Biodiversity scientists from Flinders University (Adelaide, Australia), Stanford University (California, USA) and UCLA (California, USA) have released a joint report on the prognosis for the world’s climate and global eco systems. This time the language could not be clearer: ‘we’re on track for a ghastly future’ unless change is made fast. Politika News (virtually) sat down with Professor Dan Blumstein from the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA and co-author of the joint report, to discuss the Earth’s future. Prepare yourselves for an uncomfortably frank conversation.
Why do you think scientists, until now, have spoken to the public with relative caution when it comes to climate change?
There have certainly been a number of climate scientists who have been out there, pushing messages forward. It’s more than simply climate science. It’s many things that are happening together. The Earth is a complex of vast systems. The political economy is tied in with the economy, which is tied in with biodiversity.
Most of us [Editor: authors of the paper] are biodiversity scientists and we’ve recognised that there are many things that are going in the wrong direction. There’s a large movement in the conservation/science field and the sustainability field to empower people, to say ‘oh it’s bad, but we can do something about it.’ I’m sorry but becoming a vegetarian is not going to solve this problem. We should all eat less meat. Flying less is not going to solve this problem. We should all fly less until we come up with alternatives. The things that make us feel good, that we have personal control over, are not going to solve the enormity of the problem. We have to recognise that this is an existential crisis.
This paper started out as a slightly different paper, where we emphasised scientific reticence. There is, in the sense that, the house is burning down. We can rearrange deck chairs and whatever, but the house is burning down. Greta Thunberg has been telling it like it is, and she consults with experts. But when the scientists come out and say this, we think there is a need for that.
Do you think there is the risk that people will claim you are fearmongering?
Er…yes. But is it fearmongering, or is it: this is the reality of what we’re facing? We cite over 150 studies documenting in a variety of spheres on the challenges we face. Is that fearmongering? To me, this paper is: here are the facts. Do what you want with them. These are the facts. This is what we know. Is that fearful? Fear doesn’t work to motivate change on the scale of what we need to do.
Fear works really well when there is a tight causal relationship that people have control over. Then fear works very well. The magnitude of change that we see needs to be created is not going to be driven by fear. But here are the facts. Do what you want with them. At the end of the day, politicians make policy. Scientists can provide information. We’re saying that this is worse than you’re acknowledging, and therefore you gotta do something about it.
It’s also a political issue. It’s an issue of who is in control. We’re living in a gilded age, where a small fraction of the people on Earth have control over the masses because of how they buy elections and how they buy politicians. Let’s call it for what it is. And that’s not representing people.
The fact that it’s been so hard , in the US at least, to get climate policy and to create transition [into a green economy] that’s going to create a shit ton of jobs, a shit ton of jobs. You want the economy to grow? You completely decarbonise and hire people and give them jobs and create a new energy grid. All we [scientists] can do is say, here’s the true state of what we’re dealing with. If you want to deal with it, you can deal with it. If you don’t want to deal with it, you can’t deal with it.
Why do you think the political will to tackle the climate crisis has been lacking? Do you believe any lack of political will predates the recent rise of populism?
I’m going to go back to the US right now and talk about the Republican who has done most for the environment, and that was Richard Nixon. In the early 70s, there was massive awareness from the populace and the politicians, and the environment was not a red or blue issue. It was something that people could agree on. And a Republican president, one that doesn’t have a particularly good history, actually started the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and set up all these things to address the environment. These are purple issues in the context of the US. These are global issues. These affect all of us on Earth.
Why, then are politicians in any given country not addressing these things? The bottom line is: corporate money. When people have to get elected, and people have to use money to get elected, it sets up a system to be corrupt. And that’s particularly true in the US, maybe true in other places as well.
We have to reign in corporate lobbying, we have to enact campaign finance reform and if you do that, you have a chance that politicians will be representative of people’s needs. The corrupt elections system, certainly in the US, is to blame for this.
But that can change. These are decisions we made: how to tax people, how to allocate resources. And those decisions can change quickly. And that’s the hope that I have. It’s about will. There’s not just one thing that needs to be done. You have to do a lot of things simultaneously to have a big effect.
If we’re talking about doing many things at once, does the Green New Deal match the science?
There are many aspects of the Green New Deal that are great. But it’s got to get passed through legislation. If we say we want to get rid of carbon, and we want to create jobs in the process, we want to transform our power grid, that to me is a win-win.
But there are harder things here too: our whole consumption-driven society. Many of us are consuming less because we’re locked in our homes these days. Many of us miss that. We expect there to be a bump when we can go back out and spend money again. Our economy demands that… it’s the whole way of thinking about consumption and thinking about equality, to some extent. You need to work on the bigger issue of inequality and this ties in with everything.
This means people on average are going to have to consume less. We can’t raise everyone up to a Western standard of consumption. We’re running that experiment – it’s not working well.
