You’ve often made the point that you aren’t going to debate the science of global warming, but instead consider the best ways to spend money to save human lives. Where do we spend money to fix climate in the most effective way and, of course, also comparing it to all the other things that need solving?
I go around and spend a lot of my time talking about how we are currently fixing climate change incredibly ineffectively. We’re essentially spending lots of money doing very little good. But what I’d also like to say is there’s actually a lot of smart things that we could do but rarely do we get around to talk about those.
What should we be focusing on?
I run a think tank called the Copenhagen Consensus where we work with more than 300 of the world’s top economists, seven Nobel laureates in economics.
It’s an interesting question because those are the kind of conversations that we always should be having. Again, economists are not dictating what we should be doing. Think of it as economists giving you a menu with prices and sizes.
If we were to shift the focus a little bit to helping people out of poverty, for example, access to contraception, access to health care, access to decent cooking fuel supplies, that sort of thing, global warming might be a somewhat easier problem to resolve because we’d have a less populated and more educated planet. Is that the way you see things?
There is a bit of truth to that. But, unfortunately, I think it mostly goes the other way. Because if you get people rich, they’ll emit more CO2.
But what matters is not only CO2 emissions, it’s also how rich you are to be able to tackle it. If you’re really poor and a hurricane hits you, you’d die. If you’re really rich, like in Florida, most people lose stuff. The reality is, if you can get people to get out of poverty, then you can actually make them much more resilient and make sure that they don’t end up with nearly as bad impacts from climate change.
What’s the political argument that you are presenting?
We should have a carbon tax. Any economist would argue the reason why you have taxes, or one of the reasons, is to correct a market failure. You also need to simply to raise money for the safe. But that’s one of the ways you could do that.
But what is the problem here is that requires everyone to do it. It requires China, and the U.S., and everyone to have one carbon tax across all areas. We don’t do that very well. We’re certainly not going to see that continue through the century, slowly rising through the century. We’re going to see a rise in Chile or in France, and suddenly, it’s going to be thrown out of whack. Then, very easily, you’ll end up actually having more costs.
While carbon tax is the right answer in a sense, it’s very unlikely to make much of a difference.
There are three other things that I think you need to do.
If you think about the problems in California in the ’60s with the smog. The solution was not to tell everyone, “I’m sorry, you can’t drive.” It was the catalytic converter that allowed you to both drive and not have the smog. If you think back to the whales in 1860s. We almost hunted whales to extinction. Not because we were evil people, but because they had this oil that lit really brightly and cleanly and lit up most of the U.S. and western Europe.
Basically, if you get the solution that makes green energy cheaper than fossil fuels, you will solve the problem. Everyone will switch. Chinese, Indians, Americans. Not because you force them to do something that’s hard but because you made it easy.
There’s a lot of reasons why solar and wind, certainly not by themselves, are going to take over the world. What happens, and I think almost everyone sort of neglects this, there’s these wonderful studies that show, because all solar come at the same time, it very quickly dwindled in value. Because it does not actually supplant something you need, which is power at night. But it comes in and competes with all the other power you already have at noon.
Fundamentally, without batteries, it’s not going to work. And batteries, obviously, add a huge extra cost.
We need to get either batteries to become phenomenally much cheaper, along with much cheaper solar and wind. We can see that happening in sort of 20 to 40 years. But we really need to push that.
There’s lots and lots of others. Craig Venter, the guy who did the human genome, wants to make an algae that produces oil on the ocean surface. It’s not working right now. But imagine if we could just grow our own oil fields with sun. And it would be CO2-neutral because they would actually have absorbed it before we burn it. We’d actually be OK with that.
Again, there are lots of these ideas out there. They’re all inefficient right now because if they weren’t they’d already have taken over the world. But it costs very little to invest in the research and development. We really only need one of them.
Contrary to the standard climate policies that we know from the EU, they deliver a couple of cents of climate benefit for every dollar spent. But if you spend it on research and development, you, first of all, have to spend a lot less. You’ll probably also get a lot of other benefits. We only looked at the climate benefits, which will probably be $11 back on every dollar.
There are two other things you need to invest in. You need to invest in adaptation. But much less than what you think because most people will actually do this privately. It’s only some things like, for instance, protection of coastlines. The U.S. is doing particularly badly. For instance, in many parts of the country you encourage people to settle where hurricanes hit.
What do you mean by geoengineering?
For instance, when Mount Pinatubo blew back in 1991 in the Philippines. Big volcano. It spewed a lot of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere and the upper atmosphere and covered the earth so that you wouldn’t be able to see it. It actually reduced sunlight by about 2 1/2%. It reduced temperatures for a couple of years, about 1 degree Fahrenheit.
This is something we know nature does. Maybe we can do that deliberately.
Are you saying that actions by individuals to reduce global warming have little effect?
Just, very broadly, most action that you can do on an individual level will lead to very, very little impact. I’m vegetarian because I don’t want to kill animals. I’ve been vegetarian for 43 years, for most of my life. But the honest answer is, if you go vegetarian, this whole cry, oh, you shouldn’t be eating meat. You end up cutting about 2% of your total emissions.
The second part is, almost everywhere in the world, it’s much cheaper to be a vegetarian than meat-eater. That extra money will be spent on other things that emit CO2.
Everything you buy will have some sort of CO2 content to it. That’s what economists call rebound. We often forget when you do something, for instance, save people money here, you end up spending it somewhere else. Which, of course, is why the only real solution to climate change in that sort of mindset is to make people poor. As long as they’re rich, they’re going to spend it somewhere.
There are lots of smart ways you can tackle this that don’t become this culture war kind of thing, but rather technology. I think that certainly, especially in the U.S., has a much better resonance because that’s how you solve most of your problems.
Is the U.S. still an R&D leader in green technologies?
When a political leader has a choice, such as am I going to inaugurate a new solar park or wind farm, or something, and show how I care? Or am I going to spend money on some eggheads that don’t make for good picture? The problem is the extra solar panel park is not going to do very much, but these eggheads could make a huge difference.