The globally recognized climate & energy philanthropist on loving cities, funding overlooked technologies & why optimism is the best approach to tackling climate change.
Rachel Pritzker is President and Founder of the Pritzker Innovation Fund, an organization that supports the development and advancement of paradigm-shifting ideas to address the world’s most wicked problems. Rachel is a board member and co-chair of the Energy Program at Third Way and chair of the advisory board of the Breakthrough Institute.
- Rachel’s bio
- The New York Times piece with Rachel Kyte’s quote about “summitry is theater” that Rose quotes during “Amped Up”
- Rachel’s TEDx talk during which she describes her experience growing up on a goat farm in Wisconsin
- Goat yoga
- The Energy for Growth Hub’s board
- Rachel’s foundation, Pritzker Innovation Fund
- Rose quotes Rachel’s comment about wind and solar’s ability to power the modern world in the same TED talk linked above
- Research into sun reflection
- Data showing the decline of global infant and maternal deaths
- Data showing the decline of air pollution in rich countries
- Energy efficiency as a tool to fight climate change
START (RACHEL PRITZKER INTERVIEW)
KATIE: I’m Katie Auth in Washington.
ROSE: And I’m Rose Mutiso in London, and this is High Energy Planet, the podcast from the Energy for Growth Hub about new ideas to solve global energy poverty.
KATIE: On today’s show, is climate philanthropy on the right track? We talk with Rachel Pritzker, founder and president of the Pritzker Innovation Fund, and one of the world’s leading climate and energy philanthropists.
ROSE: We’ll ask Rachel why she’s so bullish on energy philanthropy and advanced nuclear power, why climate action and poverty alleviation seem to always be pitted against each other, and why she remains optimistic about solving the climate crisis when so many people are doom-and-gloomers.
KATIE: But first Rose gets amped up about John Kerry’s climate diplomacy. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say, Rose.
ROSE: Get ready, Katie. All that coming up on this episode of High Energy Planet.
KATIE: It’s time for Amped Up, when we talk about what we talk about what we can’t stop thinking about right now in the energy and development space. And this week, Rose, you are obsessed with John Kerry. Tell me more.
ROSE: The man of the moment.
ROSE: Yeah, so, you know, I’ve been following his stately but somewhat frantic efforts to cut climate deals with the likes of India, and China, and Brazil ahead of the big Earth Day Summit and of course looking forward to COP26. And it’s really interesting – I mean, on one hand it’s good to see the U.S. is back and Kerry is the manifestation of that. You know, back, taking (inaudible). But then it’s a little bit almost cringey. It’s a little bit humbling because there’s quite some reticence – there’s been such an erosion of trust incredibility for the U.S. And actually just today I was reading this New York Times piece and came across an excellent quote from Rachel Kyte who’s, you know, obviously a kind of key person in the energy-access space. And I’m just going to read it. If you bear with me, I’m going to read out this quote.
KATIE: Yeah, of course.
ROSE: “Summitry is theater, and it can be extremely impactful if there’s a big centerpiece. That centerpiece is the U.S. plan.”
KATIE: “Summitry,” I love it.
ROSE: Exact- I love it – I love it so much. And it’s just kind of – I guess for the U.S. it’s, like, what’s your move? What are you putting on the table? And obviously the U.S can’t just assume this, like, climate (aid) and climate fixer without kind of addressing those credibility issues in terms of what it can do on its home turf. And obviously we are a little bit of D.C. insiders–we know that it’s a tough, tough call for Kerry and Biden, and it’s – they’re very constrained. But I sympathize with that. But I think what this made me think of is we’ve been going on for months and months about this gap between what rich countries ask of poor countries when it comes to climate action, versus what they’re doing. And I felt like this was, like, a little bit of an analog that I’m hoping that – which countries – well, you know, rich and high-emitting countries will keep this idea in mind as we’re going to COP26, that poor countries… In the same way that, like, the Indias and the Chinas and Brazils of the world are kind of a little bit reticent when the U.S. kind of comes swinging, asking them to do big things on climate and not kind of showing the receipts on their end, I think poor countries feel similarly that, you know, tired of the lectures and the posturing, and wanting to see this meaningful centerpiece as embedded within the summitry and pageantry of COP26 and the discussions moving forward, and in a way that reveals trust and sets the pace for the rest of us.
KATIE: Yeah, I mean, I think about the U.S. trying to thread this line, and not necessarily doing it yet–I’m not sure where they’re going to come out ahead of COP–but we need to simultaneously message huge ambition when it comes to our own energy transition. But at the same time, like, real humility. Like, we are not in a position to be lecturing, but we can I hope play a role in catalyzing ambition, just like you said, by admitting our own ground to make up. Do you have a sense of, like, what you’d want the centerpiece to look like?
ROSE: Yeah, massive ambition by the U.S. I want the U.S. to be able to speak with one voice about what it commits to, not just in this decade but in the coming decades. I think we want to see drastic cuts, we want to see some net-zero commitments that other European countries are making. We want to see it all, because, you know, obviously the U.S. is one of the biggest emitters. But is that possible? I have to be a realist and – I don’t know what is possible for the U.S., but this is the reality that they have to kind of – that Kerry has to kind of conduct his climate diplomacy in, is that there’s always going to be this credibility (hit).
KATIE: Well, we’ll for sure be watching this very closely over the coming months. If you have an energy or development obsession, good or bad, tweet it to us at @EnergyforGrowth and we’ll include it in an upcoming episode. Thanks Rose.
KATIE: Coming up, we talk with philanthropist Rachel Pritzker about energy and climate philanthropy.
ROSE: Rachel Pritzker, welcome to High Energy Planet. It’s so great to have you.
RACHEL: Thank you, great to be here.
ROSE: So Rachel, you famously or infamously grew up on a goat farm in Wisconsin [LAUGHTER]. And as you put it, you are the daughter of hippie parents who proudly grew their own vegetables, and cooked on a woodstove, and thought that the high-energy ways of the world were the cause of all of its ills. So today you’re a leading voice in energy and climate philanthropy and you advocate abundant energy sources for everyone. So okay, how did you get from there to here?
RACHEL: I would say the first step was realizing that I actually like cities [LAUGHTER], which was a big break from the way I had been raised. And then I think the next big step was after my daughter was born I had a chance to kind of reassess and rethink how I could do the most good as a funder. And I had time to look for new ideas, things that I thought might be being overlooked in part because of the kind of stagnation of thought and ideas that I think in large part is due to partisanship. So I just went on this hunt for, like, original thinkers, people who were questioning underlying assumptions about how to solve big problems. And the place I found the most kind of overlooked opportunities, and of course what I also thought was the biggest impact, were a set of ideas and solutions to better address climate change. So today, as you said, I’m still focused on how we meet both human and environmental needs, which to me mainly means that kind of interrelated challenge of climate change and energy access.
ROSE: I love this. Kind of in a weird twist it’s like goats are now invading urban spaces is, like, what you’re (inaudible) [LAUGHTER] goats on your Zoom calls. So I think you are – you know, you can’t get away from them. What’s the biggest thing–kind of continuing this thread of new perspective, fresh lenses, and not getting stuck in our ideological kind of bunker–so what’s the biggest thing you used to think about energy poverty that you now believe you were wrong about?
RACHEL: When I think about my childhood, and I guess maybe the back-to-the-land movement of the ’70s more broadly, I guess I would say we were essentially aspiring to energy poverty. Like, we wouldn’t have called it that, but that was kind of the goal, which I now understand was coming from a place of just incredible privilege because that was a choice we were making. You know, we had the option to not do that. But I guess I assumed energy poverty was good. There was, like, this underlying assumption that I was raised with that technological solutions to modern problems–and really modernity in general–were things that were bad. So I basically thought the only way to solve environmental problems was for everyone to voluntarily forego modernity. The other thing I thought, that I no longer think, is that we could solve energy poverty at the individual or family level, through cookstoves or small amounts of household-level power, rather than thinking more holistically about what it takes to, like, make a safe modern life. Which is all the things outside the home, like hospitals, and industry, and even towns and cities. So I now think the goal should be actually to just end poverty, not to make life in poverty slightly more comfortable. And to end poverty that requires a lot of reliable and affordable energy.
