Peter Kalmus, thank you very much for offering the Slingshot Collective this interview to ask you further questions about your book “Being the Change- Live well and Spark a Climate Revolution” and other questions that are on our minds about Climate Change.
You are a climate scientist studying the rapidly changing Earth. You are living with your partner and two kids on the edges of one of the most populated cities in the United States. As a city dweller you’re fortunate to live in a house with a garden – just a rough picture…so people get an idea on which levels they can relate to your life-style and changes you are making.
We are aware that you’re here and in your book speaking on your own behalf!
Can you shortly summarize why you wrote this book and what is your most important message that you want people to hear?
There are two key messages here. The first is that climate breakdown is an urgent emergency, and requires all of us to do everything we can. The time for incremental change is over. We need to see this in a clear moral light: burning fossil fuel causes dire harm, the harmful effects will be essentially permanent on all human timescales, and therefore we need to do all we can, individually and collectively, to stop burning it. Just as assault is socially unacceptable, burning fossil fuel must become socially unacceptable. In the book I’m pretty polite about this, but somehow since submitting the
manuscript, and with every new climate-related disaster, I find myself reaching for stronger language.
The second key message is that moving my daily life away from fossil fuel, step by step, resulted in a more satisfying life. This is actually also what inspired me to write the book. When I started the book, the mainstream thinking was, essentially, that fossil fuel means happiness, and that giving up fossil fuel, even in small ways, would be an impossible sacrifice. I’ve found nearly the opposite to be true: fossil fuel means speed and stress and noise and not enough time in the day, whereas life without fossil fuel means more connection, more gratitude, more community, more time for reflection, and more meaning in my life.
I’m envisioning a kind of hybrid world, where, for example, we still have high-tech hospitals powered by clean energy, but where basically everyone gardens, orchards and feels deep gratitude for food, where neighbors share that bounty with each other, and where long distance travel, without fossil fuel, is seen as a major life-changing adventure. A world where we don’t look for satisfaction in mindless consumption and plastic convenience, but where we instead experience a deeper, slower, more connected kind of satisfaction. Less TV and Facebook, more sitting on the porch with guitars, home-brewed beer, and good friends.
You say in your book that the (scientific) evidence is solid enough that we’re causing climate change. We shouldn’t wait until the last questions are answered to admit that we have to change. As a climate scientist what do you think is your future role? What role should or can science (in general) play in the future?
Wow, great question, I’ve never been asked that. Although I do think we know more than enough to act, we’re not acting. I think there’s still a major role for climate scientists to clarify how, precisely, a warmer world is contributing to the intense heat waves, fires, storms, and floods we’re now experiencing. The public is slowly waking up with each new disaster, but there’s this misinformation machine funded by the fossil fuel corporate interests, and to counteract it scientists need to keep pumping out the attribution science. In addition, there’s still a lot we don’t know about future impacts. For example, how exactly will climate change impact our food system? How will it impact disease? Did you know that climate change has already significantly reduced the protein content of our food? There will be many more surprises like that, since climate change is affecting absolutely every moving part of the Earth system. So we need the science to keep delving into that, understanding it, both to motivate us to change and to help us cushion the blow.
Your second question here is also really interesting. I think science is absolutely wonderful. To me, there’s a deep reverence and beauty that comes with science, whether it’s astrophysics or Earth science.
I still remember what it felt like, as a graduate student, to begin understanding the mysteries of quantum mechanics and general relativity. To be able to look at an equation, and to see what it’s saying about how the universe works, it’s just so incredibly beautiful. So I think science is a wonderful practice, and also kind of the antidote to a lot of the suffering humanity has experienced, things like inquisitions, burning witches at the stake, the dark demon-haunted conspiracy theories and superstitions that somehow otherwise seem to be humanity’s default mode.
But what’s missing is wisdom. We need science and wisdom. Science by itself is harmless, but science leads to technology, and technology without wisdom has turned out to be incredibly dangerous. Our lack of wisdom has allowed our technology to get the better of us, and now we have an increasingly
unstable nuclear-armed world and global warming, for example.
I was surprised to read in your book that aviation only counts for 2% of total emissions globally (while flying and driving is the biggest slice in our personal emission total). The industry makes up a third of global emissions. How can we affectively target the fossil fuel impact of these industries? (of course being aware that ‘the industry’ means for a lot of people ‘my work’)
Globally speaking, aviation isn’t a huge source of global warming, although it’s growing faster than perhaps any other source. This is because poor people simply can’t afford to fly. But for many rich people, flying will be their biggest source of personal emissions. In the US, on average, driving is the biggest source of individual emissions. But for most academics, flying is the biggest individual source.
I see two key wedges for breaking our addiction to both flying and driving. The first is simply to put a price on carbon emissions. We can’t keep using our atmosphere as a free dump for greenhouse gases, we must start charging for the dubious “privilege” of destroying our livable climate for the next 10,000 years. As this price increases each year, very soon fossil fuel will become far more expensive than alternatives like renewable energy. Electric cars will completely replace gas and diesel cars. Electric trains will replace planes, because only the extremely rich will be able to afford plane tickets. Local organic food will replace fossil-fuel intensive food flown or shipped in from thousands of miles away. People will begin to eat a more plant-based diet because it will be much cheaper (and anyway, it’s much healthier).
Interestingly, if we distributed 100% of the revenue from the carbon price equally to the people, it wouldn’t even hurt the economy, and it wouldn’t hurt poor people — it would actually help them a bit.
This is called carbon fee and dividend, and I think it’s a no brainer. It’s not a silver bullet, and there are other things we need to do, but it should absolutely be a key part of a comprehensive climate action plan. And I think it’s something both conservatives and liberals should be able to get behind. It’s essentially a market-based approach and doesn’t hurt the economy, so conservatives should like it; and it’s incredibly effective at reducing emissions and doesn’t hurt the poor so liberals should like it!
The second wedge is cultural shift. For example, I’m trying to gather a group of climate scientists and other academics who have either stopped flying, like myself, or who have reduced their flying. You can see their anecdotes at noflyclimatesci.org. There are a few other like-minded groups who are calling for academic institutions to support more teleconferencing and to support those of us who have decided that we just can’t get on airplanes anymore, because we see the climate destruction it causes too clearly.
If we have already passed the key ‘tipping point’, is there any use in reducing our individual carbon footprints and advocating for larger scale emission reduction efforts? What effects can emission reduction still have?
There is no key tipping point. The less we work to stop it, the worse climate change will be. It’s that simple. So yes, we need to do everything we can, on all scales: individual, local, and national.
Eventually, national actions will weave together into global action. In my opinion this is most likely to happen through a network of national carbon pricing. As a few nations put a price on carbon and create border adjustments for trade, other nations then have a strong incentive to adopt their own carbon prices.
I think it’s really important to understand why individual emissions reductions are helpful. It’s not because these individual changes keep CO2 out of the atmosphere. They do, but that’s not why they’re important. They’re important because they shift the culture. Individual change is a way to vote for large-scale collective change. When we change ourselves, we can demand broader change without hypocrisy. Even more importantly, by changing ourselves we show what’s possible. We’re normalizing a life with less fossil fuel, and our friends and neighbors, especially if we find creative, welcoming ways to speak out about it. And we’re opting into systems that work with less fossil fuel, and opting out of systems that use more. In this way, even as individuals, we can stop pushing the system further toward the cliff, and instead start turning it away from the cliff.
Furthermore, by doing this we can gradually build more resilient communities, communities less dependent on gasoline, fuel, electricity, and food shipped in from far away for survival.
How to read climate statistics – I was told climate scientists make conservative predictions. How to read between the lines or translate conservative predictions to reality? Which sources of information can we trust and how can I estimate my own carbon footprint?
I trust peer reviewed papers from scientists with good reputations and without obvious biases. The most important papers come with articles geared toward non-scientists, sometimes from the journals themselves and sometimes from major newspapers. Another great source of information is the website SkepticalScience.com. My book also has a good summary of climate science and impacts, with lots of references.
There are many carbon calculators, but I personally much preferred doing my own basic research on how my daily actions mapped to carbon emissions. Somehow I found this more satisfying and actionable. I describe the process in my book, and give a simple set of conversions for seven categories: flying, driving, food, natural gas, electricity, stuff, and waste. So basically, once you estimate how many gallons of gas you burn in a year, how much you fly, how much you buy, and gather your utility bills, you can then estimate your footprint. A magazine I write for also made a simple web-based calculator using my numbers:
Is deurbanization, living communally and practicing small scale organic agriculture a legit approach?
I think it’s part of a solution, but not the whole solution. No matter who we are or what our living situation, each of us can get a little more connected to where our food comes from. This massive disconnection from our food is very recent, it happened in the post-WWII era. I think it causes us to eat without gratitude, which makes us less happy. We’re embodied beings, and food is more important than our modern society thinks. So much of our dis-ease comes from our broken relationship with food.
We noticed a sort of mourning and torpor talking about climate change actions, especially in relation to world events and politics. Maybe you want to say something about that?
I think it’s extremely important to allow ourselves to open up to grief over what’s happening to the Earth right now. What’s happening is surreal and terrible — and it was avoidable. Geologic changes are occurring on timescales of decades, species are dying, and our children are inheriting an impoverished and dangerous world from us. When I fully felt what was happening, I experienced an actual grief, just like when a loved one dies. But this grief comes from a deep love for all the Earth, and by allowing myself to feel it I was then able to act with more energy and direction than ever before. Feel the grief, and then roll up your sleeves and get to work! I can think of nothing more meaningful to do.
What is the picture you paint for your children of their future when they are 20, 40, 60? What are you equipping them with? What do you tell them about what they’re seeing here right now and how to relate to it?
That’s an interesting question. I’m starting to gently nudge them toward speaking out more and beginning to fight for their future. I don’t lecture them. Instead I simply answer whatever questions they ask me as best I can. I can tell they’re concerned, and I want to make sure they don’t descend into despair. It’s an interesting balance, giving them a normal childhood with this existential threat hanging over their heads, that they can sense even if they don’t see all the details the way I do. I’m definitely equipping them to know something about how to grow food! And how to get things done “by hand”. I hope I’m equipping them to have a healthy sense of what it means to be part of a resilient community, too. But maybe the most of all, it’s a question of installing values. What does it mean to live well? Is it fast food and video games, is it having a lot of stuff? Or is it something deeper, perhaps simpler?
There are two more topics i would love to address: Our mindset as you describe it, the changing of it and ‘opting out’ …
Climate change is the result of our lack of imagination. There are many other ways we can imagine living, as humans, on this Earth. Many other cultures have, and do, exist on the Earth besides the huge monolithic culture of industrial capitalism. This “monoculture” is extremely good at wiping out other cultures — it has a mindset of conquest and growth — but it’s very bad at listening to others and caring about the future. We can see this collective monoculture reflect in the people we know, and even, if we look carefully, in ourselves.It’s important to be both gentle and firm with ourselves. Gentle, because it’s very hard to see beyond the infrastructure and stories that surround us every day, to imagine living without fossil fuels. Gentle, because it actually takes courage to begin standing up and resisting the dominant monoculture. But firm, because this single culture really is killing the biosphere, which we depend on for life. One of the things our culture tells us — a part of our mindset — is that we’re separate from nature, that we can solve any problem with technology. But if we examine our lives with honesty, we can see this isn’t true. Ultimately, we are creatures in the biosphere, like other animals, and we depend on it just as much. So we need to be very firm and say, it’s not OK to live this way. How can we change? And to answer that question, we each need to ask: how can I change? Cultural shift doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
The other topic is: How you think we can act in or how to be a (post fossil fuel) community member and the challenge with inclusiveness (race, privilege, and environmental equality)?
I don’t think the “climate movement” is going to succeed until it figures out how not to be so overwhelmingly white. We need all hands on deck if we’re going to figure out how to respond to such a huge challenge as global warming, a complete shift of economy, policy, and mindset. I think this shift is underway, the shift to a colorful climate movement.
At the same time, we need to make sure that the movement remembers to put physics front and center.
CO2 molecules don’t care if we’re getting along or not. Also, we need to find a way out of this tragic partisan deadlock. There’s no good reason that climate change should be partisan. Conservatives need the biosphere just as much as liberals.
That said, it’s striking how the conquest mindset that led to global warming and the sixth mass extinction is exactly the same mindset that led to the truly horrific genocide of indigenous people and the truly horrific practice of slavery. We desperately need to fix that mindset! It’s not healthy, to say the least. And we have lots to learn from those same indigenous cultures, those that remain, which treated the other-than-human world with infinitely more respect and gratitude than our culture does.
It’s important to remember that it’s not humanity that’s causing the problem here, it’s a single human culture. We’re capable of living in a much better way; there’s no law of physics that says we can’t get along with the biosphere and with each other.
I would like to stop here with this picture…
Peter, thank you very much for your time and well informed thoughts. Your book goes very much deeper in all of these questions. You published it in the end of 2017 with the publisher collective ‘new society PUBLISHERS’, on 100% post-consumer recycled paper, processed chlorine-free and with low- VOC vegetable-based inks. Any of your profits from book sells you will donate to ‘Citizen’s Climate Lobby’ and possibly other organizations. We wish you all the best.