39. Science! Leadership! Action! with Rainn Wilson, Dr. Gail Whiteman, and David Perry
This week we deviate from the normal episode with 3 of our friends!
First, we meet up with actor Rainn Wilson and Dr. Gail Whiteman to talk about Arctic Basecamp’s new campaign Speak Science To Power and how we can give power to scientists and bring science into corporate boardrooms everywhere.
Later on David Perry, CEO of Indigo Ag and Terraton Initiative, tells us why carbon shouldn’t be vilified and how we can solve the climate crisis by looking right where we’re standing
Listen to the other episodes of our miniseries here – The Future of Transport
This series is sponsored by NESTE
Our guests this week
Rainn Wilson, Actor, writer, and producer
Dr. Gail Whiteman, Executive Director at Arctic Basecamp
David Perry, President, CEO, and Director of Indigo Ag
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:01:19] Hello and welcome to Outrage + Optimism. My name is Tom Rivett-Carnac.
Paul Dickinson: [00:01:23] And I’m Paul Dickinson.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:01:24] This week we bring you three remarkable climate conversations about science, about leadership and about action. Thanks for being here. Right. So this week, we have a different episode of Outrage + Optimism for you. Christina is away in Antarctica, leading a National Geographic expedition. And in her absence, we are upending our format for a week. So rather than bringing you one guest interview, we’re actually going to present three.
Our recent trip to the World Economic Forum meant that we had the great opportunity to speak to some amazing people, but sometimes these were brief conversations up a mountain or elsewhere. And we’ve drawn together three of the best in this episode that we hope you’ll enjoy. But just before we get into that, there was a remarkable piece of news this week, Paul.
Paul Dickinson: [00:02:18] Well, indeed there was, Tom. Indeed there was. And it came from the International Energy Agency. And they have declared in their evaluation that we have reached peak carbon. That is to say that the greenhouse gas emissions from human activity have flatlined for the last two years. And this offers up the tantalizing prospect that finally we are on the verge of turning that corner and we will be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from here onwards. And this is potentially, quite literally, the turning point that the whole climate change movement have worked for, for decades. So it’s phenomenally exciting.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:02:56] And we should stress that it’s you know, it’s going to take more than just that one year of data to demonstrate a trend, of course. But still, you know, it’s better than the alternative, which is that they’ve been going up, which they have been for the last few years. And, you know, once you take dig into the underlying information, it’s really encouraging. You know, the global economy grew 2.9 percent last year, but emissions were flat at 33 gigatons. And this was pretty much entirely thanks to increased renewables in electricity generation in developed economies. Interestingly, the U.S. had the largest absolute decline of 140 million tonnes or 2.9 percent, which is significant and actually demonstrates the fact that even in the absence of a temporary absence of U.S. Leadership on climate, the economy is still moving in a direction that we can take some some encouragement from.
Paul Dickinson: [00:03:47] Well, indeed. And as Christiana likes to say, the sun and the wind do not send you an invoice. Now, the United States is fundamentally a kind of business country. The most successful corporations in the world are in the USA. And, you know, of course, entrepreneurs there recognize that if you put up a windmill or you build a solar farm, you just kind of print free money from that point onwards. So it’s an incredibly exciting time. I mean, just to add, I mean, everybody knows this, but the the news stories related to climate change, the whole world is moving. And I personally find myself recalibrating to kind of be 10 times more ambitious in the work I do. And I’m sure many other people listening to the show must we must all have the pleasure of saying, OK, how can we match the mood of the world by being that much more ambitious.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:04:30] Right. And of course, it’s not all good news. I mean, you know, in developing countries, there was an increase of 400 million tonnes from the rest of the world and 80 percent of that was an increase coming from Asia, where countries did increase their coal use. So that clearly requires absolute urgent attention. But a really encouraging story is actually from the EU. So the EU’s emissions fell by five percent in a year. Now, you know, obviously, people can say, well, the EU is a special case, very developed economy. Lots of manufacturing happening in other parts of the world. But nevertheless, those are the kinds of numbers that we’re going to have to achieve year on year and accelerating if we’re going to do what science demands and halve emissions by 2030. So, you know, clearly, these are early signs, but they’re very encouraging. And we should not think we can’t do this because we’re already demonstrably doing it, which is fantastic.
Paul Dickinson: [00:05:21] As they say, if something is true in reality, it must be true in theory. No, I mean, you know, we got to keep an eye on the coal. Right. But really, it is a time to be cautiously optimistic and excited and to redouble our efforts.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:05:33] So let’s turn to our first interview. And this conversation is with a remarkable person. Professor Gail Whiteman is the director of the Pentland Center for Sustainability and Business at Lancaster University School of Management. She is a very impressive academic in her own right, but she’s also an activist and an organizer who’s really changing the world with her innovative approaches to involving leaders in what is happening in the frozen places of the world. She is the creator of something called the Arctic Base Camp that you’ll hear her discussing in this clip with Christiana, where she’s brought, you know, the tents and the camp from the Arctic to Davos to the top of the mountain where people will come and camp in tents overnight. She sleeps there herself. Last year, Greta and her father Svante slept there. A variety of leaders are there and she just brings many of these different CEOs and world leaders into a different space and helps inspire them and demonstrate the urgency of what’s happening and what we can do to improve it.
