The cornerstone of a meaningful, effective life is action. We should always strive to be more compassionate and convert our passion into concrete acts that contribute to the welfare of all living beings.

But even if accept this statement as a principle to guide our lives, the challenge of choosing the right action remains. In a complex world, a commitment to virtue is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. Without careful analysis, our passion may turn into a vicious cycle of self-aggrandizement and arrogance.

Effective action requires setting virtuous long-term goals and aiming for practical “small wins” that contribute to that goal. I am going to focus on the long-term goals here and return to the question of small wins later (for my academic research on small wins in climate policy, see Urpelainen 2013).

My view is that our long-term goal should be a compassionate society. It is important not to define our goals in abstract or tangential terms, such as economic growth or technological progress. The long-term goals need to reflect the ultimate goal of welfare of all living beings. For example, economic growth may even reduce the welfare of all living beings if it causes extinction or species or encourages factory farming. In this case, economic growth is not desirable.

My principles for a compassionate society are simple:

  • Our policies and actions should protect life and avoid suffering.
  • Our compassion should never be limited to human beings.
  • We should always focus on improving the lot of the destitute and the suffering. 
  • Public service is our greatest innovation and the key to a fulfilling life.

These principles are simple, but their application in reality is difficult. We often face trade-offs. Here are some very real moral dilemmas that I have faced in my own work:

  1. A planned meat-processing facility can alleviate poverty in a poor country by creating well-paying jobs, but the country’s regulations to prevent animal suffering leave a lot to be desired. Should we support the facility or campaign against it?
  2. A coal-burning power plant could eradicate energy poverty and reinvigorate local industry in a poor country, but coal carries a heavy environmental cost and contributes to climate change. Should an international development agency give a loan guarantee to enable the construction of the power plant?

Despite these trade-offs, principles are important. Without clear principles, we focus our attention on the wrong things and have no idea how to deal with trade-offs. For example, a development economist who is only interested in economic growth could cause a lot of suffering by ignoring other dimensions of a good society. Similarly, an environmentalist who has no compassion for human beings could stand in the way of improvements to the condition of the world’s poor.

One important obstacle to effective climate policy in the United States is the deep political divide between conservatives and liberals. In the conservative camp, which is skeptical of climate science, evangelical Christians are a core group, as about one-third of all Americans belong to this group.

Talking about climate change with evangelical Christians presents a difficulty to climate scientists. Most climate scientists talk about climate change in secular terms and evangelicals see the topic “as part of the liberal agenda”.

How can climate scientists and policy advocates engage the evangelical audience? Katharine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley have written a book titled A Climate for Change to solve the problem. The book contains a basic introduction to climate science, addresses common misconceptions about climate change, summarizes the consequences of higher temperatures, and offers some practical solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There must be hundreds of such books and, to nobody’s surprise, none of them have had much effect on policy. Books about climate change are mostly read by people who are worried about… climate change and the global environment. Duh.

What’s different about this volume is that it’s written by two Christians and talks about the topic in religious terms. The authors argue that there is no tension between Christian beliefs and climate change. Further, the authors offer a theological argument emphasizing our freedom to choose our actions.

Theology notwithstanding, the argument is ultimately quite simple. We can choose to allow climate change or to mitigate it, just like we can either do nothing or help the poor. It’s our choice, and we must make that choice based on our values and beliefs. The Bible does not give even the most devout Christian a clear answer as to what we should do about climate change.

The book is engaging and well-written, and it is suitable for an important audience that is mostly neglected by climate scientists. Hayhoe and Farley offer an important contribution to the debate on climate science and policy.

Though my overall impression is positive, I have one complaint about the book. The part on solutions is a little thin, as it avoids talking about the most important question — federal climate policy and international cooperation. Personal energy conservation and investment in renewable energy are all good and fine, but a serious approach to climate change mitigation must be based on ambitious policies to constrain carbon dioxide emissions in all key countries.

The authors may have chosen to leave this topic for the future because many evangelicals associate climate policy with Al Gore and Barack Obama. However, talking about climate change to evangelicals is irrelevant for action unless it contributes to building a robust political coalition for action.

So, the next step for Hayhoe, Farley, and others in a position to engage evangelical Christians and other conservative constituencies should be to develop a political strategy that allows the federal government to act to constrain carbon pollution. My own guess is that this requires engaging both ordinary Americans and Republican activists.

What to do during those lazy weekends at the summer cabin? My preferred approach is to read biographies of people who don’t have the time or patience for lazy weekends. Although it provokes some guilt on the reader’s part, the benefit of inspiration more than outweighs the cost.

