Passion and Pragmatism

Remembering David MacKay

I first met David MacKay in the summer of 2009 or thereabouts. Michael Shellenberger and I had just finished a talk co-hosted by Policy Exchange, a UK-based Conservative think tank, and IPPR, a think tank aligned with Labor. Afterwards, David was among the first people to approach me. He pushed a copy of Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air into my chest and told me, in his trademark manner (simultaneously respectful, polite, and direct) that while I was right that climate mitigation would require a clean energy revolution, I needed to stop banging on about renewable energy.

Along with Stewart Brand and Michael Lind, David was among the first people to bluntly tell me that if I were really serious about climate mitigation, I would need to learn to utter the N-word: nuclear energy. For someone who had still only recently shed his environmentalist identity, supporting nuclear was the final frontier, the thing that would mark my final break with the contemporary environmental movement. It was one thing to suggest that environmental regulations and energy efficiency wouldn’t be enough to achieve deep reductions in global carbon emissions, quite another to suggest that splitting the atom, the existential threat that arguably gave birth to the modern environmental movement, would be the key to addressing the present existential environmental threat.

It would take a couple of more years for the message to fully sink in. Again and again, as my colleagues and I looked at where and how modern economies had succeeded in decarbonizing at rates consistent with meaningfully mitigating climate change, nuclear energy kept showing up as the central technological driver.

In late February 2011, Michael and I gave a speech at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Management entitled “The Long Death of Environmentalism,” in which we finally came out as explicitly pro-nuclear. Two weeks later, Fukushima happened.

Despite Fukushima, or maybe because of it, the last five years have seen growing recognition that nuclear energy will need to play a critical role in the effort to power a planet of 10 billion people while mitigating climate change. The accident, and the sometimes hysterical reaction to it, illuminated as perhaps nothing else could the deep disconnect between the vastly overstated risks of nuclear energy and the very real and existential threat of climate change. In this too, David led the way. At our best, those of us who believe that nuclear energy must play a role in any serious effort to deeply reduce emissions approached the problem as David did – analytically, with equanimity, and without the hot air.

So when I learned last summer that David had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, it was obvious who we would give the Breakthrough Paradigm Award to this year. Michael and I spent an afternoon with David in Cambridge last September and told him we’d be giving him the award.

David was thrilled by the news. But mostly he wanted to talk about his latest project, the Global Carbon Calculator, which allows anyone to go online, make choices about technology and consumption, and understand the consequences for global emissions, atmospheric concentrations of carbon and temperatures. It is a valuable learning tool, one that allows anyone with a computer to get online and do the math of climate mitigation themselves.

This winter, it became clear that David was unlikely to survive long enough to collect the award at our annual Dialogue in June, and almost certainly would not be able to travel. So we asked Mark Lynas, who has come to know David very well, to present the award in person.

Last month, just a few weeks before his passing, Mark did just that. What followed was a remarkable conversation, which Mark videotaped. It is classic David, eminently reasonable, pragmatic, and matter of fact and, at the same time, passionate and animated.

To the end, David cared most of all that we have an honest conversation about the scale of the problem and options we have to address it. With some prodding, Mark got David to lay out what he considered the optimal pathway to emissions reductions in the UK. But David always understood that arithmetic could not tell us what to do, only better inform our choices.

It is a lesson that all of us, whatever our political and technological predilections, would do well to take to heart. There are not many free lunches when it comes to climate and energy. Virtually all paths come with trade-offs - between global poverty alleviation and climate mitigation, decarbonization and land use, and planning and decentralization - to name just a few. Our values and politics, not physics or spreadsheets, will determine what we do. Negotiation, compromise, and engagement with multiple perspectives and multiple stakeholders will be the keys to making progress. In this, we will all do well to be skeptical of both claims that climate change can be solved at little or no cost, economic or otherwise, and claims that the only way to solve the problem is to vanquish those we disagree with. That for me, was David’s most important contribution of all.