flying, driving, eating meat
Individuals can do three things to help with the climate crisis: avoid flying, drive less, and stop eating meat. Photo credit: Charles Roffey / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), Lynac / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) , and © Creative Touch Imaging Ltd/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

The perils of climate change have not lessened during our COVID-19 lockdown. In fact, we’re a year closer to the ultimate reckoning. 

This week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast guest, Kimberly Nicholas — a Stanford Ph.D. in environment and resources, associate professor of sustainable science at Sweden’s Lund University, and the author of the recent Under the Sky We Make — argues that we are all getting the wrong message about the climate crisis.

While nations and companies are hugely responsible for the dangers we face, it is also individuals who must change their behavior.  

Reminding us that households account for 70 percent of all climate pollution, Nicholas focuses on driving, flying, and food as the three key areas that must change if we have any chance to solve the climate problem. Among other things, she calls for a major effort to discourage travel overall, including a significant tax on flying.  

She explains that no country on the planet is now in a sustainable balance with the environment. To alter the equation, she says, we need not just a greater use of alternative energy, but a plan to lower our energy demand. 

Yet she remains optimistic about our capacity to do what’s needed: If only 25 percent of people take positive, collective action, they can achieve a kind of “critical mass” — creating a  movement that will allow humans to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, thereby averting a global catastrophe that would dwarf the 2020 pandemic in scale. 

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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. A year ago, it seemed as if climate change and the devastation that it could bring were moving front and center to our public discussion. One year and a pandemic later, not so much, but as we emerge from our COVID-19 slumber, climate change and the sustainability of the planet are once again rapidly moving up the attention meter. Under a new administration, the US has rejoined the Paris Climate Accord and seems to be all in towards taking significant action. China, no matter its authoritarian politics, recognizes the reality and dangers of climate change and is also taking its own real and dramatic steps. After China and the US, that leaves each of us with the responsibility to do our part. What we do, how we do it, no matter how small or incremental, really will have an effect.

Jeff Schechtman: This is the aspect we’re going to talk about today with my guest, Dr. Kimberly Nicholas. She’s an associate professor of sustainability science at Sweden’s Lund University. She studied the effect of climate change on the California wine industry for her PhD in environment and resources at Stanford. She has published over 50 peer-reviewed articles on climate and sustainability. Her research has been featured in major news outlets and she does about 50 lectures each year about climate change. Her most recent work is Under the Sky We Make, and it is my pleasure to welcome Kimberly Nicholas to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Kimberly, thanks so much for joining us.

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: Thank you for having me. It’s nice to be back home by the wonders of the telephone.

Jeff Schechtman: It’s great to have you here. This idea that we all can have some small impact, talk a little bit about that because I think if you talked to most people, there’s a sense that their contribution, that their aspect of it is pretty small.

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: Yeah, that’s true. A lot of people have that feeling. When you look at it collectively, you realize everybody is kind of waiting for somebody else to go first and believing at the same time that nobody else really cares or is really willing to take action. So that doesn’t really make sense and it also isn’t supported by the data. What the data tell us is that most Americans are already concerned or alarmed about climate change. They know that it’s happening, that humans are causing it. There is scientific certainty about that and people know that it’s bad and are worried about it. People in that group, the majority, also want to fix it, want to do something to be part of the solution, but then things get a little fuzzy of what exactly is that, how can we help, and what’s needed and how do we make it happen. So that’s the gap I’m trying to close in my book.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk about it in regards to the larger actions that need to be taken by governments, be it the United States or China. Is that something that we should be looking at equally or do we kind of have to put that aside and really just focus on our own contribution?

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: Well, we really need both personal and collective actions to tackle the climate crisis in time. One important distinction is who is it that needs to take personal climate action. The answer is its people like me. The data show that if you make above about $38,000 per year, you are in the top 10 percent of income globally. That also means that you’re in the top 50 percent or rather you’re causing in the group that is causing half of all household climate pollution. So it’s this group of relatively high income and therefore high emitters who need to make personal changes. At the same time, we need governments and businesses — well governments — to put in policies for businesses and everyone else to follow that actually are in line with a stable and safe climate.

