MJ: Peak oil was a big deal 15 years ago, even 10 years ago. The latest innovations in fracking for oil and shale rock certainly have changed things, and so you don’t hear as much about peak oil.
I advise politicians, but sometimes I’m in the same room with other people—energy advocates and environmental advocates—and they’ll be in there saying, oh, you know, 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 kind of say, well, wait a minute, 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, and that that can solve the problem. 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 decarbonizing 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?
MJ: You’d be amazed at how humans can look at the same event like Australia burning up, or Donald Trump looking at a snowstorm, and take entirely different interpretations of what that evidence was telling them about the real natural world around us. In other words, humans can stay in denial for a very long time. And so is that a message for me of complete despair? No. But it’s an effort at realism.
That’s why when people say we’ve got to do a better effort at educating people in Alberta and the coal regions of Australia and the Appalachian and Texas, I’m like, well, or you go around them. And if we look at other environmental solutions in the past, whether it was acid rain, sulfur emissions from US coal plants, and so on—I’m not saying these are all exactly the same—but when we try to learn from other cases, you didn’t convince everybody and then you move forward. 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, disincentivizing polluters from polluting. As you say, some are arguing that this alone can help us massively cut emissions.
MJ: Flexible regulations are almost as economically efficient. So they may be way better politically—like way better—and only slightly less efficient economically. So that’s why I caution people who feel like 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.