94. The Risk of Living Under a White Sky with Elizabeth Kolbert
With CO2 in the atmosphere now reaching levels 50% higher than when humanity began large-scale burning of fossil fuels during the industrial revolution, time is running out and some ecosystems are on the brink of collapse.
In light of this, some scientists and engineers are asking the question, can we act in time to save them? What do we do if we cannot reduce emissions in time? What tools will we have to save humanity?
This week we talk to Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer-Prize winning author, activist, The New Yorker journalist, about her latest book Under a White Sky, a fascinating work that is asking the big questions: having meddled so much in our natural ecosystems, are we now able to save them and ourselves from the devastating effects of climate change? What form will these interventions take? Are the proposals such a genetically modified coral or solar geoengineering even possible? Will our sky be white?
Join us for a delightfully sobering conversation.
And stick around later in the show for a musical performance from Saunder Jurriaans!
Christiana + Tom’s book ‘The Future We Choose’ is available now!
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:00:13] Hello and welcome to Outrage + Optimism, I’m Tom Rivett-Carnac.
Christiana Figueres: [00:00:16] I’m Christiana Figueres.
Paul Dickinson: [00:00:17] And I’m Paul Dickinson.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:00:19] This week we talk about the impacts of climate change in Australia and in the Himalayas, and we discuss recent new data on the concentration of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. Plus, we speak to Elizabeth Kolbert, activist, New Yorker journalist and author of the recent book Under a White Sky. And we have music from Saunder Jurrianns. Thanks for being here.
[00:00:48] So we have many important and exciting issues to get to this week. But I just wanted to bring one data point before we delve into them. I’ve been paying quite close attention to the Twitter feed of our good friend Alok Sharma, friend of the podcast and recent guest. And let’s see, about a week ago, he had a lovely picture of you, Christiana, you and him having dinner together somewhere in Costa Rica. It looked like a lovely evening. And then since then, his feed has taken a distinctly Costa Rican turn. There was one just a couple of days ago where he says, brilliant to hear ideas and innovation on climate action from carbon neutral Costa Rica. I encourage all friends around the world to follow Costa Rica’s climate leadership. What did you talk about at that dinner? You seem to have really turned him into one of these Costa Rican advocates.
Christiana Figueres: [00:01:28] Well, it’s not hard to do that, is it Tom? I mean, as we know on this podcast, because it does happen to be a wonderful country. And now he knows that for himself because he was here for, I think, 24, maybe even 48 hours. So thank you so much to the incoming president of COP 26. It was a very long trip for him. He had to fly through the United States to Costa Rica and then back to London. So our gratitude to him for coming here and seeing personally what is possible on climate change and on biodiversity.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:02:09] How is he feeling? Good about stuff?
Paul Dickinson: [00:02:11] Sorry, something has happened, but you carry on Christiana.
Christiana Figueres: [00:02:14] Dinner. Yes, he was very kind. The British ambassador invited me for dinner with the incoming president and we had quite an engaging conversation, we went through everything that is entailed in preparing for a COP and executing a COP. And it was fun. We laughed a lot and we got to quite a few serious issues. So we’ll see. I hope it was helpful.
Paul Dickinson: [00:02:45] And certainly seems to me to be quite influential because I’ve just seen a tweet from the Queen, which I’ve actually never seen before. I think it’s the first one ever. And it says, I have just spoken with Alok Sharma, my minister, and following his trip to the Americas, we have concluded we will abolish the British army in 2024. Can you believe that?
Christiana Figueres: [00:03:03] There you go. SCosta Rica’s influence really reaching out,
Paul Dickinson: [00:03:09] Reverberating across the world.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:03:10] I think we’re going to get mail about Paul’s accent. OK, you guys. Well, all good. Shall we delve into the issues at hand? As ever, we are going and looking at three key issues that we’re bringing to the podcast. The causes of outrage, optimism. And this week, why don’t you go first, Paul?
Paul Dickinson: [00:03:31] Ok, it’s on me. And I was really struck by reporting that parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere have risen to 417 parts per million, up 50 per cent on pre-industrial times. And I mean, that’s just so huge. And I was thinking about what gets reported on the news, you know, the FTSE or the S&P, these little stock indices that are like little flies or wasps flying this tiny little buzzing noise, that means absolutely nothing. Meanwhile, the radiative forcing of our atmosphere has gone up 50 percent since pre industrial times. And it’s just that thing about the human lifespan, these things all seem the same to us because we only live 80 years or something like that. What was it in my life? You know, I’ve said it before. The Berlin Wall fell and the northern ice cap melted. Berlin Wall was up for 28 years, and the northern ice cap was there for two million years. But it all looks the same through that little letterbox of human lifespan. But it’s really shocking. There’s no grown ups, there’s no God, there’s no world government. It’s just all power to change or stay the same. And it just really brought it home to me. And I wanted to kind of alert our listeners to that key indicator. Parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere measured at Mauna Loa I can’t pronounce that. Mauna Loa.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:04:59] An atoll in the Pacific.
Paul Dickinson: [00:05:00] Measured in an atoll in the Pacific. So it’s not influenced by any ambient CO2. Keeling started it in 1958, I think. And it is the extraordinary signature of what we’re doing and why we are having this podcast.
