“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
Election Day is nearly upon us. Then again, you probably didn’t need us to tell you that. Your sweaty palms suggest you’re like many Americans who, no matter which candidate they support, have been amped and anxious for months. If you’ve been riding an emotional, politics-fueled rollercoaster, believe us: Your kids have noticed.
Here’s a quick primer from Life Kit on how to talk with your kids about this election.
Process your own emotions and make home a safe space.
Kids can see that we’re on edge. They are naturally self-centered, and they’ll assume your stress is about them. Be honest and tell them, “Dad/Mom is a little nervous about the election.” It’s helpful for kids’ social and emotional development to hear you naming your emotions.
At the same time, it’s not great for you or them to be mainlining the news 24/7, so try your hardest to turn off the TV or the radio, put away your phone and connect — especially over meals and other key moments during the day.
“We can control the amount of information. We can control the amount of exposure,” Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop, told us when we talked to her about parenting during intense news events.
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Ask: “What have you heard and how are you feeling?”
Parents and caregivers, this question is a golden line to have in your back pocket at all times — even when there is no election, no protests, no pandemic casting a long shadow over our lives. Tara Conley, a media researcher at Montclair State University, says adults should choose a quiet moment to check in with their kids, maybe at the dinner table or at bedtime.
The idea, she says, is to allow kids to “ask questions about what they’re seeing, how they’re feeling and what do they think.” In other words: Give kids a safe space to reflect and share. And give yourself a chance to dispel any scary rumors or misinformation they may have come across.
And this is key: Your job, first and foremost, is to listen.
Use this as a learning opportunity
Looking for a silver lining to all the recent upheaval? Well, the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual Constitution Day survey found a marked increase this year in the awareness among average Americans about their rights, like free speech and the structures of government. And, just over half can name the executive, legislative and judicial branches, an all-time high on this survey.
But the next generation can do better! To be active, empowered citizens, kids need to know basic facts about history and geography. “The more you know, the more you can know,” says Ashley Berner, a professor at Johns Hopkins who studies how schools teach civics. In fact, she says, research shows students who have more time with social studies actually do better in other subjects, too.
Election time is a perfect opportunity to help kids build up a foundation of knowledge. Take a look at all the state maps online. For slightly older kids, you can talk about the origins of the Electoral College, during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. If they’re fans of the musical Hamilton, you can put on “Cabinet Battle #1” for some great context.
Berner also suggests a simple, civically-minded walk outside. “Talk about what institutions are public and what are private. So which things have we decided as a community that we’re going to support, like road-building, or parks or libraries?”
As children grow, a strong foundation of background knowledge will help them sort fact from what tries to pass for it on social media.
Put the election in the context of history — including our “hard history”
Our kids are living through history. It’s good to have perspective on the highs and lows that came before. (Honestly, it’s sort of helpful for grownups too!)
The United States and its democracy are a work-in-progress, and in order for children to understand the role we all have to play in its improvement, they need to learn about its failures as well as its successes. “I think the highest form of patriotism is self-reflection and saying, ‘Hey, this is what we’ve done wrong,'” says Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a history professor at Ohio State University.
Presenting kids with a less-than-honest version of history risks leaving them feeling confused, alienated, even betrayed when they’re exposed to facts that don’t fit that rosy narrative. This came up when we spoke with 17-year-old Taylor Pittman, an advisor to a program called Cultures of Dignity, which is dedicated to “civil dialogue” among young people, families and educators.
A high-school senior in New Orleans, Pittman told us about the time her class visited a former plantation that depended on labor from enslaved people. She says the tour guide wanted to talk about “The agriculture, and ‘It’s so pretty. And look at the nature, ‘” especially the plantation’s oak trees.
“And then when we got back onto the bus, my teacher was like, ‘The oak trees are where they used to hang people. They used to have beatings there.’ And we talked about how everything they said there at that plantation was wrong,” Pittman remembers.
Jeffries says, when talking about race and identity with kids, the point is not to focus solely on the hard stuff but to strike a delicate balance, like when he talks with his daughters.
“Race couldn’t always be discrimination and injustice or slavery and Jim Crow … I had to begin to consciously say, ‘You got to balance the good with the bad. You got to balance the pain with the joy.’ Right? The hardship with the love.”
Don’t demonize the other side. We need to teach kids the fine art of tolerant disagreement.
It feels like the United States has never been so divided. It can be tempting to stay in our safe bubbles and bash our opponents. But Berner says we need to actively expose our children to a range of opinions.
“It’s so important for young people to be engaged in conversations about meaning and purpose and different political viewpoints.” In fact, she says, historically, “civic formation is the prime reason why modern democracy started funding education in the first place.”
According to this view, classrooms should be like a little lab where students practice having reasonable, evidence-based debate. “In fact, most of our peer nations have made it a priority to explicitly teach children about the ways that different groups in society actually see the world differently,” says Berner.
Emotions are running high right now, but Truglio has told us that at all costs, we should resist the temptation to label the other side “bad guys” or “evil.” It’s not helpful, and it may increase fear and confusion. Instead, talk about people being in pain, being angry, or making choices we disagree with. Empathy, perspective-taking — it’s hard to do, but it’s also absolutely necessary in a democracy.
