A PODCAST FOR THOSE SEEKING TO BETTER UNDERSTAND CLIMATE CHANGE AND HOW TO HELP
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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:
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 myclimatejourney.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 @myclimatejourney.co. 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.