(Transcript) A conversation with Xynteo CEO Jorge Pikunic and Professor David Victor - Part 1

Ahead of COP26, the 26th meeting of the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference, our CEO, Jorge Pikunic had a fascinating conversation with David Victor – one of the leading thinkers on climate change.

Read the transcript of part 1 of the conversation to find out why global warming isn’t just an environmental issue – but a military and political issue, too.

Jorge Pikunic:

Welcome to the Xynteo podcast. My name is Jorge Pikunic and I’m the CEO of Xynteo.

One of the leading thinkers on climate change is David Victor, a professor on innovation and public policy at the University of California at San Diego.

Much of David’s research explores the intersection of climate-change science and policy. One of his books, “Global Warming Gridlock,” explains why the world hasn’t made much diplomatic progress on climate change – and offers new strategies that would be more effective. The book was recognised by The Economist as one of the best books of 2011.

I’ve known David and followed his work for years — and had a fascinating conversation with him recently that we caught on tape. In Part 1 of our conversation, we talked about how global warming is not just an environment issue – but a military and political issue, too.

I’m recording this shortly before I leave for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. The two-week event is better-known as “COP26,” marking the 26th meeting of world leaders to address global warming. These are the same global meetings that led to the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.

I asked David to gauge our progress in the fight against global warming, which will be a big part of the discussion at COP26. His answer might surprise you.

Jorge Pikunic:

David, thank you very much for joining me today on this conversation on climate change, both on the consequences, and also on the actions that we must take.

David Victor:

Well, it's really a great pleasure to be with you.

Jorge Pikunic:

A lot of the discussion over climate change has focused on the effects on the environment. And of course, those are some of the biggest threats to humanity. However, in some of your writings, you talk about implications that people don't often talk about — some of them are political, or social and military. How will climate change have implications that are military and even socio-political?

David Victor:

One of the most important and interesting areas of research around the impacts of climate change, is we have a tendency to say the science is in and we know what the impacts are going to be. And that's all part of a political theory to motivate people to go do stuff. And I understand why political leaders and activists are interested in motivating people. But when I look at the science of the impacts of climate change, what I actually see is a lot of uncertainty. And the uncertainty for the most part is very worrisome. And it's exactly in these in these areas.

So, take, for example, the potential impacts on national security. The impacts are probably not going to be the direct physical impacts to the national security infrastructure. Naval bases, for example, are by definition on the sea. And so, when sea level goes up, and when storms are stronger, they'll affect naval bases to some degree. But anyone who's running a good naval base is going to harden that base to get those kinds of impacts.

The really difficult and interesting impacts are these indirect ones, where there's a harm to a society, and that makes the political system and that society less viable. Extreme weather, crop failures, things that, people who don't know whether their political leaders are doing a good job or bad job, they look at that and they say, ‘That's evidence that our political leaders are failing us.’ And so, they vote them out of office, or that makes the case for civil war stronger, or insurrections and migration.

That's really where the science is right now. It's the interaction between fragile governments. And then there's extra stress from climate change from drought, from floods, from sea level rise, from wildfires. It's that extra stress that then interacts through the society and then undermines countries and might make the world a less safe place in the future.

Jorge Pikunic:

That's insightful and it can add a whole other dimension on the consequences. The world is not on track to meet the Paris goal of stopping warming well below two degrees. But you have said before that even if that is the case, in some ways the situation is encouraging. Why the optimism?

David Victor:

I'm actually encouraged, partly because I've spent three decades of being discouraged by watching people go to meetings talking about climate change, and then go home and do nothing different. There are two major aspects of this in terms of how do you avoid the consequences? One, if you go back to the example of the potential threats to destabilising societies, which can cause migration, civil wars and so on, there's growing evidence that that's actually happening right now.

The way you deal with that is you might, over the long-term, control emissions and lessen the impacts of climate change. But that's a very slow-moving train.

I think the core of the debate around progress and optimism is related to a second thing, which is that while the political process and in particular the Framework Convention on Climate Change. They have these annual meetings. The next one's in, in November, in Glasgow, Scotland, so-called COP26. They have these annual meetings, and then they go on forever. I went to the very first one in Berlin in 1995, I went to the second one in Geneva in 1996. And I stopped going altogether until Paris in 2015, because they were just clearly a total waste of time.

What's happened now, though, is we have a framework in place: the Paris agreement, which at least is more permissive of experimentation of what some people call “bottom up”, I think it's, it's hopefully going to be more than just kind of the chaos of “bottom up”. And when you take a step back from the data, the worst-case scenarios for emissions, not so many years ago, were that we were on track for warming of four or five degrees, maybe more, over the course of the century. Some extreme cases suggested that we maybe seven or eight degrees. I mean, just truly horrific climate change, where we don't even know how to estimate the impacts, because it's just so far outside the realm of what our models can handle.

Now, the worst-case scenarios are, you know, three, three-and-a-half degrees. So that's not great. But that's better. And so you have that one element of optimism, which is the baseline has come down, it's not going to be two degrees, we're not going to stop warming at two degrees, we're going to blow through 1.5 degrees, we're going to blow through two degrees, but looks highly unlikely we're going to be at those extreme cases.

