The Climate Is Changing—But Can We?
This story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.
Over the past months, our Degrees of Change series has looked at some of the many ways our actions affect the climate, and how our changing climate is affecting us—from the impact of the fashion industry on global emissions to the ways in which coastal communities are adapting to rising tides.
But beyond the graphs and figures, how do you get people to actually take action? And are small changes in behavior enough—or is a reshaping of society needed to deal with the climate crisis?
Climate journalist Eric Holthaus and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, founder of the Urban Ocean Lab, talk with Ira about creating a climate revolution, the parallels between the climate crisis and other conversations about social structures like Black Lives Matter, and the challenges of working towards a better future in the midst of the chaos of 2020. Then Matthew Goldberg, a researcher at the Yale Project on Climate Communication, shares some tips for having difficult climate conversations with friends and family.
Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.
Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist and climate journalist and author of The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming (HarperOne, 2020). He’s based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is the founder of Urban Ocean Lab in New York, and co-editor of the book All We Can Save: Truth Courage and Solutions of the Climate Crisis.
Matthew Goldberg is an associate research scientist in the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
The climate is changing. And because we need to deal with it now, we open up the next chapter of our series Degrees of Change. Over the past few months, we’ve talked about some of the many ways our actions affect the environment, both individually and systematically.
But even with stacks of graphs and numbers on hand, how do you get people to take action and change their behavior, or to change society as a whole? Not to be forgotten is the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movements that have almost taken our climate crisis off the radar screen. But do all three issues represent both a challenge and an opportunity to work together?
Let me introduce my guests. Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist and climate journalist. His book is The Future Earth, A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming. Welcome to Science Friday.
ERIC HOLTHAUS: Thank you, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. And Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. She is the founder of the Urban Ocean Lab in New York, co-editor of the upcoming book, All We Can Save, Truth, Courage, and Solutions of the Climate Crisis. Welcome back to Science Friday.
AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Thanks for having me. Great to be back.
IRA FLATOW: Eric, let me begin with you. You write, “In 2017, I started counseling for climate-related anxiety. And to this day, I struggle with how to focus my attention and energy on climate change.”
And Ayana, you write in The Washington Post, quoting Toni Morrison, “The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again your reason for being.” And I see sort of a similarity between what you both are going through. Eric, tell me about yours.
ERIC HOLTHAUS: Oh man. This is something that, first of all, it is a struggle, it feels like, just to keep going every day these days. These are weeks in which years and decades happened.
So I think learning what you are capable of and learning that you are a part of a system– We are all part of a living planet. We are animals. We have needs to take care of to keep ourselves going.
And I think reminding ourselves of that models the kind of society that I think has to happen for us to push through to learn what it is like to treat each other better. I think that is really the crux of this entire uprising, what we’re seeing in 2020, is the realization that we are all working for justice. And I think seeing climate as a subset of the larger struggle for justice puts it in context, puts it in a space where we can all see our part much more clearly than before.
IRA FLATOW: And to you, Ayana.
AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: I’m just really glad that we’re in a moment where people are starting to connect the dots and think more deeply about the morass that we’re in. There’s no avoiding that anymore, right? 2020 has laid bare so many things.
The extent to which white supremacy is the framework that we live in in America. That the climate crisis is going on even when we are focused on other things. We’re still seeing all these record temperatures in the Arctic. And in the midst of a pandemic when people are physically separated, it’s a moment where people are thinking about, what does community really mean? That’s certainly where my head and heart have been over these last few months.
And thinking about the ways in which our crisis of racial injustice and our climate crisis and public health crises and economic crisis are all intertwined, I think is a really powerful way to be thinking about solutions. Because that’s the world we live in, this complex intertwined world. And so only when we think about the challenges we face in that way, acknowledging their complexities instead of trying to very conveniently oversimplify, will we actually come up with solutions that have a chance of making a difference.
IRA FLATOW: And you say, if we want to be successful, if we want to successfully address climate change, we need people of color. Explain what you mean by that.
AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: I just don’t see how we win at addressing the climate crisis without people of color. We need to build the biggest team possible, so why would we ignore a third of America? Especially when we know, thanks to polling by Yale and George Mason University, is that people of color actually care significantly more about climate change. They are more concerned by 10 or 20 percentage points. So if you want to build the best team with the biggest chance of success, then you should probably be focusing on the people who actually care and are aware that there is a game that’s being played.
So on another note, I think it’s really easy to get sucked into this trap of thinking that climate change is a technical problem. That if we just got enough engineers in a room, they could solve it. If we just had enough electric cars and enough solar panels, then that would be the solution.
But really what we need is people leading their communities and governments in this transition. And those leaders are going to be people who are part of those communities. So of course we need leaders of color to be at the forefront of this massive transformation that we’re seeking.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about that transformation because it seems to be an element at the core of both of what you’re writing about. You both appear to agree on the central fact that we need a revolution, and which, Eric, you say, you can define however you want to. What kind of revolution, Eric, are you talking about?
ERIC HOLTHAUS: Well, I think Dr. Johnson is really right here, in that we need to set aside how we think about climate change as primarily a technical problem or a scientific problem. I know we’re talking about it on a science podcast, but I think that listening to the voices of people who have been systematically excluded from the conversation this entire time. The last 100 years, as industrialization has spread around the world and the greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, people of color have been bearing the brunt of that the entire time. I think the only way through this crisis is to tell a completely different story about climate change and about the climate in emergency than what we’ve been led to believe is the main issue.
The main issue, really, is this broader search for equality and value of life in all its forms, not just human life, but non-human species that we share the planet with. If we really valued each other and cared about each other and listened to each other, I think we would realize that that’s really what it’s all about. It’s about working together to give each other as good of a life as possible on this finite planet. And that is what is out of balance right now.
And that would be a revolution. The science itself is revolutionary. We don’t have to extrapolate too much from what it says. We are on a path to disaster, and we have to work together to change course. And that, to me, is what a revolution means.
IRA FLATOW: Ayana, is that what it means to you? Because it also seems like our country is so divided politically that something like that almost seems impossible at this point.
AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: I think the Overton window has shifted so much in the past three months that so many more things are possible than ever were. We’re seeing people talk about Black Lives Matter, about the need to dismantle white supremacy, about a stimulus package that actually is a green stimulus and is part of accelerating the transformation that we need. We have had a presidential primary where the candidates were fighting for who had the best climate platform. And even though there is room for improvement in Joe Biden’s proposals, it’s certainly the most aggressive and progressive climate plan we’ve ever seen from presumptive nominee.
So I don’t want to be overly rosy. We have an insane amount of work to do and a really short timeline for doing it, but I think that the soil is actually right for the revolution in addressing the climate crisis. And I guess I would say, to me, we’re thinking about climate, we’re thinking about justice.
Climate justice is a term that people are now using. Racial justice, obviously. I would love to see us not think about all these different types of justice– racial justice, climate justice, environmental justice, gender justice, and on and on– and just think about, what does it mean to be a good human on planet Earth and care for each other and build a future where we can all thrive? Because all of this talk about saving the planet just raises the question. Who are we saving it for?
And to Eric’s point, we need to be saving it, at least in significant part, for the people who have been most affected by the crumbling of ecosystems and the disruption in our climate. And more specifically, when I think about the revolution we need, I think of it perhaps less as a revolution and more as a renaissance. That’s what this anthology that I’ve co-edited is really about. It’s like, what is the feminist climate renaissance?
What would that look like? What would that feel like? What kind of future would that build for us?
And so I guess I think of revolutions as the violent upheaval that’s needed to create a different and better world. And then at the same time, I feel like a renaissance is such a powerful term because we need to be creative and creating, and involving arts. And this is a cultural shift that’s needed, about how we see the world and how we treat each other. So I would just add this framing of a renaissance to the conversation, as well.
IRA FLATOW: Eric, you quote Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth, writing that, “Throughout the 20th century, every single non-violent movement to create political change that received active participation from at least 3 and 1/2% of the population succeeded. Every single one. And many succeeded with many fewer people.”
You go on to write that it’s a clear sign that, “What the climate movement is doing is already working. They just need your help.” What kind of help can we give them, Eric? What can people do?
ERIC HOLTHAUS: Yeah, and that’s such a small number of people. That’s a few million people around the United States stopping what they’re doing, refusing to participate in a society that doesn’t work for them. We’ve seen that already with the Black Lives Matter movement. We’ve seen how quickly the conversation can change.
And that was on the verge of happening in New Zealand right before the pandemic hit. They had a large climate strike that reached that threshold. Within a few weeks, the government passed a comprehensive climate legislation. And they’ve been right at the forefront of COVID response, as well. So you can see that there’s something magical about that number of people, apparently.
But what I tell people that ask what they can do is talk about it. We’re having a conversation here. Anyone can do that. You can have a conversation with your friends and family. Chances are, if you’re listening to this, that you are probably, among your friend group, the person who is the climate person.
So I would say just own it. And say, this is my time to do whatever I can that gets me excited to wake up in the morning. Focus your energy on people who get it that may just need a little bit of encouragement.
As we were saying, it’s been hard on my mental health to do this work. That’s OK. Everyone’s going through that right now. I think almost every climate person that I know is going through struggles similar to that. So just as long as you are having a conversation, that means that you’re building the momentum towards that different kind of a world we’ve been talking about today.
IRA FLATOW: Just a quick note that I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Do you think those kinds of conversations help sway public opinion enough that maybe even the Supreme Court is listening, trying to be on the right side of history? Because I’m pointing to small victories, like this week the Court rejected the Trump administration’s request to allow the Keystone oil pipeline to continue, or its ruling shutting down the Dakota Access Pipeline– a victory for Native Americans and environmental groups. Do you think that that message is getting across loud and clear now?
ERIC HOLTHAUS: Maybe. I mean, I would credit those victories primarily to the Indigenous folks who’ve been on the frontlines for years leading those fights, not necessarily the Supreme Court. But I think that talking and having conversations, really feeling, noticing what your body’s reaction is when you have those conversations, knowing how much you care about this issue, and then plugging yourself in wherever you can, it really matters a lot, because, yeah, we don’t have a whole lot of time to do this work. And the work is going to have to happen no matter who’s in the Supreme Court, no matter who is the president. All of this work will still have to be done, the same work.
IRA FLATOW: Dr. Johnson, have we passed the tipping point in terms of public opinion on climate?
AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: I hope so. I’m not sure. But I think, to Eric’s point, of the importance of talking about it and normalizing it and just making it inescapable. This is the world we live in. Our job on Earth needs to be, in significant part, to make sure that this remains a habitable planet.
And having those conversations. There’s a fascinating social science research that shows that the number one opportunity to sway middle-aged men is their adolescent daughters. These girls are the ones who can convince their dads that climate change matters.
So these conversations really do shift public opinion, really do make people feel less alone. Oftentimes people, especially in more conservative parts of the country, feel like no one else is concerned about climate change. And so they don’t do anything. They don’t act. And knowing that you actually do have a way bigger community than you thought can be a really powerful motivator and unleash a lot of action towards implementing solutions.
And to the question of, more broadly, what should people do? I get asked this all the time. You know, I want to help, what can I do?
And I have a question back to them, which is, well, what are you good at? Because that’s what we should all be doing. Eric is an incredible journalist and writer, so of course he should be telling the stories of the problems and the solutions that we have at our disposal. We have other people who are lawyers or artists or farmers. There is a role for everyone in this work.