Paul Dickinson: [00:06:34] Wow, she says. Incredible. Let’s hear the interview.
Christiana Figueres: [00:06:42] So, Gail, you have been the promoter of this Arctic base camp since it started. So just give us a quick view of why you started it, where you are today and what you still want to do. What are the new challenges and what do you still want to do?
Dr. Gail Whiteman: [00:06:58] So we came up with the idea for Arctic base camp when we were actually in the Arctic. We were going through the Northwest Passage and we could see such massive changes. And that was 2010. And the idea was how could we get the Arctic into the boardrooms of companies and countries that were not necessarily interested in doing shipping or oil and gas exploration. And what we realized was, is that the Arctic was about global risk and accelerating climate change. And if we knew we were talking about global risk, we had to come to the World Economic Forum. So the way we did that was, you know, we can’t afford the budgets of the hotels here. So we decided we just bring the big Arctic base camp tent and we would speak science to power.
Christiana Figueres: [00:07:38] Awesome. And this year you are together with Callum and other wonderful people. You are starting a new campaign.
Dr. Gail Whiteman: [00:07:46] We are starting the new campaign. So the unite behind the science campaign, I think, is really exciting because what it does is it tries to speak science to power. But as you rightly said, it brings power to the scientists so we can look at the rigorous evidence and then hold really the rest of the world accountable to say, are we on the right science based track?
Christiana Figueres: [00:08:08] Yes, exactly. And as I have repeatedly said, we have to anchor ourselves in science, otherwise we drift away into total destruction, continuous destruction. So I am grateful to you that you remind us constantly and -.
Dr. Gail Whiteman: [00:08:22] Annoyingly so.
Christiana Figueres: [00:08:24] No delightfully so, of the anchor that we have to hold in in all of this in both policy and action. So thank you very much.
Dr. Gail Whiteman: [00:08:33] Thank you very much. You’ve been a huge supporter of us and you’ve been with us right from the start. So thank you, super.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:08:39] So that was Gale talking to Christiana a few weeks ago. I mean, I think there’s so much to enjoy from what she said there and just this concept of unite behind the science, speak science to power. I just love that concept. I think that’s so important.
Paul Dickinson: [00:08:52] Well, I was super impressed. She talks about, you know, bringing science into the boardroom. And, you know, I think fundamentally business is logical, you know, large corporations run on kind of rationality and logic. And I think they’re good with science. You know, if you bring science into great companies, they will respond with great logic. But that’s not to say that there aren’t bad companies that are pushing in the wrong direction. But generally, the corporate system, I think is a triumph of science. And I think she’s so smart to sort of, you know, use a hypodermic needle to put science into the boardroom. Very exciting.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:09:25] And once that penetrates, it’s hard to resist. Right. You can only resist reality for so long once it’s presented in that kind of way. So it’s such important work.
Paul Dickinson: [00:09:33] Indeed. Indeed.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:09:35] So one of the people up there who was camping out very impressively and as far as I could see from the time they were not there having kind of the time of his life and making everybody laugh and enjoying himself and just generally being the soul of the party is Rainn Wilson. So rain was cast as Dwight Schrute in the U.S. Version of the office, probably much better known to U.S. Listeners than others. But, you know, just an amazing kind of comedian and actor and such a sort of entrepreneurial guy. He attended Davos, really using his personal profile to raise the issue of climate. And as you’ll hear in this clip, he’s really taken the time to educate himself about this issue so he can be an effective ambassador and draw in new types of audiences into what’s really going on.
Paul Dickinson: [00:10:21] Great. Well, I look forward to hearing from him. Let’s hear from Rainn Wilson.
Christiana Figueres: [00:10:26] So Rainn, thank you so much for taking a little time out here on base camp. Rumor has it that it is your birthday today.
Rainn Wilson: [00:10:33] It is, yes.
Christiana Figueres: [00:10:33] Is that a true rumor?
Rainn Wilson: [00:10:35] That is yes.
Christiana Figueres: [00:10:36] OK. Congratulations, first of all.
Rainn Wilson: [00:10:38] The rumor is true. What do you got for me?
Christiana Figueres: [00:10:39] Had I known, I would have brought you Costa Rican coffee. Oh, OK. So that is in my debt to you. But in the meantime, why did you choose to spend as much time? Because you’re actually camping out here on Artic base camp. And you know, celebrating your birthday. So why are you doing it?
Rainn Wilson: [00:10:57] Well, as I was reading more and more about climate change and becoming increasingly disturbed about what I was reading, I was like, forgive my English, go for it. I mean, I was like, you need to shit or get off the pot. And it’s like I have a good social reach and through social media. And I wanted to actually do something. I wanted to learn about climate change from the scientists. I wanted to experience it and understand it more deeply, help raise money and awareness around it. So I joined up with this organization, Arctic Base Camp Doctor Gail Weitman. But along with a number of other climate scientists and our whole motto is to speak science to power. We united with Callum Grieve who you know, extraordinary human being. His new campaign were about to announce right now is Unite Behind the Science. And you can check that out at Unite Behind the Science online. I would say that there’s greater scientific consensus around climate change than there is probably around any other thing else in science, including like gravity and physics and black holes and what have you.
