Interview with David Roberts

If you’d like a better introduction to David Roberts and climate change at large, click the image to launch his TEDx talk titled Climate Change is Simple.

In my continued attempts to emulate real journalism, last week I reached out to David Roberts for an interview. David is a staff writer for Grist, an online non-profit magazine that has been publishing environmental news and commentary since 1999. Its tagline is “gloom and doom with a sense of humor”, which I think is why I’m drawn to their content, since I also strive for that aesthetic.

David’s writing embodies this “serious with a touch of the absurd” as well, approaching sober topics of climate and politics with a conversational tone and the occasional Star Wars reference. Through email I asked David seven questions, focused less on the nuts and bolts of climate science and more on the “softer” side of things (cultural values, emotion, outreach, etc.). His responses are reprinted below.

Which study on climate change do you consider to be the most current/accurate (IPCC, UNEP, IEA, etc.), and what does it project?

On climate models, I generally turn to a scientist named Kevin Anderson, who used to run the UK’s Tyndall Center. He argues, persuasively in my mind, that the models typically presented to policymakers contain several implausibly optimistic assumptions, chosen in part to soften their harsh conclusions. (For instance, models often understate the current rate of growth in global emissions and show them peaking far sooner than is plausible.) Once those assumptions are stripped out, the extremely harsh truth is left. I wrote about Anderson’s work (with his colleague Alice Bows) here.

One thing worth noting here: most everybody who does climate modeling is working with the same hard scientific information, mostly drawn from the IPCC, which shows us on track for 5-7 degrees C of warming by 2100 if we continue with business as usual. When you see big differences in forecasts, it usually traces back to assumptions about social and political change. How soon will emissions peak? How fast will they fall? What sort of policies will be put in place, and when? It’s these “soft” social and political questions that really determine our fate, and when it comes to answering them, scientists have no particular authority. Indeed, predicting social change is much more difficult than predicting physical change. I wrote a post about this, too.

From a societal standpoint, how bad are things going to get? Paint us a picture of the world in say, 2050.

Ha. See my first answer. Anyone who tries to predict what the world will look like in 2050 is blowing smoke out their ass. The only way to engage in this kind of exercise is conditionally — if X, then Y.

Physically, the effects of warming that we’ll see in 2050 are already, for the most part, “baked in” by past emissions. So we know there are going to be more frequent, severe, and long-lasting droughts, along with an uptick in harsh storms and precipitation events. We know sea level will rise somewhat, let’s say 1-3 feet, probably not enough to swamp many cities but more than enough to increase the damage of storms and floods. We know glaciers and ice sheets will be melting and Arctic ice may be gone altogether.

What we don’t know is how human societies will respond to these physical phenomena. Will droughts cause food shortages? Will food shortages cause famines? Will famines cause unrest, mass migration, and armed conflicts?

The answers to these questions depend on social, political, and policy changes between now and then, especially adaptation (or as I prefer, ruggedization) policies. It certainly doesn’t look like we’re doing what needs to be done, but social change can come quickly and unexpectedly, so … who knows?

Many of the articles on this site speak less about the science of climate change, and more about the emotion and meaning behind it. With that said, how do you “feel” about climate change?

One thing that social scientists keep discovering — and left-brain, hyper-rational people keep ignoring — is that information and emotion are not two separate processes in the brain. All learning, all reasoning, takes place in the context of an emotional or affective frame. Indeed, they would be impossible without those frames, because those frames provide focus, meaning, and goals.

One of the great problems with climate change is that most people have no emotional context for it. There are very few points where it intersects with people’s daily lives, their worries or their aspirations. It is almost entirely abstract, just a set of inert facts. And it turns out people cannot be moved or motivated by inert facts. Such facts just get compartmentalized.

That’s one reason the “climate change is a liberal plot to grow government” frame has taken off among conservatives — that makes sense to them. It fits in a context they are familiar with. They’ve got nowhere else to put it.

One thing all climate communicators should be thinking about is how to provide alternative frames — how to give climate change meaning for ordinary people.

For me, climate change is part of a bigger story about our species. We are in our adolescence, discovering that we don’t know everything and can’t do anything we want without consequences. This realization carries with it a lot of regret, anger, denial, and eventually a kind of rueful nostalgia. The next century will be about growing up, taking responsibility for our own actions, our own waste, our own footprint, and learning how to live within our means.

This is a very different story than the triumphal MAN WILL OVERCOME story that’s so attractive, to Americans in particular. We can’t win through brute force any more. What’s required now is some humility and wisdom.

If we don’t learn the lesson, and quickly, we risk unthinkable suffering. How does that make me feel? Bad! But on the other hand, the opportunities ahead of us, if we do get a clue, are endless and amazing.

Are you taking any precautions in your own life to prepare for a climate change world?

I know there are lots of people focused on personal or community resilience — transition towns, etc. I don’t really do much of that stuff. Not because I look down on it, it’s just not my thing.

My precautions are twofold. One, I live in Seattle, which is one of the best possible places to ride out climate change. (Honestly: where you choose to live has a greater effect on your prospects than what kind of car you drive or whether you have solar panels on your roof.) And two, I spend all day every day trying to educate and inspire people to action, to help get the policy changes so desperately needed.

What form of outreach do you find most effective in communicating climate change to the general public? Which is least effective?

Well, if I knew the answer to that I’d probably be a wealthy man, since all kinds of well-endowed philanthropic organizations are desperately seeking that knowledge.

I’d say the least effective way, or at least one of the ineffective ways, is pounding people over the head with science. Consensus! Consensus! It’s happening! The scientific debate is over! That doesn’t move anyone, it just hardens everyone in their predetermined partisan views. Empirical facts and probabilistic projections mean nothing to people without a meaningful context.

The best way to approach climate change is through people’s actual lives. Talking about adaptation is one way to do that, since it’s quite tangible for people. But my personal favorite way, which I wish more people would support, is getting people involved in the fascinating, exciting transition to sustainable systems. There are so many cool things happening in energy, transportation, urban land use … all these things are working toward the same broad goal, which is a sustainable way for humans to live on earth, but they are more immediate, more hopeful, more exciting than “earth is warming.”

Once you get people involved in that stuff, make it part of their cultural identity, they will be much more open to accepting the science of climate and supporting good policy.

Do you view climate change as simply a technical and public awareness problem, or are there underlying cultural values that need to be addressed as well?

There is no such thing as a “merely” technical problem that just needs to be brought to public attention. All problems are enmeshed in a web of cultural values. So yes, of course this is about values. It’s about how we see ourselves as a species. Are we a chosen, superior race to whom earth has been given or just another biological creature that requires healthy ecosystems to survive? How much do we prioritize the needs of future generations? Does climate action mean sacrifice, doing with less, suffering, or is it an exciting design and engineering challenge that will lead to greater prosperity and happiness?

And so on. Values are always a part of the conversation — anyone who pretends they aren’t is asking for trouble.

Finally: wanna bet on whether or not the Keystone XL pipeline gets approved? I’m a firm believer that gambling makes any situation more fun (even ones as grim as climate change).

My guess is Obama approves the pipeline, but I’m no better at political prognostication than hundreds of other equally clueless pundits.

The more significant question from a policy perspective is whether he’ll pass stringent EPA standards for CO2 from existing power plants.

The more significant question from a social and political perspective is what happens to all the activist energy that’s been directed against Keystone. Whether he approves it or denies it, I hope that energy is maintained somehow, that the momentum is preserved and expanded and that climate becomes a live concern in US politics rather than a niche “special interest” issue, which is how most pols see it.

  • Jeff Davis

    Great Interview Eric. I totally agree with his response to your question on good and bad techniques for communicating climate change. More emphasis needs to be on how this new technology will improve your daily life not be a burden.

  • John Crapper

    Wow! Super interview! Like Jeff I really liked his response to communicating climate change. Gloom and doom and scientific jargon will not inspire. We need a consistent message of actionable things people can do in their daily lives along with a consistent message of hope if those actions are taken. I wish he would have said the word divestment in the interview. It is IMHO the absolute best way to change our trajectory. BTW the best action an individual can take is to eat less meat.

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