Informed: What are we doing about climate change?

Climate change can be a tough sell. It’s arguably the greatest challenge or threat facing this and future generations, yet it seems at times to be a near-insurmountable challenge in itself just to get people interested in it.

For one, we don’t hear the human aspect of the crisis, and what are people actually doing about it?

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Devi Lockwood has written about science, climate change, and technology for The New York Times, The Guardian, Slate, and The Washington Post, among others. She spent five years traveling in twenty countries on six continents to document 1,001 stories on water and climate change, funded in part by the Gardner & Shaw postgraduate traveling fellowships from Harvard and a National Geographic Early Career Grant. 1,001 Voices on Climate Change is her debut book. She is still collecting stories at 1,001stories.org.

Director of Climate Action at Wildlife Trusts Kathryn Brown

Earth Warriors co-founder Shweta Bahri

Poet Kirsteen Thomson, who wrote The Climate Fix for COP26 – four trees will be planted for each sale of the book

Here are some of the resources from the show:

Environmentalist Paul Hawken joins Bill Maher to discuss “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reduce Global Warming.”

Books looked at this week:

Devi Lockwood: 1,001 Voices on Climate Change: Everyday Stories of Flood, Fire, Drought, and Displacement from Around the World

Edited by Paul Hawken: Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.

Transcription

Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 50 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

This week we got to see people from around the world, including world leaders come together in Glasgow, UK, to discuss major climate change issues. Climate scientists have warned that by 2030, we need to emit only as much carbon as the planet can absorb. All of this information can feel like a huge amount to process. Apart from the science jargon, sometimes we can end up feeling guilty and helpless that as an individual, what can we do? So here’s what you had to say.

Director of Climate Action at Wildlife Trusts Kathryn Brown and Earth Warriors co-founder Shweta Bahri share their views.

KATHRYN BROWN
SHWETA BAHRI

Our first book comes from Devi Lockwood, who has written about science, climate change, and technology for The New York Times, The Guardian, Slate, and The Washington Post, among others. She spent five years traveling in twenty countries on six continents to document 1,001 stories on water and climate change, funded in part by the Gardner & Shaw postgraduate traveling fellowships from Harvard and a National Geographic Early Career Grant. In 2019, she completed an MS in science writing at MIT after graduating from Harvard. 1,001 Voices on Climate Change: Everyday Stories of Flood, Fire, Drought, and Displacement from Around the World is her debut book. She kindly spoke to me this week about her incredible venture. Here’s a snippet but find the full interview on www.howtobe247.com or on the YouTube channel.

DEVI LOCKWOOD

Before Lockwood went overseas, she rode her bicycle eight hundred miles down the Mississippi River Trail from Memphis, Tennessee, to Venice, Louisiana, where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico. Carrying a sign calling for stories about climate change and water, she listened to locals.

Why water? They are interlocking issues apparently. Climate change is difficult to visualize. Water is easier to talk about. Everyone needs access to safe drinking water in order to survive. And everyone has a story about water: witnessing a flood, or living through a drought, or even the experience of learning how to swim.

According to the World Health Organization, almost a billion people lack safe access to basic drinking water services worldwide. By 2025, the World Health Organization estimates that half the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas. Safe and reliable water sources are a key component of public health. After all we all need water in order to survive.

In 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized water and sanitation as a human right. This international focus on water was further solidified when the UN adopted the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. Water scarcity, poor quality, and inadequate sanitation also negatively impact food security and educational opportunities. Drought hits some of the world’s poorest countries, exacerbating hunger and malnutrition.

Armed with this knowledge, Lockwood first headed to Tuvalu, which is the fourth smallest country in the world. Disney World is four times larger in area. Tuvalu, formerly the Ellice Islands, became independent from the British Commonwealth in 1978; the flag still bears the Union Jack in the upper left-hand corner.

By some estimates, Tuvaluans will be forced, by water scarcity and rising sea levels, to migrate elsewhere in the next fifty years. This mass exodus is already happening. Large Tuvaluan outposts exist in Suva, Fiji; and Auckland, New Zealand. Severe drought meant lack of sanitation, causing diseases to spread, and rise in sea levels caused more saltwater to enter the drinking system as well as damage the ecosystem.

While Tuvalu may seem like a far off place to most people listening, climate change in this country is an environmental justice issue—those most impacted by the problem are also those who have contributed to it the least.

