This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, released the first part of its latest report on the state of the Earth’s climate. It details with greater certainty than ever before the links between human activity and extreme weather patterns: fires, floods, and rising sea levels. Journalist David Wallace-Wells and sociologist Dana Fisher join Ryan Grim to discuss the takeaways from the new report.
Ryan Grim: Earlier this week, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which we all know as the IPCC, released its sixth report on the state of the climate. It confirmed what a lot of us already believed to be true, and it also added some new dangers. Its top-line takeaway was that we can now conclusively say that the extreme events we’re living through: wildfires, stronger and more frequent hurricanes, droughts, crazy heat domes, can be linked directly to climate change, which itself can be linked directly to human activity — namely, the burning of fossil fuels.
BBC Anchor: The world’s largest ever report into climate change has just been published, setting out the stark reality of the state of the planet. Environmental experts have called it a massive wake-up call to governments to cut emissions.
RG: The report came the same week that the Senate passed the outline of a $3.5 trillion budget resolution that is heavy on climate investments. The outcome of that bill is far from certain, however. The IPCC’s report is just the first phase of what it will release; two other working groups are finalizing their own products, one focused on mitigation and adaptation measures, and the other looking at what humanity can actually do about all of this and how.
Climate scientists get all of the ink when it comes to the IPCC. But it’s the social scientists, the ones who study power and the process of actually finding a political solution to the crisis, who are more important now.
We’ll talk to Dana Fisher, a sociologist working with the IPCC later in the show.
But first, back in 2017, reporter David Wallace Wells wrote an article for New York magazine that explored the worst-case scenarios that scientists had projected when it comes to climate change. The article caused a sensation, and it was turned into a 2019 book you’ve probably heard of called “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.” In the wake of this IPCC report, I wanted to hear how David’s thinking on climate change has evolved since this famous article.
Author David Wallace Wells joins us now.
David, welcome to Deconstructed.
David Wallace Wells: My pleasure. It’s great to be here. Good to talk to you.
RG: Yes. So, you know, big week for you and for your book “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” which, if anybody listening hasn’t read, yet, they ought to. It flowed out of this incredibly viral 2017 New York Magazine article that you wrote which, at the time, was, I think, the most-read article in the magazine’s history. Do you still hold that crown as far as you know?
DWW: [Laughs.] No. I mean, the way that traffic works is often, you know, it grows over time. So I think I’m in, like, fourth place at this point.
RG: Ah. Mmm. Sorry.
DWW: The title was originally taken by the excerpt from Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury.”
RG: [Laughs.] Oh, yeah. Oh, that makes sense. That was probably read around the globe.
RG: As your piece was. That’s a big year for New York Magazine with those two back-to-back. So there was for people who didn’t follow this, there was some significant criticism from the kind of climate science community in the immediate wake of that article. And can you walk people through what the reaction was, and did some of that take you off guard?
DWW: Well, you know, I would say, first of all, in bulk, the response was really positive. Obviously, tons of people shared it. Tons of scientists were really excited that someone was comfortable writing kind of openly about the risk of worst-case scenarios, which was the sort of explicitly stated project of that piece.
There was some significant pushback, also, which took two different forms. There was one set of criticisms that I had been sort of irresponsible presenting the science. And so pretty quickly, in response to that, we published an annotated version of the story within two or three days, where every data point or summarized piece of research, you know, we link to that research, we explained exactly how we were making the connections that we were making.
But there were sort of simultaneously a critique of the rhetorical approach of the piece, which, as I mentioned, was to really look at what a worst-case scenario outcome for climate this century could be. And a lot of folks thought that that was irresponsible fear-mongering, and that it was likely to lead to many more people being turned off — turning away and giving up — than it would getting them engaged and mobilized and to prioritize the need to take action.
And to a certain extent, I expected that criticism. But, you know, I also knew from my own experience, that that perspective was just at least narrow minded. Because I was someone who, when I read about somewhat rosier outcomes for climate change, wasn’t all that motivated to do anything. And when I started seeing myself the possibility of much scarier futures, that’s when I really became a climate freak and wrote this story, wrote this book, and I’ve spent the last few years pretty single mindedly dedicated to the subject. So I knew that my experience was sort of proof that a different kind of storytelling would be more effective, at least on some people, and maybe even on more people than the old, more cautious variety had been.
