In late January of this year, an e-mail about a new book by Solomon Goldstein-Rose entitled The 100% Solution: A Plan for Solving Climate Change (available now from Melville House) landed in my inbox. Long being interested in environmental issues, and aware of the urgent need to address climate change, I was immediately hooked. Earlier this month, I finally had the opportunity to speak with Solomon. Read on to see what he had to say about the five pillars around which his plan to solve climate change are centered, why so little has been done to solve climate change for so long, youth movements like the Sunrise Movement, some of the ways in which the United States government and the private sector can be part of the solution, and much more.
Andrew DeCanniere: Your plan to tackle climate change by 2050 — and thus your book — is so comprehensive, but I guess a good place to begin talking about it is at the beginning. At the outset, you write about how climate change is more important for our future than tackling many of the other worthwhile causes, because so many issues — such as poverty, disease, and immigration politics — cannot improve if climate change worsens. I just thought that now, of all times, this is a point worth underscoring. Here we are, in the midst of a pandemic, and I feel that just as the pandemic poses something of an existential threat, so too does climate change. Not only that, but I think that climate change poses much more of an imminent threat than many people understand. I believe it’s fair to say that few of us thought something like this pandemic could happen now, in 2020, in the United States, and now here we are. It seems that there are people who view climate change in a similar way — as something that poses a threat that is largely decades away, even though it is actually right here right now. It is at our doorstep. It is affecting our communities. So, I just thought it’s so interesting how you tie all of these issues — climate change, poverty, disease, and immigration politics — together.
Solomon Goldstein-Rose: Yeah. This is certainly one way of looking at the intersection between climate change and the current crisis — the need to listen to science and to plan ahead for big issues.
DeCanniere: Right. The same way that COVID-19 is here, almost out-of-the-blue, I think if we do not begin to do something more substantial about climate change, that will also hit us a lot sooner than we think. We’ve already started to see some of the effects — both here and abroad — but if we do nothing, then there will be much more to come. You also talk about how you seem to feel much of what has been done with regards to climate change has been to go after the low-hanging fruit.
Goldstein-Rose: Essentially nothing has been done so far, in terms of actual progress. Emissions are still going up year after year — except in 2020, because of the shutdown going on right now. They’re going to go down this year, but not much. Even a shutdown of this scale is clearly not the solution. Things haven’t been shifting towards the right direction because there is this mindset that, in order to solve climate change, we need to each individually make a choice — each individual country needs to decide to decarbonize and do it using strict policy.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of emissions come from developing countries. Most developing countries cannot afford to switch all of their systems right now. And the mindset of efficiency — of ‘Let’s consume less and that will reduce emissions’ — that’s what we are seeing right now and, even with a significant shutdown, emissions are only going to decrease by about five percent. That’s nowhere near where we need to be. We need to replace physical systems that cause emissions with ones that don’t — not to rely on efficiency and personal behavior change, which can never get us to zero. There’s something of a mindset shift that’s needed in terms of what can actually physically scale to the whole world and add up. I think that if we think about that, we will start making much more progress. It’s less controversial, it’s more exciting, and there is no sacrifice or anything inherent in what actually needs to happen — unlike people’s ideas about it. If we can focus on that, we can drive the scale-up of equipment we need to make it cheap enough to spread around the world.
DeCanniere: Speaking of the reductions in emissions and the way people conceive of climate change, I think a lot of it really goes back to how people think about the issue. Many people seem to act as though climate change itself is comparable to a high-performance sports car or something, when a better analogy is a freight train. They don’t seem to understand that we can’t just implement these changes one day and you’ll see the results the next. The whole process will not just stop on a dime, even if we made every single change we need to make today.
Goldstein-Rose: I think a lot of it boils down to the fact that most people aren’t engineers. They don’t think about the technical side of things. Understandably so, because it’s ridiculously complicated. None of us can wrap our minds around every piece of it. It’s not stuff we interact with in our daily lives. You turn on an appliance in your home, and you might vaguely understand there’s an electric grid that brings you the electricity to do that, but you don’t necessarily need to think about what the power plants are, or how the systems work to balance the instantaneous demand and supply on the grid — with all of the power plants ramping up and down, and bidding for the lowest price, and all of the complexities of that. However, if you don’t think about that, it can be easy to go to this place of personal virtue and individual choices and think that it is us, individually, who are complicit in choosing to do something that causes climate change. In fact, it’s not the stuff we do, mostly. It’s the equipment we use to do it. We need to change equipment — not lifestyles.
DeCanniere: You also seem to suggest one of the reasons people have not acted — or have not acted more aggressively — is because they don’t know where to begin or what would be most effective. So, the inaction largely does not stem from apathy or a lack of caring, but rather from genuine confusion.
Goldstein-Rose: Or not understanding what needs to happen, or because there is this connotation of individual choice and sacrifice, people are thinking it’s not going to happen because that would be hard. It would be very hard to convince everyone in the world to significantly reduce their lifestyles, if that were what is needed. Luckily, it isn’t. However, if you think that is what is needed, then we are doomed. So, there’s this sort of defeatist mindset a lot of people can fall into — and into despair over it. That’s one of the things I’m hoping the book can do — that it can help give those people hope. We can solve this and it can be exciting to do so.
DeCanniere: Well, I certainly think it simplifies those concrete actions we’re able to take. That’s part of why I feel the book is so well written. Speaking of not being defeatist — and, obviously, I don’t think that either one of us wants to discourage people from taking action — but you say that there is no way to completely avoid any and all impacts of climate change. I think that, in the context of the pandemic, we’re constantly hearing about mitigation efforts. Social distancing is a major part of those efforts. In a way, that is also what is going on with climate change. We are trying to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Goldstein-Rose: Yeah. We’re already seeing the impacts of climate change. So, obviously we can’t not experience what we are already experiencing, and it certainly will get worse to some extent before we’re able to totally eliminate emissions and start bringing down the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. The question is whether we can do all of that fast enough and soon enough, so that the maximum level of impact — the worst that it gets — is not that bad.
DeCanniere: And really, what’s the alternative? As you say, it seems like we would really be on-track for such severe impacts that we simply would not be able to adapt to them. That’s something I feel really needs to be emphasized as well. If we do nothing today, we know with certainty that there will be impacts we will not be able to adapt to tomorrow. I think that there are some people who are not listening to the science of climate change — people who may be denialists or, at the very least, who are questioning the science behind it — but, at the same time, they somehow seem to say that science will save us from the most severe impacts.
Goldstein-Rose: I definitely think we see some of that. Depending on what your assumptions are — if you think it’s not happening to begin with, or you sort of dismiss the severity of it to begin with — it might be easy for someone to say it’s not a big deal, or that it’s a minor problem to which we can adapt. That would be a very reasonable thing to think, but it’s not what’s true. It is going to be a big deal. What people don’t necessarily realize is that it gets exponentially worse. Some of the rhetoric around climate change is that we’re already living with the impacts of climate change. It’s here and we can see it now. I feel like some of that is sometimes unhelpful, because it almost implies that this is as bad as it’s going to get. The world can totally adapt to the way things are now. For some people, it’s catastrophic even now. However, in general, what we are living with right now are the very beginnings of the impact. It’s going to get exponentially worse, until we get to a 100% solution.
DeCanniere: Right. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean there isn’t more beneath the water line, so to speak. You also stress that implementing solutions to address climate change should not be an incremental thing, because we no longer have the time to take an incremental approach. I feel like a lot of people feel as though 2050 — thirty years away — is a lot of time. However, that is not the case — especially since you say that much of the work needs to be done in the next ten years if we are to get to where we need to be in 2050. There seems to be a lot that has to happen in just that short timespan alone.
Goldstein-Rose: We have to do a lot of scale-up of equipment very quickly. so it becomes cheap enough to be affordable globally and can be adopted everywhere. Mostly, when someone is getting rid of a gasoline-powered car, they’ll buy a new electric car instead of a gasoline-powered one. That turnover only happens every so often. You need 20 years or more to have complete turnover of a lot of this equipment.
DeCanniere: Right. I think a lot of people have this idea that these signifiant shifts can happen quickly. That we can just shift the whole system over to a more sustainable one on a dime, and it seems like it doesn’t really happen that way, which is why we need to act now. You also touch on a lot of the younger people in the youth movement — like Greta Thunberg — and their tendency to look forward. You talk a bit about how that’s something of an asset.
