Ted Nordhaus is the co-founder of the Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute and an original signer of the Ecomodernist Manifesto. In this episode, Robert talks to Ted about the ecomodernist movement, the future of nuclear energy, why he disagrees with his uncle (Nobel Prize-winner William Nordhaus) about climate policy, why he believes atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide will not drop any time soon, why adaptation to changes in the climate will be essential, and what California will look like in 10 years.
Robert Bryce 0:05
Hi, welcome to the power hungry podcast. I’m the host Robert Bryce. This podcast is a place where we focus on energy, politics, innovation, and energy. How did I usually said energy, power, innovation and politics? Okay, so in any order you like, those are the issues we covered today. My guest is Ted Nordhaus. He is the founder and executive director of the breakthrough Institute. Ted, thanks for being with us today.
Ted Nordhaus 0:29
Thanks for having me. Robert. Good to see you again.
Robert Bryce 0:31
Yeah, thanks. we first talked to you maybe 12 years ago or so interviewed you when I was writing for energy related publication back when I interviewed you and Michael Shellenberger and I could give you a long introduction, in addition to your title at breakthrough, but I like to let guests introduce themselves. So please, if you just arrived at a dinner party or somewhere else, and you don’t know anyone there, if you don’t mind? Who are you?
Ted Nordhaus 0:57
Yeah. My name is Ted Nordhaus. I’m the founder and executive director of the breakthrough Institute. We’re a think tank based in Oakland, California that focuses on technological solutions to environmental problems, and how we create a future where nine or 10 billion people get to live modern, reasonably prosperous lives like you and I live on an ecologically vibrant planet.
Robert Bryce 1:28
So what makes your Think Tank different? What’s different there? dozens and dozens I’ve been in a think tank I’m kind of an affiliate with visiting fellow with a think tank now in Austin called foundation for research on equal opportunity. What makes breakthru different?
Ted Nordhaus 1:41
Well, we are
you know, we are heterodox in a number of ways. We are the world’s first eco modernist Think Tank, and really think there are not a lot of think tanks that invite invented an ism. And we did. It’s called eco modernism. Um, and it focuses on, you know, the idea behind eco modernism is that the solution to environmental problems is not hairshirt, C or D growth are kind of going back to how we live before the Industrial Revolution. But that the only solution to environmental issues is through more development, more growth, more technology, more industrialization. We’re pro nuclear. And we believe that if you want to leave more room for non human nature on this planet, you need to shrink the human footprint, which means you need dense cities, you need dense energy and power systems. And you need nuclear energy. And you need intensive, very efficient, highly productive, large scale agriculture. So it’s really intensive agriculture, a dense, high, high, dense, high energy future and cities, people living, you know, not in rural, sort of agrarian contexts, but in urban cosmopolitan, big, big global cities.
Robert Bryce 3:19
So tell me about you’ve been around energy issues all your much of your life, your dad was General Counsel of the Department of Energy. What was that like?
Ted Nordhaus 3:26
Well, he was General Counsel at Doa in the first Clinton administration, he was the first general counsel at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and really sort of invented sort of modern energy regulatory law at the federal level
Robert Bryce 3:42
at work and what here was in
Ted Nordhaus 3:45
a, he went to firk, right, you know, in probably 77, um, right after Carter’s election when Burke was created, and when really right around the time that the Department of Energy was actually created. He also drafted was sort of the primary legal architect of the Federal Clean Air Act and, you know, particularly drafted the provisions of the Federal Clean Air Act that were utilized to develop the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which attempted to regulate co2 emissions.
Robert Bryce 4:22
So you’ve grown up around this for a long time policy. And so you grew up in Washington, DC. Yeah,
Ted Nordhaus 4:26
I grew up on Capitol Hill, six blocks from the Capitol.
Robert Bryce 4:31
So this policy stuff comes to you naturally then give her
Ted Nordhaus 4:34
sort of weirdly, yeah, I think you just I never really thought I was going to end up doing this. But it turns out, I sort of ended up in the family business.
Robert Bryce 4:42
So let’s jump forward then to and you went to school, you went to university on these coasts in or
Ted Nordhaus 4:47
no, no, I went to Berkeley.
Robert Bryce 4:48
So okay, so you’ve been in California now for? I want to talk about California. There’s a lot of things happening in California. Come back to that. But in 2007, with Michael Shellenberger, you published this book, breakthrough On the death of environmentalism, to the politics of possibility, wired, reviewed it and said green groups make carp. But the truth is that the book could turn out to be the best thing to happen to environmental ism. Since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, that’s a big claim now, seven or 13 years ago, how important was that book to your career?
Ted Nordhaus 5:20
I mean, I think the book was important in my career, I think, you know, we really sort of, we had sort of a website called breakthrough prior to the book, but really 2007 was when we sort of decided with the book to sort of launch a proper Think Tank. And it really in the process of researching that book, you know, I think if you go back, that book kind of came out of an essay that we’d authored a few years before called the death of environmentalism. And, you know, we wrote the death of environmentalism sort of arguing for a big public investment in clean energy technology. And I think, you know, in some ways, our view on that, at that time wasn’t really that different from Al Gore’s you know, we have all the technology we need, we just need to sort of get the politics sorted out so that we can make this big transition. I think it was really in the process of writing that book that we got clear that No, in fact, we really don’t have all the technology that we need. And there’s going to be a need for just an enormous amount of innovation to where we really sort of dumped the term make clean energy cheap, if you wanted to sort of deeply cut global carbon emissions from. So that’s really a lot of the argument of that book. And really a lot of the work that that I’ve done it breakthrough ever since is sort of figure out how you get from here to there. And I think that book, you know, I don’t know about Silent Spring, but I think that book had, and the work and essays, the death of environmentalism that came before it did have a really big issue ish impact on sort of, you know, as sort of difficult and problematic and sometimes wrong as the environmental community, the mainstream environmental community still often is, I think there’s sort of some big shifts. So if you, you know, that more and more acceptance of nuclear would be one of those more acceptance of nuclear, which, interestingly, we didn’t actually really make an argument for in that book that came after. But I think the most important thing in that book, and and it’s almost quite quaint to say right now is, you know, the dominant sort of environmental paradigm for how you’re going to deal with climate change. When we wrote that book, was that you were just going to kind of regulate it like any other kind of pollution problem in the same way that, you know, we had sort of dealt with clean air and clean water through the clean air and clean water act. And the radical thing and the thing that just we were savaged over was basically saying that we were not going to regulate our way to a clean energy, a global clean energy economy. I mean, just it was such a controversial thing to say at that time. And basically, he said, the only way you’re gonna get there is with, you know, really big public investment in technology and infrastructure to make clean energy cheap, and um, you know, now that’s really kind of, kind of everyone basically accepts that and so much so that people have kind of forgotten what a wildly controversial idea was 15 years ago.
Robert Bryce 8:22
Well, that’s it’s an interesting way to think about it. I want to come back to that idea about carbon taxation and regulation, because one of the other things that is interesting you you’re one of the few people, the only people I knows who has kin who have won the Nobel Prize, your uncle, William Nordhaus won the Nobel Prize in 2018. But I want to come back to that. So, you know, this is another question I’d like to ask of guests. And I’ve asked many of them who’ve been on the podcast, how would you describe your politics? Because you are you came from the left, right, you’re kind of a die hard Democrat, in some ways, but then a lot of your ideas have gained traction on the right. So how do you describe your politics?
