The Future of Energy: Creating Lasting Change

Josh Tickell, author and film director, has created several works focusing on sustainability and the climate. He has directed award-winning documentary films, and he recently published The Revolution Generation–How Millennials can Save the World Before It’s Too Late, a book about the role millennials must play to save the earth’s ecosystems. The Journal of International Affairs spoke with Tickell on the future of energy, the role of millennials, and ways to effectively create change. 

Josh Tickell
February 17, 2020

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): How did you get started in your sustainability and climate work?

Josh Tickell (JT): I grew up in Louisiana primarily, in a place called Cancer Alley, which, according to the Times-Picayune, has 700 times the national average incidents of cancer. This is because there are about 150 petrochemical facilities spread from Baton Rouge to Houston, or more than one per mile. I watched so many people get sick from exposure to these chemicals. As a young person, that drew me to science and to look for alternatives. But finding solutions must lead to a measurable response. If there is no solution to the problem, it only creates dismay, or despair. 

From a psychological perspective, this is the big challenge that environmental movements face. We moved from a state of despair in the late 1960s to 1980s, to anger, but we haven’t moved all the way up the emotional scale to viable solutions. As cognitive beings, anger is a more comfortable place than despair, but it doesn’t actually move the needle. We have to will ourselves from anger to actionable solutions. However, an actionable solution is not protest. Protest is an awareness tool. The big question that we have to ask now is, “what are the solutions to carbon capture?” 

JIA: You have done a lot of work in the realm of energy and fuels, including driving a “Veggie Van” powered by frying oil. Based on your experiences, what do you think is the future of energy and fuels? 

JT: The Veggie Van was in response to the Iraq War. There was this big question about whether we needed to go to war for oil. The Veggie Van was a response to that question: we could make fuel from used grease. Is that practical on a mass scale? Is that the future of transportation? No, but it proved a point. If college kids can make fuel in a garage, why was arguably the greatest industrial nation in the world insisting on going to war for oil? 

I think for anyone who studies energy trends, the future is obvious. If you look at the price of solar energy in the 1970s to today, it is an exponentially downward curve. The technology has become far more efficient. In the 1990s, people said that 12 percent efficient panels were great. Today, 25 to 35 percent efficient panels are commercially available. So now we are looking at exponentially lower price and substantially higher efficiencies. The future of energy is in solar, hyperdense batteries, and wind and thermal. However, the big transition will be to electrify the transportation network and green the grid. 

Interestingly, it would cost less to shut down America’s coal power plants than it would to operate them for another 12 months, but they are so enmeshed in the political, economic and infrastructure systems of the country that we are paying more for dirty energy than we do for clean energy. 

JIA: You mentioned political systems. What do you think is the role of government in the energy transition? 

JT: There are good people in government who want to see progressive change, but the nature of government is not to make fast change by itself. Government is there to keep things relatively predictable and create a stable environment for businesses and social systems to thrive. Doing radical things like shutting down nuclear power plants or coal power plants is the exception, not the norm. But as we saw in Germany, these exceptions do happen. We’ve seen this in other countries as well, but those exceptions are only prompted by people. 

I think the future of energy rests in the hands of scientists, activists and storytellers working together to create clear pathways for action. Policy makers are not known for their great imagination, so that’s where the power of people becomes leverageable. People need to point policy makers toward the laws to make, change, modify, or codify.

I read the energy platforms of the major candidates running for the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. There is imagination in these platforms, but what’s missing is simple, actionable steps. This shows that we still have a lot of work to do. Even though we have cheap green energy and technology, the policy is not in place to enable those technologies to scale at the right speed. Often, politics complicate things when the solutions are actually very simple. 

JIA: What do you think those solutions are? What are some examples of actionable steps? 

JT: To create an equitable playing field for clean energies and fossil energies, it is important to remember that fossil energy has had a 150-year subsidy. As such, I’m a proponent of zero subsidies for the fossil industry. Some people will argue that green technology should get zero subsidies too, and I am a proponent of that, however, I just think green technology needs a small easing period. 

JIA: I want to tease out something that you mentioned. You talked about the role of storytelling. What do you think is the role of storytelling in the context of climate change? 

