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What does Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal get wrong about lowering carbon emissions? What is ecomodernism? And how can nuclear power play a roll in our high energy future? On this episode, the Breakthrough Institute’s Alex Trembath discusses how we can achieve a high-growth, high-energy future with a smaller carbon footprint.
Alex Trembath is the Deputy Director of the Breakthrough Institute, where he helps coordinate Breakthrough’s research on technological solutions to environmental and human development challenges. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. You can download the episode by clicking the link above, and don’t forget to subscribe to my podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. Tell your friends, leave a review.
It seems like not long ago that climate change and some of the energy issues surrounding it weren’t really massive issues on the public agenda. I’m sure you’ve seen how polls that ask people about climate change typically indicate it’s not a big issue for many voters. But it certainly seems to be a rising issue — Democrats seem to be very focused on this issue right now in a way they haven’t been in some time. So, first of all, why is this portfolio of energy and climate change issues back to the front and center?
I’d start by agreeing that climate change is much more discussed heading into the election and just in general than I would have expected 12, 18, 24 months ago. So, you’re super right about that. I think, the Democrats in particular — some Republicans have tried to sort of pick up the coat tails of it — seem to have found a way to make climate change compelling and relevant from a whole bunch of angles that aren’t really related to the environment. You know, they’re talking about climate change as it relates to jobs programs, healthcare, and college. So, the question for us and the question for policy is that we’re using all of these other policy rounds and political objects to make climate interesting and relevant; that’s what the Green New Deal really is an attempt to do. So, the question is how connected is that effort to actual emissions reductions in the real world?
So, are you concerned that by not focusing on the climate itself, you’ll end up really distracted from the issue? Because once you start adding more issues, there’ll be people who love those issues and people who hate them, and you end up muddying up the whole thing.
That is the risk, and I think it’s a balance. It’s pretty clear from the cap-and-trade effort about a decade ago and failed carbon pricing efforts in states like Washington and disappointing efforts in the Northeast and in California, that voters don’t turn out to vote for carbon prices or to vote for pure emissions reductions strategies on their own. So, I understand the impulse to attach some kind of economic, social, and healthcare justice to the message of climate change; I understand the impulse to connect these things in a Green New Deal way. But it does muddy the water, especially when the focus becomes much more on those non-environmental, non-emissions things like free healthcare, a jobs guarantee, or free college. Even more worrying is that the environmental components of the effort are not very connected to what we think would actually power deep decarbonization.
So, I was looking at Joe Biden’s climate agenda that he released today, which had a lot of good stuff in it. I saw a lot of excitement on the left, on ‘energy Twitter,’ for things like a ban on fossil fuel production on federal lands, or how Biden is going to sign the no fossil money pledge. These are perfectly okay ideas — I understand why people care about them — but they’re not reducing emissions. They’re not reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. So, the question is, if we’re going to use these other organizing and policy principles and actions to motivate emissions reductions, how much are we actually doing that? And how much is it just a stalking horse for the original purpose.
Is part of that because you had the failure of cap-and-trade in the early years of the Obama ministration, and then this issue, at least on a national scale, went into hibernation mode?
Yeah. From a marquee political perspective, it very much went into hibernation, and you didn’t hear much about climate change or emissions reductions after the failure of the Waxman-Markey Bill. Obviously, you had the Clean Power Plan and a couple of things like that, but not a lot of Americans are paying attention to it and it wasn’t a major political priority for any national politicians. I would say that climate policy and energy policy didn’t go into hibernation in any practical sense. You had the fracking revolution, you had continued investments in solar wind, you had really exciting progress made on policy and technology and things like advanced nuclear and carbon capture and storage. And by the way, those things have continued through the Trump administration.
Another question related to the Green New Deal is, how much does climate policy need to be a bread and butter marquee political priority? And how much progress can we make technology by technology, sector by sector?
Right. Since all this other stuff is still going on in a practical sense, do you need politicians to be debating it actively for that progress still to happen?