Ted Nordhaus 8:59
Uh, you know, I’m Brian Walsh, who’s a I consider, you know, certainly a colleague and, and, and, and a friend, someone who he really is a reporter, he, he was a covered climate issues for Time magazine for a bunch of years, and he’s at axios now, and I don’t know, a decade or so ago, Brian described breakthrough as unclassifiable Californians. Um, and that is a, that’s a badge that I wear very proudly. Um, you know, to your point, I definitely came out of the left. But I don’t consider myself sort of of the left at this point. Because I think in a bunch of ways, sort of contemporary progressivism has sort of lost the lost the thread a little bit. And, you know, I think I, you know, I’m still really, really committed to the idea of, sort of broadly shared prosperity for everyone. I think there’s a really important role for government’s to play in, in sort of helping nations and the world get to a place where, where we’re there. But, you know, I, I think a lot of that has more to do with sort of sustained as investments in public goods versus the kind of sort of real zero sum redistribution that I think a lot of folks on the left now believe, is sort of the sort of primary role of government.
Robert Bryce 10:30
So I want to talk about California because you’re you’re unclassified unclassifiable, California, but that idea of the progressive agenda in California is really, I mean, you look at the particularly at the blackouts lately, and and the homelessness issues there. Those are key. But I wanted to ask this question first. So you mentioned the Eco modernist manifesto that came out in 2015. That I think, in my view, it was key in terms of changing some minds or changing the outlook of a number of people on nuclear non GMOs. What How do you see it? How did how important was that that publication of the manifesto, then five years ago, what’s changed since then, perhaps is the best way to best question.
Ted Nordhaus 11:14
Yeah, I mean, I think the manifesto was, um, you know, if you kind of kind of think about us as having started out as really as critics of sort of, our mentalism
Robert Bryce 11:27
Ted Nordhaus 11:28
heretics, critics, you know, and we always sort of said, like, yeah, you know, we are critics, we are heretics. But we also are, you know, we’re not just sort of contrarians, we’re not sort of just deconstructing environmentalism, for the sake of deconstructing it, we want to kind of reconstruct an alternative paradigm for sort of thinking about the environment and Human Development and the relationship between them. And that really, you know, it took us almost a decade to get there. Um, really, from sort of the publication well, more than a decade, the publication of death of environmentalism, which is the sort of originary critique to the which was in 2004, to the publication of the Eco modernist manifesto in 2015. But really, the Eco modernist Manifesto, is the sort of Central sort of reconstruction of an environmental politics and an environmental worldview, that we think is just sort of much more appropriate to the big environmental and human development challenges that we’re going to be faced with that we are faced with in the 21st century.
Robert Bryce 12:39
Well, that’s an interesting way to think about it, because what pops in my head when you say that as as the way I would abbreviate it would be pro human pro technology, pro energy. Yeah. Which Yeah, absolutely. I think that that, that pretty well defines where I come from, right. You know, to me, I don’t see this in a and I don’t see energy as a partisan issue. You either have it or you don’t, right and right. Want it you everybody wants a bunch of it. Right. And they want it now.
Ted Nordhaus 13:02
Well, you know, I mean, obviously, you’ve done really important work on that, Robert, to just kind of point out, like, how transformational sort of having not just access to a little bit of energy, but a lot of modern energy is for people all over the world. And you really can’t. You can’t separate it from just sort of basic development processes that kind of help people get out of just deep subsistence agrarian poverty, move into the wage economy. You know, be able to sort of afford just basic modern amenities that fridge everybody.
Robert Bryce 13:43
Yeah, all the air conditioning, all these things that we take for granted. Well, so let’s let’s talk about California, then, because that issue of energy availability and the price of energy are things in California that are I mean, these are top of mind. So what’s the sentiment in California? I know you’re you’re in New Mexico. Now, you said before we started recording, you are a refugee from the fires. I’m not a real refugee, your house wasn’t burned down, I’m assuming. But what’s happened to the sentiment in among regular Californians, not just since the fires, but also the blackouts that now happened last year, they happen this year, there. I mean, what I see and I’ll, you know, reveal my cards, the management of the electric grid in California or the management, the electric, just basic fundamental governance, right, that governments cannot fail and the failure of the electric grid the failure, the blackouts, in my view, complete epic failure of governance in California. So that’s my view. What What is your sentiment? What do you How does this sentiment changed about the since the blackouts hit toward nuclear toward electricity? What’s has it changed
Ted Nordhaus 14:53
at all? I don’t I mean, I’ll say a couple of things that you might disagree with Robert. Okay. Um, you know, I think You know, for conservatives particularly like sort of like, you know, there’s a, you know, just just just a bad things that happen in California are just really, really easy slotted, easily slotted into this sort of category of kind of proof of the folly of progressivism. And look, I think progressives and California’s progressive leaders have plenty to account for in these problems. But a lot of these problems are a lot older than, you know, have been going on for a lot longer than the sort of last 10 or 15 years that sort of Democrats have been increasingly sort of hegemonic politically in California. I mean, you know, a lot of it happened under short, you know, all this was going on under on under Arnold Schwarzenegger and, frankly, under pete wilson before him, you know, Republicans up until about a decade ago did actually sort of have a reasonable veto over the, you know, legislatively. And, you know, like, also, you know, conservatives and republicans did actually pass a whole set of constitutional amendments on the ballot, that have also sort of deeply constrained what the state’s political leadership was able to do in terms of budgets in terms of taxation. It’s made the state really overly reliant on income taxes. So you know, puts us in the situation where we have the most progressive income tax rate rates, or system in the country, and yet the highest levels of income inequality as well. And it’s gotten worse, despite this sort of progressive tax code that ostensibly is there to redistribute wealth. So, you know, when you look at the electrical grid in California, you know, and you look at the sort of neglect of, sort of, you know, the fire risk associated with the grid, you know, that’s on sort of several decades and generations of political leaders in the state. It’s also unlike a PC that, you know, both PG and E resisted, sort of rate facing, as did the rate payer advocate groups that normally are sort of having an adversarial position towards pg&e. So it’s just very, can I
Robert Bryce 17:29
interrupt you there for just a minute because pg&e went bankrupt. 20 years ago, they went bankrupt again, last year, that 20 years ago, it was from everything that I my first book was on Enron that the system was a was easily game playable, and it was gained. And now they’ve gone bust again, talking to a friend of mine, he thinks they’re gonna go bankrupt again, because of the way that that’s that the system there is simply unmanageable. So but is this the fault of the Okay, simple question is, is the fault of the utility or the regulators not looking out for the ratepayers where who’s the buyer?
Ted Nordhaus 18:06
It just become a look, pg&e and the whole electrical system has just become a projection screen for all sorts of sort of fabulous agendas. From a,
Robert Bryce 18:19
you know, reflection screen for fabulous agendas,
Ted Nordhaus 18:22
looked at first bankruptcy was really the result of a you know, kind of crazy scheme to complete basically completely, sort of liberalize the electricals and deregulate California’s or electrical system, which then of course, created this sort of incredible opportunities to game the system. You know, this second round of pg&e was a function really, of the fires. Um, you know, I, I think a bit much has been made these rolling blackouts, you know, there’s been a lot of kind of conflation of the safeties, the power safety, the shut offs for safety reasons, which were a big deal last year, with sort of shut offs that were really kind of not actually anything comparable to what we saw last year, this year, in the rolling blackouts, you know, a few hours for, you know, a few 10s of thousands of people actually mostly was what was actually was really going on, it wasn’t like the whole power system system was down for, you know, a significant number of periods of time. But yeah, you know, the state ought to be doing better. We didn’t, you know, they didn’t account for not enough reserve. They knew that there was a risk that this was happening, this would happen and they decided to take the risk. And, and they made a bad bet. And that was the act that was the regulators. It was not the utility. So, I mean, honestly, I’ll tell you, the one thing I would not want to do is be trying to run pg&e or any of these, these utilities in the state of California right now because I think It’s an impossible job. I think the expectations, from ratepayers, from regulators from politicians from the sort of environmental advocacy groups. It’s just impossible to kind of ease
Robert Bryce 20:16
how many how many CEOs as pg&e had in the last time, you
Ted Nordhaus 20:18
know, exactly. And it’s like, it’s like, indoor. If it was a management problem, you think they would have fixed it, but I just think we’ve kind of created sort of impossible, a set of contradictory tensions and just impossible expectations in the state. And the politicians love to rail against pg&e. And they kind of threaten to take the system public, but of course, they won’t take it public because they don’t want the responsibility for running the system. You know, they want to they want to, they want they want they want a, you know, you know, they want a private sector punching bag to blame all the problems easily. And
Robert Bryce 20:55
they’re it’s their fault, not our Yeah,
Ted Nordhaus 20:57
they want to outsource the responsibility.
Robert Bryce 20:59
Yeah. So well, then that, that leads to the next obvious question. So is this going to affect the looming the scheduled closure of Diablo Canyon beginning in 2024? Is there a chance now that some sanity and a state that has these lofty climate goals that they’re going to keep this really important source of zero carbon electricity on the grid is that is what’s
Ted Nordhaus 21:20
odd, you know, I keep thinking that that sort of were ripe for you considering that and that, but I boy, I just, it just, you know, obviously, a lot of us have kind of made this point and sort of thought through various frameworks where you could keep that plant open. And, and sort of, you know, both sort of help the state much in a much more effective cost effective way to meet its climate goals. But, but I just see no evidence that there’s any, any appetite for that. There’s no constituency for it.
Robert Bryce 21:57
Yeah. You know, and that’s one of the odd things about looking at the the electric grid. And, you know, of course, I just made a film about electricity and have a new book about it. But Illinois now, Exelon just announced, they’re going to close to their big nuclear plants in Illinois, the Byron and Dresden stations, those two plants by themselves produce twice as much electricity as all the solar and all the wind in Illinois. And yet, there’s no there’s no constituency there to keep them open. There was a constituency, I think, in New York to keep Indian Point open, but it was democrats in those states that are saying, you know, no, we’re gonna close it. Right. Democratic leadership. So what seems to me curious now, and I’ve written a little bit about this is that the Democratic Party in their platform that came out this year, for the first time in 48 years said, we’re pro nuclear, which is important. But at the same time, there’s this other tension going on in California and Illinois and New York, the most democratic states in this in the country, where the nuclear plants are being shuttered. And it appears there’s no constituency for keeping them open, despite the stated platform. How do you see that it? Yeah,
Ted Nordhaus 23:02
I mean, I think, Paul, I think this is where, you know, there’s, I think it’s, um, you know, the problem that the Democrats have is that is that the sort of environmental community is a big part of its of its kind of coalition and constituency, environmental communities kind of come around theoretically on sort of keeping plants open. But they sort of still, I don’t think they are really terribly committed to it. So right, you know, there’s sort of three overlapping things that happen in these when we get into these sort of state, kind of situation, state level situations. The first is that the environmental groups, um, they make Well, it’s really two things I make two demands. And the first is, they say, you need to, you know, if we’re gonna kind of bail these plants out, if we’re going to kind of keep these plants open, then we need lots of goodies, more goodies more subsidies and supports for renewable energy as well. So the nuclear plants get kind of held hostage to sort of more funding for renewables, in places that often have already made fairly substantial commitments to renewables. The second thing that happens is they say, if we’re going to kind of bail these plants out, the utilities need to open their books, and show that they’re losing money on the plans. And the reality is that it’s not really a question so much of whether the utility is losing money on the planets, whether they could make more money by closing the plant and just running their gas plants more with gas at you know, God, whatever, two to four cents a kilowatt hour. Right. Um, and so and so, you know, from a utility perspective, where they’re these are private companies that are trying to sort of maximize their return on investment, you know, they kind of go Yeah, we close this plant down, we run gas, we make more money, right? So if you want us to prove that we’re losing money on the plants, we can’t do that. And then the third thing,
Robert Bryce 25:05
although Exelon has said in Illinois that in their public statement in their press release said, We’ll open our books on these plants and let them let let the lawmakers look at them. So But yeah, I mean, it’s just an extraordinary situation where you have the party platform is very much about climate change. And yet, the key bits of infrastructure that are helping deal with climate change are being shuttered because there’s these other agendas that, as you say, have Well, you know, still pushing renewables and Ken Caldera had an interesting point later, he said, why, if you have nuclear, why would you ever build wind turbines? Write something on Twitter about that the other day? Yeah,
Ted Nordhaus 25:43
yeah, I saw that. Yeah. And I was just gonna say, I think the third thing, and maybe this is the most important sure is that out, both the utilities and the environmental groups, um, have sort of treated these just kind of one off bailout negotiations to just sort of bail out individual plants, rather than saying, you know, let’s value all zero carbon energy the same in the electrical system, so that they
Robert Bryce 26:09
go over, there’s no, there’s no. Well, how do you set? How do you what would you say there’s no overarching kind of policy or not a broader
Ted Nordhaus 26:17
measure? Right? In other words, and what you see in Illinois, they went in bailed out four plants that were going to shut down, right? And then, you know, you get a couple years out, and it’s like, Hey, here’s another two that are in trouble, we want to shut down. And, you know, I said all along, look, you just need to Illinois has a renewable portfolio standard right now. And if you just kind of basically grandfathered all the existing existing nuclear into that standard, you would have, you know, kind of a mandate, you’re at, like, 80%, zero carbon energy with a mandate to grow that, um, and, you know, if you and then and once you do that, it sort of goes like, Okay, well, you know, if Exelon has a proposal to actually close these plants down and replace it with solar, or wind or something else, that’s zero carbon, go for it. Um, but what we’re not going to do is shut down nuclear plants and replace them with coal and gas.
Robert Bryce 27:10
Right. So that that requires so if I’m hearing you, right, just repeat it back. So instead of a piecemeal approach, that the nuclear plants need to be considered under something like an RPS, but but it would not have to be done at the federal level. I mean, no, there’s so the states could do that. Just just they could do it tomorrow. Right. But the problem in Illinois To me it’s almost it’s not comical, there’s nothing funny about it, but the but excellent, just paid a $200 million fine for in a bribery scandal involving their nuclear plants and rice. Same thing happened in Ohio. So, you know, it’s Yeah,
Ted Nordhaus 27:46
I mean, look, the whole thing is kind of, um, it’s just, it’s grubby, and dirty.
Robert Bryce 27:54
But Angel, grubby? Yeah, and grabby and dirty is, yeah, I mean, it’s part of the the battle, as I see it, it’s part of the ongoing battle over the grid, who’s going to get access? Who’s going to get preference? Who’s going to get the mandates and the subsidies in that it’s a $400 billion business? Well, of course, there’s going to be battles, and it’s a very diffused business,
Ted Nordhaus 28:12
and who’s gonna pay for it, and who’s
Robert Bryce 28:14
gonna pay for it, which is the part that to me is really important and to, to little discusses the regressive nature of a lot of these policies. But that that’s, that’s a longer discussion than we have for today. So how do you do you’re the executive director of a think tank, how do you quantify success then at breakthrough Institute to back back to kind of that, that your role as a administrator, as a manager, as a, someone who manages intellectuals, what how do you manage? Or how do you how do you quantify success?
