What does it feel like to be a climate scientist at the end of 2020?
For the last episode of Season One, U.S. climate scientist Kim Nicholas gives a brief on the latest research, and whether or not we can be hopeful about 2021. She has a new book coming out soon about climate change called “Under the Sky We Make” which everyone should read.
This is a very special conversation in which Kim talks openly about something we don’t often hear about in the news.
Thanks to Greta, more and more people are listening to the science. But have you wondered about the emotional impact that doing the science has on the scientists themselves?
In fact, many climate scientists suffer from feelings of frustration and helplessness that they can’t stop the increase in emissions. Many are driven to take action outside the lab by joining protest marches, giving public talks, talking to the media and to politicians.
So this is a behind the scenes peek at what it feels like to be climate scientist in 2020.
Kim tells a heart-rending story about her experience this summer amid the wildfires of her beloved native California. She talks about the challenge of being successful in science when you’ve chosen to stop flying to conferences, and explains why it was important to her to write a book for a general audience.
Don’t miss this episode, it will literally change the way you feel the next time you hear Greta say “Listen to the science”.
Kim Nicholas is the Director of PhD Studies and Associate Professor of Sustainability Science at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS) in Lund, Sweden. In her research, Kim studies the connections between people, land, and climate. Her goal is to understand how to steward land and nature to support a good life for everyone alive today, and leave a thriving planet for future generations, especially through rapidly and fairly reducing carbon pollution to zero.
Kim is currently writing a book about the agency, urgency, purpose, and joy we each have in solving the climate crisis with facts, feelings, and action, which will be published in North America by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Under the Sky We Make – Penguin Random House, March 23 2021
Changing Behavior to Help Meet Long-Term Climate Targets – World Resources Institute
My Climate Reading List – The Reading Lists
I really think hope is quite complicated for climate scientists, because it’s not honest to say everything is going to be fine. Right.
Denise: Welcome to episode #10 of New Climate Capitalism, and it’s our season finale today. I am really excited to share this episode with you, where I check in with my good friend, climate scientist Kim Nicholas, to find out what’s up in climate science and to learn about her upcoming book “Under the Sky We Make”.
It’s a very personal conversation, in which Kim openly talks about something which we rarely hear about.
Remember Greta Thunberg’s words “Listen to science”?
Well, thanks to Greta, more and more people everywhere are listening to the science, but has anyone stopped to think about the emotional impact that doing the science has on the scientists themselves?
In fact, many climate scientists suffer from feelings of frustration and helplessness that they can’t stop the increase in emissions. They worry that their papers are not having an impact, and many spend huge amounts of personal time giving public talks, doing media interviews and advising politicians.
So this is a behind the scenes peek at what it feels like to be climate scientist in 2020.
Kim tells a heart-rending story about her experience this summer amid the wildfires of her beloved native California. She talks about the challenge of being successful in science when you’ve chosen not to travel, and explains why it was important to her to write a book for a general audience.
Don’t miss this episode, it will literally change the way you feel the next time you hear Greta say “Listen to the science”.
Denise: Welcome to episode 10 of new climate capitalism. This is the season finale for the first season, and I am thrilled to welcome a special guest climate scientist. Kim Nicholas. Who’s coming to us from Lund in Sweden. We are recording on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020, uh, during the European daytime, uh, just before a couple of hours before the us wakes up, uh, to a big election day.
And, uh, so we’re in that special liminal moment, um, where everything is possible and no one knows what the final outcome would be. So I thought this would be a good moment to, uh, check in with Kim and close out season one of the podcasts with some thoughts from a climate scientist, looking at 2020, what we’ve learned and what, if anything we can feel hopeful about as we exit this unusual year.
So Kim, uh, welcome. And could you tell us a bit about yourself, your work and, um, you’ve got a new book on climate change. I believe that’s coming out next year.
Kim: Yes. Hi, Denise. And I think we’ll get to tell a little bit about how we know each other, but it’s nice to be here with an old friend. Um, I am an Associate Professor of Sustainability Science at Lund University, and I’ve been here since 2010.
I come originally from California from the wine country, a town called Sonoma, but I now have made my home here for the last decade. My work is on climate solutions. So stabilizing the climate in line with the Paris agreement. I focus a lot on sustainable agriculture and on behavior and cultural change.
Denise: We were friends where we have known each other since 2014 and actually we got to know each other. In the old world where, uh, people travel around the world to international conferences and hung out together and had a good time, which is something that I do miss from time to time.
Um, how much, um, do you miss all of those things? How, how much do you want them to come back?
Kim: Well, of course I miss meeting friends and colleagues in person. Um, so that’s a big miss. Um, I think. You know, when we first met in 2014, it was at a conference in New Zealand.
And that was one of the last, um, international flights that I took for the purpose of a conference. So I’ve kind of been on a journey since 2012 of flying less. I stopped flying within Europe in 2012. And since then I’ve been decreasing my flying more and more. So. In 2010, I was still a frequent flyer actually took 15 flight trips that year, which is, um, sounds insane to say now, but was kind of not unheard of in the circle.
Um, I was in at the time and sort of aspiring to be a professor with an international research agenda and community, um, which I have now become, but I realized that I actually don’t need to fly to, to have that. So even before the pandemic, I mean, of course all of the restrictions of the pandemic, no one would want to.
Um, have this be the reason or have them continue in the way that they are. But I had been for a long time working towards flying less and finding ways to meet colleagues and have collaborations and. Um, sustain relationships without flying. So the only flying that I haven’t yet given up is a one trip a year at the most back to North America to see my family.
Denise: And in fact, I saw a paper quite recently that, uh, said that, um, climate scientists, and I don’t know when, you know, like what was the time period for the, for the data that they gathered, but climate scientists tend to fly more than any other type of scientists to international conferences and meetings.
Um, why do you think that is.
Kim: Well, there’s certainly a culture in science in general, uh, that, um, valorizes flying almost in and of itself, that sort of, you know, the more international talks that you give or conferences or collaborations, you’re a part of the more credit you get for your career and on your CV and then promotions and tenure decisions.
So, I mean, um, There it, it has for a long time been part of the culture, but I do see that changing now. And I think before that was underway before the pandemic, um, maybe has been accelerated by the pandemic because despite all the challenges that people are simultaneously facing in terms of, you know, being home, um, because of necessity and having other childcare or family responsibilities at the same time, which is obviously really challenging, but still it is possible to work and collaborate without flying.
Um, and that I think is a positive thing that we can take forward.
And, um, I think the culture is starting to change. I have seen, especially among younger researchers, there’s really a, um, questioning of this norm of equating flying with being a good scientist or a high-profile or valued scientist and a lot of, um, yeah, people are just kind of recognizing, okay, it’s kind of like a doctor.
Puffing on a cigarette while telling you to stop smoking. If we’re sounding the alarm about how serious the climate crisis is, which it truly is, then our behaviors need to align with those. Words and, you know, put into practice. The kind of changes that we, our research really shows us necessary to stabilize the climate.
Denise: Um, I wanna, um, just, uh, go back to 2015, which was, um, a year, which we met several times, uh, Uh, there was a climate science conference in Paris. And this, as you rightly point out, you were traveling entirely by train at this point. So I guess you did that trip from Sweden to France, which takes 20 odd hours a couple of times.
Kim: Just 15. It’s a short 15 hours, Denise.
Denise: Okay. Sorry. It seemed very long when I did it once. And so, at the climate science conference, which was sometime in the middle of the year in Paris. I remember I had this memory of you, um, commenting on the fact that all of the session titles were, um, quite, uh, so highly specialized and self-referential that even for a scientist, um, they were not that accessible.
And, uh, so I wanted to ask you to talk about, uh, what I call the climate haiku, which is, um, Uh, a really, uh, an amazing piece of climate communication, basically. Um, but I think you shared on a protest sign and it went viral. Could you, could you say it for us? Um, and then tell us the story of how that happened and the impact that it had.