Jeffries adds, “We’re afraid to talk about politics … As my 5-year-old says, ‘That don’t make no sense!’ You got to let people know where you stand. Provide children evidence. Provide them with stories.”
Put civics into action.
Don’t sit and stew. Invite your kids to join you in the nuts and bolts of civic action — like writing letters, going to (safely masked and distanced) protests, or collecting cans for a food pantry. It’s empowering, and it builds a sense of belonging and agency, says Jeffries. “Society is service. You have to serve other people.”
Walmart will return guns to store floors in a change from yesterday’s decision, the company said in an emailed statement.
“After civil unrest earlier this week resulted in damage to several of our stores, consistent with actions we took over the summer, we asked stores to move firearms and ammunition from the sales floor to a secure location in the back of the store in an abundance of caution. As the current incidents have remained geographically isolated, we have made the decision to begin returning these products to the sales floor today,” the statement said.
Described as ‘gorgeous’ by the man who found it, the great fox-spider has not been seen since 1993
A male great fox-spider, which has only been recorded in three areas in Britain.Photograph: Mike Waite/Surrey Wildlife Trust
One of Britain’s largest spiders has been discovered on a Ministry of Defence training ground in Surrey having not been seen in the country for 27 years.
The great fox-spider is a night-time hunter, known for its speed and agility, as well as its eight black eyes which give it wraparound vision. The critically endangered spider was assumed extinct in Britain after last being spotted in 1993 on Hankley Common in Surrey. The two-inch-wide (5cm) arachnid had previously also been spotted at two sites in Morden Heath in Dorset. These are the only three areas in Britain, all in the comparatively warmer south, where it has been recorded.
Mike Waite from discovered the elusive spider after two years of trawling around after dark looking for it , which the MoD is not naming for security reasons.
“As soon as my torch fell on it I knew what it was. I was elated. With coronavirus there have been lots of ups and downs this year, and I also turned 60, so it was a good celebration of that. It’s a gorgeous spider, if you’re into that kind of thing,” said Waite.
Mike Waite of the Surrey Wildlife Trust, in search of the great fox-spider.Photograph: Surrey Wildlife Trust
The great fox-spider is one of the largest members of the , hunting spiders that do not use webs to catch prey. It chases down beetles, ants and smaller spiders before pouncing on them and injecting deadly venom. The prey is immobilised and its internal organs liquefy. The spider – which poses no risk to humans – feeds using fang-bearing jaws.
M0D sites are often kept open because military exercises cause minor disturbance to the vegetation, which stops succession of shrubs and trees. Waite used aerial photos to find bare sandy patches, which suit the spider’s ambush-style hunting techniques, and spotted the first one next to Jeep tracks. In total, he found several males, one female and some unidentifiable immature spiderlings.
Nick Baker, president of the British Arachnological Society. Photograph: Juliette Mills Photography/Surrey Wildlife Trust
and president of the British Arachnological Society, described the discovery as “the most exciting thing to happen in wildlife circles for quite some time”. He said: “It’s about as handsome as a spider gets, it’s big and now it’s officially a member of the British fauna again.”
The great fox-spider, a native species, was first found 120 years ago and has been seen only a handful of times since. Despite their size, the spiders are difficult to spot because they are mainly nocturnal and have effective mottled brown camouflage. During winter, they dig burrows under rocks and line them with silk, going into a sort of hibernation state.
The MoD heathland where the spider was found is managed by the . It is recognised as a nationally important site for populations of rare birds, reptiles and invertebrates, especially sand lizards, smooth snakes, Dartford warbler and nightjar. MoD sites are because they are protected from human activity and are large enough to give wildlife space to move.
Mike Waite found several male great fox-spiders, a female, pictured, and some unidentifiable spiderlings. Photograph: Mike Waite/Surrey Wildlife Trust
The great fox-spider likes warmer climates and is more common on the European mainland, particularly on coastal sand dunes in Holland and Denmark.
“It makes me think how hard have we looked for it on our coasts? Have we been looking hard enough?” said Waite, who believes the spider could be more widespread than people think.
Waite is now conducting nocturnal great fox-spider hunting expeditions on neighbouring sites and hopes one day to write a scientific paper about them. “It seems to be the most important thing I’ve done in a long career. It has inspired me to make something of it and find out as much as I can about this species in the UK,” he said.
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Two of America’s best athletes are getting married after Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird announced their engagement.
The couple boast an impressive list of achievements. Rapinoe has won two World Cups and an Olympic gold medal with the US national team, and picked up the Ballon d’Or Féminin for the world’s best women’s player in 2019. Bird, meanwhile, is one of the greatest basketball players of all time. This month, the 40-year-old won her fourth WNBA title to go alongside her four Olympic gold medals with Team USA. She has also carved out a successful career in Russia, winning five EuroLeague titles with Spartak Moscow and UMMC Ekaterinburg.
The two met at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and began dating shortly afterwards. “We have a lot in common and just sort of clicked,” Rapinoe told ESPN in 2017. “I joke she is my No 1 go-to-for-advice person. She’s just so levelheaded.”
Bird posted a photo of Rapinoe placing a ring on her finger on Friday night. “Congrats to THE power couple on their engagement!!!” tweeted Bird’s team, Seattle Storm.
