MATTHEW BURGESS: Welcome back to the Free Mind Podcast, where we explore topics in western history, politics, philosophy, literature, and current events with a laser focus on seeking the truth and an adventurous disregard for ideological and academic fashions. I'm Matt Burgess, an assistant professor of Environmental Studies and faculty fellow of the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado Boulder. My guest today is Alex Trembath. Alex is the Deputy Director of the Breakthrough Institute, which is a think tank focused on technological solutions to environmental problems. Our conversation explores climate change, the eco modernist movement, and its similarities and differences with conventional environmentalism, as well as the science and politics of nuclear energy. Alex Trembath, welcome to the Free Mind Podcast.
ALEX TREMBATH: Matt, it's a real pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
MATTHEW BURGESS: So I wanted to have you on because I considered you to be one of the thought leaders in what people call the eco modernist movement. So can you tell me what is an eco modernist and how did you come to identify yourself as one?
ALEX TREMBATH: Absolutely. So eco modernism is a school of environmental philosophy, politics and policy that we basically incubated at the Breakthrough Institute where I am Deputy Director and I've worked for the last decade or so. Breakthrough was founded around 2008 to offer a more techno optimistic and broadly optimistic environmental philosophy and politics, in contrast to the limits and regulations focused environmental politics that was transcendent at the time through the cultural works of things like An Inconvenient Truth and through the policy apparatuses of things like the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill.
So that was sort of how Breakthrough got started, offering an alternative to the limits and regulations focused environmentalism. Our alternative was investments in economic opportunity in technological innovation to make clean energy cheap, as we said it. As our work grew in scope and scale from there we focused more on other global environmental problems including climate change, but in addition to that global biodiversity loss and land use change. We started paying close attention to food and agriculture systems and the promise of technologies outside the electric grid and outside the energy system technologies and systems like high productivity agriculture to, as we put it, grow more food on less land and spare more room for wild nature.
In addition to all of the sort of discreet technology problems that we saw and are working to address and solve our research and advocacy, we, I think, attracted a particular kind of environmental thinker and sort of pragmatic environmentalist. And that community cohered into what we now call the eco modernist movement or the eco modernist school of thought, as we put it. Which agrees with conventional environmentalism on really one major facet, which is that we have an ethic of care for non-human nature, for species and ecosystems that are outside of the human species and even outside our material interest. But we differ from conventional environmentalism in a number of ways that I'm sure we'll get into.
MATTHEW BURGESS: Yeah, thank you for that summary. That was a good summary. So to dig in a little bit on what you might call the alternate form of environmentalism, that eco modernism as you put it I think arose in response to. You mentioned an ethic of care. Would you agree with the following characterization that the idea that human resource consumption ultimately underpins the scale of our society? And that resource consumption in some ways unavoidably comes into conflict with care for non-human nature. Do you see that as being a main point of tension between eco modernism and the form of environmentalism that you would say preceded it?
ALEX TREMBATH: I would say that that is more a point of agreement, actually, between eco modernists and classic environmentalists. I think the divergence occurs in following that finding through to its implications. So everyone agrees that human existence and human consumption and exploitation of natural resources, whether it's land to grow our food or whether it's materials, copper and iron to build our industrial society, everyone agrees that these have impacts. I think the differences between us and our environmentalist ideological opponents is what to do about that and how to think about the human nature technology interface.
For us that relationship, the relationship between our activity and consumption and impacts on the natural world, means that we want to be as productive and really resource efficient as possible. We want to drive productivity improvements, we want to drive de materialization, we want to drive de carbonization. And while they might not always admit it, I think the underpinning of classical environmentalist metaphysics is that we can't really decouple our wellbeing from impacts on non-human nature: what we need to do is restrain ourselves; what we need to do is reduce our consumption and reduce our activity; we need to de grow our economies to some degree. And again, these are not always explicit goals of the institutional environmentalist policy world or even the research, but I do think that that is a sort of fundamental metaphysical foundation to classical environmentalists' thinking that we exist partially to disrupt.
MATTHEW BURGESS: Would you characterize then the difference of opinion that you just described as being one of values or one of facts? So the way to think about it as a disagreement on facts would be on the one hand people are saying it's possible to decouple our standard of living from our environmental impact, and so we should do everything we can to do that, versus people on the other hand saying it's not possible to do that and so we should prepare ourselves for the inevitability of that conflict.