Your report says that human ingenuity has inflated nature’s ‘carrying capacity’ and is therefore exacerbating our ravaging of the planet’s natural resources. How do you convince humankind to think and behave differently?
Human Behavioural Sciences is the way to go. There are behavioural scientists who are thinking about ways to do change and we have to give a lot more funding for that. In the US at least we need to increase stability and if we are going to solve our environmental problems, we have to cooperate. Humans are very pro-social, but we are also very competitive. Wouldn’t it be great if you could game-ify some of this competition? To have challenges, grand prize-like challenges where different cities compete for mask-wearing, or vaccination, or carbon reduction, or insulation, or different states compete, or different countries compete? Take Eurovision, but for the climate.
There’s not going to be one solution. There’s going to be lots of things that work. There’s a whole literature on nudging: how do you nudge people to do the right thing? Carbon taxes are going to take it out of our hands. If we tax carbon appropriately, then people will make the right decisions. They won’t be able to afford things until we come up with alternative ways.
I’m not saying we should take that money and make people poorer, but there are ways and schemes of having carbon taxes and putting it back into a Universal Basic Income, or something like that. There’s all sorts of tools to take the decisions out of it.
COVID has shown us that human relationships really, really matter. There are ways of fostering human relationships without fostering profligate consumption. But not all cultures profligately consume! Climate change is such a problem because we don’t have an environmental ethic that thinks about future generations. We just haven’t thought about that enough. It’s unethical not to take care of the people on Earth now, but how do you think about trading off now over the future?
But these are all decisions. Societies change. We had a gilded age a little over a century ago and we have a gilded age now. In between, there was a period of much more equality. And people were happier.
The report you co-authored talks about a Sixth Mass Extinction. What is this phenomenon and how does it affect human life?
This isn’t our idea. Scientists have said that we are having an anthropogenically-driven mass extinction. Mass extinctions are when a mass portion of species on Earth go extinct. This has happened in the past because of meteor strikes and natural climate changes.
We seem to be driving this one, with climate and with development and habitat obstruction. I’m not going to say in X years we’re going to lose Y species. But I am going to say that over the next century, we’re looking at losing a substantial amount of life on Earth. And in the process, this is going to make Earth less habitable for us.
If for example we have a 10 degree increase in temperature, which could happen – we’re certainly not reigning in Co2 and other greenhouse gases – it’s sort of game over. The models don’t really allow us to incorporate feedbacks properly to understand what’s going to happen much further in the future. Vertebrates and mammals are declining everywhere. Insects are declining everywhere. Pollinators are declining.
We lose our pollinators, we’re screwed. People are bringing in pollinators to pollinate crops in many places because natural pollinator populations are down because of insecticides. So we’re driving local extinctions of natural pollinators. There’s a great Black Mirror [episode] where there are no pollinators and they have those little drones, and then someone hacks the drones to work together to attack people. This is a future that is not implausible. This is where we’re headed.
What effect does a loss in biodiversity have on infectious diseases and pathogen-transferred infections?
It’s not the loss of biodiversity but how we are using the environment. We’re interacting with wild animals more, which is particularly bad as they’re viral production machines. We eat lots of wild species, and COVID is kind of nothing, compared to what is possible. The apocalyptic films you can watch [sic] have aerial transmission – which COVID has and is getting better at, which isn’t so great – but they’re much more fatal. COVID is not as fatal as other likely pandemics in the future.
Scientists have nailed it. These were predicted. These were anticipated. Our response to COVID offers hope and offer peril for our future responses to biodiversity and humanity crises. Scientists working together have done something that has never been done before. I mean, creating a vaccine and getting it to market in less than a year for a coronavirus, for which there never was a vaccine created, is truly extraordinary.
The international cooperation by scientists is extraordinary. The international cooperation by politicians and political entities is less than satisfactory. The infighting and craziness we’ve had going on in the US is insane. We’re going to have to work together to solve problems.
It sounds like you’re saying COVID is a drop in the ocean compared to possible future pandemics?
I fully believe that this COVID is a drop in the ocean for the pandemic threat that we face. Pandemic threats is one of a list of civilisation killers. I think we’ve a lot of hubris to believe that we’re beyond disease. If you look at history, disease was a huge regulator of populations. I don’t want us all to die on Earth because of diseases. I would like the population to shrink due to empowering women with education and reproductive control, which is shown to lead to lower birth rates.
Is lowering birth rates to key to protecting the planet?
It’s not just birth rates. It’s consumption. There can be a lot of people that are poor. The rise of the middle class, which is a good thing socially, is leading to increased consumption. So, we have to reign in consumption, and we have to come up with ways of consuming that don’t cause the incredible ecological damage that we’re creating. But lowering birth rates, certainly in the developed world, is essential.
One of the other phenomena caused by human-driven climate change is climate refugees. Could you give us an indication of where in the world are we seeing this already taking place?
