digest it afterwards, and you feel the same thing. You're like, “whoa, what was that? Why was I just so worked up?” It's that same whipsaw feeling of modern media.

Adam McKay:  

That was what we were going for, those montages and slices and images. Hank had the brilliant idea to play the natural world as a character in the movie. It's funny how in the process of making a movie you can actually learn things about the climate. That was something; like, oh, yeah, the natural world is a character in the story of the climate right now. It was amazing how well it fit with the movie, and that was all credit to Hank Corwin. That was his breakthrough idea.

David Roberts:   

There are these cuts of nature scenes, but they're not the conventional climate-documentary nature scenes of pastoral beauty; some of them are just weird. It's not necessarily natural beauty, it's “look at this weird fucked-up natural world.”

Adam McKay:  

The one that got me — he just cut this in, I didn't have it in the script — was the shot toward the end of the movie of the bee. Every time we would screen the movie, I would see that bee, I would get teary-eyed. It was like a punch in the gut to me, because the bee is so beautiful-looking, and perfectly constructed, and delicate. Frickin Hank, man, you got me with that bee shot.

David Roberts:   

Let's talk about the ending because this, I'm sure, is controversial. I guess we're doing spoilers. 

Adam McKay:  

Yeah, we should warn people, if you haven't seen it. Part of the impact of the movie is, most people do not know that ending is coming. Some people do, but most people don't imagine that we would ever end that way. So yep, big spoiler alert.


David Roberts:   

You watch a Hollywood movie, especially a big Hollywood movie with a bunch of stars, you are trained by a lifetime of movie viewing to expect the white horse at the end, to expect the good guys to pull it off. It inches right up to the ending and you're like, oh, well, I guess not!

This might be perverse, but I was delighted when I finally realized, “oh, he's not going to do it. Sweet. He's just going to let it play out.” How much did you think about that ending? How early did that come in? What do you think is the larger significance of the ending? What are you trying to say?

Adam McKay:  

I was just kicking around this idea — and part of it came from reading Sapiens by Yuval Harari — I thought the big idea of that book was when he posed that our ability to create myths and story is what separated Homo sapiens from Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. It’s a legitimately big idea. I know some people knock Yuval Harari, but that is a heavyweight idea. 

That got me thinking about what that means, that stories are that important. Obviously, we've talked about stories, and what they mean, and narratives, for years and years and years. The idea was, we've watched 10,000 movies — whether it's Marvel, James Bond, an action movie, Fast and The Furious, the comedies, the stuff I've done — and it's always a happy ending. You just know it's coming. You know Hollywood's going to give it to you. In some ways I started wondering, are we sitting back and watching the climate and expecting a happy ending? 

David Roberts:   

I really think that’s part of it. “Someone, somewhere, has got this. That's how things work, right?”

Adam McKay:  

DiCaprio told me a story where Elon Musk was at some conference and DiCaprio implored him, “dude, come on, you've got news sources” and Elon Musk is like, “the technology will solve it.” That is terrifying. I hear this from a lot of people: “They're going to figure it out. Don’t worry. They'll get it.” No, we're not. We're now at the point where we're definitively not. So I thought, there's a simple power to going straight down the chute with this ending and not having the white horse ride over the horizon line. 

I have never been more nervous for a screening in my entire life than the first time I screened this movie. There was a break in the pandemic, it was after the vaccine, and they said if everyone's vaccinated and they wear masks, we safely could do a screening. You have to remember, this is a big movie. It's Netflix, they're a big company, you have these big stars in the movie, and we're going to go to Orange County and we're going to test screen this movie that ends with — once again, spoiler alert — the entire planet dying. I was telling my wife and Hank, my editor, who during the period of putting the movie together I spent equal amounts of time with: “I've never been this nervous for a screening. This feels like we may have screwed up in a profound way.” 

They test it from zero to 100. The test is not a sciencep you use it as a loose guide rail. But in general, if you get like a 35, that's really bad. You want to be in the zone of high 50s to low 80s. Mike Judge actually told me that Idiocracy, the first time he screened it, he got a 20. A 20! I've never heard of that in my life. He told me how then the studio felt like they were protecting Judge and that's why they buried the movie. I was like, “oh really, that's what happened.” Maybe Spielberg and Scorsese are two people that could score a 20 on a movie and say, “I don't care, put it in 3,000 theaters anyway.” No one else on the planet has the clout to tell a studio, “I know we got a 20 but go with it.” There's just no one. 

So I'm driving to the screening and I'm like, “oh, shit, oh, shit.” But I love the ending. We've been watching it, we've screened it for ourselves, I think it's beautiful. We screen it … and it's the audience's favorite part of the movie. Universally. Unequivocally.

David Roberts:   

How does the whole test screening thing work? Do people write responses? 

Adam McKay:  

Everyone fills out a card. There's the 1-10 stuff, but then there's handwritten stuff. You do a focus group with 20 people afterward, they ask in-depth questions. Universally, no question about it, favorite part of the movie: the ending.

David Roberts:   

Did people say why it was so satisfying to them? Could they articulate it?

Adam McKay:  

Oh, yeah. The person who leads the focus group is an incredible woman who ran the focus group in Vice. (True story: they ran focus groups on the Iraq War.) She actually runs our focus groups, and she asked them, and they were very clear about it. They said, “we're sick of the bullshit endings.” It was an incredible moment where you realize, oh, of course, the audience is way smarter than we give them credit for. They're totally tuned in to what's going on in the world. They all expressed it. They talked about the climate crisis, about Covid, about all the shit going on in the world. They're fully in line with it. They're sick of constantly getting served fake happy endings.

Even though I've done silly comedies, I'm a big fan of never underestimating your audience. The Simpsons is an example of how you can be brilliantly stupid. Even when you're doing silly stuff, try and be top-of-your-intelligence silly. So I've always believed audiences (and voting blocs, and the population at large) can go way further than people think. They're way smarter than they get credit from the media, from the savvy crowd, the gatekeepers. But this even surprised me. Number one part of the movie, unequivocally, no doubt about it.

David Roberts:   

The whole movie is about us bullshitting each other. It would have been a unique sort of betrayal to have a happy ending to this particular movie.

Adam McKay:  

There was never one moment where I was going to do it. I just wanted to make sure to balance at the end — that it is a comedy, even though it's this very emotional ending — so I did shoot the joke that we have in the movie that's in the middle of the credits, and then we have a joke at the very end of the credits. I did think that was important too, because some people were really in tears. We had some very emotional responses to the ending. My wife went into her car and cried for 10 minutes after she saw it. Another agent saw the movie when we were first screening it and she was so emotional, she backed her car into a pole when she was leaving the screening. We've seen it in the online responses, a lot of people moved to serious tears. 

So I did think it was important that you don't want to be traumatized. You want to still be able to laugh, yet have those feelings. That was more the alchemy of the ending, how we were going to balance that. But there was never any chance that was ending any other way.

David Roberts:   

It’s sad in the context of the movie itself, but I also think part of what's hitting people is that it gives them permission to imagine that in the real world, there's no white horse. Sad endings are perfectly possible in the real world, and once you really start to think about that in the climate context … it's big. It's overwhelming. 

Adam McKay:  

I think it's essential to understanding the climate right now. I think you have to realize this could end poorly and in fact is on track right now to end poorly. That's hard for some people, and that's okay. I'm not saying they're wrong or their reaction to the movie is wrong. But I do think it's hard, and I think you have to realize that what we're seeing right now, it's not going well. It’s not going well at all.

David Roberts:   

Can you talk about the other ending, the mid-credits scene? Since we're spoiling things: the rich people escape the disaster on a spaceship, find another planet, and then are immediately consumed by the planet's denizens. I couldn't fully tell whether that was just a gag to prevent people from going home and hanging themselves, or if there was more significance, a point freighted in there. What's your take on that? 

Adam McKay:  

It started as the rich people just get away. The original scripted ending was that they land on that planet, and it's beautiful, and they're like, this is going to work out great. And I just ended it.

David Roberts:   

That's kind of what I hoped it would be. That's what I was rooting for, to be honest. 

Adam McKay:  

Well, we ended up improvising this beat. Meryl’s a great improviser, and she kept saying, “I want to know how I'm going to die.” So she put it in the scene. Then Mark Rylance and I said, well, maybe she gets eaten by a creature on a planet, and he's like, “oh, yeah, we don't know what it means.” We did it, and then it started making us laugh, that maybe we do see her get eaten by a Brontaroc, which was just a name we made up on the day. 

I was hoping it did both, because you see the pods of the rich people, and they're from oil companies and lobbying firms, and it's got this sting. They walk out and there's this beautiful planet, and then we have this joke, which some people are going to like, some people aren't. Judd Apatow was like, “oh my god, that's my favorite joke ever.” DiCaprio was a little bit like, “I don't know if I love that joke.” So once again, it's comedy. My wife was like, “can’t you just end with the world ending?” and I was like, “we actually tried it one time, and it was tough.” 

I like the idea of, you get the ending of the world ending, you get that beautiful Bon Iver song, you get to see the Earth undone, and that's an ending. Then we go for a little while longer and there's another little thing that happens, where the rich people get away with it, but then there's the big joke. I actually am a big fan of, you can have an ending and then have another ending, and whichever one you need, you can choose to lean into. Apatow was telling me he leaned in heavily to the president being eaten by the Brontaroc, he needed that. You didn't as much. My wife didn't, DiCaprio didn't.

David Roberts:   

The whole world ending has one sort of emotional tone; the world ending but all the rich fuckers who made it happen escaping untouched has a very different emotional complexion. I just thought that was an interesting move. If you find out the rich people die, then …

Adam McKay:  

… it’s a little happy. Yeah. There was another ending I had where the rich people then started saying, “let's get my house built,” and someone's like, “no, the pod with all the workers in it crashed, they're all dead,” and then the rich people started going, “I'll pay anyone a billion dollars who’ll build me a house,” and then another guy went, “I'll pay 5 billion,” someone else goes, “10 billion,” and we just pulled out on that. My friend Tom Scharpling liked that ending. 

As I'm talking to you I realize, you know what we could have done on Netflix, we could have done three different endings. Some cuts could have had the rich people with no one to work for them, another one could have had the Brontaroc, another one could have just had the rich people get away with it and that’s it. I wish I had thought of this: we could have told Netflix, “every third screening has this ending.” That would have been really cool, actually.

David Roberts:   

It makes a difference in the context of the movie, but it also makes a big difference in how you think climate change is going to play out, if rich people can survive it.

Adam McKay:  

They're not going to get away. No way. This idea that they're going to go in bunkers or go to another planet, it’s ludicrous. You saw it when we had the fires here in LA, I think one of Murdoch's homes partially burnt down. They aren’t getting away from this. If we imagine the climate crisis going to its worst degree, maybe you could see some people clinging to the poles to survive. It's debatable if it's an extinction-level event, but it is possible that it’s an extinction-level event. But if people do survive, it's going to be grim. I think the money can help for the first couple of waves.

This is me, by the way, just completely theorizing. There's no basis to what I'm saying, let me be very clear about that. I don’t know. But we can kind of guess, right? We know that the whole center of the earth becomes totally uninhabitable from extreme heat and wet bulb events. We know that there'll probably be perpetual giant fires where hundreds of thousands of people die from smoke inhalation, drought, famine, mass migrations, wars, even the poles are going to be nasty. They'll just have to come up with different categories for hurricanes. There'll be Category 10 hurricanes. I was talking to someone online who was saying it is possible we could have a perpetual storm on Earth if this thing really does hit 3-4 degrees Celsius increase.

David Roberts:   

My even more dystopic possibility is that we half solve it, so it gets bad but not apocalyptic, and bad-but-not-apocalyptic will probably just mean exacerbating existing inequalities. It'll mean an exaggerated, even more grim version of global oligarchy.

Adam McKay:  

Oh, that's bad. You might be right. We talk about this nonstop, my group of friends who are equally as freaked out as I am and that can talk about it, and one of the things I always say is, the saving grace may be that our civilization collapses, meaning we don't produce more carbon dioxide; that actually, civilization collapsing stops a lot of the emissions. 

That's a hellish proposition, because that's closer to what you're talking about; we’re at 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius increase, and we start to see systemic collapse around the planet, wars, refugees, fire, all that kind of stuff, but a billion people have survived and the inequality is more like The Road Warrior. I'm not being flip with that comparison. Literally, that could happen.

David Roberts:   

Related to this point, one of the critical responses to the movie has been that it’s not an accurate analogy for climate change. Climate’s not a succeed or fail, one or the other proposition: there are all these degrees in between, we're going to land somewhere in the middle. There's an emotional satisfaction to a comet, that either hits or doesn't, that we're never going to get out of climate change. A) Do you agree with that, and b) do you think that's relevant to the quality of the movie? Did you feel like you were trying to do an exact analogy to climate change? 

Adam McKay:  

God, no. Allegories are a sleight of hand. The prodigal son coming back doesn't exactly match the massive emotional bandwidth of loving forgiveness. “Well, the brother was kind of a dick, whereas loving forgiveness knows no bounds and judgment, so I don't know if the prodigal son was the exact allegory.” No allegory is a perfect fit. 

So yeah, there's a little cheat that we did: we took away the hyper-object of global warming, which is so vast and timeless and slow-moving, and we put in a very concrete event, a comet. So no, it's not a precise match at all. The real story of the movie is that the hyper-object, the hard-to-categorize force, is our reaction to the comet. I would say that's the important story when it comes to the climate crisis. It's about our reaction to the climate crisis, which is pretty horrific to this point, and kind of a disaster.

David Roberts:   

You’ve said in previous interviews that lately you've gotten a little bit more optimistic about the science and tech side of this, and I think that's for good reason. I feel the same way. The leaps and bounds being made now in clean technologies are amazing; if clean energy just keeps getting cheaper as fast as it's going now, it's going to be dirt cheap in five to 10 years, and utopia awaits.

But then you look at this other track of American democracy falling apart, income inequality, etc. … you could tell completely different narratives about where we are in history and where we're going. 

How do you reconcile the two: the positive tech story about climate change and the total flaming-bag-of-shit-dysfunction political story? If you wanted to make a movie about 10 or 15 or 20 years from now, what does it look like? Do you have the slightest fucking clue?

Adam McKay:  

Stuff can change so fast. The example I always use, and it's a common one, is that I remember being with my kids when they were young, in the car, and they were like, “Dad, why is gay marriage illegal?” because they had friends at school who had same-sex parents. I was like, “you know, it's weird. Some people are hung up on it. I don't know why they care.” 

“Is it ever going to be legal?” 

“You know, it doesn't look great politically.” 

Then three months later, it was legal, and my kids were like, “you said!” and I was like, “I'm as shocked as you. I don't know what happened. Joe Biden misspoke and then … Obama couldn’t back off? I think that's what just made gay marriage. And it turns out, people were way cooler with it than most people thought.” So I mean, that was a crazy rate of change. 

I'm working with a group out of UCLA that's got some pretty serious breakthroughs on removing carbon dioxide from the ocean, and it's exciting stuff. They're nowhere near the scale to do it, they'll need like a trillion dollars to really make a dent. But is it possible? Technology doesn't advance in a linear way, and a lot of times happens in spurts. So it's very possible you and I could be talking in a year or two and we could be like, “holy shit, those guys from Carnegie Mellon, what do you know, they had that breakthrough, and there was someone in the Pentagon who was smart enough to go, ‘hey, let's move $100 billion from this B-52 bomber thing and do this,’ and we're actually rolling back some carbon dioxide.” 

That could happen. But if I had to bet, the will and action and awareness part of it is such a train wreck right now.

David Roberts:   

Sure. What if that happens and Donald Trump is president and Republicans are in charge of both houses of Congress? Would it even make a difference if there was a tech breakthrough in the woods and no one heard?

Adam McKay:  

One hundred percent. The US just suddenly becomes not a player in solving the climate crisis. All eyes go to Europe and China, and the US is just out of the picture; we're the bad guys. I'm happy with what's happening down in Brazil and with Chile, that we're starting to see some progressive leaders step in down there, so hopefully, they could be a part of it, too. And is it okay if some other countries get on the stick? The Chinese are not dumb. They know what's coming. Europe clearly knows what's coming. 

But you're right, if the Republicans take over, which it looks like they're going to, because the Democrats have just completely face-planted — in three years, if the Democrats haven't done anything and the Republicans stroll in, they're not giving power back. We know what they're doing, and that may be all she wrote for the US.

But then you may see some private industry. So that's the part that I'm optimistic about. I also am just a big believer in pain. Pain got me to lose 40 pounds. I had a very minor heart attack. Pain got me to stop smoking regularly; I have to confess I still cheat and have one or two on occasion. But that was pain, and I do think there's some pain coming our way with this stuff. There are fires we can't even imagine, storms we can't even imagine. That could shock us into waking up very quickly, in like a three-week period of time.

So I guess I just, in a really long-winded way, told you I have no idea.

David Roberts:   

It's never been easy to predict the future, but it feels so incredibly opaque now. I don't even know the basic valence. Dystopia or utopia or somewhere in between, I couldn’t begin.

Adam McKay:  

I like your guess of somewhere in between. Man, if we solve some of this and it becomes just crazy robber baron 3.0, like an 1880s Gilded Age, I'm going to be frickin’ pissed. That's just the grossest outcome, and you're probably right, they're going to try and swing it that way. I don't think you're wrong. 

David Roberts:   

I feel like this is the history of America: when things get so bad that the working class is about to revolt or go communist, they'll give a little; they'll do a New Deal or whatever, just enough to keep the basic system in place. That's what I could envision happening on a large scale here.

Adam McKay:  

I think that's a good guess. Do you remember the Arab Spring, when those revolutions were spreading? There's a story as part of that that not enough people talk about, that Saudi Arabia just cut checks for 25 grand for everyone in their country and handed them out, and people were like, cool, and they didn't have a revolution.

David Roberts:   

Is it that far off from what we did with the Covid relief bill?

Adam McKay:  

No. I just wish goddamn Biden would do it with student debt. It's the only button he's got left to push, and they just won't do it. They will not do it.

David Roberts:   

I want them to get the comet’s-hitting-in-2024 mindset. We need to spend all the money we can, as fast as possible. 

Adam McKay:  

All of DC is designed not to let that mindset happen. Every restaurant hallway, every bit of muzak playing is like, “don't let anyone have that mindset.” But we'll see.

David Roberts:   

Let me ask you about Hollywood. I'm sure poor Leo DiCaprio probably has answered this question 4 zillion times — it's obligatory, you're asked every time you are interviewed at this point — but there will be some people who say, “the last thing I want is a bunch of rich, Hollywood, carbon-intensive-lifestyle, private-plane-flying, etc. trying to act like they care about climate change. If they cared, they would sell their yacht or whatever.” How do you process all of that? How do you think about that general critique?

Adam McKay:  

People think of Hollywood as some bizarre foreign country. I wake up every morning, I swim in my pool with my three dolphins, I get in my helicopter, I fly to my solid glass pyramid office.

No. I would say this: if it's a good faith argument, yeah, give us shit. I know Leo doesn't fly private anymore. We all are as green as we can possibly be, making as much noise as we can. I'm trying to do a bunch of different things; I'm not going to list them because that just sounds pathetic. 

If someone's saying that to just avoid the subject, then fuck that. That's bullshit. But if someone's really saying, “hey, you hypocrites, what about this? What about this?” I'm here for it. Give us shit. Is there something we can be doing better? Is there something we can be more aware of? I think we have to get used to that being a part of how we talk to each other, without being defensive. If you told me right now, “hey, you guys never have done this with your movie shoots, but you could do X, Y, and Z,” I think I've got to be like, “oh, shit, I never thought of that. You're totally right.”

So I think it's good when it's done in good faith. When it's done in bad faith as a way to just shuck off the whole discussion, then I roll my eyes at it.

David Roberts:   

I think it's the latter most of the time, but who knows? 

Adam McKay:  

I'm playing a little bit dumb because I do go on social media and 90 percent of the time, it's the latter. No question about it.

David Roberts:   

In terms of climate’s presence in your own life, do you talk to your kids about it? I have an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old. All my life I've been talking about 2030, 2040, 2050, this or that has to happen. They're going to be alive during those years, in the prime of their friggin’ lives. I have gone back and forth about how to think about that a million times. How do you think about that? Do you talk to your daughters about it? How do they process it?

Adam McKay:  

Yeah, we do. They saw the movie, obviously. My older daughter was very emotional about it. Younger daughter loved it. It was emotional. 

David Roberts:   

If I made a work of art that my 18-year-old showed open emotion in response to, I’d be parading around the fucking streets like a king.

Adam McKay:  

I don't think they've ever had a reaction to anything I've done like this. Going through the years, they’ve mostly tolerated what I've done. Though they discovered the early comedies, their friends like the early comedies, so they love Stepbrothers and Anchorman and stuff.

But the way I talk to them is mostly the way we're talking right now. What I say is, “this is very, very serious. It's the biggest issue of our lifetime. It's huge. It's no joke. It's not like a normal issue, it's a 1,000-times issue. However, we have technology and science, and people can do amazing stuff when they have the will and the direction. So don't get hopeless about it.” 

During the pandemic, we couldn't go in our backyard because it was filled with smoke from the Pasadena fires. Their aunt lived up in Oregon, she had to evacuate her house because the AQI was around 550. So they've already encountered this stuff. It's already part of their life. I just tell them, “you don't have to solve it all by yourself. Just find a couple little things you can do. Make sure to talk about it, make sure to feel it in your bones, and you'll find your way you can pitch in, and we're going to do what we can do.” 

I think the trick is not to freak out. Even though many times I am fully freaking out, my mantra is just, we can only do what we can do. So if I ever get too freaked out, I remind them, or remind myself, we can only do what we can do. That instantly calms me down. 

I make movies, so we made a movie. We have probably more money than we should, because our society is broken and screwed up, so I'm going to try and use some of that money to do some other stuff. We'll make little personal choices. We'll talk about it. That's what we can do. A lot of it's about emotional tone and providing the right perspective and sense of the moment. But it's tricky, no question about it.

David Roberts:   

When you pivoted and did The Big Short, you out of nowhere went from comedies that are dumb in a smart way to something that's smart in a smart way and about an issue of substance. I think you baffled people; a lot of people thought that was going to fall on its face, and it didn't, and you've kept at it, and you've kept succeeding at it. 

So I'm just wondering, what's the temperature among your peers in Hollywood about making more of an effort to engage with social issues? It's so fraught, for all the reasons we've discussed, but you're making a go of it and succeeding. Is anybody going to follow along? Have you talked to other filmmakers about this?

Adam McKay:  

One of the coolest things I heard as a reaction to this was that a couple of other filmmakers were like, “hey, can I talk to you about an idea that I have?” I actually did get some of that. I think they saw, if I can take the right crosses that came with those reviews and the savaging I took online and then in the end have the movie find an audience like it did, I think they're like, “shit, if he can do that, we can do that.” 

Vice, when all is said and done, will probably break even, but Big Short made a nice chunk of change. Succession — obviously very different, because Jesse Armstrong writes that, but still a show I direct the pilot, produce on — that's a very different tone. We did Q: Into the Storm, the docuseries which was very successful, got very high ratings for HBO. 

So I think what people are starting to see is, you can make money doing this. It's not some altruistic thing. Audiences want to hear what's going on, and it's a good thing — you can talk to people about the real stuff that's happening and they're excited by it. So it doesn't have to be altruistic, it doesn't have to be pure business, there is this nice middle ground. 

Yeah, for the first time, three people actively reached out to me that want to talk about ideas. I think it's bound to happen. You can't live in the world we're living in right now and pretend it's not going on. I think you're going to see more and more people going for it, whether it's in a subtle way, an overt way, a funny way, a horror movie. There are a thousand different ways to tell the story of right now, and I think we're going to see more of it.

David Roberts:   

I hope we don't end up in five years thinking, “oh, man, I wish we hadn't told all those filmmakers to talk about the social issues. What were we thinking?” I often think that when people start talking about climate change: “oh, man, I miss when people weren't talking about climate change.”

Adam McKay:  

Weren’t those good days? The year I always say is 1997. Do you remember 1997? It just felt like no one gave a shit about anything. I know Clinton kind of sucked, there was stuff on the horizon, the Republicans were starting to get a little crazy, there was bad shit, but oh my god, it felt like my seventh birthday party, 1997. Oh, I miss it.

David Roberts:   

Final question, and I'm 75 percent serious about this: Have you thought about making a movie about a reactionary movement that takes hold in a democracy and grows and exploits weaknesses in media and institutions to eventually take over and institute a one-party autocratic state? Just spitballing here.

Adam McKay:  

I have my idea for my next movie, and it's not that, but it's a close neighbor of what you just said. It's about two blocks up and one block over. I will tell you this: from doing this movie and from doing Vice, The Big Short, Succession, and Q: Into the Storm, it does seem to always come back to big loads of dirty money clogging up our system. If Don't Look Up, Vice, and The Big Short were about heart attacks, dirty money is the plaque. It's what's blocking the arteries. 

I think I have an idea that's kind of funny and interesting; I haven't started writing yet, but I'm interested in it. As far as the autocratic rule, we have a bunch of projects at our company that are in development that circle around and get near that. We're constantly looking for ways to play with that.

David Roberts:   

My other topic I want somebody to take on, that I have also been thinking is un-fictionalize-able: A lot of the problems in our country now are because the electoral college is fucked up, and Senate representation is skewed, and gerrymandering; all these very boring, procedural, structural, institutional issues are playing a huge role in this minority being able to basically control the country. How on earth do you get the American movie public excited about filibusters? 

Adam McKay:  

We're doing a movie called Rat Fucked, starring Paul Dano, that's about how they gerrymandered America — the story of who came up with the idea. We've sold that, that's happening at Hulu. Another idea I'm thinking of gets into a lot of that procedural stuff, and I think I’ve found a way to wrap it in a fun bow. That stuff is wildly interesting. I think it's just how it’s told to the public; it's presented as boring. 

David Roberts:   

What you need is Margot Robbie in a bath talking about filibusters.

Adam McKay:  

We need the “Margot Robbie in a bubble bath” channel where all the news is read. But yeah, we are working on one about gerrymandering that's actually already sold and set up, and then this other one gets into a lot of that procedural stuff. That's exactly why we started this company, Hyperobject Industries. I believe that stuff is interesting, and that there is a way to do it. We have a lot of projects circling around exactly what you're talking about.

David Roberts:   

Awesome. Well, I will look forward to those. It’s a good time for geeks in the movie world.

Adam McKay:  

Absolutely. We've always been pretty comfortable in the movie world. Movie world’s always been kind to geeks.

David Roberts:   

Yes, but usually geeks trying to appeal to the vaguely imagined jocks of their youth. Now they're just straightforwardly appealing to one another.

Adam McKay:  

I do have to tell you, full disclosure, I've been lifting weights this entire interview. 

David Roberts:

Are you getting swole?

Adam McKay:

I'm so swole. I'm all swoled up, bro.

David Roberts:   

It's time to go in front of the camera.

Adam McKay:  

Well, man, thanks for having me on. This was a pleasure. I can't believe this is the first time. Like I said, I've been reading your stuff and following you for a long time. Thank you for everything you do.

David Roberts:   

Well, likewise, thanks for making this movie. Wow, did it stir things up. You achieved that.

Adam McKay:  

It did. I hope it continues to.

Honest to god, that was maybe the most enjoyable conversation I've had during the entire press run of this. I'm not kidding. I needed that badly. My soul needed that.

David Roberts:   

I'm sure you've been going through it. Good luck enduring the rest of it.

Adam McKay:  

Absolutely, man. Be well.

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Jan 12, 2022
Climate legislation and Congress: the current state of play
My last substantial post of last year was a summary of where things stand with Congress and climate. I ended by reiterating my confidence that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who has been such an impediment throughout the process, would find his way to supporting some form of the Build Back Better Act, the Democrats’ last and only hope of taking substantial action on climate change.

Mere days later, Manchin threw up his hands and said, “I can’t get there — this is a No on this legislation.” So much for that prediction.

However! As we head into 2022, there are signs that Manchin’s tantrum was less apocalyptic than it appeared.

His objection to BBB — which, to be fair, was his objection for months; the Democrats just thought they could eventually get through to him — is that the bill contains a bunch of new programs that are only funded for a year, or a few years, and since they will inevitably be renewed (according to Manchin), the bill’s price tag is deceptive. He wants to include only programs that are funded for the full 10-year term of the bill, under the artificial budget cap he himself imposed.

That would mean stripping a number of popular programs out of the bill. The process blew up because the other Democrats refused to believe that he was serious about doing so much damage to the legislation. However, as Eric Levitz writes in New York magazine, as anachronistic, stupid, and cruel as Manchin’s views are, he’s not willing to move on them. For any bill to pass, it will have to conform.

Insofar as there’s any good news in this young year, it is that Manchin seems positively disposed toward the climate portions of the bill. “The climate thing is one that we probably can come to an agreement much easier than anything else,” he told reporters on Tuesday. Other Democrats have expressed confidence that the climate portion of the bill will survive in some form.

This is in part because Manchin already stripped the bill of any sticks, anything that might penalize fossil fuels (most notably the Clean Electricity Performance Program). What’s left are $555 billion worth of carrots: grants, tax breaks, and other money showered on every form of clean energy, from R&D through demonstration projects through commercialization — very much including carbon capture at fossil fuel power plants, a Manchin fave. “There’s a lot of good things in there,” he said.

Somewhat oddly, Manchin also supports some of the reforms to federal oil and gas leasing that are in the House version of the BBB.

All of this seems to at least imply that he’s still open to some kind of bill. What he appears to want is a version of the BBB that, at a minimum, strips out the Child Tax Credit — which can not possibly fit under his cap on spending ($1.75 trillion), at least not when funded for 10 years, at least not if the bill is to contain anything else.

The Child Tax Credit kept millions of children out of poverty last year and could potentially cut child poverty by almost half. It ran out at the end of the year, and now at least 50,000 children in West Virginia stand to slip back into poverty. Manchin is choosing to allow millions of children to suffer a little more based on vague and ill-founded worries about inflation. It’s ghoulish and unforgivable.

Nonetheless, it is what it is, so Democrats will need to put together a diminished form of the BBB that protects the climate provisions. They still need to try; the stakes are too high not to. “If they can’t pull this off, then we failed,” John Podesta told The New York Times. “The country has failed the climate test.”

There are no signs of any such efforts thus far. “There is no negotiation going on at this time,” Manchin said on Tuesday, the same day Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said, “I've talked to Sen. Manchin numerous times during the break.” Oof.

Still, also on Tuesday, a group of senators expressed renewed determination to get the climate portions of the bill over the finish line. "We're going to get this done, come hell or high water,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), “and right now, we have both hell and high water."

"Frustration isn't a strategy,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN), in what I can only interpret as a direct attack on yours truly. “We have to get it done."

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The senators even made a point of noting that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who has been such a problem on other parts of the bill, is “nothing but supportive of the climate provisions here," as Schatz put it.

Schumer, as usual, seems determined to press on. He said, “I intend to hold a vote in the Senate on BBB, and we’ll keep voting until we get a bill passed.” Good, I guess?