And so I think we’re at this moment in history where we just have to figure out how the skills, resources, networks that we have map onto the solutions we need. So yes, everyone should be donating, marching, voting, volunteering, all of these things that everyone can do. But then we also really need to figure out how to match our skills with the work that needs doing. So I’m hoping that this is a moment when more and more people are figuring out how to connect those dots for themselves, personally.
IRA FLATOW: We have to take a short break. And we will be right back with more climate conversation, so stay with us. This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
In case you just joined us, we’re talking this hour about taking action during our climate crisis. My guests are Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, founder of the Urban Ocean Lab in New York, co-editor of the upcoming book, All We Can Save, Truth, Courage, and Solutions of a Climate Crisis. Eric Holthaus, meteorologist and climate journalist. His book, The Future Earth, A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming.
One of the keys I always talk about in my own work– I guess because I’m a child of the ’60s and I covered Watergate a lot as one of my first jobs– is the phrase “follow the money.” And I always do that when I’m looking to see which direction is going. And so my question is, how do you convince utilities that are switching from coal to natural gas to switch to solar and wind? I was just reading about them not willing to do that so much. And how do you convince venture capital money to put their money into green energy sources? Let me ask you, Eric, and then, Dr. Johnson, you can tell us what you think.
ERIC HOLTHAUS: Well, it’s a lot of slow work to change the culture. I think that’s what I learned in writing this book. I had a conversation with Kyle Whyte, who’s an Indigenous scholar on climate. And he said that the phrasing, often, about the climate emergency as an emergency is sometimes not the best framing. For him and his people and his tradition, anything that has been considered an emergency or urgent has been really sort of bad in terms of the outcomes.
So you have to be attentive to the long, generational, 100-year game here at the same time. You have to be focused on changing culture into the kind of America or the kind of country or the kind of whatever is going to happen over the next 30 to 100 years. Whoever will be living here, what our beliefs will be, will be focused on and building a truly ecological society. That is the long slow work that has to happen. So I wouldn’t necessarily focus on doing something like, this pipeline needs to be blocked–
I mean, that work is important, but I think the culture-shifting work is equally if not even more important. And then the rest will kind of just take care of itself. That’s my theory of change, at least.
IRA FLATOW: Ayana?
AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: I think this question of following the money is really powerful, because on the issue of climate change and fossil fuel corporations, it’s a really dirty trail when you follow it. We know that Exxon knew that burning fossil fuels would cause climate change, in the ’70s. And they have been dumping huge amounts of money into covering up that science that their own scientists did ever since then.
And so if we follow the money, we can also see that those same fossil fuel corporations that have been funding climate denial for decades are now getting billions of dollars in bailouts from our government, from taxpayer money, because their businesses are no longer viable as the cost of renewables has really plummeted and is competitive with fossil fuels now. So you mentioned, in particular, the transition from coal plants to wind and solar. And we have an amazing success story in the US, actually, thanks to, in part, the leadership of the Sierra Club and the Beyond Coal Campaign, which has been led by Mary Anne Hitt in collaboration with a lot of local groups all over the country.
They have shut down 312 coal plants in the last decade. There’s 200 left to go. Coal will be done in the US within the next 10 years, almost certainly.
And that work has happened by having awkward, hard, nerdy conversations at utility board meetings in different towns and cities across the US, and getting these fossil fuel companies, these power plants, to open their books and show that the cost benefit isn’t really there, that this dirty energy is actually not as cheap as they want you to think it is, because it’s actually being subsidized. So once you really look at the economics, renewable energy makes a ton of sense. And utility boards are making that shift, based purely on finances a lot of the time, and then also the fact that they owe it to their communities to ensure clean air and water, and not especially be burdening communities of color in poor communities with the pollution that’s associated with fossil fuels.
And on the venture capital side, we’re starting to see more and more firms commit to investing in the companies that are leading this transformation away from fossil fuels. One of those is Lowercarbon Capital, which is Chris and Crystal Sacca, and they are determined to figure out how they can prove that they can invest only in businesses that will draw down carbon, while at the same time making heaps of money so that other people will start to follow their lead. So we are starting to see the financial pieces become much more clear and fall into place, which, unfortunately, is the motivation that a lot of people need in order to make decisions that sustain life on the planet.
IRA FLATOW: Eric, you hopeful about the future?
ERIC HOLTHAUS: I don’t think that we have a choice. I think hope is also not probably the word that I would use.
AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Me neither.
ERIC HOLTHAUS: I think I would talk about fire, motivation, or momentum. Those kind of words feel more powerful or more appropriate than hope. Because, to me, hope is more of just like, yeah, someone will do it someday. Maybe it’ll be me, but maybe not. Yeah, it’s passive.
So I think that instead, if you put yourself in the picture– this is what Dr. Kate Marvel called courage instead of hope– we really need to have climate courage instead of climate hope. Because that means we know that the struggle is going to be there. We know that it’s going to be hard every single day, but we do it anyway because it’s the most important work anyone has ever done.
It’s the most pressing issue, not just of our time but potentially of all time. We are in what is now on pace to be the warmest year in recorded history. We are leaving that 10,000-year window of stable climate that gave rise to human civilization. We are doing this with all of the other challenges that we face in the year 2020. We realize that it’s not going to be easy.
And I think, as Dr. Johnson has said, this is the start. This is not the end of the climate movement. Getting a consensus across the society that radical change has to happen is the first step. And so we are right there, right at that first step right now. And that, to me, if you want to call it hope, then that is that hopeful for me.
IRA FLATOW: Hope is not a policy.
AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Hope is a word that I have such a tenuous relationship with, because it seems so passive, because it’s, like, hope that works out. But I realize that a lot of people really are motivated by hope and need to know that it’s possible to succeed before trying. And I often just count myself as very lucky that I am motivated by a desire to be useful. What can I contribute that might be helpful?
And I think we all need to act without having any certainty of what the outcome could be. Because that’s not a regret you want to have, right? Like, I was very hopeful about climate change, but I didn’t really do anything about it. And here we are now living in a ball of fire. And so I guess I would say it would be great if we could set hope aside and just get to work, because there is so much like beautiful, exciting, transformative, important work to be done.
IRA FLATOW: I’d like to wrap this up by saying I’m hopeful from listening to your conversation. So I’m very happy to hear this.
I’d like to thank Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist and climate journalist. His book, The Future Earth, A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming. And Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, founder of the Urban Ocean Lab in New York, co-editor of the upcoming book, All We Can Save, Truth, Courage, and Solutions of the Climate Crisis. It comes out in September. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.
ERIC HOLTHAUS: Thank you so much.
AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.
With COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter and the upcoming elections dominating the news, the climate crisis has taken a backseat in our conversations with friends and families. But it is still there, and it is still a divisive issue. It can be a frustrating minefield in any conversation. So what does it take to actually convince people and move them to action? Is it possible to change someone’s mind?
Joining me now is Matthew Goldberg, an associate research scientist at the Yale program on climate change communication at Yale University. His research focuses on persuasion, social influence, ideology, and strategic communication. Welcome to Science Friday.
MATTHEW GOLDBERG: Thanks so much for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Let me ask you first. Do you think we are at a turning point in the climate conversation in terms of people believing it and taking action?
MATTHEW GOLDBERG: I’m not totally sure whether there’s a discrete difference in terms of a turning point, but we’re certainly making substantial progress.
IRA FLATOW: And how important are social norms in driving action? If we can change the norms, we can create change.
MATTHEW GOLDBERG: I think they’re incredibly important. Most of us just don’t have the time or cognitive space to dedicate to being knee-deep in climate policy and to pull apart all the nuances of the issue. So we often need to rely on others for information. So social norms end up being super important because we’re looking to others, both in terms of providing that information but also the social pressure to move in line with the majority.
IRA FLATOW: I want to play some of the responses our listeners sent in on our VoxPop app, talking about how they approach the topic of climate with other people.
AUDIENCE: It’s important to hear them out, to listen to where they’re starting from. Especially if your goal is to change their mind or help them reach a different conclusion, you have to know where they’re starting from.
AUDIENCE: Start off with talking about their opinion first. This way I can get an understanding of how they feel, and then I can voice my opinion.
AUDIENCE: I have one simple rule for talking to people about climate change. Don’t do it. People on the other side, regardless of which side you’re on, do not want to talk about it rationally, and you cannot change their minds. It simply won’t ever happen.
IRA FLATOW: Matthew, what do you think of those positions?
MATTHEW GOLDBERG: With the first position, I agree. Find something that resonates with the person you’re talking to. Have an open conversation and be a good listener. One area that we’ve been interested in is connecting climate to people’s faith or other personal values. And in doing that, people find the issue far more relatable than talking about the science of it.
In regards to the second point, I strongly disagree. I’ve been convinced more and more over the years as we’ve done more research that people can be convinced, no matter where they are in the spectrum. There might be different levers to pull to convince different audiences, but I think all of them are persuadable nonetheless.
IRA FLATOW: Who are the best persuaders? I’ve seen research over the years about arguments on Facebook and changing people’s minds. It seems to be that your friends seem to be your best persuaders. Maybe not your relatives, but your friends. Do you agree with that?
MATTHEW GOLDBERG: I definitely agree. There’s some ambiguity on the research as to whether we can pull apart those effects, because people are also most exposed to their friends and family. But yes, I think credible messengers that we find to be important in our lives and we have strong relationships with is definitely a strong way to go in persuading on the issue.
IRA FLATOW: And of course, the moral approach. You don’t need to know the science. It’s hard to argue with, you’re stealing from your grandchildren.
MATTHEW GOLDBERG: Exactly. And it’s also easier to digest and it’s easier to relate to. Someone can more easily connect their values to something like, “it’s wrong that other people and ourselves are being harmed, and we’re going to ruin the Earth for future generations.” It’s definitely an appealing moral approach rather than talking about the science, which I think is also important. But I think it depends on catering that message to the relevant audience.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC studios.
This has become such a political issue. Is that a problem in creating change?
MATTHEW GOLDBERG: Absolutely. Because as we discussed with social norms, people are looking to their in-group members to decide what to think and what to read and how to respond to these issues. So that creates a problem because it creates an in-group and out-group that doesn’t necessarily need to be there. So I think it’s important to amplify voices that are part of groups that ordinarily wouldn’t be seen as pro-climate. So we’ve been doing a lot of work in that area along the lines of Conservatives and Republicans and trying to highlight those voices, and the idea that there are a lot of Republicans that are pro-climate and we should make sure to amplify their voices.
IRA FLATOW: As we go through COVID-19 and we are listening to the voices of scientists, epidemiologists– and they are getting a lot of coverage these days. Is there any spillover, you think, if people are listening to those scientists, that people might listen to the environmental scientists a bit more?
MATTHEW GOLDBERG: Yeah, I think it’s an ongoing open question. But the current COVID-19 pandemic has certainly highlighted our reliance on scientists for information. It has made it extremely clear that we can’t make all these decisions on our own.
So in some ways we can capture that momentum to try and understand how we can best link that to climate. And we have seen success on messaging about the scientific consensus on climate change. Nearly every climate scientists and all of their research agrees with the idea that climate change is happening, it’s caused primarily by humans, and we need to act now.
So I think there’s also room for sliding backwards, as well, where there can be a trade-off where people become more concerned with other issues, and then climate falls down the priority list. Luckily, so far, our surveys have not confirmed that narrative.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Dr. Goldberg, for taking time to be with us today.
MATTHEW GOLDBERG: Thanks so much for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Matthew Goldberg, an associate research scientist at the Yale program on climate change communication at Yale University.