Recap written by: Katherine Peinhardt (Medium: Katherine A. Peinhardt)
How do we tell perhaps the most important story of our generation? With data or with dragons? The latest episode of Warm Regards featured expert climate storyteller Dr. Kate Marvel, an associate research scientist at Columbia University’s Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Her work in science communications shows the importance of accessible, compelling stories, and makes the case for a new approach to demonstrating the urgency in an era of climate change.
Today, climate scientists find themselves bearing the burden of communicating the global urgency of the issue — explaining not only the hard data, but also humanizing the issue and making the case as to why the general public should care. Dr. Marvel recently published a story, Slaying the Climate Dragon, re-framing climate change as a modern fairy tale. Beyond the usual hockey stick-shaped graphs and maps, the story portrays climate change as a dragon set loose on a kingdom; one that still has time to choose its path forward. It is a new way to contextualize the sometimes-abstract concept of a warming planet.
But the climate conversation doesn’t always have to come back to tales of dragons. To create an accessible narrative, Marvel recommends that climate communicators start by making their personal feelings about climate change clear: “If you can talk to people about physics and also talk to them about feelings at the same time, you can have a really rich and fascinating conversation.” Whether it’s environmental anxiety or a general emotional detachment from the issue, there must be room for a diversity of emotions for the climate message to spread.
It all goes to show that the ancient art of storytelling is useful even today — and that fairy tales aren’t only for children anymore.
By: Joe Stormer
[Instrumental theme music]
Jacquelyn Gill: Welcome to Warm Regards, a podcast of climate change conversations. I’m Jacquelyn Gill, Ice Age ecologist and assistant professor at the University of Maine. Joining me this week is my co-host Ramesh Laungani, associate professor of biology at Doane University in Nebraska. It’s really good to be with you again, Ramesh.
Ramesh Laungani: Yeah, it’s great to be back on the air! Or on the recording, I don’t know how to say that. We’ll say on the air.
Jacquelyn: Yeah, all these throw back to the age of radio that suddenly seem really dated, like dialing someone on a phone. We don’t really dial anyone anymore.
Ramesh: Right, right. Absolutely.
Jacquelyn: Yeah, there’s been a lot going on since we last chatted, including an election kind of happened. For some of us it’s still ongoing; we don’t know who our representative will be here in Maine District 2 just yet — still counting out the impacts of that ranked-choice voting, I think the first national election to use ranked-choice, which has been fun. But speaking of the House, things are gonna look pretty different, which I’m pretty excited about. How are you feeling about the election overall?
Ramesh: I felt good. I’m my head it kind of went as expected. The Democrats took the House. The Senate was always going to be a stretch. But I’m excited about who got elected in this most recent election. It seems to be a diverse coalition of lawmakers — first time lawmakers. So I think there’s going to be a lot of representation in there, so I’m really excited about that.
Jacquelyn: And a bunch of scientists, too, right?
Jacquelyn: We did pretty well, actually.
Ramesh: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely!
Jacquelyn: So along these lines I’m really excited because this turnover in the House means that we’re getting a new leader on the House Science Committee, and chances are this person will be pro-science and not a climate change denier which is, just, I can’t express how happy this make me. For those of you who have not been following the House Science Committee really closely, this has historically been a major source of stress and frustration for scientists in general and climate change scientists in particular. A lot of really spurious attacks of scientists who’ve had to testify on the floor and there’s a reason we have a Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. And a lot of that has to do with a lot of the really anti-science folks who’ve lead that committee in the past. The word on the street is that it’s pretty likely that ranking member Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas is slated to take over, hopefully. There’s a really great article — or interview — with her recently and she actually put out a statement recently that she wanted to address the problem of climate change. And they asked her how she would do that and her response was, “How specifically we have not determined, because we have not even organized yet. But we know what the challenges are. We have some ideas to how we might get to the knowledge and procedure which we can address it. The information is not foreign. We are experiencing climate change every day. What we have to decide is a sensible course of research and sensible course of recommendations for addressing the issues related to climate change.” And she talks, specifically, over and over again about how important the science itself is to counter arguments about the causes of climate change. And so I think we’ve got somebody who’s going to be really friendly to an evidence-based approach, which is going to be quite refreshing.
Ramesh: Yeah, I think it’s going to be great to have someone leading the committee who is not trying to undermine science by falsely lifting up the idea of skepticism. And I think that’s been happening before this election — the sort of “well, science is about skepticism”. Well yes, but there are things that we know and it’s important to balance that skepticism with HEALTHY skepticism and how do we make policy decisions based on what we know. It’ll be refreshing to have that perspective.
Jacquelyn: Yeah, and the committee itself has been really antagonistic towards science and scientists in the past and Representative Johnson is a woman of color, she’s a Black woman coming from the STEM community. She has a background in nursing. That in itself is exciting. Again, I just can’t hit home enough the point that it’s pretty exciting that our 115th Congress is going to have a physicist, a microbiologist, a chemist, a bunch of engineers, a mathematician, three nurses, fifteen more doctors, a few veterinarians. This is — I mean we’ve has so many concerns, many of which we’ve talked about her on the show these last few years and this just feels like a step in the right direction for me.
Ramesh: Yeah, but I also think that it’s important that we as a community of scientists who are excited that there are scientists now as lawmakers, that we understand that just like we know that there are limits to science, that we make sure that we don’t put all of these expectations on this group of scientists. They’re going to be exploring new areas of lawmaking and the reality of politicians. If they’re going to be bring evidence-based thinking and evidence-based logic to their lawmaking, that’s going to be excellent. There are going to be so many different types of scientists, as you highlighted. I think it’s going to be a really great way to connect these different field of science in policy.
Jacquelyn: And at least just to have those different areas represented. Obviously policy needs a lot of different voices and a lot of different perspectives and it’s just really — I think is nice that science is going to have a seat at the table because so many of our decisions both influence science and how it’s done and also really need science or at least the perspective that scientists have to offer, whether we’re talking about public health issues or climate change.
Ramesh: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Jacquelyn: Yeah, and there’s been some really great forward movement around, I mean, just framing climate change in general in terms of a human issue, as a social justice issue, so to speak. And I’m thinking that there are several headlines that come to mind right away. I’m thinking not only in terms of the group of kids that are suing the government for inaction on climate change, and they’re framing it as literally the government is threatening their future survival. I just feel like this growing sense of urgency in recent years where I’ve really started people framing climate change as more of an existential problem that’s affecting our lives, our very existence as a society than rather just an abstract one, something that happens to nature. You might see climate change in a documentary but it’s not something in your backyard. For me, that was really reflected well in a recent New York Time op-ed on reincarnation (bear with me here, I promise this is relevant). It basically uses reincarnation as a thought experience for climate change. It was written by Michelle Alexander, who is a new New York Time columnist; I’m really excited that she’s joined. And what’s really interesting about this piece is that it’s written by a civil rights lawyer and legal scholar. And if her book sounds familiar, you might have read her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. So what’s interesting is that she’s a non-scientist writing about climate and change and she uses this interesting rhetorical device — specifically the idea that, if reincarnation WERE real, would we be making different decision about climate change, i.e., if I knew that I was going to reincarnate after I died, I would basically still have to live in a world where I would be living with the consequences of my decisions in my current life, right? We often think of climate change as a problem for future generations. But what if those future generations were us?
Ramesh: Yeah, so I grew up in a Hindu household, so reincarnation was always flying around the house, religiously speaking. So it was a really interesting article from the perspective because I think that it makes a really salient point about the ability to imagine the lives of other people being impacted by climate change. So who are these other people? I know that there’s be a lot of articles, about how climate change is going to impact the POOR more than it’s going to impact the RICH so the idea that if we had to be reincarnated almost randomly — which is what she brings up in the article — maybe we were a rich American and maybe we’re reincarnated as a poor person in India, what would that do for our climate action today? It was just a really interesting idea, these sort of random regeneration. But I think that it’s an important point because I think it’s difficult for people in relatively rich countries like the U.S. to imagine how the livelihoods of people far, far away because in our wealth we have a lot of structures that buffer us from climate change. We have things like crop insurance. We have things like that, and we’re rich enough to do that. But countries that don’t have those structures are really going to feel the impacts of climate change much more immediately. And so it was a really interesting premise to put you in a different state of mind. What if you had to put yourself in someone else’s climate shoes?
