Talking with A man revved up against fossil fuels

Name: Mark Schapiro

Age: 59

City: Oakland

Position: Author of “Carbon Shock,” adjunct journalism professor at U.C. Berkeley

J.: In your book “Carbon Shock,” you detail the global economic costs of carbon emissions. Is there any way to sum that up quickly?

Mark Schapiro: The way the economy is organized is a fundamental illusion at heart. We like to think we live in a free market, but the use of fossil fuels is a complete distortion of that market mechanism — because of the enormous costs of that energy.

Mark Schapiro

J.:  How does our slow-footed reaction to climate change figure into it?

MS: A good example is the cost of crop insurance to farmers being way up because farmers suffer from drastically changing [climate] conditions, such as drought. The public bears the financial consequences of the risk [via higher food prices], and the fossil fuel companies [continue to] earn the profits.

J.: A majority of scientists agree that climate change is here now. What will this mean in the next few years?

MS: What we will see in America are more droughts, more tropical diseases [previously] limited to warmer parts of the world moving northward, more erratic weather conditions that will challenge the coastal parts of this country. All of which require huge expenditures of taxpayer money. The more we let emissions continue at the current rate, the more money we’ll need to spend on climate change. Investment now in renewables is far less than the money we’re going to have to spend on the consequences of climate change.

J.: Did growing up Jewish in Los Angeles impact the direction you took in your life and work?

MS: I grew up in a secular Jewish household, but we had a strong sense of Jewish identity. We were members of the Westside JCC [where] they teach the culture and history of Jews, the writings of Jewish writers. They were also very engaged with the notion of what it means to be Jewish.

I think it does influence my work, in the sense that Jews have always been outsiders in a way, despite all assimilation efforts. There still is a cultural distance from the dominant culture. The only place we’re not outsiders is Israel. So being a minority community enables you to see society as not inevitable. The status quo is not a given, the way things work is not the way they always have to work.

J.: Some scientists and activists paint a bleak future for the planet no matter what steps we take. True?

MS: It’s not too late. I’m very strong on the notion that we are beginning to move forward in a somewhat sporadic but more cohesive fashion to try to reduce the enormity of emissions disrupting the atmosphere.

It’s exciting to see how a country like Germany, with its enormously sophisticated economy, is in the process of redesigning its entire energy grid. There are times when 50 percent of its energy comes from renewables. That’s because they plowed a lot of public resources into it.

Also, the enormous growth in solar energy across California, and increasing numbers of farmers setting up wind turbines on their land and selling [the energy] back to the grid. To significantly slow emissions, you need to have a price for carbon.

J.: What steps can individuals take about climate change? Are we too small to make a difference?

MS: Each of us every day is contributing to our portion of greenhouse gases. You plug in the wall — greenhouse gases. Drive your car — greenhouse gases. So anything we can do to reduce our draw on this energy pool is going to be a contribution toward reducing greenhouse gases.

When you leave town, unplug your toaster, don’t leave the heat on. And let’s not shy away from demanding action on the local, state and national level — that our governments take action. The only progress long term is going to come from people demanding action.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.