Transcript by Stephanie Guerrero
Jini Palmer: Welcome to Town Hall Seattle’s Arts & Culture series. On Tuesday, September 10th, Vox’s politics podcast, The Weeds, went live on our Great Hall stage. Hosts Matthew Yglesias and Jane Coaston talked with Vox climate and energy reporter David Roberts about the 2020 candidates’ climate change plans. Together, they touched on the areas where politics become policy and opened up the floor to Town Hall’s community for their thoughts and questions. And now, Vox’s The Weeds and 50 Shades of Green New Deal.
Matthew Yglesias: Hey guys, this week’s episode is a little bit different. I’d say live show that I did with Jane Coaston and Dave Roberts in Seattle. So you know, it sounds a little different, like we’re in a big auditorium, but I think the energy of the live crowd is really cool and interesting. So thanks especially to everybody who came out to see us live and thanks to all of you for listening.
MY: Hello. Welcome to a special live episode of The Weeds from Seattle Town Hall. It’s for the benefit of people listening later. You guys know you’re here. I’m Matthew Yglesias joined today by Jane Coaston as usual. Dara Lind is somewhere on the border or something like that. But Seattle’s own, David Roberts, has joined us. He’s a very frequent request we get to have him on the show, talk about climate change. I am much too lazy to organize the logistics of a remote hookup, but as long as we’re here, we are so pleased to have him with us.
[Audience laughter and applause]
MY: And I’ve always wanted to go to Seattle. My roommate in college was from Seattle. I love cloudy weather, which really it was sunny today, so I was disappointed, but it’s been really nice. But to be serious, it’s a good moment, we had this big climate change forum earlier this week. Candidates sort of all got their homework done before that, released the climate change plans. The plans are long, it’s a lot to digest. But what can you tell us, like what are the main highlights of the plans that we see in the field here?
David Roberts: Sure. Well, there are a lot of them and they are long.
MY: I mean, we can skip the dumb candidates to stick to the good ones.
DR: No names, no names. There’s a few things you could say about all the plans I think as a group. One is they are all wildly more ambitious than any plan that was on the table in the last election or even six months ago. So there’s been just a really, the activist quest to drive climate change into the center of the democratic agenda and to raise ambition on climate among the candidates has just been a wild, unqualified success. That’s the main thing.
So for instance, the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN, IPCC says that if we want to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees or less, which is the sort of threshold they have as sort of the level of safe warming, the world as a whole needs to completely go net-zero emissions by 2050. And they need to get, and the world needs to get halfway there by 2030. This is the sort of, we have 12 years to save the world thing that you’ve probably heard flying around. That’s the origin of that thing is the IPCC says we gotta be halfway there by 2030 or we have no chance of getting all the way there. So that’s what it means is we have to be halfway decarbonized by 2030. There’s no big tipping point there that’s just sort of like a mile marker that they put there.
So my point is that all the plans now, all the candidates’ plans target net-zero U.S. emissions by 2050, which is just in and of itself, wildly ambitious. Like an incredibly, incredibly ambitious goal. So they all all share that. And then sort of global sense, they’re all crazy ambitious.
MY: So then how are they different?
DR: And some of them are, I think that if you had described the difference between them, some of them take that 2050 goal and what it implies and what it requires more seriously than others. So all that’s by way of background. As sort of as one would expect, the biggest, most expensive plan was released by Bernie Sanders last week. He is going to spend more than three times the amount of money that the next plan is going to spend. And his $16 trillion dollars— you know, Beto has $5 trillion, his whole plan. Biden’s is $5 trillion, I think. Warren’s is $3 trillion. But all of those are a mix of public money, the $1.7 trillion in public money, which is going to stimulate private investment. So then the total is $5 trillion. For Bernie, it’s all public. None of this public private nonsense. None of this private capital nonsense. It’s 100%—
MY: It’s the good socialism, right?
DR: Yes, it is the socialist plan. And it has a couple of provisions in it that none of the other plans have. For instance, this sort of scheme to nationalize energy, electricity production, a couple of elements like that. Warren’s is, I guess, the next most ambitious, somewhat less money, focuses on a couple of different things. And then, sort of the surprising number three, I guess maybe this isn’t the only sort of surprising thing is Booker, Cory Booker, has probably the third most ambitious plan. And if you watched the Climate Forum, all seven hours, I assume we all did, the seventh hour of that was Cory Booker. And I had been watching all day and was ready to jump out a window and was totally ready to tune out and he just came out, rip-roaring and was great. Better than I’ve ever seen Booker before. So he’s sort of surprisingly strong in this. And then the other candidates have chosen to focus their plans on different things, kind of trying to tell stories about their campaigns. So Buttigieg is focusing on agriculture and small towns.
MY: Because he’s a small town candidate.
DR: Yes. And so Harris, the ex-prosecutor is really featuring lawsuits against fossil fuel companies. That’s sort of like her headline thing. She’s got experience in that. Booker and Castro have a really intense focus on environmental justice. That’s kind of their headline thing. But really they’re all, in terms of most of the main provisions, they’re all really quite similar and all well out past the horizon of what seems possible.
Jane Coaston: So how much of these plans is an effort to get out in front of one another? And how much of these plans is reflective of what climate scientists and climate activists are saying this is what should actually happen?
DR: Well, the problem is that what scientists are saying should absolutely happen is so like sci-fi beyond what politics is capable of. But there’s sort of like no outdoing the scientists on this. I mean, I guess, Bernie and Warren and Inslee, you know, we’re all targeting 2045 for total net zero decarbonization of the U.S. and that’s kind of because the IPCC also says that the U.S. needs to decarbonize faster than developing countries. But they are meeting what the scientists say and they are also, I think, trying to keep this extremely vigorous new leftist kind of a climate insurgency off their tails. So that’s mainly what I think.
MY: What struck me about the Sanders’ plan, or I shouldn’t even say [inaudible] but in some sense the coverage of it because I feel like he really wanted to be covered as this is the most ambitious plan and he has succeeded in that, right? You described it that way. I think Umair’s article for Vox described it that way. But there’s actually a number of sort of elements in that plan where, you know, he comes out against any kind of carbon capture. He comes out for phasing out nuclear power, right? And, those things make it like a more left wing plan, but it’s not necessarily more. It strikes me in a certain sense it’s not really more ambitious. In particular, because when you think about what can the president do, right? Like the president can’t control what’s going to happen in the 2040s. The president can’t cast a spell and force Congress to appropriate $16 trillion. But the president—
JC: That’s just a lack of effort.
MY: Yeah, if you really want it. But the president does appoint people to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, right? So it’s like if you want to discourage the use of nuclear power in the United States, you can do that as president, right? And that strikes me as an area where being the kind of like lefty-ist candidate is not necessarily the same. I think particularly on the carbon capture where I don’t even understand what the objection to that is other than it’s not as hardcore.
DR: Yeah. Yeah. The way I put it, and I’ve said this to you before, the way I put it as sort of Inslee’s plan was, to me, the gold standard. He had more than 200 pages of plan by the end of it all. I think I’m one of maybe half-dozen readers of that. It’s really great.
MY: You really want to measure candidates by just kind of like weighing the policy documents.
DR: Yes, tonnage. Tonnage of plan. In that case, Inslee wins by tonnage. But the way I put it is Inslee’s plan is what it looks like if you take experienced climate wonks who have been working on climate policy and trying to pull the levers of state policy, you know, working on this stuff at the state level. Set them loose, tell them to go to the races. That’s what Inslee’s plan looks like is if you get the wonks unchained, right? So they take all the mechanisms that they know work, all the policies that are working at the state level, just blow them up. All the agencies, like so many agencies listed in this plan, so many acronyms. Really it’s a “Wonk Fest”. And the Sanders plan is if you took rabid socialists and set them loose, that’s what a climate plan would look like. So you’re right. I think in a sense it’s as much about, like all Bernie’s plans, it’s as much about reshaping society, fundamentally reshaping society along socialist lines as it is specifically about climate. Whereas Inslee is sort of like more targeted at climate.
And so I think that’s where like the nuclear stuff comes in and the CCS stuff comes in. The lefties want their bright all renewable future and Bernie wants to to do what the lefties want and so that’s what ended up in the plan. I think the president actually doesn’t have a ton, I mean there’s things the president can do to affect nuclear power, but most of the action on the nuclear power that matters, i.e., the plants that are now up and running, the main issue with nuclear power, there are three different issues if you read my recent post on this, but the main issue about nuclear power is the plants that we already have built that are running, that are providing 20% of the nation’s electricity, over 50% of it’s carbon-free electricity. So half of all carbon-free electricity we have in the country now is from nuclear and these plants are getting their asses kicked in wholesale markets. They can’t compete very well because they don’t get any credit or money for being carbon-free and they’re big and slow and they’re just getting out competed by natural gas and renewables.
So the big question is what do we do with these plants? Do we let them close down because they can’t compete or when their licenses expire or do we do everything we can to run them as long as possible to give us more runway as we stand up renewables. That’s sort of the tangible nuclear policy question and mostly that’s going to be decided at the state level. It’s mostly states like New York and Connecticut and New Jersey that are figuring out ways of keeping their new plants open. So the nuclear issue gets a ton of heat. It’s become a culture war issue. It’s become very sort of symbolic of a lot of different things like Andrew Yang is very, very big into nuclear, Booker’s very big into it as a sign of like tech optimism.
MY: Well but also it’s 20% of the electricity and, I mean, it’s not just symbolic.
DR: It’s real. It’s a real issue. I’m just saying that the amount that the president is going to have materially to do about nuclear energy is less than you would think from the amount of air time this argument gets.
MY: No, that’s fair. That’s fair enough. Another thing that you’ve written about and that I often wonder reading these plans, what is the match between the targets and the policies? Cause this is part of an inversion of how plans are structured, right? If you go back to like the ’08 cycle, people would say, okay, well, my plan, like Chris Dodd’s plan, was a carbon tax and it was a such and such amount and then you know, Obama’s plan was of a cap and trade and it was something around there. And one thing that’s changed is just the thinking about pricing. But one thing that changes when you make that change is you switch from talking about instruments and we then model what their effect is to, now we’re talking about targets and then there’s the question of, do your policies deliver on that? Because like you can say, okay, well my plan is we’re going to have carbon free electricity by 2030 but how do you do that, right? Like specific tangible things need to change.
DR: Yeah. I mean there’s plenty of specific tangible things, but if you want to ensure that you hit the target, this was a huge issue in climate policy back in the early 2000s when the original carbon tax versus cap and trade debates of 2006 where we’re—
DR: We’re unfolding classic stuff. And the rap against a carbon tax was you don’t know how much it’s going to reduce emissions, right? Like you can sort of guess, you can model, but you just don’t know. Whereas if you set a cap, you know x amount of emissions, then you’ve, at least on paper ensured your target, right? You’re like, we’re going to set this cap. So, in that sense, Beto O’Rourke who, for reasons I don’t totally understand has come out now for cap and trade, the only candidate who’s like championing cap and trade. So in a sense you could look at his plan and say he’s the only one that’s going to guarantee the target he set, right? Because it’s sort of written into the policy. But what we discovered after 2008 is you can set targets all day long, but ultimately political will is political will. And even with the sort of titular target in writing, you’re still gonna get loopholes and exemptions and it’s going to get weakened unless there is the political will to do what’s needed to do to hit the target. You know what I mean? So you can’t create political will with your plan. In other words, we have no idea whether any of these targets are going to be hit. We won’t know until political will manifests or doesn’t in 2030 or whatever. So you just can’t do that with a policy plan.
MY: But it’s a question in part of, do the candidates themselves even have that, you know, because so certain candidates have plans who, if you understand what they mean, the implication is we’re going to stop selling internal combustion engine cars like really soon, right? Not like in the distant future, like in the lifetime of the next presidency, but I don’t see candidates saying that directly, right? You can say at a rally, right, you’d be like, “we’re going to get affordable childcare for everyone.” And then you can be like, “I’m going to set a target of blahbity, blah, blah, blah”, right? Or you could come and say like, “I’m going to make gas-powered cars illegal.” But I don’t hear that, right? It’s not just that I don’t see the political will. I don’t see the people behind these proposals actually standing by them. And I sometimes wonder if politicians have even read some of the documents that come out under their name.
JC: I think that’s an important thing because I think that we’ve been talking a lot about political will and I think that there also is a sense of people being like, “yeah, I’m absolutely for this basic concept”. And then you get tied up to the nuts and bolts of the basic concept and people are like, “but I like cars.”
DR: You just described literally all of climate policy.
DR: I mean, it’s absolutely true. I will say there are some plans that have an interim 2030 target, which at least gives a little bit more accountability. Like Bernie’s plan, Warren’s plan, Inslee’s plan. They all had these interim 2030 targets where they want a hundred percent carbon-free electricity by then. All new buildings to be carbon-free by then and all new cars to be carbon-free by then. So Warren wouldn’t make internal combustion engine vehicles illegal. She would just stand up the electric vehicle industry, increase standards on the ICE vehicle industry until they sort of adjusted themselves. Bernie’s plan says he will have a carbon neutral transportation sector by 2030, which if you read it literally means he is not only going to make all new cars electric, he’s going to somehow get the tens of millions of internal combustion engine vehicles that are now on the road, off the road. If you spelled out what would be involved in that you would really get a revolution. But in a sense, this is all so abstract. What’s the point of giving people something to hate about your own plan? You know what I mean? Like why not try to sell it?
MY: So these are what we should talk about, right? Cause it’s like these are these plans. And then the real world is if democrats in November, if they win the Senate race in Arizona and they win the Senate race in Colorado and Doug Jones gets re-elected in Alabama—
JC: It could happen. And then Roy Moore might win that primary. It could absolutely happen.
MY: But then Joe Manchin is the median senator and I’m pretty sure he’s not gonna ban internal combustion engine cars or ban fracking or any of these other things. So, I mean, what are the actual levers that are at work in the government? Because you don’t just be like, well my plan can’t pass, I’m doing nothing.
DR: Right. Just to emphasize your first point, and this is what I would like to hear, honestly, candidates and activists talk more about is, if you pull an inside straight and you get the House and you get the Senate and you get the presidency which already is unlikely, less than 50/50 just those things, and then by some miracle you get rid of the filibuster. I guess for those who don’t know what the filibuster is, it’s the reason you need 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate—
MY: Yes, we’re skipping past.
DR: The point is you need 60 votes, which means you need at least 8. Even if you have a majority of dems means you need 8 or 9 Republican votes and you’re just flatly not going to get those for anything. So nothing will pass if the filibuster is in place. So if you get all, both houses, the presidency and you get rid of the filibuster, then you are in a position where you can get whatever Joe Manchin will sign. Then if you reach that exalted state, then you’re negotiating with Joe Manchin. So what I want to know is this, the Bernie revolution or the grassroots climate movement or whatever, that’s when that’s going to matter. If we get to that point, it will only be massive, massive, massive public pressure and mobilization that’s going to move any of these edge senators and they are starting, in a place that is well more conservative than the most conservative of the plans that have been tossed about so far. So there’s a lot of hand waving about what’s going to happen then. There’s some sort of revolution. So I would like people to know that that’s coming to be planning for it. And, most importantly, to your final question, most plans include tons and tons of stuff that you can do with the executive branch. There’s a whole sort of parallel universe plan where you don’t have Congress and all you can do is more executive action. And so some of the candidates have thought through that more than others.
MY: And so this is like there’s an EPA which regulates things. The Federal Government owns all this land.
DR: Yeah, public lands. Government procurement is a huge thing. Billions and billions of dollars you can throw around in that way. I mean there’s lots you can do but you’re not going to get on track to net zero by 2050 with executive actions. And really being restricted to executive actions is just statistically the most likely outcome. So I would like to hear more from the candidates about exactly what they’re going to do, but for obvious reasons, none of them particularly want to focus on that or talk about that.
JC: I think that there’s something I want to get to is how much of the candidates been talking about the things that they can’t do. Because I think that that’s something where I think, I predominantly covered conservatism, which means that I have a unnecessarily jaundiced view of all of this. I am broken inside. Life is pain. But I would be curious [inaudible] because I think that there’s been, the New York Times had an interesting layout talking about how each of the candidates who are competing in the debates in October would view executive power. And there’s very much of a sense of executive power is bad except—
MY: It’s bad when Trump’s president but it becomes good—
DR: Remember when Obama was president, it was like a communist czars that were trampling on the Constitution.
JC: But then we were freed from that.
DR: Yes. Then Jesus put Trump in and executive action became awesome.
JC: Yeah. Good times.
DR: No, they don’t talk about it. [inaudible] I’m sure they think a lot about that. I’m sure they think a lot about it, but no, obviously, they don’t want to go talk about it. I mean, and this is like, well, I’ll just tell the story of 2007 and 2008 briefly. Remember back—
JC: I was a junior in college.
DR: Remember back when Obama got elected and Democrats took the House and Democrats took the Senate and Obama was important. Appointing all these, like John Chu, like a nuclear physicist at D.O.E. and like Pelosi and Henry Waxman were in charge in the House and all the pieces were in place.
MY: Van Jones, remember Van Jones?
DR: Van Jones was the green czar. Like everything was in place and everybody was full of this head of steam and everybody had so much hope and everything went right per according to plan, more or less, right up until the Senate filibuster. And then it all died. And looking back over it afterwards, I didn’t hear anybody talking about that in the run up to it. People were just living in denial about it and then it slammed the door shut on literally everything. So I just don’t see why that’s not gonna happen again. That’s what I want to hear them talking about.
MY: Thinking about 2008/2009 also reminds me of the fundamental thing that these plans and these forums don’t address, which is that politicians set priorities, right? And these are often fateful choices, right? I mean we’ve saw a lot of reporting that President Trump was not enthusiastic about doing Affordable Care Act repeal as his first act that he’d wanted to just like do a big tax cut and make everyone happy. But Paul Ryan talked him into doing the healthcare thing first. I remember in the 2008 primary, I remember being at a table with Barack Obama and him saying, I think it’s more important to act on climate and energy. But the maw of health policy, it sucked him in. Similarly, the technical explanation is that’s what congressional Democrats wanted to do. And my sense of watching this primary unfold is that most of the Democrats in the field, like what they actually want to do is their healthcare plan, right? And one of the things that made, I thought, Inslee’s candidacy distinct was not the content of his plan, but the sense he conveyed that he wanted to make climate change his thing and then his candidacy got a lot of plaudits once he dropped out. But it didn’t catch fire because rank and file Democrats, they didn’t want the candidate who was going to prioritize climate change. And I feel like that’s a big problem.
DR: Yes, there are lamentingly few single issue climate voters. Not enough to carry a presidential campaign over the top in a primary.
MY: Not, I think, over the top but like to 4 percent, 5 percent.
DR: Two percent. Not quite to 2 percent. But although Tom Steyer showed that if you have a priority on climate and a kajillion dollars, you can,
JC: I think that plan’s not really gonna work for other people.
DR: Yeah. It’s limited application.
MY: Does he even have a climate change PDF or anything?
DR: Oh yeah. He came out with this plan recently and it’s big and expensive and ambitious. Like, like all the others, like everybody else. Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think Warren in a sense is, I think, admirable in this respect. Like Bernie bugs me in this respect in that he’s got a maximalist climate plan and then he’s also got a maximalist healthcare plan. And he’s also got a maximalist debt forgiveness plan and a maximalist college debt forgiveness but free college plan, and I don’t even know all the other maximalist plans he has. Like $16 trillion just for the climate part, but then the Medicare part and the debt part and pretty soon you’re talking about real money here.
MY: Medicare is $32 trillion. The college is cheap, it’s like $2.2 trillion.
DR: But the effect is saying, yes, I’m going to do everything that everybody wants, but the consequence is you don’t know what he really wants to do because no way in hell is he doing all those things. So what are you gonna lay down sweat and tears for once you get in office. And so Warren, I think, is admirable in that she says, I think we have to do corruption first. She’s not BS-ing climate people that she’s going to do climate first. She’s like, I don’t think we can do anything else until we do corruption, until we do voting reform and money and politics reform. And then I’ll get to climate, right? So I don’t think climate will be first on the agenda, honestly, for any candidate. My hope is that one of the things that candidates will have learned from the Obama experience, is Obama thought he had reasonable interlocutors that he could negotiate with and that he could do things in a sensible sequence and that he could work and find common ground and it just turned out to be a giant waste of time to absolutely no point whatsoever. So I hope that the next incoming administration comes in and just says we’re going to light all the fires at once. We’re gonna go executive action, hardcore EPA, we’re gonna to start stumping for bills, we’re going to start barnstorming America like all at once. ‘Cause you really don’t know it’s circumstances that are going to shape what’s possible and what happens first. Not really what they tell us now.
JC: I think Booker’s plan, especially the concept of climate justice as a concept is interesting because I think that one thing when I talk to people outside of the world in which we exist is the idea that climate is important, but then there’s also these other issues. But I think that when we’re talking about immigration, we’re talking about climate refugees. My spouse is from New Zealand, where in New Zealand they’re starting to accept a number of climate refugees from islands like Tuvalu and Micronesia and other areas where flooding is a daily concern. We’re starting to see that somewhat here. And so I’d be interested to see how candidates can talk about climate in context. Because I think there very much is a sense in which a maximalist climate plan can make sense if you recognize that climate and environmental justice more broadly, and immigration and all of these issues are interconnected. However, I’m not in charge of anything and I can’t convince anyone of anything. So I think that it is interesting to see how there’s been this separation of climate as being a very, I mean you see this a little bit with how there’s an upcoming LGBT forum as if gay people just show up one day like today is gay day, tomorrow not so gay. But I think that that’s an interesting way to think about these issues. Think about them in context with talking about criminal justice reform and thinking about how climate issues impact that as well.
DR: Yeah, that is a super excellent point and I think it’s actually happening less now than it used to. And I think climate advocates and activists are much smarter about that than they used to be. Some of that is forced upon us just by the structure of things. Like they’re supposed to come out with focused plans about this or that, there’s going to be a debate about this or that. But the Green New Deal, the whole point of the Green New Deal, the whole animating spirit of the Green New Deal is exactly that is the idea that if we’re going to do what we have to do on climate, it’s going to involve a massive convulsive reformation of our basic institutions in our economy and the way we act and the way we do things. It’s not a narrow policy lane, it’s everything.
Some of the candidates are really good on that. Like Booker, like I said, came out at the forum and the very first thing he said was, “I’m not going to do a climate item on my agenda, I’m going to look at everything I do in office through this lens.” Climate is jobs. So, for instance, the Green New Deal, the whole point of the Green New Deal is we’re going to create all these massive new industries we’re going to destroy or shrink a lot of incumbent existing industries. That’s just how it has to happen. And the American people are not going to let us do that with the current crappy healthcare system where they could be sick on the street if they lose their job or if wages suck and benefits suck. And you know, with this sort of state of precarity that the American worker exists in, makes them cautious and fearful and they’re not going to embrace a giant transformative plan if they’re feeling cautious and fearful.
The whole point of the Green New Deal is we’re going to bring everybody along. We’re going to do climate policy, but we’re going to do jobs, we’re going to protect your jobs, we’re going to do retraining. We’re going to have a just transition for hard-hit communities. Like we’re going to bring it all together and it’s going to be a national reformation of what the U.S. is, not just a climate thing. That was the whole point and strength and appeal of the Green New Deal. I agree that the candidates haven’t necessarily taken that in as much as they should. But Warren, for instance, has no climate plan. She has a climate plan about the military. She has a climate plan about jobs. She has a climate plan about procurement. She’s got all these different plans that are through a climate lens. And I think that’s the smart way to do it. I think in practice it’s never going to be this single thing. It’s going to be a background condition that people accept is just kind of part of everything we do.
MY: After that big talk, big ideas, I need to drag us back down to our wheezy roots. I’m going to talk about this paper. It’s about algae. It’s incredible. There’s an algae element. So I read this on the plane coming out here. It’s really interesting. It’s called, Carbon Utilization: A Vital and Effective Pathway for Decarbonization. It’s by Jeffrey Bobeck, Janet Peace, and Fatima Maria Ahmad. It’s about something I had never really thought about, but it’s what can we do to sort of capture greenhouse gases and then do something with them instead of—
JC: Including using it in construction, which I did not realize.
DR: Yeah. Yeah. This is a really interesting and new—
MY: Yeah this concrete one was like, I met a guy years ago, he worked in the concrete aggregates business and he was really smug about it and about how the world’s always going to need aggregates. And it was like this whole weird thing.
DR: One word: aggregates.
MY: So in case you don’t know, you make concrete by this little stuff, pebbles. Those are the aggregates.
JC: Tell us more about it.
DR: I think we’re losing focus here, Matt. Let me drive us back.
MY: But you can do it with carbon dioxide instead.
DR: The point of all this is, we were making more carbon than we need to. We need to cut the amount we emit, but we also eventually are going to have to bury a bunch. We basically have already emitted more than is safe and we’re not going to stop overnight. So we’re going to have to bury a bunch. So we’re gonna have to capture carbon, which industrially speaking, there’s two ways you can do it. You can grab it out of the waste gases that come out of a power plant where it’s pretty concentrated, or you can just grab it out of the ambient air. It’s called direct air capture. Now they build these big machines that have chemical reactions that pull carbon dioxide out of the air. The question is, burying CO2 doesn’t make you any money and until there is a very big carbon price, it’s not going to be worth it for anybody to do it but we need to bury gigatons of carbon by mid-century, so how do we get carbon capture going?
MY: Well, also just logistically huge. Like, carbon caves or something.
DR: Yes, if you read reports like this, they estimate that by 2030 the U.S. needs to have a carbon capture and burial industry that handles four times the quantity of material that the oil and gas industry deals with today. We’re talking about burying a lot of carbon. So we need to get this going. We need to get carbon capture scaled up and professionalized and bring it down in price. But we don’t have any incentive to bury it right now so what can we do? Well, one thing we could do is use the carbon dioxide, and it turns out that carbon dioxide is a useful thing. And so it’s a feed stock that goes into a lot of processes. So you can use it in what’s called advanced oil recovery, which is not the most pleasant way to use it, but you can get more oil out of exhausted fields or you can through various chemical transformations, you can make it into aggregates. You can inject it directly into concrete in the concrete-making process. You can make it into plastics. You can make it into pharmaceuticals. It can become a chemical feedstock for a million different areas or products. The reason concrete gets so much attention is that concrete traps the CO2 permanently, right? Whereas if you make it into fuels or something like that, and then you burn the fuel, the CO2 ends up in the air anyway. So you’re just sort of like delaying it. But concrete traps the CO2 and keeps it permanently. And cement which goes into making concrete is the second most used substance on the planet after water. It’s like concrete is responsible for 7% of total greenhouse gas emissions. So if you could instead of digging up carbon out of the ground and using it as a feedstock, if you could pull it out of the air and use it as a feedstock, instead of having carbon intensive products and processes, you would have carbon neutral products and processes because you would just be recycling CO2 from the air, pulling it out of the air, using it to make stuff, releasing it back into the air, so on. So this is a way to decarbonize concrete and pharmaceuticals and plastics and in a whole range of other products. But also it’s a way to make carbon valuable, create a market for carbon and then carbon capture will have an incentive to sort of stand up and professionalize and scale up and get cheaper and then you’ll have an easier time burying it later. That’s the sort of theory.
MY: There’s policy proposals in here for this which are very sort of big picture, R&D stuff, blah blah blah. But a really interesting thing I learned that I think anybody in the audience can actually take home and email your city council person tomorrow about is that the building codes, right? Right now they are incredibly prescriptive about what concrete needs to look like, right? And one of their proposals here is to say we should have performance standards where you say, okay, it needs to have these kinds of attributes, right? It has to be strong enough so the buildings don’t fall down rather than saying it has to be exactly like this. Because to make things in a different way, you need some flexibility for the things that you make to be a little bit different.
DR: t’s a very conservative industry. People who build buildings that are supposed to last for a century are very gun-shy about messing with new materials. So that is one of the barriers.
JC: For some reason.
MY: All for understandable reasons. No, but this to me is an example of one of these things where what does it mean to take this challenge seriously, right? And some of that, yes, is pound the table on ideas that I would kinda like anyway, like let’s have fancy trains that go everywhere. But some of it is to think about how risk-averse do we need to be about these building codes or do we need to do something.
DR: One other intriguing part of this, not necessarily to support but, it’s called carbon capture and utilization is the [inaudible]. You can make, and I don’t think a lot of people outside the nerd world know this, but you can take CO2 that you capture and mix it with hydrogen and energy, basically electricity, and you can make hydrocarbon fuels that will substitute for gasoline or diesel or even jet fuel. So this is a big deal because we have, while we can make small vehicles now and even probably someday mid-size vehicles and maybe even someday long haul trucks electric, there are this whole class of transportation, shipping, planes, which we just don’t know how to electrify. So we need hydrocarbon fuels to run them, but we don’t want polluting hydrocarbon fuels. So this is a route to decarbonizing some of those sectors that are very difficult to decarbonize otherwise. And if you think even on a bigger scale, if we scale this up enough, you could replace, eventually, at the limit you could replace the entire world’s supply of liquid fuels with carbon neutral fuels. That’s an enormous, huge amount of global CO2 emissions. So it’s an interesting idea to think about carbon not just as waste but as a useful commodity and give people a reason to capture it and not waste it.
MY: There was a thing about algae in there.
DR: Yeah and also you can use CO2 and it will stimulate the growth of algae, which you can then make fuels out of.
MY: You can make diesel.
DR: Matt’s very taken with algae.
MY: Making diesel out of the algae. I love it.
DR: We need an algae czar. We’re going to get algae czar are for our next administration.
MY: They say responsive federal algae policy is divided across three cabinet agencies and there needs to be an algae czar who will coordinate his algae policy across the world. I’m really looking forward to it. There’s a congressional algae caucus of some kind I learned on Twitter today. Uh. So. God bless.
I think it might be interesting as since you all here in the audience, bothered to come and see us, to invite folks here to come up. We’ve got one microphone here and one there if anyone would like to ask any questions. Two stipulations, one is that because we are recording this to broadcast later, it’s very important to speak into microphone so you will be recorded properly. The other is please ask real questions. Otherwise, I’m going to throw this at you, so be good. Yeah. Alright.
Audience Member 1: Alright, this question is for @drvox. But it really applies to all three of you. I read your writing and I appreciate your analysis, but I wonder how many other people are reading it and communicating and reaching out to you. So how many of the candidates have reached out to you and how many philanthropists have you analyze their plans? And you would say that maybe researchers should be reached out to, but they don’t have verified Twitter accounts. So I think there’s a lot more power in getting your approval.
DR: Well that’s very flattering. I do not have a line of candidates forming outside my office, actually, for my advice, sadly, weirdly. I know climate people. I know the kind of climate people who get sucked into these campaigns and end up writing these plans, I know them sort of through history and so I’m in touch with them. They’re not particularly asking me for advice. What they do is putting out a plan and then begging me to write nicely about it. That’s generally what they do. But, I think, maybe all of them except for Sanders, I think, care what I think. Maybe that’s something.
MY: That’s nice. I mean it’s interesting you do get different levels of engagement with different candidates on the whole sort of range of topics and some campaigns I personally talk to a lot about the stuff that they’re doing. Others don’t necessarily care all that much. I think one thing that’s interesting in sort of a crowded primary field is that politicians like it when you write about them favorably and they don’t like it when you write about them critically.
But as a journalist, you want to be a somewhat critical person, but also like an article that says, well so-and-so just released is a blueprint that sounds really nice, but also it would never pass the Senate. That’s a really boring story, right? Whereas, an assessment with some bite to it could actually be a good piece, right? And, I think, the smarter campaigns recognize that being ignored is just like a death sentence and that it’s useful to engage in a public debate. Acknowledging that not everyone will be convinced of every single thing that you say, but the instinct of staffers, in particular, is to be incredibly defensive about everything. But that encourages a kind of blahness and you’ve seen like twenty-two, twenty-seven, a thousand four candidates in the Democratic field and very few of them have made any kind of splash. And I think that’s because very few of them have put themselves out for real scrutiny in a way that merits attention and in an interesting way.
Audience Member 2: Cool. Hey y’all. So Jane and Dave kind of touched on this, but what scares me the most about climate change is the shifting distribution of resources away from current structures of state power. And both the resource wars that are likely to ensue over the next 75 years.
MY: Is there a question?
Audience Member 2: Yes. Getting to it. And the global refugee crisis that’s going to come from that seeing how we reacted to Syria and to the southern border right now, that seems like there’s a large potential for fascism and genocide on a scale that we can’t imagine. So should we be reframing the climate narrative from prevention to adaptation? And if so, what does that look like?
DR: If people are groping for examples of climate refugees, we just turned away some people from the Bahamas yesterday, so you don’t have to go back very far and if you want a preview of exactly what I was talking about before, which I think is going to be the conservative shift to a kind of climate lifeboat philosophy. Yes, that is also the thing that scares me most about climate change. Furthermore, just to scare you further, and this is a point I think David Wallace Wells made really well in his recent book, and this is something that I’ve sort of absorbed more and more over time, is everything that climate change does makes climate change harder to solve, subsequently. So every day we’re not doing this, it’s getting harder and harder to do it and that’s going to be more and more refugees, more and more cities that run out of water, more and more heat waves.
People respond to fear and anxiety, not with an outburst of altruism and future-focused policymaking. They draw in. That’s what fear and anxiety do. And climate change is a dial that is just going to turn up fear and anxiety. That’s going to be its main effect. And so globally and in every individual country it’s going to make doing things harder. So, to me, that just sort of adds to the kind of frantic urgency of all this ’cause it’s just getting the reactionaries, you know, if America’s okay turning away people from the Bahamas who just went through a hurricane, what about a couple of hundred thousand Bangladeshis? You don’t have to use much imagination to imagine America putting up walls and becoming sort of like a “Trump Island.” I don’t know, if you’re asking for a solution. [inaudible]
Audience Member 3: My question is the courts seem pretty popular. Does anybody see any scenario under which the courts might lead the legislature and help with climate?
DR: Grimace emoji all the way across. I mean maybe the old courts, but you might notice they’re being vigorously stacked with right-wingers as we speak. And right now, just take one very prominent example, this EPA can EPA regulate carbon business. The EPA’s ability to use this section of the Clean Air Act that it’s using to regulate carbon never got settled in the court. Trump just took it back and stopped trying. So it’s going to go back to court and it’s eventually going to go up to the Supreme Court and now look at the Supreme Court, right? All of it’s going to end up at the Supreme Court eventually and, no, they’re not going to be helpful. No, at all. My worry is that the courts are going to go from being some of the strongest agents of climate action, which I think they were during the Obama years and since, and flip and go the other way. Maybe I’m being too apocalyptic.
MY: Yeah. I don’t want to say I can read John Roberts’ bind on this, but I do think that people should be attuned. I mean, I think as Democrats have gotten more interested in the idea that there won’t be deals with Republicans, they’re going to do things through unilateral executive action. It’s important to understand what that means in practice, right? Executive branch unilateralism really means the policymaking power tosses to the judicial branch because everything Trump does, it’s the same thing. You go to court, you go to a sympathetic jurisdiction, you get an injunction placed on it, and then it bubbles up through the system, right? So the viability of a lot of stuff Democrats will do is going to hinge on what happens at the Supreme court. Justice Kennedy had some moderate environmental sympathies and that’s why the Massachusetts vs. EPA decision came down the way it did. It’s, I think, not really known how the current Supreme Court lineup will rule on those things, but I would prepare to be disappointed.
DR: Yeah. And the one thing I would say is as much of an Obama fan boy as I was, one of the things I think legitimate criticism of his is, and the Left generally is, just his inattention to courts. The Right has been much smarter and much more forward-looking about the crucial role courts are going to play and now they’re sort of stacking it and stacking it and it’s going to take decades to undo that balance that they’re creating.
Audience Member 4: Do you think the climate activists should be placing a larger emphasis on affecting state and local change or is it worth it to try and go for changing federal policy even if it’s really difficult?
JC: I mean, why not both? But I think that if there’s anything about the last couple of years, it’s that I hope that we’ve all discovered the magic, many wonders of federalism. Because I think that at the local level, and you’re even seeing this with the actions being taken in Harlan County to stand up for coal miners, because I think that there’s a sense climate change is going to have a lot of impacts, including on the people who relied most on the industries that contributed to it and the people who are standing up for coal miners in Kentucky and West Virginia and elsewhere, that’s local action. And the people who are leading that in Kentucky are trans people and anarchists who are going out giving people Target gift cards to help them make it through the week, who are helping people stay through this protest against an industry that has essentially left these people to die. And so I think that those localized actions, one, I think that one of the biggest problems that climate action can take is that it seems hypothetical. It can seem like very above everyone when it’s, no, it’s about the real deal impacts and I think that of what climate can do in everyday life.
I think that that’s some of the biggest successes that we’ve seen in the ’70s and ’80s in terms of how cities have taken on pollution or how localities have taken on chemical waste for example. Or because of individuals and groups standing up by saying, “I live here in Love Canal. I live here in these different areas. I say, this is not what it’s going to happen. I’m from this neighborhood.” And you’re seeing that with the climate justice work that’s being done in Louisiana, which is experiencing the rapid encroachment and destruction of wetlands.
And so I think that there is a way. I mean, obviously, federal policy is deeply important, but I think that there’s very much of a sense and I think that in terms of things that the Left may have gotten wrong during the Obama years, I think that when you think of the federal government as a backstop, it makes it a lot easier to not notice your city council elections, your statewide elections, which is why the GOP controls so many state houses and governors’ mansions across the country. I think that the actions being taken even over the last couple of years to start to flip that are really important in that sense because, I think, climate change occurs on the smallest of levels. It’s not just about how much carbon we produce as opposed to how much carbon China produces. It’s about the actions that you can take at your local level as well.
DR: Yeah. Just add two quick things to that. One is I think the answer to your question is, yes, climate action is happening at the state level and if there is a road to federal climate policy, it’s going to be a critical mass of states. The same way national fuel economy standards happen. Like California chose its own standards and more and more states started joining California until finally the automakers were like, we can’t make two sets of cars, let’s just do national standards. I think that’s the only practical road to federal policy. The first thing I’d say. The second thing I’d say is even below the state level, there are units of governance where a relatively small number of people can have a big impact and one I would call out is the utility boards that govern utilities. Each state has a board that governs it’s utilities and those utility boards are tiny and almost always neglected. And they have their hands on an enormous amount of carbon. Like they have influence over enormous amount of carbon. So I’d love to see more surgical attention to where you can get big results with small numbers. And just third, by way of wrapping this up, I recently did a post where I assembled as close as I could to a comprehensive list of the places that have taken bold climate policy action in the last two or three years, cities and states. And guess what they all had in common? They had democratic legislatures and democratic executives, the ones who did climate things are the ones who elected overwhelming numbers of Democrats who could ignore Republicans and pass stuff. That’s true at the city level and it’s true at the state level.
So I don’t want climate to be a partisan issue. I would love it if everybody got on board, but just as an empirical matter, if you’re looking for the shortest road to climate action, it’s just elect Democrats. Democrats are onboard. If you elect them, they’ll do this, just elect them and they’ll do it.
Audience Member 5: Great. I’d like to loop back to the Joe Manchin question because I think that’s the thing that no candidate has figured out how to get around the structure of the Senate. So can I just pitch you my crazy 15 second plan for how to fix the Senate? It basically you take the Budget Control Act of 2011 that created the “super committee” that gave us the awful sequester, but you put citizens on it instead. If you had normal citizens and gave every member of Congress their own super committee to take on these challenges, could we fix some of these things? Could we work in parallel to fix Congress?
MY: The thing about these kind of procedural forums, if you look at how the filibuster for executive branch appointments got changed. It was that there was a concrete thing that was happening that sincerely outraged Senate Democrats on a rank and file level so that they felt they didn’t want to change the institution, but Mitch McConnell saying that he wasn’t going to use leverage to bargain for a different C.F.P.B. chair or different N.L.R.B. nominees, but he was just going to keep those vacant forever. That pissed off the moderate Democrats. So they were like, we’ve got to change the rules. And the thing about it, you can call it Joe Manchin or you can imagine even a bigger majority so it’s Jon Tester, it’s Kyrsten Sinema, whatever, there’s no trick that gets the people who hold the leverage points to give up their power, right? Now if the issue is that Jon Tester actually wants incredibly ambitious climate legislation to pass, but he’s afraid about his constituents in Montana, then, yes, maybe you can come up with some kind of gimmick that gets around it. But if the issue is, I think it often is in these cases, that there’s a disagreement among the parties to how far you should go on these things. It’s not really a process issue, it’s about the substance fundamentally.
DR: But just to ratify the premise of your question, yes. The Senate is utterly broken, destitute, terrible. The world’s worst deliberative body and a scar on our nation. And I could go on, but I will not.
MY: That said, if a relatively small number of people from Seattle moved to Anchorage.
DR: Oh yeah, we’ve got a whole plan, you guys.
Audience Member 6: Hi. So, obviously, mitigating climate, it’s going to take a lot of legislative action. It’s going to take a lot of money, which we’ve talked about tonight. People talk about a lot. It’s also just going to take making a lot of stuff and I think people talk about that a little less and that’s where I get concerned. I mean, there’s obviously efforts in concert to limit nuclear power and to ban fracking which are both, particularly the latter, an important issue that I think would help a lot of local problems but also would kind of harm the broader goal and accepting that climate change. I think mitigating is the issue of our time, the critical issue of our time. Don’t we need to prioritize or can we have it all?
DR: Well if you read Bernie Sanders plan—
Audience Member 6: Right, exactly. All it takes is $16 trillion.
DR: Yeah, just the $16 trillion. There are hard trade-offs everywhere and there are trade-offs, not just in terms of the practical requirements of doing climate change, but there are hard trade-offs in, you know, I don’t think climate activists don’t really like to talk about those areas or hear about it, but there are other important social and political goals also that have to be balanced just in terms of allocation of effort and political capital. But I don’t think there are technical restraints. Let’s just say that I don’t think we need natural gas to do it. We could do it without natural gas. Yes—
Audience Member 6: Certainly in the long-term but in the short-term.