Christiana Figueres: [00:12:13] And health issues, actually. Now, science. Does science tell us what is to occur? Does science explain what we’re seeing and what is the bridge between that? Are we beginning to see already today that which science had foretold and in fact even happening sooner?
Rainn Wilson: [00:12:36] Wow, that is a really excellent question. I don’t know that I can do that question justice, because I’m just in the first couple of months of kind of learning about how this stuff works. But I will say that the science is pretty clear. The predictors have been pretty much right on the mark, but they’ve actually even been behind like the dramatic change that’s happening is even ahead of what most scientists have predicted. And so it’s all coming true. Now, that doesn’t mean that scientists can predict when a hurricane is happening or like, oh, this hurricane happened because of climate change or this drought happened because of climate change. But it has to do with almost like –
Christiana Figueres: [00:13:21] Amplification effect.
Rainn Wilson: [00:13:21] Yes. And it’s like playing Dungeons and Dragons when you when you roll the dice, the many sided dice, you know, you have X amount of chance of hitting an elf with your sword. Right. And then if you have a magic sword, it’s a greater chance. So is there a greater chance of there being a drought because of the circumstances surrounding climate change? Yes, absolutely. So more and more those dice are going to roll and those guys are going to hit drought, hurricane, forest fire, flood, extinction of an animal, et cetera. And those are going to increase exponentially as time goes on, which is why the work that you did with the United Nations and the Paris agreements are so crucial.
Christiana Figueres: [00:14:00] And that’s why when science makes a prediction, they usually have to go back the next year and said we underestimate it. Right. Underetimated the impact because it is occurring exponentially. It is not linear. We’ve gone through the linear piece and we’re now into exponentially growing both scale as well as an extension of negative impacts. As shown by Australia. Very painful.
Rainn Wilson: [00:14:26] Yeah, and here’s what’s most important about it. It’s like, you know, we’re up here in the Alps and we can run into this hotel or we can fly to somewhere that’s cooler and we have all these resources. But for the poorest of the species-
Christiana Figueres: [00:14:39] Who have not contributed at all to climate change.
Rainn Wilson: [00:14:42] Right. For people who have just kind of lived most of their lives with little, you know, campfires and don’t drive cars and, you know, don’t consume electricity powered by coal plants, they’re the ones that are going to be most affected. So for the poorest two billion on the planet, that devastation will be astronomical. So if people care about poor-.
Christiana Figueres: [00:15:06] That’s the deep immorality of this.
Rainn Wilson: [00:15:07] Yeah, so if you care about the poor, if you care about social justice, if you care about women’s rights, if you care about health care, climate change is the granddaddy not to be patriarchal, but is the granddaddy issue of all issues. It is an octopus that has a tentacle in all of the human issues, has to do with education, everything you can possibly name. And that’s why I wanted to help bring some light to it.
Christiana Figueres: [00:15:38] The other way of looking at that is that because it’s an octopus with so many tentacles, there also is an infinite number of solutions that we can bring to it.
Rainn Wilson: [00:15:46] Nice.
Christiana Figueres: [00:15:47] Because in every sector that is negatively affected, you can turn that around and find the solution that decarbonizes or increases adaptations. So thank you so much. Thank you for taking the time on your birthday. I know that there is another event waiting for both of us over there. So thanks very much.
Rainn Wilson: [00:16:05] That’s great. And for my present, I’m really admiring your scarf, so thank you very much.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:16:15] So that was Rainn. I thought. You know, I just think he brings such a kind of refreshing perspective and attitude to all these different things. What did what did you take from that conversation Paul?
Paul Dickinson: [00:16:25] Well he’s clearly very lovely, funny human talking about climate change being the granddaddy of all issues or grandmother of all issues, but it definitely isn’t talking about an octopus with tentacles in every single part of society, but Christiana quite correctly pointing out that because of that, all those octopus tentacles, we can take action on climate change in every single area of society. You know, people are sort of saying, you know, what can I do? Well, actually, basically, whatever you’re doing, you can do something. And I thought that was a great insight. And just to add, it’s wonderful when prominent media personalities come forward. You know, Rainn has 6.7 million followers on Twitter, on Facebook and Instagram combined. And I think the the voice of people that we know and trust and like coming forward on this issue to educate, entertain and inform is a very, very good thing. Very good.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:17:18] Totally. And I’ve got to say, you know, I’ve worked on climate change for a long time. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone work in the phrase magic elf sword into a conversation about climate change which I thought was awesome.
Paul Dickinson: [00:17:28] So Clay may be able to explain to us what a magic elf sword is in Dungeon and Dragons, but I certainly have no idea.
