—— Activism comes in different shapes and forms. With United States-based climate policy think tank Energy Innovation, Anand Gopal works to provide federal and state governments with the analysis and research necessary for creating actual laws on climate change. In our conversation, we review global symptoms, talk about climate protests and more. 


Did growing up in India give you a unique focus on climate change?
———— I used to do a lot of hiking, including in the Himalayan range. Every year I noticed that the snow levels in the mountains were dropping. That led me to inquire and learn more about why that was happening. That’s when I learned about the effects of climate change.
How has your perspective changed after moving to the United States?
———— I’ve been in California for more than 20 years. One of the things that struck me when I moved to the US is how clean the air was. Unfortunately, that is not a reliable thing anymore. Everybody has seen the headlines from the last few years with extreme weather events in this state alone. The air quality issues across the US are so extreme that some of those readings are now worse than in my hometown in Chennai. It’s an important perspective that I hold. I come from a place that is going to suffer from climate change in extreme ways. And even in a much wealthier place, the effects of climate change are going to affect me pretty badly. It’s not as if any part of the world is going to escape without significant consequences. It absolutely influences my work.
Are these global connections key to solving the problem of climate change?
———— If you want to help the poorest people on the planet – farmers in India or Southeast Asia or sub-Saharan Africa – you can make a huge difference by making a change in the wealthiest countries in the world, like the US and Germany. If we cut emissions and greenhouse gases, the first people to benefit are those at the frontlines of facing climate change.
The work you do with Energy Innovation has a strong focus on policy. How do you take the fight from the global front of tangible climate change to the floors where laws are made – and to what effect?
———— At the end of the day, Energy Innovation is only able to do the number-crunching and hand it over to people who have the power to turn our scientific analysis into actual policy. We play a supporting role and that is the crux: People in government frequently get a lot of lobbying directed at them from industries that do not want to act on climate. It’s important that those people also hear the benefits of acting in favor of climate.
When you talk about people in power, is this power only bundled in the hands of politicians? How do you feel about the new forms of climate protest?
———— Any large-scale societal change requires a variety of different actors. We need as many people as possible to work on climate. I will not say that one method is more effective than another. People who have a calling to work on climate should. And they should do so in a manner that they feel most motivated by. The reason that forms of protest are also useful is that in the future, they may open new doors to other folks that are interesting and care about acting on climate.
How about economic interest as motivation for acting against climate change?
———— If you want to just pick the winning technology that makes the biggest returns, you’re much better off picking cleaner technologies like wind, solar or battery technology. They all show features of having faster drops in price than any fossil fuel technology has ever seen. If you’re an investor, that’s something that you should be interested in, whether you care about climate or not. Essentially at this point, there is no rational economic reason to be opposed to acting on climate.
How will the speed at which cleaner technologies are developed change the global socioeconomic landscape?
———— Of course, there will be transfers of wealth from one sector to another and that is the reason why we are not getting full alignment. At the same time, there’s sort of an inevitability that clean technologies will take over and be the main dominant technology set for humanity in the future. But it needs to happen faster than any other technology transition has happened in the past – because the climate will get much worse if you let market forces play out over time.
It seems like companies tend to wait for lawmakers to provide guiderails. What does it take for the private sector to take charge and lead the way?
———— This assessment of how companies generally act is absolutely correct. But company-based innovation and policy innovation usually act in concert together. Effectively, it’s hard for a publicly owned company with shareholders to forsake next quarter’s profits in view of something that comes with a slightly longer-term payoff. That drives a lot of behavior, including the preserving of existing business models and market shares.
Do you have an example of where bold corporate action did have an effect?
———— Yes. Tesla, for almost one decade, relied on revenue that came from the fact that they were over-complying to California’s zero-emission vehicle program. They were able to sell credits to their competitors who were not selling as many zero-emission vehicles. That is a story of innovation being supported by policy.
What technological development gives you hope?
———— Aside from solar, wind and battery technology, another innovation is going to have enormous potential for reducing emissions – and that’s alternative protein: plant-based and cultivated meats. They will be incredibly transformational because a lot of the land that’s now required for the growing of feed will suddenly not be needed, enabling us to sequester a lot more carbon naturally than we have been able to. It’s a long way to go, of course. Solar power was in its infancy twenty years ago and people didn’t believe that it could one day have such a huge market share.


Philotheus Nisch (plant); Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology (portrait); Juan Moyano/Stocksy (globe)