DR: Yeah. Long-term is fine. It’s all about getting through the eye of the needle, right? It’s all about using the fossil fuels we have left to build as much clean infrastructure as possible. That’s the rational thing that the amount of carbon budget we have left before we blow through it ought to be devoted entirely to building new infrastructure and new ways of doing things. That’s what we ought to be doing and we’re rapidly running out of time to do that. But, I think, nuclear is somewhat separable from that. We’re going to need a bunch more electricity if we’re going to move all our vehicles onto electricity, which we’re going to try to do. We’re going to move all our buildings onto electricity, which we’re trying to do. We’re going to have to have two, three, four, five time the amount of electricity supply we had before and that’s going to take a crap load. So I think for that reason alone, we shouldn’t be turning down carbon-free sources of power in advance, but natural gas is a slightly different issue. I think phasing out natural gas is perfectly doable if we have a comprehensive and rational plan for doing it.
MY: What happens if we run out of male questioners? [Applause]
Audience Member 7: That did kind of motivate me to stand up. But if it had been a bunch of women, I probably would have stayed seated. So you’ve kind of already touched on my question but I’ve been standing here for a while so I’m going to ask it anyway.
Audience Member 7: Do you think that the best way to mobilize voters around caring about climate solutions and voting in people who care about climate solutions is stoking fear about what will happen if we don’t do those things or making it kind of a hip and possibly profitable endeavor? What’s best?
JC: I think the best way is to combine it with issues that, because when people talk about “kitchen-table issues”, generally that seems to exclude a lot of issues that are deeply important to most people who have kitchen tables and many who don’t. So I think that combining climate with talking about immigration or we’re talking about some of the criminal justice reform or talking about the military, I think that’s an effective way. Because I think that I understand that kind of Sturm und Drang, if we don’t do this right now, everyone will die issue. But I think that we’ve seen that before. We saw that with the population bomb in the ’70s, we’ve seen that time and time again. I think that it might be effective but I don’t think it’s good and I still believe that things could be both good and effective. Maybe I might be alone in that. But I do think that there is a way to talk about climate in context that could be helpful for voters just to make a sound and reasoned decision to know that like yes this does have to do with me.
MY: I feel like this kind of dispute about how “hopey, changey” versus—
JC: Deathly scary?
MY: “Gloomy, doomy” a little bit overdone. And if I were to critique the general realm of this messaging it wouldn’t be about actually the tone of it because I feel like people have been quite, like we were talking about all the Democrats came out with really, really ambitious climate plans. There was an adequate level of inspiration so that people who were open to this put on the table big stuff. I think the problem is that there is a tendency to then focus a lot of intellectual energy on hypothetical 90th-yard questions. Like what are we going to do about airplanes? Right? And there’s like an incredible amount of discourse focused around planes because it’s what—
DR: And hamburgers?
MY: Yeah. Well the hamburgers is a little weird because that’s like a cynical culture war thing but the airplanes is a legitimately difficult technical problem, right? But it would be more useful to talk about the large number of relatively easy technical problems that simply require an act of Congress and then you could do it, right? The problem of the planes is that there isn’t an obvious thing to do but—
MY: Algae planes. But it’s like we don’t need to wring our hands and every op-ed about this girl on her sailboat and a million other things. What we need to do is mobilize effort around doing the doable things and sorta hope for the best on other stuff. But what’s infuriating about today is not that we haven’t solved the hardest aspects of the problem. It’s we haven’t solved the easiest aspects of the problem and like anything, you gotta do one damn thing after another.
DR: Yeah. Three things on this, I have three things on everything. Which you may or may not know the long and ongoing dispute in the climate communications world. It’s still ongoing today. This Jonathan Franzen essay in the New Yorker has got everybody in the climate communication world all in a twitter. So my three brief points would just be, one, does social science that people deploy to argue for their preferred communication strategy, in my opinion, tends to be extremely sketchy, extremely undercooked and people tend to wildly overlearn lessons from it, mainly confirming their own priors. I think number one, no one knows. No one really knows what works on a mass scale to move masses of people. No one knows.
Two, consequently everyone should just communicate the way they friggin’ want to and are good at. And quit lecturing other people about how to communicate. If you think hopey, changey is the way to go, go out with your hopey, changey message. Some people are moved by hope, some are moved by fear, some are articulate in their fear, some are articulate in their hopes, some let a thousand flowers bloom. This sort of tone policing that has taken over the climate world is just odious to me. Third. Wait, what was third? I think I forgot my third thing. I’m blowing my whole shtick.
MY: That’s terrible.
DR: I only have two things on that.
MY: Alright, alright. We’re going to do one more. One more. So this should be good. Make it good.
Audience Member 8: My understanding is that one of the things that distinguished Bernie Sanders’ plan was that it called out military spending and wanted to cut that. And so I just was wondering, it’s generated a bit of discussion around the role of military in climate, foreign policy, energy independence. Do you view this as something, is this an important part of the conversation or is it kind of boondoggly?
DR: I think it’s a little peripheral right now. It’s obviously a real issue and it’s going to come up and Sanders has a big thing, and Warren also has a big thing about the military. Because the military is A) a giant energy user, right? B) has billions of dollars deployed, defending energy, trade routes and energy sources. And C) is just an enormous, a C is in the direct control, mostly of the executive. So there’s a lot that can be done without Congress and C.’s just enormously influential, socially and culturally. A lot of social change has taken root in the military weirdly enough. So I think it’s obviously a huge thing to the extent Sanders’ whole thing is if we cut down on oil use radically, we’ll be able to withdraw military from all these places and shrink the military, I think, is like, there are several steps missing in that chain of logic, including like literally every vested interest in the country.
MY: The United States became a net exporter of petroleum products last year and it did not lead to the withdrawal of the American global military footprint.
DR: Anyway. That’s a very unsatisfying answer.
MY: And with that, I think we are about out of time here but thanks guys.
DR: Let’s have one more question from, please, a female. Can we just have one more? Let’s do it. Yeah.
Audience member 9: Thank you. I was hoping if I stood there long enough I wouldn’t be turned away. I’m a middle school teacher and tomorrow—
JC: That’s awesome.
Audience Member 9: Tomorrow is the anniversary of 9/11 and I was wondering how would you teach about the anniversary of 9/11 to a generation of children that were not even born when it happened and maybe through a climate justice lens?
JC: I was a freshman in high school on 9/11. I saw the second plane go in on TV. And my parents told me later that they had [inaudible] about it on TV and their first thought was we should go get Jane cause they’re going to come to Cincinnati. And it was one of those things that afterwards seemed illogical ’cause I’m like, “why would anyone attack Cincinnati?” But I think for anyone who was around at that time, like every fear that you had was like, “Sure, probably'” I don’t know if anyone remembers, but there was the whole talk of, “Yeah, their terrorists are going to try to attack Los Angeles.” And I think the best way to talk about it with middle schoolers who didn’t experience it, especially thinking through climate justice, is to think about how much of an impact it’s had on the day-to-day lives we have today. And I was just thinking about the fact that we’re now at a generation in which there are fathers and mothers who served in Afghanistan and their children are now serving in Afghanistan. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon. And I think that the lives of military families have been both purposefully and accidentally excised from the lives that most of us live. Military families, a lot of them, you live on a military base and I think people deify the military while pushing them away. I know that sounds tangential to climate justice, but we were just talking about how the military plays into how we think about social issues. And so I think that talking about 9/1, it needs to be something where it’s not just like it was a horrible thing that happened to so many people and it was an individualized experience while happening on a mass level.
