Not Cool Ep 11: Jakob Zscheischler on climate-driven compound weather events

While a single extreme weather event can wreak considerable havoc, it’s becoming increasingly clear that such events often don’t occur in isolation. Not Cool Episode 11 focuses on compound weather events: what they are, why they’re dangerous, and how we’ve failed to prepare for them. Ariel is joined by Jakob Zscheischler, an Earth system scientist at the University of Bern, who discusses the feedback processes that drive compound events, the impacts they’re already having, and the reasons we’ve underestimated their gravity. He also explains how extreme events can reduce carbon uptake, how human impacts can amplify climate hazards, and why we need more interdisciplinary research.

Topics discussed include:

  • Carbon cycle
  • Climate-driven changes in vegetation
  • Land-atmosphere feedbacks
  • Extreme events
  • Compound events and why they’re under researched
  • Risk assessment
  • Spatially compounding impacts
  • Importance of working across disciplines
  • Important policy measures

References discussed include:

Climate change can change the individual variables contributing to the compound event or the dependence between them. And then there might be new types of compound events that haven’t been relevant in previous conditions.

~ Jakob Zscheischler

Ariel Conn: Hi everyone, and welcome to episode 11 of Not Cool, A climate podcast. In Episode 10 we heard from Stephanie Herring who spoke quite a bit about extreme weather events. Today we’ll hear from Jakob Zscheischler about what happens when those extreme weather events occur back to back or in conjunction with each other, and why we’re so unprepared when these types of compound extreme events do occur. 

Jakob is an Earth system scientist with a background in mathematics, biogeochemistry and climate science. He uses sophisticated statistical approaches to infer new insights from a variety of datasets, including remotely sensed data, station measurements, reanalysis data, and model output from climate, vegetation and other impact models. Currently his research focuses on better understanding compound events.

Jakob, thank you so much for joining us.

Jakob Zscheischler: Thank you for having me.

Ariel Conn: I want to go back to basics a little bit and start by asking you about some of the research you did during your PhD on the carbon cycle and how drought and heat impacts that. And I was hoping you could first start by reminding us of what the carbon cycle is and how that works.

Jakob Zscheischler: Yeah. Okay. So, I’ve worked a lot on the carbon cycle on land and basically the land biosphere takes up a lot of carbon every year and also releases carbon. So we have a cross carbon uptake of about 120 petagrams per year, and a similar amount gets released by respiration, by fires, by soil microbes — but there’s a carbon net sink of about maybe two to three petagrams at the moment, which means that the land biosphere sucks up carbon from the atmosphere and by this, slows down the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration that we cause by emitting CO2 through fossil fuel emissions, for instance.

Jakob Zscheischler: So, currently about a fourth of our fossil fuel emissions are taken up by the land biosphere, but we don’t really know whether this will continue into the future and how much of this sink activity — whether this will increase or decrease, and the carbon cycle climate models that we use, they are quite uncertain on that. And the land biosphere or the terrestrial vegetation experiences a drought or a heat wave: Typically, the carbon uptake is reduced substantially and we might even lose carbon to the atmosphere.

So, during drought and heat events the sink activity is substantially reduced and if drought and heat events increase with future climate change, for instance, then this might also lead to a stronger reduction in this uptake activity of the biosphere.

Ariel Conn: If we’re experiencing global warming, can we assume that the earth will not be absorbing the carbon or is there still a chance that we could still be okay?

Jakob Zscheischler: There are different processes happening at the same time. On the one hand, with warmer temperatures, for instance in the higher latitudes, this is beneficial for forests. So, forests are expanding in the northern latitudes. We actually see a greening globally, even. So, there’s an increase in leaf area globally, but at the same time in some other areas, plants reach their limits; For instance, in the tropics, some plants might reach their temperature limits and then die due to drought or heat. 

And the uncertainties in the models come also because of what we call CO2 fertilization. So, with higher CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, plants are more efficient. They lose less water while taking up the same amount of carbon and they can uptake more carbon. Therefore, they are less sensitive to droughts. So, it could be also that plants actually like a warmer and more CO2 rich climate much more and grow better, but the models that we currently have somewhat disagree which effect will dominate, and that’s where the uncertainties come from.

Ariel Conn: So, even if we do get a situation where we’re seeing plants liking the hotter weather, can we still expect to see shifts in what plants are growing in different areas — that idea that what humans are used to in their current location might still not be the same?

Jakob Zscheischler: The vegetation composition will change and is already changing in some areas. The question is how quickly plants can adapt to these changes. So for instance forests, and trees in general, are long lived species. So, if climate is changing more quickly than forests can adapt or new tree species can grow, then this might be really difficult for the plants and we might actually lose more carbon then in these situations. It’s a matter of how quickly climate change is happening, but also these things are difficult to model into the future. So, a lot of models have a dynamic vegetation that adapts to these new climate conditions, but of course it’s very challenging to model this correctly.

Ariel Conn: If I understood it correctly, some of your research has found that heat and drought are more likely to occur together, as opposed to maybe heat and more moisture in the air. Is that correct?

Jakob Zscheischler: Yeah. So I got into this topic by looking at situations where the terrestrial vegetation loses a lot of carbon and I tried to understand what are the climatic drivers behind these conditions, and it’s typically a combination of drought and heat. And so I looked into what this actually — the likelihood that drought and heat co-occur and in which places do they co-occur more frequently than in others. And typically, drought and heat conditions are strongly correlated in a lot of places, particularly in mid-latitude regions. For instance, in areas like central Europe, drought and heat are correlated because of land-atmosphere feedbacks. If you have a dry spring, for instance, and then we have an atmospheric blocking event, a high pressure system, then the soil gets heated up and there’s less evaporative cooling because the soil is already dry, which then leads to even higher temperatures and then even more evaporative demand. So, even more drying out the soil. So, there’s a feedback process and it creates these correlations between dry and hot conditions.

Ariel Conn: So, you sort of transitioned into looking at more extreme events, I think still connected to drought and heat. Can you talk about what extreme events look like? Or maybe define what an extreme event is.

Jakob Zscheischler: An extreme even, such as drought and heat or a heavy precipitation events, typically just events in the tail of the distribution. So if you look at the temperature distribution, a heat event is at the upper tail of this distribution. So we usually say above the 90th percentile, or a temperature that is higher than a certain threshold. Can do the same for dry conditions: We look at if the precipitation deficit is particularly large; or for storms, if wind speed is very large. 

So, for a long time, people have looked at these extremes individually. So, we have experts on heat waves, we have experts on droughts, experts on heavy precipitation events and storms; But for impacts — as I have just discussed for the carbon cycle, for instance, but also for agriculture, for instance — these combinations of extremes are particularly harmful. And if we estimate occurrence probabilities from only one type of extreme, from one hazard — let’s say only heat waves — and combine this with risk estimate from droughts, then we might underestimate the risk when the heatwave and the drought occur together if they are correlated.

Ariel Conn: Can you give a little bit more detail about what these compound events look like? I think one of your papers you give the example of what happened in Russia in 2010. Maybe you could describe that?

Jakob Zscheischler: Yeah. So, Russia is kind of a prime example for a compound event. So, we define compound events as a combination of climate drivers or hazards that contribute to societal or environmental risks. So for us, compound events are multiple things in the climate domain that contribute to risk. In the case of Russia, we had a precipitation deficit earlier in the year in 2010 — this happened in 2010 — and then we had a very persistent blocking event in western Russia, a very stable, high pressure system that stayed there for a long time. And that led to very high temperatures. In combination with the dry soils, the temperatures got higher and higher, and then this triggered wildfires in large parts of western Russia, destroyed large amounts of Russian crops, and created a lot of air pollution that then killed a lot of people.

So, overall, more than 50 thousand people died in this event — largely due to air pollution, but also heat stress. Another important impact was the agricultural loss: About 25 percent of Russian crops were destroyed, so that the Russian government actually imposed an export ban. All these different climatic hazards compounded each other and led to these immense impacts in different systems.

Ariel Conn: Why haven’t more people been looking at these as compound events? Is it just a case of we needed to understand the individual events better first? Is it not understanding the impact of the compound events?

Jakob Zscheischler: It’s a good question. I mean, I think in a case like the Russian event, there are a lot of studies that disentangle all these different aspects of the event, and people have looked at this and these different drivers in mind, but still people usually focus on either the drought or the heatwave. So, it’s often called the Russian heatwave even though it was a strong drought also, and we had all these fires, and so on. One reason for this separation of hazards is, I think, how people are working in their own discipline and are experts in their own fields. And the other aspect is that it’s also very challenging to study these compounding aspects. For instance, if you want to estimate the risk of these types of events, we somehow need a multi-varied model that incorporates these very unlikely conditions in different variables. It’s just statistically very challenging to model this and then to make projections into the future.

Ariel Conn: Maybe as we’re getting more data about these events, do you expect us to get better models? Is it not related to data? What helped to improve the models?

Jakob Zscheischler: So, one thing is data, and I think what helps here is really model ensembles for instance, which is getting more and more common so that people run the same model a lot of times. So, if the model is well representing these types of events, you can then harvest these large amounts of data and try to estimate risks. It’s very difficult to estimate future risks from single events, so we need a good understanding of how these events happened and we also need to know how well models actually model these type of events, which is a bit of an open question. We do a lot of model evaluation based on single variables like temperature and precipitation, but we don’t know very well how well the models represent relationships between the variables. So, if you want to estimate risk of compound drought and heat events, for instance, we need to make sure that our models represent well the current risk of compound drought and heat, so that they basically represent the frequency of current drought and heat events adequately.

Ariel Conn: So, you’ve mentioned risk a couple of times. What is the impact on our understanding of climate risks if we’re looking at individual events rather than these compound events?

Jakob Zscheischler: So, if we estimate risk from single events — let’s assume we have a one-in-a-ten-year heatwave and a one-in-a-ten-year drought. Then, if we estimate the risk independently and then estimate the risk of the compound charted heat event, we would say it’s a one-in-a-hundred-year event. But if they are now strongly correlated, this likelihood can increase substantially. So, this is what we have shown in the study in 2017: that if you actually consider these dependencies between temperature and precipitation, this likelihood can reduce to a one-in-twenty-year event. So, we might strongly underestimate risks if we ignore these dependencies. And this is very important for drought and heat events, but also in coastal areas for compound flooding events. For instance, when a storm surge happens together with a heavy precipitation event inland, and when these events are correlated as well, and we then estimate floods from these variables, then we might also underestimate flood risks if we ignore these dependencies.

Ariel Conn: Are we seeing that? Or is that something that we would see in the future?

Jakob Zscheischler: Depending on the location, these type of events are correlated. So, for instance, in the eastern US coast, storm surge and heavy precipitation extremes are strongly correlated much more than the west coast — this is related to certain weather conditions and storms. But what the future might do is change these correlations. So, there’s actually already evidence that these correlations have increased over the last 50 to 60 years, so that the risk of such a compound flooding event is already larger just due to the change in dependence. And climate change might also change all kinds of dependencies between these hazards, and this is a topic that we are working on.

Ariel Conn: So you gave the comparison of the east coast to the west coast in the US. Would we just expect the east coast to have greater correlation between extreme storms and storm surges or would we also expect to start seeing an increase in that correlation on the west coast as well — or anywhere else in the world for that matter?

Jakob Zscheischler: So, I’m referring here to one study that has looked at this in station data. I think they also found increases in correlation in the west coast, but I think it’s currently unclear what the drivers are. If you talk about coastal areas, in addition, you will have a sea level rise which is compounding this already compound floods. It’s kind of a third variable in addition to that, that’s making everything a little bit worse.

Ariel Conn: So, would it still be considered an unknown — the extent to which locations might be experiencing new events versus locations just experiencing more extreme versions of what they’ve already seen?

Jakob Zscheischler: So, they are two different things, right? So we have a dependence in current climate; It already leads to compound events independent of climate change. Now, climate change can change the individual variables contributing to the compound event or the dependence between them and then basically change the risk altogether. This is one thing — what we try to understand, how do these things change, in which areas for which type of events, or how do drought and heat dependencies change, how do precipitation, storm surge dependencies change. And then there might be new types of compound events that haven’t been relevant in previous climate conditions.

For instance, there was a study coming out this week that discussed the possibility of a tropical cyclone or a hurricane that hits some coastal area — and then subsequently, a deadly heatwave arrives a couple of days later. So the cyclone might destroy the infrastructure in the area and then during the heatwave, you might not be able to use air conditioning to mitigate the impacts. And these type of events will become more common in the warmer climate, because it’s warmer, so the likelihood of heatwaves increases basically everywhere even though the likelihood of tropical cyclones might not change.

Ariel Conn: Okay. This might be a really awkwardly worded question, so bear with me for a minute. Basically, I’m sitting here in Colorado where I think our high today is going to be in the low 80s — and that’s actually cooler than I’m used to for the middle of summer — while you are sitting in Europe in the midst of some of the hottest recorded temperatures ever. And I guess my question is, what sort of research would you like to see happening to better understand these types of dynamics and maybe to help those of us who are not in science understand what’s happening?

Jakob Zscheischler: So, I’ve talked so far about compound events where we have basically couple of hazards, two or more, in the same area, but you can also call a compound event an event where you have a spatially compounding impact. So, for instance, if you have climate extremes happening in a lot of areas that are agriculturally relevant, and that leads to a big impact on agricultural production globally, then what we would like to know then, of course, is: is this physically related? And this could be — so, the jet stream for instance: there’s a lot of work now on how the jet stream is changing, but also how certain configurations of the jet stream lead to certain droughts and heat waves along the same latitude in advance, for instance.

So last year, we had heat waves in a lot of areas in the northern hemisphere; We had floods; We had droughts in some areas. And there is some evidence that these events were all linked to a certain configuration of the jet stream. So, to better understand risk also, and the future of this, for instance, global crop failure, we need to understand whether these events are physically related and then we can also better project or predict them and predict the risk and mitigate the risk. 

To do this work or to better understand these events, we need to work together across disciplines. Climate modelers need to work together with impact modelers, or people who really understand what causes impacts need to work together with statisticians to think about which multivariate statistical methods we can use to study these events, and with dynamicists to really understand how these dynamics work. So we try to do this in a European network that I’m leading here, which is called Damocles. So in Damocles, we try to bring together climate modelers, impact modelers, statisticians, engineers, but also stakeholders.

The main goal is first of all to develop a community working on compound events, to raise awareness about compound events, to also educate a new generation of scientists to work on these topics; But more concretely, we try to get an idea of what are the different types of compound events that can actually occur — can we somehow classify these type of events? We are working together with stakeholders to try to understand what are the events that are particularly relevant for different types of stakeholders. We are trying to create a database on impact data to better link impacts with climate conditions — this is a big gap that we have.

We have a lot of climate data, but to understand what climate conditions lead to large impacts we need data on impacts, such as crop yields, health impacts, infrastructural impacts, and so on. And then, we also want to think about new statistical tools, how to study these type of events, and also better understand how current mechanistic and process based models simulate these type of events and how we can improve these models.

Ariel Conn: And you also recently hosted a workshop where you brought a bunch of people together, and I was hoping you could talk a little bit about some of the points that were discussed during the workshop, or any interesting outcomes.

Jakob Zscheischler: So, this workshop was hosted in Columbia University by Radley Horton and Collin Raymond. I was in the organizing team, or in the steering committee. And the topic of the workshop was correlated extremes. And it went a bit beyond the compound events, or it’s expanding on the compound events that I’ve been talking about, which were mostly climate related. So, we had about 150 people maybe, and we started with the physical climate and correlations in the climate space that lead to compound extremes, but then we also had people from impact sectors, for instance, talking about fire, talking about what causes migration of people, talking about agricultural impacts, and health impacts. Then, we tried to link these multivariate or compounding additions in climate space to these impacts and try to figure out where are the research gaps. And in particular, impacts can kind of amplify climate hazards: For instance, if you think about a managed water system, there’s a human component in there that can amplify or mitigate climate stressors, such as a drought — a meteorological drought — for instance.

Ariel Conn: What should people be doing more broadly, both in terms of what policies would you like to see enacted, what individual actions do you think people should be trying to take to try to help mitigate some of this?

Jakob Zscheischler: I think what governments should do as quickly as possible is to reduce carbon emissions in all sectors, phase out coal, and maybe one of the most effective tools for this would be to introduce a carbon tax. It’s now, again, being discussed also in Germany and in the European Union. I think on the individual level, maybe what could be done is really put pressure on the governments to really act and to elect people that are really progressive in acting against climate change.

Ariel Conn: Do you feel hopeful for the future? Do you think this is something that we can address?

Jakob Zscheischler: I’m still hopeful; I think otherwise I wouldn’t be working on the topic. But I think time is running out and it’s getting more and more scary when you see these type of temperatures that we’re experiencing: In the last days in Europe, we have had all time heat records in at least three European countries, and this is already the second heat wave this summer we had — the French heat record was broken a month ago. And we had the Paris Agreement, but since then there’s actually little has happened — at least in terms of actual carbon emission reductions, little has happened. I think with the movements on the street that are going on since months, also scientists are getting a bit more optimistic — or I’m personally getting a bit more optimistic again. But time is running out.

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

Jakob Zscheischler: You might underestimate the risk of compound events if you take risk from the individual drivers and then multiply them individually. This is important for coastal flood assessment, for instance; So, if you want to build a dam to protect against flooding, and you estimate such a dam based on a hundred year return period that you estimate from heavy precipitation inland, or that you estimate from coastal storm surge events, this hundred year return period — or this dam height — basically depends on this. So, if the heavy precipitation inland and the storm surge are correlated, then you might need to build a higher dam for a hundred year event: So, the likelihood of having that same flood height is actually much higher because these events occur together and they might lead to a much larger flood than if they happen individually.

Ariel Conn: Do you think that we’re sufficiently prepared for the risks?

Jakob Zscheischler: I think it depends a bit on the region, but I think in a lot of areas, risks are underestimated because we are ignoring compounding factors. We might not be aware of some of them. We might be aware of others, but we kind of ignore correlations. It sometimes might be difficult to even know whether these factors are correlated, but I think in general, for a lot of impacts, we might be underestimating risk because we are not aware of compounding drivers.

Ariel Conn: Okay. I think that’s probably pretty good. Thank you so much for joining us.

Jakob Zscheischler: Thank you for having me.

 Ariel Conn: On the next episode of Not Cool, a Climate Podcast, we’ll be joined by Kris Ebi, who has been studying the health impacts of climate change for the last twenty years.

Kris Ebi: The quality of our food is likely to decrease as carbon dioxide concentrations increase. And this is an area of high concern, and an area where there’s quite a lot of research underway to better understand the magnitude of the challenge and the opportunities for trying to make a difference before all of our food quality goes down.

Ariel Conn: I hope you’ll join us for this conversation with Kris, which will go live on Tuesday October 8. If you’ve been enjoying the Not Cool podcasts, please like them, share them, and leave us a good review. It’s a small effort on your part, with a big impact for us. And please join the climate conversation on Twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate.

Not Cool Ep 9: Andrew Revkin on climate communication, vulnerability, and information gaps

In her speech at Monday’s UN Climate Action Summit, Greta Thunberg told a roomful of global leaders, “The world is waking up.” Yet the science, as she noted, has been clear for decades. Why has this awakening taken so long, and what can we do now to help it along? On Episode 9 of Not Cool, Ariel is joined by Andy Revkin, acclaimed environmental journalist and founding director of the new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Andy discusses the information gaps that have left us vulnerable, the difficult conversations we need to be having, and the strategies we should be using to effectively communicate climate science. He also talks about inertia, resilience, and creating a culture that cares about the future. 

Topics discussed include:

  • Inertia in the climate system 
  • The expanding bullseye of vulnerability
  • Managed retreat 
  • Information gaps
  • Climate science literacy levels 
  • Renewable energy in conservative states
  • Infrastructural inertia 
  • Climate science communication strategies
  • Increasing resilience
  • Balancing inconvenient realities with productive messaging 
  • Extreme events 

References discussed include:

Behind the headlines, behind the red/blue, there’s plenty of things to look at that are going in the right direction. And no scientist and no longtime climate journalist like me would say it’s enough; But it’s real. 

~ Andy Revkin

Ariel Conn: Hi everyone and welcome to the 9th episode of Not Cool, a climate podcast. As climate week continues at the United Nations and around the world, I’m thrilled to introduce my next guest, who was one of the earliest people to write about the threat of climate change.

Andrew Revkin is one of America’s most honored and experienced journalists focused on environmental and human sustainability, and he recently became the founding director of the new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Prior to that, he spent a year as a strategic adviser at the National Geographic Society, supporting worldwide environmental journalism. He was the senior reporter for climate change at the nonprofit investigative newsroom ProPublica. And he spent 14 years at The New York Times.

He has written acclaimed books on humanity’s weather and climate learning journey, global warming, the changing Arctic and the assault on the Amazon rain forest. In spare moments, he is a performing songwriter.

Andy, thank you so much for joining us.

Andy Revkin: Oh, it’s great to be with you.

Ariel Conn: So you’ve been covering climate issues for quite a while, and I wanted to start with your take on how would you summarize what I think is actually a really big and difficult problem to summarize?

Andy Revkin: Well, I guess it’s been 30, gosh, I hate to say it, 33 years, I think now –– 34. My first climate story was about nuclear winter –– it was like the inverse of global warming –– it was 1984 or ’85, the idea that a nuclear war could throw so much crap into the atmosphere that it would chill the Earth, and we’d all suffer, and ecosystems as well. 1988 was global warming and I’ve been at it in different ways ever since. If you include blog posts and stories, it’s way over 3000, plus three books that touch on this, plus several book chapters on how to communicate about climate. 

I think the summary I would give right now is that there’s actually two enormous climate challenges. And they operate on very different time scales, and they give us a lot to work on that’s actually addressable right now, even though it feels so global and amorphous and monumental. And the two challenges are: we need to decarbonize our energy systems and our food systems –– you know, we need to stop what we’ve been doing unintentionally for 100 years, which is building this pulsive influence on the climate system through emissions of greenhouse gases. But we need to recognize that that won’t have any benefit for decades, none. The system is big and slow moving, and the climate system doesn’t magically notice; Even if Greta Thunberg and Al Gore became President and Vice President of the world starting tomorrow, the climate system might notice that –– assuming they had a global impact on policy –– sometime around 2060.

Ariel Conn: Oh, wow.

Andy Revkin: Yeah. No, inertia: there’s a great 40 second video I did with a couple of MIT wonks two years ago. I asked them, “What’s the thing about global warming that people, even people who are concerned about it, don’t understand? What’s the biggest thing they don’t understand?” John Riley at MIT said, “Inertia.” He basically repeated what I just said.

We’ve got to get busy decarbonizing because through our pulsive growth and development in rich and poor places, and population shifts into zones of danger, we are building what some geographers have called an expanding bullseye of vulnerability and exposure. What that means is the thing that’s changing way fastest that’s driving risk related to climate is where we’re living and how we’re living.

And that’s something you could do something about right away, locally: We can look at your zoning, we can look at building codes and wildfire zones. You can actually make communities fundamentally safer and more resilient to climate stress right now. Those are two very different frontiers. One has immediate impacts –– it’s still hard: Changing zoning and building codes takes time, too, and sustained engagement in your community. But it’s something you can do right now.

And then these more structural challenges. So you have an emissions free energy system, or even eventually something that sucks in more C02, some kind of agricultural or energy system or the like. That’s a great, important, vital thing to be doing now to reduce long term risk, but it doesn’t have any real-time benefits.

Just to make it clear, that means there’s lots to do. That means it’s not to be paralytic, it’s not monumental, and it’s something that everyone can do something about. At Columbia University, where I am now, we just had a big conference called Managed Retreat. What is that, and how does it work, and can we do it? We know one of the most powerful things about climate change that’s so powerfully established is that warmer climates on this planet come with much higher sea levels, period. No debate.

And that means we’re facing sea level rise for centuries to come. And the inertia factor I mentioned means there’s nothing we do with emissions of greenhouse gases that the oceans are going to notice for even more decades, because the oceans have even more momentum and you don’t just magically stop the sea level from rising. That means that communities have to get real with their exposure that’s been built over the last half century in so many places. In America, in China, in Vietnam: any place that’s coastal –– Tacloban in the Philippines, that horrible typhoon that hit in the run-up to the Paris Agreement.

Several thousand people were killed, but the thing that caused the high death toll –– this is an area of the Pacific that gets hammered by typhoons, including extraordinary ones; that one was at the top end of the scale –– but the thing that had changed in the last 40 years was Tacloban, the town: The population had grown four times over. Mostly poor people moving into a city without governance adequate to provide housing and areas that are safe, and so you get crowded, informal development on a floodplain along the coast, and along comes a typhoon, and you have a terrible event.

That’s the vulnerability that we’re building, and rich people are doing the same thing. It’s like the world’s poorest and richest people in cities are building this expanding bullseye. I made it into a hashtag, there’s a hashtag #expandingbullseye, that people can explore. And it’s over and over and over again. It’s even true in places where there’s no evidence that climate change is playing a role in some hazard. Simplest place to look for that is Tornado Alley, where the worst tornadoes, the ones that do the worst damage –– there’s literally no science saying that there’s been a significant change in tornado behavior, in the ones that kill people: F4, F5 tornadoes, for decades; in fact, there’s a slight downward trend. 

But what’s happened in towns like Moore, Oklahoma, which I wrote about a lot, where they had a devastating, high fatality tornado strike in 2013 I think it was: the population had quadrupled in the last half century. People there don’t have basements. There’s no code saying you have to have a basement; There’s no code saying you have to have a safe room. The vulnerability was being built at a high rate. We’re talking about rapid rise in risk through building vulnerable structures, and building a lot of them. That doesn’t have anything to do with climate change. So what does that say? It says if you’re not busy on the vulnerability reduction right now, then you’re just setting yourself up for huge hits in the future.

Ariel Conn: Does it seem possible to address the vulnerabilities in ways that don’t then contribute more to the carbon in the atmosphere? Because it seems like if we have to build new structures and safer zones, or if we have to move people, that that’s going to contribute. Or, are there other solutions?

Andy Revkin: The managed retreat I mentioned, related to sea level rise, is something that has to happen, period. Or it can be unmanaged retreat, that’s fine, too; That’s what we call refugees or climate migrants. There’s not a lot of refugees that you can link to climate change. There are people moving, absolutely, related to coastal vulnerability, flood zones. People move. The carbon impacts of that are pretty marginal because people are always moving, cities are always changing.

I don’t think there’s a way to think about that that doesn’t involve some emissions building houses somewhere else. But what can happen, and actually is happening in many places, is you can improve coastal resilience by planting mangroves, for example. Mangroves are like this win, win, win thing. They give you more surge vulnerability for sure, along the coast; They definitely sequester carbon –– in fact, I think there’s some evidence they do a better job of it than terrestrial force; And they’re a biological resource –– they’re a haven for biodiversity. So actually there’s another hashtag, #mangrovesmatter. You’ll see some really cool stuff about that, too. My students at Pace University, when I was there a number of years ago, we did a film on coral conservation and the Caribbean, and one of the lessons there is planting mangroves is also good for reefs, because the fish that tend the coral reefs, I think it’s something like half of the fish species on reefs start out in mangroves. Look for the win, win, win, win, win, win, wins, and that can make up for a little bit of a loss here and there by moving people in one direction or another.

