The Weekly Anthropocene Interviews: Matt Yglesias
An Exclusive The Weekly Anthropocene Interview
Matt Yglesias is a highly influential journalist and Democratic Party thought leader, who among other achievements helped shape America’s greatest-ever climate legislation: the Inflation Reduction Act.
In the interview below, this writer’s questions and comments are in bold, Mr. Yglesias’ words are in regular text, and extra clarification (links, etc) added after the interview are in bold italics or footnotes.
What are your thoughts on your incredible and historic role in inspiring the current form of the Inflation Reduction Act? Context for readers: Bloomberg reported in February that Mr. Yglesias’ landmark policy proposal was a key influence for the Biden Administration in shaping the IRA. What does it feel like to have helped personally to shape the greatest-ever victory in US climate policy?
(Pictured: the Democratic Party leadership team at the signing of the historic Inflation Reduction Act. Left to right: Senator Joe Manchin, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, President Joe Biden, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi).
I don’t really think I can take much credit for anything like that. All I was doing was just writing down the idea that maybe we should take what Joe Manchin is saying about this seriously. When folks in Washington talk about ideas, they often use columnists as cutouts for their own ideas. So I’m happy to have had something I wrote be in the mix in those conversations, but I don’t think I played that big of a role.
I think it’s good legislation. However much ill will and rocky shores were accumulated along the way, the productive tension between Senator Manchin’s red lines and climate activists wanting to do something on climate change produced something really good.
I think so too, it’s really, really good. So, building on that, what do you think should be the Democratic Party’s next steps on climate change, especially after a better-than-expected midterm election? You’ve written recently that Biden’s essentially already won his big climate victory and should focus on winning the 2024 election. I broadly agree that 2024 is now the most important thing, but I also think there’s a great opportunity to hammer home some of the positive impacts of the Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS and Science and the BIL. People are calling the Rust Belt the Battery Belt now! I think there’s a really strong narrative to be told about how climate investment is good for America, and that will help in 2024.
The Inflation Reduction Act has a technology-neutral, investment-centric approach to climate change. It’s about increasing the deployment of zero-carbon energy across a wide range of spectrums. And I think that’s the right approach. The text of the bill, though, is an incomplete instantiation of that approach. For example, it makes funding available for nuclear reactors. But it’s a reconciliation bill1, so it only has tax credits in it. It can’t alter, say, the functioning of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [to make permitting of new nuclear plants easier]. There is money for carbon capture and storage, but on the EPA can issue permits for the Title VI storage wells that will make that stuff work. It wouldn’t be as big a deal in macro politics, but it would be a huge deal for policy to go down the line of the executive branch at the Energy Department, at Interior, at EPA, at NRC and say, We really want to implement this vision. We really want to see utility-scale solar plants built, we want to see interregional transmission lines built. We want to see not just battery factories, but the mines that create raw materials that go into batteries, and really follow through on it.
I’m concerned we’re going to see backsliding towards neopastoralist green orthodoxy, in which we don’t care about deploying these new technologies, what we care about is doing whatever we can to throw sand in the gears of fossil fuel extraction. I think that would be a big mistake. The IRA turned away from that approach, but we need to see the Biden Administration spend the next few years implementing the philosophy of the IRA.
I agree with you broadly-I’ve written before about how there’s a counterproductive down to double down on obstructing new development enough when it no longer makes sense to meet climate goals. But there’s a tension around fossil fuel production, because on the one hand it’s politically hard to limit fossil fuel production. Biden refilling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve after previously releasing oil from it to lower gas prices for American drivers was probably good for Democrats in the midterms. But on the other hand, fossil fuel production does a lot of really bad things, and genuinely needs to go.
