Today's guest is Ken Caldeira, Atmospheric Scientist in the Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution. Founded in 1902 as an organization for scientific discovery, the Carnegie Institution was envisioned to be a home to exceptional individuals working at the cutting edge of their fields. As Senior Scientist of the Caldeira Lab, a specialized group of climate scientists that work within the institution, Ken oversees climate change-related research pursued by a team of post-doc students. His specific areas of research are ocean acidification, climate effects of trees, and geoengineering. Caldeira was a lead author for the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR5 report and was coordinating lead author of the oceans chapter for the 2005 IPCC report on carbon capture and storage. Ken’s research has received support from Bill Gates, who has taken personal interest in addressing climate change. Shortly after the publication of this episode, Ken announced on Twitter that he is assuming a new role, in which he will be “working for [Gates], helping to develop the knowledge and human capacity needed to address the global climate/energy problem.” We delved into a lot of great topics, ranging from the latest climate research to the thorny socio-cultural obstacles that inhibit needed action. This conversation was so robust that this episode runs a little longer than usual! I think you’ll be fascinated by what Ken has to say about where we’re at in the climate fight, the role of scientists, and the various research projects pursued by his team. Enjoy the show! You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at firstname.lastname@example.org, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and suggestions for future topics or guests.
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Jason Jacobs: Hello everyone. This is Jason Jacobs, and welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change and try to figure out how people like you and I can help.
Today's guest is Ken Caldeira.
An atmospheric scientist in the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University. Ken also serves as a professor in Stanford's Department of Environmental Earth System Science. He studies the longterm evolution of the climate and global carbon cycle and also studies Marine Biogeochemistry and Chemical Oceanography, including ocean acidification.
Previously, Ken was the energy and Environment Director at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where he was awarded the Edward Teller Fellowship, which is the highest award given by that laboratory. We have a great discussion in this episode. I find it fascinating to get the perspective of a long time scientist, working on these areas on a how Ken's perspective has changed over the years, the nature of his job, what types of research is happening in his lab, how he thinks about the problem of climate change and where we need to go. And also importantly, what are some of the barriers holding us back and how do we best address them?
Ken Caldeira, welcome to the show.
Ken Caldeira: Good to be on.
Jason Jacobs: You, my friend are our 100th guest.
Ken Caldeira: What an honor.
Jason Jacobs: I feel like right when I say that, you know, when you text, congratulations and there's like the fake balloons and graffiti and stuff, we need to somehow get that coming down from the ceiling in your office here at Stanford.
Ken Caldeira: Some fireworks, confetti, that sort of thing.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. So I have to say it's pretty intimidating talking to you. I don't know how much you know about my background, but I built a fitness app company for eight or nine years, which is cool and stuff, but I'm 15 months into focusing on climate change, but I am far from a scientist and you're one of the best.
Ken Caldeira: I don't know about that, but I am a scientist.
Jason Jacobs: And it's, I think for people like me that are coming in and trying to figure out what to do, who are motivated truly by impact, I think it is important to understand the nature of the problem and the types of things that will help. And so as much as talking to people like you as a foreign land to me and to people like me, I think it's a very important stop on our way to figuring out what to do.
So thank you so much for being generous with your time.
Ken Caldeira: Well, thank you. And I think really it would be great if we could all agree on the scientific facts. Regardless of our political opinions about what we should do. So one of the things that's annoyed me in this whole discussion is how people's assessment of the facts is colored by their political positions.
And at least we should be all agreeing on the facts, even if we disagree about what to do.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. So I mean. I was about to say. That's a good place to start. Let's jump into what are the facts, but before we do, can you just give kind of a quick preamble on Ken Caldeira?
Ken Caldeira: We could spend the rest of the 45 minutes talking about my favorite topic myself. I'm going to actually start all the way back in high school where I wanted to be a scientist and all this. I also. It to be like Camu or Sartre or whatever and be a writer. Basically, I thought I would be a writer and I went to college and I did math and philosophy and things like this and really didn't know what I wanted to do.
And then I got out of college and back then you didn't need a computer science degree to be a computer programmer. If you knew how to program computers, you could get a job. And so I got a job ending up on wall street doing software development. Well, I actually enjoyed the job from a micro level that I felt like, Oh, why am I spending all my time helping rich people get richer?
And at the time, there was an article in the New York Times about Steve Schneider talking at, I think an American Association for The Advancement of Science conference about that the West Antarctic ice sheet might melt as a result of our emissions. And this was all the way back in 1979 and I remember putting up signs, we'd be pasting up around downtown New York saying, now it's the ice caps, what's next?
And so then I used to read among other journals, The Nation and of all the weird things New York University. There was a guy, Marty Hoffert, he put in ads for a graduate student. Possibility at NYU in The Nation. And I responded to just to this ad in the back of The Nation. And I went and interviewed there once and twice, and I ended up leaving my job in Wall Street and got a, basically graduate education as a climate scientist there.
Jason Jacobs: So what'd your Wall Street colleagues say when you said you were going to do that?
Ken Caldeira: I think a lot of them were actually very supportive and like did I think there was a common thing that, I mean a lot of people were liking the money, but the stress of it and this sort of fundamental meaninglessness of it, I think other people felt, and so I think many people, once people have homes and families and all this, it becomes harder.
So my income went down by a factor of 10 when I became a graduate student. But I became happier. And you can do that when you don't have a family and a mortgage and all this kind of stuff. And so I basically went from being a software developer on Wall Street to a graduate student in a science course.
And it was one of the best decisions I've ever made. And then from there I went on and worked a Penn state and Lawrence Livermore national lab, and then Carnegie Institution for science where I am now.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. And so how did you think about the problem when you first got into the field all those years ago, and how is that the same or different from how you think about the problem today?
Ken Caldeira: When I first got into this, first of all, it was about me trying to gain understanding and that I didn't understand. One of the questions is, well, how is going to change from all the carbon dioxide that we're emitting from our energy sector and so on. But then, well, why was the climate the way it was 200 years ago?
