Empowering Women to Chill Out the Planet: Climate and Gender Equity with Dr. Katherine Wilkinson
Jacquelyn Gill introduces new rotating co-host Mary Annaïse Heglar and welcomes Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, VP of Communication and Engagement for Project Drawdown, for a chat about gender equality, climate change, remembering self-care for climate leaders and much more.
In Everyday Science, the team discusses a new study about a potential critical role of clouds: www.forbes.com/sites/ericmack/20…a-hothouse-earth/
Check out Dr. Wilkinson’s TED talk:
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Transcript by Joe Stormer
Jacquelyn Gill: Welcome to Warm Regards, conversations from the front lines of climate change. I’m Jacqueline Gill — an assistant professor (although hopefully not much longer; my tenure package is in review) of paleoecology at the University of Maine. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about some scary new research about clouds, the role of women and girls in solving one of our most pressing environmental problems, AND we are going to be welcoming (who I hope will be one of our brand new cohosts) to join me and breaking all of this down — I’m really excited to introduce Mary Annaïs Heglar. Don’t worry; Ramesh and Sarah Myhre aren’t going anywhere. We’re just excited to rotate some new voices into our regular lineup. Mary is Publications Director for the National Resource Defense Council, but she’s also an amazing writer herself. In fact, I first ran into Mary on Twitter where I started encountering some of her incredible writings on race and the environment, including a recent hard-hitting and much needed piece titled, “Sorry, ya’ll, but climate change ain’t the first existential threat”. If you haven’t checked out our Medium page, we will include a link in our show notes. Anyway, I knew that we had to get her on the show somehow, and now my evil plot has come to fruition. Welcome to Warm Regards, Mary.
Mary Annaïs Heglar: Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.
Jacquelyn: It’s so great to have you. I just thought we would introduce you a bit to our listeners. Please tell us a little bit about yourself — where you come from and how you got to be doing the work that you’re doing now; like what got you into climate change and especially the communications angle of your work.
Mary: Sure. So I got into climate change because I sort of built my career in nonprofit communications. I’ve always been drawn to editing. I love helping people to sort of find their voice. My last job, I was at the William T. Grant Foundation where they do really great work on social science research and children — in the United States in particular. That’s where I learned that I love editing sort of like wonky stuff, right? But when I left there, I knew that I want it to work on what to me was the most important thing in the world and the most important story in the world, so to speak. And I decided that that was either public health or climate change. And I now know that those are not different things. So I was very drawn to the environmental sector and I went to the Natural Resources Defense Council and I was policy publication’s editor, which meant that I learned a whole lot about climate change. I pretty much got a PhD there. The writing sort of came about in the past year. I used to write a lot when I was like in high school and college, and then I sort of became a professional editor, and it’s really difficult to kind of use those two sides of your brain at the same time. And so I don’t know exactly how it happened, but suddenly the writer in me went from dormant to active. And that was actually right around this time last year.
Jacquelyn: Well, I’m really glad that it did. I think the first story of yours or a piece of yours that I read was about environmental degradation in the South and sort of some close encounters and personal encounters that you had with landscapes that you had grown up with. So you’re from the South originally?
Mary: Yes, I am. I was born in Talladega, Alabama; grew up in Birmingham, Alabama; and also in Port Gibson, Mississippi. I’ve got family all over in Louisiana and Tennessee. I do feel like a kinship with the whole region.
Jacquelyn: So just out of curiosity — because you live in New York now today, right?
Mary: I do.
Jacquelyn: So do you feel like there are sort of different kinds of conversations around climate change between where you work and then when you visit the places that you grew up?
Mary: Yeah. You hear much more a tangible conversations about climate change in the South. I feel like I feel like I hear a lot of people talking about it but not really knowing that they’re talking about it. There’s a lot of, “Winter’s not what it used to be.” Or just complaining about the heat in the summer and the way that people didn’t used to complain about it that much anymore. Or noticing the over-abundance of mosquitoes all of a sudden, like it wasn’t quite like that when you were a kid or how low the Mississippi River is at a given time and how much it’s flooding more often now than it used to. So they’re talking about climate change and I’m not hearing people deny it. They certainly accept it. There seems to be a bit more powerlessness about it. Also it feels more immediate at the same time, if that makes sense.
Jacquelyn: Yeah, It’s not just a sort of existential or a theoretical idea; it’s part of your lived experience. It’s like not just something sort of on it like that you vote on or just like read an op-ed about. You’re really living it in a really immediate way, it sounds like. And that actually kind of gels with some of the things I hear from people who live even here in rural Maine where maybe they might not even necessarily frame some of the problems people are dealing with around climate change but they notice, “The communities that I work in in in fisheries or forestry are definitely starting to notice the impacts. So I’m excited again to have you here with us and for this conversation today, and hopefully conversations in the future, too. I think you’ll bring a lot to our show.
Mary: I’ll try.