Meanwhile, what Senate Dems are actually moving forward on is some kind of filibuster reform or exemption intended to enable them to pass a voting rights bill without Republicans. In a letter to colleagues, Schumer said:

Over the coming weeks, the Senate will once again consider how to perfect this union and confront the historic challenges facing our democracy. We hope our Republican colleagues change course and work with us. But if they do not, the Senate will debate and consider changes to Senate rules on or before January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Here, again, Schumer seems confident he can move Manchin and Sinema, despite no sign from either that they are willing to budge. "Anytime there's a carve out, you eat the whole turkey,” said Manchin. He said he would rather exhaust his ability to negotiate with Republicans, and from all indications, his capacity to negotiate with Republicans is infinite.

Meanwhile, there’s been no word about any of this from Sinema, who was last on record opposing any changes to the filibuster.

At least for now, there’s no reason to think that this isn’t just wheel-spinning symbolism, which is going to delay moving forward on BBB.

On the other hand, the fate of the republic is at stake, so maybe a little symbolism is warranted. If Manchin and Sinema think the filibuster is more important than the right of every American to vote, let them say so affirmatively and publicly, on the record.

On the other other hand, the fate of the atmosphere is also at stake, and if Democrats dump all over Manchin for blocking filibuster reform, it might piss him off and make him even more recalcitrant on BBB.

In the coming weeks and months, there will be votes on both these bills and we will have a much better sense of where things stand. The path to (some measure of) success, on climate or much of anything else, is narrow and getting narrower, but it isn’t closed off yet.

In the meantime, we begin the year where we ended the last one: in deep uncertainty and anxiety, as matters of unfathomable significance are decided by a small handful of vain old white guys. So much fun.

Anyway, I apologize to the political obsessives on the list — I suspect there are quite a few of you — if you knew all this stuff already. I thought it would be worth getting everyone on the same page, with a clear view of the stakes.

I’ll be back next week with some wonkery and a very fun podcast guest.

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Jan 07, 2022
Volts podcast: how the left can suck less at messaging, with Anat Shenker-Osorio
In this episode, messaging expert Anat Shenker-Osorio — a researcher, campaigner, author, and speaker — discusses the elements of an effective message, what’s required to spread messages, and the right way to test whether they’re working. We also get into the best way to craft climate messages and the current debate over “popularism.”

Full transcript of Volts podcast featuring Anat Shenker-Osorio, December 20, 2021

(PDF version)

David Roberts:

People involved with politics are obsessed with messaging: what to say, and how to say it, to sway voters or politicians to their side.

Everyone has strong opinions about messaging, but almost everyone’s opinions are drawn from their personal experiences, preferences, and priors, which are rarely reliable guides to what works in practice.

There are, however, people down in the trenches doing real message testing in the field, as part of real grassroots campaigns, like Anat Shenker-Osorio, head of ASO Communications and author of the book Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy. She helps campaigns communicate for a living, and she discusses the lessons learned from successful campaigns on her podcast Words to Win By.

Shenker-Osorio is a co-founder of the Race-Class Narrative project, which is developing a coherent response to America’s familiar racial dog-whistle politics. She has advised several environmental campaigns and done a lot of thinking about the right way to message around climate change, as well as its place in the race-class narrative.

As long-time readers know, I have a love-hate relationship with the subject of messaging, so I’m happy to dig in with Anat to figure out what we really know about good and bad message testing, the elements of a good message, how to actually get messages to voters, and how to talk about climate change in a compelling way.

Without further ado, welcome, Anat, to Volts. Thanks for coming on.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

Thanks for having me.

David Roberts:   

I'm excited to talk about messaging. I want to start with a distinction. The side of messaging that people think about most often is word selection: choosing your words, slogans, catchphrases, and verbiage for your ads. But the other side of messaging is about the infrastructure that allows you to get the messages you've developed to voters: the spokespeople, institutions, media outlets, social media pages, civic groups, all the mechanisms that allow those messages to reach their intended audience. 

It's always seemed to me that it is on this latter side of messaging where the left is really getting its ass kicked. It seems like the right has a robust ecosystem that's very coordinated and capable. If they have a new message — you know, “Critical race theory is taking over schools” — they can get that to the ears and eyes of every single conservative in the country basically at will. The left, it seems to me, lacks that ability. What does it need to do to build that kind of infrastructure? 

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

There are so many ways into this question.

First, of course, I agree with you. That's something that I have remarked upon myself, frequently: A message nobody hears is, by definition, not persuasive. It doesn't matter how fancy your survey or RCT or field test, everything that you did to create that thing: If nobody hears it, it didn't persuade them. 

I think it is too simple a distinction to put those things in two buckets, and here's why. Part of the problem we have is, if your base won't carry the message, then the middle isn't going to hear it.

Yes, it would be amazing to have an actual functional media that would properly do its job. Yes, it would be amazing to have a left-wing specialized media infrastructure of the size and capability of Fox News and OAN and conservative talk radio and all the rest of it. Yes, those would all be great things to have, and we would be much, much better off.

But we do have the knowledge that a message is like a baton that needs to be passed from person to person to person, and if it gets dropped anywhere along the way, it is, by definition, not persuasive. 

Why was it possible for the left to spread the message “love is love” and “love makes a family” and with it shift culture, shift perception of gay and lesbian unions (what used to be called gay marriage and is now properly called marriage equality)? Why was it possible in city after city and then state after state to spread a message of Fight for $15?

Why was it possible in the post-election for us to create content, with a crackerjack team of designers and artists, that said Count Every Vote? Those memes were viewed more than a billion times, and that's just a domestic US audience. There are times when we have broken a signal through the noise, despite all of the disadvantages that you point to — and those have been the times when we have properly attended to that wording question.

So again, I don't disagree with your diagnosis, I just think that the way that we resolve this issue actually has to do with the messages that we're putting out, at least partially.

David Roberts:   

Let's talk about how we figure those messages out, then. Another one of my longstanding beefs with the endless messaging talk that I hear — and I'm mostly coming from a climate perspective — is: I frequently read studies and survey groups telling me how people react to messages when they see them in isolation, one at a time, in the calm of a focus group, or assembled by an academic. Then they take the different ways that people react to these messages in that context and vastly over-interpret them regarding what kind of messages work out in the world. 

It's pointing out the obvious, but the way people encounter messages in the wild bears no resemblance to that whatsoever. When people encounter messages in the wild, it's in the midst of the noise and chaos of our modern information system. They get partial messages, and the messages are surrounded, often, by counter-messages from the other side. So the way people encounter and absorb messages in the real world seems to me so distant and different from the way these focus groups are done that there's just not a lot to learn from the latter about the former. 

So how do you messaging experts, or testers, figure out how a message will perform not just in isolation, but in the scrum of an actual political fight in the actual world?

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

I feel like you are an audience plant for me, raising up all of my core beefs and things I yell and scream and write and tweet and bang my head against the wall about.

Yes, you're absolutely right. In-channel testing is any kind of empirical test where you are providing stimuli to the respondents and asking for their feedback about that stimuli in the same moment at which they are receiving it. So that's a telephone survey, that’s an online dial test; even more sophisticated processes like using a randomized control trial (RCT) and not a sequential survey is still in-channel testing. Same with focus groups. 

First of all, you are literally paying them for their attention. That is what you are doing: providing them a financial incentive to listen to your thing, watch your thing, and tell you about your thing. You have their undivided attention — or at least you have their somewhat undivided attention, because remember, a lot of this testing is happening digitally, which means that, like in the way when people are on Zoom calls, they also have seven tabs open. So you're still getting some level of distraction, because people are not just listening to you. The same goes for when they're taking a phone survey; they're also making dinner and yelling at the kids or whatever's going on. 

But yes, it is what you say. So how do we deal with that?

We understand that each tool is useful for its purpose and not for another. Things like in-channel testing — qualitative and, more importantly, quantitative — can be used in order to understand whether one frame is more effective than another, or whether one frame is more comprehensible, logical, clear than another.

What it can't be used to do is determine effect size. You can't see an effect size in an in-channel test, say, “This moved people 8 percentage points,” and believe that that's actually what's going to happen in the field. That's not true, for the reasons that you say.

Number two, you can design those tests to be closer to the real world by making them legitimate combat tests, having people in the survey exposed to more opposition messaging than our own — which, of course, is what is happening in the real world — and testing our messages against what the other side is saying. This is one of my 5,700 beefs with a lot of academic research, that they do this test-tube experiment where they don't expose folks to opposition messages. 

Next thing you can do, you can be a lot smarter about what you are rating the message to do. That's when we're doing message testing, which, by the way, is not what's happening most of the time. What's happening most of the time is that people are doing polling; they are doing research to take the temperature, not doing research to change the temperature (metaphorically speaking).

That, of course, is the way that the right wing approaches all of this testing. They don't say, “let's figure out where people already are on our issue.” Something that I say frequently is that it's not the job of a good message to say what is popular, it is the job of a good message to make popular what we need said.

So apropos the example that you offered, they started their critical race theory attack, and even today, most people don't know what critical race theory is. They have no idea about it.

David Roberts:   

They certainly didn't start by polling and finding out that Virginia parents were natively concerned about critical race theory. 

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

Because they weren't. They were like, what is that? Is that the name of a coffee shop? A new kind of NASCAR race? What is that? 

They decide where it is they want to take people, and then they use message testing to figure out the articulation that is going to be most effective of the path that they have already decided to walk. They do message testing to try to change the temperature; they don't do testing to take it. 

When we're doing message testing, it means not asking for facile self-reported ratings like, “did you like this message? Did you find it convincing?” That is asking people to have a conscious response about something that is happening unconsciously.

David Roberts:   

Right. This is one of my beefs about polls and surveys too: People are not necessarily the best judges of what's going on inside their own heads. 

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

They are definitively not. People only tell you what they think that they think. Because most of thought is unconscious, so we don't actually know why it is that something moves us or doesn't. 

So what does it mean to structure a better test? It means, for example, to structure a test in which you ask people a pre-question like, “would this make you want to convert the entire electricity grid to solar, even if it meant you had to pay this much more in taxes?” Why do we ask that that way? Because we don't want it to be a unicorns and rainbows question where people are like, sure, whatever.

David Roberts:   

Do you like good things? So many poll questions are like that: Do you like positive things? People say yes, and then they send out the press release: People love this thing!

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

Right. So you ask a higher-bar-ask kind of question, and then you expose people in different treatment groups, relative to a control that doesn't get any message, to a single message, and then you ask them a post-question. Or, you don't ask, you do a control, and you just ask the hard question after, so that you can attribute a difference between the control group that got no ad or message or slogan to the treatment group. Then you can say, “the people in treatment group C, who got message C, they had this however-many-point shift.” You can just do better research. 

Then finally, the gold star is to do in-field testing, to use in-channel testing to get the lay of the land, understand what is probably best, and then do much better research — if you can afford it, because in-field testing is expensive. Instead of asking for people's self-reporting, you do something like send 100,000 postcard A to voters in this block, and send 100,000 postcard B, and then you actually measure the voter file. You're not asking people, you're checking.

David Roberts:   

That seems much more likely to give you good information.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

Yeah. People who know what they're doing do a combination of all of those things.

David Roberts:   

Good segue to my next question, and I guess we can use the critical race theory example to get at this question too.

It seems to me one of the reasons that they were able to start from nothing — parents having no idea what critical race theory is — to parents freaked out about critical race theory in an incredibly short period of time is that they were not starting from nothing.

The background presumptions of the critical race theory message — Blacks are getting unfair advantage, whites are constantly criticized, whites are the most discriminated-against group in America today, they're trying to program your kids to be socialists at school — that foundation has already been laid through 40 to 50 years of repetition, of having institutions and politicians and media outlets say that over and over and over again.

So when you come along with this new example, most of the persuasion job is already done. The parents who have been hearing your stuff all those years are primed to believe this new example. 

Similarly, I think back to the cap-and-trade debate in 2009-2010: All the right had to do was say, “oh, this is a tax,” and that got them 95 percent of the way they needed to go, because the foundation was already in place. Everybody's been told for 50 years now: taxes are bad, they're unfair, government’s incompetent. All of that’s already in place, so it's pretty easy to just apply it to the next thing. 

In contrast, the left has not spent the last several decades laying that kind of foundation. There are, as far as I know, no left think tanks or organizations devoted exclusively to telling Americans that government works, government is good, lots of the things we have in our society are traceable to government. So because that foundation isn't laid, they're just starting from scratch every time, with every new messaging battle.

In the cap-and-trade example, the other side is saying “tax!” and then the left is saying, “well, no, you see, we set the emissions at x level, and then you divide it up into permits, and you can trade the permits, but over time the cap on the permits … blah, blah, blah …” People tuned out a long time ago. Total asymmetry there. 

The right has been doing messaging about its foundational worldview, repetitively, over and over again, through multiple channels, over decades, and the left just isn't doing that. It approaches every new issue or every new piece of legislation or every new fight from scratch, and it's constantly on the back foot. 

So my question is a) do you agree with that diagnosis, and b) if so, how can that be remedied? Whose job is it to be laying that basic foundation, the basic left worldview, beneath all the more specific points?

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

I definitely agree that that is an exact characterization of what the right has done successfully — that they basically have one message, or very, very few messages. What you're describing is essentially the oldest political trick in the book: divide in order to conquer. The right-wing use of dog whistles, of racially coded speech … not just in this country. I just came home from Brazil: it's Bolsonaro; it’s Duterte; it's Orban in Hungary; it's Brexit, Boris Johnson; I lived in Australia, it's the discourse of the right wing there. There's nothing new under the sun. 

Basically, there is one storyline they have, and it is to pick some Other to vilify and tell aggrieved white people, white men in particular: this is the source of your pain and problem, and here, we are going to alleviate it for you. We are going to deliver to you this wonderful vision of a world in which we “Make America Great Again.” We will take you back to a time when you were on top of the pecking order: women knew their place, and Black people did too, and so on and so forth. 

They accomplish all this magically, through the use of this racially coded speech, without actually explicitly naming race, thereby maintaining some measure of plausible deniability, and acting affronted that we dare to say that they've somehow made racist remarks. They say, “I never mentioned race. I just talked about illegals,” when, of course, when they talk about “illegal immigrants,” what comes to mind is not the Swedish backpacker who has overstayed their visa. 

This is exactly what they've done. It's why critical race theory fits so seamlessly; they just keep remixing the exact same story. That is why it is so effective. And it is absolutely true the rest of what you say, that the left: we are very smart, and we're very creative, and we like to make a brand new thing for each thing. 

David Roberts:   

We are so clever — way too independent-minded to ever just go around repeating what other people say, goodness no.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

There is an entire thing I call “not-invented-here syndrome,” and partly, that is structural. Look at anything that used to be a mass movement — the labor movement, the women's movement, civil rights — that has gone through the maturation process all of these things go through and become professional organizations.

I don't want to use any one example, because it sounds like I'm impugning that sector, when this is just part and parcel of the architecture. If you're going to be a Sierra Club, a World Wildlife Foundation, a National Resources Defense Council; if you're going to be a Planned Parenthood, a NARAL, a National Women’s Law Center: you need to have your own message, your own branding, your own campaign. Otherwise, what are you showing to your funders to say, “look what we did! This is what we did this year” or “this is what we did this quarter. This is why you should give us more money.”

Responsible nonprofit executives want to pay their employees’ salaries. That is not a bad thing to want to do; you should want to be able to pay the people that work at your institution. 

So the incentive is against having an echo chamber. There is a financial incentive on the left toward this cacophony of differentiated messaging, which is completely and totally anathema to persuasion and mobilization. It is a visible contrast to how things used to be when we didn't have professionalized organizations: we had a women's movement in which undifferentiated people were in the streets all chanting a similar thing, just to take one for instance.

David Roberts:   

The right has professional organizations, but does not seem to have this problem. What is the difference between our billionaires and their billionaires?

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

Their billionaires cut checks for general operating. The end. It is a nested set of ironies that they believe in this highly competitive, highly individualistic, highly unconnected worldview, and yet the way that they operate in political space is through an incredibly clustered, pro-social, collective endeavor. 

The way that organizations, think tanks, spokespeople, etc., are funded on the right is that they are given money to just do their thing and are not required to produce justifications. I have 7 billion critiques, and one of them is of progressive philanthropy. Philanthropy is, at its core: If you're giving people money, that is supposed to be about the redistribution of power; otherwise, it is meaningless. If you give people money and you are still saying to them, “well, how did you spend my money? What did you do? What was the outcome? What was the output? What were you planning? What was this accounted for?” That's no different than me giving you a sweater for your birthday and every time I see you, being like, “why aren't you wearing my sweater? My sweater is so much better than what you're wearing! Why are you wearing that thing?”

That's not a gift, if I am asking you endless questions. You're either giving away your money and therefore your power, or you are simply pretending and still wanting to retain your power by asking endless questions and not allowing the work to get done. So that is my giant diatribe. 

To your actual question — who is doing this on the left, who is responsible for this — obviously, I am not objective, but there are examples. There are campaigns where we have successfully done this. Let me just start with one. In 2018, after having done a giant body of research that we call the Race-Class Narrative (RCN) — which was created in part and in partnership with a legal scholar named Ian Haney López, who wrote the book Dog Whistle Politics and is one of the originators of this idea — we did this giant messaging project, which we have since implemented in many places, starting most robustly with Minnesota in 2018, with a campaign that we named Greater Than Fear. 

As part of Greater Than Fear, we had scripts about taxes, public education, driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, solar panels, etc. What that meant was that not only did we have Greater Than Fear posters and memes and social media channels and ads, organizers who were going door-to-door during that midterm campaign were echoing each other. It was successful enough that the politicians in the state — Tim Walz, who was running for governor and now is governor, the two senators who were running, folks at the state level — they adopted that messaging. Several of them had a closing get-out-the-vote tour which they named their Greater Than Fear Get Out the Vote. So there are times we've done that. 

We've done that with Fight for $15. We've done that with “love is love” and “love makes a family.” We've done it with Red for Ed, the educator strikes that swept in a wave in 2018. There are times we have done this; it's not that we never have. When we have done it, it has been because organizations — unions, civil society, candidates, parties (to the extent that it is legally permissible, obviously not across the firewall) — have pre-agreed that the most important thing is that we need to be able to break a signal through the noise. They have suspended ego. They have gotten funders to recognize that this is incredibly important. 

We did the same thing in the post-election. The message was “count every vote, count every vote, count every vote, count every vote” — instead of saying “let's call it a coup” or “let's talk about Trump” or “let's talk about authoritarianism.” Then the message shifted to “voters decided.” That seems like an facile and simple thing; it was actually incredibly well-structured, well-coordinated, and well-executed, and that message got across.

David Roberts:   

It seems like a sane movement, or let's say a sane billionaire, would be seeking such successes and then trying to fund the organizations behind them so that they can build on those successes in the future and repeat those same narratives in other contexts to the point that those basic narratives become very familiar. That just doesn't seem to be happening.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

I agree with you, although you might want to rethink the phrase “sane billionaire,” because I don't know if that's a thing. 

David Roberts:   

Ours have a different kind of insanity than theirs, I guess. Ours are the wrong kind of insane. 

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

But also, how does one become a billionaire, which is an entire separate conversation. There is no innocence in capitalism.

That aside, I only know what I know, and what I've done, and what I'm fighting to do more of, and it's the reason why I emphasize campaigns we have won and how we have won them. It is doing exactly what you have described: having a simple, coherent message that recognizes that politics isn't solitaire and that messages don't land in a vacuum. People are hearing relentlessly from the opposition. If we're not attending to what they're saying, then our message isn't going to work. The message has to be engaging to the base. 

But the answer, at least from my vantage point, about why people aren’t doing this, is because there is still a live debate, unfortunately, going on in left and left-of-center parties — again, not just in the US, but I also work abroad — around what it is that works. There is a level of fear, people clinging with their fingernails to what little we have, what little gains we've made. When people are acting from a place of fear, their behavior is never that great. People are terrified to try new things. 

The truth of the matter is that a lot of what passes for polling and message testing on the left is the world's most expensive form of copy editing. People are essentially testing ecru against offwhite against eggshell. They're testing a series of messages which are largely the same argument but with tiny wordsmithing details. Then it's a garbage in, garbage out problem; message D or message E or message whatever is marginally better, but it's not that distinct from the other ones, because people are not considering the range of ways we could make that argument. 

The reason for that, which you already know, is because the kinds of solutions that you advocate, that I advocate — the kind of world that we know that we need — is not the kind of world that a lot of people who are in charge presently actually want. So it is challenging to do projects, to do testing, to develop messaging that makes an impassioned, interesting, engaging, humorous, base-mobilizing case for true economic prosperity, for a livable planet, for an end to poisoning ourselves voluntarily in order to make a handful of billionaires richer. People don't want to do that.

The basic truth of the left is that we have to beg the master for money to buy tools to take down his house.

David Roberts:   

That is very well put. In the spirit of thinking through these foundational left messages that can undergird more specific case-by-case messages, you refer to the race-class narrative. That's become a big thing in recent years. Can you explain what the basic building blocks of the race-class narrative are and talk a little bit about how it can be applied to climate change?

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

The race-class narrative is a messaging architecture. It is a way of talking that has a very deliberate order and structure, and that order and structure is built off of years of testing what is more and less persuasive. So first, let me talk through the structure, and then I’ll give you an illustration of what it sounds like in language. 

You begin the first sentence with a shared value that explicitly names race, or explicitly names any kind of difference that the right wing has been exploiting in order to divide us and impede our progress. So you start off with: say what you're for, say what you're for, say what you're for — in contrast to a standard leftist message, which is almost always either, “boy, have I got a problem for you,” “this is the Titanic,” or “we’re the losing team, we lost recently, so you should join us.” So far we have not seen a lot of efficacy out of those three hellos that the left is keen on. 

So it begins with a shared value. It then moves from value to villain. It names the problem that we're confronting second, not first, and it does so identifying a clear cause, as opposed to saying things like “homes were lost,” “the gap between rich and poor is growing,” “children of color are experiencing the least qualified teachers,” or, to get into your area, climate change has now in our language become personified to a degree that, “climate change is raising sea levels. Climate change is making the weather weird. Climate change is creating these deadly storms. Climate change is this and climate change is that.”

The issue with that sentence structure is that you can't actually pass a law on climate change any more than you can pass a law to make it be high tide at 10:30 a.m. You can pass laws about human behavior. 

So what we find is that climate change itself has become this frozen phrase which is unhelpfully meaningless and seems to be a causal agent, instead of talking about what actually matters to people, which is air you can breathe, water you can drink, and a statement that at least implies causation, like “damage to the climate.”

Damage to the climate suggests that someone is actually doing the damaging, as opposed to “this thing is occurring.” As opposed to, it is some sort of self-inflicted wound, or climate change itself is an agent. 

It's a little bit like talking about “systems and structures.” There's no fucking “system and structure,” there are people making decisions, and those people have addresses. Unless you talk about it in those terms, you don't have an organizing model. Are people supposed to mass mobilize at systems and structures’ house? Are they supposed to do a Twitter storm at systemic inequality? There's no organizing to be done around that kind of problem definition. So step two is that it names the problem with a clear villain. 

Then step three, it resolves the cognitive dissonance intentionally created in that contrast between the shared value opening and the villain problem statement second, and that closing vision statement is one of cross-racial solidarity toward the kinds of outcomes that almost every single one of us desires. 

What does that actually sound like? For example: “No matter what we look like, or where we come from, most of us want to care for our air, land, and water and leave things better off for those to come.” Second sentence: “But today, a handful of politicians and the fossil fuel CEOs that fund them are trying to divide us from each other, hoping that if they can distract us from the fact that they are profiting off of poisoning, our families will look the other way, while they put the clean energy solutions we know work out of our reach. By rejecting their lies and joining together across race, across origin, across ZIP code, we can make this a place that we're proud to leave our kids for generations to come.”

Something like that. I mean, I would wordsmith it and make it shorter, but that's basically it in a nutshell. In the middle, you have to call out what the other side is doing and ascribe motivation to it. Otherwise, you are not guarding against the efficacy of their lies.

David Roberts:   

And what they're doing is always some version of dividing us so that they can screw us.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

Pretty much. If they can convince you that Juan is taking your job, when Juan is in fact sitting in front of Home Depot trying to get some day labor — and, by the way, does not possess the means to make public policy, because he's denied even the ability to vote in the country in which he lives and works and contributes — if they can convince you that Juan is taking your job, then you will not notice that, in fact, Jeff Bezos took your job. There's nothing new under the sun. 

If they can freak you out about “law and order” or crime, or if they can make you believe that the problem is “those people who just don't want to work” or “those people who just don't come in the right way” or “those people who just won't teach their children the right thing,” then you can be made to hate and resent government and to be against collective solutions, because your understanding of government is as an evil force that takes away from “hardworking people,” who are coded as white, and gives it away to “profligate people,” who are coded as black and brown.

Then you resent them, and you don't like the government, and you're willing to vote against it. Everything is some big government socialist program that is evil and taking away your freedom.

David Roberts:   

It's sort of hilarious that they've been at this anti-government thing for so long now that government spending is self-evidently bad in their world, government regulation is self-evidently bad in their world – and that's what governments do. That pretty much covers the waterfront. So governments doing what governments do now is self-evident evidence that something nefarious is afoot, on the right.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

Completely, and that government acting, having collective action, is somehow an abrogation of your freedom. In point of fact, I don't know about you, but when I go to a restaurant, I'm not really keen to be on the hook for deciding whether or not the kitchen is full of salmonella. I don't know much about that. I would like when I enter a building for the roof to be load-bearing; I know absolutely nothing about how you check that, I just like to have it happen. When I flush the toilet, I'd like the stuff to go away. 

So partly, it's been on us. One of the other messaging mistakes I point out frequently is that we like to sell the recipe instead of the brownie. We like to have our policies be our message, and that is a very bad idea. People like paid family leave, don't mistake me, but you know what they like even better? When we say, “you're there the first time your newborn smiles.” They like clean energy, but you know what they like even better? “You can feel great about the water you drink and the air you breathe.” We have to sell things in terms of the payoff, in language that gets at the lived experience of being inside that better policy.

David Roberts:   

Let's talk a little bit more about some of your work you've done on climate messaging. One of the things I found interesting is what you found out about the Green New Deal. Tell us what results popped up when you tested that.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

I say this gingerly because of the point that I made earlier, which is, again: it's not the job of a good message to say what's popular, it's the job of a good message to make popular what we need said. So to the extent that the left could make the Green New Deal a thing, it's important to have an undergirding, galvanizing slogan that is central and so on. 

That said, what we have seen in the research is that, at least the last time we tested it, “Green New Deal” is not a particularly effective thing to say. Just the name of it, without knowing other details — which most people do not and never will because most people do not have the bandwidth to be paying attention to that degree — it signals not that ambitious, not that much. A deal is a bargain. It doesn't tell people “your life is going to be better,” as a phrase.

David Roberts:   

It's hard not to draw the comparison here to critical race theory again. “Critical race theory,” to most people, was an empty phrase, and they introduced it with the explicit goal of filling in that phrase with everything that made parents nervous or anxious. The emptiness of it at the beginning was almost part of the point, because they could just paint whatever they wanted into it. 

You could imagine the same thing happening with Green New Deal: We introduce this empty phrase, and then the entire left mobilizes to fill it in with everything good that people associate with clean water and all the rest of it. But instead, we introduced this phrase, and instead of filling it in, the right filled it in, and the left poll-tested it and found that it was already filled in, so they retreated from it. So the right did the “critical race theory” thing to it, too. 

I always thought the Green New Deal was incredibly powerful because it was mostly empty at the beginning and it could have been associated with all the positive things we want to put in this new world — but we just didn't have the wherewithal, the institutions, the mentality. It's such a telling contrast, those two cases.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

You were just making a more succinct articulation of what I was trying to say, which is that if you have a vessel and there's some utility to that vessel, then yes, it should be your job to fill in that vessel for people. I was simply reporting to you people’s present evaluation of the vessel. That was not, “do this, don't do that.” I was delivering information.

David Roberts:   

Yes. It's not filled in yet. Or filled in mostly negative. 

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

So the choices are: Do you say, this is enough of a vessel, there is enough agreement among organizations, institutions, politicians, etc. on the left that this is our boat and we're in it, so we better make it the nicest possible boat? In which case, yeah, let's do it, and let's be very clear and good about instead of selling the recipe, selling the brownie; instead of selling the names of policies, actually selling the outcomes, which is a big part of the problem in the way that the Green New Deal has been described. It's been very much taking your policy out in public, which is unseemly, should not be done. 

Or you can say, no, we need a vessel that is more clearly positive, which — just to give you a shot in the dark, out there illustration — would be something like the Freedom to Thrive Act, which at least suggests to people, oh, that sounds like a thing I want. I like thriving, I like freedom.

Freedom is a value that's closely associated with the US. That is true across demographic groups. When you ask respondents, “what value do you most closely associate with the US?” across the board, without exception, the number one thing named is freedom. That is a value that the right wing has claimed as their own for a long time, when in point of fact, it is a deeply contested concept. Core to marriage equality, the freedom to marry; core to the civil rights movement; core to the women's movement. There's a lot in freedom that is very much a progressive idea.

And not for nothing: the renamed bill is Freedom to Vote. That was a very deliberate choice.

David Roberts:   

Getting back to these core narratives, one of the elements of the right’s core narrative is negative liberty: freedom means people will leave you alone. Freedom means fewer rules, fewer restraints. There’s this other way of looking at freedom, which is by taking collective action and structuring markets or societies in certain ways, we enable people to have things they otherwise wouldn't have been able to have. So they have the freedom to get a good education; a good education provides you a certain kind of freedom, but it's a positive freedom. It's a freedom of new opportunities, not just people leaving you alone.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

In fact, in this project that we just wrapped up, looking at how to make a full-throated positive case for public education, soup to nuts, in the era of this anti-CRT nonsense, the name of our messaging guide is Freedom to Learn. Because one of the things that popped up as most potent and effective, besides saying most of us believe that our children should be taught the truth of our history, the good and bad, so they can reckon with the mistakes of our past and understand our present …

David Roberts:

Do most of us believe that? 

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

Yeah, in fact around 80 percent of people do. 

David Roberts:   

I guess the other percent are loud. 

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

That's exactly what's going on. But what I was going to say is that Freedom to Learn, this idea that our kids deserve the freedom to learn who they are, where they're going, where they've come from, is very powerful, and an effective rejoinder to this CRT thing. 

What the right does so incredibly well is avail themselves of one of arguably the most persuasive things that anyone has in their arsenal, which is social proof. So it looks to the average person who is not paying attention to political details when they turn on their local news and see a bunch of parents yelling and screaming at a school board: “Huh, I guess people who look like me, who have kids that are like mine, think this way.” When in point of fact, both in our polling and in all of the publicly released polling, 80 percent, 83 percent, 85 percent of parents (it depends which poll), when you ask them, want kids to be taught the truth, the good and bad of history. They don't want books censored. They don't support these things. It is not a popular position. 

But the right doesn’t care what is popular. They understand that the job of the message is to keep their base engaged and enraged. Because as long as that base — even if it is only 15 percent, 12 percent, 20 percent, depends on the issue — is yelling and screaming, that is what is persuasive to the middle. The middle is reading social cues to understand what is common sense and how the world works. Meanwhile, parents on the left, the vast majority of whom actually do support a clear, honest, race-forward, inclusive public education curriculum, they're not out there saying anything.

David Roberts:   

Yes, this is such an important point. I feel like the left, especially Democratic leadership, doesn't get this. A lot of people don't know that if you look at polls from the early 1960s, you find that most people were fine with equality, most people thought racism was bad, most people were ready for the Civil Rights Act. In terms of mass opinion, it was in the right place. But everybody thought that everybody else was still racist. Everybody thought that they were the exception or the minority. 

So how do they find out that they're not? How do they find out that they actually have the majority? It requires someone standing up and yelling. So this will on the right to suppress the people who actually are in the majority from standing up and yelling and signaling to one another, they can keep minority opinions in place. 

You can see that happening now, too. I bet it's the same on climate change. If you get people in isolation and ask them, “Should we go for it? Should we clean everything up?” most people will say yes, but that's just not who they see yelling when they turn on their TV. I think that's so important. 

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

It’s absolutely the case that we are not just creatures driven by emotion, we are creatures driven deeply in our political beliefs by our identity, and our desire to preserve, protect, and maintain identity. So we are constantly reading in our environment social cues that tell us, what does my kind of person think? 

Take a very specific case. It is common and frequent for folks on the left to do a lot of hand wringing and to verbalize, “oh, XYZ demographic group aren’t voting: young people aren't voting, Latinos aren't voting, African-American turnout is down.” We can see through experimentation — this is not self-reporting — that when you send the message to demographic groups, “your demographic group isn't voting,” it lowers voting. Similarly, talking about vaccine refusal increases vaccine refusal.

David Roberts:   

That's like the thumb trap: the harder you try to get out of the trap, the more you're in it. If you watch what consumes political dialogue on a day-to-day level, it's constantly the right acting, accusing, establishing things, and constantly the left talking about what the right is saying: fact checking it, refuting it, but talking about it, constantly. So it's what gets talked about.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

My standard joke is that if the left had written the story of David, it would be a biography of Goliath. We talk about our opposition all fucking day and then we're like, “oh, why don't people want to be motivated?” Because the truth of the matter is, the thing that we see in test after test, is that believe it or not, our opposition is actually not the opposition. It's cynicism. It's not that people don't think our ideas are right, it's that they don't think our ideas are possible. So why bother even trying, when we speak relentlessly about our opposition? Talking about Trump in 2016 is how we got Trump.

David Roberts:   

What a nightmarish thought that is. We conjured him into the presidency through our fear.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

When you take your kid to a pool and your kid is running, a competent lifeguard will yell, “walk!” because if you yell “don't run!” at a kid, they will run, either out of defiance or because you literally just yelled “run” at them.

The core messaging lesson when I do presentations is, “forget everything else that happened today, I just want you to remember one thing: Say what you're for. Say what you're for. Say what you’re for.” You have to tell people what we want them to do, and stop telling them what we don't want them to do. We have to yell “walk!” not yell “don't run!” 

In the climate space, I know, for example, from my work in Australia, the percentage of jobs in the coal industry is something like 0.1 percent. But when the average Australian is asked to take a guess what proportion of jobs are in coal, people guess anywhere from 5 to 20 percent. I would guess if you asked Americans, it would be the same. They wildly overestimate how many jobs in our economy are in the coal industry. Why is that? It's because we talk about coal all the fucking time. We talk about coal every goddamn day. So it is no wonder that people routinely overestimate its centrality, importance, size, contribution, and number of jobs.

David Roberts:   

One of the big things that lefties in the climate space who view themselves as virtuous talk about a lot is a just transition for coal workers. They think, by making that a common point of discussion, they are signaling their good intentions and their virtue, that it's safe for coal workers to embrace this, blah, blah, blah. But I worry that we're having the effect you're describing, which is vastly overstating the significance and number of coal workers in the world and making the transition more difficult. Now you’ve got everybody thinking about this beleaguered group that's going to get ground up by the transition and overestimating their size, etc. How do you navigate that?

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

The way you navigate that is by having more of an overarching message. I'm wordsmithing it on the fly, so forgive me, it's not going to be copy edited, but it would be something like: “Whether we're Black or white, rural or urban, young or old, we all want to be able to care for our families and do work that we're proud of that leaves things better for those to come. But today, a handful of politicians and the fossil fuel CEOs that fund them want to keep people tied to a wage they can't live on and a job that is hurting their families, our air, and our water. By joining together to demand both clean, reliable energy that's homegrown, made from the wind and the sun, and jobs for people coming from any industry, we can make this a place …”

You just do it like that, more broad strokes, instead of zeroing in on, “we're going to specifically rescue you from the coal mine,” which does reinforce this idea that we're talking about several million people, and we're not.

David Roberts:   

I want to get to popularism before we're done. The idea behind popularism is that the commanding heights of the Democratic Party have been overtaken by young, educated, urban liberals, but the majority of Democratic voters are still non-college-educated white men. The idea is that all these effete urban liberals are pushing organizations to message and talk in a way that flatters their worldviews and their sensibilities. They cite “defund the police” and all these policies that only resonate among that crowd, but do not resonate among the non-college-educated white men that Dems still need to win. 

The idea, I think, is Dems need to readjust their messaging to appeal to the great, not particularly progressive, non-college-educated white masses, the way that used to be very en vogue. That was Bill Clinton's whole thing. Obama, to some extent — this is an argument popularists make that has some merit — really did go overboard in almost every case to at least rhetorically check that box, to acknowledge the worldview and fears and sensibilities of non-college-educated white people, even as he was pushing for liberal progress. 

All the messaging organs have been taken over by these educated liberals, and they're out of touch with the masses, and that's why the masses are turning to Trump or tuning out. So we're going to end up with an entirely urban, educated demographic, which, because of the various distortions of the American constitution and governmental system, are clustered in cities and cannot form majorities. Basically: the left is screwing itself. 

You want to be tuning your message to the sensibilities of the bulk of your audience, and we're not doing that right now, and we should do that, say the popularists. What's your take on all that?

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

Oh, boy. First of all, have you ever taken The New York Times “guess my political ideology” quiz?

David Roberts:   

No, not yet. 

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

You take that quiz. The first question it asks you is your race, and if you tell the quiz that you're white, the second question that it asks you — do you want to guess what it is? It's trying to figure out political ideology. It's taking you through essentially a decision tree; what's the second question you think it asks?

David Roberts:   

I would think it would be about education.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

But you'd be wrong. Because in point of fact, education is not the strongest predictor of political ideology. 

David Roberts:   

Wait, second guess: the population density where you live. Do you live in a city or a suburb or rural area?

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

Good guess, but it’s religion. It’s religiosity.

If we want to operate in a simplified world where we only look at people as two variables, or we only look at white people as one variable — which is a silly thing to do — the most determinative single variable is not education level, it's religion.

So first of all, this idea of education polarization as the most meaningful data point is demonstrably false. There's some veracity to it, obviously, we're talking about tendencies, etc. But if you're trying to reduce a massive population, which is white men, then the way to cut through it, if you're only making one cut, is whether or not they're evangelical. That's the first thing. 

The second thing is that, what the popularists fail to understand is what we spoke about earlier: that politics is not solitaire. If we choose to be silent about race, about police, about immigration, about all of these things that are purportedly anathema for us to talk about, that doesn't mean those conversations go away. It means that the only thing our voters hear is the unrelenting race-baiting of the other side, which means our economic promises cannot cut through.

We've seen this over and over again, when we go to our voters and say, “I'm going to increase your wages, you're going to have better working conditions,” the voter has just been canvassed two hours earlier by some right wingers saying, “Juan is taking your job” or “you can't even drive into the city because it's too dangerous and you're going to be murdered and there's crime.” Our economic promises have no ability to break through and penetrate because the right wing is engaged in this unrelenting scapegoating and fearmongering, and if our messages are not attending to that, they don't work. 

Number three: Let's take Obama as an example. Let's take, more specifically, his attempts to appease frightened, anxious white people, these non-college white people, by deporting more people than any previous president and using the discourse of getting tough on the border and cracking down and deporting and deporting and deporting.

I'm just stating facts. That is what occurred. It’s not a message, that is what happened.

Republicans still said he was for open borders, still said he was creating this entire ethos and era. Obama himself said that he had to be tough on the border, he had to crack down, he had to deport. Same with Clinton cracking down on welfare — this idea that you have to genuflect at the altar of the terms the right puts on you.

David Roberts:   

And worse, that policy is the right way to respond. As though policy will change the rhetoric, as though policy will change the discussion. One of the first political posts I ever wrote in my entire life was yelling at Obama about this. You can change policy all you want, but people's political opinions are only tenuously connected to policy realities, if at all. That's just not the lever. If you want to change politics, you don't pull the policy lever, you pull the politics lever. You do politics.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

How else do you explain that the former senator from MasterCard, who is now our president, is a “socialist?” How do you explain that Chuck Schumer reportedly wants to defund the police? The point is that regardless of what Democrats actually say and do, people's opinion of Democrats is not made out of what Democrats say; it is made largely out of what Republicans pillory them with.

How would it possibly be the case that public opinion about what someone stands for and does would actually just be made out of what they said? That would be great, but that is not the reality. So the entire idea is a house of cards. It exists only inside of the rarefied environment, like you said earlier, of a survey; it doesn't stand up to the real world. 

I forgot what point I'm on because I could make 67 other points. This is just so deeply absurd. It really is as facile as your financial advisor saying to you, “you know, you should make more money and spend less money.” How is this a theory? “You should do popular things.” That is very “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey.” 

David Roberts:   

It seems to me it involves the implicit admission that Democrats are powerless to change what is popular.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

And that somehow people's opinion of Democrats is made out of what Democrats say and do, which, again, it isn't. 

And then number … whatever number I'm on: again, going back to our earlier conversation, if your words don't spread, they don't work. The fact of the matter is that the Democratic base is largely people of color, and if we are not attending to issues of racial justice, climate, women's rights, immigrant rights, etc., we have a mobilization problem. We have people not turning out.

Something people do not realize is that Biden won 2016 voters by around a 1.5 to 2 percent margin; he won 2020 first-time voters by 12 points. It matters to turn out new people. Those voters that turned out in 2018 and 2020, in those unprecedented turnout elections, I call them vital voters.

That’s it. If we are going to hold on in ‘22, our only hope is to engage in what I call “re-turnout” — get those people back. The way that we get those people back is speaking authentically and full-throatedly to the things that they care about in their daily life. For a Democratic base, that means that they should be able to wander through their neighborhood and make it home without worrying whether or not the police are going to kill them. If we are not standing for people's basic human rights, why would they turn out to vote for us?

David Roberts:   

I am trying to imagine the paradigmatic non-college-educated, white, exurban man who was going to vote against Democrats, but then Joe Biden says something implicitly racist, and the white guy says, “hey, well, he seems like a guy like me, I'm gonna vote for him instead.” I am having trouble envisioning this swingable group of voters in the middle that are going to respond to signals like this relative to how they respond to economic conditions or other big forces. I have trouble seeing these messaging tweaks having the large-scale effects that the popularists seem to think they will.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

Completely. Again, they're testing these things inside of this fake environment where you're paying people for their attention. They're not actually attending to the fact that you have to get your base to carry that message. 

Let's take a concrete example. For years and years, there was this advice that we should talk about raising wages in terms of, “we should raise wages because we have a consumer-driven economy and people need money so they can be customers in our stores.” Or, “hard work should be rewarded; we can't survive on $7.25.”

The issue with both of those narratives is that they eclipse from view the fact that the money to pay people comes from their work. It doesn't come from the magical money pants of the “job creators,” which is a term that was deliberately selected in order to mirror that biblical creator who may or may not reside in the sky. 

So this language that “we should pay people more so they can be customers in our stores,” which is language that was created in order to make us seem like the reasonable people in the room, the adults in the room who get things done and are practical and are not asking for outlandish things — I don't know about you, but I don't wake up in the morning like, “I'm going to check on the GDP, I'm just really passionate about economic growth. I'm super excited to go take to the streets to march for the GDP.” People aren't going to go and act on behalf of that. 

Instead, in the Fight for $15, the message swapped to, “people who work for a living ought to earn a living,” which is a fairness frame. It's a moral high ground. People would go strike and march on behalf of that. They would not march and strike on behalf of, “this will increase GDP growth.”

David Roberts:   

This better approach to messaging, with better research and a more proactive, aggressive mindset: Is that catching on with young activists? Because if there's one thing we've learned over the last few years, it’s that existing Democratic leadership, whose average age is 137, seem completely at sea in the modern information environment. Is there a young vanguard coming up that's better at this?

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

Yes, absolutely. You see them on your TV; they're called the Squad. There are definitely folks who are much better and who are making an impassioned, full-throated case for legitimate multiracial democracy, a livable future, everything else, the whole list. But I self-identify as pathologically optimistic. I can not do my job unless I'm optimistic; I have no choice, I have to believe that something else is possible.

I am also in a dark place, mostly because what the GOP learned from 2020 was that it was far too easy for people of color to vote and far too hard for them to cheat, so they've set about fixing both of those “problems,” and Democrats seem to be pearl-clutching and finger-wagging in response.

David Roberts:   

Can you be a deer in headlights for four solid years? Apparently, yes.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

Unless we can still have elections in which everyone could potentially vote and all of those votes could potentially be counted, I'm not really sure how we do everything else. 

That said, yes, there are people who are doing much better. There is greater sophistication. There are people who are being more thoughtful and deliberate about engaging the base, understanding that that is, in fact, the way that you persuade the middle.

Even if your only aim was to get white people in Midwestern diners to flip, still the way that you would do it would be to engage the base, because in point of fact, social proof is real. We know that what moves white people in Midwestern diners is seeing other white people out marching, for example, during the summer of protests after George Floyd's death. 

David Roberts:   

The Women's March was so powerful in that respect. 

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

People's minds change when they're like, “oh, people who look like me think this. Okay, I guess I think this. Cool.” But the main thing is these vital voters of the surge in ‘18 and ‘20. That is what distinguishes 2022 from every previous time that we've been in a midterm, in which (spoiler alert) the incumbent pretty much without exception gets a shellacking.

But this time around, what is different is that we have just come off of two cycles in which we mobilized an enormous number of new people and got them to the polls. So it is an arguably easier lift, because it is not turnout, it is re-turnout. We have a lot of hard evidence of what did it, so we simply need to recreate it.

David Roberts:   

You see a debate now in Democratic circles. One side is saying, “our election messaging in 2022 and beyond needs to be about the concrete changes that Democrats have made to make your life better — our ‘kitchen table’ issues.” (I'm so sick of hearing about the kitchen table.) “What we do for you,” not, “why they’re bad.”

The other side says, “the fact that the other side is explicitly, right out in the open, planning to steal the fucking election seems relevant. That is something we ought to convey to voters, because for the vast majority of them, they don't know, even though it's happening right out in the open.”

It's social proof again. I can understand the average voter looking out and saying, “they seem to be openly talking about putting election officials in place that are willing to steal the thing for Trump; it seems bad, but I don't see other people freaking out, so I guess I'm not supposed to freak out.”

So the other side of the messaging fight would be: people need the social proof that yes, this is a freaky, bad, apocalyptic thing coming down on us. They need to see that it's okay to freak out about it. 

This is the quintessential messaging debate of ‘22, and ‘24, I expect. Where do you come down on that?

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

It definitely is.

First of all, I think it's just — real talk — going to be very, very hard to sell a topline message which is, “Democrats delivered for you. Aren't Democrats lovely?”

David Roberts:   

Reality does constrain your message somewhat. 

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

That's tough. Unless we come back in ‘22 and we're in a completely different reality, which, hey, I would take. I would love that. Maybe they have some deep thoughts and reflection over the new year and they come back and actually pass things. That'd be cool.

Yes, I'm aware of the filibuster, and yes, I'm aware of the 60 vote threshold. I know all of the things, so I'm preemptively striking against that. Whatever. People view Democrats as being in the majority, and that is the level of detail that they understand, the end. 

So first, it's very hard to sell the “Democrats delivered for you” message. Right now what we are seeing in nightly focus groups — like weekly testing, we're testing stuff all the time — is basically “a plague on both your houses.” “All of them are useless.”  “There's no good here.” Or, “politics, I’m just going to look away from it.” 

David Roberts:

And guess who that serves? 

Anat Shenker-Osorio: 

Yeah. So the message is a little bit of both, and this is the distinction that I want to draw: first of all, it can't make Democrats the protagonist. It has to make voters the protagonists. Always, you want to talk to people about what you want them to do, not about the candidate or the party or whatever.

So, “in ‘18 and ‘20, you turned out as vital voters to defend our democracy and move us forward together.” And yeah, you can do a shout-out: “And that means we lifted blah-blah-blah kids out of poverty, and we delivered these stimulus acts, and we did blah-blah-blah” — whatever you can lift up — but make it the accomplishment of the voter, the audience that you're targeting, and say, “now you are going to do it again.” 

The message that they used, for example, in the Georgia runoff — hot off the heels of Georgia swinging in 2020, they had a runoff in January — they said, “Our work is not done yet.” That is what they said to their voters. “Our work is not done yet. You did this historic thing. You're the reason. You delivered, and you're going to do it again.”

Obviously, it was also about Warnock, and Ossoff, and “Mitch better have my money,” but even “Mitch better have my money” is a voter agency message. It's saying, “you have the power here, and you're going to make this happen.” So first of all, voter as the protagonist. 

Then, with respect to the shitty, terrible things that we say about these shitty, terrible people, is inspiring defiance instead of fear. That's the distinction I want to draw on the negative side: It's really, really important that we not give in to fear-based messaging, but rather have the negative emotion that we evoke be anger and defiance.

Fear is an inhibiting emotion in most people. It evokes fight or freeze, but for the majority of people, it's freeze, not fight, and it only evokes fight in people who are already activists, not in people who need to engage. 

So what is the difference between fear and defiance? That's the difference between saying, “if Republicans are in power, it's going to unleash a new wave of Covid, you're going to get sick, you're going to die. Fuck. Holy shit.” Or, “Republicans are going to create these armed insurrections and they're going to come with militias.” Fear, fear, fear.

Instead, a message that says, “if Republicans think they're going to silence our voices and block our votes, they’ve got another think coming.” “We showed up and we showed out in 2020, and we're going to do it again.” “Not on our watch, not in our state, not in our country, back the fuck up.” That's the distinction.

David Roberts:   

Well, your lips to their ears, let's hope. Thank you so much for coming on and taking all this time. This is so incredibly relevant right now. Communicating well is always important in politics, but we are at a juncture where it's so vital and being done so poorly in so many places. So thank you, and good luck with your work, and we will probably chat again sometime; maybe we'll reconnect in a year or two and see how we can message about the wreckage. 

Anat Shenker-Osorio: 


David Roberts:

I mean, the surprise victory.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

Exactly. You have to manifest.

David Roberts:   

Positive thinking. All right. Thanks so much, Anat.

Anat Shenker-Osorio:  

Thank you. Have a wonderful holiday.

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Dec 20, 2021
The year in federal climate politics and what lies ahead
The year is coming to a close, which means us bloggers are obliged to do a year-end post, looking back on the year’s events and looking ahead to what’s next. I’ll be honest, I had second thoughts about whether to publish this post at all — my outlook is pretty gloomy and I don’t want to be a spreader of gloom — but I figure you pay me for the straight scoop. So here it is.

The broad story is that, as bad as it sometimes felt going through it, we are coming to the end of the most productive year of federal climate politics that any of us are likely to experience for a long, long time. I’m not sure it ever really sank in with most people, including Democrats in Congress, but this was the last big shot. After the Build Back Better Act passes (if it passes), that will be it for federal climate legislation.

After that, those of us hoping for climate progress will have to forget about first-best solutions and begin thinking in terms of guerrilla actions, in states, cities, and the private sector. That’s a very different mindset than the push for a centralized solution.

Let’s begin with a quick review of the events of the last year.

Democrats’ inevitably disappointing legislation limps toward the finish line

Joe Biden entered his first term as president in an impossible situation.

He was swept into office on a wave of high hopes, given total Democratic control over the federal government, in the wake of an election marked by expansive policy promises and record voter turnout.

At the same time, his majority in the Senate — salvaged by the two miraculous Democratic wins in Georgia — is razor-thin. Given the effectively automatic use of the filibuster by Republicans these days, absent filibuster reform, Democrats simply can’t pass bills under regular order. They can only pass bills through budget reconciliation, and even on that, they need the votes of every single one of their senators to do anything.

Given that basic structure, disappointment was inevitable.

Biden and the Democrats started strong out of the gate. Congress delivered the Covid relief bill. Biden issued a flurry of executive orders. Vaccination rates began rising. As long as Democrats were doing stuff, taking action, controlling the news cycle, Biden’s approval rating held up.

Around July-August, two things happened. First, Biden withdrew US troops from Afghanistan, after which the Taliban quickly took control, sparking an extended wave of hysterically negative mainstream press coverage. (Coverage of Biden in right-wing media was, of course, hysterically negative on day one and has been ever since.)

Second, legislative action ground to a halt and segued into months of frustrating negotiations, which continue to this day.

They split their big bill in two, allowing a bipartisan group of senators to hash out a roads-and-bridges infrastructure bill (the bipartisan infrastructure framework, or BIF) while leaving everything else to a second bill. The idea was to give Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) their bipartisan achievement, but to require that they pass it alongside a Dems-only reconciliation bill, the Build Back Better Act (BBB).

At the time, Democrats from Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on down pledged that the BIF would not pass without the BBB. The bills were a single package, they all emphasized. “It's going to be either both or nothing,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said.

What happened instead is that the bipartisan group put together a relatively bare-bones bill and got it passed through the Senate. That put immense pressure on the House to follow suit, despite everyone’s pledges. The progressive caucus, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), held together and refused to pass the BIF for as long as it could, but in November, it relented and the House passed the bill.

Progressives voted for the BIF based on a promise from Biden that he could secure Manchin’s vote for the BBB in something close to its present form. By all appearances thus far, that promise was worth very little. Manchin showed no sign at the time, and has showed no sign since, that he’s willing to vote for BBB as it stands.

In fact, before and after the BIF passed, he has done nothing but talk down the BBB, set arbitrary limits on its total size, and demand that elements be eliminated (like the Clean Electricity Payment Program) or radically pared back (like paid leave).

Sinema has been frustrating throughout the process, but at least for now, it looks like she got what she wanted — protecting Pharma from price competition and corporations from higher taxes — and is now ready to vote the bill through.

Manchin, on the other hand, has been nothing but a jerk, from the very beginning and at every stage. He’s been more of a jerk than is explicable even given the red lean of his state, even given his outlandishly corrupt conflicts of interest. He’s been a vain, inconstant, ill-informed font of conservative economic gibberish, theatrically sticking his thumb in the eyes of the other 49 members of his caucus.

He’s still being a jerk, calling for a “strategic pause” on the bill and citing inflation as a justification. (Economists say that the BBB will alleviate inflation.) He’s out peddling a fake Congressional Budget Office report from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), using it to go after the child tax credit, which is just about the most ignorant and malicious thing he could conceivably be doing.

Schumer keeps setting deadlines to vote on the BBB, but they keep blowing past with no agreement and no repercussions. Last week he was saying Christmas; now they’re talking about some time early next year.

As Biden’s approval rating continues struggling — the negative coverage that began with Afghanistan never ceased — and inflation drags on, Manchin is more and more empowered. He loves where he is right now: at the center of attention, the man in the middle, the Democrat who screws over other Democrats. He’ll stay in that spotlight as long as he can.

And that brings us up to date on the big picture. What about climate policy?

Build Back Better is still good climate policy

On climate, it’s been a roller coaster. Heading into the election, Dems across the party seemed united around an ambitious policy vision. The climate plans of the leading candidates reflected it, including, eventually, Biden’s.

When elected, rather than retreating from that agenda, Biden embraced it. He brought climate activists into the fold to help shape policy. He hired superstars for key energy-related positions. He said all the right things.

When the Covid relief bill was passed and attention turned to the BBB agenda, Sanders led with a $6 trillion proposal that was, among other things, a climate policy buffet. That was in June. Ever since then, Democratic climate plans have diminished.

The $6 trillion proposal became a $3.5 trillion proposal. Before the election, Manchin was saying he would support $4 trillion just on infrastructure, but in his new role as Jerk-in-Chief, he decided he would only support $1.5 trillion.

Of course, even after Dems cut down the bill to please him, he kept whacking. He took out the Clean Electricity Payment Program, the one energy policy in the bill that had some financial penalties alongside its rewards. He’s currently trying to kill the EV tax credit bonus for union-made vehicles (the Toyota plant in West Virginia isn’t unionized). He’s jacked up the size of the carbon-capture tax credits.

Who knows what else he’ll do. But it is notable that, when the $3.5 trillion bill was cut to a $1.75 trillion bill and then a $1.5 trillion bill, the overall size of climate spending, around $555 billion, remained almost the same. Clearly Democrats are prioritizing climate.

Despite all the frustrations along the way, it remains true that if the BBB passes in something like its present form, it will represent the biggest investment in carbon mitigation in US history.

As with all climate policy, how you rate it depends on what baseline you choose to measure against. It’s obviously much more than would have happened if Trump had won, or if Democrats had lost in Georgia. That is to say: it’s more than nothing.

It’s much more than the US has ever done before, including in Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill, which prompted enormous growth in clean energy. It’s more than I would have predicted the day after the Georgia elections.

Equally obviously, it’s far short of what’s needed, which is in the tens of trillions over the next several decades. It is unbalanced policy, consisting entirely of carrots (tax breaks and subsidies) with no sticks (regulations or fines) whatsoever. And it’s much worse off, its effects less certain, after Manchin got done with it.

Princeton did some modeling using the House version of the bill and found that, while the BIF alone would yield almost no emission reductions, and BBB + BIF + CEPP would reduce emissions enough to hit the US 2030 emissions target, BBB + BIF would … fall somewhat short, but be a hell of a lot better than BIF alone.

The three big lessons to draw from the modeling are a) the BIF alone is, from a climate perspective, basically worthless, and b) Manchin did serious damage to climate policy by removing the CEPP, however c) BBB remains remains America’s only real hope of staying even close to a safe climate trajectory. It desperately needs to pass.

What’s gonna happen?

My guess is, Manchin will continue being a jerk, whittling down the BBB well into spring, generating more stories about Dems in Disarray, frustrating and demotivating Democratic activists, driving down Biden’s approval rating, and rendering final passage of the bill (I do think something will ultimately pass) a sour affair about which no one will feel particularly excited.

Democrats will celebrate and tout the bill. At least some BBB money will begin reaching voters relatively quickly. But that alone will not be nearly enough to overcome the enormous headwinds facing Dems as they head into the midterms.

One of the only reforms that could make a real dent is the Freedom to Vote Act, which would give judges the power to reject overtly imbalanced redistricting. Without that reform, extreme recent Republican gerrymandering will remain in effect for a decade. It alone will guarantee the GOP the House in 2022, even if every voter votes the same as 2020.

But voting reform requires filibuster reform, and despite some recent buzz, Sinema appears immovable on the subject. Between her and Manchin, filibuster reform seems unlikely, which means voting reform is unlikely, which means Democrats are probably heading for a crushing defeat in the midterms. They stand to lose dozens of seats and control of the House.

Whether they lose the Senate depends on the size of the wave, which depends somewhat on events over the next year, particularly what happens with gas prices. If things go just right, Dems could hang on to the Senate. If things go poorly, they could lose it.

Either way, without the House, there will be no more federal legislating for Democrats — not in the last two years of Biden’s administration, likely not in the next 10 years, if not longer.

If they keep the Senate in 2022, Dems can stave off an impeachment (at least a successful one), install more good judges, and allow Biden space to pursue his executive agenda. If they lose it, some kind of impeachment effort becomes likely (Republicans will make something up). Certainly the final two years of Biden’s presidency will be defensive.

Controlling the House will allow Republicans to launch endless bogus investigations and subpoena Democratic lawmakers in retribution for the Jan. 6 panel. It will allow them even greater control over the news cycle. But most importantly, it will allow them to throw the 2024 election to Trump, no matter how many votes he receives.

As the Jan. 6 investigation has made extremely clear, Trump and his allies tried their best to steal the 2020 election. They were stopped by a few key Republican officials and (oddly) Vice President Mike Pence. They have been busy ever since clearing those obstructions, stocking key state election offices and legislatures with loyalists, gerrymandering safe districts in the House, and passing voter suppression laws across the country. They intend to accuse Democrats of cheating and steal the 2024 presidential election — they aren’t even particularly hiding it.

In short, US democracy is lurching toward one-party authoritarianism and I don’t see forces on the horizon capable of stopping it.

That’s a grim place to conclude our year in review, I realize. I don’t want to bum everyone out. Obviously, everyone should do everything in their power to prevent this outcome. Nothing is written in advance; there is always a chance the tide can be beat back. But at the same time, it’s worth thinking through how Biden and Democrats can maximize the coming year to minimize the damage.

And it’s worth beginning to think about how, if the federal government is taken off the board, climate progress can be made through subnational governments and the private sector.

I’ll have more to say soon on the positive story unfolding outside the federal government. And more to say about what four more years of Trump and Republicans could mean for the climate effort. But for now, I’ll just conclude by saying: the BBB must pass, no matter what. Everything depends on it.

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Dec 17, 2021
Discussing disinformation and media with Matt Sheffield
Matt Sheffield started his first conservative media website, bashing news anchor Dan Rather for liberal bias, way back in 2000, and in subsequent years became a key figure in right-wing media criticism.

But the rise of Trump left him disillusioned and he has since become a prominent critic of right-wing media. He now runs a site called Flux dedicated to accurate, inclusive journalism.

Last week, Matt and I got together on one of these live Twitter Spaces things — a glorified conference call, basically, to which people can tune in and ask questions — and had a wide-ranging conversation about the disinformation crisis, how it manifested in climate change, and what can be done about it.

The audio was archived, available exclusively to Flux and Volts subscribers. I hope you enjoy it.

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Dec 13, 2021
Don't Look Up: the first good movie about climate change
One of the most devilish aspects of climate change is that it resists good art. But Adam McKay, director first of comedies like Anchorman and later of more serious fare like The Big Short, has cracked the code. Don’t Look Up (in theaters today; coming to Netflix on Dec. 24) is the first climate movie — the first work of art about climate change of any kind — to hold my rapt attention from start to finish. It is fantastic.

One reason it’s so good is that it isn’t really about climate change at all. It’s about a pair of scientists, played by Leo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, who discover that a large comet is heading directly toward Earth and will strike, and wipe out all life on the planet, in just over six months. They try to tell people. It does not go well.

Don’t Look Up attempts to capture, not so much climate change itself, but one of the most vertiginously weird aspects of understanding climate change: you know this terrible thing is coming and yet … no one’s acting like it. You end up feeling like the ranting guy on the street corner waving a sign about how the end is nigh.

The movie is about having knowledge but being unable to make the knowledge matter, being unable to make anyone hear or act on it. By compressing the timeline to six months and making the threat a singular force, visible in the sky, it brings the absurdity of the situation to the surface. It’s hilarious, and if you’ve spent years banging your head against a wall trying to get people to pay attention to climate change, you will find a great deal of catharsis in the laughter.

Before we get to the movie, a word on climate and art.

Climate change makes for bad art

By its very nature, climate change is abstract, the sum of millions of observations and long chains of reasoning. It unfolds slowly, over the course of decades and centuries. Its effects are felt incrementally, across the globe, in disparate ways.

In short, climate change isn’t a good villain. It has no plans or intentions. It’s not even a singular force, it is simply the descriptor we apply to the panoply of changes happening around us.

The magic trick of good art is that it uses specificity — particular people, places, and relationships — to evoke universal human feelings. We have been designed by evolution to feel most intensely about things that are close to us, within spatial and temporal boundaries that are legible to us. We’re not designed to feel anything about a projected 50-year change in global average temperature.

We can know and understand that forecast in an intellectual way, but to really feel it, to integrate it into one’s basic narratives and worldview, requires conscious cultivation. It does not come naturally; it is not universal.

That makes climate change a lousy subject for art. Over the years that I have been writing about it I have been exposed to many, many songs, poems, documentaries, short stories, and novels about it. They are all like vegan food: the intentions are commendable, the spirit is good, it even looks on the outside like normal food, but the taste … let’s just say, it feels like I’m supposed to be eating it, and if I weren’t supposed to, I’d be eating something else that tastes better.

(Vegans: I love you. Please do not write me angry emails.)

So too with climate art. It runs into one or more of four main dangers.

One, it can be treacly. This is most climate documentaries: swelling orchestral music beneath shot after shot of Natural Beauty Under Threat.

Two, in order to compress climate change into something dramatic on a human time scale, it can mangle the science, as in 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, wherein a key scene finds our heroes fleeing from an oncoming wall of, uh, freezing. It’s not that I’m a stickler for strict scientific accuracy in art, but once you make climate change into a disaster fit for a disaster movie, you’ve changed all the structural features that make the climate crisis what it is. You’re not illuminating anything about the reality.

Three, it can be overly oblique, a metaphor for climate change that is so generic — “nature is good” (Avatar); “dystopia is bad” (Snowpiercer) — as to say nothing about climate change in particular.

Fourth, it can end up being didactic or educational. Though it is by all accounts informed and magisterial, I could could not get through Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. After an intense first chapter, it became a series of white papers teaching me stuff I already know. If I wanted to read PDFs I’d just read PDFs.

Climate is perilous territory for art. That brings us to Don’t Look Up.

Don’t Look Up defies the trend

I went into this film with extremely low expectations. I’ve seen the subject of climate change humble too many eager artists and storytellers to have much faith that anyone in Hollywood would get it right.

When I heard the basic setup — an analogy that everyone in the climate world has pondered at some point — my expectations did not rise. There are so many ways a story like that could go wrong. It could be broad or ham-handed; it could be overly clever; it could be didactic and preachy.

But somehow it’s great. I suppose that’s what happens when you get this idea in the hands of smart writers (politics’ own David Sirota helped with the story; McKay wrote the screenplay) and an unbelievably stacked cast.

DiCaprio and Lawerence convincingly shrink into nebbishy scientists, he with a middle-aged gut, she with unfortunate bangs. The MAGA president and the boozy cable news host could easily have been caricatures, but Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett are incapable of a false note. Every role down to the most incidental is played by marquee performers who fill their screen time with thoughtful choices. Every performance lands, keeping the proceedings grounded even as they grow more ridiculous.

It’s extremely funny, but not with rat-a-tat jokes. These are recognizably human characters, not broad types, stuck in absurd situations; the laughs arise out of the structure. There’s an editing technique used again and again: just as a scene is in the midst of its manic peak, there will be a hard cut to a new, quiet scene, often characters trying to process what happened. It made me laugh every time. (Credit to the venerable Hank Corwin for editing.)

Though it flirts with it at times, it never descends into farce. It’s just that everyone finds themselves lost in the same disorienting information environment, unable to connect.

Also? About two-thirds of the way through the movie, Timothée Chalamet wanders in as a character with no obvious connection to the plot and no clear reason to be there, but who is nonetheless an absolute delight for every second he’s on screen.

The film manages to be funny and allegorical and human all at once. But I think long-time climate hawks will take special pleasure in it.

So many climate feels, captured for the first time

I have no idea how normal people — people who haven’t spent most of their adult lives immersed in the subject of climate change — will process this movie. Will they see the climate analogy at all? It could just as easily be read as an analogy for Covid, or biodiversity loss, or nuclear war.

But if you’re a climate hawk, there’s no mistaking it: McKay has clearly been involved in this subject for a while. He captures a whole series of feelings and experiences that are painfully familiar.

There’s the feeling of telling the government about a threat and having it shrugged off. There’s the feeling of telling the press about the threat and having it subsumed and lost in the flattening stream of 24-hour content. There’s the feeling of being mocked and memed for being alarmed. There’s the feeling of needing to prove people wrong on the internet.

There’s the feeling of watching a body of science become the target of wild conspiracy theories and a partisan culture war. There’s the feeling of seeing the most obvious solutions to the problem delayed and deferred over corporate profits. There’s the feeling of seeing people jump straight from denial to nihilism, without any being-helpful stage in the middle. There’s the sinking feeling of watching people who have accepted the threat turning to glittery promises of future high-tech solutions.

There’s the feeling — which DiCaprio captures in a mid-movie rant that I, at least, found incredibly emotional — of hoping against hope that someone in charge, despite all the appearance of venality and stupidity, knows what they’re doing, has a handle on this thing.

And perhaps most acute of all, there’s the feeling that we simply can’t communicate any more, that there’s no way to establish a shared reality or shared priorities. Everything is absorbed by the information/media/entertainment machine, blasted out at the same volume as dozens of other daily clickbait outrages, and soon forgotten, like all the rest. Nothing lands, nothing sticks. There’s no way to cut through the noise.

“If we can’t all agree at the bare minimum that a giant comet the size of Mt. Everest hurtling its way toward planet Earth is not a fucking good thing,” DiCaprio cries, his voice cracking, “then what the hell happened to us? I mean, my God, how do we even talk to each other? What have we done to ourselves? How do we fix it?”

The movie does not offer answers to these questions. Without any spoilers, I can say it’s a pretty pessimistic take on our capacity for collective action. But I found it incredibly cathartic just to see my specific brand of anguish portrayed with such insight, more than I ever expected from a big-budget Hollywood movie.

Back here in the real world, climate remains stubbornly uncathartic. It has no six-month deadline; it will play out slowly over our whole lives and beyond. There will be no final moment of recognition and no clear line between success and failure. The result will be an unsatisfying muddle at every stage, with more suffering than there should have been but less than there could have been.

Still, we know that, in some sense, the comet has already begun striking. We’ve already lost some stability, some biodiversity, some lands and lives, and we will lose more, no matter what we do. It’s baked in at this point. We are living in the most stable climate we will ever experience. Every decade from now on will get warmer — more of the comet will strike. We can only control the scale of the damage.

After I watched Don’t Look Up (thank you Netflix), as I was eating dinner with my family, I couldn’t stop thinking about DiCaprio’s final words in the movie, as he is surrounded at the dinner table by family and friends: “We really did have everything, didn’t we?”

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Dec 10, 2021
Volts one-year anniversary: a letter to readers
On Dec. 7, 2020, one year ago, I sent out the first Volts post. At the time, I was extremely nervous. I had left behind a stable job at Vox and had no idea if a newsletter dedicated to clean energy and politics would find any readers, much less readers who would pay.

Over the last year I dug into carbon markets, transmission systems, lithium-ion batteries, and 24/7 carbon-free energy. I profiled new clean-energy legislation in Washington state, Colorado, and Illinois. There was a little philosophy and a lot of politics and policy. For the podcast, I talked to researchers, analysts, activists, and politicians.

I have reason to believe Volts has reached the corridors of power, though Joe Manchin has by all accounts remained immune to its charms.

I have a long list of topics for next year: clean-energy materials and recycling, embodied carbon, hydropower, hydrogen, and the possibilities for political progress under a dysfunctional (and possibly soon fascist) national government.

Anyway, one year in is probably too soon to draw any definitive conclusions, but from what I can tell, it’s working. I am absurdly grateful.

I try not to indulge in too much navel-gazing — mostly I keep that stuff confined to my neurotic inner monologue — but in this post I want to reflect a little bit on why I started Volts and what to expect from it in the coming year.

And I want to ask you, if you haven’t already, to sign up for a paid subscription — or, if you have a subscription already, to purchase one for someone else, perhaps as a holiday gift.

So: why did I start Volts? Two basic reasons.

Writing for my people …

One, although Vox gave me tons of latitude, there are limits to what you can do at a general-interest, ad-supported publication. You have to aim wide, to try to snare as many people as possible. Readers are likely to encounter your headline floating on Twitter or in their Facebook news feeds — you can not assume they know anything about you, your past work, or your subject matter.

So every new piece has to be an introduction. You can’t use any allusions to your previous work. You can’t reference any inside jokes. You can’t take anything for granted. (I can’t count how any times I had to explain that renewable energy is good because it reduces carbon emissions, which is good because it slows climate change, which is bad.)

And you can’t be too weird or idiosyncratic. Ultimately, though it is much more flexible than many publications, Vox needs every piece to be, at a basic level, a Vox piece. It has to represent the brand. That’s true for any publication or institution.

There’s nothing wrong with that — Vox has a great brand! If you visit, as I regularly do, you’re guaranteed to find a bunch of good Voxy pieces.

But I got tired of writing for everyone and no one in particular. I was ready to write for my people, to gather them up and take them with me so that we could learn together, follow ongoing themes and narratives, develop some in jokes, and shower the appropriate amount of love and attention on my dogs.

I’m well aware that I reached more people at Vox than I ever will at Volts. My gamble was simply that there would be enough of my people, and that they would be generous enough, that I could make a living writing for them — just them, not any “average reader” or editor or boss or publication.

I wanted to strip everything else away — the pressure to please higher-ups, the imperatives of attention-hunting in modern mass media — and focus purely on adding value, being of use.

… rather than The Man

The second reason I started Volts is that I am, at heart, a child of Gen X: I don’t want to work for The Man. I don’t want to make money for Comcast, or any giant media company, or any company at all, really. I don’t want to feel beholden to any advertiser or sponsor. I don’t want to be a representative of any faction or institution.

At Volts, I have only one incentive: to provide a service that you, my readers, find valuable enough to pay for. There’s no one here but you and me.

That feels like an honest living. It feels like something solid I can hang on to in increasingly turbulent times.

Volts survives entirely through subscriptions

I am editor-at-large for Canary Media, a relationship that allows my posts to be reprinted and reach more readers. But I live or die through paid subscriptions to Volts.

There are certain things I could do to boost my revenue that I’m not willing to do. I don’t want to put content behind a paywall — I want to be as useful as possible to as many readers as possible, even those who can’t afford a paid subscription. And I don’t want to hassle my mailing list with reminders and special offers and fundraising drives and bonus content. That stuff feels squicky to me.

But I do need to make enough money to live. And I’d like to make enough to be able to expand Volts and bring on new features and guest writers.

So I’m asking you, if you value what I do here and are in a financial position to do so, to sign up for a paid subscription or buy one for someone else.

For a year, you’ll pay about what you’d pay for one solo night out at a decent restaurant. You will get the ability to comment on posts and discussion threads, to be a part of the growing (and incredibly sharp and helpful) Volts community, but more than that, you will make it possible for me to keep doing this, to continue being of use.

Volts is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

I’ll do this as long as I can survive doing it. I hope it’s of service to you and you’ll support it.

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Dec 07, 2021
24/7 carbon-free energy: everything in one place
When I first started looking into 24/7 carbon-free energy (CFE) — a company or city matching its electricity consumption with clean electricity production on an hourly basis, throughout the year — I intended to write a single post on it. That worked out about as well as usual.

Below are summaries of and links to each of the 24/7 CFE posts. Above is a 24/7 CFE mega-pod, with the last three pods strung together into one podcast.

An introduction to energy's hottest new trend: 24/7 carbon-free electricity
What it would mean to supply a company or city with clean energy for every hour of its electricity consumption, every day of the year; why a company or city would want to do that; what kind of technology could do it; what market reforms are required to enable it.

Is 24/7 carbon-free energy the right goal?
Critics say that companies would be better off focusing solely on reductions in carbon emissions — after all, from the atmosphere’s perspective, no company’s emissions are more significant than any other’s. But proponents say 24/7 CFE accomplishes things beyond reducing carbon emissions.

The long-term promise of 24/7 carbon-free electricity
Some new modeling of 24/7 procurement out of Princeton reveals what it will do to carbon emissions, how much more it will cost, and the innovation and development it could spark in clean energy.

Volts is free of ads or sponsorships; it runs entirely on reader subscriptions. If you value this kind of explanatory journalism, please consider becoming a paid subscriber to Volts, or giving someone you know a subscription as a gift. I appreciate you all.

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Nov 29, 2021
The long-term promise of 24/7 carbon-free electricity
Over the course of the last few days … [checks calendar] … er, month, I’ve been digging into the new trend in voluntary climate action: procuring 24/7 carbon-free electricity (CFE), matching consumption with production every hour of every day.

In my first post, I introduced the idea and explained what motivates it and what it entails. In my second, I puzzled through the biggest controversy around it, which is about whether it’s the right goal at all — whether companies and cities ought instead to focus solely on reducing emissions (with no regard to who produced them, or where).

This post will make a great deal more sense to you if you’ve read those.

Today, in the final post in this series (promise), we’re going to look at some new modeling of 24/7 procurement from Princeton’s ZERO Lab and see if it can shed some light on the trade-offs among different procurement strategies. Then we’ll wrap up with some provisional conclusions.

The model

ZERO Lab models three scenarios for voluntary corporate clean-energy procurement, with 10 percent participation from the commercial and industrial (C&I) sector: no procurement (as a baseline), procuring for 100 percent annual match on a volumetric basis, and procuring for 24/7 match.

Each scenario is run in two separate markets, California and the PJM Interconnection (an electricity balancing area that covers 13 Northeastern states and DC). Modeling in two markets helps tease out how 24/7 could unfold differently depending on how clean a grid is to begin with — high penetration of variable renewables in California vs. a relatively dirty grid in the Northeast.

The model is premised on the idea that participating C&I customers aggregate their demand and pool their purchasing power, effectively acting as a miniature balancing authority. This may or may not be how things play out in the real world. Customers could act on their own, disaggregated and uncoordinated. The lab’s going to model that kind of scenario soon.

Note: The lab did not model a procurement strategy optimized to reduce maximum carbon emissions. (Jesse Jenkins, who leads the lab, refuses to use the word “emissionality.” He insists on “carbon-optimized procurement.” Don’t worry, he’ll crack like the rest of us.) Modeling carbon-optimized procurement would have been a lot of extra work and the funder of the research, Google, did not ask or pay them to do it, so if you’re a wealthy corporate or philanthropy out there reading this, pay the lab to model it!

Let’s look at a few of the findings.

24/7 procurement reduces the carbon intensity of a company’s energy portfolio

As companies push their CFE scores higher — meaning, as they match more and more of their hourly consumption with hourly production of CFE — they reduce the carbon intensity of their portfolio. At a certain level of CFE, they reduce it beyond what they would accomplish with 100 percent annual matching.

Take California. It already has a fairly clean grid — every company starts with a minimum CFE score of 64 percent, just by being located there. If a company procures the cheapest clean energy to match 100 percent of its annual consumption, its CFE score gets to 75 percent. There are still 25 percent of hours in which it is drawing on at least some fossil energy.

As a company’s CFE scores rise beyond 75 percent, the emissions rate of its portfolio falls further, steadily to zero at a CFE score of 100 percent.

(Another note here: “Current technologies” means wind, solar, batteries, and, at least in California, conventional geothermal. “Advanced technologies, no combustion” includes advanced geothermal and nuclear, along with long-duration energy storage. “Advanced technologies, full portfolio” includes all of the above, plus natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration [CCS] and combustion turbines running on zero-carbon hydrogen fuels. The reason the green bar never fully reaches a zero emissions rate is that there are residual emissions associated with natural gas and CCS.)

PJM is a different story. It’s pretty dirty — participants there start with a baseline CFE score of just 22 percent. So a simple strategy of 100 percent annual matching results in a huge drop in emissions rate, though it only gets participants to a CFE score of 62 percent. Once again, as participants raise their CFE scores beyond that, the emission rate declines to zero.

However, 24/7 procurement does not just reduce participants’ own emissions rates.

24/7 procurement drives more system-level carbon reductions

In California, if 10 percent of the C&I sector participates, 24/7 procurement would reduce more system-level (as opposed to participant-level) emissions than a 100 percent annual matching strategy, starting at a collective CFE score of 88 percent.

There are two explanations for this. The first is a volume effect — participants doing 24/7 matching simply have to buy more CFE, and with more CFE, more fossil generation is displaced. The second is a timing effect — participants doing 24/7 matching procure resources that better match demand patterns, thus displacing more fossil generation.

Here’s PJM:

PJM starts out with much less solar and wind. That means that, while the volume effect does advantage 24/7 once CFE scores reach 90 percent, the timing effect isn’t very pronounced (the marginal generator is basically always fossil), and the net difference doesn’t amount to much.

So 24/7 procurement reduces more system-level emissions than 100 percent annual matching, but only at relatively high CFE scores and not by a huge amount.

24/7 procurement comes at a relatively steep cost premium

There’s no two ways about it: 24/7 procurement costs more. And the costs rise as CFE scores get closer to 100 percent, especially if only current technologies are available.

Here’s California.

Note that covering that last 10 percent, getting from 90 to 100 percent CFE, sees costs rapidly escalate, especially for the last 2 percent.

If only commercially available technologies are put to use, 24/7 CFE is 64 percent more expensive than 100 percent annual matching. If a full portfolio of technologies is available, it’s only 39 percent more expensive.

The current technology costs are easy to explain: it’s extremely expensive to cover the last 10 percent of consumption with only wind, solar, batteries, and conventional geothermal. But why is the green line so much lower than the blue line?

The difference between blue and green comes down to which clean-firm sources are available. The “no combustion” set — long-duration energy storage, advanced geothermal, and advanced nuclear — has high fixed costs (labor and construction) and low variable costs (operation and maintenance).

But the “full portfolio” set includes combustion-based sources like natural gas with CCS and turbines running hydrogen fuels, which have lower fixed costs but higher variable costs, and that turns out to be much cheaper when the sources are run at low utilization rates, as these will be.

In PJM, the cost differential is even greater:

With only currently available technologies — which, remember, do not include geothermal in PJM — the cost of 24/7 procurement is 139 percent higher than the cost of 100 percent annual matching. Yikes.

But with the full portfolio, 24/7 is only 54 percent more expensive. In PJM, “procuring clean firm generation or long duration energy storage technologies can significantly lower marginal abatement costs, particularly at higher CFE scores.” It really helps, on a dirty grid, to have some clean-firm sources that cover the last few percent.

OK, let’s pause here and assess what we’ve learned. We know that 24/7 procurement can reduce and eventually zero out the carbon intensity of a participant’s own portfolio, though of course, from a climate perspective, that’s basically irrelevant. In system terms, 24/7 procurement reduces emissions more than 100 percent annual matching, but only a modest amount — and that modest amount comes at a substantial cost premium.

Here the emissionality perspective taps us on the shoulder. It points out that, in either case (100 percent annual or 24/7) companies could reduce more emissions with the same amount of money by directing that money to dirtier grids. Companies are spending extra money to reduce “their own” emissions when the atmosphere doesn’t care whose emissions are whose.

Emissionaries (ha ha, another new word!) might ask, what’s so great about 24/7 over and above 100 percent annual matching? Why are the companies procuring for 24/7 willing to spend so much more money for so little additional emission reduction? Why don’t they spend that money on dirty grids where it will reduce more emissions?

The main answer from proponents is that 24/7 procurement will do more to prepare the way for, and reduce the cost of, full grid decarbonization. It is playing the long game.

24/7 procurement drives early deployment of clean-firm sources

While procuring for 100 percent annual matching generally means buying only wind and solar, procuring for 24/7 matching will necessarily include, depending on local prices and technology availability, not only batteries but “conventional and advanced geothermal, advanced nuclear, natural gas power plants with CCS, gas plants using zero-carbon fuels, and/or long duration energy storage.”

Here’s 24/7 procurement in California with 10 percent C&I participation in 2030 with current tech, advanced tech with no combustion, and the full portfolio:

In the first and second cases, the story is about solar, geothermal, and batteries. But with the full portfolio, geothermal drops out almost entirely, replaced by natural gas with CCS (and a few zero-carbon-fuel turbines), which will be considerably cheaper.

This is not likely to be a popular result — I can’t say I like it — but it looks like, on grids with high penetration of variable renewables that need some low-utilization clean-firm generation to fill the gaps, natural gas with CCS may be the cheapest option.

Here’s PJM:

In the current-technologies case, it’s all about solar and batteries — and as we saw above, it’s expensive AF. In the advanced-tech-no-combustion case, advanced nuclear steps in and vastly reduces the total amount of CFE required, thus shaving off a big chunk of the cost.

In the full-portfolio case, natural gas with CCS once again replaces most other clean-firm generation, including nuclear, reducing costs further.

Summing up: “If 10% of C&I customers participate and reach 100% CFE, 1.9-2.3 GW of clean firm generation and long-duration storage capacity is deployed in California and 5.9-7.1 GW in PJM by 2030.”

That’s a lot! Enough to kickstart those markets.

“Just as 100% annual matching helped transform wind and solar PV from expensive ‘alternative energy sources’ to mainstream, affordable options for the world,” the report says, “24/7 procurement is likely to have similar transformative impacts on clean firm resources.”

Here’s a chart of what different procurement strategies can accomplish:

What’s the right time horizon for voluntary climate policy?

So where does this leave us on the debate between 24/7 and emissionality? Should companies reduce their own hour-to-hour emissions or should they just reduce the most emissions they can, regardless of location and timing?

Of course, there’s no real reason to pit them against one another. Companies can do one or the other or a mix, depending on their particular values. Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing question, and I admit to remaining torn.

I frequently argue that post-2030 decarbonization is, if anything, drawing too much attention from policymakers, corporates, and tech types, at least relative to the prime directive of climate policy: rapidly reducing emissions in the coming decade by driving fossil fuel power plants off the grid with cheap wind and solar.

That core task is by no means accomplished. Most grids in the US remain much dirtier than California’s, with plenty of room for more wind and solar. Before they get too excited about advanced nuclear and CCS, everyone needs to make sure that wind and solar are growing fast enough to mostly decarbonize the grid by 2030.

I worry that 24/7 procurement is part of this trend: turning our eyes to the 2040-2050 horizon, the last 10 to 20 percent of grid decarbonization, before we have the first 80 percent locked in.

That said, I don’t worry about that too much. Getting to 24/7 CFE will involve buying plenty of wind and solar along the way. Long-term power purchase agreements will remain the gold standard; hourly trading of renewable energy certificates will be used to fill in the gaps with balancing resources. And all the companies pursuing 24/7 procurement will be invested in their local grids building more wind and solar — it raises their CFE baseline.

What’s more, I think the socio-technological process of stimulating innovation and development in these gap-filling clean-energy technologies is going to turn over all kinds of rocks and uncover all kinds of insights. We’re still somewhat guessing about which technologies will best play the clean-firm role. Reality could surprise us. The sooner we run that investigation, the sooner we’ll have a better grasp of exactly what we need and how to craft policy around it.

So for now, I remain excited about 24/7 CFE and I can’t wait to see more companies and cities jump on the bandwagon. People are beginning to think about full decarbonization now. The engineers and accountants are running the numbers. We’re going to see some really cool stuff happen soon.

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Nov 24, 2021
Is 24/7 carbon-free energy the right goal?
Last week, I wrote an introduction to the hot new trend in energy: 24/7 carbon-free energy (CFE), i.e., matching a company or city’s power consumption with production of clean electricity throughout the day, every hour of every day. If you haven’t read it yet, you’ll want to check it out before reading this post.

Today, I want to talk about a big debate around 24/7 CFE, regarding whether it’s the right goal for companies and cities to adopt at all. Exploring that debate will help us get our heads around what 24/7 CFE can and can’t accomplish.

But first, a quick refresher.

Here’s the idea: right now, in addition to generating electricity, renewable energy projects generate renewable energy certificates (RECs), one for each megawatt-hour. They can sell the RECs to any entity looking to buy renewable energy. For instance, a company or city that wants to go “100 percent renewable” can simply buy enough RECs to cover its yearly electricity consumption.

At least two changes would be required to make 24/7 CFE possible. First, “renewable energy” would expand to “carbon-free energy.” Any generator putting out electrons without carbon emissions, including nuclear or natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), would qualify.

And second, RECs, rather than coming in month- or year-long chunks, would be issued in time-stamped increments of an hour, so that buyers could target procurement at the particular hours of the day when they need CFE. Eventually, each hourly REC would contain information about avoided carbon emissions, so buyers could tally up the carbon impact of their purchases.

That’s the vision.

In this post, I’m going to discuss an objection to 24/7 and some counter-arguments to the objection. Then, in my next post (yes, this is turning into 24/7 Month), I’ll look at some new modeling of the impact of 24/7 procurement and try to draw some conclusions. We’re going to have a good time.

Measuring carbon is mostly doable

An intrinsic part of the 24/7 CFE vision is that each hourly REC will be tagged with a certain amount of avoided carbon. This will allow buyers to make procurement decisions that take emissions into account.

There are some issues and controversies around calculating avoided carbon, though they’re not the ones I’m going to focus on today. Some carbon counters have proprietary formulas (like WattTime) and some are trying to develop open-source methods (like EnergyTag).

The numbers they produce are not radically different, but they do differ. They vary in how they calculate the marginal (most expensive) energy source on the grid at a given moment — the marginal generator is the one that will spin down to make room when the CFE is produced. They differ in how to draw the geographic boundary of analysis, which can affect results. And other stuff like that.

“To go from the generation data to the local carbon emissions data is not trivial,” says Toby Ferenczi, founder of EnergyTag, “because you're trying to model the flow of electrons. Until you can track a single electron through the system, there will always be different types of approximations.”

There’s also the question of how distributed energy resources (DERs) are treated. Right now, grid operators tend to have little visibility into or control over DERs; energy generated locally, on a distribution grid, is viewed by grid operators as reduced demand on that grid. Bringing DERs more fully into the picture as deployable resources is an important long-term challenge.

There are data issues too. If you look at electricityMap, which seeks to track the carbon intensity of every grid in the world, at every hour, you will see that there are still big holes, areas where utilities have not made the data public. New regulations and laws requiring grid operators to make these numbers available is another priority.

Anyway, I’m not going to dig into these technical issues. I have faith that, if an hourly REC market gets going, these kinds of questions will be ironed out. The general sentiment is that it is more important to have a common set of numbers than it is for those numbers to be accurate down to the decimal.

Instead, let’s turn to the more fundamental challenge to 24/7 CFE.

24/7 vs. emissionality

Unlike air pollution, which concentrates where it is emitted, carbon dioxide diffuses completely into the atmosphere. It doesn’t matter where it is emitted; all tons are the same, from a climate perspective. One company or city’s emissions are no different than any others. There’s nothing about your hourly emissions that make them special.

It follows that, if you’re a company that wants to reduce carbon emissions, the thing to do is buy clean energy on the dirtiest grid possible, wherever it will displace the most carbon-intensive energy and thus prevent the most emissions. If you take an international perspective, that will probably be somewhere overseas, in Asia or Africa; if you take a US perspective, it will be in states like West Virginia, Wyoming, and Kentucky.

The best way to do this is with bundled RECS — RECs purchased together with the energy that produced them, through long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) — because that’s the approach most likely to actually lead to new clean energy projects being built. But “most organizations are not in a position to sign long term PPAs,” says Ferenczi. “All they know is: I want to buy good electricity, not bad electricity.” For them, unbundled RECs are the only option.

Either way, if you want to reduce emissions with your CFE procurement, it must be guided not only by what’s most likely to lead to new projects (“additionality”), but also by what will reduce the most emissions (“emissionality”).

This word emissionality is a terrible neologism — the latest of many out of the energy world — but I’m living with it, because it’s a helpful way to refer to the quantification of carbon emission reductions.

Now, take note: optimizing your clean-energy procurement for emissionality is different from optimizing it for your own 24/7 consumption.

The former strategy maximizes emission reductions. The latter does not. In some cases, optimizing around your own consumption could fail to reduce emissions or even increase net emissions, despite increasing your share of CFE.

One simple example: imagine one company has signed a bunch of solar PPAs and thus has more hourly RECs during the day than it needs to cover its consumption, but it has a shortage at night; another company has signed a bunch of wind PPAs and thus has excess hourly RECs at night, but a shortage during the day. The companies can simply trade hourly RECs. Each has increased its CFE score, but no new clean energy was built and no carbon emissions were reduced.

Another example is how companies choose to deploy batteries. Mark Dyson, an energy analyst at RMI, explained it to me this way:

A battery optimized for 24/7 would charge when a buyer has procured “excess” renewable energy in a particular hour, but in most grids, for the foreseeable future, a fossil generator will usually be the marginal unit at the system level — so charging storage increases carbon emissions in that hour.

Discharging the battery later would offset generation from another fossil generator and reduce emissions, but there’s no guarantee the difference in efficiency of those power plants is greater than the round-trip-efficiency penalty of using the battery, and thus total emissions can actually increase.

In other words, optimizing battery deployment to cover 24/7 consumption will be different from, in some cases contrary to, deploying them to optimize emission reductions.

Nobody has yet modeled exactly how much these two strategies would diverge, or how frequent cases like the ones above might be, but no one disputes that they would diverge. A strategy built around emissionality would, by definition, reduce more emissions than any alternative strategy built around any other goal.

And this is the critique of 24/7 CFE: emissions are emissions. Reducing any one company’s emissions is of no particular benefit to the climate. Just reduce emissions wherever you can — that’s the climate imperative.

This same debate expresses itself in several different forms. One way to think of the distinction is between “attributional” and “consequential” carbon accounting. Critics (see, e.g., this paper from WattTime) say attributional accounting — purchasing energy with a REC attached — is fine for statutory or voluntary clean-energy requirements. But when it comes to reducing carbon emissions, companies should use consequential accounting, i.e., purchasing energy that has the most short-term emission-reduction impact.

The same debate crops up again between “hourly average” and “marginal” carbon measurement. One can either assess a unit of CFE based on its effect on the hourly average emissions on the grid in the hour it is produced or based on the carbon intensity of the marginal generator it displaces. Hourly averages are, for a variety of reasons, easier to determine, and can be used to boost your own CFE score, but a marginal approach (measuring “nodal marginal emissions”) will tell you which energy purchase will maximize short-term emission reductions.

All these debates are forms of the same question: why not focus on carbon emissions? As Henry Richardson of WattTime put it to me, “measure emissions, not megawatt hours.”

The emissionality critique — that emissions, not any company’s particular emissions, are the proper target for procurement strategies — is worth taking seriously. Everyone in the space has wrestled with it. Let’s run through a few possible responses and counter-arguments.

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Industrial policy vs. carbon policy

When I talked to Princeton energy modeler Jesse Jenkins — who contributed to the modeling of 24/7 CFE we’ll look at in the next post — he suggested a helpful analogy to the debate between emissionality and 24/7: the debate between a carbon tax and more sector-specific standards and investments, i.e., industrial policy.

A carbon tax is the most economically efficient way to reduce emissions — it will go after the cheapest emissions first. But by doing so, it will leave untouched many sectors of the economy that we will eventually need to decarbonize to get to 100 percent net-zero.

If we leave them untouched for too long, we’ll run into a wall. “We need to be thinking about the total solution,” says Melissa Lott, research director at the Center on Global Energy Policy. “Otherwise we're going to get halfway down the road, have to take a hard left, and it's going to be painful and expensive.”

The emissionality vs. 24/7 debate takes the same form. An emissionality approach would reduce emissions at a lower per-ton cost — it would go after the cheapest reductions first, usually by adding wind and solar to dirty grids.

But a 24/7 approach will direct investment toward technologies that fill the gaps left by wind and solar. “And there are gaps,” says Lott. “These gaps aren't eight or even 100 hours, which can be solved with different battery technologies. They're eight to 14 days.”

To cover those gaps will require “clean firm” generation, many sources of which are still in nascent forms of development. The pursuit of 24/7 CFE will stimulate innovation and growth in the entire suite of technologies needed to smooth out variable renewables — sources all grids will eventually need and many already do. (California power providers are already putting out solicitations for clean-firm projects.)

In fact, says Brian Janous, Microsoft’s director of energy and renewables, even the early talk of 24/7 CFE has gotten people thinking about solutions. “We're seeing more and more utilities, and more and more energy service providers, come to us and say, hey, we think we can solve this problem for you,” he says.

Companies pursuing 24/7 CFE are undertaking voluntary industrial policy, channeling attention and investment to gaps in current clean-energy technology, bringing down the costs so that other companies can use them more easily. That could have impacts well beyond their own emissions.

Here’s how Jenkins put it to me:

The heart of 24/7 carbon-free procurement is the pursuit of transformative impact on electricity systems via accelerated innovation. Think about the indirect emissions impacts from helping accelerate the time to maturity (or enable in the first place) one or more clean firm technologies or long-duration energy storage technologies that can go on to widespread adoption and make reaching 100 percent carbon-free electricity easier for the world.

Leadership isn't just about doing one's part. It is about making it easier for others to follow. For a company, even one as large as Google, this impact is likely to far outpace any direct emissions reductions they achieve via procurement.

24/7 CFE needs to be seen in its full context

None of the entities pursuing 24/7 CFE today see their own achievement of 24/7 CFE as the ultimate end goal. The goal is grid decarbonization.

“We break it into three pillars,” says Michael Terrell, Google’s director of energy. “First is transacting,” i.e., contracting with developers to ensure Google’s own 24/7 supply of CFE. “Second is advancing technology, both on the demand side and the supply side,” i.e., the industrial-policy piece. “Lastly is policy and grid decarbonization,” i.e., advocating for clean-energy policies before state public utility commissions (PUCs) and legislatures, to hasten decarbonization of the grids in which it operates.

“For us, it's not a win if the only way we get to 24/7 in each place is by transacting,” he says. “We want to get the grids moving in that direction, too.”

When it comes to the standard way of getting to “100 percent clean energy,” companies can just buy cheap RECs from distant grids. They don’t need to get involved beyond that. “That was a concern of ours,” Terrell says. “Companies were getting to 100 percent without having to consider the future of the grids where they were operating or do any policy.”

In contrast, if a company is trying to cobble together a 24/7 supply of CFE on its local grid, it becomes much more invested in the state of that grid. The more CFE is on the grid, the higher the baseline from which it begins transacting for its own CFE. That will get companies involved in pushing utilities to make clean-energy commitments, pushing PUCs to clear away anachronistic regulations, and pushing legislatures to pass clean-energy policy.

“We are trying to drive massive system change well beyond Google,” says Terrell. “The idea behind 24/7 is, you want corporates to have a stake in every grid where they operate. You want them to be banging the table, driving system change on these grids, getting these grids to carbon-free as fast as possible.”

Janous says that Microsoft also wrestled with the 24/7 vs. emissionality debate as it determined its next steps. “Ultimately, we determined that local influence is still important,” he says. “Our ability to influence PUCs and local utilities, and do that worldwide across dozens and dozens of different markets, was more important than taking a pure-play emissionality approach in one market.”

Time will tell how strong that local influence proves to be. What happens if progress on local grids is slow? Lott thinks the pursuit of 24/7 will move forward some tough calls. Entities pursuing 24/7 “are going to have to make a decision here in the next few years,” she says. “Do we keep our data center in this location where we don't see a clear path to [24/7], or do we move it? Do we shift investment somewhere else? This is going to be an interesting tension that will play out around 2025, ‘26.”

This is an aspect I think critics of 24/7 CFE tend to miss: the social dynamics. If it becomes the new standard for climate-conscious companies and cities, there will be dozens, maybe hundreds of them doing it, spread out across all of America’s many balkanized grids. Each will have reason to serve as a local clean-energy emissary. Each will be invested in the others’ success — one company’s PPA boosts the grid mix for every other company on that grid.

Companies will be incentivized to pool their resources for greater impact, as many are already doing through the Clean Energy Buyers Association (CEBA), which organizes and accelerates voluntary clean energy procurement. (A telling tidbit: until quite recently, CEBA was REBA, but “renewables” have given way to “clean.”)

In short, the movement to 24/7 has the potential to drive social and political change in a way that traditional REC markets never could and arguably a pure emissionality approach couldn’t either.

Emissionality can inform a hybrid approach

The choice between 24/7 and emissionality does not have to be a stark either/or. It is possible to use both perspectives for different jobs, or to blend them.

Take the hourly-average vs. marginal debate. “All of these accounting systems have their advantages,” says Terrell. If you’re thinking about offsetting the consumption of a large facility, “you want to be looking long term, at the 10-to-15-year roadmap of that grid, and average emissions is fine for that,” he says.

On the other hand, if you’re thinking about offsetting the emissions of product supply chains and product use — which are spread out across the country — there are no local consumption concentrations to target, so you might take a marginal approach to seek the cheapest, fastest emission reductions.

Put another way: you can use hourly averages to offset your scope 2 emissions and marginal to offset your scope 3 emissions.

Microsoft, Janous says, takes emissionality very seriously:

The way I think about it is, there are three stages of impact. The first one is attribution — it's just buying RECS. Then, five years in, we moved to we would call additionality — it's not good enough for me to have this attribute, I need to have an attribute tied to something that I actually did.

We're now getting into this third era, which is what I would deem consequential — not only do I need to say that I caused it, I need to be able to demonstrate that I'm materially changing the makeup of carbon on the grid.

With that in mind, he says, Microsoft has developed a “hybrid form.”

By pursuing 24/7, “we are going to look at each grid where we operate and we're going solve for that,” he says. “If we can achieve 100 percent decarbonization of our energy supply across our portfolio, we've demonstrated that you can do it just about anywhere.”

“By virtue of taking that grid-level approach, we are not going to have perfect optimization for emissionality,” he says, “but we're going to apply [emissionality] within that grid context.” In other words, within the grids containing Microsoft’s local loads, Microsoft will purchase the CFE that reduces the maximum emissions.

In this hybrid approach, neither 24/7 CFE nor emissionality is perfectly optimized, but both are pushed forward together.

“We feel like the principle [of emissionality] is still extraordinarily valuable,” Janous says, “even when you do it in this hybrid way.”

Other values could supplement 24/7 as well

Janous, Terrell, and pretty much everyone else I spoke to emphasized that there are other values beyond emission reduction that are important to integrate into procurement decisions as well, most notably environmental justice.

Last year, Salesforce released a white paper, “More Than a Megawatt,” explaining its evolving view on large-scale corporate procurement. It wants to go beyond emissionality to assess potential clean-energy projects based on a whole range of criteria, from equity to land use to impacts on wildlife.

There are always trade-offs among these metrics, so Salesforce has developed a “procurement matrix” that will help weigh all these factors and determine which projects best optimize for multiple values. (A similar whitepaper was recently released by LevelTen Energy, a renewable energy procurement platform.)

Notice that the more of these values enter your procurement matrix, the farther you are from a pure 24/7 play. Instead of optimizing for any single value, you are — as in life generally — trying to balance multiple competing values under time and resource constraints.

That can be complicated. It will help if big players like Salesforce create some standardized tools and metrics that make it easier for mid-sized companies to follow suit. Individual companies and cities can decide for themselves how much weight they want to give to 24/7 CFE relative to other values.

Anyway! This post, like the last one, has gotten way too long. If you’ve stayed with me this long, you are definitely a Volts reader and should purchase a subscription!

In my next post, we’ll have a close look at some new modeling of 24/7 procurement from Princeton’s Zero Lab and then see, based on that and all that has come before, whether we can draw some provisional conclusions about 24/7 CFE.

Notice that the more of these values enter your procurement matrix, the farther you are from a pure 24/7 play. Instead of optimizing for any single value, you are — as in life generally — trying to balance multiple competing values under time and resource constraints.

That can be complicated. It will help if big players like Salesforce create some standardized tools and metrics that make it easier for mid-sized companies to follow suit. Individual companies and cities can decide for themselves how much weight they want to give to 24/7 CFE relative to other values.

Anyway! This post, like the last one, has gotten way too long. If you’ve stayed with me this long, you are definitely a Volts reader and should purchase a subscription!

In my next post, we’ll have a close look at some new modeling of 24/7 procurement from Princeton’s Zero Lab and then see, based on that and all that has come before, whether we can draw some provisional conclusions about 24/7 CFE.

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Nov 19, 2021
Don't get too bummed out about COP26
Hey y’all, just a quick thing today (as I work on my follow-up to Friday’s post).

I was on Pod Save America last week:

One of the things I talked about is the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, which wrapped up last week with a final agreement that … say it with me … represented real progress but fell short of what’s needed. Just like all the other COP agreements.

I had a pretty deflationary take on the whole thing on the pod. Given the melodramatic rhetoric around COP26 — the same rhetoric that attends every international climate summit — I thought I’d briefly explain why I don’t think COP26 is worth getting down about.

By way of background, remember that there were effectively two climate events at the COP, as there always are. One was the COP itself, the business of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The other was a kind of climate festival-cum-trade-show, featuring governments, nonprofits, and private-sector actors announcing all kinds of new campaigns and initiatives alongside the UNFCCC process — and protestors marching outside.

First event first.

The Paris Agreement continues to play out

The actual business of COP26 mostly involved negotiators from various countries in cramped conference rooms hashing out technical details of elements of the Paris Agreement — about monitoring and verification, about who is contributing how much to the climate fund for poorer countries, about how often countries will report new targets, and so forth.

None of that stuff was particularly dramatic; it was all the usual incremental, too-slow movement forward. There was some drama at the last minute when India — which had started COP26 with a bang, promising to hit net-zero emissions by 2070 — demanded that a provision on a global coal “phase-out” be rewritten to say “phase-down.” (This was disappointing, but keep in mind this is the first time fossil fuels have been specifically mentioned in a COP agreement at all.)

Much was made of this and other shortcomings of the final agreement, but there’s a weird kind of disconnect around this commentary. What people seem to forget is that the UNFCCC has no real power to enforce anything and there isn’t the unity needed among participating countries to create a binding target with real consequences.

This was the origin of the Paris Agreement: the realization that the best the UNFCCC could do is structure and publicize voluntary national goals and commitments. The idea was to do with transparency and peer pressure what decades of adversarial negotiations couldn’t: steadily increase ambition.

A shorter way of saying this is that a COP agreement can’t make a country do anything. Whether and how fast India phases out coal has nothing at all to do with what its diplomat says in Glasgow and everything to do with domestic Indian politics, which have their own logic and are only faintly affected by international politics.

The utility of the Paris process is that every few years it provides the equivalent of a giant camera flash, revealing where everyone stands. That is useful. International transparency and peer pressure can sometimes move national governments. But it is a mistake to invest any particular hopes for change in the UNFCCC process — it can’t really do anything. It can only illuminate what is being done.

What is being done

The good news is, we’re making progress. A decade ago, we were on track for 4° to 6° Celsius average warming by the end of the century, which would have been species-threatening.

As this report from Climate Action Tracker shows, thanks to actions taken by national governments since then, we have “bent the curve” on climate change, as it were, and brought the average expected warming down to 2.7°C.

That would still be devastating. But we’re not going to stop there. Progress is only accelerating. If every country that has submitted a 2030 carbon target in the Paris process — an NDC, or nationally determined contribution — hits that target, average warming will be 2.4°C.

If all short- and long-term targets submitted thus far are achieved, it’s down to 2.1°C. In CAT’s “optimistic scenario” — in which all targets announced by anyone anywhere are met — the average is 1.8°C.

As the CAT report emphasizes, that’s still short of the Paris goal. There’s still a credibility gap between what countries say they want to achieve and what they are willing to offer. There’s certainly no reason for complacency.

But the trajectory is in the right direction. There’s still plenty of reason to fear where we are currently headed, but at the same time, there’s no reason to think that five years from now, at the next major Paris “stocktake,” we’ll still be headed there.

We’re bending the curve and lots of forces and institutions are lining up behind the effort. Speaking of which …

Climate Woodstock

Alongside every official COP is a kind of international festival where everyone who’s doing anything on climate goes to talk about it. Bi- and multi-lateral coalitions, states, cities, nonprofits, corporations — everyone gravitates to the moment when media attention will be most intense.

There was a bit of a sour taste at the festival this year, given that fossil fuels were abundantly represented and the poorest and most vulnerable were, thanks to Covid, unusually under-represented.

Nonetheless, amidst the unsavory optics came all kinds of heartening news. There was a global treaty on methane, brokered by the US and the UK, which has been signed by more than 100 countries. A group of renewable energy players created the 24/7 Carbon-free Energy Compact in partnership with Sustainable Energy for All and UN Energy (see my explainer on 24/7 clean energy).

A group of governments and private funders pledged to spend a total of $1.7 billion on Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) protecting local biodiversity. Over 100 countries pledged to stop deforestation by 2030.

A group of philanthropic and development organizations and governments called the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP) pledged $10.5 billion toward helping emerging economies transition from fossil fuels. Similarly, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) pledged over $130 trillion of private capital to the energy transition.

And so on. What this shows is an immense amount of will in the world to address this problem, struggling to organize. There’s so much going on.

Another thing I said on Pod Save America is that national governments are often going to be in the caboose of this train — civic groups, the private sector, and subnational governments are leading the way. That’s distributed all over the world, less easy to see and sum up, but it shows that the caution and intransigence of national governments are not the whole story.

COP26 was a snapshot of a world — agonizingly slowly but with gathering speed — moving to address a crisis. There’s no reason for anyone to stop pushing, but there’s also nothing wrong with acknowledging and celebrating the progress that’s been achieved by all the pushing so far.

Things are moving!

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Nov 15, 2021
An introduction to energy's hottest new trend: 24/7 carbon-free electricity
When a company or city claims to be “100 percent powered by clean energy,” what it typically means is that it has tallied up its electricity consumption, purchased an equal amount of carbon-free energy (CFE), and called it even.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. But now, the next horizon of voluntary climate action has come into view: a brave few companies and cities aspire, not just to offset their consumption with CFE on a yearly basis, but to match their consumption with CFE production every hour of every day, all year long. Running on clean energy 24/7 — that’s new hotness.

The list of entities in the US that have committed to 24/7 CFE is short: Peninsula Clean Energy (a community choice aggregator in California) has committed to it by 2025; Google, Microsoft, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District have targeted 2030; the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and, somewhat anomalously for this California-heavy list, the city of Des Moines, Iowa, have targeted 2035. Ithaca, New York, is rumored to be contemplating something similar.

That’s it for now. But the idea is catching on quickly and drawing tons of attention. In September, a broad international group of more than 40 energy suppliers, buyers, and governments launched the 24/7 Carbon-free Energy Compact, “a set of principles and actions that stakeholders across the energy ecosystem can commit to in order to drive systemic change.”

Biden’s original American Jobs Plan contained a promise to pursue “24/7 clean power for federal buildings.” That language has fallen out of the Build Back Better budget reconciliation bill in Congress, but rumor has it Biden may issue an executive order on the subject soon.

There are already efforts afoot to standardize hourly tracking of clean energy and build it into markets, as well as numerous active discussions about how to update markets and policy to accommodate it.

Anyway, it’s getting to be a big deal. It’s time to wrap our heads around what’s going on. Happily, it turns out to be a fascinating story with all kinds of twists and turns. Let’s dive in!

A history of “powered by clean energy”

To understand what “100 percent powered by clean electricity” has meant to date, you have to understand at least the basics of renewable energy certificates, or RECs.

Originally, RECs were a mechanism that utilities used to comply with statutory requirements for deploying renewable energy. A wind or solar farm that generated 1 megawatt-hour of renewable energy also generated 1 REC, which was submitted to regulators as proof of compliance.

Then voluntary REC markets came along. In a voluntary REC market, a power generator can “unbundle” its REC from the megawatt-hour of energy it generates and sell it into a market where it could be traded numerous times before being retired, or taken off the market. (For accounting purposes, whoever retires the REC gets to claim the environmental benefits.) Corporate, institutional, and government entities could purchase, trade, and retire RECS.

The idea was that the ability to sell RECs as a second income stream would induce developers to build more clean energy projects. And it worked for a while, as long as solar and wind came at a cost premium and RECS were relatively expensive.

But then, wind and solar started getting super-cheap: the cost of an unbundled REC went from $5 in 2008 to under $1 in 2010 (where it stayed through 2019, though it has risen back up to $3-$5 in the last couple years). Voluntary REC markets became quite robust but it became clear at a certain point that all these unbundled RECs were not actually driving many new renewable energy projects. A 2013 study found that “the investment decisions of wind power project developers in the United States are unlikely to have been altered by the voluntary REC market.”

To their credit, corporate and industrial (C&I) buyers took notice. In 2014, Walmart stated that it would no longer offset its energy use with unbundled RECs, and many other buyers followed suit. The market began to trend toward long-term contracts — power purchase agreements (PPAs) — through which a buyer pledged to buy both the energy and the RECs (“bundled” RECs) from a prospective project for 10 to 25 years.

That gave developers more confidence and has prompted a surge of building of clean energy projects. In 2020 alone, C&I buyers in the US procured 10.6 gigawatts of renewable energy, which represents a third of all renewables capacity added in the country. Voluntary procurement by the C&I sector has become a major driver of the energy transition.

There are still plenty of entities buying cheap unbundled RECs and claiming carbon neutrality, but the leaders in the space are generally bundling them under PPAs.

But there is still a problem with RECs, even the good ones.

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The problem with RECS

When a C&I buyer purchases a REC, whether bundled or unbundled, it knows how much renewable energy was generated (a megawatt-hour), but not when it was generated. But it turns out that, when it comes to energy sources that come and go with the weather like wind and solar, the timing of generation matters quite a bit.

If participants in voluntary REC markets continue to buy the cheapest wind and solar RECs, sooner or later, the grid will become imbalanced. During periods of high sunlight or heavy wind, there will be too much renewable energy, pushing prices down.

But in periods when the sun is down or the wind flags, there isn’t enough renewable energy, so demand must be covered by expensive natural gas peaker plants. Prices and supplies swing wildly. Markets don’t like it. And more wind and solar only exacerbate the effect.

What’s needed is CFE that’s available when sun and wind fall short. A megawatt-hour of additional CFE is much more valuable during those times than it is during times of high solar and wind output. The timing matters.

But right now, RECs contain no information about the time of generation. It is impossible for buyers to know if any particular generator covered or will cover any particular hour of consumption. Buyers have no way of buying CFE specifically in the hours that they most need it.

Think of a monthly REC as an extremely low-resolution image of renewable energy production. In temporal terms, it’s one giant month-sized pixel. C&I buyers purchase these low-resolution images, overlay them on their consumption, and hope for the best.

But when you look at a higher resolution image of renewable energy production, one with hour-sized pixels, you see that it does not overlap perfectly with consumption. Not even close.

The mismatch between “100% CFE” and “100% CFE 24/7”

Google broke ground in this area with a 2018 white paper called “The Internet is 24x7. Carbon-free energy should be too.” (See also this 2020 white paper and this April blog post from Google CEO Sundar Pichai.) It has produced some visuals that allow us to clearly see the mismatch between renewable energy supply and demand.

Google has dozens of data centers. It tracks energy supply and demand by the hour and gives each data center a CFE score: how many hours of its operations were powered, in real time, by renewable energy.

A quick word about how the CFE score is calculated. For each hour, the baseline CFE score is the grid mix. So if the data center is drawing on a grid with 20 percent CFE (wind, solar, nuclear, whatever) and 80 percent fossil, it begins with a CFE score of 20 percent for that hour.

Google then adds any energy being produced during that hour by projects with which it has signed PPAs on the same grid. That can push the CFE score up, theoretically to 100 percent.

Anyway, with that in mind, let’s check out some data centers and their CFE scores. The first is from the company’s data center in Iowa.

Google buys more than enough wind power in Iowa to offset the data center’s consumption in volumetric terms. But is the data center actually running on wind power, from hour to hour? Not entirely. To be precise, 74 percent of its demand was matched, on an hourly basis, by CFE. It has a CFE score of 74.

Below is a stripe representing the data center’s consumption for every hour of the year. Each column is a day (there are 365). Each row is an hour, beginning with midnight at the top. The shade of the square represents the amount of CFE powering it during that hour.

In most hours, there’s enough Google-contracted wind power coming onto the Iowa grid to cover the data center’s consumption. However, for a period in late summer, wind speeds decline, wind power drops, and fossil fuels step in to provide the power.

How can Google get this data center’s CFE score up to 100 percent?

The first thing to note is that it can not simply buy more Iowa wind power. It is already getting all it can get out of wind. It doesn’t matter how many wind farms it has contracted with if the wind isn’t blowing in a given hour. In Iowa, Google is going to have to procure something else — something that can fill in the gaps left by wind.

One way to do that is by buying both wind and solar, which tend to have complementary profiles. Below is a similar stripe representing Google’s Netherlands data center. On July 1, a bunch of new Google-contracted solar came online; from that point on, the middle of the stripe — daytime — is much greener. Solar fills in some of the gaps left by wind.

Unfortunately, solar leaves gaps too. It doesn’t matter how many solar farms you’ve contracted with if the sun is behind clouds or, you know, down. In the Netherlands, Google is going to have to procure something else — something to fill the remaining gaps left by solar and wind.

In some sense, these are nice problems to have. Here’s the Taiwan data center:

Oof. What little CFE there is on Taiwan’s grid comes from nuclear power plants — when they go out, it’s all fossils.

Google has given all of its data centers CFE scores (which was no mean feat, since in many cases this data was not easily available). Here they are:

These graphics help illustrate Google’s 24/7 CFE challenge, which isn’t just one challenge but a slightly different challenge in each of the dozens of grids in which it operates.

At each of those data centers (except maybe Oklahoma and Oregon) it needs to buy a bunch more wind and solar. But it will also need to buy something else — something to fill the gaps.

What might that something else be?

The technology needed to fill the gaps

Part of the great promise of the movement to 24/7 CFE is it will draw attention and investment to all those things needed to balance out cheap wind and solar.

For big consumers like Google, there are, roughly speaking, three ways to smooth out the fluctuations in wind and solar and maintain a steady hourly supply of CFE. They are, from least to most expensive: demand management, energy storage, and clean-firm generation.

Demand management

Demand management begins with load reduction through efficiency. Google has aggressively pursued energy efficiency at its data centers, with dramatic results: “Compared with five years ago,” the company said in 2018, “we now deliver more than 3.5 times as much computing power with the same amount of electrical power.”

After load reduction comes load shaping — managing daily operations to push more consumption into high-CFE hours — and load shifting, which refers to moving consumption around in smaller increments, responding to hour-to-hour fluctuations in CFE.

“We got our start by looking out over a 24-hour period, getting a forecast of what the grid CFE would be, and then shifting compute loads back in time during that period, things like feature upgrades or backups,” Michael Terrell, Google’s director of energy (and the author of the 2018 white paper), told me. “Now what we started doing is shifting loads spatially, from one data center to the other. Theoretically you could envision compute following the sun [around the globe], if you took it all the way.”

Adapting demand to supply rather than vice versa — load reduction, shaping, and shifting — is almost always the least expensive way of accommodating variable renewables. There is still a ton of innovation to come in this area. “It's a space where we haven't even really gotten started,” Terrell says.

Energy storage

Storage, currently dominated by lithium-ion batteries, is great for smoothing out the day-to-day supply curve, taking some excess wind from windy hours and saving it for lulls, or saving excess solar from the daytime for nighttime.

However, while batteries are a good balance for renewables’ variability, their hour-to-hour fluctuations, they aren’t as good for balancing its intermittency, the occasional days, weeks, months, even years of unusually low wind or sunlight. Germans call a period like this a Dunkelflaute. It is extremely difficult and expensive to cover one with only batteries to supplement wind and solar.

Clean-firm generation

The third option is “clean firm” generation, i.e., energy sources that can be turned on at will and run for days or weeks on end, but emit no carbon. The two big conventional examples here are hydro and nuclear power, but there isn’t a ton of new hydro available to most buyers and new nuclear (at least in the absence of next-gen nuclear tech) is prohibitively expensive.

There’s also geothermal, which (as I wrote here) is getting a lot of interest and active development. The first bit of clean-firm that Google plans to acquire is geothermal, from a company called Fervo. For now, affordable geothermal is only available in certain areas of the country, but technological advances are close to changing that.

Other clean-firm sources include:

long-duration energy storage, which is technically a form of storage, but competes directly with other clean-firm sources;

advanced nuclear, which has been just over the horizon for years but might finally be getting close;

biomass, some versions of which may qualify as zero-carbon;

power plants running on hydrogen (or hydrogen-based fuels), which are currently being tested in the UK and elsewhere; and

natural gas plants with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which are currently both nonexistent and wildly expensive, but may (with the help of a boosted 45Q tax rebate in the Build Back Better bill) become more cost-effective soon.

One reason energy nerds are excited about the 24/7 trend is that it’s going to pull forward in time a bunch of questions (and investment decisions) that were going to face grids trying to reach 100 percent CFE anyway. Perhaps the biggest and most important of those questions is: how far will we be able to get with demand response and batteries? How much clean-firm will we need in the end?

With a bunch of companies and cities competing to reach 24/7 CFE, we’ll find out sooner than we otherwise would have. And the clean-firm sources that are necessary will receive much-needed investment, bringing their costs down and benefiting other decarbonizing grids across the world.

The market products needed to fill the gaps

If companies and cities want to fill in their hourly gaps, they need access to time-stamped CFE. As previously mentioned, current RECs only come in low-resolution form, in chunks of a month or year. They aren’t precise enough to target specific hours.

The answer — simple to propose but devilishly difficult in practice — is to supplement and eventually replace current RECs with some kind of hourly RECs. As it happens, there’s a bunch of work going on to figure out how that would work. If you’re interested, the place to begin exploring is this white paper from M-RETS, a nonprofit organization devoted to the tracking and trading of renewable energy.

Working with Google, M-RETS is pioneering and testing a product called Time-based Energy Attribute Certificates (T-EACs), which are effectively hourly RECs. One monthly REC would be replaced (for a 31-day month) with 744 T-EACs, each representing one hour of the month, each encoding exactly how much CFE was generated in that hour.

For now, in the Midwest, T-EACs are being offered alongside RECs and Google is buying and retiring them. But there’s a long way to go between that test and a fundamental restructuring of REC markets. Says Google:

For T-EACs to be adopted worldwide, we’ll need to standardize the certificates and integrate them into existing tracking systems and carbon accounting programs. Also, grid operators will need to enable customers to access and understand their hourly energy data. That’s why we support policies that mandate publication of grid data, and why we serve on the Advisory Board for EnergyTag, an independent non-profit pioneering a global tracking standard for T-EACs.

This is a big task, which amounts to rebuilding a rather large plane (REC markets) while it is in flight. But the information necessary to do it exists.

That’s phase one of M-RETS’ plan: make hourly RECS available and reliable. Phase two is a little trickier.

Measuring the carbon impact of renewable energy procurement is vexed but vital

Phase two is to integrate carbon information and accounting into T-EACs, to reveal precisely how much carbon was avoided by the clean energy. This information can help buyers prioritize the T-EACs likely to displace the most emissions. It can also allow companies to more precisely track their scope 2 emissions.

For those who don’t remember this bit of jargon: scope 1 emissions are from direct, on-site combustion of fossil fuels; scope 2 are the off-site emissions represented by on-site consumption of electricity; scope 3 (a much broader category) are all the emissions caused by a company’s supply chain and products.

To date, companies have been able to offset their scope 2 emissions with REC purchases. But as we’ve seen, RECs are almost always mismatched to actual hourly consumption, and a company that relies on RECs to offset its scope 2 emissions is likely exaggerating its actual reductions.

Hourly carbon-emissions data attached to T-EACs would allow a company to precisely measure the amount of emissions it reduces through its contracts and thus precisely offset its scope 2 emissions.

There are technical issues around how to properly measure avoided carbon, but we’re going to pass those by for now. There’s a ton of work going on in this area: for companies trying to provide reliable hourly emissions data, see Singularity Energy, electricityMap (formerly Tomorrow), WattTime, and Kevala. In partnership with several energy companies, Kevala recently released a white paper proposing “a methodology for measuring carbon intensity on the electric grid.”

In addition, there are organizations working to develop standards and common definitions, including the aforementioned EnergyTag, “an independent, non-profit, industry-led initiative to define and build a market for hourly electricity certificates that enables energy users to verify the source of their electricity and carbon emissions in real-time,” and LF Energy (the energy division of the Linux Foundation).

The ultimate vision: electricity markets in which each hour of CFE is available as a discrete product, with reliable carbon data attached to it. Within such markets, any buyer — a building, a data center, a city — would be able to know precisely what its real-world carbon footprint is and exactly how much progress it has made in reducing it.

Is 24/7 CFE the next step in carbon commitments … or a distraction?

Let’s be honest: governments ought to be doing this, through policy. The federal government should pass a clean energy standard (or, ahem, a CEPP) targeting a net-zero electricity sector by 2035, like Biden wanted. On some level, all of this voluntary stuff is a suboptimal response to government failure.

Nonetheless, the C&I sector deserves credit for pushing things forward even when governments won’t. It is responsible for enormous amounts of new renewable energy on the grid over the last decade.

Now it is trying to focus attention on filling the gaps left by wind and solar, to achieve full, around-the-clock clean energy. This is a challenge every decarbonizing grid will face eventually. Google et al. are effectively volunteering to explore and chart it in advance.

Nevertheless, there are real questions about whether this is the best climate strategy. A company procuring CFE to raise its own 24/7 CFE score is not necessarily going to procure in a way that maximizes carbon reductions; those two goals rarely overlap perfectly. Critics of the 24/7 trend say that companies ought to be focused on reducing the most carbon possible as quickly as possible, and that hourly T-EACs are in some ways a return to unbundled RECs, with all the same risks that accounting gimmicks will substitute for real emission reductions.

These are complicated disputes that are worth spending some time on. And this post has already gone on for too long! So for now, I will leave it here, with the introduction I promised.

In my next post, I’ll get into the questions around whether 24/7 is the right goal and how it might actually affect emissions. It only gets nerdier from here on out, y’all!

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Nov 12, 2021
Volts podcast: Amy Westervelt on disinformation and propaganda
In this episode, journalist and researcher Amy Westervelt discusses the history of the public relations industry in the US and the ubiquitous, if largely unacknowledged, role it has played, and still plays, in shaping how Americans think about the environment. Amy has tons of great stories!

Full transcript of Volts podcast featuring Amy Westervelt, October 27, 2021

(PDF version)

David Roberts:

In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about America’s polluted information environment — the ubiquity of disinformation — driven by social media and “fake news.” What is less discussed is that purposefully crafted disinformation designed to shape public opinion to the benefit of the wealthy and powerful is nothing new. In fact, it’s almost as old as the country itself.

Amy Westervelt, a long-time, award-winning environmental journalist, has spent her career uncovering disinformation and exposing the methods of those who generate and spread it.

She’s perhaps best known as the host of Drilled, a “true-crime podcast about climate change” that has spent six seasons (so far) exposing the propaganda generated and spread by the fossil fuel industry. And she’s editor-in-chief of the Drilled News site.

She’s also the founder of Critical Frequency, a woman-run podcast network, as well as the co-host of the climate podcast Hot Take with climate essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar (it’s currently on hiatus; returning next year), the co-host or producer of several other podcasts (including Scene on Radio and Crooked Media’s This Land), and the author of Forget Having It All, a 2018 book on the challenges of motherhood in the US.

Now Westervelt has a new project, launching today: Rigged.

The foundation of the site is a treasure trove of original documents, some dating back more than a century, about the founding and growth of the modern public relations industry and its development of tools of mass persuasion.

Atop that database is a series of pieces charting the landscape, offering a glossary of disinformation techniques, profiles of the (anti-)heroes of the business, and stories on various inglorious chapters in disinformation history, from chemicals to railroads to tobacco to fossil fuels.

It is equal parts fascinating and horrifying — fascinating that the tools of disinformation are so well and publicly documented; horrifying that they are still working so effectively.

Here’s just one fun fact: Edward Bernays, one of the pioneers of early 20th century opinion shaping, coined the term “public relations” because the Germans, he said, had “given the word propaganda a bad name.” You can also thank Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, for men wearing wristwatches, women smoking, and bacon being a standard part of American breakfast. These stories are wild.

I’ve been admiring Westervelt’s work from afar for years, so I was psyched to talk to her about Rigged, the long history of disinformation, the many ways the fossil fuel industry has shaped public opinion, and why the US left seems so incapable of dealing effectively with disinformation to this day.

Amy Westervelt, welcome to Volts.

Amy Westervelt: 

Hi, thanks for having me.

David Roberts:   

Glad you could squeeze me in between your dozens of projects. Let's start with the newest one. Tell me about Rigged: How did you come to be doing this, why are you doing it, and what would you like it to accomplish?

Amy Westervelt: 

A little more than a year ago now I did a season of my other podcast, Drilled, looking at the history of fossil fuel propaganda. When I first started Drilled, I was just going to do one six-part season about the origins of climate denial. Then, in the course of doing that, I started thinking, climate denial is such a dumb tactic; why did it work? It's dumb to just be like, “Nuh-uh.” It's not a genius strategy. Of course, it's telling people what they want to hear, like this problem might not be that bad and maybe we don't need to do anything drastic. But I also felt like there must be more to it. 

So I started to look at what the industry was doing before; it's not like they just started doing PR when global warming was researched. The more I dug into that, the more I realized that they really spent a lot of time and thought to shape how people view the world in general, and especially how people view environmental issues, for a really long time, before anyone was talking about climate change.

That has a lot to do with, once this issue appears, how we actually process and deal with it. But in the course of doing that, I also found all this stuff about what the PR firms and the PR people who were working for Big Oil were doing for all these other industries at the same time, and it seemed important to me for people to understand that this is a longstanding system and set of strategies that really was created to circumvent democracy. 

The modern PR industry comes about when you have journalists criticizing America's captains of industry for the first time, you have the vote expanding beyond just land-owning white men; this is the late 1800s and early 1900s, the dawn of the 20th century. The US government passes its very first regulation on business in 1887. So there are all these reasons that industry across the board is saying, “Oh, wow, we really need a way to get a handle on this thing that's getting away from us.” I call it “creeping democracy.”

A lot of these early PR guys are working for coal and rail and oil and tobacco all at the same time, and then quickly, chemicals joins that list, too. So the reason that we see these strategies replicated in multiple industries is not that an oil executive is studying the moves of a tobacco executive; it's that they're using the same PR firms.

In the case of oil and tobacco, John W. Hill was working for the American Petroleum Institute and all the tobacco companies at the same time, and he encouraged them to talk to each other. He got the tobacco guys to join the API. The oil companies were co-defendants of the tobacco companies during the tobacco litigation, because they helped to create the cigarette filter. That was all brokered by their PR and spokespeople. 

I felt like all this documentation sitting on my desk wasn’t doing anyone any good there. I started to digitize a lot of it, and I thought, DocumentCloud is kind of hard to navigate, so I should put this on a website that guides people through it. Then I thought, there's a significant number of people who, even if they believe we should act on climate, will never listen to a climate podcast, because they have a certain idea in their minds of what that means; so I'm going to do a companion podcast that looks at how disinformation is created and how it became an industry in and of itself in the US, a long time before we started talking about Facebook and Twitter, or climate change and climate denial.

David Roberts:   

When this industry and approach was first coming together, what were some of the early victories that helped put the template in place for what these guys could do for an industry?

Amy Westervelt: 

This is fascinating to me, because they're all these things that people take at face value as just a cultural shift that happened in America. It's really nuts. 

One of my favorite examples of this is Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, who integrated a lot of Freud's theories into his work in the 1920s. He lived to be more than 100, so he was working from the 20s through the 70s. He had a watchmaker come to him who was concerned about the fact that, apparently, it was considered feminine to wear a wristwatch, so men were not wearing wristwatches. Real men had pocket watches.

So Bernays starts to think about who are the manliest of men, and he lands on soldiers. Bernays was a frequent user of commissioning an expert to do a study; whether or not that study was valid or not is very suspect, but at the time, it was considered an expert study. So he commissioned a study to look at how many soldiers were killed while lighting a match to look at their pocket watch. Then he goes to the Army and says, “you could have a 25 percent reduction in the number of men being killed if you just made wristwatches standard issue.” So they did. He got the Army to make wristwatches standard issue, and that effectively broke this taboo about it being feminine to wear a wristwatch.

David Roberts:   

Clever. He did a reverse thing with women in smoking, which I also found fascinatingly devilish.

Amy Westervelt: 

Yes. In the case of smoking, American Tobacco came to him with a similar kind of gender taboo: it was considered uncouth for women to smoke. So he had this idea to call up some of his friends’ young socialite daughters and have them stage a protest, walking up and down Fifth Avenue smoking, and say that it was a women's empowerment thing. Then he called all of the newspapers and told them about the protest, and they all covered it. It was in all the national papers. He called cigarettes “torches of freedom.” 

He also really tapped into Freudian stuff about women and penis envy and etc. He was quite a dude. Within six months or so, this taboo had been totally broken down and the tobacco industry had doubled its customer base. I'm sure most people at the time just thought that it was a women's empowerment thing, but it was all manufactured.

David Roberts:   

Another thing that people think of as a modern phenomenon is attacking the media as biased or fake news, or trying to bully the media into doing a both-sides approach of what ought to be a clear issue. Turns out that goes way back too; that's not an invention of modern Republicans.

Amy Westervelt: 

No, it is not. Bernays did a bit of that. Even Ivy Lee, who was the very first modern publicist who worked for Standard Oil, did that. Then in the 60s and 70s, my favorite, Herb Schmertz, the VP of public affairs for Mobil Oil, really hammered that home. He was famous for bullying journalists and threatening them with pulling ads if they didn't cover Mobil’s point of view on things, which he did actually do with the Wall Street Journal for a significant number of years. He even went one step further and refused to give them access to things like quarterly earnings reports.

David Roberts:   

In one of the interesting stories I read on Rigged, someone successfully bullied a journalist into saying “changes” rather than “reforms.” It's amazing how vulnerable to this journalists are and have been.

Amy Westervelt: 

That was Ivy Lee; he shifted the language around railroad labor requirements. Back in the late 1800s, they were wanting to require trains to have additional staff, because they were very negligent and having massive crashes and killing lots of people. They were told, “you guys are understaffing these trains, they need to be properly staffed.” Ivy Lee shifted the language around from it being a minimum number of staff to additional staff, which is a really key thing when you think about it. 

I was just thinking about that today, with how the oil industry talks about methane. Everything is a methane “leak,” which sounds accidental: oopsie! But you guys are letting it rip constantly, sometimes just because you want to burn off gas. 

David Roberts:   

“We've been having this accident happen consistently every day.”

Amy Westervelt: 

Industries of all kinds spend an enormous amount of time and money choosing the exact right wording. They've been doing that forever. A guy named Earl Newsom, who worked for Standard Oil from the late ‘20s to the late ‘60s or ‘70s — also worked for Campbell's Soup, and GM, and Ford, and all the big American companies — was using Elmo Roper to do early polling, in the ‘20s, and then using that to inform his PR plan. I found all of the invoicing documents in his archives and some of these companies were spending millions of dollars on PR in the late ‘20s, already.

David Roberts:   

It seems like, early in the game, when these things were new and no one had any defense mechanisms, they were wildly successful. That's an incredible payoff for a little bit of investment.

Amy Westervelt: 

The very first press release, which Ivy Lee created and sent out to The New York Times, ended up getting printed word for word, because they were so caught off guard by the fact that the company was disclosing all this information.

David Roberts:   

It's easy to condemn the corporate side of that move, but the response of journalists is a little bit more muddy. You can see why it’s effective on journalists, because they do want to be fair. Objectivity has become a parody of itself, but the impulse is real; I understand why, as journalists, we're subject to this.

Amy Westervelt: 

Totally. It effectively weaponized good intentions.

David Roberts:   

How can we harness a basically good impulse to horrible effect?

Amy Westervelt: 

It was very smart. In the early days, part of what they were organizing against was the muckraking journalism that Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells and Upton Sinclair and all those folks were doing. Part of the strategy was to paint this picture that those journalists are really activists — they're biased, they have an agenda. You don't want to be that type of journalist. Which I still see today, constantly.

David Roberts:   

One of the most useful things on Rigged is this glossary of techniques that have come into use since the late 1800s. It's a bounded set of techniques that they come to again and again and again. I thought we could look at a couple of them through the lens of fossil fuel companies, because that's my personal obsession. 

Some of them I think people understand already, like astroturfing: the making of fake grassroots groups. Most people get making up of fake experts, or starting your own think tank, or buying a friggin’ academic department and having them crank out studies for you. But some of these are less obvious.

One of the things I found amazing is how involved the fossil fuel companies have been in school curriculum, going way, way back.

Amy Westervelt: 

They started that. They did that before any other industry.

Standard Oil put out the very first corporate-sponsored curriculum for schools in 1928. They did these pressed albums that they sent to schools; it was called the Standard School Broadcast. It seemed on the face of it like it had nothing to do with oil. That's the genius thing; they are very good at doing this in a subtle way. This program was music appreciation and history. So on the face of it, seems fine.

I actually went on a little bit of a spending spree buying up old vinyl from the Standard School Broadcast. I have one that's all about the Industrial Revolution. It's classic. They do these radio vignette-style stories in between the music, and there's one where they have this very shrill-voiced woman being the consumer protection person. They give her some name that sounds annoying, like Ms. Snap. It’s setting up this whole thing of, well, do you want to give up your car and live like the aboriginals do? 

This one that I'm referencing in particular came out in the ‘40s. So they've been setting up this idea that anyone who suggests government intervention that would interfere with profits in the name of public safety or the environment or anything like that — that is a backwards thing, it's not sensible.

David Roberts:   

Something the corporates do better than the good guys is, they don't just go in and say “oil is great.” It’s much deeper: corporate capitalism is the nature of the world. It’s propaganda on a deeper level than just their interests. They're trying to convey a worldview.

Amy Westervelt: 

Yes, very much, and when you put that worldview in a classroom or in the mouth of a teacher that young children are taught to trust and believe, that is an insidious form of propaganda that is very hard to shake.

It’s wild. I spent the last several months looking at the school stuff, because we did a series with Earther on school curriculum. What I wanted to focus on was the non-science part. We've gotten to this point where everyone thinks the problem with climate is political will, not lack of understanding of the science — but we haven't really looked at where that problem with political will has come from, and just how far back it goes. These guys were investing in shaping a very specific worldview.

David Roberts:   

And making you feel like, if you object to part of it, you are basically standing up against industrialized modern life.

Amy Westervelt: 

Yeah, that you're backwards, you're a communist, you're not American. It's tied to all of that. It's insane to me how much you see that messaging today. In all the coverage of Manchin and the Build Back Better stuff, I'm seeing this pitting of the environment against the economy, or environmentalists as some sort of special interest group that just cares about trees. That is still so prevalent now.

David Roberts:   

If you get those narratives in people's heads when they're young, they don't think of them as narratives; they just think it's how the world works. It becomes so deeply rooted that any amount of contrary facts just bounce off the narrative. Those narratives are so much stronger than evidence.

Amy Westervelt: 

This is why science denial was such a slam dunk, because it reinforced the narrative that people had already been brainwashed with for decades.

David Roberts:   

Some of the older school tactics are, to our modern eyes, quite crude; presumably now school administrators would not be handing out Shell comic books about how oil is great. But fossil fuels are still at it in schools, so what's the modern version?

Amy Westervelt: 

When we did this series with Earther, Dharna Noor and I worked on it together, and Dharna found a guy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a Montessori school — so not a red state, or a red area — whose kid had come home with a bunch of coloring and activity books from a natural gas company, all about how natural gas is great and it’s your invisible friend. It was suggesting that kids go and talk to their family members about how they use natural gas.

The other persistent thing, which is so effective, is just reminding people how much they use this stuff, how complicit they are. Look at all the ways you use natural gas in your home, all of the things it delivers to you.

David Roberts:   

The more tied up it is with your identity, the more resistant you are to the idea that it's bad, because then you're bad, right? They want to link you to it. I don't feel like the left does this very well.

When people think about fossil fuel influence, their minds go to lobbying and money. But actually — and I feel like these early stories help make this very clear — they've been laying the groundwork in culture for decades. It's fertile soil on which they can plant a lobbying campaign; the ground has been prepared.

Amy Westervelt: 

For a century. That's not hyperbole. It's actually slightly more than a century.

David Roberts:   

Are there things you found out that fossil fuel companies are doing or have done that shocked or surprised you, that you think most people aren't aware of?

Amy Westervelt: 

The thing that blew my mind the most was in the Earl Newsom archive. So he, again, was a publicist for Standard Oil.

I should mention, in respect to him and all of these folks: They make a very clear delineation between what they do and what they would call “press agents” do, which is get media coverage and things like that. When they say public relations, they mean being the intermediary, mediating the relationship between the company or the industry and the general public, but also multiple other publics: legislators, moms, students, whatever.

Earl Newsom in particular saw himself as sort of a consigliere to CEOs. In some of his files, he's weighing in on whether or not they should accept a particular award, what connotation that would have. It’s to a level I don't think the left even understands, never mind knows how to do. 

In his files, I found one box from the Standard Oil archive that was confidential, and there were all these plans in there around free enterprise. This was in 1944, as World War II is coming to an end. This guy is meeting with his big clients, not just Standard Oil, but also GM and Campbell Soup and all of them.

He's like, “We have a big problem coming down the pipeline here, and it's not war. It's not even the fact that the government's not going to be buying stuff from you anymore. Americans have gotten very comfortable with the government running things; the government has done a good job, and Americans are starting to like it a little too much. So we really run the risk here of Americans turning away from the free market approach that we have come to rely upon in this country. This is a huge problem for business. We need to coordinate a campaign that reminds them of why free enterprise is actually the best thing for them. We cannot use the words ‘free enterprise.’ We cannot coordinate this through the US Chamber or the National Association of Manufacturers, because everyone knows they're just shills for business.” 

This is in the 1940s. They're already saying this. “We have to coordinate but it can't look coordinated. We need a full court press here. We need ads that are focused on cool gadgets that we're coming up with in our research and development departments. We need to be talking about the high wages that we're paying. We need to invest in universities.”

This is when they start going really big on investing in universities, because they want educated people to be coming out of universities with a fixed idea about how important free enterprise is to the country. It is comprehensive

David Roberts:   

That post-war era is so interesting to me. When you learn about it in history, you learn about these big structural forces: the war was ending, there was a war surplus, all this economic vitality, and then out of that grew roads and giant corporations — as though it was just an unfolding of history. But right in that post-war era was such a flurry, a concentration of people trying to take hold and direct the US in particular directions. It was propaganda flourishing. 

Amy Westervelt: 

It really was. The thing that made my head explode was that shortly after that, I found stuff in the Bernays archive where he had been giving almost the exact same speech to his clients, at the same time.

Between the two of them, Earl Newsom and Edward Bernays were working for the top 100 companies in the country at that point, and if they were sounding the alarm about this and getting their clients to coordinate, that would have been a pretty effective campaign. 

I grew up with this idea of the war surplus, and we have all this infrastructure that we need to use, and all these people that we need to put to work, and also, Americans are just so grateful that the war is over that they're just in the mood to buy. But really, these guys have been trying to sell us on the idea that convenience and “modernity” are the most important things for forever.

David Roberts:   

Another section of the site profiles some of the people of the propaganda movement. Let's talk about Richard Berman. It’s fascinating how effective he's been and all the things he's invented, but I also just find him fascinating as a person; I have an unhealthy fascination with awful people. What was his signature achievement?

Amy Westervelt: 

He is supposedly the person that the main character in the movie Thank You for Smoking is based on. He worked for Philip Morris for a long time, trying to work the public and legislators during the ‘90s tobacco litigation. They gave him a bunch of money to start a PR firm.

With that, he created this incredible web of front groups: The Center for Consumer Freedom. The Center for Responsible Science.

David Roberts:   

My favorite was, when the Center for Consumer Freedom somehow became well-known as a front group, he changed the name to the most spectacularly generic name. I literally can't remember it, because it’s just a bunch of buzzwords. 

Amy Westervelt: 

The acronym is CORE: the Center for Organizational Research and Education.

David Roberts:   

I love it. That could be anything. 

Amy Westervelt: 

He was an early mover on astroturfing and these front groups, and he also figured out that he could very easily hide the funding behind them. I think the Center for Consumer Freedom is technically a nonprofit, the sort of nonprofit that doesn't have to disclose much, so their main payment outgoing every year is to Rick Berman.

David Roberts:   

If any of these groups come in for any sort of legal or any other kind of trouble, it's equally easy just to scrap them. 

Amy Westervelt: 

He just scraps them and makes a new one. He's got five or six that are all about unions. The thing I find the most entertaining about him is that he was given the nickname Dr. Evil by “60 Minutes” in the early 2000s, and he was so delighted by it that he actually includes it in his requests for funding now, as a proof of how successful he is.

David Roberts:   

He loves being called Dr. Evil. This guy, and these other guys, too: Are they evil, and they know they're evil, and they don't care, and they like being evil? Or do you think on some level, they have a story that they tell themselves about themselves where they're the good guys, fighting on the right side of things? How conscious is the evil?

Amy Westervelt: 

This is what fascinates me about them. What makes these people tick?

A lot of people think it's just money. I think that's true for some, but in my experience, people can only do something just for money for so long before they have to create a narrative for themselves. In Berman's case, and in a lot of these guys’ cases, I think they have completely drunk the Kool-Aid on how important it is to protect capitalism as part and parcel of freedom. I think they just 100 percent believe that if you don't have capitalism, you don't have freedom, and anything that erodes capitalism erodes freedom.

David Roberts:   

But the funny thing is, if you read the theoretical foundations of capitalism — why it's supposed to work and why it's supposed to be so virtuous — part of the theory is transparency. Part of the theory is people knowing what other people are doing, and what things really cost, and everyone having the same information. That’s central to the theory. So it's bizarre what capitalism has become in the heads of some of these guys.

Amy Westervelt: 

Rick Berman fascinates me too because his tactics are so crude. They're so dumb.

David Roberts:   

He's an early version of what we all ran into with Trump: wait a minute, you don't have to be smart. You don't have to really be clever. Your tactics don't have to be subtle. You can just be big dumb, and it works.

Amy Westervelt: 

It totally works. There was this tape that was leaked of Berman to The New York Times in 2014 or 2015, when anti-fracking was starting to grow. He got brought in to give a talk to the Western States Petroleum Association. He said, “You don't have to convince people to like fracking. You don't even have to convince them that it's not bad. You just have to get a tie. All you need is a tie. A tie is a win for you.”

It’s so true. That's the big problem, right? If your client is the status quo, it's much easier to get that. If you're trying to push for change, you actually do need a win. You need to get people to a point where they're willing to act.

David Roberts:   

Yes. Which is not just neutral; it's way beyond neutral. You have to build a lot of energy to do anything good or constructive, and it's so easy just to sap a little bit of that energy.

Amy Westervelt: 

It's so much easier to sell complacency than change.

David Roberts:   

Why is there no Dr. Good? Where are the climate left’s Machiavellian operators who are doing PR and propaganda? 

Amy Westervelt: 

I find this very puzzling. One, I think that the left gets into this trap of thinking that this stuff is dumb and silly and doesn't work. Which is not true. Then there's this whole false sense of nobility: “They go low, we go high.” Well, or are you just bringing a spoon to a knife fight? 

The left, at least on climate, is outspent ten to one on PR and lobbying. So there's way less money, but it's not because it doesn't exist. There are people with money on the left. There's been a choice made not to invest in this for some reason. I've talked to a few of the folks who are experts in the climate psychology realm, and they say, “I know that my counterpart on the right is being hired by every PR firm in the country.” So, I don't know why.

David Roberts:   

I have somewhat of a theory. The intellectual vanguard, the left's talkers and thinkers and spokespeople, are hyper-educated; they go to nice schools; they love words. They love the idea that public life is determined by dialogue and persuasion and who's got the best argument. (I’m talking to myself here.) And doing this PR and lobbying is an acknowledgment that in fact, people are irrational, and public opinion is shaped. It involves admitting a lot of things about the world that are disturbing to people who have been trained in words.

Amy Westervelt: 

I think that's very true. There's this sense that appealing to people's lizard brain is talking down to them, or is beneath me as an educated person. We've seen this in the climate movement; up until maybe the last five years, it was never okay to include any kind of emotion or exaggeration in any kind of climate appeal. But the right isn’t doing that.

You're trying to combat the most primitive poking of the fear button with fucking charts and graphs. It’s not going to work.

David Roberts:   

I used to get into arguments with people: I'd say, so you agree that climate is an existential issue, species on the line, literally nothing could be more important, but … you won't lie? You won’t get mad about it? You won't use emotionally manipulative language — that's too far? Just how seriously are you taking climate change, if your intellectual virtue comes first? It's an argument I have with myself. 

Amy Westervelt: 

That is a big part of it, and that is what scares the shit out of oil companies about the youth climate movement. I got leaked this report maybe two years ago that was internal VP marketing strategy about the emotional authenticity of the youth climate movement and how they have not figured out how to deal with that.

David Roberts:   

In addition to the story the Youth Climate movement is telling, which is about emotion and Earth and protecting youth, there's this other story we could also be telling from the tech community: Look at all these cool gizmos that are being suppressed and denied to you by these lazy incumbents who are politically entrenched. You could be living a cool whizbang life, with your solar panels, your EV, your cool electrical panel that's smart and has fucking 5G, but you're being held back in primitive technology by incumbents.

Amy Westervelt: 

That's a great message. That's exactly what the oil industry messaged in the 50s. We should absolutely do that.

David Roberts:   

Another thing I wanted to ask about is the development of social media. We've all heard these critiques by now: what works on social media is negative emotions, it's outrage, it's anger. That just says to me that social media, even more than traditional media, is practically built for misinformation. It's so fruitful and helpful for these guys. 

Amy Westervelt: 

That's absolutely true. I interviewed this woman a while ago who was talking about how the rapid corporatization of social media companies was driven by industry's fear of the early freeform internet. They thought, “If there's this giant, open public messaging machine where people are just sharing stories and ideas, we don't get to control it.” That is the origin story of the social media industry as we know it. It’s very much about giving that control back to the people who've always had power in this country.

David Roberts:   

We have all these early internet pioneers out in public saying, “We had such big dreams. What happened? It just went the wrong way.” It didn't just go the wrong way, dude. They made it go that way.

Amy Westervelt: 

There's this pendulum all throughout history. The muckrakers said, “I'm going to just tell the truth and we're going to get these guys,” and they very quickly mobilize and come up with PR to stop that. In the 60s, you have the social justice movements rising up, and they very quickly mobilize with new PR techniques to stop that. Then you have the internet — in its very first stages, perhaps the most democratic thing we ever had — no, that's not going to stand, they aren't going to let it.

It's important for people to understand this, so that they know why it's important to fight for genuinely free press. 

David Roberts:   

Is there any positive story to tell about social media? 

Amy Westervelt: 

The complicated problem right now is that social media needs to be regulated. That's the reality. It's not going to happen with self-imposed fact checking processes or whatever the fuck they're using. It’s never going to work. What's happened is that social media has been allowed to behave like media, but without any of the same regulations on it. 

Actually, podcasts fall into this too. I looked into this last year, because I was hearing all of these over-the-top ads from Exxon in podcasts about the amazing potential of carbon capture; they were vastly overstating it, like, “We're going to capture 90 percent of the emissions from factories.”

I was hearing it on the Science Friday podcast, or Invisibilia, all these NPR science podcasts. So I reached out to the folks at NPR to ask them, because NPR has extremely strict standards about what kinds of ads they allow on broadcast. I said, “Why is this so not in line with what you would allow on the radio?” And they said, “Because it doesn't fall under FCC requirements.” I said, “Don't you just have the same guidelines?” And they said, “No, it's not governed by the FCC.” I said, “So just to be clear, your ethics policy is ‘anything that's not illegal goes?’”

That's where we're at, with social media and podcasts and a lot of websites. They're under the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC. There are technically guidelines that you're supposed to follow, but they're not enforced. Even just to file an FTC complaint is a giant pain in the ass, and then it could go nowhere.

There's no reason why, if you're going to basically become a publisher, you shouldn't follow the same rules as an actual publisher.

David Roberts:   

You suggest two solutions to this problem of misinformation, and I have to admit that I have low hopes on both.

One is media literacy, people being trained to recognize these things. With the tide of information and BS that is crashing over every single human head right now, teaching everybody, individually, to be out there in this jungle and survive on their own seems too huge and daunting, like nothing you could ever accomplish. 

The other is regulation of social media. But someone needs to be making the judgments about what's okay and what's not, what's true and what's not. I don't know that I want social media companies making those judgments, but then, is it government? Because right now, if it's a Republican government, Democrats don't care; if it's a Democratic government, Republicans don't care. We’ve lost any brokers or institutions that are widely trusted, and without that you're screwed. 

Amy Westervelt: 

I don't think you're wrong. We haven't even talked about the fact that, sadly, I think a lot of the regular media has been worked by this too. How many stories come straight from a press release? Let's think about that.

David Roberts:   

Even subtler, little narrative things. Kyrsten Sinema is tanking her president and her party's agenda to keep taxes on rich people low, and in every story about her, she's called a moderate — “moderate,” like she's in-between the parties. One of our normal human heuristics is that medium, in between the two extremes, is good.

Amy Westervelt: 

Yes. It's gone on for so long that the media self-censors in this weird way. I was working as a stringer for the Washington Post for a while, and because I live in California, I would get sent to cover wildfires all the time.

For one of the stories, I had talked to the California fire chief, and he gave me this very succinct explanation of exactly how climate change makes wildfire worse. He said, “I've been fighting fires for 30 years in California. This is climate change. What's making this so much worse is that we're not getting the increased humidity and the cold temperatures at night. Nighttime used to be when we would get on top of a fire, and now we're not getting that, so it's just burning at the same intensity 24 hours. That makes the fire worse, but it also burns out our crew.”

He’s not a flaming liberal by any stretch — 30-year firefighter from Redwood City or whatever. 

My editor at the time wanted to remove the mention of climate change, because he said, “This is a disaster story, not a climate story.” This was not that long ago, maybe seven or eight years ago. But because I had the background that I had, I said, “That's a total fossil fuel framing. We don't need to be scared of letting a fire chief mention climate change for fear of it turning into a policy story.”

He very quickly said, “Okay, no, you're right, that makes sense.” But he didn't get a call from a PR guy at Mobil about it; it’s internalized. Everybody has internalized this “liberal media” trope — which is, if you look at who actually owns the media, completely not true.

David Roberts:   

The analogy I sometimes draw is to the filibuster. We've gone from the right filibustering everything, to now, all McConnell has to do is send a memo saying, “We're probably going to filibuster this.” They don't force the confrontation anymore. It's the same with media; all the corporations have to do is say, “We're going to make climate change a partisan thing,” and editors immediately say, “Got it, I will use scrupulously neutral language.”

They don't even have to be browbeat into it anymore. The whole machine is already built.

Amy Westervelt: 

One of the solutions I've seen is more people like yourself, like myself, saying, “I'm out. I want to be able to report this accurately, and it's hard to do that in the confines of the media.”

David Roberts:   

One of the best things about going independent is that I no longer have to muddle through these metaphysical questions. What is journalism? What is and isn’t fair? Now I can just say what seems to me to be the truth — which it seems like more people ought to be able to do.

You've been a climate journalist for quite a while now. What do you think climate journalism is not doing or needs to do more? What is your critique of climate journalism specifically?

Amy Westervelt: 

I wish that people would get beyond science denial being the only thing that the fossil fuel industry pushes. In being so focused on that, I feel like they're missing, and actually perpetuating, all these other frames that also come from the fossil fuel industry. They think if it's not science denial, it's not a talking point. 

The other thing, at the other end of the spectrum, is buying every climate solution hook, line, and sinker, regurgitating what's been told to you. Also the idea that activists have agendas, but CEOs don't. That needs to go. Diversifying source lists.

And I hope this doesn't sound like I'm just being a whiny freelancer, but I thought by this point I would not be having to do Climate 101 for every editor I work with. I'm surprised at how many times I hear from someone saying, “I'm the new editor of this climate vertical, but I don't have any background in climate.”

