We’re all feeling it, the massive and crushing daily reminder that climate change is already tearing apart ecosystems and flooding coastal cities and killing humans with extreme heat, among other ills. You’d be forgiven for feeling hopeless right now.
But all is not lost. Take it from economist Mark Jaccard of Simon Fraser University in Canada, who has for decades advised governments on climate policy, and who wrote the new book The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success: Overcoming Myths that Hinder Progress. In it, he argues for essential steps we still can and must take to save ourselves and the planet. And he points out that in order to make political changes, scientists and activists don’t have to convince everyone of the seriousness of the threat—they just have to motivate what he calls “climate-sincere” policymakers to put new regulations in place, and fast. With decisive action, he argues, humans eliminated acid rain and ozone-killing chlorofluorocarbons, and we can do it again. But it means confronting persistent myths about climate change. Think of it like the illumination of inconvenient truths within the larger Inconvenient Truth.
Jaccard argues against some conventional wisdom, like the idea that fossil fuels are altogether evil, pointing out that almost nothing around you would have been possible without coal, oil, and gas. In response to the argument that we can ditch oil and coal immediately, he points out that renewable technologies are still more expensive and are not as readily available in the economically developing world, where plentiful and cheap fossil fuels are helping pull people out of poverty. And he says the notion of peak oil—the argument that the world’s about to run out of the stuff—is a lot farther off than you imagine, thanks to oil companies finding ever more ways to extract the stuff. Sorry, he argues, but we can’t rely on fossil-fuel scarcity to get us out of this mess.
WIRED sat down with Jaccard to talk about the myths he’d like to bust, and how humanity—both individuals and governments—can think more realistically about solving the greatest problem our species has ever faced.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
WIRED: The burning of fossil fuels has gotten us into this mess that threatens the planet. But you argue that they’re in fact alluringly wonderful. Why?
Mark Jaccard: They are really high quality, and they have dramatically improved human well-being. When people in the developing world burn solid fuels in open fires, that is the major killer still today of people in the world from energy-related harm, and it’s mostly women and children in poor developing countries. When those places transition to liquid and gaseous fuels—kerosene or propane or butane—the transition in human health is tremendous. Today, it’s a huge benefit to people in countries that are trying to develop quickly, whether it’s India or Pakistan or Vietnam.
People say, oh, renewables are cheaper! And then they’ll say, with these international negotiations, we should give money to developing countries so they won’t burn coal and oil but will instead do renewables. And then the obvious answer is, wait a minute, you’ve got an internal contradiction here. If you’re telling us that renewables are cheaper, we don’t even have to have international negotiations to reduce emissions—the global energy system will naturally evolve to renewables. Which is not true. Where renewables are happening quickly, it’s been because of carbon pricing, or even more so, regulations in the US.
You also set out to poke holes in the myth of peak oil. That is, we’re going to run out of oil soon, so we’ll have no choice but to rapidly switch to renewables.
MJ: Peak oil was a big deal 15 years ago, even 10 years ago. The latest innovations in fracking for oil and shale rock certainly have changed things, and so you don’t hear as much about peak oil.
I advise politicians, but sometimes I’m in the same room with other people—energy advocates and environmental advocates—and they’ll be in there saying, oh, you know, we’ve got to switch away because we’re going to run out of oil, and the price will go really high. And, inevitably, I hear the politician kind of say, well, wait a minute, if the price is going to go really high, then I don’t need to do anything. This idea is that either renewables are going to get so cheap—or oil and coal are going to get so expensive—that we will stop using fossil fuels, and that that can solve the problem. Sometimes it’s the same people who are concerned about climate change and concerned about running out of energy. And so I’m trying to get them on the same page.
In Canada, you’ve made a lot of progress decarbonizing in recent years. Meanwhile, we have the Trump administration. How do we fight climate change if our government is pulling us deeper into climate hell?
MJ: You’d be amazed at how humans can look at the same event like Australia burning up, or Donald Trump looking at a snowstorm, and take entirely different interpretations of what that evidence was telling them about the real natural world around us. In other words, humans can stay in denial for a very long time. And so is that a message for me of complete despair? No. But it’s an effort at realism.
That’s why when people say we’ve got to do a better effort at educating people in Alberta and the coal regions of Australia and the Appalachian and Texas, I’m like, well, or you go around them. And if we look at other environmental solutions in the past, whether it was acid rain, sulfur emissions from US coal plants, and so on—I’m not saying these are all exactly the same—but when we try to learn from other cases, you didn’t convince everybody and then you move forward. You convinced enough people that got a climate-sincere, or a sulfur-sincere, or whatever-sincere government in place. A quick example here is Ontario phasing out its coal plants; that happened in 10 years. Even if that government had fallen after eight years, the coal plants were already doomed by then. So I do believe in move-fast policies, so that they can’t be reversed.
Let’s talk about carbon taxes, the idea there being that you put a price on emissions, disincentivizing polluters from polluting. As you say, some are arguing that this alone can help us massively cut emissions.
MJ: Flexible regulations are almost as economically efficient. So they may be way better politically—like way better—and only slightly less efficient economically. So that’s why I caution people who feel like you have to do carbon taxes or it’s not going to work, or it’s not going to be economically efficient, or you can’t get industry buy-in, and so on.
You can be a country that does what Canada has done. It said, we’re going to phase out coal plants, and we’re doing that with a regulation.
[Countries] can still say, oh, China, we’re importing goods from you. And we noticed that the carbon content of your electricity system is such and such. So we are going to put a tariff on those goods.
Regular folk are wondering what they can do. Corporations love to put the blame on us for our habits, that you should do everything you can as an individual to fly less and all that, which of course is fine. But what, if anything, can one person possibly do to help?
MJ: Human beings are going to be really hard to control unless we have some kind of fascist eco-dictatorship. They love mobility, comfort, entertainment, status. That’s when I get really on edge when some sort of young idealists are like, we’ll just all ride the bus. I rode the bus for half a century. And I still do, and I believe in it.
But a citizen needs to focus on two things. One of them is they need to be working feverishly to elect climate-sincere politicians and to keep them in power. And by definition, those climate-sincere politicians will be changing the menu for them—the infrastructure of their city. Like, is there transit? Or are there bike paths?
Yes, you can put solar panels on your roof, but in much of the world the electricity is going to be generated somewhere, and it should be zero-emission. And that’s policies. When that happens, then you can actually have an impact—you and your friends—through choices. If you want to do things behaviorally and have a light footprint, I’m with you all the way. That’s great. But let’s be realistic. Human beings love novelty. They love mobility. They want to see the world. They have friends all over the place.
That’s going to be really hard to change. We have to make sure that the options that they’re using are not destroying the planet, whether it’s us banning plastics, or banning the burning of fossil fuels in our mobility devices. There are things people could do, especially how they heat their homes and their water, or cool their homes—although they naturally use electricity for that—and how they get around. So those are the two you need as a citizen. Yes, it’s what you do personally—but it’s really also making sure the policies are in place so that everyone’s doing it.
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