Christiana Figueres: [00:05:13] Well, just to bring it home there, Paul, when we started beating these records, I used to encourage audiences to take one breath of air and realize that they were the first human beings to ever breathe that concentration. And here we are again. So we are the first human beings breathing that concentration of CO2 that has not occurred since human beings have been on this planet.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:05:47] It’s high as well. I mean, 417, for so long we’ve thought about 350. We’ve thought about 400 to now be at 417 and plowing up, what is it, two parts per million a year? Three somewhere between two and three? That’s a pretty significant clip. And terrifying statistics and terrifying concentrations like 500 parts per million or more, are now just a decade or a couple of decades away. So it really has to be just a profound wake up call.
Paul Dickinson: [00:06:15] We’ve got to get that number down as soon as possible. And that is the focus of the whole world’s attention and not, I’m sorry to say, the stock market indices. So that’s my piece for the week.
Christiana Figueres: [00:06:24] And just to help you out, Paul, in case it’s helpful, it’s Mauna Loa.
Paul Dickinson: [00:06:29] Mauna Loa. Thank you very much, Christiana. There is always wealth, education and inspiration from you where I’m falling slightly flat and I’ve looked at that a thousand times. Mauna Loa.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:06:40] Mauna Loa. Nicely done. Now, the impacts of that are also quite profound, of course. And Christiana, I think you were going to bring something this week about the impacts of what that 417 really means.
Christiana Figueres: [00:06:49] Yeah, well, one small indication, right? I’m hoping that everyone who listens to this podcast remembers the bushfires in Australia scarcely 18 months ago. Well, we have now gone from bushfires to floods. There have already been 18000 people evacuated from their homes. Luckily, no deaths, no lives lost. But rivers are just growing so, so quickly that people need to leave. They’re evacuating themselves. They’re evacuating their animals. This has been, again, a very, very surprising event for Australia. And some of the Bureau of Meteorology people are saying this is an event that exceeds anything that has occurred in the past 50 or 60 years. It’s just very odd. And I don’t remember who coined the word climate weirding, but this is definitely climate weirding. What are you going to say, Tom?
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:08:00] I was going to say it was Amory Lovins.
Christiana Figueres: [00:08:02] Well, this is definitely weirding. The fact that we have the bushfires, then we have a drought that came extended after that. And now we have these floods. We haven’t had these extreme weather conditions in such quick succession in years. And in fact, the Climate Council in Australia is already saying, of course, that these rainfalls and these floods are not caused by climate change, but they are coming much more frequently and much more intensely because of the effects of climate change. So climate weirding in Australia question is, when are they going to stop political weirding in Australia,
Paul Dickinson: [00:08:52] The deep connection between those two.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:08:55] Yeah, no, they don’t make much progress on that also. The really alarming element of it, of course, is the magnified impacts on ecosystems. You have a wildfire rushed through somewhere devastating the vegetation. You then lead to a flood 12 months later. The fact of the wildfire means that the natural vegetation is unable to stop it. That leads to more flooding. That whips away more vegetation. This is the kind of negative cycle that we get into that is actually going to just devastate parts of the planet if we don’t get on top of it. It’s such a worrying signal. I saw that sign, too. And we’ve got lots of friends in Australia. And, my God, they’ve just been through these wildfires less than 12 months ago. And now they’re facing this.
Christiana Figueres: [00:09:32] Yeah, and it’s not just the vegetation, right? It’s the animals. How many animals we lost in the bushfires. Now, we don’t have a count yet on what the impact is here on fauna, but it’s not going to be zero.
Paul Dickinson: [00:09:44] Yeah, and just to add also, I think that if you want to see something that comes from this, the reason why we are going to increasingly win all these victories that we have to win, changing the whole energy system of the world is because these extreme events act like a giant advertising campaign with an ever bigger budget. And the more frightening it is, I don’t believe people will get used to it. I’m always shocked. I think people are more and more aware. So it’s great that that awareness is rising, even though our hearts go out to the people experiencing this tragedy.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:10:17] Well, it backs in a little bit to the thing I was going to bring this week as well, which is really just devastating. And this is from a to a similar cause for outrage in terms of the physical impacts of climate change. There was a report in the FT over the weekend which I would really encourage listeners to go to if they haven’t seen it, called Crisis in the Himalayas. And it looks at this kind of explosive cocktail of climate change and aggressive road and dam building in this incredibly geologically unstable region. And it shows that temperatures in the Himalayas have risen faster than other mountain ranges. But what happened was that there was this situation as a result of the melting glaciers and a rockslide in nearby mountains that created a tsunami of water, stones and mud that just hurtled through this deep river valley. I’ve been there years ago to that part of India and it’s heartbreaking to think this happened. 200 people are believed to have been consumed by this lethal sludge.
[00:11:17] And it’s just, again, this wake up call. I’d call it an early wake up call, except it’s not. There is a billion people that are reliant on that water and 800 million who live in the area of risk in these deep valleys. And scientists estimate that the Himalayan glaciers will recede by a third by 2100, even if we can cap global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees and losses will be far higher if that target is missed. And just in terms of the human impact, we’ve talked about climate justice before. Most of these people have done basically nothing to cause climate change and whether they’re reliant on the water from the Himalayas or they’re living in these valleys and they can’t escape these terrible impacts. It should for all of us that are our positions where we can do something about it that have a disproportionate contribution to climate. It should spur us to more action and we should not get used to it, as you say.
