Global Ethics Forum: Hope for a Sustainable Future with Steven Cohen

Global Ethics Forum: Hope for a Sustainable Future with Steven Cohen


(energetic, rhythmic music) – Welcome to Ethics Matter. I’m Stephanie Sy, and our
guest is Steven Cohen, the Executive Director of the Earth Institute
at Columbia University. Steven has an extensive resume, not all of which I
will recall here. Suffice it to say, you
have a rich background in environmental policy,
in public management. And today we are going
to be talking about the sustainable future. Steven has what I would say a rare positive perspective on the future of our planet, so I wanna focus on your
thinking around that. Thank you so much
for joining us. I watched a talk you
gave in 2015 titled A Positive Vision of the
Transition to Sustainability. That was two years ago, before
we had an administration stacked with climate
change skeptics. Are you changing
your tune on that? Do you need to come
out with a new talk? – No, I still believe
that we’re heading toward a renewable
resource-based economy, and I think that
it’s inevitable. It would be better
if we had a president that was supportive
of those goals and whose thinking had
advanced since the mid-1970s, but unfortunately
that’s not what we have. But it really doesn’t matter. Companies, people,
communities, local governments, they’re all moving in
the same direction. That was a talk I gave
at the Ross School out in the Hamptons. They were taking
their whole year and devoting it to
sustainability studies, and this was the kickoff of helping their teachers
get ready for that year. And nothing since then
has changed my view, including the last
several months. – Alright, I want to delve into
some of the reasons you feel that businesses and
local governments are on a path toward
sustainability, but I want to press you
just a little bit further on the current administration, because a lot of people that
care about climate change were up in arms after the
Trump administration decided to pull out of the
Paris Climate Accords. How do you view that action
through first a policy lens, and then through a moral lens? – It was an unethical
act by the president, without question. We have a responsibility
to the rest of the world. We’re the leading economy, we should be playing
a leadership role on these issues of
global sustainability, particularly climate change. So I think it was a mistake, and it was an immoral act. There’s no question about that. But I think that fortunately
we live in a country with many sources of power. The president may be the
single most powerful person, but we’re a federal system. states have enormous power, cities get that power
from the states, and corporations and
communities have a lot of power. We’re a federal system. And so the president moving
in one direction is bad. The first thing that
you saw afterwards was a group of people
led by Mike Bloomberg to universities and states and cities and corporations all saying, “We’re still in.”
– Right. – And actually asking
the UN to let us represent this country for
the greenhouse gas goals, which we’re gonna meet anyway. – You wrote in an article in
the Huffington Post recently, quote “President
Trump and his pals “deny the importance
of climate change, “but they have inadvertently
mobilized America’s businesses, “states, cities,
and civil society “to engage even more intensely
in mitigating climate change “and in building a renewable
resource-based economy,” very similar to
what you just said. What makes you say that, beyond these companies saying, “We will continue to
follow these pledges”? – Well part of the
reason this is happening is that it’s in
our self-interest. It’s not just an altruistic act. First, moving from fossil
fuels to renewable energy is going to create
a less expensive, less costly way of
generating energy. – And a lot of that
is because renewables have become more affordable.
– Yes. – Than fossil fuels
in some cases. – And think about it this way, the source of
energy from the sun is never gonna cost us anything. And so receiving that
energy and storing it will get cheaper and cheaper
as the technology advances. It’s the same thing
we saw with computers. Computers used to be big
and slow and expensive, and now we carry them
around in our pocket. The smartphone I carry in my
pocket has more computing power than the mainframe I
used in graduate school. – The huge IBM processor.
– Yeah, right, with people with white
coats and air conditioners. So that’s gonna happen
to renewable energy. Now fossil fuels, you’re gonna always have to
extract out of the ground, and you’re always
gonna have to ship it to where you’re using it. That’s expensive. So just looking at the
20, 30, 40-year horizon, anybody looking at technology and looking at cost curves says, “This transition’s
already underway, “and it is just gonna
pick up momentum.” There’s going to
be a tipping point where it’s gonna
be so much cheaper and so much more convenient, people are gonna wonder
why they ever bothered with fossil fuels. – I think the smartphone
analogy is particularly apt when we talk about, you
saying, it doesn’t matter that the federal government
has pulled out of Paris. It doesn’t matter that they
are not making this a priority, because smartphones, that wasn’t driven by
government regulation or federal government
doing anything. – Right, well actually
they did deregulate. They broke up AT&T, for example,
into the Regional Bells, and there were some
government action. But no, in general,
a lot of change over the 20th century, a lot of economic change
into the 21st century is technological. Technology has
transformed how we live, and the technology
affects economics, and culture, and society. New York City is
a great example. After World War II almost
half of the GDP of this city was in manufacturing clothing. Now it’s less than 2 percent. What happened? Well part of it is
containerized shipping was too big for New York
City’s docks on the West Side. Where the High Line is, that was a freight train from
the docks to the factories. Those factories are all
gone, the docks are all gone. They’re all in New Jersey because that’s where the
containerized port is. So what happened? We went through a decade, almost two decades of
economic misery in this city, almost went bankrupt, and now that part of Manhattan is filled with
high-end everything. And do those changes were
not made by government. – This sounds like a
very capitalistic view. – Mm-hmm, we’re in
a global economy that’s driven by capitalism. – Which is interesting because I’ve heard
environmentalists say after the Trump administration
pulled out of Paris, “Well, this is one thing “that an authoritarian
government like
China can get right. “They can make renewable
energy happen.” And what you’re saying is
really at odds with that. First of all, people keep playing the war between the
communists and the capitalists like it’s still going on. So the war is over, and both sides won. You go to China, it’s one of the most capitalist
countries in the world. We have a mixed economy and it’s a continuum. Now you do have authoritarian
and democratic regimes, and the Chinese regime
is authoritarian. But talking about the
economic side of things, there is a mix of
collective and individual in every society. – When we talk about
China and India, which are the most
populous among, China by far the most
polluting country in the world. You also talk about the fact that they can see the pollution. They can see and feel, I was based in Beijing
for a couple of years as a journalist, and there were days where I felt like I needed
to wear a face mask. And that’s putting
real political pressure for them to go
toward renewables. That’s not happening
in this country. – Well– – We haven’t had that
kind of pollution – Right.
– for decades. – Because the Clean Air Act, which is how we’re gonna
regulate greenhouse gases, by the way, that’s
the other fact. When George W.
Bush was president, a bunch of states’ attorney
generals sued the EPA, sued the federal government, to have greenhouse
gases declared under the 1970 Clean Air Act as a Dangerous Pollutant. The Supreme Court
said, “Yes, it is.” and the Clean Power Plan was the Obama
administration’s effort to finally issue
that regulation. Now President Trump and
Administrator Pruitt may pull it back, but they’ve gotta then
promulgate another regulation. – What is your sense of what the role of the
federal government should be? You were at the
EPA, for example, and EPA regulations beyond
the Clean Power Plan, the safety of drinking water, toxins in the air and
in our environment, isn’t that where the
federal government does need to play a role? – It’s important for
them to play a role, particularly for interstate
pollution, in other words, pollution that comes from
Ohio and goes to New Jersey, or from Arizona to California,
or something like that. But in fact, one of the
reasons why we passed the Clean Air Act and the
Water Pollution Control Act in the early ’70s,
is we were worried that states would compete
for dirty businesses. – Hmm? – Now there’s a counterforce
which has come up because of the 1980s and the redefinition of
the environmental problem as a health problem. In the ’70s and
earlier, people thought, “Well, the environment,
it’s an aesthetics issue. “We care about nature and
wanna preserve the planet “’cause it’s a
good thing to do.” Well it turns out it’s not just a
good thing to do, it’s necessary for your health. That you can actually get
sick and die from pollution. So a lot of the
political pressure for environmental protection
comes from the ground up now. We have trouble in New York
citing a big box store. Nobody’s gonna try to
attract a dirty business into this place, or
pretty much any state. Nobody wants it near them. Even states that have
big economic problems don’t want
smoke-belching factories. – Talk to me about your
thoughts on nuclear, because that seems to
be a point of division among environmentalists. Some who believe
this is the solution, this is zero carbon,
for the most part. – Well many of my
colleagues think that, many climate
scientists think that. I don’t, for several reasons. Well first of all, I’m
a political scientist, so I think more about the politics and the
management issues. So France, for example, is
highly dependent on nuclear, but they have a very
different political structure than we have, very centralized, and they’ve been able to
handle it up ’til now. I worked for a little
while as a consultant to the Nuclear Waste Program. We don’t have a repository. We’ve done a lot of
work toward opening one, but the senators in Nevada
won’t allow it to happen. Why? Because at this point there
is so much nuclear waste accumulated in the
civilian plants that when you start shipping it, it’s all gonna come to one
point in Yucca Mountain, and, somewhere, mathematically
it’s almost inevitable that there’ll be an
accident of some kind. So I don’t like the waste. Nuclear technology
could have eventually become a useful technology, particularly if they
had advanced fusion. If you could come up
with a nuclear power that couldn’t be
made into a bomb and didn’t create a
dangerous toxic waste, that might be worth exploring, and I think someday that
probably will happen. But we, for political reasons, went to nuclear too soon, and the nuclear
power that we have I think it has some properties
which are not very good. – What about technologies
such as carbon capture? What I’m trying to get is, after I ask you to
comment on each of these is just sort of
your broad review of where renewables are heading and your views on things
like the carbon tax. So what about carbon capture? – So carbon capture and
storage, you have to capture it, and then you have to store it, is something that
we will have to do because we’ve
already accumulated too much carbon dioxide
in the atmosphere. – Like if we don’t
start taking carbon out that we’ve already created, we’re going to be on
a path toward what? – Well we’re gonna be altering the climate, which
we’ve already done, but more than probably our
ecosystem should be tolerating. Again, a lot of climate
change is natural, a lot of it is human-made. We know the difference, at least our scientists
at the Earth Institute know the difference and
have been analyzing that. We have over a hundred
people in the Earth Institute working just on those issues. But we have a group
also working on taking the carbon
from the atmosphere and turning it into
something else. One of the more
promising technologies is turning it into a solid. You could turn it
into paving material. Those kinds of
things are possible. And we are gonna have to do a lot more research
and development to figure out how to do that. That’s not going to be something that the market
will ever pay for. That’s gonna be something that government is
gonna have to do. – Yeah, and I
wanna get into that towards the end of this talk, about how, again, the political situation
at the federal level may actually affect
the Earth Institute, but a few more questions
about renewable energy because I have read that you
do not support a carbon tax. – Right. – And a lot of your colleagues, I know, at the Sabin Center and
other areas within Columbia, they are for a carbon tax as sort of sending
a market signal to raise the price
of fossil fuel use. – Right, and the idea is then
that makes renewable energy more cost-effective. I’d rather go directly
to the renewable energy and make it cheaper. You see, part of the problem is that by putting a
tax on something, particularly in the political
environment we’re in now, you’re now gonna be
saying to people, “You’re gonna be paying
more for your energy.” Energy is not
equally distributed. Poor people put a whole
lot more of their income into energy than rich people do, and so they will be affected. Well then they say, “Well,
we’ll give them back the money.” – Some sort of dividend.
– Yeah. But the problem with that is unless you’re giving
it to them immediately it doesn’t do that much good. You need something like the
Earned Income tax credit coming in their paycheck every
week or every couple of weeks and–
– Well that’s been proposed. – Yeah, it’s possible. The reason why people are so
attracted to the carbon tax and pricing carbon is that economics is a
very powerful discipline, and our climate
scientists like the math. It’s an elegant solution. A carbon tax is an
elegant solution. Theoretically I understand it, and you can chart the
impact of price on behavior. But there is also some
price indifference on the use of energy. In other words, “I’ve gotta
go to work with my car.” And “I’m a working person “and my car doesn’t get
such great gas mileage, “and I can’t invest in the
hybrid or the electric car, “so I’m stuck.” And I worry about
that part of it. But what I’m really worried
about more than anything else is that it’s an indirect
way to push renewables. I would rather go directly to fund the science
and technology, have renewables drive fossil fuels out
of the marketplace. So at the beginning
of the 20th century the biggest environmental
problem we had in New York City was horse manure. We were knee deep in
it (Stephanie chuckles) because the horse was the main
way of transporting people before we got the subway, before we got the internal
combustion engine. Well nobody taxed the horse. They just made a car that drove the horse
from the marketplace. Cars were cheaper,
more convenient, and
better technology. – Right.
