My Climate Journey

Ep 80: Phil Duffy, President & Executive Director at Woods Hole Research Center

Episode Summary

Today’s guest is Phil Duffy, President & Executive Director at Woods Hole Research Center, which studies climate change impacts around the world, and works with partners—from national governments to corporations—to identify and implement opportunities to reduce levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases. Dr. Philip Duffy is a physicist who has devoted nearly 30 years to using science to address the societal challenge of climate change. We have a great longform discussion on a wide range of climate topics, and you don't want to miss it!

Episode Notes

Today’s guest is Phil Duffy, President & Executive Director at Woods Hole Research Center.

Expertise Climate modeling, extreme weather risk, societal impacts of climate change, domestic climate policy, international climate change negotiations, climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Dr. Philip Duffy is a physicist who has devoted nearly 30 years to using science to address the societal challenge of climate change. Dr. Duffy frequently engages domestic and international policy- and decision-makers, including delegates at the United Nations climate conferences, and the United States Congress. Dr. Duffy is frequently quoted in major national media outlets such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, Science, the Boston Globe, NPR, CNN, and MSNBC. He serves on committees of the National Academy of Sciences and advises state and local policymakers. Dr. Duffy is particularly interested in working with diverse groups to address climate change, including faith leaders, business leaders, and thought leaders across the political spectrum.

Prior to joining WHRC, Dr. Duffy served as a Senior Policy Analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and as a Senior Advisor in the White House National Science and Technology Council. In these roles he was involved in international climate negotiations, domestic and international climate policy, and coordination of US global change research. Before joining the White House, Dr. Duffy was Chief Scientist at Climate Central, an organization dedicated to increasing public understanding and awareness of climate change. Dr. Duffy has held senior research positions with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and visiting positions at the Carnegie Institution for Science and the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. He has a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude from Harvard in astrophysics and a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford.

In today’s episode, we cover:

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You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at info@myclimatejourney.co, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and suggestions for future topics or guests.

Enjoy the show!

Episode Transcription

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 Dr. Phil Duffy, president and executive director of Woods Hole Research Center.

Jason Jacobs:

The Woods Hole Research Center studies climate change impacts around the world and works with partners from national governments to corporations to identify and implement opportunities to reduce levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases. Woods Hole was founded in 1985 by renowned ecologist George Woodwell to take the insights of science beyond the walls of academia to where they can affect real change.

Jason Jacobs:

For the last four years they were named the top climate change think tank in the world by the International Center for Climate Governance. We cover a lot in this episode, including Dr. Duffy's long career focused on climate change, how his thinking has evolved from when he started to today. The important work that they're doing at Woods Hole, how they go about it, how they prioritize which projects to take on, some of the recent success that they've had and where they could use some help. And we also have a great discussion about climate change in general. The nature of the problem, the best means to solve it, where we are today and where we need to go. Dr. Duffy, welcome to the show.

Phil Duffy:

Well, thanks for having me.

Jason Jacobs:

Thank you for making the time. I'll say that I'm about a year into my journey and while I have had some scientist on the show, I would say I'm lighter than I should be, and Woods Hole Research Center is, from my seat, one of the gold standards in the science of climate change. And I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to sit down and have a long form discussion with you.

Phil Duffy:

I'm happy to be here, so let's get to it.

Jason Jacobs:

All right, well why don't we take it from the top? Tell me about Woods Hole Research Center, what is it and what kind of work do you do?

Phil Duffy:

I think we're somewhat of a unique organization. If you took a superficial look at us, you might think, "Oh, it's another research organization." Meaning that in some ways we look like a university research department. But really we're, I think, fundamentally quite different in that what we really aspire to is impacting the trajectory of climate change through science and research and through using science to inform climate policies and to inform decision making. So, we're really about having an impact, again, using science. So, the knowledge generation is a step along the way.

Phil Duffy:

It provides useful input to the other conversations that we have. And it also is a way of just establishing our credibility as legit scientists. So, we're sort of in a funny and unique position. I mean, we want to make a difference in the world. We definitely don't want to be seen as advocates, although we talk to policy makers all the time.

Jason Jacobs:

That's like me. I don't want to be seen as the podcaster, yet I do a podcast all the time.

