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Dealing with the Climate Crisis

Anthony Day helps you plan a sustainable future with expert guests and reports on green technologies from across a warming world.

Marc Cortez

Let’s have a sensible discussion!

The climate crisis is just too important to argue about. We need a mature approach to this crucial issue. Today’s guest, Marc Cortez, calls it climaturity, which is the title of his new book. Here’s what he told me.

 

Marc Cortez

AD: Marc, you are an engineer, you are Managing Director of Sunstart Partners, a company providing consultancy in solar and energy storage to industry, government, and finance clients. You are an adjunct professor at California Polytechnic State University, and you’re founder and CEO of Liquid8 Water, a stealth water conservation startup.

So I think it's fair to say that you've been involved in clean tech and climate issues and so on for more than a couple of decades. Marc, welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report.

MC: Thank you very much for having me, my pleasure. 

AD: Now you've written a book.

Two Groups

If I can summarize it in a couple of sentences, what you're saying is that we have two groups:  those who say the climate crisis is a disaster, and those who are more or less saying it's a hoax, but there are two groups shouting each other down. You say it's time for mature debate. Hence climaturity. Is that fair?

MC: Yes, that's true. I’m sure it's regional, I'm sure it changes by the country where you are, but I know here in the U.S., I’d say it’s one group yelling the other, with the other group kind of going like this with their fingers in their ears.

So there's not much debate, it's just one group with the bullhorn, and the other folks are closing the curtains and saying there's not much to see here. Just like the Wizard of Oz. And I believe that most of us are somewhere in between. 

I sold my first solar module in 1999 on the Northern tip of Africa, literally, for water pumping applications on remote farms.  I have been involved in all phases of the solar business, and we've fought the good fight and made good, slow, incremental, progress. I’ve been really proud to be a part of that. But what seems to have taken over where I say dialogue, it's mostly a monologue.

It’s just this idea, just the alarm on both sides, where one side says that we're all going to die by Wednesday and then the others saying, no, we're good, we can do this forever. And most of us are kind of scratching our heads saying, well, wait a sec.

No-one telling us what's going on

There are some truths that lie somewhere in between. And no one is really telling us these truths, no one's really being transparent with the whole process and telling us what is really going on. What's where, where some of the holes in the logic are, where some of the problems are, where some of the limitations of the solutions are.

And so my frustration has been growing over a number of years not only in working in the industry, but in teaching and working with young adults and even my own kids where the overall message is that we're all going to die because of the climate.

I kept thinking:  how did we fail our kids so miserably?  If that's what they're taking out of this whole thing is just a sense of hopelessness, then that's just a failure of policy, of communication, of strategy, of everything. So I thought we need to start having this discussion openly where, what do we know?  What do we not know? What are the questions? We need to be able to actually talk about this if we expect to have some sustainable progress.  Here in the U.S. - the world loves to watch this - it's just a ping pong ball and it goes from extreme to extreme . We elect someone that pro climate and we make a bit of progress and then, in a couple years, we elect someone that doesn't believe it, and then everything stops and that's our entire climate discussion. 

Skeptical

AD: So that's climate. Of course, it's a global issue, but my first impression from reading the book was, as I read the first part was that you were very skeptical about the whole idea.

I mean, you question whether CO2 causes global warming or whether global warming causes CO2.  You dismiss the IPCC scenarios, as you say their guesses are political guesses. You deny that  the climate crisis is an existential crisis.

You do actually change towards the end of the book, but let's talk about these things that you've thrown out at the beginning. 

Climate Change is Real

MC:  Sure.  Well, let me just baseline. I think climate change is real. The climate is always changing. I think man is having an ever-increasing influence on that.  Certainly, unabated CO2  is not good.

I think that most people agree with that. Whether or not there is a causal link between CO2 and temperatures, this was a surprise for me. Coming from this industry, I actually dug into it quite a bit, because I want to see the smoking gun.

And while I find lots of correlation between CO2 rising causing temperature rise, it's in some question. I cite a couple of studies that show there is actually still some open debate about that, but let me just bottom line it. I'm not saying it doesn't exist. I'm not saying that there isn't a link. I'm saying the direct link between mankind's rising CO2 over temperature is still being discussed and debated. I pulled that information directly off the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency website.  It says that causality between those two is exceedingly difficult to prove. 

AD:  I'm just saying that I think that it's true, right? It's a very difficult thing, but you quoted two articles and I followed them up.

