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'Not the End of the World' author on tackling climate change

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

You've heard it here on our air and probably from wherever else you get your news. When it comes to the health of the earth, of the big rock we all live on, it's not looking good, folks. 2023 marked the hottest year on record by a lot. That's according to scientists in the EU. Sea levels are rising so fast that we might see many of California's beaches washed away by the end of the century. And to top it off, a recent study concluded something climate researchers have been saying for a bit now - that it's unlikely we'll achieve the target global warming limits as set by the Paris Agreement. Like I said, it's bleak out here.

But what if it's not all bad? And what if focusing on the doom and gloom of it all actually does a disservice to the work of keeping this place livable? Hannah Ritchie's new book "Not The End Of The World" is an optimist's look at sustainability. She's a data scientist at the University of Oxford and spends a lot of time thinking about what numbers tell us about the world, and she started by telling me what humans are getting right.

HANNAH RITCHIE: Over the last few centuries, on human metrics, things have actually been going very well. We've seen dramatic declines in extreme poverty rates across the world. We've seen dramatic declines in child mortality, maternal mortality, life expectancy, education. So although the world is still very, very unequal and we've got massive amounts of work to do, many of these trends have been going in the right direction. Now, on environmental metrics, it's kind of been going in the opposite direction. You know, we've got rising temperatures. We've got plastic pollution. And I think when you look at those trends, they look really, really bad. And to some extent, they are so bad. But I think on many of them, we are starting to get on a bit of a better trajectory. And we have done that because we have started to take action. I think the key is that we accelerate that action.

LIMBONG: Can you give me one example of where the line was, like, trending down and maybe it's now started to plateau a bit?

RITCHIE: I think even if you take the example of climate change - now, the current trajectory that we're on is not a good one. So we're headed on - for a path of between 2 1/2 to 3 degrees Celsius. Now, that's very bad. And that's very far from the Paris Agreement targets that we set. But if you consider where we were thinking we were going a decade ago, it was between 3 1/2 to 4 degrees. So in some sense, by taking action, by putting policies in place, we have started to bend that curve. Now, we've still got a long way to go to try to get below 2 degrees. But if we can make progress over the last decade, to me, that seems like we can also bend that curve further in the next decade.

LIMBONG: So I also think what's fun about the book is you debunk a lot of, I don't know how to put this, like, things that we do to make us feel good about ourselves when it comes to climate, right? I think, you know, the bit about, like, buying food locally, right? You say that that doesn't really help all that much in the big picture, and I'm wondering, why not?

RITCHIE: So, yeah, I think the eating local thing is a really common misperception. I think when people think about, how do I reduce the carbon footprint of my diet? - they often go to, well, obviously, I should eat local food. Now, that seems intuitive. And the reason is that, you know, we know that transport emits CO2. So if you drive a truck or a plane or a ship, then it's emitting CO2. So you would assume that, you know, the further food has to travel to reach you, obviously the more emissions and the higher carbon footprint. But I think what's important to note about food is that most of the emissions for food just don't come from transport. Only around 5% of food emissions actually come from the transport component.

Now, what really matters is land-use change and emissions on the farm - so emissions produced during the farming process. Now, what that means is that what you eat matters much, much more than how far it's traveled to reach you. And just the biggest foods with the biggest carbon footprint tend to be meat, and especially beef and lamb. So I think there's often this argument of, you know, my beef is really low-carbon because it's local. And if you're, you know, importing soy from South America, then it must have a higher carbon footprint. But that's incorrect because most of the emissions come from the type of food you're eating, rather than how far it's traveled to reach you.

LIMBONG: Yeah. I want to stick on the beef bit because I think beef shows up in a couple of different chapters, all over the place in the book. And I'm curious, what about beef - right? - compared to, I don't know, like, poultry or fish or pork makes it so harmful?

