How alarmist should we be about climate change?
How do we work together to address climate change when there’s no consensus on the solution? Host Nelufar Hedayat explores multiple solutions to climate change with Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian psychologist who specializes in the psychology of economic choices for climate change. She then speaks to Harvard geologist Dr. Daniel Schrag about how the scientific community could improve its messaging. And finally, she talks to former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard about the political perils of going big when it comes to enacting green laws.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:
This is Course Correction, a podcast from Doha Debates. I’m Nelufar Hedayat, and in season two, we’re focusing on polarization. In each episode, I explore a topic that’s dividing us. I’ll talk to people with a range of perspectives on an issue, and I try to challenge myself to understand positions that aren’t necessarily comfortable for me. Or, as we’ll see in today’s episode, I’ll be challenging people I agree with on how we can all be more effective communicators. And today, we’re going to tackle an issue where speaking in one voice isn’t just crucial. It’s essential to our very survival.
NEWS CLIP WITH AMERICAN WOMAN SPEAKING: …Is on climate change. Over the last 10 years, sea levels have risen at an alarming rate. Biodiversity is reportedly declining faster than that of any time in human history. And millions, millions of people have been affected by extreme weather like hurricanes and floods.
NELUFAR: Yeah, the headlines are everywhere, each one scarier and more dreadful than the next. And it’s not just like they’re all crazy exaggerations either. Just in the last five years, we’ve seen extreme weather events happen more and more frequently, like droughts causing fires in Australia, Brazil and California.
NEWS CLIP WITH AMERICAN WOMAN SPEAKING: It was the wildfires raging throughout the state.
NEWS CLIP WITH AMERICAN MAN SPEAKING: That’s right. More than two and a half quarter million acres burned in California this year already.
NEWS CLIP WITH AMERICAN WOMAN SPEAKING: We have live team coverage tonight, ABC 10’s John Moore.
NELUFAR: Then there are the massive torrential storms pummeling places like Puerto Rico, Texas and the Philippines.
NEWS CLIP WITH AMERICAN WOMAN SPEAKING: More than 700 people are now confirmed dead, and at least 800 others are still missing. Tropical Storm Washi caused flash floods in a southern region that usually doesn’t get hit by storms.
NELUFAR: While in some places like the United States, disbelief in the science of climate change is still an issue. Almost everywhere else, there’s widespread consensus. The big question is how drastic our response should be and how urgently does this all need to be addressed? Do we have five years or 50? And what other devastations are out there? Coming up a little later, I’ll challenge a Harvard geologist on why climate scientists don’t appear to be the best messengers when it comes to influencing public opinion.
MAN WITH AMERICAN ACCENT: Scientists are naturally contrarians. That’s our job. Our job is to disagree with each other. So in that sense, the fact that there’s not unanimity of thought on this — that’s just that’s just the way things are.
NELUFAR: And then we’ll hear from Julia Gillard, the former prime minister of Australia, on how implementing a progressive climate agenda may have cost her her job.
The debate on carbon pricing here was fierce and it was consequently corrosive. It was corrosive, particularly for me personally.
NELUFAR: It seems unfair: To make good decisions, we citizens of the globe need facts, facts, facts. But to me, climate science is so extraordinarily complex that often facts and the truth can feel more alienating than empowering.
So what gives? How can it be that plainly stating facts can be so divisive? Over the years, cognitive scientists have demonstrated how hard it can be to dislodge misperceptions, even when people are presented with irrefutable facts. I needed some answers from someone who had a better sense of how our minds work.
MAN WITH NORWEGIAN ACCENT: We have a lot of knowledge, a lot of science about the climate system as such, but we’ve been lacking in understanding how the human brain responds to the climate science.
NELUFAR: That’s Per Espen Stoknes.
PER ESPEN STOKNES:
I’m the director of the Center for Sustainability and Energy at Norwegian Business School.
NELUFAR: An impressive title that may be. But the real reason I wanted to speak to Stoknes is that he’s a psychologist who helps people understand why some of the messaging about the climate crisis has caused stagnation, rather than spur people into action. In 2017, he gave a TED Talk titled “How to Transform Apocalypse Fatigue into Action on Global Warming.”
PER ESPEN: The biggest obstacle to dealing with climate disruption lies between your ears.
NELUFAR: One of the most frustrating aspects of the climate crisis is that there are viable solutions available to us right now. We’re not dealing with a technology problem. We’re dealing with a people problem. And yet many people, myself included, keep hearing mixed messages about climate from the scientific community.
PER ESPEN: Some are more on the alarmist side, and some are more on the pragmatic side. And that’s the reason why you get these different stories.
NELUFAR: I’m a conscientious type of person. I recycle my waste, I have an electric car and I’m a vegan for reasons including environmental ones. But recently, as the science has become clearer, my response to the climate crisis seems more fractured and polarized than ever. And how bad are things, really? I feel like we are simultaneously being told by the scientific community that all we have to do to stop a climate catastrophe is to have shorter showers and to fly less… but that we also need to dismantle capitalism and globalization and build another system of everything to avoid the absolute worst of it. And, and we need to have done that — yesterday.
So which is it? There are those that say, let’s do the best we can, have things like the Paris Agreement with long-term lofty goals set by policymakers and governments on getting manmade global warming to slow down and to try to change things incrementally. Since there’s no one definitive solution, picking one approach over another seems silly. Or maybe — hear me out now — maybe it compels us to do too little. When we recycle our plastic bottles and turn off the tap when we brush our teeth, is that really going to be enough to stop global warming, the emissions of the gases that are harmful to our environment and the deforestation of the Amazon? Dr. Stoknes seemed like the person best placed to help me work out this dilemma.
NELUFAR: I really, really hope you can help me understand the answer to this question. Is it already too late or do we have to do the best we can with what we know?
PER ESPEN: Right. So what if both of them are right?
NELUFAR: I did not consider this. OK, I’m going to throw away my notes. This is me throwing away my notes. What do you mean? Talk to me.
NELUFAR: Trust a psychologist to get all introspective about it. But Dr. Stoknes is actually making a point. We can’t look at the solution as having one uniform message. But what we can do is change our own approach to how we receive messages. Stoknes broadly places people in two categories based on their reaction to climate change news. First, there are passive skeptics. These are the people who make excuses for not changing their actions.
PER ESPEN: This thing will get bad. But, you know, life is here now and we’ll deal with that when it comes. We’ll cross the river when we get there.
NELUFAR: But Stoknes says we would be better served if we tried to land in the camp of something he calls active skeptics.
PER ESPEN: It means that I embrace this uncertainty. So I choose to remain active. I choose to remain doing what I feel is right.
NELUFAR: Will my individual action of eating no meat or having shorter showers make a difference? Maybe not. Maybe so. Stoknes says in the face of multiple messages, why not try multiple solutions?
PER ESPEN: When I connect with trees or with the air and with good friends or a deep song, I get this kind of energy to do a bit more. And then I do that. I take those steps. I join this conversation with you. I hold speeches, I write books. I teach my students at the business school how to turn around businesses. I don’t know if it will help. I don’t know if it kind of will fix the problem. So I’m not optimistic, but it gives me a deep sense of meaning to be doing it, because for me it’s the right thing. It’s rooted in who I am.
NELUFAR: This really hit me. I wasn’t really expecting a psychologist steeped in climate science to speak so beautifully about it.
PER ESPEN: I think I like this phrase that, you know, it’s hopeless, this whole climate thing. It’s hopeless, and I’m all in.
NELUFAR: Dr. Stoknes has turned everything on its head. I thought the choices I had to make were between the scientists that are saying, “Hurry, it’s too late. You failed us,” and the others that say, “Let’s do what’s possible and realistic and see what happens.” But Dr. Stoknes has convinced me that it’s both. Ironically, I find peace in what he’s saying. I’m willing, I want to give it everything I got, even if collectively it’s not enough. But while this new philosophical approach may make me feel less guilty as an individual, that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to staving off the end of humanity. You sometimes hear that all you need to do to solve big problems is to get the smartest people in the world all together in one room and lock the door until they come up with the solutions. Well, that doesn’t work so well when it comes to climate scientists.
MAN WITH AMERICAN ACCENT: Scientists are naturally contrarians. That’s, that’s our job. Our job is to disagree with each other. So in that sense, the fact that there’s not unanimity of thought on this — that’s just that’s just the way things are.
NELUFAR: That’s Dr. Daniel Schrag. He’s a professor of environmental science and engineering at Harvard University. That’s his formal title. He’s also the geologist the Obama administration turned to for questions about the climate crisis. Politics and science? Yeah, I have my justifiable doubts. During the season, I’ve been using the space for what we call our challenging interview, where I get out of my comfort zone to speak with someone whose view I don’t necessarily agree with. But Dr. Schrag and I are very much on the same page when it comes to the science of global warming. What I wanted to press him on was the messaging. I wanted to know: How do we convince everyone to work collectively when there’s no consensus on the solution?
One of the challenges of climate change, I mean, it’s — climate change is by far the hardest problem that humans have ever dealt with. We’ve never dealt with a problem that is, that is both truly global. That is it’s a collective action problem that’s truly global. And as you know, in the U.K., humans are incredibly tribal. We’re not — we’re nationalistic. The idea of global community is really difficult for people.
DANIEL: And the idea that we need to act globally and we need to think about this as a truly global solution, I think we haven’t even begun to think about what that really means. Even when you hear what various governments are doing, it’s interesting because they sort of, to me, don’t understand the nature of the problem.
DANIEL: Um, so, again, the focus of a lot of governments — Germany, the U.K. — the U.K. has passed a law that says that you’re going to be carbon neutral by 2050. Yeah, it’s a law that parliament has passed. Mm hmm. I’m skeptical. I would love it to be true. Let me just make that very clear. I would be delighted if the U.K. becomes carbon neutral by 2050. I think it’s going to be extremely difficult. There are many parts of the last sort of third, half to third, of decarbonization that we don’t even know how to manage yet, we don’t know what technologies we’ll need. I would love it to happen, and I’m actually spending most of, or a substantial fraction of my professional life working to make it happen, but it’s daunting. It’s a huge challenge.
NELUFAR: But here’s the thing, he says.
DANIEL: That being said, it’s the wrong goal. The goal is not to decarbonize the U.S. or decarbonize the U.K. or decarbonize Germany. What the climate system cares about is decarbonizing the entire world.
NELUFAR: And yes, the climate catastrophe knows no borders.
DANIEL: And so it’s an interesting question, you know, what does leadership mean? I absolutely think that because of our wealth, because of our privilege, because of our knowledge and our education, because of the technology that we develop, those of us in countries like the U.K. and the U.S. have a moral responsibility to help lead the world to a solution.
But we, you know, “leadership” means convincing other people to follow. What that means is it’s not just about decarbonizing the U.S. as quickly as possible. It’s decarbonizing the U.S. and the U.K. and Germany in a way that makes all the other countries in the world want to follow us. If we just spend all our money and ruin our economies and decarbonize our economies, the rest of the world will run the other direction.
NELUFAR: So then how scary should this story be? I mean, is it more effective to shock people into action or should we try and appeal to the everyday small habits and nudge here and nudge there?
DANIEL: Well, so that’s the other lie that’s being told.
NELUFAR: Well, what do you do?
DANIEL: So that’s the other lie being told, which is that it’s not about the four-minute shower and it’s not about, you know, turning off your light bulbs and, you know, or changing your light bulbs or driving a more efficient car or whatever it is. The fact is, we’re talking about a complete transformation of energy technology that sort of supports the entire economic system of the world. Our entire economic growth over the last 150 years was supported by access to cheap fossil fuels. And replacing those fossil fuels is a lot more difficult than people think.
NELUFAR: Dr. Schrag, how in God’s name can we convince people of that?
DANIEL: Well, so what’s happening is, you know, the wind at our backs is technology and innovation. So, you know, 20 years ago, it was unthinkable that everybody was going to want to build solar and wind, especially in the U.K. where it’s not very sunny and it’s not very windy. But because of incredible falling costs, now you can put solar panels all over the U.K. Similarly with electric vehicles — 10 years ago, an electric vehicle with two or three times the cost of a gasoline-powered vehicle. Today, they’re very close to price parity. And in a few years, I suspect electric vehicles, especially if you think of the overall cost of ownership, which includes maintenance costs, they’re going to actually be much, much lower.
So we’re in the midst of this incredible technological change. The problem is that people’s tolerance for new technology is great when it results in cost savings, when it results in improvements in their quality of life. But when it actually costs a lot more, people’s tolerance goes way down.
NELUFAR: So should we as individuals, should we as industry, should we as governments, do you think, should we make the deal that we can that’s on the table or should we use that, you know, really, really hard to find energy that, really hard to find willpower, to try and dismantle the system and do better?
DANIEL: So I think this is a really interesting question. And it gets back to this idea of this being a global collective action problem. Think about COVID, for example. We have changed our lifestyle with these shutdowns more than I think anybody could possibly have imagined.
NELUFAR: Completely, completely.
DANIEL: We’ve reduced our transportation, we’ve stopped driving, we’ve stopped flying airplanes. And just to put it in perspective, all of that lifestyle change has reduced emissions by maybe 8% or something like that. It’s pretty trivial, so the point is, this is not about lifestyle change. This is about a massive change in the technology, and by the way, if we’re getting our electricity from wind and solar and other clean sources, and we’re able to, you know, drive electric vehicles and make jet fuel with hydrogen that doesn’t actually add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, then frankly, go ahead and drive as much as you like, take as long a shower as you want.
I’m not saying that individual action, you know, if you want to stop eating meat or if you want to try to be more conscious of your energy use, great! Every little bit helps. But at a global scale, probably the most important thing each of us can do is to demand that our representatives, that the people in our government, take this seriously. That’s by far more important than anything we can do as individuals.
I have been working with — actually, we created, a friend of mine who’s from the advertising industry — we created a new environmental NGO called Potential Energy Coalition. And it’s really about getting the best minds from Madison Avenue, from the advertising world, together to try to convince Americans to do something about climate change.
It’s never been done, it’s only been done on the other side when ExxonMobil and others hired advertising people to confuse people. We’re actually now trying to get the best minds in the advertising world to get people really motivated on climate change. And it’s very interesting.
NELUFAR: That’s such a good idea. I always thought the climate crisis had bad PR. And I think working on that is as much of the point as anything else. It’s scientists and normal typical people need to meet in the middle. We can’t all understand the jargon, but we can find a middle way through. Dr. Schrag, thank you so much for talking to me.
NELUFAR: So far we’ve heard how we can think about climate change on an individual level and what we can do to press for change for large-scale action. But we haven’t yet heard from a decision maker, someone tasked with implementing bold new strategies.
That’s why I wanted to talk to Julia Gillard, the first woman to be elected prime minister of Australia. In 2010, she immediately got to work pushing through one of the most ambitious green policies in the world, a plan to put a price on carbon output. The law passed in 2011 to much fanfare.
NEWS CLIP WITH AUSTRALIAN WOMAN SPEAKING: There’s no stopping it now. Australia will have a tax on carbon in just over seven months. Years of debate and a string of shattered political leaderships came to a head today, when the Senate finally passed the government’s…
NELUFAR: But then came the backlash. Those opposed to the policy went in hard, accusing the law of sacrificing jobs for a benefit that didn’t feel tangible enough to everyday Australians.
NEWS CLIP WITH AUSTRALIAN MAN SPEAKING: The cost of living is a potent political weapon, with polling suggesting people want action on climate change but they don’t want to have to pay for it.
NELUFAR: Within three years, carbon pricing was repealed, and Gillard was out of a job. So was Gillard ahead of her time? Is this a cautionary tale of going too bold and that backlash to progressive climate policy could set us back even further? Or maybe, like Dr. Schrag says, this was a big PR issue, when neither government nor scientist did a good enough job selling a bold solution. That’s where we began our conversation.
NELUFAR: I want to just first start off by telling you exactly what we’ve learned so far in this episode. I have spoken to scientists on both sides of the environmentalist, climate change, climate crisis debate because I have a problem. And my problem is that I think the scientists are messing it up. They are not coherent. They are not telling us laypeople what to do. Julia, at the same time as I’m told that if I turn off the faucet when I brush my teeth, I will have saved the planet, I’m also told that it’s on fire and already too late. And unless I stop eating meat and systematically break down capitalism, then there’s no hope. I am confused. Let’s all get to the part where you were a leader of a country. But before we do, how do you feel about the mixed messages that we are getting from the science community when it comes to the climate crisis?
JULIA: I’m a huge respecter of the scientific community, and I think often we put a burden on their shoulders where really the confusion is not so much about the science, but the way in which it will be put into effect through public policy by governments, or put into effect by individuals through behavior change or put into effect by corporations by amending the way that they work.
So in many ways, I think at this stage of the debate, the problem is more with us as individuals, as voters and as people who buy things from corporations. And if we consistently say to ourselves, “I’m always going to vote for, advocate for and choose to buy things that have been made in a way which is compatible with our world combating climate change,” then I think we’d be taking a pretty big step forward.
NELUFAR: So when you were prime minister and you were being presented this information about, you know, the catastrophe we are walking into that is the climate crisis, what was your process for filtering out what you need to know and what you don’t need to know? I want to know your hacks so I can do it too.
JULIA: Well, when you’re prime minister, you get quite a few people to help you with the hacks. So it might be an example that can be easily deployed in the rest of the world. But I came into government knowing that we were facing a climate crisis. I was very accepting of the science. My nation had already had a number of inquiries and reports about what we needed to do, and what seemed to be lacking was the political will to get it done. We were working in a very partisan environment, where our side of politics wanted to act on climate change. The other side of politics was quite skeptical of the policies we were putting forward. So a quite… heated, if I can use that expression when talking about climate change.
NELUFAR: I’ve heard you speak in parliament. “Heated” is an understatement.
JULIA: Quite a heated debate ensued.
ARCHIVAL AUDIO OF JULIA IN PARLIAMENT: If he wants to have a debate about political honesty, well, bring it on. Bring it on.
ARCHIVAL AUDIO OF MEMBER OF AUSTRALIAN PARLIAMENT: This prime minister is not frank. She is a fraud. She’s all menace. All aggression and nothing to say. No, why? That’s — no, no, no. Nothing to contribute.
JULIA: Ultimately, as prime minister, I was able to work with my parliamentary team and independents in the parliament and also the Greens political party to legislate for what was an economy-wide emissions-trading scheme. So to decode that, that is putting a price on the carbon pollution that is feeding climate change, because at the moment, people can keep churning that pollution out without paying any price. And our theory was, and I think this is right, that if you put a price on it, then smart people will adapt the things they are doing to avoid the price. And that was aimed at businesses becoming greener, so that consumers would then inevitably have greener choices.
NELUFAR: Now, here’s the thing, and I’m going to be really frank, but that arguably cost you your premiership with the Labor Party. It costs you the prime ministership because you chose to go with the science over just politicking. Do you agree with that? Do you see how that happened?
JULIA: I think it was a contributing factor. I wouldn’t say it was everything. The debate on carbon pricing here was fierce, and it was consequently corrosive. It was corrosive, particularly for me personally. I was pointed out, I don’t mean me taking it to heart since, but I mean in a political sense. I was being constantly campaigned against as someone who hadn’t told the truth about the scheme that we were going to introduce, who didn’t understand the needs of ordinary families, who wasn’t committed to growing the Australian economy.
But, you know, in many ways, that’s politics. And, you know, what we have seen in Australia in the past, and I think this is true around the world, is often the first big go at a new policy doesn’t succeed. I mean, we got the legislation through, but the government changed and the incoming government repealed it. Often the first big go at policy doesn’t succeed. But because you’re having the debate, because you provoked the debate, when politics returns to the issue, then it’s far more likely you’re going to get a fundamental change through.
NELUFAR: I have to say, if you could see me right now, you’d see a little light bulb flash above my head, because I had never thought of it like that. That is an incredible, and if I might say gracious, way to think about this, that you are at the forefront of the climate crisis debate, that you almost had to sacrifice something in order to get this on the agenda. That the discussion and the debate was more important than just a single policy. Is that what you’re saying?
JULIA: Yeah, look, I do think that we can get overly pessimistic about the capacity of politics to deliver. I understand why watching politics is both mind-numbing and frustrating to people who are rightly impatient and just saying heavens above, you know, can you just stop point scoring and being partisan and just get something done. You know, the planet in peril, and all you’re doing is faffing around and trying to get political advantage over each other. I hear that, and I understand it.
But with my perhaps longer eye on politics, looking today at the standpoint today on climate change around the world, I think we have to just be a little bit careful about how we put the priority of combating climate change versus other priorities, because you will often get more political permission from the community to act if they feel reassured that even at the time that you’re acting on climate change, you care whether they’ve got a job that enables them and their family to have a reasonable standard of living. You care whether their children are going to a good school. You care whether the health care system would be there for them when they needed it.
And so in many ways, in the most polarized countries in the world, and I’m thinking of places like the United States here. In many ways, making room in the United States for climate change policies is really about addressing jobs and the minimum wage and America’s inequitable health care system. Because if you give people the reassurance that you’re fixing those things, then they’re going to be less anxious that somehow they’re going to lose out in terms of you acting on climate change.
NELUFAR: What advice do you give to young people when it comes to them enacting their beliefs about climate change?
JULIA: I think the two principle skills you need are the ability to listen and patience. Often at the outset of an argument, it can look like people have got absolutely nothing in common. And if you don’t truly listen to the person you’re having the discussion with, if you don’t show the patience to listen to their concerns, then the dispute is just going to escalate and escalate and escalate. But if you stop and you truly listen, then you might hear the thing that they need reassurance on. So they might say something like, “I don’t believe climate change is happening. I don’t believe the science.”
But if you keep talking to them and keep listening, you might get to the stage where you realize the thing they’re really worried about is they’re worried that their employer is the kind of business that’s going to have to close, and what will they do without a job? Or they might worry that their kids aren’t the kind of kids that are going to find a good future in a renewable energy, high technology economy. And if you get to their real concern, then you can find a way of addressing it. If you never listen long enough with enough patience to hear it, then you never will. And you’ll have an opponent instead of potentially an ally.
NELUFAR: My thanks to Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia and current chair of the board of directors of the Global Partnership for Education. Just because Prime Minister Gillard’s attempts at doing something bold with carbon pricing didn’t stick or the Green New Deal being championed by U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is being blasted by conservatives as too costly, doesn’t mean they’re bad ideas. There always will and has to be that person or group that stands up and says, “now is the time.” It’s always thought impossible, the saying goes, until it no longer is. Going back to Per Espen Stoknes, all of the above approaches for solutions, big and small, might be the way.
I see where I was going wrong at the beginning of this episode. I just wanted to be told that what I’m doing was good enough, that we’re going to be OK, and that reality will continue as it always has. But one thing that Dr. Stoknes really got into me is that come what may, the climate crisis will change all our lives in immeasurable ways. It’s just a question of whether we’re as ready as we can be, and there are reasons for hope. No, really, we now have much cheaper renewables, more affordable electric cars and increased interest from big money in eco-friendly investments.
All of this leads towards a future where going green doesn’t just make smart environmental sense. It makes economic, pragmatic sense as well. Reversing or even just stopping climate change is a problem that’s going to take a lot of innovation, a lot of hard work and a lot of trial and error to get it right. But this is one problem we can’t just agree to disagree on. We only have one Earth that we’re sharing, and it’s up to all of us to figure out how to get this right.
That’s our episode. What did you think? Tweet us @DohaDebates or me, I’m @Nelufar, and I always love hearing from you. If you like what you hear, please, could you do me a favor and just write a little review of the show? It really helps spread the word about what we’re trying to do.
Course Correction is written and produced by me, Nelufar Hedayat. The show is brought to you by Doha Debates, which is a production of Qatar Foundation. Our executive producers are Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Editorial and production assistants come from Foreign Policy with producers Sarah Kendal, Sofía Sánchez and Rosie Julin. The managing director for FP Studios is Rob Sachs. Join us for the next episode of Course Correction wherever you get your podcasts.