For this purpose, I strongly recommend Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, a biography of Paul Farmer (Partners in Health). It’s a story of a man whose passion for serving the poor is difficult to describe in words without understatement. Kidder does a great job at describing Farmer’s intense efforts to provide the world’s destitute with high-quality healthcare in Haiti, Peru, Russia… and so on.

What does this have to do with climate policy? Farmer is a living example of what passion and commitment can do. He has spent decades serving and advocating for some of the most marginalized population in this world, with great results. His enthusiasm for his cause is simply infectious and makes me want to work much harder. And I’m saying this despite exceptionally glorious summer weather here at my home base in Oulu, Finland.

One of the most interesting and important papers I’ve recently read is “How Pro-Poor Growth Affects the Demand for Energy” (Gertler, Shelef, Wolfram, Fuchs). The paper begins with the notion that as household incomes increase, the demand for discrete assets that consume high amounts of electricity, such as fridges, grows rapidly. Consequently, economic development may result in a massive, discontinuous increase in residential electricity consumption. As large segments of the population leave extreme poverty, they start to purchase assets that lock in a high level of electricity consumption.

The evidence for the claim comes from impact evaluation data on a large cash transfer intervention in Mexico. The authors show that, by increasing household incomes, the impact evaluation caused a spike in the demand for refrigerators over time. Consistent with this result, cross-sectional data across households shows that electricity consumption went up.

The authors then conduct a simple prediction exercise for electricity consumption in developing countries between 1980 and 2006 using national data from 37 developing countries. The main finding is that higher income levels are strongly associated with electricity consumption in countries where economic growth is associated with low levels of income inequality.

Why is this such a big deal? Concerns about income inequality have prompted many emerging countries from China to India to invest in pro-poor policies. Our current demand forecast models do not account for these policies and may, therefore, underestimate the growth of electricity demand in the future. Since most demand growth is bound to come from developing countries, today’s forecasting models may understate the difficulty of providing billions of people with affordable energy while combating climate change. Further research on this topic should be at the very top of the research agenda in energy economics. For once, I kind of regret not switching from political science to economics. This is the kind of research that could and should have a huge impact on policy.

Every year, development agencies like the World Bank invest billions of dollars in energy projects. In June 2013, the Bank made a decision to restrict financing of coal-fired power plants to “rare” circumstances. The idea of this decision was to emphasize the Bank’s commitment to mitigating climate change. In the United States, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation restricts funding on all fossil fuels.

Since I’m an environmentalist, my gut reaction would be to cheer for these decisions, as they represent small steps toward a more sustainable world. However, I’m not sure these restrictions are cost-effective or ethical. The world’s poor consume little electricity, with the typical fridge in the United States consuming more per year than 9 Ethiopians.

In such a context, it strikes me as hypocritical and ineffective to raise barriers to electricity access for the poor of this world. We should, instead, focus our efforts on reducing the overconsumption of fossil fuels among the wealthy.

One could counter me by saying that renewable energy is now a realistic alternative and we no longer need fossil fuels. Indeed, that’s what organizations like the Sierra Club are saying. They believe renewables — especially solar — provide the best way forward for eradicating energy poverty.

My own experience, largely based on fieldwork in India and Tanzania, is that it’s more complicated than that. In some developing country settings, renewable energy is now the best source of power for the grid. In others, it is not. Off-grid renewables have made some progress in providing lighting and mobile charging for people, but they’re far from being able to provide modern energy services to billions at an affordable cost. We need to support renewables to tap into their potential, but we should not set unrealistic goals or forgo excellent opportunities to eradicate poverty by using fossil fuels.

In a complex world, blanket bans on fossil fuels are not a good idea. We absolutely need environmental and social safeguards on energy projects, as they can cause a lot of damage, but we should analyze these projects on a case-by-case basis. Providing the world’s poor with electricity should be a top priority for us, and sometimes natural gas — or even coal — is the best solution. If a power plant can provide badly needed electricity for millions and does not have a noticeable effect on global carbon emissions, it should be built.

This position may be unpopular among my fellow environmentalists, but I am by now convinced that it is the ethical one. There’s a huge difference between campaigning for measures to reduce or decarbonize energy consumption among the global wealthy and among the poor. The wealthy must lead efforts to mitigate climate change.

I’m planning to write a follow-up post on this to clarify my position on when we should make decarbonization a top priority in energy projects,  but that’s for another day — now I need to go back to work to reduce energy poverty in India through solar power.

