Podcasts

Changing the Conversation on the Climate Emergency


David Fenton, the founder of the progressive PR firm Fenton Communications, takes a close look at what needs to be done to improve how we talk about the climate emergency so that everyone listens and acts accordingly

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Transcript

Rob Johnson:

Welcome to Economics and Beyond. I’m Rob Johnson, president of the Institute for New Economic Thinking. I’m here today with David Fenton, an activist and the founder of the first progressive activist communications firm, Fenton Communications, which is still thriving to this day. INET has worked closely with them and David himself has covered a whole spectrum of issues. He spent some time with my dear friend from Detroit, John Sinclair. We were neighbors for a time, but David really, really has his finger on the pulse what’s going on in climate and activism. Thanks for joining me, David.

David Fenton:

Pleasure. Nice to see you, Rob.

Rob Johnson:

So, I’m sitting here in the middle of a pandemic. We’re in February of 2021. We’ve got a new administration. We’ve got all kinds of challenges, all kinds of maladies that have been excavated, and now are on the surface. What are you seeing? What are you seeing that you like? What are you not seeing that you wish you were seeing? How are things unfolding?

David Fenton:

Well, if you don’t love the COVID pandemic, you won’t love climate change because it will be far worse. This is bad enough, but the impacts of global warming on public health are of magnitudes greater than what we’re going through right now if we don’t act. I think the good news is that the message that we need to listen to scientists is polling very well right now because we didn’t listen to them in preparing for the pandemic, and we better listen to them on this other issue, or a civilization will be really challenged. But I think we’re in a much better moment now of course, because a real human beings have gone into the government who actually do understand this issue, and have high ambition about acting on it.

David Fenton:

The question is how much are they going to be able to do? And that’s a function of a number of things. As you know it’s a function of the amount of corruption that they face on the other side from the dying, but still powerful fossil fuel industry. It’s a function of public opinion and how much it’s on board doing what’s really necessary on this issue. I’m afraid the public opinion is not yet where we need it to be by any means. It’s a function of the so-called moderate Democrats. In particular, Mr. Joe Manchin of West Virginia coal state, who famously during the last climate legislative debates when Obama first took office, did a television commercial where he shot a gun through a copy of the Waxman-Markey Climate Bill. That was his statement on it.

David Fenton:

Manchin now is the head of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee. And so what he decides to do will be very determinant. We have good things happening. Biden clearly gets the climate is an emergency. He hired John Kerry who really gets it and is totally dedicated to it. And Gina McCarthy to be the climates [inaudible 00:04:08] domestically and she totally gets it. They’re making for the first time climate a focus of every aspect of government and foreign policy. It’s really tremendous. The great change. The problem is that we’re in a race against time and we have very little time. Most people don’t really understand why… simply put it’s because the carbon pollution that we put into the atmosphere today stays there for hundreds and thousands of years.

David Fenton:

It just doesn’t come down on the human timeframe and there’s already way too much of it up there. We’re approaching very dangerous planetary tipping points where things may become irreversible. So it’s very good change with this administration and the global leadership that they will show, but there’s a lot to do and not a whole lot of time.

Rob Johnson:

When you look at, what should I call the history of climate change up to this moment. What is it that has impeded or what you might call, allowed us to proceed more slowly than we needed to and feel comfortable? What are the [crosstalk 00:05:37] ingredients to the action we should have taken, and what can we learn from that?

David Fenton:

Well, we should have started moving to a fossil free economy when we learned how bad this was in the late 1980s. By the way, when Exxon learned how bad it was and started trying to confuse people about it, which is it’s very well documented.

Rob Johnson:

The merchants of doubt. There [crosstalk 00:06:07].

David Fenton:

That’s right. They hired a bunch of PR firms that had previously spread the same kind of public confusion over tobacco. They did the same thing. Scientists don’t agree that cigarettes cause cancer. Scientists are in disagreement about whether humans are changing the climate. And most people still think that in the United States. I think the latest figures from Yale are that only 24% of Americans know that all the climate scientists now agree that humans are heating the earth to our peril. So only 24% know that even now.

David Fenton:

When you inform any group of Americans of any political persuasion that all the scientists that know this subject, all the climate scientists agree support for action goes up 25%. And yet there’s no program in the United States to make sure that the whole public knows this. There was very little knowledge about the subject. Ask most people to explain global warming to you. Simply they can’t. In the studies that I’ve seen recently, people think it’s the ozone hole, or we have to do more recycling or stuff like that. There was very little knowledge.