Jacquelyn: Yeah, and we’ve talked a lot about empathy on this show, too; and I think it’s a thought experiment that forces you to stretch your intellectual muscles a bit but especially your empathic ones, just by imagine yourself in somebody else’s shoes. That’s almost the definition of what empathy is. And what I found especially powerful about Michelle Alexander’s piece is that she is not a scientist but she has taken this really creative approach to add a sense of PERSONAL urgency to climate change. We’ve historically thought of climate as a scientific issue and not necessarily a very human one though that’s definitely changing and we’ve had part of the project of this show to push that change and there’s been gallons of ink spilled on how to do that effectively, how to reach people to change their hearts and minds, so to speak. And we’ve had guests like Katherine Hayhoe to talk about, say, empathy in the climate change conversation. And there’s even an entire field of research that’s devoted to the science of what works and what doesn’t, not only in science communication but in climate science communication specifically. And it can be kind of frustrating for some of us as scientist is to realize that a lot of our training has not prepared us for this world, for this challenge of making our work meaningful OUTSIDE of our own community. Our training covers things like statistics or computer simulations, maybe something like analyzing an ice core in a lab or identifying arctic plants. We’re constantly in the process of turning the Earth into numbers and those numbers get represented as little dots or lines on a graph. And then we try to turn those wiggles and bits back into stories, stories that tell us that the Earth is getting warming — we’re starting to see the effects in ecosystems and our communities. And in science, we often talk about outreach and science communication about a process of turning that data into a narrative that can be accessible or even fun for non-scientists. One of the most powerful ways that we can do that is through story-telling. Maybe it’s a film or a video game or even a children’s book. And so I’m really excited for today’s guest, because she’s such a great model of a scientist who uses narrative and storytelling to communicated the urgency of climate change to a broader audience. Join me in welcoming Dr. Kate Marvel, an associate research scientist at Columbia University’s Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Welcome, Kate.
Kate Marvel: Hello! Thank you so much for having me.
Jacquelyn: Oh, it’s so excited.
Ramesh: Yeah, it’s great to have you.
Jacquelyn: Firstly, for those who may not be that familiar with your work, tell us a little about your day job as a scientist. What do you research?
Kate: Sure! So I have the best job in the world because I get to study my favorite planet, which is amazing. I kind of do work into two main research directions. I’m kind of interested in what we call “detection and attribution” of climate change, which is basically: what does climate change look like and how do we know that it is happening? At first glance, you might say, “Well, obviously it’s global warming, stupid.” But it turns out that global warming has impact on things like rainfall patterns, cloud cover, soil moisture. So I’m really interested in figuring out how climate change affects those things that we care about and using models and satellite observations to figure out what is happening. I’m also really interested in something called “climate sensitivity”, which basically is a fancy science word for “How hot is it gonna get and why don’t we know that?”
Jacquelyn: So, you know, important questions.
Kate: No big deal.
Jacquelyn: Cool, and I’ve known about your work for a while, both in terms of your research and the other things that you do in your copious free time. But really inspired me to want to reach out and talk to you on the show is that you wrote a story, and it’s called Slaying the Climate Dragon. It’s sort of a fairy tale or fable and it’s pretty different from how climate scientists usually talk about climate change. I’d love to hear what inspired you to talk about your science in this particular way.
Kate: How long ago was the IPCC degree-and-a-half report? I have such a weird sense of time now, because everything seems to take both forever and not very long. Was that like a month ago now?
Ramesh: Maybe like a month ago? Something like that?
Jacquelyn: Yeah! I also have the same problem because I’m a paleoecologist to this whole year is like one tiny blip in the longer scheme of things. So yeah, I have time compression issues, for sure.
Kate: Right. But at the same time, there’s like so much news, right?
Jacquelyn: Along these lines, so one recently posted on Facebook that the Tide pod thing was just February of this year. And I was like, “No way! That feels like it was like four years ago.”
Ramesh: That DOES feel like it was four years ago.
Kate: Yeah, Black Panther came out this year. That blew my mind. I was like, oh my god, that feels like another lifetime ago. But yeah, IPCC degree-and-a-half report came out. And I have to say that I was pretty skeptical about the use of the report initially. I was pretty grumpy about it because I was like, “Ugh, we’re probably not gonna do this [pessimistic tone of voice].” It kind of feels like fan fiction; what if we did get serious about climate change? And so I was grumpy about it. So what really surprised me was how much coverage it got. They really seem to have struck a nerve. For one of the first times that I can remember, lots and lots of people were talking about climate change — like not just the usual suspects. And I felt there was this kind of narrative starting to emerge among people that I really liked and respected and was, “Well, we’re all doomed, what’s the point?” I have never read a story where that happens. Can you imagine if: The Lord of the Rings, you know, Gandalf’s like, “Well, someone’s gonna have to take the Ring to Mordor,” and they’re like, “That sounds hard, let’s not even try.” End of book. That would be a really boring story. And we tell stories about people trying to do things in the face of impossible odds all the time. We respect that. And so I wanted to talk about the IPCC report in a new way. Because I honestly felt like there were a lot of really smart, really good climate communicators talking about the science of it and I sort of felt like my voice is not needed there.
