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Focusing on the climate actions that can make a real difference
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Focusing on the climate actions that can make a real difference
A new book from Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis tries to clarify the choices.
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What types of climate policy actually make the most difference? In this episode, Energy Innovation CEO Hal Harvey and journalist Justin Gillis discuss the most effective climate actions as identified in their book, The Big Fix: 7 Practical Steps to Save Our Planet.

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Text transcript:

David Roberts

One of the more daunting aspects of climate policy is the sheer profusion of choices. Federal, state, local; this sector or that sector; targeting consumption vs. targeting production; changing consumer choices vs. changing infrastructure. It is easy to get overwhelmed, and worse, it is easy for political energy to be diffused into a thousand strands that don't add up to more than the sum of their parts.

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A new book seeks to address that problem by boiling down the climate policy options to the handful that really matter — the ones where minimum effort can generate maximum results. It's called The Big Fix: 7 Practical Steps to Save Our Planet, written by two people who have spent years in the climate trenches: Hal Harvey, founder of the Energy Foundation and numerous other climate-focused nonprofits, currently CEO of research firm Energy Innovation, and Justin Gillis, a longtime journalist who spent the last several years reporting on climate change for The New York Times, now a fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

I've known Harvey and Gillis for a long time, so I was eager to talk to them as soon as I read a draft galley of the book. We recorded this conversation several months ago — before all the excitement with Democrats’ recent climate wins — but everything in it still very much applies, especially as policymaking focus moves to states and cities.

We talked about learning curves, performance standards, and good old-fashioned industrial policy, among many other things. It's a real feast for all you policy wonks.

Without further ado, welcome, Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis, to Volts. Thanks for coming on.

Justin Gillis

Thank you.

Hal Harvey

We're delighted to be here.

David Roberts

Before we get to the book, guys, you all have been in this game for a long time now, let's say grizzled veterans. So let's start with just a little bio. Why don't you start? Tell me your winding route through this world and how you sort of ended in a place where this book came out.

Hal Harvey

I started the Energy Foundation in 1990 with a recognition that if you solve energy crises, you solve a bunch of other problems as well national security, conventional pollutants, balance of trade payments and so forth, and the regressiveness of our fossil based energy system.

David Roberts

Did you have climate on your radar in 1990 when you founded it?

Hal Harvey

Very much so, but we were very non public about it, so we called it the Energy Foundation on purpose. So we grew that from a modest budget. It was the only climate philanthropy in the country, the only one that had existed at that point. And we grew up from an initial budget of about $10 million a year, which we raised from a handful of foundations. So that by ten years later, we started the Energy Foundation in China with a significant new slug of money. And that's become one of the biggest foundations in China and has very deep roots now in the energy and climate decision making systems in China.

So I think that's maybe the most important thing I've done ten years after that started the European Climate Foundation and the Indian Sustainable Energy Foundation, and along the way, a couple of other organizations. So I guess I'm a serial non-profit foundation founder or something like that. But the essence in all of them, first of all, was that you need to affect policy to have a significant difference on climate change. Before I got into all this philanthropy business, I was with my brother design and build solar homes

David Roberts

Oh, interesting, back in the 80s?

Hal Harvey

Yeah.

David Roberts

Wow.

Hal Harvey

And we discovered that it wasn't that hard to do good passive solar homes. There were some supply problems, like today, but the more I studied energy and I studied energy in my engineering program at Stanford as well the more I studied it, the more I realized that the technical challenges were fixable. But the policy ones had been neglected, horribly neglected, and often still are. So the impetus for this latest incarnation, which is climate imperative, is to identify the choices that make the biggest difference and to find ways to tip some of those choices so that we end up with a cleaner, safer environment.

So Justin and I wrote the book "The Big Fix" precisely for that reason, to better aim the energies that people have. I think the biggest bandwidth shortage in the world is political capacity to make big decisions. And so if you have a lot of activated people who are working on climate change, but they're working on things that don't matter, you've really squandered all the energy, all the intelligence, all the goodwill all the time. We can't afford to do that. And that's what was the motivation of this book "The Big Fix."

David Roberts

And Justin, you have been in journalism...good grief, you must have seen several death and rebirth and transformation and whatever else of journalism over the course of your career.

Justin Gillis

Oh, it's crazy. I was in newspapers for almost 40 years, and I've said to several people, like the career I had in journalism wouldn't be possible today. Right?

David Roberts

You did the old-school thing of just sort of coming up through a local newspaper and working on local desks, that kind of thing. The mythological career that journalists used to be able to have.

Justin Gillis

Yes. I went to journalism school at the University of Georgia, which is the state I grew up in, and my career was a year at The Associated Press right out of school and then writing night radio copy in Montgomery, Alabama. Went from there to the Miami Herald and spent a dozen years there. Went from there to the Washington Post and spent a dozen years, and then, as you know, to the New York Times and spent pretty much ten years there. A little more so that's it. Pretty textbook career, and much of it not spent on science writing and certainly not on climate writing.

I mean, I came up through the classic way, public affairs reporting, right, covering city and county governments, covering public utility commissions, believe it or not, as they considered rate hikes and all of that. And was less than 20 years ago that I got into the climate thing. It it was not, and I guess I would say is not my sort of first passion. I was covering biology for The Washington Post and biotechnology, covering the Human Genome Project, and this is 20 years ago I sort of kept looking around saying, really out of frustration, saying, "I wonder when people are going to get serious about this climate thing."

And I was saying to myself, "I wonder when we're going to see serious journalism about the climate thing." Back then the journalism, as you know, was maddening, right? It was equal time for climate deniers and all that sort of nonsense. And so there's an old hazard in the newspaper business that if you complain about the coverage of something enough, they'll basically make you do it yourself. And so that is effectively what happened, is I just got sort of pulled into it out of the maybe vainglorious idea that I might be able to contribute a little bit.