I think people actually underrate how potent these investment-led efforts are at reducing fossil fuel supply. Look at gasoline supply, for example. Refinery capacity in the United States has been falling for years, and the reason that it’s falling is that investors can see that electric vehicles are gaining market share. And so while they are absolutely thrilled to continue selling gasoline as long as internal combustion engine cars are on the road, people don’t want to make long-term investments in the refining industry. It’s big, fixed costs, and they don’t want to do it. If anything, what we saw was political backlash to the idea that Joe Biden was stifling gasoline production, when he wasn’t.
I honestly think that the free market will take care of [as in, eventually get rid of] fossil fuel extraction if you can clearly commit to increasing the abundance of zero-carbon alternatives. The infrastructure is very expensive, and people only want to invest in it because they think it has a long-term future. The more you can really nail yourself to the mast of, “We don’t just have these EV subsidies, we’re gonna have the battery factories, we’re gonna have the raw materials.” If you could secure a regulatory breakthrough on nuclear power, interest in investing in natural gas projects would diminish wildly. Trying to do it the other way, trying to kill enough pipelines to raise the price of natural gas enough to overcome the regulatory impediments to zero-carbon electricity generation, that’s really hard. But if we can pull those [impediments] down in terms of geothermal, in terms of transmission lines, in terms of nuclear reactors, you can make fossil fuels-not go to zero, but really curtail new investment in it.
I wonder if your views have evolved on this. You’ve written that natural gas is underrated as a way to replace coal as baseline power and complement renewables, at least until we can replace natural gas with nuclear, hydro, geothermal, and other non-fossil fuel sources of baseline power. I wonder if your thoughts on that have changed since the Inflation Reduction Act. This is probably the single point where I most disagree with you-I think there’s a really strong case against building any new natural gas infrastructure at all. While natural gas plants plants have lower carbon emissions and air pollution compared to coal plants, natural gas also has huge negative externalities not included in simple carbon counts, like massively underreported methane flaring in gas extraction fields (which may make natural gas as bad as coal emissions-wise) and of course much, much more air pollution than renewables. There's also a big risk of “stranded assets" if developing countries invest in natural gas instead of renewables, only to find global fossil fuel supply contracting in the 2030s as renewables become dominant. Also, we don’t really need any more natural gas as baseline power thanks to massive improvements in grid-scale battery technology-that’s what’s getting South Australia to 100% renewables right now.
The stranded assets is interesting, I think we can sort of leave that to investors. The methane thing is a very real issue. There are new methane requirements in the Inflation Reduction Act. I heard a lot of complaints when I was out in Ohio from people in the [natural gas] industry out there. I was saying to them, well, what do you want? We can’t pretend that you’re not leaking methane, that doesn’t make sense as a policy. You know, anytime you can regulate for real externalities, that’s a good idea. And if we are misjudging natural gas, that’s appropriate.
At the same time, the fact that Russia cutting natural gas exports to Europe has caused their emissions to go up rather than down is something that people should take seriously. Particularly in a development context. There’s not a world in which fast-growing countries like Vietnam, Ethiopia, et cetera, are going to voluntarily not use more energy over time. So the question is, what can we do? Anything we can do to accelerate clean energy is really, really potent. But things that we do to block domestic gas infrastructure are just not going to be incredibly powerful levers in the global emissions context. We’re never going to get countries that are currently energy poor to voluntarily give up on what we already have.
We were talking offline about “doomer-ism,” and I think that’s relevant here. If your mental frame is “the world is ten years away from a tipping point where all of humanity becomes extinct,” that yeah, obviously, you can go to political leaders in Bangladesh and say “you guys don’t need more electricity.”
In the real world, where temperatures are rising and that is causing problems, but not human extinction-level problems, the people of Bangladesh are thinking, “How do we deploy more air conditioners?” It’s going to be hotter in the future. They need energy. We need climate solutions that are compatible with the fact that in a good future, global energy consumption is going to skyrocket!
Yeah, we want abundant energy. You’ve been one of the people calling for an abundance agenda. I think I pretty much agree with you on the root issues here, like the importance of not leaving developing countries in energy poverty. But I just think we can achieve that without natural gas. You mentioned Vietnam, Vietnam went from 0% solar electricity in 2018 to 10% solar electricity in 2022! That included a 25-fold increase in Vietnam’s solar generating capacity in just one year!