I think that’s an open question. I think there’s a very admirable effort, particularly by democrats, to raise the political salience of climate change, but there is an open question on whether that mostly just raises polarization on the issue, when what we really need is more bipartisan cooperation towards making these clean energy technologies affordable and making solutions for agricultural emissions reductions cheap and scalable. Those are the kind of things that maybe you can do with a very big deal bill like a Green New Deal that you campaign on and that you push really hard as the first bill in a Democratic administration post-2020. Or, you can do it the way that it happened in the Obama administration and is happening even in the Trump administration where, despite the administration’s proposals to slash spending on energy RD&D, Congress has increased it. Where despite a lot of anti-science rhetoric, you actually have increases in investment in science, new tax credits for carbon capture and storage, increased innovation support for advanced nuclear power, and increased funding for renewables. It’s all happening, and not a lot of people even know that.
How much do people at the Breakthrough Institute talk to Republicans? Whether it’s with the actual staff members or policy-based people on the right, and how often do you get the response, “I think there’s a problem, I just don’t like to talk about it publicly?”
We get a lot of that. I think that where everyone comes together is on the issue of energy innovation, energy modernization, and American energy investment. A lot of Republicans are actually vocally concerned about climate change. We’ve had a very good relationship with folks like Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, who has been a driving force behind increased investment in clean energy RD&D. Another sort of potentially positive halo of something like the Green New Deal is you’ve got Republicans like Matt Gaetz who are putting out their own conservative, Republican alternatives to the progressive politics-infused Green New Deal. And we at Breakthrough, and a bunch of our allies try and talk to left, right, and center.
I’m not a fan of the Green New Deal. But here’s where I am: I’m concerned about climate change. I think we’re doing something that we haven’t done before to the climate. I don’t have my own model. I’m not sure whose model is the best model about the impact over 50 years, 100 years, but I am super concerned and I’m cautious that were doing something that could have a very bad outcome. But, I also like economic growth. I want a planet that’s richer 50 years to 100 years from now than it is today. I want both of those things. I want lots of economic growth. Also, I want to make sure I don’t ruin the planet in the process. Am I an outlier? It seems like a lot of people either think that capitalism is destroying the planet, and so we have to get rid of capitalism, or that this thing is a massive hoax by a bunch of communists who want to get rid of capitalism. So, I feel like it’s me and three other people who are not in either of those camps.
Well, I’m one of those three people. I mean, you’re absolutely right that we’re going to solve the climate problem, or at least address it more aggressively over time, through economic growth and through technological innovation, not through degrowth or primitivism or downscaling or pure localism or all of the other things. I think the rhetoric actually hides more agreement on this issue. Obviously, you have a very vocal new and unexpected new contingent of socialists, or at least Democratic Socialists, who are making an explicit attack on global capitalism as the source of our climate problems among many other problems. I think that the source of our climate problem is carbon emissions and I think that is a better way to think about it. But again, it is about mobilizing a new way of thinking about it that actually does take economic growth seriously. That does take jobs seriously. A lot of the climate left doesn’t necessarily do that, but a lot of Democrats do. The way they talk about it ends up muddying the waters, making a lot more enemies by attacking capitalism, or connecting a climate vision to a pretty unrealistic way of thinking about the economy.
So, when you hear someone who says, “I’m very concerned about what we are doing to the climate through carbon emissions,” what do you hear from them that makes you think ugh, that is not helping. What makes you roll your eyes? And what do you hear that seems like a much more realistic path forward?
There are a few things. The first is that we are not going to solve climate change by focusing on a sort of lifestyle environmentalism, by all going vegan, by not flying on planes. First of all, it’s unrealistic, but secondly, it’s not at all a motivating or pragmatic path to emissions reductions.
“You need to live a worse life.”
