Volts
Volts
Me, interviewed by Brits
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Me, interviewed by Brits

A crossover episode of Sustainababble.
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In this episode, I chat about American politics, the Paris agreement, nuclear energy, and more with Dave and Oliver of British podcast Sustainababble.

(PDF transcript)

(Active transcript)

Text transcript:

David Roberts

Over in the UK, there’s a podcast called Sustainababble that has been going for — no kidding — eight years. The hosts, Dave and Oliver, talk with various people involved in the sustainability world, but, being Brits, they tend to be smarter and funnier than the average US podcast host (or maybe the accents just make them sound smarter and funnier).

Anyway, they are currently in the process of wrapping the pod up, shutting it down, but luckily for me, they had me on before they shut the doors.

Dave & Ol of Sustainababble

I thought listeners might like to hear my brain picked from an outside perspective, and Dave and Oliver were kind enough to allow me to send it out as an episode of Volts, so please enjoy.

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And while you’re at it, go dig through the Sustainababble archives and take advantage of it while it’s still around. It will be missed.

Alright, with no further ado, here is Sustainababble.

Oliver Hayes

Hello Dave!

Dave Powell

Hello, Ollie!

Oliver Hayes

Hello. Hello. Welcome to Sustainababble 268.

Dave Powell

Welcome yourself Ol to Sustainababble, my vigorously ambivalent friend. How the devil are you?

Oliver Hayes

I am very well, thank you. How are you, my chump?

Dave Powell

Yes, I'm very well, thank you very much. Now we are Sustainababble, but we are your friendly little weekly environment podcast ain't we all. Yes, all about people and the planet and why, despite everything being very confusing, you can still have a little bit of a chuckle and a laugh about it every now and then, yes.

Oliver Hayes

Can and must.

Dave Powell

Can and must.

And not necessarily worry about it all being very confusing. And that's what we're going to be talking about today with someone what we have wanted to get on the Babble for a very, very long time. Massive thanks to friend of the Babbel James Murray for hooking us up with our guest, who is David Roberts, who is maybe better known to you as previously Dr. Vox and now Dr. Volts. American based commentator on all things to do with climate change and the clean economy and politics and climate philosophy and stuff. Writes amazingly, thinks expansively and has got no time for your shit.

Oliver Hayes

My shit specifically? Or the listeners shit?

Dave Powell

There's a fine line, very fine line.

Oliver Hayes

Absolutely learned that this is a wonderful wide ranging, expansive chat and we didn't really want to edit any of it out because it's great. So this is a slightly longer episode than usual, but I think you'll probably stick around with it because it's just brilliant. So we don't apologize for it. It's sit back nestle into David's dulcet tones and they are quite dulcet tones. I quite like how he sounds as well as what he says. And yeah, just wallow in the good sense of this man and his opinions.

Dave Powell

We talked about what the hell's going on in the States right now, them elections, what they had. What's going on there, then, We talked about climate change as an idea. David has a degree in philosophy. That's his background. So he's done a lot of thinking about climate as an idea and what it is. And we talked about how to find optimism and keep your shit together when it may sometimes seem like you can't.

Oliver Hayes

Now, just the usual disclaimers. Dave and I work for environment charities, don't we, Dave?

Dave Powell

Yes.

Oliver Hayes

And so therefore, these are very much our own views. So if you've got anything niggling away thinking, I don't like that, I don't like the sound of that. Well, take it up with us. Don't take it out with the people who pay us. Okay.

Dave Powell

But remember and David will come to this, if you've heard something controversial, at least you've heard an idea.

Oliver Hayes

Exactly.

Dave Powell

It's better than not hearing anything of substance at all, right?

Oliver Hayes

Right.

Dave Powell

Right! So let's get on with our chat with David. And I started by asking him, before we'd even had time to sip his cup of tea, what the f*** has just happened in America?

Oliver Hayes

Roll out the bleep machine.

David Roberts

You had to start there. What's going on in the States is that the entire political media elite establishment turned out to be wrong, and there is not a red wave happening in our midterms. And instead, in almost every case, Democrats are performing better than expected. So it's still unclear who's going to control the House of Representatives and who's going to control the Senate. Everything's still up in the air. There are several extremely tight races that haven't been called now, but long story short, Democrats are surprisingly doing better than people thought they would.

Oliver Hayes

Does that mean that you are no longer freaking out about politics? Because we've come on to this. You have said elsewhere that you're relatively zen about climate catastrophe, which may be a true characterization, but you're freaking out about politics, so you're no longer freaking out about politics. Is everything fine?

David Roberts

No. These are all degrees of apocalypse we're talking about here. These are fine shades of apocalypse. We're distinguishing among. No, I will have to, I think, maybe revise my priors a little bit after the results of this election, but basically the set of large structural forces and trends that I have been feeling dread about are all still very much in place. I mean, this feels like Democrats sort of scrambling in a rearguard action, but we're in a situation now where we got two parties, and if one of them takes over the apparatus of government, it's entirely possible that we'll never have a fair free election again.

And that's just not a stable, long-term situation. You cannot have a two party system where if one of the parties wins, the whole system goes down. That's not a stable situation, and that's basically the situation we're in. I still think the next decade of US politics are going to be super ugly.

Media soundbite

And what do you think about Biden bringing up climate change in the middle of his speech?

Well, a lot of people had a reaction to it. I mean, for me, my view is that if you look at Florida's history. From 1919 to 1960, we had ten category four plus storms hit the state. We have had five since then. This is just something we've got to deal with regardless of those political debates.

Dave Powell

Because at some point the Republicans are going to win. Right? If I interpret you correctly, what happened in the midterms was the Democrats didn't get an absolute ass kicking and that is seen as being a win.

