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A data scientist’s case for ‘cautious optimism’ about climate change

Posted on 1 April 2024 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections by Michael Svoboda

Against the regular drumbeat of negative news on climate and the environment, a positive note can be both startling and therapeutic. To keep pressing forward, we need to know that progress has been — and still can be — made.

That’s the motivation behind “Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet” by Hannah Ritchie, a senior researcher in the Oxford Martin Programme on Global Development and deputy editor and lead researcher for the influential website, Our World in Data

Not the End of the World

In this undertaking, Hannah Ritchie was inspired by another researcher, Hans Rosling, whose data visualizations have awed viewers of his TED talks and instructional videos. Dramatic progress has been made over the last century, the data shows; human beings are less vulnerable now than in the past — even to natural disasters.

“Not the End of the World” and its author have been the subject of numerous interviews and profiles, both congratulatory and critical. The latter point out that small steps in the right direction will not get us where we need to go by the deadlines we’ve set for ourselves.  

But in her book, Ritchie challenges the framing of such thresholds and deadlines. 

First, she notes, we must remind ourselves that dramatic progress has already been made: “In a world without climate policies we’d be heading toward 4 or 5 C at least,” referring to the rise in Earth’s average temperature since the Industrial Revolution. 

Second, “every 0.1 C matters”; the warmer it gets, the worse the impacts, she says. At the Paris climate conference in 2015, the world’s nations agreed to keep temperatures “well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” Like other researchers, Ritchie thinks we’re unlikely to meet the 1.5 C goal: “It’s more likely than not that we will pass 2 C, but perhaps not by much.” But neither number is a threshold for the end of the world, she argues. 

Third, some of the small steps critics have challenged — like peak per capita CO2 emissions or the decoupling of emissions and economic growth — mark historic global turning points. Transitioning to clean energy (including nuclear), electrifying everything we can (especially cars), and “decarbonizing how we make stuff” — all among the many measures for which Ritchie advocates in her chapter on climate change — will be easier on the downsides of those slopes. 

Unlike lukewarmers like Danish author Bjørn Lomborg, who acknowledges climate change but argues we should focus on economic growth so that our richer descendants can solve the problem, Ritchie thinks her generation has that responsibility. “My perspective is very different: We have really good solutions now. They’re cheap, they’re effective. We really need to build on them — now.”

Yale Climate Connections talked with Hannah Ritchie about her new book via Zoom last month. 

The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Yale Climate Connections: Your title and subtitle seem to move in two very different directions.“Not the End of the World” is a shorthand way of saying, “Don’t worry about it.” But “How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet” is a call for action. How do you harmonize those two very different notes?

Hannah Ritchie: Yes, I guess there [are] two ways you can say “not the end of the world.” One way is kind of dismissive: ‘This is not a problem, don’t worry about it.’ 

That’s very, very far from my position. 

What I mean is an affirmative: No, we will not let this be the end of the world. These are big problems, but we can tackle them — and be the first generation to build a sustainable planet.

YCC: You bring your own experiences into the book. Could you talk about your personal journey to this understanding?

Ritchie: I grew up with climate change. It seemed to always be on my radar. But back then, climate change didn’t get the coverage that it does today. So I felt very alone as a kid, feeling this impending doom and not really having anyone to talk to about it. Then I went to university where I did environmental geoscience, and then I got a PhD. I was so steeped in environmental metrics about how things were just getting worse and worse that I reached this stage of helplessness. I extrapolated that human metrics, too, were also getting worse: Poverty was rising, child mortality was rising, life expectancy was declining. Everything, I felt, was going in the wrong direction. 

The turning point for me was discovering the work of Hans Rosling. What he showed in his talks is that when you step back to look at the data, many of our conceptions about human progress are upside down. All of the metrics I assumed to be getting worse were actually getting much better. That shifted my perspective. 

Our ancestors had lower environmental impacts, but their quality of life was often poor. Over the last couple of centuries that has tipped the other way. Humans have made progress, but it’s come at the cost of the environment. This led me to ask, is there a realistic way we can achieve both of these things at the same time? 

I should say that a decade ago, my answer to that was no. But that’s shifted a lot over the last 10 years. I can see signs for cautious optimism: There are solutions to our problems, and we are actually starting to implement them.

YCC: You have seven chapters in your book — on air pollution, climate change, deforestation, food, biodiversity, ocean plastics, and overfishing. Each chapter follows a pattern, almost a template. Could you talk about the steps you take your readers through, steps that hearken back to your title and subtitle? 

Ritchie: I should say, first, that trying to distill a whole environmental problem into one chapter is very challenging. I could have written a whole book on any one of them. 

The goal in each chapter is to show how we got to where we are now and to point to where we can go from here. So every chapter starts with an alarming headline. Then I ask, what does the data and research actually tell us about that headline? Then I map out the historical trajectory of how we got to where we are. 

Climate change, for example, is primarily the result of burning fossil fuels for energy.  Mapping out where we are today requires looking at where those fuels were burned. And that leads to countries, to historical contributions, and to sectors of the economy. 

Then we need to look at future trajectories. What emissions path are we on? What temperature change would that lead to? And what are the pathways that might undercut that? 

The final step is to ask what we need to do next. And for climate change, that’s looking at how we move away from fossil fuels to clean energy. Are the solutions actually there? Are they cheap enough? 

YCC: At the end of each chapter, you also address the individual and say, in effect: Here are things you maybe don’t need to worry about so much. And here are things you could do if you really want to take action.

Ritchie: I want the book to empower people to make changes that are effective. Many people want to make a difference; they just don’t know what to do or are bombarded with so many suggestions that they become overwhelmed. We need to focus on the big stuff and spend less time and energy on things that don’t make much difference.

YCC: Can you give an example of a common misperception on what actually makes a difference? 

Ritchie: If you ask people, ‘What’s the most effective thing you can do for climate change?’ they’ll mention stuff like recycling. But recycling is just so small. More people are now seeing the importance of moving away from cars, especially gasoline-powered cars, but they really don’t get the importance of diet. 

Read: A big source of carbon pollution is lurking in basements and attics

YCC: Speaking of the importance of diet, several chapters in your book look at the critical interconnections between diet, land, energy, climate, and biodiversity. Could you lay that out in greater detail? 

Ritchie: People don’t understand how environmentally damaging our food systems are. We’re not going to tackle climate change by only focusing on food, but it’s impossible to solve climate change without focusing on it to some extent. And it goes far beyond that. For most of our environmental problems, agriculture is a leading driver. It’s a leading driver of land use, deforestation, biodiversity loss, water pollution, and water stress. 

Our food and agriculture systems are key to all of these challenges, which as you say are very much interconnected. 

YCC: In your chapter on biodiversity, you seem to acknowledge but you don’t name the “environmentalist’s paradox,” the strange fact that measures of human well-being have improved even as the environment has come under greater and greater stress. What does the newest data say to you here? 

Ritchie: The chapter on biodiversity was arguably the hardest chapter to write, for two reasons. One is that it’s very hard to measure biodiversity. Ecosystems are so complex that trying to capture their condition in a single metric doesn’t really work. 

The other challenge is that while it’s very clear that humans rely on biodiversity for maintaining the ecosystems on which we depend, we don’t quite know how those systems work. If we tamper with them, will it have a small impact? Or will it cascade into a really big impact? 

The other factor that makes biodiversity the most challenging problem to tackle is that it’s linked to everything else. You can only solve biodiversity by solving all of the other problems discussed in the book. And even then, there are trade-offs. 

In agriculture, for example, there’s the debate over land sharing versus land sparing. We can avoid habitat loss by not letting farmers and ranchers creep into forests and wildlands. But that’s typically achieved only through agricultural intensification, which can be worse for local biodiversity. 

I think it will be very difficult to eliminate biodiversity loss entirely, but I do think we can dramatically reduce rates of loss — by addressing our food systems and agriculture.

YCC: Each of your other chapters seems to be aimed at retuning our thinking. So how do we need to retune our thinking about ocean plastics?

Ritchie: There are two problems with plastics. One is plastic as a material in itself, and here I’m thinking about microplastics. We know that microplastics are everywhere. We just don’t know yet what impacts they have on human health. If we want to stop using plastics completely because of that, I don’t have a solution to that. 

But the second problem is a very tractable problem, which is plastics leaking out into the environment, into rivers, into the ocean. That problem is less about using plastic than disposing of it. It’s more about how you handle the waste. There is a very good case that if we just built really tight landfills, we wouldn’t have plastic leaking out into the environment. 

The challenge has been that many countries have grown very quickly. People can now afford plastic, so they buy plastics. But the waste management infrastructure is not there to gather it, so it leaks into rivers and then ultimately into the ocean. If we just invest in good waste management, then it’s essentially a solved problem. 

Listen: The plastics industry’s carbon footprint has doubled in the past few decades

YCC: In your conclusion, you note that we may have to recalibrate our intuitions about our actions, and that “being an effective environmentalist might make you feel like a bad one.” Could you explain what you mean by that?

Ritchie: Our social perception of “environmentalists” leans into a kind of natural fallacy: they live in a rural area; they have a small farm they get all of their food from; they don’t use synthetic products. 

The problem with this vision is that solutions that might have been environmentally sustainable for small populations just don’t work for 8 billion people. What would work for billions and billions of people, and actually is the more environmentally sustainable thing to do, is dense cities where you don’t need lots of transport, where you can share heating and cooling and achieve other efficiencies. 

Part of the reason that the 21st century has been more resilient and less deadly than the 20th century is because of a more globalized system. We can trade food and other resources; countries support one another post-disaster. Previously if there was a local weather disaster and your crops failed, you were in a really dire position. No one was coming to help you. There was no network for you to import food from elsewhere. That’s not the case today; international cooperation has made the world more resilient, not less.

So what we typically perceive to be the environmentally friendly thing to do is, in a modern world of billions of people, often the opposite.

YCC: Human psychology is a thread that runs through your whole book. You note our penchant for apocalypticism, our nostalgic visions of the past, and our susceptibility to moral licensing. Do you see your book as a psychological intervention?

Ritchie: I think that would be a bold ambition on my part! 

But it’s valid, I guess, to suggest that my book is trying to shift the way that people think about these problems and their solutions.

The key is not stopping our natural psychological leanings — because it’s not possible to halt them completely. It’s about pausing and trying to put those initial gut reactions into context, so we can then make better decisions from a more rational place. 

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