Stephen Lacey: This week, beyond the politics of limits to the politics of possibility. Shayle Kann and I talk with Alex Trembath, the communication director for The Breakthrough Institute about smashing our conventional beliefs around how to protect the planet. To The Breakthrough Institute, it means more technology, more economic growth and counterintuitively more energy use, not just setting limits. If you've hung around energy circles for any amount of time, you know The Breakthrough Institute. It has a reputation for being contrarian and in the past downright antagonistic to conventional ways of thinking about environmentalism, clean energy and climate change. In fact, the organization was born from an idea that traditional environmentalists had it all wrong.
At this point I know there are people out there who are already putting their intellectual guard up. At Greentech Media if we feature any opinion from The Breakthrough Institute on the site, we're sure to get negative tweets and responses or sometimes downright conspiratorial commentary about why we're giving them a voice. Because they've [angered] a lot of people over the last decade. But please, if you're already going into this conversation with your guard up, I ask you to drop it. Just try. Check your baggage at the door. The whole purpose of this podcast is to get beyond the tribal warfare on Twitter and get into what The Breakthrough Institute actually believes. To stop throwing rocks. I could just go on and on. Use whatever kind of conflict metaphor you want to use -- but stop it.
In this episode we're going to talk with Alex about where the group stands on renewables, nuclear, evidence-based climate policy and why human ingenuity is the best tool to save the planet. We'll define "ecomodernism" as well, and we'll spend some time on tribalism itself and how to get beyond it. This conversation with Alex Trembath was a long time coming, and I think you'll hear in this interview that The Breakthrough Institute is striking a different tone these days. Staying firm in its core principles, but in a less combative way. I enjoyed the conversation thoroughly, so let's get into it. I started out asking Alex if he thinks of himself as a contrarian.
Alex Trembath: That's a good question. I don't for a few reasons. The first being I don't think anyone thinks of themselves as a contrarian purely. I try to go where the evidence takes me, not the opposite of where the evidence takes everybody else. I don't think anyone really thinks of themselves purely as contrarian. But also in terms of Breakthrough, in terms of environmental issues, in terms of the way that ecomodernists look at the world, I think the environmental winds are sort of shifting in our or that direction in a bunch of ways. You think about nuclear energy, you think about industrial-scale agriculture and biotech, you think about cities and increased density, you think about general technology-based approaches to solving environmental problems -- I think that it's maybe less contrarian as an outlook than it used to be.
Also, both substantively and strategically, we at Breakthrough are trying to be sort of less deconstructive of conventional environmental approaches and more proactively building a positive environmental paradigm that we call "ecomodernism," other people call "ecopragmatism," other people don't call it anything, but one that is...proactive, it's optimistic, it's positive, it is inclusive of different perspectives and fundamentally it's about how technology and modernization can help solve environmental problems.
Stephen Lacey: Let's explore that a little bit more. Tell me what ecomodernism is exactly. I mean, traditional environmentalism, we can talk about this too, but I think traditional environmentalism has been about...Breakthrough has called it the politics of limits, and it's this idea that humans are the problem so we need to limit what humans do to the planet, and this ecomodernism approach -- and please, of course, correct me if I'm wrong -- it's this idea that technology implementation, human ingenuity and greater economic growth is actually the way we solve environmental problems.
Alex Trembath: Yeah, that's pretty much exactly right. If you go back into this long history of The Breakthrough Institute, one of the earliest critiques of environmentalism which I still think rings true and I think is a valid critique of conventional environmentalism, is that it is about limits on human activity, often on human creativity. It is a limit on technology, a limit on consumption, and ultimately, as you said, a politics of limits, which is both...impractical and not inspiring. So the...founding idea of The Breakthrough Institute and one of the founding ideas of ecomodernism was to reject the politics of limits and embrace the politics of possibility, and that means embracing technology, especially cleaner, more innovative and environmentally friendly technologies. It means imagining a future that is good for both humans and nature, and trying to imagine and increasing research and understanding the technological developmental pathways that will make that possible.
Shayle Kann: How does that play out specifically in the context of climate change? Where there's no question I assume you agree that what you need to do in order to combat climate change is set limits in this case on greenhouse gas emissions. So is it just how you go about achieving those limitations that you think is a different view from the traditional environmentalist? Or do you actually disagree with the notion that we need to impose limits on greenhouse gas emissions?
Alex Trembath: I think it depends on what you mean by set or impose limits. I don't think that the evidence is in favor of the efficacy of any formally set or imposed limit. If you look at things like Kyoto, if you look at things like climate targets in Germany that were recently postponed -- the actual...formal legal limits we set on emissions have tended to be a combination of toothless [policies that were] ultimately discarded whereas you can actually achieve emissions reductions or input whatever environmental goal you have. You can actually achieve environmental goals without setting hard targets and timetables. This was actually one the very first contributions of The Breakthrough Institute -- [the idea that] it isn't the target or the timetable or the cap or the limit or the goal itself that achieves that goal.
But it is the tools that are required and able to achieve those goals. So we don't have to get together as a global community and say that emissions need to be zeroed out completely by 2050 in order to make progress toward doing that. We're already reducing emissions in a lot of countries around the world, including the United States, and emissions caps or goals or limits had nothing to do with emissions reductions in the United States broadly over the last decade or so which was mostly natural gas replacing coal, people driving less and also significant contributions from renewables, particularly wind energy.
Shayle Kann: So what about the case of the Paris climate accords then? Presumably, that's the global community coming together and imposing limits or restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions -- self-imposed. It qualifies, I think, as what you said before it's somewhat toothless and probably insufficient by most climate scientists' measures, and so I guess the presumption would be then that you think that there would be a different path that the global community could take which would achieve more than Paris would on its own. If that's true, what does that look like?
Alex Trembath: Frankly, I'm mostly happy with the Paris Agreement itself. Some of the rhetoric around the Paris Agreement, including from the parties that negotiated -- it gets a little hyperbolic sometimes, but we have now finally set limits on ourselves that we will hit. The fruit of the agreement itself that is a lot more compelling is that it is not some global number that everyone has to agree to reach in aggregate, but it is this internationally determined contribution. So every country gets to set its own target, which I think is a much more realistic and pragmatic approach. It is, in its language and in its actual efforts and goals, very technology-based; it tries to describe national targets for each country that are based upon [that country's] developmental and technological trajectories. I think it is a much more pragmatic and actually sort of bottom-up, as opposed to top-down, global framework than what came before it.
That said, a lot of the rhetoric around it does tilt toward -- we finally have a global community committed to limiting carbon emissions. I think a lot of this is mostly literally just that rhetoric, and it's mostly fine, because the actual meat of the accord is really sort of a lot more bottom-up and pragmatic than that. I don't necessarily see a huge need to spend years or decades improving on it and creating a new global framework when the work that we acknowledge that Paris needs to be done is mostly going to be at the national and often multinational, but not usually global, level, and it's mostly going to be about what are the technological choices that we have available to us today and how do we expand and improve those technological choices.
Stephen Lacey: The focus on the Paris climate agreement is perhaps a little bit too narrow as I interpret the politics of limits. To me the politics of limits was about traditional environmentalists always saying no to things and seeing economic growth as a negative consequence. When "The Death of Environmentalism," the essay that was kind of the foundation for the founding of The Breakthrough Institute, was published in 2004 and in 2007 the book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility was published, it called out traditional environmentalism for basically seeing humans as just the problem and to really just be focused on setting limits for things rather than looking at the broader impact of economic growth on people's relationship to the environment.
So really, it isn't about just one particular framework; it's about saying, 'No, we should be saying yes to a lot of things,' and the knock-on effect of greater economic growth and human empowerment is that people care more about the environment; they move into cities and find greater economic opportunity and have more limited impact on the land. They create more opportunities for themselves; they're not just burning firewood and stripping forests -- you name it; there are a lot of impacts. This is a framework that angered a lot of traditional environmentalists.
Shayle Kann: Is one of the reasons that it angered a lot of environmentalists that it presented them as a straw man with a unified voice that didn't really reflect their views? I'm not super embedded within that world, so I don't really know that I have the answer to this but I certainly haven't run across anybody in my travels in this energy and climate world who truly believes that humans are nothing but the problem. I'm sure they're out there, but I wonder whether they're sort of a somewhat fringe community and most of the environmentalists out there, people who call themselves environmentalists, agree with the notion that technology is going to go a long way toward helping us solve these problems and that there's a more complex relationship between humans and the environment than is presented in what you just described, Stephen.
Stephen Lacey: For sure, that's a very simplistic way of characterizing it -- and Alex, please feel free to jump in here -- but I also think that that world, Shayle, has changed in the last decade because the technological solutions have evolved, and in 2004 when "The Death of Environmentalism" came out, really the environmental movement was based around setting limits, around saying no to things. There just weren't the kind of technological options for reducing carbon emissions and other pollutants that we have today. Alex, your thoughts on Shayle's interpretation of my characterization and how things have changed?
Alex Trembath: Yeah, I think you're both right. Shayle, I think if you look around today at environmental advocacy, you see exactly what you describe, which is -- it is more optimistic, it is technologically inclusive, particularly of technologies of solar and wind, and it's...less reliant on the politics of limits than it used to be. But as Stephen says, you go back 10 years to when the book was written or 14 years to when "The Death of Environmentalism" essay was written -- it was a lot different. And it's funny now, because the fundamental premises of the essay and then the book were ideas, like rules and regulations are not nearly sufficient to address environmental problems like climate change or biodiversity laws. We need a more optimistic, more proactive policy platform and practice platform to address those much more difficult problems. It was about how a politics of limits is worse than a politics of possibility, both practically and in terms of inspiring action and inspiring coalitions.
It was about a technology-based approach to environmental problems. The technology-based approach espoused by Breakthrough and in the early days of The Breakthrough Institute was really built on solar, wind and electric vehicles, and it was a respect for developmental priorities in emerging economies that were not necessarily climate- or environment-focused. You still have at least half the planet aiming to achieve something like a modern life, whether that means a life like an American leads or a life like a European leads or a life like a person in Korea or Japan leads. That was sort of the fundamental foundation of Break Through, the book, and The Breakthrough Institute, and none of that sounds all that controversial today -- I think, again, because the tide is turning in favor of these clearly effective technological approaches to environmental problems.
So it was controversial at the time, and Shayle, you may be right that some of that came from grouping environmentalists together in the sort of monolithic label "environmentalists," and that remains a problem for us and for a lot of other people, but I do think it's fair to describe conventional environmentalism from the '50s and '60s or throughout the intervening half-century as mostly focused on consuming less, sort of living more lightly -- on being anti-technology, very often anti-growth, anti-modernization. I just don't think it's practical anymore. I think it's the source of a lot of cognitive dissonance among environmentalists between that, on the one hand, and enthusiasm now for technological solutions like solar and electric vehicles in cities on the other hand.
I think that since those ideas really came to the front in the last decade or so, there has been a lot of really productive cognitive dissonance among environmentalists, causing a lot of shifting attitudes about technology and about growth, but I do think that broadly, on average, Stephen, your description of environmentalism was true, remains plausibly true and explains a lot of the resistance to those ideas over the years.
Stephen Lacey: I just want to be clear -- we owe a lot to the four or five decades of environmental activists in this country for getting regulations passed, giving us clean air and clean water. We wouldn't be where we are today without those movements, but we're at a point today where the technological evolution and the enormity of the global challenges that we face are so vastly different from the ones that were faced locally, three, four, five decades ago. I will say, though, this is a positive message in the way that we're talking about it, but when "The Death of Environmentalism" and later the Break Through book came out and then as Breakthrough evolved, it pissed a lot of people off and people did feel threatened in the environmental community. They felt like maybe you were overly criticizing them or nagging them. Why did you get that reaction and has your approach to engaging that community changed over time?
Alex Trembath: Yeah, it's another great question. That was a very common reaction to our work. I was not there in the very early days of The Breakthrough Institute, which was founded in 2008. I joined in 2011 but that has remained a criticism and reaction to our work, and that's very fair to point out. I think at times it has been more and less fair a reaction to our work. Fundamentally, The Breakthrough Institute, especially in the early days, was about investigating, questioning and deconstructing conventional assumptions and approaches to environmental problems. First, really that meant looking at how the attempt to apply conventional environmental policies like protected areas or global treaties, or things like the Clean Water Act to climate change, to biodiversity laws, to nitrogen laws -- which we argued were fundamentally different environmental problems -- that you had to have a more proactive, more technology-based approach, and that pissed a lot of environmentalists off. Not all of them, and again, they're not all the same group of people.
As time went on, we looked pretty critically at tools like emissions pricing, which was and remains a potentially powerful tool for reducing emissions but doesn't, we think, get to the heart of the problem of climate change in that it doesn't actually speak to the massive technological paradigm shift that we need to take place at every level of the economy all around the world. We took a hard look at energy efficiency, which had for decades been touted as this free-lunch solution to environment problems -- energy over-consumption allegedly could just become a lot more efficient and use a lot less energy, and that would reduce your environmental impact.
We wrote a lot about this phenomenon called the rebound effect, which is very complicated. Broadly, it's when your energy consumption becomes more efficient, it becomes more productive, energy services become cheaper, and you might use more of them, you might use a lot more of them and that might saturate over time -- but there was another example of us trying to deconstruct and better understand the foundational thinking and environmental frameworks and environmental policymaking. In talking about those critiques that we had about our critiques of carbon pricing or the Waxman-Markey bill, or about our critiques of the enthusiasm around energy efficiency, or later our critiques of solar and wind [being insufficient] to meet the challenge of deep decarbonization.
At times when we're talking about those, I think you can rightly accuse us of being a little obnoxious, maybe a little shrill sometimes. I'm sure if you scrolled through my clips or my Twitter feed you would find the kind of behavior that we have now tried to move past. So to your question, Stephen, really since a little before the publication of "An Ecomodernist Manifesto" a few years ago, we had gotten kind of tired around here of simply deconstructing environmentalism and frankly throwing rocks at it. We had looked around and found all of these much more compelling solutions like nuclear energy, like industrial agriculture, like cities, like biotechnology.
We had increasingly picked up some fellow travelers and some allies in activism and in academics who had a similar worldview to the one we did, all of whom or a bunch of whom got together and published "An Ecomodernist Manifesto." That began several years of trying to be a lot less critical and a lot more proactive in our engagement and in our ideation, and trying to build an environmentalism that recognizes the human side of the world, the potential of technological solutions, as opposed to just deconstructing all environmental paradigms.