Jacquelyn: In these very long and dark winter months that we’re just finally now coming out of up here in the frozen north, I’ve been trying to kind of commit to spending more of my time in the evenings reading and I’ve been reading a book on emotional labor, actually. It’s called Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women and the Way Forward. And a lot of you might have heard the term emotional labor. It’s made the rounds and a few articles about the division of work and effort at home, and how a lot of women’s work in general is just invisible. And it’s often kind of defined in fuzzy terms, but it basically means the effort that it takes to manage feelings and expectations around the emotional requirements of a job. These could be your emotions or managing the emotions of others. So everything from remembering birthdays in your family to noticing that something needs to be cleaned or fixed, or even the act of performing politeness when a customer yells at you and you have to maintain that façade to keep your job in the face of abusive behavior. All of these are examples of emotional labor. You can imagine the ways in which that might drain you or sort of pull your attention or your energy in a million different directions during the course of a day. Unsurprisingly, it turns out there’s research on this and women do a lot of emotional labor and women of color do even more emotional labor; and that contributes to inequalities both at home and in the workplace. And so what’s interesting is that even when we think the division of labor is equal (so if you were to poll people in terms of how much housework they do or childcare they do), we still find that women are doing the majority of this invisible and uncredited work. It takes a huge toll. It really wears away at you to constantly have to notice everything and advocate for yourself and others around you. And like so many gendered behaviors, this capacity to do emotional labor is taught. There’s nothing biological about this. Women aren’t inherently more likely to remember that we need vegan options at the departmental lunch or to notice that the socks somehow just never managed to make it into the hamper. There’s nothing biological about that. We’re actually taught to care for others and to put their needs first. And this starts at a really young age, it turns out. And so emotional labor is just one of the many ways in which women are socialized to solve problems or even to identify that those problems exist in the first place. And so as long as these imbalances persist, we will continue to face barriers to inclusion. Women are basically paying a tax of our time and our energy, and that tax contributes to all sorts of inequalities at work, at home, and in the representation of women in all sorts of industries. I’m not trying to overstate this. I’m not saying that emotional labor is the main reason women are underrepresented in Congress or receive fewer Nobel prizes in the sciences. But’s just one of the maybe less visible ways in which these inequalities persist even in households or workplaces that you might otherwise think are actually pretty egalitarian. So I’ve been really grateful to see the shift in the conversation, because the problems of gender equality just cascade in so many ways. Just like climate change, right? The sort of threads that touch everything from healthcare to the environment. And we’ve talked about some of these on past episodes, particularly about harassment of women in the sciences and how that affects our research and our sort of persistence and our visibility. So I’m really excited to talk to today’s guest because she deals with issues of gender equality and climate change head on (among many other things) and how they intersect in often surprising ways. And in fact, in one of my all time favorite Ted Talks, she goes so far as to say that addressing the empowerment of women and girls is one of the easiest ways that we can stop global warming. So our guest today is Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, Vice President of Communication and Engagement at Project Drawdown. She comes from an interdisciplinary background spanning academia, business and the social sector; and she even wrote a book on climate change and the evangelical movement. So Katharine, we are so excited to have you on the show today.
Katharine Wilkinson: I am so excited to be on the show with two of my favorite humans on Twitter
Jacquelyn: Oh man, I feel like we should have like a, I dunno, a sound effect or a gif or something. This is the problem with audio media, right? There’s no gif-ing. Like I need, I need a gif to express my happiness.
Katherine: We could gif about it on the Twitter machine.
Jacquelyn: And we could do that, right?
Katherine: We could have a gif fest.
Jacquelyn: It could get very meta. Awesome.
Mary: You think I don’t have names lined up in my head?
Jacquelyn: And I’m serious though. Note to our editors: Can we get some sound effects in here? Cause that would be really great.
Mary: So I love your passion about the connection between climate change and gender equity. And I was wondering — when and how did you discover that connection? What was that moment like for you?
Katherine: I’m not sure that there was a moment and maybe in a way that I am a little bit embarrassed about, I feel like it took me a long time to connect these dots. I very much saw myself as a feminist. I was involved in organizations including Planned Parenthood for many years. I sort of thought that’s one hat I wear and then most of the time I wear this kind of environmentalist climate hat. I think in general this kind of conversation about this nexus of gender and climate and women’s leadership for a livable planet — this all seems to be on the rise at the moment. And so when I joined the team at Project Drawdown to work on bringing our book by the same name, Drawdown, to life and particularly to write this section of the book that focuses on solutions that relate to gender equity. I was like, “Ugh”; I felt like I was finally knitting together things that I had been thinking about for a long time but had never kind of never pulled into into one coherent mosaic.
Mary: That’s really beautiful.
