With the next U.S. election just 15 months away, advocates of action on climate change are gearing up with fresh plans to address the issue and bring them to the attention of the American electorate. Among the biggest such efforts is the Beyond Carbon campaign launched recently by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable-giving arm of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In this edition of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Bill Loveless talks to Carl Pope, the senior climate advisor to Michael Bloomberg who has played a major role in developing the strategy behind the Beyond Carbon campaign. Bloomberg Philanthropies has put $500 million behind the campaign, which it calls the largest ever effort in the U.S. to fight climate change.
Carl is well known in environmental circles, having led Sierra Club for more than 30 years before stepping down in 2010. He is also a founder of the BlueGreen Alliance and has served on the boards of the California League of Conservation Voters and the National Clean Air Coalition. He’s written three books as well, including one in 2017 with Michael Bloomberg called “Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses and Citizens Can Save the Planet.”
Bill reached Carl by phone the other day at his office in San Francisco, where he is a Principal Advisor at Inside Straight Strategies.
Among the topics they discuss are the goals of the Beyond Carbon campaign and why Bloomberg and Pope are now targeting natural gas, as well as other fossil fuels, for elimination in order to put the U.S. on a path to a 100% clean-energy economy.
Bill probes Carl, too, regarding the timing of Beyond Carbon ahead of the 2020 elections, his views on renewable energy and nuclear energy, whether putting a price on carbon makes sense, and how the media is covering climate change.
Of course, with another round of debates for Democratic candidates for president about to take place, Bill also gets Carl's take on their positions on energy and climate issues.
View the Transcript
Bill Loveless: With the next U.S. elections just 15 months away, advocates of action on climate change are gearing up with fresh plans to address the issue and bring them to the attention of the American electorate. And among the biggest such efforts is Beyond Carbon, a campaign launched recently by Bloomberg philanthropies. The charitable giving arm of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Hello and welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange. A weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. From Washington, I’m Bill Loveless. Our guest today is Carl Pope, the senior climate advisor to Mike Bloomberg who has played a major role in developing the strategy behind the Beyond Carbon campaign. Bloomberg Philanthropies has put $500 million behind the campaign which it calls the largest ever effort in the U.S. to fight climate change. Carl, of course is well known in environmental circles, having led Sierra Club for more than 30 years before stepping down in 2010. He’s also a founder of the Blue Green Alliance and has served on the boards of the California league of conservation voters and the national clean air coalition. He’s written three books as well including one in 2017 with Mike Bloomberg called “Climate of Hope: Cities, businesses and citizens can save the planet.” I reached Carl by phone the other day at his office in San Francisco where he’s a principal adviser at Inside Straight Strategies. Well, here is our conversation. I hope you enjoy it. Carl Pope, welcome back to Columbia Energy Exchange.
Carl Pope: Glad to be with you again.
Bill Loveless: Carl, we last spoke in 2016, November, 2016, right after Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States. A lot has happened in the United States regarding climate change or climate crisis as some prefer to call it, since then. Has your thinking about this changed in any way?
Carl Pope: Well, a couple of things have changed in the big landscape. First, the bad news that climate science is coming pretty decisively that action is more urgent than we thought. We have less time to get it done in and we actually have to be aiming towards full and complete decarburization of our economy by the middle of the century which is a more challenging pace than we thought we had to deal with. The good news is that we are now in a world in which in sectors that account for about two-thirds of our climate emissions, electricity, transportation and buildings. We absolutely know the technologies that will get us to zero emissions. Those technologies are gonna save us money, not cost money. Our energy bills will be lower between now and 2050, if we get on with reducing emissions and we know how to deploy them and we are seeing more and more cities, states and major businesses take their own climate initiatives that are pushing us much faster than national U.S. policy. And that brings us back of course to the second piece of bad news which is the federal government is totally absent without leave doing its best to slow down progress and trying to make America backward.
Bill Loveless: And in the way you’re sounding that note, I recall back then and also I recall some of the book, you wrote with Mike Bloomberg, climate and hope that there is no need to be alarmist all the time in delivering the message. That was a point that came too strongly especially in the book when I read it. But at the same time, the reports on climate change only get worse. How do you accommodate those two thoughts?