As well as their sporting success, the couple are prominent social activists. They co-hosted the ESPY awards earlier this year with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, and wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts. They have also campaigned for LGBTQ and women’s rights, while Rapinoe was one of the first white athletes to kneel during the US national anthem in protest at racial injustice. She has also clashed with Donald Trump. “We are everything he loves,” Rapinoe told the Guardian in 2019, “with the exception that we’re powerful, strong women.
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First, put on your fanciest clothes. And at 1:15 am, consider heading down to Deck D.
Let’s say you traveled to London, England, in 1912, and bought a ticket on the RMS Titanic for its maiden voyage. But you’re a frugal time traveler, so you elect to travel third class (only £8!).
That would place you on F deck, six levels below the lifeboats, and mere tens of feet from the starboard hull, which a 1.5 million ton iceberg punctures open at 11:40 pm on April 14, 1912.
Eighty-four years later, a scientific expedition to the bottom of the Northern Atlantic ocean recovered a chronometer from the bridge of Titanic. It stopped the moment it hit the water, at 2:11 am.
In other words, you will have 151 minutes to escape.
That seems like it would be enough time, but out of Titanic’s 702 steerage passengers, only 178 survived. That’s for a few reasons. The first is simple logistics. Titanic had lifeboats for only half of its passengers, and in steerage you’re not only bunked the farthest from them, but the escape route is a labyrinth of unmarked and heretofore off-limits tunnels and ladders. And even if you do somehow find the way, crew members haphazardly block steerage passengers from ascending to the upper-class decks. Even with the best preparation, your odds of acquiring a seat are low. And if you fail, a long arctic swim awaits. But do not be alarmed. The maze, discrimination, chaos, and cold can be overcome if you make a few bold and counterintuitive choices.
The first days of your voyage will go by unremarkably. To pass the time, you should venture to the back poop deck for games and fresh air, enjoy a card game in the third-class saloon or, if you happen to see a crew member, perhaps suggest the boat slow down. Because as it is, Titanic is navigating icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland at far too great a speed. And on the night of April 14, 1912, just as you’re settling into your bunk in the forward section of F deck, Titanic sideswipes one at 22 knots.
You’ll be one of the closest passengers to the impact, but even so the jolt will feel relatively benign. Perhaps even anticlimactic. One fireman bunked even closer to the collision than you claimed to have slept through the incident entirely. “Dead to the wide [world],” he later told investigators. Other, lighter sleepers describe the sound as a “big vibration,” “a large cable being run out,” “a grinding crash,” “crunching and jarring,” or like “a basket of coals dumped on an iron plate.”
Because the lurch is so mild, few of the passengers will initially suspect a serious problem. Of course, there is a serious problem. You’re six decks below the lifeboats, and seven tons of water are rushing into the lower holds every second. You need to act.
Your first instinct will be to immediately sprint out of your bunk. Don’t.
Instead, change into your finest clothing. Put on a tux, a dress, or at the very least brush your hair.
The lifeboats are on the first-class deck. They are an invitation-only party that you need to crash. It will help if you look the part.
After you’ve changed, put on your life jacket (called a “life belt” here on Titanic). It should be stored above your bunk. You’re likely to need it. Getting dressed will take a few extra minutes, but don’t worry. Titanic is sinking, but it’s doing so slowly.
The great ship takes nearly three hours to finally go below, and it’s almost graceful in its descent. It never capsizes nor even takes on a serious list. It sinks so slowly you could make an interminable movie out of its demise. As a result, you not only have extra time to prepare yourself in your bunk, but when you make it to the decks, instead of the sheer chaos that accompanies most founderings, you’ll find a sociological cocktail of gallantry, cowardice, courage, chivalry, sacrifice, prayer, panic, and even music. The time Titanic takes to founder allows you to escape from even its lowest holds, but it also produces a dramatic story of human drama that partially explains the wreck’s infamy. Shipwrecks don’t always occur this way, especially at the turn of the century, which partially explains why Titanic lacked sufficient lifeboats. Ship designers and passengers at the time didn’t expect to survive a shipwreck long enough to use one anyway. They viewed lifeboats as token nods to safety, like seat cushions-as-floatation devices.
When I asked ship designer and naval architect Jan-Erik Wahl why Titanicsank in this unfathomably sturdy way, he told me it has everything to do with the exact nature of the damage and the design of the hull.
As you’re tightening your tie or adjusting your finest gown, water is rushing in through a series of small slits sliced into the forward starboard hull.
The extent of the damage is relatively minor. The size of the holes, added up, only amounts to the surface area of a small closet door. Unfortunately, the locations of the holes could hardly have been worse.
Like many ships today, Titanic had a series of waterproof walls—called bulkheads or partitions—running across its width. These bulkheads are designed to compartmentalize any flooding so that a single gash doesn’t flood the entire ship, but though these waterproof sections are sometimes called compartments, that’s a bit of a misnomer because these sections don’t have ceilings. Instead, Titanic’s bulkheads extend approximately 50 feet above the water line and then stop. (The bulkheads have watertight doors that the captain of Titanic sealed immediately after impact, but nobody is trapped. There are escape ladders to climb above the bulkheads.)