And ten years on the beat for The Times has sort of led me to meet Hal, and that's what ultimately led to this book. We're collaborating because we bring completely different perspectives but with a completely sympatico, I think, agenda about what needs to be done and where people need to put their energy.

David Roberts

And you're retired from daily journalism now at the Harvard Center, or are you still at it?

Justin Gillis

I do not call myself retired.

David Roberts

I wouldn't want to use that word transitioned.

Justin Gillis

I did take what's called a buyout, sort of retirement buyout from The Times in order to do the book, and I am at the Harvard Center for the Environment as we're recording this podcast. I probably will not be there any longer after the time the podcast runs, working on a sort of a short term project there. So yeah, I do still so I made the transition and I do write opinion pieces for The Times occasionally. I haven't had that much time to do it lately, but probably do more of that as we come into publication period for this book.

David Roberts

The impetus for this book is, like Hal said, number one, to sort of identify the places in the system where some pressure can actually produce something good and sort of to direct people's energy toward those spots. So I have some questions about the spots, and then I have some questions about the sort of citizen energy aspect of it. But let's sort of start you go through the seven places where people can focus their energy. I want to walk through a couple of them. But you start in chapter one with a sort of key concept that ends up undergirding a lot of the rest of the work of the book, which is this notion of a learning curve.

So how maybe you can start describe sort of the capsule summary of what a learning curve is and why it's so important to understand this when we contemplate how to deal with climate change.

Hal Harvey

So the learning curve is, in fact, the theme that holds the whole book together, or at least one of the core themes. And in simplest terms, it is the idea that if you make more of something, it should get cheaper. The screamingly obvious example of this is chips and computers, but it turns out it works for cars. And Henry Ford was very clear on this when he built the assembly lines, he dropped the price of new cars dramatically. And if you look across society at almost anything that we manufacture, produce has gotten cheaper and cheaper as volumes go up.

Not everything, but almost everything has gotten that way. So one looks at the question of decarbonizing the grid and you realize you need a vast amount of carbon-free electricity, and there's a handful of options to provide it. There's solar, there's offshore wind. And onshore wind, there's solar-thermal and solar mirrors. But there's also geothermal, biomass, tidal waves, hydro, and so forth. In order to build a zero carbon grid you have to optimize amongst all those choices, and they have to be competitive against fossil choices. A very small fraction of people will pay significantly more money for clean energy.

So you have to make clean energy as cheap or in fact, even cheaper than conventional energy because you have to overcome status quo resistance and system inertia. So this has been the dramatic story of clean energy technologies, with solar dropping by more than 90% in price in the last decade, wind by almost half, LED lights by more than 95%. So the demand side of energy matters too. There are now learning curves underway. They're happening with offshore wind, which has enormous resources. Incredible amounts of electricity can be produced, zero carbon electricity, and they can put it offshore enough that you don't really see it.

So the public policy question or the activist question is, how can we speed this up? What can you do to provoke these incredible drops in prices instead of just passively waiting around? We could have saved decades on producing these options if we had put our mind to it. We didn't do that as a society. We did it in the oil patch for sure. We didn't do it in the wind and solar and other renewable energy patches. It's finally happened. So I sometimes say it is now cheaper to save the Earth than to ruin it. So we've reached a point now, a crossover point, where we can save money by decarbonizing the grid.

It's kind of an amazing moment. That doesn't mean it'll still happen by itself. And that's also crucial here. There are these inertial forces and lobbying forces and sometimes bad science or bad politics or evil politics or greed sometimes is pushing the old technologies instead of the new clean ones. But we have to understand these learning curves. We have to unpack them, we have to drive them, and then we have to take advantage of them.

David Roberts

I want to push on that just a little bit. So it's one thing to sort of look at the history of a technology and note irregularity, right? It doubles every time the production of it doubles, price drops by whatever, 20%. So you can say that's the learning curve for that technology. It's one thing to note empirically that it has happened in the past. But I guess if I'm a policymaker and you're telling me not only has this happened in the past, but we can make it happen, we can do it on purpose, then I guess I get worried that how do I know it's something more than just a regularity, this is a correlation, not causation kind of thing?

Like, how do I know that this isn't something that's just happened? How do I know that I can reliably produce it on purpose? Do you know what I'm saying? I guess the sort of status of this learning curve in terms of an actual instrument with which to do things, I just wonder how solid do you think it is? Like how regular are these things? How reliable are they?

Justin Gillis

So, David, we point out in the book that in untangling this question, and it really is an important question, it's a sort of cause and effect question, or really maybe it's a feedback loop. Things are getting cheaper, so people buy more of them. So why? In which way does causality run? It's really difficult to untangle that. World War II is a critical example because, in that case, we happen to know from circumstances that Franklin Roosevelt wasn't...we quote somebody saying in the book, "Franklin Roosevelt wasn't buying planes and tanks and so forth because they were getting cheaper right under the exigency of a threat to Western civilization."

And, lo and behold, as they placed huge orders and instituted this massive industrial scale up to produce the material of war, the planes got cheaper, the tanks got cheaper, the guns got cheaper, everything fell in cost and in exactly the way that this sort of learning curve theory, which goes back to the 1920s, would have predicted. In fact, the guy who developed the theory Ted Wright was involved in all that, in helping to scale up airplane production and so forth.

How will I suggest...And you're asking a really good question, and I think the politicians do want to be careful, right? You could waste a lot of public money on technologies that don't scale, right? And there are some I mean, we've dumped huge amounts of money into nuclear power without much evidence that it's on a learning curve that's going to make it cheaper. And if you want to talk about nuclear power, we can talk about maybe why that is...

David Roberts

Yeah, let's pause there, because if I'm a policymaker, I want an explanation for why this policy didn't get on a learning curve and this one did. You know what I mean? That would help me feel like we understand these things to some degree. So why didn't nuclear get on a learning curve? Do we know?

Hal Harvey

There's a number of reasons. One thing to look at when you're trying to decipher which technologies land on learning curves and which ones don't, are they made in a factory or are they made in a field? So factory learning is almost obviously, I think, more capable of driving price reductions than field learning. Field engineering is expensive. If you look at the cost of a house, it's not on a learning curve.

David Roberts

Right.

Hal Harvey

And if you look at the specialized aircraft that the military requires, they're on a negative learning curve. Nuclear power is huge physically, so it's one-offs, it's done in the field. You're using extremely dangerous radioactive substances, which means a lot of the work has to be done by robots, especially when you try to do maintenance. Everything's got to be done by a robot. People blame the regulators, but there was a very detailed study on what caused the price increase, and it wasn't regulation. But keep in mind, you have to have a special regulation if you're creating a kind of fatal poison that'll last tens of thousands of years.

And that's not even considering wasn't the scariest headline of all or pairs of headlines in the last six weeks or since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One was that they had taken a Chernobyl reactor. Why would you possibly want to revive that thing in any form, even as a target? The other was that they put their nuclear weapons on alert. So these were unfathomable amounts of power that require fantastic amounts of engineering. And I admire the engineers, but it's just not going to get cheap, not the way that it's been done in the past. There is an argument that there will be a new generation Gen-Four nuclear power, which is cheap and modular and safe and does everything that you need it to do. The only problem with this Gen-Four is it doesn't exist.

David Roberts

But it will be you know, it is alleged to be smaller and more prefabricated, which will mean more of it will be sort of factory style and less in the field. Is it the case that I mean, intuitively this is something that I would like to believe. Intuitively, it seems like smaller and more modular technologies are more likely to get on a learning curve simply because iteration is faster, just because you do more generations of it more quickly.

Justin Gillis

By definition, the learning curve is the rate of decline for each doubling of production. So it's not expressed in time, it's expressed as a rate. And so, I mean, what Hal has pointed out here is the small modular reactor idea, which is where all the hopes of the nuclear industry sort of lie these days. It's explicitly an attempt to capture the sort of learning curve magic that we've seen in other technologies. I think what we don't know yet is whether that will really work. I mean, we call in the book for putting some good bit of public money into it.

Right. We think that needs to be to tested that proposition. But it could well turn out that still too much of the nuclear plants are kind of made in the field and subject to massive cost overruns that are made in factories potentially, I guess.

David Roberts

Right. Well, we'll see.

Hal Harvey

One of our principles in putting this book together is not to be in love with any special technology, nor to have a specific aversion to any technology, but instead to look at the physical attributes and economic attributes and the environmental and safety attributes of each. So when you think about nuclear power, you have to honestly say there are some issues, right, whether it's proliferation or cost or safety or sighting or whatever, and you should attack those problems. You shouldn't dismiss the possibility, but you shouldn't be a champion of something either. You should be a champion of the effects, of the consequences of success.

David Roberts

Right. Committed to the goal, lightly attached to the means.

Hal Harvey

Yes. Georgesh Santayana said "fanaticism consists of redoubling your effort while losing sight of your goals."

David Roberts

Right. But the point of this whole learning curve discussion, just to orient the reader, the idea, the point that you guys are making in the book is we've seen these learning curves at work in several key technologies. Chips, you mentioned wind, solar, and we know that we can do it on purpose. We've done that before. You could argue that collectively we did that with solar. If you sort of combined Germany's efforts and China's and ours, and we have this set of technologies that we need to scale up and make more cheap to solve the climate problem.

And we know how to do that to technologies. So what we need to do is just take those technologies that we're going to need and get them on a learning curve. And the way to do that is start building more of them. So that's sort of like the key underlying theme throughout the book.

Justin Gillis

Yes. And here's the crucial thing in the early stages — and this is why we need public support and indeed, we need public demand, we need the public marching in the streets asking for it — in the early stages you have to quote overpay, right, for these technologies. That's the essence of the case is they are always more expensive when they haven't scaled yet. And so this idea there's a bunch of Republican legislators running around saying, "gee, laboratory research, we need more laboratory research, and that will make things cheap." Well, we do need more laboratory research, but that is not how things get cheap, right?

They get cheap from being scaled up. So we have to be willing to make a conscious decision to pay more than the dirty alternative in order to get them to scale.

David Roberts

Yeah. And you make the point in the book, which is such a great illustration, Elon Musk, whatever his other sins or whatever else you think about him when he was going into Tesla, explicitly had this in mind. He said, "I'm going to make a few bespoke, extremely expensive cars that are going to get bought by early adopters, and I'm going to use that to build more and make them cheaper like I'm going to get on a learning curve." He had his eyes set on it from the beginning.

Justin Gillis

Totally right. I'm pretty impressed with his knowledge of the history of technology. I mean, he got this right from the very beginning.

David Roberts

Right.

So learning curves, making technologies cheaper just by building more of them, and we know that building more of them, especially early on, requires in some sense, some support from consumers willing to pay more, but also public policy and public money. And it's interesting that...how to put this, it seems obvious, but it flies so in the face of this weird, dare I call it, "neoliberal conventional wisdom" that has been sort of gathering over the last few decades, where markets are the most efficient and markets are the markets, markets, markets, it's weird that that "conventional wisdom" took hold. When you look back in the past and you just see examples of this over and over again where public intervention to accelerate a technology worked and nothing else does, like trace any technology back. You find at some point that public support, in that key sort of early stage.

Hal Harvey

Every significant energy technology was either invented by government scientists or supported by public policies or insured even, by the public. You can say this without exception, right? And that includes fracking, and that includes three dimensional seismic imaging for oil fields. It includes directional drilling. It includes coal power plants. It includes the big-hydro. So this idea that there's this pristine free market world that operates independently of policy is wrong. On the other hand, if you tried to do it just with fiat, none of the scrubbing that the free market provides, you'd waste a hell of a lot of money, and you wouldn't bring very much stuff into commercialization either. So you have to take the attributes of both.

David Roberts

Right? Okay. So we want to just build more of the technologies we need. That's an easy thumbnail guideline, but it applies to some of these areas you guys identify better than others. I want to walk through a couple of them. Because what's I think really great about the book, and it's really useful, is you start with electricity and you talk about sort of some of the stuff that's happened, what needs to happen. And then every chapter ends with an explicit address to an interested reader saying, "here are the policies that historically have shown that they can make a difference, and here's how you can help bring those about." So in electricity, there are sort of two or three core policies or two or three sort of citizen efforts you identified, Justin. Maybe you could tell us what those are.

Justin Gillis

People simply need to make a demand, right? And to some extent, this happens already. We have environmental groups, certainly in the big states, maybe not in all 50 states, but in the big states, we have environmental groups sort of bird-dogging these decision making bodies, the public utility commissions that really completely control the electricity system and control what gets built and so forth. And the public voice in those meetings is surprisingly absent, sort of few and far between. And what we give in the book are examples of people going down.

We cite a particular meeting in Colorado where a whole bunch of mothers sort of paraded up to the podium, some of them with newborn babies on their hips, saying, "I don't want my child to grow up in a dirty environment. I don't want my child to breathe dirty air and get asthma. I want you to approve this clean energy plan that's in front of you right now," which ultimately did get approved.

And so there are multiple ways, there's sort of multiple levers throughout the economy that people can pull in that way. But essentially Hal and I, we want to shake people away from the idea or out of the conviction that the way you do this is in your own life as a consumer, right? We're sort of opposed to green consumerism. We're not opposed to people buying as carefully as they can and recycling as well as they can and all of that.

But what we're saying is that's not enough. You can't just be a green consumer. You have to be a green citizen. And when it comes to electricity, when it comes to transportation and many of these other things, yeah, people can make individual consumer choices that matter. Buying an electric car right now, if you can afford it, is a really good thing to do, because we're right at the inflection point of the sort of take off of electric cars and every new increment of demand matters, but that's just not enough. If you remember, I think it was Frederick Douglas who said something like "power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and it never will."

And we're just at this point where we desperately need a public voice making demands. And by the way, they are not all demands on Washington. They are not all federal. We tried in the book to very carefully take people through local and city and state decisions that matter just as much. Probably in the aggregate, they matter more.

David Roberts

One of the things always discouraged me about the kind of things people say to citizens, and these questions is, either it's this weird focus on consumerism what you buy or there's this focus on grand solutions, grand federal solutions. But one of the things your book is good at is pointing out that there's all kinds of stuff in between those. There's all kinds of levels that are beyond your individual action that are collective but are still sort of proximate, right? Close enough to get your hands around. Close enough that you can actually have a measurable effect. Whereas like lobbying about federal stuff seems so like you're just kind of tossing a pebble into an ocean.

But there's all sorts of levels of collective action closer than that.

Hal Harvey

What really matters is to understand which decisions drive which outcomes and then to understand with some detail what are the factors that push the decision one way or the other. We always think about national policy. It's the first thing that comes to mind. But it's hard to get. I mean, perilously hard to get under Democratic and Republican administrations alike. But also keep in mind that the federal government doesn't set utility regulations. It doesn't set building codes. It only sets vehicle fuel efficiency standards for some of the global auto fleet or some of the American auto fleet, not all of it.

Most decisions are made by specialized agencies operating at the state level. And they have rules. They have to listen to you. They have to have public input. They have a pattern of doing things. They have review periods for new policies. They have cost effectiveness tests. They're required to think about affordability and reliability and the environment. And they're run, often run by well meaning technocrats. But it's not where the people who are concerned about climate generally spend their time and energy. And that's a huge mistake. So we sometimes talk about precision intervention.

David Roberts

Right.

Hal Harvey

I'll give a quick example. Years ago there was a regulation that required public comment. It was a federal regulation on clean air standards. And so they had to hold nine hearings around the country and sort of listening sessions where they would explain the new proposed regulation and people would stand up and talk about it. And those things have historically been dominated by industry that would stand up and say, "this is too costly. This is going to kill us." So I worked with some other folks and we organized that every single one of those hearings was. Filled with mothers of asthmatic kids and asthma doctors.

And you know what? It worked. We also made sure there were medical professionals putting op eds in the paper in the city on the day when the hearing was held. That's why I called a precision intervention. You need to know the venue, the subduct matter, the whole apparatus of whatever's driving the decision one way or the other and then decide, can I make a difference?

David Roberts

As Justin said, because people rarely go to these things, you as an individual can have sort of an outsized impact. Like, you won't be in a long line. They're pretty sparsely attended.

Justin Gillis

It's true. And what we're trying to do in this book, a big part of what we're trying to do, is shake people a little bit and say, "look, folks, we've come from a poverty of imagination here." People feel so disempowered by this problem, right? In your work, you've heard this a million times, have we. People say, "oh, it's so big. This problem is so big. What can I do? I'm just one person." But people aren't thinking very carefully about their own lives or the potential influence they have. Let me give you an example. Every parent in America, or 90% of them, puts their kid on a school bus in the morning.

That school bus is burning diesel. It's blowing diesel smoke out the exhaust. It's exposing those kids to diesel smoke. We have a problem with asthma in this country, as you well know, a rising problem. How many parents out there have said to themselves, "yeah does that really need to be a diesel school bus?" Well, it has happened in a few places. And I guess the biggest example so far is Montgomery County, Maryland, where a bunch of kids, led, by the way, by a 13 year old girl named Rosie Clemans-Cope and her sister Eleanor sort of went to the school board and started badgering them and said, "I'm sorry, we don't want the dirty buses. When are we going to get the clean buses?"

The clean buses, unfortunately, still cost three times as much, right? They're still kind of high up on the learning curve. So, long story short, the school board finally found a way through leasing the buses to essentially come out even, and they've committed now to converting their entire fleet over to electric school buses. That's just beginning in the United States. Electric buses are already well advanced trend in China, as you probably know. So I think a lot of people out there aren't thinking about their school buses, right? They aren't thinking about the city government and when did it last adopt an updated building code.

They're just all these things that people can have an influence over if they stick their necks out just a little bit.

David Roberts

Yeah, and a couple of other thoughts on that, specifically, the school bus thing is I can imagine lots of school boards being willing to continue buying cheap, dirty buses quietly. But not many school boards want to have a public fight in which they are defending.

Exactly.

Polluting kids lungs, which is not just exposing it to light alone is a huge thing. And it also brought up something else to mind, which is sort of you kind of implicitly get out in the book. But I don't know if you ever say it explicitly, which is step one is using your citizen influence to affect these institutions that are sort of close to you and subject to your effect.

But then step two is like publicizing the hell out of what you just did so that the other parents elsewhere in the country just maybe don't even know to think about school buses, right? I mean, just hearing that it's a thing, hearing that it's a possible subject of concern could be enough to sort of trip people into action.

Justin Gillis

Totally right. Totally right.

Hal Harvey

One thing that Justin's not saying yet, it's just really important, and he won't say it, is that this book is told in really fantastic stories, true stories about how things happened, but with his journalist's eye for sieving reality from not reality and finding the interesting personalities, the stories, the successes, the crashing failures. So it reads like, I'm not sure, a journal of an explorer, perhaps, or something like something of that sort. It's not a dry text by any means. And of course our conversation is jumping right into the particulars of which policies drive what changes. But the book itself is a happier read and easier read.

Right, there are tons of good stories and they all have happy endings, which is nice in the end. The citizens win in all these stories. But one of the things you specified to get back to electricity where we started, is you are down on dismissive of, say, a carbon tax, which is one solution people toss around quite a bit in electricity. So because you say basically that is a political hill that's just too steep to climb. It's just impossible. People don't like taxes and it amounts to wasted effort where there are other places to push, where you'll get more action.

David Roberts

How is a citizen, other than reading your book, how are ordinary people supposed to make these kind of political economy judgments? Because there's a lot of "happy solution" talk floating around out there, from my perspective.

Hal Harvey

Policy, in a way is like technology. If you fall in love with a specific policy, regardless of whether it's popular or not, regardless of whether it will deliver the goods or not, you're already handicapping yourself very badly.

David Roberts

Right.

Hal Harvey

So if you look around and say, "what has worked?" This transition, this amazing transition that's underway now to decarbonize the electric grid moving at high speed because of cheap technology, what worked? Really, two policies in Europe, they agreed to pay extra through a policy. They paid extra for clean technology. They basically wrote down the early cost before it went down the learning curve in America, we did the same thing with tax credits or renewable portfolio standards.

So there are surrogates for taxes that aren't quite as beautiful and pristine from an economist's perspective, but they have the lovely virtue of being passable and working. So see what works and multiply it by ten times 100. How many states have adopted California's clean car standards? California's got the most advanced clean car standards of any big economy in the world, and there's about a dozen states that have adopted the California standard. You either choose the federal standard, which is slower and dirtier, or the California standard, which is faster and cleaner.

Justin Gillis

It's more now. Hal I think we're going on 20 states, actually, so the book is working already.

David Roberts

Every time I see the number, it's higher.

Hal Harvey

Well, it's a little more subtle than all this because states are adopting some, but not all...

True, true.

Of the standards. So I'm being conservative here. But the point is we have examples of things that work and that you can get done in time. And we know that the carbon cycles last forever and carbon accumulation is permanent. We got to get going on this stuff. The carbon budget is running out, so you don't have the luxury of passing the perfect policy. Let's pass one that's pretty damn good.

David Roberts

I guess I have a question about that. When it comes to when you get to the transportation chapter, you are big on congestion charges, congestion pricing, which for listeners benefit, is just a zone, typically downtown, into which you must pay to drive. Basically just making driving in the most congested central areas, putting a cost on it that it's happened in a couple of places, but it's also been defeated and beat back in several places. I guess I'm wondering why, where you draw the line between what's worked and what could work and what's politically impossible and what's not.

Like, I can imagine people looking at that and saying people hate those for the same reason they hate carbon taxes. They don't like paying more for things and there are easier routes in transportation.

Justin Gillis

Yeah, there's a subtlety here we need to pick up on, though. We are for congestion charges in major cities and also for putting 100% of the money raised by those congestion charges into better public transit. Right. So it's a two part deal and we think it needs to be sold as a two part deal. That is how it finally was sold in New York, right after a decade of discussion. Bloomberg tried to get it and couldn't solve the politics. And the coalition that finally did, they got a state law. The full tax has yet to be implemented.

But that coalition said the money is going to go the biggest selling point was the money is going to go to improving your daily commute. And what Hal I would say in answer to your question, the carbon taxes have been tried for 30 years. You go all the way back to like the BTU Tax of Clinton and Gore. So we failed in this country. Now they managed to do it in Europe, great. In the United States, it has been a huge political loser, whereas a bunch of other things have worked or sort of worked, and we're we're arguing, let's go with what works.

In the case of congestion charging, we don't think the argument has really been engaged. It's been discussed a little bit in a few American cities, but there hasn't yet been a sort of a big push, and certainly not a big push in most places through the lens that I'm talking about, which is we're going to take this money and we're going to make it easier to commute by public transit. So, you know, if we get another 30 years and that policy is failing too, then I think Hal and...we'll come out of retirement and say, "okay, that didn't work," but that has not happened yet.

Hal Harvey

Can I add a little color to this too? Because if you open the aperture, you see a lot more congestion pricing is established and working well in London and Stockholm. There's many other forms of it. In order to get a car in Beijing, you have to win a lottery, and the only lottery tickets available are for electric cars. In order to get a car in Shanghai, you have to buy a special license, and the licenses cost $13,000. Right now, in order to use a car downtown in Tokyo, you need to prove you have a parking place before you can buy the car.

So these are not all ideas that would work in America, but then again, not all American ideas will work in other countries. It is being realistic with what you can get done, rather than being Simon Pure about how things should happen.

Justin Gillis

It may be true, David, that there's only a dozen American cities, or 15 maybe, where congestion charging really makes sense. This idea of building better cities, it's not a short run project, right? I mean, it took us 100 years to get into this hole, and it's going to take quite a long time to get out of it. And I mean, that's one reason we're so focused on for as long as we keep building suburbanized cities the way we are, then we need people to buy electric cars. But we do also need to begin thinking about how to build those cities differently and how to densify our cities.

David Roberts

You just teed me up perfectly for my segue here. I love the general framework of telling people who want to do something where they can have the most effect and how they can get engaged, but I particularly love it...Well, it's funny. I was reading your buildings chapter and I was like, this is all fine, but what about density and urbanism? And then I read your transportation chapter. And I was like, where's all the stuff about EVs? Where's the public transportation? And then you guys came through and turns out have a whole chapter on urbanism and cities, which is, as you probably know, one of my ongoing obsessions.

So tell us a little bit about there's some really cool stories of what you call tactical urbanism, which is really engaged citizens, triggering changes that end up being quite significant. So maybe like, just share a couple of those stories and how people can sort of tune into urbanism and get engaged in it.

Hal Harvey

My favorite example is ubiquitous, which is people turning parking places into little restaurants and parks and things like that. Park Places they're called. If you walk down almost any city street now in the world, but certainly in America, you see these places where they've decided, let's trade away two parking spots for a restaurant that will hold 30 additional people, and you have the benefits of eating outside, which is, by the way, much more feasible than most people realize. It's kind of saying, "what's the public space for if it's for people or is it for cars?" And that's a pretty fundamental question.

That doesn't mean you're banning all cars. The cars aren't good for a lot of things. It does mean you're providing high quality options, whether it's at a restaurant or a bike lane or so on. My favorite example of this, I was down in Baja in La Paz, and it's an ideal climate for bike commuting, and very few people did it because it was really dangerous. So some people, led by a local doctor went and they built a bike lane. They just did it themselves. They bought bags of cement and they walled off one of the edges of the main corridor.

It cost them $500 because they couldn't get the government to do it. And I said, what was the reaction? He said, Everybody's starting a bike now. If you build it, they will come. So before I left La Paz, I gave another $500 so they could build one and the other lane in the opposite direction. That's practical urbanism, and it's pretty cool.

David Roberts

Point you make is civic leaders or city leaders are often quite gun-shy about these things and nervous about these things. But seeing people doing it, seeing people out using it, seeing people embracing it in action will often prod them into making bigger changes or more substantial changes.

Justin Gillis

Yeah, even in places like Dallas, we've seen that happen. David, I want to put a slightly bigger frame on this set of questions you're asking here. Americans really don't realize what an extremely car dependent country we live in by global standards.

David Roberts

Oh, my God.

Justin Gillis

It really is extraordinary, but we're so used to it. It's the world we've built that we are the fish incapable of describing why. We're just at the point where we're finally getting people to kind of imagine a different world. Now, there's a history here that a lot of people don't know very well. It was not inevitable that the car was going to win, right? There was a pitched battle in the United States in the teens and twenties and thirties, between what I would call public use of the streets versus sort of everybody else being evicted in favor of the automobile.

And as we well know, the car ultimately won. The crime of jaywalking, as you may be well aware, was sort of invented by the car companies as part of their campaign to conquer the street. So what tactical urbanism is about, fundamentally, is asking the question, can we make a better city by reclaiming a little bit of space from the automobile, which has got way more than its fair share in the first place? And if city hall won't do it, can we just do it ourselves, even if we're using chalk or temporary paint? Can we make change happen on the ground just by showing what it would look like?

And so there are now hundreds of examples. There are books about tactical urbanism and hundreds of examples around the country of people doing these sorts of things. And I think there's a change in the dynamic in a lot of towns. I mean, the professional urban planners have known about these issues we're talking about for 30 years and/or more really 50 years.

David Roberts

God bless them. Talking about beating your head on a wall.

Justin Gillis

Yeah, they were completely disempowered. And, you know, we've reached a point where there's a little bit of a public demand now, and it's corollary to the larger point we're making in the book, is you don't get anything without making the demand. And this business of making better cities is just one more thing where we, the public, have got to speak up and make intelligent demands. And I don't know if you want to get into the whole thing about density and the YIMBYs versus the NIMBYs and all of that, but we're seeing that particular argument playing out in a bunch of American cities now as well.

Like the idea that we can't have a society of endless carpets of single family houses ever ratcheting upward in price with young people being unable to afford to live in them. So some of this is a bit corollary to the climate agenda, or secondary, you might say, "but how," and I think it sort of all goes together like we need to be for all these things at once, if that makes sense.

David Roberts

One of the things anyone who's followed us for a while is very familiar at this point with people being willing to say, "yes, climate is bad, yes, we need to clean up everything up, yes, I'll vote the right way, and I'll buy a hemp tote bag, and maybe I'll buy a hybrid." But then if you ask to put a wind turbine on their farm or build a transmission line through their land, or ask them to put up with their neighbors putting solar panels on their roof, or ask them to put up with a single family home being torn down and replaced with an apartment building nearby them.

You see, all of a sudden all the happy talk about climate goes out the window and people become incredibly parochial. And this sort of phenomenon is wrapped up in the word NIMBY, "not in my backyard," but it's a sort of general principle and it just seems like a force that is leaning in the opposite direction of everything you're talking about in this book. So I just wonder if you guys thought about not just how to push well meaning people in the right direction, but how to dissuade people who are leaning in the wrong direction.

Hal Harvey

A couple of thoughts. The first one is clean energy projects actually have to be done carefully and wisely. If you put a windmill in a migratory bird corridor, you're going to chop a lot of birds in half. If you avoid it, you won't kill hardly any birds at all. And there are a number of clean energy technologies. We don't want to be putting more dams in in America right now. We've sort of dammed all the wild rivers already. There are zones that need to be protected because of their precious ecology or their viewscapes.

That's all okay, we're not advocating in any way for reducing environmental standards or public standards. However, the flip side is there are places and there are technologies that are fantastically available. I mentioned offshore wind before. You can put this 25 miles offshore. You barely see it. It produces a prodigious amount of energy. Transmission lines run underwater, 1000ft underwater where they're not anybody's face. It's going to cost some more. But the learning curve is well at work with offshore wind. That's one example. But even at the more local level, you have to deliver benefits at the same time you make these changes.

In Copenhagen, they took away 2% of the parking places every year. It's a small number, but after 40 years this added up.

David Roberts

Clever.

Hal Harvey

But they did it at night and they replaced it with a little jungle gym or a water fountain or a park lit. So you need to think about the correlation of forces there. To use horrible Kissinger term, you need to think about how do you make this nicer overall? What is shopping like in your streets? There are technologies that can help too. I have an electric-assist bicycle, and it allows me to do a pretty long and hilly commute with pure pleasure where it used to be a grind.

Homeownership in LA, you can get a fast permit on what they used to call a granny unit. It's a single bedroom small house that lets you pay for your own mortgage. And it creates housing options for younger students or single parents or single people or the elderly. So if this is a battle between two ideologically opposed forces, it won't work. If this is organized around maximizing a suite of values, it will work just fine.

Justin Gillis

You are touching David on a critical question here, which is basically the land use subjections to the things we need to do right?

David Roberts

Which are arguably like more I mean, this is a horribly cynical thing to say, but if you look at the sum total of citizen involvement in these issues in the US. You might even could argue that citizens are more likely to be pushing in the wrong direction than in the right direction.

Justin Gillis

I think so. And it's a problem, and I sort of endorse everything Hal said. We've got to find ways to make the transition appealing to people, but we're also going to have to reform some laws. I mean, one of the problems now, or maybe the problem is too many people get a veto power for too long, right? So if a project triggers the main federal environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, and permits are required under that, that project can I mean, we outline a couple of projects in the book where just the permitting took ten years.

It can take 15 years to get the permission you need. You face opposition all along the way, and then even after you get the permits, people can sue you. How long do they have to sue you? Well, five years. Ten years after you're halfway built. I mean, so there are things Congress could do that would not and things the states in some cases can do that would not take away the right of the public to be heard, which we absolutely want to preserve here. But you ought to have a reasonable window to be heard, right? If the project that got approved, why not a two year time window?

Or maybe even one year, for that matter, on filing lawsuits?

David Roberts

Or if I could insert one thing here, like who's being heard in the way you've set up your process to receive public feedback, who's taking advantage of it? Who is being heard? Like very frequently in these urban NIMIBY issues, you have these sort of meetings in the middle of the day and future people don't know about them. People who don't live there yet and might want to don't know about them. Working people, single mothers, whatever, don't know about them. Who shows up? It's the old white people with the coordinating T-shirts who hate anything being built anywhere.

So how to structure public feedback seems like a huge issue as well.

Justin Gillis

I think you're absolutely right. Yeah. We don't think we'll get where we need to go by 2050 unless it becomes possible to build things in America again. We really need to figure that out. I will say, if you look at where renewable energy has been supported most strongly and where it's maybe not been, that starts to scramble your sense of the politics of this issue.

David Roberts

This is what I mean. Like ideology goes out the window as soon as someone's personal comfort comes into question.

Justin Gillis

Yeah, but by sort of highlighting the benefits of renewable energy development, for example, developers have had tremendous success selling those projects in the middle of the country. Now we have had less success building transmission lines to get the power from the middle of the country where it's windy and very few people live out to the places where the power is really needed. But if you look at sort of percentage, I mean, Iowa is getting more than half its in-state electricity from wind turbines. At this point, that figure is nearer, approaching half in Kansas.

It's an enormous number in Oklahoma. It's 20% now. In Texas, need I remind you, are red states. Right? But there's been sort of tremendous support for renewable energy development because people see benefits beyond just the climate situation. Right. It's local economic development. And so anybody who was for the farmers was sort of for this. Sam Brownback, the extreme right-wing governor of Kansas, could not have been more in favor of wind energy development. And so one of the things I hope comes through in the book is we like scrambling up people's politics and there are benefits here that we think need to be sold to the public.

But yeah, you're lighting on a tremendous problem here, particularly when it comes to density. We need a new framework. We need new laws. We need to end the endless vetoes. And people are trying. I mean, California has put some laws into effect that are slowly unlocking housing construction out there, for example, and...

David Roberts

Does seem like the battle is underway, at least finally. At least there's the other side now.

Justin Gillis

Yes, I think so. Finally.

David Roberts

How your answer reminds me of I asked Brent Toderian, and he's an urbanist, used to be city planner for Vancouver about NIMBYs. And he said, "the number one thing you can do to quiet NIMBYs is to do good work," is when you do something, make it good so that people enjoy it, right. There's so much bad urbanism done. There's so much bad city making done. It doesn't really surprise me that people are jumpy about it or defensive about it since so much of it is junk, especially here in the US.

Hal Harvey

Yeah. It takes time for these practices to switch. The windiest state in America is Wyoming. The windiest part of Wyoming is the Eastern Wyoming, the Eastern Plains. There there's the biggest wind farm in America is being proposed for there by a Republican billionaire. He spent a decade trying to get the permits. That's just shooting ourselves in the foot. It's just insane.

David Roberts

Isn't Wyoming also the state that's going to sue other states that don't use its exported coal power? Am I remembering that right?