Kim: Sure. And I love the name climate haiku. Although if anyone’s counting, I think it’s 18 syllables instead of 17.
Denise: So let’s just, let’s just pass on that now.
Kim: but it is a great name.
And so, the five things that everyone needs to know about climate change are:
And we can fix it.
And these points come from research. You can think of them as summing up with the IPCC, the UN climate panel, that synthesizes climate science, a couple of times, every decade. Those are the big, high level takeaways of thousands of studies that have been demonstrated again and again. So there’s really strong, robust evidence for those statements.
And it’s also important that people understand that because. Research shows that those are the that’s the knowledge that people need in order to both support ambitious climate policy and to be willing to make changes in our own lives, which are necessary for climate stabilization. So I first heard that phrase actually at a Memorial service for Steve Schneider, who was my undergraduate thesis advisor at Stanford and a long time mentor and friend.
And he passed away in 2010. Uh, right as I was moving to Sweden, actually. So a few months later there was a Memorial service for him at Stanford. It was around the holidays. I was back in California and, um, I heard Jon Krosnick, who’s a psychologist at Stanford who studies climate change and climate communication, giving a talk and he made those five points.
So yeah. For me that was really galvanizing and really helpful to kind of, um, package up all the knowledge and, and I’ve used it since then. So now for about a decade in my teaching, and I’ve made a teaching framework out of it based on IPCC findings, but I think it, um, Started circulating more widely.
I first put it on a protest sign in 2014 when I went to my first climate protest, which was organized by my students, um, as part of the people’s climate movement. And you and I did some work around that as well. Um, then I think it became picked up on social media in 2016. So then I went to a climate protest or it was called stand up for science.
And that was again at this time. American geophysical union meeting in San Francisco. That was December, 2016. So Trump had just been elected. I was, it was a very dark mood at that meeting. Um, I was sitting in sessions where people were showing the potential of the Trump effect. They were calling it on actually the temperature of the whole planet and, um, emissions, if you know, standards were rolled back and other countries dropped their climate promises and ambitions because of Trump.
So. People were very depressed and, you know, it was already clear before Trump took office. How, what a threat, he was to science and to the scientific endeavor and to expertise and facts. So there was a lot of energy at this protest. And just a few minutes before I went to the protest, I kind of scribbled a travelling version of my sign on a piece of paper and A4 paper and added the footnotes.
And then it started circulating on social media. I think. McKibben retweeted it. And he has a lot of followers and he said, you know, when climate scientists protest their signs, their protest signs have footnotes. So that’s where I think it got picked up more widely.
Denise: Um, and so how did you go from that to writing a book?
Kim: I think more and more, I’m just feeling the urgency of climate change and it freaks me out how we’re just not doing enough and we’re not doing enough of the right things. And we’re not even having the right conversations and asking the right questions. So it feels to me like where I’m most needed and hopefully could make the most positive difference is in reaching a wider audience. I mean, I’ve published now over 50 peer reviewed scientific papers, and I’ve enjoyed doing that. And I love my collaborators and colleagues and students, and I think it’s really fun and interesting to get to find a new little nugget of knowledge and share it with the world, which is what you do in a scientific paper.
But I really feel that it’s not a new knowledge and it’s not new science that is holding us back from actually rising to the challenge and solving climate change. It’s, it’s really mobilizing people and empowering people at a much broader and deeper level than then people feel now to really take on this challenge.
So. That’s my big picture aim, and I hope my book can contribute to that in some small way. Um, I think it was really instructive for me, um, to start writing in 2017 and then, um, over work on it alone for a long time in bits and pieces. I connected with my agent Anna about a year and a half ago, I guess.
You know, one thing she told me in our first conversation was in a book. You don’t have to have a new piece of knowledge. It’s not a scientific paper. It’s okay to convey a message and package and frame it in a new way.
