Episode 99: Robert McLeman, Professor & TedX Speaker
Guest Name(s): Robert McLeman
Episode Audio Links:
Hello, this is A Climate Change with Matt Matern. I’m Max Sloves sitting in for Matt and today I’m speaking with Robert McLeman of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies. Hello, Robert McLeman.
Thanks for sitting down with us today I wanted to talk with you about several of the issues that that you research and that you speak on. And one of the things that I wanted to begin with is that when I looked through some of your materials, some of your writing, I love your word choice, because the way that we talk about the environment, the way that we talk about things related to climate dynamics, the words we use have such a magnificent ripple effect in terms of the way we frame issues, the way we frame problems, the way we frame solutions.
Why we frame policy? So starting with this, this this question of the human dimensions of environmental change, this is this is a phrase of yours. And I want to begin with that, and ask, I’ll let you expound on what you mean by that. But I want to plant the seeds of a question. My question is, to what extent should humans be viewed through a dualistic versus a non dualistic paradigm visa vie the environment? That is, to what extent is it accurate or helpful to see ourselves humans as separate from or a natural and integrated part of the greater environment?
That is a wonderful question and a great way to start the interview. So a few thoughts on this. One is that throughout the 20th century, especially the second half of the 20th century, people tended to take the approach that they were somehow separate from the natural environment and the natural environment was something to be managed to be modified to be controlled. And many of our policy choices, our scientific choices, the way we thought about the environment, in the second half of the 20th century, reflected that humans as apart from nature, not everyone, and not everywhere, but that was sort of the the mainstream approach to things in academia, in policy and so on.
And what I think what we’re recognizing now in the 21st century, is that that approach is part of what got us into many of the problems and challenges that we face right now with a changing climate with biodiversity loss, with desertification and deforestation is because we’ve been treating the environment is something external, to the human world, something to benefit us and to be managed much the way, say, a bank account might be a magnet might be managed to, you know, benefit us in in our day to day life. So when I use the term human dimensions of environmental changes, the environment is changing. Part of its natural change, but a lot of it more recently is driven by human factors.
And so the human dimensions are really just recognizing that the impacts on us is there only one set of challenges that we face, and that when we cause biodiversity loss, whether it’s in the United States, or in a different corner of the world, there are consequences for for nature, but also for ourselves. And so we need to take a holistic approach to identifying the roots of these challenges, and then a holistic approach to identifying the responses because at the end of the day, when we talk about environmental challenges, many of the solutions, pathways that are in front of us, are good for us, if they’re good for nature, and vice versa. And when we try to simply just solve it in the context of what’s best for people, we tend not to have complete solutions. Yeah, I think that, that shit that touches on an issue that I I saw come up just just this week.
An article by that somehow across my desk, saying that we should just give up on the entire discourse on on the environment and climate change.
It was, it was a well written article, but I didn’t agree with the thesis. But it did raise the question for me in terms of to what extent is our concern for the environment, something romantic and nostalgic, versus something pragmatic and functional?
I know for me, it tends to be a blend. I’m a little bit of a romantic. I do think there’s something kind of painful about a species or an ecosystem being degraded or going extinct or being lost or damaged because of human activity?
That would be I guess, my my thought in terms of a nostalgic or romantic view of the environment. But then, you know, to what extent is working to protect non human elements of the environment? Something purely romantic, but to what extent is it? Is it like a pragmatic benefit to us? And must it always do we always need that, that that materialist connection between doing something that is perceived as positive and protecting the environment and a benefit. It visible tangible benefit to humans. And then I guess there’s also like the question, what, what is the benefit to humans? I feel like we see benefit through a very like, specific lens right now, in terms of the way our economy functions.
Do you have any thoughts on on kind of like that? Nostalgic, romantic versus pragmatic, self interest? Distinction? Are you starting to touch on that I was wondering if you had some more to say on I think, Max, I come from a similar place that you do, in that there’s a role for both there’s a role for romance and nostalgia, I suppose, solace, style, Jaya. And there’s a role for hard nosed pragmatism and self interest in all of this. A good example is, is Rachel Carson, and the enduring legacy that she has had worldwide, not just in the United States, and not just in environmental policy, but she helped shape the way generations that followed her think about the environment. And if you’ve read any of her works, as I have, it’s a good mix of practicality, pragmatism, self interest and romance, talking about the beauty of the natural world, the the magical experience of going to the seashore and seeing the the wondrous creatures that you find in a rock pool. Yet, at the same time, you know, spelling out how we need to start regulating the chemical industry to make sure that certain compounds are taken out of nature.
So there’s all of those elements in there. So there’s a place for both if we didn’t have the romance and the the sheer joy and love of being part of nature, then essentially what we’re talking about is bureaucratic decision making, how do we maximize value? How do we implement policies to achieve, you know, specific ends? And without the the love of nature and the romance being attached to that decision making process? We might as well be talking about, you know, changing the tax code, or, you know, how do we do we take the Imperial measurement system over the metric system, right? These are very sterile decisions, where we use basic, you know, maximization calculations, but when we’re talking about nature, and how to ensure that our children and our children’s children enjoy nature in the way that we have been fortunate enough to experience it, then we need to have that romance and those emotional elements to the debate as well. Do we need to quantify that beauty? Do we need to put a number on it? Because so often, the decision makers, the policymakers, and not be broken out of that mold, and will use romantic formulations romantic for him and environment against advocates of the of the environment, they will, you know, you’re just trying to protect that species in the desert, for no real good reason other than just for its own sake, and species go extinct all the time. And what makes this one special?
You know, that I’ve often been confronted with the accusation of over romanticizing. And it can be a very difficult accusation to respond to. So is, is there a need or about or point in, in putting numbers on mute?
As as people engage in these conversations?
I think you’ve, you’ve raised a good point. And it is challenging for me to coming from a person who if you told me that the reason we should save this species is because we should save the species because the species in itself has intrinsic value that can’t be quantified. For me, I accept that argument and say, Okay, let’s try to save the species. But I recognize there are other people out there who give like you say, the economic argument, which is, well, what’s the economic value of doing that? And so it is a challenge in communicating across these different approaches to viewing nature.
One of the things I like to tell my students when I’m teaching and so on, is that when we look at the big environmental treaties and international agreements that we have right now, that came out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. So the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, biodiversity protection, combating desertification, and so on. Most of the Western leaders who were present at that conference, and who signed off on those treaties, were right wing leaders. were from the same parties today, who like to talk about the economics of everything above all else, whether it’s human values, natural values, and so on. So I think it’s only a recent phenomenon where this argument has become polarized between the value of nature and the value of money. Yeah, it is interesting, and it’s a bit ironic, I guess, depending on one’s view that some of the great environmental laws domestically were passed under the Nixon administration. And sort of a conservative icon Teddy Roosevelt. Same in my country. Yeah.
Yeah, I guess. To a certain extent, we can try to connect dots and draw lines and in other ways we, we can’t invest too much in what the where the political lines are drawn. Just need to sort of manage the conversation and push it forward one way or the other.
This is Max Sloves. I’m sitting in for Matt Matern on climate change with Matt Matern. Speaking today with Robert McLeman of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Department of Geography Environmental Studies. We’ll be back in a moment.
Hello, this is A Climate Change with Matt Matern. I am in Mexico City and for Matt Matern, today, speaking with Robert McLeman, Wilfrid Laurier University, the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies. Robert, thank you again for joining today.
Great to be here.
Next topic I wanted to explore is it’s kind of it’s it’s a hot button issue right now, I guess a lot of environmental issues can be framed as hot button issues. This one seems to be getting a lot of play this week, been hearing segments up from NPR to New York Times ever on the issue of environment and human migration. And, again, I am really intrigued by and appreciative of your word choice, when you in what I’ve seen, what you published, using the word environment, which I think is a broader term than climate, climate change is the that’s that’s the hot sexy thing right now you’re trying to market a conversation, Youth Climate Change. But it seems kind of overshadow the broader issue of the environment, which is something we’ve been discussing as a global community for quite some time. And there are issues related to the environment that don’t necessarily fit cleanly into a discourse on climate change?
So the interaction of the environment and human migration that that just feels like like the big one right now. So what do you see as the key environmental dynamics now and moving forward? Perhaps not just climate change that that affect human migration patterns? And what are some of the trickle down effects that you think we can anticipate from this?
You’re absolutely right. This is one of the big political policy social issues of our time right now is the fact that we have changed the natural environment so much, that it is now starting to influence and affect our ability to live in certain ways in certain places around the world. And that’s growing dramatically. Just as one simple example. There’s an organization called the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center based in Geneva, and they keep annual statistics on people who have to move from their homes who are involuntarily displaced, for reasons related to conflicts but also reasons related to math what they called natural disasters. And those can be earthquakes and volcanoes, but the big drivers are three phenomena, floods, extreme storms, and then to a lesser extent, but still fairly significant – droughts and wildfires.
And, on average, over 20 million people each year are displaced from their homes by those weather events that I’ve just described. And that number has been growing. And it’s expected to grow for a variety of reasons. Now a lot of them are due directly to climate change. As we warm the planet, we increase the frequency and severity of storms, we change precipitation patterns. There’s one study that suggested that for every half degree of warming, we increased by 50%, the risk that people will be displaced from their homes by floods. And so that’s going on that’s sort of already happening. So it’s not over the horizon.
Second thing is we know where these events happen on a regular basis. So we can go around the world from, you know, Philippines, China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, in the Pakistan, as we saw with the massive floods in Pakistan last year, and the United States actually routinely figures within the top 10 countries for people who are displaced for reasons related to natural disasters. And so these displacements are going to increase, as I said, in a changing climate. But there’s other stuff that we’re doing to the environment as well beyond climate change that also influences this. So for example, in our own hemisphere, in Central America, and in the Caribbean, in Haiti, for example, we have widespread deforestation taking place, in many cases, to create plantation style agriculture, or in some cases, just because people are desperately poor, and cutting down trees legally or not, is one way to earn an income. And that in turn, triggers, you know, unstable slopes landslides, and multiplies the risk of extreme events. And it also affects, you know, food systems, which is also a big challenge around the world. So all of this is interconnected. And it sounds like Oh, my goodness, like there’s so much happening right now. But at the same time, we can sort of reel it back in to the fact that economic decisions that we’re making with respect to the use of resources, whether it’s mining resources, whether it’s fossil fuels, whether it’s forests, are having implications, not just economic ones, but actually affecting people in many parts of the world, sometimes in our own country, and sometimes in other countries, in terms of you know, where they’re moving to, or where they are able to live right now.
And why can’t we? Well, I have a couple of thoughts. First, is I know, this is this is just a small fraction of the issue. But to what extent are these migration phenomena triggered in part by humans investing themselves in areas where they shouldn’t be, for example, like dense population and floodplains, where historically the people wouldn’t settle? Because they know there’s a possibility of flooding? Or I know, in California, there’s, you know, there’s quite a policy debate over the need to build more homes. But then on the flip side, saying, well, we can’t keep building closer closer into areas with that are high fire risk. Is that? Like, would you put that as a large percentage of the issue or just like a like kind of a small, like footnote in terms of, you know, floods or something that happened, but but we have done things to in terms of our patterns of settlement that make that worse now, is that is that part of the significant part of the equation or a smaller part of the equation?
You’re absolutely right is is a big part of the equation. That’s one of the paradoxes that we’re talking about in this changing climate is that not only are we increasing the risks, the environmental risk factors that force people to move from their homes, but at the same time, we have people choosing to live in areas where they’re highly exposed to environmental hazards, whether it’s fires, whether it’s think of the whole state of Arizona, for example, in the Valley of the Sun, it’s essentially it’s a desert environment with millions of people dependent upon fossil water deep in the ground and water behind a dam that is, you know, hundreds of miles away and pipe to them.
Or living in South Florida, in an area like Miami Beach, which you know, with rising sea levels, between 50 and 100 years from now, we’ll be underwater, and yet at the same time, people are choosing voluntarily to want to live in those environments. And it’s not just in the United States, it’s there’s many parts of the world where we see that population growth is highest in areas that are high risk, we can think of the city of Shanghai, we can think of the city of Dhaka city in Bangladesh, cities have 10s of millions of people living at sea level. So that’s a big part of the equation. Now one of the things we’ve been able to do in North America over the years is to sort of use things like air conditioning and flood defences and piping water over long distances and reservoirs to sort of overcome those in
Environmental charity challenges to make places like Phoenix, Phoenix, Arizona possible to make places like Miami Beach viable. You know, without air conditioning, you probably wouldn’t want to live 365 days a year in South Florida, but we’re able to do that. But there’s a hypothesis called the lessening hypothesis, which is not mine, it goes back to the 1980s, to a researcher by the name of Warwick, who looked at droughts in the Great Plains, who said, one of the things that North Americans have been doing is by using all these technologies to allow themselves to live in areas that 100 years ago, would not have been viable areas to build cities or have large numbers of people. We lessen the day to day risks of living those in those environments. But we magnify the risk of catastrophic failures of those communities when the water runs out when the heat becomes unbearable, when the sea levels rise. So that’s sort of, like I say, circling back to my original response, it is a paradox. And it is part and parcel of trying to if we want to call it solving, to solving the environmental challenges of our time. I mean, the word the first word among many that we just use that really stood out to me as growth. Most most of our economic systems, as I understand them, and I am not an economist, are based essentially on on continuous models of growth or models of continuous growth. But I don’t know of any ecological models that show continuous growth to be sustainable, like I my recollection of sort of environmental studies, one to one is that unchecked growth, you get this spike and collapse, as opposed to plateaued growth is more steady state.
Is it a zero sum game? You know, so the hypothesis you describe that you can, you can eliminate short term risk, or I’m probably miss misquoting you here, but you can you can mitigate short term risk, but you are increasing catastrophic risk.
So this notion, there’s always a price to pay, can we continue unchecked growth? Or is there a way to feed our economic system, the way it’s designed the way we really rely upon it? And in this way that has created much innovation and prosperity while also balancing like absolutely necessary, environmental concerns, some of which may be intuitive, some of which may blindside us I think, kind of what you described earlier, sort of a more blindsiding, catastrophic, we don’t really think about the catastrophic risks that we don’t see because they’re not in front of us until they are and then sometimes it’s too late.
This is Max Sloves. I’m speaking with Robert McLeman. Wilfrid Laurier University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies on A Climate Change with Matt Matern. We’ll be back
This is Max Sloves. I’m sitting in for Matt Matern today on A Climate Change with Matt Matern, are speaking with Robert McLennan of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies. Robert, we left off in the last segment I was I was posing a pretty long and we had an in question. And I began with with the issue of unchecked growth, it is uncheck or is not let’s not say unchecked, let’s say continuous are models of continuous growth sustainable. From an environmental perspective, and from an economic perspective, can you speak to that in any way? Because it’s just it’s a question that that plagues me and I don’t always get answers that I find satisfying, sort of continues to play.
Well, this goes back to a question we had in an earlier segment, which is, you know, what is the environment and what is the human role within that and so on. So in, in a simple sense, is no unlimited growth in the natural environment does not come without consequences. There are thresholds and nature, temperature, thresholds, quantity, you know, moisture. There’s all kinds of thresholds built into nature. And if we as humans exceed those thresholds,
There are consequences, right? When a city runs out of water, the city ceases to function on that day, when the human body crosses a certain temperature threshold, it starts to shut down, they cannot function.
So in that sense, any economic growth that is linked to natural processes or natural resources, if we want to call them that there are built in limits. And in some cases, we run into them. And there are examples of those. But in terms of economic growth, wealth can be created, at least in my experience in the absence of great impacts on the environment. So if we think about the value of ID ideas, and the the knowledge economy, and, you know, the just, you can think about a digital economy, a digital economy, where the only real natural input other than the humans that are involved in the process of creating the ideas is the electricity to keep the computers running, and to keep the communication devices going. And if that can be generated in a renewable fashion, then in one sense, the knowledge based economy,
I suppose could grow infinitely. And if if the output is dollars, or ideas or so on if we measure it in those ways, but as soon as that economy transitions to Okay, now, let’s make widgets based on that knowledge. Now, the natural limits kick in. So like you, I’m not an economist, but at the same time, I can, I can see how in this example, we might want to separate out the human world from the natural world, in terms of how we value it.