RITCHIE: Yeah, so I think there's a few things. I think one is - I think it's important to note about meat overall that it's - it provides really, really good nutrition, but it's actually quite an inefficient way of producing food or calories, right? So you feed an animal, and then most of that energy is just used keeping the animal alive. And then you might get some meat after. But, like, the conversion ratio there is really, really poor. And it's poorest for the biggest animals, which means that a cow is much less efficient than a chicken, for example. The other big things there is that cows tend to need a lot more land, and they also - when it comes to climate change, they emit a greenhouse gas called methane, which is actually much more stronger in the short term than carbon dioxide, which we're more familiar with. So that's often the kind of hindrance of beef is that you have this methane emissions and it uses a lot of land.

LIMBONG: Yeah. You know, I was reading your book over the holidays, and it got me thinking about, like, beef and my consumption of beef. And I was like, oh, maybe we should, like - maybe I should, like, ease back up on this. But then, like, my father-in-law showed up with a big prime rib, you know, that I had to make, you know, for Christmas. And, you know, which is all to say that we love our beef here in America, right? And, I don't know, what can we do to convince people to curb our beef consumption? 'Cause I think that'll be - that's a hard sell for a lot of people.

RITCHIE: I think it is a really hard sell. And I think what's also really important - and I tried to do in the book, quite deliberately, was not to give prescriptions of stuff that people should do. Like, I would never tell someone, you should be eating less meat or you should be a vegan 'cause I think actually people just don't respond well to that. And to some extent, I think that's where often we've gotten wrong in terms of environmental messaging, is we try to push actions on people and they push back from it.

I think what's important to note about this is it's not an all or nothing. You can massively cut your footprint by just cutting back a little. So maybe you don't need to eat beef every single day. Maybe you can have it, you know, once a week. Or even from a climate perspective, switching the type of meat you eat has a big impact. So if you switched from beef to pork or chicken, then that could also make a big difference to your footprint. So I think for many people, you know, just an all-or-nothing switch seems really daunting, and they couldn't do it. But I think just step by step, there is ways of getting there.

LIMBONG: You know, while reading the book, I did find myself flipping to the end of each chapter first because that's where you lay out oftens (ph) - like, here's what you're worrying too much about, right? So at the end of, like, the ocean plastics chapter - right? - you say stuff like plastic straws? Oh, who cares, right? Plastic bags? You know, it's fine. Landfills? Don't worry about it. Why do you think it's important to triage our worries about the planet?

RITCHIE: So I think people often get really overwhelmed with the number of things that they should be doing for the planet. And I think often they get really conflicting information. So you're kind of left paralyzed of, like, I'm not actually quite sure what I should do. And you often always go through life kind of feeling quite guilty that you're not doing enough. So I think it's important to highlight, these are the big things in your life that will make a difference. So focus on these ones. And then if you want to do the smaller ones, that's fine. But I don't think you should stress about it. And I think what's really important is that we don't do the really small things and assume that we're having a big impact, and then we miss out the big stuff. I think we probably have, like, a finite resources of focus and energy we can put into actions. So if we're using that energy on the really small things that don't really matter, then we're never going to make progress on this 'cause we'll miss the really big stuff.

LIMBONG: Sure. But I guess buying a canvas bag for your grocery trip is a lot easier than, I don't know, like, convincing Exxon to stop drilling, right? Like, can you really blame folks for trying, like, the smaller stuff first?

RITCHIE: No. Like, I think the small stuff is valid if you want to do it. But I think there's, like, a big gap between convincing Exxon not to drill for oil. Like, I mean, the big behavioral changes in your life. So for example, the beef thing - like, the impacts of reducing your beef consumption are way, way bigger than the plastic bag. So it's not that I'm saying, you know, you have to focus on how to, like, completely change the world, but it's about focusing on your individual behavior changes that make the biggest difference.

LIMBONG: That's Hannah Ritchie. Her new book is "Not The End Of The World: How We Can Be The First Generation To Build A Sustainable Planet." Hannah Ritchie, thanks so much.

RITCHIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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