In Fiji, like many places, Lockwood saw that the extreme weather including drought and flooding was causing major issues with crops. A local woman told Lockwood that in Nausori, climate change has affected the rivers. After a dry year, there were two weeks of heavy rain, which flooded crops, putting people’s livelihoods at risk. In addition to farming, women in her village dive for kai, a freshwater mussel. However, when heavy rain comes, the kai are inaccessible. And the river itself changes with each flood as the river has become more shallow.

Lockwood then travelled to New Zealand, where she was told there was a massive water shortage in Auckland, which meant the local plant was being expanded. They plan to take the water out of the Waikato River which will go through a big plant, and will strain out all the excess. However, there’s a lot of topsoil mud in the water.

At the time, New Zealand’s forty million cattle and sheep produced an estimated 60 percent of New Zealand’s greenhouse emissions—amounting to more than the transport and power industries. Fracking is also a major issue in indigenous areas such as in Taranaki. Unknown chemicals have been released over decades in order to crack open the rock and allow the previously inaccessible oil and gas to flow to the surface.

Catherine Cheung, a researcher with Climate Justice Taranaki, referenced Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of engineering at Cornell University, whose research estimates that more than 6 percent of wells leak, and virtually all of them leak over time causing various health issues. It’s part of the reason why Maori indigenous people call it climate destruction and not climate change.

Dr. Mike Joy, a freshwater ecologist, estimates that 62 percent of the length of New Zealand’s rivers are unswimmable because of pathogens, mostly from farming but also from urban impacts. With 6.5 million dairy cows in the country and the largest dairy exporter in the world, the fact that one dairy cow produces as much waste as fourteen humans, is causing more problems than necessary.

Since the 1990s, the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research has documented an average retreat of 180 m per year of the Tasman Glacier as well. Roughly 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is locked up in Antarctica. If all the world’s glaciers and ice sheets were to melt completely, scientists estimate that global sea levels could rise by as much as 195 feet.

Many people witnessed the devastating wildfires in Australia in 2019, known as Black Summer. On Black Saturday, 173 people died. Over two thousand homes were destroyed, and 1,660 square miles burned. Paradoxically, a massive problem is deforestation.

In addition to supplying water for the people living downstream, older forests are more biodiverse and better able to cope with stresses like drought and wildfire. We need to grow them for another seventy years. Young, growing forests are apparently more thirsty. As a forest matures, the water yield increases, which would translate to more water for Melbourne and more water for the Yarra River. Most of the forests are only 100 years old due to the large fire in 1939 that destroyed most of the oldest trees. Wetlands are also a source of all kinds of abundance: birds, fish, and eels all follow the water. Drought and floods often affect Australia as a result.

The Great Barrier Reef is considered one of the seven wonders of the world. However, coral bleaching is slowly killing the organism. Coral bleaching is the process when corals become white due to various stressors, such as changes in temperature, light, or nutrients. In 1998, the Great Barrier Reef had one of its hottest summers on record.

Aerial surveys of 654 reefs conducted by scientists from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority showed that 74 percent of inshore and 21 percent of offshore reefs had moderate-to-high levels of bleaching. Many of these reefs recovered. Some however did not. Stressors however are driving the coral into extinction even though it’s been part of the Earth’s ecosystem for 600 million years.

After travelling by container ship to reduce her carbon footprint, Lockwood had no choice but to buy a plane ticket to Thailand. She says farming in Thailand is governed by the monsoon season, a shift in the direction of prevailing winds that dump rain, fill river basins, and irrigate crops from roughly May to September. Or at least they used to.

Factories are said to dump chemical substances in the river and killing all the fish. A local reportedly said that the expansion of agriculture is in part to blame. There were more forests in the past. As the time passed, more people cultivated their lands, and when the rain poured down, it would push the soil in the river, too. As a result, the river became contaminated by chemical fertilizer. Even rainwater used to be drinkable but now bottled water is required.

Thailand’s cloud seeding program, led by the Department of Royal Rainmaking and Agricultural Aviation, was created to help address weather concerns. The technology underpinning these efforts dates to the 1940s beginning in New York. Silver iodide can be sprayed on clouds from an airplane or sent up from a rocket to help create condensation, which falls from the sky in the form of rain or snow. More than fifty countries have active cloud seeding programs and I’ve seen it for myself when I lived in China. The harms of this has been well noted.

As Lockwood travelled throughout South Asia, similar concerns were aired about the lack of water and continuous drought. In Cambodia, she was told in 2016, in a town called Battambang, a man named Touch Tren found the bodies of thirty black monkeys in the Veal Don Om forest, all dead from dehydration.

After a short respite, Lockwood went with a delegation to China, which has had known water related issues. One third of the country’s nearly 1.4 billion people are concentrated in the north, which has less water than the south. In 1952, Chairman Mao Zedong proposed moving water from the plentiful south to the more arid north.
The effort to create long-distance water transfer projects has been more than half a century in the making. When completed, the South-North Water Transfer Project will link four of China’s main rivers—the Yangtze, Yellow, Huaihe, and Haihe—and divert water along three canals: the East, Central, and West routes.

Dams can have a pretty devastating impact however. In China, thirty years ago, there were fifty thousand rivers. The Chinese Bureau of Statistics now says that there are twenty-three thousand rivers. This is mainly due to pollution, contamination, and also because the rivers have become dry. So rivers have been overexploited by industry, by agriculture.

Hydropower, which is common in China is not climate-neutral. In the creation of a dam, a large area is flooded to create a reservoir. These areas usually have a large amount of biomass and vegetation. When that area is flooded, the vegetation disintegrates into the water and releases greenhouse gases. Among other things, creating a dam means that fish and other species who migrate along that corridor cannot pass.

The social impacts of a dam can also be detrimental, most acutely for people whose livelihoods depend on the river. Millions of people along the Mekong River are subsistence farmers and fishermen. Their protein comes from the fish that they catch, and their produce comes from river gardens on the banks of the Mekong. For many, their ancestors are buried there and for them it’s very important to stay where your ancestors are.

In neighbouring Kazakhstan, certain birds are leaving and fishes are dying out. The freshwater part of Lake Balkhash, which is the 15th largest lake in the world, is becoming saltier. Rivers that were dammed in the 1960s and ’70s are no longer supply water to the lake. Whilst In Kyrgyzstan, in 2014 the country suffered its worst drought in decades. The rivers supplying Bishkek have since been strained by population demand.

Lockwood went to COP22 in Morroco in 2015. Unfortunately, she noted that people with the most at stake in the negotiations—youth, women, Indigenous people, people of color, and residents of the global South—were largely excluded from negotiation spaces. What she learned from interacting with activists is this: show up. Show up and listen. Listen and amplify.

Back in the US, Lockwood spoke to people facing their own crises. One person referred to “solastalgia” which is a term to describe the feeling of loss and distress caused by environmental change—an emotional disquiet from witnessing negative changes to one’s home. The term was coined by Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht in the early 2000s. The same issues of drought seen in California in 2014 and coral bleaching in the Florida Keys were spoken of.

Oil spills have been a huge problem in the US. On September 16, 1969, an oil barge called Florida hit the rocks off the coast of Cape Cod near West Falmouth, Massachusetts. Fuel oil—189,000 gallons of it—spilled into Buzzards Bay.
The spill reportedly killed everything in the salt marsh. Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution uncovered the oil that lurked in the marsh and found species that burrow through the sand had a film of oil as recently as 2010.

However there is a different response to the climate crisis from richer nations. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication researchers identified six groups that they call “Global Warming’s Six Americas.”
– The Alarmed are convinced that global warming is an urgent threat right now that is caused by humans.
– The Concerned consider global warming to be a serious threat in the future and support climate policies.
– The Cautious haven’t yet made up their minds on whether global warming is happening, is caused by humans, or is serious.
– The Disengaged know little about global warming and rarely or never hear about it in their consumption of media.
– The Doubtful don’t think that global warming is happening or believe that it is part of a natural cycle.
– The Dismissive don’t believe that global warming is happening, human-caused, or a threat.

Apparently, the research showed that as a whole, Americans are becoming more worried about global warming, more engaged with the issue, and more supportive of climate solutions.

Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) are a group of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. Unfortunately, PFCs do not readily break down. They persist in the environment and in our bodies, and widespread use has led to extensive human exposure as well as cancer, despite plants being located near residential areas.

In the Inuit hamlet of Igloolik in Canada, animals that are usually hunted by the indigenous population have moved further and further away because of the melting ice caps. Whilst animals such as polar bears and killer whales are moving towards populated areas, depleting local food supplies.

When Lockwood travelled to Peru, she was told by local researchers that nearly one in four Western pharmaceuticals come from rainforest plants. Without these incredible plants from the Ucayali region in the Amazon, a lot of traditional knowledge would be lost. The living library emerged as a botanical preserve—a place where existing indigenous plants could be cataloged, protected for future generations, used to educate youth in the community, and eventually attract ecotourism from the outside. But there is a delicate balance to be preserved.

Deforestation cuts the supply of evapotranspired water to the aerial river, disrupting the amount of rainfall downwind. Cut the trees in Ucayali, Peru, and rainfall reduces not just locally but also farther down the aerial river, in Brazil and Colombia. Stated another way, the trees curate the rain.

With all this doom and gloom, there is still incredible things happening. In Denmark, the island of Samso achieved carbon neutrality in 2007, with eleven onshore and ten offshore wind turbines. Solar panels and biomass energy are also in use; many islanders have replaced their oil burners, added insulation at home, and support the island’s district heating plant. A recent project, Samsø 100, aims to connect Samsø to one hundred other places in the world. So there is a movement behind the scenes.

The final book is Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken, who is an environmentalist, journalist, entrepreneur, co-founder of Project Drawdown and editor of the book. Here he is

PAUL HAWKEN

Project Drawdown is a coalition of scientists and researchers dedicated to changing this equation. Using peer-reviewed science and mathematical models, their goal is to illuminate simple and economically viable solutions that drastically reduce, and even reverse, humanity’s CO2 emissions.

In 1829, Alexander von Humboldt was one of the first scientists to acknowledge the negative effects humans could have on their environment. He prophetically identified deforestation and the “great masses of steam and gas” released during industrial processes as two major environmental threats. 

Much like Humboldt predicted, global warming is essentially caused by the “great masses of steam and gas” produced by human activity such as burning fossil fuels, making cement and farming land. These all release carbon dioxide, or CO2, into the earth’s atmosphere, thereby generating a “greenhouse effect” that leads to the warming of the planet. In 2016, 36 gigatons of CO2 was emitted, just one gigaton is 400,000 Olympic sized pools.

At this rate, simply slowing or cutting carbon emissions will not be enough to stop global warming. We need to reach drawdown – the point in time at which greenhouse gases peak and then start steadily decreasing. 

Luckily, we already possess the tools we need to reverse global warming. Renewable energy, forest protection and sustainable agriculture are some of these technologies. Newer strategies include e-cars, ocean farming and carbon air capture. Almost all of these technologies have additional benefits: they save money, create jobs, prevent pollution and improve people’s health. 

The scientists and contributors in the book believe renewable energy from solar, wind, and water needs to replace energy from fossil fuels. Nearly 80 percent of the world’s electricity comes from fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil, all of which contain massive amounts of carbon. 

Wind energy spearheads the clean energy movement. Not only are wind farms fast and cheap to build, they’re also very efficient. Denmark already supplies 40 percent of its electricity through wind power. If other countries were to follow suit, it might be possible for onshore wind energy to take care of 21.6 percent of global energy needs by 2050, which would reduce carbon dioxide by an incredible 84.6 gigatons.

Solar energy is another important renewable that’s already saving 330 million tons of CO2 annually. Solar panels generate electricity from the photons contained in the sun’s rays. They can be grouped together in big solar farms or installed separately on rooftops. Such rooftop microgrids are a great independent electricity source for the 1.1 billion people worldwide that are not connected to a centralized power grid. 

Research, development and financial aid will be needed to spread these climate-friendly technologies. In 2015, the global fossil fuel industry received more than $5.3 trillion in direct and indirect subsidies. If that money were put into renewable energies instead, we would be well on our way to saving the planet.

Another aspect is eating less meat, making farming more diverse, and reducing our food waste. The meat industry accounts for 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, which come from both the animals themselves and the agriculture needed to feed them. Adopting a vegetarian diet can reportedly cut our carbon emissions from food consumption by 63 percent.

How can we achieve this? Public campaigns that celebrate plant-based foods and reframe meat as a delicacy could begin to shift culturally entrenched eating habits. If this message reaches only half of the population, we stand to save 66 gigatons of carbon emissions by 2050. 

Eating plants won’t be enough, though. We also need to change how we grow these plants. Modern industrial agriculture is based on cultivating a single crop every year, until the soil becomes saline and unworkable. What’s worse is that soil degraded by such farming rapidly releases its carbon content into the air. 

By contrast, sustainable techniques such as agroforestry embrace complex plant communities that enrich the soil rather than deplete it – and release much less CO2. Silvopasture, an ancient agroforestry system is practiced in Spain and Portugal. Instead of grazing on deforested land, silvopasture cows are allowed to graze in the forest. They sequester carbon that counterbalances the cow’s methane emissions. If silvopasture was increased by 60 percent worldwide, it could save 31.1 gigatons of carbon emissions by 2050.

Despite the 800 million people in the world still suffering from hunger, a third of all food produced never makes it onto our plates because retailers in high-income countries are allowed to reject and throw out foods based on minor bumps, and sell by dates. If we reduced food waste by 50 percent by 2050, we could avoid 26.2 gigatons of carbon emissions.

Cities also need to improve their building standards, infrastructure, and power supply to save energy. Wall and ceiling insulation made from fiberglass or even old newspapers can prevent heat loss in winter and overheating in summer, reducing the need for heating and air conditioning. Greening roofs with plants keeps buildings cool while sequestering carbon. If energy-friendly LED light bulbs became ubiquitous in buildings worldwide by 2050, we would save a total of 12.8 gigatons in carbon emissions.

One way is for cities to start making them mandatory for new buildings. Older buildings can also be made much more energy-efficient. Take the Empire State Building: by adding an extra layer of insulation to its 6541 windows, its energy use was cut by 40 percent.

**If more cities were to improve bike lanes and create “walkable” neighborhoods where homes, shops, cafes and parks intermingle, car use would fall, and residents would be healthier and happier. Globally, if 34.5 percent were on bicycles by 2050, carbon emissions could be reduced by 2.31 gigatons.

Currently, planes account for 2.5% of global carbon emissions, a number that’s bound to grow as air travel becomes increasingly popular around the world. To counter this increase in flights, Boeing and NASA are already collaborating on an aircraft designed to be 50 percent more fuel-efficient than a regular plane. This new aircraft has its engine in the rear and finer wings, rendering it lighter and more aerodynamic.

But neither planes nor ships release as much carbon annually as our cars, trucks and buses, which account for a quarter of all greenhouse emission, which need to be electric or at least hybrid. Many governments around the world have begun subsidizing the purchase of hybrid cars, making them an appealing alternative to consumers.

We also need to protect ecosystems, especially rainforests as they are the most biodiverse on the planet. Plants, insects, animals and trees live in close proximity, forming complex communities of mutual benefit. Only recently, scientists discovered that individual trees communicate with each other via a hidden network of fungi in the soil, where they share nutrients and vital information about insects, droughts and other dangers. Taken all together, forests store 300 billion tons of carbon, yet 15 billion trees are cut down each year. When forests are destroyed, soil health plummets, and the degraded land releases its carbon content into the air.

Most deforested land can be restored by simply leaving it alone. Passive restoration could restore 235 million acres of forest by 2050, avoiding 22.61 gigatons of carbon emissions. More active approaches restore or create forests by planting seedlings.

Most refrigerators, supermarket cases and air conditioners use cooling chemicals that are extremely harmful to the climate. In fact, a unit of the chemical used in fridges releases 9,000 times more heat into the atmosphere than a single CO2 molecule. All chemicals from refrigerators, cement and plastic need to be replaced by more climate friendly alternatives. Food, paper waste, recycled materials could be important alternatives.

The main thing is targeted education programs, which can empower individuals around the world to lower their carbon footprints. Public campaigns, peer-to-peer training and grassroots information sharing will be essential tools in effecting such change.,

Farmers are an especially important audience for such education efforts, as sustainable farming stands to save tons of carbon emissions. NGOs are now teaching sustainable farming techniques around the world. Empowering women farmers must be part of any such education program. Even though they make up 43 percent of the agricultural labor force.

So too sum up:

Lockwood says in 1,001 Voices on Climate Change to start small. To change everything, it takes everyone. By slowing down enough to listen, she says we can begin to unravel the regional and textural complexities in a way that might
point us toward solutions. And if there is one thing that we need more of in the dialogue about climate change, it is compassion.

Hawken says in Drawdown that it’s not too late! If communities, governments, businesses and organizations come together to act now, we can reverse global warming. The key technologies to reduce carbon emissions and promote their reuptake by the earth are already in place. They include renewable energy, sustainable farming, reforestation and recycling, widespread education programs and innovative future technologies such as self-driving e-cars and ocean farming. If widely implemented, continuously developed and subsidized when necessary, these technologies can save the planet.

It’s been heartening listening to people’s climate change stories this week. So many incidences of the weather transforming across the globe. It’s hardly reached freezing during December in the UK these past years and yet we had 39C in the summer for the first time in 2019. What’s it been like for you?

To end, here is poet Kirsteen Thomson, who wrote The Climate Fix for COP26, in which four trees will be planted for each sale of the book. Thanks for listening, and if you enjoyed this please hit subscribe.

KIRSTEEN THOMSON

Published by suswatibasu

Suswati Basu is a writer, journalist, producer and feminist activist residing in London. She has written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the F-Word blogs, and has worked for various media outlets such as the BBC, Channel 4 and for ITV News/ITN. She currently works as a senior intelligence expert.

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