I’m Ezra Klein and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
So before we begin, we are still looking for an associate producer on the show. That is a job that requires two years audio experience. But if you have that, and you want to work with us, go check it out. The job listing is in the show notes, and it will only be open for about another week, week and a half. So if you’re interested, please apply quickly. And then one more quick thing— so “The Argument” podcast, has relaunched at Opinion Audio under the leadership— the fearless leadership of my friend Jane Coaston. The very first episode is an argument, including yours truly, about whether or not we should get rid of the filibuster. Now, I don’t want to ruin which side of this argument I take, whether I am pro getting rid of the horrible filibuster— which is destroying all of American governance— or I am against getting rid of the filibuster and I think we should impose a super-majority requirement on everything forever. You’ll have to go download the first episode of the argument to find out. But it’s a great show. You should go listen to it and subscribe. But, now, let’s get to it. So Texas— not known for cold weather, but that doesn’t mean cold weather is unknown in Texas. Intense cold periods, they happen at least once a decade. There was a really rough one in 2011, an even worse one in 1989. All of our infrastructure— be it energy grids, or water systems, or social infrastructure like political systems in civil society— none of it is actually separable from the physical world we live in. It is all, all of it, explicitly or implicitly designed for certain climate conditions. So then the question becomes, how big of a range have we actually planned for? And then, what happens as we move into this new climate future— this future we are creating that blows all those old ranges up? There are two particular ways in which the Texas disaster scared me from that perspective. First, this wasn’t even that bad of a climate event. And Texas is a big, rich state. The climate scientist, Roger Pielke Jr., he made the point on a substack that the problem here isn’t that Texas didn’t plan for the future. It’s that they didn’t even plan effectively for the past. But even worse than that was the immediate political reaction on behalf of Texas’ political leaders, which wasn’t to try to understand what had gone wrong or how their own thinking had to update now. It was to attack Green New Deal legislation that hadn’t passed yet. And to say, Texas needs to double down on fossil fuels— double down on the very practices that are changing the climate in ways that will bring far worse catastrophes than this one. And I want to say really quickly here, when I say, Texas political leaders, I’m not talking about some rando on Twitter. I’m saying, the current governor— Greg Abbott. I’m saying, Rick Perry, who said that Texans would happily take a couple days without electricity to keep the federal government out of their electricity grid. Rick Perry, who was head of the federal Department of Energy. It’s just wild stuff. But, importantly, this isn’t just about— it isn’t even mainly about Texas. It’s really important not to fall into that red-blue trap not to make this a reverse climate culture war. Texas is not uniquely bad at infrastructure planning and the shortsighted counterproductive way its leaders responded to crisis here. It’s not going to prove rare. So what I want to do is use Texas as a lens into a future, and into dynamics, and into infrastructure problems, that are going to be constant in the coming years and that are going to get much worse. And some of them are pretty uncomfortable for a lot of the climate theories that dominate on the left. So there’s a lot to explore here, and I knew exactly who I wanted to do it with. Leah Stokes is a political scientist who studies climate at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She wrote the great book, “Short Circuiting Policy,” which has a lot on Texas’ particular and unusual, and I think, by the way, quite surprising history with renewable energy. And then, of course, David Wallace-Wells, who is at New York Magazine and who wrote “The Uninhabitable Earth.” As always, my email is [email protected] I’m always interested to know who you’d like to see on the show next, so send me your suggestions or topic suggestions for that matter. Here are Leah and David.
So let’s begin in Texas. Leah, explain to me what happened there like I’m a smart 13-year-old.
Well, it’s hard to explain to be honest, even if you’re an expert in these things because ERCOT — the restructured electricity system in Texas — is just so complicated. But basically what happened is, we had an extreme weather event — maybe climate change related, maybe not. The jury’s still out on the science of that — that brought cold temperatures down throughout the Midwest. And it hit Texas. And the thing about Texas is that although it has these kinds of extreme cold weather events about once a decade, none of the generators in the system had invested in insurance, had invested in figuring out how they would still operate were an event like this to happen. Meaning that they didn’t insulate their equipment, they didn’t store alternative fuels on site. And so there was a massive shortage in gas supply — not just the fossil fuel itself but also the generators that couldn’t go online because they were basically frozen. And so what happened was that there was rolling blackouts for many days straight throughout parts of Texas. Many people had to leave their homes. Their water pipes froze. Their various equipment broke. It’s really been quite a massive disaster for people living in Texas.
So I want to ask you about one piece of this that I read about that chilled me I guess is what I want to say about it. So the head of ERCOT said that Texas was minutes and seconds away from a total collapse of the power system that would have required something I’d never heard of before and didn’t know was a possibility called a black start where it would have then taken people not days to get power back but months. Can you explain any of that to me?
So the way the electricity system works is that supply and demand have to be matched perfectly, pretty much, every second. And so when you turn your lights on under normal scenarios, some generator supplies a little bit more power to meet that. And so the system is always in perfect balance. And there are grid operators who are making sure that that happens. A lot of these people who end up operating the grid are like former, very senior military people who can deal with crisis because they have to adapt, even under normal circumstances, to a power plant going out or to sudden demand surges that are not anticipated. It’s a challenging thing to do on a normal day. But what can happen is that, if the system gets completely out of control, we can have the entire system potentially shut down — if, for example, demand is way outpacing supply. And the consequence can be that the entire electricity system goes dark. I don’t know if it would have actually taken months to stand the grid back up. Maybe that’s kind of an extreme estimate. But just think about the blackout that knocked out the Midwest and parts of the East Coast in the early 2000s. These events can take days to bring the grid back online.
So David, one of the things that I was thinking about knowing your work on this is, do you read this as a new normal? Do you read this as a world of extreme weather events coming with infrastructure that is not prepared for all kinds of reasons, and we should just expect what we saw in Texas to be a kind of continuous story that we’re seeing in the US and, in some ways more consequentially, globally?
The short answer is yes. I think, as Leah pointed out, there’s some climate questions about exactly how much of what happened in Texas is quote unquote, “climate change.” But I actually think those questions, while academically interesting, are a little bit beside the point because the fact is that we are living in a destabilized climate environment that is just throwing so many, if not unprecedented, then certainly unexpected and unprepared for weather events at every aspect of our human system. So that every feature of modern life was erected to withstand climate conditions, weather conditions, that we took for granted for decades and maybe centuries, but which now represent only a relatively narrow band of what is possible in the new world. And those climate changes are going to continue and are going to accelerate, which means it’s not just that the stuff that was built in the middle of the 20th century — assuming the climate of the 20th century would continue forever — it’s not just that stuff that’s going to be vulnerable. We are already now on a planet that’s just 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution. We’re now warmer than the planet has ever been in the entire history of human civilization, which means, theoretically, infrastructure that could have been built in ancient Egypt — the climate of that time would also not be relevant as a guide to this time. And even infrastructure that took into account every climate fluctuation from the invention of agriculture, all through ancient history, all through modern history and the industrial history, even infrastructure that accounted for all of that would not actually be prepared for the changes that we’re going to be seeing in the next couple of decades. And that means that what we need to do to protect the infrastructure we have and to build new kinds of infrastructure goes well beyond what even the biggest infrastructure geek a decade or two ago would have told you was his or her most ambitious plans. We just have to, practically speaking, rebuild or retrofit every piece of the built environment on the planet.
