The GSB Interview

Julia Pyper, Host of Political Climate Podcast, on Decarb Madness Series


To most sports fans in the U.S., the first weekend in April normally means one thing: the men’s and women’s Final Fours, the culmination of March Madness.

But of course in this coronavirus era, there is no normal. And, alas there is no March Madness.

In dire need of a bracket fix, GreenSportsBlog was heartened to learn about Decarb Madness, a March Madness-style battle among four climate change experts to determine the most effective mix of policies to reduce U.S. power sector carbon emissions to zero by 2050.

The battle was waged over two episodes on Political Climate, an insightful weekly podcast.

GSB spoke with Political Climate host and producer Julia Pyper about “Decarb Madness” and why she and her team used March Madness as a platform for a carbon reduction competition.


GreenSportsBlog: Julia, before we get to “Decarb Madness,” talk to us about Political Climate and how you came to co-host it.

Julia Pyper: Political Climate started as an every-other-week podcast in 2018 while I was a writer and editor for Greentech Media. Our approach is to have a nuanced, bipartisan conversation about climate change with a variety of decision- and policy-makers.

My two co-hosts are on opposite sides of the political aisle. We all used to live and work in Washington D.C. and crossed paths here in Los Angeles, where we all currently live. And despite everyone’s differences — I’m Canadian — we really enjoyed talking to each other and sharing ideas.

Shane Skelton comes from the right; he used to work for former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) on energy policy. Shane gets that climate change is real and that something needs to be done. He has no problem critiquing the oil industry despite his prior work for the American Petroleum Institute (API).

Brandon Hurlbut is on the left. He advised Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign on climate change. Before that he was chief of staff for Energy Secretary Steven Chu in the Obama administration.

Anyway, over time we started to build an audience of energy industry leaders, climate activists, trade group representatives, Congressional staffers, and elected politicians and so, in 2019, I quit my full-time role at Greentech Media — I still write for them on a freelance basis — and took the leap to make Political Climate a weekly podcast.


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Julia Pyher, host of Political Climate (Photo credit: Greentech Media)


GSB: What was it like to leave your full time job? 

Julia: Oh, it was scary! Especially since our podcast is about finding nuanced, bipartisan solutions on climate in an incredibly hyper-partisan time. And this is an era in which it seems as though there is no room for nuance.

GSB: Nuance? What’s that? Given this challenging environment, how is Political Climate funded?

We initially launched with support from Leonardo DiCaprio’s foundation. Now our show is primarily funded by a grant from the University of Southern California’s Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy. We feel very fortunate to get to work with former California Governor and his team.

This year, we also have funding from Third Way, a center-left policy think tank, to produce Path To Zero, a six-month, seven-part series about how technology and policies can get us to zero emissions by 2050.

In episode one we spoke to a scientist about why it’s urgent that we cut carbon emissions in the first place. Episode two featured an interview with the aforementioned Steven Chu, former U.S. secretary of energy, about the technologies we need to combat climate change.

And then we moved on to “Decarb Madness”.

GSB: How did you come to using a March Madness metaphor for these episodes? Are you a hoops junkie?

Julia: Not at all! I mentioned I’m from Canada originally — from the Toronto area, went to McGill in Montreal — so college basketball was not on my radar. I ended up getting my Masters’ in Journalism from Columbia, and now I live in Southern California but I’m still not a hoops junkie.

The germ of what would become “Decarb Madness”, a climate policy competition, came from my two cohosts. On the opposite side of the political aisle, they get along and really bond through sports, specifically through their love of LAFC of Major League Soccer.

That led to us thinking we could have a little fun debating policies that would reduce carbon emissions in the U.S. power sector and buildings…

GSB: Fun? In a climate policy discussion? Brilliant!

Julia: I know! The idea was to get four climate policy experts…

GSB: A Final Four…

Julia: Exactly. They played different policy options — carbon pricing, carbon capture, increased nuclear power, etc. — against each other, to see which menu would get us closest to zero emissions by 2050 in the U.S. power and buildings sectors.

We then needed to find a simulator that could take the policy prescriptions offered by the experts and keep the carbon emissions score and determine a winner. Energy Innovation, a think tank in San Francisco, provided that simulator for us.

GSB: So, who made it to the Decarb Madness Final Four and what did they prescribe?

Julia: Our Decarb Madness 2020 Final Four featured Jesse Jenkins, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University, and Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara…

GSB: A Princeton Tiger and a UCSB Gaucho — I love it! 

…And Political Climate co-hosts Brandon Hurlbut and Shane Skelton also gave it a shot. Brandon went to the University of Illinois and Shane went to the University of Wisconsin, just for reference. Go Badgers?


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Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, flanked on the left by Brandon Hurlbut and Julia Pyper of Political Climate. On the right are former Political Climate producer Victoria Simon and co-host Shane Skelton (Photo credit: R20 Austrian World Summit)


GSB: Not bad for a Canadian! So, who won and what was the winning carbon reduction playbook?

Julia: We actually had two contests, discussed over two episodes. The first was to see which contestant’s policy prescription menu would generate the biggest carbon reductions by 2050 in the U.S. power and buildings sectors.

Brandon’s bracket resulted in the greatest emissions reductions in the year 2050. His bracket focused heavily on decarbonizing buildings.

But Jesse really won the first round of the competition, because his policy picks reduced the most cumulative emissions over a 30-year period. Cumulative emissions are really what’s most important, because we need to cut pollution down immediately, not decades from now.

GSB: Agreed…

Julia: Jesse’s playbook went heavy on a carbon tax based on a Harvard model that has polluters pay. The proceeds would be used to ratchet up the development and deployment of clean energy technologies. He also called for boosting energy efficiency standards for new commercial buildings.

Another core element of his plan was a national clean energy standard that would require all electricity to come from carbon-free resources by 2050. These include wind and solar, but also nuclear power and fossil fuel plants with carbon capture.

GSB: How did Shane, your right-of-center co-host fare?

Julia: Shane’s program centered on carbon capture and empowering energy users to make better energy use decisions. His policy bracket was the weakest, by far, in terms of emissions reductions by 2050. But this is why political feasibility is important to consider. Because if Shane’s plan was the only plan politicians actually passed, we’d take it, because something is better than nothing.

GSB: I guess. But it’s on us to demonstrate to Shane and many other center-right folks that taking aggressive action on climate really is conservative, in that it conserves our ecosystems as well as our way of life.

Now, what was the second part of the Decarb Madness competition?

Julia: The second half of our Final Four was to put the four Decarb Madness playbooks to a vote among our listeners. This was our way of measuring whose policy picks could get the most support.

GSB: Wouldn’t they vote for the one — Jesse’s — who got the U.S. closest to net zero emissions in the power and buildings sectors by 2050?

Julia: That of course makes sense, but our listeners actually voted for Leah.

Her approach was more human-centric, focusing on reducing carbon emissions from existing buildings in the residential sector, for instance. Making homes more efficient puts money into people’s pockets right away, which can be a huge help to lower-income households.

Leah also argued against Jesse’s use of carbon pricing, noting that could be costly for lower-income Americans if the policy wasn’t designed well. Those arguments resonated for our listeners even though her emissions reductions were not as robust as Jesse’s.

Leah also has a lot of supporters on Twitter, so admittedly that was a factor in her win too.

GSB: Now, Jesse could have argued that a fee and dividend carbon pricing scheme actually puts more money in the pockets of lower income Americans. But I am glad to see social equity was important to your listeners. How did your listeners react to Decarb Madness overall?

Julia: Their comments were very positive. Hey, if we can make something as nerdy as power sector decarbonization fun and engaging, you know we’ve got something. And that’s the power of sports and the storytelling that goes with it.


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The Decarb Madness Final Four! (Photo credit: Third Way)


GSB: Amen, Julia! Will Political Climate run it back with a Decarb Madness 2021? 

Julia: We would love to do it again next year. In the meantime, colleges and universities should do something like this. I’d love to see students, or anyone really, come up with the green energy policies they think are the best and compete over how much they reduce emissions and how politically appealing they are. I think some good ideas would come out of it!

GSB: It would be great to see Political Climate run such a competition on Decarb Madness next March… alongside March Madness.



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