And I think that was really vindicated not just, you know, in the response to my story and my book, which, by the way, is less focused on worst-case scenarios and more focused on the warming we’re likely to see, you know, if we just stay the course we’re on, but really, in the response to the U.N.’s 1.5-degree-Celsius report, which came out in the fall of 2018, and is, I think, in some fundamental way, responsible for the global political awakening, of which Greta, and the Green New Deal, and Extinction Rebellion are all a part. And it’s to those political movements, I think, that we all collectively owe a somewhat brighter climate future than seemed possible a couple of years ago. We are very much in the danger zone. We’re not going to be able to return to a climate that our grandparents would have admired or found acceptable. But where we’re heading looks better than it did a couple of years ago. And I think that has a lot to do with the real activism done in response to that quite alarming scientific report. And so for that reason, I, on some level, I think we have alarmism to thank for the insufficient, but still kind of notable progress that’s been made.
RG: Right. And just the name of that one major youth organization Extinction Rebellion, gives away the game. They’re talking about rebelling against the very extinction of the species, which climate scientists would say, well, you shouldn’t even talk about that.
But what I found so remarkable about your project is that you weren’t fabricating anything out of thin air, you weren’t connecting imaginary dots that weren’t out there. All you were doing was taking the science that was already out there and saying: OK, the scientists are saying that there’s a 50 percent chance that this is the likely path, there’s a 30 percent chance that this is a path, and there’s a 10 percent chance here, that we’re headed in this direction, and you’d look at that 10 percent chance or even at that, that 1 percent chance, and and elevate it and say, This is what scientists are saying, is actually conceivable.
And if scientists are already saying it’s conceivable, it does seem like the people of the world ought to be able to know that. They ought to be able to participate in a discussion. I think you said somewhere once that if there’s a 1 percent chance that we’re setting off a chain reaction that could lead to our own extinction, that people ought to know about that.
So since your article came out in 2017, how has the science shifted? Has it shifted more towards that 1 percent? Or has it affirmed some of the rosier, kind of 50 percent likelihood chances?
DWW: In general, I would say the really, really extreme warming scenarios I wrote about in the article seem to me to be considerably less likely. That’s not really the result of new science; it’s the result of new facts and trajectories in energy use, which is to say, even just a few years ago, it seemed like an uphill battle to permanently retire coal, and to really dream of, you know, a total decarbonization of the of the power sector.
Now, because that stuff is so cheap — I think in 90 percent of the world renewables are cheaper than then dirty energy now, and they’re going to get cheaper going forward — it starts to seem a lot more likely that we bend the curve on emissions, not just in places like Europe and the U.S., which can waste some money making the transition, but in parts of the world, in the developing world, where it had long been assumed that the only path to sort of global middle classness was through the burning of coal and oil. And it now seems possible — it’s not to say inevitable — but it seems possible that you could engineer a sort of a leapfrog transition, where many of those countries go directly from, say, burning wood, or even for 700 million people on the planet, having no electricity at all, to a situation where renewables provide at least the bulk of energy production, if not all of it.
And there’s sort of an admirable justice element in there, too, because of where they’re located on the planet, it’s the developing countries in the world that are awash in renewable power. You know, you can charge a lot more solar in Sub-Saharan Africa than you can in northern Germany. And that means that there is some amount of potential energy redistribution, energy wealth redistribution, that could go on as part of this transition, if it’s engineered properly.
RG: So the IPCC report came out this week. It’s the first one since, I guess, 2013 and 2014. The headline that it made was about, they can now firmly connect severe weather events to human activity, to human-driven climate change. What else emerged from that report that you found striking?
DWW: Well, there were two big things. The first is they have a clear sense of the range of possible outcomes, they say, given a certain emissions level, which is to some degree comforting, because it’s a little bit smaller than the range they had used in the past.
But, to me, the most striking detail was how quickly they expect us to cross this 1.5-degree threshold, which was the stated goal of the Paris Accords was to keep us to 1.5. And the remarkable thing is that they find that we are going to cross that threshold in every emissions scenario, even the emissions scenario that was designed to allow us to stay below 1.5, they now say will breach that threshold and breach it as soon as early next decade, in the early 2030s.
Now, they say that there is some possibility of what’s called overshoot, which is to say that if we decarbonize fast enough from that point, we could actually make enough of a difference that we would then cool the planet’s temperature back down. But frankly, I think that’s a little hard to imagine and, on some level, what this means is that they’re acknowledging just how impossibly difficult it will be for the world to stay below 1.5 degrees. The very scenario they designed to make that possible, it now looks [like] won’t even allow us to do it.
We could end up in some really quite bleak scenarios even if we do better on emissions than we thought we could a few years ago. And to put a few numbers on it, these get a little wonky, but we’re at about 1.2 degrees of warming right now — some datasets say 1.3 — scientists have basically said we want to aim for 1.5, 2 degrees is what’s called a “catastrophic level.” As of the last major IPCC report, what was called “Business as Usual,” was a scenario that would land us somewhere between 4 and 4.5 degrees, but the sort of worst-case warming outcome of that business as usual emissions scenario could bring us as high as 8.
So now, energy trajectories seem likely to give a median future warming of about three. Unfortunately, there’s a 1 in 3 chance that even if we cut our emissions to that level, stay on the path that we’re on, we could end up with warming well over four, even five degrees of warming. So there’s so much uncertainty baked into our understanding of the climate system, and I think one of the values of talking about extreme outcomes is it just reminds you of what a big range you’re really dealing with. If you’re just talking about median projections, you tend to think that it’s very mechanistic, and every single ounce of carbon that’s emitted, you can count exactly the warming impact down the line. But things could get a lot messier than that. And really, what we should be doing is preparing ourselves to deal with a surprisingly bad climate outcome for the precautionary principle but also because, so often, when it comes to climate change over the last few decades, the impacts have arrived faster than we thought, warm temperatures have risen faster than we thought, and we’re at risk of that happening again and again in the decades ahead.
RG: By the way, quick side note, do you think that the United States’ concern about climate change was diminished to any degree at all, by the fact that we talk about it in Celsius, and Americans don’t quite grasp Celsius?
DWW: You know, my own feeling is basically not. The bigger problem is just that the numbers are so small, whether you’re talking about them in Fahrenheit or Celsius [laughs]. I think, you know, if it was like, you know, if the threshold of catastrophe was like 3.7, as opposed to 2, those numbers still seem really, really small.
RG: Yeah, true, true.
DWW: I think there are probably better ways of messaging the risk than we have done so far. And one thing I always like to keep in mind and remind people is today 1.2 degrees warmer than the pre-Industrial Average, that means that the planet’s already hotter than it has ever been in the entire history of human civilization. So absolutely everything that we’ve ever remembered as a species, from the invention of agriculture, through the development of modern nation-states and industrial capitalism, pop music, and Hollywood, absolutely everything is the result of climate conditions that we’ve already left behind, and we’ll never be getting back. So it’s like we’ve already landed on a new planet with new climate conditions, and need to figure it out from there.
The one other thing I should say about the big picture, are things getting better or worse, is that we’ve continued to delay. We’re not cutting emissions globally. And that’s meant, among other things, that the window of opportunity to stabilize the planet’s climate at a lower temperature level has already closed.
In the big IPCC report that was released this week, right at the top of the summary for policymakers was this quite eye-opening fact, which isn’t news to anyone like me who follows the science closely, but I think has been massively under-represented in mainstream discourse, which is that roughly one-third, and possibly more, of all of the warming that would have taken place because of the carbon that we’ve put into the atmosphere already has been masked by the air pollution that we’ve also put up there. So air pollution, aerosol particles reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere, and that means that the global temperature is probably about a half-degree cooler than it would be if we had no air pollution. And that means that if we cut air pollution — save, it’s calculated, as many as 10 million lives a year — we would then automatically be adding something like a full half-degree of warming to our total, which would mean that we would be functionally as close to the 2-degree threshold that we thought we were to the 1.5-degree threshold.
Now, scientists say there is a kind of an escape hatch, like a little exit ramp there, if we cut methane emissions, which is a separate greenhouse gas, incredibly quickly, since methane has a shorter life in the atmosphere, it disappears quickly. But it’s sort of like at some point, we’re just piling impossible project on impossible project, and in order to allow ourselves to imagine a comfortable future when the far likelier outcome is that we just adjust and normalize to a much more brutal climate even in the next few decades, even as we’re decarbonizing rapidly, even as we’re managing this rapid transition, the impacts are going to grow quite intense and probably our main response is going to just be to accept much more suffering around the world, especially in the poorer parts of the world where global warming is already hitting hardest.
Air pollution — just from the burning of fossil fuels — it’s been estimated to kill 8.7 million people every single year. When you factor in other kinds of pollution, you get over 10 million. That is just an unconscionable horror. And, in a certain way, it may even make sense for us to think about climate change primarily in terms of air pollution, rather than vice versa. Because the urgency of acting, given those numbers, is so strong, but also because it’s a much more manageable rhetorical pitch, in the sense that cutting your carbon emissions, the benefit of that is distributed globally; cutting air pollution, the benefits of that are distributed locally. So the people who are living closest to a particular coal plant, or oil refinery, or highway, those people are going to benefit dramatically, immediately, and in ways that they see in their own lives. Cutting carbon emissions is a much more diffuse and complicated geopolitical dilemma. And I think it’s one reason it’s taken us so long to move on it. But when we think about cutting pollution, air pollution in particular, first of all, everybody now expects clean air in the U.S. at least. And, second of all, the benefits are local and immediate. And I think that’s a very promising rhetorical path for us going forward.
RG: And this is just anecdotal. But during the pandemic, my family and I, we moved up to Vermont, so the kids could go to school up there. And within a few months, my eldest daughter’s asthma went away, and we weaned her off her inhaler. It was quite remarkable to watch it happen.
DWW: Yeah, it’s incredible. The number of things that are connected to air pollution — I’m working on a long piece about it now — but it is just insane. Like, it’s not just respiratory ailments like you would expect, it’s cognitive performance.
So in Los Angeles, there was a pollution event where they got worried, they put some air purifiers in all the classrooms in the school district, and I don’t like test scores, but looking at test scores, the performance of kids in those classes improved by as much as if you had cut the class size by one-third. So those are the kinds of gains that charter schools have tried to figure out how to solve for a generation now, and all you had to do was put an air purifier in this classroom to get the same benefits.
There are effects on mental health, there are effects on development of children in utero and out of utero, on premature birth and low birth weight, it’s so dramatic that when they installed E-ZPass, the automatic toll collectors in the U.S., people who lived in the neighborhoods that lived around those toll plazas, had raised a premature birth and low birth weight fall between 10 and 15 percent, just because there was a little bit less exhaust in the air because the cars weren’t slowing down as much through the toll plaza.
On economic performance, it has been estimated that India is losing something like 8 percent of GDP every year because of air pollution, in addition to losing, in Delhi, the average lifespan is cut by nine years by air pollution. I mean, the data is like everywhere you look, it’s horrifying. And everybody, in every way, is better off through cleaner air. Which, nicely, for anybody who cares about climate will be achieved if we decarbonize the power system.
RG: As the author of this book, what’s the question that you get most often when you’re out?
DWW: Well, I think a lot of people ask me sort of ugly, personal questions about, like, where they should move. How should they be adapting?
DWW: A lot of people ask me what they can do. And they’re often not all that interested in the obvious answer, which is agitate politically for a politics that prioritizes this.
What they want to hear is: If you buy an electric car and eat less red meat, then you can feel guiltless. But the matter of personal guilt is not, to me, the most important metric here, and all of the changes that we need to get to a really stable, and even ideally, prosperous future, all of those changes are policy scale, not individual scale. I can’t build a new electric grid on my own, I can’t build a solar plant on my own, we can’t develop carbon-free jet fuel, like I can’t do that in my garage.
And we need much larger-scale focus and investment from not just our government, but all the governments around the world to make that happen. And that means that political action is the most important thing going forward.
I’ve been super surprised, to be honest, how much of a global political awakening we’ve seen over the last couple of years. I didn’t really think anything like that was going to be possible. But thanks to Greta, and Extinction Rebellion, and Sunrise, and the School Strikers like there really is a whole new moment here. And policy is following. It’s following really slowly. It’s mostly following through empty rhetoric at this point. But I think the age of denial is functionally over. And just about anyone, in any position of power, anywhere in the world now acknowledges not just the reality, but the urgency of climate change. Almost none of them are doing enough about it. But, on some level, it’s still progress that they’re even making a point of acknowledging the crisis.