I wish that the powers-that-be in media would actually start taking climate as seriously as they've been saying they're going to take it for a long time.

David Roberts:   

Part of me wonders if the public is a little bit ahead of the editorial class at this point. Editors still think long stuff is boring, people don't care about wonky science, you’ve got to do the inverted triangles, all these myths and habits of journalism that don't seem applicable and don't seem to reach the intended audience anymore.

Amy Westervelt: 

I think that's true. I wish more people would interrogate where the information they're getting is coming from, journalists included. I went to this podcast conference a few years ago, and there was a speech that was done by Chenjerai Kumanyika and Sandhya Dirks, who are both really great podcasters; Sandhya is a reporter, Chenjerai is a professor at Rutgers.

The subject of the talk was, “Every story is about power.” It was so good! I wanted to make every journalist I know listen to this. They did such a good job of showing how it shows up in even the dumbest stories. They did a story about Dunkin Donuts bringing back a favorite donut, which you wouldn't think was a massive investigation of class structure, but it totally was.

So yes, just thinking about it in that way: who's sending me this information, and for what reason, and who does it benefit? 

David Roberts:   

Like you say, the right spent a long time trying to shape the way science was presented in media, but I think now they're spending more effort trying to shape how the solution sets are presented. I think they've given up the ghost on denialism; they know what's happening, they know we're going to do something about it.

Now they want to take control of how we react, and what our assumptions are about the parameters of a response — what we can and can't do, what's allowed and what's not allowed.

Amy Westervelt: 

The reason it’s so effective now is, that's what they've been doing all along. They started narrowing the parameters of how we're allowed to think about environmental issues 50 years before climate change came on the scene. So they're just going back to that.

David Roberts:   

I used to say this around the Waxman-Markey fight all the time: Here's Democrats saying “We're going to issue these certificates, and then you can trade them, but the total amount of certificates” … already 99 percent of people are tuned out. And what's the right do? “Tax. It's a tax. Boom!” The whole ideological infrastructure is already built. It's there. You only have to invoke it. 

Amy Westervelt: 

You see it in the Manchin stuff now. SEP, 4 percent, blah, blah, blah; all the right has to do is say, “It's expensive, though. Oh, $3 trillion. A lot of money.” That’s it.

David Roberts:   

Yes. “It will raise your costs.” Literally, I can list a dozen studies and models showing very specifically that doing this will reduce consumer energy costs, and it just doesn't matter, because “it will raise your costs” has transcended to a realm where it's true regardless of the details. It’s written in the heavens.

Amy Westervelt: 

That one killed me, because if the Democrats had led with that before the right could even say anything about the price tag, how much better would that have been than “infrastructure, but we're also going to do climate”? Come on.

David Roberts:   

Yes. How about, “We have designed a bill here to reduce your energy costs. If you want to know the details we can get into them. But mostly, that's what's going to happen.”

I'm curious whether you think the fuckery of industry, and PR, and propaganda, and the public's unknowing acceptance of it, are worse in the US? If so, why?

Amy Westervelt: 

Actually, that's been studied. Definitively, yes.

One of the researchers I go back to again and again is a woman named Melissa Aronczyk at Rutgers — she's Canadian. She looked at the difference between how the media and PR industry evolved in the US vs. in Canada and some other places. Her take is that the entire way that Americans understand the environment is shaped by PR, so it becomes impossible to disentangle Americans’ thinking on environmental issues from PR. 

In the early days of the US, Teddy Roosevelt had two advisors on natural resources: John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. They had very different ideas. Pinchot’s whole thing was that natural resources are basically an economic resource to be managed for the benefit of the economy — and he totally won out. He created the whole US Forestry Service. All of the initial thinking on environmental stuff comes from him. He wrote textbooks, too. 

David Roberts:   

“The world is literally composed of resources for us.” I think about that in the same way I think about racism: We've made enough progress that you can't really say that out in the open in public anymore, but if you scratch just a little bit, especially on the right, it's just beneath the surface. I've had people say it to me on Twitter before; whenever I write about species loss, I get at least one right winger responding, “So what? We don't need them.” 

Amy Westervelt: 

Right. If it’s not benefiting us, and we don't need them, it doesn't matter. It's interesting to me in the context of climate, too, because I feel like one of the big missteps of the climate movement for a really long time was to leave people out entirely.

David Roberts:   

But on the other hand, given what you were saying earlier, it could be that a lot of people talked about people, and then some people talked about polar bears, and because the environment archetype in the US imagination is so strongly associated with “that stuff out there” … that’s what people heard. It’s less about what you say than what people are capable of hearing. I think about this in climate narratives. People say we should talk about it in terms of caring for God's creation, or national defense, or economic opportunity; people have been talking about that a lot, for years now, and it just doesn't get picked up.

Amy Westervelt: 

The military one drives me nuts. I know that we've been talking about that for a long time, because I remember getting assigned stories on that 20 years ago.

David Roberts:   

Every editor thinks, oh, this is a novel thing. It's really going to catch people's ear. And it just doesn’t, because they don't have that archetype. They don't have those stories.

Amy Westervelt: 

That frame is so rigid in people's minds. We actually found a presentation that this guy had been giving to various industry groups about why it was important to get involved in school curricula, and one of the things that he really hammered home was, you need to consistently restate this framing of environment vs. economy, and environmentalists as a special interest group that only cares about pristine nature. It’s so present today, still.

David Roberts:   

Yes, and another thing that all the word-drunk liberals think they're better than is repeating themselves over and over and over again, which is the sine qua non of effective PR.

Amy Westervelt: 

And across multiple organizations. This is where I feel like the right really has the left beat: when you look at these networks of interconnected foundations. You’ve got the Bradleys and the Kochs and whatever else; the messaging is so consistent; they are military about it.

David Roberts:   

The capital is so patient. They just set these organizations up and let them run in the background, churning this stuff out. I can list 10 think tanks that are specifically devoted to the wonders of free markets. Is there, on the left, an organization that is devoted exclusively to propounding the benefits of government? No. They all have their own specific little thing that they want government to do, but who's out there defending democratic self-governance through the mechanisms of government? Nobody is telling that story.

Amy Westervelt: 

It makes me think of this push as World War II is ending to make sure that Americans embraced free enterprise. Where's the counter to that?

David Roberts:   

Final question: Not only do you do three different podcasts, you also are executive producing a bunch of others, you’re running this podcast network, you’re a parent and wrote a book about how ridiculously difficult we've made parenting in the modern world. Now you're doing this new project … and some other new project. I literally was losing count.

Can you share your drug cocktail or meditation techniques? How do you do this?

Amy Westervelt: 

Two things. One, only in the last five years did I realize this is not how everybody reads, but I have that thing where I just look at a page and absorb all the information on it at once. Very handy. The other thing is, I feel like everything I'm working on right now connects to the other. So it seems like it's ten different things, but it's mostly one: disinformation and power.

I've been really obsessed for a long time with why America is so uniquely bad on all these fronts, and going back to how American individualism was conceptualized, and all of the underpinnings of that, is just fascinating to me. So I feel like I would totally be nerding out on a lot of this stuff whether it was my job or not. 

David Roberts:   

Well, thank you so much for all that you do and for taking so much time today. It's been a delight.

Amy Westervelt: 

It was great to talk to you. Thank you.

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Oct 27, 2021
Can the US reach Biden’s climate goal without the CEPP?
Last week, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) finally stopped playing games and said that he will not vote for a budget reconciliation bill that contains the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP).

You can read my interview with Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) for more on the CEPP and this post to understand why it is so centrally important to serious climate policy. I won’t get into all those arguments again. Suffice it to say, it’s a good policy and losing it is bummer.

Insofar as Manchin has offered any reason for killing the CEPP, it is an alleged concern over “using taxpayer dollars to pay private companies to do things they’re already doing.”

But that is just incorrect.

Utilities are not “already doing” what the CEPP requires, i.e., increasing their share of clean energy 4 percentage points year-on-year, every year. Only a tiny handful of the nation’s thousands of utilities are on that trajectory.

The sector as a whole is slowly decarbonizing, but the whole point of the policy is to accelerate the process to meet US carbon targets.

Manchin knows that. It’s precisely what he’s trying to prevent. He told CNN flat out, “I'm not going to sit back and let anyone accelerate whatever the market's changes are doing.”

Why not? Well, he wants to keep fossil fuel power plants open, which is incompatible with Biden’s publicly stated goal of 50 to 52 percent carbon reductions from 2005 levels by 2030.

Manchin is standing up for local fossil fuel interests (including his own) against the president, 49 of his colleagues in the Democratic caucus, a majority of legislators in the House, a majority of voters, and even a majority of West Virginia voters.

He also wants to slash the child tax credit. He’s just a jerk. It is what it is.

At this point, it’s unclear what will and won’t survive into the final Build Back Better Act (or whether there will be a final bill at all). Reports are that staffers are scrambling to find ways to make up the lost emission reductions through other policies.

The question is, how big of a hole are they trying to fill? How big a hit is it to lose the CEPP?

A few analyses released in the past week are helpful in getting our heads around this.

Energy Innovation says the loss of CEPP could cost the bill up to 35% of its emission reductions

The first is from research firm Energy Innovation, which uses its Energy Policy Simulator to determine how much emissions would be reduced by the policies in the House Democrats’ version of the Build Back Better Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was passed by the Senate over the summer.

Obviously, predicting circumstances a decade hence is a fraught undertaking. Energy Innovation ran four scenarios: a business-as-usual scenario, with only existing policies, and low, moderate, and high emission-reduction scenarios based on different assumptions about the price of energy and the efficacy of various provisions in the bills.

They didn’t model all the policies in the bills, just the ones that are relatively easy to quantify. Some emission reductions have gone uncounted, so the estimates Energy Innovation produced are almost certainly a lower bound.

Here are the topline results:

In the high scenario, clean energy reaches an 85 percent share of US electricity by 2030; in the moderate scenario, it’s 80 percent; in the low scenario, about 70 percent.

As you can see in the moderate scenario below, by far the biggest tranche of emission reductions (about half) would come from the combination of the CEPP and clean-energy tax credits:

The good news is that passing both bills could, “with supporting state and regulatory policy,” at the high end of the high emission reduction scenario, just barely get the US to its 2030 target. That’s if everything is included in the bills.

The question now is, what do those numbers look like without the CEPP?

Luckily, Energy Innovation ran a couple of variations of its moderate scenario with no CEPP (a high one, which assumes tax credits are maximally effective, and a low one, with lower take-up of tax credits).

Long story short, “emissions are likely to be 250 to 700 MMT higher per year in 2030” than they would be with the CEPP, “which could eliminate more than a third of the total emissions reductions under the Infrastructure Bills.”

As the scenarios show, a great deal depends on factors that can’t be precisely predicted: the price of fossil fuels, the cost curves of clean technologies, and the efficacy and impact of the clean-energy tax credits and other BBB policies. The loss of the CEPP could reduce the emissions impact of the bill anywhere from 20 to 35 percent.

Resources For the Future agrees but says a carbon fee could make up for it

Energy Innovations’ findings jibe with the second analysis, from Resources for the Future (RFF). RFF modeled three policies, in various combinations:

the clean-energy tax credits, which it calls CEAA for the “Clean Energy for America Act,” a bill from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) that is largely included in the BBB Act;

the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP); and

a carbon tax (er, fee) — the “central” carbon fee “starts at 15 $/metric ton and increases gradually to 30 $/metric ton by 2028, followed by a $10 annual increase through the end of the modeling period (2045).”

The CEAA tax credits alone, without the CEPP, gets the electricity sector to a 69 percent clean energy share by 2030. That is roughly in line with Energy Innovations’ high-end estimation of the tax credits’ impact.

The CEAA plus the CEPP gets the sector to 78 percent clean energy — a 9 point bump.

The CEAA, CEPP, and the central carbon fee together get to 91 percent.

RFF’s model, like Energy Innovations’, shows that the tax credits are doing the bulk of the work. From a baseline (no policy) scenario, the tax credits take the clean-energy share in 2030 from 46 to 69 percent (+23); with the CEPP, it goes from 69 to 78 percent (+9).

Notably, in RFF’s modeling, the tax credits plus a central carbon fee get the number to 79 percent — in other words, a carbon fee pretty neatly substitutes for the CEPP, emissions-wise.

Nonetheless, despite some recent chatter, Manchin has already put the kibosh on the prospect of a carbon fee as well.

Rhodium Group says the US climate target is still within reach

Can the US get on track to its 2030 target without the CEPP? For some insight on that we turn to the other recently released analysis, from the research firm Rhodium Group.

It sets out to determine whether the US can hit its target (again, 50 to 52 percent reductions from 2005 levels by 2030) with what it calls a “joint action scenario,” which includes “actions by all key actors in the US federal system, including legislation under construction in Congress, regulations and other actions that can be taken by the Biden administration and key departments, as well as actions by climate-leading states and corporations.”

Importantly, though it is capacious, the joint action scenario is deliberately conservative about policy out of Congress, given Manchin’s well-known Manchinness: “We include tax credit extensions, clean energy grant programs, and spending on agricultural programs, but do not include a carbon or methane fee or the CEPP [my emphasis].”

The good news is that the CEPP-less joint action scenario gets the US to its goal, or at least close to it.

Even without the CEPP, it is the electricity sector that provides most of the reductions:

One reason there are so many reductions in the electricity sector — and this brings us to what I suppose is the bad news — is that the joint action scenario includes a lot of policies, including standards on new and existing power plants from EPA. Getting to the US target requires all levels of government and the private sector to act with immediate ambition.

This is the action required by Congress:

This is the action required by the executive branch:

And this is what’s required of “subnational groups,” i.e., states, cities, and companies:

If all of that comes together, then the US can hit its 2030 climate target without the CEPP.

Rhodium stresses that the joint action scenario is not the only path to that goal — the final section of its analysis suggests a range of other policies that could also help — but any path to the goal involves coordinated action taken on numerous fronts at once … and a lot of luck.

Where does this leave us?

For years now, it’s been one of the climate world’s great rituals: after every new setback, delay, or disappointment, there’s a rush of articles and models showing, “We can still do it! It’s not impossible yet!”

I suppose this is another one of those posts. Even without the CEPP, the two infrastructure bills passed together would reduce emissions considerably. The loss of the CEPP would take a big chunk out of those emission reductions — more than a third, if things go poorly — but there’s a chance some of that can be made up with other policies.

This is assuming the BBB bill doesn’t get worse. Manchin may not be done screwing it up yet. The top priority now should be protecting the full range of clean-energy tax credits and ensuring that a) they extend at least 10 years and b) they are fully refundable.

And other policies must be protected as well. Here, according to Energy Innovation, are the next most effective policies after the CEPP + tax credits.

The second strongest provision is the fee on oil and gas methane emissions, which contributes about 12 percent of total reductions, or 165 MMT in 2030. Incentives for electric vehicles (EVs) and charging equipment are next, at 115 MMT in 2030, or 9 percent of total reductions.

I tend to doubt Congressional staffers will be able to find anything new that’s big enough to compensate for the loss of the CEPP, but Biden can also gain back some of those reductions through aggressive use of the EPA and other agencies. We’ll see if he has the moxie to do that.

The US doesn’t need to worry that hitting its target is unaffordable. All three analyses show that decarbonizing the electricity sector will reduce consumer energy costs, and that’s not even including the enormous benefits of reduced air pollution, which themselves would easily pay for the transition.

Nonetheless, rapid decarbonization is a huge, wrenching socioeconomic transformation. Hitting our target would be a heroic feat. The fastest the US has ever reduced emissions, outside of a recession, is 4.1 percent in 2012. To get to 50 percent reductions by 2030, Rhodium says, “requires a 5.2-5.6 percent year-on-year cut in emissions every year.” We have to go faster than we’ve ever gone, every year from now through 2030.

And that’s only the first, and arguably easiest, step. The first 50 percent of reductions will be easier than the last 50 percent, which we need to eliminate by 2050. That will require new policies, technologies, and industries.

In the grand scheme of things, the loss of the CEPP is not the end of the world, as irritating and indefensible as it is. As long as Manchin doesn’t do any more damage, as long as staffers scrabble together a few compensatory policies, as long as Biden uses executive agencies aggressively, as long as states, cities, and businesses continue acting ambitiously … well, as long as all of that happens, we still have a shot.

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Oct 20, 2021
Volts podcast: the good news about clean energy, with Kingsmill Bond
In this episode, longtime carbon market analyst and strategist Kingsmill Bond explains why he is so optimistic about the future of renewable energy. Though it remains a small portion of total global energy, its rate of growth and declining costs indicate that it is on the precipice of enormous, rapid expansion. Markets and geopolitics will be transformed by it. (There is also an abridged version of our conversation available on Canary.)

Full transcript of Volts podcast featuring Kingsmill Bond, October 11, 2021

(PDF version)

David Roberts:

It seems like good news is difficult to come by in the US these days, what with democracy on the verge of crumbling and the last big chance to address climate change held in the fickle and ill-informed hands of the Senate’s most conservative Democrat, who lives on a yacht and literally makes money off of coal plants.

As it happens, I have a stash of good news I’ve holding in reserve — a guest I’ve been meaning to talk to forever, but have been treating like a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency thing. I felt grim enough this week that I finally called him up.

His name is Bond. Kingsmill Bond. (Sorry, had to do it.) He’s an energy strategist at the think tank Carbon Tracker, where he arrived after decades of doing market analysis and strategy for big financial institutions like Deutsche Bank and Citibank.

Bond’s experience and research have led him to the conclusion that the shift to clean energy has become unstoppable and that it will be the dominant force shaping financial markets and geopolitics in the 21st century. He argues that we are on the front end of a massive, precipitous wave of change to rival the industrial revolution — one that will unfold even if policy support is weak and erratic, purely on the strengths of economics and innovation.

We need to update our mental model of climate mitigation, he says. It’s not about pain, about how to distribute extra costs and who will be the most altruistic. It’s about gain, about which countries will benefit most and fastest from the tapping of almost limitless new markets and opportunities for growth.

There are no fundamental limits to the spread of zero-carbon energy. There’s more than enough renewable energy, accessible with today’s technology, to supply the world’s energy needs. Not only do we know how to get there, it is where we are headed, based on current market and technology trends. The key to succeeding on climate change is simply accelerating what is already underway, pushing a rolling boulder a little faster.

Like I said, I’m in need of good news like this, so I was excited to talk to Bond about the cost of renewable energy, the peak in fossil fuel demand, and the inevitability of a 100 percent clean-energy system.

Without further ado, Kingsmill Bond, welcome to Volts.

Kingsmill Bond:  

Thank you for having me on the show, David.

David Roberts:   

Kingsmill, I've been following you for years and you've been a reliable source of good news. You recently published an article arguing that we need to flip our story on climate change mitigation: It's not one of pain, about distributing costs and sacrifice and who's going to be more altruistic; it's about gain, about who's going to claim the giant rewards that are waiting. So before we dive into the specifics, give me the elevator-pitch version of why people confronting the daunting task of addressing climate change should feel better than they generally do.

Kingsmill Bond:  

Well, thanks very much for putting it in those terms. The point here simply is that we have got this new, enormous, cheap energy resource in solar and wind that we've unlocked with technology, and we're just starting to be able to apply it.

As we apply it, it gets cheaper, because it's on learning curves. Therefore, we've unlocked an enormous cheap source of energy that can be used to provide all of our current energy demands and, indeed, the energy demands of those who have very limited amounts of energy. It's an exciting opportunity and moment to do that.

David Roberts:   

The center of that story is the learning curves for renewable energy. You single out four different technologies on steep learning curves that, if we project them continuing, bear all kinds of good news. Tell us what those technologies are and what the curves look like right now.

Kingsmill Bond:  

The four most clear technologies which are on established learning curves are solar PV for producing electricity; wind for producing electricity; batteries for storage; and electrolyzers to convert that electricity into hydrogen. All four of them have been the subject of a recent paper by Oxford University looking at their learning curves, that is to say, the amount that their costs drop for every doubling in deployment. All of their learning curves are between 16 and 34 percent, which was already fairly well known. 

But the additional point that's being made by this paper is that when technologies get onto learning curves, they tend to stay on them for very long periods. When you're trying to project future costs of these technologies, the most logical assumption is that those learning curves will continue. This is extremely significant, because we all know that they are growing very quickly, and if you assume that that growth continues — and there's no reason why it shouldn't — these technologies will get incredibly cheap. 

This is kind of an academic debate, because you're already getting solar PV being produced between $10 and $20 per megawatt hour in certain favored locations, so it is, in fact, already incredibly cheap. That cheap energy source is a) going to get cheaper, b) going to spread globally, and then c) be followed up by these other technologies, also on learning curves, which will then provide us with the energy that we need at much lower cost.

David Roberts:   

The electrolyzers seem like the newest of those four technologies. Solar and wind and batteries are pretty established, but electrolyzers have just recently come in for a lot of innovation. How confident are we in that particular learning curve? What's the state of our knowledge there?

Kingsmill Bond:  

In the paper that the Oxford team did, they looked at about 500 or 600 different technologies over long periods and they noted that, actually, very few of them get onto learning curves. As you say, the electrolyzer data set is shorter, but it still goes back a couple of decades, I believe. This is, from their analysis, another technology also on learning curves, and it seems to be already exhibiting the same learning characteristics that we've witnessed in solar, wind, and batteries. 

First of all, in order to make green hydrogen, you need solar or wind electricity, so half the story is already on learning curves. Then the question simply is, can you get the electrolyzer itself onto learning curves?

What's special about this technology is that it's also what they call granular and discrete. That is to say, you can have very small pieces of equipment, they're easily replicated, and they can be built at any size. Many people can innovate, and that's indeed what they're now doing, as we now see huge amounts of capital flowing into hydrogen strategies across the world, from Chile to China to Morocco to the United States. It seems extremely reasonable to imagine that the costs of electrolyzers will also continue to fall.

David Roberts:   

As a snapshot of the present, where is clean energy relative to fossil fuels? Is it still too glib to say clean energy is cheaper than fossil fuels? How nuanced is that story right now?

Kingsmill Bond:  

The debate goes like this: Advocates of clean energy such as myself say, look, it's incredibly cheap, its price is down to $10 or $20 per megawatt hour; the global average, depending how you calculate, is between $40 and $50. This is the LCOE we're talking about. And this is a great story.

The counterargument is, people say, well, you're only talking about the LCOE, you’re not thinking about intermittency. OK, it's cheap in certain locations, but there are other locations, most notably parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where it remains extremely expensive, because the cost of capital is high. Therefore it's not a fair comparison and it's not a substitute for fossil fuels. 

The way to reconcile those two perspectives, I would suggest, is this point about learning curves. As the costs get lower and lower, this debate kind of fades away. It is fair to say that LCOE is not necessarily the best way to calculate costs, and there are other issues to account for in intermittency, but when costs get incredibly low and you can overbuild, then that debate becomes much less significant. 

Furthermore, as this Oxford paper points out, the country on the 10th percentile of cost today — that is to say, the most expensive countries today — will have the same price solar and wind electricity as the cheapest countries today in 10 years, because they're on these learning curves. So I would suggest that these learning curves solve the problem.

David Roberts:   

They brute force it, in other words. It gets so cheap that you can start being profligate with it.

Kingsmill Bond:  

You can be profligate with it, but in fairness, there are also other solutions. There are certain countries and regions which today have penetration of variable renewables of over 50 percent — most notably Denmark, South Australia, and northern Germany — and are aspiring, as in the case of California, to 100 percent renewable energy-based systems.

What's been notable throughout this debate, for the last 20 years, is that the ceiling of the possible is constantly rising. 

If you go back to how the debate was being held about 20 years ago, you'll see these very fancy letters from the Irish and German grid operators saying that variable renewables could never be more than 2 percent of the system, for a whole series of technical reasons which are beyond me. But what's happened continuously is that people have come up with new solutions, be they demand-side management, supply-side management, bigger grids, batteries, interconnectors, better software, digitalization, smart meters, so on and so forth. There have been a whole series of different solutions. The point we really want to make is that that ceiling is a rising ceiling.

David Roberts:   

Intermittency is the number one mental block people have about this, in my experience. So you're right: one obvious point is that the amount we're allegedly going to be able to integrate onto the grid keeps rising. People set these very confident limits, and the limits get busted through. But looking out, the conventional wisdom is that the closer you get to variable energy providing the majority of your energy, the higher the cost of that variability, and the more difficult it is to address. How confident are you that that gap from 80 to 100 percent is bridgeable at reasonable cost?

Kingsmill Bond:  

There are two answers to this. The first is that this is an absolutely academic debate, because today, solar and wind are 10 percent of the global electricity supply. To worry in 2021 about how we go from 80 percent to 100 percent is completely academic.

I often use the analogy that it's like sending my daughter to kindergarten, aged five, and worrying about how she's going to pass her university maths finals. Sure, she's going to have to get there eventually, but there's an awfully long way between now and then. History suggests that we will keep on coming up with ways of solving this. So I think the first answer is, it's not a fair question. 

The second point is that, if you assume these learning curves continue and we do get incredibly cheap sources of renewable electricity, then it's absolutely inevitable that we will find ways of using it.

Perhaps I can step back for a second. It's often worthwhile going back a century and asking yourself: Had you been trying to think about the future in 1921, when we were on the cusp of a quadrupling of global population and a 10-fold increase in energy development and so on and so forth, could you ever have predicted all of the new technology innovation that was going to come? People sit in darkened rooms in Paris in 2021 and seriously think they can forecast the innovation genius.

David Roberts:   

But in fairness, we're a lot farther away from 1920 than 2050 is from us. We definitely need to compress the amount of time in which we have to do this. You might say that the solutions ought to at least be visible by now. 

Kingsmill Bond:  

Actually, that’s the point: the solutions are visible. You do have detailed plans being made in Australia and California, in Northern Europe, for electricity systems based on 100 percent renewable electricity. You also have work done by people like the great Mark Jacobson: he's basically tried to figure out the solution for every single country in the world.

So it's not like there are no solutions ahead of us; there are plenty of solutions, at different levels of granularity.

David Roberts:   

This story depends on the cost curves continuing, as you’ve said. On the one hand, you can look at history and say, cost curves tend to continue once they start. But you can come up with all kinds of stories about things that might impede or slow these cost curves: materials shortages, lithium becoming problematic, mining becoming more problematic, supply chain problems (maybe even caused by climate change), space constraints, NIMBYs who want to stop construction.

How confident are you that none of those will gain enough purchase to slow things on a macro level?

Kingsmill Bond:  

I always smile when people talk to me about limits to growth, because renewable energies are essentially, by definition, limitless, absolutely enormous. The real limits to growth are to the fossil fuel system, which is constrained in terms of the amount that we have, and incredibly constrained in terms of our capacity to burn it.

So it's worth standing back for a moment and recognizing that the real limits to growth are with the current system, not with the new system. 

The second question is, well, are there limits that are insurmountable, that the talent and capital of the world cannot handle? I think the answer to that one is absolutely, obviously no, because we have continuously solved each of these problems as we have encountered them. 

Then, if I can answer this very specific question about mineral shortage: it's an absolutely bogus problem. You need, for example, 200 kilograms extra of minerals in order to have an electric vehicle, which is more than an ICE car. That sounds quite scary until you think, well actually, an average ICE car uses 15,000 kilograms of oil over its lifetime. Those 200 kilograms extra that you require of minerals by definition can be recycled, whilst fossil fuels, obviously, you burn them once and you never use them again. 

Let me give you a couple more stats. There is enough lithium, for example, in known reserves today to be able to satisfy more than a century of current demand. There's enough cobalt in the world for 1,000 million cars. If the answer is, that's really scary because we might need 2,000 million cars, then again, it’s an absolutely fake debate. First of all, we can and are engineering technologies to reduce cobalt, as Elon Musk is doing. But even if we weren't, we build the mines as demand increases. Prices go up a bit and people build new mines and reserves increase. These are absolutely fake problems.

David Roberts:   

Are there no social or moral aspects to this, though, in expansion of mining?

Kingsmill Bond:  

Undoubtedly. This is why people are saying, I think quite rightly, that we shouldn't make the same mistakes this time as we made last time. In our expansion of these mines to build out the new renewables world, we shouldn't be trashing nature with impunity the way we have done in the past. We should be recycling this stuff in order to minimize our impact on the planet.

But let me just come back to the main point, which is that it's a question of degree, right? If you require 100 — or in the case of coal-fired generation versus a solar panel, 1000 — times less stuff in order to generate your electricity, by definition, you're going to be having a dramatically lower impact on the planet.

David Roberts:   

In your discussion of S curves, you mention something about a 5 percent “salience threshold.” When a product reaches 5 percent market penetration, certain dynamics take hold. Can you say more about that?

Kingsmill Bond:  

This is actually quite an intuitive observation. We see it, all of us, in our own lives. If you think back to when you got your first smartphone, or the internet, or your first mobile phone, what happens is that, as new technologies get adopted, they move up these S curves.

It takes a long time to get the technology good enough for people to adopt it, so to go from 0 percent penetration to around 5 percent takes a long time. But then, when it gets good enough, everyone wants it, demand goes through the roof, learning curves start driving costs down further, it goes very, very quickly from about 5 percent market share to about 80 percent market share. That's the nature of S curves. 

This is something that is very well documented for many technologies over the course of a century or more. It goes all the way back to cars and electricity in the United States in the early 20th century, and then all the great stuff we've had since then: microwaves and toasters and TVs and now the internet. It's a well-appreciated observation that stuff moves very, very quickly from low penetration to high penetration — when it's cheap enough and when it's good enough. Therein lies the debate.

David Roberts:   

So where is renewable energy? Do you think it's crossed that threshold? You think we're on that S curve now?

Kingsmill Bond:  

If you look at the history of deployment of, for example, solar panels, what you will see if you chart it is exponential growth taking place: high growth of between 25 percent and 40 percent growth per annum over the last two decades.

There are many other people, including the great Ray Kurzweil, who pointed this out: solar deployment’s been doubling every two years roughly for the last couple of decades, and that's an exponential growth curve. Just empirically, that's exactly what is happening. 

What's also notable is that some experts who try to forecast future solar deployment get it completely wrong, the way the IEA famously has done for the last 20 years. They imagine it's linear growth. If you go back 10 years, demand growth was at 10 gigawatts a year and the IEA was projecting forward growth of 10 gigawatts a year for the next 20 years. Then the next year it's 14 and the year after it’s 20, because we're on this exponential growth curve. 

David Roberts:   

This is a subject of some fascination to me. Is this new Oxford paper really the first model that projected cost curves simply continuing in the shape that they currently exhibit? It's remarkable to me and everybody I know that the modelers have gotten these cost projections so wrong in such a consistent way over and over again for 20 years now. What are we to make of this? What's going on there?

Kingsmill Bond: 

You're right. It’s absolutely shocking, and it's not just the IEA, it's almost all modeling of the future. It's interesting: I ask people about why they don’t do this. There’s a series of answers, but the first answer basically is well, it's too complicated. We can't put these learning curves into our models because it’s too complicated. OK, fine, why don’t you just get a bit more computing power, surely it can be done. But anyway, that seems to be one answer. 

The second answer, linked to that, is that these models are incredibly complex. If you're trying to forecast kerosene demand in Madagascar in 2070, you have to think a lot about that, and you're not necessarily thinking about what's possibly a little bit more important, which is the learning curve of the technology. So, they overcomplicate it. This is why, for me as a strategist, it’s second nature to simplify. That's what the Oxford paper’s done: they've got to the kernel of what's driving change, and it’s those learning curves.

Then the third reason why incumbent models have been so reluctant to incorporate these learning curves is that so many of them are, in fact, made by fossil fuel incumbents, and turkeys don't vote for Christmas. That is to say, if you're working for Exxon or Shell or whoever it is, there's very little incentive for you to say, you know what, those battery costs might fall a little bit faster than we think, and EVs’ growth might be a lot faster than we think, and oil demand might be a lot lower than we think, and therefore, I might not have a job. People don't forecast that stuff. 

The final point is that — and I'd like to come back to this, because it's a completely fake argument — people say, “We want to be conservative. Solar costs have dropped 20 percent a year for the last 20 years, but in the future, we don't want to be too aggressive. We can't forecast the detailed solution, so we're going to be conservative and we're going to say they're going to fall at 2 percent a year.” This is just intellectually incoherent, because why would it suddenly stop falling? Just because you can't see in detail, why would you suddenly forecast a drop in cost declines? 

The other reason why it's intellectually incoherent is because, as a result of the failure to recognize reality in these fast-growing technologies, people have to make their models balance. They go, “Well, in order to make my model balance to 2050 net zero, I'm going to pop in CCS and BECCS, and Martians coming from space to take away our carbon” and other completely idiotic ideas, which have absolutely no basis in empirical fact. That's the point: You've got to try and rely as closely as you can on the facts.

David Roberts:   

It seems like, intellectually speaking, the most conservative thing you could do is assume that things are going to continue happening the way they're happening. That's almost by definition Occam’s Razor. And if the learning curves continue the way they're going, then all these forecasts are going to get blown away. It’s a bizarre situation. 

Kingsmill Bond:  

Yeah, it is. Sorry to lean so heavily on Doyne Farmer and his Oxford paper, but it’s great work, and they make exactly this point. They say, look, mathematically, the future is unknown. There's a whole continuum of options between basically no change and incredibly fast change. But the business-as-usual scenario, which is central to so much current thinking, is mathematically a complete outlier. It might happen, but it's incredibly unlikely. We might suddenly stop innovating, costs might stop falling, deployment might stop happening, governments might give up, people and companies and the financial markets might stop trying to do anything, we might decide that we want to go over the cliff of catastrophic global warming — maybe we will, but that's pretty unlikely.

David Roberts:   

The other area that people tend to cite as a limit, or worry, or outstanding problem is these so-called difficult-to-abate sectors — heavy transportation, industrial processes, steel, concrete. Is the story there the same, that clean energy is going to get so cheap it's just going to bulldoze through those problems? What do you see happening in those sectors?

Kingsmill Bond:  

The hard-to-abate sectors have been a very loud debate for the last three years. The argument people make is, “Well, you can't get renewable energy into airplanes and cement and steel and shipping, and therefore there will be no energy transition.” 

There are two problems with this argument. The first one is the point I made earlier, which is that this is the final area that needs to be solved. Today, if we look at the entire energy system in terms of primary energy supply, solar and wind — these variable energy sources on these very fast growth rates — are only providing around 4-5 percent of global supply.

These hard-to-solve sectors are about a quarter of global primary energy demand. So this is a very long-term problem which we will need to solve, but it's quite a long way in the future before we actually have to solve it. 

Then the second point — and this is an argument that we and many other people have been making for four or five years, actually a much more practical observation — is that solutions are already starting to materialize for these hard-to-solve sectors. You have organizations like the brilliant Energy Transitions Commission that identify prospective solutions for every single one of these hard-to-solve sectors.

For example, the steel sector three years ago seemed to be a completely impossible-to-abate sector. Now you already have people like Andrew Forrest in Australia talking about taking his iron ore, putting up solar panels and wind turbines in the Australian desert, using that to create hydrogen, using the hydrogen to make steel out of the iron ore, and then shipping that steel all around the world. There are now lots of other companies talking about hydrogen-based steel in the same way. In the shipping industry, we have Maersk now talking about using ammonia as a shipping fuel, which is basically a hydrogen-based solution. 

This is why we're so excited about electrolyzers being on cost curves. Ultimately, the way that we, humanity, are going to solve this problem is we're going to decarbonize electricity. We have solutions for that. We're going to electrify whatever we can, and new solutions materialize every day.

Then the stuff that we can't, we'll use some variant of hydrogen. That very clearly is becoming the answer. So when hydrogen also gets onto cost curves, and people are starting to think about how to put hydrogen into steel and shipping and indeed airlines and so on and so forth, you can see the contours of the new world that will emerge.

David Roberts:   

Let's shift to another source of good news. I'm not talking about national and international politics, which both seem dismal at the moment. But states and cities and corporations and financial institutions and other subnational entities seem to really be taking the lead in a way that gets more and more glaring every year. So let's talk about some of the things that you see happening at that level that give you hope. 

Kingsmill Bond:  

I think the wider point is that we have to realize that politics follows technology. That is to say, as new technology solutions materialize, politicians use them. The best example of this, famously, is Boris Johnson in the UK, who 20 years ago was laughing at all this green technology and was extremely skeptical about it. Now that you can buy an EV in the UK for more or less the same price as a conventional car, he's already put into place the prospect of bans of the sale of conventional cars. He keeps on bringing forward the date by which, in the electricity sector, we're going to have a renewable system. So politicians will use the technologies that materialize. 

It's great that it's happening on a local level first, but it also does need to happen on a national level. This is the absolutely key point. When I attend conferences and talk to developers in the field, they don't talk about a lack of capital, they don't talk about technological problems — what they do talk about, all the time, is the fact that the policies are tooled up for the fossil fuel system, not for the renewable system.

This is the key point that needs to get through to policymakers: Can they please stop fiddling around, talking about these wonderful strategic visions, and actually do their job, which is detailed amendment of policies, and detailed changes to support regimes for renewables? It's really hard, difficult stuff, and it's not happening. 

David Roberts:   

One of the other perpetual debates in this area is how big the policy lever is, how necessary it is, and how much of the transition has a momentum of its own, just from economic development and technology innovation. I think you have claimed that this transition is inevitable, no matter what governments do at this point, so how big of a space is there for policy? How much can policy do to slow or speed it down? How much does it have a life of its own at this point?

Kingsmill Bond:  

We recently put out a report which tries to encapsulate this in a very simple framing. The first observation is that everywhere is different, and every sector and technology is a little bit different, right? To state the obvious. Then, secondly, you need different policies at different stages in the life cycle of change. 

At the start, you do need technological innovation, and government's very good at that. Then, after that, as costs start to fall, you do need government support to these growing industries, as the Germans very kindly did the solar industry 15 years ago. But then, as the costs start to fall towards price parity with the fossil fuel system, the role of government actually changes very significantly. Rather than, as it were, trying to push water uphill, they need to remove the blockages to allow it to fall downhill. 

That's, I think, where we've now got to, certainly in the electricity sector, and to a degree in the transportation sector: the role of government now is to remove the blockages which are stopping change.

I'll give you a good example. I was talking to an incredibly frustrated wind developer in northern England a couple of months ago, and he was saying, I've got a huge offshore wind project I want to bring to bear but I can't do it, because there's one landowner who won't allow my cable onshore, and it's lasted for two years.

David Roberts:   

A very familiar story all across the world. 

Kingsmill Bond:  

I mean, this is ridiculous. Are we really going to allow our future to be mortgaged for the sake of people who want to block it for whatever bizarre reason? That's exactly now the role of government. Before you accuse me of trying to trample over people's rights, it actually goes deep into the heart of many systems. For example, there was an extraordinary report written by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in the U two weeks ago about how the government taxes electricity at, I think, effective cost of about 100 pounds a ton of CO2, but subsidizes gas use to the tune of 20 pounds per ton. This is just idiotic. Why is it that we give $500 billion a year of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry? There's an awful lot of very detailed work that governments now need to do to remove these barriers to change, and I would suggest that's actually the cutting edge. That's what now needs to happen.

David Roberts:   

There's a lot of talk these days about financial institutions and the Fed pushing for more pricing of carbon risk, etc. How big of an influence do you think that's having, the discussion that's moved into the financial world?

Kingsmill Bond:  

The financial world somewhat belatedly is waking up to the systemic risk of carbon, and they should, because we did this study which suggests that about a quarter of equity markets and half of bond markets are in sectors which are either fossil fuel producers, or heavy fossil fuel users. So it's incredibly deeply ingrained inside financial markets. As change happens, as new technologies materialize, you're going to get disruption; you're already getting disruption right across these sectors, and that creates financial risk. So it's quite right, I would suggest, for financial market regulators and participants to look at this risk. 

What somewhat disappoints us thus far is that, like the IEA modeling we talked about earlier, they’re still fiddling around at the margin, they're not really getting to the heart of the risk. A good example is from the banks. If you talk to most global banks today, and we talked to a few, they will say, “We've got this covered, we totally believe in all this green stuff, we've decarbonized our head office, and we're getting renewable electricity — and furthermore, we continue to lend tens of billions to the coal center and the oil center for their expansion. But don't worry, we've got it covered, because our risk models tell us that there's no risk from this stuff.” 

You then probe a little bit and it turns out that they've got risk models built up over 40 years of ever-rising fossil fuel demand. So they're doing bad modeling. They don't understand where the risk is, they're not taking account of it. Ceres, for example, has analyzed the U.S. financial sector and figured out that half of the syndicated loans are to fossil fuel linked sectors. They figured out that actually, the banking capital of the US banking system would be wiped out in the event of a disruptive energy transition. So there's a lot of risk which is not necessarily being accounted for. 

It's great financial markets are starting to wake up to this, starting to think about pricing it in. But let's be clear, there's a very long way to go. 

David Roberts:   

The world knows how to accommodate the rapid growth of a new industry, but it almost seems like the decline of fossil fuels is going to be more disruptive in a lot of ways. You talk about fossil fuel demand peaking in various places already and approaching peaks other places. Tell us a little bit about that: Where have you seen it? Where do you expect to see it? What can we expect those peaks to look like over the mid-term?

Kingsmill Bond:  

This looks like a very mad argument on our part. Here we are with fossil fuel demand booming, a shortage of coal in China, record high gas prices and coal prices, and so on and so forth. But I will nevertheless stick to my guns because, at the end of the day, this is just maths. 

What's happening is, you have an energy system which is growing and dominated by fossil fuels. Then you have this new kid on the block of these fast-growing renewable energy technologies. They're moving up the S curves, and, just mathematically, at some stage it will be conceded that the demand for the incumbent technology with 80 percent market share in a low-growth system inevitably must peak. As you get this fast-growing new challenger coming into the market, it must peak and then decline. Mathematically, it will and must happen. 

The question then is, well, how does this play out? We still argue that you got to peak fossil fuel demand for coal and oil and gas in 2019, and COVID has damaged them so significantly that by the time demand comes back, it won't go significantly beyond that 2019 peak. That's the overall argument. 

David Roberts:   

You’re talking about global fossil fuel demand? You think it peaked in 2019?

Kingsmill Bond:  

We think it peaked in 2019. The reason why this is a credible argument: If you imagine a global energy system, growing at 1 percent a year, and the challenger of renewables is 5 percent of that system, growing at 20 percent a year — 5 percent times 20 percent is 1 percent. So the moment that solar and wind get to a 5 percent market share in a 1 percent growth system, they will take all of the growth. That's the moment for the peaking of the fossil fuel system. 

COVID basically brought that moment forward. We had forecast that moment for the mid-2020s; COVID brought it forward basically to 2019. So in 2021, in certain areas, you might get back close to where you were back in 2019. In 2022, 2023, two or three years of bouncing along the top; but as this stuff keeps on growing, you do inevitably get a peak and a decline.

To put the current state of affairs into that context, you’ve got a crash, you’ve got a bounceback, and you’ve got lots of bottlenecks and this demand for stuff that people didn't buy that are suddenly twice as much, so you’re inevitably going to get spikes. We had exactly the same thing, famously, back in 2010. But that shouldn't detract from the wider observation that continued growth of this stuff is going to drive a peak. 

To try and make this more apparent as an argument, it's worth thinking about two mountains. So you've got the Matterhorn, which famously is a V-shaped peak; the Matterhorn’s what happens to discrete individual goods like mobile phones. Nokia's sales can fall off a cliff like the Matterhorn. However, when you think about systems, where you've got embedded demand in a billion cars, then your peaking is going to look a little bit more like Mount Fuji — that is to say, you've got a long, slow slope up; a plateau at the top, for, let's say, five to 10 years, depends a little bit on the detail; then you've got a long slope downwards. 

That roughly is the pattern for what you see in other technology shifts. If you go back to what data we have for the UK for the shift from coal to gas in heating, or the shift from steam to electricity in power generation back at the start of the 19th century, you see these plateaus. They last for a bit, because it takes time for the new technology to get big enough to really kill the old one. But that's nevertheless the pattern.

David Roberts:   

So you think we're on the bumpy plateau right now? 

Kingsmill Bond:  

I think we're on the plateau at the top of Mount Fuji. (Although of course, having climbed it myself, I know perfectly well that it is in fact a volcano and you go down again, but let's not go into that.) It is a plateau at the top. The point to me is that people should not mistake a little hillock at the top of the plateau for another mountain ahead. That would be the error right now, to do that. This is one of the reasons why Carbon Tracker talks so much about stranded assets, because the fossil fuel system and its loyal attack dogs persist in seeing continuous growth, then build for that growth, and as the growth fails to materialize, they get stranded assets.

David Roberts:   

Along those lines, you make the point that you don't have to take substantial market share away from the incumbent to start hurting the incumbent. You just have to stop their growth, then that peak triggers all sorts of other market dynamics. So what happens once the peak sinks in and it's more widely realized what's happening?

Kingsmill Bond:  

Once you reach that peak, you kickstart a series of positive feedback loops for the challengers and negative feedback loops for the incumbents. We put out this paper where we run through seven areas and then delve into a couple of them in a bit more detail. So you see it happening in costs, technology, expectations, financial markets, society, politics, and geopolitics. Those are the seven. 

To focus on the first one, think about this. If you are making cars today, go back five years ago. You were sitting pretty. There's 1,000 million cars in the world, sales are $100 billion a year, you're expecting ever-rising growth, and what could possibly disturb that?

What disturbs it is Elon Musk and Tesla. They come in and they don't have to replace the 1,000 million; they don't even have to replace the 100 million, because what's happening is that 100 million is growing at, let's say, 2 percent a year. So when Musk and the EV sector take that 2 million a year, you as a car manufacturer suddenly realize that your growth is over in the old system.

You then look at the cost curves of the new stuff, and you realize that you're going to have to change. You have to reallocate your capital out of ICE cars and into electric vehicles. Meanwhile, you figure out that you've got continuous decline now coming for your ICE car sales, so suddenly, your ICE factory is a liability, not an asset. Furthermore, as your sales of ICE cars start to drop, you've got to allocate the same fixed-cost structure over a smaller number of cars, and your cost per unit increases. This is economics 101. 

That's what happens to the old people. What then happens to the new people, Tesla and BYD and the EV makers, is, as they produce more cars, the costs of the batteries fall because of these learning curves. As costs fall, demand increases, and as demand increases, they're taking more market share, and they can then go to the second feedback loop, which is the financial markets.

Tesla can go to the financial markets and in an afternoon they can raise several billion dollars and build a new factory in Berlin, which increases their capacity to build at the same time the fossil fuel sector is finding it very difficult to raise capital, and is obliged by investors to change their strategic direction — as we saw, famously, with Engine No. 1.

David Roberts:   

When this dynamic is underway — when the large incumbent fossil fuel or car companies are dragging around this giant legacy system which can pretty rapidly become a liability — what can we learn from history about the chances that they successfully pivot vs. flame out? 

Kingsmill Bond:  

We don't have to do any original thinking here. It's extremely well-documented analysis over decades. There's even a famous book about it by Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma, which says that incumbents struggle with disruptive change and few of them make it.

There's another book that I often like to refer people to, by a very respectable financial analyst called Sandy Nairn, called Engines That Move Markets recently re-released, but it's quite an old book. He looks back at technology shifts and what incumbents did. 

The answer is, incumbents, first of all, try and resist change. Then they struggle to put capital into these new technologies, because they're not sufficiently profitable. You saw lots of examples of the oil center saying that over the last decade: we're not going to put our money into solar and wind because we can get a 20 percent IRR on oil against a 5 percent IRR on solar. Why would we? The problem, then, is that by the time this stuff does get profitable and starts to eat into their old business, it's too late, and other people have moved into this area. That's exactly what's happening now in the energy system. 

It's the risk, of course. It's not just a question of solar, wind, and so on challenging the current enormous coal, gas, and oil system. It's also all of their users, don't forget. So we talked about the car companies, but it's the steel companies, the shipping companies, the airlines — they are going to get disrupted by new people coming in with new technology and new ways of doing stuff. They struggle because, precisely as you say, they have this enormous tail of legacy assets. But it's also a problem, as Christensen points out, of legacy thinking. When you've spent your entire life digging holes in the ground to hoik out stuff, you find it very difficult to do something new.

David Roberts:   

Mostly I'm pretty optimistic about the electricity sector, but one of the reasons I worry about it is that … car companies can flame out and EV companies can replace them; fossil fuel companies can flame out, clean energy companies can replace them; but in electricity, we’ve got these utilities that are basically stuck there by law and regulation that can't just flame out and go out of business. Any business that thought as slowly and conservatively as utilities would probably go out of business, but they can't. So it's hard to see how those dynamics bite as much in that sector.

Kingsmill Bond:  

I agree with you in theory, but what has been notable is that it's actually been the electricity sector which got disrupted first, most notably and famously in Europe. My former boss Martin Lewis tells a story about how he was working for one of these electricity companies in Europe back in the early 2000s, and they talked the talk and they put turbines on their annual reports, but in private they dismissed this as a threat.

Lo and behold, you have the combination of the crisis and politicians putting increasing pressure on them and this new stuff materializing, driven by new players — then they found that they were indeed completely stuck with the old technologies and had to write down, famously, 150 billion euros of assets in the 2010s. So, somewhat to my surprise, it can happen and it is happening. 

What it does need is political push. Why would a politician push a conservative electricity company to change, and why would they change? The only reason why is if you have incredibly cheap alternatives, and your neighbors are deploying them, and you're starting to get rumblings from the people that not merely do they have polluted air and electricity outages, but they're also having to pay 25, 30 cents per kilowatt hour for their electricity, and their mate in the neighboring country’s getting it for 10. That's what forces change.

David Roberts:   

Let's talk about geopolitics. I think the line in international negotiations used to be between developing and developed countries, as they used to be called, but you draw this line between fossil fuel producers and consumers, and you say, per geopolitics, those are the two relevant groups. What's happening that's creating that divide?

Kingsmill Bond:  

When it comes to fossil fuels, you've basically got two groups of countries: 80 percent of the world lives in countries that import their fossil fuels, and 20 percent of the world lives in countries that export fossil fuels. It's actually even more concentrated than that — basically 10 percent of the world lives in countries that are very highly fossil fuel dependent. So the Middle East, Russia, Australia, which have got very large fossil fuel exports.

It's a really, really small group of people, 10 percent of the world, living in these fossil fuel dependent countries. Then there's the rest of us who have to import the stuff. 

Furthermore, the geopolitical environment at the moment confers a lot of power upon the owners of the fossil fuel. There's this very significant geopolitical power conferred upon Russia and the Middle East as a result of their fossil fuel reserves. They’re generating these very large rents of roughly 2 percent of global GDP every year, and they're failing to pay for the externality cost of, call it $3 trillion a year that has been picked up by the poorest in society. So the current system we have is very unfair, and massively favors the fossil fuel producers.

Lo and behold, the fossil fuel users — 80 percent of the world, and it’s all of the areas of growth: China and India, most of Southeast Asia, large chunks of Africa are major importers of fossil fuels — are almost all of the expected growth in demand over the next 40 years.

They now suddenly have got their own domestic, eternal, clean resource, and it's cheap, so of course they're going to use it. They're going to be very delighted to use their own homegrown source, because what you're ultimately doing is trading rents paid to oligarchs and foreigners for local jobs. Of course they're going to do that. 

There are many other people writing about the geopolitics of this energy transition, but if you stand back for a second, it's pretty clear that it's going to benefit the big fossil fuel importers and damage the big fossil fuel exporters. The question then is, well, where does the power lie?

Right now, in October 2021, the power clearly lies with the fossil fuel exporters, because not enough of this stuff has yet been built. Give it another five years, and the power is going to shift. That's, of course, another reason why people need to get on with building this new energy world, because otherwise, they're going to continue to be subject to the whims of the fossil fuel exporters.

David Roberts:   

Why do I hear all of this hand-wringing about a new wave of coal plants in China and Vietnam and in developing countries? I feel like I read this headline every few years: despite climate promises, there's a surge of coal plants. How real is that?

Kingsmill Bond:  

Don't worry too much. First of all — not to belittle the problem, because it is a bit of an issue — it's not as dramatic as it sounds in the headlines. In fact, in spite of these new coal plants which have been built, global coal demand peaked in 2013. So people have been building them and they haven't actually been using them. Global coal utilization rates have now fallen to about 50 percent. So the thing to focus on is not the new capex going on. 

The second point is that, thanks to the incredibly hard work of millions of people, this tail of new coal plants is constantly being reduced. It used to be hundreds of gigawatts, and now it's being reduced to dozens. So it has fallen a long way and it continues to fall. 

When it comes specifically to Vietnam, there are things changing literally as we speak, because of the incredible success of their deployment of solar and wind. They're already now canceling their coal plants and stopping their plans for expansion of coal.

When it comes specifically to China, the rumor is at COP we might see a bringing forward of that 2030 peaking fossil fuel demand date, but the point nevertheless remains that China is very close to peak demand for fossil fuels. I hesitate to say it right now, but it is incredibly close.

To give you a stat, Chinese demand for electricity today, per capita, is the same as Europe. So that incredible ramp of moving from very low demand to develop level demand, that's happened — that's not going to happen again. China is the world's largest producer of solar and wind and all these other new energy technologies, and they're still growing at 20 percent a year. You play with the maths a bit and it's clear that we're very, very close to peak fossil fuel demand in electricity generation in China. 

When I look at the rest of the world — we recently did a report on this — in 99 percent of developed markets, we've already seen peak coal demand in electricity. Interesting enough, in 63 percent of emerging markets, like China, we've seen peak demand for fossil fuels for electricity. It's not surprising, because there's a new opportunity in town.

We have a lot of legacy problems, and we have some inertia, and we have systems which are tooled up for the past, not the future, and so on and so forth — I understand all of that. But as the financial analyst, you need to look forward and look at what's most likely. What’s most likely now, increasingly, is that people will be deploying these new technologies.

David Roberts:   

You describe the dynamic in financial markets where once you shave off the growth of an industry, it sets all these dynamics in motion. I wonder if there's an analogy in geopolitics. You think of Russia's power and African countries’ lack of power: How much would global energy have to shift away from Russia's natural gas to this plentiful solar that Africa has to set off these feedback loops in terms of geopolitical power and influence?

Kingsmill Bond:  

Therein lies a question beyond my level of expertise, but it certainly is worth noting that the year of the peak of the British Empire was just after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, just before it collapsed. Things always look great at the top, and you don't need actually that much; what you need is people to realize that the future is different, and that they can get their own energy. 

I should have mentioned, incidentally, that one of the reasons we’re so enthusiastic about this story is that if you look at the technical potential of solar and wind, which has been a lot in the last five years, it's 100 times our global energy demand today. Africa, as you just mentioned, is an incredible renewable superpower; they've got 1,000 times as much supply from solar and wind as their current energy demand.

When countries are looking for new development tools, rather than reaching to the old playbook of “we must have coal and gas and oil in order to get development,” it’s considerably simpler now. You've got this wonderful distribution system called the sun, which will get you this energy anywhere in the country, and you can harness it pretty cheaply. That, then, becomes the development tool. 

For me, this is another aspect of the incredibly powerful justice which is driving this energy transition: people who haven't had a lot of energy in the past now can have it and can harness it. That eventually will change the geopolitical calculus.

But as I said earlier, we're at the top of Mount Fuji; we're bouncing around, the old is still powerful. The new is yet to be born in sufficient size to really challenge it. But we can't be long.

David Roberts:   

Biden's goal is to decarbonize electricity by 2035, and for the US to be net zero carbon by 2050. Do you think those are within reach given the amount of policy that's likely to be devoted to them? 

Kingsmill Bond:  

If they're not achieved, the US will be buried by China. If the US wants to continue to be a serious player in the modern world, wants to remain a superpower, then it has to embrace superior, cheaper technologies. It's as simple as that.

What's really shocking and embarrassing for me as a fellow Westerner is that for the last decade, China has leapt ahead and is dominating all of these new technologies. How can that be when the US has got all of that incredible industrial, intellectual base?

It's pretty simple. If the country wishes to remain serious, then it has to do it. If not, then like the UK before it, it will descend into irrelevance.

David Roberts:   

How much of that is baked in? Are you willing to put any kind of numbers on how much you think is already inevitable, or how much requires more policy from Biden? I need faux precision here.

Kingsmill Bond:  

OK, I'll give you faux precision. It’s absolutely achievable. Again, as this Oxford paper points out, the more you do, the cheaper it gets. From their calculations, the cost of the transition, just in purely financial terms, is cheaper than the cost of business as usual. As they and many others have pointed out, technically all of this stuff is completely feasible, but you do need very powerful political action to break through the logjams of the incumbents and the inertia of the current system.

I salute Biden and his team, because that seems to be exactly what they're now trying to do. You do need very powerful policy, because this ultimately will happen by 2100, but by 2100, it may well be too late. So in order to drive it faster, and for that to be cheaper and fairer and better distributed, you need to get on with it.

David Roberts:   

All right. That sounds like a great place to wrap up. Thanks for taking all this time, and for cheering me up.

Kingsmill Bond:  

Well, thanks, David. I hope I didn't overstate my brief there — it just seems pretty clear to me.

David Roberts:   

Well, you're making bold short-term predictions. Maybe in a decade, we can do another podcast and check your numbers.

Kingsmill Bond:  

It's funny because we put out this note in 2018, in a little conference room in San Francisco, talking about peaking fossil fuel demand coming in the 2020s. It got fairly well picked up, but it was one of those completely out-there ideas. Then lo and behold, you get COVID and it's starting to look like actually what is happening, notwithstanding what's happening right now. So, we'll see.

David Roberts:   

So far, so good. All right. Thanks so much for coming on.

Kingsmill Bond:  

Thanks so much for the call and for the opportunity. 

David Roberts:   

All right. Bye now.

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Oct 11, 2021
A rant about economist pundits, and other things, but mostly economist pundits
Over the years, readers, I have had numerous occasions to be irritated with economists, particularly economists acting as political pundits. I thought today I would explain why.

There are those in climate circles who lay most of the blame for the failure of climate action to date at the feet of economists. I’m not one of those people. I just lay … some of the blame at their feet. The fact is, rapidly transforming the entire industrial base of every country on earth was always going to be difficult — lots of extremely powerful interests stand to lose a great deal of money and power — and was probably going to go slowly no matter what economists did.

Nonetheless, I think there’s a good argument to be made that, when it comes to the interface of economics and politics, climate economics and climate economists have blown it pretty comprehensively — and have not necessarily learned all the lessons they should have learned.

I’ll start by recounting a notable episode and then contemplate two sorts of lessons that might be learned from it, one of which seems like it’s sinking in and and one of which … less so.

The case of carbon pricing

This is a familiar story, so I’ll keep it short.

The theoretical benefits of carbon pricing, as explored ad nauseam by economics over the last several decades, are well-understood. If you have all the stocks and flows of an economy in a giant spreadsheet, and you tweak the “price of carbon” variable, changes cascade throughout the spreadsheet. Every column in which carbon plays a part (which is almost every part of the US economy) adjusts.

Modern neoliberal economics tends to seek the optimally efficient policy, and on that score — maximum results from minimum intervention in the economy — a price on carbon is the winner. It’s one variable you can adjust to optimize your whole spreadsheet.

These arguments on behalf of carbon pricing are, I hasten to emphasize, valid. In a spreadsheet economy, turning the carbon-price knob is the most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions.

But the economy isn’t a spreadsheet and carbon pricing isn’t just another knob on some policy console.

Carbon pricing faces political-economy problems that are, at this point, almost as well-understood (at least by those who have been paying attention) as its theoretical merits. In fact, the closer a carbon price gets to the economist’s ideal — pegged to the social cost of carbon, equal across sectors, covering the whole economy — the more political-economy problems it faces. Its efficiency varies in inverse proportion to its feasibility.

The more sectors are roped in under the carbon price, the more simultaneous enemies the policy makes. Different industries have different levels of power and influence and need to be compensated in different ways for their political acquiescence, but a carbon price applies to all industries equally, so it can not compensate any of them in particular. Thus, it has no friends (except economists).

Carbon pricing policies can be and have been tweaked to overcome these difficulties, but with every tweak, optimal efficiency recedes in the rearview mirror. For one thing, pretty much every extant carbon price is the world is too low, well beneath the social cost of carbon. In the real world, other sector-specific industrial policies that are more politically manageable, like feed-in tariffs and renewable energy standards, have prevented far more emissions.

Anyway, I won’t rehearse all these arguments again. If you want to read up, start with this piece I did for Vox, this piece from Jesse Jenkins, or this three-part interview I did with David Victor and Danny Cullenward, who wrote a whole book on the subject.

For years, economists acted like serious grappling with political-economy constraints was beneath them, and they bullied big environmental groups into becoming economist wannabes, preaching their “market-friendly” gospel. The entire decade of the 2000s was spent preparing for a national climate-pricing push in 2008 that ended up producing precisely nothing.

It wasn’t until 2020 that another shot came around at the federal level — thankfully, Dems aren’t repeating their mistake (at least that mistake).

The capture of the climate policy debate by carbon-price-obsessed economists in the late 20th century helped send national and international climate policy down a multi-decade cul-de-sac in which very little was accomplished and much precious time was wasted.

So what can be learned from that experience? I think there are two broad lessons, the first about the substance of climate economics and the second about the political behavior of economists.

Conventional economics has mostly gotten climate change wrong

Part of what prompted me to write this post in the first place is this piece by economist Daron Acemoglu about the failures of economics on climate change and some longstanding assumptions that need to be updated. It’s a smart, approachable distillation of some critiques that will be familiar to policy nerds:

Economists have dramatically underestimated the cost of climate damages.

They have treated technology as an exogenous variable, something external that just happens, applied to models at a set rate; models with “endogenous and directed technological change,” which reflects our ability to shape and focus technology development through policy, reveal that much more dramatic emission cuts are affordable.

They have used