Not Cool Ep 5: Ken Caldeira on updating infrastructure and planning for an uncertain climate future

Planning for climate change is particularly difficult because we’re dealing with such big unknowns. How, exactly, will the climate change? Who will be affected and how? What new innovations are possible, and how might they help address or exacerbate the current problem? Etc. But we at least know that in order to minimize the negative effects of climate change, we need to make major structural changes — to our energy systems, to our infrastructure, to our power structures — and we need to start now. On the fifth episode of Not Cool, Ariel is joined by Ken Caldeira, who is a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science and the Department of Global Ecology and a professor at Stanford University’s Department of Earth System Science. Ken shares his thoughts on the changes we need to be making, the obstacles standing in the way, and what it will take to overcome them.

Topics discussed include:

  • Relationship between policy and science
  • Climate deniers and why it isn’t useful to argue with them
  • Energy systems and replacing carbon
  • Planning in the face of uncertainty
  • Sociopolitical/psychological barriers to climate action
  • Most urgently needed policies and actions
  • Economic scope of climate solution
  • Infrastructure solutions and their political viability
  • Importance of political/systemic change

References discussed include:

I think we’ve known for decades now that if we want to live on this planet for the long term, and have an industrial economy, and not dramatically alter the environment, that we need an energy system that has close to zero carbon emissions.

~ Ken Caldeira

Ariel Conn: Welcome to episode 5 of Not Cool: a climate conversation. I’m your host, Ariel Conn.

Today we’re talking about the structural changes needed to adapt to climate change. While our individual actions can positively impact the climate, actually solving this crisis is going to require the large-scale transformation of our energy systems, our infrastructure, and more. Here to discuss the changes we need to be making—and the obstacles standing in the way—is Ken Calderia.

Ken is a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science and the Department of Global Ecology, and he’s a professor at Stanford University’s Department of Earth System Science. He studies the global carbon cycle, marine biogeochemistry and chemical oceanography, including ocean acidification and the atmosphere-ocean carbon cycle. He also studies land covering climate change, the long-term evolution of climate and geochemical cycles, and energy technology. So Ken, thank you so much for joining our climate podcast.

Ken Caldeira: Thank you for inviting me.

Ariel Conn: Before we get into any of the details about your work, I was hoping you could just talk a little bit about how you got started working in the field of climate change.

Ken Caldeira: Yeah. Maybe before answering that question — you know, as you were introducing me, that range of topics seemed so ridiculously broad, that how could anybody pretend to be an expert on all these things? Before we get started, I should just say that my general strategy of my research group is to try to find really good postdocs who are more focused than I am, and then act as their facilitator, and engage with them collaboratively, and so we work on a broad range of topics. That’s usually because there’s a postdoc who’s expert in that particular topic. 

But anyway, your question. I don’t know if everybody wants to hear my whole biography, but after college I found myself working doing software development in the financial district for places like the New York Stock Exchange, and First Boston, and so on, and I found myself enjoying the day-to-day work, but feeling like, oh, what am I doing with my life, spending it trying to make rich people richer. 

And there was an article in the New York Times reporting on a talk at a AAAS conference by Steve Schneider. This came out in 1979, where Steve Schneider was saying that global warming might ultimately end up melting the Antarctic ice sheet, or at least parts of it. That was the first time that I felt that human civilization could really have dramatic impact at global scale, and so I started taking night courses at New York University, and that devolved into going into a PhD program. The goal of my going back to school was really twofold. One was I thought that this idea that human civilization is transforming our planet in fundamental ways and we need to understand that was really important; but then on a more personal level, feeling a need to do work that seemed more meaningful to me. I think I was pretty successful on both scores, because I’m doing interesting work, and I find it more meaningful than what I had been doing before.

Ariel Conn: As someone who started out working in advertising and then went back to school, and switched over to this field, I understand. So, one of the first questions I have for you — like you said, you’ve got this long list of areas that you cover, but you have postdocs coming in, and they’re the experts in a lot of these: What would you say are the aspects of climate change that you focus on the most?

Ken Caldeira: The focus of my work has changed over the decades, in that when I started, I had an information deficit model of social change, and thought that if we could just get the right information in front of policymakers, that then they would make good policy, and we would solve these problems. Over time it’s become clear that policymakers make decisions because of self-interest, and interests of the people who are supporting them, and that the lack of information is not the fundamental problem. So this sort of has taken away some of the motivation for me for studying pure climate science, and I’ve shifted more into energy systems analysis in recent years, thinking that analysis of what kinds of energy systems might allow us to live on the planet for the long term, without creating too much damage — that that would be a more useful thing for me to do.

Ariel Conn: This is actually one of the things that I find especially interesting. I get a little frustrated with all the concern about getting climate deniers to believe in climate change, and shifting politicians’ opinions, but it seems like what we really need to be focusing on is actually just starting to address how we’re going to solve the problem.

Ken Caldeira: Yeah, I agree. I used to argue with people who doubted the reality of climate science, but I think for the most part it’s like arguing with fundamentalist religious people. There’s a belief set that maybe has more to do with group identity than rational, empirically-based hypothesis testing. When you argue about climate science, just like when you argue about religion, you’re questioning people’s group identity, and they’re responding tribally rather than rationally. And so I don’t find it useful to enter into such discussions. If we were trying to design some satellite systems to give us better telecommunications or something, we wouldn’t be arguing with flat earthers about orbits, you know, that is just not a useful thing to do to solve the problem. And so I have basically stopped trying to change people’s minds who just won’t look at the facts.

One of the reasons why I really cut down on the amount of physical climate science I do is that I don’t think there’s any climate science discovery, certainly that I’m likely to make, but possibly that anybody’s likely to make, that’s really going to change the policy landscape. I think we’ve known for decades now that if we want to live on this planet for the long term, and have an industrial economy, and not dramatically alter the environment, that we need an energy system that has close to zero carbon emissions.

Ariel Conn: Great, so I want to keep talking about these ideas of energy systems. I just keep reading more and more articles about how the science seems to be implying that the situation is worse and worse than we previously thought, but I’m not seeing as much about how we can realistically address this. And one of the things that you have in a paper that I saw recently is you talk about some of the areas that are most difficult to decarbonize, which include aviation, long distance transport, shipping, the production of carbon intensive structural materials such as steel and cement, and providing a reliable electricity supply that can meet varying demands. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about that, some of the challenges that we’re facing there. What options might exist to address these?

Ken Caldeira: Yeah, so the general mantra of people who are trying to get carbon emissions out of our economy is that we should electrify as much as we can, so if we can get rid of fossil fuel burning cars and replace them with electric cars, and just basically electrify what we can, electrify our stoves and so on. But then the important thing is that at the other end of that wire, that there not be a coal plant or a natural gas plan, but there be wind, or solar, or nuclear, or maybe fossil fuel with carbon capture and storage. But basically the idea is that you generate electricity without carbon emission, and then run as much of the economy as you can on electricity. But there are parts of the economy that are very difficult to run on electricity, and I think the poster child for it is really long distance aviation.

It’s basically impossible to have a plane go from North America to Sydney with battery electric storage, and expect to have enough cargo capacity to take passengers or cargo. And long distance trucking’s also a challenge, but there are ways you can think about maybe electrifying highways. Long distance shipping. As you said, cement manufacturers, steel manufacture. A lot of these things have intrinsic carbon emissions because they’re part of the processes — like for example, in making cement, you typically start with limestone and burn off the CO2 out of the calcium carbonate. And so how to deal with all these emissions sources is challenging.

Every researcher has to think of, well, what is the niche that I’m going to do? What’s my competitive advantage, or how am I going to differ from what other people are doing? My feeling is just in this energy space that there’s a lot of advocacy going on, that people have their favorite technologies. So, some people think nuclear is wonderful, and they present these visions of the future powered primarily by nuclear power, and other people are aficionados of wind and solar, and they develop these visions of the future powered almost exclusively by wind and solar. We take a couple of steps away from that kind of perspective, in that in our technical work, we try as much as possible to avoid being prescriptive, or saying what’s good or bad, and just try to present the facts, and let people decide as they will. Of course, we’ll always have some biases, but we can try to remove those. 

