Thoughts From An Optimist

Meet Drew Shindell, an earth science professor who studies climate change

For a guy who spends his time studying climate change, facing down the future of an Earth warming at an astonishing rate, under the management of a population that commonly resists even admitting its problems, Drew Shindell seems surprisingly optimistic.

Shindell, Nicholas Professor of earth science, has drawn recent attention as a coordinating lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C,” released this past fall. The report addressed the terrifying climate challenge humanity faces as it moves into an uncertain future.

Shindell’s chapter is the cheerful one, focusing on climate mitigation in the context of sustainable development. That is, Shindell has been studying win-wins: ways people can simultaneously work toward a low-carbon, clean-energy planet; continue to develop economic activity; and create other positive outcomes, like cleaner air and a healthier population. “Society as a whole clearly comes out ahead, with all the sustainable-development benefits,” he says. For example, renewable energies don’t burn fuel, so they don’t require cooling towers, so they don’t increase stress on water supplies. “Healthier planet, healthier people,” to say nothing of forestalling the end of the world.

Optimism! For the future! Of the climate!

Add in that renewable energy keeps getting cheaper as the science advances and the industry grows. “We’ve spent trillions” in a century and more of industrial fossil fuel use, Shindell says, “with essentially no decrease in cost and no improvement in efficiency.” Coal and oil still cost a lot to extract, and they burn at pretty much the same efficiency they always have. “It’s a kind of depressing history from an economic point of view.” Renewables like wind and solar generators, on the other hand, constantly improve in efficiency and have “prices dropping so much that some of the new utility-scale solar plants have come in at less than half of fossil fuel plants. It’s astonishing.”

And as it continues to get cheaper, renewable energy yields further economic benefits along with helping the climate. “All our manufacturing gets cheaper, because electricity gets cheaper,” he says. After centuries of energy use, people finally can apply a technology that decreases in costs as it improves over time. “This is actually a great opportunity.”

Hence, cheerful. And once again, climate mitigation policies, though undertaken to prevent the planet from frying in its own petrochemical oils, yield more than merely economic ancillary benefits. Meat production, for example, has a significant carbon footprint, so climate scientists urge people to produce less meat. That’s fine as far as doctors are concerned; they, as it happens, urge people to eat less meat. “If you just eat what is considered healthy amounts of beef but no more than that,” Shindell says, “that’s 80 percent of the problem with cows right there. And it’s good for you, anyway.

“I tell people that the nice thing about these transitions is not only do you get public health and water and all these other things, but prices are dropping so much that clean energy is actually really a boon.” We save the planet, as it were, as a side effect.

Yet, naturally, citizens are not skipping to their polling places to elect candidates who aggressively address the climate crisis. “I see generally not the most positive future one would hope for,” Shindell admits. Standing in the way of this shiny future are companies that perceive that their very survival depends on that future not coming. All the various climatic, economic, and health improvements he studies come from changes supported by comparatively small companies and industries, whether companies developing renewable energy, new agricultural practices, or alternative transit options. Meanwhile, keeping things just the same—with no change in transit, energy, or consumption habits—means businesses that have done very well as things are will continue to do well. Those businesses work hard toward that end.

“Truth be told,” Shindell says, “we do really want to put out of business the biggest industry in the world: fossil fuels. So they’re naturally not going to be happy about that.” The small number of people in the industries creating the climate problem we face are making enormous amounts of money doing so and thus have a lot of power to control whether and how things change.

“There’s a misalignment between a small section, with very clear financial interest in the status quo, and the huge benefits to everybody, a much larger segment,” he says. But those benefits are “more diffuse in space and time,” and, because they don’t have the money, “they don’t get the lobbying.”

Putting fossil fuels out of business is a pretty tall order, yet Shindell sees progress. “I do see us moving in the right direction,” he says, “albeit too slowly.” Though U.S. national policy and many regional and state policies focus on retaining a fossil-fuel past, “I see a lot of subnational efforts that are really quite impressive,” from cities to corporations to states. Almost “half the states in the United States are aiming for zero carbon already.” And utility companies may resist change, but they feel pressure like anybody else. “I gave a talk at a big symposium put on by a big power company,” he recalls. “It turned out the reason I was invited was the young professionals association with the company said, ‘We don’t want to work at this company…if this company’s not on the right side of history.’ That’s where young people speaking out and finding their voice and speaking out about saving their future is really exciting to me.”

He sees countries talking about banning internal combustion engines, cities and states committing to the cause. He knows we’re late: “We have waited so long I think we are going to miss the goals described in the UN report,” he says flatly, “but I think we have started the turn.”

So maybe there is space for a little optimism in Shindell’s futurecasting. Which, by the way, didn’t start with climate science. For Shindell, the future started with physics.

“It was all physics,” says Shindell. “All growing up was physics. I loved physics in high school, got my undergraduate degree in physics, went to graduate school in physics.” Physics is, after all, the science of telling the future. You do that by understanding the present. You derive the underlying physical laws, he says, that allow you to then forecast exactly what’s going to happen. You learn to understand gravity and inertia, then you roll the steel ball down the ramp and—you’ve predicted the future! It lands just where you expected it would.

It grows more complicated, of course, and Shindell found himself at the Brookhaven National Lab doing graduate research with a particle collider. He found the work intellectually satisfying, but it seemed almost selfish. “It was good for me, but not necessarily good for anybody else.” He switched to a physics-related field, where he saw “a clear societal impact”: He studied ozone depletion. Which is, of course, one of humankind’s great environmental success stories. Scientists discovered chemicals causing a hole in the ozone layer; within a few years, the world adopted a protocol to counter the use of those chemicals; and the hole stopped growing and is even projected to eventually heal. “Amazing!” Shindell says. “People did it! The whole world got together! It was astonishing.” So you can understand his hopefulness.

Again: Don’t get crazy. The IPCC report contains scary news for the future, basically admitting that the goal of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius is probably impossible. But still, Shindell retains that optimism.

“One of the most hopeful and encouraging things about transitioning to a low-carbon economy is that it really does align with all kinds of other things we want to do anyway,” Shindell says. “Improve public health, improve water quality. And improve economic equality.”

A low-carbon economy will by necessity, as new technologies spawn new businesses, manage resources for the benefit of more than just a few energy companies. To say nothing of the many less-skilled jobs for people doing things like retrofitting buildings to improve their energy efficiency. “We’re going to spend trillions on energy one way or the other,” Shindell says. “It’s just kind of ‘Where are we spending it?’ ” Deep-water drilling platforms, or wind farms and retrofitting? Fracking for increasingly expensive natural gas or research into improved solar and wave energy? With investment in addressing the climate crisis, “the people tend to come out ahead just on the standard market economics.”

But, he adds, “when you count avoided climate damages, for the costs of hurricanes and floods,” the solution seems evident.

“I think you get this idea that transitioning to a zero-carbon economy eventually means, ‘Oh, we’re all going to turn off lights and sit in the dark and have no modern goods.’ When in fact, we want to have better things than we have now.”

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