Paul Dickinson: [00:12:07] Can I just add one other thing that I think is related to all of this? It’s a bit overpowering all the information we’ve just got. And you might be feeling anxious. There’s an absolutely brilliant article by Sara Jacquette Ray in Scientific American. And she said, a lot of people, rich people in the north perhaps are saying, what can I stop do? What can I do to stop feeling so anxious about climate change and what can I do to save the planet and what hope is there? And she points out, actually, the question for people with privilege, she says, is who am I? How am I connected to all of this? And what she’s really observing is that oppressed and marginalized people have developed traditions of resilience out of necessity. And they’ve learned that persistence is, and I quote her here, non-negotiable. And when your mental, physical and reproductive health are on the line, so please, let’s focus on turning that anxiety that we may be feeling into self study, study of our own role in the world and turn that into changes in action that will help address this problem. So I just wanted to kind of put that spin on it.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:13:17] Nice. Very good.
Paul Dickinson: [00:13:19] Christiana is very thoughtful.
Christiana Figueres: [00:13:21] I’m very impressed, Paul. I am very impressed.
Paul Dickinson: [00:13:25] So happy when you say that because I live really for approval from people I admire. And well, it’s just a happy day. I’m going to probably go for a walk later and buy myself a croissant even though it’s nearly 9:00 p.m..
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:13:42] Ok, but this is kind of a tough episode, right? In a minute, we’re going to go to a conversation with Elizabeth Kolbert, who wrote this devastating book called Under a White Sky, which is basically about the necessity, likelihood, inevitability of us geoengineering the planet. And that’s a tough conversation. So we’ll delve into that in just a minute. Just before we do, this has been quite an interesting week for us at the podcast. We, of course, released our episode a week ago on Race to Zero with electrifying transport with our Formula E friends. We then released a special bonus just a couple of days ago called What the Hale Does This Mean with our friend Thomas Hale. Now, Thomas is someone we’ve known for a very long time. He’s a professor at Oxford. He really understands as much or more than anyone about this transition to net zero, what it means, what the terms mean, etc.. So we would encourage you if there’s anything confusing you about this transition to net zero, what are the terms?
Paul Dickinson: [00:14:39] What the Hale Does That Mean?
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:14:40] Exactly.
Paul Dickinson: [00:14:41] And so what do I do, Tom?
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:14:42] You just tweet us, send us a tweet, tweet it to us directly. We’ll have Thomas on every month or so and we can ask him questions, will put your questions to him. In this episode, I talked to him a couple of weeks ago. What’s the difference between net zero and carbon neutrality or climate neutrality or Paris aligned? We get him to delve in and explain all of it. So it’s quite revealing and interesting actually, I would encourage you to listen to it. Now, any more business before we turn to our interview?
Paul Dickinson: [00:15:08] Well, just one thing. We’ve had some very positive comments about the podcast from Mr and Mrs Phillips in Scotland. And also-
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:15:14] I love Mr and Mrs Phillips.
Paul Dickinson: [00:15:16] And Paul from Kentucky sent this via Apple Podcast. He said, I’ve been listening to the podcast for months now, on Stitcher and I need to open an Apple Podcast account in order to rate it. I feel better now that I have finally done so. Outrage + Optimism is inspiring, motivational, entertaining and educational. I’m a Sierra Club member and I’ve asked all of my fellow Sierrans in northern Kentucky to give it a listen. Keep up the great work. Thank you so much for those kind words, Paul. Very greatly appreciate it. Nice name too.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:15:47] Absolutely. Greatly appreciated. And please do send in the reviews. Really appreciated. We always read them and some of them get read out on the podcast. Now we have a great conversation for you this week, Elizabeth Kolbert has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999. She is the author of many brilliant books, including Field Notes From A Catastrophe, The Sixth Extinction, and she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2015. We were actually with her when she got the Pulitzer Prize, but she was very cool about it. You remember that Christiana we were with her in Munich?
Christiana Figueres: [00:16:19] I do. Yeah. She was so nonchalant about it.
Paul Dickinson: [00:16:23] This is like the Nobel Prize.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:16:24] Yeah, it was very…
Paul Dickinson: [00:16:25] How do people achieve that?
Christiana Figueres: [00:16:29] It’s about good writing. Paul. It’s very good writing.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:16:33] So her latest book, Under a White Sky, explores the harmful, transformative impact humans have had on the planet and the ramifications this has when considering solutions to mitigating the effects of climate change. The title, Under a White Sky, refers to the color the climate scientists believe the sky would become as a consequence of some solar geoengineering. And she refers to the book as being about a habit of mind that human habit, which leads us to spiral towards intervention on a grander scale each time we’re faced with a human made problem in the natural world, rather than consider and modify our initial actions that caused the problem to exist in the first place, I cannot think of a better definition for where we are with climate change. This is Elizabeth Kolbert. Sadly, I was able to listen to this interview, but my bandwidth was not good enough that I could actually participate. But you two did a brilliant job and we’ll be back afterwards for more discussion.
Christiana Figueres: [00:17:35] Elizabeth, how delightful to see you again, because I’m seeing you on my screen. I don’t believe I’ve seen you since we spent quite a bit of time together way back in 2015 in preparation for the most amazing New Yorker long article that you wrote, for which I thank you again.
