Daniel Aldana Cohen is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at UC Berkeley. He holds a PhD in Sociology from New York University and a BA in History and Development Studies from McGill University. Cohen directs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative and co-directs the climate + community project. Cohen works on the politics of climate change, investigating the intersections of climate change, housing, political economy, social movements, and inequalities of race and class in the United States and Brazil.
Cohen is also mobilizing collaborative research for Green New Deal policy development in partnership with social movements and progressive elected officials in the United States and Brazil. He is the co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green Deal (Verso 2019). He is currently completing a book project called Street Fight: Climate Change and Inequality in the 21st Century City, under contract with Princeton University Press. Cohen has been cited for his research and public engagement in The Washington Post, Bloomberg, Vox, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Huffington Post, Energy & Environment News, Gizmodo, and elsewhere.
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[00:00:14] Ramanan Raghavendran: Hi everyone. I am here today with Daniel Aldana Cohen. Daniel is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he directs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative and co-directs the Climate+ Community Project. He works on the politics of climate change, investigating the intersections of climate change, housing, political economy, social movements and inequalities of race and class in the United States, Brazil and elsewhere.
Daniel is actually an old friend, as we got to know each other when he was at Penn, my alma mater, and where I play a number of volunteer roles. He's been more helpful than he knows to me and Amasia in our own journey, including connecting us with many of the amazing researchers we have interviewed over the last two years. It's really been high time since we sucked him into our little research series. Daniel, thank you very much for being here with us today.
[00:01:11] I want to start with an intro question that I ask all of our guests which is, could you give us a little snapshot, if you don't mind, of your life and your career, and what inspired you in that path to pursue what you do today?
[00:01:25] Daniel Aldana Cohen: Thank you Ramanan, I thank you so much for having me. It's an honor to be in conversation with you and having it recorded, and you've been extremely helpful as well for my work intellectually and in many other ways. I am a sociologist of climate change. Now, how did I get here? I was raised in Toronto by a Guatemalan immigrant and an estranged Jewish person, my mother and my father. I was raised in Toronto, really in a peak of progressive politics at that time, and it was an interesting moment. I think I was raised on the one hand to feel that multiculturalism was great, that people should live in communities and feel free to kind of identify with the groups that they were a part of. Also because of the strange combination of my parents, I didn't feel that I had a group that I belonged to, I think I always kind of identified as an outsider.
I spent some time when I was younger in France for various strange reasons, but in the south of France and rural France, which gave me a entirely different lens on how people thought about difference—I think in a lot of ways, a more pessimistic one. It was a much more racist place when I was living there. I always grew up feeling that sense of an outsider and feeling that I had to do something to help make things better in general. Having a household where we grew up talking about the Holocaust and about the genocide of indigenous peoples in Guatemala, two horrible events, one thing about that is, the lesson you take from that history, is that when someone who's well-informed comes along and says something really terrible is around the corner, you take that seriously.
I think that childhood prepared me emotionally to learn the climate science and to realize, you know what? This thing is real. This is not something that I can just brush aside. After my undergraduate degree, I spent some time in Latin America studying social movements and environmental politics as a journalist. I eventually decided to start a PhD in sociology. Sociology is nice because it's very diverse methodologically. You can tackle different kinds of problems in different ways.
[00:03:20] Ramanan Raghavendran: Absolutely.
[00:03:22] Daniel Aldana Cohen: Yeah, and I ended up studying housing politics and the intersection with climate change in Sao Paulo and in New York. I would say the big thing I took away from that experience was, there are housing movements fighting to live well in cities, near public transit, near social services, near parks, not often talking much about climate change. And there are environmental movements, often white, often upper-middle class in Sao Paulo, as well as New York, who are trying to pursue pretty similar things, but so rarely are they talking together, and so rarely are they developing a common agenda and that stronger, broader coalition that can really make things happen. I see in a lot of ways, my work working on housing and climate politics, working in Green New Deal policy development, working in a number of different areas as ultimately, what are those common agenda points that we can build a broader coalition around? How can we understand the barriers to the formation of that broader coalition? Then once we've understood those barriers, what kinds of ideas, narratives, research will take to help glue that broader coalition together?
