Not Cool Ep 4: Jessica Troni on helping countries adapt to climate change

The reality is, no matter what we do going forward, we’ve already changed the climate. So while it’s critical to try to minimize those changes, it’s also important that we start to prepare for them. On Episode 4 of Not Cool, Ariel explores the concept of climate adaptation — what it means, how it’s being implemented, and where there’s still work to be done. She’s joined by Jessica Troni, head of UN Environment’s Climate Change Adaptation Unit, who talks warming scenarios, adaptation strategies, implementation barriers, and more.

Topics discussed include:

  • Climate adaptation: ecology-based, infrastructure
  • Funding sources
  • Barriers: financial, absorptive capacity
  • Developed vs. developing nations: difference in adaptation approaches, needs, etc.
  • UN Environment
  • Policy solutions
  • Social unrest in relation to climate
  • Feedback loops and runaway climate change
  • Warming scenarios
  • What individuals can do

References discussed include:

There’s an estimate…that between 500 to 700 million people would be forced to migrate by 2050 due to climate change.

~ Jessica Troni

Ariel Conn: Welcome to episode 4 of Not Cool, a climate podcast. I’m your host, Ariel Conn. One of the big questions surrounding climate change isn’t just how we can mitigate the warming, but also how we can adapt and survive as the climate continues to warm. To talk about this issue and some of the work being done globally to address adaptation, we turned to Jessica Troni. 

Jessica has more than 20 years of experience in environment and development policy and has worked on climate change adaptation programming in the UN for the last 12 years. She heads up the Climate Change Adaptation Unit in the UN Environment Headquarters in Nairobi and oversees all programming related to the international climate funds in the Ecosystems Division.

Jessica, thank you for being here. Thank you for joining the podcast.

Jessica Troni: Good to be here. Thank you Ariel.

Ariel Conn: I want to just start by asking you what it is you do with the UN?

Jessica Troni: I’m the head of the Adaptation Unit in the Ecosystems Division in UN Environment. Essentially, we do two things. One is, we support member countries, member states to UN Environment, to access planet finance to help them design adaptation projects and then to support them in implementing adaptation projects — specifically in the area of ecosystem-based adaptations, so using nature-based solutions to help countries with that. And on a parallel track is developing normative messaging, guidance, and tools so that we can bring those country-level experiences up to the global audience, and to try and promote more action at the global level. 

Ariel Conn: Can you just explain what adaptation means?

Jessica Troni: Adaptation is essentially a response in social and economic systems to human-induced climate change. Changes both in the mean of climate parameters like temperature, annual rainfall, sea level, as well as changes to the variability of those parameters. For example, the highs and the lows of rainfall events, droughts and flooding events. And climate change specifically refers to human-induced. So, it’s the climate change that is produced because of human activity, burning fossil fuels in agriculture and industrial gases, for example.

Ariel Conn: And so, you’re trying to help countries basically prepare for these changes, is that correct?

Jessica Troni: That’s correct. Yeah.

Ariel Conn: Okay. How does the funding work through the UN?

Jessica Troni: So, there are various climate funds that are being set up at the international level. The Global Environment Facility in Washington manages two of those climate change adaptation funds that are accessible to developing countries. The recently established Green Climate Fund is the other main fund. But there are others, like the Adaptation Fund, that’s also another funding mechanism that’s being set up at the international level.

And then aside from that, there are a myriad of different other bilateral initiatives that would help developing countries adapt to climate change. And then of course you’ve got the philanthropic organizations, you’ve got non-government organizations. So there’s a lot of actors in this space. But specifically for the UN, we would support countries to access the international climate funding sources.

Ariel Conn: And so you mentioned that there’s a lot of actors in this space. Is it enough? Are there sufficient funds?

Jessica Troni: Well, no, it’s not enough. The estimates of adaptation needs run into hundreds of billions annually by 2050 if we don’t do something about climate change. But there is an issue of absorptive capacity. So, even if financing were enough, the fact is that the absorptive capacity of many governments that we work with to deliver adaptation is limited. There are so many barriers. There’s human resource barriers, there’s policy barriers, there’s informational barriers. So even if the funding were enough, how to direct that funding so that it makes an impact on the ground, how to implement it, is still a very big area for support in developing countries.

Ariel Conn: How is adaptation a different problem for wealthy countries versus developing countries?

Jessica Troni: So, all countries will need to adapt to these changes. Some of the solutions can be similar. For example, making sure that soils are covered with grasses, or shrubs, or trees to prevent soil erosion and sedimentation of rivers when there are heavy rainfall events. That would be common to all countries. Other adaptation solutions would be employed by richer countries, but not necessarily poorer ones, because they’re expensive. So for example, think about the coastal protection dikes in The Netherlands, where 23% of the land area of that country is under sea level, or the Thames barrage in London. Those would be very expensive options that are not within the affordability range of most developing countries.

Plus the fact that also developing country economies are usually more dependent on agriculture and subsistence farmers are a very big demographic in those countries. And so, your adaptation strategies in those countries are going to be focused more on the agriculture sector. It’s also worth saying that developing countries are usually more vulnerable to climate change impacts because they’re more reliant on rain-fed agriculture, they’re more water-scarce, and their populations are usually poorer. They have fewer resources to spend on adaptation. So again, your technologies and how you reach people is going to be different in poorer developing countries.

Ariel Conn: So can you talk a little bit about some of the plans currently either underway or being implemented or considered to try to help get the money there and try to help get these new systems implemented?

Jessica Troni: The work that we’re doing at UN Environment is basically split into two areas of work. One is helping countries develop national adaptation plans. That’s really looking at the barriers that I mentioned in terms of information, in terms of human capacity, in terms of coordination between government departments, in terms of reaching subnational planning structures. All of that is under these national adaptation plan proposals that we are supporting governments with. That will hopefully develop systems and tools that can be replicated in future planning exercises of this kind. 

And then on the other side, it’s what we would call full funding proposals: proposals that really focus on helping communities to deal with climate change. So a lot of these projects are going to be around agriculture land management. And increasingly we’re getting demand from countries to help them with urban EBA, looking at cities, and how we can help cities adapt to climate change.

Although it has to be said that even when we’re looking at actual implementation on the ground, there is usually a component in those projects looking at policy frameworks, planning frameworks. Because unless you get that right, your absorptive capacity for more climate financing is going to be limited.

Ariel Conn: I think that connects to another question I have, and that is, in terms of trying to implement policies and implement changes to enable countries to adapt, are these things that need to be happening at a global level? Obviously you’re working at a global level, so I’m assuming the answer is yes there. But to what extent is it global versus national versus very local levels?

Jessica Troni: Yeah, that’s a good question. There’s lots of new information coming up about that. But the simple answer is, all of the above. There are pressing policy needs at national level. Effective adaptation is not just about policy, it’s about integrating climate risks and how you manage those risks into every day policies that the Agriculture Ministry, Water and so on, would be implemented and concerned with. So we need to mainstream into decision-making at every level in government policy and strategy, budgeting, investment design, program implementation.

So we need to address inefficiencies whereby one policy undercuts another. So for example, subsidies that encourage inefficient use of water are obviously going to magnify the effects of climate change on rainfall. Urban planning that doesn’t consider flood risk, or which doesn’t consider the role of nature in mitigating climate impacts. So for example, green spaces that might reduce the heat effect in cities. And even agriculture policy that promotes monocultures, which have an impact on soil erosion. And that’s going to be magnified by climate change.

So there are many areas of public policy that need to be aligned so that they each reinforce adaptation across the economy. But also, consideration of climate risks in government — national government — and business decisions isn’t enough. We also need to partner with local communities so that we plan for adaptation in a way that makes sense to local communities, and that delivers benefits to poorer, unrepresented people. That’s really important as well.

Looking at the international pictures, we have to support countries with adaptation, not only because of the moral imperative. We always say that poorer countries are disproportionately affected by climate change because they didn’t make the problem, but they are poor and unable to deal with the problem. So there is a moral imperative to deal with them. But, there are also good geopolitical interests for doing so.

There was a recent assessment report published on land degradation and restoration by the Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity in Ecosystems Services called IPBES, that’s the acronym. And they came up with an interesting finding that in dryland areas and in years with extreme low rainfall, there has been an increase of up to 45% in violent conflict. And the report also notes that for every 5% lost in GDP in these fragile environments, there’s a 12% increase in the likelihood of violent conflicts.

So the evidence is very, very clear. And there’s increasing evidence coming out that the war in Syria, that that was precipitated by droughts and having masses of people with their livelihoods undercut by these droughts. And then one final point to make is that the forces of migration are likely to be exacerbated by climate change. There’s an estimate in that report that between 500 to 700 million people would be forced to migrate by 2050 due to climate change. So there are really good reasons for the international community to get engaged in climate change, and to support developing countries in adapting to these effects as far as possible.

Ariel Conn: To what extent so far as you seeing support from the international community? Is this something that countries are saying, “Yes, we need to help these poorer nations.” The U.S. doesn’t seem to be doing that, but are other countries?

Jessica Troni: Some countries are stepping up to the plate. But as you say, there are gaps in international support. The recent adaptation gap report that was published in 2018 sets out the broad picture there. Public international flows to adaptation are about $23 billion a year, whereas the needs are an order of magnitude bigger. The amount of funding available for developing countries is much lower than needed, and we see it. At UN Environment, we see that. 

We are in the process of developing 50 large adaptation proposals for the Green Climate Fund, and we see the resource constraints on the other side. There isn’t enough funding to comfortably fund all of these proposals, and we’re one agency among many in the UN system. So, the amount of financing available is an issue, notwithstanding what I said previously that actually the absorptive capacity in developing countries does need to be further developed so that we can absorb larger flows of funds.

Ariel Conn: Okay, so listening to you, this seems like a huge, huge problem to try to be addressing. And it seems like so many different and collaborative efforts need to be made. And I guess I’m curious, what would you most like to see happen in the next five to ten years to really try to address this?

Jessica Troni: So what I would really like to see is global emissions to go to zero. That’s what I would really like to see, because even if they went to zero tomorrow, we are still locked into some degree of climate change. The evidence is saying that already there has been a one degree global temperature increase. And so, even if we were to stop emissions today, we would still see climate change effects. However, they would be manageable. They would probably be manageable up to another degree of global average temperature increase.

Beyond two degrees, scientists are not able to say what the effects would be, because of this pesky issue of feedback loops in the climate system, whereby you have climate processes that unlock other processes and lead to runaway climate change. So for example, the melting of the glaciers in the Antarctic. That is leading to a reduced albedo effect. So when you look at the planet Earth from space, you see a lot of white areas. Those are the glaciers.

Once the glaciers start melting, you get a lot more black space in those areas, and that black space attracts more warming to the planet, which in effect melts the glaciers even faster. So that’s an important effect. And the whole issue of the cryosphere, the frozen water in the planet. That has been very poorly modeled up until now. Scientists are starting to get a better handle on how these processes affect climate change. And as more reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change come out, the news seems to be getting worse.

Another process that’s happening with glaciers is that as they melt, the cold water sinks faster, forces up warm water, which eats away at the glaciers on the surface and worsens that effect again. Another important feedback loop is the melting of the glaciers in the Arctic, and other frozen areas that are releasing peat. Peatlands are becoming uncovered, and when peatlands are uncovered, they release methane gas. And methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, 21 times the effect. And so that’s also having a sort of runaway effect on the climate.

There are many of these feedback loops, and that’s why scientists have said, since 1994 when the Climate Change Convention came into force, that beyond two degrees, we are in the area of dangerous climate change, because these processes will be unlocked, and then we don’t know how fast climate change could accelerate. So that is the main thing that needs to happen, is that global emissions have to come down significantly.

There was a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published last year on a 1.5 degree world, where global mean average temperatures increased to 1.5 degrees. And the figures come from that report. To stay within 1.5 degree temperature increase, global CO2 emissions should decline by about 45%, from 2010 levels, by 2030. So, we are essentially 11 years away from that. And they should reach zero by 2050. That’s to stay within one-and-a-half degrees temperature increase.

And that is what small island developing states, such as you find in the Pacific, that is what they are demanding. Because they understand that climate change beyond that level will basically mean they have to move. It is an existential threat for them. To limit global warming below two degrees Centigrade, that is the threshold that was enshrined in the UNFCCC Convention, the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change. CO2 emissions should decline by 20% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2075.

So, even when you look at two degrees Centigrade temperature increase, these are substantial decreases. Once you start to get beyond two degrees temperature increase, your space to manage climate change, to adapt to climate change, becomes much harder. There are consequences that you can’t predict. Those extremes that I talked about when we started the podcast, how to manage those climate extremes, becomes much more difficult to do that.

So in order to be able to manage adaptation in a controlled way, we actually need to deal with the cause of the problem, the CO2 emissions, in a really significant way. So that’s my number one ask, is that country governments, when they get together at the conference of parties under the UNFCCC, that they take the need to compromise really serious, for the sake of current and future generations. The second is that politicians implement policies that are good for their citizens.

Ariel Conn: That seems so basic, and yet it’s so hard.

Jessica Troni: Yes. It just seems so basic and so obvious, but there are all sorts of political interests that complicate the ability of a country to adapt. Unless you get that right, it doesn’t matter how many adaptation projects you mobilize and you implement. Unless your policy and your budgeting process is all geared towards helping a country adapt to climate change, it’s going to be an inefficient process. And finally, responsibility I think is on all sides. It’s on developing countries to get their own house in order, but it’s also on developed countries to help developing countries with the financing needs associated with this problem. Those are my three asks.

Ariel Conn: Okay. Again, I think they seem reasonable, but I can see where they’re difficult.

Jessica Troni: There are some really intractable political economy issues as to why, for example, water tariffs are so low or non-existent in countries; why big infrastructure projects are pushed, as opposed to investments in nature-based solutions, which are much more cost-effective and have shown to protect many more people, particularly those people that are dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. So there are some big reasons why economies are the way they are.

And one of the things that we’re trying to do with our national adaptation planning processes is to develop better information on risks, so that the messaging can be sharpened so that policymakers can start to take this more seriously, and understand their own role in helping economies adapt to climate change.

Ariel Conn: I’ll end with two questions. The first is, is there anything else that you think is important for listeners to know?

Jessica Troni: Well, I think there are things that everyone can do. And maybe we should finish on a positive note. This can seem like a very big and difficult issue, and therefore, you know, this is for someone else to think about. But there are things that we can all do. One is, buy organic where possible, because this avoids the use of chemicals. And chemicals leads to eutrophication of water where chemicals leach out into watercourses. It contributes to soil erosion, and it has knock-on impacts on fisheries and drinking water, and so on.

The other thing is, work on your carbon emissions. Use solar energy where possible. If you’re living in very hot, sunny environments, use solar water heating — it’s much more efficient than using boilers. Reduce car use where possible. Be water efficient. Water is such a scarce commodity, and there are billions of people that are going to be living in water-scarce areas in the world. Be energy efficient. 

Reduce, eliminate if you can, use of single-use plastics. Although this is an indirect effect on climate change, there are impacts to watercourses and to oceans with rubbish spilling out into the sea, and impacting on environments that are already under tremendous amounts of stress from rising sea levels and acidification of the waters. Support local producers of food — reduce carbon miles from imported foods. eat seasonally. But also, smaller producers of food are likely to use more sustainable methods of production.

And finally, and maybe this is probably one of the biggest ones, is vote for politicians that support doing something about the issue. This is really the issue of our times, and our children and grandchildren will not forgive us if we don’t contain this problem, and the global action that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reductions is enormous. And so, we really need to put pressure on politicians to take this issue seriously.

Ariel Conn: My final question was actually going to be, what can individuals do to help? So I love that that was your answer. But I’m going to end with one more question instead. And that is, do you think this is a solvable problem?

Jessica Troni: Yes. Definitely. It’s definitely a solvable problem. It just needs countries, governments to come together, and people can pressure governments to doing more. So it can happen. But I would also put a note of caution here. We need to be very careful about the privatization of adaptation solutions. I’m seeing more and more companies offering geotechnical fixes. There are so many out there, but machines that are able to make rain; panels that you can put into space to reflect the Sun’s rays away; or seeding of the oceans to absorb more CO2; or seeding of the clouds to absorb more CO2, or to rain.

There are so many things out there that are geotechnical fixes, but they are manmade, they are costly, and the unintended consequences are unknown. Nature-based solutions — restoring the planet so that its ecosystem services, goods and services can help us mitigate the effects of climate change — they are much more cost-effective than these geotechnical fixes. So for example, rather than have a machine that makes rain at a cost of $1 million per hectare, there’s plenty of evidence to show that planting trees and restoring watersheds can make rain essentially, can bring back rain to an area.

We have an example here in Nairobi, where we’re living very close to the Karura Forest, which is an area of 30,000 hectares of protected forest. And it rains much more here than it does in the airport side of the city, down south, where there are no trees. And it’s very much drier, and very much more unpleasant to live there for the people who have to live there. So, investing in nature can help us mitigate some of the effects.

In cities, I’ve mentioned heat islands. Having green spaces can mitigate some of those heat effects. Investing in riverbank restoration and watershed reforestation can save millions, hundreds of millions of dollars worth in water treatment costs. China is leading on the creation of sponge cities, which uses permeable surfaces and constructed wetlands to absorb heavy flows of rainwater. So we have nature. This is what UN Environment — this is one of the things that we are trying to raise to the global level, is investments in nature and co-investments of nature and gray infrastructure together.

Ariel Conn: As someone who lives in Colorado, and I am surrounded by mountains and nature, I am a huge fan of that approach. So thank you.

Jessica Troni: It would be great if the U.S. federal government came to the party.

Ariel Conn: Yes.

Jessica Troni: Leadership, political leadership which we sorely need, and also in terms of financing, which globally we sorely need as well.

Ariel Conn: All right. Yeah. We’ll do what we can. I will certainly vote, and hopefully many others will vote as well. I think that’s it for my questions. Is there anything else?

Jessica Troni: I think that’s it, Ariel.

Ariel Conn: Okay, excellent. Thank you so much.

Jessica Troni: It was nice to speak to you.

Ariel Conn: On the next episode of Not Cool, I’ll be speaking with Ken Caldiera. Ken is a climate scientist working for the Carnegie Institution for Science and as a professor at the Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University. He investigates issues related to climate, carbon, and energy systems.

Ken Caldeira: How do you develop empathy, and how do you get people to try to optimize for something broader than their narrow, short-term self-interests? To me, that’s the kind of research question that is the most pressing.

Ariel Conn: I hope you enjoyed this fourth episode of Not Cool. My next interview with Ken Caldiera will go live on Thursday, September 12th. In the meantime, please join the climate discussion on Twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate and let us know what you think of the show so far.

Not Cool Ep 3: Tim Lenton on climate tipping points

What is a climate tipping point, and how do we know when we’re getting close to one? On Episode 3 of Not Cool, Ariel talks to Dr. Tim Lenton, Professor and Chair in Earth System Science and Climate Change at the University of Exeter and Director of the Global Systems Institute. Tim explains the shifting system dynamics that underlie phenomena like glacial retreat and the disruption of monsoons, as well as their consequences. He also discusses how to deal with low certainty/high stakes risks, what types of policies we most need to be implementing, and how humanity’s unique self-awareness impacts our relationship with the Earth.

Topics discussed include:

  • Climate tipping points: impacts, warning signals
  • Evidence that climate is nearing tipping point?
  • IPCC warming targets
  • Risk management under uncertainty
  • Climate policies
  • Human tipping points: social, economic, technological
  • The Gaia Hypothesis

References discussed include:

To have any hope of keeping global warming below two degrees, let alone 1.5 degrees, we’re now looking at having to undergo relatively rapid societal transformation. We need to find the good tipping points or the positive tipping points in social, technological, economic systems that are going to get us onto a sustainable, flourishing future.

~ Tim Lenton

Ariel Conn: Hi everyone, and welcome to the third episode of Not Cool: a climate podcast. I’m your host, Ariel Conn. 

Today we’re talking about tipping points. We tend to think of climate change as a slow, incremental process, where things get gradually and linearly worse. But when a system reaches a tipping point, it loses those characteristics — it changes more quickly, less predictably, and often irreversibly. We’ll talk about whether it’s possible to tell when a system is approaching a tipping point, which elements of our climate system might be getting close to tipping, and whether we may have already passed any major tipping points. 

We’re joined by Dr. Tim Lenton, who’s a leading researcher on the subject. Tim is Professor and Chair in Earth System Science and Climate Change at the University of Exeter and Director for the new Global Systems Institute. He researches the ‘Earth System’, which refers to the complex web of biological, geochemical and physical processes that have shaped the chemical composition of the atmosphere, oceans, and climate of Earth. 

Well Tim, thank you so much for joining us.

Tim Lenton: Thank you for having me.

Ariel Conn: So you did a lot of the really early work on climate tipping points, and I believe you’ve been working on that and related issues since. I want to dive right in and just start by asking you what a climate tipping point is.

Tim Lenton: Yes, good question. A climate tipping point is a point where a little bit of change in the climate, maybe a little bit of extra global warming, tips a part of the climate system into a different state. So it triggers a transition from current configuration or state into some different state — for example, triggering the collapse of the overturning circulation of the Atlantic Ocean, which transports heats northwards and into northwest Europe. Or it could be triggering a dial back of the Amazon rain forest it, or it could be the tipping of the disruption of a major monsoon system. All of these are parts of the climate system that we would say mathematically have non-linear dynamics. They contain feedback processes that self-amplify. So you start to push the system and then it gets propelled under its own dynamics sometimes to transition into this other state. It doesn’t happen all the time, but can happen in a range of these bits of the climate.

Ariel Conn: And so what would we expect to happen if a tipping point is hit? How does that impact the climate then?

Tim Lenton: Well it depends on the particular tipping element, as we call the bits of the climate system that could have these tipping points, because they have their own time scales. So ice sheets are very sluggish; The ocean circulation is fairly sluggish. But the dynamics of the atmosphere and of monsoons are incredibly fast. And the time scales of forests or coral reefs are somewhere in between. So if we tip an ice sheet — for example, we trigger the irreversible melt of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which we think might’ve already begun — we don’t see the ice sheet melt instantaneously.

It has its own time scale of collapse governed internally and is in that hundreds of years; whereas if we tip the shift in the monsoon, let’s say the Indian summer monsoon system, it could happen from one year to the next. So those kind of bound the opposite ends of the scale and time in terms of how quickly a bit of the climate system would respond. In many of these cases, though, the important thing is even if something’s responding slowly, like an ice sheet is slowly melting, we might’ve triggered what is actually an irreversible process, or a very difficult to reverse process. That’s one of the special qualities of tipping points.

Ariel Conn: So it sounds like you’re saying we might have already done this in the Antarctic?

Tim Lenton: Yeah, it’s alarming isn’t it? What we see is, so the West Antarctic ice sheet is unusual in the sense that it’s a load of ice stuck onto bedrock well below sea level for the most part, with a few mountain ranges sticking up. And we know that that makes it prone to a particular kind of instability, that if you start to trigger the retreat of major glaciers, particularly if they have a particular topography of the bedrock underneath, then they can go into an irreversible retreat. What we’ve observed in the last decade or so, very convincingly, is that one of the major ice drainage basins, as they’re called in West Antarctica, draining into the Pine Island Basin embayment, as it’s called around West Antarctica — that one seems to be in this irreversible retreat. 

And that’s not the only part of the West Antarctic ice sheet, but the problem is, when one bit goes, it then has knock-on effects to the other bits of the ice sheets. It kind of undermines them, if you like, and triggers them ultimately to retreat, at least in models. So we might’ve begun what you can think of as the tipping of the dominoes of West Antarctic ice sheet breaking up. I’m not saying that with 100% certainty, but if that is the case, that means we’ve made a commitment already to a bit over three meters of sea level rise from West Antarctica.

Ariel Conn: So that leads into this next question I have is, what is the impact then on the rest of the Earth and the climate system if that shelf melts?

Tim Lenton: If we’ve triggered the melt of the West Antarctic ice sheet and committed ourselves to three meters of sea level rise, in the long run, that’s already a major issue for some mega cities near the coast. London, for example, has a barrage, has a defense against storm surges and sea level rise, but it’s only designed to withstand up to about two meters of sea level rise. So we’re already in this situation where, in the long run, we’d have to think hard about the ability to prevent major flooding in a major city of the UK there. 

We also at the moment can’t rule out that the Greenland ice sheet is also in some kind of irreversible melt. It’s certainly shrinking at an accelerating rate and retreating up onto land, and we’re not sure whether it’s going to re-stabilize on land or continue melting. And that’s worse because that’s another — up to seven meters of sea level rise. So we could already be in a situation where we’re committed to eventually causing on the order of 10 meters of sea level rise just with the one degree of global warming we’ve had so far. Now it actually fit with data from Earth history, which shows that the sea level, on the long term, is incredibly sensitive to small temperature changes, but yet would completely reshape coastal or near-coastal inhabitation by people. So that’s just one kind of tipping point, and it’s a difference of their impacts if we talk about much faster responses like disrupting the monsoons in the tropics.

Ariel Conn: What does that mean, “disrupting the monsoons in the tropics”? I feel like, especially in recent years and this year, we’re seeing more news stories about extreme storms.

Tim Lenton: Exactly. So if we took the example of the Indian summer monsoon as an iconic monsoon system: All monsoon systems are driven by the seasonal summer heating of the land happening faster than the heating of the neighboring ocean. And that sets up rising air over land that draws in moist air from the ocean, that then rises, and then the water in it condenses, and that’s the monsoonal rain. When that water condenses, that releases heat, latent heat and condensation, which then drives the monsoon circulation: a great big circulation of air where you have the dry air returning at altitude back over the ocean. And it spins around in a great cycle. Now, monsoons switch kind of on and off on a seasonal basis, and there’s a kind of tug-of-war going on anyway where, as global warming or global heating happens, it warms the northern land mass of Eurasia faster than the ocean to the south.

And that ought to be strengthening the monsoon in India for example, but at the same time, there’s a whole lot of air pollution going into the atmosphere over India, and has been for decades. And that suppresses the heating in summer of the surface of the continent because the load of sunlight’s getting scattered or absorbed in the atmosphere instead by this great cloud of pollution above India. Up to now, that pollution cloud has won the battle and has actually been overall weakening the monsoonal rains in India and impacting the rice harvest. But as this tug-of-war with the global warming signal is underway, it does sometimes seem to be manifesting in more extreme precipitation.

So this is clearly a complicated picture where we’re really not sure which way things are going to go in some ways, but we know we’re dealing with a very volatile system anyway that has these strong feedbacks within it. So, is it responding eventually with more extreme rains or are we even running the risk of collapsing the monsoon in some sense? The jury’s partly out on this. I suppose the thing to know is that we’re already interfering with something that’s vital for food production and livelihoods for upwards of a billion people.

Ariel Conn: I’m also sort of intrigued by what you’re saying about the pollution almost mitigating some of the effects.

Tim Lenton: There’s more than one monsoon system in the tropics. We could also talk about West Africa and the Sahel regions, south of the Sahara in West Africa, where you have a monsoon that seasonally, the rains jump northwards into the Sahel in May/June time and cause — famously the Sahel had a severe drought through the 1980s, and that’s now at least partly attributed to aerosol pollution that was biased to the northern hemisphere of the planet, because that’s where most of the industrial activity has been going on.

Ariel Conn: Oh wow.

Tim Lenton: So in that case, we have a human signal contribution to a very famous drought that led to famines in sub-Saharan Africa. And since the ’80s, we’ve sort of cleaned up some of the air pollution in the industrial north, and that’s one of the things that you could say has contributed to the rains to some degree returning in the Sahel. But we have a separate problem that in some climate change scenarios, we see an abrupt warming of the Gulf of Guinea Ocean, which is kind of in the nook of south of West Africa if you like. And if that happens, it can trigger  — it’s not exactly a collapse of the monsoon in West Africa, but it locks the monsoon, the intense rains, to just stay nearer the coast, along the coast of West Africa — and they don’t, in the models at least, jump north into that part of the Sahel. So if that were to happen, that would be pretty catastrophic for the band of sub-Saharan West Africa there.

Ariel Conn: How comfortable do you feel in saying that we would be able to recognize that we’re getting close to a tipping point, if in fact we are, versus figuring out too late that, oops, we’ve already passed it?

Tim Lenton: That’s a great question. I’ve spent quite a lot of the last decade testing out some mathematical theory which says that whenever a complex system’s approaching a tipping point, there are some characteristic early warning signals beforehand. And they’re quite counterintuitive, because before one of these abrupt and perhaps irreversible shifts in the system, the system will actually become more sluggish in its ability to recover from provocations or perturbations it’s getting from the world, if you like, or from the variability it experiences. That’s actually a signal of that system’s resilience, as we call it: its ability to bounce back from perturbation is getting weaker. But it seems kind of sluggish, and I guess more and more sluggish. That’s actually the warning signal that it could lose all resilience. At that point, it can just roll off into some other state.

So what we’ve been able to do is show that before known past abrupt climate changes, this early warning signal was present quite clearly in fact. And also in model worlds, climate models were able to force tipping points to happen, and we can show that before they happen, these early warning signals are there. So of course we started to turn our attention to real climate data, and we do begin to see some of these characteristic signals that we call slowing down in the climate system. So of course we carry on working on that in trying to deduce whether we’re getting an early warning of an impending tipping point. In all of this, there’s nuance, so the method works best and is most reliable when we have a clear separation of time scales. We want to look at a situation where part of the climate system’s actually been forced fairly slowly compared to its own internal dynamics, and that we’re also monitoring it much more frequently than its internal dynamics.

And the truth is, humans are forcing the climate system, or bits of it, quite quickly. So the best early warning signals would probably exist for the faster bits of the climate system — the monsoons, maybe some fast responding vegetations and biomes, like the vegetation in the Sahel. And for ice sheets, or the ocean circulation, it’s a difficult exercise to get the early warning signal, and we need to be able to reconstruct natural variability over centuries, if not millennia. But that said, some of my colleagues do work on that and we might still have the potential to get some warning that bits of the climate are going in the wrong direction. My hunch though is that we’re not going to be smart enough to act on that information. It might just be a useful forewarning for adaptation, to try and lessen the impact.

Ariel Conn: When you talk about these systems becoming sluggish, can you give an example of what sluggishness looks like?

Tim Lenton: Let’s take the Amazon rainforest as a possible candidate here. It experiences droughts and has been doing more frequently actually recently, part of the overall climate change that’s happening. And it’s also experiencing more fires associated with those droughts. Sluggishness in this context would be how quickly — or rather how slowly — does the forest bounce back from a drought or a fire. Sluggishness would mean a slower recovery of the tree cover, and the greenness, and the vegetation; compared to a more resident state where it would bounce back quicker, if that makes sense. That biological example is perhaps a bit more intuitive, literally things growing or not, compared to the same thing for ocean circulation.

If I tried to visualize that for you, it’d be like saying there’s variability in the climate naturally and when the ocean circulation is resilient, it might get stronger or weaker, but it recovers quickly to its preferred strength. When it’s less resilient and the tipping point is nearer, when it gets a nudge it goes on a longer excursion. It might vary in strengths for longer and more before it finally recovers. And eventually it reaches a point where it doesn’t recover: You weaken it and instead of bouncing back, it switches off. 

So I like to use the physical analogy of a chair — not a fancy office chair, just a good old fashioned chair. Upright is one stable state for a chair. On its back on the floor is another stable state for a chair, and the person sitting on it who is foolish enough to do this experiment. But if you play with a chair, you can find a balance point where it could go one way or the other. It could return to upright or it could fall over backwards. And if you mess around with a chair and you feel the dynamics of the chair near that balance point, you’ll find that they’re very sluggish near the balance point — but once you start tipping it, it accelerates and it rapidly goes into one state or the other. That’s just a little bit of a physical example to try at home to get a slight sense of what we’re talking about.

Ariel Conn: Okay, I really like the chair example. I think that’s really helpful. So there’s sort of two directions that I want to take my questions next, and I think I’m going to start by switching to the 2 degrees Celsius that the IPCC has been advocating we try not to hit, and especially the 1.5 degrees Celsius that’s still this potentially unrealistic ideal, but we’ll see. How did they choose those numbers?

Tim Lenton: Well, the 2 degrees C target has a long history, actually. Really it began life in the 1980s before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had even officially been instituted, but in the opening discussions for why we needed it and why we needed a scientific assessment on global warming and climate change. Even then, good researchers knew some of the risks that were being run with the changing climate and the possibility of triggering major ice sheet loss, for example. And with relatively less information then, it was clear that warming the planet too quickly or too much would pose a threat to UK systems to adapt, as well as to certain ice sheets and so on. And crude estimates, even back then, started to fumble around towards a couple of degrees warming as being potentially dangerous. It represented a rough estimate of how much warmer recent so-called interglacials — warm spells between ice ages — had got.

And we know, for example, in the last interglacial — maybe it was actually less than 2 degrees warmer, we think now — but the sea level was up to 10 meters higher. For example, major ice sheets were lost. So all of this information fed in right from the start as good reasons to think why we might want to limit the temperature increase pretty hard. I personally think 2 degrees was a round number that had some scientific evidence behind it, but might also be seen to be politically achievable. Recently we’ve seen, understandably, a shift towards, “Oh, if only we could limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. And what on Earth are we going to have to do to make that goal?”

That’s because lots of science has happened in the intervening decades that’s shown us that we’re already running the risk of climate tipping points, if we haven’t crossed some already, and that unfolding and possibly irreversible damages are highly undesirable. So we’ve upped our ambition nominally in terms of these goals for, I think, pretty good scientific reasons, but sadly we’ve done it against the backdrop of still rapidly increasing greenhouse gas emissions. So as the target comes down, the hopes of meeting it drift off the table, to be honest, tragically.

Ariel Conn: I’ve read stuff of yours in the past where you suggest that a global temperature is probably not the only thing we should be looking at, anyway.

Tim Lenton: That’s right, yeah. I think I might be foolish to even have ventured into that territory because I think it’s hard enough for politicians and policy makers to wrestle down even the beginnings of the complexity of the climate system. So trying to suggest to them that they don’t just worry about temperature change might be a bridge too far, unless they’re a very rare one with a very good science education. But basically the reason why one would think about more, what sounds like very abstract concepts like how much extra heat energy is being trapped in the surface and the system and the climate, is because it’s actually that extra heat energy — which is like a flux of energy that we sometimes call radiative forcing — that’s the thing that actually melts ice sheets or drives the climate change in the first place. So I experimented with whether we could actually more tightly define some of these tipping points in terms of that extra radiative forcing. The trick is then how on Earth to operationalize that or make that understandable to this complicated policy decision process. But it’s going back to the physics; That’s the reason to think about it that way and maybe it’s at least useful for scientists to be absolutely clear what the driving physics is.

Ariel Conn: I think you actually bring up a really interesting problem that we have here, and that is we have this problem that’s incredibly complex, and yet we need to try to simplify it so that people don’t need to have PhD’s in climate science to be able to follow and address the problem. How do we do that?

Tim Lenton: I think most listeners would’ve at some point got on a jet airplane and flown somewhere and been comfortable doing that. But there’s a lot of relatively complex physics going on around building that aircraft and flying the thing, and we all did our own internal risk calculation about taking that flight and getting on a plane, and it scares some people more than it scares others. When we flip around to the climate problem, it’s considerably more complex than an aircraft, but we’re quite well equipped as humans to deal with risk management under uncertainty — in this case, perhaps profound uncertainty, because we acknowledge that the system we’re interfering with is so complex, and we all have to acknowledge that we don’t fully understand it. But that shouldn’t paralyze action.

In the case of the climate system, if we used a sort of finely honed risk management sensitivity and we understood and internalized the risks we’re running, driving the temperature of the planet up, we ought to be working much harder to limit the temperature rise and get lots of other co-benefits from switching our energy sources and readily sort of reinventing our future. Maybe that wasn’t the clearest of answers, but we don’t have to wrestle down the complexity and uncertainty in order to act, and we shouldn’t have to.

Consider the financial crash in 2008 and 9. Nobody would’ve said at the time, “I understand why that happened. I could wrestle down the complexity of the financial system,” but it didn’t stop our government spending trillions of dollars, or pounds, or Euros bailing out the banks, because it was a situation of profound uncertainty, but the stakes were incredibly high. And we were able to react decisively in that situation. The tragedy is that we aren’t doing the same thing with a much bigger risk: the climate system. But in principle, it can happen. We have the capacity to act under uncertainty, and in this case, it’s an existential threat. So we ought to be able to switch those capabilities on.

Ariel Conn: What type of policies would you like to see enacted?

Tim Lenton: Well, I personally would put a pretty hefty price on carbon dioxide emissions or the extraction of fossil fuels that are going to lead to those emissions, and I’d put a sensibly set price on other greenhouse gas emissions. I’m a bit agnostic about how you apply that pricing mechanism. I’m not an economist by training, but I’ve got no personal problem with whacking a hefty price on that very damaging pollution. And then if that means having to redistribute the burden of taxation from other things in our economies and our societies, then that’s fine and we should do that, because at the moment we’re catastrophically undervaluing the damage that is being done by greenhouse gas emissions.

So we’ve got to fix that right off the bat, and that will immediately help promote changes that are underway anyway, which is, let’s electrify energy, let’s take fossil fuels out of the equation of power generation, and switch to, I think, a healthier energy-replete future powered quite a lot by renewable energy to be honest. Lots of that available. Let’s electrify transport, wherever possible, underground. If we need hydrogen fuel cells or whatever to get what remaining aircraft we want to use off the ground, then we’ve got to work some technology magic there. 

We also need to stop the land surface and its ecosystems from still being a net source of greenhouse gases because of bad land use practices, deforestation, et cetera, and really look after the land, the ecosystems, change our agricultural systems so they’re locking up greenhouse gases, carbon in particular — not releasing them.

We need to regenerate some natural ecosystems — integrated forest help in this. As you can tell, the laundry list is a long one, but we know lots of things we can do, and the bigger the penalty on the pollutant, the greenhouse gasses, and the bigger the incentive to act to get them out of the atmosphere rather than adding them, then the more our economy, as it were, would work to help solve the problem rather than, at the moment, it’s just working to help create it.

Ariel Conn: I’m curious what your response is to people who say they don’t want to look at these extreme situations because they think they’re less likely to happen, and instead focus on the problems that we know are most likely to happen.

Tim Lenton: Well, I think they might be wrong about the likelihood. There’s been a widespread presumption that these are high impact but very low probability events, but the evidence from the real climate, so far, is rather arguing they are higher probability than might’ve been assumed. But if we set that to one side, whether you believe me or not on that, does it really matter whether it’s death by 1,000 knives or by the guillotine? At the end of the day, hopefully a lot of us can agree on the severity of the issue we’re faced with.

And even if you took my climate tipping point out of the equation, I think a lot of us would agree that to have any hope of keeping global warming below two degrees, let alone 1.5 degrees, we’re now looking at having to undergo relatively rapid societal transformation. In simple terms I would say we need to find the good tipping points or the positive tipping points in social, technological, economic systems that are going to get us onto a sustainable, flourishing future and get us off the kind of train wreck of ongoing fossil fuel burning and simplistic GDP growth paradigm that’s currently still ruining the planet. So in simple terms, whenever you think about the climate tipping points, perhaps we can all appreciate that tipping points could also happen in society for the good or for the bad, but we need some for the good if we’re going to have a long and happy future on the planet. Let’s go out and find those, and try and trigger those to happen.

Ariel Conn: I really like that sentiment. You’ve been doing this for over a decade now. In that time, what has surprised you most, both good and bad, with respect to how people are responding, and what the science has said?

Tim Lenton: For the climate system, the shock that we might already have gone past a tipping point or two at the poles, with the evidence that accumulated that we’re losing the West Antarctic ice sheet, or we’ve begun to lose it; and the evidence that continues to accumulate that Greenland is shrinking at an accelerating rate. I feared 10 years ago when we drew up the map of climate tipping points that these were real facts, and they might be imminent, but I wasn’t expecting them necessarily to be that imminent. So that’s been a genuine unpleasant shock. 

As for human reactions, where do I see hope? Well, I see hope in the sudden mobilization of collective attention on this issue led by inspirational individuals like Greta Thunberg over here in Europe — a kid that just looks at the science and goes, “Oh my word, this is my future you’re ruining. There’s no point going to school. I’m going to protest outside my school every Friday.” That’s now a global movement. It’s an entirely logical global movement I think.

We have something called the Extinction Rebellion here in the UK, which is a sort of all age groups incarnation of exactly the same recognition. Is it leading to much actual change? Well, I suppose time will tell, but before really widespread change can happen, you have to have this kind of political change, and peaceful protesting, and shifting of the issue up the agenda. So that’s a source of comfort and hope. 

The other thing that excites me is, even absent any serious climate policy, we’re seeing really incredible uptick of electric vehicles, at least in rich countries. And we’re seeing the price of renewable electricity out-competing coal burning, certainly in several major nations, and that’s really exciting. It means even without having properly priced climate pollution, greenhouse gases, just the intrinsic technological innovation and change is starting to give us the better option as the most economically viable one.

Ariel Conn: And then, we have a little bit of time left, so I want to ask you also about the Gaia hypothesis. First, what is the Gaia hypothesis?

Tim Lenton: Well, the Gaia hypothesis, as it was conceived in early 1970s by Jim Lovelock with the help of Lynn Margulis, is the proposition that all life on the planet is part of a self-regulating system that maintains atmospheric composition, and in a very unusual chemical state, and may also be involved in the long-term in regulating the climate. Now that was the Gaia hypothesis of around 1972, and since then of course Jim Lovelock and others, including myself, have learned more and realized more about how the tight coupling between living things and the atmosphere and the climate has evolved over time. And sometimes life is — we recognize — is a destabilizing force that triggers major change in the whole Earth system, or Gaia, as we might call it. And humans seem to be case in point of that. We’re clearly disrupting a previously more stable configuration with our new metabolic waste products and fossil fuel burning. So it could be in the beginning of one very rare transformation or change times for the planet.

Ariel Conn: You made that sound like there are other instances in the past where life has also been destabilizing.

Tim Lenton: Yes, but we wouldn’t be here to talk about it if they hadn’t happened, which is the beauty of it. So one of them is when a little creature we now call a cyanobacteria managed to do something utterly incredible, which is what we think of as the normal form of photosynthesis, but it actually is the most difficult form of photosynthesis of many that are going on among microbes on the planet. The cyanobacteria pulled off the trick of splitting apart water molecules to get electrons so they could stick on carbon dioxide to reduce the carbon down into sugars. That was an invention that ultimately led to a profound rise in oxygen in the atmosphere, which we call the Great Oxidation event about half way through the planet’s history, 2.5 billion years ago, that irreversibly created an oxidizing atmosphere. It didn’t bring the oxygen up to modern levels, but it took a big step in that direction.

There’s then another turbulent time with the rise of complex life, which ultimately ends with land plants appearing, colonizing the continents, from about 450 or so million years onwards. They finally bring the oxygen, fairly abruptly actually, up to modern levels, to a level that you and I can exist and talk about it. But those changes were not entirely smooth. We definitely think that at least one of them was a major tipping point change. So that’s one of the, from a human perspective, one of the best tipping points in the history of the planet because we couldn’t be here without them. So not all tipping points are bad of course, and maybe it lies in the eye of the beholder.

Ariel Conn: So if humanity accidentally wipes itself off the face of the Earth, future species will be grateful?

Tim Lenton: Well who’s to say, but we are humans, so it would be a profound act of collective self-disinterest and misanthropic not to want to create a long, happy future for our descendants, whatever they may be. At least that’s my take on it. And the cyanobacteria, they caused this incredible, great oxidation, but they’re still with us and they’re inside animal cells and plant cells doing all the photosynthesis I can see around me as I look out of my window at the green trees and grass. So they caused ultimately an absolutely profound change, but they made their way through it and still triumphed. That’s far from clear for humans, but that’s the challenge we’ve given ourselves, really, is: are we going to make this a transformative change for the whole planet, including ourselves, and seeing the other side of it? Or are we just going to be a kind of futile blip in the future geological record that some unimagined lifeform or alien lifeform is going to eventually dig up from Earth’s future? I know which one I’d vote for.

Ariel Conn: Hopefully the former.

Tim Lenton: Yeah, definitely the former, but I have friends who have argued that they’re just going to drive around as fast and as hard as they can to bring down the end sooner because they think that we’re a mess and we should extinguish ourselves. So there’s all shades and colors in the rich tapestry of human life, isn’t there?

Ariel Conn: There is. You recently published a paper on Gaia 2.0, which is an extension, I believe, of the Gaia hypothesis — sort of a more recent model. What is that about?

Tim Lenton: So the central point I’m trying to get across there is that what’s unusual about us as a species, humans, is now in the 21st century we are, or we’re becoming, collectively aware of the global consequences of our actions. We talked a minute ago about the cyanobacteria 2.5 billion years ago. Well, they transformed the planet, but I don’t think anyone would say they had a collective awareness of what they were doing as they were doing it, because they’re very simple creatures in comparison. So that awareness we have of the global consequences of our actions is something unusual and arguably new in Gaia or in the Earth system. I wouldn’t say we’re doing a great job yet of using that awareness of the consequences of our actions to change our actions, but some of us have started to change our behavior and our consumption habits because we think that they are unsustainable.

The exciting thing for me is, if we bring, as a species, a little bit of self-awareness into the existing self-regulation and workings of the Earth’s system, what form could that take? Where could it take us? What lessons would we take from the biosphere, or Earth history, to try to make a happier, more flourishing, sustainable future for ourselves and all the other living things we need, because they’re our life support system? It’s a proposition that there is something new — and that’s why I called it Gaia 2.0 — that little bit of human collective self-awareness in the Earth’s system; and there are new feedbacks emerging, but it’s still unclear which way it’s going to go.

They range from global technocratic geoengineering schemes, which imagine that some privileged subset of humanity are going to geoengineer a preferred climate that they’re presumably going to decide on for everybody else to take or not; through to much more, you might say organic responses, where we look to work with nature, or Gaia, to support its self-regulating mechanisms and its resilience, and help it flourish because we know that we flourish with it, if you know what I mean.

Ariel Conn: Maybe you even said this specifically, but this sounds very much like a human tipping point that we’re sort of striving for.

Tim Lenton: I think so, and I think we’re basically, whether we acknowledge it or not, we’re in a time where either we live up to our name, which I think means — homo sapiens, I think it means wise people — either we find that wisdom or we don’t. So I think we’re in a time where it could tip one way or the other, but some of us would like to do everything in our power to try and tip that kind of shift in collective awareness, collective action, and relationship with the rest of the world around us, in simple terms. So that’s going to be quite profound and quite exciting, I think, if it does happen. I’m not saying it will happen, and I see reasons for hope and reasons for despair at the moment. But at least there’s a lot to play for; I mean, the chips are down.

Ariel Conn: Is there anything else that you think is important to mention that we didn’t get into?

Tim Lenton: No, we covered some good stuff there.

Ariel Conn: Okay, excellent, well thank you so much.

Tim Lenton: No problem.

Ariel Conn: On the next episode of Not Cool, I’ll be speaking with Jessica Troni, who is the Senior Programme Officer responsible for the UN Environment’s Global Environment Facility’s Climate Change Adaptation portfolio.

Jessica Troni: Consideration of climate risks in government — national government — and business decisions isn’t enough. We also need to partner with local communities so that we plan for adaptation in a way that makes sense to local communities, and that delivers benefits to poorer, unrepresented people. 

Ariel Conn: I hope you enjoyed this third episode of Not Cool. My next interview with Jessica Troni will go live on Tuesday, September 10th. In the meantime, please join the climate discussion on Twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate and let us know what you think of the show so far. 

 

Not Cool Ep 3: Tim Lenton on climate tipping points

What is a climate tipping point, and how do we know when we’re getting close to one? On Episode 3 of Not Cool, Ariel talks to Dr. Tim Lenton, Professor and Chair in Earth System Science and Climate Change at the University of Exeter and Director of the Global Systems Institute. Tim explains the shifting system dynamics that underlie phenomena like glacial retreat and the disruption of monsoons, as well as their consequences. He also discusses how to deal with low certainty/high stakes risks, what types of policies we most need to be implementing, and how humanity’s unique self-awareness impacts our relationship with the Earth.

Topics discussed include:

Climate tipping points: impacts, warning signals
Evidence that climate is nearing tipping point?
IPCC warming targets
Risk management under uncertainty
Climate policies
Human tipping points: social, economic, technological
The Gaia Hypothesis

Not Cool Ep 1: John Cook on misinformation and overcoming climate silence

On the premier of Not Cool, Ariel is joined by John Cook: psychologist, climate change communication researcher, and founder of SkepticalScience.com. Much of John’s work focuses on misinformation related to climate change, how it’s propagated, and how to counter it. He offers a historical analysis of climate denial and the motivations behind it, and he debunks some of its most persistent myths. John also discusses his own research on perceived social consensus, the phenomenon he’s termed “climate silence,” and more.

Topics discussed include:

  • History of of the study of climate change
  • Climate denial: history and motivations
  • Persistent climate myths
  • How to overcome misinformation
  • How to talk to climate deniers
  • Perceived social consensus and climate silence

References discussed include:

Solving climate change doesn’t require convincing that 8% of the population who are dismissives. It’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to change most of their minds. Instead what we need to do is be reaching out to the 90-plus percent of the country who are open to evidence and who are at least not going to deny the science when they encounter it.

~John Cook

Ariel Conn: Hi Everyone. I’m Ariel Conn, and I’m excited to welcome you to the very first episode of Not Cool: A Climate Podcast. Now, for the last few years, I’ve been studying existential threats to humanity, and climate change has been especially disturbing because each new article and report that comes out, seems to find that everything keeps getting worse. And there’s little in the news about solutions or hope. And that’s unfortunate. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while trying to communicate about existential threats, it’s that people don’t like learning about devastating global problems that have no solutions. We don’t like learning about something that could very likely destroy society as we know it, and there’s nothing we can do about it. And this is unfortunate in the case of climate change especially  because it’s simply not true. Our individual actions can’t solve climate change, but together, our individual actions can help drive the political momentum and change that’s necessary. Unlike threats associated with artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and nuclear weapons, the climate crisis isn’t a problem that can only be solved by the scientific and political elites of the world. In fact, we’ll all need to make changes to our lives if we want to keep the negative impacts of climate change to a minimum. 

But this leads to another problem. Change sucks. It’s hard and scary. Even more so when we can’t say for certain what the outcomes of the change will be. Better to stick with the Devil you know, than the devil you don’t, right? I wanted to start this podcast to help better understand the climate problem, but also to better understand what really needs to be done. I think a point that my first guest makes is incredibly important: We can’t address climate change, if we’re not talking about it more. And that doesn’t mean just talking about what’s going wrong. It also means talking about everything we can do in our homes and neighborhoods to start improving our future. I’ll be on Twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate, not only to talk about climate issues, but also to talk about lifestyle changes I’m making, changes I wish I could make, and the struggles and failures that come with trying to change one’s lifestyle. I hope you’ll consider joining the discussion.

Without further ado, I’d like to introduce John Cook, our first guest. John is the founder of SkepticalScience.com, an award-winning website about the science behind climate change. He is a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, where he researches cognitive science. He’s coauthored multiple textbooks on climate change, and he’s been working on different strategies to counter climate misinformation, including a high school curriculum, a MOOC about climate denial, and he’s currently working on a mobile game called Cranky Uncle that teaches critical thinking about climate change.

So, John, thank you so much for joining the show.

John Cook: Thanks for having me.

Ariel Conn: I think maybe before we even start talking about misunderstandings about climate change, it would be nice if you could just give maybe a really brief overview — which might be an unfair request — of what we’ve known about climate science and climate change and for how long.

John Cook: Actually, that’s a really good question and I think it’s a really important question, because a lot of people don’t realize that our understanding of climate change dates back to the mid-1800s. Joseph Fourier was the first scientist to propose that the planet should be a lot colder than it is: there’s something in the atmosphere which is warming our planet. He didn’t know what it was, he just knew that something was happening. And it wasn’t until the 1860s — in fact it was around the same time as the US was fighting the Civil War — that a scientist in England, John Tyndall, conducted experiments finding a greenhouse effect.

He shown infrared light through these containers containing CO2, or water vapor, different greenhouse gases, and he empirically showed that certain gases trap heat. It wasn’t until I think around 1895, I think, that Svante Arrhenius from Sweden did the calculations to work out how much the planet would warm if we doubled the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. And he was doing this with pen and paper. And he got not far off: It was about four or five degrees, where the actual answer that our climate models and our supercomputers now calculate is around three degrees. So, not bad for 1800s science.

Ariel Conn: I’d heard about his calculations in the late 1890s; I had not heard about the other research earlier. But my understanding is that it wasn’t until the 1960s or 70s that scientists really started to take this seriously. Is that correct? Or how early did the science community start to recognize this as a problem?

John Cook: When Svante Arrhenius proposed that all of this CO2 that we’re emitting could contribute to global warming, he was coming from a very cold part of the world. So he was saying, “This would be actually pretty good, guys.” But that research kind of went nowhere because it was only a few years later that another scientist, Knut Ångström, did another experiment, and he found that if you keep adding CO2, eventually it saturates and has kind of diminishing returns. It no longer has a warming effect.