Exactly. First of all, no one is going to hear that, and the people who do hear that are going to be turned off. And there’s a different kind of attitude towards climate that I find troubling in a different way, which is a focus on 100% wind/water/solar energy efficiency, all of which are very good technologies that have pretty massive potential. I’m a huge fan of solar power in particular, both existing and next generation solar panels, but I think that we have firmly established over the last five to ten years that we’re going to need much more than existing or even advanced renewable energy to decarbonize both the electricity sector and everything outside of it, like the transportation industry and agriculture. We’re going to need things like advanced nuclear power.
But all those renewables, the wind and water and sun, they are the energy part of the Green New Deal, at least the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez GND. But then you say the other stuff like nuclear, which she doesn’t say. She seems to be talking exclusively about renewables.
Folks like Bernie Sanders remain very explicitly anti-nuclear, Ocasio-Cortez actually says that she would “leave the door open for it,” which I take as a sign of progress.
What is the anti-nuclear bias in the agreement — explain that to me. It seems like a holdover from the 70s.
There’s a lot that goes into that, but it’s mostly a holdover from Cold War-era politics in the 1960s, 1970s, and anti-growth and anti-technology environmentalism. Obviously, it is different today. It is informed by things like Chernobyl and Fukushima, but it is not actually consonant with what we know about existing nuclear or advanced nuclear. These are clean, scalable, and safe technologies and we should be investing more in them. And again, I think you see you do see a bit of a rift even in the Democratic Socialist wing of the Democratic Party, where Bernie Sanders is very anti-nuclear, he just put out a video a couple of weeks ago about closing nuclear plants in the Northeast, and when asked Rep Ocasio-Cortez said she would hold the door open for it. You know, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden all include innovation for nuclear in in their portfolios, and of course nuclear is something that most Republicans remain very enthusiastic about it.
I think a lot of people on the right, if they hear someone who says I’m extremely concerned about the environment, but they also say “no nuclear power” then they think something else is going on. They think there is more to the story, because there are obviously other things that you’re concerned about, and maybe you are a primitivist, a degrowther, a localist. There’s all this other political ideology and it’s really not just about your belief in the science.
If you hear that the climate apocalypse is coming in 10, 20 years, but we can’t do nuclear, we can’t do any of this carbon capture stuff, then you’re not actually taking the problem seriously.
Maybe that’s also part of it, that if people aren’t that excited about the climate change issue you make it part of this broader package that does excite people. But of course, the risk is that there will be people who aren’t nearly as excited. Then it looks like this whole thing is just an excuse, it’s like “don’t let a crisis go to waste.” And the way that people on the left aren’t going to let it go to waste is by tagging on every wish list item they’ve ever had.
Yes, and again I understand that impulse, but I would also note that the sort of fusion of green politics and labor politics is not going great. Especially the building and trade unions are pretty vocally skeptical of the Green New Deal. I think a lot of that is a legacy of the pretty anti-labor, anti-union work of the environmental left over the last decade. I think the trades and the unions really soured on the organized environmental left over things like anti-keystone, anti-oil and gas pipelines, anti-transmission in many cases, that are the actual source of a bunch of good union jobs.
For all I love technologies like wind and solar, those are mostly sort of lower pay, sort of less skilled non-unionized jobs. So, I think again it’s a compelling sort of politics and organizational strategy, but it’s not fully fleshed out with how you get unions and labor on board, even if your rhetoric is around just transitions and green jobs and things like that.
Have you have you seen this Chernobyl miniseries?
I have not, although I am now convinced that I should watch it. I’m very wary of a lot of the sort of fictionalization of nuclear power accidents after seeing a bunch of really bad ones over the years, but apparently this one’s good. Have you seen it?
I just started watching, I’ve watched three episodes and to me it makes it makes a stronger case against Soviet Communism, and having a government with monopoly on the media, and the truth, and propaganda. Though I’ll tell you, it’s a horror movie in a way and the monster is radiation, you just can’t see it. It’s often filmed like horror movie and it is an awfully scary series. It’s like there’s this thing, it’s in the water, now it’s in the blowing leaves, and it’s something you can’t see.
