Why it’s Time for Companies to Own the Energy Problem and Play Offense

By Alan Brew

Alan Brew speaks with Marc Cortez, professor of entrepreneurship and technology commercialization at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Marc is also the founder of Liquid8, a water conservation startup and author of “Climaturity: A Journey Into the Muddy Climate Middle.”


[This is an edited version of the transcript. Listen to the full interview by clicking the player above.]

Alan Brew: Marc, welcome to Expert Opinion. I have read your book, Climaturity and by the way, nice wordplay there, and I feel much better prepared to understand, at least, the dimensions of the debate. But boy, what a mess. How did we get to this place? It seems to be highly polarized between two extreme positions. On the one hand, you’ve got the “Climate Deathers” who say we’re on the brink of distinction, and on the other there’s the Climate Deniers, who say, “Bull, everything is all right.” People seem so angry and there seems to be no middle ground. So, my first question Marc, what is the truth? Is climate change a real emergency?

Marc Cortez: So, when I talk about the climate, I always like to start by saying, “Let’s always remember that everything we’re talking about the climate is an exercise in trying to predict the future.” So, the things you read, just read them with that in mind. You hear are things like, “Hey, this could happen in 50 years and we’re all going to be dead.” Or, “Hey, this could happen or it couldn’t happen.” So, it’s just an exercise in storytelling. So. what is the truth is the big question. And in order to figure out the truth, you actually have to look backwards into time. There are some things that we know, we know that since 1900 global temperatures have risen by about 1 to 1.1 degree. So, in what, 123 years, it’s risen by about a degree.

And there is still actually some open debate about that. As of last week, there’s a whole new scientific group that says, “Hey, we’ve been looking at satellite data for the past 50 years, and we now think it maybe is about half that.” But let’s just say it’s a degree or 1.1 degree. A 1.1-degree change of anything, you wouldn’t even notice it if it happened in your own home. So, let’s not pretend that it’s catastrophic. So that’s what we know. We know that CO2 levels are rising and we can actually measure that and we observe it and we can see what’s happening. And then we have linked those two together through this magic called attribution science.

The question becomes, how big of a lever is man-made CO2 in affecting global temperatures? And that is still a question mark. We know temperatures have risen, we know that CO2 is having an effect on it, how much we’re still debating, and we know that there’s 8 billion people on the planet. That’s what we know. So, the climate apocalypse is a piece of pure fiction.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, has thousands of global analysts that have crafted this story and analyzed science, they ran thousands of different scenarios looking into the future. So, that means there’s thousands of different storylines that are equally possible or not possible. They’re all just conjecture and they openly say that. So, which one do you choose? Pick a story.

The media has picked the stories that speak to their base and ones that they agree with and they forward that. And this big huge 8,000-page document that the IPCC has produced provides perfect cover because it can support any of the answers. It’s just a big encyclopedia of thousands of different things that could potentially happen.

Alan Brew: So, CO2 levels are changing, man-made albeit perhaps, temperatures have risen by 1 degree over 123 years. What do you tell your students Marc about the marketing of fear and panic as you put it in the book. What do you tell them about the climate?

Marc Cortez: That’s actually one of the big reasons I started to write this book, because I had this conversation so many times. These are young adults; they are the first generation who’ve been fed this steady diet of climate death their entire lives. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with 22-year-old women coming into the workforce, graduating, smart, motivated people who really care about things. And they honestly believe that they can’t have kids, because in 10 years, the earth is going to just split open and fall apart. And that’s shocking to me.

And so, I tell them the truth – one degree is not going to kill anyone, and the future is not yet told. There is no science that leads us to the climate apocalypse.

And so, I tell people, “Look, if you’re going to read the New York Times, then read Fox.” You got to balance it out, and you got to train yourself how to consume this stuff, because once you start doing that, and once you start reading the stories, you start seeing the ‘coulds’ and the ‘maybes’ and you start realizing that 95% of what you read is just stories.

I said, “Look, step back, take a deep breath, realize that we’re not on the brink of destruction.” I look for the actions. That’s the other thing I tell them, “Look for the actions.” When people stare at you and scream at you and tell you to stop using fossil fuels and then immediately climb into their shiny Tesla on their way to the airport to fly overseas for a vacation – what’s wrong with this picture? No one is giving up fossil fuels. Not even the President when he stares at the camera scolds us for using fossil fuels. So just step back and look at it. I mean, I tell my students to use their own judgment to be able to just put it through the common-sense mill.”

Alan Brew: So, let’s get into the whole muddy middle of the debate and why the world has become so polarized around this issue. The focus of your book, Climaturity is the great divide that’s opened up between two extreme positions, there is no middle ground. The question is Marc, why has the debate become so polarized? How did we get to this point, and what’s at stake?

Marc Cortez: Let me go back in time to the beginning. I started in solar in 1999. Back then we were the sort of the outlaws. We were the rebels; we were David and Big Oil was Goliath. We were like, “Big Oil’s bad, and we’re the good guys.” And so, back then it kind of made sense and I always joke, I said, “We didn’t have to be great. We just had to not be that guy.”

So, it’s a bit in our DNA, we’ve always done that. We’ve always compared ourselves to something way worse. We’re always the David to Big Oil’s Goliath. But there was actually a moment in time in 2014 where logic just got thrown away. And there was an actual strategy. It happened in La Jolla. There was the big Tom Steyer-led group that was leading a conference to investigate why we aren’t making more climate progress? And they actually studied Philip Morris and they literally had a conference to discuss what Exxon knew and how they marketed their own science to tamp down what they knew and make sure that they had their own sort of misinformation campaign.

So, they had an open conference and they said, “Hey, maybe there’s something here. Maybe we can take a page from these guys’ books and do the exact same thing.” So that’s when things changed. And you can actually research it. It’s out there. They said, “Well, okay, so now it’s not just climate concern, now it’s the climate apocalypse. We’re just going to go scorched earth.” Billions have been poured into it.

So, as much as we like to hate Big Oil on one hand for what they did, and yeah they were bad guys, but guess what? The supposed good guys are doing the same thing these days. So now you’ve got the twin towers of misinformation, which do you believe? And so, that’s when everything turned doom and gloom.

Alan Brew: So, a tremendous pressure group that looked at what Philip Morris was doing, and took a page out of its book and developed this scorched earth strategy to confuse the debate.

Marc Cortez: Yeah, to forward an agenda that they believed in. I’m not a conspiracy guy by any means, but there are some things that really alarmed me, and I outlined this in the book. When you have the Columbia School of Journalism, very prestigious, they set the stage for media and certainly big media and certainly big climate media. They’re writing blueprints for how to castigate people who don’t believe what they believe. And they said, “You have to label them climate science deniers.” That kind of stuff gives me goosebumps. I mean, there’s a blueprint for how to hate people who don’t believe in what you believe.

Now that’s scary stuff. And then they send that right down to the New York Times because half of Columbia goes to work at the New York Times and then the stories just get out there.

When you read that and you actually see it, you go, “Dang, that’s an actual strategy.” There’s an actual strategy to scare people and label people who don’t believe what they believe and then they extend it to children. They are scaring kids who don’t know better into thinking that the world’s going to be dead in 10 years when it’s absolutely not going to be dead in 10 years. That’s scary stuff.

Alan Brew: But why, what is the outcome? What do people want to happen in all this?

Marc Cortez: Well, first of all, they want to kill Big Oil. And that’s still a head scratcher. There is just a genuine hatred for Big Oil. And part of it was because they spent decades lying to us. So, I get that. All right, fine. And then it’s also, well, let us be the new Big Oil companies. So, we’re going to scare everyone, create the climate apocalypse, and hey, guess what? Don’t worry, we’re here to save us all. So, my own political party can save us. I’m the hero. And, by the way, I’ve got all the solutions and all the products, and I have vested interest in all of the New Oil, I’ll call it.

Alan Brew: Marc, I knew you when you were in the solar industry with Sharp Solar, I think it was. What’s your view about renewables? Are they the answer? Are they part of the answer? And then there is Big Oil on the other side, which has a role in all this too. So, talk about renewables and their role in all this.

Marc Cortez: Solar is a great product. It’s about as low tech as you can get. It was invented for the space program. It has evolved some, but most of the innovation in the solar business and in the renewable business has not been on the technology, it’s been in financial engineering. All of these incredibly sophisticated financial mechanisms we use to fund these things and to get these big projects out there. So, it’s part of a portfolio. And look, no one will argue about making things cleaner. I mean, everyone will agree on that. The question becomes at what cost and at what pace?

There’s no such thing as energy innocence. Every single thing that gets manufactured in a factory makes things dirtier. Solar is cleaner than coal. But here’s the thing, you never replace a coal plant with solar because you can’t, because solar is part-time energy.

So, what do you do for those other 19 hours? Well, then you burn other dirty resources or you get a bunch of batteries, which okay, you got to make a bunch of batteries and stick those in there. But when you start doing all these things, you still have to provide reliable 24/7, 365 energy. So solar isn’t that, and windmills aren’t that. They are part of that. So, I joke, I say it’s a little bit like standing on the shoulders of Shaquille O’Neal and then declaring yourself the strongest person in the room, “Hey, look how tall I am.”

Solar, wind, and other renewables, of course they’re going to have a role because they are certainly cleaner than alternatives. And rolling those out the way that we’ve been doing in the United States makes perfect sense. Rolling them out where it makes economic sense, where the sun shines, where the wind blows, do it where it absolutely makes some economic and electrical sense and continue that transition. But to just look at your spreadsheet and go, “Hey, if we did this across the world, we’ve solved all of our problems there. Voila.” Well, that’s just pure fiction. There’s just no way that’s ever going to happen.

The long answer to your question is yes, they will have a role, of course. We need all hands on deck when it comes to cleaner energy solutions. I will continue to say, got to look at nuclear, because it’s by far the cleanest thing that we’ve got other than hydro. And the infrastructure’s already there. So, I suspect we’re going to have that discussion over the next 10 years. We’re going to start to have the discussion about nuclear like we’re doing here in Diablo Canyon, where they’re now starting to say, “Hey, well maybe we should keep this thing open.”

Alan Brew: Germanys just celebrated the decommissioning of the last nuclear power plant after the Japanese disaster, was it Fukushima about 8 years ago? So, Germany kind of backed off completely. Are they doing the right thing or is that the reverse of what they should be doing?

Marc Cortez: So right next door, France is the highest nuke capacity in the world per capita. They’ve got the lowest electricity rates in all of Europe. Germany is struggling under the weight of their green policies. They’ve got a huge solar penetration. They’re getting rid of all the nukes. And whether or not they’re decommissioning nukes because they’re old generation nukes, fine. If their safety concerns, fine. But now what? Now what do you do? You still have a problem. You still have to provide capacity. It’s not like the German people are going to say, “Hey, that’s fine, just turn our lights off for 12 hours a day.”

So, you’ve got to fill in the gaps somehow. And I think that’s what we’re going to find, so you’re seeing energy price spike, more reliance on Russia. So, you’re starting to see articles saying, “Hey, maybe this was not a bad idea, or maybe this was not a good idea.” Kind of like Brexit, people are scratching their heads, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t have done that.”

Alan Brew: In the meantime, though, we have Big Oil, and in your book you say it’s here to stay. It’s fundamental to the world we live in. And it’s impossible to imagine life without Big Oil in some way, shape, or form. But it’s in the cross hairs. You’ve got these activist groups now gluing themselves to paintings, “Just Stop Oil.” What can they do? What should they be doing? What can they do to counter this kind of polarization of hate towards oil?

Marc Cortez: So, I can’t sit here and say the Big Oil are the good guys. Did they do some bad things by hiring their own scientists and pushing out scientific misdirection? Yes. Where it gets a little bit out of control, actually a lot out of control, is the whole hate industrial complex where all they want to do is go after oil companies. To me, that’s just wasted energy. And I will put out there as exhibit A, this whole invention of this new kind of thing called attribution science, which is now permeating everything. When you hear people talk about science, most of it’s not science as we know it, where they measure and test and observe thing.

Most of attribution science is where you just say, “Hey, if a bunch of bad stuff happened in Kansas, and we can point to some climate stuff in Kansas, let me use some math and probabilities to tie these together. And voila, it’s climate change related.” And so, it’s called attribution science. It was invented by lawyers to help them sue oil companies and blame oil companies for stuff that happened. About two weeks ago I read – It made all the newspapers – that climate scientists are now saying that climate change causes more home runs in major league baseball. That was their conclusion. Really. I mean, they actually said that. So, I’m just fascinated by that. There are scientists that actually are studying this. There are scientists that are actually reviewing it.

It’s just junk. It’s just absolute junk. And so, that’s happened with Big Oil, and that’s the downside. So, my view with all of this stuff – enough playing defense, you got to own it. So, own it. I have no problem saying oil is probably the second of mankind’s greatest inventions after the wheel. It has lifted entire humanity out of poverty. Period.

If you don’t want oil, then shut the hell up and quit using it. That’s my view. Give up your car, give up your house. Give up your clothes. Go live off roots you dig and grow in your own garden. Take your kids out of school…I fully support you. It’s your right. Then I will listen to you. But when I’ve got a bunch of rich people staring at microphones and cameras telling us we got to get rid of fossil fuels in their wonderful offices driving their Teslas – come on, man. I mean, we’re to the point of ridiculousness. So, I would say, look, Big Oil, yes, they’ve got some penance to pay, but they’ve also helped humanity in immeasurable ways.

And so, my advice to any company is own it, play offense. Every single person that has used oil has benefited from it. Yes, there are some downsides, but let’s not pretend that it hasn’t grown humanity and given us the lives that we are all enjoying. And so, that’s the way I look at it. It takes a hell of a lot of oil to make things that use less oil. Our energy transition is 100% dependent on a vibrant and robust oil industry.

Alan Brew: Wow. Lot to think about there, Marc. There’s no energy innocence as you say, but is there any company out there that you can think of that is getting it right? Who is doing a good job at this? Who’s playing offense in the right way?

Marc Cortez: There are two companies I can think of. One is Microsoft and one is Stripe, the online payment company. So, what has Microsoft done? Every company these days has public facing climate commitments. That’s actually good news. We expect companies to have some sort of a plan in place. Microsoft said, “You know what, this net-zero stuff is junk. It’s not enough to just slow the damage that you’re doing. It’s not enough to take the next 30 years to make things less bad. We’re actually going to remove everything that we’ve ever done since 1975.” So, they’re actually embraced full carbon negative.

So, they have a plan and they’ve publicly stated it. Now can they do it? Who the heck knows? But in terms of a goal, that’s a good one.

Stripe is more of a startup company; it’s been around for 10 or so years. They’ve said, “We’re not going to do any more of this dodgy emissions’ avoidance stuff. We’re going to do carbon removal like trees and natural farming and direct air capture and some things that are actually built specifically to get CO2 out of the air.” So, they’re playing offense. They’re attacking it directly. So again, time will tell whether or not that is going to be successful, but I applaud it. And that’s what I just recommended.

I’m like, if you’re going to play the climate game, play it. Just play offense. Educate yourself. Learn what works. Learn what carbon removal is versus this funny sort of carbon emissions’ avoidance of tomorrow game that is getting played out there and learn what the differences are and then just own your solution. Own it.

Alan Brew: What can we do as individuals? Does anything we can do personally to make a difference? By driving a Tesla, am I being green? What can we do?

Marc Cortez: So, my view is our climate problem is an over consumption problem. We use too much energy.

Teslas are great cars, but if you look at the math, a shiny new Tesla coming off a factory floor has a higher CO2 footprint than an internal combustion engine. And it doesn’t even catch up until about 20, 25,000 miles. So, think about all of these new things that supposedly save, they all are manufactured and they are all making the problem worse, except they’re making it less bad. So, is less bad, actually making things better? So, I say – use less things, conserve, plant trees, use natural solutions. Don’t mow down trees to put up solar modules. Try to consume less. We just did it during Covid. Our emissions dropped for the first time in decades. And the reason was is because we collectively as a country did less stuff.

Now it was painful, because we were forced to do it. But the point is, that’s a pretty darn big lever, and no one talks about it. No one is saying anything about that. No politician wants to stand up and look in a camera and say, “Hey guys, the answer to climate change is you got to use less stuff.” No one wants to say that.

Alan Brew: Final, final question. Any new books coming up?

Marc Cortez: Well, I think my next one will be Climaturity 2.0, probably towards the end of the year where I take all the lessons I learned after putting this first one out there and come back with maybe a bit stronger of a message, but just more information and what I have learned since releasing this one.

Alan Brew: Terrific. To paraphrase Mark Twain on behalf of the earth, “Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.” The climate apocalypse is pure fiction, and we can all actually get on with our lives and stop worrying about these scare stories. Thank you, Marc.

That was Marc Cortez, author of “Climaturity: A Journey into the Muddy Climate Middle.” And this is Alan Brew signing off. Until next time.