Yeah, and, keep in mind, you have to get rid of all the fossil fuels at the same time, right? So not only do we have to kind of weather proof and adapt, as we say, the existing infrastructure, we also have to stop burning fossil fuels. Whether that’s in our home with our stoves or our hot water heaters that are all running on fossil gas, or all the electricity system, which, even in Texas, by the way, if people want to somehow say, we need more fossil fuels, the system is already like 70 percent fossil fuels. And it failed. So not only do we have to adapt the system to climate change, we also have to rebuild it because of fossil fuels themselves.
I think a lot of people don’t totally appreciate how much fossil fuels go into even the non-power aspects of our infrastructure. So if cement we’re a country right now, it would be the world’s third biggest emitter. And China last decade in three years poured as much of it as the US bought in the entire 20th century. And so we are creating new carbon-intensive infrastructure every day. And much of the work that — even when we imagine a totally rebuilt world, a totally rebuilt environment, we’re probably imagining using tools that are completely reliant on fossil fuels. And when I look around the world — when I look at — it actually didn’t end up flooding, but there were such intense rainstorms in China this year that the Three Gorges Dam, which is one of the great 21st century marvels of modern engineering was at risk of flooding. The derecho that ripped through Iowa tore apart an entire city. The levees that were built after Catarina outside of New Orleans — first of all, they weren’t even built to withstand category five hurricanes. But now they’re essentially out of date already just a decade later, $14 billion later. So we have all of this infrastructure, even stuff that was considered to be state of the art. And even those things that were meant to incorporate climate concerns and anxieties just, say, a decade or two ago, are now proving, already today, insufficient and not up to the challenge of the new extremes that we’re seeing let alone what we’re likely to see over the next few decades and on towards the second half of the century when the changes will be inevitably— even if we do an incredibly rapid job of decarbonizing — will be much more dramatic than the changes we’ve seen to this point.
You guys just put together the thing that is really my motivation for this conversation. So Leah, you were saying, David, actually you were saying, we have to rebuild every piece of infrastructure. And Leah, you were saying at the same time, we have to decarbonize. I think there’s been, for a long time in climate politics, a view that as the climate crises become more common and more undeniable — and put aside the question of whether or not this one was undeniably a climate crisis, it’s undeniably the kind of thing we’re going to see. That will force even Republican politicians to get religion on this. And even if they’re going to come to it late, to actually act. But what we saw in the immediate aftermath of this during the night it was happening while his own constituents were without power, Governor Greg Abbott was going on Sean Hannity’s show to say, it just shows that wind power is dangerous and the Green New Deal is dangerous and we can’t have them. And it got me thinking about the ways in which the political reactions here might actually be quite perverse. That as you have crises, as you have energy become more unreliable, security become more unreliable, that there is going to be actually quite a lot of space for politicians who want to say, well, that just shows we’ve got to burn all the coal we have so we never have a problem again, or we have to get out of these big international agreements because we just have to go our own way. I think you saw the possibility here that the political incentives are not going to line up the way people have hoped. And it’s actually what chilled me most about this experience.
I totally agree. I think some of us have in our heads — maybe not David because he’s certainly not known for this — this kind of Pollyanna. You know, we’ll experience climate change, and we’ll all wake up, and we’ll all realize this is terrible. And we’ll avert a catastrophe. And I have certainly had that view. And I’m still Hope Springs Eternal over here. I’m still hopeful that some people will wake up. But the crazy thing is that’s not really what the research is showing, and it’s not what we’re seeing. So, for example, there’s this paper by Matto Mildenberger and Chad Hazlett — two political scientists at UCSB and UCLA — where they looked at people experiencing wildfires across California. And they looked at how did they vote on ballot initiatives that were climate and clean energy related. And what they found was that Democrats, who overwhelmingly think climate change is real, experience these wildfires and voted more for climate things because they made the connection between the extreme events they were happening and the votes. But Republicans living in the same place experiencing the exact same thing do not make the connection with climate change in part because the issue has become so polarized because of fossil fuel interests in the Republican Party. And they do not vote more for environmental ballot initiatives. And so I think that what that shows us is what the priors that people have — whether that’s everyday Republicans or politicians — those really inform how they respond to climate impacts in practice. And we saw this on full display with Republican governor or Republican senators or former Republican governors this past week in Texas, where they all said, this just shows you that the Green New Deal — which by the way, does not exist — is somehow to blame for all of these fossil gas plants shutting down. And it also reminds me of some of the scenarios that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has done. When they are forecasting what might happen in the future, they build these different scenarios. And some of them are like, we all lean in country to country and we all cooperate and we share technology and we solve the crisis. And then there’s other ones where we’re like, we erect borders, and we erect barriers to people migrating. And we shrink inwards as we start to see these impacts on our economy from the climate crisis. And we become more sort of inward and fascist so to speak. And I think a lot of people experiencing Donald Trump’s presidency saw that brand of reaction to climate impacts. Because let’s not forget that the migrant crisis is linked to climate change because of impacts of climate change in Central America, right? These things are actually not different. And if you want to see an example of this, I would recommend reading the “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler. It’s a fiction book obviously, but she literally has a fascist president whose campaign slogan is, Make America Great Again, and is sort of creating racial divides and class divides in the wake of climate change. So this is a very possible road that we could go down. We’re not all going to wake up just because climate change is happening now.
Do you think that what will happen in Texas will be a turn away from the recent trends towards more use of renewables over the last couple of decades in the wake of this? My inclination is to read it as some amount of political theater that has a relationship to energy policy but isn’t driving energy policy and to essentially assume that the trajectories that that state was on, but also, more generally, the US and, more generally, even the world. That a lot of us live sort of climate identity fights that we have on social media and on cable news may not actually be as central to the questions of what we can get done as we’ve long assumed as we’ve thought that the main job of climate activism was sort of persuading people to embrace more aggressive climate action. How do you see the future playing out? I mean, let’s take Texas electricity policy as a particular example. Do you think the next decade will be less aggressive in its decarbonization than the last decade, or more?
Well, I think we’re moving in the right direction across the board. But the question is not just the direction, it’s also the pace and scale. It’s the speed. And that is where we’re really failing, whether it’s decarbonizing the electricity system or really any other sectors. And I think the challenges, some of these forces, keep us moving slower than we need to be moving. Now, one interpretation of what we’re seeing in Texas is actually that the climate movement is winning. Because why are they talking about the Green New Deal and all these boogeyman things and blaming wind turbines if we weren’t winning, if we didn’t have a president who is prioritizing this, if we didn’t have a climate bill coming down the pipes in the coming months? So I think that there’s a hopeful narrative. But remember that if we can get a federal bill, that’s amazing because then we can actually start to make progress everywhere. But there there’s going to be resistance. There’s going to be pushback. And states willingness to accept that pace and scale that is necessary is going to be challenging just like we saw, for example, with Medicaid expansion, let’s say, or with health care, right? We can pass a bill federally, but getting that implemented everywhere is going to be challenging. So I certainly don’t feel depressed about the cost of renewables, about the direction we’re moving in with federal policy, but I think it is disturbing to see how much the last gasps of the oil and gas industry and their friends in the Republican Party could potentially threaten our progress.
This is going to almost sound like I’m joking, David, but I’m actually not. Doesn’t understanding climate as having this increasing culture war and identity set of valences make Elon Musk the most consequential climate figure in the world? I mean, he’s become one of the richest guys in the world by installing solar panels or revitalizing electric cars in large part. He’s also got this weird tech bro persona that doesn’t read his left, doesn’t read as sort of weenie green. He’s also just moved to Texas and has this huge following of young somewhat disaffected white men. So isn’t that what you actually need here, people who somehow scramble the identity expressions of climate concern and are able to somehow sell this in a new way to a constituency that maybe isn’t listening to some of the more traditional messengers?
