What’s the most effective way to communicate about climate change so that it resonates with those who are doubtful or are skeptics? That was the main topic of a recent panel that I moderated with three experts on the issue. Entitled Voices For A Green Recovery, Taking Action On Climate Change From the Ground Up, we explored how to communicate about climate change in a persuasive and positive way.
The panel was hosted and sponsored by the Jay Heritage Center, John Jay’s former boyhood home set on 23 beautiful acres in Rye, New York. The grounds are open to visitors and the center hosts events that seek to educate and inform about the pressing issues of the day, including the environment.
You can watch the webinar or read the transcript of the main points of the discussion below.
Table of Contents
- The Panelists
- Why Aren’t Facts Enough to Convince Climate Skeptics?
- How to Communicate About Climate Change: Key Takeaways
- The History of Our Climate Divide
- The Power of a Persuasive Story
- More Stories: The Perfect Lawn as a Symbol of Success
- The Tools for Engagement
- Imagining a Climate-Friendly Future
- Making Climate Change Personal and Immediate
- Understanding the Climate-Denier Point of View
- Question and Answers
For the panelists’ full bios, visit Jay Heritage Center.
Andrew Revkin is the acclaimed environmental journalist and founding director of the initiative on communication and sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He’s also the author of several highly-regarded books, most recently, The Human Planet: Earth at the Dawn of the Anthropocene.
Eric Sanderson is a senior conservation ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and the author of numerous scientific articles, popular books, as well as the bestselling book, Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City.
Doug Tallamy is a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware and is also the author of several bestselling books, including his most recent, Nature’s Best Hope.
Why Aren’t Facts Enough to Convince Climate Skeptics?
What’s the problem? We’ve been discussing, and too often debating for decades the causes and cures for climate change. It’s clear as day to those of us who believe the science what needs to be done. But we hit a wall when trying to convince and persuade others who may be doubtful or are skeptics. And laying out the facts doesn’t get the job done.
I asked the panelists to first explain how we got to this place. Was it always this way — this divide between science and spin? And then I enlisted them to help us find the tools to communicate about climate change persuasively. What words, messages, and strategies are most effective in engaging people and then convincing them to reconsider their views?
How to Communicate About Climate Change: Key Takeaways
Throughout the discussion, the panelists provided their tips and strategies for effective and persuasive climate communication. Here are the key takeaways:
Be a good listener to understand the concerns, preferences, and potential biases of the people with whom you’re communicating. As Doug Tallamy suggests, ask lots of questions and listen carefully to the responses so you can assess what was and wasn’t understood. That way you can address concerns and misconceptions.
Know your audience. If you’re a good listener, you’ll have a better chance of understanding the people and be able to talk to them in their language, and as if you’re one of them. Doug Tallamy warns not to approach your audience from “another tribe” (in his case, academia). Talk to them as if you’re one of them. So instead of introducing himself as Dr. Tallamy, he calls himself Doug Tallamy.
Use hooks to find common ground, or speak to your audience in their language. For example, when our sustainability group wanted to pass a plastic bag ban in our traditional community, we didn’t advocate for a “ban.” Instead, we called for the beautification of Rye through a reduction in plastic litter.
Keep it simple. Pick a few issues or just one issue to use in Try to connect with the person or group you’re speaking with as you work to find points of confluence and commonality.
Be positive. Avoid shaming or fear-mongering. Studies show that these types of tactics ultimately are not effective and that people are reluctant to act when presented with alarming news. (“what grabs attention … is often not what empowers action.”)
Instead, as Eric Sanderson suggests, convey that can-do spirit that is so quintessentially American in helping communicate a message of hope and possibility.
Imagine a climate-friendly future and communicate to others that human power we have to modify our environment in a positive way. The effects won’t be immediate, but we have the ability to find new solutions to our lives. In Eric Sanderson’s words, we just have to imagine it.
Peer pressure can work for or against us. You can throw facts at somebody, but what is going to change behavior faster than anything else is what your neighbor is doing. For example, Rye’s Healthy Yard Program signs “planted” in people’s yards have been an effective motivator to convince others to naturally landscape their own yards.
Listen to the “other side” (ie, climate skeptics or deniers) to understand their points of view. As Andy Revkin observes, they’ve been effective in making their stories “stick.”
Stay informed. Our panelists are experts in their field, but we can all learn the climate science basics and stay abreast of the latest climate-related news. For literature and resources related to climate change and the environment, see Green That Life’s Best Environmental Books list and Lesson 1: Stay Informed of Climate Action: 5 Effective Lessons for Engaging Your Community.
The History of Our Climate Divide
Looking back over 40 years ago, we’d see a very different society with respect to attitudes towards climate change and the environment. We actually had a Republican administration that was responsible for some of the most groundbreaking environmental legislation, such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the creation of the EPA. There was in short, a political alignment on the facts.
Eric, in your book, Terra Nova: The New World After Oil, Cars and Suburbs, you touch on one reason for this transformation: the influential power of the oil and the gas industry. Can you give us a brief historical context for how that industry — and any other influences — helped shape this current climate skeptic story that we see today?
I think when I talk to people who are skeptical about climate change, it’s important to tell stories to help them understand that. And I think there’s actually no more important story in America than the story of how oil, cars, and suburbs came together to create climate emissions.
The reason climate change is an issue is that there’s [excess] carbon in the air that was once under the ground in the form of oil, gas, and coal. The United States was blessed with enormous amounts of these fossil fuels.
In fact, for a long time before oil was found in Saudi Arabia, the United States was the Saudi Arabia of oil. There are many statistics, but just one is that during World War II, the allies burned around seven billion gallons of oil to fight back the Nazis and fascism. Six billion barrels of that came from the United States. We supplied that.
Oil was really, really cheap through much of the 20th century. There were times when it was cheaper than water.
For a long time, people lived in cities, or they lived in rural areas, and they had a hard time getting around with horses. Cars enabled people to zip around and live in Rye, for example, and drive into Manhattan. Of course, this pattern occurred across the country, including where I grew up in the Bay Area in San Francisco. Growing up in the suburbs became the American way of life.
The problem is that it has become a terrible curse for us. That is, we built out this landscape that requires us to drive, and driving requires us to use oil. And so, as I write in my book, it’s like a siren song; it’s like this monster that’s constantly calling. People thought, “It’s a great thing. You’ll be free. You can have a big house. You can have a beautiful lawn.”
And yet it actually was doing things nobody anticipated. The scientists had an idea about it, and of course, the oil companies made a huge amount of money off of this, as did the car companies and real estate companies.
One way of viewing the history of the last 50 years is this subsequent series of greater and greater and greater crises that manifest in all kinds of ways because these systems are all connected together. It’s almost like an ecological system.
It’s not just one thing at a time. It’s all these things together: the politics of the Middle East; the issues with health when people are not walking enough; the financial collapse related to the housing markets in 2008; and of course now the climate crisis. We tend to think of these as individual events, but they’re actually all connected to each other. And they’re all connected to this story about oil, cars, and suburbs.
The Power of a Persuasive Story
Eric began his response with such an important word: “story.” The oil and gas industry was able to create this very compelling story. And as he describes it, it makes us addicted to their products. But over the last 20 years, we’ve heard another side — the other story — which is that climate change is happening. It’s caused by humans and it’s largely caused by the fossil fuel industry.
And so I’d like to ask Andy, how is it that an equally compelling story hasn’t managed to stick and spread? And that the oil and gas industry/special interests story seems to linger? How is it that a meaningful portion of the population has been so skillfully hoodwinked and continues to believe?
I did a piece when the oil price first went over a $100 per barrel in the New York Times at how evolving impressions change over time. In the 1860s, when the oil fields in Pennsylvania were opening up, people used to go there for the vapors as a healthful thing. They thought the vapors were helping their asthma!
I started writing about climate change in a big way in 1985. It was the first time I wrote about human influence on the climate system, but that was through [the lens of] nuclear war. If we blew up enough cities, set enough fires, we’d end up having a nuclear winter. That was a cover story in Science Digest Magazine.
