Dr. Ruth DeFries: Climate Change — Anxiety and Optimism

The fact that the climate is changing is an incontrovertible fact. If we do nothing – or fall short of what is needed – human beings as a species are headed toward unprecedented disaster.  Our guest in this episode, Dr. Ruth DeFries, Professor of Ecology and Sustainable Development at Columbia University and Co-founding Dean of the Columbia Climate School, is one of the people committed to addressing the factors driving climate change and helping us see a path other than the one we are on. In this episode, Dr. DeFries discusses how we’ve passed humanity’s climate “period of grace” and why we should immediately reduce planet-warming emissions while preparing for an unstable climate future. 

ABOUT RUTH DEFRIES: Ruth DeFries is a professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University in New York and co-founding dean of the Columbia Climate School. She uses images from satellites and field surveys to examine how the world’s demands for food and other resources are changing land use throughout the tropics. Her research quantifies how these land use changes affect climate, biodiversity and other ecosystem services, as well as human development. Dr. DeFries was elected as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, received a MacArthur “genius” award, and is the recipient of many other honors for her scientific research. She is the author of the books “The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis and “What Would Nature Do?: A Guide for Our Uncertain Times”. 

Podcast Transcript

Eric Jaffe: While human beings have overcome enormous challenges in the course of our history, the ongoing climate crisis may be the biggest battle we’ve faced yet. The data is indisputable on this point. As of May 2020, the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere was the highest it’s been in human history. As a result, in 2019, average global temperatures have risen to 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th century average. And an increasing percentage of the world’s population has become more vulnerable to extreme droughts, floods, heat waves, rising sea levels, and other extreme weather events.

It can be hard to remain optimistic in the face of such an unprecedented crisis, but we do have a lot of great minds committed to addressing the factors driving climate change and helping us chart a new path towards a sustainable future. I’m excited to have one of those great minds on the program today.

Ruth DeFries is a professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University in New York and co-founding Dean of the Columbia Climate School. Professor DeFries uses images from satellites and field surveys to examine how the world’s demands for food and other resources are changing land use throughout the tropics. She’s also a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award and the author of several books, including the “Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis.” Professor DeFries, welcome to Deciding Factors. It’s great to have you with us.

Ruth DeFries: Thank you. Great to be here.

EJ: Could you start by just telling us a bit about the founding of Columbia University’s climate school, its purpose, and how it fits into the broader academic landscape.

RDF: So the world is facing a big problem and that is climate change. Universities have a lot of intellectual horsepower. How do we bring those two things together? So the purpose of the climate school, and it’s a very bold move on the part of Lee Ballinger, the president of Columbia University, to harness the intellectual power that we have, which is in climate science, engineering, public health, policy, all kinds of areas that relate to climate change and bring that together under the roof of a school, the climate school, which can develop the research programs, the educational programs, the practice that faculty are engaged in to help the world address probably the biggest problem of this century, which is climate change. So in the climate school, we plan to have research that brings together teams of scholars that can work towards solutions and help societies reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and live with climate change, the problems that we are facing.

And in addition, we plan to have educational programs, which will create the leaders that the world needs, whether they’re working in their communities or their national governments or wherever they’re working to have the background and expertise in climate, whether they’re in the private sector, or public sector, wherever they are, to be able to help address the problem. I believe that Columbia is the first or at least very much one of the first to have a school that’s devoted to addressing the problem of climate change. There are schools of public health. There are schools of social work. There are schools that address societal problems and having the climate school recognizes that climate change is one of those types of societal problems.

EJ: A lot of our listeners are probably already familiar with the basics of climate change, but can you give us a 30,000 foot view of how it impacts our lives?

RDF: As a background, we live on the most incredible, amazing planet that has supported life for millions of years. As far as we know, there’s no other planet like it. And part of the reason why life has evolved over millions of years is because there has been a fairly stable climate. And that’s because the planet has this beautiful, elegant way of regulating the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That’s through the carbon cycle and what we are doing as a species burning fossil fuels, which is very efficient, incredible way to get energy and powers the economies is putting those greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate that is not being compensated by the processes that take it out. So we are seeing a buildup of those gases at a rate that we have not really seen before in a very, very long geologic time.

