NEWS My climate journey — podcast

My cli­mate jour­ney: Episode #126




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Today’s guest is Daniel Kam­men, Pro­fes­sor of Energy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berkeley.

In addi­tion to his pro­fes­sor­ship in the energy depart­ment, Dr. Kam­men has par­al­lel appoint­ments in the Gold­man School of Pub­lic Pol­icy and the Depart­ment of Nuclear Engi­neer­ing. He was appointed the first Envi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Part­ner­ship for the Amer­i­cas (ECPA) Fel­low by Sec­re­tary of State Hilary R. Clin­ton in April 2010. He’s the Found­ing Direc­tor of the Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab­o­ra­tory, Co-​​Director of the Berke­ley Insti­tute of the Envi­ron­ment and Direc­tor of the Trans­porta­tion Sus­tain­abil­ity Research Cen­ter. He’s founded or is on the board of over 10 com­pa­nies and has served the state of Cal­i­for­nia and the U.S. fed­eral gov­ern­ment in expert and advi­sory capacities.

We have a long form dis­cus­sion in this episode about Dan’s back­ground, how his per­spec­tive on the prob­lem of cli­mate change has evolved over the years and how he thinks about the prob­lem today. Dan’s per­spec­tive is par­tic­u­larly unique given the diverse back­ground that he brings, which I find super inter­est­ing given the sys­tems nature of the problem.

Enjoy the show!

You can find me on twit­ter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at info@​myclimatejourney.​co, where I encour­age you to share your feed­back on episodes and sug­ges­tions for future top­ics or guests.

In today’s episode, we cover:

  • Daniel’s back­ground and early aca­d­e­mic career in energy research.

  • How Daniel’s research has been imple­mented out­side of his lab.

  • Ori­gins and his­tory of nuclear energy.

  • The ques­tion of nuclear energy as a solu­tion to cli­mate change.

  • The stigma around nuclear energy and rea­sons for it.

  • Ten­sion between pro­po­nents of nuclear and advo­cates of solar.

  • The pos­si­bil­ity and fea­si­bil­ity of going 100% renew­able energy.

  • The prospects of long-​​term energy storage.

  • The need for more and lower-​​cost storage.

  • The impor­tance of mov­ing cli­mate from the devel­op­ment of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy into a social movement.

  • Daniel’s thoughts on a price of carbon.

  • The impli­ca­tions of switch­ing from a “dirty” econ­omy to a “clean” one.

  • How clean energy is aligned with the objec­tives of social justice.

  • His rec­om­men­da­tions for the next U.S. Pres­i­dent in address­ing cli­mate change.

Links to top­ics dis­cussed in this episode:

Episode tran­script:

Jason Jacobs: Hey every­one Jason here. Before we get going I just wanted to take a moment to give a quick shout out to the new paid mem­ber­ship option that we recently rolled out. This option is meant for peo­ple that have been get­ting value from the pod­cast and want to enable us to keep pro­duc­ing it in a more sus­tained way. It’s also for peo­ple that want extra stuff such as bonus con­tent, a Slack room that’s vibrant and filled with peo­ple tack­ling cli­mate change from a wide range of back­grounds and per­spec­tives, as well as a host of pro­gram­ming and events that get orga­nized in the Slack room. We also have a vir­tual town hall once a month where you can get a pre­view of what’s to come and pro­vide feed­back and input on our direc­tion. We’ll be adding more mem­ber­ship ben­e­fits over time. If you wanna learn more, just go to the web­site mycli​mate​jour​ney​.co. And if you’re all ready a mem­ber, thank you so much for your sup­port. Enjoy the show.

Hello every­one, this is Jason Jacobs and wel­come to My Cli­mate Jour­ney. This show fol­lows my jour­ney to inter­view a wide range of guests to bet­ter under­stand and make sense of the for­mi­da­ble prob­lem of cli­mate change and try to fig­ure out how peo­ple like you and I can help.

Today’s guest is Daniel Kam­men. Dr. Kam­men is a dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor of energy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Berke­ley, and has par­al­lel appoint­ments in the energy and resources group, the Gold­man School of Pub­lic Pol­icy and the Depart­ment of Nuclear Engi­neer­ing. He was also appointed the first envi­ron­ment and cli­mate part­ner­ship for the Amer­i­cas Fel­low by sec­re­tary of state Hillary Clin­ton in April, 2010. He’s the found­ing direc­tor of the Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab­o­ra­tory, co-​​director of the Berke­ley Insti­tute of the Envi­ron­ment and Direc­tor of the Trans­porta­tion Sus­tain­abil­ity Research Cen­ter. He’s founded or is on the board of over 10 com­pa­nies and [00:02:00] has served the state of Cal­i­for­nia and the U.S. fed­eral gov­ern­ment in expert and advi­sory capacities.

Now his bio goes on and on from there, so I was both very excited and also a lit­tle intim­i­dated about this dis­cus­sion. But Dan is a super guy and we have a long form dis­cus­sion in this episode about Dan’s back­ground, how his per­spec­tive on the prob­lem of cli­mate change has evolved over the years, how he thinks about the prob­lem today, the best path or paths for­ward to help us address the prob­lem. And also some of the issues and bar­ri­ers that are hold­ing us back and what we might do about them. Dan’s per­spec­tive is par­tic­u­larly unique given the diverse back­ground that he brings, which I find super inter­est­ing given the sys­tems nature of the prob­lem. Daniel Kam­men, wel­come to the show.

Daniel Kam­men:  Oh, thanks for hav­ing me on.

Jason Jacobs:  Thanks for being here. I have to say we’ve never spo­ken before, but from the size of your bio and the con­tents of your bio, I am [00:03:00] intim­i­dated to have this discussion.

Daniel Kam­men:  I don’t think so. Aca­d­e­mic bios are designed to be long for rea­sons I don’t under­stand [laughs] so.

Jason Jacobs:  Aca­d­e­mic but you’ve got an inter­est­ing blend because there’s an aca­d­e­mic com­po­nent, there’s a pub­lished author com­po­nent, there’s a pri­vate sec­tor com­po­nent, there’s a gov­ern­ment com­po­nent. And I think those types of dis­cus­sions in those types of back­grounds are immensely inter­est­ing for me given the sys­tems nature of the prob­lems that we’re deal­ing with.

Daniel Kam­men:  No, I agree. I mean, that’s why hav­ing an aca­d­e­mic job is great because it allows you to keep some of the research and inves­tiga­tive threads going through good and bad fund­ing times. But it’s ulti­mately for me the imple­men­ta­tion of cli­mate solu­tions, that is how I kind of define my career. So yeah, bounc­ing back between those dif­fer­ent worlds is really what I like.

Jason Jacobs:  Yeah. No. And I, although I’ve been focused on cli­mate a heck of a lot less long as you, I kind of think sim­i­larly peo­ple say like, so you’re focused on the pod­cast or so you’re focused on the com­mu­nity or you’re focused on invest­ing or so [00:04:00] you’re focused on advis­ing early stage com­pa­nies or things like that. And it’s like, well actu­ally no, I’m focused on fig­ur­ing out how to have the max­i­mum impact on the prob­lem of cli­mate change. And this port­fo­lio of things is con­stantly in flux and evolv­ing as I’m fig­ur­ing out how to grow the impact that I can have in this grow­ing web of peo­ple that are involved in my cli­mate jour­ney com­mu­nity can have on the prob­lem, but I’m not web to any one kind of func­tion­ing or occu­pa­tion or any­thing like that. I’m just web to hav­ing the biggest impact that I can.

Daniel Kam­men:  Get­ting some­thing done. Yeah.

Jason Jacobs:  Yeah. So how would you, I mean, it’s, given the diver­sity of your expe­ri­ence, how would you describe pro­fes­sional you and what you do?

Daniel Kam­men:  So I started out as a physi­cist, I went through under­grad­u­ate and grad­u­ate school on physics, but I hadn’t decided to be a pro­fes­sor. Actu­ally my inter­ests were divided between physics research and becom­ing an astro­naut and being an astro­naut didn’t work out because I failed the vision test when I went off to the NASA test­ing grounds. And so that pushed me towards kind of the research side. And so I [00:05:00] began my aca­d­e­mic career first and physics, but then work­ing on energy prob­lems mainly on the tech­nol­ogy side. So bet­ter longer last­ing lower costs, solar cells, hard­ware to go into energy stor­age sys­tems. But the more you do that, the more that leads you to the astro­naut world, the, we don’t just research it we want to do, right? The joke is that there’s, in Juras­sic Park they said there’s two kinds of kids. Those who wanna grow up to be astronomers, those want to be astro­nauts. And I always like to think that it’s both.

And so the more you work on low car­bon energy tech­nolo­gies, par­tic­u­larly when I started sev­eral decades ago when essen­tially none of them were afford­able. We’re now in a world where all of them are afford­able and that pushes you even more towards under­stand­ing the sys­tems approach. And so in my aca­d­e­mic work here at Uni­ver­sity Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley I have teams work­ing on off-​​grid power for South­east Asia, for East Africa. And I have look­ing at sys­tems inte­gra­tion. And then I have a [00:06:00] whole bunch of post­docs and fel­lows that come through that are really inter­ested in the imple­men­ta­tion. Whether that’s spin­ning out of my lab­o­ra­tory to form a com­pany or to set up a non­profit to do energy and con­flict regions in Africa, or as peo­ple who really want to learn enough tech­ni­cal mate­r­ial so that when they go into com­pa­nies or state or fed­eral office they feel like they’re really on top of the sci­ence and engineering.

And so my lab is really a mix­ture of those things and the projects and oppor­tu­ni­ties we have will range from work­ing with very small off-​​grid com­mu­ni­ties, native Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties in the United States, or very small coastal com­mu­ni­ties in Kenya, Nicaragua, all the way up to try­ing to redesign the power sys­tem at the scale of the U.S. or China. And so my physics back­ground has mor­phed into some mix­ture of physics, elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing, pol­icy and as a result, I prob­a­bly have the most schiz­o­phre­nia fac­ulty posi­tion than any­one I know at Berkeley.

[00:07:00] I’m in the energy and resources group where I’m chair, I’m in the Gold­man School Pol­icy and I’m in the Depart­ment of Nuclear Engi­neer­ing. And I def­i­nitely know I have too many meet­ings as a result, but I wouldn’t want it any other way because I feel like that mix­ture of sci­ence of decar­boniza­tion, energy tech­nol­ogy options, and pol­icy really fits my work at the uni­ver­sity. And when I go into pub­lic ser­vice, I go back and forth between jobs at the state depart­ment, a world bank, Cal­i­for­nia gov­ern­ment. And so that mix really describes where I feel like you can really max­i­mize get­ting things done on. Not just a low car­bon econ­omy, but an increas­ingly one that’s focused on equity and equality.

Jason Jacobs:  So it’s my impres­sion and granted, I cau­tion myself about my impres­sions because in 2003 I took a month before grad school and I went back­pack­ing around Europe and I only had a month to cover way more ground than we could pos­si­bly fit in a month. And so what we would do is we would make a stop in each place. We would go to Barcelona for exam­ple, or Madrid or Lis­bon or places like that. And [00:08:00] as we did, we were just land in one part of the city, we wouldn’t have a plan, we would stay 24 or 48 hours and then we would move to the next. And that would be our impres­sion of the city. But I think about Boston where I live and it’s like, if you hap­pen to overnight in All­ston ver­sus Bea­con Hill ver­sus Kendall Square, you know, ver­sus Har­vard Square or Dorch­ester, [inaudi­ble 00:08:17] or any of these places, you get a very dif­fer­ent impres­sion of the city.

And so that’s kind of been my expe­ri­ence with cli­mate change, right? I’m so broad in that but I get a lit­tle sliver of all these dif­fer­ent things. That was my pre­am­ble. My impres­sion though, is that when it comes to energy there’s like renew­ables and every­thing that’s going on over there with the grid and clean energy tran­si­tion and things like that. And then nuclear of course, is an incred­i­bly pro­lific energy source, but it’s tends to be of like a dif­fer­ent group of peo­ple or dif­fer­ent dis­cus­sion kind of siloed off doing its own thing. Is that your impres­sion as well?

Daniel Kam­men:  I think it was, there’s no ques­tion that nuclear was so-​​called born secret. It came out of war efforts and the early civil­ian reac­tors, the first civil­ian reac­tor [00:09:00] was in ship­ping port Penn­syl­va­nia. These were really spin out of the mil­i­tary indus­trial com­plex, not value judg­ment, but the mil­i­tary indus­trial world. And for decades that was really how peo­ple saw nuclear poten­tially fit­ting in. It was the tech­nol­ogy that was dif­fer­ent because it is both energy dense, but it also comes with some very large risks. But what’s hap­pened in the last decade and a half is that a whole suite of tech­nolo­gies that the U.S. gov­ern­ment, the French gov­ern­ment, the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment, didn’t have the band­width to research, band­width both peo­ple and money have found pri­vate sec­tor back­ers. And whether those end up being things that are use­ful in the safe low cost com­mer­cial world of [trust ROL 00:09:47] energy, or whether there are things that end up being bet­ter for space mis­sions and other fea­tures is some­thing that we’re gonna see.

But most of the high pro­file bil­lion­aires that you hear about these days have made [00:10:00] some pitch into nuclear. So it has pri­va­tized very sim­i­lar to how the space launch world that was only gov­ern­ments for long time. Now has the Elon Musk, the Richard Bran­son, it’s now got a real pri­vate sec­tor fla­vor. And so nuclear is in this point of tran­si­tion but in terms of cli­mate change, what we don’t know yet is will nuclear under­take this tran­si­tion and become a player in the cli­mate change story or whether it will just be com­pet­i­tive our long-​​term future. And I say just, I don’t mean in a bad way but we know that the cli­mate change story will be decided between now and 2050. And whether nuclear becomes a dif­fer­ent player in that com­ing 30 years is some­thing that no one can say.

There are peo­ple who have plans to scale it up but right now the least cost clean energy tech­nolo­gies are not nuclear. They are solar, wind, increas­ing the energy stor­age, geot­her­mal [00:11:00] power and so whether nuclear becomes a part­ner in that low car­bon world is some­thing that we’re gonna see. I believe nuclear will be very impor­tant in the long-​​term after I’m retired and gone. But whether it’s a real player in the cli­mate change story where we have only a few decades left, that’s still a question.

Jason Jacobs:  Why does he get so much back­lash and how much of that back­lash has founded?

Daniel Kam­men:  That’s a hard ques­tion. It gets a lot of back­lash for the obvi­ous rea­sons that we’ve had some spec­tac­u­lar dis­as­ters in the nuclear world. From Cher­nobyl to Three Mile Island to Fukushima, the down­sides are really severe. Whether it’s jus­ti­fied or not is a much more com­pli­cated ques­tion because it very much depends on what’s your per­spec­tive. Many more peo­ple have died and many more ani­mals and ecosys­tems have died from coal than nuclear, but each nuclear acci­dent is so hor­rific that it changes the land­scape for the [00:12:00] tech­nol­ogy going for­ward. And so nuclear’s role is really this com­plex one. Because humans are really bad at under­stand­ing and think­ing about low prob­a­bil­ity, high con­se­quence events. And while coal is like the creep­ing can­cer that eats away at our health, ecosystem’s health, when nuclear has a bad day it’s a doozy. And so I think that’s really the posi­tion that nuclear astrad­dle and it’s why nuclear for decades was a gov­ern­ment only enterprise.

And obvi­ously there were pri­vate com­pa­nies but they were very tied to the gov­ern­ment set up. Now nuclear is try­ing some­thing new and it is a big exper­i­ment. We don’t know whether small mod­u­lar reac­tors or ura­nium tho­rium mixed reac­tors are going to be cost-​​effective and sig­nif­i­cantly safer and cheaper. So they get to play in a world right now where, when you look at the low car­bon future, what solar has done is so [00:13:00] dra­matic. And most of my career as a energy physi­cist has actu­ally been with solar and stor­age. And so when I started grad school solar was the most expen­sive of all the technologies.

Today in 2020 solar in many parts of the world is the cheap­est. I don’t mean with sub­si­dies, I mean just sim­ply you buy the hard­ware, you install it, you buy energy stor­age to go with it. And that is the least cost tech­nol­ogy for many places in many parts of the world. That tran­si­tion it’s just kind of remark­able, it means that solar has gone to scale in a way that some very smart peo­ple were sim­ply dead wrong on decades ago. And so every time I hear some­one say­ing solar is get­ting at the end of its learn­ing or improve­ment curve, I say, don’t count out the tech­nol­ogy that has made the global biggest change over the past decades.

Jason Jacobs:  Is it true that most peo­ple either work on solar or renew­ables or nuclear, [00:14:00] but that you kind of have to pick a side like you work on both, which seems like a rare breed.

Daniel Kam­men:  It gen­er­ally is you’re right. That peo­ple have gen­er­ally picked aside and I would even go fur­ther, that fre­quently I have seen peo­ple who are strongly in the solar camp devot­ing a great deal of effort to attack­ing the nuclear camp and peo­ple in nuclear, I think have gone over­board in attack­ing renew­ables. Whereas the enemy is cli­mate change and the enemy is fos­sil fuels because that econ­omy, how­ever you think about what it got us to today, sim­ply can’t be the energy sys­tem of the future. And so I think you’re right, peo­ple like me that work in both and physi­cists have kind of a nice train­ing to work in both solar and nuclear.

And I always joke that of course, solar is nuclear. It hap­pens to be 93 mil­lion miles away but solar of course is fusion and so I see a nat­ural match between the two. But I think you have to have that kind [00:15:00] of physics and pol­icy kind of love like I have to see them as poten­tially real partners.

Jason Jacobs:  To the peo­ple that advo­cate that 100% renew­ables can get us there and should get us there in any talk of any kind of port­fo­lio that doesn’t just raise their focus on that is a dis­trac­tion that slows our progress. How do you react to that?

Daniel Kam­men:  Well, so I mean, there’s no ques­tion that 100% renew­ables is pos­si­ble. I’ve done a lot of research, my lab works on sce­nar­ios to get the U.S., China, Mex­ico, Kenya, Bangladesh, Morocco to 100% renew­ables. And in many cases where the tech­nol­ogy mix is improv­ing enough, the cli­mate favors that you can do that. It’s also a case that we are not today ready to think about a solar and wind only world, but solar and wind plus stor­age, plus geot­her­mal, plus poten­tially [00:16:00] nuclear. I’m much more bull­ish today on keep­ing the cur­rent nuclear plants oper­at­ing than on pick­ing the win­ner of the emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies. But all the plants we have today and there’s about 420 nuclear plants in oper­a­tion around the world, 100 of them are in the United States, 60 in France, so those two coun­tries alone dom­i­nate who has nuclear.

All those plants have to be retired by the mid cen­tury 2050 reach­ing num­ber when we’ve got to be on the clean econ­omy. And so that means that for nuclear to have a role, it will need to not only replace 420 plants world­wide which the indus­try is not ready for, but expand that share. And that’s why I say that 100% clean energy world we could get there with the clas­sic renew­ables and stor­age alone. It just makes the job of space heat­ing and indus­try and over­ride the of things quite chal­leng­ing. And so for me, not inves­ti­gat­ing a port­fo­lio would be irresponsible.

Jason Jacobs:  How much [00:17:00] is not hav­ing an answer to long dura­tion stor­age hold­ing us back. And how real­is­tic is it that we’ll ever have an answer too long dura­tion i.e sea­sonal and beyond storage?

Daniel Kam­men:  You’re talk­ing about renew­able stor­age, just to make sure ’cause some peo­ple, when you say stor­age and long dura­tion they’re think­ing nuclear.

Jason Jacobs:  Yeah. Inter­mit­tency for renewables.

Daniel Kam­men:  Yeah. So just like I said, don’t sell solar short, don’t sell stor­age short and for many rea­sons it’s the same thing. Solar has this huge ben­e­fit that there’s mul­ti­ple mate­r­ial sci­ence, there’s mul­ti­ple tech­nolo­gies, there’s tra­di­tional crys­tal in, there’s thin film, there’s organic solar cells, there’s quan­tum dots, there’s [pho­to­voltaic 00:17:40]. Some of those are com­mer­cial today, some of those are com­ing. Same thing is true for stor­age. When I used to go and tes­tify to the U.S. [inaudi­ble 00:17:48] 15, 20 years ago around some­thing like air qual­ity and vehi­cle mile per gal­lon for exam­ple. You would get some­one say­ing, well, cars are never gonna get much more effi­cient. We can [00:18:00] maybe have some small increases, but we’re not gonna do much better.

And that’s really, peo­ple have said that about energy stor­age. They said, well, we have lead acid bat­ter­ies, car bat­ter­ies, truck bat­ter­ies. They’re not gonna meet the chal­lenge and every­thing else is too expen­sive. Now we have lithium ion bat­ter­ies for our devices and they are very cost-​​effective. They have some chal­lenges and mate­ri­als and life­times, but stor­age has now diver­si­fied so that there’s lithium ion, nickel metal hydride, liq­uid flow bat­ter­ies. We have mechan­i­cal bat­ter­ies like fly­wheels, we have phys­i­cal bat­tery sys­tems. There are com­pa­nies that now essen­tially move rock uphill or up cranes, and they have stor­age that’s mechan­i­cal. And so stor­age is 10 years behind where solar was in the sense it is improv­ing and it’s diver­sity is its biggest strength.

Jason Jacobs:  And how much of [00:19:00] what we need to achieve 100% renew­ables exist today and if there’s any­thing miss­ing, what’s missing?

Daniel Kam­men:  Well, I would say we have every­thing we need today in the sense that we have suf­fi­cient oppor­tu­ni­ties for expanded solar and wind. And stor­age while it’s not as cheap as we want it to be it has met and exceeded all of the national mile­stones. And so what I would say we need is more and lower cost stor­age. And more and lower costs go together, for every tech­nol­ogy we see these learn­ing or expe­ri­ence curves where the more you build and deploy the cheaper it gets. And so stor­age is there, but we would pay a pre­mium if we built out every­thing overnight. And that’s actu­ally why I am so pleased to see Vice Pres­i­dent Biden’s plan, where he ini­tially was say­ing 2050 was his tar­get year for 100% clean energy. But in the last month he’s up that to say 2035. And that was a very shrewd [00:20:00] choice because it reflects where we are with the cost declines of renew­ables, the cost declines of storage.

And so we’re there in terms of hav­ing the tools, but we want to make clean energy avail­able for all. So a ubiq­ui­tous jus­tice argu­ment needs to go in there. And so for that, we need con­tin­u­ing inno­va­tion. We need the R&D pipeline to be rein­vig­o­rated. We need more dif­fer­ent prod­ucts, tech­nolo­gies, and we need more sys­tems think­ing because in many cases we’re wast­ing so much energy through inef­fi­ciency, through trans­mis­sion sys­tems that lose energy, that we are not liv­ing up to the best of our tech­nolo­gies but we need to make those bet­ter as well. So I would say this is a co-​​evolution that will us there. But if we were charged with you must replace all fos­sil fuel overnight, we could do it, it would just be pro­hib­i­tively expensive.

Jason Jacobs:  And when you take a step back from tech­nol­ogy inno­va­tion, and you just look at the over­all [00:21:00] tran­si­tion. Are there key levers that if this one or hand­ful of things hap­pens, they’ll have an out­size impact more than any other thing, or is it more like there’s tens, hun­dreds, thou­sands of things that need to hap­pen, and they all help push the Boul­der down the moun­tain and we need it all and shouldn’t have favorites.

Daniel Kam­men:  Well, I think we shouldn’t have favorites in the sense that all of these tech­nolo­gies, these low car­bon ones are a ben­e­fit, but there are still some levers there that are crit­i­cally impor­tant. Now that solar and wind have got­ten cheaper than fos­sil fuels for much of the coun­try and much of the world, we’re actu­ally see­ing some­thing that was obvi­ous to econ­o­mist, but what was not obvi­ous to kind of sus­tain­abil­ity thinkers. And that is just by hav­ing a lower cost Gizmo. Here’s a lit­tle off-​​grid solar light, solar panel on the front, LED light on the back and then a lithium ion bat­tery. So here’s an exam­ple of some­thing that needs to get [00:22:00] cheaper, but there are some really crit­i­cal indi­vid­ual things that we should be doing.

The biggest one is that the, the world sub­si­dizes fos­sil fuels to a huge degree. Depend­ing whose math it’s between a half a tril­lion and $5 tril­lion a year, the gov­ern­ments of the world put into sub­si­diz­ing coal oil and gas. And to put that num­ber in per­spec­tive the global renew­able energy indus­try has invested about two and a half tril­lion over the past decade. And yet we now cur­rently sub­si­dize fos­sil fuels by about that same amount each year. So get­ting rid of fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies would be the num­ber one thing on the agenda and you can, of course either do it by get­ting rid of those sub­si­dies. But many of those are baked into the give­aways that gov­ern­ments give to many com­pa­nies, or you could think about increas­ing the car­bon price. And so remov­ing fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies and, or get­ting rid of, or, and adding a price on [00:23:00] car­bon, those two are at the top of my list because they would reset the play­ing field.

The other thing which I think is cen­tral to get­ting us to this clean econ­omy is that we’ve treated cli­mate change as kind of an aca­d­e­mic exer­cise. There are lots and lots of aca­d­e­mic groups, think tanks that write about what we need to do, and those are all true. But cli­mate change up until recently up until the efforts of Greta Thun­berg and the youth, and some of the real alarmists has not been a move­ment and the next stage needs to be a move­ment. And I think we’re see­ing that now, and mak­ing cli­mate change and social and racial jus­tice kind of co-​​equal part­ners, to me that’s an exam­ple of mov­ing from a crit­i­cal sci­en­tific issue to a movement.

Jason Jacobs:  And you men­tioned get­ting rid of fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies and a price on car­bon is two key things that we could do. I under­stand that, that those would both be impact­ful things to do but, I mean, how real­is­tic is it [00:24:00] that we can do either of those things any­time soon, regard­less of who wins in the upcom­ing election?

Daniel Kam­men:  This is really become an issue where the U.S. is the real out­lier. Europe has had a price of car­bon for quite some time. Well, over a decade, it has some prob­lems, the price has fluc­tu­ated. China is launch­ing a price of car­bon that will of course be the biggest car­bon mar­ket in the world. And China is launch­ing theirs at just about the exact same price that we have in Cal­i­for­nia, which is about 20 U.S. dol­lars a ton. That’s on the low end of the range we think is needed to tip whole economies but Europe, Cal­i­for­nia, China, being aligned on this means that the fed­eral argu­ment in the United States, because cer­tainly Repub­li­cans in the U.S. are against a car­bon price and some Democ­rats are too.

And so where I say, I would like to see a car­bon price, yes. Do I think we needed to get there? No, because I think that remov­ing these fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies would be essen­tially the equiv­a­lent and because clean [00:25:00] energy has become so inex­pen­sive, we really need to unlock inno­va­tion for pri­vate com­pa­nies to stay level, util­ity, plan­ners and reg­u­la­tors that often don’t see clean energy as cheap as it is because they’re so invest in the old way of doing things.

And so open­ing up mar­kets to clean energy, reward­ing cities that pro­tect human health, which often means the health of under­priv­i­leged peo­ple and minori­ties. Those are all things that we can put into place with­out hav­ing to spend all our time obsess­ing about a car­bon price or the sub­si­dies. And those things as well would move clean energy into the cen­tral part of our econ­omy. And every day you hear a story the Coal Museum in Ken­tucky just put solar pan­els on the roof. We have wild cat, nat­ural gas frack­ers that are using some of their land also do solar. Even in the indus­tries that are the most ide­o­log­i­cally opposed to clean energy, we’re see­ing that transition.

And then you look at places like [00:26:00] Cal­i­for­nia, we’ve been run­ning 60 to 75% on clean energy every day for the last month. Costa Rica just has run for almost 150 days straight with clean energy. Same thing is hap­pen­ing in Eng­land. And so we are see­ing that just on the energy infra­struc­ture gen­er­a­tion side clean energy can get there. And that’s even before we get to the jobs store and there are many, many more jobs avail­able per dol­lar invested in renew­ables than in fos­sil fuels. And so if you com­bine lower costs with more jobs the fact that clean energy has become such an ide­o­log­i­cal foot­ball in the United States and really buck­ing the global tran­si­tion, which is see­ing clean energy as the nat­ural way to go.

Jason Jacobs:  And I mean, we’ve talked about inno­va­tion and we’ve talked about cer­tain spe­cific pol­icy ini­tia­tives like the fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies or a price on car­bon. But if you look big­ger pic­ture at things like cap­i­tal­ism, and [00:27:00] even just like the way that we’re used to liv­ing our lives, I mean, can those just kinda go on as they do except swap­ping out things that are clean or do we need dra­matic changes or some­where in between? Like, I guess, how do the things we’ve been talk­ing about on the tech­nol­ogy and pol­icy side fit into the big­ger pic­ture and what are the impli­ca­tions for life as we know it, if any?

Daniel Kam­men:  The pref­ace that I would say that inno­va­tion, new com­pa­nies, new busi­ness mod­els is all about the future. Whereas pol­i­tics is gen­er­ally about the past, because pol­i­tics is gen­er­ally about who is rich and in pow­ered today. Whereas every startup and even big com­pa­nies that wanna build new mar­kets, they’re all about the future. And so inno­va­tion and indus­try I think are aligned around the clean energy econ­omy we wanna see. And even Shell they were dra­mat­i­cally cut­ting their fos­sil fuel busi­ness and ramp­ing up the renew­able busi­ness. But the broader ques­tion you ask, is it enough to sim­ply close our fos­sil plants and swap in renew­ables? That’s a harder ques­tion because we have done such dam­age to the [00:28:00] planet. And COVID for exam­ple, there’s no ques­tion that the chance of COVID type out­breaks is where it is today because we have done such dam­age to nature.

We have put humans in much more direct con­tact with many of the pathogens and ill­nesses. We have weak­ened ecosys­tems that keep things like this in check. And so switch­ing from a dirty energy econ­omy to a clean energy com­pany has to be job one. If we don’t do that, noth­ing else works. But on the other hand, we also need to give back land to nature. We need to think very dif­fer­ently about the social con­tract we have with each other, so that one out of seven on the planet isn’t liv­ing in energy poverty. And to fix those things I think we do need the larger per­spec­tive you’re talk­ing about. And so for exam­ple, clean energy isn’t just ben­e­fi­cial because there’s no car­bon emis­sions. It’s also ben­e­fi­cial because by man­ag­ing the sup­ply, the life cycle of mate­ri­als in our solar pan­els and wind tur­bines and [00:29:00] bat­ter­ies, we can actu­ally go to an econ­omy which the Chi­nese call cir­cu­lar econ­omy, we can be recy­cling much, much more of material.

So we don’t throw away the lithium in our cell phone, we recy­cle it into new devices. We don’t pour the efflu­ent, the slag from our coal plants into rivers, we invest in renew­able so that we can repair ecosys­tems. And we’re now start­ing to see the first really hope­ful signs. In Cal­i­for­nia and British Colum­bia we’re see­ing seri­ous efforts to decom­mis­sion dams. Yes, they’re con­sid­ered low car­bon, but of course, dams in many parts of the world have sub­merged veg­e­ta­tion so those methane emis­sions. But by think­ing about the oppor­tu­ni­ties from solar and wind and geot­her­mal and poten­tially nuclear to now get rid of some of the world’s big dams and to return rivers to free flow­ing sta­tus, that’s a invalu­able ben­e­fit of the clean energy tran­si­tion. And if we [00:30:00] don’t do those things, we’re not reap­ing all the benefits.

And so I think that an exam­ple that comes up a lot which really just encap­su­lates how far you can go is the tran­si­tion from a gas pow­ered car to an elec­tric vehi­cle isn’t just about the improve­ment in miles per gal­lon, which is all ready impres­sive. Gas pow­ered cower aver­age in the United States, 25, 28 miles per gal­lon, elec­tric vehi­cle, even in the states pow­ered by coal that’s a vehi­cle get­ting 60, 70 miles per gal­lon and elec­tric vehi­cle in a clean energy state like Cal­i­for­nia or New York or Ver­mont that’s a vehi­cle get­ting 120, 130 miles per gal­lon. So the mile per gal­lon equiv­a­lent is a big deal. That’s just the start. Go to an elec­tric vehi­cle you have no tailpipe emis­sions, which means you improve air qual­ity in our cities, you cut down the bills that we get from expo­sure to par­tic­u­lates and asthma. You have co-​​benefits that fre­quently ben­e­fit the poor more than any­where else.

And as we [00:31:00] go to a cleaner and cleaner elec­tric­ity mix we don’t just cite those emis­sions at some big power plants, we get rid of them from the sys­tem alto­gether except for the man­u­fac­tur­ing, which we can also clean up. So that’s this kind of win-​​win or kind of vir­tu­ous cycle that you start to see as you empha­size clean energy, more and more.

Jason Jacobs:  You men­tioned the impor­tance of social and racial jus­tice both as some­thing that needs to be addressed, but also kind of a close col­lab­o­ra­tor to the decar­boniza­tion and mutual depen­den­cies, if you will. So what makes say that and how will that play out? How should that play out?

Daniel Kam­men:  So we really didn’t rec­og­nize for decades just how dam­ag­ing to our most vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions our fos­sil fuel econ­omy is. We have our oil refiner­ies that are in low-​​income areas, and whether all are fin­ery came first, or the low income com­mu­nity came [00:32:00] first, it’s kind of, doesn’t really mat­ter they are co-​​located. Our nuclear indus­try has much of the waste and the min­ing issues and low income com­mu­ni­ties, whereas the power plants tend to go into the nicer sub­urbs. And so every­thing from the fos­sil fuel to how we’ve treated infra­struc­ture has been some­thing where the ben­e­fits have gone to the afflu­ent and the harms have gone to the poor. And this is some­thing that we are see­ing very clearly in COVID. We are see­ing that the qual­ity of care goes first to the more afflu­ent, not to lower income indi­vid­u­als. We have more cases of COVID on the Navajo reser­va­tion than in 13 states combined.

So we have a sad his­tory of dis­pro­por­tion­ate ben­e­fits to the afflu­ent and the penalty is to the poor. And what’s come out of the Greta Thun­berg youth cli­mate move­ment to the black lives mat­ter move­ment has been a real recog­ni­tion that we need to rethink our infra­struc­ture. And thank­fully clean energy is aligned with [00:33:00] that mis­sion and just a remark­able way. The abil­ity to have low cost energy on the rooftop of homes to reduce the pol­lu­tion bur­den in low-​​income com­mu­ni­ties, to not only link up how we do power gen­er­a­tion but to do cleaner, cleaner indus­trial activ­i­ties through renew­ables and poten­tially nuclear. These are all oppor­tu­ni­ties that the clean life cycle of renew­ables allows us to engage on the social jus­tice side. And I think we’re gonna look back at this period of time and we’re gonna see that deal­ing with inequal­ity and greed was far more dif­fi­cult than deal­ing with dirty energy, clean energy sim­ply beats it out.

I hate to say it in this day and age, but renew­ables Trump fos­sil fuels. What’s harder for us to wrap our minds around is how do we really make this a story about social equal­ity. Because we’re more tied to our petty dif­fer­ences and petty grieves that I think we’re gonna see [00:34:00] our­selves as tied to fos­sil fuels.

Jason Jacobs:  One of the things that I strug­gle with is that on any given day, I bounce back and forth between see­ing so many things that give me cause for opti­mism and hope and so many things that give me cause for despair. And so it’s just hard to know how we’re doing. If you just take a point in time snap­shot look at the math, we’re not doing well at all, but if you look at all the dif­fer­ent things that are going on that could feed each other and have vir­tual cycles kick in, there’s a lot to be encour­aged about. But then same thing in terms of the apa­thy, the foot drag­ging the sab­o­tag­ing, the trade groups work­ing mali­ciously behind the scenes, et cetera. So at this moment in time, so this is what? August 6th of 2020, where are we on that pen­du­lum as you look at the world?

Daniel Kam­men:  Well, I mean, I think that we’re at a low not due to tech­nol­ogy and inno­va­tion and social progress, we’re at a low due to par­ti­san­ship. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s for all of the prob­lems we gen­er­ated huge amounts of pol­lu­tion, we iso­lated minori­ties in com­mu­ni­ties through white [00:35:00] flight, through a whole vari­ety of things. There was a, an invest­ment and a reliance on inno­va­tion from fund­ing basic research and devel­op­ment to test­ing out new ideas. And in this very par­ti­san moment we’re in, the fact that in the United States there’s even this argu­ment that we should trust sci­ence or not. And the right wing of the Repub­li­can party has high­lighted a real dis­trust for sci­ence despite the fact that the qual­ity of their own lives is very clearly depen­dent on that sci­en­tific advance, from med­i­cine and health­care to qual­ity of homes and jobs. And so I really look at this as a moment that we’ll look back on and just shake our heads and how self destruc­tive we were at a time when we weren’t actu­ally cham­pi­oning science.

The real issue is not you invest in sci­ence or not, it’s how do you make sci­ence and inno­va­tion some­thing which is a part­ner­ship, not just for [00:36:00] the all ready afflu­ent. That were solv­ing prob­lems that are prob­lems for the poor and that any­one who really feels they want to grow up to be a sci­en­tist inno­va­tor that’s an avail­able path. And we now are see­ing clear, clear data that if you’re Latino, if you’re African-​​American, your chance to go into these fields over the past decades has been severely lim­ited by sys­temic racism. So I see this as a really sad moment and I’m very hope­ful that we will emerge from. Most of the rest of the world is emerg­ing from it, most of the met­rics around invest­ing in sci­ence and inno­va­tion in Europe and South Korea and else­where are very positive.

United States right now is at a point where dis­cussing schools and health­care and invest­ing in research devel­op­ment have become par­ti­san divides. And it’s just so painful because the peo­ple argu­ing against these things, their lives have been made so much bet­ter by being pro sci­ence, pro inno­va­tion. So this is the big­ger prob­lem we need to [00:37:00] fix.

Jason Jacobs:  So what do we do? I mean, granted the U.S. is only one piece. I mean, we had a big­ger role his­tor­i­cally than we’ll have going for­wards from a, an emis­sion stand­point but we still have played an out­size role and we have out­sized resources and might rel­a­tive to much rest of the world and a respon­si­bil­ity. I would argue to have a lead­er­ship role in clean­ing up the mess that we played a sig­nif­i­cant role in mak­ing. Cer­tainly there’s a good chunk of the coun­try that doesn’t seem to agree with that but, I mean, what path for­ward do you see that would give you the most hope?

Daniel Kam­men:  Iron­i­cally I think that we’ve allowed our­selves to get here because we have mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple for so long. Low income minor­ity groups across the coun­try have got­ten the short end of the stick over and over again in terms of access to the ben­e­fits of a tech­no­log­i­cal pol­icy savvy soci­ety. And we’re see­ing other places pass us by. And so I actu­ally think that rec­og­niz­ing that many of our chal­lenges are gonna require bet­ter [00:38:00] sci­en­tific lit­er­acy, bet­ter human lit­er­acy, in the sense of under­stand­ing that we are only as good as soci­ety as the most vul­ner­a­ble and that walling off com­mu­ni­ties through tech­nol­ogy and through phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers that’s a recipe for decay.

Whereas invest­ing in com­mu­ni­ties, pub­lic schools, so that equity and access are part of our equa­tion. I actu­ally think that helps us to solve cli­mate and I think that solv­ing cli­mate helps us to rec­og­nize that soci­eties that become as unequal as ours is, and actu­ally Brazil in the United States are two of the most inequitable soci­eties we have in terms of eco­nomic oppor­tu­nity for low income res­i­dents and high-​​income. Iron­i­cally, we both right now have lead­ers that are going in the absolute wrong direc­tion and so replac­ing both the leader in the United States and in Brazil are crit­i­cal jobs to get­ting there soci­eties to rec­og­nize [00:39:00] that we can inno­vate and we can do it in a way that’s for everyone.

Right now we see that inno­va­tion, the wor­ries of glob­al­iza­tion, the wor­ries of invest­ment are things that only ben­e­fit the rich. That is the fea­ture I think as we can undo that catch up to the rest of the world, we can actu­ally make inno­va­tion some­thing that every­one, no mat­ter what your polit­i­cal party in per­sua­sion is in favor of. And inno­va­tion I don’t just mean hard­ware, I also mean social inno­va­tions. How do we inte­grate com­mu­ni­ties? How do we make school access more equal? How do we make air qual­ity ben­e­fi­cial and not just for the rich, but for every­one, those are all cli­mate and soci­ety inter­face points.

Jason Jacobs:  So Jan­u­ary 2021 there’s a new admin­is­tra­tion in place. Who­ever it is, it could be an incum­bent, it could be new, but there’s a, admin­is­tra­tion in place for the next four years. What advice do you have for that sit­ting pres­i­dent for first 100 days and for the next four years in [00:40:00] terms of what they should be focus­ing on in this regard?

Daniel Kam­men:  We are still gonna be work­ing the COVID recov­ery at that point as well. And part of that recov­ery is to rec­og­nize that sub­si­diz­ing pol­lu­tion and inequal­ity are not good tools for gov­er­nance. And the coun­tries that have made their COVID response also a green stim­u­lus like South Korea and New Zealand and Den­mark, they’re all ready reap­ing the ben­e­fits. Their economies are open. Kids are to school there, they wear masks but they don’t worry about this incred­i­ble bur­den that we’re see­ing here. And it’s because we turned away from sci­ence and innovation.

And so who­ever is the pres­i­dent in Jan­u­ary I cer­tainly think that the key advice is that by not invest­ing in clean energy and inequity, we are throw­ing away social ben­e­fits. And we’re throw­ing away oppor­tu­ni­ties to make our­selves not only [00:41:00] a faster grow­ing econ­omy but also more resilient against crises like COVID. Because we all know whether it’s a virus, we’re gonna have other huge crises going for­ward. Aus­tralia just live through a hor­rific wild­fire sea­son where up to 3 bil­lion ani­mals were killed. And whether it’s that, or whether it’s COVID or the wild­fire sea­son here, or the chang­ing storms that are cur­rently lash­ing to bit these coasts, these are all exam­ples of the kinds of things that a pro-​​equity and green energy econ­omy can actu­ally help us to solve. So who­ever is the pres­i­dent I really hope that’s the cen­tral fea­ture. And any­one who wants an eco­nomic recov­ery needs to rec­og­nize that’s where you put your resources.

Jason Jacobs:  So I have one final ques­tion. I’ll ask it kind of in parts which is, are you an opti­mist? But I wanna ask you that same ques­tion over say one year, five years, 10 years, 100 years.

Daniel Kam­men:  I think actu­ally the answer is the same for each of those, [00:42:00] because we have demon­strated through this past cen­tury that when we wanna inno­vate around a topic. When we invest not just in a one-​​off bunch of money for some­thing one year, but when we invest reg­u­larly, basic research, more equi­table school­ing, health care, these are things we have exam­ples around the planet that if you wanna do it, we can do it. The chal­lenge is the United States has put itself in a hugely par­ti­san box. And so I’m equally opti­mistic on all those timescales that you men­tioned from the next month for the next 100 years, given that I think it’s inevitable that we get back into invest­ing and believ­ing in inno­va­tion and equity. And I think if we do those two things we make the story much more work­able. And we also restore the U.S. to the posi­tion it should be in of being not a global police per­son but being a global part­ner. Because the economies around the planet know they need to grow their energy mix.

[00:43:00] When Pres­i­dent Obama and pre­mier chief from China were part­ner­ing on cli­mate, the U.S. was get­ting a huge share of those over­seas energy con­tracts. We now need to get back to that posi­tion. The U.S. China trade war has taken us away on the short term from a really inter­est­ing evolv­ing part­ner­ship around energy access and clean energy around the planet. So I actu­ally think that those timescales are gonna work together when we decide we’re tired of tear­ing each other down in United States and we’re more inter­ested in actu­ally grow­ing our abil­ity to be not a bully, but a leader worldwide.

Jason Jacobs:  And I feel like we could eas­ily extend this con­ver­sa­tion in another hour, but given that I know you’ve got a call and we’re com­ing up on time. Is there any­thing that I didn’t ask you that I should have, or any part­ing words for listeners?

Daniel Kam­men:  We’re all gonna make our own choices in Novem­ber, I hope just every­one no mat­ter what your indi­vid­ual party affil­i­a­tions are, that you rec­og­nize that we need to invest in U.S. infra­struc­ture. We need to be a bet­ter part­ner around the world that will gen­er­ate more U.S. jobs and I think that if one votes once con­scious around that, we will actu­ally see what’s hap­pened the last few years as an unfor­tu­nate digres­sion to do par­ti­san­ship, but it’s much eas­ier to build up these oppor­tu­ni­ties. So that’s what I’m look­ing for in the com­ing months.

Jason Jacobs:  Great. Well, Dan, this was awe­some. I wish we had another hour. Maybe we’ll have you back at some point, but thank you so much for com­ing on the show and best of luck.

Daniel Kam­men:  It’s my plea­sure. Thanks for doing this. Take care.

Jason Jacobs:  Hey every­one, Jason here. Thanks again for join­ing me on my cli­mate jour­ney. If you’d like to learn more about the jour­ney, you can visit us Note that is .co not .com, some­day we’ll get the .com but right now .co. You can also find me on Twit­ter @jjacobs22 where I would encour­age you to share your feed­back on the episode or sug­ges­tions for future guests you’d like to hear. And before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show please share an episode with a friend or con­sider leav­ing a review on iTunes. The lawyers may be say that, thank you.



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