Welcome to Climate Conversations, the ClimateX podcast. This is our first podcast. I'm joined here by Dave Damm-Luhr.
Hi, everybody. Glad to be here. This is Dave.
And Curt Newton.
And I am Rajesh Kasturirangan, and we are about to share what we think are some of the most interesting ideas in trying to address climate change.
And we're going to start by talking amongst ourselves, because what's more interesting than that?
Indeed. Who doesn't like listening to themselves? ClimateX is a fantastic collaboration between a group of MIT alums-- including me and Dave, here-- and the Office of Digital Learning, and we are putting together a site where you can engage with content produced by MIT students, faculty, alumni, staff, and our Boston-wide network combined with engaging conversations on topics that everybody in the world cares about.
What might one of those questions be, Rajesh?
Let's see-- what happens when the United States pulls out of the Paris Agreement?
Today is June 1st and it's about 2:30 in the afternoon.
So we're going to find out in about half an hour. I have to say, that while I've been a lifelong academic, I have no expertise on climate besides the kind of books and articles that everybody reads. But it fascinated me for two reasons-- one, it's an extremely complex problem; and second-- and I like complexities, I like complex systems, I worked on complex systems for a long time-- the second thing that actually interested me is it's no longer a science problem. I mean, there was a time maybe when climate change was really about getting the science right and today that's not the case. It's socio-scientific, technical challenge and so it brings together ideas that are not from physics, like behavior, like politics.
And so it's in a sense a dream challenge-- not that we really want it, but we have it, whatever we want it or not-- and how do we combine these very different interdisciplinary approaches to addressing this great challenge? And that made me say, I've got to step in and do something about it.
Yeah, hear, hear. Climate change is something that literally is going to touch everybody, and it doesn't matter whether you believe in it or not. So the nature of the challenge really, I think, pushes us to throw the doors open and try to engage everybody. So Rajesh talked about you're not a-- you didn't come to this as a climate change expert, but you are bringing to it as your whole self-- Dave, you're bringing your whole self to it, and I think that's-- my hope for what we're doing in ClimateX is to give an opportunity for everybody who cares about this issue and is thinking about this issue to bring whatever they've got, wherever they are. And it's only through that kind of coming together that we're going to make progress on this.
One of the things that I realized in the last year or two is that we've got plenty of knowledge, we have scientific insight, there are, what-- 98% of scientists agree that this is not a controversy, this is a fact that climate change-- human-caused climate change is happening. So it's really my aspiration to close that gap between knowledge and action, and I think ClimateX can be the ticket for doing that.
So talking a little bit about MIT, I mean, in the last 15 years, digital technology has taken off in a huge way, and there are many, many such technologies that have come out of MIT and I believe that there's been a way of thinking about using technology in education where MIT has been a pioneer, including OpenCourseWare and then massive online courses. And ClimateX is in a sense an evolution of that same approach, which is instead of just learning, how can we combine learning and action and what can technology do to make learning and action come together? And I think that that's a problem that we are very, very keen on addressing.
So every week in Climate Conversations, we are going to cover some of the most interesting news that has transpired that week, and I have to say that this week-- in fact, this very minute almost--
It's auspicious, isn't it?
I would not call it auspicious, but we have probably the biggest news item that we will ever cover on ClimateX, and that being--
Donald Trump announcing that we're-- the United States-- is pulling out of the Paris Agreement-- we think. It's just going--
That's going to be huge!
Yeah, what do you guys think? Like, is it the big deal? Is it-- is it the Armageddon that people are talking about?
I think it's a wonderful opportunity for other countries to step forward. China, India, the European Union, others around the world to take the leadership, to fill the leadership vacuum that Trump is creating.
Yeah, it's not like there was any question what his ground-level intent was around all this stuff. I feel like it's, hey, what's--
But did you really think that he was going to do it? Curt.
I was kind of 50/50 on it, because, you know, I think there's some interesting optics around keeping the seat at the table, right?
That Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State and former CEO of ExxonMobil was, quote, promoting.
Think of the-- think of the mischief that one can propagate with that if you're at the table.
If you're not at the table, you can't throw eggs at other people who are at the table.
Not quite the same way. So I'm like, great. You know? Let's have it be clear.
But still, I mean, do you really believe it's happening? I mean, it is happening--
No. No. It blows my mind.
I do. I totally understand why it's happening, because it's a false dichotomy that some folks-- Trump and people in his administration-- are promoting, and part of what we can do is to blow up that false dichotomy and show it for how false it is.
OK. Well, speculation time. What do you think is going to happen next?
Well, China is already positioning itself for leadership, world leadership, and they're, I think, setting the stage for major breakthroughs in wind technology, solar technology-- they've already helped bring down the unit costs of most of those renewable technologies and they're going to go even further.
Yeah. I mean, I think here in the United States, the subnational actors, the states, the regions, the cities, you know, it's going to be inconsistent from place to place, but boy, it's been clear for quite a while that there is a tremendous amount of momentum-- regardless of what the federal government does or doesn't do, it would sure be more awesome if the federal government was with it, but the momentum's not going to stop.
So tell me-- do you think this is going to make the red versus blue divide worse or better?
I believe that it will make it better, actually. Because--
OK, tell me why.
I look for this to be an environment where kind of communities draw together and make progress in a way that can kind of show the reluctant communities that, hey, this is actually a good thing, you know? We're going to continue to deploy renewables, we're going to take better care of our communities, what's not to like about that? Whether you believe in climate change or not.
So Curt, you're from Iowa, from a farming background. I think lots of people in that world vote for Trump. But if you're a farmer and you need water, you need other inputs, you want to make sure that you have a livelihood, does it really matter whether you're Republican or not? I mean, climate is going to affect you and what are you going to do about it?
Yeah. It matters-- matters deeply. And so, you know, when it comes down to it, you know, I think communities in the heartland are-- who people's livelihoods are so dependent on, the natural world and the whether, they're paying attention to that. You know, they also understandably in a lot of cases have some hesitation about big solutions being mandated on them, and so the world that we're heading into here in the United States is a lot-- there's a lot more kind of regional, state-based locally-based--
Oh, that's where I'd like to jump in, because if you saw the current issue of Technology Review from MIT, there's a really good article in there about Texas, and Texas is in fact the biggest producer of electricity from wind turbines, and that's a very interesting institutional story. Now Texas is a blue state, right?
Oh, sorry! I got my colors wrong, here. So they're making business decisions based on income streams and other hard-nosed business considerations in terms of investing, and they have not been able to put together as much technology-- get it on the ground as they would like. And what they're bumping up against is the technology constraints. For example, it's storage, so the wind blows and goes-- especially at night out there in West Texas-- they're generating a lot of electricity but sometimes they have no place to go with it and even though they would like to be paying the utilities to take, the utilities say, we don't have that capacity! So they've got technology constraints where MIT and other smart technology folks, I think, can make a difference in terms of transmission capacity and storage.
And in fact, that's a fantastic teaser for one of our next podcasts, which will feature MIT professor Jessica Trancik, who's doing some very interesting work right along those lines of storage and grid evolution, so--
That's a big frontier--
Check back in on that.
Yeah. MIT has a big role to play up there.
I want to step back a little bit and go into an imagined future and ask, like, yes, political divisions are real, there are all kinds of people who disagree with each other, but there should be a genuine and authentic way in which climate action is not just bipartisan in the American sense, but it's a worldwide human challenge. We can all agree on-- so my point is, that if a an asteroid was about to hit the Earth, it's not human-caused, but we would all be working together to do something about it, I hope. Right? In the same way, it frankly doesn't matter to me whether climate change is caused by humans or not, it's real and it's happening.
Let's get adapting, yeah.
Exactly. What do you think's going to happen there, Rajesh?
I think that we're going to eventually start working together seriously, and initiatives-- and I'm not saying ClimateX is going to be the defining solution--
Aw, come on!
Oh of course ClimateX is going-- who am I kidding! Right? ClimateX is going to be the solution! No. But I do think that in the next five years or less, we will see more and more alliances cutting across boundaries that we did not think could ever be bridged and we need to be building systems that can take advantage of that.
So one of the things that I've been thinking about recently, and this came up in the conversation just now again, is how on Earth to engage people who don't see their lives as personally affected by climate change. And for me, the ticket here is to talk about food, because, well, no surprise here-- everybody's got to eat every day-- breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, whatever.
I eat only once every three days.
Oh, OK, so you're an exception, Rajesh. Good to know that. And if you look at how our food is produced and what we're eating, you get a lot of clues to the causes of climate change. Whether it's in fertilizer production in use, whether it's in raising cattle for beef or water runoff from farms or anything-- food choices that people make up and down, all around. So I think this is fodder, so to speak, for a good conversation about climate in terms of not abstract, not polar bears, not 50 years from now, but right here and now.
And it's also-- it's distinctly-- it's not completely non-technological, but so many people, when they think about climate change solutions, they go to renewable energy, and while that's important, you know,
Shifting agricultural practices gets deeply cultural and into people's behaviors, both as consumers and these amazing business practices that we have developed over thousands of years about how the heck we grow our food and support ourselves-- that's a that's a rich vein to mine and I'm looking forward to doing a lot of work on that in the podcast.
And many of us have heard of Project Drawdown, which is the best and most easily implementable solutions to the climate crisis, and surprise, surprise! Many of them turn out to be food-related and are not technologically complex to implement, but it's going to mean eating differently and drinking differently and growing differently.
Replenishing the soil, all of that sort of stuff.
Yeah and those things are all-- there's lots more we can learn about it, but the starting points are pretty clear and people are doing some really, really interesting work on a kind of smaller scale deployments in places including Iowa.
Eat less beef.
Yeah, for sure.
Now let's move to the other end of the solution spectrum, because there are things that you can do on your own and then there are things that we can do to the Earth at such a large scale that some of us might not be ready for. And what I'm talking about is geoengineering, because we've got a couple of questions from our users on, can we talk about geoengineering on ClimateX? And of course we can! But you're not going to agree on what to do about it. So Curt, what do you think?
Yeah, that's the nature of it. I think it's a fascinating kind of situation we're posed with, right? As soon as you open it up, it brings some really profound ethical, moral, political dimensions to it, you know, where I think-- human interventions in the natural world have a long and unfortunate history with unforeseen consequences, and so that's led a lot of well thoughtful people to be very, very cautious about this. I think the moment they're at right now is really interesting, because what people seem to be advocating for when they're pushing for some progress on geoengineering is, we just better cover our bets. [LAUGHS] Among other things.
I was going to use a different vowel there.
And learn a little bit more just in case, you know, several things, like Trump pulling out of Paris, you know, transpire over the next few years, to cover ourselves in case we need to take drastic action.
For me, it's really risky to think about this. I would need to see a lot more definitive risk assessments before I could get comfortable with this, because it seems like another MIT-generated kind of idea from technologists for a silver bullet that will get us out of this enormous mess that we're in without having to change everything--
You think people actually look at it that way? I mean, I-- it's all--
The boys and their toys, that's what I'm thinking.
You know, every time I see it brought up in conversation, it's like, all we want to do is just learn a little bit more about it, and-- god! We have so much more work to do before we would try to get into a real deployment.
So I have a different take, I want to be deliberately controversial, right? I feel like geoengineering is not ambitious enough. Right? I feel like what-- because ultimately, it's-- so think about it this way-- the United States is a large country and you may want to connect the two ends of the country by railroads or roads or planes, but what you really need is a governance system that can handle a nation that large and then provide the moral and political infrastructure to make those roads happen. Right? That's why it's called the Eisenhower Highway System.
And I think that before we have geoengineering, we need geocracy, right? We need a way to actually understand how we are going to manage the whole Earth before populating it with the solutions-- which I think at some point or the other we might have to consider, but we need a very large political and moral vision before we need engineering solutions.
That's a really interesting idea. I think we're going to want to play that out over a number of weeks, you know? Geoengineering as the means to a bigger, higher end.
Right. So Laura, you have been listening to us talk our mouths off. You know how hard it is to get us to stop, but we've been discussing wild ideas-- geoengineering, Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement-- what is your take?
Well, as someone with a deep interest in climate change but, I would say-- to put it mildly-- no formal education in climate change in science, I'm wondering maybe what-- I'm going to start at the real basics-- what is geoengineering and how can I be interested, get involved in it?
You want to take a run at that, Rajesh?
So geoengineering is making large scale changes to either the atmosphere or the oceans, so changing the composition of the natural environment in such a way that it reduces carbon. So it could mean literally sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it into very large tunnels dug deep into the earth-- so it is large-scale intervention in the natural system.
And the stuff that's been in the news very much recently is a trial that's going ahead I believe next year by David Keith and some of his colleagues up in the atmosphere to test a chemical way of putting kind of a shield around the Earth to minimize how much sun heating would come in, basically reflective-- kind of reflective particles up there.
So a little bit more than recycling my waste on the weekends and composting when I get a chance, it's a scary-- to me, that sounds somewhat terrifying, I guess. How much regulation is there? Like, is this something that's definitely going to go ahead and will people who aren't climate experts at places like MIT know about this?
So, you know what I want to do? Is set off one of those volcanoes in the middle of the Pacific.
Well, that's exactly where--
For far and away.
That's going to be-- the volcano thing is exactly, I think, the right metaphor. I mean, that's the process, the volcano's set off in the atmosphere, you know, that's like the analogy-- the earth does that--
It's that impactful.
--kind of stuff, right? You know? And we know what happens when a volcano goes off. Sometimes it can be devastating, you know? But if we could do it just a little bit and keep some control over it,
I think in the 17th century, there was a big volcano-- I forgot where-- which reduced temperatures for a long time and I think led to famines in many parts of the world.
Yeah, for sure. I mean, it affected Europe even though the volcano was on the other side of the world. Mt. Pinatubo was fairly recent and science has a much closer view of what happened in the Earth system at that point, so that a--
So my question would be, if this is something that we're talking about, like, sucking carbon dioxide out the air and-- who owns this? Like, who is responsible for making these decisions? Can it be done on a country-by-country basis if you're affecting global atmospheres?
That's a great question!
But, you know, it actually brings the complementary question, which is, who owns the emissions right now? Because, I mean, we're talking about large scale shifts to the atmosphere deliberately, but we're kind of doing that already, which is why we have climate change in the first place. So what does it mean? Suppose that you order a car and it's manufactured in 100 different countries in the world, transported after burning fossil fuels, which in turn, you know-- so who is responsible for that emission?
Is it worth-- yeah. I remember reading about something in the UK about apples that were grown in Spain, shipped to England to be cleaned, shipped back to Spain to be shined, and then back to England to be sold or something insane like that, where all these processes were so separated across different countries. And as a result, there are huge emissions-- is it the country producing them? Buying them? Cleaning them? Who is responsible for that?
And I think part of this is monitoring and quantitatively measuring all the contributions, right? Like, it's not just the dollar value at the end, you have to put not just a price, but a number that calculates exactly where, what, and how.
Yeah. There's a ClimateX post I want to work up on this subject, some interesting research that's been done recently that suggests something like 10%-- if I'm remembering correctly-- of emissions from China are generating stuff consumed by other countries.
Oh, interesting. OK. So as someone who hasn't got the resources and education, I guess-- education experience to be completing this kind of high level research and getting involved on that kind of scale, what would you say are the best ways for me as an individual or me within my community-- in Massachusetts, where I live-- what's the best way for me to get involved in climate action?
Other than joining ClimateX and create a page and start discussions, what else can I do?
Well, you know, one of the things that we want to do with ClimateX is make it easier for people to meet like-minded folks, you know? So what's your-- what's an aspect of climate change that you're most interested in? You're most connected to? Like, food or--
Good question! I think for me, I think for me it's politics. So I'm a UK-born and a Green Party voter through and through and have always consistently voted on the side of climate action. So I guess, what can I do that works through ClimateX that allows me to capitalize on that? Or what can we introduce possibly as something within ClimateX that allows people to get involved in the politics of climate change?
So at least in Massachusetts, there are lots of towns, right? We live in the Boston area, but there are many, many towns, and I think at a town level, you can have a pretty major impact if there are just even 25 or 50 of you were willing to do something together, right? You can get a council person elected with that kind of margin.
And right, like, I mean, I'm very new to the area, so I'm not up-to-date with the kind of action that might be going on in Cambridge, MIT, Massachusetts as a whole, so I suppose I want to know sometimes where I can find this kind of action, where I can find these people? And that's the challenge, I suppose, bringing people together when we're facing a lot of political discord.
We hope that as the ClimateX membership grows, you'll find more and more of those sort of colleagues here on the platform.
Definitely. More people who don't quite know what they're talking about but want to say something.
We love that.
Yeah. And I think that even though we need system-wide changes-- there's no doubt about it, like, we need changes at the national or international level, but I think people should get used to climate being part of their own political experience of the world, right? And that's best done at the local level.
And, like, I think from having experienced ClimateX and, like, looked at the activity on the site and seen what's going on, there's people who are-- like you guys-- experts in the subject matter. You are involved in different ways in the really high level thinking, which is great for me to learn about, but then I can also connect with people who are like me-- they might live in the same area, they might have some of the same interests, I can look at other things going on in terms of climate politics. So I suppose, for me, I enjoy the aspect of being able to learn from the experts and talk to people like me who-- I didn't know what to call us-- the non-experts. So yeah, it's a good place for collaboration.
Bringing the questions that you have is such a key part of this whole enterprise, right? And I think we firmly believe that everybody who's getting involved in ClimateX knows things and the questions that they're asking are what makes this whole engine run?
And MIT can be-- like, it's so reputable and respected-- and because of that, a little bit scary sometimes, you know? I know that when you come to MIT, you're going to be talking with thought leaders and experts and, you know, that can be a little bit intimidating, so it's nice knowing that there's other people like me who can ask questions and, you know, it's a friendly place for them to be answered.
Just ask questions. You know, MIT, while it does have that forbidding reputation, I think is a place which appreciates questioning and hard questioning.
So I'm going to end with a question. What, is a-- I don't know if it's a dumb question or not, but tell me a happy thought that we can take into the rest of the week.
So, like, something good that happened this week climate-wise?
Yeah, that'd be great to hear.
ExxonMobil shareholders pushed through and actually, by a substantial margin-- 62%-- to push the company to produce a climate risk assessment, a detailed climate risk assessment, and people have been working towards this for years and years and years, and I think that's a substantial victory for the climate action movement.
And it comes on the heels of Occidental Petroleum and Chevron doing something similar through shareholder action, so there is hope.
Right. I actually have a more local piece of news, which is, our friend and MIT alum, Quinten Zondervan, is standing for Cambridge City Council, and if you are in Cambridge, vote for him!
So we are at the end of our first Climate Conversation. Thank you so much, Curt and Dave and Laura.
It was really fun.
Yeah! And if you have any questions, you can always email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at climatex.mit.edu, sign up, and start participating yourself.
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