Because a boat will flood until the water inside the hull levels with the water outside of it, Titanic could float as long as the weight of the inflowing water did not drop the bow more than 50 feet. Titanic’s architects designed the boat such that four of the forward sections could flood and the boat would still float high enough to keep the top of its bulkheads above the waterline.1
1A ship’s stability in flooded conditions was such an extraordinarily complex calculation prior to computer modeling that it was like forecasting the weather using pen and paper. Wahl told me that when he did it longhand for a ship he designed, the arithmetic alone took him some six months.
Unfortunately, the iceberg sliced holes into five of them. Titanic took on 16,000 tons of water, the bow dropped more than 50 feet, and seawater flooded over the top of the bulkheads.
Had the bulkheads been 20 feet taller, or if Titanic had rammed the iceberg head on and thus contained the damage to the forward sections, the boat would have likely “come to harbor,” according to testimony of its assistant designer Edward Wilding. The moment it punctured five compartments, as the investigating commissioner later said, “the epitaph of the ship had been written.”2
2 That might not be entirely correct. At least, not if a time traveler like you who knows exactly what happened were there. We now know the bulkheads nearly stayed above the waterline, which means if you can prevent approximately 20 percent of the forward compartments from flooding, you may be able to save the ship. Don’t bother trying to plug the holes. Even with the help of the entire crew, that would not have worked, according to Wilding. Instead, your best chance would be to fill up the flooding sections with enough bulky, lightweight material to displace the heavier volume of water. One rather risky suggestion, proposed in the National Geographic documentary Titanic: The Final Word With James Cameron: Gather all 3,500 life jackets on the ship and stuff them into boiler room 6 in under 40 minutes. You just might save the ship.
Titanic’s bulkheads may have been too short to save the ship, but they do explain why you have so much time to escape. Because the water level inside and outside the ship nearly equalized, the flooding inflow slowed to a trickle for almost 20 minutes before water crested the bulkheads and began rushing in anew. Even more critically, the bulkheads were largely responsible for keeping the ship upright. If water had been allowed to move throughout the entire hold, it would have piled onto the ship’s listing side like water in a tilted drinking glass. Naval architects refer to this as the “free surface effect,” and if a ship’s hold doesn’t restrict flooded water—or if the water had been trapped on one side—the 50,000-ton ship would have turned turtle within 15 minutes, according to Wilding. If that were the case, no lifeboats would have launched, and you would have been trapped in a watery grave deep below deck.
Of course, Titanic’s slow and steady drop revealed the many other inequities and paltry safety precautions that occurred.
Not only had there been no lifeboat drills, the crew provided steerage passengers almost no direction at all. Few had any notion of how to rise up to the otherwise-forbidden decks. So instead of heading upward, most of the third-class passengers headed toward the back poop deck.
Do not do this. Instead, you need to go straight up using the unannounced, unsigned evacuation routes. There are two.
To find the first, climb the tight stairwell to the main working alleyway on the port side—called Scotland Road—and use the escape stairs located behind the elevators (see map below). These doors are normally locked, but according to testimony by Titanic’s head baker, Charles Joughlin, someone opened them “very early” in the evening. Sometime between 12:15 and 12:30, he estimates. But even if it’s the latter, that still leaves you 10 minutes to make the first lifeboat.Courtesy of Cody Cassidy
Alternatively, if for some reason you find these doors still locked, go to the forward steerage deck and use the escape ladders to climb up the successive levels. A few third-class survivors who used these report hearing a few crew members asking them not to. Apparently, they ignored them. You should too.Courtesy of Cody Cassidy
Once you’re on the top level, you’ll find lifeboats on both the port and starboard sides readying to launch. Which side you use is important, and the best choice depends on your age and gender. Titanic’s crew preferentially loaded women and children into lifeboats, but we can see from passenger manifests that the crew on the port side followed this policy more strictly. At one point an officer loading the port-side boats named Harold Lowe even fires a warning shot from his pistol and declares, “If any man jumps onto the boat I will shoot him like a dog.” Clearly, if you’re a woman or below the age of 13, head straight for this officer Lowe. Otherwise, go to starboard.
If you can catch a ride on one of these first boats—fantastic! You’re saved. But sadly, even if you arrive early and even if you’re dressed in your finest, the chances you are selected may be no better than a coin flip. And by 1:15 am, even those odds become generous. By then, the decks crowd considerably. But don’t panic. There is a plan B. If at 1:15 you’re still wanting for a ride, steel your nerves and head back down into the bowels of the sinking ship.Courtesy of Cody Cassidy
We know from eyewitness testimony that just after 1 am, while loading lifeboat 6 to half capacity (most of them had seats for 65 people), second officer Charles Lightroller orders boatswain Alfred Nichols and six other men to go below deck and open the gangway doors. These doors allow passengers to directly access the lower decks from the dock, and they would have provided an avenue for steerage passengers to escape into the lifeboats without climbing to the top deck. It was a good plan, but unfortunately officer Lightroller is the last person to see Nichols and his men alive, and no passengers ever escape using the gangway doors.
Nevertheless, there is some reason to believe you could. Submersibles have since spotted the gangway door on Titanic’s forward port D deck doors wide open, allowing for the possibility that Nichols and his men managed to open the door before drowning. But because no passengers were informed or aware of this escape route, it went unused.
I would suggest that if you haven’t secured a seat by 1:15 am, you try it.Courtesy of Cody Cassidy
If you arrive at deck D when Nichols does—presumably by 1:30—you might find an open door and a steady stream of half-filled lifeboats being lowered right by you. Thomas Jones, the crew member in charge of lifeboat 8, later testified that he would have rescued passengers at the gangway doors had he seen any. “If they had been down there, we could have taken them,” he told the commission.
Of course, because no passengers escaped using these doors, this exit remains somewhat speculative. There’s a chance you’ll arrive and discover Nichols never made it or arrived too late. And if they’re not opened by 1:45—you should wait no longer. Head back up. D deck will soon dip below the waterline.
By this time, hitching a ride on a lifeboat becomes unlikely.3 Only a few remain, and the surge to get on them is so intense the crew members lock arms at one point to hold back the crowd. So you’re going to have to swim. But that isn’t the death sentence it might seem. Lifeboats plucked at least five swimmers from the water and more from two overturned lifeboats. With the proper preparation, you still have a chance.
3The ship carried four collapsable life rafts, too. C left at 1:40 with 44 out of 47 seats taken. D left at 2:05 with 25 out of 47 seats taken. The crew never launched boats A and B but they do float off Titanic as it sinks.
When the Titanic band plays its final song—perhaps either Songe d’Automne or Nearer, My God, to Thee (eye-witness testimony is mixed)—and the boat’s rear rises, that’s your cue to head to the stern and hold onto the railing. Titanic’s bow will soon dip deep into the water, gradually lifting the stern so high its propellers clear the waterline. Once the boat gains approximately 20 degrees of tilt, it cracks in half. The bow drops to the bottom of the ocean, and the stern rises again.
While this happens, you should be using your vantage to look for the nearest lifeboats. According to the testimony of survivor Jack Thayer, the boats are 400 to 500 yards away at this point. Pick the nearest one, shed the fancy clothes, tighten your life jacket and, if you have a warm hat, put it on.
The water you’re about to enter is a few notches below freezing. At this temperature, it will take around 45 minutes for your body to drop below 80 degrees and for you to go into cardiac arrest. But in reality, you’ll have far less time to swim the 500 yards. After only 15 minutes your arms and legs will numb to the point of incapacitation. If you fail to make it to a lifeboat in time, you’ll bob about helplessly in your life jacket while you await cardiac arrest.Sign up for our Longreads newsletter for the best features, ideas, and investigations from WIRED.
Nevertheless, 500 yards in under 15 minutes is manageable. A decent swimmer could make it in a pool. But of course, cold-water swimming is a little different than swimming in a pool. In super-cold temperatures, your body’s ability to produce and retain heat plays a far more important role than pure speed, which is why the world’s best pool swimmers look like underwear models while the best cold-water swimmers look more like polar bears. If you’re the polar-bear body type, you stand a far greater chance of survival. But even if you look like an underwear model, do not despair. You just need to be a fast underwear model. According to a study published in Extreme Physiology & Medicine, a cold-water swimmer can be big and fast, big and slow, or even skinny and fast. They just can’t be skinny and slow. That combination quickly leads to hypothermia and heart attacks. So if you’re in this latter category, look for two overturned lifeboats floating near the Titanic that the crew had failed to launch. A few dozen passengers survive on these by lying and standing atop them. Otherwise, prepare to swim 500 yards in 15 minutes.
As the stern sinks into the ocean, you would think the suction would draw you into the depths—but survivors report no such thing. Joughlin claimed his hair was never even mussed. Still, you may experience what is called the cold-shock response. You’ll gasp uncontrollably and perhaps even hyperventilate. But keep your head above water, control your breathing, and the shock should pass.
Then start swimming. Don’t overexert yourself—you need to maintain this pace for 10 to 15 minutes. But work hard. The more heat you produce, the longer you’ll stay alive. Avoid other swimmers (they may try to climb on top of you), maintain your orientation, and call out for help when you near the boat. Your hands and feet will numb within five minutes, so you’ll need assistance getting in.
The boat should have plenty of space. Almost all the lifeboats are severely underfilled. But be careful as you climb out of the water. You may experience a dangerous decline in arterial blood pressure, particularly if you stand or exert yourself once aboard. At least one Titanic swimmer died after being rescued. Warm yourself as best you can, and wait for the rescue ship Carpathia that arrives at 4 am. Aboard the Carpathia, you will finish your voyage to New York City uneventfully.
A detailed road map for building a US energy innovation ecosystem.
“Innovation” is a fraught concept in climate politics. For years, it was used as a kind of fig leaf to cover for delaying tactics, as though climate progress must wait on some kind of technological breakthrough or miracle. That left climate advocates with an enduring suspicion toward the notion, and hostility toward those championing it.
Lately, though, that has changed. Arguably, some Republicans in Congress are still using innovation as a way to create the illusion of climate concern (without any conflict with fossil fuel companies). But among people serious about the climate crisis, it is now widely acknowledged that hitting the world’s ambitious emissions targets will require decreasing resource consumption, aggressively deploying existing technologies, and an equally aggressive push to improve those technologies and develop nascent ones.