Jacquelyn: And you have a background in geography, right? Which is what my degrees are in. And one of the things I love about geography is it’s sort of the original interdisciplinary discipline that allows you to pursue some of these kinds of questions about these intersections of people and the environment in ways that I think are really hard to do when you’re coming out of traditional science departments or even in the humanities; crossing those barriers I think can be really difficult. Being trained as a climate scientist, often times we don’t necessarily get an exposure to social justice or the human aspect of the impacts of our work, which I think is really unfortunate. And so we’re often kind of stuck in these disciplinary silos. And so it’s just really cool to see people like you who are able to sort of navigate all of these different perspectives in a really deft way. So do you feel like your sort of geography background helps you in terms of navigating some of these different disciplines?
Katherine: Thank you. My supervisor in undergrad had a saying saying that specialization is for insects and I took that, I think, very serious [laughs] and probably continue to. So yeah, I think geography for sure. And even before that as an undergraduate I studied religion, actually, which I found was kind of the department that allowed for asking all of the big questions and cut across ethics and social change and anthropology and history and literature. I loved that kind of smorgasbord sort of experience. And wrestling with big ideas and big questions about what it means to be human. And then I think of the sort of even earlier chapter; my sophomore year in high school, I spent four months living in the woods of western North Carolina at a place called the Outdoor Academy, living with 25 kids — 10 girls in a one room cabin and chopping wood to heat the cabin. We continued to do schoolwork, but it had a very directed focus around sustainability, environmental studies, environmental science. And that experience was like reading Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard, but also studying the natural history of the Appalachians and experiencing clear cuts and Pisgah National Forest firsthand and also working in our garden. Right? And so I think the reality for me is that all of these things have kind of been intertwined from the very beginning of thinking about myself as someone committed to the health and future of this planet.
Mary: So you and I have two things in common. We’re both Southerners, and you’re also also a communicator like me. I’m sure you’ve run up against this too; people often think of the environmental movement, mostly scientists and policy hogs and, you know, some sort of wonk of some ilk. But from one communicated to another, can you talk a little bit about what brought you to this work? What was your entry point into environmentalism as a career?
Katherine: Sure. So I’m going to blow your mind — maybe — [laughs] one other thing we have then common is (well, I’m sure there are many things), but my first job out of undergrad was with NRDC.
Katherine: So was this guy named Allen Hershkowitz -
Mary: Yes! Yep I know Allen.
Katherine: Who is a senior scientist at the time who was like crazy enough to hire this 22 year old with no useful experience and a religion degree to work on what was at the time this project that was focused on land and forest on the Cumberland Plateau. So Alan was in New York, but I was spending a lot of my time in rural Tennessee. It was actually a really formative year because I was so struck by how much the kind of mainstream environmental movement headquartered (as it is) in New York and San Francisco and DC was just speaking right past most of America. The stories weren’t connecting. And yet my experience of working with county mayors and landowners and Phil Bredesen was the governor at that time with his team in Nashville. I was interacting with lots of folks who really cared about place and really cared about land. But the dots just weren’t connecting. It wasn’t a conversation, right? It was just kind of dialogues scooting right past one another. That same year, a group called the Evangelical Climate Initiative launched with a full page ad in the New York Times that said, “Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to solve the global warming crisis.” And then when it launched 85 or so very high profile evangelical leaders had signed on to it. I thought, you know, I was studying religion, kind of paying attention to this intersection of religion and environment and it totally surprised me. Like where did this come from? And it struck me that they were telling some very different stories that were really interesting and might kind of create openings for movement around public engagement and political will. And so I headed off to Oxford for graduate school and ended up staying there and doing a PhD in the Department of Geography and Environment and really exploring where this movement came from; the stories it was telling; to what extent those were resonating or not among the church-going public; the backlash from the more conservative Evangelical Right; all kinds of great American culture, politics, religion, climate change — all the things that you are not supposed to talk about over Thanksgiving dinner. And so that chapter for me (pun not intended), was really about kind of sitting on the sidelines as an academic, and understanding and looking at other peoples’ and other organizations’ attempts at climate communication. And it left me with number of very strong and (to some extent) unreconcilable criticisms of the secular mainstream environmental movement. I was finishing that work, finishing my phd in 2009 when it looked like we had the best chance in a generation to pass federal climate policy; and we got it through the House but not through the Senate; and then the international negotiations in Copenhagen fell apart. It was just this incredibly depressing bottoming out sort of moment for the climate movement. I think that on top of just like the malaise that you feel at the end of a PhD, which is such a depressing experience in its entirety. I just was like, “I don’t know; I don’t know what role to play in this world, this climate world. I don’t know where an hopeless interdisciplinarian sits.” So I took some time to turn my PhD research into a book, Between God and Green, and then I really stepped away for a few years and worked in other spaces — the intersection of business and social impact. But I kept feeling this tug to work on this set of issues. And when I encountered Draw Down, I just thought, “There’s so much here that meets what felt to me like really important needs in the climate space.” And it just so happens that what the team really needed was someone who was comfortable writing about a hundred different climate solutions across all of these different sectors and kind of playing that curation and translation role. And the truth is I have always loved to write. I actually really thought I would be an English professor towards the end of high school. In some ways I think it just took me ten, twelve, fifteen years to figure out how to pull all of these different threads together in a way that felt authentic and felt like I was able to kind of bring some of the best parts of myself to this world.
Mary: As an English major, I would have loved to have had an English professor who was like crunk about climate.
Jacquelyn: I just also think like so much of what you just said makes me think about the idea of ownership around climate change and how certain communities or groups of people seem to act like we own both the problem and the solutions, right? Or the narrative or around climate or how we approach those solutions and how that sort of false sense of ownership (because we are all in this together, although there are barriers togetherness); that that sense of ownership shuts out certain voices. It’s one of the reasons that I was really excited to see your Ted Talk about women, and girls in particular, too. Both from the perspective of the impacts and who’s vulnerable to climate change but also the ways forward and the solutions, and thinking about kind of lifting up some of these voices that may not have been kind of considered part of that that ownership team — if you will. You and others have said that that women are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. So what does that mean? Why is that? Why are women MORE likely to sort of feel those emergent impacts soonest and hardest?
Katherine: I think this is a military language actually, the idea of climate change as a threat multiplier, but it is very true also at the level of an individual or a family or a community. Part of what makes climate change so powerful is that it can make already tenuous situations or existing vulnerabilities worse. So in situations where women have less access to resources, decision making tables, education, et cetera, it means that you are less equipped right when challenges hit — whether those are long term challenges (like seasonal changes that make it harder to grow food and figure out what are the right crops and when do we plant and when do we harvest and how do we navigate drought) to the more extreme kind of sudden impacts of climate (natural disasters, floods). And what we see is that women and girls face greater risk of displacement as well as death from natural disasters. Folks have connected the dots between droughts and floods to early marriage and sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. When we think about some of the tasks that women and girls are responsible for and in many societies (collecting water, collecting fuel, growing food), these are really challenging and time consuming tasks, period; and then climate change can deepen the burden with ripple effects for health, education, financial security, all the rest. And I think this piece of the gender climate nexus is probably getting the most attention. The way in which climate change in some sense is violence against women and girls, particularly under conditions of poverty. And it’s why we’re hearing so many calls for gender-responsive strategies around resilience and adaptation. Which I think is fantastic and so, so necessary. But oftentimes I think we forget the other piece of the story — the kind of dynamic that’s playing out in tandem, which is that if you have climate change sort of deepening gender inequities on the one hand, and advancing gender equity is a solution on the other.
Mary: So how do we fix this? What do you think is the way forward for empowering women?
Katherine: We’re just gonna to dismantle the patriarchy, that’s for damn sure.
Mary: That’s what we have to do?
Katherine: Yeah, that’s it.
Mary: Oh my gosh, I’ve been racking my brain!
Katherine: I know, it’s actually very, very simple.
Jacquelyn: My order for the patriarchy crowbar has been on delay from Amazon for such a long time.
Mary: Damn you, Jeff Bezos!
Katherine: On this very note, I was very frustrated at one of these weird conferences that are the kinds of things that Anand Giridharadas just rips apart in his new book Winners Take All — kind of do-gooders coming together to sort of pat themselves on the back but the kind of impact is questionable. At this particular gathering, there was an absolute kind of rush for a fireside chat for Jeff and his brother (whose name escapes me). One of the topics was kind of his thoughts on what we do to save the planet. And his main thought on what we do to save the planet as to colonize Mars.
Mary: Why don’t we kill another another planet to save this one?
Jacquelyn: Why do we ask these dudes these questions?
Katherine: And I thought, “You know what, dude, Amazon is really good at distribution. That is what you guys have really figured out.” The latest statistic is that there are 214 million women who report an unmet need for contraception. “So why don’t you guys figure out how to provision the things that women say they need and want and don’t have into places where it may be hard to get them.” That is not the whole picture of family planning and reproductive rights by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s like, “You actually do have a really powerful skill set; could you leverage the one piece of this puzzle?” Or like, “Why don’t you guys also figure out how to pick up composting and recyclables when you drop things off?” Really, Mars?! It felt so sad and so arrogant and so dismissive of this incredible planet.
Mary: But the thing is like that is how he could say . . . I think that’s how a lot of rich people feel that they can save themselves. Like when he says, “How do we save the planet?” and thinking, “How do I save myself?”
Jacquelyn: “What’s my exit strategy?” Right.
Mary: Yeah, exactly, like “Screw the rest of you guys.”
Jacquelyn: So telling. Cause it’s like your first impulse would be to think, “What do I do? What can I contribute?” But no, it’s like, “I’m just going to pick some moonshot idea literally,” and “Um, we’ll make it work, right? It’s not a problem.” Katherine: That’s not a problem.
Jacquelyn: I was going to ask you, you know, we know when this message started coming out, it really seems like such an obvious way forward, especially when you put it that way — that the risk is greatest. And we have these kind of low-hanging fruit solutions and maybe even the distributive infrastructure to start to address them. Yet we’re not, we don’t seem to be making progress on the sort of empowerment of women and girls front in a lot of ways. So I was going to ask you: do you think that’s that part of the problem is the lack of women in the room or women on these panels where these decisions are made, or is it that the people in positions of power — the deciders — are men and they’re just dismissive of the issue. Do you get a lot of pushback for these ideas? Are people kind of blowing you off for the more glittery attractive Mars solution that is not actually realistic and will never happen?
Katherine: Mixed bag. I think that there have been some folks who I would put in the camp of being some of the most educated and resourced climate leaders in the world who have said, “I had a total blind spot about this. My organization, my foundation — whatever — we weren’t doing ANYTHING on the intersection of women and girls and climate, and this has helped us to move. And then you get the “It is so incredibly sexist to talk about a gender dimension of climate change,” because somehow . . . I don’t know. I don’t really understand the logic of these men, but they seem very angry and very prolific on the interwebs. I think there are some areas where we are seeing some fantastic progress. We’ve seen great momentum, particularly in education for girls of primary school age. There’s a long way to go still in secondary school classrooms, but there’s been some great progress there. We actually are seeing (or have seen) a slight reduction and women who say they have “unmet need” for contraception. Unfortunately, policy changes (domestic and international) by the Trump administration are set to worsen than that statistic. The latest study we have in the U.S. is that 45% of pregnancies still are unintended. So there’s a lot of need but there has been some movement. We see that there’s a big funding gap. There’s one study that looked at philanthropic dollars going specifically toward women and the environment, and that’s everything from climate adaptation to agriculture to the whole kitten caboodle. It’s just $110 million globally each year, which is 0.2% of philanthropic funds. I mean, it’s NOTHING; it is a drop in the bucket. I said sort of cheekily and the Ted Talk that that is the same amount of money that that one dude spent on a Basquiat painting in 2017. And we still see at COP that there’s not equal representation of women at the table. All of those things are challenging, and yet we are seeing women’s leadership on climate and girls’ leadership on climate just keep rising. You don’t have to look any further than the school strikes that are happening around the world (which are basically entirely organized by teenage girls), which is just amazing. Mary Robinson (former president of Ireland), she has a wonderful podcast, Mothers of Invention (which, full disclosure, I have helped advise on a little bit and appeared on last season) but the tagline is just the best, that “Climate change is a manmade problem with feminist solutions”. Despite the challenges, despite the lack of investment, despite the lack of seats at the table, despite often women being silenced or ignored — still this momentum is happening. And I really do believe like in the deepest part of my gut and my bones, that if humanity is going to do what we need to do (particularly in the next decade) our BEST chance is if we have an uprising of women to lead it.
Mary: Absolutely. So in your Ted Talk, you said something that really resonated with me. You said a lot of things resonated with me, actually. You said that the knowledge of climate change is like carrying around a broken heart with you every day, and that a heart can either break or it can break open. That just like sent chills through my body. And I was wondering what was the moment like when your heart broke and how did you move past as a plain broken heart to an open broken heart?
Katherine: I think it’s a repeating cycle, to be honest. I mentioned that moment of walking out into a clear cut in Pisgah national forest, which if you have never spent time in western North Carolina it is one of the most beautiful places in the world, I think. And to walk out of this kind of lush, thriving beautiful forest and into just a completely denuded ridge line was pretty transformative for me. Not intellectually, right, but in a much deeper emotional heart-sense. The work of Parker Palmer (who is a Quaker author and teacher and long time thought leader about the inner work that it takes to do the outer work of transformation in the world) has had a big influence on me. And he talks about “the work before the work”. And so I think that seemingly semantically really subtle shift from a broken heart to a broken open heart — that is the work before the work. I have found that when I come into this work only from a broken heart, I don’t do myself or anyone else very much good. I mean, think about like your worst horrible heartbreak breakup. You’re on the couch in the fetal position. You’re not creative; you’re not collaborative; you’re not doing anything useful. But when you can kind of stay rooted in your own grief but more expansive at the same time (and particularly to move in in some way) is a really critical piece. A broken heart to me feels very static and stuck, and a broken open hearts somehow is about getting into a more generative place. The things that have helped me get there have always been animals and kind of kindred spirits and being in nature.
Jacquelyn: It makes me think too about how to do this work we often come from a place of love and, even even those of us who are scientists, we are put on this path (which is often a really difficult path) because we care about something. We have these close encounters with nature or places that really promote us to address these problems because we believe that they are really pressing problems — because we see the impacts of those problems before our very eyes. We love the places that we live and work in, and we want to take care of them. And so one thing that people are often asking me as a scientist is, “How do you get up every day and do this work? How do you keep going? How are you not overcome with this sort of existential angst of climate change.” And thinking about women in particular and how we often talk about self care and even in ways that are kind of denigrated (like, “You know, women in theirs but their bubble baths,” or whatever; it’s kind of stereotypical at this point), what does self care look like for us in this age of climate change? What is the equivalent of that pint of ice cream for the broken heart when we’re talking about the planet?
Katherine: Okay — I’m going to answer that, but first I have to say that what made me really sad was that a section about love at the end of the Ted Talk got cut in edit, because I wanted to come back to that piece about a broken open heart; about both honoring grief, honoring anger, honoring fear, but also reaching deeper to the love that it grows out of. And to help people have that moment of like, because you love what you love, whatever it is — a child, a place, a culture, an ideal. Whatever it is that you love, you have a stake in this challenge. And in fact, you are already part of this mission. You have already been called into the work of weaving a life-giving future. You don’t have to change anything about what you care about; the investment is already there. I loved that Katharine Hayhoe was on just on CBS This Morning and she was like, “Get out of your head and into your heart.” And I’m like, “Where was that in the climate movement fifteen years ago?” The, like the Evangelicals were talking about it (folks that I interviewed in that work), but not most of the climate movement.
Jacquelyn: Which is funny because now all of the science of science communication (especially climate change) is telling us, “It’s all about empathy and building trust,” and you know, “It’s not actually about facts,” and it’s like, “We’ve been doing it wrong all this time.”
Katherine: And still, I got a little sort of sassy with Al Gore on Twitter the other day; and I’m only been tweeting for about six months, so it’s still uncharted territory.
Mary: Me too!
Katherine: But it’s like this thing of like, “Yeah! Fear!” Right? We just got to scare the ever-loving poop out of people. “Panic — that’s what’s going to be great!” You know? And it’s like, “No, we’ve been doing that.” We have been trying that for so long, and honestly it’s not that hard to scare people. What’s really hard, I think, is to get folks to take the leap from awareness to some kind of ownership. That’s what’s hard.
Jacquelyn: And even recreate a space for them to do that or feel like I can. I think we keep coming back to this idea of “your ideas are okay too”, right? “You have valid contributions to make to this movement because we all are sharing this planet.” You don’t have to be a scientist; you don’t have to be an elected official or whatever to be impactful and to have valid ideas about the way forward.
Katherine: Totally. Okay, now I will try to answer your question about self care.
Jacquelyn: Asking for a friend.
Katherine: Totally asking for a friend. I spent so much of my adolescence and my early adulthood being a really high achiever in the academic world; which meant even though I was studying religion in undergrad (which allows I think for a more holistic participation of self in the classroom), still I was like very invested in the mind. And it took me a long time to figure out kind of how to take my spiritual life and health seriously, particularly because there’s not a religious tradition that I feel drawn to. So kind of navigating that took me a while, and I think there are two components to that that are really critical. One is getting out of the head and into the heart, but particularly doing that in community. And what has become really the cornerstone of my sanity and self care and nourishment is a monthly circle that I am a part of in Atlanta. It’s not only women but it is mostly women, and has a very kind of Shakti sort of vibe. You know, it has an absolutely nothing to do with climate change, but it has totally transformed my ability to do this work. I don’t think that that’s a recipe necessarily, but I think the circle actually has been such a powerful structure for so much of human history. And you just think about all of the metaphors and also all of the ways that a circle actually works. I think there is something really powerful there. Also sometimes just bourbon I find is a really good self care strategy,
Jacquelyn: I’ve been on the nurse a bit for something not able to drink and it’s just sad.
Katherine: Awww. What do you all think about the whole self care of climate leadership, climate engagement?
Mary: You know, that’s tough. I feel like it changes every once in a while for me. I’m not above bourbon. But also animals — just being around animals is helpful to me; seeing them in their natural habitats is somehow healing. Being outdoors is healing. Writing is also healing. It’s like a catharsis. So that’s a large part of where that came from. And just connecting with other people who are doing the same work in the same space and a nice Netflix binge I feel like just never hurt anybody. But at the same time trying to balance it out with things like, I read a lot of James Baldwin; one of my tricks is I can just like whip out a James Baldwin quote and my Twitter trick is I can whip out a Beyonce gif at any moment; so just know that. Both of those people provide me with a great deal of self care.
Katherine: [Laughing] Amazing.