Honestly, I have ambivalent feelings about Elon Musk. But I think I’m a bigger fan of his than a lot of other people in the climate movement. I would say the same about Bill Gates and a lot of the sort of climate tech bro zone.
Bill Gates is more a climate tech dad I think.
But he has this tech bro fanboys. It’s all part of the same culture. Elon has, among many other things, just like an amazing meme lord. But my big answer is that we need all of it. This is too big a problem to be solving with any one particular cultural angle or one particular cultural perspective. And we probably need the participation of a lot of not just technocratic triumphalists and people who want to go back to the soil, but also some people who are basically living in denial. That is the scale of the transformation we need. And the scale of that transformation requires that scale of political support, which means a really, really, really big tent. And while I do think that there is some value in the scrambling of identity politics around climate that you describe, I also think that the climate itself is doing a lot of that for us. And in some ways, that are worrying, as Leah was talking about, it is turning some climate denialism into what is sometimes called, climate fascism. I think it’s a little too strong, but, certainly, climate right wingism. And that may not be the most productive development. But, in general, I think the disasters have been so vivid, especially over the last few years even in the parts of the global North that had long been protected from those impacts, that it’s no longer really possible to live outside the conversation about climate even if you are the most right wing person imaginable who writes for the telegraph in England or works for Murdoch in Australia or whatever. You’re still living in a world defined by climate change and having to come up with some kind of response to it. And so I think we’re having all of those identities scrambled by reality in a productive way. And I don’t know exactly where that ends up, but I personally am the kind of person who is so worried about climate that I take comfort and have become more optimistic because of the fact that all of these Fortune 500 CEOs and Davos leaders have started talking the talk about climate in a way that they hadn’t a year ago or 10 years ago. And I think that you’re starting to see that sort of cultural change just about everywhere. That it’s not Greta versus Exxon. That’s just not the dynamic anymore. Those forces are part of the fight and the fossil fuel industry is a source of great moral villainy in the world and certainly has been in the past and will continue to be going forward. But there’s such a dynamic and strange, new, weird big tent of climate action. And I don’t know exactly who’s going to be the lead figure there. Whether it’s — I mean, you mentioned Elon. It’s certainly an interesting case study. But the fact that Joe Biden is a climate hero, is itself really crazy. A year ago, he was just about everybody on the environmental left’s last choice for president. And he’s managed to reinvent himself as a climate hero, and may well go down in history as the man who at least turn the tide of American politics on that front. The fact that that change could have happened in such a short amount of time is just a reminder of how dizzyingly fast climate politics is moving right now. So that the kinds of prejudices and in group/out group stuff that might have defined a fight, certainly in 2009, 2010 with the cap and trade bill, but even as recently as a couple of years ago, if you could have imagined a real high level climate fight. It’s just not the same fight anymore. And I don’t know that that means we see precisely how victory will unfold or what it will look like. But the landscape of possibility seems much, much, much more wide open to me. And it seems to me like we can have room there for many, many different kinds of heroes from Gina McCarthy, to Leah, to Varshini and Sunrise, and down to Microsoft, who is, I think, doing a pretty good job with their climate stuff. So I think among the many things that climate change is already changing very dramatically about our world, the meaning of climate identity has changed pretty dramatically too.
So one thing that actually does scramble this a little bit, is even taking seriously the histories of some of the states in this conversation — stereotypically, Texas is anti renewable energy, anti Green New Deal, anti environmentalist. But actually, in reality, they were pretty early to have a big clean energy renewable standard. And you wrote about this in your book, Leah, and what happened about it. So could you talk a little bit about that backdrop and how maybe it informs the way we might think about what Texas is today?
Yeah, it was weird having written my book and seeing what was playing out in Texas this week because all these representatives like representative Crenshaw or Senator Cruz were out there saying, oh, this is because we learn too many renewables lessons from California. Or people were digging up Senator Cruz his old tweets from the summer where he was saying horrible things about California during a crisis, which is just a terrible thing to do if you’re an elected official. But, anyway, I knew that these weren’t true because I actually have interviewed Republicans in Texas for my book and asked them about the history of wind energy, which they helped champion. So, basically, in the mid ‘90s, places all around the world, whether that was California or Texas or the UK, were thinking about changing the way the electricity system worked. And what they were doing was restructuring or sometimes called deregulating. But, basically, they wanted to turn electricity from vertically integrated monopolies, which exist in many places now, into markets. And California and Texas were both planning on doing this. And both did do this in the late ‘90s. But the interesting thing is that Texas paired their restructuring law, passed in 1999, which created ERCOT — this whole system everybody is talking about now — they passed that law with a renewable portfolio standard with a target for more wind energy. And, indeed, that was three years before California passed their first renewable energy law. So it’s really funny to somehow tell the story and say that, oh, it’s because of California. No, Texas is seen throughout the United States and really globally as a really important leader on wind energy because, not only did they pass that law in the late ‘90s when this isn’t really what a lot of places were doing, they built an enormous amount of wind. And then, in 2005, a Republican Senator, state Senator named Troy Fraser, sponsored and passed a massive expansion of that policy, which included $7 billion for transmission in Texas. And $7 billion is a lot of money, right? The federal government spends billions, but states don’t generally spend billions of dollars on things, let alone Texas— a sort of very fiscally responsible state that only meets, by the way, as a legislature for six months, every two years. So they’re not out there making big government. And here they were doing this massive transmission expansion, in part, so that wind could participate in the market. And for those who remember when George W. Bush ran for president, part of the Republican platform was wind energy — that they wanted to do more of this. And, obviously, the George W. Bush history is not somehow a massive climate win. But in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, passed under the Bush presidency, we did get the investment tax credit — a really important policy to build solar. So all of this is to say that the Republican Party in the late ‘90s and early 2000s was way more pro-renewables than it is today. And to see these elected representatives and senators from Texas really lying about the history of renewables in Texas and the Republican Party’s relationship with clean power, it’s just disturbing. And I feel like one of those history professors whose like, that’s not how history was. But that is not how history was.
Well, when you’re talking about the Texas side of that comparison, how do you see the California side of the comparison? Obviously, climate action is a part of the California identity in a really big way. But also there’s really, really restricted housing policy that has really shaped, ultimately, the footprint of California emissions and especially changed the dynamic of wildfire risk in the state. If we should think of Texas in a more complicated and nuanced way with some acts of climate heroism in its recent past, should we think about California as a straightforward climate hero? How do you see that?
Well, I feel like Ezra just wrote a sort of California’s dead piece, right?
Not California is dead.
Just California is a hypocrite.
You know what I mean. There are these pieces that have been written — Ezra has written one of them — questioning and criticizing this legacy. And I think it’s valid. Buildings make up, I think, 25 percent of California’s carbon footprint. And, right now, a really big fight that’s playing out in California is about electrification. So, basically, if we want to address climate change, we have to remove fossil fuels from all the things we do. One of the things we do is heat our homes, cook on gas stoves. We use gas in buildings, right? And there are these fights playing out with Sierra Club, Earthjustice, RMI, a couple other groups, where they’re trying to get cities to pass policies banning gas in new construction. And they’ve done it in 40 cities so far in California. But there are counter movements happening in California too that are texting people, posting on Nextdoor, threatening to bus in people infected with COVID to block city council meetings. I kid you not.
Nextdoor’s website could be like, www.NIMBY.com That could be the URL of Nextdoor.
