S1 E1: How do we begin to understand and act on a problem as big and complex as climate change?
S1 E1: How do we even begin to understand -- let alone act on -- a problem as big and complex as climate change? Christina Thompson is on a mission to find out.
She starts by going back to basics, and high school science teacher Sofia Di Bari is here to answer the questions that some of us might be a little hesitant to ask, like, are we even calling it global warming anymore?!
After gaining a better understanding of her own day-to-day impact, Christina talks with Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, who is at the forefront of the climate conversation. Dr. Wilkinson helps to unravel some nuanced questions; what is the individual’s role in all of this? And, how much of the science does one person need to understand before taking some real action?
[Tape recorder clicks on]
[00:00:00] Christina Thompson: Yeah, totally. Ask whatever you want. That's what this is all about.
[00:00:05] Kayla: Okay. I have a couple of questions about environmentalism and climate change that are pretty basic or I'm too embarrassed to ask.
[00:00:14] Jon: Okay, Christina, I'm gonna be a bit basic here. What the hell is a carbon footprint?
[00:00:21] Sidrah: Hey CT. I've been wondering this a lot lately. I throw everything considered plastic or paper in recycling, but is it really recycling?
[00:00:30] Grandy: Can individuals really make a difference when large companies and some countries are not held accountable?
[00:00:39] Christina Thompson: If you're anything like me, you probably relate to some of these questions.
[00:00:45] Christina Thompson: Come on Ham, you want to go for a walk?
[Door opens, closes.]
[Sounds of walking with city life in the background.]
[00:00:49] Christina Thompson: My name is Christina Thompson and I live there, or here, in Brooklyn, New York. I'm a producer and I started working for a company called Avocado Green Brands in 2020. Sustainability is at the core of everything they do, or we do, so it seemed like a good fit for me. I've always considered myself a pretty environmentally aware person, but this job and everything else that's happened recently got me thinking about how well I truly understand what's happening with our planet's health.
I follow the basic “dos and don'ts,” but it seems like there's more to living green than just riding my bike or recycling. Sometimes I wonder if I'm really making that much of a difference, or at least enough of a difference. And I figured a lot of other people were probably in the same boat. So I asked some friends, coworkers, family members, and even a few strangers how they're feeling about all of this and what kinds of questions they have.
[00:01:51] Christina Thompson: I have to start recording again.
[00:01:54] Christina Thompson: One of the first people I reached out to was my sister, Jenna.
[00:01:57] Jenna: So wait, tell me what you're doing.
[00:01:59] Christina Thompson: So I told her. I'm making a podcast about climate change, specifically how to begin to understand and talk about a problem that is just so big.
[00:02:09] Jenna: Well, it's so ingrained in us that this is a big deal. Obviously it is, we know it is. But we don't know how we got here necessarily, and what we need to do to fix it, and you don't know where to begin, and then you just sort of spin out and kind of feels overwhelming and you put a pin in it and walk away.
[00:02:27] Christina Thompson: In the face of so much bad news, the understandable impulse is to walk away. Maybe we do the small day-to-day things so the problem doesn't feel so crushing, and then continue on with our lives. Or we throw ourselves at one issue and then quickly burn out. And this cycle is nothing new. I remember when we were back in grammar school and my sister's teacher told her that the world was going to run out of water.
[00:02:52] Jenna: I remember mom, like crying to her, like, "you have to turn the water off when you're brushing your teeth or we are going to run out of water".
I think that was actually a key moment for me, realizing that this was not going to be my parents' problem. This was my problem. And now I'm even realizing that it's my children's... With each generation it gets more and more critical.
[00:03:11] Christina Thompson: Yeah.
[00:03:12] Jenna: And it's a weird thing because nothing on a day to day necessarily changes, but it's only looking back to look forward that you realize things have changed.
[00:03:23] Christina Thompson: Her boys, my nephews, Gus, Oliver, and Peter, are still pretty young. And I won't rattle off their ages because I always get it wrong and I can never keep up. But they're already thinking about their relationship with nature.
[00:03:36] Gus, Oliver, and Peter: You shouldn't litter because that will make the nature be bad.
Say a bird sees and thinks it's food, it can eat it. And then, say it's plastic, it chokes on it, it can die.
[00:03:48] Christina Thompson: Do you think you guys make a lot of trash?
[00:03:53] Gus, Oliver, and Peter: No.
[00:03:55] Christina Thompson: I asked the kids to draw on their abundant wisdom to help me name this show.
[00:03:59] Christina Thompson: I would love for you to help me come up with the name of this podcast. I have no idea what I should call it.
[00:04:03] Nephews: How about Helping the Little Green and Blue Planet?
[00:04:06] Christina Thompson: We eventually settled on A Little Green Podcast, because who doesn't love a good play on words? It's a journey to becoming a little more green by becoming a little less green about what's going on with our world. And of course I'm not going to do it alone. I realized I need to ask a lot of questions to a lot of people with all kinds of expertise.
[00:04:28] Anthony Rogers-Wright: At some point we learn, and I don't know when it is, you know, in our development, that it's, it's a bad idea to ask questions.
[00:04:36] Christina Thompson: That's Anthony Rogers-Wright, a policy expert and environmental justice advocate based here in New York. He's one of the remarkable people I got to talk to while making this podcast. We're going to hear a lot more from him later in this series.
But he's right. I think sometimes we're afraid to ask questions, especially questions that might seem kind of obvious. I get it, we don't want to sound uninformed. But talking about complicated issues and actually learning something new takes some vulnerability.
[00:05:05] Katharine Wilkinson: I've worked on climate in one way or another now for over two decades.
[00:05:10] Christina Thompson: That is the wonderful Dr. Katharine Wilkinson.
[00:05:13] Katharine Wilkinson: And it has often felt like a topic that is the domain of experts, right? If you don't have three PhDs, a speech writer, and a 200 slide PowerPoint deck, like, you don't really have any business talking about climate.
[00:05:30] Christina Thompson: To be honest, I'm nervous in this conversation. It's just like, there's a, a level of knowledge you feel like you need to have, and it's scary.
[00:05:37] Katharine Wilkinson: It is scary.
[00:05:39] Christina Thompson: It probably shouldn't feel so novel to hear someone of Katharine's stature acknowledge that. But why are we so hesitant to talk about all of this? Especially when we can see that it's a huge problem.
[00:05:50] Katharine Wilkinson: My sense is that there are so many folks who are sitting on the sidelines, right? They're maybe paying attention a little bit. They're maybe concerned. They are maybe wanting to contribute, but they have not felt welcomed into the climate conversation, into the space. If your experience of the climate conversation is people slinging facts at you, then you feel like, well, I've got to be a fact slinger if I want to be part of this, right?
[00:06:24] Christina Thompson: I couldn't agree more. So we're not just here to sling facts. Sure, we're going to arm ourselves with some fundamentals so we feel a little more confident moving forward. But the goal here is to get off the sidelines and who knows, maybe make a difference, maybe even change some minds.
To get started I found some help in my own backyard.
[00:06:46] Christina Thompson: Tell me a little bit about yourself, your background, what you do for a living.
[00:06:50] Sofia Di Bari: I am a general education science teacher. I teach at Abraham Lincoln High School, and it's a school that's approximately 2,800 students.
[00:07:00] Christina Thompson: Now I know I don't need a PhD (or three!) but when I asked people in my own life to share their climate related questions with me, a lot of them were actually pretty scientific, and it made me reflect on my own formal environmental education or lack thereof. So I decided to go back to high school. I got in touch with a local teacher, Sofia Di Bari. Sofia is one of a group of teachers implementing a new program called the Resilient Schools Consortium.
[00:07:30] Sofia Di Bari: It's a grant funded climate program and curriculum, and it's really aimed to educate middle and high school youth in New York City Schools about climate change science, climate impacts, and natural/built solutions that increase climate resilience.
[00:07:46] Christina Thompson: Sofia kindly agreed to be our science teacher for the day. The class? Climate Science 101.
[00:07:53] Christina Thompson: I was doing some initial research for the podcast. I wanted to ask people what sort of questions they had. I just wanted to kind of rattle off a few of these so you can give us our sort of baseline lexicon and, you know, some vocabulary that we feel confident to use and that we actually know what we're talking about when we move forward.
[00:08:12] Sofia Di Bari: Science is always changing. That's the really amazing thing about it. So don't ever feel like it's too late to learn about it, to learn about the facts, to understand it. Take it simple, take it slow, ask those questions that you're in your head that you feel you could be embarrassed by, but trust me, other people are thinking about that and other people want an answer to it.
[00:08:34] Christina Thompson: Okay, then here we go.
[00:08:36] John Davies: So are we not calling it global warming anymore?
[00:08:39] Sofia Di Bari: I actually hate that phrase, global warming. It's a misconception, it's misleading and it's often taken out of context. You can't use a term that's for a global, large scale thing to talk about a local phenomenon. And global warming causes extreme things to happen, so it will cause extreme heat and extreme cold.
[00:09:02] Longos: What exactly causes global warming? That whole concept kind of blows my mind.
[00:09:07] Sofia Di Bari: Okay. So the main causes, I guess, are just the greenhouse gases. But that's such a misconception because it starts with the understanding of how Earth keeps heat and how it traps heat. We cannot survive on this planet without greenhouse gases, but when you have too many of them in the atmosphere, you've got too much of one thing, it's bad. So Earth is amazing in that it protects us from certain radiation but allows the sun to enter our atmosphere and hit the Earth's surface.
Now Earth's surface absorbs some of that heat. And when you've got too much of those gases, too many of those gases in the atmosphere that trap it, now you're going to cause extra trapping of heat. And then because they're trapped, those temperatures and those particles are going to be absorbed in other places, which is why sea surface temperatures are increasing and which is why glaciers and ice are melting on our planet.
[00:10:09] Gus, Oliver, and Peter: I know what a greenhouse is, but I don't know what a greenhouse gas is.
[00:10:13] Sofia Di Bari: So greenhouse gases are any gas that traps heat. Carbon dioxide, methane are the most common, but you have other particles like water vapor and even ozone can trap heat when found in lower levels of our atmosphere.
[00:10:30] Anna: What's the difference between carbon and carbon dioxide?
[00:10:34] Sofia Di Bari: We are made of carbon, literally. Plants are made of carbon. Like you can't have life without carbon. But when it bonds with oxygen, it creates a molecule known as carbon dioxide. And when it becomes prominent in Earth's atmosphere, it becomes a problem.
[00:10:54] Laura: What is a carbon footprint?
[00:10:56] Sofia Di Bari: So a carbon footprint is all of the carbon emissions that come from those activities in your daily life. So I like talking about the eco footprint better than the carbon footprint, because a carbon footprint is just about carbon. And you can actually calculate your own personal eco footprint at www.FootprintCalculator.org.
[00:11:19] Aaron: Where do most greenhouse gas emissions come from?
[00:11:21] Sofia Di Bari: Human activities that involve consumption of coal burning, traveling with cars and trains and airplanes, producing and manufacturing products, which come directly from farming. Volcanic eruptions are a big natural cause for greenhouse gases, but it's not just volcanic eruptions, it's humans.
[00:11:44] Christina Thompson: Yeah. It's like one massive volcano, as opposed to everyone's own little volcano. It's like --
[00:11:50] Sofia Di Bari: Right, that's a really, really great way to describe it.
[00:11:53] Maneesha: What's a fossil fuel?
[00:11:55] Sofia Di Bari: It's like any kind of thing that you can pull up from the ground, maybe, that produces energy when you burn it. So oil and coal.
[00:12:03] George: What is the ozone layer?
[00:12:05] Sofia Di Bari: Ozone is a particle of oxygen. It's oxygen that's bonded three times, so it's O3. And it's in the stratosphere, and it's an important layer in our atmosphere because it protects Earth's surface against harmful longwave radiation. But when ozone is found in the troposphere, for example, it's not good.
[00:12:28] Christina Thompson: What is climate resilience?
[00:12:31] Sofia Di Bari: Put simply, it's the ability to prepare for, recover from, and adapt to natural disasters. So I believe that being resilient is understanding the risks that maybe your area will have, preparing for the risks, and then if and when it happens to not let it ruin your day to day activities.
[00:12:52] Bill: How do we know climate change is real?
[00:12:55] Sofia Di Bari: The real part is not really ever going to be answered correctly because everyone's reality is different. I think you are going to kind of be more likely to believe it if some sort of experience has specifically and personally impacted you. I can present you all these scientific facts, but it's still not gonna change, like, your personal belief unless something is going to cause you to change that personal belief. And I'll, I'll leave that to other people who can speak more to that.
[00:13:27] Christina Thompson: I think what Sofia is getting at here is confirmation bias. Basically, humans tend to embrace information that supports our existing belief, but reject data that challenges us. I think that's another reason that fact slinging, as Katharine put it earlier, doesn't always have the intended effect.
[00:13:44] Sofia Di Bari: You know, if you don't know something, just ask, it's okay. We're all trying to be in this world together. Like some people will understand and just not care, some people will understand and be like, "oh my God, this is crazy, what are we doing?" Some, some people will understand and get really depressed about it. And I think all of those feelings are okay as long as, you know, we continue to like talk about, “okay, well, if you're depressed, but this is what we can do.”
[00:14:20] Christina Thompson: Sofia gave an amazing crash course, but I was left with the same question I think many of us were probably asking our angsty teen selves throughout high school. How does this apply to my everyday life? I decided to take Sofia's recommendation to calculate my ecological footprint so I could get a better sense of my own connection to all of this.
[00:14:40] Christina Thompson: Okay.
[00:14:46] Christina Thompson: The ecological footprint calculator popped up with some lovely images and a bunch of questions. I wanted to know more about how my living in the city and living in urban lifestyle impacts the planet beyond just my carbon emissions. According to their website, the eco footprint measures how much nature we have and how much we use. Sounds pretty comprehensive.
[00:15:08] Christina Thompson: Okay. Here we go. How often do you eat animal-based products? Eggs, dairy, almost daily. I guess that's not true. Maybe it's occasionally. I do like cheese though, so maybe we'll go to “often.” So how much of your diet is locally grown? What material is your house constructed with? How energy efficient is your home? Compared to your neighbors, how much trash do you generate? I don't even know. How many hours do you fly each year? Oof.
Okay, so I've got my results. If everyone lived like you, you would need 5.5 Earths.
[00:15:39] Christina Thompson: That's a whole lot of Earth. So how did I stack up? The United States has one of the biggest average footprints at about five Earths per person.
[00:15:48] Christina Thompson: It goes to the next part where it's like, "how do you feel?"
[00:15:50] Christina Thompson: A few characters that kind of looked like emojis appeared with different expressions.
[00:15:54] Christina Thompson: And I put embarrassed. Um, feeling confused. Oh, wow. Okay. “If you're overflowing with questions, some of your answers you're looking for can be found here. Maybe you're eco-friendly and wonder why your footprint is so large.” I need help, I don't know what to do. This is great. I feel like this is so, I could spend so much time on this thing.
[00:16:16] Christina Thompson: I was presented with a range of solutions.
[00:16:18] Christina Thompson: “Renewable energy, uh, is a direct path to reducing your ecological footprint and addressing climate change. Can you take transit, bicycle, and walk instead of driving solo at least once a month? Once a week?” Absolutely, a hundred percent. “Diet and cutting food waste are powerful sustainability levers.” So, if we're going to be honest, I think this is a big one that I, uh, can definitely change some habits around. I think food waste is, like, a whole other angle that a lot of people could be going about. Because it's daunting to think, "I need to cut this entire aspect of my diet".
[00:16:58] Christina Thompson: The website went on to detail other really important ways to curb climate change, like advancing women's rights and protecting our natural ecosystem. But as approachable as the calculator was, it definitely brought up more questions and concerns. My footprint was honestly much bigger than I expected. And while it's clear that I (and a lot of other people in this country) should probably be doing some reevaluating of our choices, it also feels like real change is beyond this individual level, requiring something much bigger.
So I turned to Katharine Wilkinson for some guidance. We heard from her earlier. She's been at the forefront of the climate solutions conversation.
[00:17:39] Christina Thompson: Can you hear me okay?
[00:17:40] Katharine Wilkinson: I can hear you great.
[00:17:41] Christina Thompson: Katharine, thank you so much for doing this. Like, I, honestly it's, like, an honor to speak to you.
[00:17:46] Katharine Wilkinson: Christina, that's really kind. So happy to do it.
[00:17:49] Christina Thompson: Katharine is an author, strategist, teacher, and just all around great human being. Time Magazine deemed her one of the 15 women who will save the world. Needless to say, she seemed like someone who could answer some of my more nuanced questions. Katharine used to work with Project Drawdown. It's a nonprofit that outlines actions to move the world toward drawdown. Drawdown is the point where the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere actually begins to decline.
[00:18:18] Katharine Wilkinson: So there's a kind of a laundry list of these top solutions that cut across electricity, they cut across our food and agriculture system, they cut across buildings, transportation industry. So all of the big sectors that are sources of emissions today, there are all different solutions that can help address that. And, and clearly clean electricity is one of the biggest solutions, right? But also what we eat, how we produce it, what we do with our waste, that's also a really critical constellation of solutions.
[00:19:03] Christina Thompson: Katharine brought up something that we hear a lot about. How much of an impact can one person even have on this huge issue? I think I've asked this twice in this episode alone. So I asked her to elaborate.
[00:19:17] Katharine Wilkinson: The question of individual versus collective action is such a persistent one on, on climate. A lot of the messaging around climate change to the public for many years, very much focused on this is what you need to do as an individual in your home, change your light bulbs, ride your bike, da, da, da.
[00:19:40] Christina Thompson: This is definitely the approach that I grew up with. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Snip the little plastic soda rings.
Put the cans in the right bin.
All good things, but maybe not as large scale as this problem actually is.
[00:19:53] Katharine Wilkinson: The things we can do individually, we should do them, right. If we can do them, we should. We should eat less meat. We should get on fewer airplanes. We should buy less stuff. All of that is great, mostly I think because it keeps us grounded in our values and the kind of future that, that we want. But at the end of the day, we need to be thinking about how we can be part of bigger collectives, bigger “we's,” whether that is in our workplace or in our civic life of our community or our city. These are actually the places where there are kind of bigger levers for change.
[00:20:34] Christina Thompson: I think talking about our individual role and our choices can be especially intimidating because it feels like we're opening ourselves up to blame or shame. Trust me, I really hemmed and hawed about whether or not to share my eco footprint number. Either we're not doing enough or we're naive for thinking we can do anything.
[00:20:54] Katharine Wilkinson: And I don't want folks getting caught up in guilt and shame about the things they think they should be doing and they're not doing, "I know I just had a hamburger" and, you know... Even if we did everything in our individual lives, perfectly, perfectly, all of us, which, let's be real, you know, New Year's resolutions barely last longer than January.
[00:21:13] Christina Thompson: Like completely. We're people, yeah.
[00:21:16] Katharine Wilkinson: Yeah, yeah. We're people. We still wouldn't get anywhere near solving the crisis. Climate action and climate solutions is something that we can't solve by stopping things alone. We actually have to build a lot of things and change a lot of current infrastructure and systems to get where we need to go. Because so many of the things that have the biggest impact are out of your or my personal control.
[00:21:49] Christina Thompson: Katharine gave me a relatable example from her own life.
[00:21:52] Katharine Wilkinson: I live in Atlanta. I live in a condo, so I don't own the roof. I can't put solar panels on top even if I could afford that. But my home electricity use is a huge part of my, you know, kind of personal emissions. Well, actually what I need is for Georgia Power to get its act together and move us towards a clean electricity future in the state of Georgia.
[00:22:23] Christina Thompson: This is totally something I was thinking about when I did that footprint calculator. I live in New York. I rent. I don't get a ton of choice when it comes to things like utilities or appliances, and certainly not solar panels.
[00:22:37] Katharine Wilkinson: So I always say to folks, you can think about the personal, the professional, and the political. So if there are those things you can and haven't yet done personally, great, do them. Professionally, you almost certainly have skills that are needed in this space, whether that's in the workplace or what you could do as a volunteer, whatever. And then politically we need climate champions in office and, and helping to make good policy and rewrite the rules where, where they're not working.
[00:23:10] Christina Thompson: I wanted to know how she felt about my approach. Should I gather more hard facts before joining the conversation and taking some real action?
[00:23:18] Katharine Wilkinson: Certainly we need facts, we need data, we need science to understand where we are. But more than anything, I actually think we need to bring our hearts into this conversation because at the end of the day, this is really about what it means to be human and what it means to be human on the only home we've got, which is this planet. And what is our connection to it, our responsibility to it, to one another, to all beings, human and non?
And to me at the end of the day, those are more like soul questions. I think the science can help inform that deeper dialogue. And when we begin to approach this topic from a more grounded, human place, well, then it becomes really clear that everyone has a place in this conversation because we're all alive on this planet, in this remarkable and challenging and terrifying and potentially promising moment.
[00:24:30] Christina Thompson: I want to go back to that whole confirmation bias thing that I mentioned before. If fact slinging isn't going to change people's minds or bring people into this movement, what will?
[00:24:40] Katharine Wilkinson: I think translation is such an incredibly important skill in so many spaces, but this one in particular, right.
[00:24:49] Christina Thompson: Katharine herself does a ton of inspiring work communicating about the climate, from her podcast, A Matter of Degrees, to her new project and anthology, All We Can Save.
[00:25:00] Katharine Wilkinson: So, All We Can Save is an anthology that came out in the Fall of 2020. The subtitle is "truth, courage, and solutions for the climate crisis", and it is jam-packed with wisdom from women who are working on this topic in all different ways. We hope that it creates a kaleidoscope, frankly. Looking at the climate crisis through any single lens is going to come up short. But when you start to layer lens upon lens upon lens, and you can keep turning the kaleidoscope, and you start to get a clearer and fuller vision of what is going on.
[00:25:43] Christina Thompson: Katharine's whole perspective just felt so refreshing. I felt more at ease in our conversation and honestly, just ready to dig in more confidently, even when it comes to the harder questions and lessons this podcast will inevitably bring up.
When we kicked off this whole podcast thing, I was pretty nervous about having some of these conversations. Frankly, I still am. But I've got to be honest, even just having these few early discussions has made me feel better. I feel like kind of a door has been cracked open a little, and I'm really looking forward to stepping through it. I already feel more engaged, more “on the ice” with all of this, to use a bad sports reference. I hope this has you all feeling a little more confident too. Because if we're not even talking about the climate crisis, then how can we expect to solve it?
[00:26:33] Christina Thompson: Do you like talking about this kind of thing or is this kind of boring?
[00:26:37] Gus, Oliver, and Peter: Like if we keep talking about this, then the more of the people who watch it, the more they'll get the idea if they litter, it's really bad for the planet.
[00:26:50] Christina Thompson: I like your thinking.
[00:26:52] Christina Thompson: I'm going to have as many conversations as I can. I mean, this is a podcast after all. I definitely want to chip away at those “Earths” that I racked up on the eco footprint calculator. And I also need to know more about those bigger levers of change that are available to me, starting in my own neighborhood. More than that in our next episode.
For now, I'm going to spend some time with the resources that were mentioned in this episode. If you want to do the same, visit ALittleGreenPodcast.com. You'll also find a transcript of this episode there.
A Little Green is an Avocado Green Brands podcast. This podcast was written and produced by Anna McClain and myself, Christina Thompson, with the help of Kelly Drake, and Will Watts. The music you heard is by Aaron Levison.
[00:27:42] Gus, Oliver, and Peter: If you liked this, push the like and subscribe button.