On a recent episode of Joe Rogan’s controversial and highly influential podcast, Canadian psychology professor and best-selling author Jordan Peterson repeated several false claims about the energy transition. During the show, which is Spotify’s top-rated podcast and boasts an audience of 11 million, Peterson claims rising prices, which he assumes will be caused by the energy transition, will hurt the most vulnerable.
When discussing the move to a low carbon economy, he told Rogan, “There is the old saying, ‘When the aristocracy gets a cold, the working class dies of pneumonia.’ So fine, increase energy costs. Well, what happens? A bunch of poor people fall off the map and the more you increase the energy cost, the more that happens.”
Peterson’s false rhetoric v. reality
While Peterson, who New York Times columnist David Brooks has called the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now, paints a dire picture the reality is that his claims are not backed up by reality. Our research shows that the transition to renewable energy will lower energy costs over time and in many areas, we are already seeing wind and solar outcompeting fossil fuels.
For example, our 2021 report Put Gas on Standby showed new onshore wind and solar investment options are already cheaper than the costs associated with the continued operation of existing gas plants in the US. By 2030, we project the costs for both renewable technologies will fall to levels less than half the long-run marginal cost for gas.
The ability of renewables to provide cheaper power is also true when it comes to coal. In 2018, we found that by 2030 building new renewables will be cheaper than continuing to operate 96% of today’s existing and planned coal plants.
Helping the poor
Given Jordan Peterson’s concern for the poor, he should know that instead of impoverishing people, our research finds that the opportunities for growth are greatest in emerging markets. This is driven by the fact that many developing nations are building out their energy systems, and cheap renewables offer a route to bring cheaper power to more people, create new industries, jobs and wealth. These benefits could be especially felt in Africa which has a massive 39% of global potential growth in renewables and could become a clean energy superpower.
In addition, providing jobs and cheaper energy, moving to a low carbon economy will cut greenhouse gas emissions and protect us from the worst impacts of climate change. This is critical if we want to help those living in poverty for the simple fact that, as numerous studies have shown, the extreme weather created by global warming will disproportionately impact the poorest communities around the world.
A time for choosing
There has been a great deal of blowback about the Joe Rogan interview. Jordan Peterson’s comments on climate science have been panned by scientists, such as UN IPCC author and leading climate researcher Professor Michael Mann, as absurd, nonsensical and false. However, one thing Peterson is right about is that we do face choices regarding the energy transition.
Fortunately, it is not a question of whether we burn fossil fuels or starve the poor.
The choices we really face are about how we might enable a just energy transition. This involves several challenges, including finding ways to help workers in the fossil fuel sector transition to a new career in clean energy and making sure the vast economic benefits created by the growth of renewables are widely shared.
If someone is truly concerned about uplifting the poor, as Peterson claims he is, then these are places they should be focusing instead of on framing false choices that would lock us into polluting, and increasingly expensive fossil fuels.
The photo of Jordan Peterson was taken by photographer Gage Skidmore.