And, you know, one of the things that was really jaw dropping for me about your article is that you so clearly captured the conundrum of the role that I was playing at the U.N. And you said at that time, Figueres may possess the very highest ratio of responsibility, preventing global collapse, to authority, practically none.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Did I say that?
Christiana Figueres: You did and I have to thank you, because it was the first time that that had been so crystal clear for me. I had sort of felt it and I was trying to deal with that differential, that ratio of such difference there.
And when I read your article, I went, oh, that’s why. That explains a lot.
Paul Dickinson: [00:18:56] That’s why I wake up in the middle of the night.
Christiana Figueres: That’s why. So, thank you so much.
Elizabeth Kolbert: I’m glad that I could clarify that. Well, I want to thank you. That was a lot of fun hanging out with you in Bonn, where I have not been since then.
Christiana Figueres: [00:19:13] Indeed, indeed, in the metropolis of Bonn. But you know, Elizabeth, as we move on now to your new book, it just strikes us that that brilliant sentence of yours is where we are again in the world, because we all share a global common shared responsibility here of preventing global collapse. And yet we’ve not been able to harness individual or collective authority to be able to take the decisions and the actions that would prevent global collapse.
So here we are back again at the doorstep of your wisdom. And there’s a certain sense in which your new book is a very eloquent explanation of that conundrum that we’re in, so I wanted to invite you to talk to us a little bit about Under a White Sky. How do you see that which you saw in the U.N. role? How do you see that? Because you speak about it, without using the same phrase, but that undertone is present in your book.
Elizabeth Kolbert: [00:19:59] Well, the theme of the book is the ways that we have intervened in planet Earth. Some of these interventions are regional, some of them like climate change are on a planetary scale and are now faced with some pretty difficult…We’ve jammed ourselves up, let’s put it that way, and now are contemplating various new forms of intervention to counteract the old and the book is really about that sort of habit of mind, that human habit, it seems now, at least in the 21st century, of reaching for the next thing that’s going to solve the old thing as opposed to, and a whole different book could have been written and many different books have been written, considering the billions of social actions that are really another possibility, but we don’t seem able, as you suggested, to get our act together. To agree on what those are or to actually do them, even if we did agree on what they are. And so we’re in a pretty difficult jam, I would say right now. I’m sure everyone on this call today agrees with me. We’ve intervened so far into this process, climate change being unfortunately just one, although the sort of preeminent example, I suppose. We can’t go back, it’s just geophysically very, very difficult, but we can talk about ways people are talking about how you might accomplish that. And going forward also seems, very, very, very difficult. So we just sit here talking a lot. The one thing I would say since we last spoke is there’s you know, certainly here in the US where I’m sitting, there is a lot, lot more conversation about what we should be doing. And we do have a new administration, so to speak to that optimism part of this podcast. There is a certain optimism here, but that’s very, very tempered by an increasing understanding of just what a heavy lift this is.
Christiana Figueres: [00:22:20] Yeah, absolutely. Well, as you say, the book points out that there is a tension there between what I would like to call nostalgia of nature.
What was nature like before the Anthropocene started? How many different species did we have? And there is a lot of nostalgia for that.
And as you say, geophysically we simply can’t pull the clock back. But there’s a tension between that nostalgia that we all have a part of. We all have that love for nature and for what we know nature was. And then there’s a tension between that and let’s call it a pretty simplistic reaction to just throw technology at this. Let’s just throw technology in and see what happens. And yet even that “simplistic” solution we haven’t really agreed upon. So what is the way forward?
Elizabeth Kolbert: [00:23:26] Oh, Christiana I was hoping you were going to tell me that.
Christiana Figueres: No, you are telling us.
Paul Dickinson: You are the Pulitzer Prize winner.
Elizabeth Kolbert: [00:23:35] You know, I want to say that the book really reflects honestly my feelings and on some level, not entirely. It’s obviously a constructed object, but I really honestly don’t know. So, for example, at the center of the book is a story about a project that’s been dubbed the Super Coral Project. And the Super Coral project was initiated by a very dynamic British scientist named Ruth Gates, who ran a Marine institute in Hawaii and very, very sadly passed away a couple of years ago, in the middle of this project. But I went to talk to her about a year after I met you, Christiana. And the point of the project was, well, as we discussed, you’re not getting the oceans of the past back. You’re not getting the heat out of the oceans. You’re not getting all of that CO2 that we’ve already effectively poured into the oceans, which is changing the chemistry of the oceans and coral reefs, as I’m sure your listeners are aware. These changes to the oceans, they’re doing really badly. Something like half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef have died off in the last 30 years. OK, so that’s not a good trend line. And Ruth’s attitude was, well, we can we can stand around wringing our hands and wishing that we could get the oceans of the past back and the reefs of the past back, but that’s not right.
[00:25:11] Or we can try to intervene again and we can try to make reefs that are more resilient. Now, this struck me as a really interesting idea and sort of opening up this new chapter in our long and rather vexed history of intervening in nature, and it raises a lot of questions. It raised a lot of questions in my mind. It raises a lot of questions in scientific circles. And the first question obviously is simply, is it possible? That’s an unanswered question at this point. This project, you know, in the scheme of things in the world, it’s a tiny little research project. Right? The Great Barrier Reef is the size of Italy. If you were, in fact, able to breed up, this was basically a breeding project, except that when we breed creatures for domestication or for our own purposes, for agriculture, they become very often we all know, a cow is not going to survive in the wild. The very products that make them domesticated are the properties that make them dependent on human assistance. We don’t want a Great Barrier Reef where we basically have created these corals that can only survive with human assistance.