Clay Carnill: [00:17:35] It’s Dungeons and Dragons. If you’re going to answer the greatest game of all time, you know, come and do it right.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:17:40] Clay feel free to insert a small outtake here when you do your your editing.
Clay Carnill: [00:17:44] OK, ok, ok. Challenge accepted. It’s time to enter the dungeon of explanation. Not to re-explain what Rainn said, but if climate change were a five headed evil monster in Dungeons and Dragons, with a magic elf sword and it decided to strike someone, the players playing the game would roll a many sided die to determine if the attempted magic of sword strike was successful. If it were a 10 sided die, maybe numbers 6 through 10 when rolling the dice would determine if the strike were successful and 1 through 5 would determine if it was a miss. But and this is what Rainn was talking about, if the magic of sword becomes stronger when it’s surrounded by CO2 emissions and if the dungeon where the battle is taking place has a ton of CO2 emissions in it, then the magic elf sword’s chances of striking become greater. And when you roll the die, maybe instead of 6 through 10 being a successful magic of sword strike, the numbers 4 through 10 are a successful strike. So that sounds a whole lot like a magic elf sort of doom, as it were.
[00:18:59] So there you go. That’s what a magic of sword is.
Paul Dickinson: [00:19:01] Well, thank you, Clay. Now I know.
Clay Carnill: [00:19:03] Any time.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:19:05] Cool. So the next conversation is with a remarkable guy. And actually, we saw him in Davos, but this conversation was recorded just before. And you were there, Paul. So why don’t you tell us about it?
Paul Dickinson: [00:19:15] Yeah, well, it was a real pleasure and honor to interview David Perry, the chief executive of Indigo Agriculture. David is a successful entrepreneur. What can I say? He’s prior to running Indigo Agriculture. He’s founded two companies in the pharmaceutical space or, you know, and medical science that have both gone on to multibillion dollar valuations. And he’s taken them through initial public offerings on the stock exchange.
[00:19:43] So he’s a serious business person, very charming, very lovely, and with incredible insights into the area that I would call ag-tech Agricultural Technology, which could end up being absolutely huge.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:19:59] And we should just set up this is a slightly longer conversation that was recorded not in a studio, but in our normal mobile studio of microphones, wherever we are. So I think this is about a 15 minute conversation.
Paul Dickinson: [00:20:10] And a little bit echoey because we’re in a hotel room just by the UN. But that doesn’t diminish the fascinating –
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:20:16] I actually think Clay has an anti-echo machine, which he intends to deploy on that.
Clay Carnill: [00:20:19] I do. I do.
Paul Dickinson: [00:20:21] A little bit echoey, but Clay has got an anti-echo machine he’s planning to deploy. So we’ll see how that goes.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:20:27] Let’s hear the interview. Let’s hear the interview.
Christiana Figueres: [00:20:30] David, so thank you very much, thank you for joining us on Outrage + Optimism, we hear that you sometimes listen to the podcast, which is fantastic. So by now, you know why we call ourselves Outrage + Optimism? Because we feel that both of those sentiments are necessary, both present in out there in the climate movement and in the real world, as we call it. But we feel that it is necessary to have both of those in order to make constructive steps forward. So we are delighted to have you. We hope you will express both your sentiments on outrage as well as an optimism. But feel free to to fall on either side of that fence.
[00:21:14] David, I have a good friend who tells me that climate change is all about real estate. Because it’s all about the location. Location, location, location, which is the mantra of real estate, right? And I kind of suspect that you will agree with him because he says carbon in the air is an enemy. Carbon in the soil is a friend. And that what we really have to do is to change the location of carbon. Do you agree?
David Perry: [00:21:50] I completely agree. Yeah. So, you know, the term carbon is often vilified in today’s discussion. But of course, there’s nothing wrong with carbon per se, it’s the building block of life. We’re all contained carbon. The real problem is the distribution of it. So since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve moved about 1.1 trillion tons of carbon out from under our feet in the form of coal and oil. And we cut down forests, which is about another 600 billion tons of carbon that used to be contained in trees and vegetation. And we’ve plowed the soil, which released another 700 billion tons or so.
Christiana Figueres: [00:22:32] All in the same direction, all from the ground up into the air.
David Perry: [00:22:37] Or the ocean. So burning carbon doesn’t make it go away. It just redistributes it. So about 1.3 trillion tons has gone into the ocean, which creates its own issues, and about a trillion tons has gone into the atmosphere. So it’s not a carbon problem, the per se, it’s a carbon distribution problem.
[00:22:58] And the good news is, it’s addressable, we just have to recognize it for what it is. Acknowledge that all of that free power that drove huge leaps in society for the last hundred fifty years had unintended consequences and now use that same level of innovation to address those unintended consequences.
Christiana Figueres: [00:23:21] So talk to us about the innovation, because haven’t you been recognized as being like no one disruptor? Disruptor could be positive or negative, I’m sure in this case it is positive.
David Perry: [00:23:33] My sister asked the same question.
Christiana Figueres: [00:23:37] Does she think it’s positive?
