Today’s guest is Ken Kimmell, President of Union of Concerned Scientists, a leading science-based nonprofit that combines the knowledge and influence of the scientific community with the passion of concerned citizens to build a healthy planet and a safer world. We cover a whole lot in this episode, and I highly recommend you give it a listen. Enjoy the show!
Today’s guest is Ken Kimmell, President of Union of Concerned Scientists, a leading science-based nonprofit that combines the knowledge and influence of the scientific community with the passion of concerned citizens to build a healthy planet and a safer world.
Ken has more than 30 years of experience in government, environmental policy, and advocacy. He is a national advocate for clean energy and transportation policies and a driving force behind UCS’s “Power Ahead” campaign to build a large and diverse group of clean energy leadership states. Ken served on the Commission on the Future of Transportation in the Commonwealth, which advised Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s administration on future transportation needs and challenges. Ken was one of 18 members the governor appointed to the panel charged with looking at five areas anticipated to have a dramatic impact on transportation: climate and resiliency, transportation electrification, autonomous and connected vehicles, transit and mobility services, and land use and demographic trends.
Prior to joining UCS in May 2014, Ken was the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), an agency with a $100 million budget and 800 employees, including a large staff of scientists and engineers. As commissioner, he also served as chairman of the board of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, helping to prod the nine member states to reduce power plant carbon emissions by almost 50 percent through 2020, reducing emissions in the region by some 90 million tons.
Ken has also served as general counsel at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs in Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s administration, and spent 17 years as the director and senior attorney at a Boston-based law firm specializing in environmental, energy, and land-use issues.
Ken decided to focus his legal work on environmental issues after clerking for the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, where he assisted a judge in a case involving the health effects of Agent Orange. Originally from New York, he earned his bachelor’s degree at Wesleyan University and his law degree at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Ken has been quoted widely, including by the Associated Press, the Boston Globe, Bloomberg Business, the New York Times and the Washington Post, and has appeared numerous times on E&E TV and National Public Radio.
In today’s episode, we cover:
Links to topics discussed in this episode:
You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at email@example.com, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and suggestions for future topics or guests.
Enjoy the show!
Jason Jacobs: Hello everyone. This is Jason Jacobs, and welcome to My Climate Journey. The 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 Kimmell, the president of Union of Concerned Scientists, which is a leading science-based nonprofit that combines the knowledge and influence of the scientific community with the passion of concerned citizens to build a healthy planet and a safer world. Ken's got more than 30 years of experience in government, environmental policy, and advocacy. Prior to joining UCS, he was the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, and agency with $100 million budget and 800 employees, including a large staff of scientists and engineers. He also served as chairman of the board of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, helping to prod the nine member states to reduce power plant carbon emissions by almost 50% through 2020 reducing emissions in the region by some 90 million tons. Ken was also the general counsel at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, and spent 17 years as the director and senior attorney at a Boston based law firm specializing in environmental energy and land use issues. All that to say, Ken has a lot of experience on this topic.
Jason Jacobs: We have a great discussion today covering a number of things including Ken's early career and his motivations to work on climate as a problem. How his thinking on the issue has evolved from when he started many years ago to today. We dive deep into the role of UCS, what they do as an organization, how they go about it, what they do in house versus their large community of hundreds of thousands of people that are affiliated with the organization in different capacities. And then we also have a great discussion about the climate fight overall and where we are, where we need to go, what levers can be most impactful. And most importantly, how do we get moving? So let's bring them out here. Ken Kimmell, welcome to the show.
Ken Kimmell: Hey, good morning Jason. Nice to be here.
Jason Jacobs: Nice to have you. Or I should say nice to be here since I'm actually sitting in your office.
Ken Kimmell: Yes.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. So Nat Keohane put us in touch.
Ken Kimmell: He did.
Jason Jacobs: He and I had a great chat. And if he says that you're someone that I should talk to, then I take that very seriously. And of course as I've dug in, you have such deep institutional knowledge in this area from so many different perspectives that I know I'm going to learn a lot from this discussion and I think our listeners will as well.
Ken Kimmell: Well, I'm very grateful that you want to have a chance to chat. I'm looking forward to it as well. And I have a lot of respect for Nat and some of the other people that I've seen who have been on your show. So this is great.
Jason Jacobs: Nice. So what is Union of Concerned Scientists?
Ken Kimmell: So Union of Concerned Scientists, we're enjoying our 50th anniversary this year. We were formed in 1969. And the gist of UCS is to use the power of science and the mobilization of the scientific community to solve some of the world's most pressing problems, including the one that I think we're going to be talking about today, which is climate change. And that's really been our mission for the last 50 years, is mobilizing the power of science and the large megaphone of the scientific community to focus on these problems.
Jason Jacobs: And what's the origin story of the organization, how'd it come about?
Ken Kimmell: So it came about in 1969. It was a very turbulent time, of course, in our country. And there were scientists at MIT and Harvard who were increasingly concerned about the fact that such a large percentage of our scientific resources were being devoted to things like building weapons of mass destruction, instead of really addressing some of the pressing problems of the day. This was the year that the Cuyahoga River caught fire. That smog was so bad in many cities that you couldn't jog in the middle of the day. So their thesis was, we need to turn this around. And make sure that our precious asset, our scientific acumen was being devoted to things that actually make the world better as opposed to make them worse.
Ken Kimmell: So that was the origin story. It gathered a lot of steam as students and teachers did sort of a sit in, kind of a strike in a way to call attention to this problem. And that formed the Union of Concerned Scientists, and we've been growing strong ever since
Jason Jacobs: I saw. So it's 400 something thousand people that are in the network of the organization.
Ken Kimmell: That's right. And that includes people who are donating members, people who have joined us in taking an advocacy action, and other supporters in our network. Yes.
Jason Jacobs: So what are those 400 something thousand people do? How are they involved with UCS?
Ken Kimmell: In a lot of different ways, some of them are supporting us by writing checks, which obviously is really helpful. Our funding comes exclusively from individual donations and foundations. We don't take any corporate money. We don't take any government money because our most precious asset is actually our reputation for independence and reliability, and objectivity. So we want to take off the table any idea that someone is paying for our opinions. So we do that through our fundraising. So many of our members and supporters help us with that.