I think you actually somewhat underrate renewables despite being very bullish on renewables. The technology’s gotten better so fast, and batteries especially have gotten better so fast. I think that in most developing countries we can get them out of the energy poverty trap without having to resort to natural gas. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. Do you think natural gas is still needed as that bridge for developing countries? Or do you think we can-maybe with investment, maybe with loss and damage funds, maybe just with the inherent subsidy of investing in R&D in renewables in the West so new technology comes into existence and can be used elsewhere-do you think we can have it both ways, help developing countries and wean them off fossil fuels?
I think it depends on how quickly we can not only reduce the unit costs of batteries, but increase the actual, scalable quantity that are available. Because, to the best of my knowledge, gas continues to operate as a pretty powerful complement to renewables both in the United States and in the developing world context. This is why I think the abundance point is so important.
I’m very familiar in my life with a certain kind of New England environmentalist, whose mentality is, we have very high material living standards in the richest part of the richest country on Earth. But now our question is, how do we reduce the ecological footprint of this good lifestyle we’re leading? But so many people in the world are not living amidst that kind of material abundance. It looks to me like gas still has an important role there, but I hope I’m wrong. To the extent we can unlock huge increases in battery production, that really does make gas superfluous. I guess we’ll see how real that is.
“To the extent we can unlock huge increases in battery production, that really does make gas superfluous. I guess we’ll see how real that is.”
We shall see. The Inflation Reduction Act is going to help with that. But moving on to something much earlier in its technology life cycle, what are your thoughts on the future of plant-based and cultivated meat? You wrote an excellent article recently on the need for an R&D push on this. Plant-based meat is definitely much more vulnerable than renewable energy, it’s new, still pretty expensive, there’s not much of a supply chain. And it’s already being politicized; a Republican House member tweeted that eating plant-based burgers will turn you into a socialist. What is the way to move forward there without screwing it up or turning it into a culture war thing?
I mean, it’s a big problem. Something that does give me hope has been, you know- Elon Musk used to be a very left-coded person, but since electric cars became very successful, he became very rich, and then he became increasingly right-wing. I think electric cars are getting out of the culture war domain.
So I’m cautiously optimistic that if you can bring down the cost of Impossible Burgers or create new competitors, have more innovation in the chicken nugget space, et cetera, et cetera, you can move out of this lifestyle branding. We do still have a basic product issue, these companies will admit to you right now that their products aren’t really good enough. The Impossible Burger is very good, a very good burger, but it costs more than a beef burger. “It’s like a burger but it costs more?” That’s not a great pitch. It attracts people who care a lot about animal welfare or climate change, which is fine, but we know that’s not most people. They’ve got to keep working on it, everybody’s got to keep working on it. It’s a hard problem. Science and technology are hard. Product development is hard. Manufacturing is hard. You were saying people underrate how far and how fast we’ve come with renewables and batteries. My perspective is almost the reverse, people underrate how far we were from the goal twenty years ago.
It’s basically the same as what you’re saying. But now we’ve been living for several years in a world where people can say that the levelized cost of solar power is really low. But that started from a point where it was really high, where it was a total fantasy. “We’re going to invest in these high cost products and hope for the best.” But it did work out! So it makes me think that it’s possible, with funding and effort.
People in the philanthropical space, who are spending lots of money on climate-related issues, I think they just underrate alternative proteins as a potential investment area, as a place that really needs seed capital. Both directly, and also in advocacy. They’re so afraid of touching the meat issue for political and cultural-type reasons. It’s precisely because the politics are so hard. The politics of “everyone go eat kelp instead” are nightmarish. And so that means you have to put money into R&D, because we’ve seen that unlock incredible potential in EVs and renewable electricity. Science and R&D is the horse that pulls the cart of politics. That’s what I want to say.