David Perry: [00:23:38] No, she couldn’t believe we would be number one. And people liked it.
Christiana Figueres: [00:23:43] So talk about that please.
David Perry: [00:23:46] So if we if we want to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, we pretty much have to harness photosynthesis. You know, nature has given us this mechanism that all plants use. And as you probably recall, from eighth grade, plants use carbon dioxide, combine it with sunlight and create sugars and cellulose. So literally, every part of a plant used to be carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So if we want to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and put it somewhere where it at least doesn’t do harm and hopefully has benefit, photosynthesis is really the only technology tried and true for millions of years, worked for a long time, doesn’t cost anything, has a free source of energy, like lots of good-
Christiana Figueres: [00:24:36] It’s safe.
David Perry: [00:24:38] Right. It’s beautiful. And it’s scalable. So there are people working on other technologies to pull carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, basically do what plants do. But right now, that’s a tremendously expensive choice. And none of it is scaled. I mean, based on the numbers we just went through, we need to pull a trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Anything that’s going to impact that has to leverage photosynthesis. And there’s basically three ways you can leverage photosynthesis. You can plant trees and preserve forests. You can leverage agricultural soil. So farmland and ranchland. Or in theory, you could leverage oceans, you know, by planting kelp or algae and figure out how to harvest that. All three of those are big enough, like they would impact hundreds of billions of tons.
Christiana Figueres: [00:25:30] All three individually.
David Perry: [00:25:32] Individually. And two out of those three, oceans and agricultural land are big enough to do it by themselves. A trillion plus tons of carbon dioxide, at least in potential.
Christiana Figueres: [00:25:43] It’s interesting that you contrast that to what we call industrial CCS industrial carbon capture and storage, because I think of exactly what the land based activities that you have alluded to, not the ocean, but the land based, as natural or biological carbon capture and storage. And it is such a contrast, right. It is such a contrast that those who are, gratefully because we might need them, investing money into industrial carbon capture and storage, first of all, they’re not investing enough. But the technology is still expensive, not proven to be safe, very experimental. Exactly the opposite to natural carbon capture and storage was, as you say, millennia on this planet, very safe, tried and true. And we know how to do it. So how do we accelerate that?
David Perry: [00:26:39] Well, let me I’m going to answer your question, but let me do a quick differentiation. So there are there are machines that pull carbon dioxide out of the just general atmosphere. That’s called direct air capture.
[00:26:51] There are also technologies people are working on to capture carbon dioxide from waste streams like the flu gas from a coal plant or something. That’s pretty different because now you’ve got this concentrated form, a stream of carbon dioxide, and you’ve probably got a heat source. So those technologies are much more promising, I think.
Christiana Figueres: [00:27:11] Because of the concentration?
David Perry: [00:27:12] Because the concentration is just an easier problem to solve.
Christiana Figueres: [00:27:15] They haven’t solved it yet.
David Perry: [00:27:16] It doesn’t address sequestration, but it at least reduces emissions. So how do we accelerate the use of plants and biological systems to pull down carbon dioxide? In my view, it’s about incentives. What we know is that farmers can do this because a small percentage, but a large number are doing this already. So they tend to use techniques called regenerative techniques, and they’re often called regenerative farmers. So they plant cover crops. So they keep green plants on the field all the time. They use no till practices. So instead of plowing the land they plant right into last year’s crop, they use a lot less fertilizer and chemicals, which also helps reduce emissions. They rotate their crops more often and often they include animals to graze on the land or the crops. Farmers are doing this today because they want to be more profitable, but one of the side effects is that they’re seeing the carbon in their soil increase. And we’ve now interviewed hundreds of these farmers and gathered the data. And we can say with confidence that this works. There are farmers doing it today. So now all we have to do is provide the right incentives for other farmers to adopt those practices as well.
Paul Dickinson: [00:28:37] Now, I mean, these solutions are absolutely beautiful. And we talk to Ethan Brown, the chief executive of Beyond Meat. And we were saying, like, how are you ever going to scale it? And that’s really a question that I think our listeners would be fascinated by. You know, you’re sitting there with all of this opportunity. I can see you beaming with the potential. It’s very exciting. What’s the secret to scaling it? What’s the what’s the business miracle that you’re going to perform and how are you going to do it?
David Perry: [00:29:02] The great thing about farms is they all have a farmer. So there’s somebody who has agency over the farm who has responsibility for what happens on the farm and most likely the access to the labor to make it happen. So that’s the reason I started with incentives. If scalability is built in, if we can figure out how to provide the right incentives to farmers and then measure what’s happening, so be able to measure the the carbon they’re sequestering in the soil, we can get a really rapid change in a hurry because there are already millions of farmers out there, billions of farmers out there who have the responsibility and the capability to make the changes we need as long as they have the financial incentives to do it.
Paul Dickinson: [00:29:47] So it’s about the end of commodities as we know them and we start introducing the kind of the premium product, which is the one that everyone wants to buy and people kind of voting with their money for the solution? Is that how you see it working?
