What Climate Policy Needs: Optimism

Movements Start Small #21

World leaders recently convened for the 26th time since 1995 to work on solutions to lowering greenhouse emissions. The talk in these meetings is always bold, noble and aspirational. The actual results? Not so much:

After 26 failed efforts, perhaps we should consider a new strategy.

At the core of climate policy, there is a fundamental mis-framing of the problem. Activists pin inaction on corporate greed and venality. If only the oil companies (and other polluters) would get out of the way, we could solve the problem. Sorry, but this is foolish thinking.

Any climate discussion must start by acknowledging our vital need for energy. At the most basic level energy fundamentally drives human prosperity. We rose from short lifespan subsistence farming communities to wealthy knowledge based societies living almost a century, thanks to energy. Energy is tied to every well being metric you can imagine - clean water, education, women’s rights. Yet still to this day, 1 billion people do not have access to electricity. More than two times the number of people die from lung disease acquired from wood based cooking than malaria. The transition to clean energy is clearly increasing prices, a reality that hurts the poor hardest - by far. There is a lot of talk of climate equity, but energy equity is a much bigger problem - at least right now.

The basic truth is if we outlawed fossil fuels tomorrow, global deaths from poverty and despair would immediately surge well beyond any predictions of climate disaster. How do we expect people to trade certain near doom for potential future doom? Well, we know the answer: they won’t.

Look how emissions are growing. Rich western countries are actually lowering emissions (as they can afford the high costs of efficiency investments and renewable technologies), but poor countries are increasing emissions as they bring their large populations out of poverty on the back of cheap energy. If we denied basic energy to these countries the poor would be destined to poverty forever. 

At the core, the climate movement paints a dire picture: sacrifice flourishing or die. In my very first post here, I called this the Prius Problem - activism that demands inferior products for higher prices...or else! We are being asked to endorse a future that is worse in every way. No one will sign up for that mission. In fact, half the electorate ends up depressed, the other half in denial. No wonder we aren’t making much progress.

The first act of leadership is to inspire people to a better future.

We must move to a “get more for less” climate movement. Sustainable energy yes, but abundant energy must be the goal. We have to give the entire globe a chance to flourish and thrive. While some sacrifices will be required we can’t turn back the clock on progress. We must tell a story about a cleaner and richer future - for all. 

Oddly, the green movement itself has been a blocker to this path. Rooted in a naturalistic and romantic view, many in the climate camp view any change to nature as a negative and therefore resist policies built around growth and prosperity. But, if we want real change on emissions, these views must be rejected. 

To me, an optimistic climate policy would involve many changes to the current path. We will need wholly new perspectives and certainly new policies. Here would be my top 3:   

  1. Energy innovation (nuclear!). Any policy must start with addressing our global need for massive amounts of energy. If we want to get the world to western standard of living, we will need more than 3x our current energy production. And future innovation will surely just add to demand. Wind and solar have a role, but there is no hope for them getting us there given their embedded energy density. We moved from wood to oil to capture greater energy density. Nothing is more dense than nuclear energy - and it emits zero carbon. We need a moonshot of innovation here: funding, regulatory reform, even mandates. If allowed to iterate with reasonable guardrails, nuclear can create abundant, clean, cheap energy - that is safe. It will take leaders and innovators to get the public to embrace nuclear after the infamous safety incidents of the past. While open to other innovations (e.g. geothermal), we must make abundance the goal of any innovation efforts. Who opposes this path? The Sierra Club, Greenpeace and most climate activists who favor conservation and renewables alone. At COP26, no nuclear company was allowed to present in the public “green” zone. At least China sees the inevitable as they made a recent commitment to build 150 reactors in the coming decade. More will come - or emissions will keep rising. 

  2. Modern, dense cities. The greenest city per capita in the world is New York. Few own a car, infrastructure is shared amongst many and density drives massive efficiencies in production and distribution of energy. Cities also present the most career opportunities for the young in our knowledge economy. Despite these facts, cities have never been more expensive. NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) activists, local veto power, extreme building codes, environmental regulations and labor laws continue to limit affordability across big cities. In San Francisco in 2018 (pre-Covid) only 2500 housing units were built - in the biggest boom economy in its history. In my hometown, an eyesore building was recently designated historic due to once being a brothel erasing almost 300 housing units. And the famous 2nd street subway took 10 years and almost $6 billion to expand 2 miles. Leaders must take on the forces resisting building and remove barriers that raise costs - including massive environmental regulation. We need to build vertically and greatly accelerate the infrastructure projects that support density. A true YIMBY approach conflicts with many progressive priorities - anti-gentrification, environmental review and historic preservation. But, we have to find balance and build again. Density is sustainable and provides real opportunity to more people. 

  3. Regenerate the Soil. Soil grows our food but also happens to be the largest carbon sink in the world - but only when allowed to thrive. In the past 50 years, we have doused our croplands with chemicals and abandoned our grasslands from proper ruminant grazing. The result is a massive release of carbon and the elimination of a vibrant and natural carbon ingestion system. And oh yeah, we also robbed our food of nutrients and created a society riddled with metabolic disease. As a result almost every incremental public dollar goes to healthcare to deal with the impacts. We need a reboot of the entire industrial food system. Nature can heal and produce enormous quantities of food while sequestering carbon when managed properly. But it involves ending the massive commodity crop subsidies that drive the system today. It also involves animals to naturally fertilize our crop and grasslands - and yes, provide us with nutrient dense proteins. Today, the climate system rails against all animal proteins, pushing more processed foods built on soil destroying commodity crops. We are locked in a false choice between plants and animals when we need to be talking about moving from industrial food to regenerative food.  

Abundant clean energy, affordable cities with great infrastructure, and non-toxic nutrient dense food...this is a green future we can look forward to. It is a better future - and a cleaner one. And it will raise the living standards for all. Until our leaders shift from dystopian fear to a hopeful message of innovation and possibility, the climate movement will continue to under-deliver. Hectoring and doomsaying is a losing strategy. Hope and creativity will rally people. And get the job done. 

Good Reads - Climate Optimism Edition

  1.  “A code red for humanity” was the crystallized political interpretation of the IPCC 6 climate report from the UN this summer. But, the actual report had some good news - it basically downgraded the worst case scenario - RCP8.5 - as highly unlikely. Despite this fact, most media reports still use this scenario as their baseline climate model.

  2. Nuclear is ready for it Model-T moment. Innovation and cost reduction comes from experimentation and iteration. Which country will lead the next generation of nuclear? Whoever it is will win big. 

  3. Matt Yglesias makes the case from the left...more energy please!

  4. An emerging contrarian view on climate - backed by the data (even the IPCC data). Real. Humans contributing. Very unlikely to be existential. Judith Curry gives her compelling take on it in the context of our energy transition issues (slides in article key). Are you open to the non catastrophic case?

  5. Density does not mean more cars...in fact it often means fewer (amazing image of transformation in Korea). Wonky paper no one will read...but regulation responsible for most of housing cost increases.

  6. Adaptation is the human super power. Over the last century, more climate incidents...but MANY fewer deaths. Prediction is also hard...Glacier Park removes decades old signs warning all glaciers would be gone by 2020. And the River Thames comes back to life!