David Roberts

Yes. I mean the thing is in US politics when you have a president from a party elected, the first midterm election after that is almost always what they call a thermostatic reaction against the president's party. So like Obama's first midterm election after he was elected, democrats lost 63 seats. It was one of the most sort of epic shellackings ever. So that's been true in almost every first midterm after an election in American history with only one or two exceptions. Like George Bush righting the Iraq War kind of effect defied it, but it almost always happens. So it was just predictable just along those lines that Democrats were going to get their asses kicked so they couldn't sort of held their own held losses to a minimum.

It's really absolutely good news.

Oliver Hayes

What are progressives thinking about all of this in the states? Because from over here it felt a little bit last time when we spoke to some actual Americans in the run up to the last election ...

Dave Powell

We're speaking to an actual American?

Oliver Hayes

Yes, some additional actual Americans.

Dave Powell

Right. Okay, the other ones.

Oliver Hayes

But as part of our extensive research and journalistic integrity, we spoke to some actual Americans in run up to the last election and the progressive view was like hold your nose kind of vote for Biden because the alternative is much worse. But my God, we're not exactly inspired by him and there's a lot of work to do. Is that kind of where things are at now, particularly from a climatey point of view or is that wrong?

David Roberts

That was absolutely the posture of progressives leading into the election. Like Biden was probably of all the Democrats competing in that primary, Biden was probably at the bottom of the list of progressives just because he's got a long history as sort of someone who just taxed to the center of wherever the party is. However, I will say given that the sort of standard background condition for progressives is to be mad and disappointed all the time, that's just ... I know. Just take that as a baseline condition. I will say that the performance from my perspective and I consider myself a progressive from my perspective, the performance of Biden and the Democratic Congress, given the circumstances, given what a just whisper thin majority they had in the Senate, given the fact that inflation and COVID dragging on, I mean, given the inclement circumstances.

Biden and the Democrats have vastly outperformed my expectations. I look back on the last two years and am just flat amazed at what they were able to get done. If you get a real progressive activist on here, I'm sure they'll say everything is terrible and everyone's terrible, and that's true on some level, but relative to expectations, I was shocked. I've been shocked at how good things are and never more so than when the big climate bill passed. Like, that was absolutely a f****** miracle, I'll say.

Media soundbite

I said, a boy without a winkle. God be praised. It's a miracle. A boy without a winkle.

Dave Powell

That's pretty amazing. We we did cover that with a sort of, you know, what are they doing? Over their face on a couple of whatever it was a theater a few months ago. But is it as impressive as it sounds? Because it sounds pretty good. Why not just remind people what the essence of it is, in case they don't know?

David Roberts

Sure. It's impressive on two grounds. One, is it's impressive that it happened at all? Because I don't know how close you guys follow this, but we got this. We had a 50/50 Senate, which basically means to get literally anything done, you had to get because Republicans years ago, more or less decided they will offer no help, period, on anything, period. That's it. So you have to get all 50 Democrats online for anything you want to do. And so the Senate Democrats have been a source of indigestion for me for many, many years. And we had this guy, Joe Manchin from a red state West Virginia, who was hacking away at the big agenda.

Like at the beginning of the term, there's this big Build Back Better Agenda, which is just like a Christmas tree, just like everything progressives wanted. Would have been amazing. It was amazing that it came out at all. But of course, the Joe Manchin hacked away at it and hacked away at it and hacked away at it, and it looked very much like nothing was going to pass at all. Toward the end of this two year period, it very much looked like the whole thing was going to go down in flames. So a Manchin changed his mind.

No one knows why, to this day.

Oliver Hayes

Had his mind changed. I'd love to know the inside story of that one.

David Roberts

My assessment of Manchin is that he is like many older white men, egotistical, easy to manipulate through flattery, and more or less adopts the views of whatever sort of suit wearing white guy spoke to him last. I think it was honestly just a matter of timing. Like, we got the right white guy in a suit talking to mention at exactly the right moment for him to change. Like, I'm sure he would have changed his mind again if given another couple of weeks. But time had run out, so it's a miracle and passed it all. But the second miracle is in that original Build Back Better package.

The big grandiose package was an incredibly strong and really well thought out and detailed climate package that was put together not by sort of politicians, but by the staffers on the committees, like the nerds down in the basement of the Capitol Building, who really know what they're doing. And somehow that climate part of the Build Back Better survived the entire process and came out the other end almost intact, more or less intact. So all of which is just to say it is both a miracle that had happened at all and a miracle that it is genuinely good. It's a genuinely good and transformative bill.

Like, if you look at the modeling, if that bill hadn't passed, the US would have effectively reduced emissions barely at all. Let's just say barely at all. And with this bill in place, the US actually has a fighting chance of hitting its Paris target. So it really was the difference between almost nothing and something close to success. So I'm not sort of happy celebratory person by nature, but I've been out begging my fellow progressives for weeks, like, please just be happy for a moment. A good thing happened.

Oliver Hayes

Now, talking of Paris and all of that, there's another thing going on at the moment and you can never accuse us of doing anything other than topical. The COP is going on in Sharm Ell-Sheikh in Egypt. Any point to that?

Dave Powell

Bloody hell.

David Roberts

I know this is controversial in green circles, but I am personally a big fan of the Paris agreement and a big fan of the Paris.

Dave Powell

When you said it was controversial, I thought you're going to say you hate the bloody thing.

David Roberts

No, I defend it. I think it's a good thing. Here's one of the reasons it's good. You could say every prepares COP was pointless. Yes. There was no point because it was a perpetual pursuit of a more or less impossible goal, which is a binding treaty unanimously signed by literally all the world's countries. Like, that was never, ever, ever going to happen. And the amount of time and energy wasted pursuing it is dazzling to contemplate. However you put Paris in place and you just have kind of like lost your utopian fantasies, but you put a very sort of pedestrian, simple framework in place so people can actually just get started doing the work.