I dove in 1988 with my first cover story on global warming in Discover Magazine. In 1988, I was in my early 30s and thought, “Man, this is cool. I’m writing a really cool story with great graphics and a scary headline, and lots of detail.” And I thought, “Well, I’ll just keep doing that.”
And I wrote a book in 1992 on global warming, Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, and people were paying attention. Al Gore endorsed one of my books.
And then in 2006, when Al Gore’s movie came out, An Inconvenient Truth — it’s not his fault per se — that’s when the climate became a political button like you put on your lapel. We have buttons for anti-nuke; buttons for “No GMO;” buttons for climate attitudes that now have become a political identity emblem; abortion, of course, is the ultimate button.
And then an editor said, “Hey, Andy, write a story for us about why this issue is getting so heated.” And absolutely oil companies were doing lobbying even then, it got much more intense later. There was a tobacco-style disinformation [campaign].
So I wrote a story in 2006, called Yelling Fire on a Hot Planet. That was the first time I interviewed a social scientist about global warming — someone who wasn’t a physicist or an oceanographer. And that’s when I said, “Oh my God, Helen Ingram [of University of California, Irvine], who I just interviewed, said to me, “People vote on things that are soon, salient and certain.” And I’m thinking, “Okay, global warming is an emerging complicated presence in the background in our climate system, and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to get a lot of traction.”
She was just the first of many social scientists. As I dug in more with them, I started to understand, “Oh my God, this is way more complicated.”
And it’s not just ignorance. I interviewed Dan Kahan at the Yale Law School who had been studying what he calls cultural cognition, which is that most of the time you [believe] you’re thinking and reacting to information as a cognitive being. [But] if issues are contentious or challenge your identity, all that goes away. Kahan’s empirical work shows it’s evolutionarily valuable for you to be tied to your tribe more than tied to the facts.
Look at the pandemic right now. Look at the fights over face masks! Even Van Morrison has come out against face masks. It’s not because he’s stupid. I don’t know why, but we have our filter.
Unfortunately, climate change now is absolutely in the category of identity badge. It’s not just that the fossil fuel companies have done the work of that. Part of this is in us.
Actually it’s not always a partisan issue. Vaccination is a classic case where the divides transcend ideology. A good friend of mine, Bobby Kennedy Jr, is a strident anti-vaxxer. And I will never convince him with facts that that’s a questionable position. He and I are great environmental friends. We’ll never agree on vaccines.
More Stories: The Perfect Lawn as a Symbol of Success
Let’s continue this theme of messages that stick in people’s minds and become habit-forming. One that’s been around for decades is this concept of the pristine backyard that’s dominated by a perfect grass lawn, free of weeds and bugs. It symbolizes American success and prosperity.
Doug, do you have an idea of how we got here and who created this message: that to be a good neighbor is to have a perfect lawn?
Well, there’s a historical aspect to that as well that started back in Europe. And of course, we colonized (other than the indigenous folks) North America from Europe. We were poor. We had to carve our living out of the forest. The forest was our enemy. So the first thing you had to do is cut it down so that you could grow crops.
To have a lawn as the aristocracy in Europe meant you had “made it.” You either had enough slaves or you had enough space, or you had enough money so that you didn’t have to farm every square inch of your property. You were able to display this status symbol of the wealthy.
And of course, George Washington had a nice lawn, and Thomas Jefferson had a nice lawn. Our leaders, they were doing exactly what the aristocracy in Europe had done for a long time. A lawn is also pretty. We like pretty.
There was a historical battle with nature. Nature used to kill us. It would starve us or eat us, or it was a dangerous place. And so we were constantly fighting against the natural world just to survive. There was so much natural world out there that the concept of beating it back to the point where we didn’t have enough to keep us alive never entered anybody’s mind.
And if you could tame it in the property that you own — neat as a pin — you were controlling it. That also was a symbol of being strong; being a good citizen.
And of course we humans find our mates based on status. Status symbols can change, but the lawn has been a very powerful status symbol for centuries at this point. That’s the history behind it.
Peer pressure is also extremely important to us. Studies have shown that you can throw facts at somebody, but what is going to change behavior faster than anything else is what your neighbor is doing. So if your neighbor has a big lawn, you have to have it too. There’s a lot of social pressure to fit in with the neighbors so that you are demonstrating that you are a good member of the tribe. You belong there and you’re following the rules.
What the rules are doing to the land around you, that’s irrelevant. Nobody thinks about that.
The Tools for Engagement
To that point of peer pressure and fitting in, you haven’t been shy about making a case for a significant reworking of the American backyard in favor of, as you call it, “conservation corridors.”
When I was doing a little background reading about you, I came across an article headline that screamed out, Professor Doug Tallamy Urges Homeowners to Cut Lawn Area in Half! And I thought, “Wow, that could be considered blasphemous talk in certain areas.” Yet you have a very popular series of books, and you’ve translated your scientific and academic research — particularly in your book, Nature’s Best Hope — into this concept of returning our backyards to nature to benefit the climate and biodiversity.
I’d love to hear how you managed to convince Americans first, to pay attention to your message. Then, how would you help people break or change their “bad habits”? What do you think has been effective?
Well, let’s just say I’m working on it. I would love to say I’ve convinced Americans to do it. I’ve convinced some Americans.
First of all, we do like nature. We inherently like nature. (E.O. Wilson talks about biophilia.) So I’m not saying you have to adopt something that is abhorrent to us. We do like it.
Find the Hook
There are hooks [we can use to make the issue personal for people]. If I said, “I want you to cut your lawn in half so that we can have more caterpillars,” — which is exactly what I want you to do — that’s not the hook that most people will grab onto. Instead, what I say is, “I want you to create more bird food.” People like birds. We have something like 70 million people that identify some level of birding expertise. So use the proper hook.
When I talk to people, I like to show lots of pretty pictures of what we’re talking about. They have no idea that nature is actually as pretty as it is. So that’s another hook.
Lower the Barriers
But we’ve talked about tribalism. You cannot approach your audience from another tribe. You’ve got to be in the same tribe because they’re not going to listen to you if you’re from another tribe. So I call myself “Doug Tallamy.” That is my name. I’m not “Dr. Tallamy,” that’s a label, that’s a barrier that says, “I’m better than you.” I’m not better than them. And don’t talk that way because they’re not going to. That’s a turnoff.
And that’s easy for me because I do not believe I’m better than anybody I’m talking to. So really you just talk to the audience as if you were one of them because you really are. I happen to know some things they don’t know, but they know a whole lot of things that I don’t know. I can’t even use my iPhone!
Avoid Talking About Exceptions
Another important thing that I’ve learned is, scientists love exceptions. We focus on the exceptions because it often helps us explain the general rule or lead us to new hypotheses. We’re fascinated with exceptions. And I listen to a lot of scientists talk to the public, and that’s what they focus on, those fascinating exceptions. Well, if you talk only about the exceptions, the public comes away, not even knowing there is a general rule. So I almost never talk about the exceptions, unless somebody asks me a question about it. I talk about that general rule. I want them to come away with what is happening most often.
Keep it Simple
This leads me to another point: keep it simple. And again, that’s even for me! I listen to the audience. I’ve given a lot of talks for a lot of years. They always ask questions at the end and that tells me what they didn’t get from what I covered or what I didn’t cover.
When I wrote, Bringing Nature Home, it was based largely on what I knew the audience did not understand. And it came from their questioning. So listening to where they’re coming from is a great way to make connections.
Imagining a Climate-Friendly Future
I want to get back to Eric on one of the hooks that you mentioned Doug, which is showing lots of pretty pictures.
Eric, I loved looking at and reading about the Mannahatta project and your show-and-tell approach that helps us connect with nature and its protection through beautiful imagery and visuals.
It helps us close our eyes and imagine what it must have been like hundreds of years ago, even before settlers arrived in New York. It is very beautiful and dramatic, but there’s also that sense of loss of what has gone and what has disappeared. Yes, we have this impressive built environment, but it is quite a destruction of what was there before.
This then-and-now imagery resonated with me. Is that your goal?
I always think it’s the past, and now, and the future. It’s really three pictures, right?
