Solar Dominance + Citizen Action: Solving Climate Change By 2030, with Eban Goodstein

September 19, 2019

Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan in California. CREDIT: Bureau of Land Management/Tom Brewster Photography (CC)

This transcript makes references to a PowerPoint presentation. To follow along, please watch the full event video on YouTube or download the document in the right sidebar.

AMANDA GHANOONI: I'm Amanda Ghanooni, and I want to welcome you all to Carnegie Council. Our mission is to inspire and guide debate and to educate the public on ethical choices in matters related to global affairs.

Before I introduce tonight's moderator, I want you to know specifically of two outreach programs we have here at the Council: the Student Ambassador Program and Carnegie New Leaders. First, the Student Ambassador Program is designed for emerging scholars based around the New York City metro area to collectively build a year-long project that uses ethics as a lens to examine a critical subject in international affairs. They also directly bridge the ongoing work and research of the Council to their universities and colleges. Although we've already had our first orientation meeting, there's still time to join the program. We have other scheduled engagement events planned throughout the year, such as career panels and our student research conference in May.

The second program is Carnegie New Leaders, or as we call it, CNL. This is a membership network of young professionals and rising global leaders. Through private dinners, exclusive social gatherings, and off-the-record briefings with public figures, CNL gives early and midcareer professionals the chance to connect with other like-minded people who are committed to exploring and participating in ethical dialogues aimed for professional and personal development. If you have any questions about these programs, I will be available during the reception.

Tonight's program is distinctly timed with Climate Action Week. Brian Mateo is the perfect match to introduce our speaker tonight. Brian serves as associate dean of civic engagement at Bard College. He is also program director for the Study of U.S. Institutes and U.S. Foreign Policy, which is sponsored by the State Department Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs, and works with the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program.

Most recently, Brian became a Climate Reality Leader after training with Vice President Al Gore in the Climate Reality Project. He is leading the Youth Climate Activist training with United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) and lectured with Zero Waste Communities in Armenia. He is also a CNL member and serves on the board of trustees here at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

It's my pleasure to welcome Brian to the podium.

BRIAN MATEO: Good evening, everyone. It is my pleasure to introduce Eban Goodstein. He is one of the leading intellectuals working at the intersection of environmental and economic policy, working as director of the Center for Environmental Policy and the MBA in Sustainability at Bard College.

Prior to directing the Bard Center for Environmental Policy, he founded the Green House Network, an organization dedicated to supporting the clean energy movement. He also helped produce the Race to Stop Global Warming, a 10K noncompetitive footrace in eight cities across the United States, which earned the Green House Network the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Climate Savers Award. Additionally, he led the 2006–09 National Teach-In on Global Warming Solutions, coordinating educational events over 2,500 colleges, universities, high schools, and other institutions across the country.

Eban worked for 20 years as a professor of economics at Lewis &, Clark and Skidmore Colleges while authoring Economics and the Environment, now in its fifth edition, as well as The Trade-Off Myth: Fact and Fiction about Jobs and the Environment. Goodstein's most recent book, Fighting for Love in the Century of Extinction: How Passion and Politics Can Stop Global Warming, was highly regarded as "setting a new frame for helping Americans understand global warming as a challenge for our generation."

Eban Goodstein is a member of the editorial board of Sustainability: The Journal of Record, and The International Journal of Environment, Workplace, and Employment. He is also on the steering committee of Economics for Equity and the Environment as well as a member scholar at the Center for Progressive Reform. His research has been featured in The New York Times, The Journal of Environmental Politics and Management, The Economist, The Chronicle of Higher Education, USA Today, and more.

He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in economics and a BA in geology from Williams College. Please join me in welcoming Eban Goodstein.

EBAN GOODSTEIN: Thank you, Brian.

Good evening. It's a pleasure to be here at the Carnegie Council, and a very timely topic because you may have heard that the New York City schools have decided to let the kids loose tomorrow if they so choose, come down to the Financial District, so it's going to be kind of crazy, and that's good, as we'll talk about in the context of this presentation. We'll come back to that in a minute.

As Brian said, I'm director of graduate programs in sustainability at Bard College, but I've also been involved now for 20 years in a broader effort around public education around climate change. I want to talk with you tonight about this topic of solving climate by 2030, in the next 10 years.

This is a topic very much on everyone's mind. I think there's maybe a lot of pessimism about this. There are some young people who are demanding that we overcome that pessimism. I want to frame this as a thing that's actually doable in the context of two ideas, solar dominance and civic action.

Solar dominance is just shorthand for the idea that a number of technologies—including particularly rooftop distributed solar and batteries plus electric vehicles—are cheap and getting cheaper, and this is going to set up a massive market disruption in the mid-2020s that's going to lead to solar everywhere on the planet, solar everywhere, and much faster than most people think. But civic action is going to be needed to smooth the path for this very rapid energy transition because there are going to be a lot of people opposed to it. Civic action is also going to be needed to ensure justice in the transition because this is going to be a very disruptive time, and we've got to make sure that everybody has access to clean and affordable energy and that the millions of green jobs that are created are jobs for all. We don't just need a clean energy revolution; we need justice in the transition. That's the frame for the conversation tonight.

