‘Being the Change’: How to Spark a Climate Revolution

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NASA scientist Peter Kalmus explains his personal effort to shrink his carbon footprint.

KalmusIIIWhile the science behind climate change is solid, there remains a lot of resistance to curtailing carbon emissions because of the perception that doing so will cause the world economy to take a big hit. What if the capitalist system could coexist with a smaller carbon footprint? Peter Kalmus, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, has written a book on the idea based on what he’s done in his own life to have a more positive impact on the environment. Kalmus, who says his comments represent his own views and not necessarily those of NASA, talked about his book, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution on the Knowledge@Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Aside from your work, what was the driving idea behind your book?

Peter Kalmus: It was 2010 and I’d been getting increasingly concerned about global warming the more I read scientific papers on it. I was doing astrophysics at the time, but I got increasingly concerned about it. I live in southern California where it’s fairly warm, and I don’t like heat waves at all. I get really grumpy when they happen.

I took a look at how my actions were translating to carbon emissions, and I realized that one of the biggest things that I was doing to emit carbon was flying a lot. Academics fly a huge amount. They go to collaboration meetings. They go to conferences. Flying had been 75% of my emissions, and that’s being really generous to the planes. I was flying about 50,000 miles a year back then. I knew no matter what else I did — I could give up meat, bicycle a lot — nothing would really matter as long as I kept flying that much.

Knowledge@Wharton: How did you make the change?

Kalmus: Over the next few years, I just stopped flying so much because I would get on a plane and feel really bad, like I shouldn’t be here. What am I doing here? Is the conference that I’m flying to worth the emissions?

“The best step we could take right now to rapidly reduce emissions at a national level would be to adopt a carbon price.”

I learned more about how long this carbon is going to stay in the atmosphere and for how many hundreds of years. The impacts of climate change have several time scales. But the planet is going to be warmer for a long time. The carbon is not going to completely come out for tens of thousands of years. Then there’s one final time scale, which is global warming is contributing to a major extinction event. Scientists that look at the fossil record of recovery after the other major extinction events that happened our planet, which also had a climate component. They find that it takes about 10 million years for biodiversity to recover to the same level it was at before the extinction event. That’s a very long time scale.

I’d be sitting on a plane and would just feel like, I’ll be happier if I’m not here on this plane. I just gradually stopped flying. I try to do good work, write good papers, and I go to regional conferences and try to teleconference when I can.

Knowledge@Wharton: These changes could be made by a lot more people because we have the technology to connect digitally with people around the world.

Kalmus: That’s right, we have the technology. What I think we lack is the cultural will to do that. If employers and universities started to say, “We want to do more teleconferencing and less live travel,” and if there were maybe more regional conferences, if there was a shift in culture, it would make it a lot easier. As it is, I take a bit of a hit. There are people that I would know and that would know me if I flew more or at all. But I feel like I’ve struck a good balance between fast career advancement and following my deeper principles and doing what I know I need to do.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is the book also is about how we could still have a successful capitalist culture yet drive the change necessary to get a handle on global warming?

Kalmus: Right. Not everyone is going to gravitate towards voluntary individual reductions. We need systematic, systemic collective actions as well. This is a little controversial for scientists to make any kind of suggestions about what policies we could implement to have that collective change. So, I’d say I’m speaking as a scientifically informed human now.

There’s one solution that I think is kind of a no-brainer. If that wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t make the suggestion. But a lot of scientists agree with this, and a lot of economists agree with this as well. The best step we could take right now to rapidly reduce emissions at a national level would be to adopt a carbon price, specifically a fee and dividend. That would take our system of capitalism and fix this gaping market failure of using our atmosphere as an open sewer without including those costs, the cost to society of doing that in the price of a gallon of gasoline or a ton of coal. If we charged that price, it could increase gradually so it wouldn’t be a huge shock on the economy initially. It would incentivize everything from food to transport to how we heat and cool our buildings. It would push renewables forward because fossil fuels would get increasingly expensive over time. Corporations would be able to plan for the future because there would be a predictable price signal.

“I don’t think that we can decouple our economy from physical resources well enough to continue indefinite exponential growth.”

The best part about it is if you return the revenue that’s collected as a fee — it’s technically not a tax if the government doesn’t keep it — it could actually provide an economic boost because then you’re putting more money in the pockets of everyday people. You’re stimulating these various economies as we transition to the new energy economy. It wouldn’t be regressive. It would be progressive because the wealthier you are, the more fossil fuel you likely burn. Under this policy, if you were collecting revenue based on how much fossil fuel people burn, you’re redistributing it equally. So, 70% of households would come out ahead even if they didn’t change their behaviors. And if they did ramp down their fossil fuel use, then they’d come out even more ahead.

Knowledge@Wharton: You talk about the idea of whether some sort of border adjustment is necessary. There are companies that do business in countries that don’t necessarily follow those philosophies, correct?

Kalmus: That’s absolutely necessary. The other good thing about the border adjustment is it would turn a national fee and dividend gradually into a sort of international impetus towards emissions reduction.

We’ve seen that it’s very difficult to do emissions reduction at the international negotiations table, like with the Kyoto Protocol and more recently with the Paris Agreement. You often end up getting something out that isn’t as strong as you might like, that doesn’t actually reduce emissions as quickly as we need to. But if you have a border adjustment, then a country that didn’t have a carbon fee would be exporting its products to us and it would have to pay that border adjustment. That country would very quickly realize that they’d be better off with their own border adjustment for a couple of reasons. First, they could keep that money instead of giving it to another country. Second, the manufacturers, the corporations there would have this conundrum. We’d be producing things with increasingly less carbon intensity because we’d have an incentive to do so because of the carbon price. In another country, they’d be competing with domestic producers and they’d want to keep our market share, so they’d be trying to ride two horses. If they tried to reduce their carbon intensity, their products would get more expensive domestically. And if they didn’t, then they’d lose market share over here.

Knowledge@Wharton: The ideas on border adjustment and carbon pricing have been discussed a good bit. If these were to be formalized, how do you think they would be received?

Kalmus: It’s interesting — the political dynamics behind it. I can’t really pretend to understand them thoroughly, but it’s interesting because there’s some support coming from a faction of the Republican side, which is calling for a carbon tax. Progressives who want to see action on climate change, some of them are calling for it as well. There is even a coalition of energy corporations that would like to see some form of carbon tax.

“We need to start imagining what a world that didn’t run on fossil fuels would look like.”

I don’t think the energy corporations necessarily care what’s done with the revenue, but what they want is a predictable price signal. I think they see that action is coming at some point, whether it’s in the form of regulations. Maybe not this government, but perhaps some future administration could try to regulate our carbon emissions. Or, there could be a gradually increasing price on carbon. From the corporations’ point of view, I think planning an investment is much easier if there’s a carbon price. I think they’d prefer that over cap and trade because there’s less volatility.

Interestingly, I think because some of the energy corporations are okay with this policy, some of the environmentalists haven’t embraced it maybe as quickly as they otherwise might have. They have a hard time pushing for something that energy corporations are OK with, that energy corporations want. I think they assume that there must be something wrong with it.

Knowledge@Wharton: You bring up this idea of what you call a steady-state economy. Can you explain that?

Kalmus: I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to that question yet. But as someone who is trained as a physicist, this is going to be controversial. I don’t personally think that we can decouple our economy from physical resources well enough to continue indefinite exponential growth. Even if we transition to a completely information economy, it still takes energy and it still creates thermodynamic heat to move bits of information. The problem with exponential growth is that over a century or over a millennium you just get very quickly to these really absurd levels of size that won’t fit onto the finite resource space of this planet. I don’t see any way around that other than a transition to some kind of steady state where the economy isn’t based on exponential growth.

Knowledge@Wharton: You really do take this down to a personal level in the book and give examples of some things you have done. You list 15 or 20 different things that people could consider to cut back on their personal emissions.

Kalmus: For people who are concerned with global warming, one of the things they can do to feel better and feel like they’re contributing to a solution is to actually change their lives. There’s so many people on the planet. Global warming is such a huge, overwhelming problem with 7.5 billion people contributing to it, some more than others. Reducing one’s emissions isn’t going to solve that problem directly. But it contributes to changing the story, to showing what’s possible, to showing that it’s possible to live with drastically less fossil fuels. That would gradually shift the culture. Right now, I think it’s really hard to see beyond the expressways and the airplanes and the gas stations and the huge parking lots.

We need to start imagining what a world that didn’t run on fossil fuels would look like. If everyone just keeps burning fossil fuels like they have been, everyone else looks around and says, “Well, I guess it’s not such a big emergency.” If people start to use less, they would realize it’s not as bad as they thought it would be and maybe even better for a lot of reasons, which is what I found. It hasn’t made my life less satisfying; it’s actually made it more satisfying. I think more and more people are longing for more of a sense of stillness and less of this frantic pace of modern life. So, there’s a lot of benefit to actually reducing yourself.

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