RG: And I do think that you deserve some measure of credit for that. And thank you so much for joining us here on Deconstructed.
DWW: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me. Great to talk.
RG: We’re joined now by Dana Fisher. She’s a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and the director of the Program for Society and the Environment. She’s also a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report. She’s working on the social side; the citizen engagement, civic activism side.
And so Dana, welcome to Deconstructed.
Dana R. Fisher: Thanks for having me, Ryan.
RG: And so this week, as the news would have it, the IPCC presented its report. But there’s actually a lot more to it than that. It is not quite accurate to say that it presented its full report. And so can you explain to us a little bit about the internal workings of the IPCC and why it is that this particular report came out this week, and what is still to come in the future?
DF: Sure. OK, so the IPCC is the scientific process that was developed to provide a review of the state of the science around climate change, to inform the international policymaking process. And the international policymaking processes around the climate regime, which is basically the idea that there will be a multilateral agreement where all nation-states agree to address the issue of climate change. And the expectation from the beginning was that there needed to be this state of knowledge and a review of the state of the knowledge that comes out, I think, every five to seven years, that reviews where knowledge is to understand what we know and what we don’t know yet so that policymakers can be informed.
And what’s worth pointing out here is that the IPCC is broken up into three different working groups. The first working group, which really focuses specifically on the natural science side —
RG: And that’s the one that came out this week.
DF: And that’s what came out. And that is one-third of the IPCC.
Working Group II, which is on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, and then the third one is Working Group III, and Working Group III is actually defined as being about the mitigation of climate change. So that’s about trying to stop climate change: the climate from warming, extreme weather events from happening, which has to do with reducing the concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere. And that’s the group that I’m in. And that’s where they have relegated most of the social sciences.
There has been some sprinkled throughout. I mean, and actually, there’s a bunch of adaptation work around health and other social science that has to do with adaptation that’s in Working Group II, but the majority of the work around the social side is in Working Group II and Working Group III.
Working Group III, our report comes out in March, which is unfortunate. And I was just in a different conversation with some authors from the other working groups earlier today. And one of them, who was part of Working Group I, pointed out that everything is six months behind or more because of Covid. So the climate regime is moving forward with this big COP26, that’s going to be taking place in December, and the idea was originally that all of the Sixth Assessment will be done by then. But we’re behind.
RG: And there’s something symbolic about that natural scientists, the climate scientists, their report comes out first. And then after everybody has stopped paying attention down the road, you get a report from people about: how can we adapt to this, and what can we do about it? And so it winds up that the climate scientists kind of end up being the ones that do the social sciences, as well.
DF: Well, I would say it differently. I say they get asked a lot of social scientific questions, because everybody actually wants to know about what this means for the world and how we stop it. And the natural scientists are not trained in understanding that on a social scale.
My job as a contributing author for Working Group III of the IPCC, and as a social scientist, is to review all of the literature that exists, which is what they do for the natural sciences, right? The atmospheric scientists have to review all the literature that was written, and then create this assessment that’s a synthesis of the findings, which is what the report is. And that’s what I’m doing for Working Group III, and what all the authors are doing throughout the whole process.
But you’re right. I mean, the one thing I would say is that initially, when this whole process started, it made a lot of sense for the modelers to come out first, right? To understand how the climate was expected to change because they were modeling stuff that wasn’t really being observed yet and there was so much of this question about the precautionary principle and the degree to which we really should change society based on predictions, based on models that we don’t know if they’re really happening or not.
In this day of experiencing climate effects around the world, as we’ve seen just this summer with the fires and the droughts and the heat dome that’s going on. Today, apparently, in Europe, they’re going to be over 120 degrees and reach an all-time record, the poles are melting, there’s this extreme flooding that’s been happening around the world. I mean, given the extreme weather events that we’re seeing, which are absolutely the effect of anthropogenic climate change, leading with that, which is basically a foregone conclusion, and everybody knows it, and there’s 99.9 percent consensus about it, makes very little sense. Because really what we need to think about now is how is society going to adapt and respond and hopefully mitigate the problem.
RG: Right. We’re all grateful to the IPCC for its work, but we don’t need them anymore to tell us that it’s happening. What we do need is to figure out a way to get through to people, and to get to a place where the kind of power-players around the world will take action on this.