And the other area of optimism is around technology and niches. Technological change doesn't happen. Transformative change doesn't happen globally, all the time, all around the world. It happens in small markets, you know, that from your own experience and business. And what we're seeing is those markets are now happening, they've been happening for quite a while on renewable power, solar and wind. They've been happening around electric vehicles in a few places, Norway, California, and the list goes on — the huge Chinese market, including for buses and heavy vehicles.

We're beginning to see maybe a market for advanced small, modular nuclear reactors. We're seeing markets for advanced steel – the kind of list goes on.  And as somebody who studies the history of technological change, it's those markets and the appearance of the markets, in reality, that is a big source of optimism.

Jorge Pikunic:

That's really interesting. And as you said, we're gearing up for that meeting in Glasgow, COP26. And you argue that focusing and obsessing on global emissions is not the right approach to measure progress. Can you elaborate on that?

David Victor:

Yeah. So let me just say that this point of view is deeply unpopular. The idea that we should measure progress, according to global average temperature is crazy. Global average temperature is variable for lots of reasons. And governments don't have direct control over it.

The idea that we should measure progress in terms of global emissions is slightly better, but still not the right way to think about it. Because it's not where real progress happens. It's not how you determine whether there's been investment and success stories and failures.

I've been arguing for a long time that the global diplomacy needs to have some broad goals — but focus less on the broad goals and more on what's happening sector by sector, country by country.

 And in particular, what we need right now are small groups — of pioneers, of countries and firms, or whole industries that are willing to invest in new technologies that are consistent with a decarbonised future, and really double down on that. And it's out of those pioneering niches, that we're going to come up with the new technologies — and then we have to not forget that the pioneers themselves are going to be irrelevant unless they have followers that can go pioneer with them. But right now, we haven't really invested enough in the pioneering strategies.

Jorge Pikunic:

I can see how that can be an effective approach to drive real technological change that is needed to fight climate change. But if we don’t focus on global emissions, how do we know that we’re making enough progress?

David Victor:

Well, so, we have to not ignore global emissions. At the end of the day, this has to add up this whole strategy of pioneering and in effect, colonising new space, creating new technologies and new industrial revolutions. And then once the pioneers do the hard work, the costs come down, the politics get easier, and it becomes easier for leaders to create followers. And that's how revolution occurs from small markets to bigger markets over time.

Obviously, you have to pay attention to the global picture, because that's what matters at the end of the day. My argument, though, is that we should be trying to measure progress to a greater degree by focusing more on the individual niches. When you're doing that, you really need to know what's working, what's failing.

Because right now, we have no idea, really, which of these strategies will work and so we have to run, in effect, a bunch of experiments — and the whole world benefits from knowing which experiments have succeeded and which of which have failed.

If you look at steel, for example, there are three or four major competing methods for making clean steel “zero carbon” or the “very low carbon” steel. You look even at the macro question of what will be the energy carrier of the future. Right now, electricity carries a quarter or so of energy. And then before it's used, and almost all the models suggest that decarbonisation means electrification, so a lot more electricity as the energy carrier, that's almost certainly true. But to what degree we don't know, it could be that electricity is the dominant energy carrier, and then everything else is eclipsed. It could be that we have an electricity world along with a hydrogen world and maybe ammonia.

We don't know and until more of the industrial leaders around the world see real experiments and real path, they don't know what the investment route is. And then everything's expensive, everything's politically hard and then we're stuck and that’s where we have been for the last 30 years.

Jorge Pikunic:

Again and again, we see the limitations of linear thinking in changes and phenomena that are really exponential. So, I guess your point is that if we nurture these disruptions which grow at an exponential rate, then we have a chance to getting it right.

David Victor:

I think that if people have been reminded of anything in the pandemic, it’s the math of exponential growth is hard to get your head around. And the decarbonisation revolution won't take over as quickly as the Delta variant. But you want to create these revolutions precisely because if they're successful, then the growth is exponential.

And there are some success stories. You've seen this in solar, where for these baseload applications at good sites, it's often the cheapest source of electric power anywhere in the world. That was not the case 15 years ago, and it's truly extraordinary. The same thing’s happening with lithium batteries right now. Electric vehicles drive trains, and maybe in the future small modular reactors and a lot of other things. So that's, that's very, very powerful.

I'm a political scientist by training. And when I see these histories of technological change, I see them as opportunities to rewrite the politics to take a political problem — which is nasty and hard and difficult, because you've got incumbent groups that don't want change. And by making the new technologies cheaper — not always the cheapest but making them cheaper and demonstrating how new industries can emerge — you're, in effect, rewriting the politics. You’re creating new interest groups witnessed the electric vehicle producers that are politically more powerful the more successful they are. And the more those markets are opened up, and that dynamic then transforms the politics and makes it a politically easier problem.

Jorge Pikunic:

Thank you so much, David.

I hope you enjoyed my conversation with David Victor. To hear more, I invite you to listen to Part 2 of our conversation.