And we know that that leads to increased temperatures and all kinds of changes in atmospheric circulation in very complex ways because the climate system is very complex and that has implications for our civilization. Because if you think about the sort of 10, 12,000 years of our civilization, since the domestication of crops, that’s been in a time in the whole has seen that has been a fairly stable, it’s been stable in terms of climate. And that is what some people call humanities period of grace.

And with the increase in the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, that stability is changing. And we can expect that all of the infrastructure, the agriculture, the cities, all of what civilization entails has been constructed around kind of assumptions of a fairly stable climate. And now with climate change, that assumption is likely to not be the climate that we see going forward. So there’s all kinds of impacts that we’re seeing now, for instance, of rising seas affecting the many cities that are on coastlines around the world, increase in fires, increase in impacts on agriculture. There’s a lot of uncertainties ahead and what we need to deal with as a society is how to both reduce the emissions into the atmosphere and learn to live with climate change and uncertain climate.

EJ: Do you see climate change as an existential threat to humanity?

RDF: So we are a very ingenious species and we meaning humanity at large has developed a lot of technologies and a lot of ways of dealing with problems, such as famines and disease. My opinion on your question is that if we, as a species collectively apply our ingenuity to addressing this problem, it is addressable in terms of developing the technologies we need to produce energy that does not depend on fossil fuels, helping communities adapt to climate change. The question for me is not whether we have the technical ability to address climate change, but whether we have the governing structures, the decision-making ability, the collective will to deal with climate change.

EJ: So there are clearly so many interconnected aspects of the climate crisis, but could you walk us through the impact that it has on vegetation and agriculture specifically?

RDF: Yeah. So one of the very visible impacts of climate change is on fires. So we’ve seen an increase in fires in Western North America, in Australia, in fire prone places around the world. Now, part of that is due to the buildup of fuels from suppressing fires for over a century. But part of that is due to dryer conditions. That can be attributed to anthropogenic climate change, which is leading to these really devastating fires and the destruction and the air pollution that is coming from those fires. So that’s a very direct impact on vegetation that leads to an impact on people and what they’re breathing, and also has a feedback effect to climate change because then that vegetation is putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which leads to more buildup of greenhouse gases. And we have this positive feedback situation. So that’s one type of effect.

Another, as you said, is the impact on agriculture, particularly concerning is the impact on small scale farmers around the world. And particularly throughout the tropics, about 90% of the farmers in the world are small scale farmers who have very precarious livelihoods that fundamentally depend on having rainfall and having a climate that will grow the crops. And they grow about half the food of the world. They are very, very vulnerable to changes in climate. We also have impacts on agriculture in our own very intensive type agriculture in North America. Most of the crops that are grown in the US are rain fed. I know people think that it’s a lot of irrigated crops, but most is actually rain fed. So there’s a heavy dependence on having a climate that can be of farmers being able to have some certainty about what the climate in which they can grow their crops. And that is now becoming a lot more uncertain.

EJ: So what strategies do you think we should use to reduce the carbon output of land use?

RDF: Some of the sources of greenhouse gases from land use are very obvious. And one of those is deforestation, which at this point in history is really focused in the tropics. The ability to reduce that deforestation is just really a very obvious step, but it’s also a very difficult one because that is the land that remains to be able to expand agriculture. There again has been a lot of attention on this question. There’s a lot of companies that have taken pledges to have no deforestation in their supply chains. But again, we need to accelerate. It’s not happening fast enough, and the deforestation is still continuing.

EJ: So I’m curious, do you see the alternative meat industry playing a big role in our fight against climate change?

RDF: When we talk about meat or animal source foods, in the rich industrialized parts of the world, we consume way too much, way too much animal sourced foods that is required for a healthy diet. In the developing world, low-income people have diets, which are too dependent on staple cereals, don’t have the diversity, and could actually benefit from an increase in animal sourced foods. So it’s a very hard conversation because there are some parts of the world and some segments of the population which absolutely have too much animal source foods in their diet. And then other parts of the world that have too little. Certainly, alternative meats could be part of this solution depending on how much energy it uses to produce them and where that energy comes from. But certainly, the meat consumption in the diets of industrialized societies is really more than it needs to be.