“Science and R&D is the horse that pulls the cart of politics.”
That’s a great point. Moving again to another issue you’ve spent a to of time on, what are your thoughts on the intersection of the climate crisis and the housing crisis? You’re one of the founders of the Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) pro-housing development movement. Why do people concerned about climate change need to be pro-YIMBY?
I think that this really underscores the distinction between the ecomodernist and neopastoralist approach. There’s a world in which the less you build, the lower your impact is. And I think that that line of thinking has traditionally dominated, say, local chapters of the Sierra Club. They say, we’re going to preserve green space, we’re going to limit sprawl. But the actual human beings don’t vanish, when you say you want to preserve the green space near Boston, or in coastal areas of California. What happens is people move to Phoenix, to Dallas, to these Sun Belt suburbs.
Given that people are going to want houses, wanting places to live, what is the best way to accommodate that? Allowing infill reduces the overall built footprint. (Pictured above: the sort of medium-density development often promoted by the YIMBY movement). Denser structures are more energy efficient. New buildings can be much more energy efficient than old ones. I live in a house. It’s in a dense, walkable neighborhood, I in some ways have a low emissions profile for those reasons. But our house is incredibly old, and as an incredibly old house, it’s incredibly drafty. It’s totally illegal to knock down and replace with a modern structure. When I wanted to replace my windows with more modern windows, I couldn’t do that, they still had to be wood, for historic preservation reasons. There’s a lot of those barriers. There’s a real tension between quaintness, “let’s keep these old things, let’s keep places the way they are,” and energy efficiency, which is best achieved by creating new things at reasonably high densities.
“There’s a real tension between quaintness, ‘let’s keep these old things’, and energy efficiency, which is best achieved by creating new things at reasonably high densities.”
What are your thoughts on to what extent people should engage with effective altruism? I donate to GiveWell's top charities monthly and have encouraged others to do so in my Substack; what's your preferred time/resource tradeoff with political, local, and inefficient altruism?
It’s a tough question. I’m not totally invested in complete cosmopolitanism on everything. I do think about that in a climate conversation. When people worry about climate change, the thing we are worried about is the global impact. If you look at it in a serious way, the most serious downsides by far accrue to low-income people in low-income countries. That’s where the climate risk is located. I think people sometimes don’t understand that that’s where the climate problem is, but that is where the climate problem is.
I tried to write that, that the people benefiting from GiveWell charities are also the people most screwed over by climate change. What we can do, with vaccinations and malaria medicine and mosquito nets, is share some of the benefits of the modern technological civilization with the people who have been most harmed by its big negative externality, climate change.
Exactly. It’s substantially one set of problems and concerns. And just to remember that, the people who are the primary victims of climate change don’t exist as part of a Western morality play about climate. They are people who have multidimensional lives, they are impacted by harvests, rising sea levels, changing weather patterns. They’re also impacted by mosquitoes, and water-borne illnesses, and simple lack of money. Helping them is one of the most important things that a typical person in the developed world can do.
I can’t stop climate change. I have more ability to influence the political environment than most people do, and it’s my job, and I try my best. There are limits to what I can achieve. But you really can give money that saves low-income children’s lives! People who you care about for the same reasons. It’s important for the community of people who care about global problems to have a balanced perspective on the risks of climate change, the downsides of energy poverty, all the other health and welfare problems that exist in these parts of the world.
It’s important for the community of people who care about global problems to have a balanced perspective on the risks of climate change, the downsides of energy poverty, all the other health and welfare problems that exist in these parts of the world.
As we move ahead on our local politics as well! I do think people should care about their local community. I think there are certain obligations that come with people living together. I think it’s bad moral psychology to cut yourself off entirely from the people you’re actually interacting with and reduce everything to a pure abstraction.