Which is all to say, like in this current COP, there's probably nothing of particular note, like, there's no particular reason for you and I to follow the day to day, ins and outs. What they're doing is just sort of the block and tackle work of implementing Paris. So it's all it's it's become less sexy, but more practically useful. They're just hashing out the details now. The big fight this year is over loss and damage. Again, the big fight this year, and I think the big fight for many years to come, is just going to be wealthy countries keep saying they're going to help poor countries pay to adapt and to decarbonize and they keep not doing it.

And I think that's going to be the center of fights for years to come. But in general, I think the process has become much more productive than it used to be,

Dave Powell

So do you think that like, it's best ... The best sort of source of optimism is countries just kind of getting on with it, but maybe actually a lot of these tricky international things will never be sorted and maybe we should just kind of crack on at home first and foremost.

David Roberts

Well, they need to be sorted at some point. A lot of these questions you can't get around, but they're not holding up the whole process anymore, right? Like there's lots of other stuff going on and that's what Paris is. Instead of like a threat of binding, something that countries view as sort of tying them down, it's just like a friendly competition. Like, what can you do? What do you think you can do? And that just allows people to start doing stuff. And my theory of the case has always been anytime you do something, and that's whether you're a country, a business, an individual, name it, you find out that doing things is easier and cheaper than you thought they would be, right?

Always the fear in advance is greater than what is warranted. So anything that just loosens action a little bit and gets people doing stuff, I think kicks off a positive cycle. So you do some stuff, you're like, oh, that wasn't so hard. It wasn't didn't cost us that much. Oh, look, it's actually like saving us money. It's actually easier than we thought and that produces more action. So that's always my criticism of the COPs leading up to Paris is just like, we can't do nothing until everything, we can't wait for everything to be done before anything happens.

And so that's what Paris has done. It's like there's still big roadblocks, still thorny questions. They're going to be very difficult to hash out, but they're not blocking the whole process. People are working in the meantime, doing other stuff.

Oliver Hayes

I feel like every COP before Paris is how I approach my to do list at work, which is I can't possibly do any of these things until I know precisely how it's all going to play out and have got exactly.

David Roberts

Got to keep the entire huge thing in mind at all times. It must be paralyzed.

Dave Powell

Somebody else ideally will do all of that thinking, so I don't have to do it.

Oliver Hayes

I mean, that is the truth. Someone steams in a kind of UN figure.

David Roberts

You read any of these lifehacker sites or whatever and they all say the same thing, which is if you have a big thing to do, break it down into small parts and do one small part at a time and just keep doing small parts. Right. And that's like you're, right, like the pre-Paris COPs were. And I'm very much the same way. I'm like, oh, here's this giant task. Like, I'll go on Twitter for a bit, I can't think about it. But now it's like there are little bits and pieces you can do. So people are doing little bits and pieces.

Media soundbite

Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is never try.

Oliver Hayes

So you sound to us, and indeed in your writing like a rather pragmatic type. And I'm going to therefore chuck some things at you which I think you might be tempted to give sensible, considered, it depends, answers to but we don't want that movement and we're not interested in that. We want hard ...

David Roberts

Table pounding?

Oliver Hayes

Exactly we want table pounding. We want resolute positions, categorical, binary yes or no and firm agreement or disagreement with each of these statements. So, statement number one.

David Roberts

You're trying to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

Oliver Hayes

Exactly, and after eight years, we're increasingly of the opinion that we might be the bad guys.

David Roberts

Are we the baddies?

Oliver Hayes

Exactly. That's a whole other conversation. Right. Statement number one: we should abandon nuclear power.

David Roberts

No. Wait, should I expand on my categorical answer?

Dave Powell

You don't have to. I tell you what, why don't we chuck a couple at you that sort of in this ballpark that you can maybe categorically ...

David Roberts

I think we should keep nuclear plants open that are running safely currently until we're a lot farther along decarbonizing the grid. And I think it's worth researching advanced nuclear. I think both those are worth doing. The current generation of nuclear plants, I think is a money pit and not worth throwing more money at. But nuclear in general, I think there's no reason we shouldn't research it and pursue it. It's one tool in the toolbox.

Dave Powell

Okay, and then the flip side of that, we should be 100% renewable.

David Roberts

Sitting on a grid that is still like 85% to 90% fossil fuels and arguing about the last 5% of that fossil fuels. Is there's something truly ludicrous about it? None of us have enough information to know what a fully decarbonized grid is going to look like. So the only intellectually credible answer is, I don't know what it's going to look like. So choosing your final, it's nothing but an identity, right? It's nothing but sort of like virtue or whatever signaling it's. Nothing but, like, I'm this kind of person. Oh, I'm this kind of person. Like, no one knows.

So I will say this. If you want something controversial and categorical, I will say in the end, I think we're going to use vastly less carbon capture, vastly less nuclear, vastly less natural gas, vastly less biomass than current models predict. I think the combination of renewable energy along with geothermal and other kinds of renewable energy with storage and demand management is going to go much farther than current models predict. How about that?

Oliver Hayes

Alright. Okay.

David Roberts

It's semi-categorical.

Dave Powell

He's good on this one. I think we need to turn up the voltage on this.

Oliver Hayes

Here we go. There is only one thing we need to do to sort out all of this, and that is a carbon tax that will sort everything. Correct.