[00:04:18] Ramanan Raghavendran: Got it, that is super helpful and really sets the stage for the next question and indeed, all of our questions. Let's take on inequality. You've written a number of articles for both academic and popular audiences. I want to call out here the fact that you're a rare bird in academia, given the years in journalism, and so your ability to communicate with academia and popular audiences is differentiated. But anyway, you've written a number of articles about the intersection of climate change with pre-existing unequal structures, and you run Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative at Berkeley, which focuses on such intersections, building on your work at Penn.
[00:04:57] What examples have you been working on at these intersections, or thinking about? Anything you'd like to highlight for this audience?
[00:05:06] Daniel Aldana Cohen: Thanks. Yeah, I mentioned the work on housing and climate and that's been a huge part of my work historically. But maybe I'll mention a few other areas that I'm looking at. One is looking at just at a kind of broad synthetic sense, how the inequalities of race and class converge with inequalities in the built environment and exposure to climate harms. For that, I've got a big project on data fusion that you encouraged me and supported me on developing. That's now being funded by the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and that's sort of a big agency in New York. What we're doing is developing really sophisticated demographic measures, and in some cases, combining that with physical climate data to really think about the inequality. One example would be a measure we've developed of what we call indoor heat islands, a combined measure of outdoor heat and electricity burden. How much of a person's income goes into paying for their electric bills, which is essentially their AC in those parts of the country? Put those together, that gives you a measure indoor heat island, and that will allow you to kind of target a policy much more effectively.
One piece is this broad data fusion work, and one of the many outcomes of that is this indoor heat island idea, we've got some work under review right now and working on ongoing data work. I think we're also looking at, how do social inequalities create barriers to decarbonization? And how some of those inequalities... It might be surprising. For instance, we're looking at the intense resistance in rural spaces to development and the construction of clean energy and looking in particular at New York. This is like a big environmental justice problem, you can't close down gas plants in communities of color in the cities if you can't build new solar and wind and other energy infrastructure in rural places, and that involves some political analysis. How do you end up with this kind of like congealed urban-rural split, that is causing so much rage out in those kinds of places?
I think the last thing I'd highlight is, we're working on, with a new partner here in Meg Mills-Novoa, we were hired at the same time, a project we're calling Decarbonizing Adaptation. We're looking at the two biggest buckets in climate work, stopping carbon pollution and adapting to the changes we can't prevent. We're finding that they're so often siloed in the ways that they're financed, the ways that they're talked about, how can we link those together? There's a big kind of agenda-setting piece, and then we're looking at, what are some really exciting examples that take that on with a focus on equity as well. We're looking at indigenous-led reforestation projects. We're looking at green affordable housing projects, Global North and Global South. We're looking at something as technical as the decarbonization of concrete, it's 8% of global carbon emissions, and we're going to be building-
[00:07:33] Ramanan Raghavendran: We don't view stuff like that as technical at all, we think it's essential.
[00:07:38] Daniel Aldana Cohen: That's right, exactly. That's the kind of thing that we're looking at and saying—to me, over and over, I'm finding the built environment play such a huge role in how we live, it structures, literally, the inequalities we live in. How can we tackle that?
[00:07:50] Ramanan Raghavendran: We're going to come back to that near the end, because we're going to dig a little deeper into cities, which is a big part, I'd argue the primary focus of much of your work.
[00:07:58] Can we talk briefly about demand- and supply-side?
There's this dichotomy constructed, and frankly, VC firms like us, exacerbate that dichotomy in how we silo our own investing. But there's this dichotomy between demand-side solutions like carbon taxes and energy regulation of a certain kind, and supply-side solutions like fracking bans and production-side solutions. How do these two interact, and what tools do you think will be most effective at spurring action on either or both sides? I realize this was a long complicated question, but I know you'll understand it.
[00:08:35] Daniel Aldana Cohen: Thanks, it's a great question. I want to even introduce another dichotomy that I think might be dear to your heart in terms of behavior, but we have to stop burning fossil fuels. What we're seeing now essentially is fossil plus clean. It's all of the above strategy, so we're probably still seeing in the last 10 years more investment in fossil energy than renewable energy, although the balance is certainly tilting and depending on how you count, it might look a little different. But we really do have to stop combusting fossil fuels. The UN puts out this annual report on the production gap. The gap in what fossil fuel investments are being planned, versus where we need to be, so that's a huge, huge, huge issue. I think sometimes big oil companies will kind of deflect from that, by saying, "Oh, well. What about demand?"
