It’s an odd time to be talking hopefully about climate change. And for good reason.
The incoming Trump administration seems bent on preventing any federal action to mitigate global warming. The president-elect has promised to take the United States out of the Paris Agreement, and he’s recruited the staff who could do it. Trump’s choice for EPA administrator—Scott Pruitt, the current attorney general of Oklahoma—has repeatedly sued that agency to block Obama-era climate and pollution protections. And a questionnaire submitted to staff at the Department of Energy (though later withdrawn) seemed to signal that the incoming administration would meddle with federal science.
Amid that cataclysm, David Biello, now the science curator at TED and previously a longtime editor at Scientific American, has published The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth's Newest Age. It’s a story about how our decisions are already altering our home planet. It’s about the world to come, the one where geo-engineering (intentional and inadvertent) has already changed the material conditions of every person, place, and living thing. In Unnatural World, Biello finds the glimpses of that world that are already surfacing—and he doesn’t find himself entirely despondent about them.
“This is either the best time to publish a book like this, because people need some hope,” Biello told me, “or it’s the absolute worst time, because there’s just no way to escape the black hole that is Trump.”
Last month, we talked about what Biello found in that unnatural world to come—and how Trump, at least in the short term, could shake things up. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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Robinson Meyer: There’s a mix of optimism and realism in the book that seems quite familiar, and familiar especially to covering climate change—an excitement about the technologies that are coming online mixed with a clear-eyedness about how things have gone so far. How are you feeling after the events of November 8, 2016? Do you tend to think that, since this is a technological problem, technological progress is the main deciding factor in solving it?
David Biello: I guess the easiest way to put it is that I’m an optimist on the technology side of things, and a bit of a pessimist on the human side of things.
The working title of this book when I started it was Human Nature, and I really think that’s where the real challenges like. This most recent election is just more proof of that. We have—as they used to say in the ’70s TV show—we have the technology, we just don’t have the will to use it. And over and over again, we seem to take two steps forward and then take a giant leap back.
I’ve been writing about climate change since the end of the 20th century. I’ve kind of seen this before. Certainly in 2000, it was a very similar moment where, while the Kyoto Protocol had been rejected by the U.S. Senate, the possibilities of Al Gore as president seemed to offer one possible future; while the possibility of George W. Bush as president seemed to offer another—even though, at the time, Bush campaigned as someone who was going to do something about climate change. It was only after, after he got into office, that he repudiated all of that.
And then, of course, we’re coming out of eight years of the Obama administration, which probably hasn’t gotten as much credit as it deserves for action on climate change. Whether it’s clean energy installed or the Paris Agreement—you name it—they’ve been trying to do the best they can, given the limitations of a hostile Congress and all the rest of it.
That probably would’ve continued under a Hillary Clinton administration, but instead we’re going to get Trump. And while it’s almost entirely unclear what Trump himself actually believes—he’s been on both sides of the issue, and the only thing that’s consistent about him is his inconsistency—the kind of folks that he’s relying on or appointing are certainly hostile to action on climate change. And that doesn’t bode well.
That said, from a technology standpoint, there are trends you can’t fight. Natural gas is cheap, so it’s going to continue to be burned more than coal, at least in the United States. Solar power is getting cheaper, and, hey, guess what, conservatives—including Tea Partiers—love it, because it gives them freedom from their electric utility. These are things that even a Trump presidency can’t change.
That’s why I’m optimistic on the technology side, and more cynical on the human nature side.
Meyer: Yeah, it’s funny, right? This month, we’ve had the election, but we’re also celebrating three years of flat worldwide carbon emissions, and another year of falling domestic carbon emissions despite economic growth—
Biello: Yeah, we’re nearly back to 1990 levels, without the Kyoto Protocol.
Meyer: And without the Clean Power Plan, basically! We are beating the Clean Power Plan without it ever having been enforced by the federal government. It seems like even the story, so far, has been of technology winning victories that actual policies can’t accomplish.
Biello: That seems to be the case so far. That said, I would think that the fact that the Clean Power Plan—or some version thereof—has been hovering over utility executives’ heads for a decade or more has certainly spurred them to action. And then cheap natural gas made it easy to act.
But that’s not going to get us all the way there, right? How we get over the next hurdle is more challenging to foresee. It’s hard to make steel without burning coal, and we need a lot of steel—even if it’s just support structures for photovoltaic panels. It’s hard to make silicon without fossil fuels, the purified silicon we need. Solving those challenges is a huge hurdle.
And then here’s the even bigger hurdle: China basically industrialized the same way as the U.S. and the Europe did before it; they just did it a bit faster. The good news is they might clean up a bit faster too. But the big outstanding question is, what happens in India? If they follow the China-U.S.-Europe model, then we’ve got more lot of global warming on the way. If they’re the first nation to figure out how to industrialize and lift people out of poverty without over-polluting, then maybe there’s hope.
Meyer: Do you think that technology for that kind of development is there? I’ve been thinking about this because—even if the Trump administration were to do something drastic, like aggressively subsidize coal, it could revive the mining industry domestically, but it probably wouldn’t revive domestic coal-burning power plants. We’d just export that coal to India.
Biello: I mean, the Indians are asking for that technology now. They need the technology now—and actually they really needed it yesterday. And whether that’s solar panels or the “clean coal” that our president-elect likes to go on and on about (as if it had somehow been held back under the Obama administration instead of subsidized like the Kemper Power Plant down in Mississippi)—that’s the kind of technology that could help India follow the same path as China, the U.S., and Europe, but do it in a different way.
That said, the next administration seems to be against trade. I’m not sure whether they’re interested in exporting that technology, whether it’s clean-coal technology or, frankly, solar panels or wind turbines or whatever else it might be. And that might be the more harmful thing—forgoing that opportunity to frankly make a buck off of green technology now that we’ve demonstrated it here. China is going to fill that gap, and I don’t know if the Trump administration is aware of that.
Meyer: What’s your favorite story from reporting the book?
Biello: I think my favorite person in the book is Fan Changwei, this mid-level bureaucrat in a small resort town called Rizhao, on the east coast of China.
It’s not, I don’t know, Cancun or anything like that, but it’s often a place where people from inner China see the sea for the first time. So it’s a pretty popular place, and, of course, China—being the most populous nation—even a small fraction of China’s tourists is an enormous load of people.
Anyway, he was tasked by the local leadership to turn this town carbon-neutral. I suspect you know what carbon-neutral means, but I’m not sure that everybody did. (Basically, it’s that you emit no more carbon dioxide than you take in, or destroy, or bury.)
So Fan got this kind of impossible, monumental task, that has been undertaken by very few cities anywhere—and, on top of that, he had to do it in China. And Rizhao is also a port city, in addition to being a resort city. They import a lot of stuff from Korea and elsewhere that then disperses into China, and they export a lot of stuff. They get the bulk of their power from a coal-powered power plant, and they face all the typical challenges of working in China.
To even undertake this task seemed heroic, and to undertake it while also being tasked with reducing smog and air pollution… well, that’s more than the U.S. has been able to do. So how could Fan pull it off?
Spoiler alert, he kind of succeeds on the power plant front, but he is undone by the changing face of modern China, which is that more and more people want to drive. It turns out that controlling the CO2 coming out of all those tail pipes is a lot more challenging than controlling the CO2 that comes out of a couple of smokestacks. Which is a lesson that applies everywhere.
It’s a really illustrative tale of one man’s attempts to do what the whole world needs to do, and it highlights all the challenges therein. And I guess it is amusing to me that the Chinese, who are ostensibly Communist, are going to have the world’s largest carbon-trading market, while the United States, which is ostensibly capitalist, can’t fathom the idea of a free-market solution to our climate-change challenge.
So, just, exploring with Fan—who, by the way, smokes like a chimney—that was my favorite part of reporting the book and writing the book, because his story really encapsulates so much of what this challenge is and how in the end, it comes down to us and the choices we make. Do you get an electric bike to get around Rizhao, or do you buy a nice car so you can show off for the neighbors? And, at least so far, the Chinese are following their own version of the American Dream, with two cars in the garage.