Phil Duffy:

Well, and the difference is that we want to be seen as science heavyweights, which we are. The only thing I would say that we advocate for is that climate policy should be informed by science. And of course, that may seem like a no brainer, but these days it really isn't. And so, to the extent that we advocate for anything, it's that.

Jason Jacobs:

What is the origin story of Woods Hole?

Phil Duffy:

Well, I'm glad you asked. The origin story is really terrific. I mean, we were founded in 1985 by a guy named George Woodwell, who was and remains, I should say, a real visionary. And he foresaw the seriousness of climate change and societal consequences of climate change. And he formed us again in 1985 for the purpose I just described, to be an entity, an independent entity that does research into causes and effects of climate change. But it's really about bringing that research and other research into the real world. And George has, over the years, I mean, he's a remarkable man. He's acquired what I call disciples and since I've been here, I've become one of, I think, his most faithful disciples. And George is now 91 but has lost nothing in terms, well in any way apparently, and is certainly active, involved.

Phil Duffy:

Whenever I see George I say, "George, how you doing?" He goes, "Well, I'm madder than hell." And that's George. So, the mission really hasn't changed. And I'll also say, in 1986 George testified in the United States Senate about climate change. And I was looking at his testimony recently because there was some news about greenhouse gas emissions from falling permafrost, which is one of the things that we work on here. And I was rereading his testimony because George talked about that to the Senate in 1986 among many other things. But it was pretty remarkable because at that time, it was a theoretical notion of something that might happen some day. And of course, now it is happening and it's apparently a fairly significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Jason Jacobs:

And you talk from the outside of the discussion about how cultivating the... I forget the exact wording you used, but it was like the knowledge generation is not the only thing you want to do, that ultimately you're about results, that the knowledge generation is important. You didn't use this word, but I interpreted it as a wedge to have the kind of impact that you'd like to have. I guess one, did I hear that right? And two, what does that mean in practice? What else is there beyond the knowledge generation?

Phil Duffy:

I'll give you two examples and there's others, but just two. And one in fact is about this issue of falling permafrost, which is a big deal and permafrost is, well the name suggests permanently frozen. Around 24% of the land area in the Northern hemisphere is permafrost. And what's happening is that the Arctic, which is where most of the permafrost is, it's warming two or three times faster than the rest of the planet. Permafrost is thawing, as it thaws that organic matter, which hasn't had a chance to decompose in tens of thousands of years is starting to decompose. And that's a source of greenhouse gas emissions. And what's particularly worrisome about it is it's a self reinforcing cycle, right? Because the warming in the Arctic falls, the permafrost that causes release of greenhouse gases that causes more warming and then, you're off to the races. And once that really gets going, there's no way to stop it.

Phil Duffy:

And there's geologic evidence that this has happened, meaning major releases of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost, that this has happened in the geologic past. So we think it's a real possibility. And as I just said, it's pretty clear that in fact it's seems to be starting to happen in a significant way now. So that's the science piece of that.

Phil Duffy:

The policy piece of that is that when you talk about... You've probably have heard at least conversations about carbon budgets. You know, if we want to limit warming to one and a half degrees we can emit X amount of carbon or if we want to limit warming to two degrees, we can emit Y amounts of carbon. And you've seen these IPCC and other groups publish these trajectories of what the emissions need to be if we're going to meet this goal or that goal. Well none of that includes the idea that there's greenhouse gas emissions coming from permafrost. Okay? That's not in the policy conversations. And so we've been working over the last several years to change that and it's having some impact. But it's super important because particularly for meeting the goal of limiting warming to one and a half degrees, the remaining budget is pretty small. And in fact permafrost can consume a decent chunk of that budget. So if you don't take it into account, you're really making the tasks seem easier than it is. Although it seems daunting enough.

Jason Jacobs:

And typically, because you mentioned that you have kind of a unique perch. Are the organizations that are generating the knowledge and doing, for example, that permafrost research, are they typically separate and distinct from the organizations that are then doing that advocacy work on the policy side and is that one foot in each camp? One of the differentiators of Woods Hole?