ALEX TREMBATH: It's a great question, it's an important distinction that you're making, Matt, and I appreciate it. I do think it is primarily a disagreement of value. And eco modernist value. Certainly the values that we adopt at the Breakthrough Institute are that all humans should be able to live secure, free, prosperous and fulfilling lives. That is, we think, a non-negotiable for all political, ideological material conflicts and difficulties in the world.
That is, I think, quite different actually as a primary foundational value compared to conventional environmentalism, which imagines much more constraints on human activity and human consumption than we do. That's not, as you say, primarily a difference of fact or scientific finding, but one of value. I think that we can argue quite a bit about the science and the facts that emerge from that value disagreement, and we do. But I do think that the reason that these debates are so perennial and keep returning to us in a variety of manifestations is because they're at bottom a little bit irresolvable underneath the layer of value, and at that level it is just a true disagreement.
I think part of the reason it's difficult to sort through is because folks on either side, depending on who they are and depending on what the context is, are not that honest about where the disagreement arises. And folks really want to have an argument about the facts or to go where the science leads you. Eco modernists and conventional greenies say that, when it would be, I think a lot more productive to as quickly as possible reduce the disagreement down to its core essence, which as you say is often that particular values divide.
MATTHEW BURGESS: That's really interesting. I almost have an easier time seeing it as a disagreement about facts, but I think that's a really interesting way to think about it. And maybe this is a good segue into the issue of nuclear. And I want to talk to you about nuclear, because it seems like we're in a really pivotal time where nuclear is having what I would characterize as a political comeback. Whereas five years ago maybe I might have said that nuclear was on the mat, metaphorically speaking. So a couple questions about nuclear. First, am I correct in deducing that you support it as a key aspect of solving the climate challenge? And if so, why?
ALEX TREMBATH: Absolutely. I and the Breakthrough Institute place a significant although certainly not exclusive focus on nuclear energy as a key solution to global climate and other environmental problems. And that's for a number of reasons. One, nuclear energy, the splitting of atoms to release energy that can be captured and converted into electrical energy and hopefully high temperature heat and other useful energy carriers, is a low carbon source of modern energy, full stop. No one really disagrees with that as, again, as a question of fact.
And we are concerned about global climate change, about the fact that since the pre-industrial era the global atmosphere has heated by last I checked about 1.1 or 1.2 degrees Celsius on average globally and is headed towards two or three degrees this century, which will have all sorts of negative impacts on human and non-human systems. And the more of our energy that we can produce with low carbon technologies, the less climate change we will have to confront as a species and as a planet this century and beyond.
I think the conventional assumption was that we would be able to decarbonize, we'd be able to supply low carbon energy, electricity, heat fuels without nuclear energy. With solar and wind and other renewable energy on its own. And we just don't think that that is likely to be feasible for a number of reasons. One, solar and wind in particular are intermittent energy technologies. They only produce electricity when the sun is shining, when the wind is blowing, which means you either need just a radical overbuilding of the electric power capacity or significant breakthroughs in storage so that you're storing a lot of electricity in the summer when it's really sunny to use in the winter when the solar panels are covered in snow. And those sort of technologies are both mostly not available today and if they were, would have substantial cost implications for the overall energy system.
But also these other technologies, which were proponents of solar, wind, geothermal have substantial environmental impacts of their own. Just the land area implications of a heavily renewable energy grid are substantial given how energy diffuse and un-energy dense solar and wind are compared to a technology like nuclear, which has by far the lowest land and material footprint of all major energy technologies.
So if we want to be using less land and using fewer natural resources, like minerals, and we want to be reliably powering the future energy economy of the world, then we think that nuclear has to play a key and even leading role depending on the future of nuclear technologies and climate policy and a whole bunch of questions that are upstream from how we'll actually build these systems. So that's a little bit of why on the concrete and scientific merits we have become significant enthusiasts for nuclear energy.
MATTHEW BURGESS: I heard you say that nuclear was very low carbon intensity. I would agree with that. Very low material intensity. Again, I would agree with that. Non intermittent and reliable. Again, I would agree with that. And yet politically until very recently nuclear has been, as I said, on the mat. So I believe Japan is phasing it out. Germany was phasing it out. California was working on phasing it out. So do the political forces behind the anti-nuclear push that I just described, did they disagree with any of the fact claims that I just summarized that I believe you stated? And if not, what is their opposition, what's the basis for their opposition?