David Perry: [00:29:56] Yeah, I think it works two ways. I think that is one of them. So the future doesn’t include you buying any food that you can’t trace back to the farm if you choose to do so. That’s not that far away. Traceability back to the farm. So you not only know who grew it, but how it was grown. Even the conditions that it was grown under are possible within our current technical capabilities. So that’s an example of sustainability built into the product. But it’s also possible to separate sustainability from the product in the form of something like a carbon credit. So if farmers are going to provide this service to society of pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and hold it in their soil, it would be reasonable to pay them for doing so. We do this already in the U.S. there is a tax credit that oil companies get for pumping carbon dioxide into this into the ground as part of enhanced oil recovery. It’s 25 to 50 dollars a tonne. Wouldn’t it be perfectly reasonable to pay farmers? Or at least include them. And of course, if governments impose carbon taxes or cap and trade, that’s another good way to drive the incentives for farmers to do this.
Paul Dickinson: [00:31:19] Ok, so some of our listeners are investors or people who advise investors or the wealthy or just people who want to be part of this next revolution. So if there’s going to be this huge change in agriculture in the years ahead, who are going to be the kind of winners or losers? How do you think about it as a sector? How do you invest in it? How do you how do you get to be a part of it?
David Perry: [00:31:41] Yeah, I’m tempted at this point to give out my cell phone number. Ok, so I think this is not yet well understood that while climate change is probably the biggest threat facing us as a species and as a planet, it’s probably also the biggest financial opportunity of our time. Imagine the transformation that’s going to happen as people’s understanding of the problem continues to increase and their sense of urgency around it. And nowhere is that bigger than food and agriculture. Food and agriculture is already one of the largest industries in the world. It’s arguably the most important industry in the world. And it is dead last in terms of adopting new technologies and business models. And consumers are going to care more about sustainability and health in this area than anywhere else, probably. So, you know, the investment opportunities are new business models that enable consumers to get the health and sustainability they’re looking for, new technologies that enable farmers to farm in a way that consumers want them to use. So replacing chemicals and fertilizers, new food brands that use sustainably produced healthy ingredients to give consumers what they’re looking for and so forth.
Paul Dickinson: [00:33:08] I mean, you look forward with your your great company.
You look forward with the Terraton Initiative to take a trillion tonnes out of the atmosphere. You know, as you scan the next 10 years what are you most excited about in terms of what you’re going to be delivering in partnership with this growing sector?
Christiana Figueres: [00:33:26] Can I piggyback on, because I’m very interested to know how did you put together the Terraton Initiative with Indigo, which is your company? One is, I’m assuming, a non-profit initiative, and the other one is very much of a for profit. And so how do you bring those two together?
David Perry: [00:33:49] Well, I think what I’m most excited about is the next stage of understanding about climate. So we’re now getting to the outrage portion.
Christiana Figueres: [00:34:00] Yay! Finally.
David Perry: [00:34:03] Like in the last, since this time last year, dramatically different even in the last six months, is dramatically different. And so, you know, we need that trend to continue. And as you know, we need more and more people aware of the problem and more and more people with a sense of urgency that we have to do something.
[00:34:22] But today, most of the something is still about reducing emissions and we need to reduce emissions. But at some level, that all feels a little hopeless, like we can’t reduce emissions enough. It’s just, you know, we’re walking off the cliff more slowly. What we have to do is absorb.
[00:34:43] Yeah, turn it around and pull it out. And once you realize that that’s possible and we started investing in those things, then it’s a completely different mindset. When we’re just talking about reducing emissions, it feels a little hopeless. And people who feel hopeless aren’t motivated to action. But when you feel like there’s a hopeful answer now, you can have an immediate -.
Christiana Figueres: [00:35:05] And simple.
David Perry: [00:35:06] And scalable.
Christiana Figueres: [00:35:07] And scalable.
David Perry: [00:35:10] Then you can start to take action consistent with that optimism. And so that’s what I’m most looking forward to, is that continued evolution of how people think about it. With regard to the Terraton initiative, I’ll sort of take you through our evolution of thinking. You know, we’re constantly looking for ways to pay farmers to produce a specialty product rather than a commodity, and the shift to more sustainable ways of doing it. And in the process of doing that, we were thinking about carbon credits and how can we pay them to perform this benefit to society. It’s only as we got into it that we realized how big a potential impact this could have. And in fact, it by about December or January of this year, we realized this might be the most hopeful thing we know about with regard to climate change. You know, if we have a potential solution in front of us that is already scalable, affordable and immediate, then now all we have to do is make it happen.
Christiana Figueres: [00:36:10] Do it.
David Perry: [00:36:11] Right. And once we realized that it was also imperative that we make it happen, you know, it is hard to imagine at that point we say, yeah, that’s a really big idea, but we don’t have time to work on it. So we started to focus on it and we launched or announced the Terraton Initiative on June 12. The response has been amazing. So we had hoped to sign up three million acres in the first 12 months. We’re three months in and we’ve done nine and a half million acres like the we just didn’t know how farmers –
Christiana Figueres: [00:36:40] All in the United States or elsewhere?