Hal Harvey

But my point is it takes it takes a moment to switch the culture a little bit and to and it's happened significantly in Texas and Oklahoma on with on renewable energy. You drive around northern Indiana, there's a windmill on every plot of land. So it's it's changing. I guess my position here is don't relax environmental standards make them absolutely clear and explicit. And if a project meets them, it gets a permit in 90 days.

David Roberts

Right.

Hal Harvey

And also do pre-zone it. So it's red, yellow, green, red stuff. You're never going to build anything there. It's too important ecologically or scenically green stuff. If you meet the standards, you get your permit in 90 days. Right now everything is yellow, which is let's go to war for a decade or so. It's just a silly way to manage a complex problem so far.

David Roberts

Yes, same with urbanism. I've recently become more familiar with the sort of review process that Seattle buildings have to go through to get built. Kafkaesque barely covers it. You get your permit and that's step one in like a 50 step process, which includes several other reviews, including reviews by a board of other architects who do nothing but sort of nickel and dime you on your micro-choices of your building. I'm just like, why on earth is this part of the process? So much cruft has built up around it.

Justin Gillis

Yeah, you even see this with rooftop solar, which in the United States is still, depending on what state you're in, can be still pretty far out of the money compared to utility scale solar. Right? Well, in Germany, rooftop solar is half. The cost of the United States are less than half. And that's because they made it easy. I mean, we're still encumbered by you got to go to City Hall and get this permit and that permit, and that turns into a huge cost of customer acquisition for the rooftop solar companies. As a country, we have not decided yet to make this easy, which really tells you we just haven't committed to the transition.

Right. We're still sort of, in a lot of ways, dabbling with it.

David Roberts

You mentioned speed. You mentioned that it takes time to change these things. And of course, we're all here super cognizant of the need for speed. And I just wonder there's this book out from Malm, I think that's how you say his name, about basically making the argument for direct action, for, like, blowing up bulldozers and chaining yourself to stuff and going outside the bounds of sort of the polite institutional mechanisms we have for feedback. In part just to stop things or disrupt things, but also in part to signal the urgency to other people. You guys in your book, even though your book is about citizen action and citizen feedback, do not go there.

And I'm curious if you gave that thought.

Hal Harvey

There's a certain way for destroying your political credibility. We have to live by the precepts of the Enlightenment. We have to rely on logic and democracy and human values as we do this. And I'm not saying the current system is delivering what the world needs. It is not. But I would say emphatically you can't use any means to get to your ends. It will backfire and it will be inhumane as well.

David Roberts

What do you think, Justin? Would you ever encourage someone to sabotage a bulldozer?

Justin Gillis

Yeah, I guess I'm not for blowing things up. At least not yet. Maybe this gets worse. It is going to get worse. It's going to get a lot worse. I don't know. We are seeing sort of aggressive civil disobedience from the climate community in trying to stop fossil projects, right? And Hal and I would say I'm not sure we're opposed to that. I think that's a form of theater, essentially. People surely know that stopping a single pipeline is not going to make any real difference. What we would say is, "why aren't we putting the same kind of energy into bending the demand side of the equation," right?

If we can cut fossil energy demand, then fossil energy supply is going to take care of itself, right? So I would like to see the kind of creativity not so much blowing things up, but people have been very willing to do sort of civil disobedience to stop these pipeline projects. Why don't we have civil disobedience in front of City Hall demanding a better building code?

David Roberts

It's a lot trickier figuring out how to be theatrical in support of something constructive. right? I mean, just on a human level, being theatrical in fighting and stopping things is a well worn, well understood sort of track. But how do you, you know, if you're like going after a PUC meeting, how do you make that attract attention? How do you be theatrical? And that it's not obvious.

Justin Gillis

It is not obvious. But this is sort of what we're calling on the public to do. Unlock your minds. Let's figure out how to be creative here and press the case with urgency. I mean, I think the truth is a lot of these governments they don't really have anybody in their face making any kind of a demand. And so every single day in this country decisions are made to perpetuate the fossil fuel dependency, right, by just the sheer power of human inertia. So, City Hall puts in their order for 50 more cars for their fleet and by the way, they bought all gasoline cars yet again because nobody asked them not to.

By the way, I hope you saw Los Angeles just made the decision finally they're going to go completely electric, right? I mean we need every city in America to be thinking like that. So what we're saying to the public is "certainly, we are not at the point of wanting to be making molotov cocktails and burning things down, but we are at the point of wanting to see all of us collectively make a much more urgent political demand at every level of government where there are levers that we can try to pull," right? That's the goal. And you can argue that a lot of this stuff is sort of small and does it really make any difference if you get a new building code passed in Topeka?

Because it's got to be done then in 500 other cities. And I would say when we're all focused on it, this becomes a mass movement. I mean, any kind of political action that people can take is a gateway into a larger engagement with the issue. Right. We're only just at the point with a lot of the American public of people even thinking like, what can I do? Hence, our book is appearing at this very moment, saying to people, "here some things you can do, right? Go at it."

David Roberts

Awesome. Well, I've kept you guys long enough. I know you have probably 50 other podcast to record, among other things. I'm sure you're on the book grind. I just wanted to say thank you for this space of "what can I do?" That's in between the individual and the sort of distant IPCC process or whatever. That vast space is full of so many opportunities, and I appreciate you guys pulling some out and having such a practical take on this. So congrats on the book.

Hal Harvey

Thank you. We are continuously inspired, and I'm not being nice here, by your journalism. It's fantastic.

David Roberts

Oh, thank you.

Justin Gillis

Yes, David, thank you for what you do.

David Roberts

Thank you for listening to the Volts podcast. It is ad-free, powered entirely by listeners like you. If you value conversations like this, please consider becoming a paid Volts subscriber at volts.wtf. Yes, that's volts.wtf, so that I can continue doing this work. Thank you so much, and I'll see you next time.

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Volts

Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)