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 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: 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 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.


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, // 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 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 Epilogue: A Climate Conversation

In this brief epilogue, Ariel reflects on what she’s learned during the making of Not Cool, and the actions she’ll be taking going forward. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 26: Naomi Oreskes on trusting climate science

It’s the Not Cool series finale, and by now we’ve heard from climate scientists, meteorologists, physicists, psychologists, epidemiologists and ecologists. We’ve gotten expert opinions on everything from mitigation and adaptation to security, policy and finance. Today, we’re tackling one final question: why should we trust them? Ariel is joined by Naomi Oreskes, Harvard professor and author of seven books, including the newly released Why Trust Science? Naomi lays out her case for why we should listen to experts, how we can identify the best experts in a field, and why we should be open to the idea of more than one type of “scientific method.” She also discusses industry-funded science, scientists’ misconceptions about the public, and the role of the media in proliferating bad research. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 25: Mario Molina on climate action

Most Americans believe in climate change — yet far too few are taking part in climate action. Many aren’t even sure what effective climate action should look like. On Not Cool episode 25, Ariel is joined by Mario Molina, Executive Director of Protect our Winters, a non-profit aimed at increasing climate advocacy within the outdoor sports community. In this interview, Mario looks at climate activism more broadly: he explains where advocacy has fallen short, why it’s important to hold corporations responsible before individuals, and what it would look like for the US to be a global leader on climate change. He also discusses the reforms we should be implementing, the hypocrisy allegations sometimes leveled at the climate advocacy community, and the misinformation campaign undertaken by the fossil fuel industry in the ’90s. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 24: Ellen Quigley and Natalie Jones on defunding the fossil fuel industry

Defunding the fossil fuel industry is one of the biggest factors in addressing climate change and lowering carbon emissions. But with international financing and powerful lobbyists on their side, fossil fuel companies often seem out of public reach. On Not Cool episode 24, Ariel is joined by Ellen Quigley and Natalie Jones, who explain why that’s not the case, and what you can do — without too much effort — to stand up to them. Ellen and Natalie, both researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), explain what government regulation should look like, how minimal interactions with our banks could lead to fewer fossil fuel investments, and why divestment isn’t enough on its own. They also discuss climate justice, Universal Ownership theory, and the international climate regime. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 23: Brian Toon on nuclear winter: the other climate change

Though climate change and global warming are often used synonymously, there’s a different kind of climate change that also deserves attention: nuclear winter. A period of extreme global cooling that would likely follow a major nuclear exchange, nuclear winter is as of now — unlike global warming — still avoidable. But as Cold War era treaties break down and new nations gain nuclear capabilities, it’s essential that we understand the potential climate impacts of nuclear war. On Not Cool Episode 23, Ariel talks to Brian Toon, one of the five authors of the 1983 paper that first outlined the concept of nuclear winter. Brian discusses the global tensions that could lead to a nuclear exchange, the process by which such an exchange would drastically reduce the temperature of the planet, and the implications of this kind of drastic temperature drop for humanity. He also explains how nuclear weapons have evolved since their invention, why our nuclear arsenal doesn’t need an upgrade, and why modern building materials would make nuclear winter worse. Read the full transcript here.

Not Cool Ep 22: Cullen Hendrix on climate change and armed conflict

Right before civil war broke out in 2011, Syria experienced a historic five-year drought. This particular drought, which exacerbated economic and political insecurity within the country, may or may not have been caused by climate change. But as climate change increases the frequency of such extreme events, it’s almost certain to inflame pre-existing tensions in other countries — and in some cases, to trigger armed conflict. On Not Cool episode 22, Ariel is joined by Cullen Hendrix, co-author of “Climate as a risk factor for armed conflict.” Cullen, who serves as Director of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy and Senior Research Advisor at the Center for Climate & Security, explains the main drivers of conflict and the impact that climate change may have on them. He also discusses the role of climate change in current conflicts like those in Syria, Yemen, and northern Nigeria; the political implications of such conflicts for Europe and other developed regions; and the chance that climate change might ultimately foster cooperation. Read the full transcript here.

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 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.