Path to Zero
Path to Zero
4.01 - Climate Week Special with Vox’s Future Perfect Editor Bryan Walsh
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Path to Zero is on the road for a series of special episodes in New York City for Climate Week. We kick things off with journalist Bryan Walsh, who runs the Future Perfect Section at Vox, which focuses on emerging technology, tech ethics and how to make the future a better place.

Walsh is also the author of the existential risk book END TIMES.

Transcript

Tucker Perkins:
Climate change is such a big threat to our future. It seems fitting during Climate Week that we talked to someone who is an expert on analyzing the future. Brian Walsh is the editor of the Future Perfect section at Vox. He also reported for Axios and Time Magazine, where he was a foreign correspondent and climate change reporter. We’re also going to talk to Brian about his book End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World. Welcome to Path to Zero, Brian. Thanks so much for being here today.

Bryan Walsh:
I’m really glad to be here.

Tucker Perkins:
You know, we’re going to talk a lot about your book, but I’m really want you to first talk about the Vox’s Future Perfect section. Tell us about that.

Bryan Walsh:
So we’re kind of a unique section, both at Vox and really just in journalism more generally. We try to focus on the most important problems facing the whole world. Just not just now, but in the future as well. That’s kind of in our name, how do you make the best future possible which means we really try to cover big, catastrophic, existential risks that we might face. That could be something like climate change. It could be things like nuclear war. It could be things like a big pandemic. But we also try to figure out what are the best ways to actually help people in that way.

Bryan Walsh:
So we look at what are the most effective ways to give money. For instance, we kind of look at how can you improve human development in a way that’s actually sustainable. We try to keep it in mind that we’re not just writing for this generation, but really future generations as well. It’s been a really great experience running it over the last little less than a year. Really. It’s kind of brought together a lot of things I’ve been doing throughout my career and now get to work with amazing writers and focus on just these issues that matter. Not everyone gets a chance to do that.

Tucker Perkins:
Having never been a journalist, I’m still painfully aware of sometimes how hard it’s to write about current events or even to recreate previous events. It must be nearly impossible to write and research the Future Perfect.

Bryan Walsh:
It is. Yeah. I mean what it is that they say about future, it’s hard to predict. I mean, that is absolutely true. So it’s not so much about trying to say we’re futurists. We know what’s going to happen. We kind of try to look at a variety of viewpoints, a variety of possibilities and identify, all right, what might be most likely or if this thing happens, let’s say something. We had the Russian invasion of Ukraine that is obviously a story in itself. That’s eating up a lot of coverage naturally. But also there are all these kind of knock on effects that I think both were seeded in the past. If you’re a country like Germany, you depended on Russian natural gas. Maybe that seemed great up until now. Suddenly you’re in a very different situation. How will that then impact the future? You’re going to see countries I think, and we’re here to talk about energy to a certain extent.

Bryan Walsh:
Think about, “Do I have to think about security in a different kind of way? Do I need to diversify the kind of sources I have.” That really is a moment of, we kind of call plasticity. It means when suddenly the future can change in ways that might not be entirely predictable. We do our best to track that. Often we’re wrong. In fact, actually the end of each year, we look back on things we predicted at the start of that year. Figure out what our batting average is. I think usually 50, 60, 70%, maybe if you’re lucky, that’s the nature of this business.

Tucker Perkins:
Weather men would do well.

Bryan Walsh:
They would do pretty well. I guess.

Tucker Perkins:
To be there. Let’s go down that because I think one of the things that strikes me today, again, thinking about it just in American context is we’re thinking about at least moving from a pretty independent energy picture, as we’re reliant on domestic natural gas, because we move more and more towards electrified economy where batteries are going to be so much more prevalent, we probably are setting ourselves up today for reliance on China. Because as you have to see it today, if you look at the geopolitical landscape, China is massively ahead of us, not only in the production of, but in the acquiring of the minerals and technologies that create batteries. So whether you want the finished battery or you want the raw materials that go into batteries, China is still ahead of us. As you think about a future perfect there, how do we short circuit that? I mean, I do not believe myself that we’re going to mine lithium in the US at scale, or we’re going to use the labor that it takes to create batteries, at least as batteries as we know them today.

Bryan Walsh:
I think you’re hitting a really important point here, which is sometimes I think people think when you’re moving to called a clean energy transition, suddenly you’re taking materials out, you’re dematerializing your supply chain. That’s not really quite true as you pointed out, okay, you want your Tesla as your electric vehicles. These are really important parts of that transition. To make those batteries, that requires a lot of excavation. It requires getting the lithium requires getting the other critical earth materials that are needed to make that battery.

Bryan Walsh:
Right now that’s not being done in the US. China is well ahead when it comes to that. So how do you avoid taking a situation where you go from perhaps being somewhat dependent on middle Eastern oil, for instance, just setting the price in a global market to something where you are just switching that for, okay, dependence on China, which we know because of geopolitical reasons that’s going to put you in a very risky position.

Bryan Walsh:
So I think on one hand, maybe I think you’re probably right, that it’s going to be an uphill battle for that kind of work to be done here in the US. I don’t think it’s impossible. I think when you really see the rubber hit the road, that might begin to change some things. I know there are people who are working on that. But you’re right. More likely maybe there are other sources outside of China, maybe there’s deep sea, sea floor mineral mining, which carries environmental risks, but changes your situation with that supply chain. It might be placed in the South America for instance, but it’s going to have to happen somewhere. I think it’s important for us to know that and acknowledge there are going to be these trade offs and we have to balance local environmental risks, climate change, and these broader national security implications, because we know the world, the future is one where goods are not just going to move freely from country to country. They’re going to be political issues.

Tucker Perkins:
I know as someone who kind of studies this as we were talking earlier, you kind of knew that Europe’s dependent on Russian natural gas couldn’t bode well for energy security. I would say we kind of see that same situation unfolding right now that our reliance on China for batteries couldn’t bode well long term. I hope that’s not the future perfect we’re in.

Bryan Walsh:
Hope neither, yeah.

Tucker Perkins:
Yeah. You did a great story just recently talking about Germany, deciding to restart coal plants really in lieu of extending the life of nuclear plants, kind of walk through that. I’m always curious about your view, but if you don’t want to share with us your view, at least maybe kind of your learnings from that experience.

Bryan Walsh:
Well, I think it’s totally fine for me to share my broader view when it comes to nuclear energy. I think it’s actually important that journalists kind of, really people who work like we do where there’s a little bit of that intersection with opinion informed opinion ideally. I think nuclear power is very important. You talk about something that a baseload source of electricity that does not create greenhouse gas emissions. It has those safety issues probably even more so it has, although I think those tend to be overstated even more so it has cost issues.

Bryan Walsh:
But when it comes to do I want to keep those plants going, as long as I can safely. To me, it just makes sense to try to do that. You actually are seeing this in the United States to a certain extent, even in California where I think probably the leading area, when it comes to anti-nuclear feeling, they’re looking to extend the life of Diablo Canyon, because they know if they replace that, that’s going to go towards some more fossil fuel sources. You will see carbon emissions go up.

Bryan Walsh:
So with Germany, they’re in a situation, not just where they’re trying to live up to their green ambitions when it comes to reducing carbon, but they also face what will be a major energy crisis this winter. Yet there’s a little movement that happened since I wrote that story, but there is a very strong anti-nuclear feeling in Germany. We really saw that in the aftermaths of Fukushima where you saw German prime minister, Angela Merkel just kind of do a 180 on nuclear power. Said we had to accelerate the closing of those plants.

Bryan Walsh:
Maybe this will change a little bit, but I think it’s just something where it’s a mix of fears from Chernobyl. It’s a fairly well established green party that kind of defines itself to a certain extent around some of that anti-nuclear feeling. Maybe possibly come wintertime that’ll shift things somewhat, but these plants are not things that can be easily turned on, turn off. This is one of the challenges of nuclear power. So, if you need to make those decisions now is probably the time. This could really be a turning point, but it has to overcome a fair amount of, I think political and popular opposition.

Tucker Perkins:
Interesting. I don’t know when you were there, if you could get a lot of read on France, but interesting to me how France and Germany are taking really different paths towards their cleaner energy future and just to have enough power. Did you get a feel for France? Yeah.

Bryan Walsh:
France is such an interesting example. I mean the crash nuclear program that began in part because of its own fears. I think about energy dependency because France is not a country that has a lot of energy resources on its own. Not even Germany, which actually does have quite a lot of coal though it doesn’t ideally want to burn that right now. I think it was a mix of that. I think it was a mix of strong national companies around nuclear power. So it was seen as kind of synonymous with the French state. If nuclear does well, so does France. Perhaps just a willingness in the part of French citizens to say, “Okay, I can live with this. Maybe I know someone who works with that plant. I know it’s here. I feel confident in the capacity of the state to keep it safe.” Germany and France might be neighbors. They are very different. They’ve done very different things with the course of history. I think we should look to that example of France cause that’s one of the great, if not well understood decarbonization stories of our time.

Tucker Perkins:
Absolutely. All right, let’s go to the book. That’s where I know authors love to go to every once in a while. So we’re talking with Brian Walsh and his book is End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World.

Bryan Walsh:
I should say we picked that subtitle when that book was not as long as it is right now, it’s gotten somewhat less than brief. I think.

