Warm Regards is back! This is the first episode of our new season focused on the often unexpected human stories behind climate data. If you’re as excited about the new season as we are, please share this episode with someone you think should listen to it. You can find the show on your podcast app of choice, as well as on Twitter, Facebook, and Medium.
As part of the new season, we’ve launched a new website and a Patreon. Please consider becoming a patron to help us pay our producer, Justin Schell, our transcriber, Joe Stormer, and our social media coordinator, Katherine Peinhardt, who are all working as volunteers. Your support helps us not only to stay sustainable, but also to grow.
Here are some links and resources if you’d like to learn more about what we discussed in the episode.
If you want to learn more about the work that happens in Ramesh and Jacquelyn’s research, visit the websites for their respective Labs, the Laungani Lab and the BEAST (Biodiversity & Environments Across Space and Time) Lab.
If you want to read the paper where Ramesh first learned about the different carbon isotopes and what that means for climate change, you can find it here. You can also watch this video on the topic from It’s Ok to Be Smart.
NASA has an in-depth article on how Milankovitch cycles work, including lots of great animations.
Carbon Dating and Dinosaurs:
If you, like Ramesh, thought that carbon dating is used for dinosaur bones, this article explains how C-14 can only be used for dating things less than 50,000 years old. Relatedly, this article from the Smithsonian discusses how pollution and climate change is making carbon dating more difficult.
Finally, here’s Ramesh in the Australian rainforest:
And here’s Jacquelyn in Acadia National Park, standing in the Cadillac cliffs sea cave on Gorham Mountain trail:
Jacquelyn Gill We started Warm Regards back in early 2016 because we wanted to create the conversations about climate change that we just weren’t hearing: messy, personal, heart-felt, honest, nuanced, even surprising. A lot has changed since then, politically, personally. The world feels so different. We feel different. The climate conversation went public, in a big way, to the point where there are now entire podcasts devoted to talking about how we talk about climate change. So we took a break last year, to think about our role in this growing ecosystem. We started planning around this idea of themed seasons, that would allow us to explore different aspects of climate change in-depth, while still doing what we do best: making climate change personal, by focusing on what it means to live, work, and cope with a warming world. And for a theme, Ramesh and I decided that we would start with data — we’re two scientists, after all.
Gill And so much has changed since we first started working on this season. A pandemic, the Democratic primary, a global movement for Black lives — all of these were unfolding while we were planning and recording this season. For some of my colleagues, it felt like climate took a back seat to the more immediate concerns of anti-Black racism and covid-19. But in reality, none of these things can be separated from our discussions of climate change — just like we can’t talk about health, racial justice, or politics without also recognizing that climate touches all of them — it’s a thread that changes the patterns of every fabric we weave.
Gill So, given all of this, it might seem strange to focus on data — we’re trying to humanize climate change, so why on earth would we choose a theme centered on numbers, graphs, and figures?
Gill It’s because data are so much more than cold, hard facts — they also tell very human stories. Every dot or line on a graph was collected or analyzed by someone — a person with hopes and dreams and fears for their future. The stories we tell with our data also have real consequences for people, too — people with heartbeats and medical bills and kids to tuck in at night, who are faced every day with choices that impact our planet and one another.
Gill We’ll be talking about all of that this season. We’ll spotlight the efforts of different people, past and present, who have helped us to understand where we are, and where we’re heading. We’ll talk about the ongoing efforts to fight a decades-long disinformation campaign, and all the creative ways people have used the arts to transform climate science into climate action. We’ll talk to some of the people charged with making decisions for their communities based on a graph, and whether we’re heading towards an apocalypse, or if we can use this moment to build a more equitable, just future.
Gill Welcome to Warm Regards: This is Data.
Gill I’m Jacquleyn Gill, an ice age ecologist and associate professor at the University of Maine.
Ramesh Laungani I’m Ramesh Laungani, a plant biologist from Doane University in Nebraska.
Gill I think it would be really neat to start with just our own personal journeys as scientists. Ramesh, I’m excited to talk to you a little bit about this. Both because I think even though you and I have now been recording together for a little bit, and, you know, we’ve known each other as colleagues and friends, I’m kind of excited to get to know you a little bit better and also for our listeners to get to know us better through this lens of why we decided to make a human-centered podcast about climate change, around something that at first glance seems really cold and calculating and very inhuman. So, you know, you Ramesh like, where did you come from? You generate data yourself and you work with it and you teach with it. But at some point you made a conscious decision to follow this path and not become like a pastry chef or, I don’t know, a bus driver, or any of the other things that you could do.
Laungani You know, to me, one of the things that got me into ecology in general, before I really had an understanding of climate change and the interaction between climate and ecology and how organisms and ecosystems respond, was I took this class in the Australian rainforest and I happen, and we were trying to understand reforestation of abandoned agricultural fields in Australia. So we were running these little small scale experiments about what sort of treatments of the soil would be really good to help accelerate trees recolonizing these pastures. And so we collected data. And what I found when I collected that data is I just wanted more. And I just wanted to ask the next question.
Gill All right. So I’m going to stop you because I have two more questions. There’s like two stories there that I want to trace back or two threads.
Laungani Yeah, yeah.
Gill The first one, and I’m going to go kind of in reverse temporal order. The first one is like, what was the data you were collecting? Like, what were you actually out there measuring in this Australian rainforest? And what was it like doing that?
Laungani Yeah, so we ran these little experiments where we planted little tree seedlings or little seeds, excuse me, of trees. And then we had treated the soil that we planted them in with a few different treatments, one being straw and one being sort of pulped up cardboard. This was when I was an undergraduate. What we did is we measured germination rate and we measured heights of those trees, you know, those little tree seedlings. But even then, you know, even these two little pieces of data, you know, measuring the height and measuring how long it took for them to germinate, I found myself wanting to ask the next question, like what’s going on below ground, like how many roots are there? So that was really one of the driving factors in helping me sort of become engrossed in ecology and become fascinated with ecology. And then when I started working on climate change and carbon cycling in graduate school, which I know is a big jump, you know, in terms of my timeline, I still reflected back on that Australian rainforest experiment because I was able to now think about that experiment in a very different framework. Like how much carbon were those trees storing and which treatment is going to help suck up the most carbon when we restore those Australian forests.
Gill Okay. So how did you end up in a field course in Australia in the first place?
Laungani So I went to school in New York City as an undergraduate and I was a bit of a lost Pre-med. So I went into college Pre-med. I was Pre-med because I was good at science. And so that’s what I thought you did. And you know, it just wasn’t something that I was super, I found myself not wanting to play the game and the rat race of pulling a 4.0, wasn’t really for me. I also wasn’t pulling a 4.0, so that, that sort of helped. But I took this course cause I just happened to see a poster for this field course on the wall when I was walking around one of my buildings. And honestly I took the class because I thought it might look good to talk about a study abroad experience in the med school interview that I might have one day.
Gill Wow. So you were still . . .
Laungani I was still in that kind of mindset, still sort of playing the game.
Gill It was Pre-med sending you to like study abroad and then you were like, “Whoa, this is cool.” This is cooler than the Pre-med stuff.
Laungani Yeah, it was cooler than the Pre-med stuff. And then what was really great when I was in Australia, um, I grew up, both my parents are physicians and so a lot of the people that I interacted with were in the field of healthcare. And I’m sure that had a significant impact on my choice to be Pre-med. So when I went to Australia, one of the professors who was teaching the field course was Sri Lankan. And it was the first time that I had actually seen, or at least consciously known, of a scientist who was from the Indian subcontinent. Because all the other Indian people that I had really interacted with were in the healthcare field, or most of them were in the healthcare field. And I don’t think I realized it at the time, I see that now, looking back how important that was for me to see this and interact with the Sri Lankan scientist because it gave me a tangible endpoint to say, “Oh, that’s a thing you can be.” I didn’t realize ecology was a thing you could be. And to this day, I pattern my teaching after Dr. Florentine from Australia. But that’s how I ended up there, you know, taking that class. I took it, like I said, really to play the chess game, not really thinking ecology was a thing I would or could be interested in.
Gill Wow. Well, so you revealed that you have two physician parents and that you were on this Pre-med track and then things kind of took a left turn. Not quite as left as like theater or, you know, classical music or something.
Laungani Well, to them ecology was just as, uh, unclear as theater. So yeah, it was a pretty hard left turn.
Gill I was going to say, well, you’re kind of anticipating where I’m going with this, which is how did your parents feel about that? And how do your parents feel about you being a research professor.
Laungani I think, yeah, they were great and supportive. But you know, it took, at the time some serious conversations. There were some heated conversations. Because frankly they didn’t know what ecology was. They didn’t know what you could do with this thing called ecology. Because they came over here in the early 70s with their medical degrees. And so they walked down that path and that was the path that they knew, that was the path that they had illuminated. And so for me to walk in and say, “”Hey, I want to do the thing called ecology.” They were sort of, again, they were supportive, but hesitant, I would say almost looking back sort of understandably hesitant around, “We don’t know what this is. So how can we ensure that he’s walking down a good road because we don’t know what this is.”