That's the other part, is we need to learn to live a less energy-intense and a less resource-intense lifestyle, and to enjoy that, and for that to be good, and an obvious benefit for most people, well really for all people. I think there, we maybe get to a distinction between different ways of taking on behavior. I mean, I don't think behavioral science doesn't necessarily help us with every question, like, how you decarbonize steel, that gets quite technical, but a lot of this is going to come down to living in different ways. I think some of that is infrastructural. We want to believe, we want to produce and reform housing, so that it doesn't take a massive intellectual load to use less energy. There are tools that can make it very simple so that the dishwasher runs when the sun is shining.
We can talk a little bit more on details like that. Public transit, of course, people shouldn't have to be making a massive effort to take public transit, it should be easy. But there are other areas where maybe I would disagree with some of my friends on the left, where I think the cultural dimension and kind of, in some ways, even the spiritual dimension, is really essential. If you think about issues like food, or how we undertake leisure, I don't think there's a world where either companies or the government can just come in and say, "You have a new diet tomorrow." People are not going to accept that. Or say, "Oh, the way you spend your free time, actually we don't do that anymore. The road trip's out, it's canceled." I don't think that's going to work.
I think there, we are going to need different partners in society to work bottom-up, to make the ultimate switch that is necessary to be desirable. I mean, it's going to take a lot of investment from the public sector and from the private sector, and a lot of cultural work from all kinds of different groups to change our ideas of what it means to live well, and I think that is a version of the demand side piece that has often been castigated as excessively consumer-oriented, but that work has to be done. There's no structural shift to a predominantly plant-based diet that will ever succeed if there isn't already cultural work, subcultures, firms that are making that switch start to feel more and more attractive long before anybody can mandate it, which would cause just a massive backlash. Anyone paying attention to American politics knows what a right-wing backlash looks like, and the last thing we need is more of those.
[00:11:28] Ramanan Raghavendran: Yeah. I mean, obviously the last section of your response is music to our ears. Because in some ways, at Amasia, we're largely focused on catalyzing the cultural change for precisely the same reason, which is, certainly in Western or most developed societies, it is very hard to mandate behavior change, and so you've got to catalyze it in different ways. I'm going to switch gears and dig in, as promised, to cities. Much of your research focuses on cities, on consumption and energy use in cities, and you're working on a book as I understand it, about climate change and inequality in 21st century cities, and we would like to have you back when the book is done so we can publicize it.
[00:12:08] Why are cities such a fruitful object of study for the climate crisis, and can you touch on some of the unique challenges arising there?
[00:12:18] Daniel Aldana Cohen: Thanks, that's a really great question and it's a really interesting one. Cities are where climate change hits the ground. I think the same is true of course of suburbs and of towns, of indigenous reservations in the United States, but where we live together is where this really hits. I mean, just think about housing. The global change in mean temperature is a lot smaller than the change inside of a house, especially if the HVAC isn't working within one day, right?
[00:12:38] Ramanan Raghavendran: Right.
[00:12:39] Daniel Aldana Cohen: We're talking about two or three degrees globally, but within a day, that's where it happens. Indeed, actually that arguably is where most people experience the climate emergency. Half of Black Americans can't even afford their utility bills, so this is where these crises are converging. Cities are really important to major sources of emissions, so energy use, transit, and then cities are also where we work and cities are a huge place where we have leisure.
Cities are also a site of major social conflict. I think right now, I would say that's really driven by housing, hot land markets. What that actually means in urban politics is that, if any government comes in and says, "I want to do a green investment to improve this low-income neighborhood that needs it," a lot of people in those neighborhoods are going to say, "You cannot do anything that will increase land values, and could cause me to get displaced by rising rents." This is like a big knot we're going to have to figure out how to untangle. How can you ensure economic and social stability in neighborhoods, and probably tame the land market in various significant ways so that everybody can feel confident that the green investments that cut carbon pollution, improve resiliency to climate change, that those investments will not cause displacement, will not cause churn, will not benefit only newcomers, but that they will benefit the folks who've been living and struggling in those neighborhoods for a very long time. I think that is when we... In climate politics, we have to acknowledge in a lot of the most progressive, blue spaces as we say in the United States, but it's true all over the world. In a lot of progressive cities, we still have a problem figuring out how to do green investment in a way that improves lives for folks and does not cause displacement. I think that's a tough one, and the book I'm working on is about that. I want to say one more thing about cities though, that I think sometimes there's an idea that the urban density, "the 15-minute city" as we now say, is just the obvious solution to living more resource-efficient lives.
At some degree, that's obviously true, it is. But not everybody wants to live in an apartment 365 days a year and this is something I thought about a lot. If you look throughout history, what aristocrats, the people with the most money and freedom do, is they spend time in their country estate and they spend time in the city, going to the theater, having society, art, culture, et cetera. I think one of the big questions that we'll be facing in the years ahead is, how can we ensure that people who live in cities, which will be quite dense, have plentiful no-carbon access to the wild beyond. Does that look like train lines out into the forest, forest bathing as they say in Japan, and in Japan, it's incredibly easy to hop on a train and end up in a forest.
It takes virtually... Nobody has to get in a car, so you don't really need to do the road trip. In Japan, the rail system is so good. What technologies, what services will it take so that you don't have to choose between the suburban ideal that so many Americans want, or people elsewhere in the world are picking up on—the yard, the greenery, et cetera. You don't have to choose between that, and the low carbon-dense urban living. But the low carbon-dense urban living has all the splendors within the city, and no carbon access to splendors outside the city. I think if we can offer that form of urban good life, then we are going to come a long way towards winning many, many, many more fans to the kinds of energy efficiencies that relatively dense cities offer, which again is probably basically essential for living well on this planet, in the kind of numbers that we live in today.
[00:15:48] Ramanan Raghavendran: Well, we're going to come back. We're going to end here with a question about the good life and it's something all of us at Amasia have spent a lot of time thinking about, and all of us at Amasia in different ways have changed our behavior and changed our aspirations a little bit, and one day we'll talk about that. I want to talk about tech, because we're in tech over here at Amasia. Along with your co-authors in A Planet to Win, you have also written about how new social and data management technologies can be a force for good. But you also caution, as many others have, but specifically you also caution that such technology should be managed in a more public, democratic fashion.
[00:16:31] The question is, what would look like? What questions does one ask to assess the social good?
I know the answer is not linear, but whatever your answer is, we want to hear it.
[00:16:44] Daniel Aldana Cohen: This is a project I'm working on. I just have to say one thing I neglected to say in the previous question. I think something about cities doesn't get enough attention is the question of care and the question of gender. I think one of the most scathing critiques of the suburb is that it confines anybody who does care work, most often women, to incredibly anti-social spaces.
[00:17:02] Ramanan Raghavendran: There's no doubt.
[00:17:03] Daniel Aldana Cohen: It makes life for children miserable, and some of the most... there are really interesting ideas out there. Dolores Hayden is my favorite architectural critic in this sense. But saying, maybe in a suburb, but it's about as deconstructing the backyards and creating new squares, urban plazas within parks. I mean, who knows? We could talk about it a lot. There's a really interesting feminist planning kind of movement in Vienna, but I do want to highlight that cities are where we raise and care for each other, and getting that right is huge and I think the gender dimension of the costs of certain kinds of urban development, that needs a lot more attention, and the project of feminism is flourishing these days, and let's mix that with the project of urbanism.
[00:17:36] Ramanan Raghavendran: Agreed. Got it.
[00:17:37] Daniel Aldana Cohen: How do we democratize innovation, and how do we democratize high-tech life? It's a huge question. It's a big question because I think, progressive politics, their greatest era of strength, certainly in the US and I think in Europe too, has not coincided with the era of innovation. We'd call that more like the era of neoliberalism, so we don't have such a rich history of tackling these questions, but you're right to ask them. I think there's a lot of different areas where we need to think. What does it look like, of course, to increase access to that entire domain of technological development? Increased access of communities of color, of women, of immigrants, and so on into fields like STEM.