So, he said that even if we are emitting CO2, it probably won’t make any difference. In a sense, this was like the first climate denial argument and it still persists to this day. This happened around 1900, and then scientists kind of lost interest in the issue for at least half a century. It wasn’t until around the 1950s that Guy Callendar — which is a funny name, I was researching him and trying to find images and when you Google “Guy Callendar,” you get a lot of images that aren’t helpful for trying to find a historical figure — anyway, Guy Callendar calculated that actually Angstrom made a big mistake in his assumptions. He was assuming that the atmosphere was like a little container in a lab that you shine infrared energy through. And it turns out that atmosphere isn’t that simple: It’s a series of layers. And while you might get a saturated greenhouse effect in the bottom layer, you still get greenhouse warming happening higher up in the atmosphere. And so once scientists realized that, the game was back on again, and scientists started to realize that global warming could be on the cards, and that continued until the 1970s where scientists were saying, “Well, we’re adding all these greenhouse gases now, we’ve had several decades of measuring CO2 and it’s going up and up. So, we know that atmospheric CO2 is increasing due to our emissions. Global warming should be around the corner based on the physics.” And they turned out to be correct. In the late ’70s, that’s when global warming — the modern warming trend — really started to kick in, and it’s been warming ever since.

Ariel Conn: You started with one of the earliest myths about climate change. Can you give us a brief history then as well of climate skepticism?

John Cook: Climate skepticism, or what I would call it is climate science denial, really began in the early 1990s. At that point the science was becoming clearer, and the science implied that we have to do something about this: We need policy to reduce emissions and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. And there were some people who didn’t like that policy, particularly conservative groups who believed in unregulated free markets. They didn’t like the idea of regulating the fossil fuel industry, because they were worried that that would be the first step down a slippery slope to socialism and communism and controlling all of our lives and all sorts of big government outcomes which they feared.

And so these conservative free market groups, rather than come up with their own free market solutions to climate change, unfortunately went in a different direction and they decided to attack the science instead. Not liking the proposed solutions, they instead denied there was a problem that needed solving. And since the early 1990s, there’s been a persistent misinformation campaign that persists to this day.

Ariel Conn: I don’t know if this is a scientific question or sort of a “your experience” question, but why have people had — for a while, at least, they’ve almost had an easier time believing the denial than the science? Why is that?

John Cook: That’s a complicated question. I’d have to think about that a bit. Because there’s lots of reasons why people believe things. Partly I think it’s because it’s a lot easier to believe the status quo. There’s this quote that one of my colleagues in the office loves quoting, and I’m going to butcher this quote, but it’s something to the effect of “nothing has more efficacy than status quo.” In other words, it’s easier to do nothing than to do something.

And so, the people who oppose climate action and tend to oppose climate science, they’re just saying, let’s keep doing things the way we’re doing. That’s an attractive argument and it’s the easiest thing to do: Do what we’ve always done. What we need to do to avoid the worst impacts of climate change is transition. We need to change the ways that we burn energy. That’s a bit of work. Change is difficult. It’s also, in the long-term, it’s the healthier and economically stronger way to go as well.

Ariel Conn: Over the years, what has been the most persistent myths about climate change?

John Cook: One of the most common and damaging myths is the myth that there is not a scientific consensus on climate change. There’s been a number of studies looking at this particular myth. Some of the research that my colleagues here at George Mason have done have found that, testing a whole bunch of different climate myths, that one myth — that there’s no consensus — is the most effective in reducing people’s attitudes about climate change, in reducing their acceptance that it’s happening, reducing their acceptance that humans are causing it. It’s just a really potent myth.

Another analysis by some other colleagues, Elsasser and Dunlap, found that it’s one of the most common myths as well. They did some analysis of conservative opinion pieces about climate change, and they listed all the different arguments being used, and attacking the consensus was the number one argument. So, it’s one of the most common and it’s one of the most damaging myths.

Ariel Conn: So then you were also the person who published the paper about, no, 97% of climate scientists actually do agree on this. That was you, right?

John Cook: I’d love to take credit for that, but I was one among many different studies that have found that same result.

Ariel Conn: Okay.

John Cook: We published a study in 2013 finding 97% consensus on human caused global warming. But the first study that found 97% consensus came out in 2009, and then another study came out in 2010 also finding 97% consensus. So we were actually the third study. And so it was kind of funny, people just have short memories and they forget anything that didn’t happen last week, or in this Twitter age, over the last 24 hours. When our study came out in 2013, later that year, Senator Ted Cruz was on TV saying the 97% consensus is based on one discredited study. I like to talk to the authors of those other two 97% studies and we speculate on which of our studies is that one discredited study.

Ariel Conn: But there’s actually various studies now that are showing consensus on the 97% consensus.

John Cook: Consensus on consensus.

Ariel Conn: Have you found that to be a strong rebuttle to climate deniers then, or are there other arguments that you’ve found? What has been the most effective approach to dealing with climate denialism?

John Cook: Two things: firstly, yeah, the idea of replication is one of the strongest elements of the scientific method. When there’s just one scientific study finding results, that’s interesting, but we don’t have strong scientific confidence or understanding until multiple studies, ideally using multiple different methods, all come to the same conclusion. It’s only then, when you have all that replication, that we start to have confidence that we’re on the right track.

And so now, we’re at the stage where we have multiple studies all quantifying the level of scientific agreement on human-caused global warming. And they all come to that same conclusion, that there’s over 90% agreement; and multiple studies, at least four studies, finding 97% agreement that this is human-caused global warming. So replication is one of the strongest responses to misinformation. 

The other response — which I think is quite powerful, and my research backs this up — is explaining the techniques used to mislead people. If you explain the specific fallacies or misleading techniques in misinformation, then that misinformation no longer influences people. During my PhD, I conducted research trying to find out ways to neutralize misinformation. And I found that if you can preemptively explain the techniques used to mislead, then expose people to the misinformation afterwards, that misinformation has no effect on them.

So what I’m currently focusing my work on is putting that into practice: teaching critical thinking, teaching people how to detect logical fallacies and denial techniques so that if they encounter those techniques and fallacies in the real world, it’ll have less influence over them.

Ariel Conn: I think I read that you started skepticalscience.com in 2007 — is that correct?

John Cook: Yes.

Ariel Conn: Have you found that the discussions have changed over the last 20-plus years, or do you find that you’re still having the same — I don’t know if argument is quite the right word — but if you’re still making the same points over and over and over again?

John Cook: I was at a conference in Washington DC — it was a climate denial conference, as in, it was a conference attended by climate deniers, and all the talks were promoting climate denial arguments. And so I got into a few conversations with a few climate science deniers. And the arguments they were presenting there were exactly the same arguments that I was looking at in 2007. Climate denial is kind of in a state of stasis. The same arguments that we see in 2019 are the same arguments that we were seeing in 1990s. It’s just those same denial talking points repeated over and over.

Ariel Conn: I’ve seen polls that are showing that we’re at least getting more people convinced that climate change is real and something that we need to be addressing. Have you personally seen that the numbers of people who still are in denial have gone down? Or does it feel like it’s still a huge problem, I guess?

John Cook: The number of our people who deny climate science — or as the Yale and Mason surveys call them, the dismissives — that’s been a small number in single digit percentages, around 8% or 9%, for the last 10 years. It hasn’t really shifted. However, when you look at the population as a whole, people are becoming more understanding of climate change. So what you say is exactly correct: The public are getting it. When you look at the average answer, when asked, how many scientists agree on human caused global warming, what’s a scientific consensus, that has steadily been shifting upwards over the last 10 years.

So the public are becoming more aware of climate change and more accepting, but that little small percentage of dismissives is kind of rusted on, and fixed. I think that that’s actually really important to recognize. Solving climate change doesn’t require convincing that 8% of the population who are dismissives. It’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to change most of their minds. Instead what we need to do is be reaching out to the 90-plus percent of the country who are open to evidence and who are at least not going to deny the science when they encounter it. And so we are seeing headway amongst the vast majority of the population.

Ariel Conn: I want to go back to your background. You studied cognitive psychology, is that right?

John Cook: Yes.

Ariel Conn: You just described how you looked at misinformation. How did you end up getting into climate change? I almost feel silly asking this question now, because I think in some ways it’s sort of obvious, but how has your background influenced the way you look at the problem of climate change skepticism?

John Cook: So, I got into this issue by getting into arguments with my father-in-law. This was before I was doing cognitive psychology. In fact, at the time, my day job was cartooning: I was drawing cartoons for a living. And this was after I did a physics degree. So I did a physics degree, then I made the natural transition into cartooning, and then I got into an argument with my father-in-law about climate change. And I started researching whether his argument that climate change was a hoax was valid or not, and found that actually climate change was real, and his arguments were not based on science at all.

The next step for me was, as a son-in-law who was determined to not get beaten in an argument with his father-in-law, I started researching what the science said about all the different climate denial arguments, and showing just how motivated I was to prevailing the next argument, I started building a database of all the possible arguments he might present and what the science said about each one. This began as a personal database, but eventually I realized that other people have family members who are climate deniers as well, whether they’re cranky uncles or father-in-laws.

And so, I took my personal database and published it online as the Skeptical Science website. I did that for a little while, and it was really just a hobby on the side: My day job was drawing cartoons, my hobby was doing science. But eventually the science kind of grew and grew and the website got bigger and bigger until it eventually led to me doing a PhD into how to counter misinformation. And then that ended up me actually relocating to the US from Australia to continue my research into climate communication and countering misinformation.

Ariel Conn: That was not the order I expected it to have happened in.

John Cook: That’s a very meandering kind of path. It began as a physicist doing cartoons on the side; then a cartoonist doing science on the side; and now I’m a scientist using cartoons in my science to try to counter misinformation.

Ariel Conn: I mean I think that’s the best way to do communication personally. That kind of connects very nicely to another question I have for you then, and that is how can people who are concerned about climate change converse both with family members at, say, a holiday meal or something like that, and how does our method of interacting with people change when we’re, say, online, where we know comments can get quite negative?

John Cook: Having published a lot of articles online and been subject to feral comment threads, that led me to reading some of the literature on online trolling and bullying. And it’s a sad fact that when people can post anonymous comments, their behavior is much worse than how they are face-to-face. In fact, I experienced that on Thursday. I met a few climate deniers face-to-face and they were quite cordial, and we were quite friendly with each other. And then they went on Twitter and posted lots of nasty tweets about me. Like I don’t know how, he seemed so nice when I met him. That’s a shame.

I think that we should try to respond online in the same way we would if we were meeting someone face-to-face. We should treat people with respect. When I converse with people online or face-to-face, and when I am talking to someone who is dismissive about climate science, I recognize the fact that there’s actually very little chance that I will change their mind, because they tend to respond to evidence about climate change by denying the evidence, denying the science.

If they’re not going to accept evidence, there’s really nothing you can do to convince them, or there’s very little you can do. But that recognition is important because at least in my case, it gives me kind of a Zen-like acceptance that I’m not going to change a person’s mind and therefore, I’m not going to get as frustrated as I would if I was banging my head against a brick wall trying to persuade someone.

So for example, when I’m giving a public talk about climate change and someone in the audience during the Q&A asks me a question and they throw a climate myth at me, and it’s obvious that they are dismissive about climate science, I will respond to them. I’ll answer their question, I will address the climate myth, and I’ll be talking to that person. But really what I’m doing is talking to all the people around who are watching that exchange: They’re my actual audience. Because A, they’re open to evidence about climate change and they’re open to scientific explanations that I provide. And B, that means that they’re also vulnerable to being influenced by the misinformation.

So I want to make sure that they not only understand the science but they also understand the denial techniques that are used to distort the science. So the way I talk to people, either online or face-to-face, is I answer their questions respectfully, but I also recognize that it’s the people who are watching the exchange who are probably going to get the most out of that conversation.

Ariel Conn: You had a paper come out recently called Science By Social Media: Attitudes Towards Climate Change Are Mediated By Perceived Social Consensus. One of the things that it says is when comments reject the content of, say, a blog post, the perceived reader consensus is lower than when the comments endorse the content — which I found rather disturbing, because in my experience, climate articles seem a lot more likely to attract negative comments. And so I was wondering if you have suggestions for how people who talk about climate change online can address that problem. Do we just not allow comments? Or is there any other option?

John Cook: That was the first thing I thought when we looked at our data: I thought, oh dear, we should just be turning off the whole comment threads. And I’ve touched on that so far in our conversation, but I think it’s important to go back to the idea of the importance of social consensus. Humans are social animals, that’s just how our brains are built. And social norming or peer pressure is one of the most powerful psychological influences on not only our behavior, but even on our attitudes, and our understanding. When all the people around us believe one thing, there’s an immense pressure, more than we realize, to go along with the group.

And so that means that comment threads do have an influence on people’s attitudes. But it also means that it’s important to realize just how many people in the population at large are on board with the reality of climate change. The Six Americas Surveys that Mason and Yale have been conducting for the last decade have found that more than half of the population, the US public, are either concerned or alarmed about climate change. They’re onboard with the climate science. About 51% of the population are onboard. 

But people don’t realize that, and that has a silencing effect. More than half of these people who are on board about climate change don’t talk about climate change with their friends and family. And the main reason they don’t is because they think that not everyone agrees with them. It’s this misconception called pluralistic ignorance. So I think it’s important that we communicate that social consensus, that most of the population are on board with climate change, and the dismissives are less than 10% of the population. Understanding that it’s a social consensus, A, it makes people more accepting of climate change and B, and most importantly, it makes us more likely to talk about climate change and not self-censor.

Ariel Conn: Earlier you were talking about how one of your goals is to help educate people about recognizing fallacies, so they recognize these logical fallacies and they don’t fall for them. Now, as you mentioned, you’re at George Mason, so obviously there’s a limited number of students who are going to be coming through your doors. But you’ve got some other projects that are much more public facing, either currently or I think one of them is still in the works, and I was hoping you could talk a bit about those as well.

John Cook: The earlier work that I did back when I was in Australia was we developed a massive open online course about climate denial. And a key part of that course was not only explaining the facts of climate change, but explaining the techniques used to distort those facts. And you can find that — I’ll just do a little plug — at sks.to/denial101x, or if you just Google “making sense of climate science denial.”

So that was the first public facing work that I did: trying to not just educate the public about climate change, but increase critical thinking about misinformation. But more recently what I’m doing is I’ve become intrigued by the idea of gamification, and the power that it holds to make critical thinking much more accessible — and even fun — to a much broader part of the population.

What we’re currently working on is a mobile game where people learn the techniques of science denial by actually trying to kind of become a climate denier, or become a cranky uncle. And so the idea of the game is you learn techniques of denial, and each time you learn a technique, you gain cranky points. And you get crankier and crankier until eventually you become a cranky uncle and you’ve succeeded in the game.

And by doing that, what the research shows is by learning the techniques of denial, you basically get inoculated against them. When you encounter misinformation that use those techniques, it doesn’t influence you. And we’ll test this: We’re hoping that this game will inoculate people against misinformation. And hopefully they’ll have fun: They’ll learn critical thinking, they’ll learn a bit about climate change. But also it will help neutralize all that misinformation and fake news that is out there.

Ariel Conn: Yeah. It’s not just climate change that’s got a misinformation problem, so sounds like this is something that would be useful for other fields as well.

John Cook: Yeah, I’m doing some pilot testing at the moment, testing different quiz questions where we present a false argument and then people have to choose what fallacy is in it by multiple choice. And every example we’re using is not related to climate change — it’s vaccination or creationism or just everyday life stuff. In fact, I think one argument we used was “Taylor Swift’s music is the best because she writes her own songs.” What fallacy does this argument use? It’s just spotting the telltale fallacy argument structures in everyday arguments.

Ariel Conn: That sounds awesome. I think I could probably benefit from that too. It’s probably embarrassing. So one final thing that I wanted to bring up that you’ve been working on is turning misinformation into education opportunities. And if I was reading about that correctly, it focuses on helping students understand these same issues.

John Cook: Yeah. About two years ago, the Heartland Institute, which coincidentally organized that conference that I went to, they sent a climate denial book out to about 20,000 high school students around the country. And this got a lot of people quite upset, that there was this attempt to get climate misinformation directly into classrooms. And so the question was, well, what do we do about this? At that point, I’d been working on that question for a while. Most of my research was how do we neutralize misinformation through public engagement, but over the course of doing that, I came upon similar efforts in the context of classrooms: How do we use education to stop misinformation? And it turns out there’s several decades of research into this approach called “misconception-based learning,” which is the idea that you teach science by addressing misconceptions or misinformation about science. The research finds that this is actually one of the most powerful ways of teaching science. It gets stronger learning gains and the learning gains last longer; The students get more engaged with the content. It’s just a really compelling way to teach science.

I started working on a curriculum in collaboration with the National Center for Science Education. And around two years ago, we trained a handful of teachers scattered around the country — from about eight different states — on how to teach our curriculum of turning misinformation into an educational opportunity. Since then, they’ve expanded that program: The teachers are now training other teachers; They have roughly 20 teacher ambassadors who are going out there teaching in their own classes, but also training other teachers to also use this curriculum.

Ariel Conn: So one of the things that I found interesting — the idea that it seems if we teach students about climate change, they go home and talk to their parents about it and their parents are more likely to become concerned about the issue after talking to their kids than after hearing about the issue from anywhere else. Is that something you’ve looked into?

John Cook: I haven’t directly measured that myself, but there have been other studies that have looked at that exact question. And what they’ve found is that yes, when students are taught climate change, parents’ attitudes about climate change improve as well. And the effect is biggest amongst parents who were the most skeptical. I think it’s important to teach students just for the student’s sake, but that can have flow-on effects to the rest of the family as well.

One thing we did measure when we were assessing our own program of turning misinformation into an educational opportunity: we did measure the students’ confidence to talk about climate change with friends and family, and how much they actually do talk about climate change with friends and family. We found that both significantly increased after the lessons. And that was really important because of that idea of climate silence — the fact that most people don’t talk about climate change. We found that if you taught them climate change by addressing misinformation and misconceptions, it empowered them to talk about the issue. We were quite encouraged by that result.

Ariel Conn: Looking at the huge problem of climate change, what would you like to see more people doing at an individual level, policy level, corporate level, national, international, whatever — what are some of the things that you think are most important for people to be doing right now to address climate change?

John Cook: There’s so many different things that people can do. Probably what I would recommend in a very generic general sense is find what’s unique about yourself — like, what are you good at? — and use that; use your own unique skills; make that a contribution to fighting climate change. But more practically, I think the most important thing that every single person can do is talk more about climate change. There’s a big disconnect between people’s attitudes about climate change and actual policy outcomes and climate action. And maybe the biggest contributor to this disconnect is climate silence: the fact that people aren’t talking about it, even if they’re on board and even if they deeply care about the issue, not everyone is talking about it. And so, we need to break climate silence.

The fact that we’re not talking about it creates this spiral of silence because people don’t hear anyone else talking and assume that no one cares about it. If we can start to break the silence, then we can start building social momentum. And social momentum is the key to political momentum and getting real action.

Ariel Conn: And so to follow up with that: what gives you the most hope? And are you hopeful that we can address the problem of climate change?

John Cook: What gives me the most hope? Probably two things. One is the way young people are stepping up to the plate now. Heroes like Greta Thunberg in Europe leading the way now, but also just students all around the world striking and speaking up and marching and protesting. It’s a cliché that children are our future, but that does bode well, that young people are rightfully standing up on this issue, because they’re inheriting all this climate impacts that my generation has created.

The other thing that gives me hope is the historical fact that social change and technological change is nonlinear. Whenever we’ve had social change in the past, there’s been years or decades where it’s barely budging and then suddenly it shifts. Similarly, technology changes always exceed our expectations. So, my hope is that we are in the process of that nonlinear social shift right now, and the technology will outpace our expectations.

Am I hopeful there? I think it’s the way that I drag myself out of bed every day in the face of this huge issue of climate change, is to recognize that climate change isn’t a binary thing. It’s not a dichotomy where we either avoid climate change or we experience climate change. It’s literally a matter of degrees. Any action that we do now will reduce some climate impacts in the future. It means that we have already committed to some climate impact, and I think that we will experience serious climate impacts; The degree of severity of the impacts is yet to be determined. So, I’m hopeful that we can reduce some of the severity and hopefully it can be a tolerable amount of climate impacts. But I also recognize that we are already committed to a degree of climate change and it’s happening now already: We’re experiencing climate impacts here and now in my part of the world — in every part of the world.

Ariel Conn: Are there any final thoughts that you think are important for people to know that we didn’t get into?

John Cook: I guess the recognition that humans are social animals means that arguably the two most important things that people need to know about climate change are not technical stuff like greenhouse effects or carbon cycles: It’s that there is a scientific consensus and that there is a social consensus. There’s 97% agreement amongst climate scientists that humans are causing global warming, and most of the population are on board with the reality of climate change as well, and support climate action. The public awareness of those two basic facts are pretty low. I think it’s something like 15% of the US are aware that the scientific consensus is about 90%. That’s super low. So it’s a very simple thing to communicate: a single number, 97% scientific consensus; Just be more persistent in communicating those basic facts.

Ariel Conn: All right, well, we’re certainly grateful to all the work that you’re doing to try to do that and we’re trying to do what we can over here. So, thank you very much.

John Cook: Thanks for having me and thank you for all your great work.

Ariel Conn: On the next episode of Not Cool, I’ll be joined by Joanna Haigh, who has been at the forefront of climate science and developing climate models since the 1970s, and whose work helped scientists better understand the difference between natural climate change and human-induced climate change.

Joanna Haigh: When we start seeing what we now call global warming — recent warming — the question is, is that due to natural factors such as those that have happened in the past, or is it due to human activity? So you really need to understand the natural factors to ascertain to what extent they are causing recent warming or not.

Ariel Conn: I hope you enjoyed this first episode. The next interview with Joanna Haigh is also live, so you can have a mini-binge and listen to that right away. And then please join the climate discussion on Twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate and let us know what you think of the show so far.

Not Cool

Not Cool: A Climate Conversation

Climate change, to state the obvious, is a huge and complicated problem. Unlike the threats posed by artificial intelligence, biotechnology or nuclear weapons, you don’t need to have an advanced science degree or be a high-ranking government official to start having a meaningful impact on your own carbon footprint. Each of us can begin making lifestyle changes today that will help. We started this podcast because the news about climate change seems to get worse with each new article and report, but the solutions, at least as reported, remain vague and elusive. We wanted to hear from the scientists and experts themselves to learn what’s really going on and how we can all come together to solve this crisis.

Every Tuesday and Thursday we’ll be posting a new interview to the list below.

Not Cool, Ep 5: Ken Caldeira on energy, infrastructure, and planning for an uncertain climate future


Planning for climate change is particularly difficult because we’re dealing with such big unknowns. How, exactly, will the climate change? Who will be affected and how? What new innovations are possible, and how might they help address or exacerbate the current problem? Etc. But we at least know that in order to minimize the negative effects of climate change, we need to make major structural changes — to our energy systems, to our infrastructure, to our power structures — and we need to start now. On the fifth episode of Not Cool, Ariel is joined by Ken Caldeira, who is a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science and the Department of Global Ecology and a professor at Stanford University’s Department of Earth System Science. Ken shares his thoughts on the changes we need to be making, the obstacles standing in the way, and what it will take to overcome them.

Not Cool, Ep 4: Jessica Troni on helping countries adapt to climate change


The reality is, no matter what we do going forward, we’ve already changed the climate. So while it’s critical to try to minimize those changes, it’s also important that we start to prepare for them. On Episode 4 of Not Cool, Ariel explores the concept of climate adaptation — what it means, how it’s being implemented, and where there’s still work to be done. She’s joined by Jessica Troni, head of UN Environment’s Climate Change Adaptation Unit, who talks warming scenarios, adaptation strategies, implementation barriers, and more.

Not Cool, Ep 3: Tim Lenton on climate tipping points


What is a climate tipping point, and how do we know when we’re getting close to one? On Episode 3 of Not Cool, Ariel talks to Dr. Tim Lenton, Professor and Chair in Earth System Science and Climate Change at the University of Exeter and Director of the Global Systems Institute. Tim explains the shifting system dynamics that underlie phenomena like glacial retreat and the disruption of monsoons, as well as their consequences. He also discusses how to deal with low certainty/high stakes risks, what types of policies we most need to be implementing, and how humanity’s unique self-awareness impacts our relationship with the Earth.

Not Cool, Ep 2: Joanna Haigh on climate modeling and the history of climate change


On the second episode of Not Cool, Ariel delves into some of the basic science behind climate change and the history of its study. She is joined by Dr. Joanna Haigh, an atmospheric physicist whose work has been foundational to our current understanding of how the climate works. Joanna is a fellow of the Royal Society and recently retired as Co-Director of the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London. Here, she gives a historical overview of the field of climate science and the major breakthroughs that moved it forward. She also discusses her own work on the stratosphere, radiative forcing, solar variability, and more.

Not Cool, Ep 1: John Cook on misinformation, social consensus, and overcoming climate silence


On the premier of Not Cool, Ariel is joined by John Cook: psychologist, climate change communication researcher, and founder of SkepticalScience.com. Much of John’s work focuses on misinformation related to climate change: how it’s propagated and how to counter it. He offers a historical analysis of climate denial and the motivations behind it, and he debunks some of its most persistent myths. John also discusses his own research on perceived social consensus, the phenomenon he’s termed “climate silence,” and more.

Not Cool, Prologue: A Climate Conversation


FLI is excited to announce the latest in our podcast line-up: Not Cool: A Climate Conversation. In this new series, hosted by Ariel Conn, we’ll hear directly from climate experts from around the world, as they answer every question we can think of about the climate crisis. On this page, you can listen to a short trailer that highlights what we’ll be covering in the coming months, or read the transcript below. And of course you can jump right in to the first episode! We’ll be releasing new episodes every Tuesday and Thursday for at least the next couple of months.

Host: Ariel Conn


Ariel specializes in science communication, but she’s also become increasingly involved in policy outreach regarding artificial intelligence and lethal autonomous weapons. She oversees media, communication, and outreach for FLI, and she founded Mag10 Media, an organization dedicated to improving science communication. She’s studied English, physics, and geophysics, and her background is a mix of advertising, marketing, and scientific research. She’s worked with NASA, the National Labs, and multiple universities, including MIT and Virginia Tech. She’s an outdoor enthusiast, and she’s become deeply concerned about the future of the planet and the future of life for all species if we don’t address climate change soon.

Not Cool: A Climate Conversation

FLI is excited to announce the latest in our podcast line-up: Not Cool: A Climate Conversation! In this new series, hosted by Ariel Conn, we’ll hear directly from climate experts from around the world, as they answer every question we can think of about the climate crisis. You can listen to the short trailer above that highlights what we’ll be covering in the coming months, or read the transcript below. And of course you can jump right in to the first episode — all podcasts for this series can be found at futureoflife.org/notcool. And of course you can listen on any of your favorite podcast platforms. We’ll be releasing new episodes every Tuesday and Thursday for at least the next couple of months.

We want to make sure we get your questions answered too! If you haven’t had a chance to fill out our survey about what you want to learn about climate change, please consider doing so now, and let us know what you’d like to learn.

Transcript

This is really the issue of our times, and our children and grandchildren will not forgive us if we don’t contain this problem.

~Jessica Troni, Senior Programme Officer, UN Environment-Global Environment Facility Climate Change Adaptation portfolio.

Climate change, to state the obvious, is a huge and complicated problem. The crisis is a problem so big it’s being studied by people with PhDs in meteorology, geology, physics, chemistry, psychology, economics, political science, and more. It’s a problem that needs to be tackled at every level, from individual action to international cooperation. It’s a problem that seems daunting, to say the least. Yet it’s a problem that must be solved. And that’s where hope lies. You see, as far as existential threats to humanity go, climate change stands out as being particularly solvable. Challenging? Yes. But not impossible.

The trends are bad. I will quote René Dubos who said, however, “Trends are not destiny.” So the trends are bad, but we can change the trends.

~Suzanne Jones, Mayor, Boulder CO // Executive Director, Eco-Cycle

Unlike the threats posed by artificial intelligence, biotechnology or nuclear weapons, you don’t need to have an advanced science degree or be a high-ranking government official to start having a meaningful impact on your own carbon footprint. Each of us can begin making lifestyle changes today that will help. The people you vote into office at all levels of government, from local to national, can each  influence and create better climate policies. But this is a problem for which every action each of us takes truly does help.

When you have a fractal, complicated, humongous, super wicked problem like this, it means there’s some facet of it that every person on the planet can do something about it. Artist, communicator, teacher, engineer, entrepreneur. There’s something in it for everybody.

~Andrew Revkin, Head of Initiative on Communication and Sustainability, Columbia University // Science & Environmental Journalist

I’m Ariel Conn, and I’m the host of Not Cool, a climate podcast that dives deep into understanding both the climate crisis and the solutions. I started this podcast because the news about climate change seems to get worse with each new article and report, but the solutions, at least as reported, remain vague and elusive. I wanted to hear from the scientists and experts themselves to learn what’s really going on and how we can all come together to solve this crisis. And so I’ll be talking with climate experts from around the world, including scientists, journalists, policy experts and more, to learn the problems climate change poses, what we know and what’s still uncertain about our future climate, and what we can all do to help put the brakes on this threat.

We’ll look at some of the basic science behind climate change and global warming, like the history of climate modeling, what the carbon cycle is, what tipping points are and whether we’ve already passed some, what extreme weather events are and why they’re getting worse. We’ll look at the challenges facing us, from political inertia to technical roadblocks. We’ll talk about the impacts on human health and lifestyles from the spread of deadly diseases to national security threats to problems with zoning laws. We’ll learn about geoengineering, ocean acidification, deforestation, and how local communities can take action, regardless of what’s happening at the federal level.

I think the most important thing that every single person can do is talk more about climate change.  Social momentum is the key to political momentum and getting real action.

~John Cook, Founder, SkepticalScience.com // Research Assistant Professor, Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University

Let’s start talking. Let’s build momentum. And let’s take real action. Because climate change is so not cool.

Visit futureoflife.org/notcool for a complete list of episodes, which we will be updating every Tuesday and Thursday for at least the next couple of months. And we hope you’ll also join the discussion. You can find us on twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate.

Not Cool Ep 2: Joanna Haigh on climate modeling and the history of climate change

On the second episode of Not Cool, Ariel delves into some of the basic science behind climate change and the history of its study. She is joined by Dr. Joanna Haigh, an atmospheric physicist whose work has been foundational to our current understanding of how the climate works. Joanna is a fellow of The Royal Society and recently retired as Co-Director of the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London. Here, she gives a historical overview of the field of climate science and the major breakthroughs that moved it forward. She also discusses her own work on the stratosphere, radiative forcing, solar variability, and more.

Topics discussed include:

  • History of the study of climate change
  • Overview of climate modeling
  • Radiative forcing 
  • What’s changed in climate science in the past few decades
  • How to distinguish between natural climate variation and human-induced global warming 
  • Solar variability, sun spots, and the effect of the sun on the climate
  • History of climate denial 

References discussed include:

There was a particularly notable paper in 1975 in which some scientists called Manabe and Wetherald did a doubled CO2 experiment, and looked at what happened to the climate. And they showed many of the features that we would recognize today in climate change: surface warming, more warming at the poles than at the equator, changes in the hydrological cycle and circulations. So, many of those general factors were understood right back then.

~Joanna Haigh

Ariel Conn: Hi everyone, and welcome to Episode 2 of Not Cool: A climate podcast. I’m your host, Ariel Conn. I want to start by reading two sentences from an introduction to a paper in Nature that I found, frankly, to be quite shocking. They say, “Increased use of fossil fuels and deforestation have led to enhanced levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, with an increase of about 10% since the beginning of this century. This upward trend is continuing, and it has been predicted that the concentration may double in less than 100 years.”

Now, what I found shocking about this quote is not what it says, or that it contains anything particularly surprising. What startled me was that the paper was published in 1979, technically over 40 years ago at this point. And while news reports regularly highlight that scientists have understood climate change for decades, it was still really unnerving for me to see this so clearly written out.

And so we’ll get more into this paper a bit later in this podcast, but first I want to introduce its lead author, Joanna Haigh, who has been at the forefront of climate science for many decades now, and was kind enough to come talk with us. Thank you.

Joanna Haigh: You’re very welcome.

Ariel Conn: Jo is an atmospheric physicist and fellow of the Royal Society. She recently spent five years as Co-Director of the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, and prior to that she was Head of Imperial’s Physics Department. She has published widely in the area of climate modeling and radiative forcing of climate change, and her work on how changes in solar activity influence the climate has been particularly influential. So, again, thank you so much for joining us, I’m really excited to talk with you.

Joanna Haigh: Thanks.

Ariel Conn: Before we get into anything else, I just want to know how you got into climate change, and dealing with these issues, before they were well-known to the public.

Joanna Haigh: I did a degree in physics, and I didn’t quite know what to do when that finished, because I thought it was a bit dry. So I had a gap year, traveling, and what I was really interested in was the weather. So when I came back, I then studied for a doctorate in atmospheric physics, which was also quite dry, but it was on the sort of physics of how carbon dioxide and other gases absorb electromagnetic radiation, not ionizing radiation, in the atmosphere, and how that causes heating and cooling. That was my doctorate.

I was first of all working on the stratosphere — that’s the bit of the atmosphere where the ozone layer is. But subsequently I realized the importance of the effects of these greenhouse gases in the lower atmosphere and how they might influence the climate, and its effect on us, more widely.

Ariel Conn: How long have people realized that this was an issue?

Joanna Haigh: So the greenhouse effect, in the sense that gases in the atmosphere keep the surface warmer than it would be otherwise, was first discovered by Fourier, the French mathematician, back in — I think it was 1820-something. That’s been known about for a long time. Then, in about 1860, an English scientist called John Tyndall understood that it was mainly water vapor and carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere that was keeping it warmer than it would be without the atmosphere.

I think the real breakthrough in terms of climate change came at the end of that century, so about 1896, when Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, suggested that burning of fossil fuels would emit CO2 into the atmosphere, and that would cause the climate to warm. So he really suggested that for the first time.

But people didn’t really take it very seriously, and despite the fact that global temperatures were warming in the early 20th century, there wasn’t much work on that. In fact, it was somewhat dismissed. There was a guy called Guy Stewart Callendar in London in the 1930s who actually was the first one to show a correlation between the temperature rise and the CO2 rise. But still, there wasn’t much serious work on that.

But then in the 1950s, the military wanted to do more on weather prediction, and so there was a development of weather forecasting models, and that really allowed us to model the atmosphere — not only for weather forecasting, but for modeling climate over longer periods.

Ariel Conn: Looking back at recent history, it’s easy to see that it was not financially beneficial to really recognize the threats of climate change. Has that been the case this entire time, that scientists have struggled to get people to care about this issue? Or were there other roadblocks that scientists were facing in the 1930s or 40s?

Joanna Haigh: I think it wasn’t really accepted as a problem. In fact, I think Guy Stewart Callendar thought that, if it got a bit warmer, that was all fine and good, that didn’t really matter. But when the observations of temperature carried on going up, and people used the sort of calculations that Svante Arrhenius had suggested to show that, if CO2 doubled, then the temperature would go up by something like two or three degrees, people began to realize that it was quite serious. And then the development of the big computer models really allowed scientists to understand what it meant.

Ariel Conn: You’ve been very influential in the development of climate models over the years — this paper that I quoted from was actually about a two-dimensional model that you created — and I was wondering if you could walk us through a brief history of climate modeling as well.

Joanna Haigh: Yeah, sure. So when we talk about a climate model, what it is is a representation in computer mathematics of the physics of the atmosphere. The very simplest one that you can think of is called an energy balance model, and you just look at the solar energy coming in and the heat energy going out, and you just can calculate what the temperature would be, given certain amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So that’s a very simple, first-order calculation that you can do.

You can then go one step more complicated and actually give the atmosphere a sort of vertical structure, so you’ve got temperatures at different levels in the atmosphere, and you can start to calculate the transfer of heat between different levels in the atmosphere and what that means for the temperature.

And then there was developments from that, and the sort of 2D model that I was using back then in the 70s was a model in which the dimensions were latitude and height. So if you imagine that as a vertical slice through the atmosphere, there was no representation of longitude at all, but what we could see was the winds blowing through the atmosphere and the circulations in the atmosphere, and how those changed in response to various forcing factors, including greenhouse gases.

Ariel Conn: In your introduction, we talked about radiative forcing. Can you just quickly explain what forcing means in climate?

Joanna Haigh: Sure. There’s a natural balance between the solar energy that’s absorbed and the heat energy that goes to space. And, all else being equal, if you have an annual average and there’s no climate change, those two things balance out, and we have a nice, equitable climate.

But if something changes, so if for example you were to suddenly change the amount of solar energy coming into the planet — if suddenly the sun got hotter and put more energy into the planet — that would be called a positive radiative forcing. So when the climate then adjusts, it has a warmer temperature. So a positive radiative forcing will give you a warmer temperature.

And CO2, by completely different mechanisms, will also give you a positive radiative forcing. So if you just suddenly injected a load of CO2 into the atmosphere, that would disbalance this equilibrium. It would initially stop some radiation escaping to space, so there would be more sunshine coming in and less going out, and that would give you a positive heating effect. Then the atmosphere adjusts, it gets warmer, it emits more heat to space, and so there’s a new equilibrium, but it’s at a warmer temperature than it was before. That’s just an example of the effects of radiative forcing.

Ariel Conn: So, sticking with this 1979 paper for a minute, how much of what we recognize today as a problem was really well understood 40 years ago?

Joanna Haigh: So I was working on the stratosphere; There were other scientists, particularly in the USA, who were working on the effects of climate on the surface. And there was a particularly notable paper in 1975 in which some scientists called Manabe and Wetherald did a doubled CO2 experiment, and looked at what happened to the climate.

And they showed many of the features that we would recognize today in climate change: surface warming, more warming at the poles than at the equator, changes in the hydrological cycle and circulations. So, many of those general factors were understood right back then.

Ariel Conn: Okay. And then what’s changed in those few decades? One of the other things that I read in your 1979 paper that I was amused by was that 3D modeling would obviously be better, but there wasn’t enough computing power. We clearly have a lot more computing power today. How have things changed?

Joanna Haigh: In running these computers you always have to decide what it is that you’re really most interested in finding out, and what compromises you can make in the sense that you’ve only got a limited amount of computing power. Back then, the sort of work that I was doing included quite comprehensive representations of atmospheric chemistry.

So we were interested in the ozone and what that was doing, and how temperature changes affected all the species in the stratosphere. So if you’ve got a comprehensive chemistry scheme, you can’t afford to have the sort of three-dimensional winds and structures like that. However, if you’re more interested in the sort of weather and climate, and you’re not so bothered about the chemistry, then you can do a 3D model with the full latitude, longitude, and height grid.

What’s happened since then is both the number of processes that you can include in the model has increased. So for example there’s a much better representation of clouds, there’s a full representation of the ocean circulation underneath the atmosphere, there are representations of the interaction of the atmosphere and plants and the land surface — all of those extra processes that we weren’t thinking about or doing in those days.

And also what’s happened of course is, because of the huge increases in computing capacity, we’re able to do these things much faster and at much higher resolution. Back then, the horizontal spacing would’ve been hundreds of kilometers, or more — thousands of kilometers. And now, depending on which model you use, it can be down to, say, 10-100 kilometers.

So if you imagine you’ve got to represent all the different processes that are going on in the atmosphere — you’ve got the wind, you’ve got the rain, you’ve got the clouds, you’ve got all these things going on — if you look at the sky now, and you can see all these things going on, how can you possibly represent that in a model that’s essentially like boxes?

I don’t know whether kids who play Minecraft — that’s a very popular game with young kids here — you can imagine a Minecraft version of the atmosphere with all these sorts of blocks. That’s like a climate model. So the smaller you can get the blocks, the better you can represent what’s going on.

You’ve got differences across the globe, you’ve got it warmer in some places and cooler in others, and again, through the atmosphere, warmer at some levels and colder at other levels. And then how that affects all the winds that are blowing, and the clouds that are forming, and the rain that’s happening, and all the rest of it. So the increasing computer power has enabled us to do all these processes at increasing resolution and increasing detail.

Ariel Conn: So that’s the type of work — You were creating these models to look at how things changed. You said in the earlier paper you were looking at the stratosphere; Is that where most of your research has happened?

Joanna Haigh: Yes, so that 1979 paper was looking at how increasing levels of carbon dioxide affected ozone in the stratosphere. You’ve probably heard about ozone in the context of the Antarctic ozone hole, and it’s sitting up there and it’s very important for heat balance and for protecting us from UV and all the rest of it.

The idea was that as carbon dioxide increases, it warms the lower atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect that we’ve just been talking about. But actually in the upper atmosphere it cools, because it can just emit more heat to space. And as it cools, the chemical reactions that destroy ozone go slower, so more CO2 means more ozone up there. That’s what we were looking at, which was quite an interesting piece of work.

But then we went on to further study the combined effects of increasing CO2 and chlorofluorocarbons. So as you probably know, the nasties that caused the ozone hole are these chlorine-containing compounds. Now, we didn’t know about the ozone hole back in those days, but we did think that chlorofluorocarbons might be harming the ozone layer. And so the more of these CFCs you put up, they’re killing off the ozone.

So the work that I was doing then was saying, “What happens if you have more CO2 and more CFCs? More CO2 gives you more ozone, more CFCs gives you less ozone. Can you just shove them all up together and get back to where you started?” And what we discovered was absolutely not. It’s a very nonlinear thing, and the CFCs win out, so they carried on decreasing the ozone even though the temperatures were going down.

So that was a nice piece of work, and I enjoyed doing that at the time. But it’s not directly related to climate change in terms of what’s going on in the lower atmosphere. What I’ve done subsequently is looked at radiation effects on the lower atmosphere, and in particular how changes in the sun can influence the lower atmosphere.

Ariel Conn: I wanted to ask you about that because I was interested to know what the connection is between looking at how the sun influences the atmosphere with respect to the fact that climate change is a human-induced problem.

Joanna Haigh: Yes, absolutely. So when we talk about climate change, of course climate has changed in the past hugely. We’ve had Ice Ages, and we’ve had much, much warmer periods millions and millions of years ago. And there’s been a lot of work done on what causes the changes in climate in history, and that’s an interesting scientific topic.

So when we start seeing what we now call global warming — recent warming — the question is, is that due to natural factors such as those that have happened in the past, or is it due to human activity? So you really need to understand the natural factors to ascertain to what extent they are causing recent warming or not.

So I was working on how changes in solar activity could influence the climate. There was a paper published about 1980 that showed a very strong correlation between sunspot numbers and surface temperature, and it caused a huge fuss because it was suggesting that all the global warming, climate change, was due to the sun.

And so of course, if that was true, it would mean we didn’t have to worry about chucking carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; We could carry on happily burning fossil fuels, and it was all down to the sun, and we couldn’t do much about that, so that was it. So what I was working on was actually what the sun could and couldn’t do in terms of influencing the surface temperature.

Ariel Conn: And what did you find?

Joanna Haigh: In terms of the total energy of the sun coming into the climate, it varies a very small amount: about a tenth of one percent over a sunspot cycle, or over longer decadal periods. That could influence the surface temperature by perhaps a tenth of a degree or something — a very small amount. So that actually was well established, that we can’t cause global warming just by changes in solar output.

But then I went on to think a little bit more. Because of this work that I’d done previously on stratospheric ozone, I thought a bit about other changes in the sun. When we talk about sunspots, they’re just a measure of activity, they don’t tell you anything about the physics of what’s going on. But actually what you have is, when there’s more sunspots, the sun’s actually putting out more energy, it’s putting out this tenth of a percent more total energy.

But what I did was I looked at the spectrum of that energy. As you know, in light there’s red light going through to blue light in the spectrum, but at shorter wavelengths there’s ultraviolet. And what happens with the sun is, when it’s more active, it only puts out this very small amount in visible or total energy, but its amounts of ultraviolet are hugely increased. So that then affects the ozone, because that’s what’s causing the ozone to be there in the first place.

So that was what I thought was really interesting, was looking at how changes in solar ultraviolet can affect the ozone. I did some work on that, and then I did some work with a big climate model, looking at how the coupling of changes in stratospheric ozone can actually influence the climate below.

What we found was that it wasn’t that you get global temperature changes in response to the solar UV, but you can get patterns of response. So you can get shifts in where the stormtraps are, and changes in the patterns of the weather rather than a global warming effect. That was to help people interpret global or local climate records in terms of what was forcing the changes in different parts of the world.

Ariel Conn: One of the things that is an issue in trying to explain climate change is that, yes, the whole world might be warming, but certain sections are going to be feeling the impacts of that differently, and so there might still be big snowstorms in places, or places that didn’t use to have snow might start getting snow. Is that research you’re talking about connected to this idea, then?

Joanna Haigh: Only in a very general sense, that what it’s saying is that global warming isn’t the whole picture. It’s bad enough, but you can get regional patterns that are quite different. I think what you’re describing there is changes in extreme weather events, and we’re beginning to see those already in response to global warming. But I haven’t actually done much work on that.

Ariel Conn: Okay. A lot of this sounds like stuff that you did earlier on. What’s some of the work you’ve done in the last decade or so?

Joanna Haigh: Looking at particular factors how the sun affects the climate. With colleagues I’ve been running very big climate models and looking to see, again, the patterns of change that the solar influences can do. We’ve been concentrating on the Tropical Pacific, and also in the North Atlantic Ocean, what the sun can do. And it appears to influence the El Niño in the Tropical Pacific, and also the North Atlantic oscillation, which is a natural oscillation of weather in the North Atlantic.

So, as I said, this is quite important in terms of understanding regional changes in climate introduced by natural factors, to include those in interpreting what’s happening in response to greenhouse gases.

Ariel Conn: How do climate scientists who are trying to better understand the human impact use the research that you’ve done?

Joanna Haigh: The work that we’ve done has encouraged, or in fact determined, that the people who run the big climate models to look at the surface climate do need to include a representation of the stratosphere and a representation of ozone in terms of heating and cooling the stratosphere, because that actually has an influence on the atmosphere below. There’s been a big change in the sense that almost all weather forecasting and climate models now include a representation of the stratosphere higher up, whereas before it wasn’t considered necessary.

Ariel Conn: Okay. So I want to start moving into questions about what we do moving forward, but before I do that, are there other aspects of your research, or anything else, that you think is important for us to understand about what’s happened with the science over the years?

Joanna Haigh: I think it’s interesting talking about climate skeptics not believing about global warming. Earlier, there were solar skeptics who didn’t believe that the sun was influencing the climate and the weather very much, at least not on human timescales. In the Victorian times there was a thing called sunspottery, which was perceived to be cranks, almost like astrology.

And in fact, the Met Office, the UK Met service, which was established in the middle of the 19th century — their scientists were basically told not to bother with that sort of stuff because it was rubbish. And right through to the 1970s, no scientists in the Met Office worked on solar variability because it was seen to be crank science.

It was only then, the whole thing about climate change, and what we need to know about natural variability to put that in the context of global warming, did the solar variability come back into respectable science. So that’s quite fun, being involved in that sort of thing.

Ariel Conn: Do you think if it had been taken more seriously early on, anything would have changed?

Joanna Haigh: That’s a wonderful question, I don’t know the answer. The trouble is, early on we didn’t have the measurements of the sun. They knew that there were changes in sunspots — that’s been observed since ancients, ancient Chinese counted sunspots. But it wasn’t really obvious how numbers of sunspots can really influence the climate and the weather. It’s sort of nasty little black spots on the sun, what does that mean?

People in the 1930s in the US, they developed radiometers to measure the sun’s radiation, and they put them in very clean air places, high up mountains, trying to measure how much the sun’s energy was changing. And they couldn’t do it, basically because it’s so small, and the instruments weren’t sufficiently sensitive.

It wasn’t until we had satellites outside of the earth’s atmosphere in the late 1970s that we could really know that the sun’s radiation was changing along with the sunspots — and additional to that, which is how I got interested, that actually the solar spectrum was varying too. So it’s been a development of observations that have enabled the science to take place.

Ariel Conn: I think at this point, there are climate skeptics, but it seems like we have a critical mass of people who at least believe that the climate is changing, that this has been caused by humans, that it’s a bad thing, and that it will keep getting worse unless we take action. And it seems where we’re stumbling right now is on that action.

Joanna Haigh: Well, I’m very relieved to hear you say that, as you are in the US of A, and we have President Trump essentially telling us it’s not a problem. He’s stopped calling it a hoax, but he’s backtracking on things that we can do to counteract it. So there are problems right the way through the whole hierarchy of society. I appreciate, actually, also in the US of A you’ve got individual states that are really taking action. So the president may be in a minority.

Ariel Conn: That is a good point. There are clearly some very, very influential people who are still climate skeptics, and that’s a problem.

Joanna Haigh: So, the action that we need to take is both at a personal and community level, but it goes right the way through to governmental level as well, and there’s lots of things that we can do, and lots of ways that we can do it. And everybody’s got to do their bit.

Governmental level, what we need is new policies and regulations that will help people do the right thing and push the economy into a sort of low-carbon way of behaving, so that businesses know that it’s not in their financial interests to be involved in fossil fuel heavy activities, and that there are actually opportunities and savings to be made by going green in energy and materials, and all the rest of it. So that’s the policy side of things.

But then on the personal level, people as individuals can do lots of things. The first thing that they can do is lobby their representatives, to make sure that the governments and the policy makers really do the right thing to help this move in the right way, and that clean energy and clean materials can be supported by sensible legislation.

But then there’s things that people can do as individuals, of course. The number one thing is just to use less energy. Be efficient; insulate your home; try to use less; buy your energy from green producers who are using renewable sources, not fossil fuel sources.

Change your own behavior: So perhaps think about going for a walk or going on your bike instead of getting in the car; Or if you have a car, see if you can get an electric car. You can change your diet, eat less meat, because meat is very carbon-intensive in the way it’s produced, particularly beef and lamb. So just eat less meat, and perhaps less dairy produce.

Of course, we can’t tell everybody they’ve suddenly got to become a vegan, that’s just not realistic, and we’d have to produce all the right sort of foods for that. But if everybody changed their behavior in this sort of direction, it would make a huge difference.

Ariel Conn: I actually want to come back to the question of policy as well because, as you point out, our president isn’t likely to do anything useful for climate change. So I’m interested to know, is there more that we can be doing to sort of bypass the fact that there may not be policy in, say, the US for at least a couple more years?

Joanna Haigh: Individual states can set targets. The United Nations has set, through its scientific studies, a target of reducing CO2 emissions to zero by 2050. When we say to zero, there’s bound to be some still being emitted, so there’ll be some compensation of sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, or putting it somewhere else, so that there’s a net zero by the middle of the century.

And many countries have already stated that they’re going to aim to do this, and many states have already started — I think the state of California has stated that it’s aiming to be carbon neutral by the middle of the century. If they state that, and then if they put it in law …

So in the UK we’ve actually got the Climate Change Act which states in five-year chunks how we’re going to be reducing carbon emissions in the future. And that’s set in law, so the government has to do something about it, so it will have to introduce measures for more renewable energy, more electric vehicles, less waste, all these things that the government can do if they just set their mind to it. And the rest of us can decide to do it as a matter of determination and principle.

Ariel Conn: So, one final question to follow up with that: you mentioned things like, if the UK says cars have to be electric, and if other countries are saying cars have to be electric, do you think that helps force US companies to move in that direction anyway, since they do build cars for other countries as well?

Joanna Haigh: Yes, it’ll work in two ways. Firstly, of course, if they want to have any international exports, they will need to build the models that people in other countries will buy. Secondly, they’ll realize that they’re just behind the curve. And so in the future, it’s bound to happen, and if they don’t make a clean transition now, they’ll just be behind the rest of the world in developing all these new technologies.

And that’s going to happen across the sector. President Trump says quite rightly he wants to protect the coal workers, of course that’s their livelihoods, and why should they just lose their jobs? And he’s wanting their support, so he’s wanting to support them, which is perfectly reasonable. But of course, we’ve had industries in the past that have gone extinct just because society’s moved on.

And what needs to happen is not try and preserve old ways of doing things in aspic, but to develop new ways of doing things, so to give the coal workers new jobs, clean jobs, much nicer jobs in new, clean technologies that will give them some wages and enable the rest of us to have a much better environment.

Ariel Conn: All right, I like that as a positive note to end on. Is there anything else that you think is important to mention that we didn’t get into?

Joanna Haigh: No, I’d like to sort of stress the positive side of things as well. We have got the United Nations with this target, and all the countries signed up. The US might withdraw, but there’s a huge international push in the right direction, it’s only going to take people to just put a bit of effort in. And I’m sure we can do it. So that’s what I’d like to say.

Ariel Conn: So you’re still hopeful that we can solve this problem.

Joanna Haigh: I’m still hopeful; Perhaps I’m an optimist.

Ariel Conn: I think that’s great. Thank you so much for joining, I really enjoyed talking with you.

Joanna Haigh: Good, and you too.

Ariel Conn: On the next episode of Not Cool, I’ll be speaking with Tim Lenton, an award winning scientist whose work has been influential to our understanding of tipping points within the climate system.

Tim Lenton: We might’ve begun what you can think of as the tipping of the dominoes of West Antarctic ice sheet breaking up. I’m not saying that with 100% certainty, but if that is the case, that means we’ve made a commitment already to a bit over three meters of sea level rise from West Antarctica.

Ariel Conn: I hope you enjoyed this second episode of Not Cool. My next interview with Tim Lenton will go live on Thursday, September  5th. In the meantime, please join the climate discussion on Twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate and let us know what you think of the show so far.