– Okay. So what I’m saying is we don’t need to raise the
price of the bad technology. Let’s lower the price, make
renewable energy cheaper, more convenient, and more
reliable than fossil fuels, and you won’t have
to tax fossil fuel. – So you’re talking about that from a research and development, further develop renewable energy so that we can get to a
place where it’s cheaper. But that’s also happening now because of subsidies
that are continuing. Congress renewed
those subsidies. Nuclear is not in there,
but wind and solar are. Is that also part of
sound policy to you? – Yeah, I think that it is. I would rather use
tax expenditures. In other words, if you
look at something like the deduction you get on your
mortgage and property tax if you own a home, so it turned America
from a nation of renters to a nation of owners. We didn’t tax people to rent, we gave people a
deduction to buy. – That’s also easier to sell. (laughs)
– It’s much easier. It’s politically
much more popular. And I think that the
politics of this, I mean Environmental politics is what we have to
pay attention to. We wanna make this popular. Everybody uses energy. So here’s the argument, and this is why energy
efficiency, by the way, is so politically popular,
what’s the argument against it? “Spend more money? “Waste energy?” What’s the argument
against cheaper, more reliable, renewable energy? – So the government
is a huge procurer, and in all sectors, whether it’s the
Defense Department, they are using transportation,
are they getting that? Are they moving in
the same direction as some of the companies
you were talking about are toward green,
sustainable energy use? – Well they were in the
previous administration, particularly the military. The military was moving
toward solar in many respects because you can’t
blow up a solar cell the way you can
blow up a tanker, and so it was considered
a safer technology to bring and deploy,
particularly in the Middle East. And the military was also
paying a lot of attention to base vulnerability
because of sea level rise. – Yeah, sure.
– So the issue now is whether
under this administration, which is guided by
ideology and fantasy, whether the facts
of climate change are gonna still be
part of the management of the federal government. – The reason I asked that is I wanna delve deeper
into the companies, and I know a number of
I think about 50 percent of Fortune 100 companies, as well as many
Fortune 500 companies, have set these science-based
sustainability targets. Are they enough to
really make a dent? And this includes big companies
like Walmart and Microsoft. – Well Walmart is a leader because not only did they
do it for themselves, but they required
their suppliers to demonstrate the
sustainability of
their supply chain. Now what’s interesting
about that is they’re doing it because
it makes for less expensive things to sell in Walmart. In other words,
sustainability also means, “I’m paying attention
to my use of order, “my use of materials,
my use of energy, “and the environmental
impact of what I’m doing.” And one of the reasons why you want to pay attention
to the environmental impact is that if you do
something wrong, think of companies
like Volkswagen or BP, the bill can be billions
and billions of dollars. – That also gets
to cultural change. And I understand
part of your optimism is a belief that there is, I don’t know if that’s
how you would describe it, but that was my interpretation of things you had written, that you sense there is
a real cultural change that these companies
are addressing, that younger generations, who polls show do care
more about climate change, they wanna buy products that they believe were
sustainably manufactured. – All the polling
about Millennials say that this is
important to them, and this is gonna be
the dominant force
in the marketplace. It’s already starting, and
it’s just gonna get larger. So that’s one piece of it. I think the younger generation
has grown up understanding that we’re in a
more crowded world. Look, when I grew up, there were three billion
people on the planet, today there are
7.5 billion people. People know. Young people in
particular get the idea. I read applications
for my programs from students in China, and they’re totally motivated by “The river used to be
blue and now it’s orange,” and “the air used to be
blue and now it’s gray.” People understand that. And I think because of the
Internet, because of the web, because of smartphones, these images are shared
globally and instantaneously, so everybody knows how
bad the air is in Beijing. We have air that was just
as bad in Pittsburgh, it was just as bad in L.A., but we didn’t have the global
media that we have today. And so people kind of knew, but they didn’t know
the way you know about the air in Beijing. But at the same time there’s
something else going on. I have a new book
coming out next fall called The Sustainable City, and I have a chapter on
sustainable lifestyles. So what are you seeing also? You’re seeing the
sharing economy. You’re seeing lower levels
of car ownership now in this part of the world.