[00:26:39] So it’s not clear whether you simply can create corals that are more resilient through conventional crossbreeding methods. That brings us to the next step, which is could you do it if you did genetic engineering? That’s a question very much on the horizon. I think people are going to be increasingly asking that. And then you get to the question of, well, OK, let’s say you could do that. There are a million questions here that we could unpack. But, let’s say you could do that. Well, you now have a reef that has to be manipulated by humans, repopulated with genetically modified corals, let’s say, is that the future that we want? And then you’re faced with the question, instinctively, I’m sure many people are going to say, no, that’s anathema. But you do have to raise the question, what if your alternative is no coral reefs? This is the choice that we may be facing. They’re really hard choices. The best case scenario is that we’re facing really hard choices between, let’s say, a genetically modified reef and no reef that. That suggests that the genetically modified reef is possible, which we really don’t know yet.
Christiana Figueres: [00:27:54] Because of the implications of the reef on the entire marine life? Not exactly because of the reef.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Exactly. Something like a quarter of all marine species, it’s estimated, spend at least part of their lifespan on a reef.
Paul Dickinson: [00:28:10] With these questions about interventions. You talked about coupled human and natural systems and whether we can try and run millions of species as some kind of giant Disney theme park, I’m not confident we’re going to manage it. But I do salute you.
Elizabeth Kolbert: No, I think that the question of whether it’s even doable is definitely a huge one. That question sort of has to be answered before you even answer the question of whether you’d want to do it.
Paul Dickinson: [00:28:40] I think there’s a theory in systems thinking that sort of says, you can’t control a system where your number of controls is smaller than the number of variables in the system. And there’s kind of infinite variables as soon as you get to any decent amount of nature. So, I’m not all that confident about it. But, I totally salute your vision looking at geoengineering, which is something that has fascinated a lot of people in climate change for a long time. And essentially the big idea is that we’ve got these tipping points that we might arrive at any minute and we have to do something.
The title of the book, putting sulphate aerosols in the sky or whatever, you know, that might turn the sky white. White would become the new blue. This is pretty shocking. I was just trying to think about how to frame it. For those who are familiar with Shakespeare’s Richard the Third, he has a pretty bad career and he ends up killing more and more people to consolidate his power.
And at one point, he says, he is so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. And I did get a sense that we might be putting ourselves in the position whereby we would be dependent upon certain kinds of interventions such that we couldn’t kind of really row back from that position. Is that really what you’re warning us about? That you go down this road of a kind of cosmetic surgery for the climate, and unless things get more and more complicated, you’re not going to be able to get back.
Elizabeth Kolbert: [00:30:04] Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think that that tension between. I mean, it’s very much a similar conundrum to, would you prefer a genetically modified reef to no reef? Now, solar geoengineering is a very creepy idea, obviously. Pouring some kind of aerosols into the stratosphere because we can’t stop ourselves from emitting CO2, but a case can be made. And a case was made to me quite eloquently, I think, by scientists who are working on this. We may well find ourselves in a pretty big jam up where there’s a humanitarian disaster or an ecosystem collapse. And no one has a very good answer to that. As we all know, even if let’s say we were to reach global carbon neutrality by 2050, something I think is, not to overuse this word, fantastically optimistic.
We haven’t stopped climate change. We’ve simply after a few decades, let’s say, a debated figure, we would reach a new equilibrium. But the ice sheets are going to continue to melt. We know that there is a very long tail to climate change. And we just are increasingly confronted with very unhappy surprises. I don’t know if you saw that wonderful piece today with beautiful graphics from the Times about the overturning circulation in the Atlantic and that you are going to reach a tipping point.
So there are the known unknowns and there are the unknown unknowns. And do we want to have some arrow in our quiver that could potentially counteract some disaster? And I think that while that’s very much criticized, as a moral hazard, raising this possibility is just going to encourage people to pour more carbon into the atmosphere. And I think that’s a very, very legitimate concern.
I really, really do. But I also do understand the argument, consider the alternatives. What’s your answer to a potential famine? What are the options here? There are no good options.
Paul Dickinson: [00:32:34] And can I ask you a question related to the question you posed? It’s a lot easier to ask questions and answer them. But here’s the thing. In the OECD more advanced economies, in terms of the basic human needs, shelter, sufficient food, clothing, heat, basic transport, there is no way more than 50 percent of the economy is directed towards that. So, fully 50 percent of our economy is entertainment, fun, mucking about, stuff that we don’t really need. And yet there’s this kind of existential crisis that we are facing the end of the world, because we want a better pair of training shoes, you know? So can you figure out or suggest a doorway out of that madness?
Elizabeth Kolbert: [00:33:32] Well, I can’t. There’s the famous quote from. Kenneth Boulding back in the 70s, when a lot of these questions were being posed, I think to be perfectly frank, in a more honest and sophisticated way than they are right now, where he said the only people who think that you can have infinite growth on a finite planet are Mad Men and economists. And here we are 50 years later, having that same conversation in an unresolved way. Our economies in the Western world are dependent on this kind of growth. And there’s now a debate, I’d call it a debate, although I don’t think it’s risen very high in the list of questions that average, ordinary folks certainly in the US are concerned about. But is there such a thing as green growth or do we need to be talking about degrowth? And I think this idea that we’re going to decouple growth from carbon, that seems to me, once again, I’m not a professional economist and not a professional energy analyst, that seems theoretically possible, but it does seem very difficult to decouple growth from resource use. And that’s really the big question here. So even if you’re not using fossil fuels.