Of course, I could drive my idea of what the future is, but really it’s in all of our hands to imagine the future. To go back to what Andy and Doug were saying, one of our traits as human beings is our ability to imagine the future and to communicate about it. Most species come to whatever environment they’re in and have their evolutionary tricks: their teeth, fur, and feathers, and whatever attributes they have and their behavior.
Our great trick is that we modify the environment to fit us. We don’t fit into the environment. How do we that? We actually do that by working together. That’s why [these themes] about tribe and identity are so important; and sociality, because we are such social creatures. We just can’t help to be with each other. And then we talk about ideas.
So, in that sense, our cultural evolution is so much faster than our biological evolution. This is such an enormous advantage compared to so many other species that take millions of years to get what they get; and will take millions of more years to adjust. Humans can adjust in a matter of years, or sometimes even weeks.
As awful as 2020 has been, it’s also a testament in some ways to our individual ability to adjust and find new solutions to our lives. What I’m trying to do in Mannahatta, and actually in all of my work, is not to pass judgment, but to try and put two things in juxtaposition to each other and then ask, “What do you want to see?” or, “What do you want the future of?”
I understand that of course the world we live in today was created by the decisions of people before us for their own reasons. It’s like the Haudenosaunee Seventh Generation philosophy. An Onandaga man told me, “the traditional idea is you think three generations past, and then you think three generations forward.” So when you want to make a decision, you want to try and understand what were my great grandparents thinking and my grandparents thinking, and my parents thinking to create the decisions that I have to make. And then how is my decision today going to affect my kids and my grandkids, and my great-grandkids.
So, if you think about it that way, it was like the story about oil, cars, and suburbs. Now you start to understand why your grandparents did what they did, and why the interstate highway system was built in the past. It’s not just like it was once part of society; all of society was involved with it.
And in that same [vein] to create solutions to the climate crisis, we need to think in that holistic way — to have identity not just with ourselves, but with the future; and then think about, “Well, so if we’re not going to get energy from fossil fuels, where are we going to get that energy from?” And if we’re not going to get around in cars, well then what is the alternative transportation system that uses different energy?
And so, that’s why in Terra Nova, and in another way in Mannahatta, the idea is to try and see the whole landscape and then see the connections between them. So then we can figure out, “Well, if this is our idea, our shared idea of the future, what are the levers we pull to get to that future?”
Making Climate Change Personal and Immediate
Eric reminded me [when he was] talking about our evolutionary ability to modify culture very quickly [that we also] face serious evolutionary constraints. We are very poor at making decisions about the future because we’ve never had to in the past. Our future was very short. We had to have enough food for the next day. The longest we had to worry about was getting through the winter. And that was a long period of time, but planning four or five years out was ridiculous because you probably weren’t even going to be alive at all. The problems were immediate.
And this is one of the challenges of how to communicate about climate change. I still hear people say, “You have to do this for your grandchildren,” as if it’s really separated. We have to do it for ourselves right now, but they’re still putting it way off into the future. And we are terrible at making long-term decisions. And of course, our economic system is set up in a way that long-term decisions don’t make sense if you [have] to make a profit immediately.
I’ve written quite a bit on this question of the future. As you just heard, we do not for sure have either the biological, evolutionary, or legal or structural economic norms that allow us to do this. We do a tiny few things like buying life insurance or saving for college.
And this is a problem for climate [action] because the climate problem is back-loaded. And the solutions are not quick. It is a fact of the climate system.
The momentum in the climate system guarantees no quick solution, which throws a huge challenge at us as communicators, whether we’re writing books or moderating discussions, or teaching, or in activism. [So] if Greta Sundberg and Al Gore, and all of us ran the world starting tomorrow for reducing emissions, there is no climatic benefit, — none — until 2060 or 2070.
It means you [should] split the climate problem into its component parts, which is, to work on the energy transition aggressively for the sake of the future, and work on reducing vulnerability right now.
And that’s where the climate justice part comes in. Communities that are most vulnerable to climate systems are the poorest, blackest, and the most marginalized. If you don’t look at climate vulnerability that can’t be reduced by reducing emissions, that’s an ethical failure of the left.
What would you say, Andy, for the individual who is listening tonight and says, “Oh my gosh, it’s just such an enormous problem! I’m totally committed, but I don’t even know where to begin to help.”
After 35 years of writing this in a messaging way, as a journalist, I’ve gotten much less enamored of that as a strategy. It’s about going back to the root of the word, “communication.” The fundamental definition is “an exchange of information.” It’s not messaging. That’s a very different word. Focus on core questions that matter to a community — flooding, for example. No one wants to live in a chronically flooded community.
So start with the problem. Start with the relationship with the climate system. What’s wrong with our relationship with the climate system wherever you are?
I’ve lived in Katonah when Hurricane Floyd came through and Seven Bridges Road became “No Bridges” Road. And that is not a sustainable way to have transportation with or without climate change, but we know that heavier rains are coming. So start with the points of confluence.
And the other thing is, listen. As a politician, you know this too. You don’t come into a room and just start your speech. You read the room, right? Read your neighbors. Think about common elements.
On vulnerability reduction, it’s even simpler. Libertarians don’t like the federal government’s flood insurance policy to be bailing out people who repeatedly had their houses flooded in known floodplains that will be worsened by sea-level rise or inland rainfall. So I can have a great conversation with limited government Republicans about revising flood insurance. And that’s a path toward more resilient communities. You’re not saying, “You need to believe in the climate crisis to get this done.”
Understanding the Climate-Denier Point of View
Do any of you look at media platforms or information sources that are from climate deniers or people who are in that other “tribe?”
I’m a glutton for punishment actually. I listen to talk radio sometimes. I’ve listened to Mark Levin. I listen to Rush Limbaugh once in a while. (Not just because in 2009 he suggested that I kill myself.)
But it’s useful because you see how they are really good at shaping narratives. And they [understand] cultural cognition. They know exactly what they’re doing. They’re shaping a conversation around a constituency and building a bubble, a reality bubble that is very robust, unfortunately, because of our political system. The way everything from the electoral college to the 60-vote supermajority means that these kinds of factions can have really big power. It’s worth listening to.
There are also people like Jerry Taylor who had been at the Cato Institute, a very anti-climate, restricted-regulation institution. Taylor now runs his own center, the Niskanen Center, and he [now says] that climate is a serious problem. He was a professional [climate] dissembler and now has a very aggressive and interesting view on climate action. So finding people like that is valuable too.
Eric, what I really loved is your themes of hope and promise that help energize people. So, when you’re trying to convince and persuade, you really offer a sense of possibility rather than despair.
I do a lot of work overseas internationally, and that’s one of the things Americans have been known for a really long time. That sense of hope and optimism, and can-do [spirit] are baked into the American idea.
There’s so much of the world that thinks that you can’t change things. You can’t make things better. And in America, a lot of us think we can. And so, yes, there are constraints and yes, it’s hard, but we can talk to each other and we can make a difference. And particularly if we talk to ourselves as Americans about how we all want to work together toward a future that works for all of us.
Question and Answers
How Can We Refocus Attention on the Worst Climate Offenders: Companies?
Since 1988, 100 of the world’s largest companies are responsible for 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, it feels like much of the discussion on climate is aimed at individual actions. How can we refocus this discussion on the worst offenders?
I wrote about this a couple of years ago in National Geographic. It was during the 2018 election cycle. The problem is that this gets back to what you said a minute ago about the bigness of this. If you think the problem is the companies, yes. If you think the problem is the infrastructure of oil and gas, yes. Meaning 100 years, it took 100 years to build out suburbia. And it’s going to take time to unbuild suburbia.
And then you look at the political realities, which transcend climate in terms of getting anything done in our Congress today. They’re these locked-in systemic challenges, and that can lead to total inertia.
There’s a guy named Robert Brulle who wrote a big paper on what he calls social inertia. And the last thing he wanted to do is come up against that reality and just give up.
And this gets to that framing that you also gave a few minutes ago, which I wrote about in a piece where I was pondering 30 years of climate reporting The climate problem — it’s not just bigness, it’s also complexity. It’s got so many facets: politics, technology, you name it. The thing that makes it actionable is that there’s a facet for everybody out there, that you can find your path on your component of that big problem.
And then spread the joy — via social media. Social media is so toxic now, but it can be your friend if you use it in a constructive way, which is a part of what I’m teaching now at Columbia.
It requires a little giving up on the idea of solving the climate problem. Unfortunately, it’s not that kind of phenomenon. It’s with us. It’s a new emergent part of our relationship with the planet, and it’s going to take time.
How Will Reducing Lawn Size Help Mitigate Climate Change?
Most people want to do the right thing if they are told clearly how it will help. Explain simply how cutting lawn in half and planting natives actually helped us mitigate climate change?
Well, it actually does a number of things. A third of the carbon that is in the atmosphere right now has come from removing, in particular, forests, but the plants on the planet. We’ve cut them down over the last 2,000 years. That carbon is up in the air right now. So if you put plants back, you’re removing carbon from the air.
A lot of people think that plants are benefiting climate change simply because they are built out of carbon, and that’s certainly part of it. A tree is tons and tons of carbon. But they also deposit that carbon in the soil in the form of glomalin. Mycorrhizal associations with the roots end up leaving glomalin behind in the soil. That is carbon and that is what makes the soil either brown or black
And soils on planet earth can hold seven times the amount of carbon that’s currently in the atmosphere right now. So the trick is getting the carbon into the soil.
I had a student who said, “We need to invent a machine that will pull carbon out of the atmosphere and then pump it into the soil.”
And I said, “Well, we can do that. People are actually working on that, but we already have a machine, it’s called a tree.”
So, if you go out and you plant a tree in part of the area that was once lawn, you have created a big root system depositing glomalin, as opposed to tiny little roots of a lawn that are one of the worst choices for carbon sequestration. You want deep rooted plants. Prairie plants are great because their root systems go down 15 feet.
So that’s how it addresses climate change. But it also addresses the biodiversity crisis, watershed issues, pollination issues, and it addresses our fragmented ecosystems that produce ecosystem services that keep us alive.
How to communicate about climate change is certainly serious, but biodiversity collapse and ecosystem collapse are equally serious. When the United Nations says we’re going to lose a million species in the next 20 years, that’s not an option. That’s something we have to act on.
Your lawn is accomplishing none of those great things. So cutting it in half is a good start. We’ve got 40 million acres of lawn in the US. That’s the size of New England. If we cut that in half, that’s 20 million acres that we can put towards conservation.
So this puts the private landowner in a very powerful position. 85% of the US East of the Mississippi is privately owned. If everybody cut their lawn in half and put the keystone plants that are rebuilding ecosystems back in those areas, those landowners become crucial in terms of addressing all these issues. Climate change is one of them, but so are those other issues.
So when you feel powerless about addressing these huge environmental issues, don’t look at the whole planet, look at your little piece of it.
What if My Kids’ Teachers Are Climate Deniers?
We have discovered that many of our kids, teachers are climate deniers. How do we as parents ensure that our schools try to put forward to our school district that this is not okay and that they could update their faculty and curriculum?
That’s such a tough arena. It’s become polarized and troubling because so much of education is shaped locally.
The answers are not simple. In the long run, you want to create children and citizens who have the capacity for self-motivated, inquiry-based learning.
One of the great things about Mannahatta is the classroom utility of projects like that — to get students thinking about the past and the future. In this case, facilitating learning so a teacher can avoid anyone saying, “Oh, you’re trying to indoctrinate our kids.” Instead, have it be an exploratory class on, “Well, how do we know what a greenhouse gas is? How do we know how powerful it is?”
The more that that model of inquiry-based learning can spread and kids will do their own fact-checking become allied to the world of thinking.
And sometimes it would cut against some of the more cartoonish, extreme descriptions of the climate crisis. Greta Thunberg, for all of her energy, has not been correct many times about climate change. I’m not going to chide her for being energetically useful and wonderful, but it’s important to pull back and say, “Well, do we really know that? Isn’t this bad enough? Do we have to exaggerate?”
What you want is to create a mind that has that capacity to reflect, to really interrogate what we know and don’t know.