Jacquelyn: Yeah, I was just going to follow up with it’s not even just the research that needs to be communicated but it’s the people need to be inspired to do something about it. To go back to your narrative of The Lord of the Rings, as a fellow sort of science fiction and fantasy nerd, that really resonates with me because, sure there’s a lot of uncertainty about exactly what’s going on and what the outcomes will be but overall the general inspiration for taking the Ring to Mordor is that there is this really easily identifiable threat and we all pretty much agree that something’s going on (unless I guess you’re allied with the enemy) and we just need to do something about it. And that feels very salient here because there’s been so much of a focus on using the data to convince people that there’s a problem while meanwhile the scientific community has been in agreement that there’s a problem for quite some time and the real issue has been getting anybody to do anything about it. And it feels like by the time we convince people there is something wrong, it’s going to be too late because of now people who just slipped into this defeatism that, oh, there’s nothing we can do about it; we’re all doomed.
Kate: Definitely. I feel like — and I’d love to get your take on this — when we talk about science communication, that kind of sets up this view of us as scientists. And we do have knowledge, and we are experts about some things, kind of passing down this knowledge from on high. And a lot of the things I write, a lot of the things that I write about, it’s honestly just me working through how do I feel about this. And so it’s not really, “I am the expert, listen to me.” It’s me trying to work through my own thoughts and, okay, what is a narrative that works for me personally.
Jacquelyn: I think that’s a good point, and often times I feel like I don’t speak out enough because suddenly we have to represent all of climate science. We have to represent all of the climate change narrative and that’s beyond the expertise of any one person. I am not a policy person by training. I don’t know a lot about carbon tax. I’m not the world’s expert on geoengineering, and yet I feel as soon as you start talking about climate changes as members of a more skeptical public, there are a lot of questions and it’s easy to ask questions that are, you know, completely outside of our wheelhouse. And yet we’re expected to represent all of climate science in a way that, I mean, you would never start asking your vascular surgeon to start telling you all about the human brain or the musculoskeletal system or vasectomies or something like that.
Ramesh: So I think what’s interesting though, is that I think we do ask our doctor about other parts of the body that they’re not a specialist in, but the public seems to be okay when the physician says, “That’s not my field of expertise, go talk to a vascular surgeon. I’m a urologist.” And I think you bring up a really good point, Jacquelyn, that when we are asked about climate change, we don’t have a solution. For whatever reason, if we say, “Well I’m not an expert on carbon tax,” for whatever reason that seems to weaken the strength of the information that we DO bring to the table. But I think that it also highlights the fact that in those conversations if someone says, “Well, what can we do about it?” to me that’s actually a really hopeful thing, that’s a really hopeful moment for us as climate scientists to say, “Alright, well, your right! We CAN do something about it. Here are my thoughts,” kind of like what you were saying, Kate, sort of us working through issues, and we just acknowledge the limits and say a better person might be someone for Citizen’s Climate Lobby or somebody from more of an economic think tank.
Jacquelyn: And to bring it back to Kate’s original question, by having to be that representative of all of climate change knowledge, that turns us into robots, basically, where we’re just repeating snippets of information. We’re basically expected to have this encyclopedic knowledge about this topic. I feel like the more we get pushed into that frame of thinking and communicating, the less space we have to be human beings, right? The less that we are able to say, “Well, I personally have these feelings and I personally have this experience of climate change in my life as a human being living on Earth.” And I think that’s one of the things that I love about, Kate, about your work, is that you aren’t afraid to go out there and say, “I love Planet Earth. This is my experience as a person who cares about climate change. I am researching these aspects of the climate system BECAUSE I care about the Earth, which is where I live.” And so I’m curious about sort of your process in terms of — that just feels like a really brave thing to do, to be that personal and to center yourself as a citizen of Planet Earth and use that as a reason why you’re doing this work. And so was that hard for you? Were there challenges or pushbacks against you kind of taking those kinds of framings?
Kate: I think that’s a good question. Something that I find really liberating is something to go back your doctor metaphor. If you’re a vascular surgeon, it’s not asking you, “What about podiatry”, it’s asking the vascular surgeon, “What are your thoughts about mortality?” And obviously as a doctor, you encounter this all the time and you have thoughts that are imbued with your experience. But there’s no right answer. There’s no one way to think about this. And I think about climate change in much the same way. There is scientific fact underpinning climate change. And there is a such thing as expertise, and I have a small portion of that expertise (as do we all). There’s no right way to feel about climate change. There’s no right answer. And so I really enjoy not being in the position of telling people what to do all the time. As a science communicator you sometimes find yourself in this really uncomfortable position where you know a thing because you spent your entire life studying it and that really alienates you from other people because they maybe know other things that you don’t know. But climate change is affecting everybody and there’s no right way to think about it. And so when you move the conversation, you sort of fight for the existence of those scientific facts and you don’t deny those. But if you move the conversation to, “How does this make you feel? What should we do about this? What stories should we tell about this?”, that’s something that everybody can participate in.