David Roberts

I will say if there were some godlike authority that could impose its will on the globe, on the entire globe and all the countries in it, then yes, sort of almost by definition, a carbon tax would work. All the models, the theoretical attraction of a carbon tax is undeniable. Like, absolutely, if you could put an actual price on all tons of carbon equally and enforce it, then yes, it would work, but you can't, so who cares?

Dave Powell

But that's it, isn't it? People just assume we solved it, we've written a page. What's this? The one page economic plan to save the planet. All we need to do is introduce a carbon tax at a rate that no one's ever going to do. They are fixed.

David Roberts

The thing I always tell people about a carbon tax is it is almost the inverse of a politically attractive option. It penalizes literally everyone in a very visible way. Literally everyone's prices for energy related stuff is going to go up, whereas the benefits are almost all diffuse and sort of emergent and you sort of need an economic analysis paper to even realize what they are and see them. So I've been saying this for f****** decades because the carbon tax fanaticism was at its peak in the sort of 2000s and 2010s. And I kept saying over and over again like, this is the opposite of good politics.

You are trying to poke a stick in everyone's eye, you're going to make an enemy of everyone and you're going to have no friends other than the economists who are writing these one page solutions.

Dave Powell

You do not want as your friends, or if they are your friends, then ...

David Roberts

Yeah. What divisions do they command? They don't have any f* power and no one cares what they say. I will say, on a positive note, I think finally the US climate movement has internalized this and realized this carbon pricing can be a limited tool. In certain limited cases it can work. But as a sort of end all, be all, it's just a disastrous flag to fly. It's disastrous. It's the worst you could do for politics. And it just speaks to the fact that climate concern came into culture through science, basically like science and economics. And if you want to talk to a group of people who are politically daft, just gather a room full of economists and scientists, people who have the least understanding of political economy in the world.

It's economists and scientists. So I think finally that's ending and a more pragmatic strategy is taking over. But no ... carbon pricing. Where and when you can do it, it's fine. But don't ... I think it's a disastrous centerpiece of your policy program.

Media soundbite

Does every tax rise represent a blow against freedom?

Depends how big the tax rise is.

Dave Powell

All right, I've got one for you. Alright, we'll get off this "skewer David Roberts" category in a minute. But it's very good. Here's one for you: when all is said and done, when the chips are down. Climate change isn't really a political issue.

Oliver Hayes

Did you bring your guitar, Dave?

David Roberts

The way that translates in the US is typically "It's not a partisan issue," right? Which means it's not something one party or the other. It's not something that any one party should own because it affects us all. This is the ultimate expression of that lack of political acumen that I was referring to earlier. Once again, in like the 2010s was out pounding the table about this constantly. And one of the things I would frequently say is like, well, weird you look and like, everyone who supports doing something about climate change or has done anything about climate change is in one party and everyone who's fighting it and trying not to do anything about it and telling lies about it is in the other party.

So whatever you might think, normatively, whatever you might think, climate change should be descriptively. It's a partisan issue because one party supports and the other doesn't. That's the definition of a partisan issue. It's not just the scientists and economists. All of American elites are full of people who want to believe they are not partisan, right? They see the bigger picture. They're not one of these sort of grubby activists down there who have chosen a side and ignores all the other side's argument. They see the bigger picture. All these people are, although they do not realize it, are on the left, right?

If you probe a little bit, you'd be like, do you believe in basic human rights? Do you believe, like, in truth and accuracy, et cetera? Like if you probe their values, you find over and over again. I was like, oh, well, one side believes that and the other doesn't. So guess what? You are on a side. You can deny it until you are in the grave, but in actual fact, you are on one side because there's a whole movement of people who don't share those values and are against you. So anyway, people are so keen to avoid partisanship that they end up saying dumb shit like this.

But I have gotten more and more blunt about it over the years. It's just a fact. If you live in the US and you want something done about climate change, the number one thing you can do is not buying a recyclable tote bag or like an EV. The number one thing you can do is ensure that as many Democrats as possible are elected. That is factually, analytically, what leads to climate progress. Whatever you think ought to be the case, that is the actual facts of the case.

Dave Powell

Which is interesting, because I don't think that is the case over here. What is your quick take on why that is? We obviously have a bit of that in our politics, but it's definitely not that poisonous, right? Like Boris Johnson. Ex-Arsehole Prime Minister of the ex-Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. But he was very big up on the climate stuff. So what in a nutshell, and I know people write extremely long books about this, what's going on there? Why is it so particularly?

David Roberts

I would say two short things. One is that's difference between a parliamentary system and a two party system, right? So parliamentary systems allow your nut-bags to be sorted into a fringe party and not take over a major party, right? You can have fringe rights.

Dave Powell

A few months ago.

David Roberts

Mostly. I feel like our politics are infecting yours in a lot of ways, but it's part of the party is a two party system and part of it is just US culture versus European culture. US just has this long history of racism inflected hostility toward liberal values. And I think if you want something controversial on that previous question, I think not only is climate change of partisan issue in descriptive fact, I think it is basically a liberal issue, period. It can only be understood and solved through the application of liberal values. It requires, for instance, cooperation among countries.

Hey, look, the right is full of nationalists who hate that shit. It requires zero-sum cooperation. Oh, look, the Right is full of lunatics who hate that stuff and it requires some sacrifice in the present for people in the future. It requires some sacrifice on the part of rich, wealthy people on behalf of poor people. All of those things are anathema to true reactionaries. Right? So I think, like many global problems today, it solicits basically small L liberal values to solve it. I just think reactionaries are ill suited to the modern world, period.

Oliver Hayes

So how do you win, then? A lot of people, certainly in the UK, say, can't we all just get along? Can't we find a way to make climate sound like it's what, to use your word, reactionaries, like ...

Dave Powell

Red wine is going to get more expensive. They like that, don't they?