Ariel Conn: Okay. You’ve just started at Columbia and they had an announcement about your new role, and one of the quotes was, “We want to tackle specific climate and sustainability challenges where the impediment to progress is an information gap, a paralyzed conversation, or a missing connection between disciplines or sectors of society.” I want to go into that quote a little bit and talk about what examples are of each of those things. What would you say are some examples of the information gap that we have to address?

Andy Revkin: The lack of information, you can see that everywhere around the world. The worst gaps are of course in developing countries, poor places, or communities here as well. You don’t have the internet, you don’t have access to information. Those are fundamental gaps that give outsized advantage to people who are wealthier and more linked in. But some specifics are, here in the Hudson River Valley where I live, through a lot of hard work and innovative policy and some technological advances, you can have your community become a wholesale buyer of renewable energy.

So you’re not individual homeowners anymore just paying a bill. This community choice aggregation option, CCA, is spreading pretty rapidly. But it could spread a lot quicker. People just don’t know how to do it. They don’t know, how do we make our town one of the ones that can be part of this process? If you’re not even aware that it’s an option, if you don’t have a local newspaper anymore that’s looking at things like energy choice, then you’re not going to have that information.

Those are the information gaps. And in India, there’s 120 million farming families in India –– that’s families, not individuals. And one of the great achievements in North American farming history was extension service: Cornell and other land grant colleges who provide advice to farmers. But how do you do that in India? How do you plant a more resilient crop?

There’s an organization called Digital Green that has built sort of a YouTube network where some facilitators go into villages, they talk with farmers who’ve taken on a better practice using water more carefully, or trying a new seed variety. And the farmers create these little videos in the dozens of local languages that you have around India, so that it’s a farmer telling another farmer, “You might want to try this.” That’s kind of the problem and the solution all in one. The problem is that there’s too many farmers. The solution is help create a network.

Broken conversations I see all the time. When I was doing my blog at Dot Earth, my New York Times blog which I started in 2007 while I was still a reporter there, half of the time I was mediating these brittle arguments between people who are, “Hell no fracking” and people like me who think you could have fracking happen in a responsible way, and natural gas is better than coal in many circumstances, and there’s a lot of it, and we need energy in the northeast to heat and cool our homes.

You can have legitimate debates about a lot of these things, but they end up getting stuck in these yes/no positions. And what I started doing was digging in more to this other big body of science, not just climate science and energy emissions science and the like, but social science. How do mediators do their job? What is a mediated conversation as opposed to a yelling debate on social media? There is a science to that. Some of it’s peer reviewed science, actually. At Columbia, there’s an initiative, there’s a guy who I just met at Columbia university, Peter Coleman, who runs what he calls the Difficult Conversations Laboratory. How many difficult conversations do you know of that happened in this arena? GMOs versus organic; what’s the role of nuclear power; no nukes, yes nukes. What I’m looking for is some nukes. That’s a hashtag, too: #somenukes. 

And then more fundamentally, the behavioral science that I started to learn way too late in my reporting journey: peer reviewed work also shows that science literacy is not an indicator of consensus. It’s not like if you made a large population literate in climate science –– that doesn’t automatically shift the argument towards solutions. In fact, there’s demonstrable work by this group at Yale –– they invented a name for the field, it’s cultural cognition, and there’s a website, CulturalCognition.net –– they’ve shown that more literacy in science, you see it most frequently at the two ends of the dispute over climate change: So people who are most dismissive of the message about climate concern and the people who are most worried have similar levels of climate science literacy.

Ariel Conn: That’s interesting.

Andy Revkin: It’s more than interesting. As a journalist, when I started diving into that work around 2006 through 2009, it was kind of an existential thing. What do you look for as a journalist? You’re a reporter, writer, because you want to identify a problem and energize people towards solutions, whether it’s gun violence or climate change. And it turns out that on issues –– especially ones like climate change and gun violence that have become polarizing –– that more information doesn’t change anything. You look at that and you go, “Oh crap.” 

This issue with broken conversations to me is significantly about broken perceptions. Meaning, if you’re trying to change the world and decarbonize the energy system in service of creating a safer climate, and you go to Woodward County, Oklahoma, and you come in saying, “Hey, everybody here. You have to agree there’s a climate emergency or climate crisis so we can get busy solving global warming,” you’re actually making your job harder than you would be if you went in after getting more understanding of the people who live there. There was a great revelation of this in 2015 when John Sutter, a CNN reporter at the time, went to Woodward County, Oklahoma, as part of a big two degrees project he was doing around the world.

He went there because Yale University and partners had identified Woodward County, Oklahoma, as ground zero for climate disbelief. So he went there and he started interviewing people, and there’s a great summary of the interview, like a three minute video clip on YouTube. The Yale survey also showed that in Woodward County, Oklahoma, people actually are really supportive of renewable energy. Some other part of their brain, some other part of their soul, some other part of their heart likes to be independent, and have the capacity to generate their own energy rather than pay someone for it.

So he went in there –– and this is this weird phenomenon: he interviews a guy who’s got a pressed blue shirt and a nice conservative tie, and he says, “You know, God controls the environment,” and for me, as a progressive coastal person, listening to that, my hair’s starting to prickle. But then a minute later, he’s talking about energy; he says, “We have half of our roof covered with solar panels and we want to do the rest, and get off the grid entirely.”

And John Sutter visited him at his house and sure enough, he had more panels and he was going to do this. When I show this to audiences, I say, “Knowing what you know about this guy, would you run into that town going, ‘Climate emergency, climate emergency,’ expecting to build consensus, or would you go into that town saying, ‘Hey yeah, that’s cool. You’ve got solar panels. What’s up? Maybe we could talk about ways that more people could get that capacity.'”

The moral of the story is that telling your story is often a disservice to the bigger question –– that listening is job one, and then you can engage ideally over time and build a constructive conversation about renewable energy standards or the like, and certainly about vulnerability, in ways that don’t polarize the issue by relying on these existing “them and us” templates that we have for the world.

Ariel Conn: So how has your own work changed as you’ve realized this?

Andy Revkin: Well, I think the blogging is what really got me moving in a more nuanced direction. Believe me, most commentors on the blog were not providing useful information, but absolutely every week, there was an insight that I gleaned by listening and tracking this conversation that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, or an idea about a different way to ask a question.

So it’s that interactivity that’s vital. Most journalism, like most science, has been an outward-focused process: “Hey, look what I just did. Here’s my story. I interviewed these guys, I went to the North Pole.” I mean, that stuff is important. Going to the North Pole and writing about sea ice melting and going to Greenland and writing a book about the burning of the Amazon, those things were important; That always will be important. And investigative reporting is even more important, and more endangered.

But on these sticky problems, these wicked ones like climate change, where it’s energy policy, it’s innovation policy, it’s politics, it’s legislation, it’s law, it’s science, climate science; it has a lot of uncertainty; we know the world’s warming, we know we’re the main driver, but we don’t know how hot it’s going to get by century’s end –– that mix of characteristics make it implicitly not one story. It’s many things. So breaking it into pieces, as you could do with a blog, or as I’ve seen other efforts are getting underway, to interrogate questions, to listen to the audiences, to then shape stories that are open and engaging, as opposed to prescriptive: there feels like more possibilities.

Ariel Conn: And do you feel like you’re starting to see people changing and adopting to climate, like in the Oklahoma example you gave? Where maybe they’re starting to do something that is beneficial, but maybe not for the reasons that scientists would like, but if they’re doing it regardless.

Andy Revkin: Yeah. In 2017, for a while I was working for ProPublica, an investigative reporting, independent newsroom. That was right as Trump was getting into office, so it was chaos-filled, and a lot of doom and gloom for many justifiable reasons. But I did a piece assessing, if you actually look carefully at states around the country on energy policy, there’s some very conservative states that have actually been leading the charge on renewables expansion, often not for reasons other than economic ones.

Texas, under Rick Perry, who’s still very quietly the Secretary of Energy, had I think the biggest expansion of wind power in America. I’d have to see if it compares to Europe. Remember, Texas is pretty big. And none of that really had to do with politics. It was mostly about opportunity. And there were other states in the West, I think I remember Carbon County, Wyoming, which is named for the black stuff that they’ve been digging up –– this is a couple of years ago, I’m not sure if this is still going forward –– they had a plan to have what would be the largest single wind farm in the country, with the electricity being targeted toward West Coast cities like Los Angeles. Also, a lot of the states that were fighting in court against Obama’s clean power plan, I believe it was 14 of the 17, were on a pace to hit the targets of the plan, through like 2023. So not like the longer targets, but the short term. Behind the headlines, behind the red/blue, there’s plenty of things to look at that are going in the right direction. And no scientist and no longtime climate journalist like me would say it’s enough; But it’s real. 

This gets to one of the other limits on thinking about the communication strategies in the context of something like global warming: There are limits to what you can do with storytelling, given all the inertia that’s in our system, too. It’s not just climate inertia. There’s infrastructural inertia: We have thousands of gas stations, we have dozens of charging stations. That takes time. We just chose a newish Prius rather than an EV, because we do some long drives too, and I’m not ready to go to full EV, so here I am writing about this stuff for 30 years –– I’m not quite there. So inertia’s real, which means we have to divide this issue into the things we can do and the things we would like to do but we know we really won’t be able to do. Getting some momentum in a certain direction, even if it’s inadequate, feels to be vital. It’s something that those campaigning for a perfect approach can’t really embrace, because it undercuts the urgency rhetoric, but it’s just there.

Ariel Conn: The IPCC report that came out last year that gave us a vague 2030 as a deadline for making massive change: as someone who’s trying to communicate about this, how do you try to get through to people and how do you maybe turn back to the scientists sometimes and say, “This isn’t possible?” Or, do you think that that’s not an option?

Andy Revkin: The way the IPCC is structured, it makes it hard for them to say something’s impossible. They’re asked questions by the 188 countries or whatever that chartered the IPCC to exist and pay its budget. In the context of the Paris Agreement, they were asked to tell the world the difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees. That was what that report was about.

There’s no scientists I know who says he or she knows in the world that we know, how we would get anywhere near a 1.5 target, but they were asked a question. They had to answer the question. So, it creates an artificial answer. Scientists are not good at saying, “We can’t help you with that.” They want more science, they always want more science. A friend of mine who was a climate scientist was on a panel in I think the World Meteorological Organization at some kind of recent conference with frontiers in climate.

Someone asked the panel, each of them, to say, “What would you do if you had a trillion dollars to spend on this problem?” She was kind of struck that the other people on the panel each said, “More climate science. Better computers.” She’s much more focused on resilience on the ground, and community impact, and she was kind of shocked. Scientists are great, but the majority of scientists involved with the IPCC are geophysical and ocean science. There have never been enough social scientists, anthropologists, sociologists.

They’re in there, but they’re a tiny minority, and they always feel overwhelmed. That’s kind of unfortunate because you end up with this, when the message gets out of the IPCC process into the world, it’s interpreted in a very caricatured way. 12 years, the clock is ticking, and everything falls apart. There’s no one, if you go on Twitter and look for 12 years, there are many, many climate scientists who have gotten onto Twitter and stressed, “That’s not what this means.” This is not like a cliffhang, it’s a slope into a tougher future. Every year we’re not cutting emissions, we’re adding to that long term outcome that’s not going to be easy to recover from. But it doesn’t make for a good headline. 12 years to doom, there’s a headline.

Ariel Conn: Yes, that gets a lot more attention. So, I do want to keep talking about what’s been changing, because it feels like to me, it seems like in the last couple of years I am seeing a lot more awareness globally about the climate issue. I was curious what you’ve seen change and what you think is some of the biggest factors driving more people to be concerned?

Andy Revkin: Well, there’s been significant surveys in the US, and I think a few global ones, that show for sure experience with recent events. Not just the headlines, but people’s direct experience with the drought or an extraordinary rainfall. Like, nothing they could remember, or the wildfires in the West, for sure. Those have been linked statistically to the level of concern people register in the surveys. It’s definitely changed.

When I look at the background things, many things have changed. Just thinking about my own community here, this little village in the Hudson Valley, 10 or 15 years ago we did not have an option to be a community that can buy all renewable energy, and we can, and it’s happening as of September something or other. And you can opt out of it if you’re a curmudgeon, but it’s happening. The community voted in on that.

The last mayor of my village is a Republican, and under his tenure we became a “climate smart community” and we’re trying to make that actualized. The idea that that would have been happening 10 years ago was unthinkable. All around the world the price of renewables has gone way down and their applicability and utility is going up. It’s not nearly enough. The fossil energy needs are such that it’s projected pretty confidently that even 2030 will still be 80% fossil. Again, inertia in energy systems is another reality. It’s never enough.

For every one of these arenas where I could cite progress like that, I can also point to Brazil where I was reporting in the Amazon in 1989 after the murder of Chico Mendes, I wrote my book about his life and death, and from that point forward, violence against forest defenders, deforestation rates dropped quite remarkably from like 2004 until the last couple of years. And now of course it’s an upsurge.

It was happening to some extent before Bolsonaro was elected, but now he’s kind of, just through his rhetoric, he’s liberated illegal loggers and miners to dive into the Amazon in ways that are very troubling. None of this is happy times, but there are abundant examples of progress out there. That’s when I get energized about, “Well, what’s the role of communication innovation and spreading that progress?”

Ariel Conn: On that note, one of the big questions that I have, because I feel like I’m in this category, is how do you communicate to people who are totally onboard with the fact that we need to be doing something, what they actually need to do? You talked about how people aren’t necessarily aware of the option with the community energy sources. How do we address the fact that there’s those of us that want to do something and just don’t know what to do?