And so having studied this your entire life, more or less, what is the answer? What are we doing wrong? And how do we get people in power to actually act on this?
DF: Just a little question: How do we do it all?
DF: Well, that’s an easy question, Ryan.
RG: Right, and preferably within the next year.
DF: [Laughs.] I mean, so one of the things that I think is really interesting, and has come out of these discussions since this Working Group I report came out, is this distinction between individual efforts to respond to the climate issue versus collective efforts? And there is a lot of discussion that what people should really be doing is going home and taking stock of their carbon footprint and how they reduce it. And there is no question in my mind that certainly everybody should think about that.
But research shows, across the board that we can not address the climate crisis, in terms of mitigating against climate change, and removing or dealing with the concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere, some of which has to be removed for us to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of heating based on the models that are stated within Working Group I’s work, if we’re going to do that, it is a huge lift that will involve infrastructural change, institutional change, and it needs to come from the large-scale institutional systems, mostly coming from the state and coming from the economic sector. And in general, frequently, the economic sector doesn’t tend to move much until the state pushes it to. So it’s really going to have to be a top-down effort.
So given that we know that, then the question is: How do we make that happen? And, you know, that is one of the questions that I’ve been asking my entire adult life. There’s not an easy answer to that, because climate change and the climate climate issue is really about the entire system on which industrialization is based, and it has to do with the whole way that we use energy and process energy, and dispose of the byproducts of energy consumption, right?
DF: So I think, you know, number one, that needs to be done is we need to support, and encourage, and elect people in the office who are willing to do the kind of work that is needed. It’s great that we have an infrastructure bill passed by the Senate. We need the companion bill to go through, we need this reconciliation to happen, and it needs to be a first step in a larger process. And it needs to come from the top. But there’s no question that we, as individual citizens, have to play a role in encouraging and pressuring elected officials to do the work that’s needed to address this problem. And if the people who are in power are not willing to do it, we need to change them.
RG: Is there anywhere around the world that has done this well? Or who has done this the best? What country or what movements should people learn from?
DF: So in terms of responding to climate change?
DF: I mean there are some countries that I don’t know that we could really say that they did it the best, necessarily, but what I’ll say is that there are some countries that decided early on to invest in hydropower, and clean energy, but mostly hydropower, right? So we see Scandinavian countries.
For example, let’s take Norway. OK, Norway makes a ton of money on exporting fossil fuels, that is sending them elsewhere. Their entire energy infrastructure within the country is 100 percent hydropower. Now, I’m not sure how old you are. But I remember growing up and in the 90s, when I started doing my research, there were huge protests against these big dam projects, right, that would create hydropower and flood areas and affect indigenous populations, etc., and so forth. But countries that did this, like, say, Norway, which all of a sudden have electricity that is generated not from dirty fossil fuels, like oil, natural gas, coal, are in a wonderful position where they can follow through with commitments to reduce their carbon footprints much more easily.
So for example, right now, Norway has a policy in place where they’re basically incentivizing their population to buy electric vehicles. And, the challenge that many people talk about with electric vehicles is that for example, my car, I’m looking out the window at my car, right now. I have a Nissan LEAF here. When I plug in my leaf, unless I’ve got solar panels on the roof, or I have bought 100 percent clean energy, I’m getting whatever comes out of the grid. But if I’m doing that, in Norway, where 100 percent of that energy is coming from hydropower, so it’s clean, then, all of a sudden, you’ve really affected your carbon footprint in an important way.
Those kinds of decisions — I mean, shifting over to hydropower for a country at this point is just not happening, not gonna happen, because there are just too many reasons why it’s too hard to do at this point. And Norway was able to do it in northern parts of the country where there weren’t a lot of people living, so it was a lot easier. But one of the things that you can see here is that it’s this investment in infrastructure that then is used to nudge the population to make purchasing decisions. For example, if you make clean power cheaper, consumers then choose to buy solar power, wind power, and hydropower to some degree, and that will have a big effect.