David Perry: [00:36:41] About 80 percent in the U.S., 20 percent out. And that’s with, you know, sales and marketing. That’s just people come in to the website and signing up and raising their hand. It’s super exciting.
Christiana Figueres: [00:36:53] That is exciting.
David Perry: [00:36:55] And so in the course of doing this, we decided that in order to maximize the chances of success of Terraton, we needed to create it as a separate organization, a not for profit. And so we have done so. OK, Indigo continues to provide a lot of services to that organization. So we’d be the farmer facing side of it. But we think, you know, setting up as a separate organization allows us to have other founding partners, other sources of money into it, allows people to donate to it, et cetera.
Christiana Figueres: [00:37:26] And it gives you much more flexibility.
Paul Dickinson: [00:37:29] So it’s a sustainable farming movement you’re building.
David Perry: [00:37:32] Oh, I might use that. I like that a lot.
Paul Dickinson: [00:37:35] Better than walking off a cliff. I’m never going to be able to get out of my head, unfortunately.
David Perry: [00:37:43] You know, not just us. I think increasingly the people that focus on this understand that there is a better way to farm. And our goal is to provide those incentives and the education for farmers to make that shift as fast as possible.
Christiana Figueres: [00:37:59] Well, David, thank you so much. Thank you for taking the time to educate us, Paul and myself and through us, all of our listeners, we really appreciate it because it’s something that we don’t stop to think about enough. And how many of these solutions to climate change are literally just under our feet, right. Like this one. So pick up our feet and look right there.
David Perry: [00:38:23] I’m going to use that too.
Christiana Figueres: [00:38:24] Yeah, there you go.
Paul Dickinson: [00:38:26] And really great. Like building that movement. It seems like you’ve kind of nailed what could be the critical intervention. Thank you so much for your leadership.
David Perry: [00:38:33] Thank you for having me on. Thank you.
[00:38:42] Cool. I mean, I’ve got to say, you know, it’s so inspiring to hear people like David and the ways in which they’re using this incredibly entrepreneurial approach to how incentives can work, to how science works, to how society can pivot to actually solving some of these problems. And, you know, just this issue around locking carbon in the soil. I mean, those of us who’ve worked on this issue for a long time have kind of been aware of that. But to set it out in those clear terms. The scale of the problem that we’re facing is so to do with changes in the soil, changes in the location of carbon in the overall carbon system, and we’ve got to get on top of that because it’s it’s insane that we’re allowing that to go on and facing these terrible risks without actually taking some of these really what are no regrets measures to change the incentives in our economy and do something significant in a reasonably short time frame?
Paul Dickinson: [00:39:37] Well, absolutely. And, you know, he’s got a lovely folksy way of talking. You know, I very much enjoy listening to him, but I’m just going to kind of zero in on a couple of the facts that he observed. You know, we’ve got three and a half billion acres currently being farmed and that they have the capacity to absorb a trillion tons of CO2 if we work on it. I asked him how you can scale something like this, and he points out every farm has a farmer, which is a very interesting point. But, yeah, perhaps I think what’s most exciting, he talked about agriculture being largely unchanged for 100 years. And I actually saw one of his colleagues in a video saying that Indigo agriculture is the kind of Google of agriculture.
[00:40:22] And, you know, what is agriculture? It’s 40 percent of the global workforce. So this is an extraordinary industry. And when he talked about the decommodification of products or at least the Indigo, we’re talking about that now, you know, going from the kind of lowest price, disregarding whatever madness is involved in manufacturing it, through to kind of valuing food and there being premium products that people will pay more for. And that creates the business case. And of course, all through history, people are paid more money for better things. But I think it applies particularly to agriculture, but across all systems really to move to a decommodification. Not on the lowest price anymore. We’re now looking for quality, which when you’re actually eating the products, are pretty important.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:41:08] Totally. And actually, essentially, if you look at historical spending patterns, you know, at the moment and this is sort of Europe and North America, and of course, it’s different and very challenging in other parts of the world. But in Europe and North America, people spend between five and eight percent of their income on food, which is the lowest level it’s ever been historically. It’s generally around 30 to 35 percent. And a skilled economist could explain to us in great detail, I’m sure maybe we should have someone on to explain the forces behind that. I mean, it must be to do with, you know, availability of housing, et cetera, et cetera, other things that shift your spending patterns elsewhere. But, you know, in a way, food is too cheap and it’s being produced too cheaply. And the impacts that we’re seeing on the soil and on the land are directly connected to this thirst for cheap food. And we need to evaluate more and find a way that everybody can get enough while investing in our land.