Yeah, so they are weaponized some of that culture in California of not wanting to let new stuff be built or change things. And I saw it play out in Santa Barbara because this front group started texting people right around New Year’s. And they spread misinformation around — this is going to destabilize the grid if we get off gas. And it’s so terrible. And a lot of people fell for it. And a lot of people reached out to the city council to say don’t do this. And so there is this tension in California. Because I went to the city council meeting, and they were saying, on the one hand, we just passed all these amazing climate goals for Santa Barbara. So we kind of need to do that. On the other hand, people are upset about getting rid of their gas stove, so we’ll have to think some more. So there is a tension in California. And some of these choices are going to be really hard. And, right now, the California Energy Commission — which, by the way, we have a climate-forward Democratic governor right now — and the California Energy Commission is not planning, as far as I understand, to update its building code to make it more aggressive on decarbonizing buildings, which they could do. So some of these choices are not really getting made at the pace and scale that’s necessary even in California. And I do think it has something to do with kind of NIMBYism and building policy.
The dynamic that you’re describing was for a long time really, really concerning to me when I pulled back and took in the sort of global picture and tried to think about our realistic long-term outlook. Because it was often said that the costs of climate action were concentrated locally. If you wanted to decarbonize, it was certainly going to be a burden on the nation and even more locally like at the state regional community level. And those decisions we’re going to be really costly. And yet, every time you closed a coal plant and cost your city all those jobs, the benefits of that closed coal plant we’re going to be distributed globally in such a way that your city, your country, would benefit hardly at all from that action unless everybody else on the planet was basically moving along at the same time. And that always struck me as a quite scary model and one that helped explain why we had done so little to this point. Because our country is moving in a kind of semi-rivalrous, semi-cooperative way, meant that everybody was waiting for others to act first and never being ambitious enough with their own goals or their own investments. And that meant that we moved really much more slowly than we needed to. But I’m starting to see things a little differently, at least at the global level. And I’m curious, Leah, how you see it in the sense that — during this pandemic we’ve seen this unprecedented wave of countries making ambitious climate pledges. Obviously, they’re related to the international negotiations, but they’re not being hashed out in those panels, in those conferences. They really are like national plans being announced by, well, the EU as a whole, but many of the member nations of the EU being even more ambitious within their own borders — South Korea, Japan and then most significantly China. And if you throw Joe Biden’s climate plan to be net 0 into the mix, you’re talking about roughly two-third of global emissions on an aggressive track to zero right now. And those promises, they’re just promises. We have to sort of take them with a grain of salt and see whether the investments follow, and whether the decarbonization actually follows as promised. But they are commitments that were made, not in a coordinated way, not because the nations looked around and saw that everybody else in the world was acting simultaneously, but because each nation thought — simply thinking through their own narrow self-interest — that it made sense to decarbonize more quickly. And especially if that’s happening at the geopolitical level, where we’re not needing to worry as much about the collective action problem aspects of climate, that makes me feel that there’s a much greater chance that we really move quickly and make these investments. If not just Joe Biden but the Democratic Party and much of the US electorate thinks that we’ll be more prosperous with more climate investment and if the same could be said about the public across the EU and Japan, South Korea, all these other countries, which I think it we can. And, maybe even more significantly, it can be said about the economists advising those governments that they feel that way. Do you see this as a kind of significant turning point that we’ve left behind this collective action era of climate and now can think about the sort of pursuit of climate self-interest as a path to a more stable long term future?
Yeah, well, I don’t know — David, I feel like your personality in the climate world is known for being pessimistic or the worse outcomes. And here you are, the climate optimist on The Ezra Klein Show. So who would have thought? I really agree with you, and I know you’ve read this recent article by Michael Aklin and Matto Mildenberger that really questions this collective action frame we’ve had for so long about climate change, which is basically like, nobody’s ever going to do anything because there’s a risk of free riding. And if we cut emissions, well, we don’t really capture the benefits. And so we’re doomed. And I don’t think that that has described climate policy in practice. And both of those scholars have done a lot of work studying renewables policy, cap and trade, carbon prices, all around the world. The reality is that Germany, in 1990, passed a feed-in tariff policy, right? Germany was like —
Can you say what a feed-in tariff policy is?
What, you don’t think your listeners know that?
I don’t think I know that.
Oh, it’s kind of dorky. First of all, it’s a German word that was translated. So that’s why it’s such a weird term. And I do not know the German word. But it basically means that if you generate electricity and you put it into the grid — you’re like a generator — you’re going to get paid a certain price. And you’re going to get a long term contract. And every unit of electricity you make, you’re going to get paid for. That’s what a feed-in tariff is. So it’s a really stable investment platform. Because if I build this wind project and I connect it to the grid, every unit of electricity I make will be bought. It’ll be bought at a nice fat premium price because it was very high, initially, these prices. And I’m going to get that for 20 years. So for those who might know the federal production tax credit, which is also done on a unit basis — it’s similar, but like big money, basically, and a long term contract. I think the PTC is 10 years. And this is 20. So it was this gold-plated way to do early investment in renewables. And Germany did it in 1990. They expanded it in 2000. They built all this wind and, crucially, solar. And as Greg Nemet, a scholar who’s done studies of how the cost of solar fell, as he’s pointed out, they subsidized solar for the entire world, right? But first Germany did that and then China also helped out by scaling up manufacturing capacity. And so if we had a collective action frame, we’d be like, why would any country ever subsidize solar for the world? Well, it turns out that they had their own domestic politics reasons to do it. Interestingly and bizarrely, one of the reasons in Germany was because of a very strong anti-nuclear movement in the 80s. And somewhat tragically, although Germany’s made a lot of progress on wind and solar, they’ve shut down their nuclear fleet as probably many people know. And they’re not planning on shutting down their coal fleet until 2038, which is an abomination. So there’s complex reasons why a country pulls ahead and does some things for climate change that benefit others. And I think we’re starting to see this play out nationally in the United States too where Joe Biden fundamentally is faced with a massive economic crisis. And he is faced with a giant climate crisis. He’s faced with a crisis of racial inequality, and he’s faced with the COVID crisis. And his solution is employing people to work on climate change, right? Giving them union jobs. Giving them lots of work, whether that’s retrofitting buildings, or building wind turbines, or building transmission lines, whatever it is. And he thinks that’s going to solve all those problems simultaneously. And so he’s not on a certain level — although they talk about the Paris stuff all the time — on a certain level, he’s solving for domestic political problems. He wants to get people to work. He wants to support unions. He wants to support racial justice. But he thinks that this way of doing it will solve all those problems. And I just have to say, Donnel Baird, who runs BlocPower — this amazing New York based retrofit company — before Joe Biden even said that all these climate actions — all these things would solve those four crises, he said it too. And he runs a retrofit company that retrofits buildings in places like the Bronx and does it with black people who are being underpaid and underemployed. And he literally thinks that this solves all these crises at the same time. So it’s a theory that people have about how we fix our problems. And one of our problems is climate change, but it’s not our only problem. So I think you’re right, David. And I feel really optimistic that we’re starting to see how all of these challenges are interrelated and that also the solutions can be too. And that will mean that a lot of countries, for their own domestic reasons — whether that’s like, we want economic growth, or we want racial justice, or we want cleaner air — they’re going to start to do things that are better for the climate because it’s solving other problems as well domestically.
For me the limiting factor on that vision, which I think is quite persuasive in a theoretical way is — I was recently talking to the economic historian, Adam Tooze. And I was like, how long is this new profligacy going to last? And he was like, let’s please not call it the new profligacy.
Bad branding. [LAUGHTER]
But Joe Biden’s climate plan is like 2 and 1/2 trillion dollars. That would have been laughable as a proposition on climate policy or really any kind of policy as recently as a few years ago. It now seems sort of doable based on some combination of the post-Great-Recession fallout, the new perspective of central banks around the world, and what all these governments, especially western governments, have done in terms of COVID spending. But I’d be curious to know how each of you think about how long that experiment is going to last and whether we can really count on making the kinds of investments that if you rewind the clock and COVID happened under a Democratic president doing a CARES Act, what that would have looked like. If we can count on making those kinds of experiments going forward, not just on climate but more generally, is government going to stay this much larger? Or are we due for a snapback to something like the new austerity of the immediate post-Great-Recession years?
All right, well, if David is going to fail me and not play the pessimist on “The Ezra Klein Show,” I’m going to have to do it. So let me state the obvious, which is, that plan hasn’t passed the new era of profligacy.
We’re not even there.
But I actually want to put this in a slightly different frame. I feel like the skunk at the party on this paper everybody’s been excited about that it turns out that collective action and free rider problems are the wrong model to think about climate politics because they never seem to me to seem at all like the right model to think about climate politics. It’s been clear for a long time, this is a domestic politics and identity issue. But this, I think, speaks to the Texas renewable energy and California renewable energy issues. In my column in California, I said a lot of the nice things — well, not a lot — but of the nice things I said, I said them about California climate change policies. But one of the things I see a lot in climate change is a tendency to do legislation, throwing the ball way down the field on standards. In 2035, we’ll have net zero carbon electricity. And the harder question is not getting electorates and politicians who see themselves as climate hawks to vote for that. The harder part of it is what happens then when actually achieving those goals requires either sacrifice or change in the near term now in your real life. So take California, right? Let’s move it out of Texas, which people think of as this red state, and look at California. Leah and I both live here. And in a way that was not true when I was growing up, every year, the state just burns for like a month. And the sky choked with smoke, and people die, and their communities are destroyed. And yet, because of our housing policy, we keep pushing people further into what now gets called like, the, I think, it’s an urban wild interface, right?
Wildland urban interface into these areas that are more vulnerable to fire. And also because our housing policy, which is heavily that that end transportation policy, which is heavily what that column was about is so bad. We’re sending a lot of people to Texas, which has much worse energy statistics. And the point isn’t that California is lying about its climate goals. The point is that, at some point to get there, you can’t just do it through spending money. I think, if you told me you could solve climate change just through spending money, I would say great. We are going to get this solved. I think there’s a lot of ways to finance that. I’m not too worried about the expense. It’s partially why sometimes I’m more excited about geoengineering proposals than other people are. But if you tell me that it requires — not like people to worry about free rider issues with other countries, but it requires them to allow for changes in the built environment they live in right now. That’s where things get a lot harder. If you tell me it requires them to agree to a broad base tax increase or some sort right now to weatherize your grid, that’s where it gets a lot harder. And, Leah, I guess I’ll push this to you because you’ve been talking and really pushing a big clean energy standard as the policy that the Biden administration needs to pursue. But you’ve also studied how a lot of renewable energy standards have been unwound in the implementation phase by lobbyists and, to some degree, by citizens as well. And that’s the coalition I see between the grand goals of what I’ve come to think of as like headline progressivism. And then the like nonideological, more temperamental conservatism a lot of people have in their own lives, and that actually gets much worse under conditions of emergency or scarcity.
I think that this is why income inequality really intersects with climate policy. Because what we’re doing is we have a very weak social safety net in the United States, and people are not paid a living wage, and then we’re asking them to bear the costs of the transition. And that’s really hard for them to do. So this is why I love a clean electricity standard so much. Because, especially if we pass one federally through budget reconciliation, which is what we’re aiming to do this year, we don’t have to push the costs of the transition onto everyday people. What we can do is actually finance it through either debt or general government revenues. And say that if there’s a little marginal extra cost of cleaning up the power grid — which, by the way, the modeling actually shows that we will save money by doing this because there’s an enormous amount of coal plants that continue to operate at a loss in these places where there’s no market signals to push them offline. But let’s say there are some costs, particularly as we get above 80 percent clean power, let’s make sure that everybody can still pay their electricity bill. Let’s pay money to utilities if they’re doing the right thing. And that’s what the federal policy will be structured like. And especially once you get utilities into compliance mode. Once they say, look, if we’re building a bunch of stuff, if we’re doing the right thing, which, by the way, we profit off of for the vast majority of utilities because of the way the industry is structured, and then we get money from the federal government to help us defray costs or just come those profits or to pay for these agreements that we have to buy power from third parties, they’re going to get into compliance mode where they say, hey, this is good. It’s all factored into our planning. We’re going to be able to make money. And utilities are in a tough spot right now because a lot of them made very bad decisions around 2011, 2013, when the mercury rule was happening. They retrofitted these coal plants, and now they have these economic losers. And they don’t really know what to do with it. And now, a lot of them are thinking about doing the exact same thing with gas by building a lot of new gas. And so I think that if utilities can begin to see themselves as making money in clean power and, critically, getting more of the market through electrification, which is what they’re going to do, then I can see them getting on board with this because their own interests are aligned with President Biden’s interest of having 100 percent clean power by 2035. So the utilities actually are not the things I worry the most about right now when it comes to this clean power standard. And I think once we get it in place, it will stick.
On top of the political challenges that you guys are talking about, there’s also just the climate obstacle of it. And, of course, staying where we are is — the status quo is hopeless in the global picture, which means that the pace of — and this gets back to something that Leah was saying earlier. There are questions of trajectory and direction, which I think we probably would all agree are moving in the right direction. But then the real where-the-rubber-hits-the-road question is pace. And the truth is, I would say, not only are we not moving anywhere near fast enough. It’s hard to imagine getting our act together in time to really avoid some considerably more catastrophic outcomes than we’ve seen today in part because of feedback loops like the carbon emissions from wildfires. But also because the simple math of what is required is so intimidating. Ezra, I was listening the last time you talked to Saul Griffith. He was talking about how to keep 1.5 degrees in line, we got to like, not sell another internal-combustion-engine vehicle ever again in the United States.
Or a gas stove or —
Any of these things. And that tells you just how, I mean, I would say, impossible it’s going to be to allow us to stay close to 1.5 degrees. And gets us into a whole other conversation, which might bring us back to where we started, which is the resilience of our infrastructure and our systems to climate challenges. Which is to say, if we take seriously the idea that 1.5 is incredibly optimistic, two degrees is something much likelier. What kinds of challenges will that represent to the way that we live and the way that we do business in this world. If we’re talking about storms that used to hit once a century, hitting every single year. And we’re talking about migration of tens of millions and droughts and extreme weather. What kinds of challenges is that world, which, to me, counts as almost a best case scenario world. What kinds of challenges does that represent to our built environment and the way that we keep ourselves safe and try to engineer some prosperity for each other? And I think the challenge is really, really, really enormous there. I think, in a lot of ways, it may be even bigger than the decarbonization challenge. Is trying to make sure that a world of two degrees or even a little bit north of two degrees still resembles the one that all three of us were sort of raised to expect as relatively well-off, like white people in the western hemisphere.
I was talking to Sol Hsiang, the economist at Berkeley just yesterday for a column I’m doing on some of these issues. And we were talking about this and talking about this question of mitigation and adaptation. And these very arid, abstract words. He was saying that when you think about what adaptation is, think about those huge numbers of people who move from the Dust Bowl, in early 20th century America, into cities and what that meant for their lives and how hard that was on them. And you would say, from some perspective, well, that was successful adaptation. There was a huge climate oriented event. They weren’t able to grow. And we move people in, and, yeah, maybe they were extraordinarily poor. And maybe there was all this suffering — but, hey, adaptation. And so there’s a way of looking at it through this economisty lens where you can say, well human beings adapt. And then you also have to think, yeah, but which human beings are going to be asked to adapt, and how and with which resources? Because for the most part — it is true, and I know you’ve read about this, David. You can be a rich person in California, and your home still burns down. But it’s still true, then, that it’s a lot easier for you to get a new home. And I was thinking about this with Texas. We’re hearing a lot about Texas because we’re in America and Texas is a big part of America, and it’s politicians were on the news, and it fit into our debates. But when this happens in Malaysia or India where there is a lot less money to do the emergency response. Where, I think it is a fair bet to say that, as bad as some of Texas is planning was here, a lot of the infrastructure planning in poorer countries is worse and built on more fragile, brittle assumptions and systems. That’s going to be a tremendous amount of human suffering. There is sometimes a discourse in the climate world that talks about extinction. And I always I think of that as a bit of a distraction. What it feels to me like, is time travel. The story of human civilization is human beings slowly gaining themselves insulation from the ravages of nature. Slowly being able to build themselves into a place where an earthquake doesn’t kill everybody, a disease doesn’t kill everybody, a fire doesn’t wipe everything out, a famine doesn’t kill everybody. And that, particularly for poorer people in the world, we are turning that back. We are re-exposing them to a more violent nature. And rich people will be affected too, but less. But for others — adaptation, that’s a word that sounds — I don’t know, I just kind of hate the word because adaptation sounds like a good thing. And, obviously, if you get it done, it could be a good thing. What happens in between the thing that forces you to adapt by changing your entire life and the thing where we’ve decided, you’ve successfully adapted, there’s just a tremendous amount of human pain and suffering.
Well, I have to give a shout out to Katharine Hayhoe here. She’s this amazing climate scientist who did actually a fantastic interview on CNN about what was going on in Texas. And one of the things she said is, there’s mitigation — reducing emissions — there’s adaptation — altering our human systems so that it can deal with climate change — and then they’re suffering. And those are the three choices. You pick mitigation, adaptation, or suffering. And, overwhelmingly, especially for poor people, especially for people of color, we consistently are just picking suffering.
There’s a really, I think, eye-opening paper that was — it had like 20 authors on it, but the one who I know personally best is Michael Oppenheimer — recently, looking at the likely impacts of sea-level rise and coastal flooding in Bangladesh, which is right in the bull’s eye of the climate target. And what they found was that, contrary to conventional wisdom, migration would not move away from the climate impacts. In fact, it would move towards the climate impacts because the narrow-minded, short-term logic of opportunity in densely settled places on the coast would still appear, to potential migrants inland, to outweigh the risks even when it didn’t. So I wrote to Michael. And I said, I don’t quite know how to process this finding because, on the one hand, you could see it as a kind of an optimistic finding. You could say, oh, well this shows that development would allow these areas to be resilient and even prosperous in a way that would continue to attract migration, and, therefore, maybe we shouldn’t have to worry nearly as much about the direct climate impacts. And he was like, well, no, I mean, you could read it that way. But the truth is, it’s all the myopia of human decision making, which is going to be pushing people into ever riskier scenarios. And I think that that’s true in a place like Bangladesh. I think it’s even true in California. I mean, I spent some time out there in 2019 reporting on the fires and really the sort of psychological aftermath of the great fires of 2018. And as a New Yorker, who is essentially unacquainted with nature, I expected to find every Californian I met was going to be terrified of how bad the fires had gotten and were going to be contemplating moving somewhere else. But they had all already, in the space of six months or so, normalized that level of chaos and fear, and the public health crisis that’s contained in wildfire smoke, which is something I think we don’t really talk nearly enough about. But probably in the next few years, will become a much bigger part of the way that we talk about, not just fires, but about climate change generally. And this really worries me. It worried me then. It still worries me that are our main psychological coping mechanism to the appearance of really terrifying climate impacts, will be to accept higher and higher levels of suffering even in our own lives, not to mention the lives of people who live elsewhere in the world, whose experiences we devalue by reflex living in the culture that we live in. And I think that adaptation suffers because of that dynamic. When people on panels and in think tanks write about the possibility of adaptation, they’re often, essentially, sketching out a perfect whiteboard solution. But as you say, Ezra, that the actual lived experience of the world being deformed by climate change will be enormously painful, much more painful than those equations suggest, and in ways I think fundamentally are not captured by most of them. And a lot of the economics work that has gone on climate change — it’s moved very quickly over the last decade. Most people are making much higher assessments of climate damages and also actually making much more generous assessments of what climate action would mean so that the cost benefit is working for climate action on both sides. But, in general, when you read about projected economic futures that are meant to showcase the impact of climate change on our global prosperity and global inequality, you’re playing with math in a way that, I think, really undersells the drama of the impacts. Now, that’s not to say that we’re going to get all the way to where Sol Hsiang thinks we’re going to get or would get without mitigation, to say, a global GDP that could be 30 percent smaller than it would be without climate change. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I wouldn’t bet all of human civilization on it. Impacts may be somewhat smaller than that. But we have to at least take seriously that scale of risk, which, keep in mind, is twice as deep as the Great Depression. It would be permanent. And as he would tell you — as he’s told me — that figure, twice as deep as the Great Depression and permanent, already includes adaptation. It’s modeling human action in response to climate change. It’s not just saying, we add up all the totals of the hurricanes and the droughts and whatever, and here’s what you get. He said, OK, we’re going to do that. And then we’re also going to model how humans are going to respond. And the end result of all of that — an ideal, we adapt the best we can — he says, could land us with a global GDP 30 percent smaller than it would be without climate change. Especially when we talk about mitigation and adaptation as two different paths to take, I think we often fall into a rhetorical trap where we think of adaptation as a relatively rosy and easy and remunerative path forward. But it’s much more like building defensive infrastructure to enclose the planet in a way that people like us, I think, would have found really horrifying a generation ago when we were hoping for a much more, not just ecologically responsible relationship to the planet, but also cosmopolitan and globally integrated. It’s hard to think about adaptation questions without getting into the nationalistic stuff of borders and sea walls and that whole world.
This is a little bit why I try to push people to think about the past when they think about the climate future. And I think actually the COVID year helps one conceptualizes this. One of the endless mistakes I see in policy discussions is comfortable people who underestimate the amount of suffering political systems will simply decide to accept. And I think you’ve seen it during coronavirus. I mean, the degree to which at certain points places just like, welp, 4,000 people are going to die a day, and we don’t like masking. In this country, which is a rich country with good scientific infrastructure, there are a lot of places that didn’t make trade offs that I think they should have made, particularly in their regulatory structures for getting things like rapid testing out. And, again, I’m thinking a bit about America. And also, the amount of pain rich countries are going to allow poor countries to go through before there’s real help on vaccines, like the amount of people who will die. The amount of economic loss there will be is tremendous. And it’s something that always genuinely scares me. I think that there — again, this speaks to that earlier point about this fantasy that there’s a level of crisis, which will make politicians pivot and accept that they’ve been wrong about this. I think we underestimate how much suffering, particularly among poor countries, rich countries will live with. And when you look back on human history, and you look at what some of the periods were like. I mean, look at plague periods. Look at periods of war. People will go on with normal life under the most horrific conditions. Humans are tremendously adaptable. We’re really almost willing to get used to anything. Even some of these refugee crises issues. One of my closest friends works on refugee issues. And sometimes I’ll talk to him about climate change and talk to him about climate refugees. And something he said to me really stopped me short, where he says, yeah, that’s like an edition of twice as many refugees as we have now and how worried are people about the global refugee crisis now. And I was like, oh, yeah, that’s a sobering way to put it.