ALEX TREMBATH: Yeah, there's some factual disagreement, and obviously I believe what I believe. But one, there's a bunch of claims made about nuclear from the opposition side. One is that it's not low carbon after all, given the energy intensity of building and maintaining the plants. That turns out not to be true. Another is that actually yes, we can supply the entire energy economy with renewable energy technologies on their own and there are a whole bunch of models produced to prove this, and I just for the most part for the overwhelming part, don't trust those models at all. And there's a big discourse in academia about the reliability of these so-called 100% renewable energy modeling endeavors. Those are a couple problems that folks have with nuclear that I think are just wrong.
Now, nuclear energy does have its challenges ahead of it. So we've built a ton of nuclear energy capacity, predominantly in the rich world in the 1960s, '70s and '80s in places like the United States and France and Japan. And that build out of nuclear energy really stalled depending on where you are somewhere in the '70s and '80s. Either because in a situation like France, it was kind of complete. They almost entirely decarbonized their electric grid in France in response to the oil crises of the 1970s. Or because of a number of factors that stalled the build out of nuclear energy in the west, including a, I think, radically over-hyped fear of melt outs and accidents following things like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, which we can talk about if you want. As well as a re-emergent ideological opposition to abundant energy technologies, and nuclear energy in particular, that was really foundational to the original environmentalist movement.
A lot of that manifested or coincided with a increasingly stringent regulatory regime around nuclear energy technologies, the creation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States for example, that has sort of slowed as opposed to making it more sensible for the deployment and regulation of nuclear energy in the United States.
So those are a number of challenges that nuclear technology faces today. A final one is that nuclear reactors that were built in the '60s and '70s and '80s were overwhelmingly large light water reactors, at least 600 megawatts, usually a gigawatt or two in a power plant. These are massive industrial mega projects of the kind that not just the United States but most wealthy economies around the world struggle to build in a sensible way today. Whether it's a nuclear plant or a bridge or an airport, these things are just massive mega projects that are increasingly expensive and that is especially true for nuclear plants, which as safe as they are, do require significant backup systems, redundancies to make sure that meltdowns don't happen and that radiation doesn't leak out of the facility.
And that is a legitimate challenge facing the nuclear sector today that a bunch of innovators and startups are working to address through the so-called advanced nuclear industry and advanced nuclear reactors, that again we can talk about more. So those are some of the more and less legitimate problems facing nuclear in the world today.
MATTHEW BURGESS: Would you agree that there are broadly the following three sources of opposition to nuclear? So one is the idea that it's expensive and or takes a long time to build and or expensive to insure, in terms of accidents.
Second, you mentioned Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. My guess would be that if I pressed you on it, you would point out that the death rates from those accidents, as awful as they were, were tiny compared to even things like air pollution from fossil fuels. And yet those types of accidents do cause localized areas around where they happened, as far as I understand, to be uninhabitable for years, maybe even decades. And so maybe there's a visceral worry about that, that if there's a nuclear power plant in your neighborhood that there's some chance, however small, that it might destroy your neighborhood for decades.
And then the third one, which I thought I heard you hint at, but I'm going to poke it a little bit, is this idea that there are some political currents that are fundamentally against capitalism and so see nuclear as this threatening thing because it's potentially this abundant source of energy that can keep the party going and therefore maybe decouple what people's existential concerns about capitalism are from what might be their existential concerns about the climate.
Have I got the first two right and is the third one accurate or unfair or going too far?
ALEX TREMBATH: I think that's a great way to subdivide the different problems that either people have with nuclear energy or that nuclear technologies face in the world today. I would quibble a little bit with your description of the risk of radiation or nuclear accidents to the general public. The most dire of those accidents in history was the partial meltdown at the Chernobyl Power plant in Ukraine in the '80s, which was a nuclear power plant that was very poorly built without a containment dome, with an old reactor technology that we don't use anymore, that caused acute exposure to radiation from power plant workers and from emergency responders. But that did not in any way render the area around it uninhabitable or cause long-term public health problems outside the acute radiation exposure that was caused initially.