Ted Nordhaus 28:51
Well, you know, there’s quantifying success, and there’s managing intellectuals. And those two things are not always consistent with one another. Let’s put it that way. But, uh, I will say that, you know, I mean, I think we have a very sort of discursive, you know, our sort of, you know, what, call it theory of change is very much sort of built in, you know, we’re a think tank, it’s focused on ideas, it’s a focus on, you know, I mean, I think we try to kind of get out in front of these debates, and push really, really hard on on sort of, at the frontier of kind of how we think about the issues. We’re willing to be disruptive, we’re willing to be controversial. You know, we’re not trying to kind of create consensus, by sort of papering over all sorts of differences. we’re much more focused on kind of going out and, and making kind of, you know, actually being argumentative, um, and just kind of causing friction. Yeah, cause some friction caused some sort of cognitive dissonance. And then sort of really kind of get out, you know, we do a lot of research and, and, and increasingly, we do a lot of original research. You know, we used to do a lot of what I would call literature reviews, where we’d go and sort of summarize the existing literature, and then you just get to this point where you’ve kind of summarized the literature and the answers it has, unlike really, really core questions, um, are pretty unsatisfactory, right? Um, um, so, you know, yeah, yeah, we do. We, and we do a lot of research, and then we do a lot of policy development. So, you know, we put a proposal out earlier this year for reforming clean energy subsidies, um, pretty pretty radically to just sort of focus on kind of really kind of focusing subsidies on earlier stage technologies rather than, you know, basically paying, you know, a third the cost of for Chinese solar panels that are not remotely on the kind of technological frontier of what’s possible, and that that’s how clean energy subsidies work. Now, I’d much rather they were directed at Advanced nuclear energy storage, rather than No, you’re not a fan of wind. But I actually think that, you know, some of these sort of new really big much further offshore wind technologies may be pretty important. And I, you know, I don’t think we need to be paying two cents a kilowatt hour for more onshore wind in the United States as a subsidy, but I’d be willing to subsidize, you know, 12 megawatts 60% capacity factor offshore turbans for a while.
Robert Bryce 31:42
So when they just a quick break, so thanks for tuning into the power hungry podcast. I’m talking to Ted Nordhaus. He’s the founder and executive director of the breakthrough Institute in Oakland. So I’ve got a lot more questions but it call to action. So you want people to go to the website? How do you want listeners to follow your work? What How would they be?
Ted Nordhaus 32:02
Well, you can follow our work a couple of different ways. We have a weekly newsletter you can subscribe to at our website. It’s called a the address for the website is the breakthrough dot o RG. Um, you know, you can follow a lot of our work on our website. You can follow me on twitter at on just at TED Nordhaus, you can follow a breakthrough through our account at the bti.
Robert Bryce 32:27
Let’s move on, if you don’t mind and talk about a recent piece that you published in foreign policy about which I thought was really interesting about nuclear subsidies and I’m sorry, nuclear politics in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. And you wrote it with with Seaver Wang, who’s at the breakthrough. You said in all three nations a nuclear power sector has become closely identified with long entrenched political parties and the and the power of state bureaucracies. And because of that, that opposition to nuclear power has been seen as a as a way to oppose the the incumbent parties. But you said that the this that that problem that these these government issued monopolies Quasar cartels have favored companies have have made nuclear energy, a symbol of the old guard. And that that’s if I if I summarize that. Absolutely. Well, and I didn’t know anything, but I knew that, you know, Japan had closed down their plants in the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns. But I didn’t realize that in South Korea and Taiwan that the anti government and anti nuclear segments were were so closely aligned. How important is that? And in how important is that, that those three countries, which you point out, have significant co2 emissions? Maybe turning or appear to be turning away from nuclear? How important is that?
Ted Nordhaus 33:51
Yeah, I think it’s, it is important, and it you know, I mean, for me, I think the thing that’s interesting is sort of, you know, as a pro nuclear advocate, I think even within the nuclear community, there’s a lot of confusion about what sort of, sometimes it’s confusion, and frankly, sometimes I think it’s just disingenuous about what the nuclear, what sort of sort of viable nuclear future looks like. Um, so
Robert Bryce 34:20
can I interrupt because as you’re, as you’re saying that, if I can interrupt for just a second, because you’re saying the pro nuclear future, but how much of that is about the US and how much of it is international, right? Because this is the big, the big separation, right? Because we need strong governments that are pro nuclear, right to make it proliferate, proliferate to grow in other countries.
Ted Nordhaus 34:43
Yeah, I think there’s two paths for nuclear, and they’re not actually consistent with one another. So the traditional path for nuclear, which is represented in all three of these East Asian economies, is, you know, a pretty strong centralized government. Um, You know, I mean, these were basically one party states with a permanent bureaucracy and essentially planned economy. And if your nuclear future is predicated on really big, sort of conventional light water reactors, um, that’s, that’s the model. You know, there’s just no plausible way if you’re not going to basically nationalize your power sector, um, you know, have a single nuclear builder owner operator who’s just going to kind of crank out Gen two or Gen three reactors one after another after another one gigawatt at a time. There’s just no way. You have to have a fully planned centrally administered power sector, liberalized electricity markets, liberalized economies, they can’t do it, and they’re not going to do it.
Robert Bryce 35:55
So so this is Ross atom or rasa Tom in Russia is the classic example.
Ted Nordhaus 36:00
Is rasa Tom it’s it’s um, you know, it’s it’s EDF and arriva, you know, during this sort of heyday of the French nuclear build out, and I guess,
Robert Bryce 36:13
in South Korea as well, that
Ted Nordhaus 36:15
Yeah, yeah, exactly. These are functionally state owned enterprises that are sort of enmeshed in a centrally planned economy, that is building out a centrally planned electrical grid. So if your vision for the future is more big, sort of Gen two Gen three reactors, then, then you are really frankly, being dishonest if you’re not also saying my vision for the future is a centrally planned economy with a centrally planned and administered power sector, right. And with state owned enterprises, basically building all these reactors and operating them. On the other hand, if you’re kind of like, No, you know, like, we got to deal with climate change, and we need a reliable power sector, but we want a sort of more liberalized economy, we don’t want central planning, we don’t want a centrally planned or publicly owned electrical grid, then then big nuclear reactors are completely inconsistent with that, um, and you know, you’re going to be looking at Advanced reactors, you know, you’re going to look at a range of much smaller technologies, you’re going to look at sort of liberalized power sectors
Robert Bryce 37:32
that are with with private capital playing a big role in that rollout, the private generators playing a bigger role in the electric grid.
Ted Nordhaus 37:40
Yes, yeah, exactly. So, um, you know, and and honestly, I sort of think that we’ll see, you know, I mean, I think outside of some of these Asian economies and a few other places, I think everything’s kind of moving towards that second model. And so you need you need nuclear technologies that are consistent with that model. Unless
Robert Bryce 38:04
would it be fair to say a less centralized model? Right, yeah. Exactly naturalized both in terms of political power, but electrical generation? Yeah, right. Yeah, exactly. It’s one of the issues that I’ve thought about quite a lot in the United States here. And that’s one of the key problems, right, is that the ownership of the electric grid in the United States is so diffused with 900, electric co Ops, and hundreds of publicly owned utilities. You know, we have government power providers, we have the investor owned utilities, and that there’s not a big enough. Well, I mean, there’s a lot of capital available, available, but there are all these different pieces that are geographically separate and different political and different centers of economic and political power within those grids. Right, that makes it isn’t that is that, in your view, is that is it? Is that one of the things that’s going to limit the growth of nuclear in the United States? Is that a constraint do you think?
Ted Nordhaus 38:56
I think it’s a it’s a, you know, as certainly as long as the sort of technology of choice is a one gigawatt light water reactor? Yes, that is absolutely, we’re not going to I don’t believe we’re going to build any more of those in the US. So if there’s going to be a future for nuclear in this country is going to be looked, it’s going to look like new scale, you know, or oklo, or one of these sort of with much smaller, very different technologies that, you know, they can be financed with Project private project finance, they don’t, you know, functionally, you just can’t build a large nuclear reactor anywhere in the world without basically publicly financing it.
Robert Bryce 39:37
Because the costs are in the 10s of billions of dollars.
Ted Nordhaus 39:39
Yeah, yeah. And, and, you know, I, if we were like, you know, I wrote a piece a couple of years ago called the empty radicalism of the climate Apocalypse, um, where I just pointed out that for all this talk of having to end capitalism and and, you know, we need to totally different model like, like, if you really believe Leave that and you really believe there was this climate Apocalypse, you just go nationalize the power sector and build big nuclear plants as fast as you can. And that would work. Like we know it works. We’ve done it before, john, but for all this talk about, you know, how people are we’re socialists, and we don’t like capitalism, and we hate corporations. The whole kind of model for the left is still basically, you know, this sort of what they call neoliberal, they, they attack it as neoliberalism, but they’re actually really all neoliberals. They want to just basically give big subsidies to big corporations to build wind and solar. And, you know, and they want to, you know, privatized and, you know, they want to sort of liberalize these these, the regulation of these powers, you go, and you talk to these environmental champions, who are all like, you know, capitalism and climate change are incompatible things, and then you kind of get to the bottom of it, and they all want to deregulate the power sector and subsidize corporations to build windmills.
Robert Bryce 40:59
Let’s have a bake sale for Exelon. Yeah, that was what I mean. And that’s the joke I made about that, you know, the joke I make about Illinois, right. And well, here’s a $35 billion Corporation, they’re asking to be get more more profits from their nuclear plants, which from a business standpoint is perfectly understandable. And I don’t begrudge them that right there. This isn’t the the Sisters of Charity here, you know, now, let’s talk about new scale because that was one of the other things that two of your your colleagues, Zeke house father and Andrew Fletcher just wrote about that and, and talked about their the possibility of if new scale and their their 60 megawatts electric reactor weather, which now has had positive regulatory decisions from the NRC that they said that the only way that it will read it here, new scale is most likely to garner public and private investment if natural gas prices are high, which seems unlikely at the moment, if lower discount rates are used, and if low carbon energy is subsidized, otherwise, it will need to be publicly funded. So it’s right on point with what we’re discussing here. Right about this. The difficulty of nuclear is that it needs this government backing at state level federal level and in summoning that backing is the political is a big political challenge. Is that is that fair?
Ted Nordhaus 42:16
Look, I mean, yeah, that’s fair. On the other hand, it’s like, you know, look, if we gave new scale two cents a kilowatt hour, um, to build as many plants as they could I, they’d be quite, quite economically competitive with gas and wind and solar, which is that that
Robert Bryce 42:29
and that’s what that’s what wins give. So your argument would be well, if we’re giving that two cents to wind, let’s give it to nuclear then Is that a fair summary?
Ted Nordhaus 42:36
Yeah, yeah. I mean, we should be, we should be testing, you know, we should be technologically neutral in our subsidies for clean energy if we really want if we want clean energy. But you know, the other thing with new scale, and we’ll see what happens with new scale, we’ll see what happens with oklo. We’ll see what happens with some of these other things. You we have a paper coming out a couple of my colleagues do Jessica Lovering who you know, and I think I’ve had on the show and Jameson McBride, I’m looking at sort of what the sort of plausible trajectories are in terms of kind of costs and learning rates for advanced nuclear technology. So my bet, and we published a thing, kind of making the case for micro nuclear, is that the thing that’s going to kind of succeed, that’s most likely to succeed is the thing that can kind of get the most learning, um, in terms of just kind of building a bunch of the things, so you get better and so you get better supply chains set up, and you improve your production processes and all of that, that’s going to be okhla. Um, because you can
Robert Bryce 43:33
build the most the fastest is gonna be the winner.
Ted Nordhaus 43:36
Yeah, yeah. Because I think that when, when all said and done, I, I don’t, you know, if you look at a per kind of megawatt or whatever, these first kind reactors are all going to cost about, you know, not that different that right at a two megawatt oklo, a 60 megawatt new scale, and a one gigawatt at, you know, at 1000, when you kind of go to that sort of capital cost per megawatt, those first of a kind, they’re all going to be pretty close, they’re going to be a lot, they’re going to be five, you know, four or five 6000 a megawatt. But,
Unknown Speaker 44:13
you know, that, Oh, look,
Robert Bryce 44:14
if they can, if they can build 1000, if they can build 1000 of them, then that’s a different story.
Ted Nordhaus 44:19
Right. Right. Right. Um, so, so. So, my bet, you know, without making any claims about upclose actual technology, is that is that smaller, smaller? Well, when, you know, what was your book, you wrote a book that smaller, smaller, faster, lighter,
Robert Bryce 44:37
Ted Nordhaus 44:38
Yeah, yeah, exactly. That, that that that smaller? I
Robert Bryce 44:41
think there’s some there’s some there’s some truth to that. And I think one of the the comparison I make is, well, why does Toyota Why is it Why are they so good at building engines because they build them by the millions, right? And then they build a million more and so well, so let me talk about your uncle. And before I do, can you adjust your your your screen again? Because you’re getting another flare, they’re just the sunlight is
Unknown Speaker 45:03
Robert Bryce 45:04
other way. I’m still getting Well, I’m still getting this flare that’s now running this way on your face. Can you tell that? There you go about that? That’s, that’s better. Good. Okay, so let’s talk about your uncle, your uncle, William Nordhaus. As I said before, I don’t know anybody who’s kin to people who’ve won the Nobel Prize. You went to Oslo I saw a photo I think Joshua Bell posted your you were there. What was that like to go to see your,
Ted Nordhaus 45:30
uh, you know, it was kind of a once in a lifetime experience. Um, I don’t think anyone else in my family is gonna win a Nobel Prize, and I certainly don’t think I’m gonna win one. So I think this was my, my first and only it wasn’t Oslo, actually, Stockholm. Oslo is where they do the Peace Prize. And Stockholm is where they do all the other prizes. And I
Robert Bryce 45:49
only I knew my Nobel
Ted Nordhaus 45:51
Yes. In fact, I know much more about the Nobel now than I never thought I would.
Robert Bryce 45:56
But he slapped me down on that one. Oh, well, you know, so Sweden, whatever,
Ted Nordhaus 46:01
Oslo whatever. It’s all the same right to Scandinavia.
Robert Bryce 46:03
They’re up there somewhere. So what was that? Like? It must have been quite a thrill and white tie and tails. Was it? Was it at the
Ted Nordhaus 46:12
Yeah, yeah, you gotta, you have to wear I think it’s white tailed. I don’t I’ve never I’ve never worn a thing like that before. I’ll probably never one wear one again. But yeah, I had to go out and you know, there’s a whole operation to rent the you know, it’s all written you know, nobody almost no one owns their own, you know, Tails. So you know, you go, they literally set up in the lobby of this huge hotel, like they the rental places just set up and kind of take the measurements and, and get everyone sort of decked out. And so everyone’s wearing the same suit from the same huge rental place in Stockholm. Except for me, because I went Somehow, I went off brand and went and rented from a different place, which Haha, um, I think I am and I think my tuxedo was not as nice.
Robert Bryce 47:07
Okay, so now we’ll go from the tuxedos back to your William Nordhaus. His work, I actually cited his work in my in my new book a question of power because of a 2010 report he did, which I thought was really interesting to looking at satellite data on nighttime luminosity, right, like measuring lights at night, in different parts of the world. And that that correlated pretty closely with economic growth and development. But his his the points that he made in his in his acceptance speech he talked about, and he won the prize for his work on climate change in and carbon pricing, he said that nations must raise the price of co2 and greenhouse gas emissions. And he said policies must be global and not just national or local, the best hope for effective coordination as a climate club. What about the carbon tax? What about a carbon price? Or have you argued with your uncle on this? What’s the difference?