Jacquelyn: I would say for me it’s also a range. Sometimes being even just around my students and feeling their energy is really empowering. I also tend to be one of those people for whom something like a facial or a pedicure is really effective. Not necessarily even because I care how it makes me look; I just love those sort of tactile feeling of just getting back in my body because I spent so much time in my head, if that makes sense. Having someone paint things on my face for an hour, just why, why let my mind wander is just something I need to happen once every few months. I’m really lucky to be in a place now where I can do things like that for myself, really for first time in my life. That’s been really nice — kind of a nice perk of upward mobility. You finally get what all the fuss is about and also just appreciate how some of these so-called “self care” things are not necessarily open to everyone. And for me, one of the other ones is kind of the opposite extreme in that I love video games, and so sometimes retreating both into books and movies or whatever, but also into these sort of other worlds where I can be someone with agency. Cuz in video games you often have this out sized sense of agency. You’re literally saving the galaxy in Mass Effect. I’ve been coming back to this game Fallout 4 over and over again where it’s this pos-apocalyptic wasteland. And one neat thing about this iteration of the game is that there’s this building feature where you can actually create settlements and build little houses and scavenge little things in the wilderness and bring them back. And so I actually really enjoy (this is gonna sound so messed up); I’ve been playing the game again lately, and I’m not doing any of the quests. I’m just basically going around like downtown post-apocalyptic Boston and I’m gathering things for these cartoon people in my game; these settlers that I attracted to my little settlements and I’m like, “I’m going to make them a really nice restaurant. I’m going to like build them a library.” And I just feel like I’m like creating something better and like making the world a better place for these people, even though they’re not real. And I find that really comforting because actually feel like I’m accomplishing something. Sometimes in my day to day life, I just don’t. There’s a little happiness rating for your settlement so, if I can get that up above 85%, it makes me pretty happy because I’m like, “I brought you a cake pan. Now you can make cake for each other.” It’s total fiction in my mind, but it’s taking this post-apocalyptic wasteland restoration approach to maybe get some skills for the future. I don’t know, but it makes me feel better.
Katherine: I love that there’s a happiness rating; it’s very gross “Gross National Happiness/Joy Quotient”.
Jacquelyn: The stuff that makes the settlers happy in these communities is art — like rugs, paintings, but also things like having a store. So it’s like they like to have things that aren’t essentials. It’s like the food doesn’t make them happy, although if you don’t feed them they get unhappy. It’s like post apocalyptic Sims basically.
Katherine: My video game would be a horse. I have joked that there are like invisible hoof prints dancing all the way through Drawdown because that’s how I was staying sane during that project — something just deeply meditative. Maybe the only thing that I really do where I totally get into flow for a long time; not to mention like these big awesome creatures who smell so good and that like somehow you’re able to be in this wild communication with.
Jacquelyn: I just think that’s a really great place to I think to wrap up because this idea of just connection and all of the things that really are both healing and also the reason that we do this in the first place. So thank you for reminding me of why we do what we do and why it’s so important.
Katherine: You all are just wonderful.
Jacquelyn: Thank you so much for coming on today. I feel like we could have gone on for another hour. This has been really fun.
Mary: It’s been great.
Jacquelyn: So we’ll kind of wrap up now and transition to a new-ish segment that we’re calling the “Unexpected Science” of climate change. You all wanted more science and we’re going to give it to the people. So for today’s riff on the unexpected science of climate change, we’ll briefly talk about a new study that just came out in Nature Geosciences; it’s made a lot of headlines this week. It’s all about clouds and how when you get very, very high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we might actually see the disappearance of stratocumulus clouds. So those are those low, dense clouds that cover as much of a is 20% of the earth’s subtropical oceans and they end up reflecting as much as a third of the Sun’s energy. So they actually play a pretty big role in kind of mediating the climate system.
Mary: So I read a little bit about this study today and I am not a real life expert. I’m like expert-adjacent. I know a lot of experts. Um, so I want to see if I actually understood it and you can tell me if I did or didn’t. So basically if we keep going the way that we’re going, there is a chance (we don’t know for sure or not) that we could chase away all of our clouds — like literally chased them away. And if we do that, the Earth gets a whole lot hotter. And one of the things that really struck me is that this could actually explain other periods of crazy warming in the Earth’s history; this could have potentially happened before it. And that at one point there were crocodiles in the Arctic.
Jacquelyn: Yeah. What’s really cool about studies like this is that we see these periods in Earth’s deep past; there’s this event known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. So about 55 million years ago, we see the world is so much warmer that you get no ice anywhere. You get palm trees and crocodiles in the Arctic. We know that CO2 levels were as much as 4,000 parts per million. The problem is we don’t actually see CO2 levels rising that much in the records where we have them. So what’s interesting about this study is you only actually need to have CO2 levels of about 1300 parts per million. Just for reference, we’re right about 400 right now so we hope we don’t get anything close to 1300 — let alone 4,000. But if you have these kind of interesting feedbacks or sort of runaway processes where if you take the clouds out of the system, they’re not bouncing that much of the Sun’s energy out; then you can actually warm the planet more just by changing kind of the rules of how the Earth traps heat. It’s always been kind of a mystery as to how the PETM (this really hot event) was able to get so warm that you were able to see crocodiles in the Arctic — which is wild. It’s totally unlike anything we would see today. And so it’s kind of scary to think about how the Earth system can kind of run away from us like this. And yet we know we have these kind of tipping points or sort of port points of no return that we often talk about in, in the Earth’s climate system. This was kind of a big surprise for a lot of folks — this idea that if you warm the planet up enough, then it changes how clouds form, and by chasing away the clouds (by kind of taking away the conditions that you need for clouds to form) that can just trigger this extra warming that has nothing to do with how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere. And that might explain why it got so warm in these geologic periods in the past, but also it’s kind of a scary way for warming of be exacerbated going into the future. So yeah, you were exactly right; that’s sort of the thinking behind this paper. These sort of tipping points arguments are often really hard to pin down, but this one is a pretty compelling study and hopefully we don’t get anywhere close to those levels of 1200 or 1300 parts per million of CO2, because then we might start to see these processes unfold.
Mary: So can I ask a dumb question?
Jacquelyn: There are no dumb questions, but yeah.
Mary: So these particular types of clouds are not the only types of clouds that we have. But are they the only types of clouds that perform this function?
Jacquelyn: That’s actually a really good question. So the answer is, “It’s complicated,” and I don’t know. But also (kind of broadly) the scientific community doesn’t have as good of a handle on clouds as we would like in terms of how they influenced climate change, because clouds both trap heat and they also bounce heat back. Clouds have been this sort of big frontier in climate science and if you’re interested in getting into climate research and you love physics, go into the study of clouds because we desperately need to nail down some of these questions. If you live in a cold place like I do in Maine, we know that if the night is clear it’s going to be really cold in the winter time; but if we have clouds, then it’s going to be a lot warmer, right? Because clouds are kind of like a blanket that’s sort of trapping some of that heat, but clouds also can be reflectors. And so nailing down what kinds of clouds are blankets versus reflectors is important, and where the clouds are also makes a difference. So the fact that this particular kind of cloud that was in this study (these stratocumulus cumulus clouds) tend to show up more near the tropics, they might play a bigger role as reflectors because they’re sort of low and flat. Because clouds do both things, they are super complicated and hard to model. So one of the nice things about the study is that they kind of stripped away a lot of the complicating factors and just focused on this one particular kind of cloud. That why I think the study was really successful.
Mary: And the bottom line just comes down to we need to cut down on fossil fuels.
Jacquelyn: Yeah, yeah. I know it always comes back down to that. Unfortunately, getting to Mars is not the solution; it’s like just reducing our fossil fuel use, again, because we’re over 400 parts per million CO2 now and we don’t want to get anywhere close to a thousand or more. And even if we got to that point, there would be so many other things wrong just in terms of ocean acidification and warming, that I think by then we’d already have some serious problems. But in case we need it another reason, this is a good reason.
Mary: So I talked to experts all the time, but it’s not everyday that I get to talk to an ice age ecologist. So I do want to ask — what is the deal with crocodiles? Like how are they still here?
Jacquelyn: Yeah! Crocodiles are really cool. They’ve been around like pretty much using the same strategy for 200 million years. They predate dinosaurs; they survived that mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs. They’ve figured it out and their strategy works for them. They just seem to be super adaptable without really having to change their shape or their approach to life very much. Nobody really knows exactly what it is about being a crocodile that kind of makes you the winners of the animal kingdom. But what we do know from the fossil record is that they nailed it 200 million years ago and they have not had to try very hard since then.
Mary: Can we just like add that to the list of potential solutions? Like, “be a crocodile”?
Jacquelyn: Yeah, I think that’s a good solution. They’ve hung out in periods where it’s a lot warmer than today and in times when it’s colder than today, and they seem to be doing just fine. So yeah, they’re really resilient. I love stories like that because we often focus on extinction and loss, so I like to look at like the crocodiles of the world. It’s not just cockroaches; there are all these other winners too and to think, “Well, you know, you guys have it figured out and maybe we can draw some lessons from your approach, in terms of how we’ll be more sustainable ourselves.”
Mary: Yeah, seriously. I would be a crocodile in a minute.
Jacquelyn: Let’s do it.
Jacquelyn: Awesome. Well, that’s our show for today; we really hope you enjoyed listening. Your Warm Regards homework this week is to spend some time learning about clouds and their influence on the Earth’s climate system and to find an organization that promotes the empowerment of women and girls. Figure out a way that you can learn more about them; maybe donate some time or money their way — always a great way to help out because then you can also know that you are making a difference when it comes to climate change. So in the meantime, we appreciate your help in making our show better. You can send us feedback or suggest guests at OurWarmRegards@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter @OurWarmRegards, like us Facebook, and follow our Medium page for our show notes, complete with links to all of the things that we talked about in this episode and our awesome transcripts. You can listen to all of our past episodes on your favorite podcast service, including iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud. Warm Regards is produced by Eric Mack and Justin Schell, Joe Stormer writes our transcripts, and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. My cohost today was Mary Annaïs Heglar and I’m Jacquelyn Gill. From all of us at Warm Regards, thanks for listening.