Jacquelyn: And also the focus on the personal gives more space to that diversity of feelings, right? By saying, “This is how I feel,” you’re both validating people also feel that way but also creating space for someone to say, “Well that’s not how I feel. I feel THIS way, and this is MY response.” And just by doing that you’re opening up the conversation and letting some air into the room the conversation about the facts of what we know about the climate system or what we know about how the Earth works — they’re a little bit more black and white. I mean obviously there’s some uncertainty in our estimates and measurements and there are lots of questions that we still have but at the same time, it’s not as squishy as our emotional response.
Kate: Definitely and I’m a physicist. I find the physics fascinating. But I find that I also love people and I find people endlessly fascinating and I feel that it’s much easier to talk to people about feelings than it is to talk to people about physics. It’s a totally different thing. And if you can talk to people about physics and also talk to them about feelings at the same time, you can have a really rich and fascinating conversation.
Ramesh: So, Kate, this sort of leads into a question that has been sort of running around my head during this conversation and it’s that before the show I was doing some sort of homework on you and I saw that you did a TED Talk and I saw that you did a Story Collider and, you know, this got me thinking about the popularity of storytelling podcasts like Serial or Blown Up or things like that. You know, I just want to get your general thoughts. Why — and you sort of touched on this — but why do think that people are so, why do they connect with stories so strongly and why do you find yourself gravitating toward a more narrative structure as a technique for climate change communication.
Kate: Oh, I mean that’s a great question. I mean, talk about outside my wheelhouse. Why do human beings gravitate toward stories? I have no idea. I know that I do.
Jacquelyn: There’s got to be a physics metaphor in there somewhere.
Jacquelyn: Particles or something.
Kate: You know, maybe it’s just because I have a really short attention span and I’m very easily bored. So I have a lot of empathy for people who get bored by more facts, more charts. And I feel like I — the things that stick with me, the things that I retain, and the things that I love or hate or have a really strong reaction to — those are stories. So I am fascinated by this question about what are good stories, true stories to tell about climate change because that’s just something that interests me. And I find it helps me talk to other people, it helps me learn about other people and I love that.
Ramesh: And did you find that to be a deliberate choice in your science communication or was this just something that sort of came naturally in thinking about communicating around climate change or learning more about climate change?
Kate: You know, I feel like when I was a kid I always wanted to be a writer. I always want to write. And I didn’t know what I was going to write about so I thought that maybe I would go out and have some life experiences and I’ll write about those life experience — whatever they might be — and that’ll help me think about things to write about. And so I wouldn’t call myself a writer right now but I don’t really approach talking about climate change from the perspective of how do I communicate the science. I approach climate change from the perspective of, “I like writing.” And this is what I do and this is a really interesting thing to write about. If I was an artist, I would write about art. If I was a plumber, I would write about plumbing. And we really have in this culture put up these barriers between science and art or science and not science. And I really don’t think that they should be there.
Ramesh: I agree with you. I think that those barriers absolutely exist, especially between science and art. Do you think that there’s something in the way we’re trained as scientists that sort of beats the artist out of us?
Kate: Um, I wouldn’t say THAT.
Ramesh: Yeah, that was a little too aggressive, sorry.
Kate: No more violent metaphors here. But I feel like it might even be the opposite. I think we take people who see themselves as artists, who see themselves as creative and we beat the science out of them. There’s so many people who come up to me and say, “Oh, I’m bad at math,” or, “I don’t understand science; I’m not smart enough.” And that drives me crazy [sic] because that’s almost always not true and we — just — we have this concept of what it is to be a scientist and all of the sort of toxic things that come along with that. That concept is generally a white man — not a first generation college student, not low income, talks a particular way — and that’s really dangerous. If you can’t rattle off all the digits of pi, you’re not a good scientist. And I don’t know about you guys, but I have never had to memorize pi in my day-to-day work.
Ramesh: Then I’m a very bad scientist, because point-one-four. That’s it! That’s all I’ve got.
Jacquelyn: Point one four one five?
Kate: Yeah, you might be right.
Jacquelyn: Tell that to my tenure committee. What’s funny about that is that the scientists I know are knitters and musicians and they play ultimate frisbee and they’re amazing painters and photographers and bakers. I mean, we’re creative people (many of us) and for me, I almost went into theater when I was in high school and college and so I’m constantly finding really cool synergies between my work in theater and my work as a scientist and a communicator. And I’ve actually taken and I’ve given workshops on how improv can improve effective science communication. And if can make some scientists really uncomfortable because maybe the training doesn’t necessarily lead you in that direction or, if you’ve never gotten up on stage or if you’ve never had to improvise it can be uncomfortable. But a lot of people really get into it because we ARE human beings interacting with other human beings in the world and theater is just a sort of structured way of doing that. And I think that other forms of story telling are similar. I mean, we’re constantly telling stories in every aspect of our lives. We tell stories to our children at night. We tell stories to the person on the bus. I mean, I think it’s just something that we do as a species. We’ve always been interested in stories and narrative.