It’s one of the things that is a pitfall with scaling nuclear that will always be with it. You’re talking about splitting atoms, radiation, things that are literally subatomic that don’t make sort of practical, tactile sense to the human mind and that’s just a challenge that the nuclear industry will have forever.
As you say the bigger problems with nuclear power are when you don’t build it right, when you don’t regulate it right, when you don’t have the right safeguards in place, which the United States does. We just do.
So, what needs to happen to have more nuclear?
You could do one thing which is to nationalize the energy grid and build a bunch of the plants that we already have operating today. I don’t think it’s going to happen. So, we at Breakthrough and a bunch of our allies have gotten much more enthusiastic about next-generation, mostly smaller nuclear reactors. These are either smaller light-water reactors, typically 50 to 250 megawatts, smaller than the usual six hundred to 1000 megawatts in the US. Even more exciting are the non-light-water reactors that are sometimes as small as 10 or even one megawatt. Things like micro reactors that are barely bigger than sort of a university research reactor. These are the kinds of things that are more passively safe, they use different fuels and different fuel cycles, and could actually be built in a more liberalized energy economy that we have in the US today compared to the much more centralized, top-down type of energy markets that were around when we deployed the original fleet of nuclear reactors and the in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. So, you’re talking about smaller reactors, more nimble entrepreneurial companies, different types of customers and industries.
Do you need government subsidies, do you need deregulation, or do you need regulation that just picks a regulatory model and goes with it? What does government need to do or not do?
The main thing is, whether you call it deregulation or not, we need licensing reform because the original licensing protocols for nuclear were built or based on large light-water reactors. There have been a couple bills in Congress over the last couple years, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act and the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, and some more that actually do push the ball forward on licensing reform. So, that you are actually able to license a small reactor or a non-light-water reactor. So, you need that.
We are also big fans of things like funding for demonstration of advanced reactors, maybe at national labs. But the whole idea of these smaller next-generation technologies is that you don’t need a monopoly utility, you don’t need a nationalized energy grid to deploy these reactors, and the companies working on them are not expecting the government to deploy the reactors or to pick the reactors that are worth deploying. These companies are actually reaching out to potential future customers already. Most of the energy technology we have was either incentivized through early tax credits or demonstrated at national labs. There will probably be a fair bit of that, but the compelling thing about advanced nuclear is that for the most part this is going to be much more of a private sector driven deployment.
Is there a pent-up energy in the private sector to do this, and they’re just waiting for government to do something, whether it is licensing reform or something else, and then all of a sudden, you are going to see that the capital and the entrepreneurial effort will flow into the sector? Is that where we are at? Because it seems like it’s kind of moribund right now. Again, it hasn’t been a massive issue for the past decade. I remember it sounded like there were companies that we’re going to get in and start building plants, and I think many retreated from that. So, is there a private sector movement ready to spring into action that just needs a nudge from government?
You know, we’ll see. I’m actually very optimistic. I think that we’re going to see advanced reactors deployed, at least at a demonstration level and probably a commercial level, within the decade. I know that doesn’t sound like it’s tomorrow, but for a big new kind of energy technology, it is pretty soon, especially when you’re talking about one to ten megawatt size reactors. I don’t think this industry is waiting. They are very actively involved with institutions like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and obviously with Congress in getting licensing reform pushed further down field and obviously they are building their reactors.
They are largely at a paper or computer modeling level right now, but companies like NuScale in Oregon and Oklo in the Bay Area are actually pretty far down in terms of the reactor design level. There are a lot of these companies, there are over 50 nuclear startups in North America who are working actively on Memoranda of Understanding or with customer agreements that are set to go into effect at some point down the line.
So, we want to build these to generate clean, reliable energy, that’s the goal. How many do we need to build? It sounds like a lot.
