How Much Attention Does Climate Change Warrant? A Conversation With Climate Scientist and Energy Technology and Public Policy Expert David Keith

04/17/2015 02:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

Co-authored by Yifan Wu, Fellow, Harvard College Effective Altruism

David Keith is Professor of Applied Physics in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. His academic work currently focuses on solar geoengineering: assessments of the technology, public engagement with its social consequences, and the development of related public policies and governance mechanisms. Following years of research on direct air capture, Keith founded and currently serves as the president of Carbon Engineering, a Calgary-based start-up that works on capturing carbon dioxide from ambient air to produce low-carbon fuels for transportation on an industrial scale. Keith also co-manages the Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research, a multimillion-dollar philanthropic geoengineering research fund established by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Keith was named Canadian Geographic's Environmental Scientist of the Year in 2006 and one of TIME magazine's Heroes of the Environment in 2009.


Harvard College Effective Altruism: How much effort should we devote to combating climate change in relation to more-immediate issues like infectious diseases?

David Keith: If all you care about is direct measurable human welfare, measured by how long people are going to live or whether or not they can get enough basic materials, then I think climate change is not as high-priority as pollution and other social problems we face. I think climate is an environmental problem, so for lots of reasons I would like to leave more of the natural world to be enjoyed by my great-grandkids and everybody else's. I think there is some real value to not egregiously messing with this wondrous thing that we've inherited, but I don't think it's because we need it that much. Some people want to say that the reason we should protect the climate is purely for utilitarian practical reasons: We have to do it because otherwise there is an existential threat. I don't see much evidence for that from climate change.

HEA: Won't climate change result in severe consequences for humanity?

Keith: Severe compared to what, for whom, and at what time scale? Humans are moving extraordinarily fast and causing extraordinary impact on human welfare. I worked on climate change for half of my life myself; I care about it. I just think that claims that you could compare it directly with some other threads are overblown. Take sea-level rise as an example: a two-meter rise, which is a very high-end estimate, actually will occur really slowly compared to other social factors. Yes, that means Miami won't be there, but big deal. People don't think through how big the other changes are going to be in the next two centuries. In terms of direct impact on human welfare, I would think that changes due to Southern Florida going gradually under sea level over a hundred years won't kill anybody directly, and real estate values really aren't meaningfully valued on that time scale. I personally think that it's an outrageous idea that we would let the world be damaged that much, but I don't think that the reason is the standard economist rationalization for why we should act on climate change: Add up all the damages from sea level rise and whatnot and the cost of control, with discounting over time, and calculate the optimum. Under that story people like me care about climate change because we are going to make our grandkids 1- or 2-percent richer because the amount that we save from climate damages is larger than the cost to cut emissions. I find that utterly unconvincing. If the answer were the opposite, if I were to make people 1-percent poorer to deal with climate change, I would still want to do it for reasons that aren't captured by economic calculations.

HEA: Could you comment on the general state of climate policy today?

Keith: The general state of climate policy is that it's not going very far. Nothing much is happening. But things might happen. I've been involved with this for over a quarter of a century and people always think that things are going to happen, and I don't expect anything dramatic to happen to, say, Paris next year. I think that there will be announcements that make it sound good, but I'm skeptical that something really dramatic will happen. I think the underlying reasons why it's hard to get a deal are deep, and they are not to do with opposition by this or that ugly fossil fuel company. This is not to say there isn't that opposition -- there absolute is, and it's awful -- but it's to do with the fact that the costs of cutting emissions are paid for locally, while the benefits are felt a hundred years in the future. It's the time and space aspect. We've dealt with externalities: In the developed world we have done an extraordinary job in improving air quality, improving water quality, toxin, DDT, and we've dealt with externalities that were 1 or 2 percent of GDP. China now is facing externalities from air pollution of several percent of GDP, and China will very certainly deal with those because if the Chinese government imposes these big costs, the generation that pays the cost of emission controls will see their air get cleaner, and there is a basic political deal there. But climate isn't like that, because of the very very long time delays and the global aspect.

HEA: Is solar geoengineering a suitable backup plan if policy changes fail us?

Keith: Solar geoengineering seems to act quickly and, from current evidence, has pretty widespread benefits, making it likely that politicians will ultimately do it, and it doesn't require a global agreement that cutting emissions does.

But in the end you have to bring the emissions to zero to stabilize climate. No amount of solar engineering can solve that problem. If you don't restrain emissions, you don't have a stable climate. And I'm just making an observation that I think politicians should react. I didn't say anything about what I think the right answer was, and I have no idea what "promising" means in this context.

HEA: You have conducted research on whether patents on solar geoengineering technologies could be banned and advocated for keeping these technologies in the public domain. What are the dangers of privatizing solar geoengineering?

Keith: With incredible technologies like this, you could destroy the world. You don't want private enterprise making nuclear weapons, and you don't want that with geoengineering. The decisions could impact the whole world and need to be taken as legitimately and as transparently as possible, and that's not what companies do. For these public policy matters, it's important to discourage private enterprise and business involvement in solar geoengineering, because it has such potentially high leverage and therefore presents such a threat. The incentive to distort the facts about it would be so large, so I'm strongly against doing that in a for-profit mode.

HEA: Where should people put their money to see environmental change?

Keith: To me I'm less excited by the big environmental NGOs, which seem a bit too businesslike and too captured inside the old way, so I'm more excited by some of the new ideas of how to mobilize people that are like, and the divestment movement, but there's a whole lot of things. Personally, when I give money, I give money to lobbying organizations that will change laws, because I think the way we are going to restrain carbon emissions is through changing people's attitudes and laws, and I don't think it's through encouraging behavior that would lower individual carbon footprints, because we need to bring emissions to zero, and people are not going to bring their consumption to zero; you are going to do that through technological change: switching to more-efficient vehicles, solar power, nuclear power what have you. So I think it's very important to have nongovernmental organizations and environmental groups fight to have these regulations passed.

HEA: What are some of the most effective ways of changing the mindset of politicians and the population regarding climate change and the actions we should take?

Keith: These things depend on social movements! I'm really excited by the students here who are are involved with the divestment movement. I think divestment narrowly draws, if nothing else, changes, and of course the critics are right in that it won't do much, but the point of the divestment movement is trying to be really clear about what the long-term consequences of our choices are with regard to carbon and what the impact of that is, and to try and hold senior decision makers, including the big investors and senior people who run Harvard, accountable for that, and I think it's fantastic. I think it's part of an attempt to make a social movement that spreads more broadly the idea that people really have to demand to change, to restrain the amount of carbon emissions. I think these things are absolutely and inherently political and should not be decided in some cold, analytic way. Indeed, a lot of last decade's policies have been done too much by professionals who suppose they could calculate their way into the right answer, and we need more activism.

This post was originally published on Dec. 4, 2014 at Harvard College Effective Altruism.