Ken Kimmell: But increasingly, particularly in the last number of years, we have really doubled down on our science network. This is a network of about 25,000 scientists all across the country who have volunteered to be not just scientists in their laboratories and in their classrooms, but citizens. And to use their specific knowledge and expertise to be brought to bear issues.
Ken Kimmell: So for example, if we're doing something on agricultural policy which we work on, that's one of the issues. We have a vast science network of university professors and others who really understand the science of agroecology. And if we want to persuade Congress to vote one way or another on a bill, these people will fly in to Washington. They'll meet with their representatives or their senators. And they have a great story to tell because they are experts in this field. They have that credibility that comes with that. They know how to speak, they know how to present. And we do a lot of work actually training scientists to get them very comfortable with that sort of advocacy position.
Ken Kimmell: Because I think Jason, one of the things that's really changed in the last couple of years. There's always been amongst the scientific community a reticence about engaging in political advocacy work, and a view that somehow if they do that, that will undermine their science. But that idea really has been thrown out of the window because what we're seeing with the Trump administration in particular is a wholesale attack on science. So scientists have recognized they don't have the luxury of sitting on the sideline and being neutral on this. They have to roll up their sleeves, they have to engage, they have to be heard. And one of the roles of the Union of Concerned Scientists is to take that energy and that passion, and help channel it towards things that can actually make a difference.
Jason Jacobs: And when you say make a difference, how do you prioritize which areas to get involved in? And then you mentioned issues. If there's a vote for example, one side or another. Can you just bring a bit of color in terms of not only the areas that you work, but within those areas, what are some examples of the types of initiatives that it makes sense for you to take on and the role of UCS in those initiatives?
Ken Kimmell: Sure. Well that's a great question because particularly, well first of all the issues that we work on specifically are climate change, food, and agriculture. Nuclear weapons, which is the issue we started with 50 years ago. And we also have a center for science and democracy, which is all about making sure that science continues to play a major role in our public life and our public decision making.
Ken Kimmell: Now, those are some big issue areas. So that leaves a lot of room for choices you could make about what particular things to work on. So as you pointed out, triage and prioritization is really, really important.
Ken Kimmell: So I would say that the way we decide the specific things we're going to work on is to ask ourselves a couple of questions. First of all, is the initiative that we're proposing, what's the likelihood of success? That's one issue. A second is if we're successful, how big would the impact be? A third criteria for us, since we are a science organization. And since a big of our strength is technical analysis and expertise, does this initiative call upon that type of strength? Because there's a lot of groups with strengths different from ours, and we don't want to duplicate the great work they're doing. We want to add value given our expertise.
Ken Kimmell: And then the fourth piece is we do try to look for initiatives where there's a gap, where things haven't been succeeding in that area or where people aren't paying attention enough.
Ken Kimmell: So just to give you an example, way back in the late '80's, we were pushing renewable energy, solar and wind. Long before it became cool, long before it became popular, long before it became cost-effective. And we and a few others pioneered this idea that on a statewide level, we would try to get laws passed to require utility companies to start buying ever-increasing percentages of renewable energy. Now we're at a point 20 years later where that's been an enormous public policy success, and it's partly responsible for some of the really miraculous changes we've seen in clean energy becoming available and affordable.
Ken Kimmell: So that's an example. We jumped in there because we didn't think enough attention was being paid to that. A current example of that is the issue of energy storage. We think that successful, high scale energy storage is going to be a key to solving the climate problem for a variety of reasons which we can get into. So we're focusing very hard both at the state and the federal level on the types of incentives, the types of research and development and deployment that's needed to really scale up energy storage.
Ken Kimmell: So that in a nutshell is how we look at it. We work on these issues. But within that rubric, we focus on initiatives where our science brand, where our technical expertise, and where a thirst for innovation can make a difference.
Jason Jacobs: When I hear using science for good or using science for evil, and I don't know if those were the right descriptors. But they're really subjective. So how do you determine what is considered a poor use of science and what is considered a good use of science?
Ken Kimmell: Well, I guess in some ways I would push back a little bit on the premise of your question. I don't think it is entirely subjective. I think science is a discipline where hypotheses are tested through the scientific method. And some survive, and some fail. And that process of testing actually yields objective truth. That doesn't mean that a scientific theory is always correct, and we've all experienced in our lifetimes the debunking of a theory that was once hailed and proved not to be valid. So I think one of the things that is a positive about science is compared to other things, it's actually less subjective than other disciplines.
Ken Kimmell: But an answer to your question, what we're seeing happening now, especially with this administration, is not that they have some alternative scientific theory that's competing with conventional science. What's really happening is the administration is ignoring well settled science to advance a political agenda. So it's the misuse and the suppression of it that's the real problem.
Jason Jacobs: You said for example, that when you choose a project, so I mean take storage. Considering you just brought up energy storage. You look at the probability of success, but also the amount of impact that could have. But how do you measure impact? I mean is it gigatons of CO2, or is it just kind of the sniff test?
Ken Kimmell: It's a combination of qualitative and quantitative. On energy storage, it seems to me that getting energy storage right solves two huge problems. I mean the two biggest sectors causing climate change are the generation of electricity and our transportation sector. And if we get energy storage right on the electric sector, we enable solar and wind, and other forms of energy to be stable, predictable, reliable. And we solve the problem of running a grid 24/7 on sources that can be intermittent at times. So it's a total game changer. And if we get it right, the rationale for having all these remaining coal and gas plants on standby just for that particular time of the day when there's a peak. That goes away. It doesn't make economic sense and it doesn't make sense for the climate. So big, big part of the solution on the electricity scale side.
Ken Kimmell: And then of course on the transportation side, I'm convinced that that's now the biggest sector of emissions in the United States. There's a lot of things we need to do in terms of public transportation and ride sharing, and other forms of mobility. But the key thing we must do is basically run our transportation system on electricity. So that means electric cars, electric buses, electric trucks. And the better we get at storing that energy at a lower cost and with a longer range so people have confidence in the mobility of the vehicles they're using. That is critical towards the success of our climate efforts.