Andy Revkin: I actually just put in a proposal to South by Southwest on how to help spread and expand local successes on energy and climate resilience. I think it’s an open frontier. Again, the answer really is not communicating to dot, dot, dot. It’s absolutely communicating with or enabling communication, empowering people to connect with each other, like those farmers in India.

A perfect example is right here in New York City in the school system. Another great discovery at Columbia University for me is the education, the teacher’s college folks have a sustainability program and there’s a guy there named Oren Pilmony-Levy, who’s been working pro bono for the New York City schools sustainability unit. They have a million students, 65,000 teachers, 1400 schools, something like that.

Under Mayor Bloomberg, 2013 or so, every school had to identify someone to be their sustainability coordinator. That’s all great, but what do you do with that? These are volunteers, and everyone in the school is busy. He’s been doing a statistical analysis of these volunteer sustainability coordinators, and some of them are really engaged, and they’re actually doing more than they should. They’re fantastic at working with teachers, or they are teachers, and they’re building this into the curriculum.

They do something that I think is a fantastic first step, which is a boiler room tour, when students go down into the bowels of the school and learn how it works as a system. In New York City it’s mostly oil. In New York City, schools right through the ’90s were still burning coal in their basements. Students learn about energy history, they learn about what you can and can’t do with renewables. They start to integrate that into the learning. You said there’s a number of schools where the kids are measuring the waste that they generate and creating tables and using math and statistics to understand trends of recycling.

The communication challenge is how do you spread that stuff? He said on Instagram, there are teachers, they have thousands of followers and they have their syllabus out on Instagram for other teachers to adopt. As I was talking with Oren, over and over the thing that was coming up is how do you help facilitate teachers trading ideas with each other? That’s not me telling a story. It’s what can we do to enable communities of practice in that case? Or communities like mine or anyone’s to do an energy audit in a community? That’s hard, actually, so how do you do that?

That’s what excites me every day. That means they’re frontiers, they’re our best practices, and people creating surprising progress, but then how do you spread that? That’s the new communication frontier, really, to me. It’s still funny to do a storytelling. Data visualizations, animation, integrating into the arts, those are all fantastic, important fronts too. But it’s more of the enabling story sharing and idea shaping.

Ariel Conn: To getting people to communicate with each other as well, as opposed to just hearing what you or I have to say.

Andy Revkin: And actually that’s the job in Columbia. Just today, we’re going to be the architecture to build a network within Columbia, which as dozens of departments, probably hundreds of centers, meaning little funded things. There’s public health researchers, and there’s two or three energy innovation teams. The Earth Institute has the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory up the Hudson, that does this great work on paleoclimatology, past climates.

The same campus has RRI which is an institute that studies risks from climate, like El Nino. They don’t talk a lot. I’d like them to talk more. I’m not discrediting any of them. They’re doing great work, and it’s really hard to poke your head up and say, “Hey, maybe I should share my work and ask some questions of others and that kind of thing.” We’re going to build an internal network for making things bigger and better, and more shareable, and then that’ll spill out hopefully into the community and between scientists and reporters, between scientists and teachers for sure.

Ariel Conn: Do you think we’re asking enough of people? Or, do you think we’re maybe not being realistic enough with the public about what changes need to be made?

Andy Revkin: It’s a great question. The challenge I guess, is that brutal realism on climate means making sure people understand that the worst impacts are still in the future. That’s not convenient if you’re trying to generate urgent action. Sea level rise between now and 2100 is still deeply uncertain. 30-40 years of global warming science, including science on ice sheets is not really advancing much beyond where it was 30 or 40 years, in terms of how do you integrate what we know about ice behavior with what sea level rise is likely to be in the year 2100? Or 2050, 2050’s worse.

Brutal clarity on climate science leads to inconvenient realities in terms of messaging. And I’m all about being brutally honest, and then examining, making sure people understand that the de-carbonization part of the climate tasks that we have, cutting emissions, is a legacy that we are leaving for the world of the future, including for species, too. Biodiversity, acidification of oceans, disruption of ecosystems.

We’re leaving a legacy for the planet system, not just for humans of the year 2100. And as I said earlier in our chat, the stuff we’re seeing out the window right now, like the deaths in Tacloban in the Philippines, from that surge from the Typhoon Haiyan. Or the fires in the West. Nearly all of the losses, there’s absolutely a component of global climate change, meaning C02 driven warming, in the behavior of fires in the West.

The dry/wet cycles, you get a lot of growth of stuff, then it dries out, then you have heat and more drought, and some idiot drops a cigarette, or PG&E doesn’t trim the branches around its wires, and you have a horrible conflagration. But the thing you can miss and it’s totally scientific, is all that building, all that development that happened in the woods there in the last 50 years, if the same fires had occurred 50 years earlier, there wouldn’t have been the tragedy of Paradise.

That town is pretty newborn. It grew up in an area of known vulnerability fire. There were a couple of really close calls. They didn’t add escape roads, and you look at satellite images and you see these horrible situations where the houses burned down because wind borne embers got to a little housing development. But the trees around the development didn’t burn there.

And you realize it was, as one scientist at Arizona State called it, an urban fire in the middle of a forest. The science says that’s something that could have been mitigated, absolutely, by building codes and more careful attention to the details about how houses are built so embers don’t get in through little gaps, and 85 people died. The death count, the losses, the financial losses, the primary driver of the losses is still where and how we’re building, not the change in the climate system yet.

Ariel Conn: That was the problem with Houston as well, wasn’t it?

Andy Revkin: Oh yeah. Puerto Rico. Even Hurricane Maria, I wrote a story in 2007 about past patterns of hurricanes in Puerto Rico, revealed by digging into the mudflats behind the beaches. The salt marshes. There’s a record of past strong storms and it shows that that area of the Caribbean has actually had pulses of really hardcore hurricane activity, even when the climate was cooler.

We look at that and some people are eager to make the horrible, devastating, pain and suffering and loss there about global warming. It’s not scientific. It’s about vulnerability. It’s about dysfunction, it’s about lack of investment, it’s about a federal government that doesn’t care about Puerto Rico. Those are really important stories. But even in terms of hurricane patterns, we can’t say with any confidence that in a warming Caribbean you’ll end up with more storms like Maria.

They’re there, they’re in the system. The system, it’s like a gun that’s got enough bullets in the chamber that building more hurricanes regardless. Again, the losses, the story is about resilience. In a way, to me that shows how if you look at the science with an objective lens, it leads you to plenty of actionable things to do right now. But to me, it also points to the importance of not always making the conversation about this big amorphous thing called global warming.

Ariel Conn: But also about addressing our own vulnerabilities?

Andy Revkin: Vulnerability and energy, for sure. Absolutely. If you can move to renewables, great. Whatever you do there has to be robust in the face of the hurricanes, period. Those are things we should be actively working on.

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

Andy Revkin: Well, more than 30 years in in global warming, my first big story on global warming was 1988 and it says a lot of what I’ve been saying ever since. It’s easy to feel burned out and bummed out by how big this is. It’s monumental, and the Anthropocene, this human age, is one that’s coming with great consequences. We’re changing the world in ways that will last easily hundreds of thousands of years. The changes we’re making in biology will have an imprint on the tree of life going forward for the same time, even longer.

The challenge of our time is how do we take ownership of that, knowing that we can’t change some of this stuff? A lot of it, we can’t, because of momentum. But we can change a lot, too, and we can build a culture, hopefully, that cares about the future. The idea would be to build a culture that has a timescale concern and a geographic concern, which means that we have some empathy and sympathy and interest in the fate of a grandchild of someone living in Bangladesh today, even though we live in North America today.

There’s a continuity here, there’s a continuum, there’s a zone of responsibility that means we all owe each other something. That’s one thing, and then to me, the thing I would work on hardest and feel the best about is leaving behind capacities and toolkits that allow for the magic of connectivity to persist and spread, so that we can look at these tough problems at the community scale, and to a certain extent, the global scale.

And have the connectivity, so the right minds, the right parts come together in ways that can make a difference in a particular question here and there. The biggest thing that gives me the enthusiasm to wake up every morning energized, even though I go to bed bummed out, is 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.

Ariel Conn: That’s one of the interesting things about climate change for me, is we deal with so many different, really big problems, like nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, all these things that most people really can’t do anything about. You can vote, you can try to be active, but climate change is one where you really can, every little bit really does help.

Andy Revkin: Bingo. When we think of social media these days, it’s really easy to get bummed out as well. The communication environment is a jungle. There are trolls and hackers and presidents who have co-opted these amazing tools that can provide global connectivity. I would love to think of people finding a way to experiment at least with it, to find a way to look at Twitter one more time if you’ve bailed out.

Just dip back in and then look for a hashtag that relates to something you care about, and see if you can enter into that conversation just a little bit. I think if we approach social media as sort of like I should approach calisthenics or something, or meditation, it’s like a practice, something you put into your day, that can really make a big difference. It can make an individual’s impact have that little bit of extra potential to connect with someone in Italy or Iran.

Actually, just two days ago, an Iranian journalist, science writer, out of the blue contacted me. I still haven’t found out quite how, and we had an hour long talk about how to collaborate on spreading some journalism training in Iran that might help with this.

Ariel Conn: Oh, that’s wonderful. I like that. Again, it comes back to the communication between people and we do have some really powerful platforms to help enable that.

Andy Revkin: Absolutely.

Ariel Conn: Well, thank you so much. I really enjoyed this.

Andy Revkin: Me too. We can do it again sometime.

Ariel Conn: On the next episode of Not Cool, a climate podcast, we’ll be joined by Stephanie Herring, a climate scientist at NOAA who studies extreme weather events.

Stephanie Herring: We are finding more events that we simply cannot replicate in a world where human-caused climate change hasn’t happened. We knew that someday we would cross this threshold, I personally thought that was going to happen much later. I was a little surprised at how soon it showed up in the data.

Ariel Conn: My interview with Stephanie with go live on October 1. As always, if you enjoyed this show, please take a moment to like it, share it, and maybe even leave a good review. And please join the conversation on Twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate.

Not Cool Ep 8: Suzanne Jones on climate policy and government responsibility

On the eighth episode of Not Cool, Ariel tackles the topic of climate policy from the local level up through the federal. She’s joined by Suzanne Jones: public policy veteran, climate activist, and current mayor of Boulder, Colorado. Suzanne explains the climate threats facing communities like Boulder, the measures local governments can take to combat the crisis, and the ways she’d like to see the federal government step up. She also discusses the economic value of going green, the importance of promoting equity in climate solutions, and more.

Topics discussed include:

  • Roles for local/state/federal governments
  • Surprise costs of climate change
  • Equality/equity in climate solutions
  • Increasing community engagement
  • Nonattainment zones
  • Electrification of transportation sector
  • Municipalization of electric utility
  • Challenges, roadblocks, and what she’d like to see accomplished
  • Affordable, sustainable development
  • What individuals should be doing
  • Carbon farming and sustainable agriculture

References discussed include:

I think everybody at some level cares deeply about the future and recognizes climate change as a real threat to the future that they want. So how do you engage them in that question in a way that’s meaningful for where they are in their life stage or for where they are in terms of their immediate needs? But I think everybody does care. 

~ Suzanne Jones

Ariel Conn: Hi everyone and welcome to episode of 8 of Not Cool: A climate podcast. Today, as members of the United Nations Climate Action Summit continue their discussions regarding international efforts to address climate change, we’ll be talking about what needs to be done at the local level. We’re joined by the Mayor of Boulder Colorado, Suzanne Jones, who will be talking about some of the policies that local communities can adopt, why municipalities will need help from the federal government, and what individuals can do to help.

Suzanne has over 29 years of public policy experience at the local, state, and federal level. She was elected to the Boulder City Council in November 2011, and currently serves as Boulder’s mayor. Her day job is serving as executive director of Eco-Cycle, a 43-year old community nonprofit dedicated to promoting and implementing recycling, composting and other zero waste efforts across Boulder County, as well as promoting Zero Waste solutions as a means to address climate change. 

Suzanne, thank you so much for joining.

Suzanne Jones: My pleasure.

Ariel Conn: So first, is Boulder one of the cities that’s trying to stick with the Paris Climate Agreement?

Suzanne Jones: Boulder is very, very committed to climate action and doing our part. We are joined by lots of other cities, which is heartening — both around the world, but in the United States. That said, we think of ourselves as leaders and we are constantly looking at ways to do more.

Ariel Conn: Since the U.S. is pulling out of the agreement, what do you think is most important for local communities to be doing to try to counter that?

Suzanne Jones: I was very heartened that when President Trump announced he was going to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accords, cities, counties, states across the United States stepped up and said, “Well, we’re still in.” That was a hashtag, right? And that, I think, is keeping the United States at the table. And I think it’s absolutely essential that local communities step up to the plate where our national leadership has totally abdicated their responsibility for what I think is an existential threat. And I think most leaders around the globe recognize climate as a crisis that we need to address immediately. So, it’s very important what we’re doing at the local and state level, and Boulder’s proud to be among those who are working hard on this issue.

Ariel Conn: So do you think that if enough local communities come together within the U.S., we can still at least meet the Paris climate agreement even if the federal government isn’t onboard?

Suzanne Jones: I have two answers to that. One is: it’s absolutely essential that cities, and states, counties step up to the plate. Because if we don’t, the United States will be left behind, and we are a major generator of global emissions. So it’s essential that we are doing our part. However, we will not be able to do all that we need to do as a country and as a world if we don’t get federal leadership on climate soon. So yes to local governments, but we’re not letting the federal government off the hook. We need a new leader; We need a better congress. Because we absolutely need to take measures such as putting a price on carbon if we are going to avoid the worst impacts that our scientists are predicting are just down the road.