Phil Duffy:

That's exact right and our permafrost work is we're one of the leaders in that. I mean, NOAA, a couple days ago published the annual so-called Arctic report card, which had buried in there what I think is a very significant statement, which is that the Arctic is now seems to be a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions that must be coming from permafrost. And that was based in part on work that we've done here. And in particular, about a month ago in November, a bunch of our scientists led by Sue Natali published a paper in nature about winter time emissions from permafrost, which seemed to be much bigger than had previously been supposed. But we've been working for several years with folks in state department, and now we've established a partnership with a policy group at Harvard to try to get this information into the policy discussions. And speaking of Harvard, Professor John Holdren just walked by my office door and waved at me. He's a former director here. He was Obama's science advisor and I worked for him when there, when he was in that role and he's a senior fellow here as well.

Jason Jacobs:

As we're talking here, I'm on your website looking at the different programs and projects that you do, the areas of work. Take us through those for listeners' benefit, but also have those remained consistent over the decades that you've been around or is that a moving target?

Phil Duffy:

It's been pretty consistent. We've added one new area. I'll summarize it this way, okay? Most of what we do, not all, but most of what we do focuses on the various roles of what I refer to as natural systems in climate change. By natural systems, I mean for us, I mean agricultural soils, for example wetlands and so forth. And those natural systems play several important roles in climate change. One is that historically, and still today, they contribute to climate change and really, it's not those systems, it's the human management or destruction of those systems like deforestation causes release of greenhouse gases, agriculture causes release of greenhouse gases from soil and through other mechanisms as well. So, those systems, because of the way they've been managed by humans, have been and again continue to be, a contributor to climate change through emissions of greenhouse gases.

Phil Duffy:

Now, more and more we are talking about can we reverse that? Can we put carbon back into those systems? In other words, move carbon out of the atmosphere back into forests, back into agricultural swells, back into wetlands and so on. And the generic name for that is natural climate solutions. And the bottom line is that because we've procrastinated so long on reducing emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation and so on, we really at this point have no choice in the sense if we're going to meet any reasonable climate policy goal, we need to move massive amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere and put it somewhere. And the so-called natural climate solutions is the only way we know to do that at anything approaching the scale that's necessary. So, natural systems have been part of the problem. They remain part of the problem. They can be a big part of the solution. Not the whole solution.

Phil Duffy:

And the other role that natural systems play is through these scary feedbacks, and we've been talking about one, which is greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost and that's a case where the warming itself, the warming feeds the warming. And thawing permafrost is probably the biggest of those. But wildfire is another one. Wildfire can be a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions and that's obviously something that's caused in part by climate change. That's a big part of our work. So, we ended up working in the Arctic, the tropics, but really everywhere, but all over the world.

Jason Jacobs:

And specifically the focus is on these natural solutions?

Phil Duffy:

Natural solutions, and also preserving the Amazon forest, preserving forests in Central Africa, which contain enormous amounts of carbon. I don't know if I have the numbers exactly right, but for example, the Amazon forest contains amount of carbon, which I think is equivalent to five or 10 years of total human greenhouse gas emissions. So, if that goes up in smoke, that alone would pretty much ensure that we can't meet the one and a half degree goal. And as you know, both scenario has pretty much declared war on the Amazon. So, preserving the existing carbon stocks, as well as restoring natural carbon stocks is a big part of what we do.

Phil Duffy:

Recently, we've opened up another chapter in the work that we do, which is on what we call physical climate risk. And that means to a large extent looking at different forms of extreme weather and the risks that they pose. So, drought, extreme heat, hurricanes, different kinds of flooding, and so on. And we've got started with that because we were introduced to some leading organizations in the world of business and finance and those guys were interested in understanding physical climate risk and the ramifications for their business and for business in economies generally. For us, we think it's a powerful vehicle for social change actually because we want the private sector and the business community, the finance community to be more aware of physical climate risk and they need to be part of the solution. And showing them the near term risks turns out to be a very, very powerful motivator.

Phil Duffy:

And we think that this is particularly valuable now when our federal government is, well some combination of pretending that there's no problem and working to make the problem worse, actually. So, the private sector has an important role to play in any case, but it's especially important when there's a lack of government leadership.

Jason Jacobs:

And are you mainly referencing the work with Wellington or are there other large organizations that you're also collaborating with in this way?