I’m a big fan of a good rant, occasionally offering one myself about my true passion, BibTeX entries, to my sloppy co-authors. So it’s not surprising that What We Leave Behind, a 2009 book about waste by environmentalists Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay, won me over. It was a thoroughly entertaining read. Highly recommended!

The book offers a lot of disturbing detail about the waste humans generate and how it shapes the natural environment. For example, the book offers a comprehensive analysis of how plastic waste maims and kills sea life (for more information and opportunities to act, see Plastic Oceans). The analysis of our global waste problem is compelling, if perhaps depressing.

The ranting truly begins with solutions. Both Jensen and McBay advocate a radical approach of active resistance. They believe that industrial civilization is on the path to self-destruction and that incremental reforms are woefully insufficient. Here’s what I’m talking about:

“It’s true that, as we discussed earlier, the collapse of large, centralized organizations can offer great opportunities for community-scale resurgence and resistance. Unfortunately, it’s also true that a partial failure of a state or economy without the thorough dismantlement of oppressive power structures also provides an opportunity for more ruthless power-mongers.”

This goes on, and on, and on… and on. But while the 500-page rant is entertaining, I doubt it provides a real solution to our environmental problem. To me, radical approaches seem effective when they mobilize large segments of the public as supporters. For example, Nelson Mandela’s fight against the apartheid system in South Africa was effective because, ultimately, both the black majority and the international community considered extreme racial discrimination worse than violent self-defense.

I doubt that’s true of environmental campaigns. Ethics notwithstanding, violent resistance may be effective in certain local contexts. For example, Indian farmers may defeat a coal-burning power plant through violent action if their plight appeals to the broader public. It doesn’t follow, though, that radical action in industrialized countries will bring millions of Americans, Europeans, or Japanese to the barricades. As bad as our environmental problems are, they are not an urgent concern in the everyday life of most people.

Effective activism should focus on winning battles. We need concrete targets and goals that reduce environmental degradation, build a strong environmental coalition, and win the hearts and minds of the general public. Violence and destruction of property alienate the general public and strengthen the hand of anti-environmental interest groups.

So, the rant is epic but misguided. Environmentalism is at times a frustrating vocation, but that’s yet another reason to maintain a sharp focus on effectiveness. As long as environmental campaigners set realistic goals guided by strategy and achieve them, life on the planet has better prospects. Acting out of frustration — something I find myself doing all too often — is a recipe for failure.

For the past two years, I have spent a significant share of my time working on energy access in India. This is quite a departure from my earlier approach, which was heavy on game theory and analysis of data at the national level.

As I initiated projects in India, my natural instinct was to go for the currently trendy method of field experiments. In a field experiment, the effect of an intervention on some outcome of interest is tested. The effect can be measured because the intervention is randomly assigned to the treatment group, while the remainder of the study sample are the control group for comparisons.

The experimental method is well-suited for the analysis of causal effects. In my research, I am evaluating the effects of distributed solar electricity on rural livelihoods (Mera Gao Power), marketing campaigns on sales of solar home systems (Boond), and solar lighting on street vendor business (Nidan). While the projects have been more than a little challenging (yes, I was warned in advance), it’s been a great learning experience and lots of fun.

The main downside of the experimental method is rigidity. If the goal is to test an existing intervention rigorously, then a field experiment is a good approach. However, the method is too cumbersome for piloting, developing, and modifying new approaches. This is a severe limitation in the case of distributed energy generation, where new ideas are badly needed.

For example, some of my field experiments clearly suggest that the current approach suffers from deficiencies. Grant conditions, pre-analysis plans, and the logic of publication create professional incentives to continue with the experiment and report cleanly identified null results. At this stage, an engineer would have stopped the experiment and tried something else.

In the future, social scientists need to expand their methodological portfolio and create a publishing culture that values studies that focus on innovating new approaches. Currently, the leading social science journals do not publish this type of research. We have modelled our enterprise after medical research, as opposed to engineering. I suspect methodological sophistication is driving this trend at the expense of substance. We need a wider range of methods and a more diverse set of outcomes and results that are publishable.

Germany’s Energiewende is one of the most important and widely debated projects of our time. Among major economies, Germany has done the most to promote renewable energy at the expense of fossil fuels and nuclear power.

One controversial aspect of the Energiewende is the emphasis on phasing out nuclear. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany decided to become nuclear-free by 2022. As a result, the rapid growth of renewables in the power sector has largely replaced nuclear instead of coal.