Goldstein-Rose: I think the Sunrise Movement, especially, is a good example of how they have reframed the whole issue — the whole message around climate change solutions — with their Green New Deal vision. They’re saying that this will create jobs and will be great for our economy. They don’t talk much about sacrifice — let’s do our part and take on our burden or whatever — which is both not reflective of what we need to be doing, and not reflective of the steps we need to take. It could also alienate people who might otherwise support action, because it is depressing and daunting. That’s how climate change was messaged for a long time. I advise people to talk very little about climate change as a problem, and to mostly talk about climate change solutions, which are also good in other ways.
If we have a big manufacturing boom to make all the new clean technologies we need in order to make it affordable, that is going to create jobs and will make energy cheaper overall — especially in this moment, where we are in a recession. We are going to have to have bold government leadership to put people back to work later this year and into next year. This is one of the best ways to do that. A scale-up of clean energy technologies. It’s also the way we can address climate change. So, there are a lot of reasons to talk about that sort of manufacturing scale-up, innovation, and the early deployment of all of this stuff.
DeCanniere: I agree. While the situation we currently find ourselves in was not going on while you were writing the book, I think many of these proposals can be at least a part of the solution to our economic recovery as a nation. Hopefully, politicians will see it that way as well, instead of relying on some outdated thinking that really hasn’t served this country well for many years.
Goldsstein-Rose: I think a lot of people are saying that as long as we are making these big investments, we should also do something about climate change while we are at it. I’m saying that’s not a winning message and it is a little insensitive in this moment — especially for the really immediate bailouts of both workers and industries that the government is having to pass. Once we are past the acute health crisis, there will be a bigger one putting people back to work and revitalizing industry — and scaling up clean energy technologies is one of the best ways to achieve the goal of revitalizing the economy. This is one of the top things we should be looking at for economic recovery.
DeCanniere: I’d hope that more and more elected officials are going to catch on — and, if not, when the election comes up in November, we will hopefully have a new president who is on that page. You also talked a bit about how any solutions will have to be cheaper than the current system to scale up and should require no substantial change to lifestyle.
Goldstein-Rose: This is about how fast things can scale-up. People buy what is cheapest and you are not going to convince every person in the world to significantly change how they go about their lives in a permanent way. At least not in the timeframe we have to solve climate change. So, you basically have to get clean equipment to replace dirty equipment. A lot of it exists, but a lot of it’s still too expensive and we need to scale it up — and we need some level of research to bring down the costs of certain things that might need new designs to lower their costs, and some more research for things that don’t really exist yet or are still in lab stage.
DeCanniere: I guess you kind of touched on that as well, but you also talk about the need to make cheaper and cleaner options available to developing countries that don’t really have the funds. You obviously cannot make these things cost-prohibitive. All the more so since, as you say, two-thirds of emissions are coming from developing countries. It would make no sense to do otherwise. You also said that, according to one study that modeled strategies for the U.S., it says to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050, the cost would be around one percent of GDP. If you want to think of it that way — from more of an economic standpoint — it should also appeal to those who are more conservative. It seems like a fairly small cost for the payoff — a pretty large return on investment.
Goldstein-Rose: Well, I think this is starting to shift a little bit. As more people accept that climate change is a real, urgent problem, the question becomes not whether we ought to do something about it, but rather how do we solve it. That’s, of course, a much more productive conversation to be having. If you look at the financial costs of climate change impacts projected over the next few decades and beyond, the cost becomes extreme.
Even if we did something to solve climate change that was really expensive, it would still save us a lot of money in the long-term. The problem is people aren’t good at thinking long-term, so it’s much more likely if it can not cost a large amount and can have a payback in the short-term. Luckily, we’re in a situation where we need to switch physical equipment. Clean equipment is almost all new technology. That means it hasn’t yet come down in cost the way we’ve used gas cars for 100 years. So, they’ve been optimized over time. They’re not going to get that much cheaper. We’ve barely ever manufactured electric cars, compared to that. So, it’s not surprising that they’re much more expensive. As soon as we start scaling them up in a big way, their costs are going to drop. Actually, most electric equipment is more efficient in terms of energy than fossil fuel equipment. Once the capital cost comes down, the upfront cost to buy it comes down to similar levels. It saves money over time.
DeCanniere: Right. And you say that the cheaper, clean technology will naturally outcompete the more polluting sources.
Goldstein-Rose: And that’s the ideal for any given technology. Scale it up fast enough with whatever research and development is necessary to improve it further in the short term, such that it becomes the definitively cheapest option for whatever it’s doing, and just spreads around the world really fast. Not every single technology is going to get revolutionary in that way, but even if you make it cheaper, so that it’s marginally cheaper than the fossil option — or just a little more expensive — that at least makes it possible to have policy mandates or other subsidies spread around the world.
DeCanniere: And that’s why when Donald Trump made all of those claims about how he will make coal come back, it just made no sense. Though he may claim to understand many of these issues better than anyone — including experts in these various fields — it is clear he doesn’t seem to understand how things work. That’s very evident when he makes those sorts of claims. It’s kind of like if I were running for president and claimed that I’m going to bring back the kerosene lamp.
Goldstein-Rose: Exactly. I think that one key point — for people who think we should just mandate everything, and not have any role or focus on research and development and such, so that these other technologies really do become cheaper — is that doesn’t work in developing countries.
Second, when you drive innovation — including through deployment — that is permanent. You are achieving permanent cost reductions, and that makes those technologies more competitive or definitively the competitive option versus policy. Policy is temporary and we’ve seen Trump overturn Obama-era regulations. Yet, natural gas is cheaper than coal now. No one is expanding coal in the U.S, despite those promises to bring it back because policy can’t overcome such stark economic realities.
DeCanniere: And I’m glad that he cannot revive it, because coal is so polluting, and coal mining does seem to pose such a threat to the environment and those who are in the industry. Heart disease and cancer, for example, are associated with burning coal.
Goldstein-Rose: In this case, the most defined example of this sort of recent technological shift in the U.S. is in energy. Unfortunately, it was to another fossil fuel, but the oversimplified version of the solution is that we need to make all of the clean options the cheaper ones, so that the same thing will happen. However, this time it would cause a shift to carbon-neutral technology.
DeCanniere: The other incentive is that the higher the emissions remain, the more we will be forced to rely upon higher-cost sequestration methods instead. So, there’s another incentive — which I don’t think people think about as much, or don’t even know what sequestration is or what it entails. One would think that should be an incentive to people who are more fiscally-oriented than environmentally-minded.
Goldstein-Rose: Although you have to agree it’s worth paying for sequestration to buy that logic. If you think we should just let climate change run rampant, then that argument wouldn’t be valid.
DeCanniere: I suppose, but that would make as much logical sense to me as allowing the COVID-19 pandemic to go unmitigated. I would hope that no one would advocate for allowing the disease to sort of just burn through the population, infecting who it will. To me, that attitude would be unconscionable when it comes to the pandemic. We obviously have to do as much as we can as quickly as we can to mitigate the damage. We can’t just let the virus run rampant through communities. Similarly, we can’t just let climate change go unchecked. We have to mitigate the damage now, while we can still minimize impacts — just as we wouldn’t say to just let the virus run its course.
Goldstein-Rose: But some people do. There are a fair number of people — not a large percentage, but there are a lot of people who are saying exactly that. And they’re out protesting right now against these shutdowns that are meant to save lives. I think it’s a similar percentage of people who totally deny climate science, and who think we shouldn’t do anything about it. Unfortunately, they have a voice in politics. With climate change being a longer term issue, it’s easier for moderate-to-conservative politicians to ignore it, or to say we don’t really need to take significant action on it right now, though in the long-term it will be a worse crisis than this pandemic.
DeCanniere: Obviously, your book is extremely comprehensive and there is a lot to go through. So, we can’t go through the entire plan in extreme detail here. However, I was wondering if you can also give our readers a little bit of a rundown of what the five pillars of your plan are, so that we can get to negative emissions by 2050 and solve climate change.
Goldstein-Rose: The pillars are the physical things we have to achieve — the physical equipment or practices that we have to make cheap enough and scale-up and spread around the world. The first pillar is electricity generation. We have to scale-up solar, wind and nuclear energy storage and other things that can outcompete coal and methane. Second is electrification. So, electric cars, air source heat pumps, and all sorts of end-use equipment that has to be swapped out. Third is synthesized fuels, because not everything may be electrified. For example, long-range airplanes are not going to be electrified by 2050, in all likelihood. So, you need to have a carbon-neutral form of jet fuel to go into airplanes, so that there can be net zero emissions. That means using excess clean electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and then use the hydrogen as a fuel — or combine the hydrogen with CO2 from the air and turn it into jet fuel that is carbon-neutral or something like that. The fourth pillar is non-energy shifts. That encompasses various technologies that, in some cases, still need to be invented and totally scaled-up for industrial processes like cement, which emit greenhouse gases when you burn fossil fuels to drive the process, but then they also emit greenhouse gases as part of the chemical reactions that happen. So, you need to redesign those processes or products. Then, in agriculture, there are a lot of practices you want to adopt to reduce emissions like cover cropping, crop rotation, growing things more densely so you’re not causing deforestation — which is the largest form of agricultural emissions — and shifting diets away from meat for the same reason. Pillar five is sequestration. This is doing some of those agricultural processes and reforestation — the natural ways to lock more carbon into the earth — but also technological methods like direct air capture (where you literally have an array of fans sucking CO2 out of the air and then you stick it underground). That’s how we can eventually bring greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere back to pre-Industrial levels, bringing the temperature back down.