Ted Nordhaus 47:55
Yeah, we argue about it a lot. Uh, I don’t, I don’t oppose a carbon price. But I also don’t think it’s likely to be the sort of Central strategy for addressing climate change for a bunch of reasons, one of which are those sort of coordination problems globally, that the climate club is intended to address? And I just don’t think that’s a viable sort of framework internationally for a bunch of different reasons. And also, because you
Robert Bryce 48:27
could just give me a one or two reasons, then why because I have my own reasons, right. We don’t have
Ted Nordhaus 48:33
you know, nations have other geopolitical priorities. Um,
Robert Bryce 48:37
so when the change, pardon, besides climate, just like
Ted Nordhaus 48:40
climate change, um, so you know, the idea that we’re going to kind of create these climate clubs and sort of lock out countries that sort of don’t enforce a carbon tax a, you know, an appropriate carbon fee. Just it just like, you know, this country is going to be like, well, I could do that. Or I could go trade. The only way that the carbon price works is if you have a Globally Harmonized carbon price. Well, Globally Harmonized carbon price is a huge, a much, much greater impact on poor countries and on rich countries. And if you go back and you read, like my uncle and the other literature, they go, of course, that’s inequitable, so then we have to do a massive global redistribution of wealth, so that we can put the carbon the Globally Harmonized carbon tax in place. And, you know, honestly, like, like, you know, one of my sort of kind of tells for whether you have whether a proposal is real really realistic, is if the kind of thing you have to do to make the proposal, the sort of core sort of policy mechanism in this case, a carbon price work is even more implausible and a heavier lift, then establishing the carbon price, namely, massive global redistribution of wealth between rich countries and poor countries, then I don’t think you have a realistic framework for addressing the issue.
Robert Bryce 50:03
Can I can I ask you to restate that because I followed you. But is there is there a simpler way to put it?
Ted Nordhaus 50:10
Let me see if there’s a simpler way to put this, the price of carbon has to be the same in bethanien, as it is in Saudi Arabia as it is in the United States, so well beneath,
Robert Bryce 50:22
right, so the first the first issue that we have to agree on a price for co2 emissions among all the countries of the world, which and
Ted Nordhaus 50:28
it has to be the same everywhere, it has to
Robert Bryce 50:30
be the same, it has to be the same everywhere,
Ted Nordhaus 50:32
carbon intensive production just moves to the places where the price is lower, we also have to have a massive program to redistribute wealth from rich countries to poor countries, so that it will be equitable. So so that second thing as preposterous, as this Globally Harmonized carbon price is, the second thing that’s necessary to make it equitable, is even more preposterous, isn’t going to happen. Um, which means
Robert Bryce 51:00
then that redistribution would mean that you and I, and a lot of other people, the United States would have to agree to our tax money going to the mean or read urea or somewhere else around the world where we’re actually be
Ted Nordhaus 51:12
willing, I’d be willing to do that. I I think that we’re rich enough that we probably kind of share some of that wealth with with more of our wealth with really poor countries, where people are really sort of struggling, but but that’s not going to happen.
Robert Bryce 51:29
Yeah, I would agree. So your last point on on the the Nobel and William Nordhaus he also said in his acceptance speech or his presentation, he said, rapid technological change in the energy sector is essential. And I’ve looked at this quite a lot. And you know, the rates of decarbonisation, globally are very slow. And you’ve talked about innovation. And, you know, this is kind of the buzzword, oh, we’ll just have some more innovation in the energy sector as though no one’s thought about that before. No one has been really trying to innovate in all these decades, despite the fact that it’s a $2 trillion a year business. So how bullish Are you on this idea that technological change can happen at a scale that is going to make a difference in a world where we’re using, you know, this, what, you know, 270 280 million barrels of oil equivalent per day is a massive market, how
Ted Nordhaus 52:24
I mean, I think I, you know, the funny thing is, I think is already happening, and we just don’t actually count it. Um,
Robert Bryce 52:30
so we’re gonna see the most promising moves, then what do where do you see,
Ted Nordhaus 52:32
oh, look, we already like, we’ve had this huge, you know, shale gas revolution, um, you know, a coal, you know, which, you know, King Cole is not dead, it’s going to be with us for a long time. But it’s also a, you know, we’re almost certainly past sort of peak coal. Which, you know, a decade ago, uh, everyone, you know, all of these projections assumed, you know, coal as far as the eye could see, that’s not the case anymore. And, you know, it’s a bunch of different things, some of it having to do with sort of shifts in the macro economy, some of that having to do with having lots and lots of cheap gas, um, you know, some of it having to do with just increasingly efficient energy technologies of all sorts, you put that all together, and we’re kind of past peak coal. You know, my colleagues, the cows, Father, you know, did a published a very, very influential analysis in nature, just sort of demonstrating that, as opposed to a lot of these really apocalyptic kind of catastrophic views of sort of what business as usual, through this century look like, which would be, you know, four or five, six degrees of warming, it’s more likely three degrees, um, is sort of what the EU is. So that’s not just because, like, people got the future wrong, it’s because the future changed. Um, uh, you know, because we’re terrible, as you know, we’re terrible at predicting projecting energy futures on,
Robert Bryce 53:58
so I can reflect back to you. So I mean, and I think you’re well, I completely agree that I mean, the biggest innovation, the biggest technological change has been the shale revolution, which has allowed shale gas to replace a lot of coal, both here in the US and in Europe. And now, I think, increasingly around the world. But I guess the key question is, Can these alternatives the lower carbon alternatives, nuclear and renewables? Well, we’ve talked about nuclear, where are the areas in renewables? I asked the question this way, where are the areas of the renewables that you see that innovation having the most promise? Is it storage? Is it solar? Is that when what what part of that? Do you see?
Ted Nordhaus 54:33
I think, I think I think there’s a lot of promise on some of these big offshore wind technologies. Okay, solar continues to get cheaper, a lot of places. Um, you know, I think the dirty secret of renewables is that they’re really sort of cheap killer app for renewables plus gas. Right, you know, now Now, all of the environmentalists who are like renewables are the future are like gases, this sort of demon fuel that you know, is worse than coal, which is Just complete nonsense. But But you know, the reality is that, you know, I think kind of really cheap renewables with reasonably cheap gas is going to be a pretty reasonable low carbon pathway for a long time, a lot of places. That’s where we’re gonna go. That’s
Robert Bryce 55:16
certainly what it looks like here in the United States, I think nuclear, nuclear is being phased out, coal is being phased out. And it’s being replaced largely with gas. And I see way I see it as that’s, that’s the battle in the US now in the electric grid, it’s between gas and renewables for market share. That’s right.
Ted Nordhaus 55:31
Right. And, you know, I mean, the reality is, you know, I think if you look at the analysis, and we’ve done some, you know, uh, uh, renewables have displaced a fair amount of fossil fuel over the last five, six years in the US, um, you know, we’ve done it at not insignificant cost in terms of subsidies and, and, and implicit and explicit subsidies for those technologies. But, um, you know, you kind of get a gas, displacing coal and also nuclear, you get a bunch of more renewables on the grid. And as those renewables kind of continue to get cheaper, they just place more of the gas, they’re never going to drive the gas out of the grid, because you need it to fall follow loads and for backup, and all the things we know that renewables can’t do. But you know, that gets you to sort of over the long term kind of continuing decarbonisation of the power sector for quite a while, I think we’re going to need nuclear or you’re going to need storage, or you’re going to need some other sort of low, very low carbon technology, if you’re really going to fully decarbonize or even mostly decarbonize the power sector, much less get beyond the power sector, or you’re going to need carbon capture of some sort, and probably gas with carbon capture as opposed to coal with carbon capture.
Robert Bryce 56:43
Sure. Well, and I don’t want to go into that right now. But I think the decarbonisation of the transport sector is going to be that’s going to be much more difficult, much more difficult than than the electric sector. Yeah, we just did a few more questions. And then, you know, because we’ve been talking for an hour or so. So what’s your prediction on the election? What do you what do you how do you see this? How do you? We’re a few weeks out, what do you write you would give me your crystal ball?
