Canadian economist Marc Jaccard has been an advisor to his country’s governments on ways to cut carbon emissions – but he doesn’t believe the quest begins and ends with fossil fuels.
Jaccard, above, who lectures at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, has written a new book, The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success: Overcoming Myths that Hinder Progress.
In it he argues that in order to make political changes, scientists and activists have to motivate “climate-sincere” policymakers to put new regulations in place.
Humans, he says, eliminated acid rain and ozone-killing chlorofluorocarbons – and can do it again. But it means confronting persistent myths about climate change.
Jaccard argues against conventional wisdom about fossil fuels, saying that almost nothing around us would have been possible without coal, oil, and gas.
And he points out that renewable technologies are not as readily available in developing countries, where fossil fuels are helping pull people out of poverty.
The argument that the world’s about to run out of oil is a lot farther off than you imagine, he says, thanks to oil companies finding ever more ways to extract the stuff.
Jaccard, who has been lecturing at the university since 1986, talked to Matt Simon from US website WIRED about the myths he’d like to bust, and how individuals and governments can think more about solving global warming. This is an edited version.
WIRED: The burning of fossil fuels threatens the planet. But you argue that they’re in fact alluringly wonderful. Why?
Jaccard: They are really high quality, and they have dramatically improved human well-being. When people in the developing world burn solid fuels in open fires, that is the major energy-related killer, and it’s mostly women and children in poor countries. When those places transition to liquid and gaseous fuels—kerosene or propane or butane—the transition in human health is tremendous. People say renewables are cheaper, that we should give money to developing countries so they won’t burn coal and oil but will instead do renewables. You’ve got an internal contradiction here. If you’re telling us that renewables are cheaper, the global energy system will naturally evolve to renewables. Not true. Where renewables are happening quickly, it’s been because of carbon pricing.
You also set out to poke holes in the myth of peak oil. That is, we’re going to run out of oil soon, so we’ll have no choice but to rapidly switch to renewables.
Jaccard: The latest innovations in fracking for oil and shale rock certainly have changed things – you don’t hear as much about peak oil. I advise politicians. Sometimes I’m in the same room with energy advocates and environmental advocates and they’ll be saying we’ve got to switch away because we’re going to run out of oil and the price will go really high. And, inevitably, I hear the politician say, well, if the price is going to go really high, then I don’t need to do anything. This idea is that either renewables are going to get so cheap, or oil and coal are going to get so expensive, that we will stop using fossil fuels. Sometimes it’s the same people who are concerned about climate change and concerned about running out of energy. And so I’m trying to get them on the same page.
In Canada, you’ve made a lot of progress decarbonising in recent years. Meanwhile, we have the Trump administration. How do we fight climate change if our government is pulling us deeper into climate hell?
Jaccard: You’d be amazed at how humans can look at the same event, like Australia burning or Donald Trump looking at a snowstorm, and take entirely different interpretations of what that evidence was telling them. In other words, humans can stay in denial for a very long time. If we look at other environmental solutions in the past, whether it was acid rain, sulfur emissions from US coal plants, and so on, you convinced enough people that got a climate-sincere, or a sulfur-sincere, or whatever-sincere government in place. A quick example here is Ontario phasing out its coal plants; that happened in 10 years. Even if that government had fallen after eight years, the coal plants were already doomed by then. So I do believe in move-fast policies, so that they can’t be reversed.
Let’s talk about carbon taxes, the idea there being that you put a price on emissions, disincentivising polluters from polluting. Some are arguing that this alone can help us massively cut emissions.
Jaccard: Flexible regulations are almost as economically efficient. So they may be way better politically and only slightly less efficient economically. So that’s why I caution people who feel you have to do carbon taxes or it’s not going to work, or it’s not going to be economically efficient, or you can’t get industry buy-in, and so on. You can be a country that does what Canada has done. It said, we’re going to phase out coal plants, and we’re doing that with a regulation. [Countries] can still say, oh, China, we’re importing goods from you. And we noticed that the carbon content of your electricity system is such and such. So we are going to put a tariff on those goods.
Regular folk are wondering what they can do. That you should do everything you can as an individual to fly less and all that. But what, if anything, can one person possibly do to help?
Jaccard: A citizen needs to focus on two things. One of them is they need to be working feverishly to elect climate-sincere politicians. And by definition, those politicians will be changing the menu for them—the infrastructure of their city. Like, is there transit? Or are there bike paths? And that’s policies. When that happens, you can actually have an impact through choices. There are things people could do, especially how they heat their homes and their water, or cool their homes — although they naturally use electricity for that — and how they get around. So those are the two you need as a citizen. Yes, it’s what you do personally—but it’s really also making sure the policies are in place so that everyone’s doing it.