DeCanniere: It seems like there’s a lot of work to be done, but also when you really learn about it and think about it, it also seems to be very doable. Especially if there’s the political will and the will among the people. It’s not this insurmountable problem. It’s really not. At least not at this point. I think you kind of suggest that as well. The will of the people can have a significant impact on shaping political will.
Goldstein-Rose: It is doable, and the main challenge is the scale of it and the pace at which we need to be acting. But it is big, and so it is important that it become the national priority — that there is the will to act significantly. This is why the messaging side of things is really important. If people think it’s going to be some sacrifice, and they’re hesitant to take any action, then it’s going to be this uphill slog to get any little thing happening, and it’s going to end up being incremental things that can never add up in the timeframe we have. You have to get people excited — because the stuff we need to do is almost entirely exciting and good for peoples’ lives. If you can shift that mindset among the general population and among politicians, and you can get them excited about the kind of action we need to take, then it’s possible to act at the scale and pace necessary. That’s going to be the challenge. If you can do it at the scale and pace necessary, then the physical stuff you have to do is pretty straightforward.
DeCanniere: Right. Otherwise, it seems like it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Obviously, if you’re of the mindset that you cannot do it and that this is just not achievable, then I think you will find that is precisely what leads to nothing getting done. It’s not that it cannot be done. It’s thinking that this is some sort of insurmountable challenge, and thinking that what we need to do cannot be done that, in turn, leads to nothing getting done. That is also, arguably, why the can has been kicked down the road so far for so long. It’s not that we couldn’t have been addressing these issues for decades now. It’s that we decided it either isn’t something we need to be pursuing or is something that we decided we cannot do — and so nothing has been done.
Anyway, I think your plan provides a lot of really great solutions to these really pressing problems. The one qualm I have — and I think you kind of address this in the book — is this idea of embracing nuclear energy. Part of the reason that I, personally, am on the fence about this whole embracing nuclear thing is because it seems to me that when energy companies build nuclear plants, they often will want much of the risk to be borne by either the community or the state or the Federal government or whomever. They kind of seem to want to outsource the risk. I don’t know what your take on it is, but that’s one major reason I’d be hesitant to embrace nuclear. I feel as though there are certain policies that have been put into place where, if something happens — if something goes wrong — the burden is shifted away from the company that operates the plant.
Goldstein-Rose: Every region has a different way of structuring their electric grid. In some places the utilities that distribute the power also own the power plants. Some places have that separated out. Where I am, in New England, it’s separated. So, if you want to build a power plant, you cannot be a utility company that is distributing electricity. You have to be separate, but then there are complex markets to bid into three years ahead of time to bid the capacity you’re going to have. So, there are all of these systems designed to guarantee reliability of the electricity grid. Demanding absolute reliability does drive up the price. If we were all okay with having brownouts once or twice a month, things would be cheaper but things would be riskier. That’s not necessarily a good idea.
In terms of nuclear as it’s own technology, if you want to solve climate change by 2050, it’s really obvious there should be some role for nuclear — even if you think of it as risky in some way which, scientifically, it isn’t. However, you can’t always convince people of that. You can explain to people that ‘Okay. You think there’s some risk. Let’s compare that to the risk of continuing to use fossil fuels — which is what nuclear can directly outcompete, where solar and wind cannot always do so, because they don’t run 24/7 — and the risk of climate change.’ This is the big thing. I think that a lot of environmentalists imagine sort of what you were saying — that we can just change everything overnight. Therefore, they’re thinking about what is the ideal energy system we should all have eventually. And they think it’s rooftop solar and microgrids and everything small and localized. Nuclear is just big, so it doesn’t fit into that vision. It has these other connotations, and that’s fine. Maybe long-term that is what we’ll have.