It very much depends on the size. We need to build thousands. We need to build thousands of these around the world. Obviously, we’re talking about the first few in this decade, hopefully, but one of the compelling things about advanced nuclear is that the companies are designing reactors that should be deployable around the world, including in lower and middle-income countries that would never build a large light-water reactor, and in places that no US or European company would ever build a large light-water reactor. That’s the ballgame, actually. We talked a lot about lowering emissions in the United States and we should do that, but 80% of the emissions growth this century is coming from poor and middle-income countries. Those are the places that we really need to be building things like nuclear as well as renewables and carbon capture instead of unmitigated coal and natural gas.
Is there a reason to do any of this stuff with nuclear if you don’t think climate change is a real thing? Is there any reason to do this?
Sure. Nuclear is the densest energy source that we have, and that’s across the fuel cycle, including the uranium mining and refining and things like that. So, it actually has the lightest footprint on the land, and even if you don’t care about a carbon in the air, you might care about where all of the actual mining and refining and waste goes, it is low pollution in every other way. Nuclear plants produce hot water and they capture the rest of their pollution, and obviously people have a lot of concerns about spent fuel and nuclear waste, but there has never been a nuclear waste accident in the United States. It’s just stored in cement casks on parking lots near nuclear power plants.
Obviously, there are questions about how many jobs they produce as you say this is clean, always-on, reliable power. One of the things that that we like to talk about at Breakthrough when it comes to jobs is that yes, you’ll have you’ll have jobs at a nuclear plant or installing solar panels or manufacturing batteries, but the most important thing is that we provide abundant cheaper electricity. That’s going to be the actual driver of productivity growth, when you have cheap reliable energy. So, there are all sorts of reasons unrelated to carbon to support nuclear.
Do we need a carbon tax to push this along, is that part of your plan, would that make things easier?
I would say it would make things easier. I think that, obviously, if you make carbon, if you make fossil fuels more expensive to produce and consume, that adds an edge to the clean energy, non-carbon emitting technologies. We’ve seen time and again how difficult it is to pass carbon taxes or cap-and-trade, so I don’t know if you would start with that. Since Breakthrough’s founding, we’ve been much more focused on making clean energy technologies cheaper and more scalable than making fossil fuels more expensive. Once you start to see an en masse transition away from coal oil and gas, things like a carbon tax are much more palatable and can kick in at that point.
In 2015 you created an ecomodernist manifesto. What is ecomodernism, and what is it the answer to?
So, ecomodernism is the view that we can solve and/or manage environmental problems through economic growth and technological innovation.
Versus degrowth, versus walling off part of nature from us and not using it. We think that these are either fantastical or ineffective forms of environmental sustainability or environmental protection. Ecomodernism holds that we can decouple human prosperity and human well-being from environmental devastation, and that’s through things like living in cities, more intensive and industrial agriculture — you grow more food on less land — and denser, cleaner energy that takes up less land. You’re not using trees and dung to burn for your cooking or your heating fuel, you are using electricity and modern energy to power your lives and your economic growth. We think that is the only game in town, honestly, for global environmental protection, whether you’re talking about climate change or biodiversity loss or all the pollution problems related to agriculture.
So, we started as a clean energy think tank in the mid-aughts and got really involved in things like nuclear energy, and started to take a look at things like biotech, genetic modification of agricultural products, and things like cities and urban density. These are things that are appealing to focus on different sides of the political spectrum for different reasons. So, it made for really interesting new coalitions and alliances, and in 2015 a bunch of folks who didn’t call themselves ecomodernist at the time got together and said we need to make an affirmative statement, we need to define what we are and what our shared values are, and that became the ecomodernist manifesto.
So, traditional environmentalists — what do they think of ecomodernists?
It very much depends. The way we put it in the manifesto was that ecomodernism shares one big goal of traditional environmentalism, which is that we have an ethical responsibility to protect non-human nature. We differ very substantially in another way, which is that they think we need to harmonize with nature in order to protect it. We don’t think we need to harmonize with nature in order to protect it.