Paul Dickinson: [00:42:02] I mean, don’t get me wrong, Tom, I love the car industry. I love great computer companies like Apple. I love, you know, many brilliant companies. But, you know, if we’re spending that much money on our cars, if we’re spending that much money on our home decorations, if we’re spending that much money on our clothes, on our footwear, on our computers, we’re not spending that money on food. And I think because we’ve got incredibly good cars and computers already, a slight recalibration towards spending a greater percentage of our income on food will not damage the economy in any way at all. But it will. And this is where I got most excited. You know, David was talking about taking a trillion tonnes out of the atmosphere and he talked about, you know, this slow emissions reductions are slowly walking off a cliff. He had the vision to say, look, if we can actually draw down that trillion tonnes, we can get ourselves to a safe place quickly. And that particular image I find incredibly exciting.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:42:55] You know, I think you’re in a minority of one or possibly two climate campaigners who I’ve ever heard say the phrase, I love the car industry, but, you know, good on you we’ve got to love it. Right, to find a way through it.
[00:43:05] The car industry when Tesla produced a better electric car than a petrol car. A friend of mine, just bought a Tesla my friend Lisa. And she said, it’s made by kids. She said that there’s a kind of fart button that you can press. So when somebody sits in the passenger seat, it makes a flatulence noise, kind of crazy. But I mean, the point is just having fun with cars. I think major car companies looking more and more about, you know, software being part of the experience.
[00:43:33] But just one thing I want to say, just to conclude on the magic of Indigo agriculture and the whole ag-tech revolution, I do think for our listeners who are thinking about the business side of all of this, and many people know far more about this than me, but I think that there are going to be big opportunities in verifications. Verification technologies, verification systems, because, you know, it’s quite something if you’ve got some kind of technology at a location, at an industrial site, you can kind of measure the emissions reductions there. And then, you know, just less electricity consumption, less coal consumption, whatever, whereas it’s going to be the real challenge with a lot of this agricultural stuff is going to be able to demonstrate the benefits. But I think that problem can be solved, and when it is solved, we could see a revolution in agriculture that, as Ethan Brown said when we interviewed him, the chief executive of Beyond Meat, he foresees a revolution in farming, in agriculture that is as transformative and as positive for the farming communities as the information technology revolution has been for Silicon Valley.
[00:44:35] And I think that that, again, that’s a vision of a sort of sharing of the benefits and the wealth that will come out of decarbonising society. Don’t ever let you hear, sorry. Don’t ever believe economists, whatever they may be, when they say that responding to climate change is going to reduce GDP or reduce the scale of the economy. It could be an absolutely huge bonus for our often neglected agricultural communities who represent the kind of backbone of the world actually does.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:45:10] Absolutely awesome. All right. Well, this has been fun.
Paul Dickinson: [00:45:13] Yes, indeed. No, I enjoyed it. I missed Christiana. I wish she was here.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:45:17] Well, of course.
Paul Dickinson: [00:45:18] She will be back next week when we have a very special interview, if I’m not mistaken, Tom.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:45:22] We do. Christiana is back from Antarctica to tell us how she is. And we also have former Secretary of State John Kerry will be joining us for a conversation. And that is the last interview we have before our book comes out on the 25th, which is also very exciting.
Paul Dickinson: [00:45:36] OK, so tell us about the book, Tom.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:45:38] Well, I won’t tell you specifically about the book, although I hope you’ll be hearing a lot more and maybe even reading about it. But what I will say is that we are going on a book tour, so that will be starting on the 25th. We have a big event at the New York Public Library and then subsequent events in New York that week. And then we go to Washington, where we have a public event with our friend Tom Friedman. The following week, which is the first week of March, we’re back in the U.K. We’re doing a talk at the RSA, the Royal Society, for the encouragement of the Arts and also a Guardian live event amongst a range of other things. Were going on Ed Miliband’s podcast Reasons to Be Cheerful. There’s a whole bunch of fun things coming up. You can find out about all of that by going to globaloptimism.com, where there is the range of dates and links to places we’re going to be speaking. There still tickets for some others are sold out. Many of them are free. So but you just got to register so that you can come along, and all the details will be there, as well as links to places where you can preorder the book. So all proceeds from the preorder period go, as I think I’ve said before, to the Green Belt Movement in Africa. So please buy yourself a copy, buy one for friends between now and the 25th. It’s a great cause and we want to support it. So we want to push as much as we can the pre sale period of the book.
Paul Dickinson: [00:46:53] The book is a fantastic book, by the way, to our listeners. I have read and I found it electrifying. It’s wonderful. Christiana and Tom, the coffee and cream of climate change and true insight into what is being done, what ought to be done. Unmissable, really. That’s it from us, I think. Great to be with you and looking forward to catching up next week. Bye for now.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:47:13] Bye for now.
Clay Carnill: [00:47:17] So there you go. Another episode of Outrage + Optimism. Time is running out to pre-order Tom and Christiana’s new book, The Future We Choose. Proceeds are going to the Green Belt Movement. Incredible effort by our friend. You can go to globaloptimism.com to pre-order now. All right. Without further ado, Outrage + Optimism is a production of Global Optimism, and it’s produced by Clay Carnill. Send us a message. We love your feedback podcast at globaloptimism.com and be sure to follow us online. We post things on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @GlobalOptimism. OK, last but not least, you’re not going to want to miss next week’s episode with former Secretary of State John Kerry. So hit subscribe and we will see you right back here in your feed next week, see you then.