Paul Dickinson: [00:35:02] Can I push you on that, though, because couldn’t governments just tax greenhouse gas emissions? And if there’s something that’s threatening us, just kind of tax it, make it expensive or make a regulation saying you can’t cut down the forest. Couldn’t government just come in and save us?
Elizabeth Kolbert: [00:35:19] Yes, I think that we could absolutely pose a very, very high carbon tax, you could do that right now and it would shift the economy very, very radically and very dramatically. And it would probably, in my view, be a great idea. But it would potentially do two things. First of all, we’re already seeing this argument. Well, there’s a lot of resources that go into even transitioning your energy systems. So now we’re going to have all these arguments in the U.S. Once again, I’m only speaking of the U.S. here about whether we should allow, for example, lithium mining, because you need that for batteries. OK, so this is not cost free. No resource use is cost free to other species to planet Earth. But even if we agree, OK, that’s better than the alternative. Lithium mining in the American West is better than cooking the planet. And I think most people would agree that the question of what the impact would be on the economy and how in a democratic society you can get people, compel people, ask people, urge people, whatever verb you want to lower what we would call their standard of living. We can argue about what’s really important in life. We could have all these arguments, but we haven’t arrived at. And this is very clear and totally going to play out in the U.S. over the next two to four years.
How do you get voters who ultimately are going to make the decisions about this to come on board with what many experts would say would be a better way to go, and I will offer my own fears that, there is this 50:50 split in the U.S. Senate and everyone is urging Joe Biden to take as much action as he possibly can on climate change as fast as possible. And I hope he does. But you face the problem that you’re going to have an election in two years and what impact is that going to have?
Christiana Figueres: [00:37:40] So, Elizabeth, with that sobering summary of where we are in the United States and with the sobering question that you pose as the undertone or the message of your book, we have to put you on the spot at the end of this conversation and ask you, if there is a spectrum between outrage and optimism, and we think there is a spectrum and we think both are necessary.
But if there’s a spectrum, where at this point, which I think might be a different point from where you would have put yourself perhaps after your previous book, The Last Extinction, after this book, having put this one out and with the richness of the thought that went into this book, where would you situate yourself?
Elizabeth Kolbert: [00:38:18] Well, as I think you know, I’m heavy on the outrage and I’m not too high on the optimism right now, even though many people in the U.S., whom I respect a lot, would say this is a great moment, this is a great moment of a turning point. But I suppose I’ve been at this long enough and so have you to be very skeptical of such talk. How’s that?
Christiana Figueres: [00:38:52] Very fair. Very, very fair. Elizabeth, how…I wanted to say how delightful, but actually can I correct myself and say how delightfully sobering to talk to you today?
Thank you very, very much. Thank you for calling us all to go further and deeper thinking about how we move forward. Thank you for such amazing writing that you’ve done all your life. And thank you for choosing climate change as the topic of your thinking and writing.
Elizabeth Kolbert: [00:39:28] Well, Christiana, thank you for having me and thank you for everything you have done to try to nudge the world forward on this. I think very, very, very few people have played a greater role. So I’m kind of in awe of you. And I am very impressed that you retain your optimism.
Christiana Figueres: Against all odds,
Elizabeth Kolbert: Having seen what you’ve seen. We’ll just leave it at that.
Christiana Figueres: Well, wonderful. Elizabeth, thank you so much again. Thank you. From all of us here at the podcast.
Elizabeth Kolbert: [00:40:03] Thanks for having me.
Paul Dickinson: And just one bit of good news. You know why we’re going to win is because we have to.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, there’s that. There is that.
Christiana Figueres: Yes, indeed.
Elizabeth Kolbert: [00:40:15] Thanks a lot.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:40:24] So how fabulous to get a chance to talk with Elizabeth Kolbert, one of the preeminent and most brilliant journalism writers of our time. I’ve always loved her books. What do you guys leave that discussion with?
Christiana Figueres: [00:40:35] You know, before we talk about the content of the book or the conversation, could I invite everyone to just pause and imagine what it would be like for us to live under a permanently white sky? It’s just an amazing title, and it really deserves a little serious consideration here. Well, in Costa Rica, I’m sorry to say to the two of you, we’re used to living under a seriously blue sky, with a few exceptions.
Paul Dickinson: [00:41:10] This is an interesting point Christiana. I mean, we have a gray sky.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:41:13] We have a white sky all the time.
