S3E7: Understanding Our Carbon Footprints

S3E7: Understanding Our Carbon Footprints

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What makes up our individual carbon footprints? In this episode, our guests, Eugene Cordero and Steve Westlake, delve into the world of understanding our personal contribution to the changing climate; and the balance between individual and corporate contribution to the individual carbon footprint story. Is this a helpful framework to understand the challenge of climate change? Listen to find out.

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ABOUT THE SPEAKERS

DR. EUGENE CORDERO is a climate scientist and professor in the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science at San José State University.   Eugene is also the founder of Green Ninja (www.greenninja.org), a science textbook publisher that uses solutions to environmental problems as a lens for teaching science. 

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Steve Westlake is a PhD researcher at Cardiff University in the UK. He is investigating how leading by example with strong pro-environmental behaviour can influence the attitudes and behaviour of others. For instance, when someone high profile like Greta Thunberg stops flying because of climate change, how does this affect our thinking and our actions? Underpinning the research is the idea that “action is communication”. The research contributes to the ongoing debates about “individual action versus systems change”, with a particular focus on leaders and differences in personal consumption levels. 

Download the episode's key takeaways here.

This episode was produced by Global Thinking Foundation USA and Hangar Studios.

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Check out Green Ninja, and listen to Eugene's podcast "The Dumbbells" here

Follow Steve on Twitter here, and follow his research work here.

Calculate your carbon footprints using this calculator!

View Transcript

[00:00:00] Mary: Welcome back money people. I'm so glad you could be here with us today, and I'm back with our cohost, Nolan. He came down from the mountain in Switzerland. Hey, Nolan. I hope you enjoyed the mountains.

 

[00:00:11] Nolan: Hi all. It's good to be with you, Mary.

 

[00:00:13] Mary: So, Nolan, let me ask you this. Do you care about climate change?

 

[00:00:19] Nolan: I do, actually. It's kind of like one of the biggest things I care about. Do you care about climate change?

 

[00:00:27] Mary: Oh my gosh, of course I do. I think both of us care so, so much about this, and I imagine most of our listeners do, too. But follow-up question. I'm here for all the follow-up questions. How often do you think about your individual contribution to the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change? What some people call your carbon footprint?

 

[00:00:51] Nolan: I'll be honest. Every time I think about that, it hurts a little bit. It seems complicated and I never really like the answer. It genuinely feels pretty uncomfortable to be confronted with the choices I make that are contributing to all of this. And I, don't always like to think of the sacrifices I may need to make to really live out these values, if I, if I truly care about climate change, you know?

 

[00:01:15] Mary: Yeah, absolutely. And I know we're going to talk about it, but we actually measure these, and it just hurts so much when I think about it. And on top of that, we both live in major metropolitan centers. So just thinking about it, I agree. It hurts.

 

[00:01:29] Mary: So, thinking about it, I need some people to help me, and we have two pretty amazing guests with us here today to help us think through all of these issues and help clear up the picture a bit for us. Because right now we're both just in a lot of pain and a little confused.

 

[00:01:44] Nolan: Yeah, I do agree. So, we have two amazing guests. We have Dr. Eugene Cordero. Dr. Cordero is a climate scientist and professor in the department of meteorology and climate science at San Jose State University. Eugene is also the founder of Green Ninja, a science textbook publisher that uses solutions to environmental problems as a lens for teaching science.

 

[00:02:07] Nolan: If you want to learn more, you can go to green ninja.org. I think that's a great name.

 

[00:02:12] Mary: So, Steve Westlake is a PhD researcher at Cardiff University in the UK. He is investigating how leading by example with strong pro-environmental behavior can influence the attitudes and behavior of others. For instance, when someone high profile like Greta Thunberg stops flying because of climate change, how does this affect our thinking and our actions? Underpinning the research is this idea that action is communicating.

 

[00:02:44] Nolan: That's absolutely right. And really these two guests are amazing, and the conversation is incredibly illuminating and I'm so, so excited to have this conversation as it's a topic near and dear to my heart. And I want to say something from the start here, too. The topic of our individual carbon footprint is actually a little bit controversial in some circles.

 

[00:03:04] Nolan: A lot of people will tell you that it's maybe not the right framing. That it's one that puts too much responsibility on our shoulders to fix this giant problem and takes the spotlight away from the fact that we need major change from corporations and, well, the global economic system itself to solve this fundamentally systemic challenge.

 

[00:03:23] Nolan: And the good news is we're going to get into all of that in this discussion. One reason why I think you're going to find this conversation just so illuminating is we get into some pretty heavy topics that affect each part of our daily lives in so many different ways.

 

[00:03:37] Mary: Yeah, we don't spare any conversation. So, I hope everybody gets ready to settle in. But, but, but, but there's one more thing, Nolan. You and I actually just calculated our own carbon footprints. Mine is terrifying. You're still terrified. We're all terrified. And we think it might be fun for you to, the listener, if you want to do something similar coming into this conversation. At the suggestion of Dr. Cordero, we encourage you to use the tool from the University of Berkeley's Cool Climate Network. That can be found on their website at www.coolclimate.berkeley.edu. And look for the household calculator under the tool section. And don't worry, we'll remind you at the end, too.

 

[00:04:19] Nolan: That's right. It's a really helpful tool they've put together. I know you and I learned a lot using it, and we're excited to share some of those personal insights in this conversation.

 

[00:04:32] Mary, Nolan, Laquita Ann: Hi, I'm Mary. I'm Nolan. I'm Laquita Ann. We are your hosts, and this is 'Your World, Your Money.' We will be talking real money, with real people, in a real way. Because everyone deserves the opportunity and tools for freedom, financial or otherwise. 'Your World, Your Money' is brought to you by Hangar Studios, a New York City based recording studio, and Global Thinking Foundation, a global nonprofit working toward financial freedom and equality for all.

 

[00:05:17] Nolan: Eugene Cordero and Steve Westlake. Thank you so much for joining us. Welcome to the show.

 

[00:05:23] Steve: Great to be here.

 

[00:05:24] Eugene: Yeah. Thanks. Thanks for having us.

 

[00:05:26] Nolan: We think this is going to be such an incredible conversation and let's jump right into it. How do you define carbon footprint for us? Let's get that definition out of the way at the beginning. Eugene, you want to take that for us?

 

[00:05:39] Eugene: Sure. I'll start by saying that not everyone defines it in the same way. So, there's something called a system boundary, which is like, 'oh, do you want to just talk about like what you do in your own home and your own driving around in your own food and eating, or does it expand to like what you purchase?' Well, I'll just start by saying that it tries to estimate the amount of energy and associated carbon emissions associated with your life with your carbon footprint. So, like when you go and walk in the, in the beach, you see your, your footprint image there. This is your carbon footprint. So, it associates all the energy and, and the associated carbon emissions that come as a result of you living.

 

[00:06:18] Eugene: So, your energy used at home, your energy use in the food you eat and you're driving around, the things you buy... and that would be pretty typical. And then one more step might be, 'oh, what about the country you live in? And the associated medical costs and transportation, and then your military?' And then that would just look a little bit different.

 

[00:06:36] Eugene: But the goal of the whole exercise is to give an individual an idea of what impact they're having on the planet in terms of carbon going into the atmosphere as a result of their life.

 

[00:06:48] Nolan: I think that's a good definition. And Mary and I, we mentioned at the top here that we've calculated our own carbon footprints. And I think we have some interesting learnings from that. What do you think Mary?

 

[00:07:00] Mary: I was absolutely surprised, and I was especially amazed by this, this transportation side of it. I was like, 'oh, dang it. I have to fly less.' But we're going to get into that here. Somebody is going to tell me if I have to fly less or not.

 

[00:07:12] Nolan: Let's talk about that. I mean, as far as I know, the average carbon footprint for, for the average American is 16 plus maybe more tons per year, is that right?

 

[00:07:22] Eugene: That's about right. Generally, that's the figure that comes up in the table rankings of countries.

 

[00:07:28] Nolan: Acknowledging that, Eugene, as you just said, it can be measured in a lot of different ways. The shocking thing to me is that I think the global average is around four tons. So, the Americans are emitting around 4 times more than the global average, which is - Yeah...puts things into perspective. What do you think is the most surprising thing for people when they are confronted with the reality of those numbers? How many tons per year they're emitting, how much that is above potentially the global average, what's the most shocking thing for people would you say?

 

[00:08:00] Steve: I think the travel aspect is, can be quite surprising for people. It depends, really. Sometimes - I guess it depends to some extent how much you delve into and consider what's going on when you travel - like burning fossil fuels. If you look at a plane it's big and it's loud and it's heavy and it goes up in the air. And if you look at it in that respect, it's quite intuitive to think that takes a huge amount of energy. Similarly, if you drive a big car, it takes a huge amount of energy. So, if you think of things in that way... in a slightly physical, scientific way, then I think it's perhaps not a surprise that air travel is, is a big part of it.

 

[00:08:40] Steve: If you fly or road travel is a big part of it. Also, just to say, these activities are quite habitual. So, we very quickly get into routines about whether it's flying a holiday or flying for work - if we do that stuff - or driving. And so, because it's such a habitual, natural, normal thing to do, we can also kind of forget about it.

 

[00:09:04] Steve: And then if suddenly we're confronted with these figures, it can be quite surprising. And similarly, diet can be a big surprise for people. If, if you're a big meat-eater, I think beef is one of the highest, one of the foods with the highest carbon footprints. So that can also be a big surprise for people.

 

[00:09:23] Mary: Just to follow up on that, one of the biggest surprises for me was that I travel internationally fairly often, so I live in New York, and I was able to see an eight-ton difference if I said, 'Okay, I will take three less flights in my year.' And to me, that's huge. And I do everything that I can, and I feel like a lot of people listening will say, 'Well, I do pretty much everything that I think I can.'

 

[00:09:50] Mary: So, the other aspect of that, that I thought was so interesting was I saw this huge difference and even with that eight-ton difference, the calculator that we used, that we recommended-- and I think Eugene, you were the one that recommended the calculator-- even with that difference it still said you're 44% better than other people in your area.

 

[00:10:12] Mary: And I was like, how can I be 44% better than other people in my area when I'm sitting here looking at 27 tons? So, for perception of people that, you know, whether they think they're doing a great job, or they have these habitual actions, what role does society play in this? What are the habitual things about society that, Eugene, I think you mentioned it a little bit with culture and military and the society that you're in, but what role does this play in it that we might not think about? And it might not be as much of the habitual things that we do?

 

[00:10:45] Eugene: Well, you know, humans are curious creatures, as I'm sure you, you know. And we, uh, just like, Steve was saying, you know, we think, 'Oh, we're on a plane and we're driving,' you can kind of envision the pollution, but other actions it's not quite so clear and it becomes just part of what you normally do. I think that we're not often good at making estimates of, of our environmental impact. So, there might be folks who care a lot about the environment and go through great lengths to recycle a plastic bag or a bottle, but don't really think much of like a casual trip to the, to the east coast or west coast with some friends for the weekend. And you know, you just rack up the miles really, really quickly when you fly. Like that's why flying, it's not worse than driving. It's about the same as driving a single occupancy vehicle, but you can travel thousands of miles in a relatively short period of time, whereas driving takes a while to do that.

 

[00:11:41] Eugene: So, I remember from the Union of Concerned Scientists-- this was many years ago-- they wrote a book and it's something like, 'Don't sweat the small stuff.' And so, as scientists, we, we, when you use data and evidence to hopefully inform good decisions, that's where this tool comes in, Mary, it's providing you with some, with some insight into one piece of, of your life.

 

[00:12:04] Eugene: And I agree that flying it's really challenging because some of us professionally, or we need to visit family, and those are important things. So, we have to use this to make the best decisions we can or hopefully to inform policy. So that kind of long-term, it's not like we're going to say, oh no, one's going to fly in the future, but maybe we can develop some technologies that are lower carbon emitting to help us live our life in ways that we want to.

 

[00:12:31] Steve: Just to add to that, I mean, just in terms of flying, it's such a, a marker of so many things in our lives. So, it's obviously a marker of progress. It's a wonderful, wonderful thing that's connected the world and hugely impressive, technologically, that we can do this so easily and so safely. And it also gives us a whole lot of meanings in our lives-- opportunities, pleasure, connection, culture. It's far more than transport because of the associations. And even, you know, it's a marker of success. It's why frequent flyer programs. And the status that can come with that is, is really, you know, really plays into some of our fairly kind of deep-down instincts and pleasures.

 

[00:13:17] Steve: And so, if we're confronted, or if we realize that the environmental impact of flying very often, you know, it's something where in effect, we are encouraged to do it because of the status because of the pleasure. And then we're confronted that actually it's got quite a big impact or a very big impact relatively.

 

[00:13:34] Steve: That's a difficult thing to grapple with. It's, you know, it's a hard thing. I've flown a lot in my life with jobs and for holidays and personally, I feel like I've, I've used up my quota, having got really into climate change and the, the figures about the, seeing the figures of the speed with which we need to reduce emissions. Studying that effectively I've felt that I, Ok I've flown so much that I can't do this anymore. But you know, lots of people haven't, hadn't had the opportunity.

 

[00:14:05] Steve: So, it's a very difficult thing to, to suggest, and certainly to tell people you shouldn't be doing this as much. And then we look at other people, or maybe it's our friends, our colleagues, our family, and if they are doing it as well, it's a very socially normal thing to do. So, it's a difficult thing to confront.

 

[00:14:23] Steve: And similarly with diet is so much part of our culture as well. And our socializing and social bonding that these are, these are quite difficult things to, to get our heads around and perhaps things that can't happen in particularly quickly.

 

[00:14:37] Nolan: It strikes me that this is why it's so important to put numbers to it, just so people can start digesting the, the real impact of their actions.

 

[00:14:46] Nolan: And, you know, like, like you, Mary air travel was by far my biggest category on my footprint. I mean, and I don't think I traveled that much, but I mean, it was just a huge component and yeah, giving up travel is, seems like quite a sacrifice, but there's this disconnect. I also consider myself somebody who very much cares about climate change and I think we're constantly faced with these moral questions about 'To what extent can we live out those values?' And 'Should we live out this value?' So, let's briefly talk about what do you think works in terms of engaging behavior change around this stuff? What kinds of messages work? Eugene, you mentioned that sometimes it's better to not sweat the small stuff. How do we zero in on the types of behavioral changes that really has the most impact?

 

[00:15:37] Eugene: You know, that's the tough question, but you know, people study behavior change. And one thing that we've learned is to get people to, if they're willing to change their behavior, whether that's the food they eat or some of their transportation behavior, or what happens at home... there's three centers of, of knowledge that is somewhat needed, at least from the research we've been doing. One is that intellectually, you need to understand something about climate change and your connection to it. So that's one. Second is that something about the solutions-- sometimes people say, 'Well, what do I need to do?' or 'How can I, how can I make a difference?' And so, we're, we're talking about that. And the third piece really has to do with empathy. And so, Nolan and Mary, probably there, if you trace back in your life, there might be some reason why you care about the environment and maybe due to a plant or an animal or people.

 

[00:16:25] Eugene: And then, you know, to give people practice and some small steps. And that's why recycling what's a great entry point for the United States. I mean, it makes a little difference, but if you flip on and off recycling on your carbon footprint calculator, I don't think you'll see the thing move much, but it's a great entry point into taking actions.

 

[00:16:42] Eugene: So that's where this like meatless Monday idea that-- oh, for one day, can you reduce your consumption of meat-- is an entry point. It's a, it's a first step. So, I think that approaches that, um, that use that kind of idea-- and some of this comes from something called community based social marketing, which is what your neighbors do and what your peers do-- has a larger impact than what the government's telling you or, or you read somewhere else. And that little foot in the door that first step, um, those can be really good techniques to trying something new that may feel uncomfortable. And I'll tell you that myself, that looking at my diet many years ago just started me on a path.

 

[00:17:20] Eugene: I do not feel like I live a, uh, a poor life because I don't choose meat as the centerpiece to every meal. My life is very rich and, and there's many people around the world who share similar ideas. But it didn't come just all at once. It came through steps.

 

[00:17:36] Steve: Yeah, I totally agree with what Eugene said. Two really important points there is that it doesn't have to be all or nothing. So quite often when we engage with climate change, it can be in a slightly catastrophic framing because that's the way that the media presents it. And so, we might be going about our ordinary lives. And then we see the stories of either it's a new scientific report or it's a disaster around the world and we're presented with climate change, and we think, 'Oh my goodness, this is really serious. What can I do?'

 

[00:18:05] Steve: We might engage with our carbon footprint and think, 'Oh wow. I need to stop doing everything.' You know, 'I can't fly. I can't, I can't eat meat,' or at least that's the message that we might think that stuff gives us. So yeah, we might be presented with this very strong message and think, 'Oh, we have to do, we have to do everything.'

 

[00:18:24] Steve: And we, we don't have to do everything. And that's an important way to think is that we need to move towards a world where emissions are lower and we're consuming less. And we need, it's a direction of travel is really important. And that's where it ties into the other thing that Eugene said about the social element of this.

 

[00:18:45] Steve: So, we're really influenced by what other people do around us and the social norms. So, if it's part of our community, people we feel we have bonds with, then that shows us several things. It shows us that certain behaviors are possible. They are desirable, people can be happy if they're, say, eating less meat or they're flying less.

 

[00:19:07] Steve: And yeah, the social element-- doing things together is, is a really powerful aspect of this.

 

[00:19:14] Mary: So, Steve, you just mentioned this social side of it-- we don't have to do everything. And I think that's something really important to keep in mind. And one piece of this conversation, one discussion that some people have is around how many children people have and how many pets people have.

 

[00:19:33] Mary: And I especially want to dive into this and talk about if it's, just talk about the controversy of it because two of the largest emitters are really pushing for more families to have more kids. Economically they're pushing for this, and they are driving to have more children for the next generation. So how do we get into this controversial conversation?

 

[00:19:55] Mary: Like how can we walk away from it and actually take something with us?

 

[00:20:00] Steve: Yeah, it's a really sensitive topic, understandably. And there are some quite difficult areas of this. So, population has for a long time been part of the discussion and part of the narrative, there are too many people, or at least there are going to be too many people on the planet, and if everybody consumes and the consumption increases, then the collective carbon footprint is going to go up and up and up. Now that's, on a spreadsheet, if you calculate that, obviously that is the case, if certain things increase such as consumption and the number of people. However, obviously there are some really tricky parts of the narrative in terms of what that implies for population and where population growth is happening around the world.

 

[00:20:46] Steve: And so, it can, it can get into some pretty troubling narratives. And also, it obviously butts up against our very deep-down inclinations to have families. And yeah, it's just part of our human nature obviously. So first of all, I think that the topic has to be discussed really sensitively, but I heard somebody talking quite surprisingly.

 

[00:21:06] Steve: When I discussed this, we, I had a discussion for part of my research about this topic of family size. And I think most of the people in the discussion were saying, 'I'm really uncomfortable about this. I don't think we should be telling people they should have fewer children.' And then somebody else said, 'Well, actually it's quite a natural thing for people to consider the environment in which they are bringing children into and consider how appropriate that is.' And so, you do have some people, you know, there is a movement or there are several people who think they're worried about the future. And so, they consider whether to have children or not. That is also a natural thing to do. So, it's yeah, it's a complex discussion.

 

[00:21:51] Steve: And you don't really want to be going around saying people, you know, judging people's family size or saying people are bad for having children. Clearly, that's not a good thing to say, but I think it's part of the context and it's a discussion that should be had sensitively and with nuance. Not simplistically and judgmentally.

 

[00:22:15] Steve: So that's, yeah, this kind of discussion is very good because you can, you can talk through all the issues as opposed to getting some headlines, which can be problematic.

 

[00:22:25] Eugene: You know, I, I had a student once in my college class who, um, said to me, you know, after taking this class, I had to tell my husband, like, I'm not sure if we're going to have a family.

 

[00:22:37] Eugene: And I was like, oh my gosh. And I said, 'Why?' And she said, just what Steve said, is that 'I'm not sure I feel comfortable bringing a child up into these next a hundred years.' Well of course that's a very personal decision, but we wanted, we want people to be informed about the world and about the consequences and about the, some of the challenges.

 

[00:22:58] Eugene: I wouldn't say that that was a common idea that came out of after taking a one-year climate change class, but it certainly does come up. And that is a topic that comes, especially when you, when you start to look at nations in the bigger numbers.

 

[00:23:13] Nolan: It certainly seems like one of the most personal decisions somebody can make.

 

[00:23:17] Nolan: And it, it certainly is a sign that the weight of the world is on your shoulders, right? The, the weight of the implications of climate change. So maybe this is a good segue into the next part of the conversation here, about in what times does it make sense to acknowledge that and to take ownership over the consequences of our actions?

 

[00:23:38] Nolan: And to what extent can we say this is a systemic issue that needs a systemic solution? So, there are some criticisms of the concept of a carbon footprint. Can one of you maybe walk us through the different angles these criticisms can take? Where people are coming from? Is it really a choice, a binary choice between individual actions and systemic change?

 

[00:24:02] Steve: Yeah, it's an ongoing debate and I think it's a debate that's been going for several decades, this idea of individual action versus systemic change, political change. Clearly, we need political change, we need governments to make decisions, to enable us to have much lower carbon lifestyles. It's not going to happen without big systemic change.

 

[00:24:24] Steve: So that's not in doubt. However, the way the individual action plays into that is that the individualist part of the system can change the system or can be part of a social change. And this is where my take on individual action is that it's not really individual. So, if you make a choice to reduce your carbon footprint that will have, in effect, a tiny, tiny, tiny influence on the amount of carbon that's going in the atmosphere and will essentially make no difference. But similar to a vote in an election, each individual vote makes no difference, but collectively they add up to a result.

 

[00:25:04] Steve: But more with individual change is this idea of the social influence and the direction of travel that society's going and the signals we send each other about how we are going to live and what's important, what our values are. And those things feed into the politics. So, if governments, and they say this quite often, that people really don't want to change, so the 'American way of life is not up for negotiation' type quotes. So that was George H. W. Bush in, in 1992, I think. So that is a message we are given quite often is that people won't change their lifestyles.

 

[00:25:42] Steve: But if people do change their lifestyles as much as they can, and there's a social movement, that says climate change is really important, we have to address it, we need everything to happen quickly, then that can feed into politics. And it's happening. I'm not sure about in the States, certainly that's happening in the UK, where more and more people are saying in opinion polls, that it's really important. More and more people are saying they will change their behavior.

 

[00:26:09] Steve: And they are in the States as well. There's some pretty impressive figures about opinion polls. People saying, they already act in pro-environmental ways, and they are willing to. So personal changes of behavior when put into a social context can be part and are indeed parts of moving towards bigger system change.

 

[00:26:33] Nolan: Do you think it potentially obscures the role that corporations play in all this when we talk about the impact of our individual actions? I think it's fascinating to me that as far as I know, the concept of our individual carbon footprint actually came about at the behest of oil companies like BP. And I think their goal was more or less to kind of shield criticism from there.

 

[00:26:55] Nolan: We're holding all this and to kind of put the blame onto the shoulders of individuals. Eugene, do you think there's a chance that when we talk about our individual footprints, that still today is obscuring the role that corporations play?

 

[00:27:09] Eugene: You know, I think this leads-- just doing a carbon footprint calculator, starting to think about your environmental impact.

 

[00:27:17] Eugene: And if you continue to get prodded on that in your daily life, from your friends, from the newspaper from media, and you're encouraged to think a little bit more deeply, then you may start to reflect on these things that I buy, and who are these people? Are they, are they part of the solution or not? And, you know, going back to this last point, one of the reasons I like to do a carbon footprint calculator with students is that that encourages us to think more systemically ultimately. So, where I live in the San Jose area, let's say you didn't want to have a car and you wanted to get to work and to school. Well, you could spend a couple hours riding these buses around it, depending on where you live.

 

[00:27:57] Eugene: And that's really not a great use of your time, but if you go and visit a place like London or New York, and you see how well-designed public transit, how effectively it can work, then it starts to make sense of what this future might look like. And then perhaps you might use some of that understanding the next time there's a vote or a bill or something that is advocating for better public transit.

 

[00:28:20] Eugene: And I think that type of thinking can also influence the types of things you buy, ultimately. And, you know, I don't think it's a, a coincidence that Apple and some of these tech companies, Facebook and Google, really quickly went to renewables when they were kind of exposed to being dirty polluters in the, in this cloud kind of environments.

 

[00:28:41] Eugene: Because a lot of the folks who support those products are younger and want to be associated with pro-environmental personal behavior and, and kind of themes. And so that's why many of these companies now have sustainability, this and that, and have tried to, to clean themselves up because they know their customers think this is important too.

 

[00:29:00] Mary: So, Eugene, you actually referenced this a couple of times, and I will posit this to both of you, but Eugene to start. You've referenced a few times the classes that you teach and the students that you've influenced and some of the choices that they've made, I want to get into and understand what role does education play in changing behavior in changing the next generations, whether it is participating politically like Steve was talking about, or just making those choices through a bigger picture?

 

[00:29:32] Mary: So, what role do you see education playing? And I'd love to know what, what do you want to see education play? I want to see, I want to know what you think, where it should go.

