Working Together for Decarbonization: Interview with Michael Webber

Decarbonization can be framed as fundamentally an engineering problem. If you frame the problem that way, the solution clearly lies with .. engineers. This is an interview that Tisha Shuller (an Environment Without Enemies heroine) conducted with Dr. Michael Webber of University of Texas, who is currently on assignment working for ENGIE in Paris, France. It’s part of the Energy Thinks podcast series.

If you’re a techy at heart you’ll enjoy his review of current technologies, and what they can do, can’t do, and may be able in the future to do. He also dives into the international scene from the small-scale (there’s not enough organic material in Saudi Arabia to do biogas) to health impacts (4 million people die due to indoor air pollution from solid fuels in Africa) to really big changes in carbon that would result from substituting natural gas for coal in India and China.

As in Webber’s essay in Mechanical Engineering, he talks about how this is an “all hands on deck” moment for climate, and we are “better rowing together in the same boat in the same direction.” We need everybody, but it’s hard to take leadership towards a future vision that does not include you.

This might remind you of the timber or grazing workers/industry (“Oil consumption is as much about demand as supply”), or the “vision that does not include you” might resonate with OHV or MB folks. Anyway, I recommend the entire podcast, but if you don’t have much time (or aren’t interested in technology) try his essay in Mechanical Engineering linked above. The excerpt below is from that essay.

Humans are hard-wired for fairness. We feel satisfied when everyone gets their just reward and are outraged when we discover cheating. But that innate desire for justice can get in the way of solving our biggest challenges.

Take climate change: When scientists and environmental activists take stock of the mess we are in, the oil and gas sector is a handy villain. For people tapping into their instinct for retribution, the petroleum industry ought to be punished for the damage it has caused and cut out from any opportunity to participate in the upcoming transition to a clean energy economy. To activists who have made climate change a top priority, anything less feels like inviting an arsonist to help put out the fire.

As with everything, however, the truth is more nuanced.

If tackling climate change is something we want to do quickly and with as little social disruption as possible, then the oil and gas industry is, in fact, a critical partner. Petroleum companies have some of the deepest pockets and most technically capable workforces around.

Is there a way to work with them, rather than against them, to promote a low-carbon future?

Unquestionably, many oil and gas companies have been bad actors. At best, the petroleum industry has ignored the problem while making a profit off the products that worsened the situation. At worst, it actively worked to delay action by funding misinformation campaigns or lobbying to delay policy action.

But blaming the industry leaves out our own culpability for our consumptive, impactful lifestyles. Oil consumption is as much about demand as supply.

Rather than finding someone to blame, let’s look for who can help.

Sound familiar?

3 thoughts on “Working Together for Decarbonization: Interview with Michael Webber”

  1. One thing that has always struck me about people demonizing the oil and gas industry is how they always disassociate themselves from it, as if they didn’t put gas in their cars, have natural gas heating and water heaters in their homes, consume electricity generated by fossil fuels, drive on roads paved with asphalt, fly in airplanes fueled with jet fuel, and buy thousands of items over the course of their lives made from petroleum-based plastics, like literally every other human being in a developed country.

    It’s fine to believe those things cause harm to the environment and we should find ways to use less of them. It’s not fine to believe that companies are the people who run them are abjectly evil because they provide the products and energy sources that are the foundation of our entire civilization and should therefore be punished because of it.

    • Patrick, I think it’s particularly hard for us Coloradans because those folks are our neighbors. I think that’s why Initiative 112 died, not because of the details of the issue of setbacks but because it seemed like part of a larger scheme to make our neighbors jobless- so we can import the same stuff from somewhere else (Texas? not a good look in Colorado). Often workers are blue collar folks, recent immigrants making decent salaries and so on. They’re part of our community.

      Another thing Webber pointed out is that multinationals are taking leadership in decarbonizing because of other countries’ approaches to climate change. While multinationals sound generically bad (and I am not fond of their political power), in this case, they are doing more than Jane’s independent and US-based biz.

  2. “But blaming the industry leaves out our own culpability for our consumptive, impactful lifestyles.”

    I think he is mischaracterizing the issue if he is saying anyone is just looking for someone to blame. I suspect that any fossil fuel company that would offer to help reduce carbon emissions would not be turned down, but they wouldn’t really need anyone’s permission would they? However, when you see them lobbying for increased emissions and violating laws you tend to assume they don’t want to help.

    I also don’t buy the idea that because we have to consume we can’t try to change how things are produced, by both lifestyle changes and political and legal action.


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