Sep 30, 2020

Refocusing climate change as a human problem

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Whiz-bang inventions alone won't solve the crisis. "We need courage," says Katharine Wilkinson, who co-edited a new book with Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

Since last year on “Marketplace Tech,” we’ve been talking about how to adapt to climate change and how technology and the tech industry can help. But here’s the part where we acknowledge that climate change isn’t just about tech solutions or whiz-bang inventions. In fact, like the pandemic, climate change is a problem that reflects and exposes a lot of things about our society. 

I spoke with Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson, who co-edited a book called “All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis.” It features poems, essays and other works of art by women working on climate issues. Wilkinson told me that there’s a lot in that subtitle. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, left, and Katharine Wilkinson
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, left, and Katharine Wilkinson. (Photo courtesy of Eleanor Mayer)

Katharine Wilkinson: We need to have eyes wide open to what is happening. Listen to the science. We need courage. And then, of course, we need solutions. And not just the solutions that the climate bros are really into, like EVs and solar panels — we definitely need those. Ayana just got a Tesla.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: I think that’s the trifecta though: truth, courage and solutions. When people are like, “Well, if not hope, then what?” that’s our answer.

Molly Wood: When did we find ourselves at a point where we sort of stopped talking about climate as the thing we live, the air we breathe, the rain that falls or doesn’t fall? Do you think it’s important to, even before we start talking about solutions, to recenter the conversation as a human problem?

Johnson: Even though we didn’t cause this problem — it’s, in fact, 100 corporations who are responsible for 71% of emissions. There is a wide range of possible futures, and we deliberately curated this book to show the wide range of ways that people can contribute to building the best possible future. It includes farmers and architects and artists and journalists. And of course, scientists and policy experts and lawyers. And all of those skills are needed and very much wanted.

Wood: How much of this storytelling is also about making the simple economic argument that saving people also saves money?

Sea grasses vs. sea walls

Johnson: When we talk about the cost-benefit analysis of doing various things to address the climate crisis, we usually only focus on the costs as opposed to making sure that we are also thinking about the benefits. And I think that is quite bolstering to me as a marine ecologist by training and thinking about nature-based solutions, and how protecting and restoring nature actually makes financial sense. Because it’s cheaper to have mangroves and marshes and sea grasses than sea walls, for example. So I think this book really shows not just some sort of techno-utopian version of the future, where we innovate our way out of everything. And instead, it talks about the huge array of work that needs doing and the costs of not doing it, and what the world could look like for the better if we do.

Wood: I feel like this conversation about racial justice, climate justice, social justice, the importance of involving women in these conversations, how many women are leading solutions all over the world, is still kind of new and still kind of nascent.

Johnson: Which is so lame, but you’re right.

Wood: Which is pretty lame, but maybe takes some explaining. What is this relationship between racial justice and climate change, and why don’t people understand that?

Johnson: I think we don’t understand it because we don’t want to, because it complicates something that is already really hard. That’s the pushback that I hear most often. It’s not like, “I’m a racist, and I want to save the planet.” It’s more like, “Solving climate change is hard enough without bringing in all these other layers. Can we just please focus on climate change now, first, and we’ll deal with police not murdering Black people for no reason later?” And the answer is no. No, we can’t. We have to walk and chew gum on this one. And there are many reasons for that. One is just it’s the right thing to do. And so I hate having to give other reasons.

Communities of color

But one of those other reasons is, we know from polling by Yale and George Mason University that people of color actually are more concerned about the climate crisis. They’re more motivated to be a part of the solution, and to hold the politicians to higher standards on climate policy. But how can we expect Black people to be focused on climate solutions when making sure they have the basic right to live and breathe. And so this “I can’t breathe” has become a rallying cry across the racial and climate justice groups. It’s not just in relation to police brutality, but in the ways that communities of color are burdened with more polluted air and where power plants decide to locate themselves, and then people who are breathing that dirty air being more at risk for extreme forms of COVID-19. Of course, these things are all connected, and wouldn’t it be great if we were building the winning team by including the people who were already on board and wanted to help? And if we could unburden them from our white supremacist patriarchy, which is certainly not serving us in terms of really anything. But definitely, it’s preventing a lot of people from being a part of climate solutions, because they have to dedicate their time and energy and ingenuity toward solving other problems about quality of life and justice.

Wilkinson: And I just want to add, because I think Ayana articulates this so incredibly well, that when we think about climate change as “the problem,” I think that’s where we start to miss these intersections and entanglements when we understand, actually, that climate change is a manifestation of the problem. It’s emerging out of a system that we’re getting so much feedback that it’s not working. Racial violence is part of that feedback. Massive wealth inequality is part of that feedback. The epidemics of loneliness and meaninglessness are part of that feedback. Also, an atmosphere that as Kate Marvel says, is larded with carbon dioxide, and is having all of these climatic impacts. That’s also part of the feedback. But if we’re just thinking about climate change as the problem we need to solve, then our analysis isn’t deep enough about what’s actually going on here. And that’s what it’s actually going to take to solve it.

Both Johnson and Wilkinson co-edited “All We Can Save,” a collection of poems, essays and other works by their “binder full of climate women.” (Photo courtesy of All We Can Save Project)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

Wildfires are still burning in California. New ones sprang up over the weekend, millions of acres have burned, dozens have died and many more have lost homes and businesses. A story from Capital Public Radio in Sacramento says this year’s fire season is rewriting some extreme weather forecasting models that simply had never accounted for fires of this size. For example, satellite data shows that fires have become significantly worse from 1984 through 2017 as climate trends, like hotter and drier summers, made it easier for fires to start and burn longer. But one climate scientist told the station that the August Complex, the largest fire in California’s history, was still nearly three times the size of the largest fire that he and his team had ever created in a climate simulation.

Also, apparently climate change is making another weird anomaly much more common: zombie storms, where storms that initially appeared to die out spring back to life out over the ocean when they hit warm water and moist air that didn’t used to be there. Tropical Storm Paulette is an example that happened a little earlier this month, and meteorologists say zombie storms, a relatively new term, are likely to become a lot more common. Let’s be honest, it was only a matter of time before 2020 threw zombies in the mix.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer