What If Everybody Is Wrong About Stopping Climate Change?

Wall Street, CO2
What role will capitalism play in reducing carbon pollution? Photo credit: Kjetil Ree / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and Carbon Visuals / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Reading Time: 15 minutes

The prevailing scientific sentiment on the global ecological crises is that the only road to a livable future is to drastically reduce consumption, learn to share and reuse more, and — most importantly — restrain growth. Frankly, that’s what most of the evidence makes abundantly clear. But there are those who claim otherwise — and while we might not agree, it’s interesting and useful to hear what they have to say. 

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, our guest is Andrew McAfee, an influential voice within the American intellectual elite. He is a professor and expert on the digital economy at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, who controversially argues that no radical changes are needed to solve the environmental disaster humanity faces. 

Instead, he believes we need to do more of what we’re already doing: growing technologically sophisticated market-based economies around the world. McAfee’s counterintuitive solution to both our ecological and economic issues is not less capitalism, he says, it’s more reliance on the market and innovation.

The US, McAfee claims, is now using less of most types of resources year after year, even as its economy and population continue to grow. What’s more, he makes an argument that the US is polluting the air and water less, emitting fewer greenhouse gases, and replenishing endangered species at a more rapid rate than we did during the industrial era. In large measure, he says, this is driven by economic considerations like cap-and-trade and carbon dividends. More of this, McAfee believes, will have an even greater benefit.

What makes this possible, he says, is the unique symbiosis between technology and capitalism. Even with greenhouse gases, which he acknowledges are a serious threat, he wants to see them brought more fully into the marketplace. The degree to which we make their release more expensive, the faster we will control them. 

McAfee also makes the case that both nuclear power and GMOs should be a part of our future and that we need less concern about the “ick factor,” and a more reasonable understanding of science. 

McAfee argues there are two competing views on climate change and the use of resources: One is that that technology and private enterprise will be the magic bullet that saves us. The other is that the same technology, free enterprise, and capitalism are the enemy and have led to all of our problems.

Should we have to make a binary choice? Upon closer examination, McAfee sees that one view comes out of frustration at the failure to confront climate change and many years of environmental neglect by all of us, and the other comes from solid evidence that business, science, and economic growth will, in fact, save us.

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

In the debate about how to save the planet with respect to both our natural resources and climate change, there always seem to be two competing points of view. One is the technology and private enterprise will find the magic bullet that will save us. The other is that the same technology, free enterprise and capitalism are the enemy and have led to all of our problems. The reality is that both of these ideas cannot be true.

Jeff Schechtman: Upon closer examination, we see that one comes from frustration and many years of neglect while the other comes from solid evidence that business, science, growth and economic progress is where our environmental salvation will come from. We’re going to talk about this today with my guest, Andrew McAfee. He’s a principal research scientist at MIT. He’s been studying how digital technologies are changing business, the economy and society. His previous books include The New York Times bestseller, The Second Machine Age. His most recent work is More from Less, The Surprising Story of How We Learn to Prosper Using Fewer Resources—and What Happens Next. And it is my pleasure to welcome Andrew McAfee here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Andrew McAfee, thanks so much for joining us.
Andrew McAfee: Thanks for having me on.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you see this binary choice that we are repeatedly presented with, this idea that somehow the very things that people are looking for, the places they’re looking for a magic solution to all these problems are also in some ways the things that they’re blaming for the problems in the first place?
Andrew McAfee: Yeah, and you put that dichotomy really nicely. The Simpsons also put it very nicely. There’s this great episode where Homer talks about beer as being both the cause of, and the solution to, all of life’s problems.
Jeff Schechtman: As you see this playing out, talk a little bit about the frustration that that creates, particularly within the scientific community that is looking for some of these solutions and looking for ways for various companies to be less resource dependent.
Andrew McAfee: Well, I have a lot of sympathy for the point of view that this one-two punch of market-based competition, of capitalism, of this relentless engine of growth and very powerful new technologies, they are what is causing the problem. I have some sympathy for that because that was kind of true all throughout the industrial era. During the industrial era, we grew our economies, we grew our population. Humanity took off like never before. But we should be honest. We beat up on the earth more year after year after year. We took more from it, we took more resources, we dug more mines. We cleared forests, we planted crops, we killed animals, we polluted.
Andrew McAfee: And we did more of these things year after year. That is absolutely true and we shouldn’t walk away from that. The reason I wrote More from Less is that in America at least, and I believe in other rich countries as well, we have turned the corner on that and even though our economy continues to grow, our population continues to grow, we are now literally lightening up on the earth. Our footprint on our planet is now shrinking instead of growing. So that reversal I think is really, really important and that’s why I decided to write the book.
Jeff Schechtman: What about the argument that it’s not enough to just lighten the footprint at this point? That because of all the damage that has been done for all those years that you were talking about, that in fact we have to be more drastic in the way we cut back.
Andrew McAfee: There’s one area where I completely agree with that argument and that is global warming. We are cooking the planet, we need to stop. And even though total greenhouse gas emissions from America now are on a downward trend, that’s not enough. They need to go down much more quickly and the rest of the world has to start to decarbonize starting yesterday. This is really urgent homework for the 21st century. So I completely believe that. Where I part company with some of the arguments that I hear is that we need to make radical changes in order to save the planet from global warming. And if I ask people what they mean by radical changes, I hear some version of restricting what people can do or centrally planning economies. And I think both of those are terrible ideas. I think they are miserable for your humanity and they will not accomplish the goals.
Andrew McAfee: So the point I make in the book is that global warming is bad and greenhouse gases are a particularly tall kind of pollution to solve. So they are difficult to fix but they’re not mysterious. They’re air pollution. And we have a great track record, in the rich world anyway, of succeeding at that. The point I want to make is that greenhouse gases are pollution and we know how to deal with pollution. And the critical thing is to realize that markets and technology put together will not solve pollution on their own. We have to bring in an aware public that wants the pollution levels reduced and governments that listen to the will of other people and put in place smart policies like a cap and trade program, like a carbon dividend, things that we hear about today. If we can summon the political will and do that, we can effectively tackle global warming. It’s not mysterious, it’s just difficult.
Jeff Schechtman: The argument is that we can’t do that and continue to grow the economy at the same time.
Andrew McAfee: Right. And I don’t agree with that argument at all. The exact same arguments were made about reducing air pollution levels from sulfur dioxide and other pollutants in the late sixties, early seventies in the United States. The incumbent industries obviously didn’t want their costs increased so they said, “Look, first of all, the pollution is not that bad. And second of all, reducing it will hamper our standard of living.” Neither of those statements was true and because we did smart things to deal with that kind of pollution, the cost of mitigating it were actually a fraction of the original estimates. So the way to think about this is if you make pollution expensive, like you make resources expensive, companies will innovate like crazy to reduce that cost. And that’s the basic idea behind the carbon dividend, which was championed by William Nordhaus who won the Nobel prize last year in economics. Bring pollution into the market system, make it expensive, watch companies reduce their spending on it.
Jeff Schechtman: And this goes to the heart of the idea that we need to use the market system, that we need to use the fundamentals of capitalism in order to most effectively and most rapidly address these issues.
Andrew McAfee: That’s exactly right. And that strikes some people as odd or perverse or even immoral in some ways. If capitalism is what is causing the pollution, we certainly can’t fix the pollution with capitalism. That logic is not correct. And we know that because when we put things like sulfur dioxide pollution into the market system, we literally created markets to allow companies to buy and sell and trade the right to pollute. That was a stunning success for the environmental movement. So like I say several times in More from Less, we actually know the playbook now for treading more lightly on our planet over time. If we decide not to use that playbook, shame on us.