I think there are questions of ownership, recognizing that public banks could play a bigger role, green banks. We have had a lot of public investment into tech, with bodies like DARPA, now ARPA-E. Small business innovation research has played a big role.
[00:18:26] Ramanan Raghavendran: No question.
[00:18:27] Daniel Aldana Cohen: There's a question of IP and how much IP can we open up? There's insane need for transfer of intellectual property from north to south. There's a long-time demand of the climate justice movement, and then there's questions about open-source algorithms, and how can we have accountability? What I think of, is like let's take this as a sociologist, take this into a concrete social example. If I live in a home and it's hot as hell out there and the utility comes in and turns down my air conditioning, what are the conditions under which I trust that, versus freak out? You can go to a website called stopsmartmeters.org, and it will remind you a lot of the kinds of spaces that oppose vaccines. But it's a mix. It's a political grab bag of people who are like, "What is this insane new invasive technology doing in my house? Why are people trying to control—my energy?" Yeah. It's like, this is a big barrier to decarbonization.
I want to say, we've seen examples that are pretty rough. In New York City a few years ago, during a heat wave, the utility ConEd, shut down power to a mostly black neighborhood, Canarsie, to protect the power in more central neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The irony is all the more biting, because essentially the neighborhoods that got to keep the power, have become much whiter and richer over the previous 10, 15 years of gentrification, and a lot of the folks displaced out of those neighborhoods that ended up in Canarsie and they paid the price for this really terrible, clearly not optimized effort to respond to this climate disaster.
I think we have to ask institutionally, what are the mechanisms of accountability where people will feel, as increasingly is the case, algorithms making these decisions, how to adjust the load, how to balance the grid and we could go all the way through the whole domain of sustainability, that those decisions are trusted. We live in an era where algorithms are, I think rightly, being held to account for their role in perpetuating racial injustices, and things like the criminal justice system. I think you raise a really, really great question, and just getting more people who look different into STEM is important, but not enough. There's also an element of this, which is institution building, and I would love to... I mean, I would learn so much from spending more time in the Bay, I've just got here. What people in Silicon Valley think about opening up more IP, more open source development, to what extent is the Wikipedia model something that can really work in a kind of blended public-private economic space?
[00:20:35] Ramanan Raghavendran: Well, I think part of the answer, you know, I live here, and obviously we live in that world. Not just here but elsewhere. I think part of the answer is, there's a lot more openness than one would suspect. And I think it's dialogues like these and visibility for the work of folks like you, that is going to be an important part of making people more aware of the questions at hand and also to begin thinking about solutions and answers. It doesn't mean we'll all agree on something on day one, but the dialogue needs to be happening and it's one reason I'm very glad you're here. I mean, I'm unhappy you're here for all my Penn alma mater reasons, but I'm glad you're in the Bay Area, because to the extent that you're going to engage at a local level, I think there is nothing but good stuff that's going to come out of it.
[00:21:23] Daniel Aldana Cohen: Yeah, this is future making, and I think... What I've realized is that people... It's funny. The Department of Energy where they're working on a lot of this stuff, the federal government is where all the Trekkies go. I suspect that there are a lot of Trekkies in Silicon Valley. I think it's important to say that like Meta as we call it now, is not the only vision of technological change or technological improvement. I really look forward to developing some sophisticated political conversations on these topics, and I've definitely noticed coming West, from East, but out East, there is a much less complicated set of conversations and we need to have those complicated conversations. I agree, we don't have to presume agreement at the outset either. We can bring things up and see where we end up.
[00:22:04] Ramanan Raghavendran: Yeah, I think dialogue is the key, and awareness is the key. Now I want to wrap us up with our last question, and it's kind of my favorite question and I can only ask it of a small set of people in our interview series, one of whom was and is your collaborator, Kevin Ummel, who lives a certain kind of life that frankly I think all of us should aspire to. We're very interested in a good life, we all want to live "The Good Life." What is actually necessary to live the good life, is really the question. You've written in your work about how a system built to fight climate change, to address the climate crisis, could also be one that improves life for many people.
[00:22:46] What would a greener "Good Life" look like?
You can use yourself as an example, you can use other people, you can use someone who just parachuted in from Mars, it's up to you.
[00:23:00] Daniel Aldana Cohen: It's a great question. It's always hard for a sociologist to talk about individuals. Look, I think there's some obvious points that I don't think are that controversial. A good life has to entail romance, it has to entail free time, good health, good food, the ability to live with a feeling of security about the future, and I think for most people, it probably means a sense of spiritual connection, although what that means is going to vary a lot. I think it means care and service, and I think it means multiculturalism and travel, which is something we need to figure out how to make that a right for everybody. To me, what I think sort of fundamentally, where the climate and the social project intersect is that, we need a form of prosperity that is not resource-intensive.
That of course is equitable, that of course is democratic, but that is not resource-intensive, and that of course is where time comes in, where care comes in, all this really fascinating research about blue zones, the forms of community people want to live in. I don't think that people ultimately need more trips to IKEA, or more $5 T-shirts, or anything like that. It's like, how do we live well without using that much stuff? It is not obvious how to get there, but again this is what people have fought for. The primary economic movement probably in the last few hundred years is the labor movement, and their big demand is consistently to shorten the work-week. Where they haven't managed to, let's say in the United States, we use twice as much energy per capita as Europeans, and for what? To work longer hours, live shorter lives, experience far less security.
So when I sort of visualize what I'd love to see, is looking around, seeing temples of public luxury, having access to ecological splendor and flourishing, a sense of true freedom, where I can pursue the relationships and the projects, art, science, knowledge, social connections, sport, et cetera, that I want. And I think ultimately, to have a sense that my flourishing and my freedoms don't come at the expense of other people's. That there are some systems set up so that I can truly feel that my own good living, is contributing to good living for the entire humanity, and for all the other species around us. It's a very, very big challenge, but I do think that in my quieter moments, my more introspective moments, I think we have to reverse engineer from that vision of the good life back towards political priorities, economic priorities and figure out how to get there.
I don't think it's such a controversial idea, and I also don't think that we can let a few United States senators' bad votes, block our entire imagination and project for the next 20 years, just because we might be hitting a rough patch in this one, so that's kind of how I think about it. I really appreciate you asking about it, because I think we need that north star. We need to get out of bed in the morning and we need to be able to fall asleep at night and without that north star, it could be very hard.
[00:25:56] Ramanan Raghavendran: I mean, you put it so much more eloquently than I might. I mean, I should just say at Amasia, we defined our investment thesis in 2019, so we've been at it for three years in this model, and I have made very significant changes in my own life, and I live well, let's be clear about that. I live well, but a lot of the things I thought I needed, I realized, I mean I don't want to get all Zen on everyone, a lot of the things I thought I needed, I did not need. Some of the things I didn't know I needed, it turns out, bring me the most joy. For example, a recently acquired dog.
Everything you've said has resonated and we could go on for a couple of hours, but we will have you back here. As I said to you in the beginning, it was high time, and we've interviewed, as you know, two of your close collaborators, Kevin and Narasimha Rao. And thanks to your connections, we've interviewed a bunch of other people who've had somewhat of a life-changing effect on us, Julie Schor being one of them, so it was time and I am super grateful for the time, and so will this audience, and I'm going to see you in a few weeks, so I'm delighted about that too. We wish you well, and we'll do everything we can to make your work visible.
[00:27:19] Daniel Aldana Cohen: Thank you. I'm so appreciative, Ramanan, and it's—watching Amasia change and the stuff you've been writing over the last few years has been extraordinary, and if there's a testament to what human freedom is about, I think it's when someone has a lot of power and resources and decides to shift in a direction that isn't the one got them there necessarily.
[00:27:40] Ramanan Raghavendran: Absolutely right.
[00:27:41] Daniel Aldana Cohen: You seem like a... You've always been a deeply ethical person, but you've opened your mind to what is the challenge of climate change and responded by really deep reflection, thought, conversation, dialogue and I think we should all be so lucky to have the strength and spirit to do that.
[00:27:55] Ramanan Raghavendran: You are far too kind. I think part of my motivation also, not— motivation is the wrong word, I don't know what the right word is, but I also think there is this notion of role models, which is a contested phrase, but in my demographic we need all the role models we can get because we're driving the planet into a ditch just by ourselves. So, thank you very much.