Ken Kimmell: So storage is just an example where you can see that if it succeeds, it will have many, many different positive impacts. And from our view of the technology and where it's at, a lot of venture capital's being thrown into it. A lot of good ideas are on the table. What it really needs is what wind and solar needed about 10 or 15 years ago, which is a stable economic environment. So people know that they can make a good return on their investment over the long run. And that is partly a function of governmental policy.
Jason Jacobs: And what types of policies would adjust that stability?
Ken Kimmell: Well, I mean we should borrow a page from the playbook for wind and solar. 20 years ago as you know, solar energy and wind were looked at as some kind of fringe thing, way too expensive, will never work. And there were two really successful public policies. One was a tax credit at the federal level that help defray the costs and encouraged investors to invest in these technologies. And the other was something we talked about a few minutes ago, which is this renewable energy standards requiring utility companies over time to ratchet up their purchases of renewable energy. I think we can do very similar things for energy storage. We can have requirements that utilities invest in energy storage over time, and we can provide favorable tax treatment for energy storage projects.
Ken Kimmell: And then the third piece, which is happening but not quite as quickly or as strategically as it should. We need the Department of Energy, which has enormous research and development capabilities, to be funding a wider array of energy storage possibilities and using federal dollars to do demonstration projects to de-risk them and prove that they can work. We did that, and people forget this. In 2008 when President Obama took over and we had the Recovery Act, the big public work spending, which was designed to lift up out of recession. A lot of that spending went into things like solar panels and wind projects, and things like that. And that money created success stories that the private sector then recognized, which galvanized a lot of private investment. So we need to do something similar there for energy storage.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. So once the light bulb goes off and UCS says energy storage is something that we want to see at the point at scale and we think that it can have a high impact, and that we see fertile ground where there are things that can be done to enable that, that we can help with. Then where do you go from there? What is the UCS role, and how do you get people mobilized to bring about action? And what type of mobilization takes place?
Ken Kimmell: Part of it is communicating to the general public and getting them excited about this. So we have been investing in messaging research and the ways to talk about this. And I think we've found some good things.
Ken Kimmell: Just to give you an example, people appreciate the fact that when you have a refrigerator, you can store your food. You don't have to eat it immediately because you have a device that stores your food and keeps it fresh for a period of time. Energy storage is kind of like that. Right now, we have an electric system where we have to consume exactly how much is produced every second of the day. If you had energy storage, it'd be like having a refrigerator. You could store that electricity. So part of it is figuring out the compelling message, the way to connect it to something in their life. That's one piece.
Ken Kimmell: A second is to build political coalitions. People who are excited about this. And one of the things that is apparent to me is there are a number of people whose minds are not made up about the idea of climate change, who aren't necessarily climate hawks like me. But they really like the idea of energy storage. They like the idea of having this other arrow in the quiver. They may be from communities that have suffered from grid failures or blackouts, or things like that. And they like the concept of having a different way to run the grid. So you can get those folks involved.
Jason Jacobs: Are these policy makers? Who are you talking about?
Ken Kimmell: Policy makers, but also voters. People who live in red states who don't necessarily make climate change a big priority in their voting or in their political philosophy. But they like the idea of energy storage and they support it.
Jason Jacobs: And what's an example of an initiative that you and I as voters would vote on that, that involves energy storage?
Ken Kimmell: Well an example would be if you had a state law that would require utility companies to invest in ever-growing percentage and energy storage. That might be something that would go to the state legislature, and you'd try to get people to write in and advocate that we want this. Another example would be to get Congress to include a tax credit for energy storage.
Ken Kimmell: But the other part of the coalition is people who are very concerned about environmental justice and pollution in their communities. And it turns out that starting and stopping power plants on a regular basis, which is what we do to balance the supply and demand of electricity, is really bad for these communities that live near these power plants. A lot of the pollution comes not when the power plant's running at a steady level, but when it's starting and stopping. So that community also really has a stake in energy storage because if you can eliminate that need to start and stop these plants many times a day, you're cutting air pollution right near their homes.
Ken Kimmell: So you asked what is UCS doing? Well first, we have this positive message. Second, we have the policies that we know will actually work. And third, we're trying to build coalitions on the left and the right for people to embrace solutions. And we're spending a lot of time on energy storage, which is great. That's just one of many. But that's an example of our work.
Jason Jacobs: So if you look at the, I guess a a pie chart of stakeholders let's say. Where you've got voters or policy makers or whoever, how does that break down in terms of who you're seeking to influence as an organization?
Ken Kimmell: Well, the answer is you need to do all of it. We have found over time, it's not enough just to be playing the inside game and talking to the legislative staff or the congresspeople, or the head of the department of public utilities. Those people are really important, and you've got to make sure that you've educated them and presented the facts concisely and cogently so they understand what the problem is and what the solution is.
Ken Kimmell: But having served in government myself, I'm very aware that people in government are really, really busy. They have a lot on their plate. And part of what you have to do as an advocate is get your issue at the top of their radar screen. And that requires the mobilization of people. That requires their constituents to be heard. That requires decision makers to wake up and read an op ed by someone they respect calling for this action. So there's that pressure that can only come from a grassroots perspective. So at UCS, we try to both talk directly to decision makers, but we also try to mobilize the public to do that. And again, that science network that I told you about is one of our really strong arrows that we have in our quiver to accomplish that sort of mobilization.
Jason Jacobs: Are you purely a C3 organization?
Ken Kimmell: We are purely a C3 organization.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. What is that distinction, because I think C4 is more advocacy, is that right?
Ken Kimmell: C3's can do advocacy, and we do advocacy. But we can't for example, endorse a particular candidate, or donate money to a particular candidate, or run ads on behalf of a candidate. So that's the essential difference.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. And give me a sense in terms of, so you talked about storage. So within the climate world, you said there's many issues that you're working on. So at any one given time, just ballpark how many initiatives are going on in the climate world?