And so I got into this, the whole thing of just trying to understand how the climate system worked, and I think my model of social change at that time was, Oh, if we could just generate the good information and get that information to policy makers, that policy makers would then make good policy. And so we had what we now call the information deficit model of the policy process.
Jason Jacobs: It's rational, you would think...
Ken Caldeira: You would think, but what then happened is pretty much really, the first article I read about climate change was I think in 1979 New York Times. And, but at that time there was a report published, known as The Charney Report, which basically laid out modern climate science as we understand it today.
So when I got into this field now, almost 40 years ago, or 30 some odd years ago already, all the basics were understood. And. By the 90s somewhere in the mid nineties with the Kyoto Protocol and all this, it became apparent that the policy community was not going to act on the good information, but that, first of all, there will be people that would try to deny and throw doubt into that information or other people who just said, well, yeah, that's true, but we're going to focus on short term goals and not worry about that right now.
And, so now, I mean, we see with the current political landscape how much group identity and self interest and all of these kind of things govern our political process. And it's somewhat disillusioning as a scientist who had this faith, that good information will win the day to generate that information and find out, well, it doesn't win the day.
Jason Jacobs: And so given that that it's not information deficit, but that, even if the information is there, it's not going to necessarily came to action in an impactful way at the policy level. How has that changed your view of the role of a scientist, if at all?
Ken Caldeira: First of all, let me say that I distinguish between my role as a well-informed human being or citizen and my role as a scientist.
So to try to affect positive social change. I see that as part of my role as a human being or as a citizen. And whereas I see my role as a scientist is just to establish useful facts. And so anything that I say about what we should do, I don't consider that part of my professional work. I consider that just me as a person saying what I think.
Whereas what I'm paid to do here is to test hypotheses and write peer reviewed papers and I'm not paid to opine about what we should do. I do opine about what we should do, but I do that on my own time, so to speak. Now I'm forgetting what the question was.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, so the question is basically, given that facts are not enough, which is what you said, I'm just wondering if that now that you have that information, which you didn't have when you came in, does that change the role of a scientist working on climate change?
Ken Caldeira: So again, not sure if it's my role as a scientist or role as a well informed person who happens to be a scientist. But for example, last night I had dinner. With a reasonably well known and powerful person.
Jason Jacobs: You and I didn't have dinner together last night. Oh yeah, you're not talking about me.
Ken Caldeira: I wasn't talking about... Who was wanting to fund a documentary on climate change, and he asked me, Oh, what should it be about?
And I was saying, look, something like Al Gore's film, it was good at reaching and reinforcing people who were already true believers, but I'm not sure it really got changed all that many minds, and so I was thinking, Oh, you should really try to make some documentary that would reach Trump supporters. And to say the least, I was born in some middle class, liberal educated household in the New York city area.
But it could've just as easily had a different lottery number and been born to some right-wing rural family in Nebraska, and it's very likely that I would be a Trump supporter right now. And so that this idea of like, Oh, not, we can't afford to be dismissive. Of people who had different backgrounds, but we have to reach those people.
And how do you reach those people? And so I think I'm a lot more focused now on this information deficit model, but how do you penetrate these group identities and get people to agree on some things, even though they have this different group identity? And I thought that one of the ways you reach people is even though we disagree on how to do things, that we, uh agree. I think largely on what people want and that most people, they want to feel secure. They want a good job, they want to feel secure in their job. They want their spouse to love them. They want their kids to do well in school. They want to have some friends, they want to have a hobby on weekends and that.
And then you say, well, in order to be able to do that over the long term, we need a good energy system and maybe start where people are. And I'm not sure exactly how to do it, but I was on a little vacation in Southern Florida about a month ago, and I took this fan boat ride in the Everglades, and the guy who was our guide was a real good old boy.
And, he'd obviously been listening to Fox news and he heard those from near San Francisco. And his view of San Francisco was that, Oh, it was a big homeless encampment with a few palaces for people like Nancy Pelosi, and...
Jason Jacobs: That doesn't sound that far off. I'm staying in the Tenderloin right now.
Ken Caldeira: Yeah. And so in talking to this guy, and then also he's saying how he has his guns when he sees a python, he shoots a python. And isn't it good that he has a gun to shoot the pythons? And you know what I'm saying? Yeah. But when I walked down New York city, I don't want to necessarily feel like everybody's armed walking the other way and so, but just the social dynamic of that one on one, like we were looking for points of agreement, even though we're coming from very different places, but still, if you were then.
Put us in a group situation where maybe we're showing up at a Trump rally, we would never have that kind of one-on-one interaction anyway. So now I don't know how to do it, but it seems to me they somehow try to get past this group identity, find some shared goals, and try to discuss how we achieve these goals, for example.
So I think even a movie that's aimed at Trump supporters on climate change doesn't even. Have to be strong on any particular thing. I think just raising questions in people's minds, like getting them thinking about the problem. Yeah, one of the things I'd say when I'm talking through an introductory class or something, if you compress the whole atmosphere down to the density of water, it's only 30 feet deep.
And so when you see all these smokestacks going into the air, they have mass equivalent. It's like 30 feet of water, so it's like all this pollution, it's going into just 30 feet of water, and I think. People think of the sky is infinite, and I think just getting, I don't know if we could have a conversation so that we could maybe start living in the same world. It'd be useful.
Jason Jacobs: There's one analogy that's been on my mind. I'd like to run it by you so you can tell me all the reasons. That's the wrong analogy and it's really dumb and stuff, but essentially, if you look at the state of our politics in this country, you say, Oh, the country's really polarized, and so there's one school of thought that says the country is really polarized and it's insurmountable and it's always been polarized, and now social media is just making everybody more aware of how different they are from each other and that this is not heading to a good place.
Like the dramatic people will say, civil war or succeeding or something like that. On the other hand, you hear a school of thought that says, actually just like 80% of us that are actually kind of a. Center right, center, left, whatever. But we're a lot closer together and we think, but it's just like the minorities on both sides of the ones with the biggest megaphone.
And so I can't help but have similar thoughts. When I look at the state of climate science, and what I mean by that is that on the one hand you say, actually the facts of the facts are the facts, and they've always been the facts. Or like we've known for a long time and the facts haven't shifted that much.
And then on the other, you hear these wild swings of people that think this thing or think that thing or think that everything's going to be fine, or think that deep adaptation like we're in for it no matter what we do. And so one question is just, I guess, reaction. To that and your perspective. But then another is what we didn't do at the beginning of this discussion was I watched a talk that you gave back in 2016 and one of the things that you said was that when people hear climate scientists, they assume they just kind of lump all the different issues under the thing.
So someone might ask you about nuclear, for example, but it's not a topic that you're very well versed in. And so one is, I want your perspective on the first piece. The second is what's the context on kind of your power alley? So that. Listeners know, and I know who we're talking to as we're, as we're running through these topics.
Ken Caldeira: Yikes. That was like a whole ...that was like seven questions.
Jason Jacobs: The best questions are succinct and to the point and direct, and that was none of those things.
Ken Caldeira: Yes. I think it was like seven questions, but let me try to answer one of them. I actually think while there's uncertainty about amount of warming from a doubling of CO2 and that sort of thing.
I think that most climate scientists are basically on the same page with regard to what the science says, and that page is largely reflected in the IPCC reports. And I actually don't think there's that much controversy within the scientific community. Now that's said.
Jason Jacobs: About both the fact that the planet warming caused by humans and also how much and how fast?
Ken Caldeira: I mean there are error bars and uncertainties, but I think most of the scientific community agrees what that uncertainty is.
And I think there's a small handful of people at the extremes, and what I mean handful I mean like literally five people that are. If not off the reservation, at least at the very edge of the reservation. And the media tends to report the more extreme, you know? So if you have five people...
Jason Jacobs: Those are the headlines people click on.
Ken Caldeira: Right, right. Yeah. The other thing, I have a friend who did a paper and it was how will climate change affect the price of beer? And that paper got more press attention than every other paper he wrote put together just because, well, beer and climate change, there's a new angle and we can get some clicks on that. And so what gets reported depends more on how the saliency of the finding and not the quality of the study.
And so low quality studies that make an extreme conclusion. Are likely to get covered more than one that says what the IPCC said is right. That's not, and I, it really goes both ways. I think you have the extinction rebellion types who are saying that we're on the edge of mass extinction or in a mass extinction.
And then you have the super optimists about adaptation saying humans already live from the equator to the Arctic circle. And so no problem. We can live anywhere. And so with the truth is somewhere in between.
Jason Jacobs: And what about your perspective? I mean, I've been able to piece together atmospheric science, ocean acidification, geoengineering.
There is kind of a big picture view. There's certain things that it seems like, but the same way you said, scientists aren't known for their communication ability. Communicators like me are not known for our ability to understand science, so it'd be really helpful to just get some context from you on the topics that you feel like you're best verse to talk about.
Ken Caldeira: I'm one of the most broad scientists working today that am almost like this PhD in general studies, and I'm really fortunate in that I've had the support of Bill Gates over the last 12 years or so, and so.
Jason Jacobs: Didn't he call you what? Like you're his favorite teacher teacher?
Ken Caldeira: Yeah. That was very nice.
Jason Jacobs: You put that on your tombstone someday.
Ken Caldeira: Yeah. No, it's very nice. Well, I'm a big fan and so I mean, just to tell a little story that we were doing some help bringing people in and doing tutorials for Bill, bring him information related to climate energy. And at one point his people said. Oh, he's willing to support some of your research.
You just have to tell him what you're deliverables will be. And I said, I'm not going to do that. And they said, what? He's ready to give you money? I said, yeah, well, let me tell you what I would do if he gives me money. I would hire the best people I could find, encourage them to do the best work they can do.
And then when they do something, I'll let Bill know what they did. And they said, ah, I don't know about that. And I hung up the phone. I didn't hear from them for two or three weeks, and then I felt like, Hmm, maybe that wasn't the smartest thing to do. Maybe I made a mistake. But then maybe three weeks later they called back and they said, okay, we've talked to him.
He's willing to support you under that proviso. And so that's now been for like the last 12 years or so.
Jason Jacobs: I'm going to try that move when I talk to investors. What's your plan? I'm not going to give you a plan. I'm going to hire the best people and I'm going to empower them to do amazing things. And when they do those amazing things, I'll let you know.
Ken Caldeira: That's exactly what I said and I got away with it, so they said, Oh yeah, okay. If he doesn't like what you're doing, he'll give you one more year to wind down. And that was now, I don't know, 10 or 12 years ago. And so it's really great because I can just, if I find some bright motivated postdoc candidate who's interested in something interesting, I can just hire them and say, go to it.
And so it's really been great because it's my personal education slash entertainment program because if I could interested in something, I can just hire somebody to work on it and hopefully Bill will find it interesting as well. And so like, I mean for right now, just to show how crazy things are we going into economics and there's all this question about longterm discount rates.
I dunno if you're familiar with this question, if like how much should you value future generations relative to ourselves?
Jason Jacobs: I mean, I haven't heard it framed in that way.
Ken Caldeira: Okay. Anyway, the economists talk about this in terms of discount, right. And so it's sort of like what interest rates should you use to take future value?
And so we're saying, okay, what if you said, okay, current generation could do as much as they want for themselves as long as they don't make life worse for future generations, you know, then what does that mean about the economics? And so anyway, I don't want to go too far into this, but the fact that we could have a postdoc working on a crazy economics thing.
Apart from this related to climate and global change, but it's still a far a field.
Jason Jacobs: Any guardrails though, as it relates to the scope of your work, or is it really just whatever's intellectually curious and interesting to you?
Ken Caldeira: The thing is this, if I go too far away and work on stuff that Bill thinks it's just boring and a waste of time, he will cut me off. And so it's very vague thing. But one of the things that in doing these sessions to help keep Bill informed, that that's also then informed me. So I've gotten to learn about all kinds of energy systems and batteries and carbon neutral fuel, all this. And you know, so in this process of bringing in experts to help inform Bill. That's also helped inform me. And so that's been broadening. And then this ability to hire postdocs in any random field. I mean, for example, we've been getting into electricity and energy system modeling. And I'm like a believer in skills, you know, I think learning to play the violin, that's something that people can't learn quickly, or math things where you have to practice it over a long period of time, but actual like information.
The kind of information that you can say in sentences. I think smart people can learn quickly, and I worry about skills, but not about domain knowledge. And so to do electricity system modeling, I hired a particle physicist out of CERN who never did any energy system modeling before, but it's just really smart and was good at math and good at writing papers and go to doing research or, you know, so I'll have people switch fields and just work on cool stuff.
Jason Jacobs: How many of these projects you typically have going on at any one time?
Ken Caldeira: There's 10 post docs in my group right now, and they're all working on different projects.
Jason Jacobs: So this is not a quiz, but just give me a sampling or if you can name all of them, name all of them. But what are some topic areas and types of projects that are going on now?
Ken Caldeira: Let me just kind of go through people and you can stop me at any point.
Jason Jacobs: Oh, have at it.
Ken Caldeira: So there's Manu Romano.
Jason Jacobs: Professor Caldeira has no notes in front of him. Just to let you know, this is all off the top of his head.
Ken Caldeira: Right now, she's got a project that's about corals in extreme environments, and so we've done some studies saying that basically due to ocean acidification and ocean warming, coral reefs are not going to be sustainable anywhere in the world within a few decades if we continue with our emissions.
But 65 million years ago when a, an asteroid hit the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs, coral reefs disappeared for several hundred thousand years, but when they came back around half the coral species existed. And that means that even though coral reefs aren't going to be sustainable, it might be that many coral species could exist as colonies in other kinds of ecosystems as minor components.
And then maybe when the conditions get better, they could come back and rebuild the reefs. And so the question is, okay, where might be the refugee, uh, where coral colonies could survive even after reefs no longer can be sustained. And so she's just went on with another one of my postdocs to Brazil where they were observing a coral growing in a tide pool, living in very extreme circumstances.
So that's one project is trying to characterize corals in extreme environments. I'm starting with the oceanographic stuff. Another postdoc, Dave Koweek. Yeah, I should say the name of the last person was Manoela Romano De Orte. Okay. Dave Koweekis looking at ways to address and knock CO2.
So the ocean is basically, as the ocean warms, it loses oxygen, and then also the nutrients coming down rivers is creating these dead zones. And so the question is, can you remediate these dead zones by pumping oxygenated surface water into the dead zone. So he's did some experiment and work on that. Okay, so let me go around.
So then there's, Yixuan Zheng and he just had a paper on how if we clean up the sulfate aerosols coming from our power plants, that that's going to create warming because sulfur from our...
Jason Jacobs: Same thing with the ships, right?
Ken Caldeira: Yeah, yeah. So basically largely in China, but in other places, sulfur in power plants, it comes out as particles and or as gases oxidize into particles.
And this scatters sunlight back to space and cool things off. And if the power plants get cleaned up, the Earth's going to warm. That warming is going to disproportionately hit tropical countries with not so rich people in it anyway, but basically the health benifits...
Jason Jacobs: versus warming tradeoff. Right, right.
Ken Caldeira: But basically the health benefits so far outweigh the climate damage that it's still a good idea to clean them up, but it's looking at the inequality of the climate damage of that. So let's kind of go around. So then we have been doing studies on the physics of wind power. So we did a study a few years ago.
The question was, why is it windy over parts of the open ocean than over land? Is it just because the ocean smooth or is there something special about the ocean? And we found while there really was something special about the ocean. Did the ocean transports heat. And so you have these big temperature gradients and that creates big pressure gradients and makes the ocean windier.
And so I have a postdoc Enrico Antonini, who's looking at the physics of wind turbines. So what's controlling the maximum amount of energy that a wind farm can put out. So there's wind. Then there's several people. I mentioned the person, Candise Henry, who's working on the longterm discounting, valuing the future question.
Rebecca Peer is working on how do we represent dams and hydro power and energy system models. Yeah, so then we have several people doing just electricity and energy system modeling, trying to understand what possible architectures, a future energy systems might look like. It's super, super diverse.
Basically, it's a bunch of projects led by individual postdocs who have disciplinary expert in most cases, so disciplinary expert in the field that they're working in. And then it's a very unusual, broad ranging group of people and we have lots of fun.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. So that was very helpful for me. I would love to, if you're open to it, just kind of go through a punch list of some topics that I'm trying to navigate and I think listeners are as well.
It'd be great to get your input on them. And if there are things, by the way that you feel like are outside of your strikes zone, just say that. One debate is this a hundred percent renewables and if everything else is a distraction versus kind of all hands on deck, where do you come out on that?
Ken Caldeira: So I think there's two questions here is what is what's physically possible.
And the other is what's feasible or plausible or politically attainable. And if we're talking about physical possibility, it's possible to have a a hundred percent renewable energy system.
Jason Jacobs: And that will get us all the way there?
Ken Caldeira: Yeah, it just will be...
Jason Jacobs: Or the 65% right, because...
Ken Caldeira: That's what I'm saying. Basically what happens, let's say you had a system that was 100% natural gas. And you put in one wind turbine. Well, whenever that winds blowing the turbines spinning, you burn less natural gas. And so when you start putting in the wind, the power from the wind is almost as valuable as the power from the natural gas.
Let's say now that you have a situation where it's half wind and half natural gas, well now you've had to build so many wind turbines that. Sometimes you have no wind at all, and sometimes you have more wind energy than you know what to do with and you have to throw away this extra energy cause storerage.
Jason Jacobs: That's called intermittency, right?
Ken Caldeira: Yeah. And so, wind and solar are these intermittent variable renewables. When they first start coming in the system, they're more valuable because you can use all the power that's coming out of them, and as you keep building more and more of it, you're using less and less of that additional electricity that's generated because you ending up having to curtail more.