In terms of thinking through activism, and individuals, and movements. I think that there’s no question that the environmental movement and the climate movement has played a big role in where we are today in the United States in terms of moving forward on climate policies that were unfathomable even eight years ago, let alone four years ago. So I think that participation in movements matters in that way, in terms of the way that I have to think about movements for my work for the IPCC, in terms of the carbon effects so far, it’s to be seen. Right? Because movements basically work indirectly to pressure elected officials to make changes that then will have concrete effects. So it’s an indirect process, and we don’t know the effects yet. And that’s one of the things that I’m trying to study in my work right now is to try to figure out what does it mean to participate in a protest if we’re trying to think about just carbon.
RG: At the same time, want to unpack some of the lessons from the Yellow Vest protests? There’s a sense among some that climate is kind of an elite issue. And so when you had Macron in France implement climate policies that working people in France perceived as likely to increase their cost of living to a very diffuse benefit for an issue that they were not deeply invested in, you wound up with this intense pushback to the Yellow Vest protests. And I wonder if we would have gotten something similar in the United States, if the cap and trade bill had actually been passed into law, and that wound up being a setback. I mean, what lessons did social movements draw from that?
DF: Well, I think in terms of thinking through, you know, the Kerry-Boxer and Waxman-Markey bills that ended up being unsuccessful at the beginning of the first term of the Obama administration, I actually do not think we would have seen a lot of pushback the way you’re talking about from movements, counter-movements, that mobilized against a cap-and-trade bill, because I don’t think that individual citizens would have experienced much of an effect of that, based on the way that they modeled and predicted how it would affect individuals.
I think a better example would be, and this would be more similar to the Macron policy, is if President Biden were not right now trying to do everything he can to lower gas prices, and instead decided, actually, we’re going to raise gas prices a little more, which will motivate people to shift to cleaner energy and drive less, because transportation is one of the substantial contributors to our carbon footprint.
RG: And we’re recording this on Wednesday, and he just pushed OPEC with a statement.
DF: I know! That was what I was just going to say, is that if he was serious about this, he wouldn’t do that. Because this is going to lead people to drive less. No doubt! I mean, anybody who was planning a Labor Day, last-minute trip, it’s a huge expense unless you’ve got a car like I do, except for I can’t go very far, because there is no charging infrastructure in place for me to charge my car along the way. So if we saw that, that would be more similar to the Yellow Vest, because what we would end up with is the people who are going to feel it the most are the people who need cheap gas prices.
RG: And so what is the answer, like? How do you bridge that divide? How do you move climate from an elite concern to a broad-based concern?
DF: Well, I think there’s been a lot of discussion around environmental equity. And I think a lot of environmental groups have been pushing this quite substantially in the ways that they’re thinking about their perspectives on a Green New Deal, which involves basically investing in communities, particularly frontline communities, communities of color, to help them to transition to a cleaner economy. And I think that that’s really the way forward here.
So, on the one hand, invest in providing resources and training for people who are going to be most at risk economically from a shift away from a carbon-based economy, number one. Number two is also to identify what a lot of research calls the hyper-polluters. And if you look at the research, there’s this really interesting phenomenon that happens where a small number of firms are the ones that are the dirtiest, and we see it across all sorts of pollution, but it also includes carbon pollution, where it’s not that all companies are really emitting in the dirtiest possible way. There are just a handful of them. And if you start to penalize them and require these companies to follow the rules, as they’ve already been implemented, that will have a huge effect as well. And that really won’t affect consumers and individual citizens at all. I mean, perhaps it’ll show up in some pricing, but it’ll be a very indirect effect on citizens. But the companies that are not following through and regulating their emissions of all sorts of pollutants like they’re supposed to, should be held accountable. And I think that’s absolutely an important step, and it should be an important step as we move forward if there are more regulations with regard to carbon emissions, which we don’t see right now in the United States.
RG: On an individual level, what does social science say about the best ways to kind of break through the partisan divide and get through to people on the climate question? What kind of messages work on people?
DF: Well, I think that, first and foremost, messages from friends and neighbors work much better than messages from people we don’t know. We know this across all sorts of political research. So not just around climate, but just in general. I mean, it works better on vaccines as well, right? There’s this new research coming out about how you use your social ties to motivate people to get vaccinated against Covid. So it’s exactly the same around climate change.