Ken Kimmell: In our world? Well, we have three big buckets. Maybe I'll start there, and then there's buckets within those buckets. But the three big buckets are again, reinforcing our science brand. We do a lot of climate impacts work. And that involves going to different parts of our country, highlighting climate impacts, telling the story in fresh and compelling ways that people can get. And connecting what's happening to the climate to things in their own daily life. So for a number of years, we've been documenting sea level rise. And we did a report. And anyone can go to the website and plug in their zip code. And they'll see sea level rise happening to their property over the next 30 to 50 to 70 years. And that's a very compelling way of facilitating people seeing that information. Now that report has sparked a lot of discussion in the community of municipal bond holders, of insurance professionals and others. So part of what we do is we highlight an impact and then we try to disseminate it as widely as we can.
Ken Kimmell: We did a similar thing this summer with a killer heat report that shows, and again you can do it, you plug in your zip code, how many days it's projected that you're going to experience 90 degree weather, or 100 degree weather, or even more scarily whether that's so hot that it's actually off the charts, which there is. So part of it is, is that-
Jason Jacobs: Are you doing that modeling and research in house, or is this third party data that you're synthesizing?
Ken Kimmell: It's typically third party data that we're synthesizing and showing in a way that people can grasp, and see how it connects to their life in a very immediate way. So that's the trick. That's the trick there. So that's one piece of it. And that is designed to make sure that people continue to understand that climate change is not some far away thing that's affecting polar bears in the Arctic but has no impact on them. So that's a very necessary but not sufficient ingredient in our overall goal, which is to have our federal government and other levels of government really address this. So that's one piece.
Ken Kimmell: A second piece is very heavy on the solution side, and it involves advocating for tried and true ways to get the carbon emissions out of our electric sector and out of our transportation sector. And we focus on those two because they're the biggest emitters.
Jason Jacobs: And this is all national, right?
Ken Kimmell: National and state.
Jason Jacobs: Okay.
Ken Kimmell: So we do work at the national level, but progress has stalled at the national level. So we've also been very active in about 10 states where we've made some great progress over the last number of years. And then the third piece deals with one aspect of the way in which our political system is stuck. And the stickiness comes in part from the oversized power that fossil fuel companies have over our political system. So we and others have been engaged in an accountability campaign that has called out the conduct of fossil fuel companies over the number of years, both in spreading misinformation about climate change, in funding groups that spread that misinformation. And in blocking virtually every policy that's been advanced to deal with climate change. In some ways, in very hypocritical ways. So many of the big oil companies say that they take climate change seriously and they favor carbon pricing as a way to address. But it turns out that a number of states have had carbon pricing proposals on the table. And these same companies have spent millions of dollars to defeat them.
Ken Kimmell: So we're trying to call that kind of conduct out. We're trying to mobilize investors and shareholders to put pressure on them to behave better. Because at the end of the day, if you want to have bipartisan climate legislation, which I think is absolutely needed in this country. You need to deal the fact that many senators and congressmen are fearful of taking a step out on the limb, on dealing with climate. They're worried about what the big oil companies will do to them in terms of funding opponents and otherwise. So knocking them down to size, holding them accountable, and trying to take away or diminish their social license is an important part of the strategy as well.
Jason Jacobs: And how much of the work is getting done by the core team at UCS versus the broader network of volunteers?
Ken Kimmell: Well, it's a combination. I mean the 250 or so staff at UCS do a lot of the research analysis, technical reports, running the lobbying campaigns, figuring out the messaging research. Meeting with public officials. But we rely upon our supporters to amplify and to mobilize, and give it the grassroots power that it needs to be successful. So it's a combination of what we have here, which is some very brilliant scientists and analysts working as staff for UCS. Combined with the hundreds of thousands of supporters and members who have a passion for this and are active citizens.
Jason Jacobs: So when you take on a new initiative, how do you measure, like the grant success? What's the end goal of the initiative that you're taking on? And then are there incremental progress markers along the way? How do you know if you're tracking in a way that is favorable?
Ken Kimmell: Well, sometimes that can be hard of course. With a problem as big as climate change, it's hard to know exactly how much impact you're having. But there are certain campaigns that we've taken on where it's actually very easy to measure progress. So for example, we wanted the city of Los Angeles to pledge that as of 2030, they're going to just use electric buses. So we and others ran a campaign on that. And there was fierce opposition, and there were others that were trying to derail it. But at the end of the day, LA voted to go forward with that. So that was very easy to measure. We had a goal of getting a 2030 pledge, we got it. And now we're leveraging that pledge to go to other cities and say, "Hey. If Los Angeles can do it, certainly you can do it." So that's an example where you can measure progress quite well.
Ken Kimmell: Now sometimes it's harder, particularly at the federal level right now we're trying to get support for an overall renewable energy standard to do at the federal level what states have done successfully. And that bill is probably not going to pass this year or next year. It may not pass for a number of years, but these things do take time and patience. And one of the things we're trying to do is build support for that bill. Not just among Democrats but among Republicans. And we'll know in a few years if that work has paid off, if such a bill gets passed.
Ken Kimmell: So one of the things that is hard about this work is we're painfully aware of the math. We've read those IPCC reports that you've talked about as well. We know we're running out of time. So we're trying to do everything we can to get short term victories like those ones at the state level that we were talking about. While keeping our eye on the bigger prize, which is national climate legislation. Which in turn, if you're looking at this from a global perspective, I think is absolutely critical to get the rest of the world in a position where it's going to be ambitious. I think that if the United States is AWOL on this problem or worse, rolling back the modest steps that have been in place, it's going to be much, much harder for the rest of the world to justify taking the big types of steps that are needed.
Jason Jacobs: So what motivates you personally? When you get out of bed every day and come to work, what is it that makes this your calling?
Ken Kimmell: Well, I think there's two things. One is I have two daughters in their twenties that I love very much. And I'm painfully aware that people my age are potentially leaving behind a world for them that won't be as habitable. That won't be as beautiful. I think about things like the Great Barrier Reef, will they ever really be able to enjoy that? I think about what it's like to live with these awful hurricanes, and fires, and droughts, and heat waves. So part of it is I feel an obligation to leave behind a world that is at least as good as the world that I've enjoyed.