KATIE: That’s just a great segue into something else we wanted to pick your brain on, which is that Todd, who runs the Energy for Growth Hub, quotes this particular line from you a lot, which is, “Poverty is not my favorite solution to climate change,” which can seem like such an obvious statement but is clearly still relevant. Can you explain kind of what that particular statement means to you and why you think it’s an argument that you need to keep making?
RACHEL: I was feeling a little more bold on Twitter back when I tweeted that than I am now. But yeah, there’s a common assumption in the environmental community that to solve climate change we basically need to prevent other countries from developing the way we have. And what that amounts to is essentially asking people and countries who use a tiny fraction of the energy we do to stay poor. I just think that’s both immoral and infeasible. Poor people want out of poverty, and I think rich countries have a responsibility to take on the burden of decarbonizing our own countries, and doing that will demonstrate what the portfolio of technologies will allow us to do that. And it’ll also help bring down the costs of those technologies to make it easier for the middle- and lower-income countries to then deploy them as well.
ROSE: Adding to that line of thinking, so this philanthropy space is very big and very busy, and there are many people that are trying to do many kind of ostensibly good things. You know, everything from supporting vaccine development, to ending child hunger, to the guys who are – well, I should say the “tech bros” who are trying to stop aliens taking over our brains in the singularity. You know, a lot of people are trying to kind of put philanthropic dollars towards very many I think causes, many good. But you’ve spent a lot of time trying to push the philanthropic space to look at energy specifically. How have you seen others respond to this, or are people afraid – still too afraid that promoting high-energy systems for everyone will wreck the climate? Or people don’t simply understand energy as a kind of standalone kind of vertical within the doing-good space?
RACHEL: Energy is relevant to more than just environmental concerns. It’s wrapped up with everything most philanthropists actually care about, whether it’s empowering women or inequality, whether it’s health and educational outcomes, and of course poverty. I think philanthropy mostly only thinks about energy in the climate context though or kind of in general as something we should use less of. And in the development context using more energy is in fact usually important. And one of the reasons I serve on the board of the Energy for Growth Hub is because I think we need a more nuanced conversation about the role of energy. One of the sometimes overlooked ways we can disentangle the negative from the positive outcomes of using energy is through technological innovation. So people like Bill Gates have been working on this for a while, and a few others, and most climate philanthropy is still not focused there though. There’s a lot of focus on grassroots organizing, which almost always means organizing to reduce energy production and consumption, or to, like, oppose particular projects or technologies. But if we recognize reliable energy access as, like, a rate-limiting factor for many of the other things we care about, and we recognize climate change as an actually global challenge, I think we’d focus more on how to make clean energy cheap rather than just how to make dirty energy more expensive.
KATIE: So you founded the Pritzker Innovation Fund in 2004, and part of your goal was to catalyze new thinking. And we’ve talked about some of that new thinking already, but were there examples of elements of your own thinking, maybe what you initially thought should be funded, that have changed over the years?
RACHEL: Over the years we’ve increasingly focused more on the specific approaches and technologies that we think are being overlooked. Pretty much all of them are ones I initially opposed. So…
RACHEL: …they’re each an example of changing my mind. And that’s in part because it takes work to get out of herd mentality. Like I said, I really do think we need a broad set of technological pathways and policy options to make sure we’re successful at addressing climate change. And so that sometimes requires going places where others hadn’t thought of going and spending time rethinking basic assumptions that led us all to kind of support the same handful of things. So this would include areas like nuclear innovation, like carbon removal, and also like research into sunlight reflection, as well as just broadly supporting a more nuanced approach to energy’s role in the development context, which really wasn’t something I had thought about much until fairly recently either.
KATIE: Coming up, Rachel talks about the state and future of advanced nuclear power, the place of solar and wind in a modern-energy mix, and why she thinks optimism is the smart approach to climate change.
KATIE: One of the particular areas that you’ve really been focused on is the development and deployment of advanced nuclear. And I’m curious kind of what particularly you’re most excited about in that space right now.