So the worst nuclear accident in history was terrifying and was obviously terrible for the individuals who experience it and were exposed to it, but it's not, I would say, radically different from any other kind of industrial accident. Whether it's a dam that bursts and floods someplace where people live or whether it's a chemical factory explosion or things like that. These are all, at a high level, terrible industrial accidents that cause harm to human and non-human systems. And nuclear is just one of those. So that's the one reaction I would have to your summary of the risk of radiation and accidents from commercial nuclear power.
But I do think that those are a great way of subdividing the different problems facing nuclear including the, I think, ideological and reflexive opposition to whatever you call it. Abundance to consumption, to capitalism, to economic growth. That is really, I think, deeply baked into the classical environmentalist mindset and is actually at bottom, I think, the reason for a bunch of opposition to nuclear power, which I think gets cloaked in these pseudo scientific rationales about the economics of power plant construction or about radiation risk or things like that. But I do think that most of the fierce opposition to nuclear, again at bottom, stems from that opposition to modern abundance or capitalism or whatever you call it.
MATTHEW BURGESS: I guess maybe a fourth concern that I missed in my list would be nuclear weapons. And my sense is that that's not so much of a dominant concern in the public domain today, but as I understand the history it used to be. So quickly, can you comment on the rationality or non rationality of concerns that if we build nuclear power it'll be easier to build nuclear weapons? Does that make any sense as a concern or is that misguided?
ALEX TREMBATH: It makes sense as a concern in the general public's reasonably uninformed and unexpert understanding of nuclear technology. It makes sense that we talk about splitting atoms, whether it's for commercial power plants or whether it's for destructive bombs that are intended for use in war or mass murder or something like that. You can see how the general public conflates these technologies and that's a serious problem that nuclear innovators I think need to be cognizant of. That said, there's really no nation on earth that has ever built a commercial nuclear industry in order to build the capabilities to develop a nuclear weapons program. In fact, it's more common that countries just build weapons programs right out in the open more or less, as North Korea has done, as the nation of Iran is continuing to try to do, without having any nuclear power plants at all.
It's just not actually a dynamic that we see in the world that nuclear energy, that low carbon commercial nuclear energy, leads to the pursuit of a nuclear weapons program. In fact precisely the opposite. If you are building a nuclear commercial nuclear energy industry, then you are necessarily engaged with the nuclear non-proliferation system administered by the international community. You are almost certainly in global trade agreements for nuclear fuel and for engineering resources from the United States or France or other experienced nuclear energy industries. And you have a sort of material geopolitical interest in not developing nuclear weapons and are certainly not using them. And so I think that the continued expansion of commercial nuclear energy to many more countries in the coming decades will actually prove to be a limit on the expansion of nuclear weapons capabilities.
MATTHEW BURGESS: That's very interesting, thank you for clarifying that. Because I agree with you that it's a common or easily constructed lay concern about nuclear. So one question now about the recent political developments around nuclear. It seems like, as I mentioned earlier, nuclear was not doing well politically in rich countries and very recently that seems to have changed significantly. The two specific events that I can think of that might have contributed to that, one obvious one is the war in Ukraine and the related increase in concern, for Europe in particular relying on Russian gas isn't smart. And then the second one is the recent recall election of Governor Gavin Newsom in California where Mike Shellenberger, who I believe was one of the co-founders of the Breakthrough Institute that you work at, ran as an independent. And one of the things that he pushed Governor Gavin Newsom on was his opposition to nuclear and Shellenberger's belief that it was not rational or that it was misguided for many of the reasons that you've outlined. Is that it? Or am I missing some broader undercurrent that you think has influenced this turn of the tide?
ALEX TREMBATH: Yeah, I think the broader undercurrent is the emergence over the last 10, 15 years of a broad pro-nuclear movement within civil society. And that includes places like the Breakthrough Institute, it includes think tanks like Third Way and Clear Paths in Washington DC. Research organizations on the political left, on the political right. It includes an actual pro-nuclear nonprofit advocacy community, like you see with Generation Atomic. It includes civil society advocates for reform of nuclear energy policy like the Nuclear Innovation Alliance. And you see increasingly outspoken pro-nuclear environmentalists like Stuart Brand at the Long Now Foundation. You even have celebrities like Robert Downey Jr who are voicing vocal support for nuclear energy.
And I think that last decade of a change in tenor and a change in vocal support for nuclear technologies is a real break from what came before, which was a situation where to the extent that you saw support for nuclear energy technologies, it was from the government or the military or is from the utility industry. And there really wasn't a civil society, let alone environmentalist or environmentally minded advocacy community in support of, again, this low carbon technology.