JT: I think we have started to see a new global narrative emerge around climate change, especially with Extinction Rebellion and other similar groups. Everyone that I speak to under the age of 24 says that we should not call what we are facing “climate change.” This is a “climate crisis,” an emergency. That’s powerful. Emergency requires immediate action. This is becoming firmly solidified in Millennials and Generation Z. The next part of the story, the part that really tests our species, is telling the story of solutions. Complaining is what we are used to doing and it requires a lot less imagination and hard work. 

JIA: Based off of your work on your new book, The Revolution Generation, do you believe that massive changes can occur from the bottom up in society? Can youth have the largest impact versus governments and corporations? 

JT: Yes, with one caveat. We need to articulate what needs to be done. I was extremely excited to see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez coming out with The Green New Deal, but it’s late. The articulation wasn’t that specific. So that’s where younger generations need to overtake the political process and engage in strength building. This only seems complicated because there is a lack of knowledge of how to make change possible in a short period of time. 

For example, when you put a solar panel on your house, you may or may not get paid for the electricity that comes from that panel. You may not even be allowed to 

tie it into the grid. If we want to solarize the country, we can produce 30 percent of the country’s electricity from rooftop solar. So, if America was run like a business, the cheapest, cleanest way to produce electricity is by putting solar panels on people’s roofs. Yet, there are massive laws that do not allow that to happen. This is a barrier to do the very things we say we want to do. That’s a kind of articulation that I don’t see coming from any major activist group or political proponent. 

You have got protests with millions of people. You have got Greta Thunberg. You have got these incredible moments happening, but what’s missing is, “Here are the key steps that we need to take to become a green economy,” “Here are the key steps we need to modify our political process.” One of the simple solutions for our political process is ranked choice voting. Ranked choice voting allows people to rank their choices of candidates instead of A or B voting, which just gives you one choice. In ranked choice voting, if you first choice gets eliminated, your vote automatically goes to the second choice you made. This allows for a far more democratic process. Our mantra needs to become, “Fix our economy, fix our democracy.” 

JIA: As you mentioned, there are a lot of youth movements happening right now. What is your opinion on these movements? What do you think they are doing well, and do you have any critiques? 

JT: We need to look at this current movement with a historical perspective. Not that long ago, millions of young people stood for things, and some of the things they stood for had varying successes. For example, the consciousness revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s had successes and failures. It failed in really achieving global peace. Even though the war in Vietnam ended, it ended with a tremendous cost to human life and to global peace. Had the movement been more articulate and more politically powerful, perhaps that goal could have been achieved in a different way. On the flip side, racial equality in the United States had a definite goal, the Civil Rights Act. It had definitive trajectory and it achieved that goal, at least on paper. I think the difference between the two movements was that one had actionable objectives at its core and the other had anger toward a system that was not working. 

We do have to be careful that today’s movements are not co-opted for another objective, like the movement for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The real defense against failure is clearly defining what are we trying to achieve and how we are going to get there. Additionally, if you want to move humans, you have got to find an objective that is positive and big, like, “We are going to sequester 100 percent of our carbon by 2025.” We need achievable, exciting objectives that we can actually work for.

JIA: What recommendations would you give to politicians, business leaders, and citizens to create actionable change? 

JT: For politicians, I would recommend ranked choice voting. I think the only way the U.S. can have a viable third-party candidate is with ranked choice voting. 

Business and politics are closely tied. We are seeing this in the U.S. with investments in and monetization of biological sequestration. We know that in order to survive on this planet, we need to capture the carbon that is in the atmosphere. There are 1,000 gigatons of carbon in the atmosphere and there are only three places it can go: the oceans, the air, or the ground. The ocean and the air are maxed, so we have to put it in the ground. The question is how do we create effective financial models for that to happen? Additionally, businesses have tried for the better part of 50 years to green the grid. Political disincentives and subsidies (for fossil fuels) need to be removed for business to effectively move forward with climate efforts. 

Citizens must push businesses and politicians with the clearest solutions possible. We can’t assume that if we have a million-person march on climate change, politicians will have the imagination to enact laws around climate.