David Fenton:

A group I work with just did a survey of coastal property owners in Florida. Not developers, people that own upper middle-class houses. Three, $400,000 houses on the intercoastal. They asked them three questions. “Is it flooding more in your neighborhood?” Everybody says yes. “Are you concerned about the flooding?” And everybody says yes. And then when they asked, “What’s causing the flooding?” 80% said bad sewage systems and overdevelopment. Only 20% could identify the actual reason for the flooding. Which is that we’re heating the planet, melting the ice and raising the seas.

David Fenton:

This is not something commonly understood even now. Now a polls show majority’s want action on this, but only 24% of Americans are alarmed about it. Now think about this. This is the most alarming issue human civilization faces. And yet only 24% of our fellow citizens are alarmed about it. 51% of Americans agree that humans are changing the climate. 70% agree the climate is changing, but only 51% agree that humans are the cause. Meanwhile, the industry has also succeeded in painting the solutions as job killing and expensive. Actually the opposite is true, now especially. Solving it will create tons of employment and save everybody money for sure if it’s financed properly.

David Fenton:

So the things kind of upside down still, and I’m really hoping the administration can seize the bully pulpit and get people informed about this in a hurry.

Rob Johnson:

I guess what I’m a bit confused by is how can the public not see this? You have things like David Attenborough’s shows on Netflix. There are all kinds of very vivid stories in the New Yorker, or The Guardian or places like that. Are people just closed off emotionally from seeing what’s hiding in plain sight, or are they being confused?

David Fenton:

Well, there’s some of that. Sure. There’s some of that. It’s a tough issue to get your head around emotionally. The end of everything doom. Especially if you don’t understand how to solve it. But remember, Rob that The Guardian and the New Yorker are not the American public. Those are elite publications.

Rob Johnson:

USA Today, or would be a-

David Fenton:

Basically most Americans get their information from two sources. The internet and local television news, God save us all. Television, local and network until very recently and still predominantly doesn’t cover the climate issue. When it reports on extreme weather, it does not connect the dots for people to explain what is causing it. So people don’t know and meanwhile, online it’s a mess and especially if you’re conservative online, all you’ll ever see is that climate change is a hoax. You won’t see anything else. So, I think yes, there was some denial, but mostly I think we have a distribution of information problem. And the other thing I think that people on in the movement don’t grapple with quite enough is cognitive science shows that people only learn from the repetition of simple messages.

David Fenton:

Massive amounts of repetition of very simple messages over and over and over and over again. And in our communities of scientists and do girders and economists and people who studied the humanities, we hate simplifying things and we hate repeating ourselves, but that’s what works. Now, we’re up against people in the fossil fuel industry, and their political and other agents. And most of them go to business school. They learn marketing and communications and they have to focus on it most of them in their career is to sell services and products, or they don’t advance their careers. So it’s a natural orientation of theirs.

David Fenton:

So in general, they’re much more focused on it than we are, and they’re much better at it. They spend money on it, and largely we don’t. It’s not because our community doesn’t have money to do this. We have lots of money actually, but we tend to spend it mostly on what I call the supply of policy ideas, studies, reports, meetings, conferences, and those are all very valid things. And as a result, we know what to do. We don’t lack of supply of policy. We lack demand for policy, and we don’t invest in that nearly enough.

Rob Johnson:

I remember a gentleman named Rob Stein founded something called the Democracy Alliance years ago and made a presentation where he compared the behavior of left and right think tanks. I remember him in this presentation saying both sides spend 10% of their money on admin. The left, the progressive side spent 80% on funding research and 10% on the amplification of research. And on the right, the research funding was 40% and the amplification was 50% of the budget. The places like Heritage Foundation and others, and they were having a much bigger impact in the years. Rob by belief presented this in around 2005, and he was looking backwards 20 years almost from the time of Barry Goldwater or what have you to the… or Jimmy Carter to the end of the century.

Rob Johnson:

It was really quite market. And, the other thing which you mentioned about going to business school, the boards of those foundations on the left, where people with inherited wealth trust funds and academics, and on the right, it was business people. So very-

David Fenton:

Yeah. And, that’s very true and it goes deeper. The great linguist, Dr. George Lakoff, he’s laid this out I think better than anybody. I saw him once asked, what is the difference between conservative and liberal foundations? And he said, “Well, a conservative foundations the dominant paradigm is preserve the system at all costs because we benefit from it. And at liberal foundations, often the dominant paradigm is invest in many meritorious acts of charity. As many as possible.” So that is a different way of doing business. And guess who’s going to win that. You see another facet of this. The environmental NGOs do a lot of tremendously great work.

David Fenton:

Unfortunately not only do they not spend much of their budget on communications of their very large budgets, but they also tend to disperse their resources into many, many, many, many different programs horizontally. Anybody that goes to business school, you have to have a strategy and concentrate your resources on achieving an objective. You don’t scatter it out.

Rob Johnson:

You’ve got to go to scale long-term. That’s right.

David Fenton:

Right. And part of what makes these NGOs proliferate horizontally is every funder has their fashionable idea. And so these groups get funded to do all these different things that wealthy people want them to do rather than achieve their own focus. Now there’s exceptions to all this. I’m exaggerating for a purpose, but I think it’s an issue that we need to confront. But it is changing. There’s a new kid in town. There’s a new project called the potential energy coalition run by a former corporate branding expert named John Marshall. And he’s working on climate change, marketing and communications.

David Fenton:

He’s raised some significant money. He has the pro bono cooperation of scores of top creative and digital marketing agencies. He is a data-driven operation. He is learning what kinds of messages and communications work with what audiences, and is now delivering to segments of those audiences. These messages with sufficient repetition to change their brains basically for the good, to change public opinion. It’s still not at the scale that’s needed, but it’s a very promising development. Marketers know that if they discover through research, a particular message will sell their product or service. If it’s seen by the target audience 12 times. They know that if they only buy eight impressions, it’ll do nothing.

David Fenton:

Now we don’t think that way, and we don’t like to think that way, but that’s how we have to think. We can all hate make America great as much as we want, but that’s actually how the brain works. So give you an example. So most people can explain global warming to you. I frankly don’t like using the word climate change. That’s a term that was devised by Republican language consultant, Frank Luntz, precisely to make it sound like it’s not so bad. Climates change, and how’s it the climate always changed. There’s a metaphor that really works for the public if they would hear it enough. And that’s if we’ve put a pollution blanket around the earth with these emission gases that’s trapping heat.

David Fenton:

It’s kind of like when you were a kid. Your mother would come in in the middle of the night and put an extra blanket on you while you were sleeping and you’d wake up sweating. Well, that’s what we’re doing to the earth. And the good news is we know how to remove the blanket. We can go to clean energy and do change forestry and agriculture, and we’ll get rid of the pollution blanket. Now it really works because the word pollution is universally disliked. It activates brain circuitry that already exists that no one thinks is positive. Whereas when you save things like carbon, you confuse people. Most people don’t know what it is, but when you say pollution, everybody says, “Oh, that’s bad. We need less of that.”

David Fenton:

I’m hoping the administration will simplify this for people, create a lot of repetition of the simplicity. We’ll always tell people that 99% of the climate scientists agree that we can do something about this. I hope they will always emphasize that solving those in the proper way will save everybody money on their electricity, on their heating, on their cooling, because it will. I think if they do that, we’ll change the public opinion playing field pretty fast.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. You mentioned a little bit earlier how the conservative foundations talk about which you might call keeping the system that we have. I’m curious if some of the resistance, there’s a poet whose work I followed. He’s called IN-Q. Stands for in question. IN-Q has a poem called Evidence. in the first line of the poem is you will always find the evidence for what you want believe. The idea, I guess I’m getting at is if people are filled with dread about profound transformation of the social structure, they may turn off. They may want to deny that awareness.

Rob Johnson:

Whereas those who are trying to save the current system, whether they’re right or wrong scientifically, the current system is resilient and will be there for you. That may be what they want to believe or want to feel. How can we make it so the transformation feels like not just the dread if we don’t do it, but there is positive potential. New types of jobs, regions that have been stagnant that are reinvigorated. How do we put that into the mix?

David Fenton:

Well, we could, because it’s all true. Electric cars are better, they’re faster, they’re fun. They require far less maintenance. They cost far less per mile to drive. And they’re approaching parody with polluting cars, and retooling the factories to make them. And making sure America’s a world leader in this technology is going to be great for the country. Great for the economy. Electric cars are now California’s number one export. And this we’re just at the beginning of this. So that’s very exciting news. General motors, recent announcement, which really floored me that they’re going to stop making all gasoline powered vehicles in 14 more years by 2035. That was a very smart move on their part. I’m sure that the other companies are going to follow. I predict it will be before 2035, because people learn how fast we have to go.

David Fenton:

There’s a group that I helped called Rewiring America. What their studies have shown is that if we electrify every household in America, that is no more gas and oil heating, a hundred percent of their electrons from renewable resources, electric cars parked in their garage, no more gas heating, no more gas cooking, a hundred percent electric renewable. The average household will save $4,000 a year and 25 million jobs get created doing all of this work. Insulating all these homes, rewiring, changing the electric grid. The net result is permanent economic stimulus because people will save money forever.

David Fenton:

So it’s kind of a no brainer. There’s a lot to be excited about. And the flip side of it is we can avoid the total collapse of the insurance markets, which we are facing if we don’t act. We can avoid the redirection of enormous amounts of wealth to building seawalls and protecting coastal cities. We can avoid tremendous costs from extreme weather. You haven’t seen anything yet. So this is why I laugh when these senators from Wyoming, and these people are like, “Oh, it’s too expensive.” And like, “Yeah, okay.”

David Fenton:

Well, you people through inaction and business unusual will wreck the economy. It will be wrecked. Imagine the global economy, when you have to abandon all the coastal cities of the world. When the Himalayan rivers are seasonal. So you can’t irrigate crops when the sea levels in Asia have flooded out all the rice fields. Try having a global economy then. That is not a joke. That is our fate over the next 50 years if we don’t act soon. So it’s very urgent. It’s very solvable. It’s very massive. It requires a World War II global economic mobilization in a hurry.

Rob Johnson:

I remember Eli Pariser who used to work with MoveOn.org and then founded Upworthy. Wrote a book called The Filter Bubble. In The Filter Bubble, it was essentially somewhat like what In-Q said, people go out and they find which I call the channels, the sources for information that confirm what they want to believe. This as the new movie, what’s it called? The Social Dilemma has emphasized how the advertising model, which boosts the revenue of these big internet platforms, is built on that kind of what you might call reinforcement of what you want to believe.

Rob Johnson:

They find out what your characteristics are and the subset of the information they have is transmitted to each side. How do we break out of that? How do we get back to, I don’t know what to call it. The fairness doctrine or whatever the… how do we create these platters? And also I’m going to ask for the benefit of our audience, what are the five things everyone should read or watch in your mind to get on track with the right vision?

David Fenton:

Okay, well, let’s first look at the filter bubble. So, Tristan Harris, who’s featured in The Social Dilemma, which everybody should watch on Netflix. He’s calls it the attention economy. These tech platforms are trying to keep your attention cause the more they keep it, the more advertising they sell. They have found that what keeps your attention the most is the most controversial conflict oriented, salacious, crazy stuff. What happens is that their algorithms are programmed to boost that kind of material. So I think that these algorithms must be regulated, or we’re not going to have a democracy as we’ve seen with the virus and all the skepticism about it online and on the vaccines and on wearing masks. We’re not going to have public health if we don’t regulate these algorithms and we certainly won’t have a climate.

David Fenton:

So I think that the thing about the audiences within the filter bubble is it’s too simple in my view just to blame the victims of that technology. Garbage in, garbage out, people are victims of their information flows. Yes, of course they have certain predilections and prejudices and biases. That’s all true, but you can predict a lot of what people are going to think and answer in polls, if you just examine the information flow to them. And if you watch Fox News, listen to right-wing talk radio and Facebook has pegged you as a conservative, the truth is no longer going to reach you basically.

David Fenton:

I think that the country has to do some things about that. My personal view is that Biden should create a presidential commission on disinformation and what to do about it, and seek to forge a national agenda with first amendment experts, social scientists, people from tech and the media. I think that the algorithms have to be regulated, because again, the problem is not people posting something. Let anybody post any goddam thing. The problem is the boosting of the crazy false posts to mass audiences so that these companies can make more money and have more power. That’s the problem.

David Fenton:

And yes, we had a fairness and equal time doctrine of the FCC until Ronald Reagan repealed it in the eighties. We should bring that back. And in my opinion, apply it to cable and hopefully social media. And again, they’re imperfect systems as all regulatory systems are, but the fairness doctrine required that you couldn’t present just one side of an issue and keep your broadcast license. The equal-time doctrine said that you couldn’t just give all your air time to candidates of one political party and keep your broadcast license.

David Fenton:

So in other words, we had those in effect. There’d be no rush limbo, and there’d be no right-wing talk radio. And had we applied it to cable, which is trickier illegally, but I believe could be done. You’d have no Fox News. And you shouldn’t. Why should Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg power and profit be more important than us having a just and decent and healthy society. I just don’t accept that. [crosstalk 00:30:33]-

Rob Johnson:

You have an organization like PBS, and they are not very often very alarming about the climate.

David Fenton:

They’re not there. They’re certainly better than others. NPR does a pretty good job.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, that’s true.

David Fenton:

But again, they’ve been frightened. Republicans have frightened them and pressured them. But it’s not just them. Until recently, and even now, CBS, NBC and ABC will almost never say the words climate change. And it’s because they’re afraid because they get beat up by the right. And by the way, they don’t get beat up by progressive’s, because we don’t pay attention to the media and the right. So if you’re going to be beat up only by one side, what side are you going to be always looking over your shoulder?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. And with PBS, like you said, the appropriations for keeping them in existence could be threatened by a strong movement, filibuster, blockage, whatever that comes from the coalition defending the fossil fuel industry.

David Fenton:

It has a very small audience. The real issue is ABC, NBC, CBS, which while they have less audience than they used to, their combined newscasts will reach 35 million people, and they’re getting better. There’s this effort called covering climate now. And certainly CBS and NBC has have improved. ABC has not. I’ve been urging environmental groups to go after Disney, which owns ABC, and insist that they do a better job of this, and hopefully that’ll happen. Now you asked me what people should read.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. You said they tuned into you and were talking about false information, this and that, and you want to go right to the bullseye with this audience. What are the things that they should read, listen to, or watch?

David Fenton:

Well, there’s a great new organization called Science Moms, sciencemoms.com or .org. I forget. It’s climate scientists who are mothers and they’re posting clear, accurate information in a very accessible way. So I would look at that. Elizabeth Cole bears writing in the New Yorker and her books Kolbert, K-O-L-B-E-R-T. They’re among the best things ever written about this. Totally accurate, totally reliable. So that would be a good place to go. The New York Times news side does a great job of covering climate change. Unfortunately, the opinion side does not yet. I hope that that will happen. So the stuff in the New York times science section is completely reliable and very good.

David Fenton:

Some of the graphic material they’re doing online about climate change is really outstanding. The refugee problems, all of this. On the solution side, there was a paucity of good material, but the best organization to follow in that regard is the Rocky Mountain Institute. R-I.org. R-M like Mary i.org. And they’re at the forefront of showing how you can transform to a carbon free energy and materials and transportation economy in a very positive way for the economy.

Rob Johnson:

Was that Amory Lovins organization?

David Fenton:

Well, he founded it. Yeah. So take Amory Lovins. Amory has a house he built in the 1980s at 7,000 feet in Snowmass, Colorado. That house has a big greenhouse. He grows two banana crops a year at 7,000 feet in the cloudy environment in Snowmass, Massachusetts. He calls it the banana farm in a house that has never used a drop of fossil fuels of any kind using 1980s technology. It’s a hundred percent renewably powered and massively insulated and passively constructed. It’s a net zero house using 1980s technology where he grows bananas at 7,000 feet. So we can do it.

David Fenton:

I’m sitting in a house here in California that uses no carbon energy whatsoever. We have electric heat pumps tied to our solar system and our Tesla powerwall batteries. We put in super insulating windows that massively lowered our heating costs. We have our hot water comes from an efficient electric heat pump tied to the solar system and the batteries. Basically PG&E pays us money for our excess solar power. And that was financed with a 20 year loan that made it net positive right away. Our utility bills became lower even while paying back the loan than they were before we decarbonized. Now, the problem is that took a lot of work.

David Fenton:

The industries we need, the service industry is to help people easily transform their homes don’t really exist yet at scale or efficiency. And that’s a big problem that I think the government needs to address.

Rob Johnson:

Back to the sources. You talked about the various websites. Is there a book that’s the kind of title that illuminates the dangers that we face that you would point people to?

David Fenton:

I forget the name of Elizabeth Kolbert’s book on extinction. So that’s the book I would read.

Rob Johnson:

Okay, good.

David Fenton:

That’s a very good book. The intergovernmental panel on climate change reports they’re a little wordy, but you can read them. That’s the UN science group from around the world. And they’re pretty scary even though their predictions keep proving too conservative. But even, so this stuff is scary. The Greenland in West Antarctica ice sheets are melting much faster than they ever predicted. And, if they both were to melt, you’d have 40 feet of global sea level rise. We are on course to them to melt completely if we don’t hurry up. We don’t only have to reduce emissions. We have to take carbon out of the air and we can do that. But these ice sheets, once they move past a certain point, we don’t know how to stop them.

David Fenton:

There’s methane under the sea frozen, and it’s been in the air before in the Earth’s history. Even if you warm the seas past a certain point, that methane is going to go back into the atmosphere. Methane is a hundred times more powerful molecule for molecule in trapping heat on earth than carbon dioxide a hundred times, over the first 20 years, which is all we have. It goes down to like 37 times in a hundred years. So we heat the oceans enough that, that methane escapes from under the ocean. And it’s also, there’s a lot of it in the frozen Arctic tundra, which is melting. You could get a runaway heating situation and on this planet. That is not a joke. So there’s really nothing more important. If we don’t solve this, we won’t get to solve our social, economic, racial justice problems because they’ll just be too much chaos.

Rob Johnson:

The distress will overwhelm every other mission structure. Yeah. Wow. That’s tough.

David Fenton:

But it’s solvable, and it’s solvable profitably. I think Nicholas Stearns last production was what a half a percent of world GDP. As my grandmother would say bobcat.