But, in addition to that, I think that it’s really a lot easier to think about the community level, rather than going up and starting to talk about the Paris Agreement. It used to be that we would talk about climate change, and people would end up being like: Well, I don’t care about the polar bears, I care about what’s going on in my community. But what we’re seeing across the country right now and around the world is that communities around the world are feeling the effects of climate change. And this report that came out from the IPCC just now shows that is just going to get worse. And people are going to feel it more and more. And so connecting the lived experiences that people are having in their communities around a changing climate, with weather events that are becoming more extreme and heat waves and droughts and floods, et cetera, and so forth, to thinking about how elected officials should be representing the concerns of the individual citizens around these issues, is, I think, the best place to go, rather than framing this broadly around climate change and talking about this as being connected to this broad international regime, I think it’s a lot better to focus on the community level. And it also helps you to communicate with your neighbors and your community members when you’re talking about it in a really local way.
RG: What kind of changes have you seen in recent years among public attitudes toward climate change?
DF: We’ve seen, generally, an increasing concern around climate change, overall. We recently have seen this influx of the youngest generation being much more concerned about climate change. And you saw what that leads to with the Friday’s for Future Youth Climate Movement, getting actively involved in, you know, starting in 2018, following the example of Greta Thunberg in Sweden. I mean, and that happened around the world, there’s actually another Global Climate Strike scheduled for September 24, in fact.
So young people are extremely concerned around the issue. So there’s a generational effect. But, generally, people are concerned about the issue of climate change. But there is a partisan divide. And the partisan divide then affects what people think should be done about it. I mean, anybody you talk to, including very conservative members of my family, when you talk to them, they recognize that the climate is changing. But what they think should be done about it is very different based on who they support and their political ideology, unfortunately.
RG: What do they think should be done about it?
DF: Well, in some cases, they think it’s just natural, and it’ll all end up OK. I mean, I think that there’s been a lot of climate misinformation presented. And certainly we see media outlets that are pushing this climate misinformation. So everybody knows it’s warmer, everybody knows that the weather seems a little wacky, and getting stronger storms, etc. But when climate misinformation is being pushed, that’s really not driven by fossil-fuel consumption and it’s not something that you can do anything about, people basically end up feeling hopeless about it, and just deciding that that’s the way the world’s gonna be. Unfortunately, that means a lot of people who are the most vulnerable are going to be impacted first, and that’s really problematic. And it’s unfortunate that that kind of misinformation leads to that.
RG: Yeah. So, this show posts on Friday, we’re recording this on Wednesday. In the early morning, the Senate approved a $3.5 trillion budget resolution, which includes hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars for clean energy and climate change. That comes on top of a $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure package that passed earlier this week and headed to the house. The budget resolution is just the first step. We have weeks — we have, in fact, months — to go in drafting that legislation. But it’s going to come to a head in the fall. What’s your read on how significant this package is, or these set of packages is?
DF: So the set of packages, first of all, put together, it basically is the entirety of President Biden’s climate plan, which was remarkable when he ran as a candidate, and if it actually gets implemented in the state that it is in right now, which is less money than what it was originally proposed, but you always see that going from a proposal to an actual implementation, it will be unprecedented, and it will be a game-changer for the United States of America in terms of what we can do around climate, and the degree to which we can be seen as a global leader, or not, on the issue of climate, in terms of our technology, in terms of the way that our country is responding to this crisis.
RG: What are the pieces that are most significant in it, do you think?
DF: Certainly support for building a clean energy infrastructure. There’s going to be opportunities to help individuals transition to using clean energy in their homes. But also creating infrastructure so that electric cars can be used across the country.
I mean, I just got back from a family holiday in Delaware. And whenever we go to Delaware, we have to take the plug-in hybrid, because we can’t take the electric car. There is nowhere for me to charge my car in all of Bethany Beach. And it’s so frustrating; it’s the only month of the year that I actually have to buy gas like a normal American. And it’s so frustrating. And that will change if these bills actually make it through and the President signs them.
And just that, in and of itself, with the push to transition to more electric vehicles, pushing the fleet the way the Biden administration is, there’s so many changes that could happen that could put us on a path that is a much more hopeful path. But as you mentioned, Ryan, it all will come to a head, basically, I’m thinking, in the next six weeks. We will see where we as a country are going to go.
RG: Right. Well, we’ll be following it.
DF: It’s a crazy time, but it’s an exciting time as well.
RG: It sure is.
DF: Thanks so much for joining us.
RG: Thank you for having me, Ryan.
RG: That was Dana Fisher. And that’s our show.
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