Kate: Yeah, I think that the thing that’s really difficult about climate changes is — it’s kind of a bad story on the face of it, right? Because there’s no heroes; we’re kind of all the villains; it happens everywhere at an unequal pace and on really rapid time scale geologically but kind of slow in the twenty-four hour news cycle. So it can be really hard to get good stories from that. And I feel like the attempts that me way to impose stories on climate change have fallen flat a bit. So I feel like there’s this, “Oh, let’s personify Mother Earth, Mother getting revenge on us.” It’s just a rock. It’s a really special rock but, you know, the Earth is not trying to punish us for bad behavior. Or we say things like, “Oh, these poor polar bears.” You know, I love polar bears but most people are like, “Eh, I’ve never met a polar bear. I wish them well, but they’re not my top priority right now.” Or we tell stories about people in the future and they feel like ciphers. They don’t feel real. It’s “Oh, in the future they are all suffering because of your actions.” Even in the face of great suffering, humans are still humans. People will still find things funny in the future. People will still experience joy and love and happiness and sadness in the future. And I feel like a lot of times we tell this story about climate change like, “Oh, it’s going to ruin everything and these poor people in the future who are not recognizable as people to you are going to be very sad.” And so I’m just fascinated by how do we take this slow-moving giant thing with no real heroes and take stories from that — tell personal, compelling stories.
Jacquelyn: This makes me think of how The Day After Tomorrow was more effective at raising awareness of climate change than An Inconvenient Truth, which came out around the same time. And I think that’s not just because one is a documentary and it had a graph with a forklift and the other was a blockbuster cinematic experience, but I think it also was a better story. It had better heroes. It had more compelling drama and sort of the satisfying sense that there’s some resolution which we also expect from stories. And so I think that makes it extra challenging to tell climate stories and I’m curious, Kate — what do you think makes a good climate story?
Ramesh: And didn’t you just watch The Day After Tomorrow? I’m just looking on your Twitter feed.
Kate: Literally yesterday.
Jacquelyn: Really? I didn’t even notice that! Totally set you up there.
Kate: Yeah, we hatched this scheme to pay us to watch movies with terrible, terrible science and then we give the money to charities trying to make the world a better place.
Jacquelyn: Okay, I’m sorry but I just wanna point out that this movie has a paleoclimatologist and they use the phrase “thermohaline circulation” circulation in the film. That was life-changing just as I was about to start grad school.
Kate: Okay, I’m not going to lie to you. I hated the movie so much that it made me sympathize with the vice president that doesn’t want to do anything.
Jacquelyn: Ahhh, the Dick Cheney guy?
Kate: Yeah, cuz Dick Cheney’s like, “We shouldn’t restructure our whole economy on the basis of what ONE scientist thinks.” And I’m like, “No, we absolutely should not do that.” Especially because that one scientist does not seem to understand thermodynamics. But it’s fine because neither does this movie. Whatever. But stay tuned, I will have many many more thoughts on that movie. But I do join you in hating on An Inconvenient Truth because it’s this Powerpoint. And I think Al Gore — his heart is in the right place; he’s trying to do the right thing but it’s just this relentless Powerpoint of, “Here are all the bad things that are going to happen and here’s some graphs.” And I totally agree with you that, if Dennis Quaid was in that, if it was Dennis Quaid being chased by a Powerpoint, that would be a much more compelling movie.
Ramesh: Script idea written. Dennis Quaid being chased by a Powerpoint.
Jacquelyn: Maybe Jake Gyllenhaal being chased by a Powerpoint. Maybe Jake Gyllenhaal rescues me from the Powerpoint that’s chasing me. Or — even better — I rescue Jake Gyllenhaal.
Ramesh: There you go, there you go. Even better. So Kate, one thing I was struck by as we were talking about compelling stories and stories that suck you in I was curious how did you come up — this goes back to your Slaying the Climate Dragon — how did you come up with that analogy, or with that structure? It embodied so much — humanity! — while also sort of describing the sort of threat of climate change in something tangible and relatable. How did you come up with that?
Kate: The thing about fairy tales (and I’m going to get yelled at by all of the really smart English professors who study this and know this so much better than me) but the think that I find about fairy is that, because they are so simple, they’re kind of like approximations in physics where you assume everything’s a sphere and there’s no friction. Fairy tales seem like you assume, okay, well I’m going to remove all of the messiness of governance and there’s just going to be a king and this virtuous princess, that’s just shorthand for “She’s a good person and you should listen to her. And I have a small child at home, a three-year-old, and he is obsessed with dragons. Mostly because of this book called Dragons Love Tacos which I’m not sure is an accurate picture of how dragons are portrayed.