Because the thing that another issue that I’ve seen quite a bit of late, but especially at this particular week, several articles and segments is on declining population in certain parts of the world. And it’s, I think the default framing is that decrease in population or decrease in reproductive rates of humans is problematic. And I’d like your opinion on that. Is it? Is that a necessarily bad thing? Or I mean, at what point did we hit, I believe term use for a long time was carrying capacity. There’s there seem to be like, it’s kind of malleable concept, what is the capacity of the Earth to carry X number of humans? It will point to we need sort of embrace the notion of an asymptote there that that capacity has been reached
A great question. And this is where the ecologist and the economists arm wrestle. Because, you know, from the ecological point of view, the ecologist point of view, we’re probably beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth Systems in many ways in terms of its ability to produce food and its ability to provide water and its ability to provide all kinds of resources to the human economy, at least given the way that we consume them, and they often wasteful ways in which we consume them. So the ecologist might argue, population, shrinkage is a good thing for people in general, but for for, you know, specific countries in particular.
Conversely, an economist might say, but we need more people to do more work to, you know, pay into pension plans to pay taxes to care for older people, you know, what do you do if there’s no young people to care for, and increasingly elderly population and so on. And many countries see continued population growth as the means to facilitate continued economic growth. And this is where I think nature may force the issue for us.
I don’t want to sound too small to Xion because people who argue multizone argue arguments. So for people who don’t know who Malthus is, he was 250 years ago, an Anglican clergyman in the UK, who argued that human population numbers are inevitably checked by food shortages or disease or things like that. And many people over especially since the 1950s, have been arguing the Malthusian argument that the human population collapse is imminent, because we’re running out of resources and increase you know, they’re they’re inevitably incorrect, the human population keeps growing exponentially.
What I think will be the outcome here is two things. One is nature will impose limits, and it may be through climate change or other factors. But the other thing is that as women in particular become educated, and eligible to enter the workforce, across the board, we see country’s population growth slows. And that’s based on simple human rights and equality that all people regardless of race, color, gender, and so on, get equal opportunity.
When you live in a society like that, population growth automatically slows. And we’ve seen that in North America and it happens in other countries as well. So there’s two things I think that can resolve this issue for us. One is again the limits of nature, but the other is if we genuinely pursue equality, and social systems that are fairer to all people, then this, this this challenge becomes resolved. us so many so many interesting and interlocking pieces in these discussions and in these debates over how, how things may play out and how they may not. Those Those are some fascinating and provocative considerations.
I guess you got me thinking as well about this whole mouth doozy and notion got the dark side of my psyche, thinking about war that another issue Russia, threatening to pull out of the nuclear treaty, they the threatening nuclear deterrence, kind of I feel like we could argue that that had positive, negative environmental impacts in terms of like, removing catastrophic human distraction as a potential threat. But then on the flip side, is war of any sort in the modern era is is invariably fantastically destructive.
I’m just thinking out loud right now. It’s really interesting.
And it dovetails into the next issue I want to get into, which is again, I like your word choice, adaptation to climatic variability and change. I find that it’s speaking of war we, we are so enamored with this bellicose language militarizing the way we talk about things we’re going to fight climate change, we’re going to battle climate change, like like the greatest generation, we’re gonna mobilize and unite and defeat fascism or, or climate change.
And that’s not to denigrate the use of that terminology. But do we risk missing the market bit when we default to that vocabulary?
I think there’s what you describe is the is a factual reality is that climate change, environmental change, writ large is already happening. And so we’re going to have to adapt as we go along to the fact that we’ve disrupted the climate, and it will have consequences for ourselves while at the same time. Yeah, I suppose fighting climate change, although scientists like to use the term mitigation, which is essentially reducing greenhouse gas emissions, because that’s really the fight in all of this is that we have to fight our own desire to continue consuming massive quantities of fossil fuels.
And I say desire, because we’re at the point in in history where alternative energy technologies are as cost effective or more cost effective than fossil fuels. So in one sense, fossil fuels are now becoming the alternatives, whereas solar and wind and geothermal and heat pumps and tidal power and hydro electric and so on, these are these should be the mainstream technologies. So. So the language is important. I think it’s If fighting climate change using those words, galvanizes people to do something, then then I’m all for using those words. But
I’m also cognizant that people get tired of fights very quickly, and want to go into the phase of what happens after the fight. And the reality is that with climate change, this isn’t a fight that’s going to be won tomorrow, or the next day, or even five or 10 years from now, it’s a continuous struggle against our own economic impulses. So maybe the vocabulary is important. And we do need to adapt. And that’s a that’s a biological term adaptation, right. And that’s sort of in the the whole Darwinian idea of, that’s how the human species became, or came into the position that it is right now. We’ve been continually adapting through behaviors physically. And we’re at a point where we are at a point where we are able to change the very fabric of the planet itself. So now we have to the next stage stage in adaptation is to fight against our own continued urge to consume things and consume material, consume resources and grow the economy indefinitely and to focus more on quality of life issues and what does it mean to be alive to be alive Well, and to enjoy being alive I think that’s where we need to be.
