Jordan: What if I told you that we could solve climate change, and that it would be nowhere near as hard as you think? Not with some new technology, not by going off the grid and learning how to hunt and gather again, and not 200 years from now either when society has collapsed and the world is about to explode. No what if we could do it right now with the tech that already exists, and without sacrificing all the things that make modern life worth living. What if the world is in exactly as much danger as every screaming headline wants you to believe, but there’s also a way out. What if there’s a road map to avoid the catastrophe that’s giving you that low grade anxiety all the time? And what if one of the biggest obstacles to really solving climate change is just a bad communication strategy? Would that make you feel better about our looming collective death? Because all that is true, and I know I was skeptical, too, but let us explain.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Alanna Mitchell is a science journalist, she’s written for Maclean’s and other publications. She graces Maclean’s cover this month, and she is the most optimistic reporter we’ve ever had the pleasure of talking to about climate change. Hi Alanna.
Jordan: You wrote a piece about climate change that was not horribly depressing.
Alanna: For the first time in my life, yeah.
Jordan: Yeah so to start with then, tell me what we get wrong when we think about a world where we actually do manage to avoid, like, a catastrophe.
Alanna: Well, you know, the thing is, I think we don’t actually, most of us think about a world where we get it right, where we succeed and that that was the thing that really prompted me to write the article. I thought, you know, what would it…. What would it look like? You know, part of the thing is we’re stuck in this narrative that it’s a catastrophe, and we think that that’s the end of the story and of course, if we don’t change, it is the end of the story. But.
Jordan: Right. But god bless your positive mindset.
Alanna: Well, you know, it’s really hard because I’m immersed in the science. I have been looking at the science for a long time, I’ve written a few books about it, you know I mean, I know it what the potential downside is here, I know what the stakes are. But it seems to me that, you know, it’s so powerful if in our imaginations we can envision a future where we got it right, and part of me really wants to be able to taste that, you know, to smell, to know what it’s gonna feel like if we actually do it.
Jordan: So and that’s where I end up on this, too because I also try to think like that, because I want to believe that we’re gonna make this work. And when I do, it always feels like some distant, far off Sci-fi Jetsons future and I can’t imagine it; The practical way it happens.
Alanna: I know that’s where I was too, I was really stuck with this because you hear so much about futuristic technologies and so I thought, well let’s just….. I’m gonna just interview some people and see what they’re saying because now they’re a bunch of reports out, there are some really smart people who are saying, you know what? We can make a road map, and I thought. Okay, so is there a road map? Is there actually a road map? Is there a recipe? What is this?
Jordan: And is there?
Alanna: And is there? Well, there are a bunch of road maps and they are totally within reach is what I’m being told, totally within our reach to do as long as we start now or very, very soon. And that fascinated me that they; And this is not using primarily the technologies of the future this is not, you know, this is not the sci-fi stuff, this is real meat and potatoes technology that we already have that is becoming cheaper, and cheaper, and cheaper. And you know what one of my ah-ha moments was? When I interviewed one of the scientists and he said, you know what? Even three or four years ago, we were not thinking that this was really possible to keep, because what we’re talking about is not just beating the carbon beast back, but actually keeping a temperature rise, global surface, average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius or lower that’s the goal. So it’s not even two degrees, it’s not, you know, like is 1.5 which was what the 125 world leaders agreed to in 2015 at the Paris…
Jordan: Yes, which seems so unattainable.
Alanna: Which at the time it just seemed like a pipe dream, and even in those few years, four years since they signed that now the technologies have become so cheap, and so abundant that now even these road mappers let’s say are saying yes, this is absolutely do-able, we never really were sure until quite recently that we could do it.
Jordan: So how does it start?
Alanna: Well, you know what it probably does not start with a bang, and one of the other things that really struck me as I did the research for this story was to look at the electrification of the grid. So that’s a key component to any de-carbonizing, because what we’re talking about is…
Jordan: Explain what that is.
Alanna: Okay, so instead of burning, well, like say in Alberta, for example at one time, and I think that’s mainly been stripped out of the grid now. But even in Ontario at one time we used to burn coal and harness electricity from burning coal, and it’s incredibly wasteful, like you don’t get that much energy from it, you get a lot of greenhouse gas emissions in some places they burn oil and gas just to get electricity, and it’s not a very efficient system, but that was one of the ways that we produce electricity and so de-carbonizing it means that you use other types of generation of electricity that don’t emit greenhouse gases into this.
Jordan: This is where we get into wind power.
Alanna: This is where we’re getting into solar and in Canada, it’s hydro. So as we have become more and more aware of the problems of climate catastrophe, let’s say, climate destabilization as we’re talking about as we become more and more aware of that, we have tried to, as a society, as a civilization, tried to strip some of the carbon out of the way we make electricity, and so and that’s really going well, like astonishingly well, I was amazed to hear that in Canada, we’re at 81%.