There is legitimate disagreement about the ratio — about how far and how fast existing, mature technologies can go — but there is virtually no analyst who thinks the current energy innovation system in the US is adequate to decarbonize the country by midcentury. It needs reform.
The first — a report so long they’re calling it a book — is from a group of scholars at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP), led by energy scholar Varun Sivaram; it is the first in what will be three volumes on what CGEP is calling a “National Energy Innovation Mission.” The second is from the progressive think tank Data for Progress, on “A Progressive Climate Innovation Agenda,” accompanied by a policy briefand some polling.
Both reports accept the International Energy Agency (IEA) conclusion that “roughly half of the reductions that the world needs to swiftly achieve net-zero emissions in the coming decades must come from technologies that have not yet reached the market today.” There are reasons to think this might be an overly gloomy assessment, but whether it’s 20 percent or 50 percent, aggressive innovation will be required to pull it off.
Both reports set out to put some meat on the bones of a clean energy innovation agenda. And they both end up in roughly the same place, with roughly the same set of policy recommendations. With a bigger team and more resources, the CGEP report is inevitably bulkier and more comprehensive, so I’ll mostly follow along with it, but the Data for Progress report adds a few key elements that we’ll touch on below.
There are five basic reforms involved in developing an innovation system that can decarbonize the US by midcentury: It needs to be bigger, better targeted, broader, more stable, and more equitable. But the politics of clean energy innovation matter too, and so we’ll also look at the prospects for a potential President Joe Biden administration.
US public spending on energy innovation is paltry
Today, the federal government spends less than $9 billion annually on energy innovation, “less than a quarter of what it invests in health innovation and less than a tenth of what it invests in defense innovation,” says CGEP.
Roughly 80 percent of the money goes to the Department of Energy; the rest goes to a grab bag of agencies including the Department of Agriculture and NASA.
US energy research and development (R&D) spending spiked after the 1970s oil crisis, but when oil prices fell and President Reagan came along, it plunged, and as a percentage of US GDP, it has never recovered.
And just as public R&D spending “crowds in” private investment in a virtuous cycle, the loss of funding leads to a vicious cycle. “Starting in 1984,” CGEP writes, “private funding for energy RD&D [research, design, and development] and US energy patents declined for the next two decades.”
Still today, what private investment there is in clean energy is overwhelmingly focused on mature technologies that are market competitive. In 2019, just 10 percent of private investment in clean energy went to innovative companies; the bulk was financing for projects like wind and solar farms, from established market players.
And venture capital isn’t stepping up either. “In 2019, VCs invested just $1 billion into US energy companies,” CGEP writes, “compared with about $20 billion for health care deals and $70 billion for information technology firms.”
In 2015, the US made a promise to the world, as part of the international Mission Innovation compact, to raise energy R&D spending to $12.8 billion annually by 2021. It remains billions of dollars short.
As IEA’s report makes clear, even the Mission Innovation target is grossly inadequate to the task. The US is only about 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. One of its primary roles in the climate fight must be putting its incredible intellectual and engineering might behind innovation, to drive down the costs of technologies other countries need to get on a sustainable path.
“The single most important thing that the United States can do to advance progress on climate change,” Sivaram says, “is launch a national energy innovation mission.”
The US energy innovation budget should triple or quadruple
One of the primary lessons CGEP draws from historical examples of government R&D is that “scale matters.” It cites defense and health spending, which have created expansive innovation ecosystems that encompass the entire development process, from lab to market, and are at least somewhat self-sustaining and insulated from ongoing political interference.
“Federal support for energy innovation has not attained this scale,” CGEP writes, “and as a result, enjoys neither a thriving and self-sustaining innovation ecosystem nor sufficient political independence to tolerate failures in the portfolio.” (Imagine how the health system would look if every failed drug were treated like Solyndra.)
The first order of business in creating an adequate innovation ecosystem is simply spending more money on it.
Data for Progress recommends “slightly more than a three-fold increase in R&D spending and a four-fold increase in RD&D spending by 2030.”
CGEP emphasizes a more specific near-term target: $25 billion by 2025 (roughly tripling the current budget, which would still put energy innovation at about half what the US spends on health innovation).
That target is high enough to bulk up the energy R&D portfolio, CGEP argues. It matches a bottom-up analysis of funding needs; research shows that “funding in roughly this range will translate into net economic benefits and rapid technological progress”; and it would bring US public investment in energy R&D to roughly the same percentage of GDP as China’s. At the same time, history shows that spending of that level can be profitably and economically deployed by agencies to accelerate innovation. Contrary to conservative myth, the federal government is pretty good at this.
The previously mentioned health and defense innovations ecosystems have produced dozens of products and services that have spilled over into other sectors. Defense R&D yielded semiconductors, computers, and GPS systems. Biomedical R&D produced the biotech industry. “Science supported by NIH,” CGEP writes, “underpinned every single one of the 210 new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration from 2010 to 2016.”
Federal R&D spending works. And it draws in private capital. “It’s been shown that government R&D in clean energy technologies redirects private R&D away from fossil fuel technologies and into clean energy,” Sivaram says.