You’ve written about the unheralded “quiet climate policy” enacted by the little-known bipartisan bills you’ve named “Secret Congress.” I’ve tried to draw more attention to these low-profile victories in my newsletter: for example, the US ratifying the Kigali Amendment got barely any coverage, but it’s genuinely a big deal; the Kigali Amendment’s global phaseout of HFCs, an ultra-powerful greenhouse gas, might prevent over 0.2 degrees Celsius of warming all by itself. What are your thoughts on this?
People don’t believe me when I tell them this, but I think the evidence is really clear from the legislation that you just named. Political elites in the United States of America are actually quite concerned about climate change, probably more so than the mass public! You keep seeing bipartisan legislation that has an impact on emissions passing, not because there’s been a March on Washington, but because honestly, when the chips are down, almost all Democrats and some Republicans really care about this stuff. Which is good! That’s excellent news.
It does mean though, that I think in terms of political engagement, people who care about climate change should be a little more chill about what they invest in, what their approach is. Alternative proteins is a big potential area for action. Funders and activists haven’t seemed that engaged on the subject. If they were to become more engaged, they might make some progress there.
The view that what they need to do is have more of a mass mobilization, I just don’t think is correct. That hasn’t been our evidence. Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which you and I have discussed and most people in the media have discussed primarily as a climate bill, because it mostly does climate stuff. But Democrats in their ad campaigns overwhelmingly emphasized the healthcare provisions, which are a much smaller part of the bill but are much more politically popular. And that’s fine. But it just goes to show that Democrats in Congress actually have the climate movement’s back. They did a bill that’s 90% climate, 10% healthcare, even though their politics was pointing in the direction of “do healthcare.” Because they want to do climate. Republicans voted for that HFC bill. Lisa Murkowski helped pass a pretty good energy bill in the lame duck session before Joe Biden took office. It’s weird, it’s hard to tell people that this is good news. But people are more convinced by the science than I think some of the media coverage would tell you.
Democrats in Congress actually have the climate movement’s back.
What we need to keep doing is developing ideas that are workable, and that have costs that are politically acceptable to people. This goes back to renewables and batteries. To the extent that the science and R&D has made it affordable to envision more and more reliance on renewables and batteries, we’re going to go do that. The technical barrier was really real and important.
I think you’re correct. What else would you like to share? What question should I have asked that I didn’t?
I want to mention that it makes me sad when I hear people talking about climate anxiety, or climate change as part of depressive ideation. Because I don’t think that’s accurate to the science or economics or sociology of climate change. It’s probably not going to kill people in rich countries in the Northern Hemisphere. But it does make it demotivating, and less likely for people to do things.
Humanity is going to survive climate change, but how well things go really is up to us. To the extent that people who are concerned about this and care about it put their time and energy and intellect into workable solutions, they can make a really big difference to the planet. But hand-wringing depression, nervousness, rhetorical doom-saying, that kind of stuff is not helpful. And I appreciate why people don’t want to push back against that kind of things and have internecine, intermural fights, but I think it’s important. I think it’s important for people to know that this is a totally real, genuine, large problem, but not a precipice of apocalypse. You make bad decisions in life if that’s what you think.
Humanity is going to survive climate change, but how well things go really is up to us. To the extent that people who are concerned about this and care about it put their time and energy and intellect into workable solutions, they can make a really big difference to the planet.
Matt Yglesias, thank you so much for joining us. This has been an electrifying interview, and I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.
Due to arcane U.S. Senate rules, the party in power can pass a limited number of “reconciliation” bills with a bare majority of 50+1 votes, instead of the 60 votes usually needed the overcome the filibuster. This is how the Inflation Reduction Act was passed, with the support of all 50 Democratic senators plus the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. But reconciliation bills are limited to budgetary actions (i.e. spending money on things), not regulatory actions (i.e. changing what’s legal or illegal). So the Inflation Reduction Act spends a vast amount of money on making renewables cheaper, which is wonderful and epic and transformative, but there’s still a lot more we could do to make it legally easier to build new zero-carbon energy projects.