And. You know, make your audience basically care about it and deliver value to your audience in a way that they can relate to and find accessible. So, you know, my initial work that I sent her in proposal was really focused on carbon. I was like, this it’s all about carbon people have to understand the carbon budget.
And she’s like, Nope, this is not what your book is about. Um, nobody cares. I mean, nobody has a burning need to learn about the carbon budget basically. And so I think that was a big. Wake up for me is trying to realize, okay, there’s a huge group of people out there and surveys show that most people are either alarmed or at least concerned about climate change.
They know that it’s happening. It’s real, it’s urgent. They support measures to address it in some way, but they don’t know what those measures should be. They don’t know even the most informed and concerned and alarmed don’t know what they themselves can do to be part of the solution. So that’s the group I’m trying to reach with my book and I’ve focused on, it’s kind of broken down into three parts, which is basically facts, feelings, and actions.
Denise: Um, could you tell us the title of the book?
Kim: Yes, it’s called under the sky we make, so it’s about how our actions now through emitting greenhouse gases, mostly from burning fossil fuels is really shaping the world for millennia it’s it’s it’s. Leaving physical traces and really shaping the possibilities for life on earth for the rest of our lives and really for the rest of human civilization.
And that’s because carbon lasts for so long in the atmosphere. We’re leaving this almost permanent mark, and I think we should make it good.
Denise: Okay. So, um, Our frame for today’s conversation was, um, a search for things to be hopeful about at the end of 2020.
Kim: I’m glad you gave me a warning because I needed time.
Denise: Yeah. And so, um, before we go straight there to the things to be hopeful about, and maybe that’s going to be an extremely brief exchange, um, What, what have you learned this year? I mean, we have, um, a lot of listeners of this podcast come they’re practitioners of sustainable and green finance, and they need to be sort of up on the climate science, but they probably don’t have time to read a lot of papers.
Kim: Hmm, well, from the new studies that have been published in 2020, I would summarize it as impacts are closer and worse than we thought, but. I think we’re also closer to a social tipping point.
So I see evidence for that in a lot of social science research that’s been published this year, um, showing. Huge inequalities in emissions. There was a, a study a couple of weeks ago, led by Diana Ivanonva and they showed that in Europe, the top 10% of emitters cause more climate pollution than the bottom 50%.
So that’s a really stark number. Um, they have really good household data to show that. And so I think at the consumer level, we have to realize, okay, there is a small group of. Over consumers and we definitely need system change. We have to dismantle fossil infrastructure ahead of schedule. That’s really clear from science, um, to meet the 1.5 degrees target, which is really, really important.
I mean, not making that, uh, an either or because it’s, it’s just not, we have to make clean energy and sustainable agriculture transitions, you know, globally and systematically, but we also need to rethink. What we’re aiming for in a good life. And those become ethical, philosophical questions about power and status and meaning.
I mean, we’re not talking about going back to cave living, but we are talking about curbing excessive over consumption, which there isn’t room for in a stable climate.
We can’t have a stable climate in a world where people are flying around the world five or 10 or 20 times a year, or having daily commutes that are like what I used to have actually in California, which was about 80 miles long, which, um, is not sustainable.
Denise: Um, I was going to bring up California, actually, Um, you said something to me the other day, which made me almost fall off my seat. Um, uh, you said that, you know, California is uninhabitable or possibly uninhabitable now. And, um, uh, I wondered if you wanted to talk about that.
Kim: Yeah, my heart is really broken about California. So I grew up in a really beautiful town, about an hour north of San Francisco and lived there, um, with a few brief interruptions, but until I moved to Sweden 10 years ago.
So it’s a place that, you know, really speaks to me and close to my heart where my family and many friends still live. And starting in 2015, the California has been under this unprecedented fire regime that we know has been worsened by human caused climate change. So, um, it’s climate change is amplifying and turning up the pressure and making it more likely to have more extreme weather days, uh, more destructive and more larger fires basically.
And. I was actually there. Um, so my dad got COVID and was in the hospital this summer and I made the decision to go back and be with my family because I was really worried about what would happen. And thankfully he did make a really good recovery. Um, but I was back in California then in August when these latest round of horrible fires started and it was just so devastating and traumatic to see, um, how scary it is and how, almost as scary as how freaked out I was, was seeing how friends and family respond after years and years of this experience where, I mean, some of it is adaptation and healthy coping. Some of it is really traumatized behavior because it’s a really traumatic and totally intolerable situation.
I’m really worried about California, about the future of California and both yeah from a climate perspective. And I think it really highlights climate change is a problem for us here and now it’s not a problem for someone else. It’s not a problem for future generations. it’s everybody’s problem.
And if the richest country and one of the richest States and places on earth can face such incredible devastation. It’s not something that, you know, any sort of privilege can really cushion us from, because it’s really here for all of us.
I also have a decision to make, because I inherited a farmhouse from my grandparents in the Hills between Napa and Sonoma in California.
And my insurance has just been canceled. Actually. I got the letter literally the day that the fires started in California. So that morning I got a letter when I was back visiting my family. My dad had just come home from the hospital. I’m sitting in my parents house wearing a mask reading this letter from my insurance company, saying they canceled my insurance due to fire risk.
And then I leave the house. I was supposed to go to the beach with my sister and on the way to the beach driving in our separate COVID cars, we saw smoke over my parents’ house and turned around and came back.
And so that was the beginning of the fires starting then. So. Yeah. I don’t know what I’m going to do about that
They’re really rewriting the rules of the game. I mean, it’s not affordable for anyone, not just insurance companies, but it’s not possible to make it safe in places that are facing these kinds of catastrophic losses.
Denise: I wondered if, um, you know, you teach, uh, you, you teach the master’s program, you have students, you have PhD students, uh, so much has been, you know, the, the, the bottom up energy for change has been coming from the younger generation.
No twenty-five year olds, basically. Um, but what are you seeing from them?
Kim: Well, I do get a lot of energy and hope and inspiration from my students, but I’m very. Cautious about not making it their burden to solve this problem.
And I think I don’t want to, um, patronize young people and say, Oh, the youth are going to save us. Everything’s going to be fine. You know, they’ve, they’ve got this because if you listen to young people, what they’re saying and demanding rightfully so is for older people, people in power to use the power that we already have to make the necessary changes.
And I mean, that’s the message from Fridays for future. For example, listen to the science, follow the science and policies. Governments need to live up to their promises from the Paris agreement to stabilize the climate and deliver a safe and therefore hopeful climate future. For young people, but for all generations.
So I think I don’t want to put too much of the hope burden on young people really. And I, I really think hope is quite complicated for climate scientists, because it’s not honest to say everything is going to be fine. Right. One of those main five points is it’s bad and it’s already bad and it’s already been bad.
Even for me as a. Very privileged person. Um, but you know, sharing that story about California and other losses that I’ve experienced, even amongst all the privilege that I do have, I really feel the losses from climate change already. And of course there are many people in a much more vulnerable position than me.
So I think for me, hope, I really like what Rebecca Solnit writes that. Hope is not a lottery ticket. You can sit on the sofa and clutch feeling lucky, but it’s a, an ax that you break down doors with in an emergency. So, I mean, hope has to be, um, earned and motivated and the way to do that is by taking action.
Denise: Um, what made you happy in 2020? food has definitely been important this year and, you know, staying home and cooking pretty much all our own meals with some occasional takeout.
Um, I’ve actually enjoyed more than I would’ve thought. I think we’ve been more creative and shared.
Kim: I mean, I think the more big picture, you know, obviously gratitude and being grateful for my health and the health of my family.
I mean, the fact that my dad. Was in the hospital with COVID and that was extremely scary and he is okay. And I’m really happy about that. Um, I think appreciating my friends and family and my, my BFF, Lucy, and I started saying to each other, love you, hate everything. And that’s kind of a good catch phrase for 2020, I think, you know, like even amongst.
Things, you know, being really tough and people facing a lot of challenges. It’s so heartwarming and important to have friends and relationships. And I’ve been very lucky in that regard to have really good friends.
Kim: Well now let’s switch roles. So I get to ask the questions and hear your answers.
So I want to hear what you learned in 2020.
Denise: Um, so one thing I learned in 2020 was how to make a podcast, which was a great achievement because I actually originally came from text journalism and had never done the audio. And I didn’t know all the ins and outs of podcasts, production process. Um, a really important thing I learned during the process of doing a podcast was that I started out thinking that a podcast is a media product that you push into the world. And you, do you know what all media producers do you create something, uh, you make sure that, you know, kind of, um, has a specific focus. Uh, you try to find an audience for it. You promote to that audience, and then you do it again. You just do it over and over again. In fact, what I discovered during the process of doing that was that the podcast has become really important to me as a learning platform.
And so the work of doing the podcast is partly about the craft. Uh, but it’s also about just that, um, the convergence of work and learning – work is learning and learning is work. And, um, that’s been really wonderful. I mean, uh, in the past, I’ve done all different kinds of, you know, um, Sort of salary work and freelance work.
Uh, but 2020 was the year that I really discovered the joy of kind of being in that pure cycle of work is learning. Learning is work.
Kim: Yeah, I think for me, something I’ve learned this year, which is trying to do a better job of embracing limits, my own limits.
And you know, it’s not always. Healthy or desirable to push past limits. I mean, sure. To set a goal and pursue it. That can be great, but you know, we only have 24 hours a day and we need to take care of our bodies and minds and health and relationships as well as do the work that we’re trying to do. And I think that’s been, um, front of my mind this year, I think.
And I guess that’s also maybe a reason for hope for me i because I think that’s the lesson we need more broadly. Right? We live on this. Little blue marble floating in space that does have physical and biological limits that we’re exceeding. And, you know, one school of thought is about exploitation and finding new ways to dig up more resources faster and consume more things.
And another way is thinking, okay, how do we live? Well within these limits, you know, limits themselves are. Not a problem. They’re not inherently bad. There’s they can also be a starting point for abundance and reflection
Denise: and creativity.
Kim: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Denise: So Kim, uh, this, uh, I always have good, good conversations with you. This was, this was terrific.
Uh, this was a, I really thank you for being really open, uh, and, and, you know, coming along for, um, we ranged across a lot of things, you know, the big picture, the, the small, the human, um, uh, the high level. Um, I, um, I wanted to ask you, uh, uh, so first of all, what should, um, people want to, um, buy your book?
Uh, what should they do? They want to follow your work? Where should they go? And, um, yeah,
Kim: Well, thank you Denise, it’s been a pleasure to have this conversation. I really appreciate it. Um, my website is Kim nicholas.com and my book by the time this podcast airs, my book will be the first thing on it. And I’m also starting to, um, collect names for a newsletter, which is another project due. And I have talked about that now that my book is actually in production, I’m going to turn my attention to, so, um, that will be there. I am also on Twitter at KA underscore Nicholas. So I’d be happy to hear from folks there.
Denise: That’s it for this episode and for Season 1! If you want to stay up to date with the latest climate science, do follow Kim on Twitter @KA_Nicholas, and go to the resources tab of the podcast episode at climatenarratives.co to find out more about her new book coming out in 2021.
I’ll be taking a pause for the next month to work on Season 2, which will launch in late December. It’s been very exciting to work on the new line-up, which is going to dig deeper into new ideas, under-the-radar trends, and more of the “S” in ESG.
So stay tuned for the launch date by subscribing to the newsletter climate narratives. You can find the link to subscribe in the bio of our Twitter account @NewClimateCap.
A big thanks to Valentine Scherer, Victoria Yates and Sarah Elzas for all the hard work this season, and to Lucas Laufen for the theme music. I’m always happy to get feedback from listeners, so please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.