Jacquelyn: I’m a biologist and I’ll say yes, sure. Who doesn’t?
Kate: Okay. And so there’s something about that fairy tale structure that I find really compelling and really comforting because it’s so clear. And it’s simple and it’s comforting and everyone’s kind of familiar with the structure. You read, “Once upon a time,” and you kind of know what you’re in for. I sort of took that from there. I’m trying to do this again. I’m trying to think of other fairy tales that we can use to convey certain aspects of climate change so if people have ideas, I’m all ears.
Ramesh: That will be an interesting challenge for our audience. Come up with a climate change fairy tale. If you can make Rapunzel a climate change hero, that’ll be an interesting challenge, I think.
Kate: Yeah, so I get to spend a lot of time on Wikipedia. What are the seven basic plots? What’s the heroes journey? I should probably not be doing this; I should probably be doing work instead but, you know, everyone needs a break now and then.
Jacquelyn: This makes me think that you must be a pretty prolific reader and so I actually have two questions for you to wrap up. First, what have you been reading lately that you love? And secondly, you say that you don’t think that you’re a writer now but that kind of implies that you might have some ideas in the back of your mind about writing a book one day and I would love to hear about what that might be if that were to come to pass.
Kate: So, the answer to the second kind of question is that I cannot talk about that right now.
Ramesh: Awesome. Best answer ever.
Jacquelyn: Best NON-answer ever!
Kate: And now I’ve forgotten the first question except that it was really good.
Jacquelyn: So you strike me as a reader and, even though you have TERRIBLE taste in movies; no, you have terrible taste in bad movies, which is probably good. What are you reading lately, or what have you been reading that you love?
Kate: I read this book called The Essex Serpent recently, which I just loved. It is a novel set in 1800s England when sort of paleontology is just become a thing and so it’s fiction. There is a character, a wonderfully realized female character who’s the center of the book who’s really into fossil hunting. And I loved that; I really highly recommend it. My reading honestly tends to be dictated by whatever the library has in paperback because I hate hauling really heavy hardbacks on the subway. I just finished SPQR which is a history of Ancient Rome and let me tell you — it is not the right time in history to be reading about how the Roman Republic collapsed into autocracy and nobody thought that that was a good idea but nobody could do anything about it. That’s not a very restful thing to be reading right now.
Jacquelyn: No, and neither all the books that I’ve been reading about the First World War, which has incredible parallels with current events that are very unsettling.
Ramesh: You almost need to read Dinosaurs Love Tacos.
Jacquelyn: [Laughs] Clearly! I mean, I am actually also reading a really fascinating book about flappers.
Kate: Oo, what’s it called?
Jacquelyn: I think it’s called Flappers. What’s really cool is that it gets into how flapper culture emerged but also how it changed so many different aspects of American culture and also women’s rights and a lot of really internal clashes with feminism within the flapper community, I guess if that’s a word that can describe it. It’s just a fun book.
Kate: Do you get this? I get this a lot. People are like, “Oh, what are the best books about climate change?” And I kind of feel like, “I do this all the time in my day job. I don’t want to read for fun about climate change.”
Jacquelyn: Ugh, this happens to me all the time.
Ramesh: It happens to me all the time, too.
Jacquelyn: I tend to read fewer books about climate science. I do have some books that I think are great about climate change or, if not great, they’re the best books we have out there. Books like The Long Emergency or The Two Mile Time Machine that sort of describe the different aspects of how we know what we know about the Earth’s system or what might happen in the future. There are some books that I read because I have to, like Merchants of Doubt which is a fantastic book but a bit of a busman’s holiday in that it feels just a little bit too close to home. But what I really tend to love are more fiction treatments of climate or things that are climate-adjacent. Things like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and the other books in the trilogy. Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus or Nora Jemisin’s amazing Broken Earth Trilogy which is basically a fantasy geology world, which is fantastic and amazing. So I tend to like a lot of more, I guess, post-apocalyptic or dystopian or science fiction-y treatments which kind of involve climate kind of peripherally or sort of environmental catastrophe rather than the climate non-fiction. Although often I do because I feel like it’s my duty to know what’s going on.
Ramesh: A book that I actually started — my wife recommended it to me; she’s a climatologist actually — but she read it and she said, “You would love this.” It’s Elizabeth Colbert’s The Sixth Extinction.
Kate: Oh, that’s so good, isn’t it?
Jacquelyn: Yeah, that’s an example of a really great one.