Carl Pope: Well, if you’re talking about the problem, I’m pretty alarmist. It’s gotten much worse. If you’re talking about the solutions though, the fact that problem is very serious doesn’t mean, it’s painful to solve it. If I was pounding my fingers with a hammer, it would be a pretty serious problem. It wouldn’t be painful to stop. And using fossil fuels is like pounding your fingers with a hammer. It’s actually pretty painful. But it’s not hard to stop.
Bill Loveless: Well, let’s talk about the newest approach that you have very much evolved and that’s the Beyond carbon campaign that was announced by Mike Bloomberg in June, his Bloomberg Philanthropies is committing some $500 million to move the U.S. toward a 100% clean energy economy as fast as possible. How would it go about doing that?
Carl Pope: Well, we’ve had a lot of Bloomberg Philanthropies, just had a lot of experience since 2010 in how to use philanthropic investments to help accelerate climate progress. They funded the Sierra Clubs beyond coal campaign which is already shut down more than half of the nation’s coal fire power fleet and it’s shutting them down at a faster pace now that Donald Trump is president and also barrack Obama was president. What beyond carbon will do is to extend that focus on coal in the power sector to natural gas in the power sector and then on to sectors of the economy like transportation and buildings where in fact we have the technologies and they are already profitable. We simply have a lot of market resistance to change. And in many cases, we have government resistance to change. The only reason that coal plants are retiring even faster is that there are states where legislatures are willing to say to their citizens, we’re gonna raise your power bill to keep an old dirty power plant that’s killing your kids open.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, and we’ve just seen that sort of action. Yeah, exactly. That bill was just signed into law this week by Governor Dewine.
Carl Pope: That’s correct. It’s a bill that says we’re gonna keep power plants that cost more and are dirty open and we’re gonna stop encouraging people to lower their power bills by being able to make their own houses more efficient. That’s craziness. But we live in a kind of crazy world and one of the functions of Mike Bloomberg’s investment is to make sure that when a public utility commission gets an offer like that from a coal company, it has the facts and fundamental about just how much is gonna cost the public, just how bad it’s gonna be for health and just how much better it would be to let the solar and wind revolution roll forward.
Bill Loveless: You know, that bill that was signed into law by Governor Mike Dewine in Ohio would also keep open a couple of nuclear plants. So, what do you think of that?
Carl Pope: Well, I’m not opposed to keeping nuclear plants open as long as they are maintained safely. The problem with nuclear power plants in Ohio that are being kept open is they are being run by First Energy which is one of the most irresponsible utilities in the country and it has an absolutely abysmal safety record especially the maintenance of the Davis-Besse nuclear plant. I’m not confident that those Ohio plants are actually being maintained this way the ones in other states and I’m not sure they’re safe. So, it makes me nervous not because it’s keeping coal fired power plants open but because keeping power plants open that may not be safe.
Bill Loveless: Right, right in the case of First Energy the company maintains in its statements to the regulators and officials in Ohio that in fact, it would keep those plants operating safely for some time in the future.
Carl Pope: And it maintain that previously, only months before the Davis-Besse plant almost melted down and we almost lost a significant chunk of northeast Ohio a please where people could live. So, First Energy’s previous records don’t give me confidence.
Bill Loveless: Carl, on natural gas, I’m recalling back at the dedication of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia in 2013, then mayor Mike Bloomberg spoke highly of natural gas. He said and I’m looking here at the notes, he said at the time, the bottomline is wind and solar are great but they just do not have the potential at the moment to become the main source of energy in our country. How had his views, perhaps your views as well on gas changed since then?