This is the young woman who has kicked off all of the events that are going to be happening in New York City. It's Greta Thunberg. Just over a year ago, when she was 15 years old, she decided to stop going to school on Fridays, and instead stood out in front of the Swedish Parliament building with a sign, calling on her political leaders to take action to save her future because it is very much in jeopardy. This is an amazing story. This is just one person 13 months ago, and tomorrow and next week there are going to be millions of young people around the world who are going to emulate her work and get out in the streets and demand that the grownups wake up and take the kind of actions that are necessary to do this, to solve climate by 2030.

If you take one thing away from this talk, it's that this moment in time, this extraordinary moment in which we're living, really calls on all of us to live our lives in that way, and by that I mean we're not going to inspire millions of people, most of us, but in the next year or two we have to inspire four or ten or twenty to get engaged with this project that I'm going to be talking about because we really do live at a truly extraordinary moment in the history of the human species.

It's getting hot out there. This was Europe last summer. In fact, all of the Northern Hemisphere experienced record-breaking heat. This is the Western United States pretty much every year. As the fire season extends, it heats up and dries out. The Western forests are burning down, the dense conifer forests that for me have always been a signature of the Western United States, the Rocky Mountains. Those things are disappearing, and they will not be there for you guys and my kids and my grandkids. Something else will be. There will be trees and savanna, but that particular ecosystem is on the way out.

This is the Central United States. We had record-breaking rainfall, the most rain ever experienced in the United States in a one-year period. That led to massive flooding in the Midwest. We almost lost New Orleans. The river almost topped the levies there. It didn't quite.

I find this headline a little ironic—"Flood Waters Recede, But One Big Concern Remains." Yes, I think there is a big concern remaining, but I don't think this is the one they had in mind.

July 2019 was the hottest month that humans have ever recorded since we've been measuring temperatures, and 2019 is on track to be the second-hottest year ever. Just last week, this was the picture on our television screens. The Bahamas are just completely devastated by a Category 5 hurricane that just hung out over that island. As of the last time I checked, there were over 50 people killed, 1,000 people still unrecorded and missing. Luckily, the mainland United States was spared a hit this time.

But this is yet another record-breaking, massive superstorm of a kind that humans have not experienced, and record-breaking things should not happen every year, right? They should be rare, and they're not, and it's a consequence of the planet getting hotter.

This is data that I suspect you've all seen. It shows the planet heating up about 2 °F over the last hundred years, so from 1900 up until 2020, about 1.8 °F warming. A lot people say, "Well, you know, two degrees, that doesn't sound like very much," but I challenge you to think—how does your body feel when your temperature goes up by two degrees? You feel pretty sick. If it goes up by three or four sustained, then you die.

Natural ecosystems have evolved with a similar sensitivity to climate, and so the consequence of this 2 °F warming has been that natural ecosystems across the planet are starting to die—the Western forests, coral reefs, farmlands in various areas, wetlands—and that's the world we're living in.

The most remarkable thing about this graph is the period 2014–16, where we had three record-breaking years in a row. Over that three-year period the planet heated up 0.5 °F in just three years. I bet you didn't know that. You might have known that they were hot years, but I bet you didn't know just how fast the planet's heating up.

This is criminal. Everybody should know this. This should be front and center of every social media post, but we are not talking about it that way, and we'll talk about why toward the end of this conversation and what we need to do about it. You can see that the temperature ratcheted down a couple of notches the last two years, but it's headed back up and will be close to a record in 2019.

All of this led the world's top climate scientists a year ago to issue a major report that said we had 10 years to stem catastrophic climate change, so by 2030 we have to be well on the way to de-carbonizing the global economy.

I want to pause and think about what that means. Okay, that's a warning. In fact, as a consequence of that warning, a number of people have come up to me in the last year and said, "You know, I get this. This is a wake-up call, and it's made me really rethink my life, but what can I do with others to stop global warming?" That's really what I want to talk about today.

First of all, let's just step back and review how we got here because the actual story about global warming, in spite of all the confusion and the skepticism and the this and that, is actually very, very simple. It's this simple.

That's the Earth and the sun. The Earth's thickness, if it was an apple, the atmosphere surrounding the Earth would be the thickness of the skin around that apple. For the last 120 years we've been burning coal in our power plants and gasoline in our cars, and we've been pumping billions and billions and billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

CO2 and other gases are well-known heat-trapping gases—they let in the sunlight, they don't let out the radiated heat. So the very simple science of global warming is "thicker blanket, warmer planet." Thicker blanket, warmer planet. It's really that simple.

Scientists have been desperately trying for the last 30 years to come up with some other explanation for why the planet's heating up so fast, and they can't because there isn't one. It's not solar sunspots, it's not volcanic activity. This simple story—thicker blanket, warmer planet—explains the data with really frightening elegance.

It also tells us what we've got to do if we want to stop this warming, we've got to thin out the blanket, and that means we've got to stop pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we've got to stop burning coal and natural gas in our power plants, and we've got to stop burning gasoline in our cars. We've got to transition to a 100 percent renewable economy, electric vehicles, and we've got to do it very fast.

I want to show you one more picture to put in context the brick wall that is defining this extraordinary moment in which we live. Now I'm going to take you back 10,000 years in this picture.

