What If People Don’t Need to Care About Climate Change to Fix It?
It seems like weve been battling climate change for decades and made no progress, Dr. Hannah Ritchie says. I want to push back on that. Ritchie, a senior researcher in the Program on Global Development at the University of Oxford and deputy editor at the online publication Our World in Data, is the author of the upcoming book, Not the End of the World. In it, she argues that the flood of doom-laden stats and stories about climate change is obscuring our ability to imagine solutions to the crisis and envision a sustainable, livable future. That brighter story is one Ritchie, who is 30, builds by pointing to the progress being made in areas like deforestation, air cleanliness and the falling cost and rising adoption of clean-energy technologies. For a long time I felt helplessness, that these problems were massive and unsolvable, Ritchie says. Its important to counter those feelings. We need to go much faster, but there is a lot of progress to acknowledge and lessons to learn. I wouldnt say data on its own. I think narrative built around data. Whats key, and you can incorporate data into this, is trying to build a narrative for people which is positive in terms of its future outlook. Its: This is the world we can build. We can address climate change alongside other issues. Its not going to cost you a ton of money. It might save you money. Well have cleaner air. Well have more energy security. Which is more appealing than Were all going to die from climate change. Yes, probably for a different audience. No single voice is going to speak to everyone across the spectrum. I agree, Greta Thunberg and Bill McKibben have done an amazing job of rallying people to the cause. But there is probably a saturation point with that audience and a lot of people just dont respond to that type of message. My point is not that my message should replace their message. It should stand alongside it, and with that we can build up a larger group of people that want to see change. Youre never going to get that with just a single message. Hannah Ritchie during a TED Talk in Vancouver last April. Ryan Lash/TED Im clear in the book that I dont think we should all use loads of plastic bottles and plastic straws. But people stress too much about it. Its an absolute disaster if they turn up to the supermarket and they dont have the recyclable bag. They feel awful for the entire day because theyre not doing their bit for the environment. Its just trying to take a little stress out so it feels less overwhelming. The other lens to it is based on this concept of moral licensing. Where we feel like, Oh, yes, Ive avoided the plastic straw, Ive got my bag: I can drive my petrol car now and eat lots of meat. The risk is that people focus entirely on the small and miss the big stuff. One reason to stress less is because some of the things people think have a positive impact actually have a negative impact, and those we should try to push back on. To some extent organic food. If the world was to go fully organic, it would have quite negative consequences. Organic farming tends to get lower yields, so we need more land for farming. That comes at the cost of forests and habitats. Another one is this notion that the best thing I can possibly eat is local. Thats not what the data shows. For most food, the transport component is a very small part of emissions, and shipping avocados from South America still has a lower carbon footprint than your local beef or lamb. Eating less meat, in particular beef. For most people in the world, reducing their meat consumption would have a big impact. Reducing food waste. How you travel: walking, cycling, public transport is always best. In terms of household energy, the big thing is heating or cooling. So insulation, installing a heat pump, if you can install solar panels. Those are big things. I think, in general, the role of science is not to dictate policy. Science identifies the problems. It can identify potential impacts. It doesnt dictate solutions. The role of science is to say, If you do this, this is the outcome. It should not say, This is what you to do. Even in the book, I try to tread that line quite carefully. Im trying not to be superprescriptive. We live in democracies. We need to make democratic choices. We move into dangerous areas if we try to undermine democracy in order to tackle these problems. Climate change is a massive problem, but its one of many massive problems that we face, and when we live in democracies, we vote for the problems that we think we need to tackle and need to balance with other problems. I have strong opinions about what that priority list should be, but that needs to be a democratic decision. We need to reiterate to the public, These are the problems that were facing. But we do run the risk of overstepping our mark. Oh, no, I dont think you got it wrong. I agree that the political lens is important. There are lots of people, especially in the climate-activism space, that have strong political opinions. To be politically effective, I need to be nonpartisan. I cant go in guns blazing saying: You guys are terrible. Youre not doing enough. So the book is light on political content, but thats quite deliberate to try to be as effective as I can to capture space that other people are maybe not capturing. No, I think your skepticism is valid. I wouldve been in a very similar position 10 years ago or so. I wasnt seeing the technological progress we would need to tackle many of these problems. In that frame, we would be relying on really strong political will often against economic interests and maybe some short-term social interests in order to enact these changes. But over the last decade in particular, we have seen transformative technological change. The appropriate response is to try to lay out clearly what the problem is and what the potential impacts will be. For people to trust that they need to try to stay away from politicization. When it comes to climate change, science is the bedrock. We need to keep the bedrock as solid as we possibly can. So the role of science is to discover, study, explain. What scientists are often not that good at is explaining to the layman what this actually means for them. You have temperature targets of 1.5 degrees or two degrees. We need to explain in clear language what that means for the average person. It is a hard question to answer because the impacts are dependent on what the climate is doing but also our resilience and adaptation. I mean, the impacts will be a lot of extra people exposed to very extreme heat. Probably the biggest concern for me is agriculture, where you can start to see quite significant declines in crop yields with increased warming. Its not a given that we see these crop-yield declines, but we would need to significantly adapt. So the impacts are very severe, but how we respond is an open question. We wont reach 1.5 degrees, thats gone. But I am optimistic we can get very close to two degrees. But the question is, Can we keep temperatures to two degrees and at the same time create resilience, lift people out of poverty, adapt such that we limit those damages as much as possible? On that, Im fairly optimistic. Opening illustration: Source photograph from Hannah Ritchie David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. He recently interviewed and