And what you really need is some thing that you can dispatch, something that you can use when the wind's not blowing, the sun's not shining, and one of those types of things is some kind of electricity generator, like natural gas or nuclear or something. But the other one is batteries or hydro storage, something like that.
So then the question comes, how much are people willing to pay? And so let's say people are willing to double what they pay for electricity. You can start doing a lot of things. I mean, we can right now take an electrolyzer. Take this excess electricity when there's too much wind or sun break water down to make hydrogen, and then later on when you need that electricity run the hydrogen through a fuel cell.
And for seasonal storage today, if you had a wind and solar system, you'd probably use a lithium ion battery to deal with the short term intermittency during the day, but you'd probably use something like one of these power to gas to power systems for a seasonal storage. And so all of this could work.
But it might cost something like twice as much as what electricity costs today. And so I would be willing to pay that myself. But I'm also an upper middle class liberal climate sciences.
Jason Jacobs: Coastal elite.
Ken Caldeira: Yeah, there you go.
And so then you really get into the question of political feasibility, like how. Bill Gates talks about some about this idea of green premium, like the how much extra do you have to pay to be green and that well, I might be willing to pay 100% more to be green, that I think most people would be willing to pay a few percent more.
And it's a question of exactly where people fall off. So a lot of this discussion about the a hundred percent renewable system, I think there's two questions. One is how much is it going to cost and how much more are people willing to pay. The other question is, renewable has this very nice sound and a very, people have a positive emotional response to the word renewable.
Wind and solar is really what I mean, lots of people like, and I like it as well, but renewable also includes like growing wood and cutting down trees and burning that wood and making energy there. And there's been all these kinds of problems in Europe. With British Columbia and so on, selling pelletized trees.
One thing I would say is not all renewable is good. And the other thing I would say is not all non-renewable is bad, and I'm not a super expert on it, but if you told me, Oh, it's your 2100 and we've solved the climate problem. What happened to make that possible? I would say, Oh, nuclear got really cheap.
To me, that's the most likely way nuclear fission got cheap. I think that nuclear kind of fits into our existing structure of energy system today is more like a hub and spoke kind of system where you have these power plants that just send electricity out from the power plants and, if you're going to have a deeply renewable system, you need to build, unless you have a super cheap storage, you need to build a continental scale, electricity grid, and the history of the United States. Being able to do big infrastructure projects recently has been pretty bad. The efforts recently to build power lines to bring renewable power to other areas has been pretty dismal. In China, if they want to build a big , high voltage direct current line from point A to point B.
They just make an announcement and do it. Pretty much.
Jason Jacobs: So am I allowed to ask about specific colleagues and where you agree or disagree or aligned or not aligned?
Ken Caldeira: Sure.
Jason Jacobs: Mark Jacobson.
Ken Caldeira: So I think there's a few things. I don't want to go into full details, but in his system, Mark Jacobs would put out a model where he showed a hundred percent wind and solar and hydro based system.
And for that system to work. You need something like a month or three, say something on the order of a month of electricity or energy storage, so that if the wind's not blowing for the month and the sun's not shining, that you could still operate. And I don't think there's any plausible energy storage that's available at that scale.
And so I think the main problem with Mark's study is the assumption that there's far more storage available at far lower cost than is real.
Jason Jacobs: But couldn't you make the same knock on the fact that nuclear has no track record of declining costs or doing things on time or on budget? And so what's to say that the future will be any different than the past?
Ken Caldeira: No, I would not say that. I mean, if nuclear didn't exist, we wouldn't throw up our arms and say, Oh, we can't solve the climate problem. I think our predictive skill is if what technologies are going to win is really bad. And that, imagine it was 1920 instead of 2020 and you were trying to conceptualize the energy system of the 20th century instead of 21st century.
And first of all, you would have missed the whole, even though Arrhenius had identified the climate problem before, you would have not realized there was a problem with fossil fuels. You wouldn't see the resurgence of wind, the invention of solar power, invention of nuclear power.
Jason Jacobs: Were we talking about ocean acidification back then?
Ken Caldeira: No, I think 1918 or 1919 was peak horse, and so dealing with horse manure was a major problem, and so I think if we think of that, we're in a similar state of ignorance about the 21st century as people in 1920 were about the 20th century. And so then you say, okay, what could people have done in 1920 to make the 20th century better?
And I would say there's a few things. I think two of the things they could do is one is better materials they could have. And the other is when you come up with a new material and you're going to release it into the environment, do the studies about the longterm fate. So they came up with CFCs and okay, it's a great propellant or a great refrigerant.
But you have to say like what happens when you release the CFCs into the environment? Or, the idea of coming up with lead and gasoline. Oh, that sounds like a great idea. But what happens? And then the same thing with CO2. So it seems like in 1920 if they would've focused more on what's the fate of materials released into the environment, that would have been a good thing.
Jason Jacobs: So let's bring that back around. So now we're sitting here in 2019 and so given that. Is it 2020 Oh my gosh. Wow. Yeah, man. That is how manic I've been and heads down. That's embarrassing. Jet lag brain. We're going to keep that in there. I don't think we're going to edit that out, but now that we're sitting in 2020 and looking forward, I think it's interesting that it sounds like there's strong consensus in the scientific community on the facts of what's happening with global warming, but that were poor predictors in the future of what technologies are going to win.
So given that, what should we be doing on the solution side today?
Ken Caldeira: Mean, I think there's two things we need to be doing. One is we need to be deploying what we have and then we need to be researching and developing things that could be promising in the future. And as I said earlier, people talk about it.
should not be picking winners though.
Yeah, I mean, I think there has to be some prioritization. So even if you say, Oh, we should have a portfolio. Well, do you want to put this much money in fusion power as you put into wind power is, I don't know what, you still have to make decisions and prioritization, but I was talking to a program manager for DARPA, which is the defense advanced research projects agency. And he was saying that experts typically think they know the winner and they want to like put all their bets on what they think the winner is. And you said that at DARPA, they would typically do something like put 60% of the money on what people thought was going to be the winner, but then you have that remaining 40%.