Alanna: I wasn’t really aware that we are at 81%, and I think that’s pretty fascinating. There are countries that are 100%, and that’s cool, and your…
Jordan: What countries are 100%?
Alanna: Oh I think Paraguay is one of them. Iceland is another, and there’s some that are right up in the high nineties, there’s a whole raft of them that are up in the high nineties. Now, big countries like China and the U.S. are not. Europe is on track to be at 90% in about two decades. All of this stuff is sort of happening quite invisibly, it doesn’t feel different to me I just turn on my lights. But the production mechanism is different, and I think that that’s what some of this move to a de-carbonized economy is gonna feel like and look like. It’s not gonna be that dramatic in some ways.
Jordan: I’m really glad that you mentioned turning on your lights because one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you about the piece that you wrote, is because you just laid out what a carbon zero future would look like to the average person living a life in the year 2050.
Alanna: Right! And that’s what I wanted to know about because I wanted to, I mean, we live in Canada. I mean, how am I gonna heat my home? You know right now I know, like I’m sitting here in Toronto, and I know how much it costs me to heat my home, I know that I have a furnace that does that, I know that the gas comes directly. I know how the systems work, if not in great detail I know how they work for me….
Jordan: And I know that I can’t live without air conditioning so somethings going to have to give at some point.
Alanna: Well, not necessarily. It’s just a question of where the energy for that comes from.
Jordan: So let’s look at the day to day life then, and because we mentioned air conditioning and stuff let’s start with the home.
Jordan: So what does it look like? What’s different about the family home in 2050 on a day to day level?
Alanna: Probably we won’t have a furnace. Probably we won’t have the kind; Like I have a furnace in my home right now, you know, it’s a little tiny thing, but it’s not that that may not be necessary. Or it may be even smaller and smaller, or the energy to power it won’t come from in my case, it’s a gas furnace and so the gas is piped into my home. It may not come from that, it may come from, say, community geothermal. That may be one way. It may be that we, instead of having these furnaces, we have heat exchangers that are much, much less energy sapping you know, they just don’t use that much energy. We’ve got homes that are generally retrofitted so that they’re not as inefficient in their use of energy. I mean right now I’ve got really crummy windows in my house. You know, like there’s just a lot of wind flow in there, and that will probably be something that will you know, interestingly enough this is where policy comes in again because half of the windows in my house are really terrific, because I got you know, I plugged in; Was able to plug into one of the incentive programs that gave me a very small amount of money back, but I’m saving tons of money on energy because half of my house is efficient. So that’s the kind of policy levers that can come into play to try to help people afford that, to try to I guess, advertise that expense over time.
Jordan: That was another thing that I wanted to ask you about because it does seem like a lot of these things push the cost onto me. So, for instance, I just bought a new house, I don’t have the money, I can’t; First of all, I could never afford a house ever again. But I also can’t afford to retrofit my house…
Alanna: To retrofit your house, I know.
Jordan: Or I can’t afford….. if I’m going to buy a car now because I’m moving from an apartment to a house, I can’t afford to buy an electric car even with the little discount that I’m supposed to be getting.
Alanna: No, I can’t either, and over time those costs will come down, and down, and down because they’re gonna be so much more; They will become the norm, that those expenses will become the norm. I was looking at the charts on how much less expensive these things are, and it’s just incredible.
Jordan: Give me an example.
Alanna: Well like lithium ion batteries I was looking at it. There’s a big report that comes out from Bloomberg every year looking at new energy sources. So there was one that came out I’m going to say, a few weeks ago that I was looking at, and so it tracked the cost of a lithium ion battery which is important because it can store energy that is created by electricity, right? And so it’s one of the keys to transportation, and you know, and cars, and all that kind of stuff. So it was I’m gonna say, in the range of $2000 for a single unit just less than 10 years ago, today it’s 185 bucks.
Alanna: Yeah. So that’s the scale of these very, very steep declines over time. That makes it, you know, that makes it affordable and so there’s been all this hand-wringing and this anguish, for example, over all the subsidies for, you know, where will the subsidies come for all these new energies. How will governments, you know? How much will it cost us in taxpayers dollars? All this stuff, it turns out that a lot of the technologies announcer cheap that they really don’t even need those kinds of subsidies.
Jordan: Well what I found was interesting about the way you communicate your vision of the future, or the scientists vision of the future is that…. to your point earlier, when we hear about what needs to be done or what is being done, I hear about it in terms of percentages of carbon, or number of degrees that the Earth is going to warm, a number of feet the sea is going to rise. But what I haven’t had anybody talk to me about is how am I gonna get to work?
Alanna: Yeah. What am I gonna feed my kids?
Jordan: What am I gonna feed my kids?
Alanna: Well, probably more vegetables. Probably the kinds of major monoculture farms that we have now are gonna be less common, so you’re probably gonna have…. you’re probably not gonna be using as many pesticides, you’re probably not gonna be using as many fertilizers, all that kind of structure to the agricultural economy will probably have to shift. And it means that probably there won’t be as many animals, at least not as many animals giving off greenhouse gases. So they maybe in enclosed barns where you capture the methane and use it for something else or it may be that we’re gonna be going to meatless proteins or to lab grown meat maybe I don’t know. But probably the structure of the food chain will change a little bit. You know, one of the really fascinating areas of; And there’s been a ton written on this, especially in Britain, is something that they call co benefits, you know, so you know, so okay, carbon we you know, we grapple with carbon, we, you know, we stop emitting and you know, what does that look like? But what happens to all the health issues that are related somehow to the carbon that we’re emitting like respiratory issues, heart issues, all that kind of stuff? What happens to our whole society if we strip out carbon not just for the sake of carbon, but for the sake of health, and the economy, and the food quality and all that kind of stuff, what kind of a society do we want? That’s such an interesting question. It turns out that there’s all this money freed up to do other stuff, that we’re not spending on health care. It turns out that there’s all this money that we’re still freeing up because technologies to power our economy are so much cheaper than they are in the current system. It turns out that there are all these things that make civilization better.
Jordan: What does the workforce of the future look like? And what industries I mean aside, obviously from the oil and gas industry, which is probably not gonna go well if we managed to achieve this, but what kind of industry reshuffling are we talking about?
Alanna: That a toughie, it’s not exactly clear, but I mean clearly, the analyses are that you know, the oil and gas industry will have to really be cut very, very dramatically. But there will be; What people don’t think about when they think about that is that there will be other industries that will grow.
Jordan: Do we know what those are yet?
Alanna: Some of them have to do with renewable energies, and renewable technologies, and with the kinds of computing power that will be needed to organize those. I mean so there are those kinds of things. One of the things that some of the analysts look to is the whole rise of the information and communications technology sector that, you know, back in the…. I’m gonna say in the seventies and eighties we could barely imagine…. we could barely imagine the Googles, we could barely imagine the Amazons, we could barely imagine how those economies would work and what kinds of jobs there were. Now one of the issues is are these jobs of the future going to be great jobs, or are they gonna be crummy jobs? Are they going to be….
Jordan: As in warehouse worker type jobs?
Alanna: Of course there’s a question about all of that stuff and one of the things that is a great concern to a lot of the people who are looking at this in Europe, is this whole question of just transitions, so not leaving some workers out to dry. Not saying okay, that whole community that used to be founded on coal, or oil and gas, or the tar sands, we’re just gonna hang them out to dry. In the U. K. a lot of the people who have been involved in the oil and gas industry have now moved into offshore wind farms and things like that, so these are very technical jobs again like the oil and gas industry jobs are often very technical. So these are…. I mean, what you’ve got is a whole brain trust of people who have all these great skills that can be applied to other forms of energy, and that’s of course what the people want to see is those skills, those intellects, applied to the future.
Jordan: We talk to a lot of people, a lot of different people from both publications and scientists about climate change, because we keep coming back to this issue and especially with scientists it’s always a tough discussion because they know how bad it’s getting. You talk to a whole bunch of scientists who are on the other side of that. What was it like talking to scientists who are working on the solutions?
Alanna: Well, they too know how bad it can get so there; It was interesting because one of the ones I talked to you, his name’s Kye Chan he’s at UBC. I said to him you know, is this even possible? Okay, try to envision 2050 you know, we’re at 1.5 degrees, you know, temperature warming. We’ve, you know, we’ve de-carbonized our economy, is it even possible? And he says oh yeah, and I kind of did about three takes back and I thought, it’s so clear to him that we still have time and you’re right it’s not clear to everybody, right? But he just finished writing a whole chapter, and a report on exactly how we could do this, like different road maps. He’s quite clear that it’s not just one road map, it’s a bunch of different things, and a bunch of different ways that we’ll have to be flexible as we move forward. But it’s fascinating talking to people like that who know for sure that we could do it if we want to. So then the trick is how do you urge, nudge society? How do you try to write a new ending to this story?
Jordan: I think there is a school of thought that it will take a few more years of utterly catastrophic weather events and coastal devastation and maybe we’ll reach a tipping point that way.
Alanna: Yeah, I think that’s ill advised, and it’s expensive, and, you know….
Jordan: Oh, it’s definitely not the best plan.
Alanna: Yeah, so we won’t do anything unless we’re actually in a war. I mean, basically, we have to, you know….
Jordan: Until it becomes clear we’re about to die.
Alanna: Yeah until it becomes; Until we’re in this actual war survival mentality, we won’t do anything. Well, you know what we can do better? And these guys know we can do better. All of these analysts I talked to say….
Jordan: How come that message doesn’t get out?
Alanna: It doesn’t get out, and partly I think it’s because there has been this attempt to be-little and deny the actual information of the scale, of the risk that we face and so the focus has been on….. I mean, the focus has been on oh, well, you know, maybe it won’t be that bad, you know, maybe something will happen….. maybe the scientists are wrong. You know, they’re all these lists of things that people keep coming up with to say that, you know, we don’t really have to deal with this, but actually, we do have to deal with it.
Jordan: Imagining that kind of world is fascinating, and it’s amazing that it’s not science fiction, and that it’s within our grasp, just so I don’t get too optimistic because I don’t like to get too optimistic. We have already at least this is how I understand it, baked in a certain amount of climate change, right? So let’s say, even in the scientists most optimistic projections we managed to adopt all these policies, and technologies, and we do by 2050 go carbon zero and we cap it at 1.5, what have we done and what will still change?
Alanna: We will have had to have capped carbon long before 2015.
Alanna: Yeah. So there’s a… it would have to be, you know, much sooner. But what will we still be facing on the planet? You know, one of the big problems is of course there’s the atmosphere which it’s not like all of a sudden all of that carbon just gets sucked out of the atmosphere. I mean if there were; There was a report out earlier this week about if you plan to, you know, trillions of trees, oh I can’t remember the figure it was, but it was just, you know, that would could suck a bunch of the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. So if it were accompanied by mechanisms to try to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, that’s one thing. But basically, we’re gonna be in a very destabilized climate for hundreds, if not thousands of years already, so we’re gonna have to live with what we’ve already done. It’s not like things go back to normal, not for hundreds to thousands of years. So that’s…
Jordan: There’s my dose of realism that I need it after this conversation.
Alanna: But the trick is to not make it worse. I mean what’s at stake here is life as we know it on the planet. So it’s not just our, you know, my livelihood, and it’s not just our civilizations wealth, and our success that we’re talking about, it’s whether the dance of life on the planet as we know it is going to survive, that’s what’s at stake. And so there is, you know, can I still heat my home and feed my kids? But there’s also, you know, does this system that has evolved to work, to support life on our planet, does that survive? That’s what’s at stake.
Jordan: So what do? We ask this question of every guest but it seems that you might have a different take on it because there are usually answers like use less plastic, eat less meat, take a bike and not a car.
Alanna: We know all that stuff.
Jordan: Yeah, but what’s the biggest picture? So I guess the biggest picture is I gotta get out and campaign for the Green Party or…
Alanna: Well, different people are gonna take that different ways. I mean, one of the things I do is I turned one my books into a play, and so I performed this play, it’s a non fiction science play performed by a non performer. It’s terrifying, let me tell you, but I perform this play and one of the reasons; It’s called seasick, and one of the reasons I do it is because I think that this demands a cultural response. I think that this is not primarily technological or financial or even political innocence, it’s how we’re interacting with it as a society, that the….
Jordan: It’s a messaging problem.
Alanna: It’s a knowledge problem, I think it’s a narrative problem. So we don’t… for one thing we don’t think that we can solve it, we don’t know that there’s technology to solve it, we don’t know how relatively easy and painless it’s gonna be especially compared to the alternative, which is really expensive, and messy, and bloody uncomfortable. Is it hilarious when people talk about oh it’s gonna cost so much money and they taught up all of the expenses on one side, and they don’t say well how much it’s gonna cost if we don’t do it. It’s like it’s nutty, you know it’s crazy making that we would even have this kind of truncated analysis in our public discourse, and yet we do. So what is the answer? I think it’s too….. I think it’s to just believe that we can do it. Partly it’s to say, you know, we are capable as a society of pulling together and doing this. We need to pull in the same direction. You know, we already know what the issues are right? This is not a big mystery, we know what the issues are, we know that some people know how to get there. They have road maps, they’re you know, this stuff is it is really not brain surgery at this point is really quite straightforward. It’s believing that we can do it and knowing that our leaders, our politicians can help us get there.
Jordan: Well, I know I needed that message so thank you for writing it, and thank you for coming in to talk about it.
Alanna: It’s my pleasure.
Jordan: Alanna Mitchell is a science journalist, an author, and a playwright. And that was The Big Story, you can find more of them at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find more of us on Twitter if you want it @thebigstoryfpn, and, of course, all our episodes, wherever you get podcasts, available 24/7 for free. You can subscribe, you can rate, you can review, and we would appreciate it, in Apple, or Google, or Stitcher, or Spotify. Thanks for listening, I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings we’ll talk tomorrow.
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