And that really changed over the last 10 or 15 years. I think Breakthrough was a major player in that, although not the only one. Within that decade you also saw heightening concern about climate change, as emissions began to rise. And as I think folks started to really understand that this sort of conventional environmentalist story about how we're going to decarbonize the whole world as quickly as possible while also shutting down one of our largest sources of low carbon energy, that just doesn't make sense at a very basic level.
And I'm glad you brought up the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I think that when you get to a situation like we've had in the last six months with a unprecedented in the last half century land war in Western Europe and in effect on global energy and food supply chains that compounds the problems that we experience coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, you actually have a broad sense of scarcity as food and energy prices rise.
And it's one thing, as Japan and Germany and many parts of the United States are trying to do, to shut down your nuclear plants when energy prices are low and when it seems like there's slack in the supply to handle it. It's another thing when you're in a situation like my state of California was this summer where we're threatened for the Nth summer in a row with rolling blackouts because climate change is causing our summers to get hotter, using more air conditioning in high summer, we use more electricity this summer on one day than we ever have before. And we almost had rolling blackouts, as we have for the last several summers.
I think when for the first time in a while wealthy consumers enrich developed economies feel that sense of scarcity, whether it's high electricity prices or the possibility of blackouts or food shortages or expensive food or really expensive gasoline, then I think that changes a lot of minds really quickly about the need for a technology like nuclear that you might have assumed we could do without even a few years ago, which is why I'm glad you brought up to Gavin Newsom.
Gavin Newsom was not the driving force behind the closure of Diablo Canyon, California's last nuclear power plant. He was instrumental when he was lieutenant governor and chair of the State Water Board in the decision to close that plant. And now is that most vocal supporter in the California government. His office wrote a proposal for the California State legislature to consider extending the operating lifespan of Diablo Canyon by 10 years, the legislature decided to keep it open for another five. But as we're talking, the legislature recently passed a proposal to extend the lifespan of Diablo Canyon and Governor Newsom was out recently talking about how having that power plant online will help avert rolling blackouts.
So I think that you do have this combination of an unprecedented civil society support for this really critical low-carbon technology, along with a fairly unique sense of its need stemming from things like the scarcity and limits on supply chains experienced from COVID-19, the downstream effects globally of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And I think more prosaic things, just like the need to use air conditioning when it's hot outside and the silliness of turning off low-carbon technologies when we have what everyone I think understands is a heightening need for electricity generation, not a disappearing one.
MATTHEW BURGESS: Thanks. That was a really good explainer of the recent political occurrence. The last question I want to ask you about nuclear concerns the topic of environmental justice. And basically I want to ask you about the following juxtaposition or contradiction or contrast between two different perspectives. So the first was best articulated as far as I've seen by a recent nuclear activist whose name is escaping me, who testified in Canada, which is where I'm from originally, about the justice case for nuclear.
And he said if you're talking about nuclear in Canada, you're talking about almost entirely domestic well-paying union jobs in contrast to say solar panels which are made, many of them are made in Shan Jung China, possibly by slave labor. And so that makes the justice case for nuclear very good. The flip side might be saying, "Well, if we want to decarbonize today's developing countries, especially today's really poor or least developed countries quickly, might it be easier to use something that you might characterize as low tech and potentially distributed, like solar, than something that's high tech and requires a lot of capital and capacity like nuclear?" So what do you think about that in general?
ALEX TREMBATH: Yeah, I think that's a great couple of observations. The first that I would reiterate is the extent to which I would say, broadly speaking, the environmental justice community does not think well of nuclear technology. And I think that's mostly because they've imported a really ideological opposition to nuclear from classical environmentalism instead of considering the extent to which nuclear is a very low material intensity, almost zero pollution, and low carbon technology that can actually have very healthy economic benefits for the communities that it's in and around. Don't want to be too rose tinted about that, but I do think that there is a very strong environmental justice case for nuclear technologies that my colleagues Adam Stein and Seaver Wang have written about on our website and elsewhere. That said, I don't think that the nuclear technologies of today are immediately scalable in all contexts and in all socioeconomic context, for instance.