Carl Pope: Well, it’s less that our views on gas have changed and more that our views on the alternatives. Wind and solar are now ready to carry the burden and to replace both coal and natural gas in our economy and they are ready to do so and lower utility bills and we also now have focused on the fact that it’s not just natural gas that we burn in power plants. We burn a huge amount of natural gas in our homes. That natural gas we burn in our homes doesn’t have any pollution controls on it. There is nothing between your lungs and the burner on your kitchen stove and in fact in 70% of America’s kitchens, if you turn an electric gas burner on, you actually create a level of nitrogen oxide pollution that would be illegal, if it was in your community. It’s dangerous to you. It’s bad for your health. So, we are now where the fact that the gas use, lower in many emissions than coal is still fundamentally not compatible with American’s health and it’s not compatible with the climate future and most important, we don’t need it anymore. I would have said, you know, if all I had was a model T Ford or Mule, I would say Model T Ford was pretty desirable. I wouldn’t buy a Model T Ford today and we shouldn’t be buying natural gas.
Bill Loveless: And but when you’re saying, we should be buying natural gas, many would argue that the, it’s still needed as the bridge fuel, that’s the term that’s often been used, right when it comes to natural gas that renewables can’t close the gap in time to meet the goals that beyond carbon and others have set by 2050 for say a net zero climate.
Carl Pope: That’s way true statement in 2013, it turned out, we built the bridge faster than we thought and in 2019, we are ready to move on beyond gas.
Bill Loveless: Interesting and so in terms of strategic approach by say beyond carbon, what do you do? Do you pose the construction of new gas pipelines, new infrastructure?
Carl Pope: The first thing you do is to oppose the construction of new gas power plants because they are not, we know that within five years, they will be too expensive to operate. These are gonna be huge stranded assets. The ratepayers are gonna be stuck with enormous white elephant bills. So, we should stop that because those fall on ordinary ratepayers. Then we ought to be saying, really, if there is not a 20 year future for gas, do we need these new pipelines? Most of them, we probably don’t need. We meanwhile should stop doing things like flaring huge amounts of natural gas in oil fields which then requires us to build more gas wells, pollute more communities and requires more pipelines to get gas from the new places. We just need to start operating like we are moving into the future rather than as if we were clinging back to the past which unfortunately is what the president would like us to do.
Bill Loveless: But, there is some communities, say outside New York where folks want new gas hookups, right. And utility now are saying, they can’t do it because there isn’t sufficient gas pipeline capacity today. Now, it seems as though there is a clamor in interest in getting more gas in people’s homes right now at a time when many would say, maybe there is not the opportunity. Renewables aren’t there to fill the gap entirely, especially in storage.
Carl Pope: In homes, it’s not a matter of renewables. It’s a matter of electricity. And in fact, if you need to heat your house, you can buy heat pump. If you need to cook in your kitchen, you can buy convection oven. All of the things which natural gas does in your home can be done by electricity. Right now, the rate structure in some cases make that more expensive for customers. So, of course, they want gas because it’s cheaper. But it’s not really cheap. That’s the result of the way the incentives and the subsidies have been arranged and we need to get the prices right so that the public will be able to move rapidly, if you don’t have the gas hookup. There is no reason to spend 10-15,000 dollars hooking up your community to natural gas when you’re already hooked up to electricity which can do the same things more cleanly and for less money.
Bill Loveless: Carl in the publication salon recently, you wrote that investment, not carbon pricing is the new silver bullet. What did you mean by that?
Carl Pope: What I meant is that what we need to do is give people choices and choices we can offer them are cheaper. But they require for somebody to do some up front investment. For example, it is already cheaper to operate electric cars than internal combustion gasoline powered vehicles. We know that from fleet data from New York City. But if you live in a community where there are charging stations you actually can’t drive an electric car even though, it would be cheaper. So, somebody has to undertake the burden of investing in those charging stations. If you’re talking about making your building more efficient, we need to build up the supply chain so that we can produce enough heat pumps to meet the market’s needs. Right now, there aren’t enough factories making heat pumps in United States. Somebody has to invest and build some new factories. Same thing with batteries. Batteries are gonna be huge part of the energy storage solution of the future. We need more battery factories in the United States. So, we need to start investing in the new economy instead of trying to pour subsidies into the old economy.
Bill Loveless: Just on carbon pricing, maybe because I’m in Washington and you still hear a lot of talk about among some probably more the economists, certainly and the politicians about the need for carbon pricing. Carbon tax, some sort of mechanism that would put a price on carbon. You’re saying that’s not what’s essential today.
Carl Pope: Well, I’m not opposed to carbon pricing and for example in the industrial sector, it’s probably a good idea to make sure that people who produce steel have an incentive to produce the steel as efficiently as possible. But carbon pricing is not the first step. The first step is to give the average guy an affordable alternative to polluting. And let the average guy or gal take that option and then we can start pricing the polluting option and make it even more attractive. But before we start pricing things, we got people’s choice.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, and it sort of gets again at that discussion, you’ve had before in the book and in other places about there are opportunities given certain technologies that show potential, you should act on them now even though, they may seem relatively small-scale to some, compared to the bigger picture.
Carl Pope: Well, it’s that the climate problem isn’t a single problem. And that was the main point in the book Mike Bloomberg and I wrote, climate of health, it is climate is a series of problems resulting from the series of innovation failures. And what we need to do is to look at each innovation failure and say, what can we do to fix the incentives so that we do this right. So that we stop being wasteful. In the case, for example, of deforestation, the biggest failure we have is law enforcement. Most of the deforestation that’s happening around the world is illegal, but we actually allow people to sell contraband lumber. You can’t sell contraband clothing that you stole from Macy. You shouldn’t be able to sell contraband trees that were cut down illegally in Borneo. But we don’t have law enforcement any international timber trade, so we have a huge problem of global deforestation. That’s not gonna be solved by a carbon tax.
Bill Loveless: Interesting. You know, Mike Bloomberg gave a commencement speech at MIT in June and he said at least for the foreseeable future, winning the battle against climate change will depend less on scientific advancements and more on political activism. What did the mayor mean by that?
Carl Pope: Well, to take the example, the solution to getting better law enforcement is to have government officials who believe that we shouldn’t be having a global in contraband timber. If you look at the fact that in many states in the United States, it is extremely difficult to get permission to put a solar panel on your own roof. That’s a political problem not a technical problem. We all know that solar panels on your roof work quite nicely. But if state law makes it impossible to hook that up to the grid you’re not gonna be able to do it. So, it is the fact that the coal industry, the oil industry, the natural gas industry are very, very powerful, certainly in congress. They own the White House and in many state houses, they also have an enormous amount of power and they are making it very difficult for competition in the energy industry and for clean energy to compete with dirty energy, even though it’s cheaper and cleaner.
Bill Loveless: So, what would campaign such as beyond carbon do in that sense in addressing these political shortcomings?
Carl Pope: Well, to give you an example, back when Mike Bloomberg was mayor of New York, New York which has now finally agreed to have congestion pricing to fund the transit system, couldn’t get permission to do that because of the few members of the New York state assembly and there was no one with the resources to run a campaign to challenge those members of the New York legislature so they can continue to block progress. What beyond carbon will do is to find people who are getting in the way of progress, name them, shame them and let the voters decide what their fate is and we’re confident that once the voters understand that these people for example, you know Ohio are raising their utility bills and poisoning their kids, we think the voters will find different leaders, leaders who will actually move forward towards a clean energy future.
Bill Loveless: You know, we’re just on the cusp of another round of debates among the 20 some democratic candidates for president. What do you think of the positions taken on climate change so far by that group of candidates?
Carl Pope: It’s a breath of fresh air. It is a really non-Washington focused innovative. Some of them are better than others. Some of them are more detailed than others. A few of them were disappointing. But on the whole, this democratic presidential field has offered the most innovative set of approaches to climate change of any group of politicians in American history and I’m very excited by seeing the debate continue.
Bill Loveless: That’s interesting. Now what makes you say that? What have you seen that’s impressed you so much?
Carl Pope: Well, you’ve got candidates who have said, this is how we are going to enable Americans to be driving clean electric vehicles, and they’ve got down, Joe Biden has got down to the level of detail of saying how many charging stations it’s going to require. We have other candidates who said, we need to make sure that all of our buildings don’t pollute at all. In 2030, you shouldn’t have a utility bill. You shouldn’t be paying a utility bill for gas because you should be heating your own house with the electricity you generate on your own roof. Those are the kinds of detailed innovations that were never really in Barack Obama’s lexicon. He was good but he was dealing with a different era, and this conversation among the democratic candidates is way, way ahead of where it was Barack Obama.
Bill Loveless: You know, I was reading a new polling from CBS that showed 78% of democratic voters in 18 early primary and caucus states view climate change as very important in the 2020 election. It ranks second to healthcare, but ahead of income equality as a top issue. You see that certainly among the democratic voters but do you think climate change will be a big issue in the 2020 general election, presidential election? It certainly wasn’t four years ago or in the last presidential election?
Carl Pope: Donald Trump is taking care of that. It will be a very big issue but it won’t just be about climate change. It will be about affordable clean energy. It will be about clean air. It will be about clean water. We’ve got places all over the country where coal ash pits are causing kids to drink toxic water. These are problems that we need to solve that the American people both republicans and democrats won’t solve and for which we have the solutions. And I think the democratic candidates who are gonna be putting forward a strong platform and I think the American people will be listening to that platform.
Bill Loveless: And this all comes, advocates of the green new deal. That’s really more debate over climate change in Washington. Calls for more aggressive action on behalf of renewable energy and clean energy. What do you make of the green new deal?
Carl Pope: No. I think it has definitely jump started the conversation and it’s one of the reasons, I believe democratic presidential candidates are boldenned to put so much energy into articulating their ideas about climate change and clean energy. The green new deal obviously, still being shaped. We don’t exactly know what form it’s gonna take and while it deals with climate issues, it also has a lot of to deal with other issues like healthcare and employment that you know, I’m not gonna come because they are not part of our portfolio. But I think the green new deal has performed extremely important public service by setting an ambitious table and I’m glad that the democratic presidential candidates have sat down around it.
Bill Loveless: And we have seen action on Capitol Hill. You’ve spent many years in Washington of course and know what’s that all about. But we are seeing actions just this week, the house energy and commerce committee democrat said, they will craft a major climate bill by the end of the year with the aim of a 100% clean economy by 2050. They say, they feel, they need to do that. They have to act if a political window opens after the 2020 elections. There has been some republicans as well who supported actions that would be, many would be considered important in addressing climate change. What do you think of the sort of the political climate in Washington these days?
Carl Pope: Well, let’s begin with the fact that 100% goal by 2050 is what the climate scientists we need and it’s substantially bolder than anything Barrack Obama ever said. So, that, that tells you how fast this conversation is moving. Having said that because of the fact that the republicans in the senate have the power to block any legislative action. I don’t expect to see a lot of progress between now and 2020 on a legislative front or the regulatory front given the president from Washington. What beyond carbon is focused on is the fact that while Washington may not be moving there is nothing to prevent corporate boardrooms, city halls, state legislature, state capitals for moving forward very aggressively and in fact just recently, we saw four of the world’s biggest auto makers entering into a deal with the state of California in which they agreed whatever Donald Trump says or whatever the legal requirements are, they agreed to continue to produce steadily more efficient and steadily cleaner auto fleets here in the United States in a partnership with the state of California. So, in effect, America’s automobile fleet future is now being set in a partnership between private auto companies and states. Washington is actually right now, this moment, irrelevant. So, but I’m focused on what beyond carbon is focused on is using the power of communities and local government and the private sector to move America towards a clean energy future so that whoever the next president is they will inherit a country that’s already moving really fast towards tomorrow instead of really haltingly towards yesterday which is what the White House reflect.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, and since you’re saying regarding the efforts by states, cities and private industry and the relevance of their commitments on these issues. But you know, can they really replace national leadership, you know. I’m thinking here, we’re just off the Apollo 11 events and recalling president Kennedy’s call for in 1960 for the moon shot that happened in ten years and it did. But we don’t have that sort of national leadership today. We don’t. Is it essential at some point that we have it to…
Carl Pope: Yes. No, no, no. Washington has to reengage. But for the next couple of years, what we all have to be focused on is making sure that when Washington does reengage, the country already has momentum. If half of the country is already moving very rapidly towards clean energy, when the next president takes the oath of office, it will be much easier for the next president to establish national standards for the whole country than if the country is just sitting around waiting for that inaugural address. We can’t afford to wait for the next inaugural address. We have to get the country moving. But that inaugural address needs to be climate friendly. There is no doubt about that.
Bill Loveless: A long time journalist here in Washington, Carl and remain very interested in how my profession covers various events including this one. I run the energy Journalism initiative at the Center on Global Energy Policy. We’ve tried to give journalists deep dives on complex topics to enable them to report on things better. I mean, it’s interesting what you make of news coverage of climate change these days. It’s a topic that’s getting a lot of talk in the Journalism profession and putting a cover piece in the Columbia Journalism review in the spring headline, the media are complacent while the world burns. How is the media doing covering this topic?
Carl Pope: Not terribly well. Because the media is very focused on what’s happening in Washington and on what I would call the climate austerity story. The idea that's very prevalent and probably warranted 15 years ago is that it looked like in the solution that the climate change is gonna be very expensive and the question was who was gonna pay the bill. The media has never really embraced the notion that a problem this serious might have a solution this pleasant. And so, they are not covering it. They are not covering either the depths of the risk nor are they covering the ease of getting past the risk. So, I think the media is by and large not doing a terrific job.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. And I know you’ve mentioned, I recall. I know, you certainly before we spoke about the single most important ingredient in the climate transition and I guess the same could be said in covering it is, both is on both the risk and solution side. It’s rapidly accelerating and almost no institution you said are able to keep up.
Carl Pope: Including the media. The media is still covering five years ago story. And reporters still have those pictures in their heads. They may know the numbers but they don’t have the pictures.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. We looked to, you know, you talked to states and all. I would say, who do you look to as role models. I assume, you would say California, New York. How about other states?
Carl Pope: California, New York, New Mexico, Vermont, Washington, Iowa. I mean, you know, one of the interesting things is that at the present pace the great state of Oklahoma, the state from which got at the former, EPA administrator turned coal lobbyist hailed is gonna finish retiring his coal fleet probably faster than New Yorkers.
Bill Loveless: Interesting.
Carl Pope: And without a single look at climate. It’s doing so because it’s economic to do so. It’s about the money.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. What about, you mentioned Oklahoma. I’m thinking about all the wind potential down there in the panhandle in Texas and all and it’s only, it could be transmitted to other parts of the country, just read Russell Gold’s book on this very topic of clean energy and the difficulties, they had building long distance transmission. How does that get solved?
Carl Pope: Well, the solution to, we do need, we need to have a national grid. We need to connect the country. We need to recognize. We’ve got one economy and we are competing with China which is making enormous investments in long distance transmission. And the resistance we’ve had to building transmission is because we’ve been trying to build it, you know, across people’s communities and people’s homes and they resisted. We don’t need to do that. We can build long distance transmission along our railroads or along our highways. And we can make them, we can put the lines underground. That’s now affordable. So, we are to get on with the business of using our existing rights of way, the ones we’ve already carved out for railroads and highways and we need to use those as the basis for a national grid of underground high voltage direct current connectivity.
Bill Loveless: Right. Yeah. So, much. I think what you’re saying is, what we need is a fresh way of looking at a lot of these issues, right that many of these problems been around a long time.
Carl Pope: That’s what innovation usually requires. That’s why, you know, somebody like Jeff Bezos gets to be very rich, he looked at the problem in a different way.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. Carl Pope, thank you for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange.
Carl Pope: My pleasure. Thank you very much.
Bill Loveless: Well, that’s our conversation. I hope, you enjoyed it. For more on Columbia Energy Exchange and the Center on Global Energy Policy, go to our webpage at Energypolicy.columbia.edu or find us on social media at Columbiauenergy. For Columbia Energy Exchange, I’m Bill Loveless. We’ll be back again next week with another conversation.