Ken Kimmell: And I think for me also, something that's connected my whole career because I've been involved in climate change, but I've also been involved in other forms of environmental protection. Is that from my own personal perspective, I really feel the presence of the divine when I'm in nature. Those are the spiritual moments in my life when I'm climbing a mountain or on a beach looking at the ocean, or I'm in a forest. And in a very personal way, I feel like it's part of my calling to try to protect that beauty and that sense of wonder. So throughout my career as an environmental lawyer and then a government official in Massachusetts and now at UCS, that's been really what's driving it.
Jason Jacobs: And you referred to yourself earlier in this discussion as a climate hawk. Talk to me a little bit. Given that you've worked in this field for so long, how are you thinking about the problem today and how is that different than when you started your work so many years ago?
Ken Kimmell: Well there has been some, if I were to compare where we are now to where we were say 10 years ago just hypothetically. There'd be some positives and some negatives. The positives are if you and I were having this conversation 10 years ago, there would be no worldwide agreement in place where all the countries of the world had agreed to do something about climate change. That didn't exist 10 years ago. Renewable energy would have seemed kind of quixotic and unproven, and maybe not doable. And 10 years ago, people were abstractly aware of climate change, but they weren't yet drawing the connection between things they were seeing in their life and climate change. So those are true 10 years ago now.
Ken Kimmell: Now fast forward 10 years, we do have a worldwide agreement in place. It's fragile, but we have it. We've had remarkable progress on solar, and wind energy, and electric cars. So we now have the technology solutions that looked perhaps improbable 10 years ago. And now we do clearly have public opinion on our side and an increasingly large number of people who recognize that climate change is here and now, and needs to get solved. So that's the good news.
Ken Kimmell: The bad news is we have really squandered a lot of time. We've wasted a lot of time. We have not done the big transformational things that we need to do to have a real chance of meeting those goals of that Paris Agreement. And time is our enemy now in a way that if we had started 10 or 20 years ago, we would be in better shape. So again, I don't want to make this whole podcast about Trump. But it's incredibly distressing that at this moment in time when we sort of had the stage set for the whole world to take action collectively to move forward on this problem, we have a president of the second largest emitting country in the world saying he doesn't even believe that this is a problem. And doing virtually everything he can to take away even the modest stepping stones of progress that we've started with.
Ken Kimmell: So that is a very tough thing to reckon with. We've got the technology, we've got the solutions, but we do not have the leadership. And that's what we have to focus on.
Jason Jacobs: And I know as an organization your focus is national and state. But I have to say, it seems like the rise of Trump is not unique to the U.S. It seems like there's a rise in authoritarianism tendencies across the world. And it seems like that's coming. It's just the wrong time. So why do you think that is?
Ken Kimmell: Well, you're right that it's not just Trump. And of course very much in my mind the last couple of days is the controversy in Brazil over the burning of the Amazon rainforest, which preserving that forest is such a key aspect in our overall success. And we see that sort of sentiment in some Eastern European countries as well.
Ken Kimmell: I'm not an expert on this. I think that to my mind, what's fundamentally happened is that economic globalization has created some winners and created some losers. And I don't think as a society, we have paid nearly enough attention to the people who are the victims of global economic world order. And that's creating a situation where people have this view that if they can just go backwards and somehow restore the economy of the 1950s or the 1960s, everything will be better. So it's not a surprise that President Trump is focusing on yesterday's industries like coal and oil and gas instead of tomorrow's industries. Because it's this view that we can get back to where we were if we just get rid of all these environmental policies, and roll them all back.
Ken Kimmell: And it's naive and incorrect, and it's actually being proven wrong right now. But it's a strongly held belief. And until, unless and until we as a country recognize that we have obligations to the people who worked in those dying economic sectors, that we have obligations to them. I mean the coal miners who marched in those coal mines for years and years and years to keep our lights on in our country, and subjected themselves to great personal risk. We have a duty to those people. We have an obligation to them. And just saying we're going to shut down coal plants and you're going to find work somewhere else. That is not enough. So I think we need to focus on that as we focus on the overall climate solution. And I think until recently, that focus has not been there.
Jason Jacobs: So sitting at this moment in time and looking forwards, and put UCS aside for a moment. Let me ask it a different way. Other than the work that you're doing at UCS, what do you think are the most impactful things that can be done to move the needle in the climate fight?
Ken Kimmell: Well, one of the things that I am extremely excited about, and this has really been just the last couple of years. We're really seeing young people taking this cause up. Sunrise Movement, students who were walking out on school. I think that is incredibly important. I think that young people have an unassailable moral argument to make to their parent. "Hey, why haven't you guys taken care of this problem? Why are you leaving this behind for us to deal with? Where is your generational sense of responsibility?" I think that is a very, very powerful movement. I think that all social movements to be successful need that kind of stark moral argument and they are making it well and organizing well. And they're giving not just Republicans but Democrats something to think about here. That they are setting the bar high for what they're going to consider to be an acceptable response to this and I think that is very, very helpful. So we're seeing that.
Ken Kimmell: We're also just starting to see conservatives coming out and talking about the need to address climate. And it's not necessarily elected leaders, but it's think tanks. It's former leaders, it's people who have credibility on the right also talking about this issue. Which I think is critical because as I said, I think one of the things we learned from the Obama administration is you can't just do climate change solutions through regulation. Because what one person does with a regulation, the next person can just undo it. You need something permanent and durable, and that's going to require legislation. So we're starting to see signs of interest on the right side of the equation for that as well.
Ken Kimmell: But I think what's really needed, this is very simple, but I'm going to focus on the simplest thing. The 2020 election is coming up. The most important thing that people can do is vote for leaders on both sides of the aisle who are going to make climate change a priority. And frankly, data that I've seen indicates that as much as 30 to 40% of people who belong to environmental organizations who write a check or sign a petition, don't actually show up and vote. Which is nuts. So I think we've got to make this election about climate change. We've got to put people in charge who care about it, and we've got to give them a mandate to act because we're running out of time.