RACHEL: To be clear, I don’t have any particular attachment actually to nuclear – you know, the technology of nuclear, or frankly any single climate solution. I do just think for all sorts of mostly historical reasons it’s, like, the ugly stepchild that’s had zero focus for a long time. And so I think there are just a lot of opportunities, a lot of potential innovations that I think are important, that we’ve realized in other sectors. You know, if you think about solar ten, twenty, thirty years ago, was prohibitively expensive and slow to scale. So with the kind of focus that we’ve put into other technologies I think it could be a technology that could really help us meet our climate goals.
ROSE: In 2015, which was I guess almost 6 years ago now, you gave a TEDx Talk in which you said that, “While wind and solar have a place in the global energy mix, it’s unlikely that these technologies will ever fully power the modern world, and almost definitely not in a timeframe that (inaudible) addressing climate change.” So that was a block quote, quoting your words right back at you. So since then [LAUGHTER] – so this is the danger of giving talks that go on the internet is that we’ll just quote you indefinitely. Since then both solar and wind have obviously made quantum leaps in cost and scalability, and batteries are getting there but not that far behind. So has anything happened over these last six years since you kind of uttered those words that has changed your mind, why or why not?
RACHEL: Yeah. I mean, I would just start with the remarkable progress that solar and wind have made. Just reinforces in my mind the need for us to put the kind of focus and investments that we put into solar and wind in other technologies that we haven’t done that yet for. Because it just shows that with a decade of focus and investment you can bring down the cost of things, and you can scale things. Solar and wind have definitely made a lot of progress since 2015. They’re likely to play a big role in addressing climate change. But I’m still not sure why we would prematurely narrow our options. When you think about the costs not just in terms of a kilowatt, but in terms of a whole energy system that can provide reliable energy when and where people use it, and you think outside of energy to all the other things we need to decarbonize, it’s just a massive challenge. Every place currently has a different mix of energy resources and natural resources, and is going to probably benefit from a mix – a sort of portfolio of options that will fit best in that location. So it might turn out that other forms of dispatchable power like nuclear are what help us build that, like, affordable, fully decarbonized energy system.
ROSE: And I’m setting Katie up for her last question here. You know, it almost seems the scale of the problem is so large that people are drawn to the silver bullet…
ROSE: …kind of very simplistic thinking. We just want to be saved by… I mean, when I was younger it was nuclear fusion was the thing, that we’d have flying cars and everything would be okay. So it seems that there are no silver bullets, and so is all lost? I don’t know, Katie, why don’t you take it away?
KATIE: So yeah, on one side you have people hoping for a technological silver bullet, but there’s also a strain within climate activism of people calling for radical pivots away from even capitalism itself, and very wary of technological solutions. And in contrast your approach has been really to embrace optimism and to build on the success that we’ve made globally in part because of technological innovation. How do you sell people on that, on optimism as a good approach to climate change?
RACHEL: It is really hard, but I think it’s important. I think pessimism is demotivating, and people who feel hopeless and defeated are going to have a harder time achieving great and hard things. At this point it feels like a mental habit that can be hard to break, and I think that’s especially true because there’s, like, social pressure against acknowledging any improvements or successes in the world. So one way I do this for myself is by noticing whenever I can find an example of a problem we’ve solved, or at least some progress we’ve made. I think – so a few examples of that are, like, the dramatic declines in infant and maternal deaths globally. Those are actually astounding. You don’t see headlines about it though because, A, optimism is hard to sell, but B, it happened, like, gradually over time. It wasn’t like the one day it happened people noticed. So sometimes noticing the improvements can be hard for that reason. But we’ve made other progress. Like, we have dramatically reduced air pollution in places like the U.S. and Europe, like, just dramatically. And I think people are afraid to acknowledge that progress because they think that if we say we’ve gotten better at something or made progress on something that then people won’t want to continue improving it. And, you know, it does require a little nuance to say, yeah, it’s gotten better and we have more to do. Poverty is an example. Like, we’ve come a long way, and there have been huge declines in extreme poverty around the world. Even in the climate context, like, there are places that have made a lot of progress in lowering their emissions. France, Sweden, the U.K, all have different and interesting lessons that we wouldn’t notice if we weren’t looking for those bright spots. And like I said, it’s not – this isn’t to say the work is done or that we don’t need to continue working on all these things, which I think that’s how people sometimes hear… When any optimism creeps in I think people hear, “Oh, you’re saying the work is done. Well, then we don’t have any work to do.” So anyway, I think to sum it up, this is another example of where there are benefits to nuance [LAUGHTER]
ROSE: I think that’s kind of the punchline. It’s such a knife-edge, and, you know, I think it’s kind of we need the improv approach, that “yes, and…” It’s so hard. I don’t know why as people we want to be motivated by kind of terror or, like, extreme terror, extreme everything is great, and nothing in between.