And it might take like 60% of that. So that'd be 24% and put that on the second thing and then take 60% of the remaining money put that on the third thing. And they said often, it's the third thing that ends up being what really works and that basically experts over value their own opinions and should have a little more humility and distribute things a little further.
But yeah, so I would say in, you know, as I said before, that wind and solar. When you first start deploying it, you were basically using almost all the energy that's generated out of it. And so it's kind of a no brainer and it's really, as you get towards the end game of the a hundred percent so probably, I don't know what the exact number where things start getting harder, but when you're less than 50% in variable renewables, if you still have enough natural gas around.
The national renewable energies lab did a study saying if you had enough backup fossil fuel around, you could get rid of 80% of the emissions out of the electricity system with wind and solar with fossil fuel backup. So I think that basically deploy what we have, which is I think wind and solar. And I think this question about how do you make nuclear cheaper, then I think you need research and development. And you know, I have my favorites, but I would have a pretty broad research program. And I think one of the prompts with the research program, there's some things, the department of energy has something called the advanced research projects agency, energy, RPE. And one of their success criteria is like, Oh, after they get this grant does a company form to carry this forward.
But there's lots of technologies. There's no way. There's a market in five or 10 years just because the, it might take 30 or 50 years to develop a technology, and I think an example of this kind of thing is airborne wind power. The most concentrated renewable energy in the world is in the jet streams.
The power density is can reach like 20. Thousand hundred Watts per square meter. So like some three foot by three foot square, we'd have enough energy passing through it to make 20 toasters go or something like this. But you know, getting wind turbines sitting in the jet stream and getting that electricity down here is not so easy.
And Google was funding a company called Makani power to work on this, but they've just pulled out saying like, there's no way we're going to make money out of this in the next years. And so it's an example of a technology that's not going to be commercial anytime soon, but could potentially power civilization.
There's other ones like that, but I mean, there's big questions about whether carbon capture and storage could work, will fossil fuel ever work. There are ideas about taking the natural gas and splitting the carbon off the natural gas and just using the hydrogen from natural gas and burying the carbon. You know, there's all kinds of ideas that people have.
There's all kinds of ideas for carbon neutral fuels. So if you think of people who talk about bio energy, but if you grow a tree and it's mostly carbon, and then you burn that tree, you're putting a lot of carbon back in the atmosphere with a pretty low value use. Now what you could do is take that carbon atom from a tree, combine it with hydrogen that maybe you make from electrolysis with wind, and now make sort of natural gas that's carbon neutral because the tree got the carbon from the atmosphere. You're getting the carbon from the tree, but you're making maybe not natural gas. Maybe it'll make aviation fuels. So a plane can still fly to Sydney, but that carbon that it was in that aviation fuel would have come from a tree. And so anyway, there's all kinds of technologies that could be developed that we need to work on. But in all of these things, I mean, if I had to say like, what's the one thing that we should do is have a price on carbon emissions, especially fossil fuel, carbon emission.
Jason Jacobs: Single price?
Ken Caldeira: If it were up to me, we would have a broad price that was applied either when the carbon was pulled out of the ground.
Or it was imported and it would go up by some fixed percentage each year and that would send a signal to markets that eventually carbon emitting technologies will get more expensive than everything else.
Jason Jacobs: Are you an optimist? I guess when you look forwards at the future of humanity, how much are we going to get a handle on this and how bad will things get in the interim?
Ken Caldeira: I would characterize myself as a hopeful pessimist in that if you ask what's my expectation, my expectation, unfortunately, is that we're not going to really do anything and we're going to kind of muddle through as best we can. And that's not a very optimistic viewpoint. That said, I think it's within human capacity to address this problem, and I actually don't even think it's that big a deal.
I think if there were a benevolent dictator of the world. You would just get rid of fossil fuel emissions. I think it's a no brainer, and I think, I mean, the only reason we don't do it is because of all these split incentives that there are people who benefit from doing it. Just on this issue of split incentives, I'm just free floating here, but one thing that it has me concerned about adaptation is looking at the response to the Katrina hurricane and that Katrina went and flooded much of New Orleans and economists said, well, look, this really only one way sea-levels going and it's up and there's always so long you're going to be able to defend parts of New Orleans against the rising sea levels, and a lot of economists said, well, look, really the lowest lying parts of New Orleans should probably be abandoned.
Then development should focus on the higher, but the political forces against abandonment of land in the face of sea level rise is so strong that you don't have proper adaptive response. You have trying to satisfy people who have some political power and want to defend their interests.
Jason Jacobs: We're building like crazy in the Seaport in Boston and it's all going to be underwater.
Ken Caldeira: Yeah. Yeah. It's crazy. Yeah. And so that, I mean, we had the discussion here. There's a pot of land here that's right now making salt, and most people who are environmentally conscious would like to be restored back to wetland. But of course there are developers who want to put landfill there and put housing complex and offices and so on.
And if you say, well, in 50 years that's going to be underwater, they'll say, well, we'll make money for the next 50 years. We're good with that. But then you know, if you do that in 45 years, they're just going to be a political force of people saying, build a sea wall. Protect us. We have this investment here.
I went to undergraduate college at Rutgers in New Jersey, and there was a park on the Raritan river across the street from it, and they used to be low income housing next to this river that flooded every spring. I don't know what happened to the people there and whether it was all good in a social justice point of view, but let's hope so.
But anyway, they bought out these houses, converted the area into a park, and then they just let the river flood every spring as it's done for the thousands of years and then just soak in the parks flooded for some years, but there's no damage and that, you know, it was a great adaptive response. Let's hope again that the social justice aspects of it worked out okay.
But, I think this figuring out. People are going to have to move out of the way of rising seas and they're going to be demanding seawalls and coastal defenses. And so I'm in addition to being somewhat pessimistic about us responding right on emissions reduction, I'm somewhat pessimistic about us responding appropriately on adaptation issues as well.
And so yeah, economists have estimated that solving the climate problem might cost a couple of percent of GDP, 2% 3% something like this. I've heard that the clean air and clean water acts together costs around 1% of GDP. And so solving the climate problem might be something like two or three times bigger than what we did with the clean air and clean water acts, but it's not like gonna destroy our economy.
Another way of looking at it is the global GDP increases 2% or 3% every year. And so if we were to take two or 3% of GDP to solve the climate problem, that would delay development even if there were no environmental benefits. It would just delay development by one year, and it's just seems that the cost to the economy is so small relative to the amount of risk that's avoided, that it's just a no brainer to do it.
And it's really just this. Game theoretic problem that's preventing us from dealing with it.
Jason Jacobs: Do you think the stakes are as high as some of the alarmist headlines say in terms of the fate of our species and things like that?
Ken Caldeira: I mean, we've written a paper saying, look, if we continue burning fossil fuels, eventually we're going to melt all of Antarctica.
That sea level will be like 200 feet higher than it is today. That the global temperatures. I don't have the exact numbers, but on the order of 10 degrees Celsius, something like 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. And so that, and that's pretty serious end game. Now the thing is, it'll take us thousands of years to get to that state.
And so I think for this century. We're going to muddle through, but I guess the way I think about it is this. Let's imagine instead of us that it was the Romans who had discovered coal, and oil and gas and that they had developed industry and made automobiles and factories.
Jason Jacobs: One day will be in the history books like the Roman, right?
Ken Caldeira: That's exactly it. And so now we are 2000 years later, and so they could have two or 3% higher GDP for one or two centuries. Now we're 2000 years later. And the sea level is still going up 10 feet each year, and it's still an ocean still acidified and there's still no coral reefs and it's sweltering hot through much of the tropics.
And would we say, Oh, it's good. They managed to make it be two or 3% richer than they otherwise would have been good on them. It just seems, we know we're going to run out of fossil fuel next century, if not the century, you know? So. I mean, even if there was no climate problem, we're gonna run out of fossil fuels in a century or so, maybe two centuries, and we're going to have to shift off of it to something else. And so we can either make that shift now and prevent the tens of thousands of years into the future having to deal with our mess. Or we can be like 2% richer for a hundred years and then make people deal with environmental deterioration for the next tens of thousands of years. It just seems, I think it's, we just have a miss.
Our brains aren't able to think about this problem properly. We have no way of, it's the same thing by an administrative assistant has a bowl of chocolate over there. And I know like I should not be eating chocolate for my longterm wellbeing, but some days I just, you know, it's late afternoon and I think I'll, let me just have one of these pieces of chocolate.
So even in my personal life, it's hard to deny myself something I want for my longterm benefit, just because of the way our brains work. We want immediate gratification and as a society. We need to sort of say, look, we're not going to eat that fossil fuel chocolate and it's going to be better for us in the long run, but that's hard to get people to do.
Jason Jacobs: So where does that leave us then with things like geo engineering?
Ken Caldeira: So we did the first three-dimensional climate model simulations of solar geo engineering. This is the idea of putting particles in the stratosphere to reflect some sunlight into space.
Jason Jacobs: Intentionally where we, I mean, it's already happening when things like volcanoes erupt and things like that.
Right. So or pollution, as we were discussing before.
Ken Caldeira: Yeah, so after big volcanoes, the earth cools. Most recent big volcano was in 1991. The Mount Pinatubo in 1992 is cooler than 1991 so some people, notably Mikael Buteyko from Russia suggested that, well, humans could put these particles in the stratosphere and cool the earth.
And back in 2000 we published a study where our intent was to show that this was not a good idea and it wouldn't work very well. And our idea was, well, sunlight falls in daytime, not at night. More in summer than in winter, more near the equator than the poles where CO2, more or less blocks, radiation for going to space more or less uniformly over the whole earth.
And so we thought, well, how could changing something uniformly counteract something that has so much spatial and temporal character like sunlight? And we were really surprised at how well it worked in the model. And the reason is if you double the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, you prevent about four Watts per square meter going out to space everywhere.
But if you have sea ice or not sea ice, if you have sea ice that can reflect hundreds of Watts per square meter of sunlight back to space, or if you don't have sea ice, that hundreds of Watts per square meter can be absorbed by the oceans. And so the character of the climate system response. They strongly affected both the seasonal and regional pattern of climate change and more or less, if you could geo engineer to the point where the sea ice came back to more or less where it was before, you would restore most of the climate properties to how they were.
And since then there's been around 20 years of research that's more or less found the same thing and the cost of doing it would be probably in the tens of billions of dollars, which would be less than 1% of what it would cost to transform our energy system. And so this has been very appealing to people.
And so I've been in a situation of saying, well, even though our models say it would work really well and we should be researching it, that's not do it. And I guess my concerns are several. One is this whole issue of unknown unknowns, like even though the climate system is incredibly complicated and the models are also complicated, but probably in the real world, something's going to happen that's not in the model.
Jason Jacobs: Are you talking about things like precipitation patterns, droughts?
Ken Caldeira: Or maybe some unpredicted effect on atmospheric chemistry or who knows what. I mean the things we've thought of don't seem so bad. But then in addition to these environmental unknowns, to me, the bigger risks are the whole sort of sociopolitical military type things in that, let's say if the United States did some solar to engineering scheme, and then let's say there were big droughts in China.
Leading to famines in China the next year, whether the solar geoengineering scheme was responsible or not. The Chinese probably you're gonna think, well, it could be and blame the United States for that. And you know, so there's potential for all kinds of conflict. The other concern is the end game of having, let's say we admit some CO2 and then we put more aerosols in the stratosphere to try to offset that, and then we admit more greenhouse gases, but more aerosols.
And the end game is an atmosphere that's thick with greenhouse gases, with some second layer of particles in the stratosphere. And it just seems like that end game is an ugly...
Jason Jacobs: And we're hooked. Right? And then once you start, you can't, it's hard to stop.
Ken Caldeira: And so even if solar geoengineering were, you still needed to transform your energy system into one that doesn't dump greenhouse gases into the sky.
And so since you need to do that anyway, let's just get started on that program. And I do think it's worth investigating, even if we do the most ambitious emissions reduction program you could imagine the earth will continue warming throughout this century. Just there's too much emissions in the pipeline and heat.