 

[00:29:41] Eugene: Yeah, that's a great question. And, you know, we just finished COP26 and there was a movement and interest to get more education, uh, language into some of these, um, policies. Wasn't completely successful.

 

[00:29:56] Eugene: So, in general, you’ll see, in some of the framework documents, education's important, but if you look at a climate action plan for a city or for a state, or even for a country, very rarely do you see anything and any funding associated with education. It's just not really on the board and in part, because it's been hard for us to document the carbon savings of, uh, of a high-quality climate change education, where it's much easier to say, 'Oh, if we give out these light bulbs or we use this battery technology, we know what, how the emissions will change.' But this thing related to a more-- in terms of education, it's harder to define.

 

[00:30:33] Eugene: However, there is research that has come out to show this, and there continues to be. And I think educators know the, the long-term influence that that education can play. So, what I would like to see is I would like to see a more systemic view of, of the role that education can play. So, for example, New Jersey recently passed a climate change standard in all K-12, not just science, but in history and in other fields, to provide our youth with a kind of foundational knowledge about the impact that humans are having on our system and what we can do about it. And we think that should be a kind of a standard. For example, Italy decided to put that, that type of description of education into the whole country. And Mexico wrote it into their constitution so the next president can't change it.

 

[00:31:25] Eugene: So, countries are taking steps towards really saying that this should be, you know, an educated person in our countries should have some basic fundamental knowledge about human interaction with our planet and how we can live more sustainably.

 

[00:31:37] Steve: This kind of relates to what Eugene's been saying. Just going back to the previous point about individual versus system. There was just something I wanted to say. I think when people are confronted with climate change and the speed of action that's required and the extent of the problem, they want to do something. So, people think, 'I want to do something about this.'

 

[00:32:01] Steve: This is where a lot of the focus on the carbon footprint comes from. Because it's, Ok, here's my impact. Here's what I can change. And that's a very natural, personal thing to want to do. And so, in relation to the personal and the systems change, what one needs to consider, I think, is where it's best to put your energy.

 

[00:32:24] Steve: And this is where the idea about focusing on the individual can become problematic. If it all becomes about getting your own carbon footprint as small as possible, and then trying to be better and better, and you've got so many restrictions on you because you've only gotten certain transport options and certain diet options, or how you're heating your home, etc., there's only a certain amount that you can do. And if you just continue to focus on that and try to become perfect and pure, that's never going to happen. And it also can become a bit of a emotional, psychological burden, and it can also be a burden that other people might put on you, if, if you think other people are expecting you to be perfect.

 

[00:33:02] Steve: So, if you consider where to put your energy, that might be to reduce your own footprint as much as possible, then focus on the big stuff. So, as we said before, it's the big stuff that matters, not the small stuff, if you're going to do that. But also, you might use your personal agency to try to shift the politics or shift some community schemes in the right direction and work collectively towards the change. So, I think, yeah, the idea of carbon footprint needs to be balanced against what are we trying to achieve? And it's a big systemic change of which individuals can be part, but they're not the, they're not the extent of it.

 

[00:33:44] Steve: So, I think, yeah, carbon footprint should be used as, yeah, as Eugene said, as a tool and something which is really helpful and instructive and something we can do personally, but not become the sole focus over something we obsess over at the expense of, of really pushing for systemic change and political change.

 

[00:34:04] Nolan: So, one topic I want to cover is the concept of carbon offsets. And like you're saying, and like we've been discussing, there's a lot of different, we're presented with a lot of different actions we can take. And I think it's a bit unfortunate that if you Google right now, 'carbon footprint calculator,' you'll find quite a bit, that the outcome is a page presenting you with options to pay a bit of money and offset the carbon emissions that your lifestyle, uh, appears to be causing.

 

[00:34:39] Nolan: Can one of you talk a little bit about the problems inherent to the concept of carbon offsets? It's such an appealing idea. We can plant some trees; we can prevent the emissions that we've just caused by taking that flight. But that, that seems to be how it's not actually working in practice.

 

[00:34:58] Steve: Yeah. Carbon offsets are problematic for several reasons. There's a fairly obvious reason is that if you, for instance, take a flight-- I think that's the classic one, is you offset your flights-- you are contributing to carbon that goes into the atmosphere. And yet the offset, it's very doubtful about whether they take that much carbon out of the atmosphere.

 

[00:35:25] Steve: So, there may be tree planting schemes, and there may be other renewable energy schemes that are invested in, and they might work, but they might not. For instance, tree planting because it requires trees to grow for years and years and years, and land to be protected, it's uncertain. So, there's that problem.

 

[00:35:44] Steve: There's also the question of additionality. Would those things have been done anyway? And if they would have been done anyway, then you're not really offsetting the carbon because it's something that would have happened, and bearing in mind, we need pretty much everything to happen really, really fast, that's problematic. And then for instance, with tree planting, you have land issues of whose land is it? Who have jurisdiction over the land? Who's controlling that? Um, what are the justice issues surrounding that? So, there are several issues with carbon offsetting, and including the fact that there's going to be so much demand for these kinds of offsets from corporations, from countries that demand for them, it's going to exceed supply.

 

[00:36:33] Steve: So that effectively we won't, very soon, we won't have enough offsets to, to cover everything. So, um, offsets are something which if, if you really have no choice over the activity, then it's better to do it than not to do it, but it shouldn't be seen as a canceling out of the, of the impact. Which is unfortunate but that's the way I see it.

 

[00:36:57] Nolan: There are companies that you can pay right now that claim they're pulling carbon out of the air, this is verifiable. They can guarantee to the best of their ability that this is going to stay underground for centuries, some extended period of time. Do you think there's a future in which we can still go through some of our emitting behaviors, we can still take those trips, and we can pay to then offset the emissions from that and feel a little bit better about ourselves? Is that a future that we might see?

 

[00:37:29] Eugene: Well, I believe we can, we can feel better, whether that's justified or not. Steve brought up the really good points about the speed. You mentioned about sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, and that's a technology that is very expensive and it's only kind of coming online.

 

[00:37:45] Eugene: I mean, trees do it, but it could take many, many. That's an amazing technology or, or process, but when we try to do it ourselves chemically, it's hard. I was just talking to a, um, a colleague who works in renewable energy and, you know, these technologies are coming they're, they're improving and we're starting to see progress like we did 30 years ago with solar and wind. So, I wouldn't say 'No there will never come a time when you can't just pay extra money and then they'll turn on some little factory that sucks carbon out of the atmosphere on your behalf.' And I think that's an envision. And I also think that we'll probably be able to fly around on some kind of electric technology that came from renewables or some biofuel that was produced from renewable.

 

[00:38:29] Eugene: So, I'm not saying that's happening right now. It is a possible vision. And I think that from the engineers and the entrepreneurs and the businesses, some of them are moving in this direction, trying to develop technologies. It's still a little ways out and our individual actions and our, just like Steve said, you know, our interest in influencing community and politics is critically important right now.

 

[00:38:50] Eugene: So that those innovations continue to get the funding they need and have the resources to create that future that you're kind of identifying, Nolan.

 

[00:38:58] Nolan: So, as we're recording this, you just mentioned COP26 has finished up. I think it's a fair assessment to say that the world is still not on track to tackle climate change at the scale we need, and it's admittedly a scary future. I want to talk about how you both deal with the emotional impact of this. Do you think there is value in maintaining a sense of optimism so that we can find the motivation to take the actions we need to take, to reduce our emissions? And what advice do you give to people who might be tempted to fall into kind of a climate nihilism thinking that nothing we do matters, that we can't solve this problem, it's too big? How do you deal with that?

 

[00:39:40] Steve: I think it's different for different people. For instance, I don't have strong emotions about it in terms of despair or depression or fear or anxiety, but I know people do. And, um, I totally identify with that in terms of kind of understanding that it seems like a very rational, as it were, response.

 

[00:40:06] Steve: I find it very motivating. There's little-- it's more important to try to solve this problem and address it. There are a couple of issues in terms of climate change is not a, it's going to happen, or it's not going to happen. It is going to happen and it's happening now. And every, you've probably heard this, but every fraction of a degree warming that is avoided is important.

 

[00:40:30] Steve: So, everything we do is worthwhile in terms of reducing emissions and living in a more sustainable way. So that should give us all motivation and hope to just to continue pushing towards it.

 

[00:40:46] Eugene: Yeah, I would say that the, we did a research project, a study where we followed students years after they had taken a climate change course. And what we found is that the students who felt that individual actions can make a difference, 'I think that, oh, my small difference can make a difference.' That, that small action I take actually makes a difference. And so, if you think, 'oh no, this doesn't really matter. Whether I recycle or not,' then you're not going to take those behaviors as much. At least that's what our research found. So, when we approach and provide advice about how to educate adults or youth, talking about solutions is really, really important because that's much more uplifting. That's exciting. If you talked to my colleague from the renewable energy area, and they talk about the progress that we've made and in the cost of solar and wind right now, it's amazing.

 

[00:41:41] Eugene: And some new technologies that are still some decades away, but that are evolving, you know, that's exciting. And what we can do in our urban areas to improve public transit, to improve justice and equity around housing, oh, those are things that especially youth get really excited about. And so, it gives me optimism, is being involved in education and helping our youth see the possible future that we can create. It's not going to be, 'oh, we're going to just be eating oatmeal and not getting a chance to go and visit our families and enjoy our life.' It's actually a better life. I mean, no one here in San Jose wants to drive an hour in traffic to get 20 miles. I mean, no one does. We'd all rather taken an efficient public transit, listen to music, chat with our neighbors. That's a better life and we have to figure out a way to design that. And I think that when we provide people with those options and show them that we can create a better world for everyone-- but we're going to have to be the architects and designers and innovators to create that future--that's exciting. And I think that many folks are realizing that when we teach about sustainability and about the future that we need to, to devote ample time for letting us explore and create what we want to see and give us some experience doing that. That allows us to create some optimism, rather than just focusing on the state of our planet, which isn't the happy thing in all times.