Laungani So, but no, they were supportive. I mean, I moved out to Nebraska from New York. They were a little bit like, “where is Nebraska? What is that?” They have been nothing but supportive. This manifests today when my mom is planting flowers and she’ll call me for gardening tips, which I often just tell her, say, “follow the instructions on the MiracleGro bag.” But that’s how that interaction happens today in, in that regard, you know, I wasn’t, I wasn’t ostracized from the family, you know, it would be weird to be like, “yeah, I’m the black sheep of the family with my PhD.”
Gill It’s funny you said, you know, it’d be weird being black sheep with a PhD, because I feel that way a lot in my family that I’m, I’m sort of, not the black sheep, but the, you know, I came from a blue collar background, um, military family, my dad and my stepdad were both in the Navy. So, you know, for me it was like smart kids, they go on to be doctors or lawyers, right? They go to Ivy League schools and then go on to be doctors and lawyers and they make a lot of money. And like that’s what’s going to lift us up. And, all the way up until my senior year like that’s where it was looking like it was going. And, um, although for me, I wasn’t actually interested in being a doctor or a lawyer. I pretty much wanted to be a professor as soon as I figured out that was a job as a kid, I just didn’t know in what field. Although, you know, for awhile I wanted to do various things like, you know, photojournalism. I was really into theater for a really long time, which probably doesn’t surprise anybody who knows me, but, or history, uh, so it’s just, I I’m, I’m very much, uh, I guess, you know, one of those people who likes everything and for various reasons ended up dropping out of high school and then ended up going to a small liberal arts school that closed and then transferred to another small liberal arts school. That first term at College of the Atlantic, which is where I would end up getting my undergrad. Go Black Flies! I took three classes because they have these trimesters and you take three classes at a time for 10 weeks. And I was like, this is it, this is what’s going to decide it. And I took a philosophy course, a history course, and conservation biology, because that was like the one environmental science-y kind of course that was on offer at the time.
Gill The conservation biology course really hooked me. I’d always been really interested in the environment. I grew up, we’ve talked about this on the show. I grew up as like, you know, Captain Planet generation, child of the 90s. And it was kind of hard to not be an environmentalist growing up at that time.
Gill And so for me it was, I was kind of trying to approach it from all these different angles of like, why are we like this? Why do we do this to our planet? It, wasn’t the environmental science that actually drew me. I was, I was interested in these like deeper philosophical questions. But the conservation biology class really started challenging how I think about what it means to really protect or conserve a planet in a time of global change.
Gill And then I took an ecology class, basically in Acadia National Park, because that’s where my school was.
Laungani Wow, that’s awesome.
Gill For folks who haven’t been to Mount Desert Island, it’s this, you know, I, I talk about it as like a poster child of glaciers. It’s just this, these rounded glacial glacially polished tops, and it’s got these giant erratic boulders perched on the edges of cliffs that were abandoned by the ice. And it’s just hard not to look at those landscapes and not see the imprint of glaciers and sea level change. And there was this one moment when we were on a field trip, it was just our lab actually, wasn’t even a field trip. It was just, you know, get in the van, go to lab. And, um, my advisor took us up this mountain called Gorham Mountain. And about 250 feet up there are these, basically they’re just sea cliffs and there’s a sea cave. And if you, you know, if you spend time on the rocky Maine coastline, you see these landforms that are like pummeled and smoothed out by this constant ocean action, these waves like pounding against this hard rocky coast. And, you know, my advisor, who was also my instructor was like, you know, “what is this, what do you see?” And he kind of took us through this process. And we kind of finally figured out, you know, these look like they were shaped by the ocean. “Well, we’re up here on this mountain, you know, how did this come to be like that?”
Gill That was the moment when he revealed to us, well, the sea level here has been dropping because the weight of the glaciers had pushed down the Earth’s crust and as the glaciers retreated, the earth has been rebounding. So, you know, the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia gets a little bit higher every year because even though the ice has been gone for 13,000 years, it’s taken that long. It’s like sticking your thumb in it, a cake, a fresh cake out of the oven. And like, it’s slowly, you know, if you’re lucky, rebounds back,
Gill So it’s like, you don’t do this at home, because you’ll just have fingerprints in your cake. And that for me was like this moment of, like that changed my life. And I can’t, it’s like, I try to tell this story to people and they’re just like, “Uh huh? Ok? So like you’re at the sea cliff, that’s cool.” But for me it was like, I had this moment of like, wow, just standing here. And this, it was like in a flash, like if I were in a movie, it would be like, when you see like when your life flashes before your eyes, except it was the planet. And I just, I had this moment of like everything I know or think I believe about the very rock under my feet is a lie. Well it’s not a lie, but it’s just one tiny piece of this bigger story.
Laungani Right, right.
Gill And that’s what hooked me. It was like, change, change happens all the time and change is really cool. And how do we approach conservation from this perspective of like, dipping the ecosystem in bronze, like, you know, bronze baby shoes or something like,
Laungani Right, right, right.
