Jonathan Gilligan is Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Vanderbilt University, or so starts his media blurb. To me, Jonathan is the ClimateBall fellow I met at Keith’s ages ago. His play style and his calm constructiveness makes him a good fit for my fantasy draft. To top it all, he wrote a play and an opera libretto with his mom, Carol.
A gent. Here’s the first part of our chat. Italics are mine, Jonathan’s text is in roman.
OK. Let’s chat.
how’s everything, you seem busy
Everything’s good, but yeah. I’m busy. I tend to overcommit and then spend a lot of time trying to keep all my balls in the air. Just finished a two-day conference on the tenth anniversary of my “Behavioral Wedge” paper. It was fun and very productive, but getting everything organized for it and preparing my part was pretty exhausting.
nice – do you have to rewrite everything
I’m in the middle of calculating what’s changed since the original paper. A lot is very similar, particularly on the benefits of household weatherization and upgrading heating and air conditioning equipment, but there were some things we didn’t predict and other things that we knew were coming down the line that we couldn’t include back then.
For one, we assumed that the 2017 Energy Independence and Security Act would push everyone toward efficient light bulbs and we didn’t think that LED bulbs were sufficiently available to include them. However, last year Lucas Davis at Berkeley showed that per-capita household energy consumption had dropped in the US and credited the adoption of efficient light bulbs for that. Meanwhile I find that only about half of US households have switched to mostly/all efficient bulbs, so there’s a lot more room for improvement beyond what the government regulations have produced. Another thing that wasn’t around for the original paper is electric cars, which look as though they have a lot of potential over the next decade or two.
good, you mention the LED example in the Carrot and Stick paper
i believe in those concepts, and liked the Walmart example
A big push going forward is going to be to see whether we can apply the same kind of analysis to businesses that we did to household and individual emissions.
is it harder to get corporate numbers?
The Walmart example is a good one, and there are others. The challenge is that there isn’t a lot of publicly available data, just as your question suggests. That’s a big challenge. There is some aggregated data from CDP and other sources, but it’s very hard to quantify the potential for efficiency improvement in industry. One of my big frustrations is that about a decade ago, McKinsey published a chart of potential emissions reductions versus cost, that was very optimistic, but they weren’t at all transparent about their methods or sources of data, so there’s no way to examine what went into it if you want to ask, “Do I believe this analysis?”
things should have changed since then
otoh, what is the incentive for companies to keep track of all this
Now there are more detailed analyses, but with the corporate side, you’re always running into the challenge that these things are very sensitive business information that companies don’t want to share with competitors (for good reason), so it doesn’t become publicly available.
it could be something related to audits
(although our actual auditing powers are limited)
However, investors are increasingly interested, in part because they want to understand the risks to companies from climate change (vulnerabilities and adaptation stuff), and also from possible future emissions regulations. This has created an opening for organizations like CDP [Carbon Disclosure Project] to get companies to disclose their emissions in a credible way, but keeping the information confidential except to subscribing investors. Then they can also publish aggregated data that does not expose anyone’s sensitive information.
i had a similar idea for scientific data – a fiduciary could vet private sets
ideally it could be as simple as a checksum
Also, consumers are interested in a company’s emissions footprint. What we see suggests that consumers won’t pay a big premium to buy the greenest product, but they will pay to avoid the worst product, so with consumers, companies often are like the hunters running away from the bear. It’s not important to be the fastest as much as it’s important not to be the slowest.
tell me about the Sullivan Principles, as AT is South African
The Sullivan Principles: Back in the 1970s and early 80s, when people were debating how to deal with apartheid, Rev. Leon Sullivan proposed that rather than boycotting South Africa altogether, investors and consumers look at a company’s record and distinguish companies that followed a set of principles that promoted racial equity versus ones that went along with apartheid uncritically. Many institutional investors preferred to continue to invest in companies that followed the Sullivan principles, but many activists called for an all-out boycott of companies doing business in South Africa.
A big distinction I see between the calls for divestment from fossil fuel companies and divestment from companies doing business in South Africa is that the anti-Apartheid activism emphasized divestment and boycott, whereas I worry that with fossil fuels, divestment without boycott will have much less impact on the companies. As I argue in my paper, unless the divestment is very wide-spread, divestment may benefit the company by getting rid of annoying shareholders who raise uncomfortable questions without affecting the share prices.
but divestment is just a stick, tell me about the carrot
The carrot involves both reputation and also potentially finding and addressing inefficiencies, where a company can reduce emissions and also save money.
i really liked the concept of solution aversion – the contrarian matrix is powered by it
Solution aversion is fascinating. That was discovered by Troy Campbell and Aaron C. Kay at Duke. But it’s also important to observe that everything will not be win-win, so we also have to look deeper than just the places where companies can profit from addressing climate change.
Starting with the win-win items is a good starting point, and looking down the road there are a number of other benefits for companies: Many companies (both places that people traditionally think of as liberal, such as Google and Apple) and also places more traditionally considered conservative, such as Ingersoll Rand, find that employee satisfaction improves when workers feel the company is doing well by society (e.g., cutting greenhouse gas emissions). And this helps a lot with recruitment and retention of skilled employees.
ohoh that sounds like your inner hippie talking
will we need to reform corporationhood?
I struggle between my inner hippie (who is very outspoken) and my sense that I’m well to the left of most people, so many things I want to do won’t win elections. If we have to reform corperationhood in order to address climate change (the Naomi Klein position) then we’re screwed, so as much as I would like to do that, I also look for how to work with corporations as they are today.
an S&P analyst told a friend that corporations can’t be sued because they would not seek profit for shareholders at any cost – courts upheld governance right
Corporations do need to make a profit, but they don’t need to maximize profits at the expense of other considerations. In my book with Mike Vandenbergh, we talk about Benefit Corporations, which include social benefit in their charters. Mohammad Yunus has also written extensively about Social Businesses that repay their investors the original investment, but then plough their profits into social good rather than dividends or shareholder value.
that seems to lead to this kind of corporatism –
i bet angels work hard to manage their social aura
One social business, Grameen Shakti in Bangladesh, operates on a business model (as opposed to a charitable one), but has provided affordable solar power for an enormous number of rural homes.
like here, perhaps
I can follow up later with links to more detailed reports on Grameen Shakti. [Here it is.]
reminds me of the study about bed nets
money is a good experience tool
I was about to point you to Duflo and Banerjee’s work. I really love their approach. Their book, “Poor Economics” is great and I would recommend that everyone read it. There’s a lot in Green Economics about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good in development work.
satisficing is tried and true – we’re doing it right now
imagine if we had to communicate in an absolutely perfect manner
Also, related to that I really think highly of Nancy Cartwright and Jeremy Hardie’s “Evidence-Based Policy: A Practical Guide to Doing it Better,” which covers similar ground with good common sense. You’ve got a lot of interest and knowledge about philosophical matters, and Cartwright is a prominent philosopher of science, who writes clearly and sensibly about epistemology applied to policy.
i know about her How the Laws of Physics Lie, or something like that
Yes. That’s her. You also brought up Ramez Naam on Green New Deal [GND] and I have strong opinions about GND and the way it’s discussed.
what are these opinions?
I get frustrated at the way everyone focuses on GND as a fully-fleshed out policy that its supporters expect to become law. I see GND as planting a flag, similar to MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech (which was also very thin on details and which faced enormous political opposition in the Senate).
A well-known problem with climate policy has been that a majority of voters want to address climate change, but very few make it one of their top priorities, so politicians ignore it.
go off, king – i go grab coffee
What GND does is it connects the environment with jobs and prosperity, so instead of only being negative and warning people about looming catastrophe, we also inspire people with the benefits of massively rebuilding the nation’s energy infrastructure in a sustainable manner. That seems to me likely to get a lot more people excited that detailed spreadsheets of emissions tax rates and related wonkery.
If people become inspired by a vision of where they want to go, it seems to me that we’re more likely to get people putting priority on a policy—even if the end product isn’t much like the details spelled out in the early drafts—and getting something put into practice.
raising concerns has limits, as always
The end product of Obamacare lost many attributes that Obama emphasized in the 2008 campaign (e.g., a public option, which was the biggest thing differentiating it from Hillary Clinton’s plan), but something made it into law.
I have pushed back against the book “Break Through” for the last 12 years or so, but I have to admit that GND draws on a lot of the arguments made in that book, about the political power of hope over despair or fear. Many aspects of GND are straight out of the Breakthrough playbook, but there are also important distinctions, particularly in the sense of urgency about taking action. I have felt that there was unsupported optimism that technological fixes could eliminate tough choices. It’s like fighting obesity, diabetes, etc. by saying that instead of getting people to change their diets, we invest in developing technology that would allow someone to eat all they want of whatever they want without harming their health.
it’s the concerns that kills their brand, imho
In Break Through, I felt the book did not give adequate attention to the willingness of the public during WWII to make big sacrifices for the cause. My hope is that if we can give a hopeful and inspiring vision of where we’re going, people will be more willing to grapple with the tough choices (including temporary sacrifices) necessary to get there. I don’t, however, imagine that the public will make the same choices that I would myself.
ok, we’re almost there
there is this – have you looked?
OK. On Plumer: I have looked at that. Plumer’s analysis is very similar to the original Sustainability Wedges approach and to the approach I favor: Instead of looking for a single silver bullet to solve the emissions problem, look for many smaller things that are compatible with one another, and which can add up to a large enough reduction to matter (even if it doesn’t get us all the way there).
I really liked the interactive policy tool that Plumer and Migliozzi used for that article.
me too, i tried to hack it
There’s a very interesting literature on how interactive computational models can be very useful at helping people get an intuitive feel for managing complex systems (see, e.g., D. Dorner, “The Logic of Failure“). Dorner also expanded that article into a nice book. Moira Zellner at University of Illinois Chicago and her colleagues have done fascinating work on using interactive computational models to facilitate community-level decision-making about sustainability issues, such as groundwater management and flood risks – here and there.
I love what I’m doing.
i think it matters
I also love being able to work with great colleagues on interdisciplinary projects.
Wow. When you put it that way, one thing that’s defined my career (which has been pretty unusual) has been that I have quickly jettisoned research projects when they stopped sparking joy.
it’s a great anti-depressant
I love working in teams. I get inspiration from working with other smart people, and I love getting constant constructive criticism and suggestions for how I can do better.
END OF THE FIRST PART