Jason Jacobs: Are you familiar with the work of Environmental Voter Project?
Ken Kimmell: I am, and I really admire it.
Jason Jacobs: Nathaniel came on as a guest.
Ken Kimmell: That's great. Nathaniel's great.
Jason Jacobs: Actually, that episode turned me into a supporter of the organization as well.
Ken Kimmell: Yeah, they're terrific.
Jason Jacobs: But it is crazy what you said about how there's this big, I mean I think he said 10 million people that have environment as the number one cause that don't vote.
Ken Kimmell: It's mind boggling and inexcusable. And we and many others are going to target voters who've been not reliable voters. Not in a mean way, but we're going to make sure they understand what the stakes are.
Jason Jacobs: So something I've been wrestling with, and it'd be really interested to get your perspective on about the top. Is if you think about this election, there's a couple things. One is that in order to get anything meaningful done that's durable, it requires bipartisan support. Do you agree?
Ken Kimmell: I do.
Jason Jacobs: Now in order to get bipartisan support, there's certain words that the right side can use that sends a left into an allergic reaction. And there's certain words that the left side can use that turn the right into an allergic reaction, right? But if you look at climate for example, some of the bolder words that are used on the left make the right more allergic, right? So there's one argument that says we need bold. We need a movement. We need to be loud and proud, and mobilize, and spit fire, right? And there's another that says that actually we need to just be one foot in front of the other steadily and not rock the boat or not make a big drama out of it, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. In lockstep with our peers on the other side of the aisle. So how do you think about that?
Ken Kimmell: Well, I don't think we can just put one foot after the other and hope that the strategy that we've been deploying for a number of years that hasn't worked is somehow going to work. So I think we have to accept reality that something new has to be added to the mix to get to where we need to go.
Ken Kimmell: To me, this is a mosaic that involves a lot of different actors and a lot of different strategies. I do think that the power and passion of the youth, of the environmental justice community, of labor, people who are associated with the left, is a critical ingredient to success. On the other hand, I think one of the things that we need to do is to recognize that there's people on the right who care deeply about climate change. But they're worried about the idea that solving climate change will mean an enormous ratcheting up of governmental authority over the private sector. So they're gun shy about that. They want to do something about climate change. They don't want to have what they consider to be a socialist economy, although maybe that's not a label that's very useful these days.
Jason Jacobs: Although the term's subjective, I keep hearing them say market-based, market-based. It's basically just innovation. Free market.
Ken Kimmell: The relatively easy answer here I think is for both sides to accept the best ideas and go with an all of the above strategy. So for example, at UCS, we are advocates of carbon pricing. That's a market based strategy to drive down emissions. On the other hand, we don't think that's a silver bullet that's going to solve the problem all by itself. We also favor some targeted governmental regulatory types of approaches as well. In addition to old fashion infrastructure development. For example, electric transmission lines need to be built to connect wind farms in the Great Plains to population centers. And that's probably a role for the public sector. So I think what's needed is for both sides to have that passion, but to have an adult conversation about what the best way is to reach it in which both sides show a little bit of humility and respect for the other position.
Ken Kimmell: Now unfortunately, we haven't really seen for the most part, folks on the right really wanting to engage in a big way in that conversation. But I think it's coming. I really think it's coming. I don't think that especially younger Republican representatives are comfortable with their party's position on climate. Republican under the age of 40 have identified climate change as one of the key problems that needs to get solved. And I really do believe that people on the right recognize that they've got to come up with a credible plan for climate change. And it's going to look different content wise than say the Green New Deal. But I think that's fine. I think if we're in a conversation about what's the best way to solve this problem as opposed to whether it's a problem at all, then we've won.
Jason Jacobs: You said earlier that the fossil fuel companies are, they're saying one thing, but their actions are doing another. All the candidates, especially the democratic candidates are talking about climate and using similar words. So what advice do you have for voters? Because your advice was support someone who is serious about climate. But if they're all using the same words, how do you tell? And I guess a follow up to that is you talked before about both impact and by prospect for success, right? What do you do if you have a candidate that maybe has a stronger plan, but a lot less potential for actually getting elected?
Ken Kimmell: You're getting me into electoral advice here, which I can't really give. I will say this though. It's clear to me that climate change is a major issue in the democratic presidential race, which is great. I remember four years ago in 2016, how frustrating it was that at these debates, barely any questions were even asked about climate change. And now it's clearly a much more of a front and center issue. And if you look at the different proposals of the candidates, which I've done, I think you'll see that all of them are serious proposals that take a hard look at the magnitude of the challenge.
Ken Kimmell: So I think that I have some confidence that whoever will get the nomination will be someone who's going to make climate change a priority. I do think though that again, this is 2020. Hindsight, when President Obama was elected, there was a two year window when there were people who had the right views on climate were in the majorities in both the House and the Senate. And unfortunately the issue became we'll do it later type of a thing. And I can understand that we were in a deep recession, we had to climb out of the recession, we had to deal with healthcare. But I think the key lesson we have to learn is that you make progress early on in the new administration, or typically not at all. So I think the thing that voters need to ask all of these candidates are, "Looks like you have a great plan on paper. Will you say that getting climate legislation passed is your number one or two or maybe three priority and that you will do it in the first two years?" That'd be good questions to ask.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, and another topic I wanted to dig into is we talked before about the big oil and gas and about some of the saying the right words, but then behind the scenes doing the wrong actions. Right? And so looking forwards, what should the role be of big oil and gas companies in the climate fight?
Ken Kimmell: What should be? I think their role first of all is to be increasingly upfront about the issue of climate change. How serious it is. The role that the combustion of fossil fuels play in change. Many of them actually, if you look at their websites, they are up front about that at this point. That's one thing. The second is to completely 100% stop funding third party groups that either engage in climate denialism or misinformation, or are routinely blocking policies.
Jason Jacobs: Any examples of those groups that you feel comfortable-
Ken Kimmell: Sure. I mean at times the Chamber of Commerce has been very anti doing anything about climate change. So they should stop funding the Chamber of Commerce if they really believe that climate change is a serious problem. And there's other groups like that as well. The API, the American Petroleum Institute has often taken stands against modest steps to deal with climate change.
Jason Jacobs: And big oil and gas has essentially outsourced the blocking actions to these third party organizations.
Ken Kimmell: That's right. They won't do it themselves but they fund third party. So that's a piece. But I want to paint a little bit of a more positive vision too. Because I think that oil and gas companies have some tremendous technical expertise that could be helpful here. So for example, we have a whole offshore wind industry that's trying to get jump-started here in the United States. Some of these companies have a lot of experience with offshore installations in terms of oil and gas drilling. So I would think that their technical expertise could be really helpful in that industry.
Ken Kimmell: Another example, some people believe, and I think the jury's out on it, but we have to research it. Is the possibility of capturing carbon emissions and reusing the carbon for some beneficial purpose. Or storing it safely, or things like that. So I think there's a role there for the oil and gas industries to do that.
Ken Kimmell: But I think in general, I think they have to do what one of the companies started but never really followed through. Which is to rethink themselves instead of being oil and gas companies, they need to be energy companies. And energy can be generated in a clean way, and transportation can be done in a clean way too. So what we would like to see is for them to transition out of fossil fuels and transition into renewable energy, electric vehicles, and other technologies that we need to solve the climate problem.
Jason Jacobs: Because they have the expertise and because they have so much might, and because clearly they're not just going to disappear and go away. And I mean the other thing is just that, I mean fossil fuels for all the problems it's caused from a carbon standpoint has done a lot of good for the world.
Ken Kimmell: Yes.
Jason Jacobs: So given all of that, right, we need their help. But given that we need their help, but they also have a track record of misleading and stalling, and protecting, self-dealing and things like that. So do we just hope, do we say pretty please? How can we ensure that we not only work together but do so expediently?
Ken Kimmell: Hoping and pretty please don't cut it. So we're not going to do that. I think it's-
Jason Jacobs: Free markets.
Ken Kimmell: We don't have a free market in energy, unfortunately. Many of these companies enjoy quite lavish governmental subsidies for what they're doing. And the whole free market thing is a bit of a myth when it comes to this. But what we do is there's several different things. First of all, there are big investors, big shareholders that are increasingly demanding that these companies disclose the risk associated with holding vast reserves of a product that has to become obsolete in order for our planet to be habitable. So keeping that pressure on to disclose those risks to investors, and to come up with plausible plans for transitioning these companies away from fossil fuels and into other lines of business is one avenue. A second, as you're probably aware, there are now about a dozen lawsuits that have been brought by communities across the country who are facing paying these very, very high costs to get their residents prepared for climate change. For sea level rise and things like that. So there's litigation now that is contending that these oil companies have a special, unique responsibility for climate change. And therefore should be liable for some of the costs, some of the damages associated with it. That's another form of pressure as well.
Ken Kimmell: So then the third is the divestment movement, which is still a way for institutions of society that are respectable institution to state that we're not going to do business for example, with companies that engage in climate denial. So things like that.
Ken Kimmell: So we have to keep up the pressure. There are people in these companies that want to do the right thing, and they need some leverage to convince their CEOs to go forward. And putting that type of pressure on these companies is a way to create that leverage.
Jason Jacobs: So if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing to have the biggest impact in accelerating our progress in this fight, what would it be?
Ken Kimmell: A policy or a social movement?
Jason Jacobs: You tell me, it could be anything.
Ken Kimmell: If I could wave a magic wand, I would like to see the federal government adopt the legislation that we've seen in California, New York, New Mexico. Which is to say by 2050, we're going to be 100% clean energy. We're going to have that target, and we're going to get there through the following route.
Jason Jacobs: I like that word, clean energy and not renewables.
Ken Kimmell: I think that's an important piece of it, because there are ways of generating electricity cleanly that don't involve renewable energy. And all of those solutions ought to be on the table. So I'd like to see us embrace that goal as a nation. And then I would like to see us put into effect the types of laws that California and New York and New Mexico and others have done, which highlights for each sector what's the best way to get there and what are the incentives, and market-based policies or regulatory policies that get us there. Knowing that there's not one cookie cutter solution that works for everyone.
Ken Kimmell: But I really do think that one of the unique aspects of our American democracy is the fact that we have States that can do things on their own and pilot different options. Louis Brandeis called it laboratories of democracy, and I think those have really worked over the last 10 years. So I would like us, if I could wave a magic wand, I would take the best of those state approaches and put it into a national legislation with a bold goal with funding. And with taking advantage of all that we've learned about what works and what doesn't. And if we did that, this problem would be on a pathway to being solved.
Jason Jacobs: So what would be the one thing that you could change tactically that would best enable that occur?
Ken Kimmell: It's a complicated question. We talked a little bit about taking away some of the power of the fossil fuel industry, but I think we also have to be looking systematically at what exactly is the barrier to getting things done in this country? Why is it so hard for us to make progress even on things that 70, 80% of the people ... one, it's not just climate. It's things like gun control, immigration. There are these big areas out there where there's actually pretty good consensus amongst the people on the need for solution. So I would also focus on voting rights, voting suppression, the electoral college, and the strange way that that skews outcomes and policies. So I think we need to be focusing on that as well.
Ken Kimmell: And then the other piece which we talked about earlier, we have to recognize that we're not really going to solve the problem of climate unless we also solve the problem of economic inequality. And the fact that as we transition to clean energy, there will be people engaged in certain sectors who are going to have to be retrained and going to have to take on new skills. And economic development's going to have to be made possible in their community. So I think getting those folks to not see this as a loss but as a possible gain is going to be a critical aspect of the solution.
Jason Jacobs: And you mentioned that before as well. That just saying this industry is going to die and needing to find another job is not enough. Do you have any specific ideas or any examples of things that would be more in the right direction in terms of ... philosophically, we know what we need to bring about in terms of how these people should feel and making sure that they're protected. But how?
Ken Kimmell: Well, how is the big question. I'm not an expert in this. I've seen some individual success stories that are impressive. For example, the state of Wyoming is a very big coal state, also oil and gas. But they have been investing heavily in teaching computer coding in public schools, because they don't think some of these industries are going to survive all that much longer and they want a skilled workforce. So that's something that can proactively be worked on.
Ken Kimmell: Another is in some of the least privileged communities, there just isn't good broadband access. There isn't good wireless. So you could really be investing in a first rate 5G network in these types of communities that would really set them apart and make them economically attractive. Places for employers to go because of that.
Ken Kimmell: We know that the solar and wind industry are generating large numbers of jobs. Some are higher paying than others. I'd like to see those jobs become, it'd make it easier for people who are willing to move from say Appalachia to the Plains to work on wind farms, to provide transitional assistance, to provide health insurance and the types of things that make people feel secure enough to move. Needs to happen.
Ken Kimmell: So this does a whole number of ways of doing this. And I do think going back to this issue of carbon pricing, if we were to embrace a carbon pricing opportunity, good amount of that revenue could be targeted back to the folks who are going to need it the most. And that's the type of thinking that we need to employ here, which is to not look at these two things as separate problems.
Jason Jacobs: So a separate but related question. So if you had 100 billion dollars and you could allocate it towards anything to maximize its impact in the climate fight, where would you put it? How would you allocate it?
Ken Kimmell: $100 billion? I would really jumpstart lowering the cost and increasing the range of batteries for cars, trucks, and buses. Because we talked about the need to rapidly electrify transportation. So we need to do that. We need to make it so that buying an electric car or a bus costs about the same as buying a gas powered vehicle. So lowering the cost of electric transportation, investing in the infrastructure. I think that electric cars right now work really well for people like me who have a garage. I charge my car overnight. It's incredibly easy. But for people who live in apartments or townhouses or don't have a driveway or a garage, it's really tough. So we need to really invest in fast charging stations in easy to access places for people. That'd be one piece of it.
Ken Kimmell: I would spend a fair amount of money on scaling up solar and wind, particularly offshore wind. Which in this part of the country I think is our best solution to decarbonizing our electric system.
Jason Jacobs: Is it going to happen, by the way?
Ken Kimmell: I think it is going to happen. I mean it's been a long time coming. This recent decision by the Department of Interior to send the wind developer back to do more study is disturbing and concerning, and a setback. But I think the industry is heading in the right direction. It's shown so much technology, innovation, and I think it's coming. So I'd invest in that. We talked about energy storage. I think that needs investment.
Ken Kimmell: We also as I said, a couple of pieces are missing. We don't yet have a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere in a cost effective way and beneficially reuse it. I would put a fair amount of money in that, research and development. I think that's important.
Ken Kimmell: And then there's a very basic one, which unfortunately doesn't get as much attention as it needs, even though it's basic. Which is, it's proven that reforestation is a hugely important way to get at the climate crisis. And I've seen lots of evidence that the United States could double or triple its reforestation, and sequester as much as 20% or more of emissions just through that. So I would be investing in tree planting, which also has such enormous other benefits. So those would be some of the things that I would spend the money on if I were the climate tsar and I could invest in climate emission mitigation.
Jason Jacobs: And you know what I'm just realizing is I'm 53 or 54 episodes in. I don't think anyone that I've asked that question to so far has brought up adaptation as one of the buckets that they would invest in. So where do you think adaptation fits into-
Ken Kimmell: So that needs to be talked about too, and of course some of the money needs to be spent there as well. In fact, we're going to need billions and billions of dollars to address sea level rise, heat waves. There was a period of time eight or 10 years ago when I didn't really want to address adaptation because I thought it was kind of like throwing in the towel, and it would take away from the mitigation side of it. My thinking has evolved on it. I don't think we have that luxury anymore. Just as we pushed the pedal to the metal on lowering our emissions, we have to recognize that the emissions that are in the atmosphere already have baked in quite a lot of climate change, which is going to have disasters impacts on people.
Ken Kimmell: So we at UCS have been very busy meeting with local governments going over our sea level rise report and our heat wave report, and encouraging these communities to start now on thinking about and putting into place adaptation. And it's going to be very, very expensive. Some of that 100 billion that you talked about needs to be allocated there as well.
Jason Jacobs: So last question is just a lot of people who listen to this podcast, maybe even all of them, they care about this problem and are trying figure out how to do more. So speak to them for a moment. What advice do you have for people trying to find their lane help?
Ken Kimmell: Well, I think there's several levels to that question. First of all, there's what you can do individually in your own life to lower your carbon footprint. And I think there are some obvious ones that we know work, and everyone should be looking at those options. So putting solar panels on your roof or buying renewable energy from a cooperative. I think that anyone who cares about climate, who can buy an electric car ought to do so. They're about a fifth of the emissions on a lifecycle basis than a gas powered car. Battening down the hatches, making your home as energy efficient as possible. Cutting down on your consumption of red meat is [inaudible 01:03:38]. So that's one whole rubric. Obviously, groups like ours depend upon donor donations, and so it's a very meaningful way to support climate change. To write checks to groups that you have confidence in that are doing a good job.
Ken Kimmell: And then the third and the most important is to be public citizens about this. There are still not enough people out there demanding that there are elected and appointed officials address climate change. And we need more of those people. They need to be vocal. They need to let their senators and congressmen know that this is a really important issue. And not just in states like Massachusetts in California. But a North Carolina or a South Carolina, or a Midwest state. I think that's really very, very important. And then the final piece, which we've already talked about. 2020 election has to be an election about climate. We have to make it one.
Jason Jacobs: All right. Well Ken, we covered so much ground. I really enjoyed this discussion.
Ken Kimmell: Yeah, I did too. Thank you so much for coming in. I really enjoyed it too.
Jason Jacobs: Thanks for coming on the show.
Ken Kimmell: My pleasure.
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 myclimatejourney.co. Note, that is .co, not .com. Someday we'll get the .com, but right now .co. 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. And before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show, please share an episode with a friend or consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that. Thank you.