Oliver Hayes

Yeah, exactly. What we need to appeal to their values such that they think that climate policies are in their interests.

David Roberts

We get a lot of that in the US too. I think that can sort of narrow individual cases work sometimes. And I think, again, it's easier to pull that off in a parliamentary system than it is in a very binary system. Like everything about US politics is about sorting. All of a certain kind of person has been sorted to one side and. All of a certain kind of person has been sorted to the other side, I think, in a much more extreme and clean way than in other countries. So when you ask what you're asking, when you talk about framing climate change in terms that will appeal to the right, national security, or economic opportunity, whatever, jobs, people have been lecturing the climate movement in the US to talk in those terms for decades and of course they constantly do.

And when they do, no one notices or gives the shit. They just return to the lectures. Because what you're asking of today's right I mean today's, right, they're so sorted that the whole thing has become an identity. These are all parts of identity. Everything from like pickup trucks, to guns, to hostility to elite institutions, to hostility to intellectuals. All of it is part of a seamless identity now. So when you're trying in the US context, you're trying to go into that seamless identity and pluck one issue out and ask these people to say, your identity is all of this.

But on this one thing, we want you to think clean, freshly and differently. Just agree with the left on this one thing. That's just not how it works in US politics. Right? Like the whole identity is a seamless garment of libs are evil. They're taking over the world. They're running pedophile rings. The idea that you could agree with them on one of their signature issues is just increasingly ludicrous. Right? It's all one thing now being on the right, and you can't really pluck individual issues out and try to free them from that dynamic. It's just it's failed over and over and over and over again.

They've been tried and failed.

Dave Powell

It's going to be much easier when China's in charge, isn't it?

Oliver Hayes

Dave's face is one of extreme pain as this.

Dave Powell

So let's change track a bit here then. So you've written and thought about climate change. I guess you'd be doing this about as long as me and Ol have like best part 20 years, right? Something like that? Kind of banging on?

David Roberts

Yeah, basically.

Dave Powell

Yeah. And I don't know about you, I suspect your brain is rather more ordered than ours. But for me, I still don't really know what climate change is in my head. I kind of have different stories of it. I was thinking the other day, what's the metaphor that I have for climate change? And I still don't know if I can really work that out. What is it in your head, like, when you think about this big abstract thing, what is the story of it in your head? Do you know that?

David Roberts

Well, that's a juicy, juicy question. And I was in grad school for philosophy for many years before I bailed out ABD and ended up randomly in journalism, which is just to say that I always have been attracted to big questions, big theoretical questions, big systems, systems thinking, I guess was always appealed to me. So when I sort of stumbled into green journalism, looking around, I was like, what interests me here? And climate change is an interesting public policy problem in that we don't really know how to think about it. We don't really know what it is.

It's difficult to think about, which is for someone who was sort of trained to do systems thinking and break things down into their pieces and et cetera, et cetera, just a feast. So it's been fun to think about it. And I think we're sort of misled when we try to think about it as an it, as a phenomenon. I think when you think about it, climate change is not a thing. It's not a force, it's not acting. It is just a description of a result, right? Like, climate is changing is the result of human behavior. So it's not doing anything.

It's not a causal. This has confused the climate dialogue for years and years as we try to talk about it as though it is a thing, a force that does things, that causes things. So, like a given storm, did climate change cause that? No, climate change is a description of the fact that the climate has changed in such a way as to produce more hurricanes, right? What caused it is the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trapping heat. Like, if you want to see a causal agent, that's the causal agent. So I would just say it is one way that we have discovered that our way of living is zero-sum.

We are burning through finite resources in such a way that it's going to come back and hurt us. And it's part of the larger sort of human evolutionary effort to transition into a non-zero-sum way of living on this Earth, a way that does not burn through finite resources and does not just tuck away problems. You know, like, that's what humans have been doing since they, you know, since they evolved from apes in the first place is like putting their trash somewhere, right? Climate change is just part of the discovery that, like, oh, humanity is big enough now and numerous enough now and powerful enough now that there is no longer any away to put the trash.

You got to stop producing the trash.

Media soundbite

The oceans are swimming in it, rivers are choked with it, coastlines are collecting it, landfills are clogged with it, our trash bags are filled with it, and it's even floating ...

David Roberts

That to me is the story. And I'll make a confession here that might drive some people crazy. I've always found climate change itself somewhat boring to write about. You come in in the 2000s, it'd be like, what am I going to write about today? And I was like, well, the the atmosphere is .0001% warmer. Like, the seas are .0001% higher. There's just not a lot of, like, news. There's not a lot of interest. There's not a lot to say about it. The stories you can write about climate change in and of itself have been written now, and they're just being written over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, which is just pretty boring to me.

The interesting story, the juicy story, the reason I'm so glad I chose this topic, and the reason I feel like despite the world falling apart, like I'm a little bit like a pig and shit these days. Is the story of transforming culture and the economy in a way that no longer produces shit, that you have to trash, that you have to store somewhere. Right? That's fascinating. That's a fascinating there's just endless interest there. And unlike climate change proper, there's stuff happening every day. Like fascinating shit is happening. There's stuff to tell, there's stories to tell every day.

And to me, if you want to get people interested in this and engaged in this and acting on this, the whole climate change terror angle I just don't think is going to get you very far. But there's a giant threat in the background and as a result, your generation is rising up to meet this threat with ingenuity and thoughtfulness. And we're changing technology and we're changing politics and we're fighting and it's like a huge fight and we're way behind, but we're starting to win. We're having victories like, you are part of a generational fight that is ultimately going to win, experiencing victories.