I think that, as battery technology and microgrid technology improves, we will be much more likely to be farther in that direction. For solving climate change, we need to rapidly build clean electricity generation. We need to replace all the fossil fuels we have, but we need to increase the amount of electricity generation way beyond the total generation we have today, because demand will grow as developing countries grow in their economies, and because we will have to power more electrified technologies in the economy, along with synthesized fuels and sequestration. So, my projection is we will need five times as much electricity generation — very roughly — in 2050 as we have today.
All of that has to be clean, whereas maybe only one-third of that is clean today. That is the challenge. If you acknowledge that scale, you can see how a really concentrated form of power — like nuclear — that doesn’t take much land area, doesn’t produce much waste, and doesn’t require much in the way of materials compared to all the other options, could scale-up really quickly. You could add clean generation faster if you standardized a design for nuclear plants and mass manufactured them. The other thing is we have never tried standardizing and mass manufacturing nuclear in the way that we have with solar and wind. Solar and wind — and batteries, to some extent — as they have been mass manufactured, we’ve seen the costs drop. There’s this exponential decay cost curve, where the more and more that are manufactured, the cheaper they become. They’ve gotten down that curve really dramatically in the last 20 years or so, so that when they’re producing, they are often the cheapest thing on the grid. That’s never been attempted for nuclear. The main argument people have against nuclear is that it’s too expensive, which it is right now because we’ve never tried making it cheaper — which we have done with all of the other technologies.
So, it’s this sort of simple proposition. Let’s try standardizing them. One company can standardize one design, build it in a factory — like we do with any other technology — and churn them out so we learn by repetition, and you can refine the manufacturing practices, the supply chain, the business model and make it cheaper that way. This is exactly what Tesla has done with batteries and electric cars. They haven’t had wild breakthroughs in the technology. They’ve just made the manufacturing process really streamlined to make it cheaper.
DeCanniere: And then because of incidents like Chernobyl or something like Three-Mile Island, I think a lot of people think about safety concerns of that nature as well. However, you seem to suggest that this new generation of nuclear plants are equipped with passive safety features and are different than nuclear plants of yesteryear.
Goldstein-Rose: Yeah. I think that everything being designed today is walk-away safe — meaning you can literally just leave it with no operators and it would shut itself down. There are various ways you can make it so that if you’re not constantly adding bits of fuel or something, then the reaction will sort of fizzle out. Then there’s a plug that has to be actively cooled. If it either starts to overheat or it loses power, that will just disappear and it will drain into a containment vessel or something.
People’s fears about the safety of nuclear are very emotional and rooted in a conflation of nuclear power with nuclear weapons. It’s really unfortunate that they have the same name, because they’re based on the same really basic physics, and there is almost no other relation. That is pervasive, especially among people who lived through the Cold War. They find it hard to get over that fear. The fact is the total number of people that nuclear has ever killed — which was only at Chernobyl — is about the same as the number of people killed roughly every two days by coal. So, 60 years of history with nuclear versus every two days with coal. That’s the competition. The question is not ‘Should we do nuclear or should we do solar?’ We need as much nuclear and as much solar, wind, hydro and geothermal as possible if we’re going to even have a chance of adding up to the level of electricity generation we’re going to need in the next 30 years. The question is nuclear and everything else or coal.
DeCanniere: And I think you suggest that if nuclear were adopted as a part of the solution for now, it doesn’t mean you’re locked into using nuclear long-term. As things like solar and wind and other renewable alternatives improve, you could feasibly move away from nuclear and not have nuclear at all — which, I must confess, is an idea I really like, especially since I have qualms about nuclear plants to begin with.
Goldstein-Rose: One thing that people don’t necessarily realize is that all of these things — nuclear, solar, wind, coal, methane — only last a few decades. At most one of these plants might last 70 years. A nuclear plant can last that long. A lot of them are being retired unnecessarily. A lot of power plants last only 40 years. Solar is only rated, generally, for 30 years. Pretty much all the clean generation we have on the grid right now will be decommissioned before 2050.
