Book interview

Daniel Cohan

Gridlock is an apt metaphor for addressing climate change. As with a traffic jam, getting a seemingly infinite number of components moving in alignment can seem impossible. It’s also a metaphor all too familiar to urban Texans.

Daniel Cohan, an atmospheric scientist and environmental engineering professor at Rice University in Houston, has laid out a road map for relieving the gridlock that’s plagued climate change solutions for decades, in Texas as well as nationally and globally. In his new book “Confronting Climate Gridlock” Cohan argues that the gridlock can’t be eased without three key elements coming into sync: diplomacy, technology, and policy. A Dallas native, Cohan takes readers through a brisk, succinct history of each area as it relates to climate change. From there, he looks at where progress is most attainable and how the steps forward can be coordinated for maximum impact.

Cohan spoke with Texas Climate News contributing editor Bob Henson about “Confronting Climate Gridlock,” which was published this week by Yale University Press. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What inspired you to write this book?
In essence I’ve been studying climate change since middle school. I’ve always been one to focus on the solutions to a problem, so this book was really a quest to think through the solutions we need to better address climate change. I’d begun picking through a number of these ideas and writing op-eds for various newspapers after getting tenure in 2013, but I realized that these are the sorts of challenges that take a lot more than 700 words to delve into. 

You make it abundantly clear that the United States is not just historically flush with fossil fuels but also gifted with the ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a big way via wind and solar power, carbon and hydrogen storage, etc. Yet this bounty seems underrecognized. The word “energy” is still so often used as a synonym for “oil, gas, and coal.” 

The United States is incredibly blessed with wind, solar, and geothermal resources. We’re in some ways better positioned than many other countries to transition to clean energy. You look at some of the countries that have moved faster toward renewables, such as Germany. Their sunlight is only about as good as Alaska’s [for solar energy production]. We have some incredibly windy corridors of the country, and I think as geothermal technologies improve, we’ll find that vast areas of the western U.S. could be open to geothermal. 

So we have both the natural resources and the financial means to be transitioning toward renewable energy faster than some other countries might be able to. And having been the leading consumer of fossil fuels historically, we have the responsibility to move even faster toward an energy transition.

Where do you fall on the spectrum of working with the technologies we have to reduce emissions quickly versus shooting for the moon with big research initiatives over the longer term?

I think we have the majority of technologies that we’ll need to decarbonize the economy. We’ve seen wind and solar already get to the point where they’re outcompeting other alternatives for electricity. Electric vehicles are right at the cusp of being more affordable than their gasoline and diesel competitors.

The biggest leaps have come by deploying technologies before they were cost-competitive. Then relentless learning-by-doing and market competition can drive down the costs and improve performance. Some refer to this as the “supply side push,” but even more of the progress has to come from a “demand pull”– having a demand for technologies before they’re quite cost-competitive but that brings them forward to the point they can become self-sustaining. That’s what we saw with wind and solar and what I hope we’ll begin seeing with electric cars and batteries and geothermal.

Given the many challenges in decarbonizing electricity over the time frame of a few years, what’s the most promising route for progress between now and 2030?

Mainly it’s a matter of build, build, build with wind and solar. In the course of researching this book, I also got more and more optimistic that geothermal could hit a tipping point by 2030 as a complement to wind and solar. 

One thing we need by 2030 is a huge build-out of transmission. That’s going to take time. It’ll probably be well into the 2030s to build out the kind of transmission infrastructure we need to tap into the windiest and sunniest resources and to blend it with geothermal and hydropower. That’s more of a political challenge than a technical challenge. It’s become very hard to build anything in this country. We’re not building transmission lines at nearly the pace as before. There’s nothing rocket-science about building them. 

We saw tragically in Texas the problems when you don’t have enough transmission. In the 2021 freeze we weren’t able to bring in power when we needed it the most, and we were stuck here as an isolated island. 

More often, we’re just missing the opportunities of being able to tap into the most abundant resources and blend them across the country. We don’t need new lines stretching from California to Florida. What we need are connections that better link the grids that we have.

It’s still not clear what we’re going to need for mid-range and long-range storage [of electricity]. Lithium batteries do just fine balancing out wind and solar to get us up to a 70 or 80% clean grid. Once you get much beyond 80 or 90%, we’re going to need substantially more storage and for longer periods of time. The less we do on the transmission side, the more we’ll need to do on storage.

Cohan bookThe gridlock metaphor you use is a powerful one. Given all the interlocking pieces that have to come together just so, I also found myself thinking of a jigsaw puzzle. Could the nation benefit from a more federally orchestrated approach to aligning all of these elements, even if it were just a guide rather than a mandate?

In many ways, the gridlock results from a failure of the federal government to act. We’ve been making incremental progress from states and companies taking their own initiatives and making headway here and there. But the federal government has really gone AWOL in terms of having a coherent energy or climate policy. 

There’s a lot of cheerleading on how much states and cities and business can achieve and how we’ve brought ourselves down from the peak we were at 15 years ago. But emissions still aren’t coming down nearly fast enough. Really racing toward net zero is going to require more coordinated effort at the federal level and more national strategies.

What about Texas? Is there any hope for a comprehensive approach to the state’s own policy and technology gridlock when it comes to emissions?

Texas shows the power of what can be achieved by markets, moving past some of the red tape that blocks progress in other states. It was much easier to build a huge boost in transmission that really unlocked West Texas wind and let Texas become the national leader in wind production, whereas you see blue states with clean energy transmission projects blocked left and right. 

In our political climate, we’re not going to see Texas take on 100% clean electricity standards, but we will see the progress that can be made by market forces, and the benefits of being able to overcome some of the NIMBYism that’s been slowing down progress in more of the blue states.

I think there’s been a huge shift in thinking here [in Texas], of realizing that energy transitions are coming and that we need to stay ahead of that curve. There have been remarkable pushes on carbon capture and hydrogen production and drilling technologies that could help leverage some of the oil and gas industry’s expertise and channel it into new directions. Some measures are largely greenwashing, but technology being pioneered in Texas could be pivotal to helping decarbonize energy around the world.

How have you applied the principles outlined in your book in your own life? Have those personal practices informed how you think about the global issues?

I’ve got solar on my rooftop and made sure the house was as efficient as it could be before putting in solar. I was able to take a solar system that was expected to provide just half my house’s electricity and was able to get all my house’s electricity by moving toward more efficient lighting and insulation, better windows, and so forth. I got a plug-in hybrid. I wasn’t able to go fully electric because I travel to family in Dallas and Austin, but I was able to get all my local driving fully electric, and I was able to add some more solar panels to get back to net-zero electricity.

It doesn’t have to be a sacrifice to live green. We live comfortably, but we take the steps we can to be more efficient and switch to clean energy. I take a lot of steps to practice what I teach, but not in a zealous way.

People can make the case that this is purely a systemic or societal or public policy issue, but when I go out and talk to communities – churches or Rotary clubs or Scout groups – you leave people pretty cold when you just say “change Congress” if they have a congressperson who’s not receptive. The question I get most is “How can I make changes that will make the most difference?” Even the best policies will fail if people aren’t willing to adopt the clean options. 

I think we’re making a mistake as people who are studying and teaching and writing about climate and energy if we don’t take some of the steps ourselves. I saw how difficult it was to buy an electric car from a dealership that didn’t even know where to plug it in. They tried to talk me into getting a gasoline car instead. Putting solar on my roof got delayed for six months by all the red tape from the city and from the local power distributor. 

We’ve had a major wild card in play on global emissions with the pandemic and its impacts on how we live, work, and learn. Now there’s arguably an even bigger wild card at hand with the Ukraine war and its repercussions on energy. How have these influenced your thinking? 

From the pandemic, we saw that de-growth – trying to shrink emissions by shrinking the economy – isn’t going to take us where we want to go. We had lockdowns and a very brief recession that throttled down emissions temporarily. But if you don’t invest in changing the underlying systems, you end up with emissions rebounding higher than they’ve ever been globally as the lockdowns ended.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine could reshape the future of energy profoundly. There’s going to be a heightened interest in reducing dependence on Russian oil and gas. Will that take us to doubling down on “drill, baby, drill” and producing more oil and gas in the rest of the world? Or will we use this as an opportunity to more aggressively pursue efficiency and electric vehicles and renewable electricity and all the other steps that could slash our dependence on oil and gas? 

Also, the Fukushima disaster and now the invasion of Ukraine have highlighted risks of nuclear power that haven’t fully been grappled with. It perhaps doesn’t change the calculus of nuclear power in the U.S., where it’s not cost-effective to be done now, but it makes me a whole lot more nervous to think about building nuclear power plants anywhere where they could be in a battlefield in the next century.

What would you most like non-specialist readers to take away from your book?

I really want readers to come away with the message that our future is in our hands. The climate that we and our children and their children will experience depends on the actions we take in these next couple of decades. 

We don’t need to worry about the worst-case doom-and-gloom scenarios that we posed a couple of decades ago, but we are still far away from the right path. It is within our control to pursue the technologies and policies and diplomacy that are needed to bend the curve on emissions, and to lead us to a climate that will be warmer than today but that doesn’t have to be catastrophically so. And to realize there’s hope for a better future than we have today, regardless of the implications for climate.

Bob Henson, a meteorologist and science writer based in Colorado, is the author of “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change.”