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EvC: The Reaction Episode 18

A recap and further thinking on Canadian green politics

Welcome to the second edition of EvC: The Reaction. This month, part-time Harvard postdoc Joel Krupa will be following up on our discussion with Dr. Andrew Weaver. Dr. Weaver is a climate scientist-turned-politician (and back again). Now a professor at the University of Victoria and a former Green Party Member of the Legislative Assembly in Canada’s Province of British Columbia, he came on the show not only to discuss the climate and energy mainstays of the podcast, but also the politics and social forces that ultimately inform their trajectories.

The following constitute some of the most memorable takeaways from the show.

1. It is tempting to criticize our leaders and systems, but there are flaws relating to climate and energy built into democratic politics.

It is easy to lambast the political systems of today as sclerotic and flawed. Virtually any dinner party features at least one (or sometimes many) confident prognosticator(s) on the idiotic ills of leaders at any level. (Indeed, without naming names, some commentators have built an entire career deriding political ineffectiveness without actually doing much to promote change). But listeners to this podcast may have been left with the sense that perhaps a bit of compassion and reflection is in order. Scientist Weaver observed that public policy is a difficult forum in which to advance tangible solutions – a view undoubtedly shared by in-house EvC scientists Sara and David, both of whom made the transition from the elegant world of physics to the messy world of public policy in their academic careers.

Solution-less political critique falls short on at least four notable accounts. First, Weaver pointed out the awkward truth that politicians tend to (rather rationally) prioritize the needs of those who vote for them. Hip replacements, therefore, take precedence over longer-term issues like carbon pricing, as senior citizens vote...while climate-exposed young people often don’t. Nobel Laureate Jean Tirole has echoed this sentiment, arguing in Economics for the Common Good that politicians are rational agents responding to the circumstances with which they are presented (as in the aforementioned case of hip replacement).

Second, there are fundamental flaws to democratic systems that prevent real action - not the least of which is that a single individual holding an untrue view will have the same amount of voting power as a deeply knowledgeable single individual vote. While this structure can be helpful in managing the well-documented hubris of experts devoid of skin in the game, the essential nature of democracy poses immense threats to avoiding systemically-relevant nonsense (more on nonsense later). Autocracies are alluring, Ed noted, but pose their own novel threats, for with the odd exception (such as the much-celebrated example of Singapore), the history of non-democracies is generally littered with horrific outcomes. This leaves us only with, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy - the worst system available except for all others that have been tried thus far.

Third, according to Weaver there is a breath-taking volatility built into see-sawing democratic politics. This embeds short-termism in decision-making, with predictable outcomes. Consider, if you will, the case of Weaver’s Province of British Columbia. In 2008, the opposition NDP attacked the pioneering carbon tax implementation of the BC Liberals with an “Axe the Tax” campaign. Now in power in 2021, they are accelerating it. This sort of 180 degree turn is, of course, exclusive to neither the Canada or environmental context, as evidenced by the newfound fiscal responsibility of deficit-scolding US Republicans after a generous 2017 tax cut.

This leads us to the final flaw in democracy that shone through in the discussion – what Weaver saw as the danger of career politicians. In an experience undoubtedly found in many other parts of the globe, Weaver opined that many politicians discover that the perks of their job (six-figure salaries, a high public profile, and generous defined benefit pension plans, for a start) can make for an excellent career opportunity. Unsurprisingly, when required to make tough decisions, it can prove alluring to take the most politically safe route. Essential electricity transmission corridors (fundamental to most 2050 decarbonization routes) are swapped for unfair tax policy.

2. Nonsense – good and bad – needs to be acknowledged.

So how could or should we deal with the issues raised in the previous section? Barring the realization of the omniscient artificial general intelligence intriguingly outlined in MIT physicist Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, it is unclear. This leads naturally to the next theme that emerged in the discussion - the frustrating role of nonsense.

Nonsense is worth dwelling on, for nonsense in climate and energy debates is both pervasive and damaging. To be fair, it can be useful in select instances. David pointed out that even if Extinction Rebellion or Greta Thunberg say things that are a stretch, at least they are drawing attention to the climate problem. However, these are isolated instances.

Much of the energy and climate nonsense that’s out there delays meaningful action or – worse – sends us in the exact wrong direction. We fret over the still-slow pace of conversions to electric cars but don’t dig deep on the lower-hanging fruit of making the existing transportation systems’ internal combustion engines much more efficient. We talk about improving transportation, but here in North America, our train infrastructure can charitably be described as poor. And in the current renewables-forward environment, we breathlessly note new capacity additions in renewables, but breeze over the fact that primary energy supply has stayed relatively fixed at ~80% fossil for over 100 years.

Perfection can be the enemy of the good, and Weaver pointed out we should go for impactful low-hanging fruit while ignoring diversions that take away from positive change. As one example, he mentioned that his discussions with concerned citizens had often highlighted very understandable and important worries about plastic straws and other single use plastic. However (and I think this is safe to say), it is unlikely he was inundated with constituent complaints about the immense emissions of cement and other industrial processes that heavily contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately for us humans, nonsense has high emotional resonance. This facilitates it going both a) unchallenged in debates and b) repeated in media echo chambers. (David mentioned recent cases he had come across pertaining to the climate mitigation merits of inadvertently carbon-intensive local farming, for example). Whether there is a solution is an open question that we will dive into on future editions of EvC: The Reaction.

3. Rapid decarbonization gains steam with new support from (unexpected) places.

As a final point, the podcast could not have been completed this week without mentioning the just-released historic International Energy Agency (IEA) report on Net Zero by 2050. Sara pointed out that it was exciting to see the IEA come out with a detail-rich analysis showing an achievable pathway to net zero by 2050 – narrow and likely unachievable, in the skeptical view of your humble correspondent, but realizable. David pointed out that it was extra exciting to see a historically fossil-centric entity like the IEA come out so forcefully. A good starting point for future editions of EvC: The Reaction.

Genuine thanks to Andrew Weaver for anchoring an engaging episode, and tune in next month for the 3rd edition of EvC: The Reaction.