RACHEL: And it doesn’t feel good, as someone who used to reside in that sort of world view and dispositional approach. It doesn’t feel good.
ROSE: Okay Rachel, now it’s time to play Rant or Rave. So this is a fun game we devised for the podcast where we say a word or a term and you go on a short rant or rave about it. So are you ready?
ROSE: All right. Rant or rave, growing up on a goat farm?
RACHEL: Both I guess. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, so on the rave side I had a great childhood, and I love goats. In fact, the ringtone on my phone is a goat.
KATIE: Oh my God, that’s awesome. [LAUGHTER]
RACHEL: So every time it goes off people around me just laugh, and I love that. On the rant side, I’m glad we moved to a city by the time I was a teenager, because rural life just wasn’t intellectually-stimulating or culturally-diverse enough for me as I got older. And also I think it’s lucky I didn’t ever have to figure out a way to make a living as a goat farmer [LAUGHTER].
KATIE: I don’t know. I have faith, you could do it.
ROSE: Now is a good time, you can rent out your goats on Zoom. It’s a thing that’s happening now.
KATIE: Okay, rant or rave, cooking with wood?
RACHEL: Definite rant. So this is another, like, example of where my thinking has diverged from my upbringing. Cutting down trees is just terrible for the climate. And it’s sad to see forests destroyed for this reason when we have other options. And then the other main reason is that inhaling wood smoke is just horrible for human health. Women and children all over the world suffer these health consequences while they cook or, you know, are in, like, a smokey living space. Plus personally, as a California resident now, I just inhale enough wood smoke every year…
KATIE: Oh God, yeah.
A1: Like, I don’t know how I put up with it for so long as a kid, but I’m getting enough, thank you.
ROSE: So interesting. Just, yeah, when we think of, like, all of the women and children suffering from smoke we don’t think about hippies on Wisconsin goat farms, but here you are.
RACHEL: There you go – there you go.
ROSE: All right, final one: energy efficiency is a pillar of climate action?
RACHEL: Slight rant, only because it’s really easy to sit here in the U.S., where we do use more energy than anyone per capita – it’s easy to sit here and think efficiency alone will solve climate change. But if we’re thinking about this as a global problem, which I think we should, we need to put more focus on the challenge of how to actually bring more clean, cheap, reliable energy to everyone. So I think people can easily have a misplaced idea about how much efficiency can accomplish, just because of where they sit. So – but to be clear, I – you know, I still do things like turn the light off in the room when I leave it. So I’m not, like, opposed to efficiency.
ROSE: [LAUGHTER] All right. Well, we’d have to have this conversation at another time, because, yeah, I consider myself to be a big energy-efficiency booster, but obviously I completely get where you’re coming from, where it’s either something that people don’t think about at all, or people try to, like, over-boost. So…
RACHEL: Again, we need more nuance.
ROSE: …next podcast – next podcast. It’s just Rose and Rachel head-to-head on energy efficiency. Rachel, thanks so much for being with us on High Energy Planet. We’ve had so much fun chatting with you…
RACHEL: Likewise – likewise.
ROSE: …and we hope to do this again.
KATIE: Thanks Rachel.
RACHEL: Yeah, thank you.
ROSE: High Energy Planet is a production of the Energy for Growth Hub, an energy solutions connector matching policymakers with evidence-based pathways to a high-energy future for everyone. Find out more at www.energyforgrowth.org, and tweet your questions and thoughts to us at @energyforgrowth.
KATIE: And if you liked today’s episode be sure to rate and rank the podcast and tell a friend about us. Bob Lalasz is our executive producer. (Gray) Johnson is our senior producer. Join us next time for more High Energy Planet.
END (RACHEL PRITZKER INTERVIEW)