Ted Nordhaus 57:07
Boy, you know, I mean, look, look, I think that if all the votes get cast, and counted, Biden will be the next president. And democrats will probably have a decent majority in the House and a narrow majority in the Senate. Getting from here to there, I think is going to be a really, really rocky road, I’m not sure that either side is going to accept the outcome of whoever loses is going to accept the outcome of the election. I think we’re in for kind of a really hard, you know, period around this election. I think we were talking before we came sort of on the air about climate. And, you know, I think if democrats
Robert Bryce 57:48
and in particular about what will what would the democrats do? What do you what do you think that that given you looked at Biden’s platform survive? What What do you think they’re going to be their key priorities?
Ted Nordhaus 57:58
I mean, I, here’s what i think i think that there’s going to be that there has been a big shift and what the, what, there’s a shift in what democrats say, right, which is you heard you hear almost nothing about pricing carbon, or cap and trade or any of that. They’re very apocalyptic about climate change. But when you get to the solutions, it’s all green New Deal, it’s sort of, we’re gonna grow the economy with big public investments, lots of jobs, lots of jobs, all of that, you know, this is really kind of the, for better or worse, the sort of mean, the framing for sort of climate action that I and and with Michael Shellenberger and some others invented almost 20 years ago. And this is now basically the democratic Platt program. So I think, you know, frankly, I think we’re gonna see a very big difference, this time around, and I have a piece coming out in foreign policy in a couple of weeks to this effect. But I think we’re gonna see a very big difference.
Robert Bryce 58:58
Big a big difference under Biden in versus Obama, one versus Obama and oh, nine, and the key differences will be what I’m sorry, well,
Ted Nordhaus 59:04
the key difference, so so in 20, in 2009, the idea was they would do some sort of investments in technology and green jobs and that kind of stuff through the stimulus. And they did about $90 billion in in the 2009 stimulus. But then the main event was going to be this cap and trade bill. Um, there’s no main event, all of the action. If there’s a democratic congress and a Biden administration, it’s going to be in stimulus, and it’s going to be in sort of economic recovery programs. And they’re just going to actually just sort of do just sort of direct public investment in infrastructure and technology. I’m in kind of under the guise of stimulus and economic recovery.
Robert Bryce 59:50
Does that mean extension of the tax credits then for the I guess,
Ted Nordhaus 59:53
I would guess, extend the tax credits for wind and solar, I think they’ll extend various sorts of supports for nuclear. I think they’ll try to do A clean energy standard, a federal clean energy standard in the power sector, I think they’ll put a lot of money into a, you know, in energy innovation. Um, and they’ll put a lot of money into, you know, I think they’ll really try to kind of actually put a lot of money into transmission, because I think there’s, everybody knows that there’s real limits, in terms of how much renewables you can do unless you can sort of really move that power around a lot more freely than we can move it around now. So I that just, you know, I think they’ll put a bunch of money into sort of subsidies for electric vehicles, and also sort of trying to build out truck charging infrastructure and things like that, right. So it’s just going to be technology, it’s going to be technology and infrastructure, which, you know, love or hate democrats love or hate Biden love or hate the kind of rhetoric of climate, you know, I think that’s a far better framework for climate action, then this idea that we’re going to sort of try to put in place this massive federal regulatory, you know, economy wide regulatory framework to deal with climate change, I, honestly, you know, there’ll be waste, there’ll be bad investments, there’ll be stupid policies, but they’ll actually all be much sort of smaller bore, as opposed to sort of putting in place a US equivalent to something like the European emissions trading scheme, you know, which, which was just a full on scam,
Unknown Speaker 1:01:26
you know, and had no impact. My
Robert Bryce 1:01:28
first book was on Enron the idea of giving, you know, creating some carbon trading mechanism.
Ted Nordhaus 1:01:33
Just to put a finer point on it. I will take Solyndra over and Ron every time.
Robert Bryce 1:01:42
I’m glad you specified that. Thank you, Ted. Okay, so just last couple things when so what are you reading? What is work? Do you follow? Um, you know, I follow about sound smell. And you know, it’s very interesting what Bill Gates writes and other people who do you follow?
Ted Nordhaus 1:01:56
You know, I actually reviewed some meals latest book in new Atlanta a couple of months ago. Which, you know, smell kind of the funny thing is that, like, you know, people like us, like loves meal, but we forget that smells kind of a degrowth guy too. And his latest book is really kind of a full out argument for D growth.
Robert Bryce 1:02:16
Um, he’s an ardent pessimist, I don’t know, Eastern European, the Czech history or whatever. But my my impression has been that people from that Europe, they just they don’t, they seldom have sunny outlooks.
Ted Nordhaus 1:02:29
Right. So right. Yes, yeah. I mean, he is a he is perpetually dyspeptic. And that’s sort of what you love about
Robert Bryce 1:02:37
Chile, dyspeptic. You know, something about which I don’t know, whatever describes me that way. Right.
Ted Nordhaus 1:02:45
I mean, but I think the key thing that I take from Vaclav was, you know, is, it’s just, it’s just like how emergent sort of energy systems are, um, you know, and, you know, I, so,
Robert Bryce 1:02:59
I don’t didn’t follow you there, how emergent, I’m sorry, emergent.
Ted Nordhaus 1:03:04
In other words, you know, kind of climate change is just an emergent feature of global modernity. Um, and, you know, it’s really kind of a boat, both both the problem and any sort of solution to it, it’s just going to be, it’s not going to be centrally planned, it’s not going to be top down. Um, you know, it’s going to be this sort of very kind of a sort of muddled sort of long term, gradual, gradual technological change shifts in the structure of the global economy. It’s just, it’s just gonna be kind of really slow. I think, like, you know, you look at, you know, when, when I kind of apply Smeal to really thinking about climate change, it’s like, you know, I don’t think we’re gonna kind of I think we’re not going to see really more than about three degrees of warming worst case. And I don’t think we’re going to see less than about two degrees of warming best case. And co2
Robert Bryce 1:04:05
emissions are going to continue rising, regardless of what policies might be implemented.
Ted Nordhaus 1:04:11
I don’t think they’re going to continue rising. I think we actually may have seen we may be past peak global emissions, I just don’t think they’re going to fall that fast. Right? I think, you know, atmospheric concentrations of carbon are going to continue to rise for a long time. Because for that to stop as opposed to emissions, you have to get emissions close to zero, right? Because the carbon just stays in the atmosphere. Um, so, you know, I think that we we’re gonna, we’re gonna, you know, we’re sort of, I think we’ve hit a plateau in emissions, and then I think we’re gonna see a very long, long, slow decline in emissions.
Robert Bryce 1:04:47
So, so you’re asserting you’re arguing, and I want to, I want to hear else who else you’re reading, but so you’re saying, what I interpret you’re saying is, we’re gonna have to adapt, right that there’s we’re not going to see these massive reduction. And emissions adaptation is going to be the key in a key response to climate change.
Ted Nordhaus 1:05:05
Absolutely. I mean, we have a lot less control over the sort of global temperature knob, then either sort of activists or policy wonks like to think
Robert Bryce 1:05:17
I like the way you Yeah, that’s a good way to think about it. So who else besides smell did just get you back?
Ted Nordhaus 1:05:22
I read. I read I read everything that Jessie ossible writes. Yeah. Um, um, you know, I, you know, I’ve been going back and actually like reading a bunch of my uncle’s early stuff. Um, you know, the two things that I think are his that are actually the most important things to read are none of his like dice carbon cost benefit modeling, I don’t believe any of it. I love them. It’s great that he did it, it sort of
Robert Bryce 1:05:49
remind you, he won the Nobel Prize, and you didn’t see I’m just about the dice model and the rest of
Ted Nordhaus 1:05:56
the dice model, but really, he wins it for being kind of basically the first environmental economist.