EJ: So let’s circle back to founding the climate school at Columbia. Do you have any insights about how to discuss climate change with younger people specifically?


RDF: I’m glad you asked that about the education programs because that’s the part that I’m in charge of for the climate school. When I started in this business, it was more about educating students and convincing them that there was a problem in the way that we manage our planet and with climate change. And now that’s not a hard sell anymore. And it’s more that students are really concerned about, what can they do? And having a lot of anxiety, hearing these dystopian futures, wherever they hear them, how to turn that into positive energy because it can be overwhelming and depressing.

But how to create the students who become the leaders to work towards solutions rather than just be anxious about it. And I think that’s where we are. So there are a lot of solutions out there. Like as you said, whether people were getting alternative meat or whether they work with their local communities about adapting to sea level rise, or whether they work on alternative energy and become engineers. And there’s just a lot of ways that collectively we can work towards a range of solutions. And that’s what we want to create is to turn that anxiety into action.

EJ: How are you tackling equity, with respect to climate change? And what are some of the things that Columbia is doing in order to push that forward?

RDF: Oh, that’s a hard question. Boy, are we trying to think that through. Really, it’s hard. Well, one aspect is in our education, in our programs, and then the way that we talk about climate change to include issues of equity and justice, to fold these issues into the research that we do into our communications, into every aspect of our work.

EJ: Can you talk a bit about the curriculum at the climate school and are there classes around how to communicate with people who are skeptical of climate change?

RDF: So communications or climate communications is certainly one area that’s important. And I think we will be developing some programs in that area. So I just think we have to tell the truth and communicate in ways that people can relate to and can see how climate, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, it’s become so politicized, but can see that climate affects their everyday lives. And it doesn’t depend on their politics.

EJ: What degree do students graduate with from the climate school?

RDF: At this time, we have an MA, Master of Arts in climate and society. We have an undergraduate program in sustainable development. We have more programs that relate to climate in a lot of different departments throughout Columbia University in earth and environmental engineering and ecology in this policy school. There’s a climate and health program, in the Mailman School of Public Health. So there are opportunities. We look forward to developing more programs, more educational opportunities within the next few years. So please watch this space for our new educational programs.

EJ: Okay. Professor DeFries, one last question for you. Do you consider yourself an optimist about the future of the planet?

RDF: I am optimistic. I think that humanity has gotten through a lot of hard problems in our past, overcoming famines from shortages of food. That was an enormous achievement, even though it created a lot of problems with our food system, just an enormous achievement. The improvements in health, the decrease in infant mortality. I mean, it goes on and on. Increase in life expectancy. There are so many achievements that humanity has marshaled around. So I am optimistic. What I think is such a big issue now, and we’re dealing with this so intently in the climate school is the issue of equity and justice. And that we know that climate change is going to have the biggest impacts on the people who are least able to cope in the tropics and low-income and vulnerable populations. So we have to very much fold the concerns of equity and justice into our approach towards addressing climate change.

EJ: Professor DeFries, congratulations again on founding the new endeavor at Columbia University. I have no doubt that it will make a huge impact. And we’re so grateful that you took the time to come on the show today. So thank you.

RDF: Thank you so much.

EJ: That was Dr. Ruth DeFries, professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University and co-founding Dean of the Columbia Climate School. Personally, I was inspired to learn more about Professor DeFries’s efforts to launch the first climate school. Beyond demonstrating that the world of academia is doing its part to tackle the climate crisis head on, the program’s equipping a future generation to continue our fight for a healthy planet. We hope you’ll join us next time for a brand new episode of Deciding Factors featuring another one of GLG’s council members. Every day, GLG facilitates calls with experts across nearly every industry and geography, helping our clients with insight that leads to true clarity. Feel free to leave us a review on Apple podcasts. We’d love to hear from you or email us at decidingfactors@glgroup.com if you have feedback or ideas for future show topics. For Deciding Factors in GLG, I’m Eric Jaffe. Thanks for listening.

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