The following are from an audience question-answer session with John Perona during the book-launch event.
Q: What inspired your interest in the environment and climate change?
A: At root, it probably comes from my good fortune to spend childhood summers hiking and touring with family in our homeland Italian Alps, which impressed me with a great love of the outdoors and a desire to preserve it. After I earned academic tenure as a biochemist, I became intensely interested in extending my expertise on the chemistry of living cells to the larger role that microorganisms play in mediating the Earth’s carbon and sulfur cycles. That naturally led to the issue of anthropogenic climate change, which is happening because fossil fuel extraction and burning are disrupting those cycles. Then the combination of my scientific interest and environmental values really motivated me to learn all I could about the law and politics of climate change. Direct advocacy work, as well as this book, naturally followed.
Q: What is one thing anyone can do to start advocating meaningfully?
A: The best way to start is to join a local group that is working on a solution or challenge that is relevant to your community and appeals to you. Many advocates are drawn to land and water conservation efforts, for example, while others may have a background or disposition to think about home solar power, electric vehicle infrastructure, urban renewal, or other areas. Also, a very broad scope of advocacy groups exists, with often diverging views about policy and varying political orientations from progressive to conservative. It is a good idea to take some time to look into the options and get to know folks from several groups to see whether you are a good fit for what they actually do. There is a home for everyone in the climate advocacy world!
Q: If your readers could take away only one meaning, or even one fact, about the climate situation from this book, what do you hope that it would be? (Outside of the fact that the climate change situation is urgent.) Is there anything in particular that you think will help someone understand our world?
A: I think the most important takeaway is that climate change influences the entire scope of human activities. That may seem like a dramatic statement, but only because we did not fully recognize the all-encompassing value of a healthy, stable climate and biosphere until it became threatened by our own actions. This fundamental dependence of humans on their fragile environment is very challenging for many people to grasp — and this difficulty, unfortunately, helps create the false belief that our actions could not possibly be as damaging as the climate science community has been warning about. The bright side, though, is that appreciating the comprehensive scope of the problem leads to recognizing that folks from all walks of life and any level of expertise can contribute to the solution. Climate change is already impacting your life, right where you are. As more people see that, there will be a growing upswell in citizen demands for action by community, business, and government leaders.
Q: What motivated you to write the book, and what do you think sets it apart from other climate change titles?
A: At first, my motivation was to produce a useful guide to climate science and policy that would support the efforts of citizen advocates who are already engaged across the U.S. As I began to write the book, though, another motivation developed — to make it an entry point for new advocates. These folks would need a guide not just to the science and policy, but also to the political landscape of advocacy and the nature of and relationships among the many groups. I realized that I could also make the chapters on technology solutions and policy approaches more interesting and readable by interweaving descriptions of advocacy opportunities in each specific area and by relating a few success stories to offer inspiration. The combination of science, policy, politics, and advocacy, in one volume, certainly sets the book apart from other titles. I’m not aware of any other book for the layperson that covers anywhere near this amount of territory.
In the 2017—2018 academic year, before my sabbatical, I offered a series of monthly seminars on climate change to the local climate advocacy community in Portland, Oregon. When I reached out to make this happen, I had little idea of what would be wanted and needed since most of my own efforts had been on federal legislation. The seminars turned out to be very popular — we held them in a local pub with a good-sized community room, which certainly helped inspire attendance. What I took from this experience that greatly influenced the book was how hungry so many folks are for reliable and detailed information. Based on this, I decided that the style of the book would be like a deep dive, including illustrations and tables with primary data and a narrative explanation of climate science beginning from the first principles. This is quite distinct from other climate titles for laypersons, which offer much more topical and sometimes superficial information. But that approach does not catalyze real understanding — and without that, how would an advocate have the confidence to engage business and government leaders on specific policy?
The deep dive approach should also make the book useful as a primary or supplementary text for classes in the environmental humanities, green business, law, society, and related fields. The capacity to reach and be useful to two highly distinct audiences is another way in which the book stands apart. Finally, there are implicit and sometimes explicit attempts in the book to reach beyond the typical audience of progressives, including political moderates, centrists, and conservatives who are genuinely concerned and want to be engaged in finding solutions. This follows the thinking that solutions are more likely to be robust over time if they get the broadest possible buy-in. In contrast, most other climate titles are either apolitical, concentrating only on science or some specific policy area, or explicitly target narrow segments of popular demand — climate change denialists, alarmists, and anti-capitalists (far-left progressives) being prominent among these target audiences. Some other less populated themes are reflected in books that are purely inspirational or that (presumptuously) offer personal takes on how the problem should be solved. “From Knowledge to Power” fits into none of these categories.
Q: Was it difficult to decide on a way to present all of the information contained in this book, and how did you go about that?
A: Yes, it was very difficult! Organizing all of the information was the most challenging aspect of the project. I knew that I wanted the book to be comprehensive, but I began with only a bare outline of what its final shape might be. I started with the basic science in the first two chapters, which was easiest for me, and approached publishers when I had just this portion of the book in a solid draft form. I then assembled an outline for the later chapters while writing the remaining science chapters in detail. The hardest parts were figuring out how to handle the transition between the science and the policy chapters and how to incorporate the material on advocacy. In fact, my completed first draft was still muddled in the key middle chapters, and I was fortunate to get sound critical input from the student editing team at Ooligan Press, who offered suggestions for reorganization that turned out to work beautifully. The placement of the climate roadmaps in the Interlude and the partitioning of the more general material on advocacy into its own dedicated chapter were among the crucial outcomes of the editing process that gave the book its final shape.
One of my major concerns when writing the book is that the climate change field moves so fast that the print book would quickly become dated. I resolved this by creating a dedicated website for the book that serves as a platform for updates, blogs, and other materials. When complete, the site will also feature a curriculum guide to aid instructors who wish to use the book in their classes. The website is published at https://www.fromknowledgetopower.com.
Q: What do you predict will happen regarding climate change policy in the U.S. over the next ten years or so? How optimistic are you?
A: I am optimistic that the U.S. has turned a critical corner in the last few years, and we will not go back to the circumstances of 2010—2018 when climate change was low on the national radar and lawmakers were able to avoid addressing it without paying a political cost. There has been an irreversible shift in public awareness about the urgent nature of the problem, driven by the growing costly impacts on human and physical infrastructures. At least as important is the fact that a large fraction of the business community is now coming on board for policies that will spur the renewable energy transition, while investment banks, insurers, and other financial players are moving away from enabling further expansion of fossil fuels. The automobile and electric power industries, both historically huge sources of emissions, are among the leaders of this historic shift.
These developments drive my optimism about reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century, which would likely limit warming to below 2.0 degrees Celsius. Of course, that goal is still very challenging and demands concentrated attention. In terms of specific policy, the most beneficial single action would be for the federal government to implement a quantitative emissions reduction mandate, at least in the electric power sector — if not economy-wide. As I write this, comprehensive carbon tax and clean electricity bills are both receiving attention in Congress, and, separately, comprehensive changes to the tax code to incentivize clean technology and energy efficiency are likely to pass this year. I think we will also see greatly accelerated investment in new technologies such as carbon capture, green hydrogen, and energy storage, all of which still need to improve and become less costly for us to meet our goals. But the good news is that the most important immediate technologies — solar and wind power — are already mature (or nearly so), and here the bottleneck is already shifting away from technology development to the challenges of large-scale deployment. I’m very optimistic that the 2020s will see solid progress toward decarbonizing the electricity grid and that the trend to the electrification of end uses (powered by increasingly carbon-free electricity) will accelerate.
Q: What was the most interesting or surprising thing you encountered in your research?
A: There were many, and it is hard to single out just one. But certainly way up on the list was getting a much deeper understanding of how important carbon sequestration is to reaching climate stability. The “carbon negative” approaches like afforestation and direct air capture are embedded in climate model projections and carbon budgets and not always in very transparent ways — one sometimes has to read the fine print to recognize that they are included. When I looked at even the most optimistic roadmaps for action and viewed them in light of the scientific data on past atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and sea levels, what stood out for me is that it will be very risky to reach net-zero emissions and then quit — allowing natural processes alone to slowly decrease atmospheric CO2. Instead, I think we’re going to need to actively vacuum the atmosphere at an enormous scale to remove the carbon, and then we will need to safely bury it so that it is returned to the deep underground where we extracted it in the first place.