Jeff Schechtman: When we look around the world and we look at the third world becoming more progressive, really more modernization, how should we be looking at that in the context of climate change and sustainability?

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: Well, what the data tell us is that right now, there’s actually no country on earth that is sustainable. By sustainable, I mean meeting the needs of its population, so meeting human wellbeing, providing education and healthcare and equality and opportunity for everyone while at the same time living within our means from this finite planet that we share. So the trend is basically poor countries tend to be low consuming so they’re within a sustainable ecological footprint, but they’re not meeting enough of their human needs. So their challenge is to raise the standard of living and focus on human wellbeing while keeping resource consumption relatively low. For rich countries like the US and Sweden where I am, we tend to meet human needs at least pretty well, but be way over the budget in terms of our use of resources and consumption. So our challenge is to maintain or even improve the quality of human wellbeing while dramatically reducing how much resources we’re using and making this transition to a fossil-free society.

Jeff Schechtman: How much individual effort has to happen in order to make a significant difference?

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: So for folks who are in this high-emitting group like that I have historically been a part of, we can make a huge difference. Once you realize that households are responsible for over 70 percent of climate pollution, you see that it’s both the production and consumption of fossil fuels that we have to end. So if you attribute the pollution to the companies who are digging up and extracting and shipping and providing the fuels, that’s more than 70 percent of the problem, but if you instead do the calculation based on where are the products going, it comes down majority to households. That’s much larger than governments or investments. So taking this system perspective, we see, okay, we have to stop incentivizing and supporting extraction and production of fossil fuels, but we also need to reduce our consumption of it.

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: For high consumers, that’s really important to enable this fast clean energy transition because basically what we need to do is replace dirty and dangerous energy with safe and clean energy. The more we can lower energy demand and make it easier, we don’t have to build as much and new infrastructure to do that if we are living within our means.

Jeff Schechtman: Is there some kind of priority of needs we should be looking at in terms of the things that individuals do and what’s most important and what’s further down the list?

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: Yeah, so our research from 2017 which was led by Seth Wynes, we asked exactly that question. What we found is that there are three personal choices that really make a big difference. If you want to focus on reducing your own climate pollution as a high emitter, the things that are really effective in doing that quickly are going car, flight, and meat-free. Flights especially for basically people who have a high personal carbon footprint, most of that tend to be made up by flying. That’s the biggest piece of the pie for high polluters. So every flight that you can avoid really makes a very big difference.

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: The next biggest part of the budget and the biggest part for the average American is from driving. So everything we can do as a society to reduce the need for cars, to make cities centered around people instead of cars for example, and at the same time making cars that remain switching to fossil-free and electric cars, that makes a big difference. Then our diets are really important because that’s driving basically the biodiversity crisis, how we use land, basically a war with nature or against nature. What we need to do is have a system for providing food that is working with rather than against nature and meeting our needs for healthy and safe and sustainable nutrition.

Jeff Schechtman: How do you look at this in the context of the past year, how difficult it has been to get people to do simple things that will literally save their lives and the resistance over and over again that we have seen to that, yet in order to do the kind of things that you’re talking about, will take significant sacrifices, significant effort on the part of people. Why should we assume that that’s even within the realm of possibility given what we’ve just experienced over the past 12 months?

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: That’s a great question. Well, one thing that makes me know that this is possible is that social science research shows you actually only need 25 percent of a population to adopt a behavior or start following a norm, kind of an unwritten rule or expectation before it reaches a tipping point and becomes what is seen as desirable and expected. So we don’t necessarily need everyone or the whole majority to dive right in and be leaders in this regard, but we need to get a critical mass of folks out in front. We also know from social science research that actually most people, if we talk about the pandemic, most people do do the right things and do follow the recommendations, but unfortunately what gets highlighted in the media and of course we can see examples in our daily lives are people who are not doing that. It’s very easy to focus on them and feel this sense that you described of, ‘Wait a minute. Why am I taking these actions or doing something that’s more a burden for me if other people aren’t doing it?’

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: But what’s there from a psychology point of view is to get the message out there that actually most people are interested in solving the climate crisis and that’s what the data show, are willing to make changes and even sacrifices, are willing to support ambitious policies. It doesn’t have to be 100 percent of everyone, but it needs to be a substantial group that’s becoming loud and vocal because otherwise, it’s too easy to focus on this minority that’s standing in the way.

Jeff Schechtman: Also looking at the past year, we certainly have had less driving, less travel, less flights. Has that made a difference? Have we been able to see any kind of substantive difference?

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: Yes, it has made a big difference. The emissions from last year did drop substantially and the biggest change came from reduced driving basically. The largest percentage change came from reduced flying. So flights were down very substantially. I think for some people, some of that might persist. Some people now have realized, for example, how feasible it is to conduct business and hold conferences without requiring everyone to travel long distances, potentially substituting long work commutes with digital working when we’re not in the current circumstance where we don’t have better options and maybe have kids at home and these other factors that will not be the case as a result of the pandemic rather than any sort of climate-related constraint.

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: There is a lot of potential there, but I think it also points out the need to have this kind of mindset shift and thinking about, okay, what is really important, what is it that we really value and are trying to work towards and protect, basically the wellbeing of people and a thriving natural world. Those are the two bottom lines that it comes down to for me. So putting those at the center of those key priorities and then having policies that support that and that recognize the need to become fossil-free, the need to have sustainable and regenerative agriculture, that can flow from that kind of decision.

Jeff Schechtman: To what extent should people rely on or look to new technologies as a way out of this, as a way to, in some cases, eliminate personal responsibility?

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: I would say to no extent because we actually have the technologies that we need in hand. What we need to do is put them into practice. So what science tells us is to stabilize the climate, we need to cut emissions in half by 2030. That date is coming up very soon. It’s a very big job and in order to get there, we need to use the tools that we have at hand. So science has kind of taken us as far as it can in the time that we have. Fortunately, it is enough and we have what we need to get at least… The latest data is that we have the technology in hand to eliminate about 75 percent of today’s emissions.

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: There are some sectors and some industries that are more technically challenging so we do need to invest in and support improvements there and make the technologies cheaper and easier and faster to develop, but at the same time, the most critical thing is to put in place what’s needed to get halfway to where we need to be by 2030 because there is no realistic way to limit and avoid catastrophic warming if we don’t do that. We have run out of time for technical salvation, unfortunately.

Jeff Schechtman: There seems to be certainly a lot of movement towards electric cars, towards alternative energy sources. Even in the food category that you were talking about, there’s been surprising, I think some would argue, acceptance of plant-based foods. What about the area of flight where there doesn’t seem to be anything on the horizon to really make a significant change?

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: Yeah, that’s right. So flying is an area where we really need behavior change. That’s because there are not viable technical solutions to make flying not pollute the climate. Electric planes exist for short distances and small planes, but the physics are such that there is no realistic possibility of long-distance electric aviation and we don’t have the technologies we need at hand ready to decarbonize aviation. So that means we actually need to stay on the ground and dramatically reduce flying.

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: That is something that I actually study. I lead a research program called The Takeoff of Staying on the Ground. That’s a movement that started in Sweden over the last several years. Greta Thunberg has helped popularize it and raise the profile of it, but a lot was happening before even that was the case. It’s both a political shift that we see with a flight tax that made the cost of flying at least a little bit closer to its true cost and also a cultural change where we see opinion leaders and celebrities vowing to be flight-free. There’s a movement for being flight-free that also exists in the US and is gaining ground. I think that is starting to really shift the conversation and the way people think about how we travel, what it means to travel, alternatives to still have adventures and connections and collaborations around the world without the need for physical travel or for flying.

Jeff Schechtman: There’s a sense right now and we’re seeing it as the travel numbers come up literally week after week that after a year of being cooped up, people are more determined than ever to travel right now.

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: Yes, and I understand that. I mean I have really enjoyed taking those daily lunch walks, but I would appreciate seeing something in more than a few kilometers walk from my house. So I certainly get that hunger and that desire, but I think we have to be really cognizant that we are alive at this really critical moment and our choices have effects for actually thousands of years. The carbon that we put in the atmosphere today, some of it lasts more than 10,000 years. So that’s about twice as long as Stonehenge or the Great Pyramids have been around. That kind of climate pollution is determining possibilities for life on earth both for people and for the species we share the planet with.

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: So we really have to be thinking of our choices on that scale and thinking about okay, what does it mean to have a good life? How do we get away from valuing and prioritizing and holding up in the media the kind of high-carbon lifestyle that we do today, but what does it mean to have a low-carbon high life, a great life that is much less climate polluting? What would travel and vacations and adventure look like in that regard? There are lots of creative possibilities. I have a student who hand-built a raft and rafted through a river in Denmark, his home country, and had an amazing adventure. So I mean there are ways to have adventure and travel and novelty close to home that don’t rely on flying.

Jeff Schechtman: To what extent should we be also thinking about this from an economic perspective?

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: Well, that is essential. I mean we know that people make decisions and are very much influenced by the signals they get from the market, and I think there we need to realize the market and economics is a human invention. It’s physics that determines climate change and the sort of biophysical reality that we live in, but people can and do and should be changing the rules of the market to be in line with a stable and safe climate and a thriving living world. So basically, we need economics to work within the world that we live in and share this limited physical world to use the resources we have wisely and ensure everybody has a good life.

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: For example, that means that we need to stop subsidizing things that are dangerous and unsustainable and instead make it cheaper and more feasible to do things that are not harming the climate instead. There’s definitely a movement to eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels. Right now, we spend about 6.5 percent of global GDP subsidizing fossil fuels. So something that we know we need to actually eliminate and phase out and stop the production and consumption of we’re currently making cheaper. So that makes no sense.

Jeff Schechtman: What about things like carbon capture and other things that have been talked about as a way to address this? How should individuals look at that and the prospect of those things?

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: Well, I think what we need to realize is that all the climate cares about is how much carbon in total we add to the atmosphere. There is a very limited role for the possibility of actually physically removing carbon from the atmosphere. It just makes so much more sense to prevent a mess in the first place rather than have some idea that we’ll be able to clean it up later with technology that actually doesn’t exist at scale right now. There are some natural climate solutions like restoring and protecting ecosystems.

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: It’s more useful to think of, for example, preserving forests as necessary and essential and important for biodiversity and for clean air and water and the other benefits that those forests might provide, but we can’t be counting on nature to do the work for us. We know that we’re actually destabilizing nature. The more warming we have, the more degradation of ecosystems, the less able our oceans and ecosystems are to take up and store our carbon. So we really have to get to zero emissions on our own and any kind of additional carbon removal might be a possibility down the line, but if we don’t actually get to the root of the problem, it’s not even really relevant to think about.

Jeff Schechtman: In your view, what do the governments of the world need to be doing, particularly in the West, to encourage the kind of individual behavior we’re talking about with respect to policy? Are these things that need to be draconian punishments or does it need to be a nudge or does it need to be economic incentives?

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: Well speaking of nudges, nudges are this idea that the default choice which could be easy to avoid would be more sustainable. They’re very popular politically because they just sound so appealing. Oh, you can just kind of gently encourage people in the right direction, but unfortunately, what the research shows is that they’re not actually very effective. We’ve done a study of studies where we assembled many hundreds of studies that were done using nudges and other kinds of behavioral techniques and they have a relatively small effectiveness and small potential for the kind of big emissions reductions that we need. So we really do have to change the rules of the game and that means we have to stop making it the cheapest and easiest alternative to burn fossil fuels and over-consume them basically.

Jeff Schechtman: Finally, are you optimistic about all of this?

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: Well, I think hope is a little complicated for a climate scientist because I feel like people often ask this question as kind of a proxy for, ‘How worried do I need to be? Can I just give up? Is it too late?’ I think my answer is I can’t overstate how urgent and critical the situation is, but I do know both from data and from experience that it is possible that we actually fix this problem. I think hope actually comes down to more your view of human nature and what humans are capable of doing and making possible. There, I think the reason for hope is action, not the other way around. So we shouldn’t wait for hope to strike us and motivate us in taking the action we know we need. It’s through taking action that we both give ourselves and others hope.

Jeff Schechtman: Kimberly Nicholas, her book is Under the Sky We Make: How to be Human in a Warming World. Kimberly, I thank you so much for spending time with us.

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: Thank you, Jeff. Thanks for the chance to talk.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. Thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Jyrki Huusko / Flickr  (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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