Stephen Lacey: My perception of this from the outside -- and forgive the metaphor, because you're going to hate it -- but it felt to me for years like The Breakthrough Institute's rhetoric, it's sort of like the Tea Party movement in the U.S., which was to say, the Tea Party and the Republican Party -- they were aiming broadly toward the same goal. They might have had some policy differences and so on, but they're on the same side of the coin basically. But the Tea Party emerged basically to fight the traditional Republican Party, and because they had a different set of views about how to go about achieving their means. I think the criticism about The Breakthrough Institute in its earlier years -- and I agree at least from what I've seen that it's changed in the past few years -- but I think as you said, a lot of what was happening was it felt like Breakthrough would sort of pop up largely to throw rocks at traditional environmentalism as opposed to focusing primarily on presenting its positive vision of the future.
It's one thing to say, 'Here's my vision of the best way to craft policies to support biodiversity or climate-change mitigation.' It's another thing to focus on, 'Here's why everybody else is wrong about it. I think that's what rubbed everybody the wrong way, because I think you would agree that for the most part the environmental community and Breakthrough Institute want largely the same things, ultimately, but it's a matter of how you go about positioning how you think we should get there.
Alex Trembath: Yeah, and Stephen, you and I have a very personal example of that kind of shift, having realized after disagreeing on a bunch of it in public years ago that we really are fellow travelers and do have many of the same goals. To this day, you and I might take a sort of different tack on any given issue set, but... the switch between throwing a rock in one direction or the other or arguing angrily with someone who prefers nuclear, or someone who prefers wind and solar, or someone who prefers GMOs, or whatever -- often the only shift that's required in matching to the same tune is having a pleasant conversation or acknowledging the differences in worldview, or as we call it around here, achieving disagreement -- figuring out what you actually do disagree about and then opening up more productive conversation about what you still do agree about.
It's that type sort of strategic and rhetorical work that we've tried to do a lot more in the last several years and that I think is successful. I think that we are having more interesting and productive conversations with the "old guard of environmentalism," whether that's in conversation or in decarbonization or whatever. I do think that it is a successful shift so far.
Stephen Lacey: That's right, you and I were on the opposite sides of the coin for a little bit. In 2012, I went to Climate Progress which is a new site based out of ThinkProgress at the Center for American Progress, and I was reporting on climate politics and climate science for a long time. When I got in there as an institution, it was almost as if The Breakthrough Institute during those years was seen as -- I don't want to use the word "enemy," because that word was never used, but they were definitely positioning themselves as much against The Breakthrough Institute as against maybe The Cradle Institute or The Heritage Foundation. That was the framework within which I was writing for a long time, and I think I felt forced into taking a [certain] stance on issues.
After I left Climate Progress and moved over to GTM, I got more into traditional business-to-business journalism and started thinking more holistically about this energy transition, and not just about day-to-day politics or political winds. I took a step back and said, "I don't want to be the type of person who's shutting off ideas from across the spectrum, given the enormity of this climate challenge and the environmental issues that we face." The day that I start shutting people out, no matter what kind of ideas they [have], is the day that I start feeling pretty ashamed about myself. I actually went back and said, "Hey, we've had a number of public spats; we've disagreed on a lot, I feel like we've really positioned ourselves against each other. There's probably a lot more that we can agree on here. My sense is that there's a lot of people out there who feel that same way, but the environment that we are in now that's been heightened over the last five or six years since the social media environment, really makes it feel like there's a lot more that we disagree on than agree on.
Alex Trembath: Yeah, so much so that it's worth pointing out, on this program so far I've been talking about my and Breakthrough's efforts to bridge the divide more often. To be more proactive, to be more inclusive and to be less bomb-throwing at conventional environmentalism and more trying to build bridges. I was not the one who reached out to you, Stephen, it was the opposite direction. It's something that I can sit here and talk about a lot and say that we really want to be having these open, honest conversations with each other and that we want to get past the tribalism, we want to get past the spats, but from myself, even as I try really hard to do it, it can be very difficult to do it and I'm immensely appreciative of the examples in my life where somebody that I have argued with online or in person or whatever, who ultimately I do share a pretty common worldview with, reaches out to me, even at the times where I'm too stubborn to reach out to them.
Stephen Lacey: I want to table this conversation about tribalism because there may be some more we can unpack here toward the end of the show, but let's get into some areas where there's a lot of debate, some controversy, some debates on Twitter and see if we can figure out where things stand with regard to where The Breakthrough Institute stands. Nuclear is obviously a big piece of what you guys are in favor of on the energy side and climate side. You see this as a central tool in clean industrialization and economic growth and in lowering carbon emissions. How did you stumble on nuclear as a climate solution, because, as you mentioned earlier, it was solar and wind and EVs that you were initially focused on and then it became nuclear. How did that shift take place?
Alex Trembath: That's a great question. When The Breakthrough Institute was founded about a decade ago, nuclear was part of our vision of what the future might look like, but we included it sort of pro forma. We didn't know a lot about nuclear. I'm using "we" to refer to myself and people who came before me at The Breakthrough Institute, hadn't thought a lot about nuclear. Many of us grown up sort of default anti-nuclear so the founding vision of The Breakthrough Institute for climate change was one built almost entirely on renewable energy on solar and wind and electric vehicles. We had some friends of ours taking our technological approach to climate change seriously but asking us, "Why aren't you guys talking about nuclear energy more, if you guys are serious about the zero carbon energy thing then you have to understand that nuclear has all of these capabilities and all this potential that solar and wind don't just offer."
We'd been hearing that but remained much stronger advocates of solar and wind than you might classify us as today and it was the Fukushima incident that actually cost Michael and Ted and Jesse Jenkins -- who were all at The Breakthrough Institute at the time -- to ask themselves, "OK, Fukushima happened, Germany is getting rid of its nuclear fleet, Japan is shutting their nuclear power plants off, we really need to understand, is this the right thing to do? What role does nuclear have in the future?" And that kicked off a really multi-year investigation into the technologies, into the history of nuclear power, into the speed at which nuclear has decarbonized energy systems in places like France and Switzerland and also the challenges that nuclear energy has had in places like the United States, both technologically and politically.
We know its been the better part of a decade since that initial investigation started and we have bobbed and weaved around what nuclear technologies we think are most promising, about what level of nuclear deployment is more appropriate and, relatedly, what level of solar and wind deployment is more appropriate, what type of sort of industrial strategy there should be for nuclear energy, whether it should be a 1970s French style state directed deployment of conventional light water reactors or something that we are leaning much more towards today, much bigger investment in advanced nuclear reactors that can be smaller and often times a lot smaller that can be manufactured on assembly lines that can serve a lot of energy services besides just electricity, things like combined heat and power and water desalination and things like that.
That's sort of the history of Breakthrough and nuclear energy in a nutshell and that cased us to look at things like solar and wind in a whole bunch of different and often very critical new lights. Our stance toward different types of nuclear, our stance toward renewables in that last decade or so has shifted a lot in both directions. But...what really what started it is Fukushima and Germany and Japan in 2010 and 2011, and the really clear need for us to better understand the technology.
Shayle Kann: Let's hear it directly, then, before we start putting words in your mouth. How do you classify The Breakthrough Institute's current stance towards nuclear and then toward wind and solar?
Alex Trembath: I think at Breakthrough we have thought a lot about the many different nuclear reactor technologies and types of power plants built in the United States and around the world and where we have come out is that the age of the conventional 1-gigawatt light water reactor is over almost everywhere in the world. It's definitely over in the United States, where over the past decade, with federal policy, we have tried to build the conventional big 1-gigawatt light-water reactors, and many of them will get built, some of them look like they won't, but huge cost overruns, huge delays -- it's a problem of American infrastructure in general, but we're clearly not able to quickly and cheaply build these huge light-water reactors -- even if once they're up and running they produce electricity 100 percent of the time, 24/7, pretty cheaply.
Where that leads us is that for there to be an actual nuclear renaissance in the 21st century, we're going to need new reactors, we're going to need new types of industrial organization, we're going to need new business models, we're going to need new customers. It's not just going to be baseload power demand; it's going to be things like remote demand for electricity in places like rural Alaska and sub-Saharan Africa. It's going to be demand for not just electricity but demand for things like process heat, both for combined heat and power and maybe for industrial applications, it's going to be for things like desalination.
That said, whenever we're writing about it or talking about it, you can't go to Google Images and find a picture of an advanced reactor for the most part, because they don't exist yet. You can find a picture of a cooling tower or a conventional nuclear power plant but the technologies that we think that the world will rely on for deep decarbonization...don't exist yet, and that requires a lot of public and private investment in next-generation nuclear, but we think it's necessary.
We haven't probably gone so far as some of our allies in the direction of nuclear to the point where we shrug off the potential of renewable energy technologies like solar and wind completely. In fact, we think that they have a pretty large contribution to make to decarbonization in most countries around the world. But we are not at all confident that they can get us all the way there, if you define "there" as 100 percent zero-carbon energy. We are pretty strongly questioning whether solar and wind can really easily get to even something like 50 percent decarbonization, where the remaining 50 percent would be some form of dispatchable power whether it's nuclear, fossil fuels, with or without carbon capture, hydroelectric or whatever.
50 percent wind and solar on a grid would be tremendous -- it would be one of the defining achievements in all of human history, and most countries rely on a broad mix of energy technologies. In the United States no one technology provides 50 percent of our electricity today. 50 percent wind and solar would be a huge accomplishment and yet leave us 50 percent away from the goal, which is as close to zero carbon as possible. That is why we started thinking about technologies like nuclear, and why we started thinking about how to create and design and deploy new reactors that can actually get built and deployed on time and under budget unlike the reactors that we see being built today.
Stephen Lacey: I think you just clearly articulated why you think nuclear is important, but it's also helpful to continue to unpack the challenges for nuclear. I'm sure a lot of people will be nodding along, people who in theory could be supportive of nuclear, particularly small modular reactors and this whole host of new technologies that are emerging, but if we truly are going to deal with the climate crisis, you're looking at technology development, scaling and regulatory issues that are a decade [away] if not more. A decade is a long time when we look at the climate crisis that is unfolding. Meanwhile, you mentioned the challenges of traditional light-water reactors. Almost everybody agrees the nuclear industry is facing some pretty serious challenges and it's...very difficult for a new nuclear reactor to compete with distributed resources. Maybe not distributed resources but conventional utility-scale renewables and battery storage potentially.
So there's an emerging mix of renewables that are competitive, although they don't offer the same quality of energy as a nuclear power plant so there's a debate around the type of energy that you want feeding the system. The scope of the challenge is great in scaling these new technologies, and we have these emerging classes of resources that are competitive with nuclear. How are you grappling with those challenges?
Alex Trembath: Well, to try first to be honest about them and agree with you that if we're talking about next-generation nuclear technologies, we're not talking about deploying a bunch of nuclear power plants in the next decade. Maybe we'll see a few demonstration reactors, maybe early commercialization of advanced reactors and small modular reactors. We really hope that that's the case and we're trying with our allies to push toward that type of public and private investment in advanced nuclear, but on the scale and the time frame of the climate challenge, you're right. That is moving slower than we would like in terms of deploying zero-carbon energy technologies. Why it's important and essential...is that while we're developing and demonstrating and deploying early-generation advanced nuclear technologies, we will be deploying solar and wind, we will be deploying EVs but we don't think those technologies are going to get you all the way there.
In many countries around the world, due to a combination of saturation on the grid and exploration of subsidies and things like that, you're seeing a saturation of solar and wind deployment that I think is going to be pretty systemic and pretty endemic to the deployment curve of those technologies. As you deploy more solar that generates electricity, really concentrated in the middle of the day, then your incentive for building more and more just goes down as more is on the grid. Things like payments for curtailment or demand response or storage or high-voltage transmission grids spanning the continent can help mitigate those problems, but I haven't been convinced that they overcome those problems.
Wherever we are now -- whether it's lacking the advanced nuclear reactors that we think we need, or lacking the advanced solar panels that might be developed past the silicon photovoltaic models that we have today or lacking the energy storage technologies, particularly the sort of seasonal-scale energy storage technologies that could really be a game-changer for intermittent renewables -- we do not have all the technologies we need. We'll deploy the ones we have today...and try to develop better ones in the future, but I don't think we should shy away from the technologies of the future simply because they're not available today. I don't think that's how technological innovation and development have ever worked.
Ultimately I think that we'll continue to deploy solar and wind to...some sort of saturation point. For most countries and in most circumstances, I think we'll, over a similar time period, develop and start deploying and commercializing advanced nuclear. I think by mid-century we'll be deploying and relying on technologies in nuclear, solar and storage that look nothing like the light-water, silicon PV, lithium-ion technologies that we rely on today, and that's great.
Shayle Kann: Let's turn to energy intensity now which is directly related to this nuclear conversation if we're thinking of a high energy planet. Breakthrough's stance is different than what a lot of people have been advocating for. I grew up learning how to live my life using less. It's firmly ingrained in my mind that I should be using less to benefit the environment. I'm thinking about, how to make sure my home is using less energy, how to make sure my travel is moderated so that I'm using less energy, and this is just the way that I was taught and it's what guides our general way of thinking about energy. The interesting thing is that The Breakthrough Institute doesn't see energy intensity as this boogieman. In fact, you think greater use of energy potentially is a boon for the environment. It seems very counterintuitive given our current framework so maybe you could explain that.
Alex Trembath: I could go on and on about efficiency and conservation and using less. Where efficiency and conservation and using less makes sense is where energy consumption is inefficient. We should make it more efficient, particularly in the developed world and places like the residential sector -- there's all sorts of opportunities for that, and that's why we see electricity demand in the United States on aggregate saturating and looking like it's starting to decline, even with economic growth in the United States over the last decade or so. That is a positive trend. As the economy moves from agriculture to manufacturing [to]...services and knowledge, then we extract more wealth and productivity out of less energy-intensive services. That's great, and it means that in aggregate, energy consumption will probably peak and fall over time as countries develop. A lot of countries have yet to go through that curve, and so we can expect globally energy consumption to go [down] for a long time.
That said, in not all instances is more energy consumption or more energy intensity a villain. You can think about things like vertical farming, where we could grow leafy greens in tall vertical greenhouses that might use a lot more electricity than growing them in plots of land outside but we would use a lot less water, land, fertilizer, pesticide and reduce those environmental challenges, in effect substituting energy for other types of environmental damage. You can think of things like vaporizing our solid waste through plasma torches, which would require a lot more energy but it would also obviate the need for throwing stuff into landfills and dumping plastic into the ocean. You can think of building huge machines that suck carbon out of the atmosphere and reduce the global warming and climate risk that come with that, but we'd require a lot of energy to suck carbon out of the atmosphere and store it somewhere.