What does that mean to harmonize a nature?
Things like, to put it in practical terms, 100% renewable energy. Where you are only relying on the wind, the water, and the sun. Things like regenerative agriculture, where you are getting rid of sort of as much industrial and chemical technology in agriculture as possible to make it “more natural.” Those things might be more natural depending on how you define it, but they actually use more nature, they use more land, and they’re more devastating in a bunch of ways.
So, the way that we think about protecting the environment is by using much less of it, by using more technology. Depending on what the application is, different environmentalists might have more or fewer problems with it. We’ve been able to make really interesting new alliances with folks who are interested in protected areas — you can actually protect more areas if you need to use fewer areas. A lot of climate hawks are very concerned about the climate emergency and have really warmed to nuclear power, organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Environmental Defense Fund, or at the very least they have stood firmly behind keeping existing nuclear plants open
So, there’s a lot of somewhat productive, not always productive, friction left with sort of conventional environmentalists, but at this point it’s more interesting than anything else.
And what’s your take on fracking?
Long time pro-fracker, Jim. Obviously, I don’t live in a community where fracking has been visited upon me. So, I would at least state that up front, but Breakthrough and I released a report in 2013 documenting the environmental impacts of coal versus fracking and natural gas, it’s honestly orders of magnitude better than coal mining at every stage of production and use. From the mining and the shipping and refining to the actual combustion. Fracking, like any other large industrial process has its risks, it has pollution, but it is the main thing that has reduced coal consumption in the United States over the past 15 years.
It’s also, an interesting example because it is something that has had both a government and private-sector influence. Could you talk about that as a model?
The fracking revolution was put together with a bunch of smaller technologies, like micro-seismic imaging, directional drilling, and the actual fracking loads — the sand and the water and the chemicals. All of these were co-developed by the oil and natural gas industry, particularly wildcat frackers in places like West Texas, and some precursors to the Department of Energy and some other public-private organizations like the Gas Research Institute. Throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s there was funding from the Department of Energy, there was federal tax credit for unconventional gas exploration, and of course there was entrepreneurial activity from the gas industry itself. This was really a public-private partnership, unlike things like nuclear, maybe even solar, or things like semiconductors —outside of energy — it was much more of a partnership. You had a lot of private sector activity, knowledge-sharing, cost-sharing across industry, between industry and government, all of that enabled fracking to scale over time. It is a very complicated story, and it takes place over decades and you can read more about it on our website, but it is my favorite model for how energy technology innovation in particular can work. I think it is being replicated very affirmatively in the advanced nuclear and the carbon capture sector as well. It is one more reason that environmentalist should maybe think a little differently about fracking and everything it represents.
My previous guest was Jonathan Gruber, who wrote a book called Jump-Starting America. He wants the government to spend more on scientific research. Where should government spend more on research as it pertains to climate and clean energy?
I listened to the Jonathan Gruber episode. It was a great one. I think the goal for government investment in R&D and science, whatever you want to call it, is to solve problems. We’re not just throwing money at blue sky research in a laboratory somewhere. The thing that made the fracking Revolution successful is that the R&D was actually going to private sector drillers and frackers who were doing work and trying to solve technical problems to get at a commercial resource in the real world. So, I think when we’re talking about spending more on science Innovation, which I’m firmly behind, we need to be talking about advanced nuclear reactors. We need to be talking about: how can we make capturing carbon from the air cheaper? How can we make long-duration electricity storage more economical? How can we talk about drop-in fuels, or things like hydrogen that can actually de-carbonize transportation?
So, instead of just trying to solve a bunch of science problems in a lab, we have to look at: what are the big sources of emissions across the energy sector today? Not just in electricity. And what are the types of problems that both the people in the national labs and the folks in the private sector are saying that we should be working on?
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