That, to me, is a compelling story. That to me, gets people excited and involved and engaged with you. And that, to me, if you ask me, like, what I cover as a journalist, that's what I cover, is the story of clever people, of goodwill working to solve bits and pieces of this problem. And it turns out there are a million of them out there. And in my experience, nothing. Like, if you want to cure climate depression and paralysis and angst, which are ubiquitous these days, especially among young people, nothing cures that more than stories of people out there doing shit and solving shit and figuring shit out.

I get such positive feedback on those stories. Like, maybe it's just like these two ladies trying to figure out a geothermal heating system to replace the natural gas system in their northeast town. Like, that's not going to solve climate change, but it's just a great story. Like, people who got active, found a problem, thought it through, put their backs into it, and now have a solution and it's going to work. Just like hearing about that shit is what gets people excited. So that's my almost exclusive focus these days.

Media soundbite

There is a time to surf and there is a time to wax your board. And I'm not just talking about surfing.

Oliver Hayes

But David, come on. David, you said things in there like that there are victories happening, that there are good things happening. How dare you there are species going extinct, there are people dying. How dare you be happy about anything?

David Roberts

I know I say all this like your listeners should know. Maybe they are not familiar with my work or whatever. I say all this as a lifelong and especially decades is long, catastrophist pessimist gloomy. I'm gloomy by nature. So to me the larger gloomy story is just kind of baked in at this point. I don't talk about it a lot and this to me is where I think climate change ought to be. I don't think it was ever going to work well, as a foreground issue, it should always be a background motivator. Sure. It's why I do what I do.

The threat to especially poor and vulnerable people, the threat to other species, yes, that's in the back of my head as a motivator for why I do what I do. But it's not in the foreground. To me, the foreground is doing something about it. It's a thing about progressives that I think maybe they don't all realize that they have somewhat unique psychology that they are on, let's say, the far end of a personality spectrum and the idea that they have in their heads that only overriding doom and threat can motivate people. And you wouldn't believe how often I'm told, like when I was out trying to say, hey, the Inflation Reduction Act is actually good, people.

You wouldn't believe how often I heard from people saying some version of, look, if you tell people something good happened, that there was a victory, well, then they'll just think, oh, we've got this thing licked, and they'll stop fighting as the only constant stomach churning angst can keep people involved. And I just want to tell progressives, like normal people aren't like that, right? If you give normal people stomach churning angst, they'll just turn the TV off. They don't feel like you like they're morally obliged to wallow in it. They'll just tune you out. If you want to get other people involved.

We need victories, we need a sense of momentum, we need a sense that this is the fight of our times and victory is possible. The idea that people are solely motivated by dread is a weird preoccupation of progressives that I think is just wrong. As a matter of sociology and psychology.

Oliver Hayes

If stuff is sort of happening, well, the good things are happening, clever people are doing brilliant things and telling that story is clearly, you know, we need more of that and it's and it's all good then. Are you sort of ambivalent about the role of protest movements? Should they instead just be kind of looking to tell the story of, as you say, the people finding ingenious solutions to how to heat their homes or heat their communities or whatever, rather than drawing attention to either the broader climate crisis or specific injustices is protest in our social movements, at best benign, at worst a drag on progress.

David Roberts

This was the wrong question. This was the wrong question. If you're running out of time, I was going to say I'll say a couple of things. First, this is another thing that I feel like some activists get wrong. Not everybody has to be doing the same thing. Not everybody has to be taking the same approach, right? You need a portfolio of approaches. You need an ecosystem working at this. And so the technologists beavering away in their labs, the entrepreneurs trying to push these products into market and scale them up, the storytellers and artists and then the agitators and protesters, all of these are useful roles and they all have their place in the fight.

And nothing is dumber than when people from one or the other of those factions yells at people from the other factions that they should be more like their faction, right? It's fine for people to have different approaches to this. It's good. Like, the more the better. So, yes, there's a huge role for storytelling about victories and for tech optimism and all that stuff that activists disdain and looked out on. Yes, there's a role for all that stuff, but of course there's also a role for agitation and protest and this sort of like Andre's Mom that is also a piece of the puzzle.

So on a general level, of course, I think activism and protest are a big piece of the puzzle. Secondarily, what kind of activism and agitation works is a much more complicated question about which I am vigorously ambivalent. I mean, one of the things I would say I was just talking to ...

Oliver Hayes

I like the idea of ambivalence, by the way. I drop that position in a lot of different ways.

David Roberts

I know t-shirts. I was just talking to a guy who's been in progressive PR for 50 years. So he got his start, like working with Abbie Hoffman and going to the Chicago Seven trial and doing like the vintage 60s and 70s left his activism and stuff. And as he was telling me stories, I was just like, yes, they were trying shit to get attention. New shit, crazy shit, shit that they knew would be weird and controversial. Like trying to levitate the Pentagon and joining hands around the Pentagon and trying to levitate it. Like all this kind of nutty shit, a lot of which turned out to be sort of counterproductive, but a lot of which was hugely generative.

And I just feel like since then, protest on the left, at least in the US. Has been kind of like professionalized, somewhat. Like we have these big rich NGOs who have all the institutional incentives of large institutions, number one of which is to perpetuate the existence of the institution, right? Which leads to a certain conservatism in your approach because you don't want to do something big and controversial that blows up in your face, right? Even like protests on the left, like you get a bunch of people together, you get your permit, you march down the street with your placards.

There's some twinky folk music concert followed by a bunch of sort of mid-level speeches that nobody cares about. The whole protest game, the whole protest thing has been sort of like routineized and professionalized and, and made bland. No one gives a shit. Like no, like in the US, like the media is like, oh, there's a big left protest, they just don't care. Like but, but look at how they covered the Tea Party protests with like twelve people at them. Got shitloads of attention just cause it's like a man bites dog kind of thing. It's like unusual.