The other thing we do is we assume that we have a deep level of ignorance, and inability to predict the future. So if you think of how people’s epistemic situation was in 1919, thinking about the 20th century, that they wouldn’t have predicted how automobiles spread across the planet, the rise of commercial aviation, that putting lead in gasoline would have damaged children’s brains, that there would even be a climate problem, that nuclear power would be invented, that solar photovoltaics would be invented, that wind would have a resurgence, and so on. All these things happened over the 20th century that nobody could have predicted in 1919, and so we think, well, all kinds of things are going to happen over the 21st century that we can’t predict in 2019, and so what kind of analysis could we do that would help people to make decisions now, given the fact that we have extremely low predictive skill over how the future might unfold?

Ariel Conn: And so do you have an answer to that question?

Ken Caldeira: The way we think about it is that there are a finite number of primary energy sources. There’s solar, there are nuclear reactions, there’s potential energy, there’s winds. There’s only a finite number of physical reservoirs or flows of energy. And then you think, okay, well, when we use energy, we really want various services. We want lighting, we want transportation, we want information, and so on. Usually to get those energy services, there needs to be some sort of intermediate energy carriers or energy stores, and those intermediate carriers are things like electricity, or it could be natural gas, or gasoline, and those sort of things. And so if we assume that there is primary energy, there’s energy converted to useful forms, that there’s only then a finite number of possible conversions between those primary energy forms and the sort of useful energy forms, and then there’s only a finite number of possible conversions between those sort of intermediate energy carriers, and energy services.

And so we try to think about the transformations in a functional way without specifying what the underlying technology would be that would do that transformation. Then we could ask, well, what would have to be true of that kind of transformation, how efficient would it have to be? How much would it have to cost in order for it to penetrate into some kind of future market? We’re trying to look at energy systems a little more abstractly, and come up with general principles rather than details.

Ariel Conn: A follow up question I have to everything that you’re saying is: I often run into people who have the attitude of yes, climate change is a problem, it’s something that we should be concerned about — but because it’s such a big problem, we will develop technology that addresses it and therefore, it’s not a problem that I need to worry about. I wonder what your response to that is. To the extent that we can’t predict the future, how do we prepare?

Ken Caldeira: I guess there’s a couple of questions there. One is this need to act now, and can’t we just leave this to somebody else? I’ve given congressional testimony on ocean acidification, for example, and have been asked by staffers, “Why do we need to address this this year? Can’t we put it off for the next Congress?” Because for a politician, if something costs money, if you can put it off to the future, that’s that much better for your not having to raise taxes, and all that kind of thing. And so what’s the reason not to delay? 

I’m working on a study with a postdoc now where we look at, right now, to reduce admissions, it’s going to cost us money. You can say, ask the question when does the reduction in climate damage exceed the amount we’re spending on reducing emissions? It’s sensitive to a number of assumptions, but more or less, the net benefit from transforming our energy system, at least in terms of cost versus climate damage, doesn’t really come until close to the end of this century, or possibly in the next century.

And so we really are talking about this generation making investments to help future generations — and that is not something our political system, or even maybe human psychology, is set up to do, and this is likely to be true through all time. So imagine it’s already really warm, and I want to cook dinner, and I have a lump of coal in my hand, and if I’m thinking about my narrow self-interest, it’s going to be in my narrow self-interest to burn that lump of coal and cook my dinner. And then people throughout the world for thousands of years to come can experience warmer climate as a result, but the net benefits of burning that accrue to me, and the costs are distributed in both space and time. And that logic is going to pertain as the planet gets warmer and warmer, and so if we’re operating from the point of view of narrow self-interest, we’re never going to solve this problem.

It really depends on asking a generation to sacrifice for future generations. Maybe the last time you could say that that was maybe done with maybe World War Two, right? Where we talk about the Greatest Generation and people making sacrifices for the future, but to mobilize societies to do that when there’s not a military threat is really challenging because again, our brains are set up with these fight or flight responses, and we respond to fear in a way that’s very visceral, and to get people to have that same kind of sacrifice for the future… Of course, everybody who has kids makes tremendous sacrifices for decades to support their kids, and help their kids have a better future, and so it’s something that humans do all the time, but our social and political structures are not set up to do that, and even our psychologies aren’t really set up to do that.