On the far left, this is the beginning of human civilization. This is when we first began to domesticate animals, animal husbandry, 6,000 years ago; those were the first cities in Babylon and Ur. Right here, at the end of this blue uptick here, right there at the tip of that, that's 2008. That's the introduction of the iPhone, the smartphone. All of human history is compressed in this 10,000 years. That's how long we've been actually inventing civilization, and that blue line shows what has happened to global average temperatures over that time, what the climate was like.

We've got good data on this—ice cores, pollen cores, tree rings—so we actually have a really good sense of what it was like. It has been incredibly stable. Humans have been the beneficiaries of an incredibly stable climate. It hasn't varied much at all on a century scale, and over that whole time period it has barely gone up 0.5°F in either direction off the average, until now.

That vertical spike there, that's the 120-year period, compressed as it should be on this graph. Actually, there's that half-degree warming we got in just three years.

What does it mean to solve climate? I can see there are a lot of grim faces in the room. This is pretty depressing stuff, and you're awake to it. Thanks for doing that, most people don't want to be.

What does it mean to solve climate? That means that if we get everything right, we work really hard, that because of the heating that's already in the system, that's where we're going to wind up, another 0.5°F, another 1°F warming, pushing us up to 3°F.

That means we're going to see more of what we've been seeing—it's challenging—but that leaves us a recognizable planet. It's challenging, but it's not devastating. We can survive that. We can thrive in that sort of a world.

However, if we keep doing what we're doing—ignoring the problem—and don't attack it aggressively, if we pursue business as usual, then this is where we're headed, 8°F warming. That's business as usual, that's the path we're on right now.

To put that number in perspective, during the last Ice Age, when this particular room was covered by several hundred meters of ice, the world was only 9°F colder than it is right now. We're looking at the possibility—and certainly, if we don't change direction, the likelihood—of a swing in global temperatures approaching Ice Age magnitude within your lifetimes. Not to put you on the spot.

We don't want to go there. That is catastrophic climate change, and what it means is: whole cities abandoned, entire countries rendered uninhabitable, hundreds of millions of environmental refugees, food shortages, hunger. This is not the world that we want, and it's not the world that we have to have.

Let's talk about that. How do we do this? How do we turn around as quickly as the scientists are telling us we have to do it, because it seems to many people like an almost impossible job? It's not, and that's because of the world we're living in, but what does it mean? It means that by 2030, 10 years from now, we have to be well on our way toward a 100 percent renewable energy economy. That means we've got to be getting our electric power from solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and really importantly, storage, and by that I really just mean batteries, the same things that are in your phone, but whole buildings full of batteries so that they can store lots of power. With solar and wind you get a lot of it when the wind blows, you get a lot of it when the sun shines, but obviously you've got to have some storage capacity to see you through those periods.

That is the future of the electric system. At the same time, we've got to have transportation —because that's a big part of it—transitioning rapidly toward electric vehicles powered by the electrons from that renewable energy system.

Really it's just those two things. We get that done, and we've solved the energy half of the climate change problem. There's still deforestation and cement production and some other stuff, but it gets us really dramatically on the path toward getting to be where we need to be.

In this talk I'm talking about solar dominance, solar in particular, and what I mean by that as a term is the point at which 50 percent of global electric power is produced by solar energy plus battery storage. I'm focusing on solar and not wind and renewables because solar is a unique technology. In particular, by the mid 2020s distributed solar—and by that I mean rooftop solar, but not just on residential rooftops but on warehouses and commercial buildings and on farms and in roadside medians and everywhere you could imagine putting it—plus battery storage in many places in the world is going to be much cheaper than power from the grid because prices have been falling so fast.

Also, unlike with any other electricity source, you don't need a utility for this, you can produce it locally. You don't need centralized power plants. What that means is that if the utilities don't play, they try to resist this, then millions and millions of companies and people will just start to install their own electric power production units and generate their own power because it's going to be cheaper than buying power from the grid.

Solar is unique in that way. The idea of solar dominance is that every factory, every warehouse, every business, every building, shopping center, house, parking lot, device, farm, everywhere will have solar. To solve climate, that's the future. That has to happen.

This is a slide from Tony Seba, who is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and a Stanford professor. He's very good at articulating how this future might happen. He's got a great video that I can recommend to you online, but it's not just Seba. A significant number of energy analysts say—the CEO of Shell Oil; McKinsey, the big international consulting firm—are already starting to forecast a solar-dominant future by 2045, by 2055, by 2060, so it's truly a question of how soon do we get there.

Here's the reason: You can see in this graph that solar prices since we started producing the stuff back in the 1970s have dropped 10 percent a year every year just like clockwork. In addition, the amount of solar on the planet has doubled every two to three years. Those two forces have led to the point where—and we'll talk more about this in a minute—California new homeowners are going to be getting rooftop solar at $0.025/kilowatt hour (kWh) within a year or two. I pay $0.18/kWh for my power in New York, the average price in the country is $0.13 or $0.14, so this relentless reduction in prices is leading to a point where ordinary homeowners are going to be accessing power at one-fifth to one-seventh of what people are paying in the rest of the country. This is the kind of disruptive potential that we're talking about.

The same thing is happening with battery prices, this storage idea—plummeting. All of this is leading to this sort of a picture, basically showing that the retail price of grid power on average in the country starting today is about $0.14. It's rising because the grid is old, it needs maintenance, it needs to be upgraded to be smart. This is putting more pressure on price.

If we look at solar at the utility scale, these are big solar farms that feed power into the grid, they're already crushing fossil fuels. In bids in California, in Idaho, and in Colorado in the last year or two we've had solar plus storage plus wind coming in at $0.025, $0.03/kWh, the best that fossil fuels has been able to do is $0.045.

These plummeting prices have meant that a few years ago solar was expensive, and that's what's in everybody's mindset still, but now in the marketplace it's the dominant technology at the utility scale, and pretty much every new power plant is going to be either offshore wind or onshore wind or solar going forward.

What's really interesting is that pretty soon—sometime in the 2020s in most markets—this rooftop solar, distributed solar, is going to achieve the same level of cost competitiveness and then get cheaper than the grid. This is this recipe for market disruption that we're talking about. What you're going to get is increasingly partial grid defection, where anybody who has access to money and capital is going to start financing people and companies to put up solar and put up batteries. They're going to make money off that because it's going to be cheaper than buying it off the grid. That's the business model that's really going to disrupt our energy system.

This could lead to what people call the "utility death spiral"—scary for the utilities—where people start to defect from the grid, they're not buying power anymore, the utility's business model is they don't have enough revenue to maintain the grid.

This is a justice issue because if it's just rich people putting in solar and poor people are still on the grid, that's not going to work, so we have to figure out how to manage and adjust through that transition, but it's going to be unstoppable if the economics play out the way we think they're going to play out. If these trends continue, this is going to be the future.

The bottom line here is—remember how we used to use telephone wires? They're still out there, where I live anyway. I have telephone wires going up and down my street.

Nobody uses them. They're just sitting there. It's an infrastructure that has been abandoned, and that will be the future of the electric grid. Not as soon, not immediately. The grid's still going to be critical for the next few decades, and we'll be feeding a lot of renewables into it.

It's exciting. We're at this moment where we're in a new energy transition where we used to get our power from burning stuff and centralized power plants and putting it through the wires. We're now going to move to this wireless world where we're going to get power from our rooftops, from our clothes, in our devices, and it's going to end energy poverty in poor countries. It's going to break the monopoly power of the oil companies and the utilities. Fundamentally, it's going to be the foundation for a new era of human liberation that's based on really inexpensive energy available to all humans. It's really an incredible moment to be at the birth of that.

Again, the question is: How soon do we get there, and in particular, can we get there by 2030, because that's what the science tells us we've got to do. Is it physically possible? This is the story that would have to play out. In 2018 we're at about 2 percent global solar, not very much, but remember, it has been doubling every two years. If that trend continues, then by 2022 you're at 8 percent, by 2026 you're at 32 percent, and by 2028 you're at 64 percent of global capacity of electricity being supplied by solar. That exponential growth is really powerful.

As Tony Seba says, this is really easy to do on a PowerPoint slide, but could this really happen in the real world? It's easy to think, The utilities are going to oppose this, people are going to object to having solar across their street, local zoning laws. Would there even be enough raw materials to produce this many solar panels that fast? Do we have enough workers to install them? We can talk more about that in the Q&A, but to get there we just have to have the continuation of the trends we've seen for 20 years, and that would be driven by the fact that solar plus storage is getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper, and so the market will be rewarding people who are installing solar at crazy rates. That's the vision. We'll talk about is it possible.

At this point, I want you just to imagine that this combination of solar plus storage has the potential to be disruptive. We understand how technologies can spread rapidly, from 0 to 3-4 percent to 80 percent. The best example is smartphones in our pockets. If you'd asked somebody in 2007, "How many people do you think will have a computer in their pocket in 10 years, 2017?" You never would have gotten 2.5 billion, a third of the people on the planet, but that's what happened. Just keep that in mind.

We've now solved the energy half of the climate problem. Check. We've got 100 percent renewable power. What about vehicles, because we've still got to do that one. How do we do that?

We have to make a transition from gasoline-powered cars to electric vehicles. That's got to happen. It's got to happen really fast. At the auto show last week in Frankfurt Mercedes executives announced they've designed their last internal combustion engine. Mercedes will never again design a new gasoline-powered car. The auto industry understands that this is the future, but again, how soon can we get there? Can it happen by 2030?

It wouldn't happen by a one-to-one transition. Electric vehicles get cheaper, they're better, my next car's an electric vehicle. That's going to take too long. It's going to have to happen through some disruptive impact on our transportation system, and it could happen if—this is one scenario—autonomous ride-sharing really explodes, and by "autonomous ride-sharing," what do I mean? I mean driverless Lyft and Uber.

Before you say, "Really? Yeah, maybe 30 years from now," this is already happening in Phoenix, Arizona. Waymo, which is a Google company, has got a commercial business where you can dial up on your app, and a driverless car will come and pick you up and take you anywhere you want to go in the city, and nobody touches the steering wheel. This stuff ain't science fiction. The question is, will it be disruptive?

Another thing I want to say is that a lot of smart people are betting that this is the future of transportation. Billions and billions of dollars are going into driving this technology really fast. We had the two initial public offerings (IPO) for Uber and Lyft this year, $120 billion collectively, and everybody knows that those companies do not make money as taxi companies. They've been losing money on every ride, and their only future really is if they can go to a driverless model. Lyft said that they anticipate that by the second half of the 2020s, 50 percent of their rides will be driverless. That's what they said in their IPO papers.

There's reason to think that's going to happen way sooner because the first one that gets there wins. This is one of those markets where if you're the first player with a successful technology and you land and expand, you are going to be the dominant player, and that's why there's so much money pouring into driving this technology as a disruptive option.

The other thing is that driverless fleets are going to be electric. In fact, they already are. Anybody who's playing in this game already—DiDi, which is the big Chinese company; Chevy, which is Cruze; Honda; Waymo; Tesla, obviously—are already going electric because on a lifecycle basis electric vehicles are way cheaper than gasoline-powered cars because they last much longer.

You can get half a million miles—and they're going toward a million miles on electric vehicles (EVs)—gas-powered cars maybe 250,000. So you have a choice: I can buy one electric vehicle or three or four gas-powered cars. Obviously, you're going electric, and that's what we're seeing already.

Again, the question is, how fast could this happen? Will this explode?

Here's Tony Seba again. He says that the technology he believes will be ready to go primetime—not just Phoenix, which is flat and nice, but Detroit, Atlanta, New York—by 2021. His analysis says that at that moment consumers will have a choice where they can pay $900 a month for a new car all-in—lease, gas, maintenance, insurance, that's what it costs—or you can go with a subscription model, pay $100 a month for all the transportation you need locally. Those are your choices. That's a 10X difference, and what Seba's research has shown is that any time you have a market where a new technology enters that offers the same service at one-tenth the price or a better service at one-tenth the price, it goes really fast.

He believes that if this gets started in 2021, it's all over by 2030 and that 95 percent of U.S. miles would be driverless electric vehicles. You can see that the market for new cars just craters. Do you believe this? Can you imagine an America where nobody's buying new cars, nobody's buying new cars, and we're all happily—

We'll talk about this. There are a lot of reasons you could say this won't happen, but just keep in mind that tenfold price decline as a potential driver because really what I want you to do is, if we're actually going to solve climate by 2030, the world has to be very different in some big way than it is now in terms of how we get our power and how we get around.

We can't keep doing what we're doing and then somehow think that's going to solve the problem. There has to be some really big disruption in the background systems that deliver the things we want. It doesn't mean we have to freeze in the dark or anything like that, but there has to be some big technological change that goes really fast.

There was a piece in The New York Times I think yesterday that if we're really going to do climate change we've got to have World War II mobilization, that means censorship and suffering—that's sort of the vision. It has to be this top-down government thing that is never going to happen. In fact, we're at this interesting moment where as a consequence of a lot of top-down government stuff and funding of these technologies by the Chinese and the Germans and the Americans we're at this point where these technologies are at parity with fossil fuels or cheaper and getting cheaper all the time, and that's setting up this moment where we've got powerful market forces pushing us toward energy transition and transport transition.

This will not happen just by the market because there are going to be a lot of people opposed to this, and for good reasons: It's going to threaten Lyft drivers and utilities. It'll be disruptive, so the market alone is not going to get us there fast enough.

We need to have—and here's the second half of the talk—civic action because this is a thing where we've got to create the policy environment where all of this stuff can unfold.

There's the strike that's going to happen tomorrow. That's Greta Thunberg again. Obviously, we have an election coming up, which is very important, but I want to talk about action. What's interesting also about this moment is that the action can really not be so much out of Washington, it's really much more important about what's happening in your city, what's happening in your state, what's happening with your electric utility.

We have to do three things: We've got to smooth the path for the energy transition, deal with the resistance that's going to arise. That's state and local action. There are still a hundred other things we've got to do to address the climate crisis, and we'll talk briefly about that. We've got to ensure justice again, because if it happens fast, it's going to be disruptive, and we have to make sure that the green jobs are jobs for all, that everybody has access to power, that the transition doesn't leave some people behind.

Let's talk about those. Here's the list of states I think a year ago that had commitments to 100 percent clean energy by 2045, 2050. These are critical. We have one in New York. It guides the policy framework everywhere. It allows for smart things to happen.

I mentioned California. Why are they getting power so cheap? It's because they passed a law that said every new house has got to have solar panels: you've got to have wires, got to have pipes, got to have panels. That immediately cuts out half the cost of installing solar panels: no more marketing, no more permitting. It becomes this enormous industrial process, lots of economies of scale of installing solar panels, and that's why California households are going to benefit. It's going to be a great deal for California consumers. The extra cost is going to be way offset by the savings they're going to have on electricity.

It's not just blue states. In Idaho you have an electric utility, Idaho Power, that has made its own commitment to 100 percent clean power by 2045, I believe, because they get it. They put out bids for power, and they get solar coming in at $0.02/kWh. It's just crushing fossil fuels. They know this is best for their customers, and this is the direction they want to go. Politics can lead to the same kinds of outcomes for different reasons.

We have to do other stuff to address climate change. Drawdown is a great website resource for this. They talk about the hundred other things you can do. What's also interesting about the moment we live in is that no matter where you work or where you're a student you can do what you're doing much better, much more effectively, and reducing substantially global-warming pollution. There are ways to get that done.

If you're talking about on the electricity side, things like micro-hydro, farming, food waste, regenerative agriculture, biochar, solutions around buildings, energy efficiency, lighting, retrofits, green roofs, family planning in the context of educating women and girls, there are just so many things that can be done to tackle the problem that are outside of the energy sphere that I'm talking about, and you have to do that. Whatever your workplace is, wherever you're a student, you've just got to drive those changes. That's got to be part of what we do. We talked about six of these because we think they're the ones that have market drivers behind them, but those other hundred are important.

Finally, the civic action piece. Again, if you start getting just rich people putting in solar and batteries, it's not going to be okay because that's going to strand poor people. We've got to make sure that the grid power is still affordable and reliable for everybody as we go through this transition. We've got to make sure that if we have driverless cars that those things are serving low-income communities—and it could be great for low-income communities—and provide them with access to transportation they've never had before. The green jobs have got to be accessible to all—rural communities, communities that are hard hit by the transition.

How do you do that? There's actually a very simple recipe, which is if you're engaged with your utility or lobbying your state senator or your city council member, look around the room and make sure that the communities that are being impacted by what you're asking for are there, too. That's the thing. We've got to make sure that the frontline communities are in those conversations early, participating, and making sure that as the changes happen everybody's benefiting from this transition.

I'm going to wind up by talking about talking because that's where we started out, remember? No one's talking about how fast the planet's heating up. You see it here and there. If we're really going to do this, again, every American has to be talking about it. They don't need to be talking about the horrible stuff that's going to happen if we don't do it. That motivates some people but not most. They need to see what's in it for them and get excited about the transition.

People actually like talking about this stuff. They like talking about electric trucks and electric motorcycles, and they like talking about regenerative agriculture, and they like talking about independence from the utility and having a battery storage backup if the power goes out.

It's actually not hard to talk about climate change solutions with people. That's the kind of conversation we have to have. We have to get people really excited about the opportunities that are arising as a consequence of this transition, and it works. It works—but we're not. This is data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication: The percentage of adults who discuss global warming even occasionally barely cracks 25 percent. What this says is that the fossil fuel industry has won—up until now, anyway. They've spent hundreds of millions, billions of dollars ensuring that Americans somehow believe that this science issue, this civilizational issue, is a red state/blue state thing, that it's partisan, that it's political, and it's just not.

Actually, this is the way America was designed, unfortunately, in some ways. That's the way the Founding Fathers built it, checks and balances, gridlock. It's built into our system. We have a system that allows a well-organized minority to block change. That's the world we live in.

As Americans we also have learned how to break through that, and what we do is we start talking. We talk in our communities, and we start passing laws in our towns and cities and then our states, and then eventually it bubbles up to the federal level. We break through, and we change the future.

Go back to abolition of slavery, the movement against excessive power of corporations at the end of the 1800s/early 1900s, labor rights in the 1930s, civil rights in the 1960s, and then LGBTQ rights more recently. AIDS activists in the 1980s used to say that "Silence = Death." That was the saying, silence equals death. It's true. If we weren't talking about AIDS, then people were dying of AIDS. They took what was a stigma, and they turned it into a disease, and they did that by talking about it, and they got Americans to understand that it was just a disease, it wasn't a curse. That's the kind of grassroots movement that has to happen here.

On the climate side, silence equals death of ecosystems, and again we're already seeing the death of those natural systems. The death of those natural systems is going to translate ultimately to whole cities abandoned, whole countries rendered uninhabitable, food shortages, hundreds of millions of environmental refugees. That's not where we can go. The thing that we all have to do is start talking about this with everybody all the time.

Here's a way you can do it. This is an initiative that we're sponsoring out of the Bard Center for Environmental Policy. April 7—mark your calendars, it's a Tuesday night. What we're doing is a nationally coordinated event that will feature 52 simultaneous university-hosted webinars, one in every state in the country and Puerto Rico and DC. It'll be an hour-long conversation, and the idea is on those evenings we're going to find out from climate experts—in New Jersey, in Tennessee, in Idaho, and Wisconsin, in Minnesota—what are the top three things that need to happen in each of those states or maybe in their cities or maybe with their electric utilities, ambitious things that would actually put us on a path toward solving climate change by 2030.

When we're done, we're going to have a list of 156 things. The idea is that once these conversations are set up out of a university in each state, then every environmental studies class in the state, every AP environmental science class in the state, every faith group that cares about climate change, and every citizen's climate lobby group that's involved, will be able to tune into that conversation. There will be 45 minutes following the hour-long webinar that we'll send a template about where you can have conversation about how your community, your students, or your citizens, can feed into this civic action idea and drive those changes that the experts are telling us we need, and it'll be location-specific, because that's really what matters now.

This is something very concrete. You can sign up with me afterward—solveclimateby2030.org, that's the website—and get your group to do that. This is a very concrete way you can get people talking about climate change. The vision is we're going to have a couple of hundred thousand Americans engaged in this conversation on that night.