One said that warming, particularly in the Arctic, can cause turbulence in the seas and that can bring up water from lower depths and that can release carbon dioxide, which the oceans in the past have absorbed. So therefore yes, warming comes first. CO2 comes out, but the same article does not deny that the presence of CO2 causes warming.

And, therefore. they identify this as an additional risk to anthropogenic CO2. I'm not going to use the word deny, I'm just saying when you lay it out there, I'm saying that if you look at the science and then there's plenty of debate and discussion about the science, but let's take it as a given, right?  Let's just get past it saying, if I step back and wear the climaturity hat, most logical people will say hey, the fumes from our cars and all that exhaust is not having any good effect on the planet.

9 billion people

MC:  Right? We are exerting some negative influence, of course we are. There is no doubt about that. There's now 8 billion, 9 billion people on the planet, and if we just do everything unabated it's not making things better. It is making things worse. And the question of how much worse it is is of course the big question.

But certainly we are having an effect, so let's take that as a given; I don't want to deny any of that. Of course. There are scientists that will spend their careers trying to link that up. Most people logically believe that there is some link and that there is some influence that we are exerting on the climate.

AD: Right. I mean, it makes logical sense. You go so far as to make the very important point that it’s not just a question of reducing the rate of emissions. If the CO2 in the atmosphere is causing warming, we've got to stop emissions and ideally go beyond that and start extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which of course is going to be a hell of a technical challenge.

Yes, I agree with you on that. That’s a sensible point of view and very different from the sort of person I thought you were when I read the first few chapters. 

Decarbonisation is not Enough

MC:  I will say that I have an issue with decarbonization as a solution, because it’s built to guarantee that we won't get there. We could decarbonize tomorrow and we still have a CO2 problem. We're fighting the wrong fight, in my opinion. 

Another of the problems we have is that the climate discussion has grown so apocalyptic, you know?  When you start telling the world that we're going to be dead by Wednesday, and then a thousand Wednesdays go by and we're still here, it’s The Boy Who Cried Wolf Syndrome.  At some point we’re just saying, right, we're still here, we're still chugging along. What's the real truth here?  So one of the challenges is, number one, people stop listening, and number two, people focus on the wrong things and the wrong potential solutions.

My problem with decarbonization is that you never get there. I'll use a bad analogy, but hopefully it helps drive the point home. 

Imagine you were going to a doctor and he says you're 200 pounds overweight.  You've got to lose 200 pounds.  Being overweight is the equivalent of the CO2 problem we have.  We’re just too CO2 fat, right?  Let’s also say I've got a 20 donut a day habit. So the doctor says you have to lose that 200 pounds and you say, okay, doctor, here's my plan. My plan is I'm going to go from 20 donuts a day to five, and that's a 15 donut per day savings.  If I do the math, 15 goes into 200 pounds, voila, eight months later, I'm skinny!  The doctor says well, wait a sec, you're still five donuts per day fatter.

That’s decarbonization math. We're adding solar, we're adding windmills, we're adding all these new energy sources, but we're not reducing CO2, we’re just slowing down its growth.  We’re still five donuts fatter. And even if we get to the magical net zero, we’ll still have consumed 5 donuts per day until then, and we still have to lose those 200 pounds.  So we're going to spend so many trillions of dollars to try to decarbonize the world, and when we get there we’re going to realize we didn’t actually lower total CO2. 

AD: I would argue that we can, but if we can't decarbonize, what what's the future? 

MC:  Like it or not, the best thing that happened to the climate in the past 50 years was COVID.

AD: So you’re saying it's being done the wrong way. 

Solutions that never get there

MC:  I'm saying it's being done in the wrong way because we’re pursuing solutions that never get there.

If we fast forward, let's assume we're completely successful with decarbonizing over the next 30 to 50 years. But CO2 levels are still too high. Temperatures will have continued to rise for the next 50 years. All of terrible things that everyone has projected, they'll still happen. Decarbonizing doesn't change any of that.

AD: So when you're saying decarbonizing, you are saying net zero net. 

MC:  Yeah, even if we finally get to a steady state, we're still at the same unacceptable level of CO2.  And it'll take us 50 years to get there.  That unacceptable level will get 50 years worse. 

What has worked is conservation.  I hate to say it, but COVID-mandated quarantine helped us.  In one year – in 2020 - we cut our emissions by 11%, 15% in transportation.  In one year we were successful in cutting our emissions, where 50 years of aggressive climate policy haven't been able to accomplish. And at a  microscopic amount of the cost, a fraction of the cost. But no one talks about that. There's an overall philosophy and decarbonization sort of feeds into that.