We’re not trying to add generation on top of what we have. We are trying to build a clean electricity system that is five times larger than the one we have today. All clean, from scratch. Then, in the following 50 years, we will have to replace everything again — the same way you have to replace your furnace every so often, you have to replace your power plants every so often. So, you’re not locked into any single technology. The question is what’s relevant in the timeframe for solving climate change, because if we build another methane power plant today, that will still be functioning perfectly in 2050 and beyond, when we need it not to exist. That locks us into fossil fuel technologies — not permanently, but for longer than we have to solve climate change. That’s what’s relevant.
DeCanniere: You also seem to suggest that, apart from the five pillars you just talked about, there is other work that needs to be done to get us to where we need to be by 2050.
Goldstein-Rose: The five pillars are the physical minimum that have to be achieved by 2050. That’s what you have to achieve. If you play them all out fully, you solve climate change. I don’t get into how you do that and what exact combination of policies you use. That’s where there are a many more political considerations. You should make sure the policies you are using are equitable — that the policies are just to frontline communities that have been impacted either by fossil fuels or by climate change, as well as to fossil fuel workers who will lose their jobs in this process and will need to be guaranteed an income. There are lots of other things you could tie into policies as well. That’s the political conversation to have, but the physical steps need to be achieved to solve climate change — to get to the point where impacts of climate change are getting less bad, not worse — are the five pillars.
DeCanniere: You also seem to touch on the need for the United States to play a significant role in transitioning to these cleaner technologies and in innovation and all of that. With that in mind, what do you feel the president and other politicians here in America should be doing? And what should other countries be doing as well?
Goldstein-Rose: The specifics can go in a lot of different ways. Depending on who wins what elections this year, I think that different things will be possible. The government has a lot of tools to scale-up technologies. Obviously, for technologies that are in earlier stages, there is the direct research and development funding and coordinated research, programs for demonstration projects and all of that is really key. Everyone is basically on the same page. We do that. We just need to do a lot more of that, and we need to have it be more focused. For things that are starting to be commercialized, we need to dramatically accelerate the rate of scale-up. To bring something to the point of starting to be mass produced, you have to guarantee that there is an initial market for that product. So, this is where any number of policies can help. You can have a carbon price to make fossil fuels more expensive, while reinvesting it through dividends to everyone, so that their cost of living doesn’t go up. That would make all the clean options more competitive. It would mean you would be more certain, as an investor, that there is going to be a market for those clean options. You could mandate the clean options you know are viable, and then phase in some mandate for electric cars, air source heat pumps, or for more efficient building installation or building materials. You can also subsidize or do both — you can mandate and subsidize various technologies. You can offer loan guarantees and other financing mechanisms — or just cheap loans — for individual people or companies to buy technologies, but also loan guarantees for manufacturers to convert over to producing the technologies that we want.
Finally, the government buys a lot of stuff itself. So, public procurement — when the government is replacing its fleet of cars, they should all be electric. The government can weatherize its own buildings. You can extend that into the government funding a project — if not carrying it out — to offer weatherization to any building in the country, and rapidly convert houses and commercial buildings to air source heat pumps and efficient heating and everything. There are many different tools. There are more, like the International trade pressures in leadership, you can fund programs to have people go around to speak with farmers and convince them to adopt more sustainable practices. You could have funding for the farmers to pay them to do that — to take out the risk to farmers. There are lots of different programs, depending on who is leading and what their style is, and upon the political situation. This is where activism can ensure that the scale of ambition is sufficient, and make it easier for politicians to be bolder with their leadership.
DeCanniere: Right. In terms of purchasing, I know that as a lot of the vehicles in town have been replaced, they have replaced those with more efficient, eco-friendly models. We have school buses that run on an alternative fuel. We have electric cars that are a part of the fleet. Those are just a couple of examples. There is a lot more than has been done at the local level as well. So, there is definitely a lot that can happen at all different levels of government — including at the local level — that can make a big difference. Obviously, as I say, that is just one example, and there is a lot more to be done, but — especially taken collectively — those are definitely steps in the right direction.
Goldstein-Rose: And even when it comes to individual people or companies or towns, the key thing is that it can be quite useful for individual collections of entities to be early adopters of technology. Not so much because they are going to drive a rapid scale-up in a whole new market, but because they can show that there is interest — that these are viable things. They can demonstrate that these things work, and that they can be cheaper than they are yet. The key thing is to think about how you are communicating. If you are a school district, and you say you’re going to buy electric school buses. That’s wonderful, but how do you communicate about that? Do you say that here is what we are doing, and if everyone else in the world just did this, then we would be good? We’ve done our part? Or do you say ‘We’re doing this because it’s an exciting thing, and we know it’ll be good and that it is the direction we need to go in. In fact, we are going to use this as a statement to highlight to the world — and our government leaders — that we really need governments to make this happen everywhere, and to make it affordable everywhere?