Yeah, and to some extent, we wouldn’t have climate change if we didn’t accept suffering and other it. Because the reality is, if you want to burn fossil fuels — which have massive side effects — you have to put them somewhere. You have to put them in people’s backyards. And, in the United States, we have put coal plants and gas plants — all these terrible pieces of infrastructure in Black backyards, in Indigenous backyards, in Hispanic Latinx backyards. And we have been able to do that because, as a society, we are stratified by race and class. And we say, it’s OK that those Black children have asthma rates two times as high as white children. We don’t take that on as a problem because of racism that is baked into the fossil fuel system itself. So in some sense, we wouldn’t even have the climate crisis because we wouldn’t have been able to go on putting this pollution out there overwhelmingly in Black, Latinx, and Indigenous bodies, if we didn’t other it and ignore it. And there’s this amazing research paper from maybe two years ago by some scholars, I think, at the University of Michigan, where they show that the benefits of the fossil fuel based system are flowing to wealthy white people, right? We use electricity. We do things with it. But that the costs are overwhelmingly flowing to people of color and that they are not getting the benefits of the system. And so this inequality in suffering is also baked in to the fossil fuel based system that is creating climate change. It’s not just a function of climate impacts themselves.
So I want to change our track here for a bit because I know we only so much time left. And I’ll talk about a piece of this that is more, again, uncomfortable for liberals. So go back to Texas. Governor Abbott comes out and says, this is why wind energy is bad. And a bunch of people with charts emerge and say, nope, actually the fall was really in natural gas power. But wind energy did go down. There is an issue with storage in cold periods, in periods of crisis, for renewables. It’s getting better as battery technology improves. But it isn’t fully solved. And something that will often come into the conversation right here is, well, doesn’t this show we need a lot more nuclear? And there is third generation and fourth generation nuclear technologies that people talk about. I’m curious where the two of you fall on pushing a lot more nuclear research and nuclear as one of the players in a solution here that could make things like the Texas problems less dangerous.
Well, I grew up in the environmental movement. So I grew up anti-nuclear so to speak. And at some point, I changed my mind and, actually, Jesse Jenkins — a professor at Princeton University — was really influential. We were both at MIT and grad school together. And he really helped shape my thinking on this. And so with nuclear, there’s two pieces to the puzzle. The first thing is the existing nuclear fleet that we have and the importance of making sure that it’s financially able to stay open. Because what is happening in the United States is that in restructured markets, like Texas, there is downward pressure on electricity prices because of gas, shale, fracking, et cetera. And that is making it really hard for nuclear to compete. And because we don’t make shale pay for its true costs of ruining the planet in 20 different ways, it’s hard for nuclear to compete just itself. And so one of the things we have to do is make sure that safe nuclear plants stay open and operate as long as possible. Because all this punishing math for decarbonizing the grid with wind and solar — the pace that we’re talking about is about 4 percent a year is what we have to grow by — like four percentage points a year — if we want to hit 80 percent by 2030, which is directly on the path to 100 percent by 2035. But that is if we keep the nuclear fleet that we have, which supplies about half of our clean power and about 20 percent of our power overall. And if you look at the places where nuclear has shut down, whether that’s Germany, like I mentioned earlier, or Vermont, or current closure that’s going on in New York state, often, typically, usually, it’s filled by fossil fuels, right? Because the counterfactual would have that nuclear plus the renewables that you’ve built, and you would be farther on your pathway to decarbonization. So I think that, number one, if plants are safe, we should be keeping them open. It’s totally worth it from a monetary perspective. But then there’s the second question, which is building new stuff. That’s more complicated, but I do work with a number of people who think that there’s a lot of opportunity in nuclear. Of course, Bill Gates is somebody who’s written a book recently arguing for this. I think where nuclear struggles, is that it is a extremely unpopular resource. It has very bad branding so to speak. And so thinking about permitting it in actual places and getting it built, is going to be challenging. I think that the most likely place you could build it, according to research from Daniel Aldrich and others, is existing sites. So you have a nuclear facility, it’s shut down, you build a new site there. That’s also helpful when it comes to waste storage and other things. So I think that there is a pathway forward for new nuclear. It’s really not extremely popular, and that’s probably one of the biggest things we have to grapple with. And it’s also not very cheap. And so I think realistically it’s going to struggle to compete with wind and solar until we get to very high penetrations of renewables where the grid is like north of 80 percent clean. But I’ve definitely changed my thinking on this issue a lot. I know that not everybody in the movement is in the same place. But, from my perspective, taking the climate crisis as seriously as I do and as I know both of you do too, I don’t want to shut down nuclear plants and replace them with fossil fuels because that is a terrible, terrible outcome. So, yeah, it’s a complex topic. But I do support nuclear.
My feeling is basically the same. I would just emphasize that there is— the cost issues in new construction are really serious. And a decade ago, nuclear advocates would have told you all of the successful stories of decarbonization in the world were powered by nuclear. That was true then. They would have also told you that renewables were really expensive. That was true then. The second one is much less true now. And, in almost all cases and almost all places, renewables are now cheaper to build out. There may be some places where there is that last 20 percent gap that you were talking about Ezra. And it may make sense in some of those places to build out nuclear. But for me, if I’m talking about laying out a global budget of many trillions of dollars, I’d be much more focused on renewables than on nuclear, just for the bang-for-the-buck calculus that they today offer. And the thing that most excites me about renewables — I mean, nuclear is the same. Nuclear is for the most part clean in terms of public health. But I do think that they were about to hit a tipping point of public understanding of just how bad air pollution is all around the world. It’s especially horrible in India and China. But 95 percent of the world’s population is breathing in air that’s considered dangerously polluted. And the more that you know about its effects — the more you understand that it damages every aspect of human life from cancer and respiratory ailments, to coronary disease, but also to mental health, and the development of children in utero, and all that stuff. There’s no aspect of human life that isn’t changed by it and deformed by it. And I think the more that we can think seriously about how much better the world would be if we were not breathing in all those fumes, the more people will be excited about that revolution. But nuclear can make the same case. The total number of people, it’s often said, who have died from all of the nuclear accidents in the history of nuclear power is smaller than the number of people who die every single day from the air pollution produced by the burning of fossil fuels.
This is one of those places where — it goes back to the amount of suffering that we simply accept as a baseline in the world now. I was in Lahore, Pakistan, a little bit over a year ago now. You couldn’t breathe. You could not breathe. You could not be out for very long because you could not breathe the air. And I was just walking around looking at how many children were growing up like that. And, obviously, you see numbers like these in India. You see numbers like this — China’s had terrible problems with this. It’s a pretty common thing. Even here we know, in a quite rich country, we have issues with this. And this is one of those places where, how much better a renewable energy world would just be as a world. Not like we would get rid of problems that we have not yet experienced. But we would get rid of problems we are currently experiencing. And we would have fewer miscarriages, we would have fewer low-weight births, we would higher childhood cognitive development, higher IQs. It is wild. This is part of — you mentioned my conversation a while back with the Otherlab CEO, Saul Griffith. But that whole idea that a world where we’ve decarbonized, is a more awesome world with more awesome technology for reasons not even related to climate change. It feels to me like the most underplayed aspect of all of this.