 

[00:43:07] Steve: Just building on that, I totally agree and what Eugene's just said, it just made me think that so many, if not all of the solutions for the climate crisis, our collective solutions, is what we do together. It's building the better future, and this includes building it and discussing it. So, for instance, local energy projects where renewable energy is installed locally, and if you involve the community, then it's - people accepted much more than if it's imposed on them. And those kinds of collective solutions are also an antidote to climate anxiety and the worry we have, because doing things with other people in and of itself is what we need as social beings. So yeah, the solutions for climate change are collective solutions and that in itself provides hope and meaning and a lot of wellbeing.

 

[00:44:00] Mary: Thank you both. And as we come out of the conversation and kind of leaves this whole hour with our listeners, you've both given really incredible pieces of wisdom towards the end here, but let me just give some space right now to say, what advice do you want to leave? What thought do you want people to listen to this and pull out their headphones while they're probably in their own car and go, 'Hmm. You know what? Maybe I can do?'

 

[00:44:25] Eugene: I'll start by saying, I really do think that collective action and getting involved in your community is really important, not just for climate change, but also for resilience. If there's a fire or storm. And so, looking for opportunities to get involved, really is satisfying. It's not easy, but I would say I would encourage folks to take that step and try and see if getting involved in some kind of-- there's thing called cool blocks, or there's going to a council meeting and advocating for something. It seems like, 'oh, that's something other people do,' but we need to do that. We need to be the architects and that's... Sometimes I tell my science colleagues, you know, climate action looks different than just publishing papers and going to science conferences. There's other things to do. And it's not easy, but I would encourage folks to give it a try and see what it feels like.

 

[00:45:15] Steve: Yeah, and I'd say that a lot of the solutions for the climate crisis and climate change are going to make life better. So, cleaner air. Using clean technology, healthier food or healthy living. These things are actually, they're actually good. And even if in the short term it feels like, 'oh, I can't fly as much as I used to and I can't eat all the things I want to eat.' That might be a very short term, little hurdle to get over, but actually people who've done, who've done this, who've reduced various parts of their life, they will tell you that they probably enjoy life more because they've got more time and they, they spend more time with family because they're not traveling as much or they're less stressed because of traffic.

 

[00:46:02] Steve: So, a lot of the things are positive and can be positive. So, I don't think we need to think of climate action either personally or from a society point of view, as a, as negative or as a burden. I think it's, it's a great opportunity and yeah, that gives me optimism.

 

[00:46:21] Nolan: I really love that. I mean, what I'm hearing is these things are not necessarily sacrifices. We can build a better world for ourselves, that we can build community around ourselves in pursuit of that. And to tie up the conversation, I'm feeling much better about the idea that thinking about our individual role in this, our footprints, is not only helpful to spark that individual change, but the discussion itself seems to be a quite helpful one to stoke those conversations about what the better world looks like and how people can collectively achieve that.

 

[00:46:55] Steve: Yeah, completely, and just the final comment about talking to people. And there can be a lot of antagonism around climate change, but if we listen to each other and understand where each other are and know that we're going to be going at different paces, not everyone's going to do things as quickly or want to, but they might do a bit further down the line.

 

[00:47:13] Steve: Yeah, and just have conversations and understand each other and I think we can, we can forward.

 

[00:47:19] Eugene: Not to overstate this, but I will say we need big change. Like when you look at the numbers we have to reach, it's not, 'Oh, I'll do my bit and we'll get there.' And 'Oh yeah, I like to recycle.' It's not enough. So just like Steve said, those conversations, those are really important, but we do have a real challenge ahead of us. So that's exciting, but it's daunting too. So, it kind of, we're on this, on this kind of razor edge, but I am excited about this future, and I know we have a lot of work to do.

 

[00:47:50] Nolan: I agree with that. We certainly do. And I couldn't think of two better guests to be on the show to kind of help our listeners think through that.

 

[00:47:58] Nolan: So, Eugene and Steve, thank you so, so much for being here with us.

 

[00:48:02] Steve: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.

 

[00:48:04] Eugene: Yeah. Thanks to both of you.

 

[00:48:06] Mary: Thank you, listeners. We have linked the carbon footprint calculator in our show notes, and don't forget to check it out and comment with your results. We were really astonished by ours and it's amazing how just changing one or two things can really change your carbon footprint.

 

[00:48:22] Mary: So, we hope you go check it out and do it yourself, as well. It's really not hard. And it takes like literally a few minutes. So, breathe, and click on the link on your phone. You'll get through it. We hope you enjoyed joining us for the first episode of our Climate and Individual Carbon Footprint series. Next week, we have another exciting conversation with Jamie Beck Alexander, director of Drawdown Labs on corporations and climate.

 

[00:48:47] Nolan: That's right. We will be chatting about what companies are doing that's meaningful in the climate space, what consumers and investors should keep in mind, and so, so much more. We hope you have a beautiful holiday with your loved ones, Happy Thanksgiving, and we'll see you next week.

 

[00:49:03] Mary: Happy money-making!

 

[00:49:08] Mary, Nolan, Laquita Ann: You've been listening in with 'Your world, Your Money.' You can find us at ywympodcast.com and stay updated on Instagram at Global Thinking Foundation USA. Be sure to rate and review us and you can reach us with questions or thoughts at hi@ywympodcast.com. Our thanks again to Hangar Studios and Global Thinking Foundation. Thanks friends. Happy moneymaking. We'll see you next time.