The overall philosophy is:  we want to be able to change the world, we want to spin the world backwards, but nobody wants to change their behavior. So our answer to that is let's change the entire electricity and power grid. That's our answer at, at some ridiculous amount of cost.

The last cost number I saw from McKinsey - just to decarbonize, that's just to stop it from growing worse - is 272 trillion dollars. That's three times global GDP. That’s just a phenomenal amount of money and time and effort. 

I don't even know how you get there. I mean, there certainly isn't enough manufacturing capacity to get us there -  solar capacity, windmill capacity, battery capacity. So we're going to carve up the earth or the next 50 years to try to save ourselves from ruining the earth. Right.  But with conservation we did in a matter of one year what we haven't been able to do with policy for 50 years.

Using less stuff actually works, reforestation, nature preservation. All of these natural means of doing it are cheaper, we can employ the natural carbon sinks that the world has in order to start our carbon negative journey today. 

Adaptation is a Four-letter Word

And adaptation, like it or not.  Adaptation is a four-letter word to many climate activists, but adapting to our changing environment is a very real option for us.

AD:  But you said that you said using less stuff.  Now isn't that incompatible with the capitalist model because you know, every economics minister says we need growth. They're talking about infinite growth, but nobody's actually asked the question, how can we have infinite growth? But growth is the objective of every politician. And we only get growth if people buy things and that uses scarce resources that creates CO2 emissions from the energy and the transport and everything else.

What we're talking about is a fundamentally different economic model and that's got all sorts of political opposition. 

MC: Sure.  You sent me a link to this foursquare analysis, this logic analysis, which is an interesting exercise.  But I think that's the true thing, right?

If you lay out the costs, this is the discussion. That McKinsey number I showed you was $272 trillion. If you lay that out across the working people in developed nations, boy, that's a hefty price tag.   When I did the math for America, that comes to about $13,000 per working adult.

That's just to decarbonize, and that's starting now until forever. There's two adults in my house who work, so that's a $26,000 bill per year for a climate insurance policy for 30 to 50 years from now. These turn into are real decisions that people have to make. Am I really going to not send my kid to college for a year, or every other year?

Now we have to pay into the climate reparations insurance policy, and that's a very real roadblock. And so you're right regarding economic growth. So how do we accomplish it all? 

No-one is telling the full truth

My take is that no one is telling us the full truth. No one is completing the math.  Everyone is telling us their version of things. I come from the solar business and I constantly see articles that say solar is the cheapest electricity in the world. And I keep thinking:  let’s have that discussion at midnight tonight when it's completely off, I'm pretty sure it's not the cheapest electricity. 

Everyone's got some spin on it, no one's telling us the complete truth. The anti-nuclear crowd is saying, you know, oh my gosh, that's technology is terrible. But when you look at it from a CO2 perspective, it's. great.  The only one thing better than nuclear in terms of a CO2 footprint is hydro.

Part of what I would like to advocate for in this book, and just the discussion in general, is transparency.  Let's lay out all these options, let's use consistent metrics, let’s be really honest and transparent.  If  we spend public money, we can reasonably expect to be told the truth.

I don't know how you feel, but I know hundreds - if not thousands of people - in this industry, I don't know anyone who feels like they're getting told the whole truth. 

AD: Well, that's very interesting.  I was interested to see in your book, you did a table of the relative costs of sequestering carbon by taking all sorts of different measures, starting with, rejuvenating the peatlands, and going through all sorts of things including renewables or nuclear power and everything else. Great list there.

 MC: That started to put things into perspective for me.  There’s some of that detail in the IPCC reports, but few people read all the IPCC reports, because there are thousands of very technical pages.

AD: When you're talking about the whole truth, you need scientific journalist journalists or commentators who understand the science and can read it and can make it accessible. To people like me who, I've got no technical qualifications at all, That what we need. It's a communication problem, isn't it? 

Project Drawdown

MC:  Part of it, yes.  That you mentioned is actually not my list but from a wonderful nonprofit called Project Drawdown.  They’re tracking all these different potential solutions and they've put cost numbers to them. There’s not many folks that have done this, that have said here's a blueprint and a list of potential options and here's how much they would cost. Here is the CO2 effect that each of these will have. I decided to take that information, calculate it as a dollar per CO2 effect, and then sort it.

If we only have a limited amount of money, which we do, which would we implement tomorrow? That exercise was a real eye opener for me. I thought that, based on what you read in the press, that EVs were going to be at the top of the list. Solar energy is going to be at the top of the list. Windmills will be at the top of the list.

And yet nothing could be further from the truth. Of the top 30, there wasn't one energy option in there. Trees and peat and farming and natural solutions were all more cost effective. So maybe we should let nature do what nature does, save itself and get the heck out of the way and help optimize that. 

Electric vehicles were towards the very bottom of the list in terms of expense per CO2 effect, just below hybrids.

What that says is we're spending a heck of a lot of money and certainly most of the media time on solutions that look like they will have almost zero effect on the climate.  There’s lots of other things that we could do that would be much more effective.  I love that list.

I want people looking at this and scratching their heads about what could be done. 

You mean if I just use less stuff, I could actually have much more effect? 

One of the challenges we have with climate is that it’s this HUGE thing. People will say, well, we have to change the system, right?  Government has to lead.  Well, the system is actually a million different tiny systems and they all have different motivations.  Economic systems, energy systems all across the world. If you go to Africa, they have a very different set of priorities than if you come here to the us or Europe.

There’s a great case study that was in The Wall Street Journal today. There was a project that went into  Africa with solar modules as a model for economic growth. But it actually went the other way:  when they went in there the locals realized that, hey, this stuff only works a third of the time, give us the same energy that helped make you prosperous. They abandoned the whole thing because realized they actually needed 24/7 reliable, energy to help lift themselves systematically out of poverty. 

One of the challenges that makes it unattainable is if we require the entire world to change then we're just going to be stuck in the mud like we are. 

So where do we go from here?

AD: So where do we go from here? I mean, that's, that's the question I ask so many people, where do we go from here? You know, I personally want to have these sorts of discussions.

MC: Well, it’s been taboo to have an open dialogue about the climate because it's such a hot button issue. So the list that you talked about, let's have that discussion. Wouldn’t you love to see that on a national stage, on an international stage? Here are the numbers and let people start debating the numbers.

Let’s start to be real with the options that are available.  Let's not hide behind these general terms, things like we have to take global action. No one knows what that means. Let's put a price tag to it. Are you willing - you personally – to spend $13,000 bucks out of your pocket from here for the rest of your lives?  I'm betting most people would say no to that, but we may be willing to do five. We may be willing to do three. But no one's talking like that. No one.  No one has any idea what these numbers are. 

The politicians hide them from us, they won't even tell us, because they know that once we see them we’ll look at them like they’re crazy. 

Transparency, Openness

So transparency, openness. When we wanted to impeach our last President over a phone call that he made with Ukraine, it was a global spectacle for weeks and weeks and weeks.  When we wanted a message out there, we did it. But I've never seen that with climate science, for something that is just so important that’s such an existential crisis. I keep wondering why don't we have climate scientists in front of Congress? Why don't we have them in front of parliament? Why do we have these people for a month laying out all of their computer models?

Tell us why that future looking science is on the same playing field with empirical science that can actually prove stuff. Explain to us the differences. Explain to us why they're equally valid. Explain to us why those future models that are never, right. Explain to us why those models are valid enough for us to be spending trillions.

I want transparency. I would love debate, I would love discussions.  I believe – it’s  why I wrote this book - is that most of us want to do the right thing. Most of us believe it on some level. Most of us are willing to work towards real solutions, as long as we understand what those are and how they’ll help

Marching towards the Middle

Let's not have it be one party versus another, pointing fingers.  We need something sustainable amongst all of us, things that aren’t going to break everyone. I believe that the only way we get there is to start marching towards the middle where we acknowledge what we know, we acknowledge what we don't know, we acknowledge our own biases and then try to come up with something that we think that we can all live with. 

AD: Now another thing, I was talking to somebody else on an interview a couple of weeks ago, and he said that the problem with the message at the moment is you say to people, look, if we do nothing, we're going to have a desperately bad future. And if we do something it's going to be desperately difficult. So people have got, you know, it's lose/lose. I think we've got to look at much more closely.

MC: Is a middle way, doing things differently to achieve our objectives. 

AD: They could be fundamentally different and they'll not be business as usual. And a lot of people will be very scared because we're going into the unknown, but it's not living in caves wearing sandals.

Comfortable Civilisation

A comfortable civilization, but we have to think very hard about how we do things differently. We reduce our impact on this planet. And I think I'll take a page out of California’s playbook in California where they really were the first to adopt solar as a mainstream energy source. It's like any energy source: it has its good points and it has its bad points. 

MC: I lay out in my book, you know, solar is fantastic. It does what it does really well, cheaply and efficiently. It does what it does, but it doesn't do what it doesn't do. It's not going to save the plant. If you spend all the money and solarize the entire world, then that only powers it a third of the day, then what are we going to do for the rest of the day? 