And I think that when we’re talking about climate, it’s a horrible thing that is happening as we are talking. It’s a horrible thing that is ongoing and it’s not as obvious as plans going into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, but it’s impacts can be just as widely felt. You know, there are kids, who as you said, weren’t born for it, who are now electing to serve in wars that began allegedly because of it. And so I think that when you can talk about the ripple impact of whether a single event or an ongoing crisis and how it can start to have impacts on you and your life and the lives of people you care about that you didn’t begin to expect. I didn’t think in September/October, 2001 when I was playing field hockey in high school, I didn’t think that we would still be in very much the same conflict nearly 20 years later. And so I think that when it comes to climate change, I remember being a kid and learning about global warming and it seemed like something that looked like, “Yeah, that seems like a thing that seems bad.” But that just the knock on effects and the ripple effects I think that’s a way to think about this because I think that there’s something about 9/11, I mean, I think about it in the ways that I learned as a kid about Pearl Harbor where you think about like, “Oh, this terrible event.” But then the course of history seems so obvious when you’re looking back on it. Like Pearl Harbor, Pacific war, European war, we won, hurray. But that’s not how history works.
The events of history don’t seem so obvious when they’re taking place at the time. So I think thinking about those ripple impacts, thinking about how climate change, it’s an ongoing crisis where the effects, we don’t know what they’re all going to be. We don’t know who the next group of climate refugees will be. We don’t know about the impacts it’s having on kids who are growing up in areas where the air is getting more dangerous or where wetlands are decreasing. We don’t know what those impacts are going to look like. History happens while you’re sitting in class watching TV sometimes. I think that’s the way that I would explain it to kids.
DR: And adding to all that, which is great.
JC: Thanks, Dave.
DR: Yeah. I don’t know how popular a view this is, but I sort of view 9/11 as a dual tragedy. The tragedy of the pain and loss of life. And then the subsequent tragedy of our wild anger and fear-driven reaction, which spiraled into negative effects that dwarf the effects of the attack. That we took a tragedy and reacted in fear and anger and that punitive feeling, of that lizard brain anger and, subsequently, magnified the tragedy into a now two decade long tragedy that is ongoing. So the way I would connect that to climate is, it’s going to be very easy when the hurricane start hitting and the refugees start coming and the people start running out of water and dying from heat waves. It’s going to be real easy to respond in fear and anger too. But by doing so, we will do the same thing. We will magnify the tragedy beyond what it has to be. So to me, I’d like that to be a lesson of how the importance of reacting to trauma with some calm and clarity and distance and compassion.
Audience Member 9: Thank you very much. [inaudible]
Audience Member 10: I promise it’s short. We’ve talked a lot about how apocalyptic and scary things can be. And one of the other questioners talked about making it feel personal. So I was just gonna ask each of you to give one example of the small actionable personal thing that you would do first or three things, if you want.
JC: Well I think for me it’s, and I know it sounds a little bit silly, but I think that just starting to take stock of stuff. There’s been a lot of really interesting writing on the accumulation of stuff and just this idea of the fact that we don’t really know what to do with stuff. I’ll give you an example. So Patagonia has this program where if something that you have of theirs tears or it’s too old, you can just send it back. And Patagonia, when they started this program, we were like, “great, we can reuse it.” Turns out people are dirty monsters. So a lot of the stuff they can’t reuse and they’re like, “well, we can’t just incinerate it because all that carbon, that’s not better.” So they have warehouses that’s just stuff people sent back, whether it’s stuff that didn’t fit or it’s stuff that people had for 20 years and they never used. And I think about that a lot because there are a lot of times where I’m just like, “what am I going to do with the stuff I already have?” And at some point, someone else after I die will have to deal with that stuff. And just thinking about what stuff is actually stuff you need. And I know it sounds so small ’cause there’s a way we talk about climate and the environment with little kids. We are just like, “reduce, reuse, recycle.” But that still matters. It still matters to think about the stuff you have and the stuff you don’t need. And to think about it in a very personal way. And I think that’s how I do it. I also, I don’t drive, but that’s also because I’m kind of terrified of driving and cars are evil monsters of death.
MY: Something I’ve found interesting is in this “takes plane”, right? It’s good to distinguish between policy, collective solutions and things we will do individually. But something I’ve found interesting and actually worthwhile about trying to do things individually is you learn more about what the policy and collective problems are. So my wife and I decided we wanted to get more energy efficient windows and we wound up having some trouble with historic preservation rules. We’ve got a solution that was pretty good but not as good as what we wanted. But some of it was good. I mean, we improved the situation in our house, but I also learned a new policy grievance that I’m able to take to the relevant elected officials. And because it’s a much more actually localized thing, right? The DC Council is much more responsive to what liberal people think than the U.S. Senate is. And so you do something personal, you learn about something that’s policy, but then you can take personal action about the policy and you may have some actual policy efficacy there because it’s like close to me and relevant. And so now I’m on to the next thing, which is solar panels on the roof, which is it’s whole other fucking nightmare, honestly, of preservation and stuff. But it’s made me feel better about the idea of urging people to take individual action because it’s actually very instructive way to learn about the systemic barriers to actually try and see what you can do. Because you can do a lot and then it’s not just what you can do alone isn’t enough, but like things will stand in your way, right? And that’s a good way to indicate what do I need to talk about? Who do I need to talk to?
DR: Yeah. A more direct answer to your question, the biggest individual things you can do are fly less, drive less, live in a smaller house. But the thing that’s always been a problem with climate is that the choices we present to people when we tell them about this horrible thing that’s happening are either, call your congressperson, which is just distant and sort of so oblique and so unsatisfying. It seems so far away. Or reduce, reuse, recycle, which seems just absurdly picayune next to the problem.
But what I always try to remind people is there’s a middle space that we’ve largely forgotten in America or we’ve neglected, which is just sort of the civic space beyond your individual life, but short of the federal government. So your neighborhood or your library or your school board or your town council, there’s all sorts of layers of civic involvement that are much more tangible and much more, you know, you can see results. But you also feel like you’re doing something collective and you also feel like you need to do something collective. Cause the number one thing we all need once we really wrap our heads around climate change is some fraternity, right? And some togetherness ‘cause it’s terrifying and isolating. So I really think we need to be doing things together, but there are tons of things we can do together that are short of marching in Washington DC. There’s all these local institutions and relationships and social networks that you have access to and are involved in, all of which can do things that are positive on climate change. So I would just like to see people reactivate this kind of civic space, the sense that we’re all doing something together and not necessarily by government, but just by organizing one another, that kind of thing. So I would say just start local. I think that’s the most sort of satisfying way to get actual results and feel like you’re actually doing something.
MY: Alright. So thanks so much to everybody who came out here. Thanks especially of people ask questions. Thanks to Dave for joining us for this special episode and thanks so much to the Town Hall in Seattle for putting this together. It’s a lot of fun. I hope you guys enjoyed it. Goodnight.
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