Rob Johnson:

Exactly. So in the context of all of these stresses, let’s itemize what you might call what the sector. What I’ll call the general of the war against climate deterioration has to look at. We probably have transportation systems, how you produce electricity, home insulation. The nature of agriculture, I understand. Derrick Turner, fellow at IDET has been talking to me recently about how the weaning of the world from too much eating of meat can actually help in this process. But take me through something like that.

David Fenton:

Well, I’m not a scientist and I’ll warn you. I’m a high school dropout who never went to college. So you might want to take all this with… your better want to check it.

Rob Johnson:

I think there are these guys like Bill Gates and, who was the guy? Steve Jobs. These guys didn’t finish college either. They did okay.

David Fenton:

But they went.

Rob Johnson:

Okay. All right. [crosstalk 00:40:25] you got some osmosis.

David Fenton:

I hung around with Abby Hoffman. That was quite an educative-

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, man.

David Fenton:

So let’s see. You have to decarbonize electricity. You have to go to a hundred percent electric and possibly solar produced hydrogen vehicles, and you have to do it fast. So, in agriculture, you have to stop tearing down the rain forest and the primary driver of rainforest destruction is clearing land for animal feed for meat. So the global appetite for me is definitely killing the planet. People will need to eat less meat. I eat meat, but I maybe eat it once a week, three times a month. I’ve been experimenting with the impossible burger and the new meat substitutes, and they’re really good.

David Fenton:

And they’re getting close to cloning meat in the lab, so we won’t have to produce it using agriculture. But yet meat’s a big problem because it cuts down rain forest. And, this over dominance of cows now is producing a lot of methane, which is I’ve told you traps way too much heat on earth. This is not a natural amount. In agriculture, there are other things that need to do like no till plowing that doesn’t… they’re going to have to get rid of dependence on fossil fuel fertilizers. That’s the dominant fertilizer in agriculture, but you can convert to organic agriculture that builds up soil. By building up soil microbes and fungi, you actually take carbon out of the air and put it into the soil, which is a much better place for it to be.

David Fenton:

So you need to do all that, but then even that won’t be enough, because there’s I think 415 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now. When the industrial revolution started, I believe it was 275 parts per million. Anything above 325, 350 parts per million is a catastrophe long-term. For example, at the current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The last time we had this much in the Earth’s geologic history, which is long before humans existed, the seas were 15 meters higher. 50 feet. So if we don’t take some out, nobody can tell you exactly how long it will take, but enough ice will melt that the seas will be 15 meters higher again.

David Fenton:

Which means, I think civilization basically gets destroyed. Small roving bands in the mountains doesn’t sound like a civilization to me. So, yeah, this is the job of the next 20 years is doing this. A lot of the oil wells and frack gas wells are leaking tons of methane. They all have to be kept. Biden’s been talking about how we need to put oil workers to work doing those. So yeah, all of the above. It’s a massive restoration transformation project, but you know better than me, Rob and people in your audience. Does in every major infrastructure wave in history set off great periods of prosperity? The interstate highway system, the Roman roads, the Erie canal, the internet. Infrastructure transformation is a great thing.

Rob Johnson:

I would go to the late Felix Rohatyn. The Lazard investment banker. He wrote a book on 13 episodes called Bold Endeavors, which was about exactly the theme that you’re describing. And how the vitality that came from the transformation. The auto industry depended upon the highway system. So the construction of the systems, what we call the public goods and then how the private sector reacts in a complimentary way with an E to take advantage of those platforms. I’ve just recently at INET, we made a course on venture capital and the economics of innovation with Bill Janeway, one of our co-founders.

Rob Johnson:

Bill went through the history of the relationship between the state and the private sector in transformations. And the state often for major transformations that are, I would say, really beneficial. The state has to play a leading role at least for a time. The advent of the internet, the so-called Silicon Valley revolution is underpinned by people like DARPA, the NSA, the intelligence community and others. The highway system, as you mentioned, or for that matter, even the war preparation. The famous activists Naomi Klein, older brother Seth recently wrote a book called The Good War.

Rob Johnson:

It’s about the analog between the transformation of Canada now in the energy world, because they both have demand and supply side consideration skit because fossil fuels were a big source of the supply side production GDP what you call it. I believe that Canada is one of the six largest energy fossil fuel producers in the world. So they need a big change. And what Seth did is he studied how the Canadian society rose to the challenge of supporting the allies in World War II.

Rob Johnson:

They entered three years before the United States, and he puts that together. The critics of the book are concerned that the notion of what you might call a war preparation creates anxiety about centralization and authoritarian control. So some of your kind of libertarian conservatives are very concerned. Some who in recent months fear Donald Trump’s authoritarian style. Feared a war preparation analogy, but nonetheless, that marshaling of the state. Not sitting back and waiting as economists would say for the price system to tell us what to do. Deciding what to do and using public resources to drive the pace and the design of the transformation.

David Fenton:

We must. The danger of authoritarianism is much worse from climate and refugee chaos than it is from transforming the economy. We have to do these things and we can. It will be good for us, but again, time is starting to run out. This is too big problem. Looking at World War II, in what four years, we transformed industry. Not one private car was manufactured and sold in this country for four and a half years. Not one.

Rob Johnson:

Right. The arsenal of democracy got to work.

David Fenton:

And the heads of all those companies were given quotas to meet by the government and very favorable contract pricing. They all made more money than ever. And they mobilized and built things at a scale that they didn’t even think was possible. So of course it can be done. And the alternative is unthinkable. So if we don’t save ourselves, it won’t be because we can’t. It’ll be a failure of imagination and it’ll be a dominance of disinformation. This is what I’m concerned about.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, I think the analogy of state led preparation for war, you could almost imagine climate change. It’s like a Martian attack on earth. And if a UFO came down, we probably mobilized together pretty quickly.

David Fenton:

A friend of mine wrote a book about the psychology of global warming. He called it Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. And he said, “I propose what you were talking about this.” So he says, so imagine this scenario. The story comes out that the CIA has discovered that the North Korean government is pumping a dangerous gas into the atmosphere that is raising global temperatures and causing extreme weather and melting ice and flooding our cities. What would people say. Go deal with those MFs. And they would say, “Oh, that’s global warming, or scientists have discovered a giant asteroid headed for the earth, and it’s going to hit in 10 years and wipe us out.”

David Fenton:

What would everybody say, “Get those rockets up there and knock that thing off the course.: But for various reasons, the thing about carbon pollution is you can’t really see it. You can’t taste it. You can’t see the enormity of how much we’ve put in the atmosphere. It appears to be a future rather than a present real, which is not true, but that’s how our brains are perceiving it. So we’re not acting, but I am very old fashioned. I have a lot of faith that the majority of the American public and the global public, if they actually knew about this enough and simple in accessible terms would demand that we act. The big part of the problem to me is the public is not sufficiently informed about this. So they are not demanding action.

Rob Johnson:

I want to take exactly what you said to a new frontier in this conversation. We have seen the exploitation related to globalization. Frightened a lot of people feeling like governance is in tatters, and it has spawned a reaction and nationalist reaction. It is in my view absolutely essential that nations cooperate for the global public good in meeting the challenge of climate change. You take a poor country like India. People need food, they need employment, they need healthcare. They burn a lot of coal. It’s what we now have to do is get to a place where the world comes for the financial aid of India to transform their energy structure. Not just for the Indian spoke for the air that you breathe in Norway.

Rob Johnson:

In other words, we have a stake in their succeeding and we should join them. This is going to require a restarting of the notion of the importance of global cooperation after WTO and trade and all these other things in the US China rivalry, things have really been on an unraveling trajectory for quite a bit of time.

David Fenton:

Well, I think you’re probably going to see what John Kerry now, the international climate global Envoy. A big focus on getting cooperation with China and on exactly this. But this is also why it’s important that people understand or be taught the simple truth about this. Because you put carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from anywhere on earth. It doesn’t matter where it comes from, it traps heat for all of us. And so we have to help these poor countries transform. What drives me crazy is that if we did it properly, it would be good for us. They’d buy a lot of our stuff and their economies would grow and they could pay a bunch of it back. So, now the Chinese are a big problem right now because as they wind down their domestic coal industry, because of air pollution, they are I’m afraid are exporting coal plants to the third world to keep their state run enterprises going in the coal sector. And this is frigging suicide. That’s suicide.

David Fenton:

I’m sure some of the Chinese leadership know this. So hopefully there’ll be more debate about this now as Kerry starts trying to engage them again. But yeah, and by the way, India is moving to solar very fast because solar is now the cheapest form of energy on earth. And by the way, it is guaranteed to keep getting cheaper. There’s a Moore’s law in electronics manufacturing. It says that every time volume of production orders doubles prices go down 18%. This is what’s been happening for years now with solar, and it’s now happening with batteries and it’s happening with wind. As Amory Lovins likes to say, the more of these things you order, the cheaper they get, and the cheaper they get, the more of them that you order. So this is a vicious cycle and we’re not anywhere near the end of it.

David Fenton:

It’s just crazy not to do these things because it will result in very cheap energy. Once the batteries are cheap, which is coming, then the storage issue goes away. I’m sure by the way, that that’s Elon Musk strategy. He’s out to replace the utilities because a lot of people just be able to produce their own power in their own house and store it in their own house and feed it into the grid. I think Elon Musk has done more than anybody on this. The cars are amazing. I just don’t know about his Mars thing. Let’s save earth. The likelihood we’re going to survive on other planets biologically is low. Let’s save earth. It’s a pretty amazing place.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. Well, one of the last themes that I’d like to explore with you, and it relates to your concerned about if we don’t engage in climate, the displacement of people in migration and so forth can be dreadful. We have a group called the Commission on Global Economic Transformation that is led by Joseph Stiglitz and Michael Spence. And there are about 22 people from around the world that are part of this group. We have been looking at the sources of disruption technology and the future of work globalization, financialization, and climate. But as we started to explore, we saw something very, very powerful on the horizon. That is the continent of Africa has a very young population.

Rob Johnson:

The international office of migration projects by 2070, the African continent will have a population of close to 5 billion people. It will be all in par with Asia in terms of size, but it’s an equatorial region. Climate change in an underdeveloped economy depends very much on subsistence farming. Climate change will destroy arable lands and drive people off of the farm because they can’t provide for themselves.

David Fenton:

Like has happened already in Guatemala.

Rob Johnson:

We don’t have what I’ll call the East station development model of manufacturing, infant industry, led protection and learning by doing. You got 5 billion people that if there isn’t a coherent development plan, and there are lots of positive elements in this. I know Jack Ma, and the [inaudible 00:57:38] Academy in China working on deploying of technology and forms of enhanced education for people who are needing to understand more about agriculture. There are a lot of good strands. But the really interesting thing to me is if we don’t address climate, you can ignite an outward migration with a base of 5 billion people. As we’ve seen all around the world, migration of others into your system, people find frightening.

Rob Johnson:

It’s often my understanding from people like John Ralston Saul, works on this, that the frightening part is that it’s just people with different customs, different religious traditions, different ways of behaving that you don’t understand intuitively. As they get to be larger in your system, people become afraid. They become hostile, polarized. The magnitude of what climate change could do to ignite global migration out of Africa is really, really a powerful scenario that adds to many of the things you brought up tonight about why we have to take big decisive global action now.

David Fenton:

Yeah. It’s almost impossible to really grasp how the magnitude of the suffering that we’re going to cause if we don’t act in Africa. But all the coastal cities of the world. Yes, arable land is going to get destroyed. Some of these migrant caravans coming up from Guatemala and El Salvador, this is people who can’t farm anymore. The Syrian civil war, prolonged droughts, kicking people off their land, played a big part in that. This is just the beginning of this, but imagine Mumbai, and Karachi, they’re very threatened cities. A quarter of Bangladesh will be underwater in the next half century if we don’t hurry up and do something about this. And even back home.

David Fenton:

Miami cannot be saved. There is nothing we can do to save Miami, because Miami is built on porous limestone, former coral rock. And so as the seas rise, it comes from below. No seawall can save Miami, and anybody buying property in Miami is out of their mind unless they have five to 10 year time horizon only. So the massive nature of the refugee flows to come are unimaginable. And in Asia too. I was in Shanghai a few years ago. It’s a very vulnerable coastal city of 24 million people. It’s right on the water. In the water there’s canals, and it’s interlaced through a bunch of the city. I tried to find one person in the week I was in Shanghai, one person who knew that if we don’t act, Shanghai is under water in the next 30 to 50 years. Nobody had ever heard that.

David Fenton:

That’s not just because of the information control of the Chinese Communist Party. If you went to Miami, try finding people that know that it’s not saveable. You could barely find anybody that knows that. So this is not only an information problem, but it sure is one.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, David, you and I spent some time in Michigan and we’ve also spent time around the music scene. And whenever I do a podcast, I always try to think what would be the theme song. I think I can go to that Southeastern Michigan for this one in Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, Nowhere to run, Nowhere to hide.

David Fenton:

Nowhere to hide.

Rob Johnson:

We got to deal with this climate change now.

David Fenton:

If we do, then we can have dancing in the street.

Rob Johnson:

There we go. Touché. Beautiful. David, thank you for joining me.

David Fenton:

A pleasure to see you, Rob.

Rob Johnson:

You too. And we’ll come back perhaps in a few months and take another look at things as the Biden administration unfolds. And we see some of John Kerry’s work or Jennifer Granholm, former Governor of Michigan. Is the energy secretary. There’s an interesting team. Janet Yellen at the treasury. She’s got a group. Tune it up to be part of this. But we got, how do I say, welcome your return to help me and our audience to assess whether we’re moving forward and keep working those information systems, teaching us all.

David Fenton:

Okay, great. Thank you very much.

Rob Johnson:

Thank you. And check out more from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at ineteconomics.org.

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