Christiana Figueres: [00:41:15] That’s not true because I lived in London for two years and I actually did see a lot of blue sky. The point is that you would have blue sky and then there’s rain and there’s clouds. But they lift. They stop. She’s talking about a white sky that would be white around the planet as a permanent blanket. Just imagine what that would do to us. You know, psychologically, it’s just very depressing. It’s very, very depressing. In addition to all of the science facts that she brings. But just, consider what it would be like to live under a permanently white sky.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:42:00] Can I tell a small anecdote? Some years ago I was with our friends Leaders Quest and we’ve had Lindsay Levin on this podcast. And I was in China and we were with the main board of Daimler and we were taking them around needed to improve the quality of leadership in the world. And my responsibility was to take a group of people, including the CEO, to a cold pressed steel factory just outside Beijing. And we went there and we had lots of conversations with the chairman. And he clearly, you know, it’s a big cultural difference in China and other places, didn’t want to necessarily open up personally. And so he was being quite guarded as an individual as he met these other leaders. And my job is to kind of coax him to show what the transformation has been like and what kind of leadership challenges he faced. And at one point, the CEO of Daimler said to him, well, what are the biggest changes since you were a child? And he said, oh, when I was a child, the sky was blue. Because, of course, in that part of China, it had gone white with all of the emissions. And you could have heard a pin drop in that room as everybody realized what that meant and what he’d seen as a difference and just the absolute tragedy of living through such an environmental catastrophe that is so far beyond your control. I hadn’t quite made that connection until you just said that, Christiana.
Christiana Figueres: [00:43:15] And the point is, you know, when they have a huge international event and they stop coal fire plants for a week, the sky is blue again. And everyone walks around with a gorgeous smile on the face because we are meant, we as human beings, as human creatures, are meant to have a blue roof over our heads, not a white one, certainly not a disgusting, polluted one. But that’s not what she’s talking about. She’s talking about geoengineering. But either way, blue skies.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:43:47] And there’s no going back.
Christiana Figueres: [00:43:47] We’re not ready to give up our blue skies. No way.
Paul Dickinson: [00:43:50] She’s super clever to choose the title for this book because, personally, I was taught by the same teacher that you would Tom. Stephan Harding, Schumacher College. And I got a good enough knowledge of basic Gaia theory that quite soon I’m thinking to myself, but we’re going to have to put some kind of something between us and the sun. You have to. I made a presentation on it in 2006. Some people were saying, you put an atomic power station on the moon and make mirrors, that you fire off on an electron rocket launcher to the L1 Lagrange point between the sun and the Earth to block the solar radiation. I mean, it’s crazy stuff. Twenty seven thousand tons of stuff got to go to the moon. It’s never going to happen. But people have looked at this. But the sulfate aerosols, so to say in the atmosphere, it struck me, were a kind of certainty. Like we would just have to do that. We will have no choice. It always struck me that that was a horrific thought.
[00:45:01] What I never knew until I heard about the cover of this book was that it would turn the sky white. I mean, the point she’s really making is that there’s half of us expecting to make these crazy geoengineering interventions. And the other half, you know, you’ve got to realize that they’re completely unacceptable and might alter our whole way of life and it would be just nightmarish. I come from a sort of medical family and some of the worst kinds of medical interventions, what’s sometimes called heroic surgery, where an overambitious surgeon will try and perform some super complex operation that really doesn’t make the patient better at all, makes the patient worse. And that’s how I feel about this geoengineering. And so it’s got to be like a wake up call to us that actually, if we want to keep the sky blue, now’s the time to focus on getting the new laws, the new regulations, the changes, the new technologies, the new business, we’ve all got to focus because Elizabeth does a great job of issuing a warning to us.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:46:03] It’s a great point, actually. That would be a very good consumer engagement platform, wouldn’t it? Cut your energy use, keep the sky blue.
Paul Dickinson: [00:46:10] Actually it makes perfect sense to cut your energy use to keep the sky blue. Just one other thing to fix on that is one of the things that Stephan said when I asked him was that actually the aerosols, reducing energy from the sun doesn’t deal with the problem of oceanic acidification. So actually, we really need to cut greenhouse gas emissions substantially and start sequestering carbon. There’s no other option. You can’t put a barrier up because it doesn’t stop the ocean acidifying.
Christiana Figueres: [00:46:41] You know, Paul, you said it’s unacceptable to do geoengineering. I think the unacceptability comes a step before. It is, frankly, at least to me, unacceptable that we would put ourselves in this situation in which geoengineering becomes unavoidable. That’s the piece that I have a difficulty with. I mean, once we’re there, then what are we going to do? But in her book, she raises the question, are we there at that point in which geoengineering, various forms of it, are now inevitable and we should start seriously investing into them? She doesn’t answer the question, but she definitely puts the question there. And my answer to that is we better not put ourselves in the situation of making that necessary and inevitable.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:47:36] Yeah, but if we go back to where we were before 417 parts per million, if we’re not there, we’re close. It’s going to be long unless we do something about it now.
Paul Dickinson: [00:47:46] Well, I have a friend who’s a really good tech and they are looking at sequestration. More and more people, I think, are looking at sequestration. It’s the new kind of frontier for people interested in technology. So we can pump down carbon, potentially the most incredible sky. That’s what we were talking about with Vicki Hollub from Oxy. But the other thing just to mention, and we have got time to go into this now, but I think it’s a great topic is that Elizabeth was talking in some of her narrative about degrowth. And there are whole questions about whether we need to sort of challenge some notion of growth in terms of consuming more, which we probably all agree with. But whether growth as it’s measured in financial terms, is actually not really about consuming more, but about the change in society. So there are really complicated questions here. Growth is something we love. Plants growing. We love our children growing. Growth is generally good. And yet something there’s this idea that growth is bad. So I think we need to get into some kind of right relationship with growth. That’s an economic argument. It’s a philosophical argument. It’s a personal argument. But it’s fundamental because there ain’t no way seven billion humans can go on consuming like people in the OECD do. So we’ve got to come up with a plan pretty quick.
Christiana Figueres: [00:49:02] Well, I think you’ve just put your finger on it because it’s about consumption in industrialized countries. It’s not consumption in developing countries. So those developing countries do need to continue their growth until they bring their people out of poverty. So it’s not about degrowth. It’s about decoupling growth from emissions. So it’s it’s separating GDP from GHG. So that we can continue, certainly in developing countries to have the growth that brings quality of life to those people living there, especially to those still under the poverty line, some under the extreme poverty line. But in industrialized countries, I think the concept of enough is enough is something that we really have to embrace.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:49:57] I think this would be a fascinating topic for a couple of podcasts to explore, because it’s such a hot topic around this issue of growth. How can we get on top of managing the climate issue while the concept of growth is still out there? And I totally take your point, Christiana, that there’s a difference between industrialised countries and developing countries. But there’s still a principle that our entire economy is based on growth and where does that lead us in the end? So I think Paul Dickinson investigates maybe the subtext for that. But we should figure it out.
Paul Dickinson: [00:50:25] Send me off. Christiana said enough is enough. So I’m going to go and travel the world and find out really if enough is enough, or if enough is not enough, but probably enough is enough if you look into it. But you might have to check in with a few very, very rich people to see if they really agree.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:50:39] To make sure that they really feel like they’ve got enough. Right OK, any more items of business before we go to our musical interlude at the end of this episode?
Paul Dickinson: [00:50:47] Just a final thing. Shout out to Kim Stanley Robinson, who predicted basically all of this. Stuff about geoengineering in his fantastic book Ministry of The Future.
Christiana Figueres: [00:50:55] Yeah, seriously.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:50:57] So this week we have a fantastic piece of music for you called Easy Now from Saunder Jurrianns. Saunder Jurrianns is a Singer-Songwriter from the US. His debut album, Beasts, is about healing from depression and coming out stronger. Jurrianns explains, it’s an album about a fractured personality, somehow trying to put himself back together. This song, Easy Now, is about a change in perspectives and a reminder that compassion is necessary, whether on a personal or wider level. As ever we have the artist himself here to explain a bit more about the song and then we really hope you enjoy the music. Thank you for joining us again this week. We look forward to seeing you again next week.
Christiana Figueres: [00:51:37] Bye.
Paul Dickinson: [00:51:39] Bye.
Saunder Jurrianns: [00:51:40] When I wrote Easy Now a few years ago, it was a very personal song that I wrote during a very tough time, and it was meant as a kind of reminder to step back and breathe and to look at things from outside of myself. Since then, I guess it’s taken on a whole new meaning in light of everything we’ve gone through. But I think the message is the same to take a step back and try to look at every situation with a sense of compassion and reason, rather than be constantly swept up in a way by our own emotions and the constant spectacle of the media. I have a lot of faith in human creativity, our creative minds have helped overcome so much adversity when stimulated and nurtured, and we’re really capable of the most amazing solutions. If we could match our creativity and our ingenuity with our potential for love and compassion, I think really incredible things could happen.
Clay Carnill: [00:55:51] So there you go, another episode of Outrage + Optimism. The track you just heard was Easy Now by Saunder Jurrianns. So Saunder is a very, very talented musician. He’s composed music for two of my favorite shows, Ozark and On Becoming God in Central Florida, which you should check out, if not just for the music, but among many, many other incredible shows and films. As Tom mentioned, he’s releasing his debut album, Beasts. So I’ve got a link for you to check that out in the show notes. So go check out that record. Enjoy. Spin it. Go, go, go. And speaking of music, next week we have a very special music episode on the way. We’re celebrating all of the artists and music we’ve had on the podcast so far in two distinct volumes. So think of it like a mixtape meets a double vinyl. And yes, I’m old enough to have made mix tapes, actual mixtapes. I mean, my good years, I mostly burnt MP3s for friends and prospective romantic interests once I got iTunes. But anyway, I digress. Your mixtape Road Trip CD, Double Vinyl, Spotify playlist of Outrage + Optimism music is coming next week. So hit subscribe so that you don’t miss it. Outrage + Optimism is a Global Optimism production. Our Executive Producer is Sharon Johnson and our Producer is Clay Carnill. So Global Optimism is Sara Law, Katie Bradford, Lara Richardson, Marina Mansilla Hermann, Sophie McDonald, Freya Newman, Sarah Thomas, Sue Reid and Jon Ward.
[00:57:29] And our hosts are Paul Dickinson, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, thank you so much to our guest this week, Elizabeth Kolbert. Elizabeth’s New Yorker article on Christiana is absolutely required reading. I have a link for you below to that, but also to her latest book, Under a White Sky. You can grab a copy. The link is waiting for you. This book is 100 percent being added to the Stubborn Optimist’s Book Club. More on that coming soon. So I say it every week. We are on social media posting like every day with the latest going on in climate news. So the fun does not stop after this podcast ends in just a moment. Go follow us now on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn @GlobalOptimism. We’re creating content, sharing things, making these strange digital landscapes just a bit more optimistic. OK, that is a wrap. Now we mentioned on the podcast a review that was written on Apple podcasts, and we’d love to hear more from all of you. So go to Apple podcasts, give us a rating and write a review. We read every single one and sometimes they make it on the show. So have fun with it. And next week, music. We’ll see you then.