I love that. I love that that it gets tied together with with such a person out of meditative introspective and existential question that that’s that’s fodder for an entire other segment.
This is Max Sloves. I’m speaking with Robert McLeman of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies on Climate Change with Matt Matern, and we’ll be back.
This is Max Sloves sitting in for Matt Matern on a climate change with Matt Matern. Speaking with Robert McLeman of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies.
Robert, I’ve mentioned several times during our conversation that I really appreciate your word choice, we use words very specifically, to convey certain, describe certain concepts, to convey certain thoughts, and to frame things in a way that I personally at least find very responsible and helpful. And I noticed that when you talk about citizen involvement in environmental issues, the citizen participation in environmental science, and I think that that particular phrase is really interesting to me, because we so often find ourselves framing citizen engagement in terms of policy, marketing, consumption, and sometimes it gets boiled down to a very like superficial level, like buy this thing to be more environmental, or buy this to fight climate change, or donate here, donate there. And I’m not trying to downplay any of those things. But when you talk about citizen participation in environmental science, what are some of the things that that you are interested in promoting?
I think one of the things that I’ve always wrestled with, in my career as an environmental scientist is, how do I make the things that I do on a daily basis and that I care about very much and very deeply? How do I make those things accessible to the person who is in a drive thru line, in a minivan full of kids getting them some takeaway food before taking them to practice of some sort.
Because let’s face it, most people don’t live in the privilege world that I do, where I get paid a decent salary to sit around and ruminate over these big ideas and to do research. And so taking, for example, the impacts of climate change in the popular media. When we give examples of how the world is changing, often they come down to things that the average person the drive thru line doesn’t connect to. So polar bears are losing their habitat, glaciers are disappearing from Glacier National Park. You know, small island states in the Pacific will soon disappear under a meter of water. When people hear that it’s not that they don’t have any empathy for the folks who are the the things that we’re talking about. But the examples are not accessible.
Most your average American is never going to see a polar bear in the wild. They’re not going to visit Glacier National Park, they will never get to Tahiti in their lifetime. So what we need to do as scientists is make the research accessible and understandable. So an example of this is a decade ago, I started a simple citizen science project with a colleague named called Colin Robertson, where we invited people who have outdoor skating rinks in their backyards to come onto our website that we call rink, watch to pin the location of their rink on our interactive map and then throughout the winter, give us updates on the skating conditions on their skating rinks. And I realized this example might not be accessible to somebody in Miami or Phoenix. But But trust us, when we say up here in Canada and in the northern part of the United States. Skating outside is a big part of winter.
I’m sitting in Los Angeles, and I just have to remind myself that you are in Canada, were there what you just said is not at all strange, I guess. Exactly. It’s snowing outside my window right now. Although this winter has been a terrible winter for building outdoor skating rinks because the temperatures have been yo-yoing up and down above freezing below freezing. And so essentially, from an area east of Chicago all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, it’s been very, very difficult for people to build an outdoor skating rink and the ponds that people skate on the ice hasn’t been safe. And so this is an example of how climate variability and climate change affects people literally in their own backyards. And so what we’ve been able to do with a decade of data submitted by citizen volunteers who love outdoor skate thing.
Take that data, we’ve identified critical temperature thresholds that are essential for building an outdoor skating rink. And then we can go back into the past and go through historical weather records reconstruct what skating seasons would have been like 50 or 75 years ago, and cast into the future. To see whether or not we will be able to build skating rinks 50 or 75 years from now. And what we have are able to document is that winters are becoming shorter, they’re becoming milder. And when people in their 60s and 70s, in places like Chicago, or Minneapolis or Toronto, when they think back to their childhood, and think I think winter used to be longer and colder and snowier, when I was a kid, we can show that they’re not imagining that winters really are becoming shorter and milder because of climate change. And that if we do nothing about greenhouse gas emissions, the ability to build an outdoor skating rink in a place like Chicago or Minneapolis will disappear.