If I could just add a couple of data points just to make that really clear. The average resident of Delhi, which is the world’s most polluted big city, the average resident loses nine years of life expectancy. In the US though and all across Europe, we lose two years of life expectancy, each of us, because of the dirtiness of the air that we’re breathing. So we had this huge panic a few years ago about deaths of despair that slightly reduced our life expectancy — like, a tenth of a year. And there was this huge cultural panic about opioids and white-male despair and how it plays into Trumpist — all that stuff. And we’re talking about an impact from air pollution that might be 20 times as high. And as Drew Shindell has testified before Congress recently, the public health benefits of getting that pollution out of our air, are so strong that they would pay for the decarbonization of the country on their own. And we wouldn’t even have to factor in any of the other climate benefits. We could and should be doing it simply on the cost-benefit logic of better public health. And that’s knowing only what we know today and looking at the way that the research on this has evolved over the last decade. It’s almost certain that a decade from now, we’re going to think air pollution is way, way, way, way worse even than we think it is today. So that logic is so clear. And it connects to something I was talking about earlier about the collective action problem and the idea that benefits are distributed where costs are concentrated. The more that we really appreciate the costs of air pollution, I think, also the clearer we are that the benefits of decarbonizing our local too. And local, not just at the level of the nation, but at the level of the town, at the level of the street. And to a point Leah was making earlier, those benefits are also concentrated among the least well-off, who’ve suffered the most to this point. And so whatever we can do to clean up — especially air pollution, but other aspects of pollution too — will be undoing decades and even centuries of environmental racism that have really, really imposed an enormous burden on the communities in our country and in the world who are least able to navigate their way out of it.
Yeah, and I just have to make two points on this, which is that first, probably, many listeners of the show are cooking with a gas stove in their home. And what we are learning from the research right now is that that indoor air pollution is extremely toxic to your health. It increases the likelihood of childhood asthma if you have a gas stove in your house. And just like David was saying, every year we’re learning more. And so electrification through things like induction stoves, which by the way work better from a cooking perspective than gas, I think people are starting to realize that this isn’t just something to do for the climate or something like that. It’s really bad for your health to be breathing in air that you’re burning in your own home over the stove. And so that’s something that I think we’re starting to reckon with. And the other thing is there’s this amazing research paper that came out of the Census Bureau, which showed actually that this air pollution is actually intergenerational. Meaning that you can see the impacts of air pollution two generations down the line. It’s absolutely stunning research. And it just shows that it’s not just like, oh, we put a coal plant in that community that affected those people for a year or two or whatever. No, it affected their children, and it affected their children’s children. And so we really have to take air pollution seriously.
So I think that’s actually a good place to end with the warning that we all need to get rid of our gas stoves. So let’s go to book recommendations. I’m going to ask each of you for book recommendations on climate change — one fiction, one nonfiction. And, David, I’ll start with you.
Well, this is going to sound corny, but I really would like to recommend Leah’s book, “Short Circuiting Policy,” in part because so many of us, not just people who work in or adjacent to the climate movement, but people who care about climate, think of it as a moral and a political issue. And when I say political, I mean like, marching in the streets and winning elections. And, of course, that is a hugely important part of what has shaped climate policy to this point and will shape the future of climate policy. But it’s also just like stuff that happens offstage between power brokers that you’ve never heard of even if you live in the same communities that they live in that exerts real direct power over the way that we live our lives and design our future. We need to understand that it’s not just about voting for the right party for president. It’s not even vote, like, signing the right ballot initiative at the local level. It’s really about remaking some of the power dynamics at all levels of government and regulation to allow us to actually move forward into a climate future that we would like to be living in. I think Leah’s book is really, really brilliant in illustrating all of those things. And then for fiction — I said, the first one, the recommendation was corny. The second one is going to be even more corny, which is — so I have a three-year-old daughter. And on the shelf of her bookshelf in her room is an old copy of “The Lorax,” which is really like the first environmental book that I ever read. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot, not just because I read it a couple of times to her and it went totally over her head, but because of a couple of papers that have come out recently about the way that the carbon cycle of forests are likely to change over the next few decades. There have been some papers suggesting that by 2040 or 2050, at least the planet’s tropical forests may switch from being what are called carbon sinks, which absorb carbon, to becoming carbon sources, which means that they’re adding carbon to the atmosphere. And I’ve been thinking, as someone who grew up in a city and was raised on these sort of parables of the natural world like The Lorax, about how profoundly disorienting it’s going to be to start thinking of forests as possibly engines of climate disaster rather than as locations of natural solace, and resilience, and sources of comfort for those of us who despair about the path that we’re on as a species and a planet. And I think that particular transformation — thinking about really reversing our psychological orientation towards aspects of the natural world — I think it illustrates powerfully just how dramatically different the new world that we’re marching into today really is. That as soon as my own daughter’s young-middle age, we may not be able to think of forests as positive comforting places in the world anymore. And we may, at the same time, be thinking of like giant carbon sucking machines as forces for good. And the fact that people like Leah and me — Leah is a little more dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist than I am. But people like us may be cheering on those machines is just so — it’s so weird to me. But I think it’s like a sort of an object lesson in how differently we have to think about the future we’ve already made and what we need to do to try to live comfortably in it, not just think about in the fable of “The Lorax” like, saving the trees, but actually thinking in much harder and more penetrating ways about how we need to really rebuild the planet to make it safe and comfortable and prosperous and just for all of us.
Well, I just want to pick up briefly on the really brilliant reflections David just gave. I have a podcast on climate change called “A Matter of Degrees,” and we did an episode called, can we clean up the carbon mess? Where we talked about tree planting as the solution to climate change and really debunked it for these exact reasons that David lays out. That when our forests are burning all the time, these are not really safe places to be storing your carbon. I’ve said that storing carbon in a forest these days with climate change as it is, is like putting money in a little shoebox underneath your bed rather than putting it in a bank account. And the bank account is what would be if we started back underground, which is where it came from, right? So I totally agree with what David’s saying about some of these technological solutions that put carbon back underground being bizarrely, in some ways, more promising because they really speak to the core challenge here. In terms of books, I just had the great pleasure of reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, “Under a White Sky.” It is very funny, which I feel like, for a climate book, is what you need. And one of the things I learned in that book, is that the first time a climate report landed on a president’s desk, was when Lyndon Johnson was president. And the report did not say, let’s cut fossil fuel burning. It said, we’re going to need to change the climate even more. So that’s kind of a bit of a cautionary tale in terms of our, wow, we’re just going to be able to solve our way out of this problem in terms of, maybe we shouldn’t just jump to the technological solutions first. And then in terms of novels, I already mentioned “Parable of the Sower.” But I have to, unfortunately or fortunately, echo Ezra’s earlier suggestion, which is for Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, “The Ministry for the Future.” It is such an interesting book that starts out with a dramatic heat wave in India where all these people die. And then it’s like a kind of social science seminar on climate change. So you learn actually a lot. Like what you would learn if you were in grad school. But it’s in a novel, and it’s really fun, and there’s interesting characters. And, yeah, it’s a really cool book. And he’s just such a lovely human being too. So I really enjoyed that book.
And I’ll say, I loved “Under a White Sky.” And Elizabeth Kolbert was on the show just a couple weeks back if people want to go and listen to that. But Leah Stokes, David Wallace-Wells, it’s been a huge pleasure. Thank you very much.
Does somebody have a dog like on the ground?
Hang on one second, hang on.
Well we can’t cut that because David just called me a hero, OK, Jeff? I don’t care what your audio problems are.
I will not cut any of it. But I was like, is that snoring that I’m hearing?
I’m just kidding. That was generous of him. You said, Gina McCarthy, and then Leah, which was way too nice.
Fair enough. Thanks for that.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld, fact checked by Michelle Harris, original music is by Isaac Jones, and the mixing is by Jeff Geld.