Phil Duffy:

We have this partnership where Wellington Management, the big investment firm, is kind of the linchpin and also involved in that is an entity called CALPERS, which is a California Public Employees Retirement System and another large public pension firm is about to join the partnership and that'll be announced fairly shortly. We've also started doing about six to eight months ago, starting to do some work with McKinsey and Company on physical climate risk. And the ramifications for businesses and economies. And we think these are particularly powerful partners because both investors, and McKinsey, which of course is a consulting firm, are influencers and obviously McKinsey, that's their fundamental nature of their job is they get companies and governments to use them as advisors. And the investors are influencers because what we're starting to see for example, is that these investors are starting to ask the companies that they invest in to look at their own climate risk and disclose it. And we think that that's a powerful force for creating greater private sector involvement in climate change.

Jason Jacobs:

You mentioned in terms of the DNA of the organization, that you're one foot in the science and one foot in the advocacy. In terms of the footprint, how big is the organization in terms of people, and then what does that break down in terms of scientists and other skillsets?

Phil Duffy:

We're pretty small. We have 70 employees and mostly scientists actually. I mean there's relatively few of us who are... And we don't even call what we do advocacy. But the way we think of what we're doing is we think of it as partnership, right? So, we're working with Wellington, we're working with McKinsey, and for us, that's a vehicle for impact. And certainly not advocacy. And we have other partnerships as well. Typically, we work with national country governments in the developing world or real work with large conservation organizations who have the ability to implement things on the ground at a larger scale than we do. And so, typically our role in these partnerships is to provide the scientific underpinnings, but because we're pretty small, we don't have a big footprint on the ground. But again, we work, for example, with large conservation organizations like Conservation International, Nature Conservancy. These are really massive, massive organizations.

Jason Jacobs:

And then, fulfilling these partnerships, is it the same types of tasks and role that you're playing from partnership to partnership or does it vary widely?

Phil Duffy:

Generically, it's fairly similar in that we provide scientific data. So for example, working with these business leaders, we're doing essentially risk assessment. We're looking at risks from, again, different forms of extreme weather, storm surge or river flooding or drought or something like that. So, we provide that scientific input. On natural climate solutions, one of the things that we do is we've made these very, very granular maps of, okay, how much carbon could we add to soil here and there and everywhere? What's the physical potential for putting more carbon back into soil? What's the physical potential for putting more carbon back into forests? And obviously, that kind of information is critical in designing restoration projects.

Jason Jacobs:

In terms of a company like Wellington for example, you guys are a nonprofit and I get what motivates you, but what motivates a Wellington to work with someone like a Woods Hole?

Phil Duffy:

Their motivations are a little more complex than ours. I mean, frankly, one thing certainly is they're an investor. They're looking for advantage like as all investors do, and looking at potential investments through the lens of physical climate risk is something that's quite new in that world. I will say they're also very interested in protecting the system from the worst possibilities of physical climate risk and the societal ramifications of that. And that's our sole motivation. I think that's one of their motivations.

Jason Jacobs:

I think I could follow this path and keep asking questions, but maybe it'd be great since we haven't talked much about pre Woods Hole and your background, I guess, how did you get into doing this work? When did you start caring about climate and how did that come about?

Phil Duffy:

Actually, I was trained as a physicist and I did various things briefly in the world of physics. I was actually in the nuclear weapons complex for awhile, which is an interesting experience, but as far as climate change, believe it or not, I mean it was my mom who got me involved in it and she was also a physicist and a climate researcher in academic at Brown University. And this was right around when I was finishing graduate school, and her work was not on the human role in climate change, but actually on what we call paleo climates, climates of the distant past, ice age and so forth. Just talking to her got me interested in the science piece of it. And the thing that always motivated me was to do something that had societal relevance and combine societal relevance with interesting science. And that's really what attracted me to get involved in climate change. And so, I did and I started doing it full time in 1990, 1991 or so. So, almost 30 years ago.

Jason Jacobs:

How has your thinking on the problem changed or evolved from then until now? Where is it the same and where is it different?

Phil Duffy:

Well, I have to say it's very, very different and my thinking on it has evolved significantly even just in the last year or two. And I will say that is the actually a result of the work that we've done with folks in the world of business and finance. But generally speaking, as we've learned more and more about the science the scarier it looks. And 20 years ago we would talk about these low probability, high consequence, I don't want to say outcomes, but you know, aspects of climate change. Low probability, high consequence like changes in the so-called Meridian overturning circulation, rapid decay of Greenland ice sheet, rapid decay of Antarctic ice sheet, greenhouse gas emissions from falling permafrost. Again, we used to call those things low probability, high consequence events. And every single one of those things is happening now and faster than expected. It's not really that the actual warming as expressed in changes in the global average temperatures.

Phil Duffy:

Not that that has happened faster than expected. That's happened pretty much as expected. But what's turned out to be the case is that the ice sheets are more sensitive to warming than we thought. And the permafrost seems to be decaying faster than we expected. So, things are unraveling faster than we thought. And that's very scary. But the thing that's really changed my outlook, and again this is really a consequence of the work with folks in the world of business and finance, is just the societal ramifications. And specifically, and this is an interesting example of how scientists sometimes look in the wrong places. But again, this risk work that we've done with these private sector partners has really highlighted some very, very basic things which are not cutting edge science at all. And so, scientists tend not to think about, but what I'm talking about is just the growing risk from extreme heat and the growing risk from extreme drought. And we've done work on that, and the upshot is that parts of the world are going to become more or less uninhabitable or very difficult to inhabit.

Phil Duffy:

India is going to become extremely hot. It's already hot. It's going to become extremely hot. I mean, to the point where much of the year there will be times of day when it's just not safe for a human being to be outside for any extended period of time. And what are the ramifications of that? It's a little mind boggling, but well, I can't think that's going to be good. And specially the increasing prevalence of extreme heat, the increasing prevalence of drought, which is terrifying. And the Mediterranean region, for example, Central America in several decades, it appears are going to be in almost permanent drought, or at least will be in drought most of the time. And what terrifies me about that and the extreme heat as well is I think there's going to be a mass migration. I mean, people aren't going to just sit there and take it, they're going to move. And I think one thing we've learned in the last few years is that world governments don't handle migrations gracefully. And I think the prospects for migration's a hundred times, a thousand times bigger may be than what we've seen recently. I think that's a real prospect for the not too distant future.

Jason Jacobs:

So, you've talked about some of the changes in terms of your views on the nature of the problem. What are your views on the nature of the highest impact solutions to address the problem? How has that remained consistent? How has that changed?

Phil Duffy:

That has changed quite a bit. I mean, in particular, nobody really predicted the rapid, rapid drop in the prices of solar energy and wind energy. And that's been remarkable. And that makes those energy sources competitive with fossil fuels, which is great. Now, I will say wind and solar are good as far as they go and very good as far as they go. But they're not the whole solution. In other words, there are... Well, there's sectors of the economy, like heavy industry, like aviation, which are going to be challenging to decarbonize. So, we do need other solutions. But it's also true that we can do a lot more with the technologies we already have than we are doing. I mean, clearly in terms of solutions, the main missing ingredient is political will. It's nothing more, nothing less. We have the potential for de-carbonization or certainly decarbonizing the electricity sector. We just need to do it.

Jason Jacobs:

And I've heard that term a lot, political will. How do you define it? Political will to do what?

Phil Duffy:

We need to commit. We need to commit to de-carbonization. That's the main thing and in many cases, that technology is there. It's quite affordable and we need to simply act. We don't have all the technologies we need. We need better storage technology. We need, again, to figure out how do you decarbonize things like heavy industry, things like aviation. Those are unsolved problems but we can do so much with the technologies that we have now.

Jason Jacobs:

And I mean, we've certainly been hearing more and more of the right words coming from politicians' mouths, but I guess how does that need to manifest in practice? Are there certain policies that you believe are the ones that we need or is there some suite? Is that something that maybe outside of Woods Hole's school of expertise and punt that to someone that thinks about it all day? I'm just trying to get a sense for what should we be rooting to happen from the sidelines or as voters?

Phil Duffy:

In terms of actual policies, I mean, if you look for example at California, which has been a leader and has been relatively successful. I think the big lesson from there in terms of what do we need in the way of policy? I mean, people say, "Oh, we need to put a price on carbon." And I definitely think that that's right. But in my mind, that's only the beginning. And again, if you look at California, they have that. They have a carbon market, they have this cap and trade system, but they also use regulation and that they have a host of policies to address the problem. And that's what it will take. And that's what's needed.

Phil Duffy:

The other issues that we haven't really talked about is adaptation, is coping, and there's real major policy challenges there as well. How do we decide what to protect? How do we make sure that we have a well functioning insurance industry? Where do we let people rebuild? Where do we not let people rebuild? I hear stories like city of Miami spending what seemed to be just enormous amounts of money to raise roads and so forth because the roads are being regularly inundated even by sunny day flooding. And the amounts of money spent seem absolutely enormous and it seems like they're possibly not buying much time, maybe a couple of decades, a few decades. And is that really a cost effective policy decision? I don't know.

Jason Jacobs:

It seems like that tension comes up a lot. I mean, one example is there's a bunch of fossil fuel that we still burn and in some cases, especially in developing countries we're continuing to dig for more and pull more of it out of the ground. And so, therefore there's a case to be made that because we're going to be burning it for decades to come, whether we like it or not, we should be capturing the emissions from that at point of emission. And then, there's another school of thought that says, "Well, if we do that, we're just going to give the fossil fuel companies an excuse to keep right on doing what they're doing." Natural gas is another example with the methane leaks. There's technologies that can help address the leaks, right? Well, do we want to address the leaks or do we just want to phase out natural gas as quickly as possible? And are we giving people an excuse to slow that transition? How do you think about that tension?

Phil Duffy:

I think what we call infrastructure lock-in is a real danger. That is you invest in whatever it is, a natural gas plant. You want to make that money back. And that means you've got to keep that infrastructure functioning for decades usually. And so, it's super important to stop investing in fossil fuel industry and not build those coal plants in the developing world. And that's the rationale behind this so-called green climate fund, which is part of the UN climate change mechanism. And essentially what it boils down to is richer countries, more developed countries funding both mitigation, meaning clean energy infrastructure in the developing world and also adaptation coping mechanisms. And I would say the green climate fund for people who don't like thinking about climate change, they hate that probably more than they hate anything else because it's giving money to poor people or helping poor people I should say. But it really is in our own self interest for the reasons you just articulated. I mean, if the developing world, the economies grow based on fossil fuel, it's a complete disaster for all of us. So, it's very much in our own interest to help those folks adopt clean energy.

Jason Jacobs:

And when I hear you talking about natural systems, and I hear that you're partnering with Wellington and CALPERS and other big business and financial players, I'm really interested to find out how you think about capitalism and GDP growth in the next phase of our plant.

Phil Duffy:

I do have a concern that unmitigated climate will be a threat to capitalism and GDP growth.

Jason Jacobs:

What about the other way around? Is GDP growth and capitalism a threat to climate change?

Phil Duffy:

In the sense that there are market failures, right? I mean, climate change in fact is a market failure. There is no immediate price on dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And that's why we have this problem. And the preservation of the natural systems that we work on saving her is also a market failure. It's not that those natural systems aren't valuable, but the economic system as it is right now doesn't know how to put a price on them. And so, it's a real struggle to preserve them because in the short run, there's more money to be made by harvesting a forest and by letting it grow and store carbon. So, that's the challenge.

Phil Duffy:

I mean, look I know that there's a few folks who I think are... And I don't want to name names, but folks who are secretly socialistic and think that climate change is the vehicle for getting rid of capitalism. I mean, I will say personally I don't support that. I don't think that should be the goal and I certainly don't think it's going to happen.

Jason Jacobs:

So, you talked about using natural systems as much as we can, and of course, I mean how can you not be a proponent of that? You also mentioned that they're not going to get us all the way there. So, I'm really interested in how you think about some of the non-natural things like carbon removal, direct air capture, where do they fit into all of this?

Phil Duffy:

Good question. First of all, how can you be against natural systems? Well, the problem is there's opportunity costs. The best thing for climate is to let forest grow, for example. And not only not deforest, but reforest significant areas. Well, people have plans for that land that involve some sort of profit making activity. So, there are certainly opportunity costs to utilization of natural system. But you asked about other technologies for carbon removal, you also asked about carbon capture at point of emission, which are in some sense different things, right? Because capturing carbon at point of emission is an, it's an avoided emission, right? So, it prevents the CO2 level from going up, but it doesn't actually reduce it. I'm frankly not a huge fan of that and I just don't think it adds up economic. And I think for one thing, there may be societal objections to it.