Ramesh: And it’s been sitting on my bedside table and I started it. It was a weird paradox. I was learning new things while not learning anything new at the same time. And I think that’s what I feel like when my students say, “Hey, where can I learn more about climate change?” Or, “Where can I read something about climate change?” and I’m a little paralyzed [sic] because we sort of work on these things for our day jobs so we wanna be in spaces especially with the things that we read that aren’t necessarily — like, we want to read about dinosaurs eating tacos, right?
Kate: DRAGONS eating tacos.
Ramesh: Dragons! Excuse me, not dinosaurs, DRAGONS eating tacos.
Kate: The accuracy is important.
Ramesh: Accuracy is important. [Laughter] Especially with taco consumption. So Elizabeth Colbert’s book was probably the one that I was trying to page through that I’ve been recommended but I’m been struggling to get through because of this exact sort of paradox.
Kate: If you’re into mass extinctions — which we are in my household because I have a three-year-old — I read The Ends of the World by Peter Brannon, which is about the sixth mass extinction sort of from a more geological perspective and I thought that that was really well written. It kind of occurred to me that what we do as climate scientists, especially modelers, we are literally world builders. We are building a world on a computer. You know, we can do really messed up stuff to that world, right, because it’s a fake computer world. Like, “What if there was a volcano in London?”, and set that up and see what that does to the atmospheric circulation. Or we could be like, “What if we quadrupled the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere immediately?” It strikes me that we have this really powerful tool because we can use science to build worlds and that’s what all good science fiction and all good fantasy does. Even all good historical models — they build worlds; they make you feel like you inhabit this different reality but it still feels really real and visceral. And it strikes me that we have this amazing tool that we could do a lot more with.
Jacquelyn: Oh, definitely, everything from video games to movies to novels. I sat on a panel about world building at a science fiction convention and talked a lot about how the ecology and just earth system science of a lot of fantasy and science fiction worlds is really frustration to me. I think of, for example, 10,000 B.C. which among many other flaws (apparently I’m just going to pick on Roland Emmerich in this episode), there’s this moment when they go from the tundra into the jungle and it’s just so ecologically improbable. Those two biomes are not adjacent to one another and it sort of just threw me out of that experience. One thing that really struck with me was that an author in the audience thanked me after and was like, “I’ve been spending all this time focusing on the generation ship — how do we get to this other world and the physics of interstellar travel that I forgot about how to handle what to do when they get there.” And I think in a lot of ways that’s a good parallel for how we approach discussions of climate change. We often focus on the sort of technological solutions or the approaches to those solutions rather than starting with the world that we want to see and basically figuring out how we’re going to get — what’s the pathway to that place, to that world that’s maybe fairer and cleaner and nicer overall?
Kate: That seems like a great way to end it.
Jacquelyn: Yeah, I agree! Ramesh is signaling “nice segue”. So Kate, thank you so much for coming on the show today and talking to us not about the science that you probably spend 95% of your time on but your fantastic fable and all of your other projects.
Kate: Well thank you so much for having me.
Jacquelyn: Well that’s our show for this week and we really hope you all enjoyed listening. And with Thanksgiving coming up here in the U.S. next week, all of you will have MANY opportunities to try out your own storytelling skills on a captive audience. Your Warm Regards homework this week is to have a conversation about climate change sometime over the holiday. You can get into a fight with your Uncle Rick; you can maybe bond with a stranger as you wait in line for your Black Friday deals. Whatever you choose, try to do your best over the holidays to fight climate silence. And with that I’d like to thank our fantastic team who are all doing this for free, by the way. Eric Mack, our producer, and also a couple new team members including a former listener (now team member) Joe Stormer who’s going to be generously providing transcripts. This is something that I’ve been hoping since the beginning; this is super exciting. I’d also like to welcome Justin Schell (who is one our new producers) and Katherine Peinhardt (who is going to be helping us out with some of our outreach and communication efforts).
Ramesh: Yeah, and I think it’s also important take this opportunity to thank Jessie-Ann Baines who’s been an amazing producer on the show, as well, and she’s moving on to bigger and better things and so we wish her all the luck in the world in her future pursuits. So thank you so much, Jessie, and good luck!
Jacquelyn: Yeah, thank you Jessie! And again thank you all for listening. You can listen to all of our episodes on wherever you get your podcast — iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud. You can find us on twitter @ourwarmregards. You can email us your favorite climate books at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also love hearing from you about your ideas for the show; we really want to make this work for you. And also, we love just getting some feedback so if you can take a moment to give us a review, that’s immensely helpful for us. And also, share us with a friend. So thanks for listening everyone. I hope you have a wonderful and warm holiday. Take care!