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Climate Change, Nuclear Energy, and Capitalism: A Conversation with Dr. Steven Cohen, Senior Advisor, the Earth Institute

Dr. Steven Cohen, Senior Advisor, the Earth Institute


I want to want to walk through your background. You became interested in sustainability when it wasn't that cool to be interested in this subject. How did you develop an interest in our climate and environment? Way back when? 

Well, I was in graduate school from 1975 to 1979. In fall 1975, I found myself walking into a class called Environmental Policy and Politics, and I was interested mildly, but I had no real idea of what it was. I had a great professor and we read a bunch of classics like Limits to Growth and Mankind at the Turning Point and all the early classics in the field of environmental protection. And so I got interested in it.

In 1976 Jimmy Carter became president and in ‘77 he got inaugurated and a friend of mine who is another professor was on his transition team. And he gets assigned to a fellow named Doug Costel, who was going to become the head of the EPA. Now, my friend was an org theory guy. He was a management professor. He knew nothing about water policy, but he got assigned to the Office of Water. And I was there at that point writing my dissertation on public participation in water policy. 

So he called me up and says, "Aren't you doing some stuff on water?" 

I said, "Yeah".

So he said, well, you got to come down and help me for a while. So I'm in the middle of my doctoral studies, but I fly down to Washington I am at the EPA for four months and I am staffing a working group on how to involve the public on water policy. 

The US enacted the Water Act in 1972. What people don't know is it actually was cast over Richard Nixon's veto. 

By 77, they were putting the meat on the bones of the actors when you pass a law in Washington. It takes years before it gets put into effect. That was my first experience in EPA.   

You also headed up the Earth Institute at Columbia University. For those that don't know, is one of the preeminent institutions on environmentalism in the United States and the world. Can you talk about a little bit more about the institute does 

The Earth Institute is a university-wide institute. It has about 700 people. It includes the Lemont Darity Earth Observatory, which is about 350 people.  The research side includes well over 100 climate scientists, the biggest collection of climate scientists in the world. The Goddard Institute for Space Studies runs one of the most important climate models. 

Jeffery Sachs was our visionary chief and I was the Executive Director guy who ran the day-to-day. Jeff and I worked very, very well together. He is one of the truly great visionaries is on sustainable development. Jeff is a great communicator. He's incredibly smart. And he's a wonderful person. He really cares about poverty, environmentalism, and climate change really cares. He is a real inspiration. 

We're sitting at a crossroads in 2020 about what we're going to do for climate change. The U.N. says we have roughly 11 years left to prevent irreversible damage to the climate. As someone who has run some of the biggest programs on climate in the world, what are your thoughts on the stakes for climate inaction? And what kind of world you people kind of world will live in if we don't build a more sustainable world?

It's not just climate. I mean, it's things like COVID-19. It's biodiversity. It's species extinction. It's creating a circular economy. We discard everything we don't use. We need to close the whole loop. Plastics are all over the oceans and that's having an impact. It's everything. However, the climate is the issue that is the ticking time bomb.  

The issue of climate, of course, is that the greenhouse gases are accumulating and it's warming the planet. It's all of these issues together. We have to get smarter about how we produce and consume. We need to create and maintain a high throughput economy, but we need to do it much more thoughtfully. 

In the case of climate change, the single most important issue is decarbonizing energy. Fossil fuels were created millions of years ago and we're not running out quickly, but there's less of that now than there were a hundred years ago. And they're getting harder to get to. The thing about fossil fuels is you got to dig them out of the ground or drilling out of the ground or beneath the ocean. You've got to transport them to where you use them. Each of those things has as a financial cost and environmental cost. 

In the end, each of those is a cost that not does compare that to solar power. The sun is free and the technology of absorbing solar power and storing it is getting more efficient and cheaper. If you look at the cost curves about four or five years ago, solar is cheaper than fossil fuels. Now, what's needed now because solar and wind are intermittent is better battery technology. 