I don't think anyone, myself included, expects the poorest countries in the world today that are overwhelmingly reliant on wood and dung and to a lesser extent oil and natural gas to be building large one gigawatt light water nuclear power plants anytime soon. Partly because their electricity demand is just not growing fast enough to need to build a one gigawatt light water reactor. And partly because the supply chains and civil engineering and regulatory institutions are just not in place in so many poor countries around the world today to build a pressurized water reactor or a boiling water reactor or any of the conventional nuclear technologies that we take for granted in places like United States and France and the UK and Sweden and Japan.
That said, there are a number of advanced smaller, even micro nuclear reactor technologies that startups in, especially in North America, are working on today that might make nuclear a more modular even, I hesitate to say, low tech option for poor or less developed nations, and would be from a regulatory and engineering perspective easier to deploy and construct than conventional nuclear power plants would be.
Now that is a if, that is speculative. But that is the hope of a bunch of these advanced nuclear startups to be able to play in smaller communities, in poorer countries, in more rural areas with fewer folks connected to the grid. And I think that's a really exciting promise of these advanced technologies, especially the much smaller reactors that you could deploy either on their own or in a sort of package the way that we deploy solar and wind technologies now. So obviously you can put a set of solar panels on your rooftop or you can build tens of thousands of solar panels together in a solar farm in the desert. If we get it right, if we get the licensing and commercialization right, I think that's how we'll be thinking about nuclear technologies in the next several decades where you could deploy one megawatt micro reactor for a very limited use case or you can package a bunch of them on top of each other and build a power plant that has a bunch of reactors in it for context of higher electricity consumption, and everything in between.
MATTHEW BURGESS: Yeah, that's really interesting. So just to wrap up the nuclear part of our conversation, would it be fair to say that in a broad sense you're a both and type of renewable energy advocate? Meaning that you support nuclear and other types of clean energy, or do you really see nuclear as being the solution to the exclusion of some of these other types?
ALEX TREMBATH: I'm an energy abundance guy. I think that our energy future is unwritten and what we will want in our energy systems as well as in our food and our urban systems is abundance and sort of slack in the system so that when one part of the system fails for whatever reason, the whole system doesn't come crumbling down with it. So that when one power plant goes down, you have other power plants, you have other infrastructure that can keep our modern industrial energy economy operating.
So in that sense yes, I am a yes and person. I think that the future of de-carbonization and low-carbon energy systems is going to be one of nuclear and wind and solar and geothermal and hydrogen and electric storage and carbon removal and carbon capture at power and other industrial power plants. And I think that using a bunch of these technologies makes the whole system more resilient, not less. And relying on a number of technological pathways and being nimble and resilient to a number of technological futures is really the only way to plan for a secure and resilient future.
MATTHEW BURGESS: So the last topic I want to visit before we wrap up relates to academia and maybe more broadly in this context, the scientific community. So this podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization, which is a center that I would say is definitely actively promotes the idea of different points of view on issues coming together. And I think it would be fair to say that we exist at least at some level because there are people who see those kinds of spaces as lacking in academia, and maybe in research more broadly. And so I guess from your perspective, do you see that as an issue in climate research? And if so, to what extent?
ALEX TREMBATH: Yeah, I do think that academia, especially environmental academia is inflected by a kind of partisanship and ideology that, again, I think is largely downstream from the classic conventional environmentalist metaphysics that emerged in the post-war negative reaction to innovation and abundance that you saw in figures like Rachel Carson and EF Schumacher and Amory Lovins and the founding of organizations like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth and Natural Resources Defense Council later on. I think that academia writ large is at times in partnership and at times funded by, but mostly ideologically inflected with the classic environmentalist way of thinking about the world.
I think that that is less true when you get out of environmental studies programs and you venture into agricultural economics or resource economics or engineering or other scientific disciplines, which are obviously implicated in our major environmental concerns. But I do think that whether it's geography or environmental studies, that there tends to be very limited appetite for debate of these classical environmentalist foundations and oftentimes broad hostility to other ways of thinking about the human nature technology interface that I think is unfortunate. I'm not sure if I'm fully answering the question that you have, but that is a major concern that I have for the pursuit of knowledge that our academy is supposed to be designed for.
MATTHEW BURGESS: Yeah, no, that does answer my question. Let me just ask you one follow up, and that is if I look at the fields of academia where people often point to this type of problem, it seems like the common features are political monoculture among active researchers, excuse me, political tribalism that can be intense, pressures to virtue signal and moral panics about issues that we know we would all agree are serious issues. So climate change certainly being one of them, racism is another one that's often the news in this context.