I started off talking about how this is an extraordinary moment in which we're living, and it is, undoubtedly, because of the challenges we face, but it's also an extraordinary moment. In many ways, it's the most exciting and decisive and human time to ever be alive because no human generations before ours have been so able to so clearly see two futures. One of them we've talked about tonight is pretty grim. We don't want to go there, but we've also sketched out tonight a future that is imminently achievable, that will lead to justice and prosperity and sustainability. The only thing standing between us and that future is a lot of hard work.

The other thing is, as Americans we have this unique privilege. Unlike our activist forbears in the civil rights movement, labor movement, or environmental or human rights activists around the world today, we are not facing dogs and fire hoses and beatings and torture and jail and lynchings and murder if we speak out. We are really free if we choose to change the future.

So, join us tomorrow, get the energy that a few hundred thousand people in the streets are going to generate, and then let's take that forward into a commitment to realize that a girl just started talking, started communicating 16 months ago, and as a consequence there are millions of young people around the world who are going to follow her example.

I hope we have time for some conversation. Thank you.

Questions

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson. Thank you.

This was quite extraordinary. I wish there had been more people here. Carnegie Council is changing their whole program, and most of us who have been members forever are not here, wonderful people who could talk and spread the word.

I just wanted to ask you about a certain reality going on in our country now. We have a president who dismisses climate change, and there are others who play up to him and are spreading their word. This is so negative and so unfortunate, but political reality. What do we do about it? What are you doing about it with the environmental center? Is it a generational thing? Is it only young people—the young people here are great—or those of us who have been thinking about it forever, what can we do?

EBAN GOODSTEIN: It is amazing, given the state of the world, that this is the state of politics, but it's not just in America. Country after country we see this deep polarization, tribalization, and in America, in Australia, and to a lesser degree in Canada you've got fossil fuel interests that have spent hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars to wedge climate change into that tribal divide for obvious reasons, because this is an existential threat to their business. That's where we are.

Again, what's exciting about this moment is that what the federal government does isn't as relevant as it used to be because they've done their work. The Chinese, the Germans, the Americans, we've been supporting these technologies for 20–30 years. We've driven down the costs, and over the next decade this is going to increasingly be a market-driven transition on the energy side.

The work that citizens need to do is going to be much more at the state and local level to smooth the path for the transition and overcome local opposition and get their utilities onboard. The political work has largely shifted to the state level.

The blue states in America probably account for 60 percent of emissions, maybe 70 percent, so in many ways it doesn't matter so much what Florida does for the next five years. Then, five years from now, even Tea Party Republicans in Florida are going to be saying, "Hey, I can make a lot of money if I start installing solar."

The other thing is, if you look at the polling, young Republicans have very little distance between them and young Democrats on climate change. It really is a generational thing. It's a Fox News-watching kind of phenomenon.

The Republican Party's position as represented by Trump—it's not just Trump, of the 18 candidates who ran in that race, only one of them spoke out on climate change, and that was Lindsay Graham. It's doomed. The problem is they do a lot of damage by hanging onto it, but it will pass. It will pass.

QUESTION: Hello. My name is Larry Bridwell.

I teach International Business at Pace University, and I have a lot of students from China, India, and the rest of Asia. As you were talking about solar energy, I was thinking of China and India, which have one-third of the world's population. What's going to happen in terms of India and China when it comes to solar power? I do know that China is the world's leader in electric vehicles.

EBAN GOODSTEIN: And solar panels. I think they're buying—a hundred electric buses a week are going into Chinese cities right now?

QUESTIONER [Mr. Bridwell]: That's an interesting paradox because Americans like to think that they're the leaders of the world.

EBAN GOODSTEIN: We're not in any way leaders of the world.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Bridwell]: But when it comes to renewable energy, then China is now the leader in renewable energy.

EBAN GOODSTEIN: Absolutely. Not in technology, but in production. But they'll fast gain the edge in technology as well because of the scale.

India's big commitment at the Paris meetings was just a mind-blowing amount of solar that they committed to installing, and they're on-track to do it. They've got a lot of people they have to provide electricity to, so there's a question about—

Again, I think the economic drivers here are as strong if not stronger in those places, partially because coal is killing so many people in those countries because it's dirty coal. They get all kinds of health benefits also, which is why China has basically banned—they're moving really fast with electric vehicles just to clean up the cities. It's not about climate change.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Bridwell]: When I think of this climate change, the United States has 5 percent of the world's population, we do 25 percent of the world's pollution, but we only have 5 percent of the world's population. It's the other 95 percent of the world that's going to be quite important in terms of climate change. To me this is not just an American movement. You could say it's an international necessity.

EBAN GOODSTEIN: Absolutely. It's exciting because what it means is that again we're creating a much more sustainable technology suite—

QUESTIONER [Mr. Bridwell]: Who is we who's doing it?

EBAN GOODSTEIN: It's a global thing. It's not "we Americans." Some of us Americans have been engaged, but there has been a suite of other Americans who haven't been, but that's true in other countries.

It's a global sustainability movement that has arisen over the last 20 years. We talk about the backlash against this, but the other—climate change has created two social movements, the skeptics and the deniers on one hand, but it has also created this tremendous commitment on the part of corporations, companies, businesses, and governments around the world to drive this future, so it's a race between those two visions.

The nice thing is that outside of the United States there's no serious climate denial. Maybe in Australia. The Republican Party is the only conservative party in the world that denies the reality of climate change, in the world! Go figure. That's the power of the oil companies.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Bridwell]: You're in effect saying the biggest environment sinner in the world is the United States of America.

EBAN GOODSTEIN: I think in terms of government action right now, absolutely. There's no question. We pulled out of the Paris accord. We're the only country in the world now out of the Paris accord. How could we not be the biggest sinner?

QUESTION: My name is Lisa Meyer.

This is the most hopeful talk I've heard in a long time. I just have a question about the transition and all the retirement funds that have Exxon in them. I can see this causing a civil war almost because of so many widows and retirees who are dependent on their retirement.

EBAN GOODSTEIN: That's an interesting question. In my MBA in Sustainability program, one of my faculty members works with an organization called the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), that does a lot of financial analysis of the myopia of continuing to hold fossil fuel stocks.

This is a problem with the trustees of these organizations. They don't get it. They don't get how fast this future is coming because markets are forward-looking. If peak oil happens in 2025 or 2023 because of the shift to electric, the minute that happens oil stocks just crash because they're sitting on so many stranded assets. The only reason that those companies have valuation is still people somehow believe we're going to be burning a lot of oil in 2030 or 2040 when they finally get to developing those oil fields they have, but it's a real disaster in the making.

A lot of the education has to be to those trustees to get the heck out of those stocks. They're underperforming, and they've been underperforming since 2014. They've been under Standard & Poor's since 2014. The only reason Exxon stock has done well is that they keep buying back shares. There's no business model there anymore.

If you take this transition scenario seriously, oil companies collapse, car companies collapse, banks that finance them, people that insure them, on the one hand. On the other hand, you have great new industries growing in electric vehicle service, provision, putting up solar panels everywhere. It's one of those horse-to-cars transitions, where there's going to be a lot of buggy whip manufacturers that are going to go down.

QUESTION [Ms. Meyer]: They're not going to be transitioning into other businesses, like carbon sequestration. It wouldn't count.

EBAN GOODSTEIN: They could, but the history of companies that successfully anticipate a disruption to their technology—Kodak invented the digital camera. They invented it, and they didn't see the potential. They don't exist anymore.

QUESTION: My name is Seneca Cornelius. I work at EmPower Solar in commercial solar sales.

I just wanted to raise awareness about civic action in terms of solar dominance, which is totally possible, and thank you for raising that. It's really great.

Just speaking from a personal standpoint, one of our biggest obstacles in trying to get massive amounts of solar panels out there in the communities would be the interconnection process to the grid and the infrastructure of the grid itself. A lot of people aren't aware—well, most of you may be—of just how old and outdated the grid infrastructure is, and because of that we actually haven't been able to complete some jobs. We've been denied jobs because the grid in that area can't hold that surge of power. That's actually something that keeps us from moving forward toward that.

Our leaders work very closely with legislation and policymakers, and one of them is part of the Interconnection Working Group out east for the Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG). I guess my question would be, how would you recommend getting that aspect out there to the public to help them understand that that's really important to get massive amounts of solar out there?

EBAN GOODSTEIN: What should people do? How is the public going to be involved here?

QUESTIONER [Ms. Cornelius]: The public can be involved by reaching out to the utilities.

EBAN GOODSTEIN: And demanding that they spend more money on grid upgrades?

QUESTIONER [Ms. Cornelius]: Right. The utilities aren't completely denying that that needs to be done, but what it comes down to is who's going to be allocating the money.

EBAN GOODSTEIN: And where the capital's coming from.

QUESTIONER [Ms. Cornelius]: Right.

EBAN GOODSTEIN: I think ultimately, if solar's really going to be disruptive, it's going to sidestep the grid. That's the real disruptive potential for solar. It's why conventional forecasters don't assume this kind of rapid penetration of solar. They just think, Well, it's going to grow 5 percent a year or whatever. It's not going to double. They've been wrong. They keep getting it wrong.

QUESTIONER [Ms. Cornelius]: Yes, it's exciting. It's a great time to be alive.

EBAN GOODSTEIN: One possibility is that you do get a pro-clean energy administration in at the federal level, and they just say, "Priority, we're going to do a green new deal and have lots of money flowing into grid upgrades and modernization." The other is that you've got some woke utilities who get that this is their future, and they figure out how to get the money.

The third—and maybe it's going to be all three—is that once distributed energy plus batteries gets cheaper than the grid you're going to get this grid defection, and people are going to say, "Well, you're not going to let me plug into the grid?" I'm just going to have a micro-grid for my factory.

QUESTIONER [Ms. Cornelius]: Great idea.

EBAN GOODSTEIN: "I'll just draw on the grid in the wintertime when I need it."

Or you'll have coops emerge because it'll be cheap enough to actually finance micro-grids. So, I think it's going to be a mix of people who get it and who are going to do the grid upgrades and then a new business model that's going to be much more about grid alternatives.

QUESTIONER [Ms. Cornelius]: I hope so. Thank you.

EBAN GOODSTEIN: We're going to see this much sooner than people think.

AMANDA GHANOONI: Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less