It’s been a stellar year at Fresh Dialogues. Here are our top ten green interviews: from Tesla’s Elon Musk to Google’s Rick Needham. Most are exclusive Fresh Dialogues interviews, but some were special assignments for NPR’s KQED, The Computer History Museum, The Commonwealth Club and The Churchill Club (2013).
1.Elon Musk on burning oil, climate change and electric vehicles
“It’s the world’s dumbest experiment. We’re playing Russian roulette and as each year goes by we’re loading more rounds in the chamber. It’s not wise… We know we have to get to a sustainable means of transportation, no matter what.” Tesla CEO, Elon Musk. Read more/ see video
“I want to see a standard that could bring this country back to international prominence in terms of leaning in to a low carbon green growth strategy, so that we can dramatically change the way we produce and consume energy and lead the world.”Gavin Newsom, Lt. Governor of California. Read more/ see video
7. Steven Chu on climate change deniers
“I’d put them in the same category as people who said, in the 60′s and 70′s, that you haven’t proved to me that smoking causes cancer. This is a real issue. We have to do something about it!” Former Energy Secretary, Steven Chu. Read more/see video
8. GM’s Pam Fletcher on electric vehicle adoption
“We need a lot of customers excited about great products. I want to keep people focused on all the good things that moving to electrified transportation can do for customers and for the country.” GM’s Chief of Electrified Vehicles, Pam Fletcher. Read more/ see video
9. Laurie Yoler on why Tesla is succeeding, despite the odds
“You know you’re on to something good when everyone you talk to is a naysayer. It takes a huge amount of courage and tenacity to continue going forth.” Qualcomm executive and founding board member of Tesla Motors, Laurie Yoler. Read more/see video at 11:20
10. Rick Needham on self driving cars, car sharing and Google’s electric car fleet
“It’s not just the car that’s underutilized; it’s the infrastructure, the roads…There’s an enormous opportunity…on the environmental side, on the human safety side, on utilization of infrastructure side.” Google’s Rick Needham. Read more/see video
Senator Dianne Feinstein shared her plans to introduce a new “carbon fee” bill, during a press conference Wednesday in downtown San Francisco.
“I think a carbon fee is growing in popularity,” said Feinstein, after an appearance at the Commonwealth Club. Her plans follow President Obama’s SOTU call for “market based solutions to climate change,” and a growing consensus among experts in favor of using the taxation system to control carbon dioxide emissions.
By increasing the price of fossil fuel in the market…
It levels the playing field between carbon-based fuels and renewable fuels, such as wind and solar, making renewables more competitive and attractive to consumers and investors.
A portion of the “dividend” (the carbon “fee” proceeds) would be refunded to US residents.
Similar schemes have been implemented in British Columbia, Sweden and Ireland with some success. The aim is to encourage consumers to see the true cost of their energy choices. The fee represents some of the externalities of choosing fossil fuel, such as particulate pollution and greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change.
Feinstein’s proposal was short on details, but she confirmed, “It’s my intention to introduce a fee of $10 a ton and we’ll see what happens to it.”
The Boxer-Sanders proposal is for a tax (or “fee”) of $20 per ton of carbon. Presumably Feinstein feels it’ll be more palatable to start at a lower level and gradually phase in a higher tax over several years.
Feinstein acknowledged that with other issues stealing center stage (notably saber-rattling in North Korea and the ongoing domestic gun control debate), climate change is not currently on the government’s “high priority list,” so it’s hard to predict what progress the government will achieve.
Nevertheless, Feinstein was vocal on the topic of climate change and bullish about renewable energy during an earlier interview with the Commonwealth Club’s Greg Dalton:
“People don’t really understand. They think the earth is immutable. They think we can’t destroy it, that it’s here to stay. It’s not so… As we fill the atmosphere with pollutants: methane, carbon dioxide, other things…it warms the earth. And it begins with animal habitat disappearing, the ocean beginning to rise, more violent hurricanes, tornadoes…drought is more prevalent.”
“What’s going to be the ultimate change is weather. People see weather, they see the devastation and so eventually people are going to come around to support restrictions on carbon dioxide, maybe a fee on the use of carbon to replace our deficit, our debt. A $20 fee (per ton of carbon or methane equivalent) is like $1.2 Trillion in revenue over 10 years. If you just take half that: $600 Billion.”
“I wouldn’t say there’s much (support in the Senate) but I would say this: people are coming to realize now… climate change is getting worse. Actually since 2008, ‘good energy’ has doubled. Electric cars are being more prevalent, hybrids are being more prevalent. People are saving money. Good things are happening. The question is: can we really bite the bullet and make the decision that we’re going to save the planet?”
On the Keystone Pipeline
“I’m told the area in Alberta (Canada) is bigger than the state of Florida, I’m told it’s a forested area which they mow down and begin to dig the huge giant lakes which they pour chemicals in to produce this form of tar sands oil. The earth is defaced forever.”
“Now we have to make up our minds: do we want to deface large portions of our earth forever? I don’t think so because we’re making progress on clean energy and that ought to really be where we go.”
“Some people say if the pipeline isn’t built north-south through the center of our country, they’re only going to do it east to west and send it to China. That’s not a good argument.”
“I don’t think candidly that it’s all that necessary. There will be no oil drilling off the coast of California, if Senator Boxer and I prevail, and we have so far. My emphasis would be on clean energy: the wind farms, the solar facilities and there’s so much research going on on different forms of fuel. Leave those fossil fuels alone because they pollute the atmosphere.” Read more on the country’s largest shale oil resource from KQED.
Photo by Alison van Diggelen
On Tesla’s Model S
“I sat on one (a Tesla Model S) out at the Tesla Fremont plant. I kind of dented the fender. But anyway…” (laughter)
Feinstein drives a Lexus hybrid
On California’s water shortages
“We’re on our way to a much drier climate…the Sierra Nevada snowpack’s drying up and it’s very serious…The key is: we need to store more water from the wet years and hold it for the dry years and this environmentalists don’t like. It may mean raising a couple of dams (eg Shasta)…I do believe that the time is now to have a storage water bond. The most important thing we can do for our state is to hold water from the wet years for the dry years and we should get that done (or) we’re going to lose our agriculture… I live in Washington now for a lot of the time and I can tell you the crops grown in California taste much better than most places in the world.”
On subsidies to oil and gas
“I think the day has come for subsidies to go for industries other than startups like some of the clean energy…solar. As you know, everything is “cut cut cut” back there (DC) right now. With sequestration cutting another $85 Billion before the beginning of the fiscal year and the amount goes up. So there’s going to be cut after cut after cut. And they’re big cuts. So I think we need to look at tax reform and we need to look at all those deductions and remove a lot of them and we also need to look at our entitlements programs.”
As the nation anticipates a “climate friendly” State of the Union speech from President Obama Tuesday, let’s take a look at what one of Silicon Valley’s most successful innovators and job creators has to say about the government’s role in climate change and innovation.
Last month, I interviewed Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley and asked him what specifically President Obama can do to stimulate the economy. He acknowledges that presidents can only do so much, saying,”You’re actually like the captain of a very huge ship and have a small rudder.”
Musk argues that too much government regulation can stand in the way of innovation, especially in the auto industry; and is generally in favor of minimal government intervention in the economy. On climate change, however, he was forceful and described our oil based, carbon intensive economy as creating a “crazy chemical experiment on the atmosphere” with likely catastrophic consequences. He concludes that taxing carbon is vital.
Elon Musk: Well sometimes…I don’t think the government tends to stand in the way of innovation but it can over-regulate industries to the point where innovation becomes very difficult. The auto industry used to be a great hotbed of innovation at the beginning of the 20th Century. But now there are so many regulations that are intended to protect consumers…I mean the body of regulation for cars could fill this room. It’s just crazy how much regulation there is. Down to what the headlamps are supposed to be like. They even specify some of the elements of the user interface on the dashboard…some of these are completely anachronistic because they’re related back to the days when you had a little light that would illuminate an image. So we had to reserve space on the instrument panel of the Model S for where all of the indicators…that a car would have…you know you’ve got these little lights…
Alison van Diggelen: Check engine or whatever…
Elon Musk: Yeah…all these little things. There is a whole bunch of them. ‘We can’t have anything else in that space. ‘ But how about we have one space and render a different graphic? ‘Oh no, because people are expecting to see them in this space.’ Nobody is expecting to see them in that space.
Alison van Diggelen: So you can’t argue with these regulations?
Elon Musk: Well you can argue with them, but not with much success. (laughter). You can actually get these things changed, but it takes ages. Like one of the things we’re trying to get is: why should you have side mirrors if you could have say, tiny video cameras and have them display the image inside the car? But there are all these regulations saying you have to have side mirrors. I went and met with the Secretary of Transport and like, can you change this regulation…? Still nothing has happened and that was two years ago.
Alison van Diggelen: So you’re banging your head against the wall…
Elon Musk: We need to get these regulations changed.
Alison van Diggelen: So talking of government, President Obama is obviously trying to do what he can…if you had five minutes with President Obama, what would you advise him for one: stimulating the economy and entrepreneurship and (two) creating jobs. Is there one thing if he could successfully get through that would be a big stimulus?
Elon Musk: I think actually…the reality of being president is that you’re actually like the captain of a very huge ship and have a small rudder (laughter). If there was a button that a president could push that said ‘economic prosperity,’ they’d be hitting that button real fast…
Alison van Diggelen: Full steam ahead.
Elon Musk: You can imagine…the speed of light, how fast they’d be pressing that button. That’s called the re-election button. I’m not sure how much the president can really do. I’m generally a fan of minimal government interference in the economy. The government should be the referee but not the player. And there shouldn’t be too many referees. But there is an exception, which is when there’s an un-priced externality, such as the CO2 capacity of the oceans and atmosphere. So, when you have an un-priced externality, then the normal market mechanisms don’t work and then it’s the government’s role to intervene in a way that’s sensible. The best way to intervene is to assign a proper price to the common good that is being consumed.
Alison van Diggelen: So you’re saying there should be a tax on gas?
Elon Musk: There should be a tax on carbon. If the bad thing is carbon accumulation in the atmosphere, then there needs to be a tax on that. And then you can get rid of all subsidies and all, everything else. It seems logical that there should be a tax on things that are most likely to be bad. That’s why we tax cigarettes and alcohol. These are probably bad for you, certainly cigarettes are (laughter). So you want to err on the side of taxing things that are probably bad. And not tax things that are good. Given that there is a need to gather tax to pay for federal government…We should shift the tax burden to bad things and then adjust the tax on bad things according to whatever’s going to result in behavior that we think is beneficial for the future.
I think currently that what we’re doing right now, which is mining and burning trillions of tons of hydrocarbons that used to be buried very deep underground, and now we’re sticking them in the atmosphere and running this crazy chemical experiment on the atmosphere. And then we’ve got the oil and gas companies that have ungodly amounts of money. You can’t expect them to roll over and die. They don’t do that. What they much prefer to do is spend enormous amounts of money lobbying and running bogus ad campaigns to preserve their situation.
It’s a lot like tobacco companies in the old days. They used to run these ad campaigns with doctors, guys pretending they were doctors, essentially implying that smoking is good for you, and having pregnant mothers on ads, smoking.
Alison van Diggelen: Do you have a message for the climate change skeptics and the big oil people?
Elon Musk: Well, as far as climate change skeptics…I believe in the scientific method and one should have a healthy skepticism of things in general…if you pursue things from a scientific standpoint, you always look at things probabilistically and not definitively…so a lot of times if someone is a skeptic in the science community, what they’re saying is that they’re they’re not sure that it’s 100% certain that this is the case. But that’s not the point. The point is, to look at it from the other side. To say: What’s the percentage chance that this could be catastrophic for some meaningful percentage of earth’s population? Is it greater than 1%? Is it even 1%? If it is even 1%, why are we running this experiment?
Alison van Diggelen: You’ve called it Russian roulette. We’re playing Russian roulette with the atmosphere…
Elon Musk: We’re playing Russian roulette and as each year goes by we’re loading more rounds in the chamber. It’s not wise. And what makes it super insane is that we’re going to run out of oil anyway. It’s not like there’s some infinite oil supply. We are going to run out of it. We know we have to get to a sustainable means of transportation, no matter what. So why even run the experiment? It’s the world’s dumbest experiment (applause).
Read more Transcript Excerpts from our 2013 interview:
On December 7, President Bill Clinton appeared at Celebrity Forum in Silicon Valley and talked at length about climate change, referring to Berkeley scientist Dr. Richard Muller as “a hero of mine.”
You may recall Dr. Muller, the self described “former skeptic” who frequently emphasized the fallibility of research on global warming and was funded by the Koch Foundation. But last summer, after thorough research with the Berkeley Earth project, he announced his dramatic conversion in an Op-Ed in the New York Times. He now concludes that global warming is happening, and that humans are essentially responsible for all of the warming in the last 250 years.