But I want to ask you, is there maybe an additional element in climate that might be distinct from these others? And that is that there has been a history, I would say, of special interest backed misinformation muddying the waters and occasionally personally attacking members of the climate science community. And so to what extent, if at all, do you think that that plays a role in climate scientists sometimes wanting to circle the wagons around certain tribal mindsets? And if you do, do you think that that is understandable? Do you think it's justifiable? What should we be doing instead insofar as this tribalism is an issue?
ALEX TREMBATH: It's a really great question, Matt. I think that climate scientists writ large absolutely have a view that you say special interests, I think overwhelmingly it's presumed to be the global fossil fuel industry or the oil and gas industry or specific companies like ExxonMobil are deliberately attacking the credibility of climate science and therefore we're in a sort of a knowledge struggle for whose influence and power actually takes root in the world and affects policy change and affects social license and affects our broad understanding of the problem. I don't want to say that those concerns on the part of the climate science community are wholly illegitimate. I do think that they are radically overinflated by the climate science community, which I think is populated by overwhelmingly impressive and respectable figures who are mostly scientists who are trying to understand the problems that human societies create in the world and are thinking in many contexts about how to discuss those problems and how to solve them.
But are also, I think, populated largely by academics who self-select into climate science precisely because they are, as the global human population goes, more concerned about it than I think most people are. And I think you can validate that finding by just looking at public opinion surveys that show that vanishingly few people, you can count on one hand the sort of percentage of people who identify climate change as a major concern of theirs.
And so there's a disconnect between... And it's sort of a structural and almost banal one, but there's a disconnect between the climate scientists who have self-selected into a career in understanding the problem, and the median person, median consumer or the median voter.
And I think, to circle back, that climate scientists are frustrated with that disconnect and frustrated that more people don't think as much about climate change or think as catastrophically about it as the science they say is telling them to do so. And they look for explanations of that disconnect. And very often I think that they identify the source of that disconnect being disinformation from special interests, disinformation and climate denial and predatory delay from interested parties who are either paying policy-makers not to pursue climate policy or are funding PR and advertising campaigns to sway the public away from concern about climate change or away from support for climate policy.
I think that is radically overstated and exaggerated as a dynamic driving public concern for climate change in one way or the other, which I think is mostly actually downstream of the cost and scalability of energy, transportation, agricultural and industrial technologies. I think actually if you ask people if they support de-carbonization and support addressing climate change, they don't feel that intensely about it but they're overwhelmingly supportive of that. We see with first with the switch from coal to increasingly cheap natural gas in the United States and now increasingly cheap solar and wind and battery technologies, that people and businesses actually will adopt these technologies if they're cheap and scalable. And that will drive emissions reductions much more than any punitive intensity of feeling about climate change that would arise from taking the science more seriously or quote unquote listening to the climate scientists.
So I think that is the source of frustration on the part of the climate science community writ large, and I don't want to implicate any individual science in my attempt to narrate this. And I think that's a better explanation for the general public's lack of take up of that message.
MATTHEW BURGESS: Yeah, that's really interesting. Two last questions before we wrap up. The first is, I take your point that the narrative about special interests and fossil fuel interests in particular sometimes might be overplayed. On the other hand, to steel man the opposing view, some might point to the statistics that I believe it's the case in the late 1980s, the fraction of Democrats, Republicans and independents who said they were worried about climate change was almost exactly the same. And then the gap widened after that, largely driven by Republican concern falling. And then recently it's slightly started to increase again.
And so a lot of people, at least as I've seen it, point to that as evidence of the influence of the media narrative that they saw as driven by these special interests. Do you think there's some truth to that? And if not, what explains the statistics I just described?
ALEX TREMBATH: I think there's some truth to that, but I think overwhelmingly the reason you see a big partisan gap that grew post 1990 between Democrats and Republicans on the subject of climate change is because from the emergence of the idea of climate change on the policy space, driven by at the time Vice President Al Gore and other figures, the solution to climate change was posed as a global treaty dictating how quickly every country on earth needed to reduce their emissions and to reduce industrial activity and to change the way that our modern industrial economies are set up in accordance with what diplomats at the United Nations and climate scientists were telling us we had to do. You couldn't design a policy agenda that would have less uptake among ideological conservatives and political parties who are more skeptical of government and of internationalists and globalists institutions than that.
So I think that is actually much more explanatory of the reasons for Republican opposition to climate policy than anything about merchants of doubt or fossil fuel funding of Republican politicians. That is obviously true because you see significant Republican support that whole time for investments in low carbon energy technologies, for solar and wind. Republicans have always been big fans of nuclear. The Inflation Reduction Act, which passed Congress this summer, contained a bunch of provisions that Republicans have long supported, like a funding for clean energy tax credits, for demonstration funding, for advanced technologies like hydrogen or carbon removal.
I mentioned the Inflation Reduction Act because I want to point towards the ways in which even my optimism about bipartisan support for climate policy has its own limits. Not a single Republican supported the Inflation Reduction Act, I think mostly for partisan political reasons. But for this whole time, Republicans have been authoring and supporting technology policy, R&D policy, deployment policy for low carbon energy technologies, even as they have been cast by the climate science and progressive environmentalist media as the primary obstacles to climate policy in the world.
They might have not been super supportive of things like a cap-and-trade bill or the Kyoto Protocol or the Copenhagen Climate Treaty, but of course they weren't going to be. They're political and ideological conservatives who are skeptical of that form of policy making in the first place. And by the way, I think in a bunch of ways those inclinations are correct. I think that climate change is primarily a technological problem, not one that's going to be solved through international diplomacy or negotiation or even primarily through making dirty energy more expensive. I think it's going to be solved by making clean energy less expensive and more scalable. And on that there's actually significant bipartisan agreement.
MATTHEW BURGESS: Yeah, that's really interesting. And in fact, it's something that a former student of mine, Renee Marshall and I have written about in a few different forums. The fact that there does seem to be this bipartisan climate playbook that's flown under the radar, at least for the last few years. We just had an op ed come out called the Bipartisan Playbook is Emerging, or Bipartisan Climate Playbook is Emerging.
So the last question is back to the topic of academia. And that is, it sounds like you do think there is an issue or a challenge of what you might call a lack of viewpoint diversity in climate academia. And so my last question is what if anything could academic institutions do to address it?
ALEX TREMBATH: It's a great point. I'll refrain from speaking too much about the pipeline problems of basically funneling folks who are more progressively inclined into and through the academic institutions of the United States from the rich world. I think that's an important dynamic to keep an eye on, but especially vis-a-vis climate and environmental politics policy and scholarship. I'll sidestep that a little bit because I don't know if I have anything interesting to add.
What I would say is that I just anecdotally, and I think it speaks to a broader way forward and way of thinking about it. I studied at the College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley. I was an environmental economics major, which meant I took a bunch of classical environmental studies, environmental justice, and environmental science classes taught by, I would say folks who look closer to the conventional environmentalist, metaphysical way of thinking about the world. And I took classes at the Energy and Resources Group, I took classes in the Department of Economics, which are staffed more by engineers and by economists obviously.
And so for me, I think that exposed me to not just a different discipline, but a different way of thinking about the world and different forms of problem-solving and a different way of decomposing social and technological and economic problems into their constituent parts. And so I guess my answer to your question is that we need more interdisciplinary scholarship. We need more interdisciplinary course making. We need more interdisciplinary exposure to undergrads, especially, who are coming up through the academic discipline, who by selecting a major and especially by taking a bunch of courses within one school or one department might end up in a bit of an ideological or disciplinary echo chamber. Which I was fortunate enough to break out of at UC Berkeley, but that I can totally imagine someone at Berkeley or at any number of other institutions getting trapped in.
So I think there's quite a bit more we could say about the lack of viewpoint diversity and the ways in which academia in the United States is an increasingly sort of left indexed political endeavor in a bunch of ways. But I'll stop short of rambling on too much about that stuff and just say that more disciplinary diversity and more viewpoint diversity within that should be, I think, a really central pursuit of our institutions of higher learning.
MATTHEW BURGESS: Well, that's a great note to end on, and I think it's an optimistic one because I suspect maybe sometimes for different reasons, a lot of leaders of higher education institutions would agree with that recommendation. So I'll just say thanks again Alex Trembath for coming on the Free Mind Podcast, and we'll see you soon.
ALEX TREMBATH: Matt, thanks so much for having me. It's been a real pleasure.
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