Although I prefer renewables to nuclear, my personal preference would have been to phase out coal first. Coal is the most polluting source of energy today and should be our top target. In the power sector, progress in carbon abatement depends first and foremost on coal. On the other hand, nuclear power is not a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Still, Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear makes sense. The other day, @EnergiewendeGER, a Twitter “account dedicated to providing updates on Germany’s energy transition to 100% renewables,” tweeted the following:

“Politics is no university seminar where you come up with a theory & plan. We saw chance to stop nukes so we did. Coal? Is next!”

Renewable energy advocates cannot control energy policy on their own. If an exogenous shock — in this case, Fukushima — opens the door to phasing out nuclear, a renewable energy advocate who believes in a 100% renewable future should seize the opportunity. Given this ambitious goal, the next step is to remove coal from the power generation portfolio.

This reasoning is frustrating to conventional energy analysts because their emphasis is on prediction not action. It is true that in the business-as-usual scenario, the decision to focus on nuclear will have negative climate effects over time. However, Energiewende is an abrupt departure from business as usual. If the German renewable energy advocates play their cards right, Germany will next begin to reduce its reliance on coal. From this perspective, Fukushima was a great opportunity to phase out nuclear. Now that coal is increasingly criticized in the public debate, it’s time to set sights on a new, more dangerous target.

More generally, debates between activists and analysts are frequently frustrating because of the different perspectives and world views. What the activists say makes no sense to a hard-headed analyst who is looking for the most probable outcome. What the analysts say makes no sense to the activists who want to change the world.

Since opportunities to have fun and be useful at the same time are precious, I decided to spend my Saturday night on Long Beach to join a Sierra Club rally in support of offshore wind energy. A local volunteer, Matt Kearns, ran over a 100 miles between two locations that are particularly suited for offshore wind: Montauk and Long Beach.

Offshore wind is important for several reasons. First, onshore wind is the most successful of the new renewables so far. Since the technology is largely similar, experience suggests that offshore wind could produce clean energy at a low cost. Second, offshore wind avoids some of the problems associated with onshore wind. If the windmills are built sufficiently far to the sea, the problems of siting and “not in my backyear” are mitigated. Finally, the technical potential of offshore wind energy in the United States is large.

For New York State, offshore wind is another opportunity to embrace a clean energy future. Our state has already chosen to invest in solar power through a series of exciting public-private partnerships. While solar has become an established industry, offshore wind is less mature. That’s why offshore wind would  be a great addition to New York’s energy portfolio — while solar promises guaranteed returns, offshore wind is the kind of investment that could make New York a leader on the national, or even global, scale.

The rally itself was a lot of fun, and the brutal wind certainly left all of us with the impression that Long Beach can be the offshore wind capital of the world. The local community was active and there was little sense of this being a fringe event for environmentalists.  Local politicians gave spirited talks, the band was pretty awesome, and there were so many volunteers that one had to be duly impressed. The director of Beyond Coal, Mary Anne Hitt, was there to lead the event and send an inspiring message to the community (it was also incredible to see her lead with such energy while carrying a 4-year old around all night).

What’s nice about these events is that they send an unambiguously positive message about clean energy. If this is what a clean energy future looks like, then it’s simply going to make our lives more enjoyable and productive even if we initially have to invest some money. It’s basically a no-brainer.

Paul Krugman’s column on “Interests, Ideology and Climate” has been much debated, probably because it has a fairly controversial thesis: the opposition to climate policy is about conservative ideology, not vested interests. This goes against what most climate activists believe. If Krugman is right, all these campaigns against the fossil fuel industry are at best irrelevant.

There is no denying that the conservative side of the political spectrum has played a key role in undermining climate policy in the United States. However, we need to dig deeper than that to understand why conservatives are opposed to climate policy.

I don’t think there is anything intrinsic about conservative opposition to climate policy. A revenue-neutral carbon tax — create a carbon tax, reduce income taxes — would not change the size of the government.

Why would a conservative be opposed to such a policy? That’s where vested interests come into play. The energy sector — mostly oil, gas, and coal — is a major source of campaign funding in the United States. If a conservative politician wants to campaign against big government, the carbon tax is a perfect straw man because it brings in a lot of cash.

Conservative opposition to science also does not seem obvious or natural. If climate policy was not sold as a threat to the American way of life, conservatives would probably accept the science as it is. Historically, partisan polarization over climate science has been at much lower levels than it is today.

So, even if conservatives are opposed to climate science and policy, there is much more to the story. Vested interests have been successful in capturing the conservative movement and turning it against climate science and policy. It’s deeply troubling that disagreements about lifestyle and values spill over to an issue that should be everyone’s concern, and vested interests are to blame.

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