It's like a different group of people who have funny costumes ...

Oliver Hayes

Well, it's authentic right? You can tell.

David Roberts

Right, right. It feels like it's not like a professional protest group doing what they do, putting on a professional protest. So I would say yes. I think protests and agitation are a huge piece of the puzzle, but I really think modern contemporary activists need to have a real hard think about what works to capture attention in the current media and political environment, and that I don't feel like we have great answers for, like, what can cause the attention. The sort of media machine to take pause and be like, "Whoa."

Media soundbite

Worth more than justice. Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people? The cost of living crisis ...

Oliver Hayes

Okay, to get to give you an example, in, in the UK and in Europe then throwing soup on very famous works of art, right. Because I think a lot of people have instinctive reaction to that has been a bit sniffy and a bit like what's the theory of change here?

David Roberts

It's nothing to do.

Oliver Hayes

But I mean, I can't think of many acts of protests in the last ten years that have had as much controversy as that.

David Roberts

Exactly. I'm inclined to think that's goofy too. I'm inclined to all the same questions like what is, what the hell are you doing? Like what's the idea? Like, what are you trying to convey? But, but they got attention, right? Like people are paying attention and they don't pay attention when you do polite things. So I would say maybe throwing soup on artwork would not be my choice of a thing to do, but it's the right idea. Do something different. Do something different that gets attention. Recapture some of that sort of Abbie Hoffman throw a wrench in the works spirit.

It won't all work, but you got to do something that makes people think. I'm a big fan or I'm constantly talking about what's called social proof. You talk to sociologists. This is a concept in sociology called social proof, which is like even if we believe things, we really don't act on them unless we get signals from people we know and see and trust that it's okay to do so. Right. It's not just enough to persuade people to be concerned about climate change in their offices and whatever. We need signals of it. That it's okay, we need social signals saying yes, other people are also concerned about this.

It's okay to come out and be public about being concerned about it. It is a thing we do. And there's been some fascinating analyses of the civil rights movement in the US. And what a big role this played. And one of the things they found through polling is like in the late 50s and early 60s, majorities of the public were ready for desegregation, but they all thought that other people weren't, right.

Dave Powell

Pluralistic ignorance. That's right.

David Roberts

Exactly. Exactly. Thank you. That's the exact term. And, and the the cure for pluralistic ignorance is social proof. Somebody standing up and doing something that gets attention, signaling. Yes, I too am concerned about this. A bunch of people are. It's okay to be out and proud about being concerned about this, and this is what we need on climate change. And just a polite march doesn't do that. If it's an existential problem, right? We're constantly saying this. If it's an existential problem, if you're just like a normie watching TV, you could be forgiven for thinking, well, look, if it's an existential problem, why are you giving grumpy quotes to the media and then going back to your day job?

Why are you living like things are normal if we're in an existential problem? So somebody's got to break that pattern and do something that is different and counterintuitive, that attracts attention and that says to other people, it's okay to be freaked out about this. We're all freaked out about this. It's okay to look around at the sort of normality of this moment and be freaked out about it. Because we're not doing what we need to do. We're not as engaged, we're not on wartime footing, whatever. And we should be. That's a super long answer, which is just to say agitation and protest.

Absolutely, yes. But let's think about what works or just what what works to get attention, what's different? You know, just think again about that sort of rebellious spirit of the 60s rather than the sort of like professionalized protest, I feel like, of the current day.

Dave Powell

There you go. So we were right a few episodes ago and we said what we need to do is open up the petrol caps of cars and shit in there. That's the Babble's plan. So that wasn't an official Babble position, but it now is... You are an amazing writer, I hope you don't mind me saying. I love your stuff. An article of yours that you wrote ten years ago about something economics was I just sent that to everyone. I used to work at economics. It was good. What is your like, people out there that listen to the Babble and indeed maybe host the Babble may occasionally write stuff and sometimes it can be difficult.

Have you got writing tips for something like climate change or just in general? What's your kind of advice for people?

David Roberts

Yeah, I once wrote an article about exactly that if people want to search my name and it's on Vox. Basically it's about explanatory journalism, which I guess is the term now for what I do. I sort of hate that term. But yes, the thing is, what I found when I entered this field is that at least like back in the early 2000s when I started writing about climate change was almost uniformly boring. And that's changed a little bit, but not as much as I would like. It's almost always boring. And I feel like when people write about serious topics, they try to sort of put on their serious voice, I'm a professional hat and I'm a serious person hat and I'm using facts and that's an ego thing, right, that's worrying about how you appear.

People want to appear professional and serious even at the expense of producing boring material that no one reads. This is true on a lot of issues and topics and true in a general way, but especially true of climate change and especially when I started. So I think the reason I sort of caught on in the first place and got a fan base to the extent I did during those early years, is I just talked about it like a normal human, like a human being who was discovering and thinking this stuff through in real time, in view. Right.

Not hiding, not trying to pretend like I'm an authority. I never still don't try to pretend like I'm an authority. I'm just like you. I just happen to have a lucky job which gives me the time to do a lot of reading around about it. Like there's nothing special about me. I just had the time to read and study this stuff. So I want to help you understand it because you listener are a normal person that have a day job and a life and family and responsibilities and don't have time to immerse yourself in this. I do have time.

So it's a privilege for me to be able to do that and then to come to you and say, here it is, sort of boiled down like here's what you need to know about what's going on and the shape of things. Just like as though I were talking to a kind of clever friend at a bar. That's the analogy, that's the sort of metaphor I used in my post is imagine you were explaining this stuff to a person, to a friend of yours in a bar.