Jeff Schechtman: What about what technology is giving us today to begin to address some of these issues?
Andrew McAfee: Technology helps us in lots of different ways. The engine in your car is simultaneously more fuel efficient, more powerful and lighter. Physically weighs less than the car engines of a generation or two ago. So we can consume fewer fossil fuels as we do all of our driving around. We’re also seeing really exciting bundle of technologies for lower carbon energy or a lower carbon economy, and that ranges everything from solar to wind and other kinds of renewables. I would absolutely put nuclear in that mix. We have this amazing technology that’s very potent, scalable. It actually is safe. It’s somewhat cost effective. It’s extremely green, but because of the ick factor, because a lot of us have this visceral reaction against nuclear, it’s not even on the table in a lot of places, which is just a complete mistake and a crying shame. If we want to decarbonize our energy world, nuclear is going to have to be part of that mix.
Jeff Schechtman: Given though that nuclear is so expensive and takes so long before we can move forward with it, given the realities of really trying to build new nuclear facilities, is that a realistic thing to even be looking at?
Andrew McAfee: It absolutely is. It does take a while to build a nuclear facility. Part of that is because we put a lot of restrictions in place on it and we give a lot of different groups the power to hold things up. I think we’re unnecessarily handcuffing nuclear power. And you point out it is in some ways comparatively expensive. However, we have subsidized wind and solar for many, many years. We’re subsidizing this one kind of green energy and complaining that this other kind is too expensive. And then the last point on that is when you look at Europe, the countries that have the lowest electricity prices are essentially France and Sweden. They are the most nuclearized countries in Europe. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Jeff Schechtman: You also address another subject that people look at with that same ick factor, and that’s the subject of GMOs.
Andrew McAfee: Yeah, absolutely. And I should be clear, I have an ick factor when I initially think about both nuclear power and GMOs. I think I’ve been conditioned to have that ick response by my wiring, by vivid things like Three Mile Island and the notion of a Frankenfood. So I appreciate the ick factor. The point I make in the book over and over though is we can’t stop there. We can’t let our ick factor dictate our choices. We have to go where the evidence takes us. And the reason I believe that is that the stakes are just too high. We just can’t walk around being ruled by our intuition when important things about the fate of our planet are at stake. And when I look at the evidence around GMOs and everybody that I’ve come across, the academies of science in most of the major regions of the world, have all looked at this. They’ve all issued reports and they’ve all said the same thing, which is there’s no evidence that these things are any less harmful or any more harmful or any less safe than conventional techniques.
Andrew McAfee: And if it’s true that our climate is changing and let’s be clear, it is true, in the years to come, we are going to need different strains of crops that are more resistant to drought and heat waves or need less rain. The GMO toolkit is the way we’re going to get these things. And right now there is a terrible problem with blindness brought on by vitamin A deficiency in very low income parts of the world. There’s a thing called golden rice that would fix that problem that’s being resisted by the anti-GMO forces. I find that a deep moral mistake.
Jeff Schechtman: How much of this at heart has to do with the way we are looking at science today and really losing an appreciation for the importance of science.
Andrew McAfee: Yeah, I think that’s a big part of it. And I think this decline in trust and expertise is not serving us well at all. And I think we’re turning toward our intuition or our gut feeling more than we used to. I think we’re turning away from established experts and toward people who just like shooting off their mouth or people who are very persuasive but not very well grounded in the facts. I think these are very serious problems and we see the crazy winning arguments way too often for my taste these days. I think it’s the crazies winning the argument about nuclear. I think it’s winning the argument about GMOs way too often. I think it’s winning the argument about vaccinating our children way too often. So part of what I’m trying to do with the book is just add one more voice to this chorus that’s pleading us to be rational, evidence based. Start with your intuition, that’s great, but then go test it against what’s actually going on and if your intuition doesn’t line up, you need to try to change that.
Jeff Schechtman: Give us a sense of what you’re seeing from the scientific community in terms of how they’re reacting to exactly the problem that you’re talking about.
Andrew McAfee: Well, I see growing awareness that we can’t just sit in our ivory towers of academia and our research lab and kind of tut tut or complain that the public is turning away from science or that people just don’t get it. I think people are turning away from science, at least in part that’s on us. We have to become better communicators. We have to become better at the conversation. We have to join the conversation otherwise there’ll be very persuasive voices on the crazy side that might carry the day. So one of the things that I love seeing are scientists who are trying very hard to communicate their work, who are getting out there, who are persuasive, who are fun to listen to. We need a lot more of that.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about some of the specific things that you’re seeing that are taking place in the realm of technology, in the realm of business that are really day in and day out addressing some of these issues, particularly with regard to both resources and climate change.
Andrew McAfee: The aluminum cans that you drink beer or soda out of weighs about 20% of what the first generation of aluminum cans weighed, and that’s because aluminum costs money, beverage companies that are locked in competition would rather not spend that money. And in this second machine age that we’ve created, in this era of amazing digital technologies, you have a very powerful system that will let you design thinner wall to aluminum cans. I think the smartphone that you and I both have in our pockets is just this world champion of de-materialization and of reduced resource use because think of how many physical devices that smartphone replaces. I don’t have a clock radio by my bedside anymore. I certainly don’t own a camcorder. I don’t own a film camera anymore. I don’t own a CD radio or an AM/FM radio. All those devices have collapsed down into this tiny smartphone.
Andrew McAfee: I no longer print out maps when I’m going to go drive somewhere. I haven’t taken a film picture in a long time. So lots of media, lots of resources have kind of collapsed down into the smartphone. I think it’s also fascinating that even as our digital industries grow very, very quickly, total electricity use in America has been just about flat since 2008, 2009. For about a decade. That’s really interesting and what that tells me is that these digital industries, they do consume a lot of electricity, but we use them to save on electricity elsewhere in the economy. So there are all these different vectors by which technology helps us lighten up on the planet, not out of altruism, but out of the desire to satisfy consumers while spending less money, while reducing your costs. All those vectors add up. And I haven’t even been able to identify a tiny fraction of all the vectors, all the different ways that technology is helping, but when I look at the overall statistics, the overall evidence, I’m very confident that technology is causing us to lighten up.
Jeff Schechtman: As you talk about these ideas, both in the book and in your public pronouncements and speeches, et cetera, talk a little bit about the pushback that you get, because so many of these points are things that people are just so resistant to.
Andrew McAfee: Yeah, and one of the main things I hear back is, “What you’re saying could be true, but it’s because of globalization. We’ve just outsourced all of our resource intensity, all of our pollution, all of our energy use to China essentially.” And we should be clear, we have globalized. A lot of our manufacturing has moved offshore to China. However, we still are a huge manufacturing country and even with that fact, we still use fewer resources overall. There’s a really nice effort by the global carbon project to say, “Okay, what would America’s total carbon emissions be including all the things that we import from around the world?” And even when you do that adjustment, our total carbon emissions are on the decline. So the globalization story is real. It doesn’t explain this phenomenon of America lightening up on the planet earth.
Andrew McAfee: One of the other things I hear back is just some version of, “What you’re saying could be true, but nothing else matters because of global warming.” There’s just this notion that because of this one problem, none of our other victories, none of our other kinds of progress matter at all. And I think there’s something going on. I call it the law of conservation of pessimism that if you want to feel dour, downbeat about the state of the world, you will find reasons to do that. I’m not trying to minimize global warming. It is real, it is bad, but we are making real progress in important areas.
Jeff Schechtman: Expand on what you’re seeing with respect to third world progress.
Andrew McAfee: It’s very clear that low income countries are not yet de-materializing. They’re growing their infrastructure, their people want to consume more material goods. So I’m not saying that de-materialization and lightening up are a global phenomenon yet. The point I want to make is they’re going to become global phenomena so quickly that I think most of us are going to be surprised. There are going to be a lot more Nigerians in the decades to come. Nigeria is not going to build a copper telephone network inside the country. They’re just not going to lay that copper all over the place.
Andrew McAfee: I just saw a great statistic the other day that India is walking away from its very recent plans to build a bunch of coal-fired electricity plants. Not because Indians don’t want electricity, but because it’s more economical now to use other greener energy sources to generate all of that electricity. So the developing world is still materializing. Pollution levels are higher in the developing world. Absolutely. That situation is going to improve more quickly than it did in the United States. These developing countries today have access to entirely different technologies than we did. Those technologies are going to help them tread more lightly on the planet.
Jeff Schechtman: As you talk about China is going pretty far in a lot of these areas in terms of trying to improve their situation.
Andrew McAfee: Absolutely. China made ridiculously fast progress on reducing its air pollution levels because people were without permission leaving polluted Chinese cities because they saw their children suffering so much. So after China decided to get serious about air pollution, it reduced its overall pollution levels about 30% across the country in four years. And as somebody pointed out, it took America 12 years after the passage or the update of the Clean Air Act in 1970 to reduce our air pollution levels by that much. So again, when you have this combination of a public that’s aware of the problem and the government that’s somewhat willing to act on the desires of the people, things can happen quite quickly. Now, I’m not pretending that China has suddenly become a democracy and is listening perfectly to its people. But in this instance it took very effective action very quickly.
Jeff Schechtman: And a lot of that was not because of the politics of China, but simply the economics. It was good business to do that.
Andrew McAfee: It’s really good business to not have your urban populations fleeing the cities for the sake of their children. That is really, really bad for the health of our society, for the growth of an economy. So we don’t need to think about the Chinese as suddenly ruled by these incredibly benevolent people. If you’ve got your eye on the long term for your country, you will lighten up and you’ll start to treat the earth better.
Jeff Schechtman: Andrew McAfee, thank you so much for spending time with us here at WhoWhatWhy.
Andrew McAfee: I really appreciate it. Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

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