Robert Bryce 1:06:01
Yeah, okay. Um,
Ted Nordhaus 1:06:03
I, you know, these things are really kind of like, they kind of say, well, for this piece of work, but,
Robert Bryce 1:06:07
but what was, but you specifically, were going to say about a couple of things that he had written his
Ted Nordhaus 1:06:13
the work on this sort of satellite imagery of lighting, but his work on the falling cost of lighting, and just how transformational that has been to human societies and in what the kind of real rates of economic growth are, once you factor in technological change. That that’s like I asked, so I was at the Nobel I’m in Stockholm, and I and you know, he gets to invite a bunch of his really important collaborators and colleagues. And so I asked them all, what their favorite sort of single piece of work of his was. And with the exception of one, none of them mentioned dice, or and, and his claim, they all might mention this very, very famous paper he wrote on the on the on, on estimating the cost of lighting over like, two millennium.
Robert Bryce 1:07:02
And seeing the real cost falling dramatically.
Ted Nordhaus 1:07:06
Yeah, yeah, I mean, and he does it by estimating the amount of labor necessary to kind of create, like,
Robert Bryce 1:07:12
a womb hours of labor lumen, or remember this paper, and over time,
Ted Nordhaus 1:07:16
you know, it’s a fascinating, he literally goes and he gets like a, he finds like an old like Babylonian oil lamp, so that he can actually literally estimate, figure out, like, how much like oil has to go in there, and how much labor it takes to produce the oil, you go back and you read his original paper on climate change from like, 1975 Uh huh. And the thing that’s amazing about that paper, is that just the entire climate debate is laid out in that paper 1975 You know, there’s like, GE, carbon removal, geoengineering, adaptation, it’s all in there. Um, and, and, and the thing that I was struck by so struck by reading that paper, so we really haven’t learned very much since
Robert Bryce 1:08:02
like, like, we’ve been in 45 years,
Ted Nordhaus 1:08:06
already five years. And really, we’re still sort of arguing about the same things. And we don’t actually have much more
Robert Bryce 1:08:14
to show for it.
Ted Nordhaus 1:08:15
We don’t have much to show for it. We also like even if you just look at the state of the sort of the of knowledge, all this climate research, all this climate modeling, we still really haven’t actually answered these questions with you know, that in that paper, he’s he proposes like two degrees, just like a rough dub, he says, well, let’s just say doubling. It’s a it’s a back of the envelope, sorta wild ass guess? Well, we’re still basically using that, you know, and then we get people saying, well, 1.5, because we need more margin for error, but it’s all really just kind of these sort of arbitrary kind of guesses that we sort of invest with the authority of science, I’m sure. And, and, and, and we just don’t really actually have that much more, you don’t know that much more than we did that, um, about how to solve the problem about what the costs and benefits really are going to be about,
Robert Bryce 1:09:12
about the free rider, the free rider problem that he’s been still talking about.
Ted Nordhaus 1:09:15
Right? Right. It’s all it’s sort of all there in 1975. And it was just it was quite humbling to read that and, and that, ultimately, that’s why he deserves a Nobel Prize. Because he just sort of frames the fundamental questions. Um, he’s the first person to do it.
Robert Bryce 1:09:35
Yeah. Well, that’s great. So last question here, Ted, and thanks very much for your time. We’ve gone longer than an hour here, but I you know, you love this stuff. I love this stuff. So what makes you hopeful? What are you looking when you’re looking forward? What makes you been looking at these issues for a long time? What makes you hopeful for the future?
Ted Nordhaus 1:09:51
You know, I mean, I think that, um, there are times when I’m not terribly hopeful and having nothing to do with climate change or the environment. Um, And just much more kind of, I just think
Robert Bryce 1:10:03
I’m cynical about politics or about
Ted Nordhaus 1:10:06
sort of the politics and just our ability to sort of rationalize whatever we want to believe I’m so so it just it just I look at, at the quality of discourse, I look at the all the perverse incentives for extremism on both the left and the right. And I kind of go, you know, certainly in the US context, sort of our sort of civic culture seems like really, really fundamentally broken right now. And I don’t think anyone has any idea how to put it back together. I’m Lisa Bolton, me. So that makes me pessimistic, you know, what makes me optimistic is just kind of, um, again, I think maybe as I’ve gotten a little older, I’ve just sort of appreciated the value that we just kind of muddle through that, that the things that kind of everyone, for all of the kind of, you know, the Wright says, it’s, you know, another, whereas another flight 93 election, and the left is like, you know, another Donald Trump turn is termed as the end of the world. And, you know, we’re gonna have an election and the next day, everyone’s gonna get up and go back to work, and go back to their sort of daily lives and, and, you know, I think the things that are kind of really likely to matter, are not the things that everyone spends most of their time arguing about. Um, so, you know, I do think that, um, you know, I kind of go like, it’s funny, I look at the thing that gives me hope, actually, just to kind of really crystallize it, it’s the shale revolution, not not, you know, not because, you know, it’s like, it’s reduced emissions, but I kind of go, like, you know, and we, you know, I wrote a lot about it, and did a lot of the original work kind of documenting kind of where, how that really happened. Um, and, you know, there were like, these do e laboratories, and there was this gas, what was called the gas Research Institute, that, that, like the industry, sort of, with support federal support, funded to try to sort of figure out how to get gas out of these, and nobody believed it, no one believed it would work. No one thought it was important, it was just this little backwater, sort of part of DMV, and a couple of the National Laboratories with these kind of, you know, oil and gas guys who no one had ever heard of just working away for, like, 30 years. Um, and, and you get this kind of world changing technology. Um, you know, that’s interesting. I, you
Robert Bryce 1:12:31
know, the things that nobody saw that I would guess that you would say that made you hopeful that would be what not be the one that would be on the list. But yeah, but I mean, you’re right, it’s an example of innovation example of private capital example of, of good old fashioned stick to itiveness. Right, among people who have
Ted Nordhaus 1:12:49
been mentioned, there’s also like, a lot of federal policy support, um, you know, like, every one of the kind of key technologies, you can trace almost all of it from micro seismic imaging to, you know, all of the early kind of experiments. You know, back in the 70s, with the massive hydraulic fracturing, you know, a bunch of that stuff didn’t work initially, but then, like, the private guys take it and figure out how to make it work, which is often how innovation works. Um, so, so, you know, I’m kind of like, that gives me some hope. And I’m kind of like, you know, I look at an oklo, I look at some of these other small nuclear sort of start, you know, and, and it really kind of, I think that sort of consensus in energy circles is still that, like, it’s not going to work. And it’s going to work, it’s going to be some big government, you know, it’s going to be like the ITER fusion, or it’s going to be like this sort of China, one of these big Chinese nuclear kind of development projects. And I kind of go like, you know, I just think one of those little startups is actually, you know, with a lot of public support, you know, with technologies that were originally originally developed by National Laboratories is going to figure this out.
Robert Bryce 1:14:01
No, I appreciate that. That’s, that’s interesting. Take I like that. Well, Ted Nordhaus, thank you. This is, it’s been great. You know, it’s great to reconnect and to talk about breakthrough Institute. To remind all of your listeners then go to the breakthrough.org. You can follow Ted on twitter at TED Nordhaus. The breakthrough Institute is on twitter at at the bti if I get it right, any other closing thoughts here? 10 anything you just want to cover before
Ted Nordhaus 1:14:33
the break through dialogue next year if we can all kind of get together and
Robert Bryce 1:14:37
you’re going along? Can I wear my mask? Please?
Unknown Speaker 1:14:41
Ted Nordhaus 1:14:43
you You will? It will be a logoed mask?
Robert Bryce 1:14:47
Yeah, I hope so. Well, no, that’s very kind. I appreciate it. Love to make that happen. So we’ll sign off here. Thanks to all of you for listening to the power hungry podcast. If you want to help us out, subscribe if you want to really help us out. Go to rate this podcast.com slash power hungry and give us five 612 14 stars on that thing. And thanks again to Ted Nordhaus and come back for the next episode of the power hungry podcast. Thanks, y’all.
Unknown Speaker 1:15:13
Thanks for having me, Robert.
Robert Bryce 1:15:15