Now go read a journalistic piece about climate change and think, would you talk to a friend in a bar like that in this stuffy official Voice? No, the number one thing you would be thinking about in a bar with a friend is how do I not bore this friend? How do I explain this in such a way that the friend gives a shit, right?

Dave Powell

Are you listening to this Ol? Are you listening?

Oliver Hayes

I've had to choose my freinds very carefully.

David Roberts

So what is the nugget of interest or significance in this story that people really do need to know? Pull it out and say it. What does it mean? What's the takeaway? Don't be afraid to sort of draw your conclusions and take your stances. This whole idea of neutrality or objectivity is so silly. I have taken the opposite tact of subjectivity. Like, I am a person learning about this and reading about this. I will make mistakes, I've changed my mind about stuff. But basically, like, I'm your avatar, digging into this stuff and coming back to you and telling you what you need to know to be an educated citizen.

And my first primary goal in that is not to bore your f****** pants off. So I use humor, I use profanity, I use pictures of cute animals. It's such a heavy topic. Don't be afraid to just use humor and don't be afraid to sort of take a position, take a stance, make some arguments. Like, a lot of people, I'll make an argument, a lot of people will write me and will be infuriated and argue back, but they're paying attention and they're thinking about it, engaging and caring. Like, arguments are not like this whole idea of objectivity is like, if you make an argument, you're doing the reader's thinking for them.

I'm just like, no, I came out of philosophy. Like making an argument, taking a stand is how you prompt thinking in other people. Hearing an argument is what gets people thinking, right? They're like, do I agree with this? Do I want to argue back? What are the flaws in this argument? So I've just always tried to be informal and engaging, and that has proven to be very rare in this particular field, which is why I think people have gravitated toward it.

Oliver Hayes

David, thank you so much for coming on. Sustainababble, being informal, engaging, magnificently, swearing vigorously, ambivalent and all round superhero. Give the necessary plugs to your stuff. Where can people follow you and read what you're up to?

David Roberts

I run a newsletter. It is called Volts. It is at the url, volts.wtf. And I haven't been writing as much lately because I've got issues with my arms and my tendons and whatnot. So I've been more podcasting than writing lately, but hopefully I'll restore more of a balance coming. But for now, I've just had been podcasting with all the fascinating people I was referring to earlier, and it's caught on quite well and it's doing quite well. So, yeah, come sign up for Volts, come subscribe and get all this delight you've heard in the last hour.

You can have it every week.

Oliver Hayes

Right, that is just about it for another episode of Sustainababble, a mind expanding, lovely, warm cuddly illuminating episode of babble. I enjoyed that a lot. I think from the expression on your face sometimes, Dave, sometimes when we interview people, I can tell that you're thinking, not going to use this or need to move them onto something else. And I was watching your face, which is the thing I like doing. And I was watching your face. And your face was one of kind of zen-like contentment. You were drinking in what David was saying and you had absolutely no intention to interrupt.

Dave Powell

No, I love all that shit. You know me. You know about my other podcast, Your Brain on Climate.

Oliver Hayes

I don't. I've genuinely never listened to it.

Dave Powell

Bastard.

Oliver Hayes

I listen to the pilot when you asked me to check if it's all right, but I haven't listened to any other ...

Dave Powell

Absolute Judith. Anyway, I love all that.

Oliver Hayes

I haven't listened to my own podcast Dave. Why would I listen to yours?

Dave Powell

I love people. I just like people who just kind of make me feel like it's all right not to have all the answers to everything. Basically, that's why I've stuck with you for eight years, because you make me feel very intellectually confident, I must say.

Oliver Hayes

That's one of my greatest roles in life, making other people feel better about their intellectual capabilities.

Dave Powell

If you like what you heard, you can pop onto your podcast medium of choice. Itunes obviously, I think other podcast mediums are available what allow you to give a rating. Please give us a five star rating if you think it's worth it. And write a review with your hands. Algorithms like it when you do that. You can drop us an email at hello at sustainababbel.fish. We're on the Facebook @Sustainababble and the Twitter @thebabblewagon.

Oliver Hayes

Very good. Thank you, as ever, to Dicky Moore for the music that begins, ends and intersprinkles this podcast. And to Arthur Stovel for the artwork, which is on all of our stuff, including t-shirts that you can get from, Art Girt, from our website, which is wobblywobblywobbly sustainababble.fish

Dave Powell

Right, that's it. What will you be doing with the rest of your evening, old son?

Oliver Hayes

I will be just being zen about the fact that good stuff is happening and that we don't need to worry, man, about stuff.

Dave Powell

I'm off around your house to open up the petrol cap of your Volvo and take a shit in it.

Oliver Hayes

Leave my Volvo alone. It's a very sensible family car.

Dave Powell

Bye.

Oliver Hayes

Bye.

This episode warrants one of your little jokes.

Dave Powell

I mean, yes, I think it does. I think it wasn't long enough already and now you're going to shut up and listen to this, right? Hang on, you there?, you won't want to miss this. You'll miss it and it's gone.

Oliver Hayes

Come on.

Dave Powell

Come on... Hang on a priest, an imam and a rabbit walk in to a blood donation center.

Oliver Hayes

I don't like where this is going already. And I feel like this, if we can hear it, canceled. This. Shouldn't be the point where we get canceled.

Dave Powell

A priest, an imam and a rabbit walk in to a blood donation center and they all have their blood test and afterwards,

Oliver Hayes

Have you sense checked this joke with anyone? And after running it past Mrs. Dave.

Dave Powell

Afterwards, the priest and the imam say to the rabbit, "What blood type are you?" And the rabbit says, "I think I'm a typo."

Oliver Hayes

That is quite a good joke.

Dave Powell

Thank you. It works better in print, that joke, but thank you.

2 Comments
Volts
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!)