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Larry Page and all these guys, all these creative minds that built these billion-dollar businesses, right? Yeah. So that's 20, 30 years in the past. You know, somewhere there's a kid, a couple of kids in a basement, probably in Hong Kong. And they're building that battery right now. 

The next billionaire is going to be the person who develops this technology. It's going to be a solar array with a battery the size of your laptop that costs 300 dollars. You put on your window and it's so efficient it can even work in an apartment building and it will allow you to decouple your apartment from the grid. We've already seen this with cable TV. We've seen this with telephones. Technology that was highly centralized and you paid by the month got replaced by the Internet. Now the question is when is not IF it's going to happen its WHEN is it going to happen?

One of the great opportunities over the next decade is going to be there's a lot of parts of the world where maybe about a billion people live that are not connected to the electrical grid. These societies can leapfrog straight to renewable energy. 

If this technology gets deployed in cities, it's not that we're going to get rid of that grid because there could be some places that need more energy than you can generate in this particular way, but most for most individuals and most small businesses, they won't. They won't need the grid. 

The problem is the oil companies and all their infrastructure is going to go broke. The way I often put it and put it the biggest environmental problem in New York City had in 1905 was horse manure. We were knee-deep in it because the main way of getting around was horse-drawn carriages

So what do we do? 

We built the elevated subway with the belt and eventually the subway and the internal combustion engine. We didn't tax the horse that would have to put a tax on the horse to get rid of it. 

You know, we invented something cheaper and better to run and people gravitated to it. This is my issue with the carbon tax. Rather than raising the price of fossil fuels to stimulate innovation, I would directly stimulate innovation. I would have governments and financiers fund the capital for research and development on renewable energy in the solar arrays, the wind, geothermal, and that battery technology. 

I think it's happening. It's not happening in the sort of, you know, moonshot way that I'd like to see it. But I think it's happening. You're going to see this transition.

Can I ask a spicier question on energy? I don't think this is controversial for the average person, but I believe this controversial among the environmental movement. What do you make of nuclear energy? 

The reason I ask is that transition to solar requires a big change in infrastructure and habits of how you produce energy and given that we have a small amount of time and people are used to centralized energy.

Would nuclear power make more sense while we build up our solar capacity?

I worked for a year on nuclear waste programs.

The problem with nuclear power is not necessarily technological, political, and regulatory. And so the odds of an accident are very small. But if you have an accident, you get Fukushima. The potential for catastrophe is high. 

Barry Commoner is one of the founders of the environmental movement, had a great comment about nuclear power. He said it's a hell of a complicated way to boil water because what you're basically doing is creating steam to run a turbine. Yes. Now, the reason the problem of nuclear is that we've developed the wrong kind. Had we gone toward fusion instead of fission we would've been better off. 

After World War Two, we were freaked out about nuclear power. And so Dwight Eisenhower, the president at the time created Atoms for Peace. The idea is we've got to harness the power of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes instead of for war. And we're trying to change the image of nuclear power. 

And the idea, they say, be too cheap to meter because it would be so inexpensive. 

The problem is that it didn't because we had to make sure it was safe and the safety protocols for the nuclear power plants were very poor and very expensive. Then you also created a waste that had to be you had to do something with. The third part is that a melted-down nuclear power plant is extremely hazardous, so it's a target for terrorism. And the last part is the same technology that creates the fuel for nuclear power plants and creates the materials for nuclear bombs so you have to be careful. 

If you could create a nuclear power where it didn't create dangerous radioactivity and it couldn't be used for a bomb and you didn't need to have all these containment vessels around, it was cheaper. Then it would make sense. 

Unfortunately, that isn't what we had. So we have full nuclear power. Yes, it's carbon-free, but it's not toxic-free. And it creates waste that in this country we haven't figured out what to do and it's a political problem.

One of the interesting things is that they hired archaeologists to create symbols for the casks so that a quarter million years from now, when it's still toxic and our civilization is gone, some other civilization would know to leave this stuff alone. 

I guess your point is, is that whether we go solar or nuclear or whatever, there's going to be immense challenges to implement political and structural change. 

Yes, I believe solar is easier.

There is an argument out there that capitalism and environmentalism are incompatible and that one inherently will bring harm to the other. What are your thoughts on this? I know you've written and thought about this quite a bit.

I think it's the opposite because I think what capitalism does is incentivizes innovation. 

The way that we live. You know, access to food and entertainment. You know, an interesting lifestyle. We like all this stuff. And it came because of capitalism. Capitalism brought about refrigeration, air conditioning, the Internet, all these kinds of things. 

If you look at environmental protection in America and the West in general. From the 1920s until 1980, you see the GDP is pretty much going up except for the Great Depression, but pretty much going up straight and pollution going right with it. 

The EPA gets created in the 1970s and by 1980, all those early laws are finally being implemented at the local level. Water, toxins, air and you seem to decouple GDP keeps growth and pollution keeps going down. 

How did that happen? 

We created new technologies. 

Even though there are many more automobiles than they used to be, but they pollute a whole lot less and get much better gas mileage. Power plants have scrubbers on them now so they get rid of all the sulfur dioxide and most pollutants that come out of the power plants. Unfortunately not greenhouse gases. Today's refrigerators, air conditioners use a quarter of the energy that they used in the 50s and 60s because it became a design parameter.

All of this happens because *regulated* capitalism with serious environmental rules unleashes innovation. Total free market not so much. 

The financial incentive for most companies is to meet Wall Street quarterly earnings and not make investments towards sustainable innovation. How can we move businesses towards sustainability and would that require us to change the metrics on what we measure as the success of a business?

Yes, this is a complicated issue. The whole issue of sustainability metrics is complicated. We have to come up with generally accepted sustainability metrics similar to how we have generally accepted accounting metrics. 

The other thing about sustainability is that it is about reducing environmental impact and waste. Theoretically reducing environmental impact and waste you actually improve the cost structure. The other issue is that environmental risks can drive up business costs. Look at the BP Oil spill about a decade ago, they lost billions of dollars due to environmental risks. Investors are starting to ask what the environmental and climate risk of a business.  

Right now people are asking the same questions about the supply chain because of the virus. More sophisticated analytics on products are produced and how secure and safe this company will also include sustainability issues.  

One of the biggest forces for sustainability in the private sector evidently is Wal-Mart and the green that they care about is the kind in your wallet and not the one in the forest. Wal-Mart has huge stores that are flat and they are putting solar arrays on them. 

Wal-Mart probably does not care about the environment, maybe they do, but they do it because it saves Wal-Mart money. You add the culture change because people want this stuff. 

What can an average person do to be more sustainable and combat climate change?

The way I look at it is that sustainability has to be achieved in levels. I wrote a book called Sustainable City, which talked about sustainability systems: energy, water, transportation, waste. You cannot do those on your own. You need the city to create that infrastructure. 

The second level is that organizations and managers need to integrate sustainability into their day-to-day management. Those changes are underway. In the 1990s a lot of businesses had international desks. Now every desk is an international desk. That will happen with sustainability 

The third level is lifestyle. There are choices you can make on how you live. For Millennials and younger, consumption is a means to an end. This is a generational change. They do not care as much about owning the means of consumption. Take ridesharing for example. People want to still be in places, but they do not necessarily want to own the car. Companies like Rent the Runway are making hand me down clothing high fashion. People in their individual lifestyle increasingly want to experience things than own and consume things. 

There is of course ensuring our public officials take the collective action to lead. We need the private sector, but we need the government. We need collective action, but we need individual action. 

A lot of environmentalists are pessimistic, but I am optimistic and I think we are actually going to solve these problems. 

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