Dec. 30, 2022

Cleaning Up Audioblog Episode 9: "It's a New Year - Time to Face Reality"

This week, it's a special, bonus episode of Cleaning Up. Michael has some essential messages to keep in mind at the dawn of the new year:

1. Climate action is neither doomed nor a sure thing.
2. People who disagree with you may share your goals, but put facts and priorities in a different order.
3. We will never get to declare victory over climate change.

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Hello. I’m Michael Liebreich, and this is Cleaning Up.

Before we start, if you’re enjoying Cleaning Up, please make sure you like or subscribe to our channel, and leave a nice review. It really helps other people find us. Cleaning Up is brought to you by Capricorn Investment Group, the Liebreich Foundation and the Gilardini Foundation.

As we reach the end of one tumultuous year, and the beginning of a new one, in this mini-episode I want to read something I wrote a few years ago.

It’s called It’s a New Year and Time to Face Reality

The world simply cannot shift to a clean energy and transportation future

We need to stop listening to so-called experts who say

We can avoid catastrophic climate change by eliminating fossil fuels

Engineers are smart and love solving problems

But here’s the thing

We still need electricity when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine

Wind and solar can produce really cheap power

But only if you ignore their subsidies and hidden costs

Coal and gas are the best way to provide universal energy access

Electric vehicles will remain a niche technology

You have to be in denial to believe

Battery costs and EV charging times will plummet

We’ll still be dependent on fossil fuels in 50 years

And there’s no way

The world can really shift to a clean energy and transportation future


Pretty stark, right?

But wait. What happens if you read the same words in reverse?

Pretty clever, huh? And much more inspiring.


But, what’s the point I’m trying to make? Well, there are three points:

The first point is that, neither reading is entirely correct. The initial reading, saying that we can never shift to a clean energy future, is clearly wrong. The transition started a couple of decades ago and it has been accelerating ever since. We have line of sight to net zero across almost all of the world’s economy.

But the reading that we are on a straightforward victory march to a clean energy future is also incorrect – there are challenges, speed-bumps, setbacks, sectors that we don’t yet know how to decarbonise, countries that don’t have access to the technologies and capital needed to get to net zero, and even countries for whom climate action is simply not a high priority, or even something to be resisted.

The truth lies somewhere between the two readings. It is up to us to decide the extent to which the first or the second reading represents the future.

The second point relates to the nature of the discussion about climate change and its implications for energy and the economy. We can get so caught up in the arguments, in the need to win debating points, that we forget that the other side generally has the same overall goals as us – improving the human condition and protecting the planet. They just have a different view on how to get there.

They are assembling the same facts into a different constellation, or perhaps picking a different selection of facts on which to focus, and reaching diametrically opposite conclusions to us. If you don’t think that’s possible, well, look how I used the same words – in fact the same exact lines – rearranged to paint diametrically opposite conclusions.

Next time you come across someone who disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean they are evil, it probably just means they see the world differently, for whatever reason. If you demonise them – call them deniers, accuse them of being paid shills, whatever, all you’ll do is cement their rejection of your point of view. Assuming that your goal really is to create momentum for climate action, before assuming an opponent is in bad faith, it’s always worth asking yourself what you can do to reduce polarization, instead of deepening it.

The third and final point is about the nature of the path to net zero. Every year since I started working on clean energy, I could have said was a pivotal year. In fact, in some ways, every year was. Some more than others. And every year in the future will also be a pivotal year. There is never a single point, a single battle, that when won, will decide we will get to net zero in year X, or that global temperatures will be held to Y degrees of warming, and that’s that.

The fight for the planet and for human progress will never be fully decided. My word-play is just as relevant today as it was when I wrote it at the end of 2017; it will remain as relevant – plus or minus a few technological developments – for many decades to come.

So there you have it. The real message is that reality is complicated. Each year end, we have to pause, and we have to take stock. An then we have to put our armour on once more, and take up our weapons anew.

And now, it only remains for me to wish you seasons greetings on behalf of all of us at Cleaning Up and to say…

Happy New Year, it’s Time to Face Reality!