– Mm-hmm. – And the culture is shifting
to not accumulating stuff but experiencing
and using stuff. And so because of
the Internet, again, you can now use a car
for two hours a day where 20 years ago that
would have been impossible, the paperwork alone would
have taken more time than it would have been worth. So we’re starting to see the beginning of
a sharing economy in many different aspects. So the nature of
consumption is changing. One of the examples
I often use is 20 years ago you’d go to
Blockbuster and rent a video. You’d bring it home, it
would be a physical thing, it came in wrapping,
and had to be shipped. – Yeah, I remember
Blockbuster. (laughs) – So today you flip a switch,
and streaming comes over. There’s no material consumption
at all, it’s just energy. And if that energy was
renewable, you are consuming, it’s adding to the GDP
just like Blockbuster did, but it’s not using
any physical good. So you’re beginning to see an
economy that is transitioning. There’s gonna be
a lot more people participating in that economy. China and India
are the two places that have the most
people in the world. Their consumption is going up. And the question is, “Can we develop this renewable
resource-based economy “in time to keep those
billions of people “from destroying the planet?” – I wanna talk about
that notion of time, which you’ve mentioned
a couple of times now, because among those
that were at COP21 and among a lot of scientists who care about the
environment, who study it, there seems to be a
real sense of urgency that I’m not sensing from you, and yet you have said
a couple of times we don’t really know whether
we’re going to be able to develop renewable energy
technologies and batteries and carbon capture
quickly enough. What assumptions
are you working on? You have access to some of the
best scientists in the world on this stuff at
the Earth Institute. – Well the technologies
are uncertain, but I know people
are working on, battery technology
is a major emphasis in our engineering school. It’s a major emphasis in all
of the engineering schools that I know of, the top schools. Imagine nanotechnology applied
to batteries and solar cells. So instead of the solar array
being $20,000 on your roof, it’s $300 and it’s
on your window, and the battery, instead of it
being the size of your wall, is the size of your laptop. – I mean, I can imagine that, just given how
even in my lifetime I’ve seen so many advances. But are you confident that these technologies will
be deployed quickly enough to avoid potentially
catastrophic effects
of climate change? – I believe they will be, largely because I
think it’s so important and so many people
are working on it, and we’ve already seen the
prices starting to come down. We’re not at that tipping point, we’re not at the point yet
where people are saying, “I’m gonna disconnect
from the grid.” But I’ll tell you, I used to
ask my students all the time, “How many of you have landlines “in your apartments
or dorm rooms?” When I first started to ask,
– Everywhere. – Half, two-thirds.
(Stephanie chuckles) I don’t even ask the
question anymore. A few years ago it went to zero. So they disconnected. When that happens
to electricity, imagine when electricity
becomes so inexpensive. If your home renewable energy
kit costs you $500, period, costs you $300, why
connect to the grid, and especially if your
battery is really reliable? And is that gonna happen? Absolutely it’s gonna happen. Now the reason
we’ll need the grid is big institutions, factories, probably won’t be able to
generate the energy they need, but who knows what that
will be like in 50 years? But I do think the
technologies are coming. What I’m saying is I don’t know
what they’re gonna look like and how fast they’re gonna come, but I do see these as
pretty much on the way. – Steven Cohen, I really
appreciate your perspective. Thank you.
– Thank you. (energetic, rhythmic music) – [Announcer] For
more on this program and other Carnegie
Ethics Studio productions visit carnegiecouncil.org. There you can find
video highlights, transcripts, audio recordings, and other multimedia
resources on global ethics. This program is made possible by the Carnegie Ethics
Studio, and viewers like you.

Danny Hutson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *