When I heard that David Roberts, a well-known climate hawk and journalist for Grist.org (now at Vox.com), was the speaker at this year’s Protect Our Winters breakfast, I was really excited by the idea of getting to interview him afterwards. I knew I needed some good questions, so I turned to the ultimate expert: my mother.
She and her husband, both in their late 70’s, live close to the base of Sugarbush in a net-zero house they built themselves. They were early adopters of many different kinds of energy systems they tried out in their house, which was featured recently in the New York Times. They’re also super busy activists with 350.org, traveling all over the east coast to go to rallies and volunteer at events. (They’re a bit nutty, but in a good way).
Mom was more than happy to rattle off the questions that she’d ask Roberts if she had the chance, so when I approached Roberts for the interview after the Protect Our Winters’ breakfast, I owned up with full disclosure that these questions were from my mom. He got a kick out of that. Here’s the transcript of our chat:
BM: OK, let me just start from the top – mom has sent a long list of questions, so I may skip around to the ones that seem most interesting. First off, she asks: is it possible for western type culture to become sustainable, especially with the exponential population growth increases we’re seeing?
DR: Yes…it is possible, but possible is a long, long way from realistic or practical or likely. It is possible to have an advanced civilization and a high quality of life based on renewable energy and zero waste. It is possible. And I think in so far as you bring everyone up to that high quality of life, population will naturally start to level off and decline. Nothing works better for population control than wealth and family planning, basically, and access to family planning, which typically go together. So yeah, it is possible.
BM: I’m skipping to the bonus round at the bottom here, what do you think about nutritious food versus big AG?
DR: It is a piece of the puzzle. We have a whole section in Grist devoted to food and agricultural issues. And a writer who is devoted to those things, Nathanael Johnson, who is great. Your mom, and anyone who is interested in that stuff, should follow him. But there are lots of different overlapping issues there, in so far as it is a climate issue that is mainly about nitrogen fertilizers and heavily, heavily fertilized soil and over-use of water which is a huge thing, also. It is an effect of climate change that there is a stress on water supply. And so Big AG has typically had a huge, huge claim on water supplies, and there is going to be a lot of tension around that. So there is going to be a lot of pressure for lower water agriculture in the wake of climate change.
BM: Well, that leads to the next question. Mineral wealth is badly reduced, our oceans are acidifying, arable lands and ground water are becoming scarce. Are we about to get in a big fight for what’s left?
DR: I mean I don’t know how much of a fight it is going to be in so far as the wealthy people and countries in the world right now are busy buying up those resources. If you look at the flow of investment of China into Africa it is crazy. There are buying up land, buying up water. So it isn’t going to be a fight because the rich people are going to win before the fight starts. You know what I mean? I’m sure the poor Sub Saharan Africans would love to put up a fight, but probably are not going to be particularly effective or organized in that fight. But the question of who owns the arable lands as arable lands zone starts shifting is going to be a huge point of conflict. Resource conflict. Which is one of the reasons the Pentagon is freaked about climate change and calls it a threat to national security is because resource conflicts and stuff like that are not a sort of one to one direct outcome of climate change. But the more the climate changes the more those stresses get put on and the more conflict become likely and outflow migrations, migrations of people away from stressed areas or from coastal communities that are getting inundated and then of course you have all these refugee issues.
BM: Well there is your argument for the guy in the audience earlier who asked how to talk to his Rush Limbaugh-loving dad about climate change. Seems like that’s an argument for Republicans to latch on to.
DR: Well here is what you tell Republicans. They don’t like government spending or big powerful government but if you want to see big powerful government that spends a lot of money well wait until the sh*# hits the fan. And then you have to figure out what to do with the people of Miami like where to take them. Like you want to see big intrusive government wait until it starts hitting the fan. Then you are going to see a level of government intervention that dwarfs a friggin carbon tax. You know what I mean?
BM: Yeah! So what else would you say to climate deniers or Republicans who don’t want to think about climate change?
DR: At this point you either have higher taxes and more government now or way higher taxes and way more government later. There is not laissez faire option open to us anymore. That is what I wish I could convey to Republicans. That is a lost dream at this point. The only way to coordinate large numbers of people to deal with a global problem is through government. That is how we do it. That is the mechanism through which people organize. If you write off government then what they are really advocating for when they do that is every man for himself. Like the wealthy, wealthy protect themselves with seawalls and buying up the good arable land and the poor people of the world are screwed and that is what small government means in this context. Sorry a little bit of a rant.
BM: No problem – it’s a good rant. OK, couple more. I’m not sure which one of these I should ask.
DR: It is so cute that your mother sent questions.
BM: She is so into it. As you can only imagine, based on her whole net-zero lifestyle. OK, how about this one: Phytoplankton, the major organism that maintains the stability of oxygen in our atmosphere has been reduced by 50% by oceanic pollution. What does this tell us about seeking solutions?
DR: It tells us the same thing everything else tells us. One, we need to reduce emissions as fast as possible, as much as possible. And two, I think environmental remediation, which is the science of repairing environments and repairing ecosystems, which is now in its infancy, is going to be a big deal by mid-century, as we turn to trying that sort of thing more. I mention the anthropic, the age of humans. The slogan is ‘we are in charge now, we might as well get good at it.’ So one of the things we are going to have to learn how to do, in addition to stopping the harming, is actively repairing and enhancing ecosystems. It is a dicey, scary, God-like power. It is a scary thing, but it is definitely going to be a big thing in coming years.
BM: And you think that is a possible thing to do?
DR: I think it is doable. It has been done on small scales. The question is at this point we are talking about global systems which are much more complicated and difficult to get your head around, so we don’t know whether it is possible. But in theory it is possible. I think so.
BM: OK, let’s end on a bang with some crazy talk: Mom says, man is known as a migrator but should people really be serious about finding another planet to live on since we degraded this one so totally and quickly? Did she get that from something you wrote in Grist or is that just off the top of her head?
DR: She didn’t get it from me! I mean, we might go to another planet, but it is like, Mars looks like worst-case scenario of what Earth might turn out to be. It is not like it is going to be an improvement to go to another planet. It is going to be a horrible, hard scrabble life. If it happens at all.
BM: I think the whole WWII-type scenario you mentioned in your talk, of coming together and making real sacrifices, gearing up to fix this planet, seems like a better option.
DR: Well, get people on board.
BM: Well, we are working on it! Thanks so much for chatting – my mother thanks you too!
As a quick conclusion, let me mention that one of the things Roberts mentioned in his talk at the Protect Our Winters Breakfast, and was truly a huge takeaway, is that congress people are always telling him that a phone call to their office is the most effective form of activism. Better than greening your company or driving a Prius, even though those are great too. Real change can come from congress, so please join Protect Our Winters’ Phone It In campaign today. Click here for the issues and the scripts, as well as the phone numbers for all sitting congress people. It just takes a few minutes, and it’s the most powerful thing you can do to fight climate change.
Don’t forget to check out Protect Our Winters’ Snow Show video to see what industry leaders and athletes are saying about climate change: