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Daniel Cohan on Heat Pumps, Policy, and Optimism

In Confronting Climate Gridlock, environmental engineering professor Daniel Cohan argues that escaping the gravest perils of climate change will first require American diplomacy, technological innovation, and policy to catalyze decarbonization globally. Combining his own expertise along with insights from more than a hundred interviews with diplomats, scholars, and clean-technology pioneers, Cohan identifies flaws in previous environmental efforts and opportunities for more successful strategies.

You’ve published recent op-eds about Biden’s proclamation that heat pumps, among other energy efficiency tools, are essential to the national defense. Many readers may not recognize this technology; can you explain what a heat pump is, and why people might want one?

DC: A heat pump is basically an air conditioner that can run in reverse, pumping heat into a room when it’s cold outside, and pumping heat out of a room to cool it when it’s warm outside. Heat pumps are several times as efficient as traditional furnaces. And since they run on electricity, they let us switch away from burning fossil fuels as the grid becomes cleaner.

Upgrading to equipment like heat pumps and retrofitting buildings to match efficiency standards will be expensive. Do the energy savings justify the cost, and how can government incentivize homeowners and businesses to comply?

DC: Efficient lighting and weatherization save money right away. But heat pumps take years to pay off, and too few contractors know how to install them. Incentives and training programs can surmount those hurdles. Then, once use becomes widespread, we should see costs come down and performance improve, just like we’ve seen for solar panels, LED lights, and so many other technologies. What we need is for policy to jumpstart virtuous cycles of rising adoption and falling costs through “learning-by-doing,” which can eventually perpetuate themselves. 

You acknowledge in the introduction to Confronting Climate Gridlock that fossil fuel use has enabled globalization and economic growth. Are you sympathetic to people in the degrowth movement who say that Americans need to reduce consumption to stand more in balance with the rest of the world, or do you think the emissions reductions we need can be accomplished through efficiency, electrification, and carbon sinks alone?

DC: I understand the argument, but I don’t think degrowth is a path to success. No politician wants to promote austerity and recession and ask voters to accept a poorer future. And we’ll never sell the world on degrowth. We have to show the world that economies can prosper while getting cleaner too, as clean energy, electric vehicles, and heat pumps become better and cheaper than their competitors.

We’ve cut air pollution by more than seventy percent while growing the economy, by installing technologies that control sulfur and mercury and particles and lead. Now we need to do the same for carbon. That can come mostly from efficiency, cleaning up electricity, and using that electricity to power vehicles, heat pumps, and industry. Fortunately, efficiency saves money, clean electricity is already cheaper than fossil fuels, and electric vehicles and heat pumps are on the cusp of that threshold. So, mostly, it’s a matter of deploy, deploy, deploy. Where we still need technology cost breakthroughs are for clean fuels like green hydrogen and advanced biofuels, cleaner ways to make cement and steel, and carbon sequestration.

We’ll also need to be able to build the infrastructure for a clean energy economy—transmission lines, charging stations, hydrogen pipelines, high-speed rail, and so on. Too often, not-in-my-backyard opposition has made it difficult to build what’s needed most. In fact, my very first interview for this book was with an entrepreneur who spent a decade trying to build power lines for wind energy, but was blocked every step of the way.

What would you say to readers who feel discouraged by the amount of warming locked in by carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere?

DC: Yes, some more warming is locked in. But we’ve already taken ourselves off of the worst-case pathways by slowing the growth of fossil fuel use. This should be a time for hope, not fear. Some of the doomsday scenarios are overblown, and we’re no longer on a path toward temperatures that would be truly catastrophic. The faster we can transition to clean energy, the slower temperatures will rise and the lower they’ll ultimately plateau. That gives us more time to adapt and lessens the ultimate damages the world will endure. Surpassing 1.5°C is probably inevitable now that we’ve already warmed 1.2°C, but holding warming below 2°C is still within reach if we act quickly. 

In your chapter on the game theory of emissions diplomacy, you cite the calls that island nations and other countries most vulnerable to climate change have made for climate-based reparations. How should the United States respond to such demands?

DC: Island nations face grave threats from rising oceans and stronger storms, and their emissions are miniscule. We should focus as much as we can on helping them protect themselves against those threats. Sure, there can be win-wins like solar and storage microgrids that improve resilience to storms and cut emissions too. But preservation of lives and livelihoods must be the priority in nations that emit so little. Foreign aid is a tough sell politically, so we’ll need better framing than “reparations” to help voters realize the moral case and even self-interest in saving lives and avoiding a climate refugee crisis.

You discuss the political strategy surrounding the Green New Deal and write you believe existing tactics have been unsuccessful. What lessons can environmentalists learn from this policy initiative going forward?

DC: What the Green New Deal got right was emphasizing what we want—clean energy, clean air and water, good-paying jobs—rather than the wonkery of how to achieve it. But when the Green New Deal got turned into a bill, it was so vague and over-burdened with provisions like universal health care and job guarantees that it collapsed under its own weight.

What I’d like to see is for Congress to pass a couple of the key provisions from the Green New Deal, especially a mandate for 100% clean electricity by 2040 or so, and empower agencies to develop policies to achieve them. Many states and utilities have already done just that. They might not know exactly how they’ll get to 100%, but the benefits of clean energy are so compelling that it’s worth racing to achieve them, even if they ultimately come up a few percent short to rein in costs.  

The US Supreme Court will likely serve as a conservative buffer to Congress for several decades. How can important environmental policy survive the litigation process?

DC: What the US Supreme Court has constricted is how flexibly EPA can act under existing laws, not the ability of Congress to pass new laws. EPA can still tighten traditional regulations under the Clean Air Act. But the Supreme Court has made it more important than ever for Congress to issue new legislation to tackle the most urgent environmental challenge of our time.

Daniel Cohan is an atmospheric scientist and associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and the recipient of a National Science Foundation CAREER award.

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