Gill But things are changing and there’s a lot of resilience and dynamism that was completely left out of everything I’d been learning in my conservation class. And that was I guess the moment that I realized, like, this is what I want to do. I want to like tell these stories.
Laungani Right? So paleoecology stories.
Gill Yeah, paleoecology stories. Like what has happened over the past and how can that information help us understand a changing planet today? Because we have all of this data, all of this information that we can draw on, you know, a lot of people, you know, I see it all the time, like articles about climate change or extinction. And there’s a lot of like existential hand wringing. “Like what are we going to do? This has never happened. It’s unprecedented.” But in a lot of ways, it’s not. We have a literal blueprint that the earth has left behind to tell us how to get through this.
Gill And not only in terms of the ecosystems and the climate, but also the archeological record and in anthropology and just how people have been resilient or not resilient, like the choices that we make and tying all of those things together not only allows me to do everything, which is great because I, as I said before, I can’t pick. But you know, so I get to do a little bit of rocks, a little bit of plants, a little bit of people, um, a little bit of, you know, chemistry, history, all of it.
Gill But also like this is information that we have from these natural experiments in the past. And that data means that we’re not going into the future blind. And that to me is like, that’s the coolest job in the world.
Laungani Yeah. Yeah, no absolutely.
Gill Sorry Ramesh, I have the coolest job in the world.
Laungani Yeah, hey, that’s cool. I’ll take the second coolest job in the world.
Laungani You know, you told this story about how you sort of could feel the history of that place, right, flash before your eyes. How did that story for you show up in data? Like when did you see that story in an Excel spreadsheet, to put it very, in a very boring form, to take all that dynamism and put it into an Excel spreadsheet, you know, was there a particular piece of data, you know, some paleoclimatological data that really advanced either your understanding of climate change on these long time scales or that pushed you to want to know more about the current human driven climate change that we are currently experiencing? Was there a particular piece of data that sort of hit you in the head? And you’re like, “Oh my God, now it clicks or now I really, now I want to know even more.”
Gill Yes. Milankovitch oscillations. So as soon as I started thinking about glacial cycles and climate change, you know, the question is, well, why do we have ice ages? Why are we in a warm period? What is going on? And so, you can’t really get very far down that line of inquiry without running into this guy. Milankovitch. He, uh, basically figured out, hand calculated while in house arrest during the first World War, with pencil and paper, he figured out the ways in which Earth’s tilt and orbit, so different times where we’re tilted closer to the sun and tilted further away, or our orbit is more circular or more like an oval, which brings us closer to the sun or further to the sun. Like we have these regular cycles, all planetary bodies have them around the suns that they orbit. So like our, our position relative to the sun is not fixed through time. It goes through these cycles. And he did a bunch of math by hand to figure out how those changes would add up to influence how much of the sun’s energy hits the earth at any given moment, right? Closer to the sun, give a little bit more energy. Further away, get a little less. you know, North Pole tilted towards the sun, get more incoming solar energy, you know, North Pole tilted more away, you get less. Right?
Laungani Sitting close to the campfire, it feels warmer if your seat is a little further back, you don’t feel as hot.
Gill Exactly. Exactly. And, and people, people had all this physical evidence of ice ages, like I told you about at Acadia, like people were seeing things like this in the Alps and other places where they’re like, “it sure looks like glaciers were here, but what would have caused the Earth’s climate to have been so cold in the past?”
Gill And so people knew they had a geologic record, but they didn’t understand what would cause it. And, Milankovitch was like, “well, that’s weird. Why haven’t you guys figured this out yet?” Um, and he kind of comes from left field literally. And is like, “well, I’m going to figure this out.” And he was like, you know, there’s not enough math and statistics in our understanding of Earth’s climate. And so he does hand calculations and he comes up with these wiggles. These, uh, because that’s all I do, um, all day long is I make wiggles and I look at wiggles and I put wiggles together of these time series, um, of change through time. He stacks together these different cycles and says, okay, this is the periodicity of ice ages. When we have less incoming solar energy, we get cold, when we have more, we come into a warm period.
Gill And what’s really cool about that is that decades and decades later when the very first deep ice cores were coming out of Antarctica, that go back, you know, a million years, they basically found from the rings in those ice cores that Milankovitch was right. His hand calculations, you know, basically on a napkin from prison, basically predicted the cycles of ice ages that we have, and that are recorded in glaciers. And so for me, uh, here’s the point, I just thought this was incredibly cool. It’s a cool story, but it’s also cool because cool, ha ha ha, it’s really neat because, you know, we have this baseline. We have the wiggles up and down, up and down, up and down. Those are the climate changes that our planet has had to go through, right? Some things go extinct, some things have persisted, like lots of cool information there. But then what we’re doing now, we’re pushing the Earth’s climate out of the range of those wiggles. So if you imagine sort of wiggling up and down, up and down, up and down over two and a half million years, and now we’re just kicking everything out of that natural range of those wiggles. Right?
Laungani Right, right.
Gill Putting today’s warming in the context of over 2 million years of natural climate changes, just really was like a punch in the gut because it was, it was not only really reaffirming that yes, this is us, right? These natural climate changes are some of our best evidence to help us understand that the world is warming because of our activity. But also it’s like, wow, we are, we’re moving the planet further back in time, like tens of millions of years back in time climatically. And, and that that’s a big fucking deal.
Laungani Right and I think what’s really amazing about knowing things like the Milankovitch cycles is that, in my basic understanding because we know that, we can almost like subtract those out of the changes we see today. And if those were the key driver of climate change that we see today, then subtracting those out of the equation, we shouldn’t see any climate change today. But we do in fact, see climate change today because what we are doing with all the fossil fuel burning that we’re doing and all the carbon dioxide that we’re putting into the atmosphere, all the other greenhouse gases, you know, we’re layering so much on top of those wiggles that, of course the system is going to be moving on a new trajectory.
Laungani And that’s really, without understanding Milankovitch cycles, we wouldn’t be able to parse out what part is us and what part is the wiggle.
Laungani And, and so that, that Milankovitch cycle thing. And I didn’t learn about Milankovitch cycles till fairly late in my climate change education. But similar to you once I learned about it, it was another puzzle piece that was like, oh yeah. And so, because of this, that’s even stronger evidence that we know that we are the drivers of this, because the natural wiggles wouldn’t have historically led to what we are seeing today. So there’s got to be something else in the system that is driving what we see today.
Gill I mean, by some estimates, some calculations, we should actually be drifting very, very, very slowly back towards another ice age.
Gill Like our warm period right now should be over. And it’s not only, I mean, not, not within our lifetimes or even within our great, great, great grandchildren’s lifetimes, but like very slowly over, it takes about a 100,000 years to hit the full conditions of an ice age, but, or a glaciation. But, yeah, we’re, we’re going the other way.
Gill And so that is still the most, I think, profound piece of data that shapes my thinking about the earth and as a scientist and, and just got me, that’s the earth’s story, right? Because it’s not just that the climate goes up and down, up and down, up and down. But also like somehow all the trees, like everything, like any animal or plant that you saw today is an ice age survivor. It made it through those changes.
Gill And so that’s the backdrop for so many other cool stories. And the other cool thing is like, as a paleoecologist, because I don’t have a time machine, the only way for me to recreate those stories is the data we collect. You know, we use these cool forensic tools and that is the other awesome part of my job is that, you know, we have to recreate these ecosystems and these climates from whatever crap got left behind by the ecosystem.
Laungani Right, yeah.
Gill Bits of pollen, bits of wood, bits of air trapped in ice bubbles, um, you know, all of those things. So that’s that, I don’t know, that’s, what’s not to love, love about that job. I just it’s like I get to be a detective and a storyteller and a historian and a time traveler. But also, you know, you kind of get attached to the planet a little bit when you, as you know, right? Like you, you can’t do this work as a scientist without just having this deep appreciation for what the planet is capable of and what we’re doing to it. So I kind of want to flip this around to you now and ask you kind of the same question. Like did you have like a data moment that just like, was there a graph or some, some piece of information or a statistic or something that just was like your gut punch or your call to action?
Laungani Yeah. Yeah. So, yeah, so, so I did have a data gut punch, where climate change really clicked for me. And it was in graduate school. Because when I started graduate school, I was studying, you know, carbon cycling in grasslands. But I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it from a climate change perspective. I was basically asking, where is the carbon? Where’s it going? You know, how is it moving around an ecosystem? That’s how I sort of walked into graduate school, you know, thinking. Like I’m just going to sort of chase this carbon around an ecosystem and see where it ends up. This carbon and I was also studying nitrogen cycling. So I was also, it’s sort of like an insane episode of Sesame Street where I’m just running after these letters, uh, running around an ecosystem. And I was taking a class and we read a paper where, it was this little tiny half sentence at the top of, you know, one of the columns of this paper, you know, almost one of those sentences you might misread because half of it’s at the bottom of one column and the other half is as the top of the other. And so you might misread it. And that sentence talked about how we are able to know that the carbon dioxide that’s in the atmosphere today is derived from fossil fuel burning by looking at the isotopes or the versions of carbon that are in the atmosphere. My head basically exploded because up until that point, I thought carbon is carbon is carbon now had I heard of isotopes? Absolutely. But where had I really heard of isotopes? Carbon-14 dating. And that’s something you do with dinosaur bones, right? To figure out how old dinosaurs are.
Gill Nope. Wrong.
Laungani Right, no right.
Gill I just couldn’t let that slide by. Incorrect.
Laungani So that was my really bad understanding of carbon.
Gill No, but a lot of people think that, yeah yeah yeah.
Laungani And then when I learned about this idea that we can see all of the carbon-12 and look at how much carbon-12 is in the atmosphere and trace that back to the causal agent of our modern climate change. You know, it’s, it’s almost the exact opposite scale of the data that gave you the gut punch, right? So you were thinking about this data on this planetary scale. And I got to the same endpoint by thinking about data on this atomic and molecular scale. Because once I understood that plants like to take up the lighter carbon and those plants are the ones that become the oil and coal that we burn. And therefore we’re just dumping a lot of super old carbon-12 into the atmosphere. And that’s how we know it’s us. It changed my perspective on climate change massively.
Laungani It was, and I do this in my class all the time. You know, I start off with this and to go back to your forensic analogy, I start off my climate change lecture with a crime scene. And one of the pieces of evidence that we collect at this crime scene is, well, we found fingerprints of the suspect that we arrested on the weapon. And I ask my students “how many of you would say that that piece of evidence is really powerful in your understanding of this case and helped you vote guilty or not guilty?” And the students overwhelmingly year after year all say, “Oh yeah, it was definitely the fingerprint that really pushed me over the, you know, the edge.” Because I gave them sort of weak evidence. I gave him sort of evidence where there could be some, some questions. And so then I tell him, I say, what would it mean if I showed you the fingerprint of human activity in climate change. I walk my students through the same process that I did when, when that hit me in the head, essentially. Once I got that understanding of C-12 and C-13 how plants preferentially take up the lighter one, my students are able to predict what the data should be and, and they accurately do it. And then I say, “yup, that’s what the data looks like. Right around 1850, right around when we started burning fossil fuels, we see a lot more C-12 in the atmosphere because we are burning carbon that plants took up a long, long time ago.” And so that was really that data, that made climate change make sense. And then it was after that, that I actually learned about Milankovitch cycles. And then it was another piece like, Oh yeah. That fits too.
Gill So for you, it was like, it was really that human angle, like it was wow, that’s us.
Gill Like, that’s what makes climate real is this obvious signature of the industrial revolution of human beings just burning a lot of fossil fuels. That’s what did it for you.
Laungani Right. And I remember in that moment when I was reading that paper, my first thought was actually back to my parents. I remember saying, why am I reading this in graduate school and other people aren’t? Like, why are my parents not reading this paper? Because I was maybe at first, first and a half year grad student? So I wasn’t, I wasn’t very deep in my graduate education. And so I really sort of asked myself if I gave this paper to my parents, they’d be able to understand this. But why isn’t that isotopic evidence out there more broadly in the world? Like, why am I finding this piece of evidence buried in this paper somewhere? That thing clicked, those data clicked in my head and my thought right after that was why don’t more people know about this isotopic ratio. And I tell that to my students all the time. And I like to be honest with my students, look, this is the thing that did it for me, but here’s all this other data. And I’m going to lay out this whole menu of data for you, and you’re going to connect with certain pieces more than others. But here is all the overwhelming data that we have, to know that it’s us.
Justin Schell This is Justin Schell, I’m the producer of Warm Regards. You’ve heard Ramesh and Jacquleyn’s data stories as part of this episode, and now we’d like to hear yours. Was there a moment when a particular graph changed how you thought about climate change? Maybe you’re a scientist with a powerful story from the field, or an elected official faced with planning for an uncertain future. Do you find yourself constantly checking the latest sea ice coverage? Or fielding endless questions from an anxious kid about Siberian wildfires? We want to hear from you. You can leave us a 90 second voicemail by calling 586–930–5286 or record yourself and email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure to say who you are and where you’re from. We’ll be featuring these stories throughout the season.
Laungani You and I, as scientists think about data, but we also recognize that there’s humanity behind each of those data points. So it’s our job, and that’s what we really want to do with this podcast, and with this season, is tell the stories behind that data, behind those wiggles. Right? And you did it talking about Milankovitch right? You know, literally you’re talking about wiggles on a graph. But what was he doing? He was under house arrest during World War I. You know, that is a human story.
Gill He got arrested on his honeymoon, dude! He was like arrested on his honeymoon!
Laungani Of course he did because, why wouldn’t that just be in the story? Um, you know, and, and you’re never going to see that story just in the graph. While you and I deal in data, you and I swim in that, you know, you and I spend hours and hours in Microsoft Excel moving pieces of data around and spinning it like a Rubik’s cube to try to understand it more completely, we want to make sure with this season that our listeners understand that the data tells us one thing, but we also have to look beyond that data to understand it really fully. We have to look beyond that data to understand the humanity behind it. And until we do both, we aren’t going to be able to really tackle climate change in all of its complexity.
Gill Thinking too about like, the work that we do, I work with like mammoth poop and, you know, like, you know, stuff that, that often doesn’t feel very immediate. And, you know, while I try to make these connections, like my, I see the connections between the ice age and conservation today, or understanding the climate of the past to grapple with the future. But like, a lot of people are just like, well, you just study, you study mammoths, you study things that are extinct, you study these ecosystems that, you know, are not like the ones that we have now. Whereas you Ramesh like you are actually dealing with solutions like you, like your work with your students on biochar is actually grappling with ways for us to do better, like ways forward, like actual solutions.
Laungani For me working on solutions to climate change, I really think about it, you know, oddly enough, biochar is talked about as a solution to climate change. And I mentioned this, you know, when I first came on the show talking about talking about biochar, what I really think about what I’m producing in my lab is I’m producing the solution to climate change not because I make biochar that I put in the soil, but I’m producing the solution to climate change because I’m producing the scientist who will actually fix it. Or the group of scientists that will actually fix it. And biochar is the way that I get them in the door. For anybody that reads about biochar, there are, it is an imperfect solution. As someone who loves it, I will be the first person to admit that it is a far from perfect solution to climate change, but it is such an accessible solution to climate change that it is, it’s my firm belief, and I use the word “belief” there, it is my firm belief that it is a, um, way to produce the scientist of the future or the scientists I should say, of the future that are going to fix this challenge and tackle this challenge. So that’s why I work with biochar, is to produce new scientists.
Gill Like scientists, or, or do you think like . . .
Laungani I think my first thought is producing the next generation of scientists, but also producing the next generation of thinkers maybe is a better way to put it, who understand that there are solutions out there and we have to think creatively about those solutions. And so if one of my students ends up going into the political realm, if they walk into the political arena, knowing where the carbon is going, up and down, and if they know the C-12 and C-13 thing, that’s great. Then they are an informed politician, they’re a scientifically literate politician. So that’s what I really think about in terms of tackling climate change and in terms of solutions and in terms of the data that my students produce.
Gill Yeah, because I mean, there are so many people and I get so many messages from, you know, I’m active on Twitter and, you know, get interviewed by the press or whatever. And whenever that happens, I get emails. Usually from young people, very often from students who say, is there a point? Does, does anything, I do matter, um, should I even have kids, should I bother going to college? How can I help? And more and more, I feel like the messages that I get from, from students and young people, is not like, “Oh, how can I pitch in, I want to help” A lot of it is like this increasing despair. Like, “what’s the point? Can we do anything? Do we really have seven years before everything falls apart?”
Gill Because so much of the message that’s getting out there is that it’s hopeless. People see some of these graphs or these model projections that are extreme scenarios and they think that’s it, game over. It’s too late. There’s nothing we can do. And those are people who see, who see a graph or see some data and they, their response is just to lose hope or to despair, and which is something else we’ll talk about later in the season, but, you know, A) how accurate are some of those assumptions or projections about, like it’s, yes, things are bad, but they’re not so bad that we, we can’t do something about it. Like it’s always going to be worth trying. It’s always, you know, we can always do less harm. But also, how do you motivate people to action? Whether, you know, we’ll talk to activists, we’ll talk to people who research behavior and belief to get at this idea of how do you reach people, not only to inspire them with this information about our changing planet, but also like what is the information that’s out there that does actually move people to act like, how do you get people to do something with all this data that isn’t just despair?
Laungani As you were saying that this popped into my head. As we think about data, Is there a piece of data that you would need to see to know that we are succeeding at tackling climate change, or what would be the piece of data that you would need to see to say, “Oh, we are turning the tide.” You know, “We are winning the fight.”
Gill That is such a good question, because for such a long time, it has felt, up until the last year or so, it’s felt like the real barrier has been belief. You know, the figures about what percentage of Americans believe that the earth is warming due to human activity. Right, like watching those numbers kind of just flatline over time has been really challenging because it’s felt like we can’t do anything about this problem if we can’t get people to agree that there’s a problem. The Yale Climate Communication project and other initiatives like that, that are sort of tracking in real time, what American’s beliefs are about climate and, you know, yes, this is going to be, we’re going to have an American bias in the show, just because of the nature of who we are and what we’re doing. But watching the tide turn and watching, you know, the so-called dismissives, the people who are, you know, the climate trolls, like the people who are actively aggressively like, it’s not that just that they’re there, they don’t care, or they’re not sure or it’s not the most important thing for them. They actively try to undermine or push back on the data about climate change. Watching them, their numbers dwindle has actually been really, really motivational for me because it feels like what we’re doing makes a difference. And once you get buy in, then you can have action.