Meyer: Where did the political will come for him to make Rizhao carbon-neutral?
Biello: The way that China works is they try out these experiments in various far-flung places, and then if they work, they roll them out at a higher and higher level until eventually they roll them out across the whole country. They’re doing that now with carbon trading.
Carbon neutral was an idea they wanted to try out, and Rizhao was the small city that they picked. It came down from the provincial level, and there were multiple reasons why they wanted to do it. One is that the Chinese authoritarian form of government enables them to do whatever the government wants to do. Most members of the government have been trained in science, and they don’t have a problem with climate change the way they do. There is no debate over the reality of climate change. And what’s more, they are aware that climate change poses even more significant challenges to China than it does to the United States or some other countries.
Meyer: And why is that?
Biello: Well, desertification is already an issue in China, and that would be exacerbated by climate change. Water is already an issue in China, and the lack thereof would be exacerbated by climate change. Flooding is already an issue in China, and torrential downpours would be exacerbated by climate change. Overall, they just have less resiliency to some of these impacts than say a richer country like the United States. They want to get ahead of that curve if they can.
Now, you can pair that with the fact that there is a political challenge for them in clean air. They do not have a Clean Air Act. They are dealing with smog that is, well—really, it’s unbelievable if you haven’t seen it for yourself. You can’t see five feet in front of your face. Breathing feels like you’re smoking a pack of cigarettes. You develop a cough as you’re just walking around outside, and it’s not like even the highest levels of leadership in the Communist Party—they can’t protect themselves or their offspring from that level of air pollution.
There is that political motivation for cleaning up the air, and why not tack CO2 onto that while you’re at it? Those are the two things that prompted them to move. And that’s why I say that just as they industrialized in a couple of decades—just as it took us almost a century—they may clean up in a couple of decades too. We’ll see!
And just as the states are supposed to be the laboratories of democracy in the U.S., these provincial-level or city-level policies are meant to be laboratories of policy in China. That’s what’s happening now with carbon markets, and it’s why they were able to make the promises that they did under the Paris Agreement. Air pollution is a big reason why China wants to peak its coal use—so they had their own motivations.
If the U.S. is on board the Paris Agreement, and if we’re not, that takes some of the pressure off China, but it’s not going to derail their combatting-climate-change efforts entirely. They will go their own way.
Meyer: You mentioned how, in the terminology of clean air or carbon neutrality, Rizhao was undone by mobile sources (that is, cars) and not stationary sources (power plants). And it sounds, too, like it was undone by individual action and not industrial policy.
When we talk about industrialization, we’re also often talking about growth. And when we talk about growth, we’re talking about the ability of growth to lift people out of poverty—if that growth is funneled the right way. But growth also creates more energy demands. After writing the book, where do you come down on growth?
I ask because there are people who think that—and I’m kind of mixing two topics here—the idea that the economy needs to grow all the time is not a good thing. Some people think that the economy should simultaneously and knowingly enter contraction to reduce carbon emissions; and other people think that we need to continue this global-scale industrial growth so that we can capture, so to speak, all these people’s minds in India and China who can then work on the biggest problems that are facing us. Where do you come down on those two camps?
Biello: The simplest answer is they’re both right, right?
The reality is that China, for all the gains that have been made in the past few decades, still has hundreds of millions of people living in poverty. Energy poverty and human welfare—solving those problems is kind of the great technical and moral challenge of our time. The solution that we come up with for solving energy poverty in China, India, in the developing nations of Africa, and wherever else energy poverty lurks, is going to determine the kind of planet we want to live on. And it’s certainly going to determine the composition of our atmosphere.
So if we solve that by building a lot of coal-fired power plants, and then just using the atmosphere as a sewer, we’re going to have catastrophic climate change and, who knows, air-conditioned bubble cities that allow us to live and grow crops. But if we solve energy poverty with a mix of different types of clean energy—which, by the way, tend to create more jobs than coal-mining or what have you—
Meyer: And also don’t seem to create entrenched resource curses.
