Truth as Optimism: An Interview with Danny Cullenward

Updated: Aug 10, 2019

By Freya Chay

Danny Cullenward is an energy economist and lawyer working on the design and implementation of scientifically grounded climate policy. He is the Policy Director at Near Zero, a Research Associate with the Carnegie Institution for Science, and an Affiliate Fellow with the Environmental and Natural Resources Law & Policy Program at Stanford Law School, where he teaches classes on energy and climate law. Since 2017, he has also served on the advisory committee charged with reviewing California's cap-and-trade program.


Cullenward was kind enough to join Freya Chay for a conversation about optimism in the context of his work. They explored what personal or pragmatic roles optimism plays in the implementation of politically charged and economically significant policy regimes—that is, down in the weeds of the regulatory and legislative processes where climate policy gets made.

I’ve been thinking about different kinds of optimism in preparation for our conversation, and I’ve started to think about it in three broad stops. One is constitutional optimism—a person’s natural approach to problems. A second is philosophical optimism—one’s belief or value-driven orientation towards problems. And a third is pragmatic optimism—a more an honest read on unfolding technical or political realities. In the context of your work, would you describe yourself as an optimist in any of those ways?


I am a deeply cynical person, and the things that I do in my job, in my research, in policy work, start from what I might prefer to call an attempt at realism, which I think is a deeply depressing thing. The tools that I use to navigate research and policy and strategy are fundamentally cynical tools about what people are really trying to do. The optimism comes from much more of a philosophical choice to continue to work on a problem of overwhelming scale. There’s something special about probing the seemingly impossible, even as a cynic—the act of doing it is an act of optimism, if that makes sense.



I have a quote here from Simone de Beauvoir that says, “It is because I reject lies and running away that I am accused of pessimism, but this rejection implies hope—the hope that the truth may be of use—and this is a more optimistic attitude than the choice of indifference, ignorance or sham.”


Can we pretend I said that?



Isn’t it great?!


That’s perfect! Yeah, that’s basically it. And I think the realism is what gives me the sense that things could change. I don’t necessarily know how, but I keep finding myself in a position where I see things differently than other people, and I try to make them happen. I’ve seen it happen enough times to give me confidence that it’s worth doing even if I don’t know that it will succeed next time, and I think that’s a fundamentally optimistic approach, even if it’s born of cynicism and realism.


As for constitutional optimism, I’m a stubborn person at my core. I just stick at it, slamming my head against the brick wall until I get through. I’m not sure I would recommend that approach for very many people.



You acknowledged the overwhelming scale of climate change—what have you learned about holding that emotional reality, and how has your ability to do so changed over the course of your career?


Maybe the first thing to say is—and I don’t think we talk enough about this—it’s really depressing to work on climate. If you’re going to work on this stuff, or even be somebody who’s aware of it, it’s profound sorrow. If you don’t confront that at some point, you’re in a form of denial. I’ve noticed this about colleagues who work in this space full time. There’s a mixture of flat affect, and then there are people who have had to deal with the sadness of it, and I don’t think there’s much in between. Yeah, it’s a really tough thing if you’re taking it seriously.


The thing I personally find hardest has been realizing the extent to which people punish their political enemies, particularly in the research profession. That if you don’t immediately join the dominant political paradigm at your institution or in your field, you’re out. I think the lack of pluralism is really damaging to the system, and it’s actually far more restrictive than hardly anyone appreciates.

So, I had already decided to take on this fundamentally depressing, massive problem I wanted to solve and realized that my political enemies would make that—



Way worse!—


Way worse. I go out of my way try to show students how politics color strategy and how people operate using politics as a tool, especially, frankly, on elite campuses where there’s this perception that people aren’t making political choices.



You did your PhD under Stephen Schneider, who was quite a renowned climate scientist and activist. How would you describe him and his approach to this work?


He was a force of nature. Steve could tell war stories about what actually happened during the emergence of the public understanding and consensus around climate as an issue. It was phenomenal the extent to which he surveyed that landscape and helped create it, and the extent to which he viewed his work as a noble calling. But the other thing about him that I didn’t appreciate as much at the time was the extent to which there was sorrow in his stories. I mean, one of the most common refrains in his anecdotes was, “but I showed up, so they couldn’t do it that time…”


Showing up changes conversations—that’s a blessing. But it’s a dark testament that people like Steve feel the need to show up to make sure things don’t go off the rails, or that bad behavior and bad actors don’t pollute the understanding of key scientific issues.


Steve wrote this book called Science as a Contact Sport. It’s mostly a collection of war stories, but if you think about it, contact sport is a really good metaphor. You’re using your body. A huge part of this work is physical presence and intellectual combat, and it’s not this respectable learned-minds-discoursing thing, it’s that certain political lines cannot be spoken around people who know how to counter them with truth. And what a burden that was for him, I think, as much as he enjoyed it and was passionate about it. I feel a very similar dynamic.


My conversation with Cullenward was wide-reaching and honest. Cullenward does climate work not by plugging a bold idea about how to fix things, but by embodying the culture he’d like to see: one that values pluralism, intellectual independence and a research attitude applied to the politics present in all spheres. Cullenward doesn’t pretend to know everything, but looks and listens until he can create a logic-based theory that leads him to believe an intervention will cause beneficial outcomes. Embodied in this approach is an idea we returned to throughout our conversation, that stubbornly seeking and speaking the truth is itself a form of optimism, though maybe a more burdensome form than the word usually connotes.


His closing words of wisdom? “The more we can develop an immunity to bullshit, the better.”

Freya Chay is about to graduate with an M.S. in Earth Systems from Stanford. She's looking forward to going home to Alaska, where climate change is one of many factors promising a fascinating next few decades.  


Art by Abigail Hodges

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