DeCanniere: Right. I would definitely say that the school buses that run on alternative fuel are seen as a piece of the puzzle. It’s not that the town is saying that they bought them and if everyone else followed suit but did nothing else, then everything will be fine. It’s one thing that the school district did that other school districts can also do, but nobody ever said that is all that needs to be done. I think that they made that clear. It’s one piece of a very large puzzle. You also say that companies have a significant role to play, apart from governments.
Goldstein-Rose: I think it’s a similar role to towns or other entities. So, they can be early adopters of equipment that they can scale-up. There are some very large companies that are much bigger than towns or other collections of entities. So, especially if they decided to be on the forefront of it, they could even make a lot of it a profit-making motive. Some they could do just because it doesn’t cost that much, and it’s just good PR, but I have the dream that maybe Amazon could decide to convert its entire fleet to electric delivery trucks and vans, and they could build out all of the charging infrastructure to make that work, and then rent the charging infrastructure — or sell the electricity at those charging stations — to any other company that would like to use it for their trucks. Then you enable the smaller distribution companies to also switch to electric delivery trucks, because there is the infrastructure to support it.
DeCanniere: I think it definitely also demonstrates that the private sector has the potential to be a huge part of the solution.
Goldstein-Rose: And in pushing governments, of course.
DeCanniere: Or there could even be public-private partnerships.
Goldstein-Rose: When governments want to deploy all of this stuff, it will be private companies that manufacture pretty much everything we’re talking about. In that way, companies obviously have a role. But companies who want to take leadership in messaging and explaining what they want governments to do — or how people should be thinking about these issues — can have a really significant impact in that way as well.
We actually created a video for the book. People can watch it. It’s on my website. I noticed that, if you click through to YouTube — because it’s a video about climate change — there is a little message included below the video. It’s something to the effect of ‘Here’s what global warming is.’ It’s YouTube’s official message that I did not put there. YouTube seems to include it automatically with any video on climate change, because I assume they’re trying to combat false information from climate change deniers. So, that’s one way they are trying to very directly use their messaging power to tell people the truth and to diffuse some of the extreme — and false — rhetoric around this issue. That’s one very obvious way, of course, but there are lots of ways companies talk about the steps they are taking that imply certain things should be thought of in certain ways. So, it’s important to be strategic with that.
DeCanniere: Last, but certainly not least, who would you say are your influences or what have you been reading lately that you might recommend to others?
Goldstein-Rose: There are various reports. I haven’t read all of the full books on climate change. I have looked at some of the most significant, recent ones. However, the things I find the most useful, accurate and helpful — and those I find to be most focused on the right stuff — tend to be the reports that academics, think tanks or climate organizations put out. So, the most recent example was not even a narrative report but a detailed policy plan that Jay Inslee’s former climate policy staffers put together. This was just this week. It was sort of adapting Inslee’s policy plan and incorporating some stuff from Warren and other candidates, and adapting it to the current moment. We’re in a recession. We’re going to need to get out of that and address these long-term economic issues, and they have a whole vision for what the next president can do, and for what Congress can do and everything. Things like that are starting to get better and better.
One of the things that I looked at a bunch when I was just starting this whole project, and wrapping my own mind around the global picture that led to creating The 100% Solution framework was this article from 2018 by Professor Steven Davis and a whole bunch of other scholars. It was a Davis et. al. article. It was ‘Net-Zero Emissions Energy Systems,’ and it was just an overview, a peer-reviewed article in a scientific journal. That was really helpful for me.
The other thing is that I follow a lot is Grist. They do amazing climate change reporting. Almost everything is so much more accurate and nuanced than most reporting. They understand the gist of things. They have a very respectful, inclusive and energizing take. For people who want to stay up-to-date on everyday climate change news, I recommend that.
Solomon Goldstein-Rose was elected to the Massachusetts state legislature on a climate change-focused platform at age 22. He previously interned in the Obama White House and in Congress, and ran a statewide carbon pricing campaign. He now works full time as a climate change activist on national and global levels. He lives in Amherst, MA. For more information, please visit his website.