Biello: Yes. Then we’ll have a better chance of having a better world. And you can remedy the misery of those hundreds of millions of people,which is a good thing.
Unfortunately, I feel that some of the antigrowth or the de-growth folks are considering things from the point of view of folks who have everything. Which not even all Americans do. It’s a very privileged position to be in—to say, yes, I don’t need three televisions. And while that’s absolutely true, there are plenty of people in the world who don’t have any televisions, and also would prefer to have electricity and not have to cook over an open flame.
That’s still one of the biggest problems plaguing humanity. I don’t think we think about that enough, and I hope that by talking about the Anthropocene, rather than just climate change, that we can start to talk about things a little more holistically. It’s a lens through which you can start to look at everything at the same time, and try to solve at the same time, rather than the piecemeal approach we’ve taken so far, which has caused as many problems as its solved.
The main example there, for me, is corn ethanol. It was meant to help us with our energy security and our environmental concerns, but instead, we’ve got dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and they’ll get worsen with climate change. So by not taking all the environmental and human factors into account at the same time, you wind up with that.
Meyer: What does that look like from a governing perspective? We seem to be—at best—going through a moment that is skeptical of expertise.
Biello: To put it mildly.
Meyer: Yeah. And obviously that’s just one part of it. But are there democratic ways to encompass the full economic and environmental impact of approaches to managing the climate problem?
Biello: I hate to say it, but it’s the market. It’s putting the solutions out there to a relatively free marketplace and saying, here are your options. That’s why [I look for] things like Tea Partiers in Florida or Georgia fighting to elect President Trump and also fighting for solar power at the same time—they don’t have to be diametrically opposed.
If solar power’s the better option, that’s what people are going to want. And it could be the better option for a variety of reasons. Maybe energy independence appeals to the conservatives and fighting climate change appeals to the liberals. It doesn’t matter why you have solar panels on your roof. It just matters.
If the Tesla is the better car, it doesn’t matter whether you’re buying that car because it goes from 0 to 60 faster than any other car on the planet, and it doesn’t matter if you bought that car because it enables you to combat climate change. It just matter that that option’s out there and that people adopt it.
And you would think, by the way, that free-marketeers would be in favor of that. But that’s not always the case. They also tend to be very pro-nuclear, which is the least free-market energy out there. That’s not to say that nuclear is bad, just that it has never been done without massive government subsidies. I’ve never quite understood why the party that claims to be for free markets and all the rest of it is so pro-nuclear.
Meyer: Well, nuclear is such a weird issue in how it splits anyway. I remember during the primary there was a proxy battle about nuclear energy—there was one because Bernie had a more aggressive climate platform except for his opposition to nuclear energy. It seems like an issue where you notice the ways that political identities are stratified by age, and then not maintained. This was a big issue 20 or 30 years ago, and young voters are kind of agnostic about it, while older voters developed an opinion about it a long time ago.
Biello: That’s why I say it’s about human nature. The technology is there. It’s the battle in our minds that is the important battle, and I’m not sure how that battle gets won or lost.
I look at energy, and it’s amazing to me how religious people get around energy. People are religiously for or against nuclear, or for or against solar. And if you’re for solar, [for some people], you’re automatically against nuclear. And if you’re for nuclear, you hate wind. And if you’re for coal-burning, you hate everything else. But there’s no reason that energy should be so tribal and religious—that’s the battle over human nature.
Meyer: Do you think it makes sense to put any stock in carbon capture and storage, whether that’s scrubbing the atmosphere or putting something on top of smoke stacks?
Biello: I think we’re not going to get by without it. We’ve made such a commitment to burning fossil fuels, and so much of the infrastructure that we need to build will require the burning of fossil fuels—and frankly we need to go to zero, or even below zero, on carbon emissions. And any negative emissions technology will probably require storage of one form or another.