And so if it really does come to a climate crisis where the, let's say there's widespread famines in the tropics and people are clamoring, do something about this, the only thing a politician can do to cause the earth to cool within their term, in office or within their political career is the solar geo engineering.
And so, if there ever is a real perception of a climate crisis, a climate catastrophe that needs to be dealt with now that the pressure for politicians to deploy a solar geoengineering scheme could be incredibly intense. And so I think it's important to do the research now. So that if that political pressure ever gets generated, we can either say, well, this is crazy.
It'll destroy the ozone layer, or say, well, be cautious.
Jason Jacobs: So two final questions. One is just if you had $100 billion and you could allocate towards anything to help get us on the right path, where would you put it and how do you allocate that money? And you can't say to the Caldeira Lab. Guess, you could.
Ken Caldeira: So maybe I'm thinking very domestic U.S. centric viewpoint, but for the U S I think I would try to put it towards education and political process reform that I think.
We're not going to have good policy on climate until politicians feel that voting for bad policies, going to lose them elections, and you're not going to have people losing elections for voting bad on climate issues until the population's educated. And until the will of the people can be reflected in a political system.
And so I'm not sure exactly how to do it, but I think this finding common ground, and again, you know, I think that people, they want to have meaningful work, secure job to live in peace, to have a good family, friends, hobbies, and in order to have those things for the long term, we need a good energy system.
And I think the idea that too much of the climate discussion has been about even the way I talked about it, we have to, I deny myself that fossil fuel chocolate to be better for the longterm and this, it's all of this narrative of self-denial and asceticism. And maybe if we're at these ascetics, we can reach some promise land.
And I don't think that quasi religious sell of asceticism and self-denial is gonna work. And I think the ultimate thing we have to say and articulate is that to get what we want, which is a world in which people can lead full lives and be happy that we need an energy system. Supply people with energy reliably, without damaging the environment.
And I think, and I'm after obviously just groping towards this, but I think finding a way to talk about the climate problem of, Oh, well, it's not that we need to do this. We need to deny ourselves things to avoid bad things happening, which is kind of the way I've framed it. We framed it and we, I think we really need to shift to a framing of new order to make sure we and everyone else continues to get everything that they want. We need to do this thing and frame it more in that it's by addressing the climate change problem that people will be able to get what they want and it's not a matter. Of taking things away from people to deal with this problem. I mean, anyway, it's a tough thing, but I think the narrative has to change.
We need to find a way to talk to Trump supporters about climate in a way that's honest and accurate, but speaks to their concerns. And I think we haven't gotten there yet.
Jason Jacobs: And last question is just the, the typical audience of this podcast is not the general population. It is kind of half people like me that are newcomers coming in, but they're looking to reorient their careers around this problem at the systems level in a highly ambitious way.
And the other half is people that have been already doing that for a long time. And so I guess speak to them for a moment, either one or both of those audiences, like what's the rallying cry or parting words that you want to leave them with?
Ken Caldeira: I dunno if it's a rallying cry or parting words. I do think it's important when speaking to be conscious of when you're reporting scientific facts versus your own political opinions and keep those separate.
I think also this thing about respecting. I'm an amateur musician, play bass guitar. And there was a postdoc who wasn't the greatest postdoc in the world, but was an excellent musician. And there's a tendency for me like I'm hiring people who are postdocs and if they're just not good scientists, as much as it's bad, there's a tendency for me to respect them less.
Cause I was saying, Oh, you're just not very good at your job. But most of my best friends would be terrible scientists, you know? And I don't hold them in lower regard. And just playing music with this postdoc who wasn't that great scientist, but it was a great musician who I really respected as a musician made me realize like, Oh, well I shouldn't, that we need to respect people even if they're not good at something, or even if they're ignorant at something and that I think there's a tendency to basically disrespect Trump supporters or just when people are ignorant about climate or energy or have false beliefs about it to kind of dismiss them as idiots. And I think we can't afford to do that anymore. And that's something I'm working on myself on.
When somebody ignorant. They have false beliefs to still respect that person and meet them where they are and talk to them.
Jason Jacobs: They may in fact play a mean bass guitar.
Ken Caldeira: Exactly. But I think this thing of, yeah, we've been talking to ourselves too much, and I remembered the arguments about cap and trade versus a carbon tax and like if we could get either of those things, that would be great. And so like, you know, sometimes it's like arguing about angels dancing on a head of a pin. Like should we build an HVDC grid or this kind of grid? We're not building any kind of grid, so why, what is this or this even this a hundred percent renewable debate.
This is a debate about the end game. Everybody agrees we could do 40% renewable. So let's get going. And then when we get to 40% we could argue, can we get to 60 or, but so where the community's splintered by these academic discussions, when we're not really doing anything, and almost any reasonable thing would be good to do anyway.
So I would say respect for the ignorant and the misinformed. Also, just I think humility that. You might have your favorite energy technology, but you might be wrong. And so if somebody's arguing for something else, you know, I think of it, it's like, Oh, we're trying to pull this rock. We all have a strings tied to this rock, and we're trying to pull this rock somewhere.
And you know, if somebody is pulling even 90 degrees to you, at least you're sensing the rock halfway in the right direction and that, you know, so maybe if people are pulling more or less in the right direction. That we should be a little more generous to each other about saying, look, you might be right and I might be wrong, and let's just do something that gets us towards the goal and we can adjust our strategy as we go on and see what works and what doesn't work.
Jason Jacobs: I like it. Well, anything else I didn't ask that I should have or any final words?
Ken Caldeira: Well, I could babble on forever so you might as well turn me off.
Jason Jacobs: We're also way over our alloted time, so you probably didn't even know that, but Ken, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Ken Caldeira: Thank you.
Jason Jacobs: Hey everyone. Jason here.
Thanks again for joining me on My Climate Journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey. You can visit us at My Climate Journey dot C. O. Note that is dot C O. not dot com. Someday we'll get the.com, but right now dot C O. You can also find me on Twitter @jjacobs22 where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear.
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