Tucker Perkins:
Kind of talk to us about even what caused you to think about this book?

Bryan Walsh:
Well, this book was really the culmination of a lot of work I was doing as a journalist for really my whole career. I spent time in Asia, early in my career where I was writing about pandemics, outbreaks at that time. If you remember SARS, the first SARS back in Hong Kong. I was there in Hong Kong. I was reporting on how that outbreak was.

Tucker Perkins:
Oh wow.

Bryan Walsh:
Preceding. Later on, Avian flu. H5N1. If you remember those letters and numbers, we were all very scared of that. So I was spending time going out places like Indonesia to the countryside, looking for where these cases were spreading. Then coming to New York about 2007 for Time Magazine. Started writing really serious about climate change. It’s really impossible to avoid the idea of existential threats when you’re talking about climate change. So put all that together. I just thought this would be a great subject. Little depressing, it can seem. But then I also learned there’s a lot of people working on this and they’re working on it in kind of a unified way. They’re actually academic institutes that are saying, “What should we be studying when it comes to big catastrophic risk? What are the biggest things we need to worry about? What are we missing? What are the ones we might be actually creating ourselves? What are ones that are coming from nature that could potentially stop? So. For me it was just the perfect subject.

Tucker Perkins:
You detail in the books, quite a few existential threats. What do you think is the biggest?

Bryan Walsh:
I like to put it this way. When it comes to the biggest one, I worry about happening [inaudible] right now. I still worry about nuclear war. That was written in 2019, obviously with the Russian invasion Ukraine. That’s really brought back that concern in a big way. So that’s still there. I worry in the future about pandemics and sorry, specifically bioengineered pandemics. These are things where viruses can be cooked up in a lab potentially for good reasons. You want to study something, you want to better get a fix on where it might evolve in the future, but things can escape. Lab accidents happen. They happen more frequently than really want to know. I worry is that technology improves and improves in the future. Those things might be inevitable and it could be much worse than what we’ve experienced in nature.

Bryan Walsh:
Then lastly, when I think about kind of a background risk that people don’t really think about too much, big volcanoes. If you look in the history of the planet, going back, billions of years, there have been these massive extinction waves that have wiped out 70, 80, 90% of the life on the planet at a certain time. Quite often, they come back to these unbelievably massive volcanic explosions that put so much volcanic matter into the atmosphere, it creates severe global cooling. Nothing can really survive. It’s extremely unlikely to happen. But I talk about Yellowstone, which is actually built on top of a mega volcano. Not like that. Not like it actually happened any sort of 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 at your time, but it’s more likely than something like asteroids, which are, I think a little more familiar with from movies.

Tucker Perkins:
That’s interesting. You wrote it all before COVID. Has anything changed now post COVID?

Bryan Walsh:
I think what COVID really taught us was that we are even less prepared for infectious disease risks than we thought. In fact, I think about a year or so before I wrote that book, I published a cover story, Time Magazine. The cover was “We are not ready for the next pandemic.” I don’t have perfect foresight, but I was right. We were not ready for the next pandemic. I just think it sort of underscores that on one hand, it was really amazing how fast we came out with those vaccines. That was much, much more rapid than anyone thought was possible. On the other hand, pandemics are really hard to deal with. They sort of erode society. They’re they last for a long period of time. So my fear is that that risk is even greater, not just because they’re more likely to happen in the future, but I think we’re much less resilient to them than I thought back in 2019 when I wrote that book.

Tucker Perkins:
Talking about your time with Time, I believe you were one really one of the first writers that began talking about climate change and roughly when was that?

Bryan Walsh:
So I started there 2007 writing about climate change and we’d had writers who had written really great covers, special issues on this subject before. But kind of in the early 2000, there was a bit of a lull in attention. I think we were focused on the post 9/11 era security, things like that. Then really around that time, suddenly we really began to realize how big this issue was. That became part of a lot of coverage for Time going forward, looking at climate change from a lot of different angles from the question of politics, from the question of what this would mean internationally, from the question of energy here at home.

Bryan Walsh:
One of the stories I really focused on while I was doing this for Time was the rapid growth of the domestic energy industry, both natural gas with fracking, but also with oil as well. That was a huge change. I remember going back, looking at some of the projections for how much oil or gas the US would produce back in 2003, looking ahead like 20 years. They were well way, way off, because no one really saw that coming. That was an enormous story that’s had enormous implications to this day. So to me it was just one of the most important things we’d cover, important things you’d read about and there was never a shortage of angles to really deal with.

Tucker Perkins:
15 years since you wrote that article. Anything really changed in how we reported or even what we’re talking about.