Now, there are “natural” ways to do that. I mentioned iron fertilization earlier. We can soup up plants and bury them at sea. We can try grinding at rocks and then rendering them inert. We can bury CO2 back down where we got the fossil fuels in the first place. But we’re going to need carbon capture and storage in one way or another, to deal with cement, to deal with steel, to deal with the natural gas, if not the coal. Even if it’s just for a shorter period of time—a couple of decades, a couple of centuries—we’re going to need it, and it’s just a matter of figuring out the best way to do it, the safest way to do it, and the cheapest way to do it.
Meyer: Yeah, it’s funny, when we talk about this stuff it’s so much about “a couple of decades—or centuries.” No big deal. The Anthropocene gets described as the union of geological time and historical time, but historical time also works on a lot of different scales too. For instance, on a historical scale, a couple of decades can be a fairly peaceful time. We’ve had a couple of decade-long spans recently where the world remained relatively peaceful. But we’ve had no modern century-long spans without a major war or conflict.
By the same token, our institutions seem to be good at planning for multiple year or multiple decade increments. We don’t have many governing institutions set up that are doing planning work for longer. The idea that we’re going to maintain some program of atmospheric carbon capture or international consensus on emissions mitigation over the centuries seems… unlikely.
Biello: Well, but that’s what we’re doing right now, right? We’re negotiating what the terms of that long-term thinking might be. We live, what?, 80 years, and that’s just the last three generations. We still have 40-year mindsets.
We do have some institutions that are meant to persist over the long haul. One of the ones that stands out to me is the Library of Congress, for example. These are storehouses of knowledge for the longterm. And yes, obviously, libraries burn down, or there’s bit rot when you try to store all of Twitter. But there are institutions—the Catholic Church is another example—that tend to persist on the timescale we’re talking about.
They just don’t tend to be governments. We haven’t found that stable form of governance that is going to solve all problems for all time. And I don’t know we ever will. In some ways, it’s better to muddle through on the governmental level—with a lot of checks and balances—to make sure you don’t overcommit on one solution or another. We don’t want to rely on carbon capture and storage so much that we go full-bore on fossil fuels moreso than we already are, and if we had some kind of institution that locked us into that future, that’s not what we want.
That’s the constant back and forth that’s going to characterize the first part of the Anthropocene. And if we’re going to turn it into a Anthropozoic—a longer time period in the geological record, a longer civilization—we’re going to need an interplay of new ideas and new innovation over the long term.
But yeah… a short-term Congress, a short-term president, even short-term senators. It doesn’t lead to long-term planning. And we have short-term corporations as well. How we work around that trend—and that’s a specifically American trend—that’s an even more open question.
And there’s no Plan B, by the way. There’s no alternate Earth. If we wreck Earth, Mars will not be a fallback plan, because for the foreseeable future, Mars will be exquisitely dependent on supplies and people and resources flowing from Earth. So even if we go to Mars—as many friends in the technology community dream of doing—we’ll still need Earth. We’ll always need Earth.
Meyer: I was thinking about how, any time you read about preserving paintings or fine art, the first step is that the preservationists have to undo the “preservation” work that the people working before them did. I was thinking about that in terms of being locked into decisions.
Biello: Yeah, you want to preserve options. That’s why you try to restrain climate change, or try to restrain the extinctions that would follow ocean acidification—or you name the environmental problem—to give ourselves and our descendants the latitude to make different choices.
I guess the one thing I would say—there’s still hope. Despair is not an option, because that’s the path to apathy and giving up and not doing what we need to do. Yes, it would have been better to have started saving species 100 years ago. Yes, it would have been better to have outfitted all coal-fired power plants with carbon-capture-and-storage 100 years ago. But if we get that up and running tomorrow, that’s pretty good too; and if we get that up and running four years from now, that’s better than 100 years from now. There’s always hope.
Meyer: I run this newsletter called “Not Doomed Yet.” And, after November 8, I think I can still keep the name. But…
Biello: I think you can keep it. But we did just get a little more doomed.