I happened to be sitting next to Dr. Muller last week, and although he was whisked backstage by some big secret service staffers after Clinton’s speech, he agreed to answer a few Fresh Dialogues questions by email about his research and how he feels about hero worship by number 42.
You might be surprised to learn three things about Dr. Muller:
1. He says Hurricane Sandy cannot be attributed to climate change.
2. He suggests individually reducing our carbon footprint is pointless – we need to “think globally and act globally” and encourage the switch from coal to gas power in China and developing nations. He’s a fan of “clean fracking.”
3. He says climate skeptics deserve our respect, not our ridicule.
Muller hopes that Berkeley Earth will be able to coordinate with the Clinton Foundation on their mutual goal of mitigating global warming.
Here’s our interview: (it also appears at the Huffington Post, together with a lively debate)
van Diggelen: You wrote in the New York Times that the Berkeley Earth analysis will help settle the scientific debate regarding global warming and its human causes – how so?
Muller: Science is that small realm of knowledge on which we can expect and obtain agreement. I felt that many of the skeptics had raised legitimate issues. They are deserving of respect, not the kind of ridicule they have been subjected to. We have addressed the scientific issues in the most direct and objective way, and just as I have adjusted my conclusions, I expect that many of them will too.
van Diggelen: Regarding the human cause of global warming, you say that your conclusions are stronger than that of the Intergovernmental Panel. You concluded “essentially all of this increase in temperature results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.” The panel said “most of the warming.” Why is this significant?
Muller: The IPCC said “most of the warming” (meaning 51% or more) for the past 50 years. They could not rule out an important role from solar variability. We say essentially all of the warming of the past 250 years. Our analysis allows us to make a better prediction for the future since it does not have confusion from a solar component.
van Diggelen: What’s your message to climate change skeptics?
Muller: Most of your skepticism is still valid. When something extraordinary happens in weather, such as the accidental occurrence of Hurricane Sandy hitting New Jersey and New York City just at the peak of tides — many people attribute the event to “Climate Change.” That’s not a scientific conclusion, and it is almost certainly wrong. Hurricanes are not increasing due to human causes (actually, they have been decreasing over the past 250 years). Tornadoes are not increasing due to human causes. (They too have been decreasing.) So please continue to be skeptical about most of the exaggerations you will continue to hear! Proper skepticism is at the heart of science, and attempts to suppress such skepticism represent the true anti-science movement.
However, we have closely examined the evidence for temperature rise, and there are several conclusions that are now strongly based on science. The temperature of the Earth has been rising in a way that closely matches the rise in carbon dioxide. The history of solar activity does not match the data at all. Based on this, the human cause for this warming is strongly indicated. Read our Berkeley Earth papers and see if your objections are answered. I believe that the key objections have all been addressed. Based on this, you should consider changing your skepticism on global warming, even if you are properly skeptical about all the claims that are lumped together under the rubric of “climate change.”
van Diggelen: You’ve said that the difficult part is agreeing what can and should be done about climate change…any suggestions?
We need to recognize that the greatest contributors to climate change in the coming decades will be China, India, and the developing world. Thus any solution must be focused on realistic actions that they can take. The Clinton Foundation is doing wonderful work on energy efficiency and energy conservation, and working closely on this with the developing world. The only other action that we can take that could be equally important over the next 20 to 30 years is to help them switch from coal to natural gas. (For the same energy delivered, cleanly-produced gas creates only half to one third of the greenhouse emissions.) This was the subject of my WSJ Op Ed with Mitch Daniels. It is also discussed in detail in my new book “Energy for Future Presidents.”
van Diggelen: What are YOU doing to reduce your carbon footprint?
Muller: I am trying to get people to stop asking that question! It is very misleading. This is a problem in which we need to think global and act global (NOT local!) Reducing our own footprint, if it is done in a way that will not influence China and the developing world, is not a worthwhile action. It may make us feel good, and then in the future after the world has warmed (because our actions were not something that China could afford to copy) we’ll be saying “at least it wasn’t MY fault.” Wrong! We need to be acting to help China and the emerging economies. Focusing on ourselves at home is a way of avoiding coming to terms with the problem.
van Diggelen: What should others be doing? If you could have President Obama’s ear for 5 minutes, what would you say?