Ariel Conn: I’m curious what some of the biggest climate change threats are that are facing Boulder itself or the Front Range as a whole.

Suzanne Jones: Boulder, the Front Range, and Colorado as a whole are already very much experiencing impacts from climate change that scientists have predicted. And those range from increased temperatures, which lead to greater risk of drought; We have a much longer wildfire season and more intense wildfires — you may note that in the last 20 years, Boulder County has experienced four major wildfires, each one record breaking in terms of the amount of expense and loss.

We will also see more extreme weather events, and it already feels like that’s happening. Our 2013 floods were the result of it rained for five days; it just poured. That never happens. A jet stream stalled over our community, and we had roads wash out, bridges wash out. Our stormwater system backed up. Major damage. It cost millions of dollars. So those types of events are happening, and we know that climate change is adding to the increased frequency as well as the intensity of these events.

And then we have slower, more subtle things like we’re having reduced snow pack. It doesn’t feel like it this year, but the trend is not good. We’re getting more of our precipitation as rain instead of snow, which means it melts quicker and there’s less of it. And that’s our drinking water to get us through all year. And it’s the same water that all the ranchers and farmers depend on to get them through the long summer. So those sorts of changes are already happening. 

And then with that are infrastructure changes — like just the increased temperature changes how often you have to maintain pavement, which is a huge cost to local governments. And then every time you have a flooding event, inevitably, you’ve got to do road repair, bridge repair, and that sort of thing. And I’ll just note that the most vulnerable people amongst us, most vulnerable populations, whether they are low income or seniors, or often communities of color, are the least prepared to deal with these impacts. So there’s also this whole equity piece to the climate impacts that we are already seeing.

Ariel Conn: The point about the pavement was interesting. That’s not something I’ve thought about. That’s not something I’d heard, that temperatures are going to mean that we have to pay to repave the roads more often. I don’t know either since you’ve been mayor or just in general, have there been other things like that that have surprised you about the costs of climate change that aren’t the obvious ones that we always hear about?

Suzanne Jones: Well, there are a whole array. Another thing that doesn’t affect us as directly but I was surprised to hear about is, for example, in hotter temperatures, it’s harder for planes to take off from airports. So you need longer runways. So you may know that in cities like Phoenix, they have more canceled flights when they have prolonged weather extremes. Things like that, that you wouldn’t think of that are very disruptive that have to do with the changing climate.

There’s also other insidious things, like ecologically, we are starting to disrupt things. You may know that we had a bark beetle epidemic across Colorado, killed a lot of trees. That’s a natural phenomenon, but the increased temperatures meant it was more far reaching, and it lasted longer, and it killed more trees because the bugs could mate twice in a year, and they didn’t die off in the cold winters. Things like that. Our pollinators who are already stressed are even more stressed with these temperatures, which affects how well things grow. And it goes on and on. So there’s a lot of different costs that we’re only beginning to understand.

But these costs are one of the reasons why Boulder joined with Boulder County and San Miguel County to bring a lawsuit against Exxon and other major fossil fuel companies that have headquarters or facilities here in Colorado to say, “Hey, we’re seeing increased costs from the use of your product, and we want you to help us pay for the impacts.”

Ariel Conn: Is that new? How far along is that?

Suzanne Jones: That lawsuit was filed a year, year and a half ago. And it’s slowly making its way through the court system. Other cities have filed mostly on coasts, because of the impacts of sea level rise, which are very dramatic and very costly. We were one of the first communities inland to look at this other suite of costs, like costs of dealing with pavement repairs, which adds up. I would add that I think most municipalities cannot afford the impacts that the climate scientists are predicting for us down the road.

Ariel Conn: Okay. That seems important.

Suzanne Jones: Yes.

Ariel Conn: How far down the road is this, or we’re already starting to see costs. Are we starting to see already that municipalities are struggling to pay for these costs? How far into the future or how soon do you think this will become an even bigger challenge?

Suzanne Jones: I think it’s already started, and we will see municipalities and counties, states increasingly struggling to keep up with the impacts. And you think about the hurricanes that devastated Houston, New York City, New Orleans over the last five to 10 years. And recovering from them has cost millions, even billions of dollars. So as the pace of extreme weather events and these longer term chronic pressures like just temperature increase, it’s going to become more of an issue.

We’ve always had extreme weather events, but not of the intensity and frequency that we’re going to see them. And it’s going to be very disruptive to things like water rights, water quantity. Boulder happens to have very good water rights. So we are better set up than most communities as we look at what that means for a drying west. But there’s a lot of communities that are going to struggle just to meet water demands, for example.

Ariel Conn: So I think this ties back to this question of equity. And I’ve been looking at this from a more global perspective where we’re hearing about third world countries and developing countries that are going to be struggling the most. But when we’re looking at even just something like the city of Boulder, or Boulder County, or sections within Colorado, how does equality and equity play a role? How can we ensure that the poorest communities are getting the support they need?

Suzanne Jones: Well, let’s look at a couple scales. Globally, it is very clear that the industrialized nations — the United States at the front of the pack — have created the emissions that have led to climate change through the industrial revolution. Basically, we’ve gotten rich and had a much higher quality of life as a country from burning fossil fuels. And now other countries, especially the poorer countries, are bearing a lot of the brunt of those impacts.

Think of Africa, which tends to have some of the poorer countries: They’re going to have massive droughts, displacement of people from their communities as farming dries up. They’re going to have a huge refugee issues. Think about global island communities. Sea level rise is going to inundate and do away with whole cultures. They didn’t create the climate crisis, but they’re going to bear the brunt. So there’s a huge international equity issue, and I think the Paris Accords was the first time where the developed nations agreed to step up to the plate and start paying to help the poorer countries begin to adapt. So that’s at the global scale.

But more locally, I think it’s incumbent upon Boulder as a municipality to make sure that we are taking care of low income people in our population generally, such that they are better able to deal with the added costs and stresses of climate change. So everything from, let’s raise our minimum wage so people are making a livable wage, so that if they experience flood damage they can pay for it. Things that basic: making sure that we have a robust, resilient emergency setup so that seniors living alone, somebody is checking in on them when the temperatures go up. Everything from that to making sure that everyone is a part of the climate solution.

For instance, we have a low income solar program to help put solar panels on low income roofs, because maybe they’re less able to participate in those solutions. But everybody should be a part of and have access to sustainability solutions for the future. We’re looking at it from both angles and trying to do better, and use equity as the lens through which we view all of our climate actions.

Ariel Conn: The solar panels are an interesting example, because that’s a question that I’ve had in the past. It does seem that it’s much easier to put solar panels on your house, switch to an electric vehicle, if you have the income to do it. But there’s a lot of people who can’t afford to do that. So I guess this is one of the ways to address that.

Suzanne Jones: Right, and we also have a very robust affordable housing program, and also a sustainable transportation program. A lot of people that work in Boulder commute in, and we are looking at both of those issues — housing and transportation — with other municipalities in Boulder County, so that we come up with regional solutions, so that affordable housing and transit, biking, walkable communities are accessible to everyone. More equitable solutions that actually meet our larger goals as a community as well.

Another important element to the equity issue is making sure that folks that have typically not been at the table are there to be a part of crafting the solutions that work best for their communities. So that’s another big emphasis of Boulder’s, is how do we involve low income folks, people of color, maybe recent immigrants, youth, seniors? The folks that don’t generally show up at a Tuesday night city council meeting: How do we make sure their input, their suggestions, and their leadership are incorporated into the plans and the solutions that we embrace. So we’re really focused on that as well.

Ariel Conn: How do we get people more involved, and how much should people have a responsibility for trying to make sure that they can attend meetings? And how much is it the city’s responsibility to make sure it is more accessible to people?

Suzanne Jones: Everybody should feel responsibility. I think it is both responsibility of local government to engage people, And of course on the other end, people need to take it upon themselves to get engaged. But if you don’t think local government serves you, or doesn’t share what you think, you are less likely to be engaged. So I think it’s incumbent upon us as leaders to reach out to folks that, maybe they have two jobs, they don’t have time to come to a meeting. Or maybe they’re at home feeding the kids, taking care of a senior or whatever. So they can’t come to meetings.

So we are doing everything from of course using electronic means and encouraging people to email us using all forms of social media. We’re also going to where they are. So let’s go hold a public meeting in the trailer park. That way it’s really easy for people to walk outside and go give their input. Or using existing nonprofits or service agencies who are already interacting with various populations we don’t hear a lot from, and getting their input — rather than adding it onto their list of to do’s, interacting with them where they’re already at those agencies. They’re at the food bank: Get their opinion while they’re at the food bank. We’re trying to be as creative as possible.

I also think that engaging students at all levels — we have a Growing Up Boulder program where they’re actively involving elementary and middle school students, which is really exciting: everything from how would you design a park so it’s inviting to you. We get great input from kids; They know what they want. But then involving high school students, and we have a University of Colorado here. A third of our population are people under 25, at least. So involving them in much deeper thinking about the future, I think, is essential. And they have ideas, and they have opinions, and that needs to be incorporated.

Ariel Conn: Are you seeing an increase in youth involvement? I mean we’re certainly seeing globally that young people are getting more interested in climate issues.

Suzanne Jones: Well if voter trends be any guide, yes, absolutely. And we have groups like New Era who are actively working to ensure folks are registered to vote, for example. But they’re voting, and I think they really do care. So we’re trying to provide the opportunities, but also we try to make it interesting, right?

I think everybody at some level cares deeply about the future and recognizes climate change as a real threat to the future that they want. So how do you engage them in that question in a way that’s meaningful for where they are in their life stage or for where they are in terms of their immediate needs? But I think everybody does care.

Ariel Conn: So one of the things that surprised me to learn recently is that we have days in Boulder and Denver and along the Front Range where air quality is as bad as it is in Beijing.

Suzanne Jones: Frightening, isn’t it?

Ariel Conn: Yes. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that happens and what policies we can try to put in place.

Suzanne Jones: So we have two main factors that are contributing to poor air quality here in our region and in Boulder County. One of them is vehicle emissions. It is the number one source of greenhouse emissions nationally. It’s the second in Colorado. But when automobile exhaust mixes with sunshine, you get ozone. And we are in a nonattainment zone for ozone.

Ariel Conn: What does that mean?

Suzanne Jones: To be a nonattainment, the Environmental Protection Agency set standards nationally based on what’s good for public health. Also aesthetics, visibility: we’re getting our brown cloud back. So we’re not meeting it. And one of the other reasons we’re not meeting it is oil and gas drilling. And you’ll note that Boulder’s just down wind from Weld County, which is one of the most drilled counties in the United states. That produces a lot of emissions. One of them is methane, which is actually what natural gas is mostly made of, is methane. It is a very, very potent greenhouse gas. So it’s bad for climate. It does not last as long in the atmosphere as CO2, but it’s much more potent in the short term. So, that is a big concern. 

But oil and gas also releases things like benzenes, which are toxic carcinogens. And it also releases other volatile organic compounds, VOC’s, that also in the presence of sunlight create ozone. So, it’s cars, and it’s oil and gas drilling that are leading to a lot of our ozone concerns, which you may know, prompt asthma attacks in kids and seniors and is a considerable public health hazard.

In terms of what we can do about it, I am pleased to say that citizen engagement — residents protesting and letting their concerns be known — has paid off. We now have a new governor and a new legislature that took very important action this past session setting climate goals. They also took important action in terms of oil and gas regulations, and giving more local control to communities to put more limits on oil and gas drilling. It also set up some rulemakings for the Air Quality Control Commission to address pollutants that are released in oil and gas drilling. So those are all positive things that happened this past legislative session. Of course, now we need to make sure they’re implemented. And I’ll just note that it was citizen engagement that really fueled that action at the legislature. So, citizens need to keep letting their views be known and we need to have leadership that’s responsive.

Another important area of action from the governor and the legislature was around electric vehicles. The Air Quality Control Commission just adopted a rule around zero emission vehicles, which will greatly enhance the access to different electric vehicle models in our state, and will help with the increase, hopefully, in purchasing electric vehicles. The state administration has also been working to make sure that we have charging stations across the state. So that’s another positive aspect. Moving to electrification of our vehicles system is a big part of the answer for climate change and also air pollution. And of course, we need to make sure that the electricity that those vehicles are using is clean. And that’s also a work in progress.

Ariel Conn: So Boulder has a reputation of being fairly progressive. And I’m sure that even with that, there’s still things that we could be doing, that you would like to be doing, etc., that we haven’t passed yet. So actually maybe before I get to the challenges, are there any other policies that have passed in Boulder that you’re most excited about that you think are really helpful?

Suzanne Jones: There are a whole handful of policies and programs that Boulder has put in place that have become national models, that we’re quite proud of. They range from things like building codes: We have one of the strictest building codes in the country, and we are on an accelerating path to net zero buildings for all new construction for residential before 2030. So that’s exciting. For commercial buildings, which are a little trickier, we also have a building for performance ordinance that we’ve put in place that starts the reporting, and tracking, and monitoring, and improvement process for commercial buildings. And like I said, that’s trickier because a lot of industrial processes use energy differently. So you can’t just have a one size fits all. But that’s very exciting.

We have a SmartRegs ordinance, which applies to all the rental housing in our city, which is half of our housing stock. We worked with all the landlord associations to come up with a plan, and then phase it in over time, over eight years. But it required energy efficiency improvements in order for people to renew their rental licenses. As a consequence, we have buildings now that are being rented that use a lot less energy, and frankly are more comfortable to live in, and ultimately reduce the costs for the renters as well.

We have a Universal Zero Waste Ordinance, which requires recycling, composting, In every residence, every business, and all the institutions like schools and whatnot. And that’s been very important in increasing our waste diversion. Most people don’t realize that our consumption emissions, which comes from producing and using and discarding our stuff and our food, is some 40% of emissions nationally. So getting a handle on those consumption emissions has also been really important. And our Universal Zero Waste Ordinance is a model nationally. We’re one of only a handful of cities that has that.

We also have worked together realizing that, hey, Boulder alone can’t solve these problems. So we, along with Boulder County, established an organization called Colorado Communities for Climate Action, or CC4CA, as it’s known. It now includes over 20 counties and cities across Colorado, together making up I think some 14% of the population, that are now working together at the state legislature to advance policies. And that indeed was an important part of some of the progress we saw this past session.

And then finally, I’ll note that when I first ran for city council, I was really intrigued by the city’s effort to municipalize our electric utility. So that’s what got me to run for office, and that is an effort where Boulder would like to be in charge of its own electric utility rather than be under Xcel. Even though they’re a good company, we are very limited in terms of what we can do, being under that regulatory scheme. 

We are still working through all of the court cases and whatnot to actually take over that system so that it can be owned by the city just as our wastewater utility is, and our storm water utility is, and our drinking water utility is. But that is another effort that I think has really pushed Xcel and the big statewide investor on utilities to get greener, because cities like ours are saying, “Hey, your renewable energy is too small, and we’re too dependent on fossil fuels. So we want to take over and do it better.” So we’re kind of the dog nipping at Xcel’s heels.

That one’s still ongoing. The jury’s still out. It’ll take another vote of the people, once we figure out the ultimate costs, to decide whether or not we go ahead and part ways with Xcel, and do our own utility. But that’s been an exciting process and would lead to us being able to try so many more creative things around energy use, like creating microgrids and whatnot.

Ariel Conn: What are a lot of the benefits of having a city utility system as opposed to the bigger one? You mentioned that you can control more how much renewable energy is involved. What are some of the other benefits?

Suzanne Jones: Well, we’re pursuing municipalization of our electric utility for three basic reasons. One is to decarbonize, the other is to decentralize, and then finally democratize. And that’s a cute way of saying we’d like to have more control over our energy destiny.

Right now, the investor-owned utility is regulated by the public utility commission at the statewide level. So we can’t as a city choose what energy sources we want to use. For example, we’d like to go to renewable energy 100% by 2030. We’re one of those cities that is committed to getting there. As of last year, we had some of the dirtiest electricity in the country. Now since then, Xcel’s committed to greening up faster, which is great. But they are still not on a pathway to 100% by 2030. If we were in charge of our own utility, we could choose where it came from: wind, solar, etc.

The other thing is we could do all these creative things, like rather than being all on one grid we could have microgrids. Right now, if you have a great roof for solar and you can produce extra electricity, you can’t sell it to your neighbor. Well, why not? Why wouldn’t we want everybody to be in the business of producing clean energy? It also means you’d be more resilient if the grid went down. Well, all these microgrids around town would keep performing. So stuff like that that we’d love to pursue, we can’t do.

Also, I’ll just note that if we had our own electric utility, we would invest any additional revenues back in the city. Right now, we send over $30 million of profits to the shareholders of Xcel. So that’s money that exits our city and goes to other people, as opposed to being invested back in our system here. And we could invest in lowering rates, or we could invest in more renewable energy on everybody’s roof, or we could invest in undergrounding of lines. There’s all sorts of things that we could do if we were in charge of those decisions.

And I’ll note that there’s 28 other municipal electric utilities in Colorado. So this isn’t new, it’s just that nobody has done it recently to strike out on their own. But there are plenty of cities that are right around us who own their own electric utilities. And they’re getting to do all sorts of things that represents their community values much faster than we can.

Ariel Conn: And then looking back at some of the challenges that you face, what are some things that you think would be really helpful that we haven’t been able to accomplish yet?

Suzanne Jones: We still have a long way to go. And I would say some of the trickier issues we have to deal with are around transportation and housing. We would love to invest more in our transit system, but we have to work with RTD, our regional transit authority, to do that. Well they are having financial issues, and they have priorities across the Denver metropolitan area that don’t necessarily match with Boulder’s ambitions. So we’re limited in what we can do on that front.

But other things like we would like to do more on bicycling. We have some of the best rates of cycling in the country, and yet it pales in comparison to what they do in Europe. We have a great regional network of trails with underpasses that go onto the roads that is well used and loved by cyclists, but we need more on street protected bike lanes. That’s been tricky here in Boulder because there’s a lot of people that also need to drive. So that tension between in particular commuters and bicyclists is one that we’re still wrestling with.

On the housing front, you probably know that smaller, more closely aligned units — like multifamily housing — is much more efficient from a climate perspective. But like a lot of cities, we have single family zoning with houses with yards, and that’s sort of the character of the neighborhood. So figuring out how we add in more dense housing in a way that fits with the character of the community, and also ambitions about how big the community wants to go, is very tricky.

There’s a lot of agreement in Boulder that if we’re going to develop, we should make it affordable. And not just hope it’s affordable, but deed restricted, permanently affordable housing. That is what we’re focused on. But there is disagreement in our community about how big we want to get as a community. So that’s a tension. Because people like Boulder as it is, and they don’t want more cars and people. And yet we also want to be a diverse and vibrant community that’s more energy efficient, and a transit-using population. And usually that means more density. So, that’s something that we’re working through as a community. But we are making great progress in adding more affordable units, and slowly enhancing our multimodal transportation network. But a lot of folks would like to see us go faster.

Ariel Conn: So again, Boulder’s pretty progressive. When you look at other communities in the country that are more conservative or even more centrist, what tips do you have to leaders in those communities for trying to be more environmentally friendly and go greener?

Suzanne Jones: Well, one big argument is going greener is also often a very smart approach economically, especially over the long term. Climate change is going to hit conservative communities as much as it’s going to hit progressive communities. And most municipalities aren’t going to be able to afford the impacts. So we are all in this together. A lot of the solutions — for example, I mentioned energy efficiency. Well, if you build energy efficient houses or you retrofit them to be more efficient, that’s energy saved that you don’t even have to produce, let alone produce it as green energy. That’s just smart. Energy efficiency is actually a conservative notion, which is don’t waste.

So those are good arguments I think for a conservative community is let’s not waste. That’s inefficient. It’s not cost effective. So let’s not do that. So those types of arguments I think are useful in this country. We subsidize fossil fuel development, even though it’s not a new industry. It doesn’t need subsidies. A lot of the policies end up subsidizing fossil fuels even as we understand that we need to transition off them.

I think it’s also a conservative viewpoint that we should quit subsidizing things that don’t need to be subsidized. And if we are going to subsidize anything, let’s subsidize the new technologies that we want to see more of. So I think doing things like incentivizing people when they buy a car to go ahead and buy an electric car, that is preparing for the future. And it’s also a good way to support new technology, and ultimately save people money, because the fuel for an electric vehicle costs a whole lot less than the fuel for a fossil fuel burning vehicle.

So those are some of the arguments. But mostly I’ll note that we need to make drastic change, and we need to make it soon. The sooner we take action both to mitigate and adapt to climate change, the less it will cost. And all the damage that we see coming down the road is going to be extremely costly. There are all these efficiencies and new technologies, even if climate change didn’t happen, would be good investments. They’re smart investments that pay off over the long-term. But knowing how much climate change is going to cost, it just makes no sense not to act. And I think people, regardless of their political persuasion, are starting to see that.

Ariel Conn: So we recently had the House climate crisis committee meet at CU Boulder, and one of the things that you and the mayor of Fort Collins were asked was do you need help from state and federal level? And it was a very resounding yes from both of you. So I was hoping you could talk a little bit about some of the things that communities like Boulder and any other city or community needs from the state government and the federal government, in order for the smaller, local areas to do what they need to do.

Suzanne Jones: The single most helpful thing that we could get from national leadership is to put a price on carbon pollution. Because if you do that, if you tax it or if you do a cap and dividend program, you will signal to industry, “It costs more to use fossil fuels, so come up with alternatives — and the sooner you do it, the more money you’ll save.” That sends all the signals to the market to get on with things. That will make it easier for governments all over the country to then move forward if they’re not fighting industry. If industry is leading the way, running ahead, trying to figure out ways to adapt to a price on carbon, that would be extremely helpful.

Some states have done it, like California, and they’re big enough in order to have it be meaningful. But to do it state by state or city by city is totally inefficient, and it means it’s cheaper to do business elsewhere, maybe. But if you level the playing field and you tell the market, “Go develop solutions, technologies, products that use less fossil fuels, less carbon,” that will be the engine that drives us forward.

There’s also a whole other suite of things that federal government could do to help communities, and one is invest in infrastructure that is resilient to the effects we’re going to see: more resilient to sea level rise, more resilient to more flooding, more drought resistant. Those sorts of things. That would be extremely helpful because that’s stuff local communities are not going to be able to afford.

And then there’s policies like a zero emission vehicle standard, which would be very helpful and would help all of our residents who are consumers of these new technologies to be a part of the solution faster and more cheaply. So there’s a whole range of things that would be better done at the national level, that we’re doing piecemeal as communities and states in the absence of their leadership.

Ariel Conn: At the other end of the spectrum, what would you like to see more individuals doing that would make your job easier, other local leaders’ jobs easier, or just in general?

Suzanne Jones: Well, there’s two ways that each individual can have a big difference. One is let your money do your talking. Spend your money on things that represent progress towards climate solutions. So wherever you can, reduce, reuse, recycle. Those sorts of choices add up. They drive policies. So don’t spend money on, say, single use disposable plastics. Don’t do that. Tell the industry, “You know what? We’re not interested in paying for those sorts of things.”

But the other way is to be engaged politically. Tell your leaders at the local, state, and national level you want to see action on climate. And then vote. Vote, vote, vote. We are in the current situation we’re at where cities are having to lead because there’s not national leadership because of what’s happened in terms of voting. And of course there’s huge industry pressures. The folks that are making money off of the current status quo have every incentive to lobby officials to prevent progress, and they’re doing that very effectively. So the power of the people needs to come to the fore, and actually get leaders in power. They’re going to stand up and do the right thing. So we want people to practice good individual behavior, and demand action from our leaders at a much larger scale.

Ariel Conn: I really liked that. I think that’s a nice place to end. Is there anything that you think is important that we didn’t get to?

Suzanne Jones: I want to just plant a seed about something that I think is hopeful, because it’s very easy to get depressed when you look at climate projections.

Ariel Conn: It is.

Suzanne Jones: 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. And one of the hopeful solutions that is coming to the fore is carbon farming. And that’s related to restoring soil health by doing things like adding compost, by other agricultural practices like cover crops and no-till — don’t plow it up. And you add compost to soil, and you greatly enrich the nutrients. You feed the little microbes in the soil that support plant growth, and you can supercharge photosynthesis.

Plants take CO2 out of the atmosphere, and they produce oxygen. And if we can supercharge photosynthesis by reinvesting in our soils — because we have depleted soils through mass agriculture, through poor soil management, top soils blowing away, etc., etc. — if we reinvest in our soil health, not only will we grow healthier food, but all that CO2 that the plants suck, a lot of it gets stored in the soils. And it creates this virtual cycle of healthy soils, healthy plants, more photosynthesis. We can really draw down atmosphere carbon using the natural systems of the planet. If we do that, you can really scale it up to a meaningful reversing climate change.

Now that’s going to take a lot of political will. But again, we get to eat healthier, we can support our farmers and our ranchers, and we can start to reverse some of the damage that we’ve done. Even while we reduce emissions and we adapt to the changes already baked into the system, we can start to reverse climate change. So that’s a hopeful solution that I hope people will learn more about and help support.

Ariel Conn: So generally, do you feel hopeful?

Suzanne Jones: Tough question. I have to wake up every morning and take action, and work hard in the belief that we can turn this ship. But the trends are not good. So we really need each and every person to take responsibility for their choices, and also to engage their leaders. Or frankly run for office yourself. I was a climate activist. I ran for office. Now I’m mayor. Get in there, and help be a part of the solution, and demand leadership from your local, state, and national elected officials.

Ariel Conn: Great, thank you so much.

Suzanne Jones: My pleasure.

Ariel Conn: On the next episode of Not Cool, we’ll be joined by Andy Revkin, a climate journalist and author who’s been covering climate change for roughly 30 years. He’ll talk about some of the surprising things he learned in that time, what we can do to address and adapt to climate change, and why communication is so important.

Andy Revkin: “We need to decarbonize our energy systems and our food systems — you know, we need to stop what we’ve been doing unintentionally for 100 years.”

Ariel Conn: Episode 9 of Not Cool, a climate podcast, will go live on September 26. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please take a moment to like it, share it, and leave a good review. And join the discussion on Twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate.

Not Cool Ep 7: Lindsay Getschel on climate change and national security

The impacts of the climate crisis don’t stop at rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. Episode 7 of Not Cool covers the national security implications of the changing climate, from the economic fallout to the uptick in human migration. Ariel is joined by Lindsay Getschel, a national security and climate change researcher who briefed the UN Security Council this year on these threats. Lindsay also discusses how hard-hit communities are adapting, why UN involvement is important, and more.

Topics discussed include:

  • Threat multipliers
  • Economic impacts of climate change
  • Impacts of climate change on migration
  • The importance of UN involvement
  • Ecosystem-based adaptation
  • Action individuals can take

References discussed include:

Climate change will directly exacerbate underlying insecurities, which can then have an impact on the overall stability of a community or a country.

~ Lindsay Getschel

Ariel Conn: Welcome to Episode 7 of Not Cool, a climate podcast. I’m your host, Ariel Conn. Today we’re looking at climate change as a threat multiplier, and how the crisis could lead to global instability. I’m joined by Lindsay Getschel who will be talking about her involvement with the UN security council, her work looking at specific security threats that have been exacerbated by climate change in the Caribbean, the issue of climate change and international security more broadly, and why she’s a strong advocate for building youth engagement around the climate crisis. I’ll note that this interview was recorded earlier this summer before Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas.