Gill So that I feel like was always the first step. And then it’s like, okay, well, what, you know, what data would we, would I need to see that we’re taking the next step, which is actually doing something about it, right?
Gill Seeing all the youth climate protests, I mean, things that just, we could not have dreamed about. Seeing, you know, Greta Thunberg get up there and say, “listen to scientists, we demand action.” That’s really motivational to me. So it’s like a moving window, right? So now what do we need to see? You know, we’ve, we’ve seen lots of political changes. We’ve seen congressional districts flip. All of that is really heartening. Now what I want to see is, I want to see the CO2 start to fall. We need to see that curve start to decline. We need to see belief and acceptance translate to action, and that action needs to have an impact. Because I’m a paleo person, I think over long time scales. I’m okay if it takes some time. You know, I don’t feel disheartened by the fact that we can’t turn on a dime. Just since I started grad school in 2005 to today, I mean, that’s like, I’ve been doing this for 15 years. Which wow, it’s 15 years already. But, it’s also like, that’s, you know, that’s a tremendous amount of social change.
Gill Like in 2005, we were talking about climate silence and how nobody was having these conversations. Now in 2020, artists and writers and so many people are involved in the conversation. It’s not just scientists saying, please listen to us, please listen to us.
Laungani Here’s more data, here’s more data.
Gill And we know that, like, that doesn’t work. Showing people the graphs over and over again, like as hard as it is for me to say that, it didn’t work. It maybe worked for some people, but like James Hanson was doing it in the 80s. Right? Like when I was, you know, still a little kid running around. What we need to see next is like, let’s see the numbers start to fall. Let’s see that let’s see greenhouse gas emissions start to decline as we’re doing the things that we need to be doing.
Gill I guess that was a wishy washy answer because I never gave you one specific set of data, but like, yeah.
Laungani I think that really highlights the complexity of climate change, right? Is that it isn’t going to be one piece of data. You know, you and I highlighted how these singular pieces of data had a profound impact on our understanding of climate and climate change. But what it did is it opened us up to this wide array, this wide world of data. You know these single pieces of the data really opened the door to all the complexities of climate change and all the data that’s there. I don’t think your answer was wishy washy at all because I think progress and the data of that progress is going to be seen and measured on a variety of fronts. And it’s going to be seen socially and politically right? Numbers of protests. Political districts, voting turnout, right? All of these are data along with CO2 emissions and CO2 atmospheric concentration. These are all data that are going to indicate that we are making progress on this front.
Gill The people 500 or a 1000 years from now, or even a 100 years from now, well, they’ll know what happened, first of all. They’ll know what worked and what didn’t work and whether it worked soon enough. But you know, I just keep thinking of the information that they’ll have, they’ll also know, you know, how many people died because of storm surges from sea level rise, or, you know, how many people were displaced from their homes. I mean, there’s a lot of other information that people have to grapple with in a very calculating way. Because you know, the people who are in positions of power who have to make decisions about communities, like they have to think things through and balance a lot of concerns as rationally as possible. But at the same time, like, you know when you get to some of the numbers, it’s just hard to remember that those numbers are about real people, living, breathing, people who each had their own hopes and dreams and their own stories. And they’ll just kind of get swallowed up in some of these statistics.
Laungani And that’s what we’re here to illuminate.
Gill Yeah. Right, right.
Grill Even though I’m a scientist, I always try to remind myself that there are, like if I can do this with a woolly mammoth foot, right. If I can remind myself that this was a real living, breathing mammoth, that felt the sun on its skin and walked around and felt hunger and thirst and joy and fear. If I can do that for a mammoth to be a better scientist, I also have to do that for, you know, all of the human beings whose lives literally depend on us getting this right. We have a responsibility to not lose sight of all of that, of everything that’s at stake. Knowing that no matter what we do, we’re going to lose people. We’re going to lose species. We’re going to lose cultures and languages. And like, there’s a lot at stake here, right?
Laungani And I think understanding the data and how it’s collected and who collects it, and all of those hidden stories are going to help us reduce those losses. Without that data, those things would be, I think, in much deeper trouble than they are with the data. And so those data really are in all of this data that we collect. They are sources of hope.
Gill Because I mean, at the end of the day, like those numbers are how we hold ourselves accountable. They’re how we know what we’ve done, where we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going. They’re the story that we are writing together.
Laungani Warm Regards is produced by Justin Schell. Joe Stormer creates our transcripts, and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. Music for this episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions.
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