Phil Duffy:

I mean, no one's, I don't think, objects to capturing carbon. But then you have to bury it and where are you going to do that? And nobody's going to want that under their house, for example. But I don't see how it has economically. I mean, already wind and solar are essentially as cheap and some places cheaper than fossil fuels without carbon capture and storage. And the cost of carbon capture and storage is really significant. So, it seems like it makes it economically on competitors in my view.

Jason Jacobs:

When you say that natural systems won't be enough, then how do we make up the difference?

Phil Duffy:

We need a miracle. And I will say that I remember very clearly, it was in 2013, 2014, I was working in Washington at the time and I was part of the US Delegation to an intergovernmental panel on climate change, IPCC approval session. And we were working on the third volume of the, what was then the... Well, the fifth assessment report and we were looking at... And that volume deals with the economics of climate change and trajectories, emissions trajectories, for meeting various climate goals. And I was horrified to see that the scenarios that were under discussion involved enormous, enormous negative emissions. And I was horrified because it's science fiction. We don't know how to do that. This is the plan for solving climate change and it involves a miracle and what the hell is that? And that's still true. We don't have a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere at the scale that we need to. And every year that passes, when we keep putting more in there, just makes that problem worse.

Jason Jacobs:

So, if we need a miracle and it's not going to come from that, then what should we be doing tactically to try to find that miracle?

Phil Duffy:

We need to figure it out. Well, one thing that would help would be if there were a price on carbon that would provide an economic incentive. I mean, for trying to develop some way of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. I mean, right now, if you had that right, if you had the perfect, I call them vacuum cleaners, right? If you had the perfect carbon dioxide vacuum cleaner you couldn't make money on it. And so, there's relatively little incentive for a startup or an entrepreneur to think about that because what you're doing is you'd have to not only develop a technology that works, but you're betting on a policy which allows a successful technology to be profitable.

Jason Jacobs:

If we're in as glorious spot as it sounds like your assessment say that we are, then how do you think about solar geoengineering research, for example?

Phil Duffy:

I think that's one of the things that we need to do. We need to get serious about looking at geoengineering and right now, there's sort of a cottage industry of folks who look at it. I used to be part of that cottage industry. I'm not anymore.

Jason Jacobs:

Oh really? I didn't know that. That didn't come up in my research.

Phil Duffy:

I was a coauthor on a few papers about it, but nobody likes it. But it seems like we don't have great options at this point. And one of the things I think about for example is what about just geoengineering the Arctic, right? Okay, if we could keep the Arctic from getting too hot, that would keep the permafrost from cooking us whole and we could keep the Greenland ice sheet intact and both of those things would be enormously helpful if we could do them.

Jason Jacobs:

I'm going to start speaking over my pay grade, but for certain types of like the sulfur up in the stratosphere, and stuff, I mean, that's a horizontal solution, right? That can't be geographically concentrated, can it?

Phil Duffy:

Possibly by latitude. I'm honestly not sure. I think possibly you could confine it.

Jason Jacobs:

And I'm certainly not sure, so I don't want to speak over my pay grade. So, follow up on the geoengineering question. I couldn't let you escape without asking you about your thoughts on nuclear?

Phil Duffy:

This is where my views depart from the views of many in the climate community. I mean, look, I frankly think there's a lot of hysteria about nuclear power. I mean, there's unfortunately now also a lot of hysteria about wind turbines. If you look at the actual reality of nuclear power in the United States, there has never been a fatality and you can't say that about any other energy source. I mean, fossil fuels, coal still kills thousands of Americans every year. And yet, that's somehow fine.

Phil Duffy:

So yeah, I think nuclear power should be part of the solution. Again, that's not a popular view. I think it's also true that newer technologies can be even safer than the older 1950s or 1960s reactor technologies. But again, in the United States, those have proven to be amazingly safe. But the reality is people don't want it. And unless that changes, I mean, if I were an investor I would not invest in nuclear power because I don't see a future for it right now. I mean certainly in the United States because people just don't want it.

Jason Jacobs:

So I have one more Phil specific question and then I have two kinds of stock questions that I ask every guest. And then unless you have any parting thoughts we can wrap up at that point and you can get to the meeting that I'm making you late for. So the last Phil specific question is just, I personally am wrestling a little bit with the tension of, with the transition there are opportunities to re architect our systems, our business models, et cetera, for the evolving world. But I can't help but feel like some of that is profiting off of catastrophe. So how do you think about that?

Phil Duffy:

More broadly, right? I mean, there's moneymaking opportunities here and we do need various new technologies, energy generation storage technologies. We need a better grid. All that. I wish that instead of pretending that there's not a problem, I wish that the federal government were helping US businesses to develop those solutions and take advantage of the opportunities. And, look, I think on the whole climate change is a pretty major disaster, but there are opportunities and someone's going to take advantage of them. And I think it should be, I'd rather it be, us in the United States than somewhere else.

Jason Jacobs:

Two final questions. One is just if you had $100 billion and you could allocate it towards anything to accelerate this transition and better address the problem, where would you put that money and how would you allocate it?

Phil Duffy:

To me though, the most urgent thing is de-carbonization. And as I said, we have... Well, we have the means to do a lot more than we're doing. So that would be the first thing I would do with a lot of money would be just deploy the low carbon technologies that we have now at a much greater scale.

Jason Jacobs:

And how does that manifest? Where would you actually put it to make that happen?

Phil Duffy:

If it means subsidizing, providing incentives for individuals and businesses and utilities to utilize cleaner technologies, that's what I would do.

Jason Jacobs:

Are there other areas you would invest in as well or allocate?

Phil Duffy:

I'm a researcher so I think about research and we do need research. There are plenty of energy technologies we need. We also very much need climate research and people sometimes question that and the thinking being, "Well look we already know that there's a big problem here. We already know we need to stop emitting greenhouse gases. Why do we need to study the problem more?" And my answer to that is, "Well we already talked about geoengineering. We need to understand that. We've already talked about things like thawing permafrost and greenhouse gas emissions, which is basically like a tipping point in the system. We need to better understand that. We need much better information on informing us on how to cope." So what sea level wise going to be here, what's going to be the risk of a category five hurricane in the New Orleans? and a lot, a lot of decisions need to be made about infrastructure protecting cities and so forth based on that kind of very fine scale information about in many cases different forms of extreme weather.

Phil Duffy:

Something else that we need to figure out how to do, which we haven't talked about, is how to actually measure greenhouse gas emissions. And one of the limitations of the Paris Climate Agreement is that it's based on self reported national greenhouse gas emissions and doing it that way was partly a political compromise because it made it acceptable for people to sign on, but it's also partly the case that we actually don't have the technical means to do that. In other words, if the United States wants to know, "Huh, how much is China really emitting?" We don't know and we have no way of knowing that, we don't have... Well now there are one or two carbon measuring satellites, but there's a long way to go between having a satellite flying around that looks at carbon and actually saying, "Okay, we know that China emitted X amount of carbon in 2018 or 2019." And, for any kind of international agreement to progress to the point where it has any teeth, you have to have independent measurement of greenhouse gas emissions.

Jason Jacobs:

And last question is just for anyone out there listening to the show who's concerned about this problem and is trying to figure out how to help, what advice do you have for them?

Phil Duffy:

Well first of all, you should be concerned and you should help. And I would say generally there's three things you can do, right? I mean one is lifestyle things. Make your own lifestyle as low carbon as possible. I think the main value of that is that your behavior is contagious and so other people will emulate what you do. The second thing is engaging politically, and this is really important and we like to go around saying that democracy is broken and yeah it kind of is, but in the end, if people really clamor for something, politicians do listen to that and it's important to engage politically and you can do that on a national level. You can also do it on a local and regional level. And it's pretty easy to do actually on a local and regional level.

Phil Duffy:

And the third thing is supporting. There's all kinds of independent organizations that are working on this problem and a lot of them do really good work and you can support them in different ways. I mean, you can give money, you can get involved and those are good things that you can do, that anybody can do.

Jason Jacobs:

Anything that I didn't ask you that I should have or any parting words for our listeners?

Phil Duffy:

I should really get going. I'm sorry.

Jason Jacobs:

No, no. Well I guess those can be parting words.

Phil Duffy:

Well look, thanks. This has been really fun. I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk to you.

Jason Jacobs:

Okay. Phil, thanks so much for coming on the show.

Phil Duffy:

Okay, so long.

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 dot C-O, not dot com. Someday we'll get the dot com, but right now got C-O. You can also find me on Twitter at @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.