These are all situations where we can imagine using a lot more energy but it being worth it for whatever the goal is. Often those goals would be environmental and those tradeoffs will very often be worth it, especially if that energy is low-carbon. So to the greater degree that we have solar and wind and nuclear on the grid, then the more able we are able to think about a high-energy future where we can both power the world as we think of it today and power all sorts of new applications that could make our lives and our environment even better.
Shayle Kann: I would be remiss if I didn't mention the experience of Germany, and I'm sure I'm going to get some German listeners or folks in the U.S. who are fans of the German Energy Transition who are going to be highly critical of this framing, but we can now look at almost two decades of promotion of renewable energy in Germany. This very aggressive, forward-thinking approach to using renewables to lower carbon emissions, and of course, Germany has pushed to phase out nuclear as well, and there's been a lot of really important benefits in Germany. They had one of the fastest-growing localized solar industries, they were a wind pioneer, were one of the first countries to develop modern wind turbines that we know today, they've been really progressive in promoting community energy and providing these localized benefits of renewables, so I would argue that they've really done a good job of capturing the associated economic benefits of renewables while...keeping an industrialized country going and powering Europe through a very difficult time.
But with that said, we can look at that experience now and see that their carbon emissions have stayed stubborn. They have gone up and down over the years, they've increased their burning of coal. Just focusing on renewables as a carbon emission [reduction] strategy hasn't seemed to work, and I think a lot of folks have looked at the experience in Germany and said, "See, look -- these are the limits of renewables." I'm curious to get your take, Alex, because Breakthrough was an early critic of the German energy transition, and a lot of people were like, "Well, let's wait. Let's wait and see what happens." And now I think we have enough experience to see what happened, and we haven't seen dramatic reductions in carbon emissions in the country, and of course, we do see pretty high energy prices as well. What is your take on where things stand with the German Energy Transition and their phase-out of nuclear and their increase in coal burning? Because it's a really messy scenario.
Alex Trembath: That's a great question, and you're right. We as a global community have Germany, along with China, Korea, and the United States to thank for the huge public investments in wind and solar that have been made over the last couple of decades. It's been in the tens of billions of dollars, but we have also achieved radical cost reductions in wind and solar. As you know, I'm not convinced that even with those cost reductions that wind and solar will power the planet, but they will make a substantial contribution to decarbonization this century. It costs a lot of money, but I think especially as you measure the benefits over the next century or so, it will have been worth it. That said, Breakthrough gets accused of nuclear-renewable tribalism a lot, pitting nuclear and renewables against each other -- I think sometimes more fairly than others.
I'm not sure that there is an organization or a person or a country that has done more to create nuclear-renewable tribalism than Germany, which has literally codified it in law. They have on [the books] a phase-out of nuclear power in their country allegedly to be effectuated by 2022. They have a now multi-decade-old policy of subsidizing solar and wind to replace nuclear energy. When people like us at The Breakthrough Institute talk about how we can imagine a future that includes both nuclear and renewables, it is very often big fans of the German Energy Transition that respond, "No, nuclear and renewables can never get along. Nuclear is inflexible, you can't build the plants, wind and solar can be built anywhere on rooftops and hillsides. They are the future; nuclear is the past."
I would accept the criticism of myself, of The Breakthrough Institute, of at times over the last year or so pitting renewables and nuclear against each other, but that sort of enmity and tribalism predates us and I think is actually sort of very often stronger on the other side. I think that there are some reasons why Germany and the German people did it that way, and that's fine, it's their country -- they can burn more coal and shut down their nuclear plants if they want to -- but I'd prefer they be honest about it. The more disappointing thing is climate hawks and environmentalists, particularly in the United States, who speak out of one side of their mouth and talk about the German Energy Transition as this revolution in clean energy without recognizing that if it's a revolution in clean energy and decarbonization, then it's not actually decarbonizing anything and that's a problem.
I think it contributes to this symbolic type of debate that we have in environmentalism, and it certainly contributes to the renewable-nuclear tribalism that makes it really hard to have productive disagreements, find productive agreement and imagine how our multiple views of the future can co-exist.
Stephen Lacey: That's what's been a wake-up call for me, because there are extraordinary benefits to Germany's investments in renewables and the German people highly support it, so good for them, but we now have a lot of experience and we can see that as a climate strategy it really hasn't worked and...it's a microcosm for a lot of other policies that are being put in place. It really is frustrating to see a number of climate advocates who continue to focus on Germany as the example of what climate policy should be. I don't exactly know what good climate policy should be, but I do know that we haven't seen Germany as a leader in carbon reductions.
We certainly see them as an economic leader in development of renewables, so again, that's great but I think it's important to draw a distinction between the two. And now that we can look and see what Germany's track record is, I think it's important for climate hawks to move away from that example and to start thinking about OK, if Germany isn't seeing these dramatic reductions like we were claiming was going to happen, what should we do next? The answers aren't easy, but it's been a wake-up call for me to see that experience play out, and now here we are.