And now we’ve got an example that the person in the drive thru line can understand, oh, okay, this is something I stand to lose. If we continue on the path we’re on with climate change. And so what we need to do as scientists is to come up with a myriad of these types of examples that everybody in every community can connect with. And if they do feel like they have something at stake, there’s something in the game for them, then maybe it incentivizes them to do more than simply buy the, you know, eco friendly detergent at the grocery store or the you know, Fairtrade chocolate bar, maybe it pushes them to do the next step, which is to become more of an advocate for the environment to speak to the next person who knocks on their door asking for their vote in an election to say, actually, I’m really concerned about the environment, what are you gonna do about it? Right, that’s the next step we want people to take.
I think that’s that’s phenomenal project because it one of the issues I’ve had with climate change is that discourse versus the environments is a discourse is that, you know, at least in a large urban area, it’s pretty easy to drill down to a local level, to connect to the environment. Especially if there’s some sort of industrial activity in an area, the effects on the environment are very tangible. And there are parts of Los Angeles where people grow up with asthma, because the air pollution from oil refineries is really bad.
If you don’t live near them, you can at least see them and point to them. When you get to the scale of climate, it can be easy to tell ourselves that we care, but very difficult to point to the client.
Show me the client, you point to the temperature you put Yeah, it just it can get a little, I think it gets more amorphous in people’s minds than they want to admit.
And that makes response and action more difficult. So this notion of putting it in turn or if you’re providing something you can point point to that ice rink, that in in track it over time, I think that’s that’s a really fantastic example of a way to bring this large, over this global phenomenon to the local level, in ways people can relate to any relatability. So important.
In and on that note of relatability if you’re always fighting a losing battle, it can become so demoralizing. So that you need even just a small victory, if not a grand one. i When you look around right now, where do you see? Where do you see progress being made? Where do you see even small victories being won in terms of approaching the environment, whether it be climate issues or otherwise, in in ways that that are going to be do you think will be beneficial to communities? I think there’s three areas I see this in.
One is there has been amazing technological process made in providing climate friendly solutions to basic problems like heating or cooling your home transportation, you know, getting around in a car or public transit and so on technologies that 20 or 30 years ago, were, you know, just concepts are now things that people can actually adopt at their own home assuming that they you know, they have the money to do so and that they own their own home. But the point being is that technology has made great advances is becoming accessible.
Second thing is we’re having podcasts like this right now we’re we’re talking deep thoughts about the environment, communications technology, social media, and so on, can be used in a variety of different ways. It can be used to share photos, to shame people to do all kinds of things that are not constructive. But it can also be used in a constructive sense. And so having these discussions, and hopefully people will actually hear them. It’s an opportunity that didn’t exist when I was a kid. Growing up in the 70s, and 80s. These conversations were held by experts in newspapers, or journals, and so on.
And the third thing is youth. I have great confidence in in today’s youth. I teach first year Environmental Studies at my university and have done so for four years, I’ve always taught first year environmental studies and enrollment in that course, continues to grow not just at my university, but all across North America and around the world. Because young people do recognize that their future is at stake. And they want to equip themselves with the tools and the knowledge to do something about it, even if it’s not deliberate and proactive, but just to incorporate it within, you know, the whether they become accountants or, or nurses are what have you, they’re still interested in how the environment influences their future and how they can influence the environment in the future.
So I have great confidence in those three things. They’re probably you know, those youth probably aren’t listening to this podcast, but that’s okay. You know, we’ll reach them in different ways, whether it’s the classroom, whether it’s through tick tock or other social media. So those are my three sort of three of many ways that I think we can be optimistic.
I appreciate that. I think it’s a great note to end on to because we live in a world that very easily, can default to cynicism, it’s so easy to be cynical. So easy to wag our finger but so much more fun to give high fives. Not so too cheesy, but I’m definitely like to high five this conversation. I’ve really enjoyed it.
And, and I’m really glad that environmental studies is is a thriving discipline in academia. It’s something that was very beneficial to me when I was an undergrad and as your students are fortunate to have you, continuing to beat that path.
Robert, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been climate change with Matt Matern, Max Sloves sitting in fo Matt today, and wish you all the best.
(Note: this is an automatic transcription and may have errors in formatting and grammar.)
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