As things get harder, and as droughts and climate change affect crop productivity, you’re going to have lots of things. You’re going to have insurgencies, you’re going to have migration, and you’re going to have wars. And these are incredible human rights issues.
The price of wheat went up in the Middle East and that led to the Arab Spring. Some people trace that logically back to drought. Is that a climate-driven or weather-driven event, which led to massive suffering – some liberation but massive unrest? Yes. Certainly, in sub-Saharan Africa, where there is increased drought, there are clearly more refugees leaving there trying to get into Europe. I think you could view these people as climate refugees.
How do you deal with that? I don’t know. But this is the future of what we’re expecting. There might be some Central American migration because of climate as well. This is going to be the future. Ethically, it raises all sorts of challenges. We should be treating people on Earth well – and it’s going to be harder and harder to do that when there’s going to be more competition over scarce resources.
Do you have hope for humankind?
Erm, we have mobilised ourselves incredibly quickly in the past. The US, after Pearl Harbour in 1941… it was days to transform car factories into weapons of war factories. We have solved other climate problems in the past – easier ones – like freon pollution. Very direct causality, some gross imagery, and massive world organisation to reign that in. This one is much bigger.
As you hinted at before, it gets at some core principles that are shared among cultures, but not all, about growth and consumption. I think this is a big challenge. I’m going to go down fighting, and doing what I can do to raise awareness, and vote, and try to influence others through education.
But our human population is really at peril. And in the process we’re taking down other species. We are not evolved to concede of our individual actions leading to global, ecological damage. I mean, we’re evolved to understand direct causality. The scale of what we’re doing, there’s so many people using so much on Earth, is hard to comprehend. Because it’s hard to comprehend, it’s gone on a lot.
The worst thing about greenhouse gases is we could stop all fossil fuel burning today and we’re not going to see a change in a while, because all of this is burned into the system. But we have to do it. We have to do it.
Technology has to be part of the solution. I’ve always been struggling with the role fo technology. But new technologies are going to have to be part of the solution. And thinking about how to employ technology as well – hopefully helping people – is a challenge. So, things like the Green New Deal, or just the idea of hiring people to redo a power grid, things like that, I think will provide a lot of jobs in the short run, and that might help us get into a different economic perspective, whereby we can recreate economies. I’m not an economist, and I really struggle with seeing what that looks like, given what might be some of our innate desires for more, more, more and more.
I think what COVID is giving us, is a controlled experiment to some extent – how different countries are dealing with thing, whether they work or don’t work, where they fall over. I think that there’s a lot of ingenuity among our collective wisdom on Earth. If we understand a problem, which is what our paper’s about, and we decide to address that problem, maybe we can do something. There will be a lot more loss before we get there, and there will be a lot more human suffering before we get there.
You say if we were to stop all fossil fuel burning today, there would be a delay before we would see that translated into results. Is there a year that we should be working towards to come off fossil fuels?
I’m not going to put a number to that. I will say, the sooner the better. You can talk about coming off everything but, you know, the last 5%, the last 10%, maybe even the last 20% is going to be the hardest to do. But if we work to reduce it today, we going to get rid of a lot of things quickly, if we choose to. And maybe total elimination isn’t the solution. Maybe carbon capture technology is.
People are working on batteries for airplanes. And there are small commercial planes that are electrically powered. Maybe you do end up using some carbon, but you’re capturing all of the carbon you’re producing. The carbon capture and sequestration technology is there and is beginning to be scaled up. Maybe you don’t have to get rid of everything but you have to drastically reduce it quickly. So we work towards elimination and that’s our goal. I don’t want to put a date to it. But the sooner the better.
What is your message to young people around the world who want to make a difference, but are feeling increasingly powerless to do so?
I wrote a book called ‘The Failure of Environmental Education’ and how we can fix it. Our message was that environmental education is much more than learning to appreciate nature. Environmental education, really, is citizenship. And learning how policies are made where you are, and effecting change locally, and teaching kids how to effect change locally, whether it’s planting community gardens or cleaning up beaches or polluted streets. Things like that. If we teach people to work with political entities, then they will be empowered later on to work for bigger goals. There are many movements of young people, like SunRise and other things, that are brilliant and offer me a lot of hope.
We are in an era where young people are much more politically aware – many of them, not all – and therefore, potentially, politically powerful. So I would say, become a politician, work on policy. There’s a lot of people out there doing exactly this. And I have hope for those people. Are we going to save everything? We’re going to lose a lot of species. The question is how much is this going to cause us pain as well, and whether we go beyond certain tipping points that we’re not going to get back.
I have hope for those who are engaging. I believe engaging in politics, peacefully, is the way to go.
Politika News would like to thank Professor Blumstein (UCLA) for his time, as well as Professor Corey Bradshaw (Flindes University), Professor Paul R. Ehrlich (Stanford University), and Karen Ashford.