But the full potential of federal innovation spending is only unlocked at scale. That means lots more money, quickly.
Federal innovation money should be targeted at the neediest sectors
Data for Progress is blunt: “Existing innovation programs are not designed to address climate change,” but rather to boost US fossil fuel supply.
For one thing, Department of Energy (DOE) R&D spending is concentrated on the power sector, while the bulk of US emissions come from fossil fuel combustion in transportation, buildings, and industry.
What’s more, the bulk of DOE R&D spending goes to nuclear power and fossil fuels, despite the fact that the IPCC (and everyone else) expects renewable energy to be the backbone of a decarbonized energy system.
Both Data for Progress and CGEP recommend that funding priorities shift away from individual fuels, especially fossil fuels, toward energy applications with large potential emission reductions.
CGEP suggests a focus on 10 particular “technology pillars.” (In the report, each pillar is accompanied by a helpful summary of recent initiatives around it and some recommendations for new initiatives to boost it.)
It will not be enough, however, to target money at early-stage research alone.
Federal innovation money should be spread out more broadly
Too often, those who tout “innovation” seek to confine R&D money to early-stage research, as though the market will take it from there. Extensive experience and analysis shows that is false.
In fact, research shows that R&D is vital to driving technologies down the cost curve, not only in the lab stage, but when crossing the “valley of death” between lab and market and when scaling up to full market maturity. All those graphs you see of solar, wind, and battery costs falling? It’s not just scale, or “learning by doing,” that’s driving those cost reductions. The graphs rarely show it, but behind almost every new technology that reaches broad market scale there is consistent innovation-boosting policy help, at every stage.
Different policies help more during different stages, as the stylized chart below shows.
Today, public funding for innovation is overwhelmingly focused on early-stage research.
The underfunding of demonstration projects is particularly acute, since private capital is often leery of investing in high-risk projects where knowledge spillovers make it difficult to capture all the benefits. “As a result,” CGEP writes, “a yawning valley of death can swallow firms that lack the capital to demonstrate promising clean energy technologies that they have developed.”
Right now only 5 percent of federal energy R&D spending goes to demonstration projects, and most of that is for advanced nuclear. CGEP recommends that the government “fund demonstration projects across the ten technology pillars at a level of at least $5 billion per year by 2025.”
To spend this money, the government should create a central financing authority. Data for Progress recommends a national Green Bank; CGEP mentions a possible Clean Energy Deployment Administration. Either way, a central, accountable authority should dispense and track grants and loans.
And the government should join “technology push” policies focused on early research with “market pull” policies that draw demonstrated technologies into market scale. Options include “carbon pricing, clean electricity standards, fuel economy standards, targeted tax incentives, and more,” CGEP says. This will help government spread investment more broadly across the technology development curve.
The funding should also be spread more broadly across agencies and programs to exploit synergies among agencies and better protect funding from political interference. “Many other federal agencies have missions that align with advancing energy innovation,” CGEP notes. It cites the Department of Defense, NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (within the Commerce Department), and the Department of Agriculture, among others.
And finally, funding should be spread across institutions, from national laboratories to universities, private sector companies, and state and local governments. Government partnerships with industry are a major feature of the German innovation system, which features 66 German Fraunhofer Institutes that focus practical research on various industrial challenges. And it is well understood that innovation proceeds faster in research “clusters,” where labs, universities, and firms work in close proximity. The federal government can work with local and regional authorities to help build those clusters.
And again, it comes back to scale. “To sustain academic, industrial, and federal laboratory complexes,” Sivaram says, “a threshold level of investment is needed across all parts of the chain, to support this interplay between R&D and manufacturing.”
Federal innovation funding should be steady and flexible
The scale of US defense and health R&D spending produces predictability — the institutions it has created are at least somewhat self-sustaining. Energy R&D, on the other hand, has been subject to continual boom and bust cycles, which inevitably disrupt research.
To scale up innovation as fast as needed, the government should “signal its long-term commitment to increasing annual energy RD&D funding over the next decade, even after reaching the target of $25 billion by 2025.” Researchers and industries need to be able to rely on it.
And agencies should rigorously collect and analyze information, to foster transparency and increase trust among policymakers and the public so that funding survives swings in politics.
Finally, innovation funding should be flexible and adaptive, based on ongoing research, forecasting, and expert opinion. If some technologies fall in cost faster (or slower) than expected, agencies should be able to course-correct and redirect funding.
“If, for example, the commercial cost of producing clean hydrogen falls rapidly over the next decade,” CGEP writes, “it could make sense to redouble investments in RD&D to use hydrogen as a feedstock to decarbonize industrial processes.” Conversely, if hydrogen proves resistant to cost declines, it might make sense to channel more money to biofuels and battery chemistries.
Steadiness and predictability are the key, though: “At a high level,” CGEP says, “policymakers must stick to their roadmap for ramping up the federal budget for energy innovation.”
Federal innovation funding should be spent equitably
The CGEP report contains several references to “inclusive economic growth” and lots of ideas for how federal partnerships with states and localities could foster it, but the Data for Progress report has a full and separate section on equity, which gathers key recommendations in one place, so let’s take a look at them.
The first and arguably most important recommendation is that federal innovation programs be explicitly redirected toward addressing the climate crisis, which crucially involves environmental justice. Energy innovation programs should “prioritize projects that improve social and economic equity, including through business models that allow for communities to lead, own, and benefit from clean energy projects,” Data for Progress writes. And it should seek to avoid exacerbating other inequitable environmental hazards in its quest to reduce emissions.
Second, Data for Progress argues that the federal government should direct at least 40 percent of climate-related investments (including those on innovation) to “disproportionately burdened communities” that have historically suffered from “systemic racism and structural inequity.”
Third, it argues that the government should prioritize projects in communities dependent on the fossil fuel economy, which could be hard hit by a wholesale transition to clean energy. When DOE is making research grants or funding demonstration projects, it should “consider the extent to which these programs can enable communities historically dependent on fossil fuels to benefit and diversify their economies.”
Fourth, the government should bulk up workforce redevelopment efforts aimed at clean energy jobs. And fifth, it should expand international cooperation on climate initiatives that can help address global inequities.
This focus on equity throughout the innovation ecosystem, says Jake Higdon, a climate analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund and one of the authors of the Data for Progress report, is crucial to “garnering more engagement and ownership over innovation from the progressive caucus.”
The politics of clean energy innovation in 2020
Another difference between the two reports is that Data for Progress’s is explicitly framed as advice to Democrats for when and if they get power.
As it shows in its accompanying polling, this is good politics for Dems. A narrow (51 percent) majority of the public supports investing $1 trillion in green energy innovation.
(Note how big the “don’t know” category is, especially among independents. There is lots of room for persuasion here.)
And larger majorities would prefer to invest in clean energy tech over more military weaponry.
Bipartisan public support, Higdon says, “is all the more reason for progressives, who are concerned about the climate crisis and see it as an intersectional issue, to be engaging very deeply on setting the terms of the innovation agenda.”
CGEP, by contrast, is insistent that for public innovation spending to reach the scale, breadth, and resilience it needs, there must be a bipartisan consensus supporting it. “Any policy that is to last for decades in the United States must withstand shifts in partisan control of the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives,” it writes, “not to mention periods of divided government.” It cites the Cold War consensus and the more recent consensus around biomedical research.
No such consensus has formed around energy — Reagan theatrically rejected Carter’s calls for more thoughtful energy policy — but CGEP claims the outlines of one are beginning to take shape.
“This is a pocket of resistance among congressional Republicans against the Trump administration,” Sivaram says. In each of the last four years, the Trump budget proposed significant cuts in clean energy programs, including Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy; each time, cuts were rejected. “Instead,” CGEP writes, “federal funding for clean energy RD&D has risen by about one-third during this period.”
The report also cites the American Energy Innovation Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a Republican, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat. As chair and ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, they wrangled the interests of some 70 senators into a single bill that boosts R&D funding for a range of technologies and funds 17 demonstration projects. (Sivaram says he was “dismayed” when the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists denounced the bill for directing too much funding to fossil fuel technologies.)
There’s a bipartisan group of legislators behind the “Endless Frontier Act,” which would set up a directorate in the National Science Foundation to fund 10 technology research areas (including advanced energy) to the tune of $20 billion a year, and another bipartisan group behind the House Nuclear Energy R&D Act, which would refocus DOE’s nuclear energy program on next-gen reactors.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) called for a “New Manhattan Project” for clean energy research. Even Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has hopped on board the innovation train. The Bipartisan Policy Center has an American Energy Innovation Council stocked with CEOs who support energy innovation.
It’s not so much the climate angle that draws conservative support, Sivaram says, as the economic development angle and the competition-with-China angle. And that might be enough. “The whole reason I devoted the last six months to doing this is I think it can actually happen,” he says, “and it’s not going to require a signal change in how the government works, compared with all the other climate plans.”
He acknowledges that implementing the recommendations in CGEP’s report will probably require a new presidential administration, but he insists that it “does not require a substantial change in the makeup of Congress.”
I do not share Sivaram’s optimism. CGEP’s report concludes with three recommendations for immediate action: The president should launch a National Energy Innovation Mission, Congress should increase energy RD&D funding by 30 percent in 2021, and the US should reassert its international leadership on energy innovation.
If I were a gambling man, I would bet that US conservatives will condemn any mission launched by a President Joe Biden as a wasteful government boondoggle. I would bet that, to the extent they are capable, they will deny him any major legislative victories in Congress, including a big clean energy bill. And I would bet that any attempts to reestablish US commitment to clean energy on the international stage will be dogged by Republican assurances that, should they retake power, fossil fuels will once again be in the driver’s seat.
The political history of the past few decades reveals that the far right’s hold on the GOP and its near-religious devotion to opposing anything Democrats do or say steamroll any glimmers of bipartisan consensus. Partisanship is stronger than any other force in US life.
Republicans may support channeling federal energy innovation money to fossil fuel companies and fossil fuel communities, but recent history suggests that they simply will not go beyond that to any perceived progressive priority. Bipartisanship, with today’s GOP, means the portion of Republican priorities that Democrats are willing to support.
But I am a pessimist! Perhaps Sivaram is right. There’s no harm in trying.