Bryan Walsh:
I think what’s changed is that the political polarization around climate change was there at that time. But it’s intensified. If you remember around that time, 2007, you have, I think John McCain running for present on the Republican side. He was someone who was coming out with climate change ideas. Obviously fast forward now that is not something you’ll see from Republicans.

Bryan Walsh:
The other thing that’s really changed I think is the technology’s gotten a lot better. Solar continues to drop in cost. Wind gets more efficient. We get new ideas like maybe advanced nuclear, which can be cheaper, smaller, safer, as well. But I think also it’s just something that’s really been baked into business. We know this has happened. We’ve seen enough disasters tied to climate change that whatever your politics, whatever you think about the future in that kind of way, you have to have a plan to deal with this. That means both, how do I sort of deal with something like Super Storm Sandy, which happened here in New York just about 10 years ago or what it means to have to change your energy mix. If you’re a business, if you’re a state, if you’re a country as well, it’s just that much more important. That’s much more central to policy making than it was about 15 years ago.

Tucker Perkins:
Does your future include nuclear fusion?

Bryan Walsh:
I hope so. There’s a joke about nuclear fusion. That’s always 10 to 15 years off. Frankly, if it actually is 10 to 15 years off, that would be great. I really do believe that we need to continue investing a lot in exploring new energy innovations. Bill Gates is someone who talks about this a lot. He’s obviously a lot smarter than I am on this. He thinks we need to find solutions that are going to be cheaper, that can produce more energy. I think that’s really important too, not just here in the US, but look to the rest of the world, to developing countries. They need energy. You need energy to grow. Ideally that energy has to be clean. We shouldn’t stop moving forward with that. We shouldn’t be satisfied with what we have. We should keep investing in research and development. We’re seeing that too, which is a good thing, right?

Tucker Perkins:
I’m certainly, I guess if I had to pick a choice, I choose technology and I’m always amazed today. As I’m quick to say that modern engineering is meeting modern manufacturing and we’re doing things even now that we really couldn’t have done 10 years ago. I really cannot imagine, but I know the battery of 2050. We’re not even talking about it today. Probably the nuclear plant of 2050, not on the drawing board today. It’s going to be different than we imagine for sure.

Bryan Walsh:
No, absolutely. So

Tucker Perkins:
Let’s talk about the future and I’m going to allow that with magic. I’m going to give you a magic wand. I’m going to ask you to use it to change one thing in the next year regarding the climate change, the conversation, how would you use that wand?

Bryan Walsh:
I would use it to make energy permitting reform a lot easier, by which I mean it we’ve now have a plan in place with the Inflation Reduction Act to put a lot of money into creating new sources of energy, cleaner source of energy as well. But those actually have to get built. That is the challenge right now and on the ground project by project, there are a lot of delays. There are a lot of regulatory delays. There are popular opposition delays and we’ve just made it very difficult to build this in the United States. There’s a paradox at the heart of climate change and it’s that we’ve created this situation by building, by creating the energy we have by creating this sort of infrastructure we have. But the only way we get out of it is by building even more. Building differently, but we have to build it. So if I could just wave magic wand, make that a lot easier, make those projects get to shovel first faster. That’s what I would do.

Tucker Perkins:
A great use of your wand and one, I hope you get that wish. Another tradition we have is to plant a tree in your honor in a national forest somewhere. Have you got a place that you love to go and you like to have a tree planted in your name?

Bryan Walsh:
Well, I’d love in the Mirror Woods area. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time out in San Francisco, both for personal reasons, for some work as well. That’s just the most beautiful site I can I’ve ever really been to. So I love that. I think it’s a place everyone should go to, especially on a very hot September day like this in New York city. I love the idea of being back in the cool coastal Northern California climate.

Tucker Perkins:
I don’t believe anybody has ever asked for that particular place. It is a wonderful place. Well, well said, and we’ll work on that. Hey, before we wrap up, I want you to tell our viewers where they can get their copy of End Times and anything else you want to mention about something you’re working on or doing or want them to know?

Bryan Walsh:
Okay. Fastest way to get End Times, if you go to frankly, Amazon, Barnesandnoble.com, any site like that. You may find it in some of your stores as well. Then other things working on right now, we at Future Perfect, I’m work actually on a story about population growth. It’s one of the sort of subjects I think connects to what we talked about too a little bit, but the US and a lot of other countries declining fertility rates really going to change the way the world looks in the future. I’m just really interested in digging into that because to me in the same way, we looked at climate change, sort of tell us what will the climate future be? You can look at demography to sell you, what will the world be. Who will be growing, who will be shrinking. That’s going to have a huge impact on where we’re going to live.

Tucker Perkins:
His book End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World here at Climate Week, this week in New York. You’ve been a great guest. Thank you so much.

Bryan Walsh:
Thank you very much.