My point with this was when we wanted people to adopt solar here in the us, it wasn't rocket science, we paid them. We said, install these solar modules, here's some money. It wasn't terribly difficult. So I keep envisioning policies where, rather than politicians chasing jobs and chasing their base, imagine a state-of-the- address that said we're going to launch a national conservation program. I'm going pay everyone to save electricity, here's how we're going to do it for every kilowatt-hour. 

Carbon Sinks

Imagine turning all of our national parks into carbon sinks.  Imagine we’re going to prioritize adaptation techniques and carbon removal techniques. 

Do we think, is it even realistic to think that we can just consume unabated and still somehow save the planet?  No, of course not. something is going to have to change. And if we are to lead as a developing nations, then maybe using less stuff a pretty good way to lead. So 

Eco-anxiety

AD: Yes, yes, that's interesting. Before we close, it's one point I want to talk to you about, and you mentioned it at the beginning.  It’s eco-anxiety, younger generation are feeling hopeless because they don't see a future. 

MC: Yes, of course there will be a future for them. We have to do something to make it happen, but we do need to encourage them and we need to prevent people becoming depressed because of what they see could be a bad future.

And that was my prime motivation for writing this book. I'm a parent myself, I've got a couple of teenagers, and then I teach young adults just heading into the workface.  In my classes they’re always working on entrepreneurial projects and inevitably climate is one of their hot buttons. 

We’ve got 20, 21, 22-year-old adults entering the workforce and they have grown up hearing these never-ending messages of climate doom. Now they are stepping out into the world and they literally will say what's the point? I'm not going to have kids or my kids aren't going to have kids because the planet will be dead.

I take this personally. As one of the solar industry's first true brand architects, I took a lot of pride in that initial messaging and that whole story.  We told the truth and were transparent and knew we were doing good and could prove it.  We didn’t over-promise.  We didn’t say we could save the planet, but rather that we’re making things better.  So how did that, in 20 years, change from we’re doing good to my grandkids are going to be dead.  It just baffles me, which motivates me. 

Not Apocalyptic

There is a bigger story out there that is not nearly as apocalyptic as everything that we are hearing. And we actually are making some incremental progress. But just walking around feeling hopeless and scared leads to the opposite conclusion.   What happens  if you're on a diet and you're trying to lose 50 pounds and you step on the scale and you haven't lost any weight? What's that feeling ?You say well, geez, I might as well go ahead and, and eat this entire pizza because what’s the point?. 

We want hope, we want our kids full of hope. We can solve this, and there are real solutions that don’t require us to spin the earth backwards in order to affect real change.

We don't need someone 10,000 miles away to enact some global policy to save us. We can actually do things ourselves. We can actually turn off lights and conserve and maintain these trees and actually help make our local communities better.

That's the message I would like to give them. It's not as hopeless as we are being told. We actually do have a lot of leverage, and if we can be open and transparent about how we're going to do this, we can actually can. 

AD: Marc, that’s a great positive note to end on. Thank you very much. That's been a really fascinating discussion.

Thank you for talking to the sustainable futures report. 

MC: Thank you very much for having me. I hope it was interesting for you and your listeners. 

Thank you Mark Cortez.

And that book is called Climaturity - details on the climaturity.com website.

Much to think about and much to act upon. As Marc says, “We don't need someone 10,000 miles away to enact some global policy to save us. We can actually do things ourselves. We can actually turn off lights and conserve and maintain these trees and actually help make our local communities better.”

We do need our governments to take action, though. Some actions are just too big for individuals. Governments govern in our interests so they must be urged to do the best for all of us. Doesn’t that sound naïve? 

As most listeners will know, there is an election in process for a new prime minister in the UK. The worrying thing is that none of the 11 candidates seems to be mentioning the climate crisis, except for one or two who seem to be promising the right wing of the party that they will scale down or abandon our net zero 2050 targets. It is only the party, of course that chooses the prime minister, nothing to do with the electorate. Long live democracy.

Well that's it until Friday. The next edition of the Sustainable Futures Report will indeed be on Friday. Plenty of news, plenty to think about, plenty to do.

I’m Anthony Day

That was the Wednesday Interview from the Sustainable Futures Report 

Until next time.

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About Anthony Day

A weekly podcast and blog brought to you by Anthony Day. A selection of stories and interviews aiming to be sustainable, topical and interesting.
And also, I do address conferences.

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