Alex Trembath: Yeah, and it happens everywhere, and it's difficult to move past, but people looking at a success story and extrapolating that success toward total revolutionary success -- so Germany, in solar for instance, has been tremendously helpful for the humanity. They had an industrial policy that has helped deploy and drive down the cost of photovoltaic solar over the last couple of decades, and it would be enough to be happy about that without also arguing that they have been a climate leader, or that they are on the road to decarbonization -- because neither of those are true. Similarly, you can look at something like deploying nuclear power in France in the 1970s and think, "Look, this is the decarbonization strategy that we should all rely on. They went from like 15 to 80 percent nuclear in less than two decades -- let's just do that."
But in fact, that was an...industrial policy strategy that was successful given France's politics and France's economic situation at that time, but that will not always be the answer. I think that we need to be more open-minded about both the technologies and the policies and the combinations of those things that can together create decarbonization in the next several decades without falling back on our favorite examples...that very rarely have universal application.
Stephen Lacey: How has your approach to engaging with people evolved over time? It's an interesting question too because we're at a moment where tensions on social media have increased, and this is largely where a lot of these debates play out. How has your approach to this space changed?
Alex Trembath: I think working at The Breakthrough Institute, we are encouraged to question our own assumptions and the assumptions of our ideological opponents or folks that we are engaged and debate with. For me, my shift on social media and in conversations...has been to focus...on the disagreement itself but to focus less on why someone [else] is wrong. I think that actually focusing on disagreement is where the interesting conversations happen but it needs to be done from a place of good faith, a place of honesty and certainly sort of a level of clearheadedness and just basic politeness that I might not have given as much thought to a few years ago, in which case a disagreement might have led more to me just shouting, "You're wrong, here's why you're wrong, stop being dumb."
Now, if I come across an idea or a person who I think is off the mark -- I'm sure I fail at this plenty -- but my hope and my goal is to try to engage honestly with that disagreement, to talk about it, to sort of make obvious my own assumptions and my own values and to actually have a conversation. I think that that has been effective for me [and] for The Breakthrough Institute. I think it actually in this social media space is better for all of us, because if I'm having these debates in public on Twitter or whatever, people will see that. That's sort of part of the whole point of engaging on social media is to have interesting conversations that other people can observe and then participate in, and I think those kinds of conversations -- honest, interesting ones about different ways that we see and approach the world -- are the ones that will actually, even if they don't extinguish disagreement, they will lead us down a more productive path than the type of...shouting or maybe sometimes disrespectful [approach] that I have taken in the past.
Stephen Lacey: I think I've evolved because I've wrapped my head around the complexity of actually dealing with climate change on a macroeconomic scale. When you do that, you really have to...open yourself up to all sorts of different possibilities, and as soon as I pulled myself out of day-to-day politics and kind of what felt good and what was winning at the time and really allowed myself to engage with a broad range of ideas and then actually look at the experience of different countries say, going back to the German example, it enabled me to get out of whatever stance that I might have hardened into at the time. Now I'm going to take a completely opposite approach -- an approach that quite frankly may annoy some people -- and I think the developments in renewables have been extraordinary, I think energy efficiency is an extremely powerful tool, but I don't think that we've figured this out at all.
So, opening myself up to as many possibilities, no matter how harebrained potentially or how economically implausible at the moment, is probably necessary for us to truly start grappling with the challenge that is sitting right here in front of us. But I think you know there's a lot of change in the debate probably too, because now that we have more technological solutions, now that this conversation has matured a bit, and now that the emergency that we're facing seems to have gotten greater, it seems like more agreement has materialized, or at least a lot of people who may have hunkered down into one particular position are taking that more open-minded approach. One example being, I think, a lot of traditional environmental writers have started calling for more nuclear power.
A lot of...political writers have started talking about that crazy tradeoffs that we're going to need to make within the environmental movement or for progressives who have traditionally been pushing climate action, the tradeoffs that they're going to need to make to actually deal with the problem. I think there's a lot of maturity here.
Alex Trembath: Yeah, and despite the very disappointing progress that we have made as a planet on emissions trajectories in the last 10 or 15 years, I see the same rhetorical and ideological and attitude progress -- both more openness to different perspectives and different possibilities and different conceptions of the future, but also a greater eagerness to talk about those differences and to shrug off the tribalism that we were shackled with to some degree for so long, but most of all, really embracing a technological vision of the future that we didn't see 15-20 years ago, and we don't realize it, because it's been a while now. But as we were talking about it at the top of the show, whether it's solar panels or wind turbines or electric vehicles or now next-generation nuclear reactors, there is a vibrant conversation about what our technological solution to climate change is going to be. That was not the case 15 years ago, and that, despite the fact that emissions are still climbing, is progress.
Stephen Lacey: Alex Trembath is communications director at The Breakthrough Institute. He joined us from their offices in Oakland, California. Alex, I enjoyed this immensely. It's been a long time coming; thanks for coming on the show.
Alex Trembath: This was fantastic, Stephen, thank you for having me. Thanks, Shayle.