I often think, and I’m not particularly proud of this, that I might hear on the news something about a famine in Africa with thousands of people dying, and meanwhile my cat will be meowing for some food, and I’ll respond with more emotional force to my meowing cat than I will to the news report of thousands of people dying on the other side of the world. Just our mental psychology: our brains evolved as hunter-gatherers where what’s in our immediate sensory field is really important, and where our long-term planning is maybe thinking of getting through the next winter, or something like this. And now we’re confronted with these global problems of multi-century scales, and we can think about it cognitively — but emotionally, we can’t really feel it, and so asking the political system to respond to a cognitive challenge rather than a visceral fight or flight challenge is really hard.

Ariel Conn: I guess one of the big questions that I have then is: what are either the most pressing policies, or the most pressing actions that you think we can feasibly adopt?

Ken Caldeira: I do think that if we had charismatic and well-motivated political leadership that we could solve this problem. The amount of resources that would be expected to be needed to solve the climate problem is a couple of percent of GDP. Nobody really knows the exact number, but say 2%, 3%, 4% — something like this. Right now, we’re spending something, I don’t know the latest numbers, but something like 17% or 18% of GDP on healthcare, and most European countries spend something like 11% of GDP on healthcare. Singapore with better health outcomes than us, spends 4% of GDP on healthcare. And so if we could make our healthcare system be as efficient as say, European healthcare systems, that would free up more than enough resources to solve the climate problem. Solving the climate problem — the amount of resources would be some fraction of what we currently allocate to the military budget.

Maybe if you cut the military budget by a third, and apply those resources to solving the climate problem, that that would be enough. The size of the problem is not large compared to other things that we’re already doing in our economy. It’s thought, for example, that the clean air and clean water acts, which are of course under attack right now, cost around 1% of GDP, so we’re talking about something that’s a couple of times bigger than the clean air and clean water acts. And so it’s not a fundamental expense that this society can’t bear, but we need political leadership to make it happen, and while you can argue with the specifics of the Green New Deal, the idea that we’re going to develop new industries and new infrastructure around a near zero emission energy system, that I think, can have broad appeal both politically for people who are concerned about jobs, and growing the economy, and so on, and also for maybe the coastal elites dealing with the climate problem.

And so while you can quibble with specifics, I do think that a major infrastructure project around building a clean energy infrastructure could be broadly politically very popular. One of the things about wind and solar is those open Midwest and western states tend to have a lot of wind and solar resources, and if you’re going to build a high voltage DC grid from those renewable energy sources to the coasts, most of that construction is going to happen in those red states that are supporting the Republicans. And so I think a major infrastructure project around clean energy could end up putting a lot of the resources in Republican states, but still satisfy the coastal elites’ desire to avoid seeing tremendous global scale environmental destruction. I think it’s a potential political winner if it had the right backing. It was at a smaller scale, but John Kennedy did the Apollo program, and initially it had a lot of skepticism, but again, a lot of the success of that came from the contracts to build these rockets were distributed through all kinds of congressional districts, giving many Congresspeople incentive to vote for the program.

And so I think the nation would broadly benefit from a real clean energy infrastructure program. You have to think in the United States, the last time we had a real big infrastructure project was really the interstate highway system, that was mostly through the 1950s through the 1970s, and so here, we’re talking something 50 to 70 years ago was the last project. And when we hear about these sort of infrastructure weeks, which President Trump seems to call from time to time, most of it is about filling potholes, and expanding that 50 to 70 -year-old highway system, or more that sort of, “I tried to bring back the 20th century,” the idea that we would have an infrastructure project that would bring 21st century technologies to the average American I think would be broadly popular. But it’s going to take political leadership, and this is basically one of my hobby horses, that I don’t think it’s mostly about individual action, and telling people that you shouldn’t fly, or you shouldn’t buy that SUV.

I think the idea that we work under incentives, and in systems, and you send people price signals and make it in people’s self-interest to do the right thing. I don’t think just urging people to do the right thing is going to be successful, so I look to really systemic political solutions, and emphasis on personal responsibility.

Ariel Conn: So would it be fair to say that what you’d suggest for people doing most then is voting, or do you have other suggestions?

Ken Caldeira: I think the most important thing to do to try to protect Earth’s environment is to get politically involved. Politicians have to feel like they’re going to win elections, and get campaign donations by taking on the right policy stances, and that if they take bad policy stances, that they’re going to lose elections. I think right now, politicians are just getting more money and more political support having done bad climate policy, and it’s really only people who are from progressive districts that are relatively safe where the climate issue is really helping people to get elected. In California, just last week, there were labor unions who were working in the oil industry, who were warning the California Democratic Party that if they come out too strongly against the oil industry, that they’re going to be losing union support that has been part of the backbone of support for the Democratic Party in California. 

So that’s a really complicated electoral situation, where maybe if you’re too strong on climate policy, all of these congressional districts that are in the balance between electing Trump and electing a functioning adult in the next campaign, that it could lead to a reelection of Trump, and then that would be counterproductive to all kinds of environmental goals. And so, how to navigate all of this politically, I think, is hugely complex right now, and obviously the forces of moneyed interests, and short-term moneyed interests are ascendant right now. I think this question of how does political power shift in a society from those who are currently controlling resources to those who don’t control resources is an incredibly challenging question. But I think it’s in those power relations, and how do we change power relations? I guess the only thing I can think of is political activism, but maybe there’s some other approaches or methods, or at least that political activism could be done more wisely. But I would think if somebody wants to do good and useful research now, it would be to understand how does power shift in a society.

This is a little far afield, but if you think what single person has had the most influence on the development of civilization over the last half century, I think a good argument could be made that it’s Rupert Murdoch. Rupert Murdoch created Fox, and has basically given us Trump, and has largely driven Brexit, and has changed politics in Australia. And so, there’s one person who was largely responsible for a major shift in power, and I think more progressive forces need to learn and say, “Well, what is it that allowed this person be so politically effective, and could those strategies perhaps — or better, maybe more ethical strategies be developed that could maybe wrest that power back?” I don’t know. 

I guess I started out my career thinking that it was all about information, and unfortunately, as I progressed through my career over several decades, I think it’s about power, and money, and short sighted self interest, and it’s about, how do we help people feel compassionate, and broaden their group identity to include all of humanity in future generations, and maybe even the animals and plants? How do you develop empathy, and how do you get people to try to optimize for something broader than their narrow, short-term self-interests? To me, that’s the kind of research question that is the most pressing.

Ariel Conn: All right, well, I think this is a good point to end, if you want to end here, or if you have any other final thoughts that you think are important for people to know.

Ken Caldeira: I guess one thing that I’ve come to realize over the last maybe decade or so — and maybe it’s social media that taught me this — is that it’s very rare that any positive good comes out of saying something negative to somebody else, and that we really need to work on positive solutions, and presenting things that might work, or have some hope of working, or worth thinking about might work, and praising people when they do things that are good, or directions that we’d like to see more people working on. That’s so much more effective than negative feedback, and I think this whole climate area has been in this kind of doom and gloom of how catastrophic and how awful things will be if we don’t do anything. And I think rather than driving people to action, that drives people to stay at home and watch television.

I think that if people are thinking like, oh, here’s what we can do to help elect better representatives, and here’s what we could do to help build a better energy system, and here’s what we need to be researching to help solve this problem — I think more focus on what we need to be doing, and maybe a little less focus on what we shouldn’t be doing, would be helpful at this time.

Ariel Conn: Okay. I think that’s a nice positive note to end on. Thank you so much.

Ken Caldeira: All right. Thank you.

Ariel Conn: On the next episode of Not Cool, I’ll be joined by Alan Robock. Alan is a meteorologist and Professor of Environmental Science at Rutgers University. He’ll be talking to us about geoengineering.

Alan Robock: You have to take one step back and say, “What temperature do you want the planet to be?” What if Russia and Canada wanted it a bit warmer because they can exploit the Arctic — where at the same time, islands in the Pacific that are drowning want it even lower than it is now? Who’s going to decide what temperature we want the planet?

Ariel Conn: I hope you enjoyed this fifth episode of Not Cool. My interview with Alan will go live on Tuesday, September 17th. In the meantime, please join the climate discussion on Twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate and let us know what you think of the show so far.