Muller: Double (or more) our efforts to help China become more energy efficient. And equally important: develop “clean fracking” standards. Work with China to expedite and accelerate their switch from coal to natural gas. Devise market-based approaches that will guarantee that the developing world will apply clean methods to their natural gas production. Show leadership by approving a US move to nuclear power; reverse your unfortunate canceling of the Yucca Mountain waste storage facility. In the US emphasize technologies that can work in China (e.g. natural gas), not those that are too expensive (e.g. autos with costly lithium-ion batteries).
van Diggelen: Just how urgently is action needed on climate change?
Muller: We need to act, but no need to panic. I see no tipping points that are scientifically valid. Of course, we don’t understand the atmosphere and biosphere well enough to be sure. Rather than speed of action, the key parameter is finding solutions that are profitable — because those are the ones most likely to be applicable to the poorer nations.
van Diggelen: How do you explain Hurricane Sandy? Some scientists say it was exacerbated by climate change? Warmer oceans, more evaporation? Higher sea level swells?
Muller: None of the above. Hurricane Sandy was a freak storm that happened because a relatively small hurricane (it wasn’t even a category 1 storm when it hit New York City) veered towards the coast during a very high tide. None of the causes of the damage can be attributed in a scientific manner to climate change.
The word “scientific” in that last sentence is very important. Many of the critics of the skeptics claimed that the skeptics were not being scientific. Yet that is also true of the alarmists. There is an unfortunate tendency, when the issue is very important (as in climate change) to abandon science and work from gut feelings. No, that is a mistake; when the issue is important, then it is most urgent that we stick to our science! We must be objective!
Hurricane Sandy cannot be attributed to global warming. The rise over the oceans, in the last 50 years, has been about 0.5 degree C. That’s tiny! In those 50 years, sea level rose by 4 inches. So the high tide, if not for global warming, would not have been 14 feet but “only” 13 feet 8 inches. There was a similarly severe storm in 1938 (my parents lived through it out on Long Island). We should stop attributing all freak storms to climate change. This is an important issue, so let’s emphasize the science.
Unfortunately, there will always be scientists with some credentials that will exaggerate, maybe even convincing themselves. I recall back in the 1950s, when I was a kid in New York City, that the freak storms and changes in climate were attributed by some eminent scientists to atmospheric nuclear testing. (Maybe the freak storms and changes in climate should now be attributed to the nuclear test ban.) It is not science to list the bad things that have happened lately and claim that they “may be linked” to climate change. Even scientists, such as those who were passionately afraid of thermonuclear war, tend to see connections in things that aren’t there.
Climate change is real, and we need to do something to stop it. But it is not strong enough (0.6 C in the last 50 years) to be noticeable by individuals. It takes scientists analyzing large amounts of data to see it. (A statistical analysis of hurricanes shows that they have actually been decreasing in number that hit the US coast over the past 150 years.) That gives us a good idea about what has been happening, and allows us to make predictions for the future. Those predictions are worrisome enough that we should act — always remembering to keep our focus on China. But let us not be deluding into thinking that every extreme event is evidence supporting our worry.
van Diggelen: How did it feel to be called a hero by Bill Clinton?
Muller: I didn’t know whether to correct him or just feel awed. President Clinton is the true hero for his fantastic foundation, and for addressing many of the most serious problems in the world, from AIDS to clean water to ending poverty.
The facts of climate change are still disputed, despite consensus from a majority of scientists. Last Friday, Fresh Dialogues sat down with ocean explorer and film maker, Jean-Michel Cousteau to to get the facts from an expert who is seeing its impact in our oceans and beyond.
“Climate change is a reality,” says Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of legendary explorer Jacques Cousteau. “What we are responsible for and the consequences we’ll have to face up to is that because our emissions of CO2 are accelerating the process, things are happening much faster.”
One of the biggest impacts he highlights is the reduced protection of our coastlines due to corals dying and sea level rising. He anticipates increased storms and flooding; and millions being displaced around the world.
I asked Cousteau: what advice does he have for people wanting to reduce their carbon footprint?
“It starts at home and by better managing our home, we save money and by the same token we save energy and emit less CO2,” says Cousteau. “The other one is our consumption. People eat too much. People are FAT!”
His forthright answer caught me off guard. No more Crème brûlée for me. We all have to make sacrifices.
Here’s a short segment of our interview. We also discussed China vs US action on climate change; President Obama’s response to climate change and his energy policy; and the important lesson his father, Jacques Cousteau, taught him.