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Reason to have hope on climate: We are bending the curve’

A conversation on Pod Save America’ about COP26, Build Back Better, super-apocalyptic eventualities avoided and more.

At left, Canary Media Editor-at-Large David Roberts; at right, Pod Save America hosts Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor (Crooked Media)
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Editor’s note: David Roberts joined the Pod Save America podcast with hosts Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor to talk about the COP26 climate summit, climate provisions in the Built Back Better bill and climate change in general. For more on the summit, read Roberts’ wrap-up post: Don’t Buy Into the Gloomy COP26 Rhetoric.”

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Here’s a condensed and lightly edited excerpt of the Pod Save America conversation.

Jon Lovett: What did you make of the Washington Post story that looked at the way countries have been reporting their climate emissions? They found huge exaggerations around the amount of carbon that countries are claiming they’re reducing by absorbing it into forests. So much of what we’re seeing in these conferences depends upon voluntary and honest reporting of information. 

Roberts: I think it’s been a slightly open secret for a long time that there’s been a lot of exaggeration. It’s mainly about fuzziness around the carbon accounting for plants, forests, mangroves, things like that. The science itself is fuzzy. There’s a lot of room for shenanigans. 

This is one reason why some of the most contentious negotiations that go on at these COPs are about monitoring and verification. People don’t want U.N. monitors coming into their country with total access. But a report like this I think is going to really put the screws on having standards and some actual verification because, as you say, a lot of this is shell games.

The more it becomes clear that we’ve kind of bumbled our way to the point that we’re not going to be able to hit our target, the more forms of denial arise to dodge grappling with that.

Lovett: Has the curve really been bent in a significant way?

Roberts: I think the undertold story of climate is that a lot of the super-apocalyptic eventualities or possibilities have been ruled out by concerted action. We are bending the curve. 

One of the interesting aspects that has become clear at this COP is that governments are in a lot of ways the caboose of this effort. Banks and corporations and cities and substate actors of various kinds are moving much faster and are arguably driving bigger changes than national politics are at this point. 

Lovett: That was one of the saving graces of the past four years and the reason we’re so on target for Paris is that a lot of other municipalities and local governments and corporations continued to strive toward the agreement, even as Trump was trying to pull us out of it. 

Roberts: It feels weird for me to say as a dyed-in-the-wool lefty, but the corporate procurement movement in the U.S. is a real thing. It’s responsible for about 20 percent of total renewable energy built at this point. Corporations like Google are dragging utilities and state governments along with them. 

Tommy Vietor: Joe Biden’s Build Back Better economic bill includes $555 billion. Can you give us a sense of the impact of that kind of spending on climate? 

Roberts: I think it would be transformative. I think it’s easy for this to get lost in the endless and wildly frustrating back and forth that we’ve been going through over these last few months — the serial disappointments and the bile that [West Virginia Democratic Senator] Joe Manchin causes in all of us can cause us to lose sight of the fact that this would be transformative. 

It’s an enormous amount of money. Obama’s stimulus had $90 billion for clean energy and sparked market revolutions in solar and wind and batteries that have brought the cost down by many, many multiples since then, and this is six times as large. It’s gonna be huge. 

It’s also distributed quite widely. There’s a lot of it going to clean electricity as is right and proper, but there’s stuff for resilience. There’s stuff for carbon capture. It’s really comprehensive. 

The one thing I would say about the bill is if you’re sitting down with a clean sheet of paper and making carbon policy, you want a mix of carrots and sticks, right? You want incentives and subsidies, things like tax breaks. You also want some regulations, some rules that you can’t exceed. What Manchin has basically succeeded in doing is taking all of the sticks out of the bill. So no entity is punished or forced to do anything by this. It’s a giant bucket of carrots.

Lovett: One thing you mentioned was the carbon sequestration in Build Back Better. Can you talk a little bit about that? I’ve looked at the numbers, and I say our only hope is we’ve got to reach up into the air and grab it and bury it because none of this other shit is working. And then at the same time, I see people say, wow, it took this long for a bunch of fucking tech people to invent a tree.

Roberts: It’s more powerful than a tree, but it is just about the most expensive way to reduce a ton of carbon. It’s a lot easier to make energy-efficient buildings that are not emitting in the first place. 

Even if we went to zero net emissions, we still have a lot more carbon in the atmosphere than is compatible with a stable climate. So we need to remove a bunch from the atmosphere no matter what. 

What you don’t want carbon capture to become is an excuse to build more polluting factories. That’s how Joe Manchin thinks of it. Joe Manchin thinks, I’ve got all these coal and natural gas plants. I’ll just clean them up. I’ll stick something on them that cleans them up and they’ll keep rolling.” That is delusional. All those plants are going to have to close. 

You’re going to have to use carbon capture to go to negative emissions. You do need to develop it. It’s good to do the R&D. But you need to watch the fossil fuel industry like a hawk because they are going to try to use it disingenuously to their own benefit. 

Vietor: What is your level of hopefulness or anxiety that we can actually meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold that everyone’s talking about as the gold standard we need to avoid climate catastrophe?

Roberts: I guess I’ll just be blunt and say the chances of us limiting warming to 1.5 degrees are slim to nil at this point. I mean, you can still torture your model and make your model do it. But what the model shows is that if every system of any kind on the planet turned on a dime tomorrow and sprinted in the opposite direction, then we could get where we need to go. But if you look around, there’s no real reason to think that’s going to happen. So 1.5 is probably off the table. 

We can still do 2.0 degrees. I’m obliged contractually to say every increment of a degree matters, so 2.1 is better than 2.2. There’s no cutoff point here, right? You just have to keep it as low as you can. 2.0 is still reasonably within reach; 1.5 I think is probably gone. 

And if anything saves us, it’s going to be this sprinting forward of technology. It’s getting cheaper and cheaper, and the engineers are engaged now with building clean grids and what’s required for clean grids, and the whole world’s nerd community is now engaged in this subject. There’s a lot of nerds on it. Insofar as I have any faith, it’s mostly in the nerds. Politicians will fuck around until we’re all dead. And they’ll be the caboose of this whole thing, but it’s gotten enough momentum of its own now that I think we can have some hope in that.

David Roberts is editor-at-large at Canary Media. He writes about clean energy and politics at his newsletter, Volts. Previously, he covered the same subjects at Vox and Grist.