Lindsay was previously a researcher at the Stimson Center, which is a global security thinktank in Washington DC, where she examined how climate change impacts national security and exacerbates economic insecurity, food insecurity, and instability in vulnerable countries. In January, she briefed the UN Security Council on the security implications of climate change and what the Security Council can do to address these risks.

Lindsay, thank you so much for joining us today.

Lindsay Getschel: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be on.

Ariel Conn: I’m a little torn because I want to dive right in and start asking about climate change as a threat to national security, but to do that, I think it really helps to understand threat multipliers. So let’s start with that. Could you explain what a threat multiplier is?

Lindsay Getschel: Climate change is a national security threat because of its direct impacts on economic security, food security of vulnerable places, and how that therefore contributes to instability or conflict in places that are already vulnerable. As an example: in vulnerable places where underlying insecurities already exist — so, these are insecurities like unemployment, poverty, food insecurity — where these insecurities already exist, climate change tends to — or will, and already has — exacerbate these insecurities. 

In other words, in places that are dependent on agriculture, for example, climate change will increase food insecurity as droughts damage local harvests. This will also impact economic insecurity as people who rely on agriculture for livelihoods in their local economy, as drought impacts those places, that will increase their food insecurity and economic insecurity. As these insecurities worsen as a result of climate change, it’ll make places more vulnerable to conflict and instability. 

And so that’s what it means to be a threat multiplier. Climate change will directly exacerbate underlying insecurities, which can then have an impact on the overall stability of a community or a country. So, while climate change does not directly cause conflict, what it means to be a threat multiplier is that it will have direct and indirect effects on underlying issues — food security, economic security, people’s livelihoods, migration — and that those will then contribute to instability. So that’s what it means to multiply underlying issues and underlying threats that can lead to conflict and instability.

Ariel Conn: Okay. You spoke about this to the UN Security Council. And one of the comments you gave in that statement that I thought summed things up nicely is you said, “When local government cannot provide basic services to their people, the result is displacement, poverty, political instability, and violence.” I guess one of the first questions I have for you there is: are we already seeing this? Are there examples that we can look to now where we’re already seeing this instability?

Lindsay Getschel: Yeah, unfortunately, there already are a couple of examples that I can point to. One that I actually spent some time studying when I was at the London School of Economics is the impact of climate change on the conflict in Syria. Beginning in 2006, Syria experienced a prolonged and harsh drought, which drove rural populations that depended on agriculture and were now seeing their livelihoods impacted by drought — those rural populations then moved to urban centers in Syria in search of new opportunities, employment, and jobs.

So this influx of people to cities exacerbated existing issues in cities, like poverty, overcrowding, unemployment. This is pointed to as one factor of many factors, obviously, that eventually contributed to the 2011 Arab Spring protest, which then led to the conflict in Syria.

And actually, interestingly enough, the US’s Fourth National Climate Assessment — which was actually released this past November in 2018 — was actually put out by the US government, and linked climate change and its impacts on the 2010 drought in Egypt, which tripled bread prices and contributed to unrest — that was linked to the 2011 protests in Egypt as well. This Fourth National Climate Assessment also linked drought in Somalia to people joining local armed groups there, further contributing to unrest. There are several examples that show this connection between climate change and insecurity, instability, and conflict.

The Department of Defense in the US, as part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, is actually required to assess the impact of climate change on US military installments and the impact on national security in the US. And former Secretary of Defense James Mattis also said in his confirmation hearings that climate change impacts stability in areas where US troops are operating in. So clearly, this is a recognized issue, even in the US government and especially in the US defense community, that this is an issue, and there are impacts that we’re already seeing on instability and conflict in many places in the world.

Ariel Conn: So one of the things that I find interesting and concerning: when you first started explaining this, you talk about the vulnerable regions, but — and I think this is where this becomes a threat multiplier — it’s clear that when we start looking at these examples, these problems that are happening in vulnerable regions quickly become relatively global issues. What sort of impact would we expect in some of these wealthier, more stable countries? Even if the worst is hitting these more vulnerable countries, how is this impacting the world?

Lindsay Getschel: You know, we’re extremely globalized now. Our economies all are interrelated. And what happens in one place may seem distant, but it actually has direct impacts on what’s going on in the US or in other wealthier countries around the world. Just in terms of national security, as seen in the Syrian conflict, that obviously had issues related to national security around the world, both in terms of the terrorist threat of ISIS and then direct military involvement by Russia, the US being involved. So clearly, it has military impacts on places around the world, even though the conflict may not be happening in the US. It might be happening elsewhere, but obviously what happens in one place has impacts elsewhere.

But then also, there’s the issue of migration, which clearly has impacts on people leaving these war-torn places and migrating to places in Europe. And even in the US, closer to home, a World Food Report, actually, in 2017 showed that consecutive years of drought in Central America — in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador — impacted food security there and actually contributed to migration from these places, which clearly has an impact on the US and the current immigration debates that are ongoing right now. So clearly, even though these issues are impacting other countries, it’s not just happening in a vacuum. It has effects on migration, and conflict, and national security for countries around the world.

Ariel Conn: I want to move to some of the research you’ve done, I believe, with the Stimson Center looking at the Caribbean. Can you talk about what the research was that you did and what the security threats are that you found?

Lindsay Getschel: We were actually conducting a really interesting project — it’s an ongoing project — examining the impact of climate change and other ocean-related risks, such as illegal fishing and foreign fishing, on the local security of cities, specifically looking at coastal urban centers since coastal urban centers are at this intersection of both the ocean-related impacts of climate change like sea level rise, extreme weather events like hurricanes, as well as the land-based effects of climate change — such as drought, which drives migration to urban centers, many of which are located on the coast.

And so, we’ve started this project looking at the Caribbean as our pilot project. We wanted to pick a location and a region that was easier to test our methodology in: so, fairly available and accessible data that we could pull out and look at and be able to actually test this before bringing it to places like, say, East Africa, which is the next phase of this project, where data availability might be slightly more difficult to get. What we’re doing in the Caribbean, and what we’ll eventually be expanding to East Africa, is we’re developing this climate and ocean risk vulnerability index, which will quantify the levels of vulnerability in ten different risk categories that these places are experiencing. The index looks at a variety of social and economic risks; geographic, physical risk; and then the actual impact of climate change — have they experienced increased storms or increased drought, changes in precipitation?

We actually conducted some field research in Kingston, Jamaica and Castries, Saint Lucia, which are the two target locations that we were looking at. And so we went down to the Caribbean in May and met with stakeholders — policy makers, people in the government in both Jamaica and Saint Lucia, and then industry stakeholders, people in the tourism industry, agriculture industry, fishing industry — to get a sense of what was actually happening on the ground. Because there’s only so much you can read about doing open source research. It’s really important to actually go there and listen to people to learn about what’s happening to their countries and what they’re experiencing.

Doing that, what was really interesting in terms of the insecurities and security threats that they’re experiencing and foresee that they’ll experience in the future: a lot of it is related to economic security, especially, just as one example, looking at Saint Lucia. Going there, you really realize how much their economy relies, both directly and indirectly, very much on the tourism industry. When you go there and you see how much — it’s a very small island, so if they’re hit by a hurricane like Hurricane Irma or Maria that hit Puerto Rico — if a similar hurricane hit Saint Lucia or some of the other small countries on the eastern side of the Caribbean, how much that would hurt their tourism economy and how that would therefore have ripple effects throughout their economy, and their agriculture industry, or their lodging industry, and transportation sector. It’s all linked together. That was really interesting to see that type of security threat and then the impact that climate change would have on the livelihoods of people living there, and therefore the overall economic security of the country itself.

Ariel Conn: You’ve spoken to the UN and written about this: that you believe it’s important for the UN to adopt a resolution that recognizes climate change as a security threat. I was hoping we could step back from some of the specific issues and just talk about why you think it’s so important for the UN to be involved in this, and what you think they should do.

Lindsay Getschel: The UN, why it’s important for them to adopt a resolution that recognizes climate change as a security threat: that would be a call to action that the Security Council recognizes this as an important threat and a threat that’s important enough to actually have a resolution made that the members of the Security Council would all have to vote on and adopt. And so what I spoke about at the UN was that it’s important to adopt this resolution and then have the UN peacekeeping missions and political missions actually conduct assessments on how climate change impacts the communities where they have these missions.

Why it’s important for the UN to do this — why not the US or a specific country or an aid organization? The UN has a unique presence around the world. It’s involved in almost every conflict situation, whether it be a full on peacekeeping mission or a Secretary General special envoy or a political mission there. So, they have influence, and they have presence in many different areas of the world that would be vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. And so if the Security Council adopted a resolution that recognized the threat of climate change to global security and then conducted assessments on how climate change impacted the security of places where they have peacekeeping missions, political missions, and special envoys, that would actually do a lot to better understanding the threat of climate change around the world since the UN has such a global presence and a presence in so many vulnerable areas. That would be a really important step to both understanding the risks and then actually taking action to build resilience and help these countries adapt and be prepared for the impacts of climate change.

Ariel Conn: I believe you spoke in January of 2019. Is that correct?

Lindsay Getschel: Yeah.

Ariel Conn: And it’s now summer of 2019. What has the UN done, if anything, since then?

Lindsay Getschel: I know that they haven’t adopted the resolution yet, unfortunately. Hopefully, they’ll do more than just having continued debates. While that’s important — like the debate I was involved in, and they’ve had many past debates on climate change as well, open debates in the Security Council about the impacts of climate change on security — I’m hoping that in the next few months, they’ll actually take action on it, or however long it takes them to do that.

Ariel Conn: Yeah, I understand how slow they can work. Let’s go back to the Caribbean again. Tell me about some of the solutions that you did see implemented there.

Lindsay Getschel: Both Jamaica and Saint Lucia are already undergoing a lot of really interesting resiliency building projects, both within the government as well as local nonprofit organizations. Nature Conservancy is undertaking an interesting project in Jamaica about ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change. So that’s assessing how ecosystems like, say,  mangroves and coral reefs are both vulnerable to the impact of climate change, but also how they can be used to build resilience. There’s a lot of interesting work going on in both countries and throughout the Caribbean. They recognize that there’s the threat of climate change. And they recognize that they need to adapt to it and build resilience to it, to avoid or at least lessen the impact of the long-term impacts of climate change, like sea level rise and whatnot.

I know I referenced in my remarks at the Security Council of a young man in Saint Lucia who is actually taking — there’s this — going back a step — the Caribbean, especially some of the eastern Caribbean countries, are experiencing an influx in a seaweed called sargassum, which has been pointed to that these influxes of sargassum are linked to climate change because of the changes in ocean currents that are now pushing this from the open seas towards these islands and inland.

This sargassum impacts local fishing, both when fishers try to bring their boats into dock and to land their catches. Their motors get caught up in the seaweed, and it damages their boats; It drives away fish. It’s also not a very pretty seaweed. It’s brown, and it smells really, really bad when it washes up on beach and dries. So, that obviously hurts the tourism industry.

This young man in Saint Lucia, he actually has developed, I believe it’s a plant tonic fertilizer that uses the sargassum to actually benefit the agriculture industry and local gardening, local agriculture, in Saint Lucia. So there are really innovative solutions happening in these countries that are really interesting and actually making the best out of a situation and turning that into something that benefits the community.

Ariel Conn: That’s awesome. You’ve been advocating more broadly to get young people involved in this issue, coming up with these types of innovations and just getting more involved. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why you think it’s so important for younger generations to be involved.

Lindsay Getschel: I mean, I think you’re already seeing this with the school strikes that are happening around the world advocating for action on climate change. So I think young people are really important to call attention to this issue and to stand up and say, this is an issue that needs to be addressed. While we may not be experiencing the worst effects right now — we are still experiencing effects right now — but the worst of it will come in 20, 30 years. And that’s when we as young people, we’re going to be affected by that. And future generations will be affected by that. So, that’s why we need to take action now. 

So I think young people are currently making their voices heard on this issue, and I think that is drawing attention to the importance of addressing climate change. And so I think more drawing attention to this issue is really important. And I think young people have a particularly important stake in this, in that, you know, we’re the ones that will be affected by this, 20, 30, 50, even 100 years down the road. And so that’s why we have this unique voice that we can bring to the table and drive action and push policy makers to take this issue seriously.

Ariel Conn: You gave this great example of the young man in Saint Lucia who came up with a really innovative solution to a problem. But obviously, not everybody is going to have these great innovative solutions. What do you want to see more young people just generally doing? What do you think would be most helpful?

Lindsay Getschel: Well, I think the easiest thing that every young person over the age of 18 can do, at least in the US, is vote. That’s one of the most impactful and one of the simplest ways to have your voice heard. If young people recognize the importance of voting, not only to address other issues, but this is a major issue and I’m sure will be a major issue in the US 2020 general elections, but all over the world as well. So I think voting is one of the most important ways for young people to have their voices heard without having to protest and do all this other really, really great stuff — which is also extremely important, and young people should definitely be involved with that — but if nothing else, voting is one of the most important ways to drive action on this issue.

Ariel Conn: All right. Is there anything else that you think is important for young and older people alike to be aware of that we didn’t get into, like work you’ve done that you want to discuss?

Lindsay Getschel: Yeah. So I think one of the most important things that everyone can do is to just educate themselves on the issue. I know so many times, there’s a lot of misinformation about what the impacts of climate change are, disagreement about whether climate change actually exists. I know that’s a highly politicized issue. So I think educating both older generations, especially on the impacts of climate change, and how, while here in the US we may be experiencing wildfires in California or droughts in the Midwest and flooding in the Midwest, how all of these are connected to the larger global climate; and how, while we may not be experiencing instability and conflict that may result in other countries as an indirect impact of climate change, it’s all connected.

One part of the world that’s affected by climate change — this will all largely impact us in the US and other countries. I think being educated about what the impacts of climate change are and how they impact our communities — not only in terms of the weather we’re experiencing, but the larger impact on our jobs, our food, and other countries, and how that impacts migration and instability — educating ourselves on how it’s all connected, I think that would be really, really helpful, and getting a better understanding of the issue and the scope of the issue and the impact that the issue will have across the world for many, many years.

Ariel Conn: Agreed. That’s one of the reasons that we’re trying to do this. That’s a really great point. So then I think my final question for you is: are you hopeful?

Lindsay Getschel: That’s a good question. Sometimes it depends on the day, to be honest. When I see the climate strikes happening throughout the world that are being led by young people, that really makes me hopeful about how young people really do care about this issue. In a few years, hopefully more of us will be voting, and more of us will be involved in government, being able to push action. So that sort of stuff makes me very hopeful.

But of course, there’s always other days when you hear about, you know, some people who don’t even believe that climate change is happening. And that’s not good. 

But in general I would say I’m hopeful more days than I’m not. I think the debate is shifting, and more and more people are recognizing the impacts of climate change, both on their own local communities and the impact that it’ll have around the world. I think more and more people are getting educated; More and more people are voting. And if that trend continues, which I hope it will, then I’ll stay hopeful.

Ariel Conn: Okay, excellent. Well, thank you so much. It was really great to hear from you.

Lindsay Getschel: Yeah, thanks for having me. I’m so glad that you’re making these podcasts about this issue and doing exactly this, educating people about why it’s important.

Ariel Conn: Excellent. Thank you.

Next week, episode 8 of the Not Cool climate podcast will go live during the UN Climate Summit in New York City. So we’ll be joined by the Mayor of Boulder, Suzanne Jones, as she talks about the impacts climate change will have on municipalities, the programs and policies towns and cities can implement, and the federal policies that local governments need in order to take care of their communities.

Suzanne Jones: going greener is also often a very smart approach economically, especially over the long term. Climate change is going to hit conservative communities as much as it’s going to hit progressive communities. And most municipalities aren’t going to be able to afford the impacts. So we are all in this together. 

Ariel Conn: Join us on September 24th for more about the important role of local governments and communities in addressing the climate crisis. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please take a moment to like it, share it, and leave a good review. And join the discussion on Twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate.

Not Cool: A Climate Podcast

FLI is excited to announce the latest in our podcast line-up: Not Cool: A Climate Podcast! 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. And we’ve launched it just in time for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, which begins on September 23.

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. You can also always listen to all FLI podcasts on any of your favorite podcast platforms just by searching for “Future of Life Institute.” The Not Cool podcasts are all there, and we’ll be releasing new episodes every Tuesday and Thursday for at least the next couple of months. We hope these interviews will help you better understand the science and policies behind the climate crisis and what we can all do to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

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: A Climate Podcast

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: A Climate Podcast

Not Cool Ep 21: Libby Jewett on ocean acidification


The increase of CO2 in the atmosphere is doing more than just warming the planet and threatening the lives of many terrestrial species. A large percentage of that carbon is actually reabsorbed by the oceans, causing a phenomenon known as ocean acidification — that is, our carbon emissions are literally changing the chemistry of ocean water and threatening ocean ecosystems worldwide. On Not Cool episode 21, Ariel is joined by Libby Jewett, founding Director of the Ocean Acidification Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who explains the chemistry behind ocean acidification, its impact on animals and plant life, and the strategies for helping organisms adapt to its effects. She also discusses the vulnerability of human communities that depend on marine resources, the implications for people who don’t live near the ocean, and the relationship between ocean acidification and climate change. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 20: Deborah Lawrence on deforestation


This summer, the world watched in near-universal horror as thousands of square miles of rainforest went up in flames. But what exactly makes forests so precious — and deforestation so costly? On the 20th episode of Not Cool, Ariel explores the many ways in which forests impact the global climate — and the profound price we pay when we destroy them. She’s joined by Deborah Lawrence, Environmental Science Professor at the University of Virginia whose research focuses on the ecological effects of tropical deforestation. Deborah discusses the causes of this year’s Amazon rain forest fires, the varying climate impacts of different types of forests, and the relationship between deforestation, agriculture, and carbon emissions. She also explains why the Amazon is not the lungs of the planet, what makes tropical forests so good at global cooling, and how putting a price on carbon emissions could slow deforestation. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 19: Ilissa Ocko on non-carbon causes of climate change


Carbon emissions account for about 50% of warming, yet carbon overwhelmingly dominates the climate change discussion. On Episode 19 of Not Cool, Ariel is joined by Ilissa Ocko for a closer look at the non-carbon causes of climate change — like methane, sulphur dioxide, and an aerosol known as black carbon — that are driving the other 50% of warming.  Ilissa is a senior climate scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund and an expert on short-lived climate pollutants. She explains how these non-carbon pollutants affect the environment, where they’re coming from, and why they’ve received such little attention relative to carbon. She also discusses a major problem with the way we model climate impacts over 100-year time scales, the barriers to implementing a solution, and more. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 18: Glen Peters on the carbon budget and global carbon emissions


In many ways, the global carbon budget is like any other budget. There’s a maximum amount we can spend, and it must be allocated to various countries and various needs. But how do we determine how much carbon each country can emit? Can developing countries grow their economies without increasing their emissions? And if a large portion of China’s emissions come from products  made for American and European consumption, who’s to blame for those emissions? On episode 18 of Not Cool, Ariel is joined by Glen Peters, Research Director at the Center for International Climate Research (CICERO) in Oslo. Glen explains the components that make up the carbon budget, the complexities of its calculation, and its implications for climate policy and mitigation efforts. He also discusses how emissions are allocated to different countries, how emissions are related to economic growth, what role China plays in all of this, and more. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 17: Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning, part 2


It’s time to get creative in the fight against climate change, and machine learning can help us do that. Not Cool episode 17 continues our discussion of “Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning,” a nearly 100 page report co-authored by 22 researchers from some of the world’s top AI institutes. Today, Ariel talks to Natasha Jaques and Tegan Maharaj, the respective authors of the report’s “Tools for Individuals” and “Tools for Society” chapters. Natasha and Tegan explain how machine learning can help individuals lower their carbon footprints and aid politicians in implementing better climate policies. They also discuss uncertainty in climate predictions, the relative price of green technology, and responsible machine learning development and use. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 16: Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning, part 1


How can artificial intelligence, and specifically machine learning, be used to combat climate change? In an ambitious recent report, machine learning researchers provided a detailed overview of the ways that their work can be applied to both climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. The massive collaboration, titled “Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning,” involved 22 authors from 16 of the world’s top AI institutions.  On Not Cool episodes 16 and 17, Ariel speaks directly to some of these researchers about their specific contributions, as well as the paper’s significance more widely. Today, she’s joined by lead author David RolnickPriya Donti, author of the electricity systems chapter; Lynn Kaack, author of the transportation chapter and co-author of the buildings and cities chapter; and Kelly Kochanski, author of the climate prediction chapter. David, Priya, Lynn, and Kelly discuss the origins of the paper, the solutions it proposes, the importance of this kind of interdisciplinary work, and more. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 15: Astrid Caldas on equitable climate adaptation


Despite the global scale of the climate crisis, its impacts will vary drastically at the local level. Not Cool Episode 15 looks at the unique struggles facing different communities — both human and non-human — and the importance of equity in climate adaptation. Ariel is joined by Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, to discuss the types of climate adaptation solutions we need and how we can implement them. She also talks about biodiversity loss, ecological grief, and psychological barriers to change. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 14: Filippo Berardi on carbon finance and the economics of climate change


As the world nears the warming limit set forth by international agreement, carbon emissions have become a costly commodity. Not Cool episode 14 examines the rapidly expanding domain of carbon finance, along with the wider economic implications of the changing climate. Ariel is joined by Filippo Berardi, an environmental management and international development specialist at the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Filippo explains the international carbon market, the economic risks of not addressing climate change, and the benefits of a low carbon economy. He also discusses where international funds can best be invested, what it would cost to fully operationalize the Paris Climate Agreement, and how the fall of the Soviet Union impacted carbon finance at the international level. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 13: Val Kapos on ecosystem-based adaptation


What is ecosystem-based adaptation, and why should we be implementing it? The thirteenth episode of Not Cool explores how we can conserve, restore, and manage natural ecosystems in ways that also help us adapt to the impacts of climate change. Ariel is joined by Val Kapos, Head of the Climate Change and Biodiversity Programme at UN Environment’s World Conservation Monitoring Center, who explains the benefits of ecosystem-based adaptation along with some of the strategies for executing it. Val also describes how ecosystem-based adaption is being used today, why it’s an effective strategy for developed and developing nations alike, and what could motivate more communities to embrace it. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 12: Kris Ebi on climate change, human health, and social stability


We know that climate change has serious implications for human health, including the spread of vector-borne disease and the global increase of malnutrition. What we don’t yet know is how expansive these health issues could become or how these problems will impact social stability. On episode 12 of Not Cool, Ariel is joined by Kris Ebi, professor at the University of Washington and founding director of its Center for Health and the Global Environment. Kris explains how increased CO2 affects crop quality, why malnutrition might alter patterns of human migration, and what we can do to reduce our vulnerability to these impacts. She also discusses changing weather patterns, the expanding geographic range of disease-carrying insects, and more. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 11: Jakob Zscheischler on climate-driven compound weather events


While a single extreme weather event can wreak considerable havoc, it’s becoming increasingly clear that such events often don’t occur in isolation. Not Cool Episode 11 focuses on compound weather events: what they are, why they’re dangerous, and how we’ve failed to prepare for them. Ariel is joined by Jakob Zscheischler, an Earth system scientist at the University of Bern, who discusses the feedback processes that drive compound events, the impacts they’re already having, and the reasons we’ve underestimated their gravity. He also explains how extreme events can reduce carbon uptake, how human impacts can amplify climate hazards, and why we need more interdisciplinary research. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 10: Stephanie Herring on extreme weather events and climate change attribution


One of the most obvious markers of climate change has been the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in recent years. On the tenth episode of Not Cool, Ariel takes a closer look at the research linking climate change and extreme events — and, in turn, linking extreme events and socioeconomic patterns. She’s joined by Stephanie Herring, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration whose work on extreme event attribution has landed her on Foreign Policy magazine’s list of Top 100 Global Thinkers. Stephanie discusses the changes she’s witnessed in the field of attribution research, the concerning trends that have begun to emerge, the importance of data in the decision-making process, and more. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 9: Andrew Revkin on climate communication, vulnerability, and information gaps


In her speech at Monday’s UN Climate Action Summit, Greta Thunberg told a roomful of global leaders, “The world is waking up.” Yet the science, as she noted, has been clear for decades. Why has this awakening taken so long, and what can we do now to help it along? On Episode 9 of Not Cool, Ariel is joined by Andy Revkin, acclaimed environmental journalist and founding director of the new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Andy discusses the information gaps that have left us vulnerable, the difficult conversations we need to be having, and the strategies we should be using to effectively communicate climate science. He also talks about inertia, resilience, and creating a culture that cares about the future. Read the full transcript here

Not Cool Ep 8: Suzanne Jones on climate policy and government responsibility


On the eighth episode of Not Cool, Ariel tackles the topic of climate policy from the local level up through the federal. She’s joined by Suzanne Jones: the current mayor of Boulder, Colorado, but also a public policy veteran and climate activist. Suzanne explains the climate threats facing communities like Boulder, the measures local governments can take to combat the crisis, and the ways she’d like to see the federal government step up. She also discusses the economic value of going green, the importance of promoting equity in climate solutions, and more. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 7: Lindsay Getschel on climate change and national security


The impacts of the climate crisis don’t stop at rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. Episode 7 of Not Cool covers the national security implications of the changing climate, from the economic fallout to the uptick in human migration. Ariel is joined by Lindsay Getschel, a national security and climate change researcher who briefed the UN Security Council this year on these threats. Lindsay also discusses how hard-hit communities are adapting, why UN involvement is important, and more. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 6: Alan Robock on geoengineering


What is geoengineering, and could it really help us solve the climate crisis? The sixth episode of Not Cool features Dr. Alan Robock, meteorologist and climate scientist, on types of geoengineering solutions, the benefits and risks of geoengineering, and the likelihood that we may need to implement such technology. He also discusses a range of other solutions, including economic and policy reforms, shifts within the energy sector, and the type of leadership that might make these transformations possible. Read the full transcript here.

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. Read the full transcript here.

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. Read the full transcript here.

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. Read the full transcript here.

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. Read the full transcript here.

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. Read the full transcript here.

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. Read the full transcript here.

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.

Producer: Kirsten Gronlund


Kirsten is a writer, editor, and researcher who oversees FLI’s web content. She graduated from Cornell University, where she majored in English with a concentration in critical theory. She also has a double minor in biology and philosophy, and she’s fascinated by the intersection of these disciplines. Her frustration with the current lack of climate action drove her to get involved, and she’s inspired every day by all the young people who have taken on this fight.

Editor: Ian Rusconi


Ian is a studio and live sound engineer with a keen interest in carbon footprint reduction and effecting evidence-based public policy through grassroots political involvement. An alumnus of Northeastern University’s Music Technology program and the University of British Columbia’s School of Music, he has worked with multiple nonprofit organizations, private businesses, educational institutions, and political entities. A firm believer in walking the talk, he lives and works off-grid in a fully solar and microhydro-powered home and studio, grows more of his own food each year, and commutes by bike whenever possible.