Q&A with Dr. Kimberly Nicholas - Under the Sky We Make

This is a Q&A with Dr. Kim Nicholas, author of Under the Sky We Make. Most of this Q&A has been transcribed and edited for clarity from a fireside chat we had in our Soapbox Project community. You can get access to the full conversation with Dr. Nicholas if you're a Soapbox member.

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

You'll learn:

Here's more from Dr. Nicholas: 

I'm a professor of sustainability science at Lund University in Sweden. I originally come from Sonoma about an hour north of San Francisco and did my PhD at Stanford and have many friends still in the Bay Area, but have been here now since 2010. My research is on sustainable agriculture, sustainable behavior change, basically: how are we going to meet the climate goals, stop the climate crisis, and have a good life for everybody on earth? That is also the subject of my new book, which is called Under the Sky We Make.

Before we go any further, we highly recommend snagging a copy of the book! It's a really wonderful lighthearted yet informative overview of what we can do about the climate crisis.

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  1. Tell us about Under the Sky We Make and why you decided to tackle climate change by writing a book

    Most Americans are already concerned or alarmed about the climate crisis. But they rarely talk about it with family and friends or read about it in the media; they don't know which of their daily choices cause the most climate pollution; and they aren't involved in or contributing to movements to push for system change.

    In Under the Sky We Make, my goal was to pull together everything you need to know about climate change, grounded in rigorous research but related in a lighthearted way: what's the problem, why is it happening, who can do what to fix it.

    I chose to write a book because I really believe in the power of books to inform and inspire, and I needed the space of a book to develop a one-stop shop to harness facts, feelings, and action for climate.


  2. What informed your approach to Under the Sky We Make?

    I pictured my target audience by imagining that I was writing to some of my best friends. I know climate change can be scary, overwhelming, and overly technical. I wanted to make this book feel like a heart-to-heart with a friend. I would ask myself, "After a tough day at work, getting dinner on the table, putting kids to bed, would Meg want to read this?" I tried to cut out all the parts where the answer was no.

    I wanted to help my readers see the connections between their daily lives and climate- both how completely we depend on nature, but also what choices make the biggest impact, because that has been a focus of my research, and knowing that our actions matter is inspiring and empowering. Systems and institutions are made up of individual people acting collectively, so I write a lot about what it actually means and looks like for individuals to contribute to changing the systems of money, incentives, power, and culture. And I have fun along the way, like talking about how I found low-carbon love on Tinder.

  3. Many people see sustainability as a trade-off with profit. You had some really great insights on how wealthy people should take on the "individual action burden" that we see in the sustainability movement. Can you expand more on this, and how fighting climate change looks for people with more vs. less financial resources?

    We know that fossil fuel companies cause over 70% of climate pollution, and have led disinformation campaigns. They bear a huge responsibility for the mess we're in.

    But to stop climate change, we have to stop both the production and consumption of fossil fuels. Household (individual) consumption choices actually counts for over 70% of emissions too, if you look at the final consumption of where those fossil fuels are going. There's a small group of people who greatly overconsume our share. From a justice perspective, as well as a math perspective, we carbon elite are the ones who need to make behavior changes to reduce our own emissions, as well as work together for system change.

    It took me a long time to recognize that I myself am in the group that needs to make behavior change. Yes, billionaires like Bill Gates have huge carbon footprints; his emissions from flying are 10,000 times the average. But actually, the richest 1% cause 15% of household emissions, while the richest 10% cause nearly half.

    There are so many injustices about climate change, including how a disproportionately small number of people have caused most emissions.

  4. Why did you decide to focus your book on individual action vs. structural change?

    We know we need both individual and collective action. But I want to be really clear, who do we need individual action from is people like me who have historically or even still maybe been over consumers have our fair share of the carbon budget.

    So I think, you know, a lot of what I write about is my own journey of kind of waking up to wait a minute, climate justice means that everyone should actually have an equal share to this global, shared a common resource of the safe carbon budget for the atmosphere, and I'm taking way more than my share.

    And that means that I'm actually harming other people, and limiting their options and opportunities.

    So I think taking that on was really important to me to start, you know, cut out flying by 90% of live car-free, cut out meat make some high impact, personal changes, that my own research and many other shows actually are part of making systemic, necessary changes.

    And in my case, it's also been a driver and a pathway into more collective action.

  5. What is a carbon budget?

    Carbon budget is how much climate pollution humanity can release if we want to limit warming to the temperature targets of the Paris Agreement.

    So the whole point of climate policy is to avoid dangerous climate warming, and a political process decided that is limiting warming well below 2 degrees and pursuing 1.5.

    And what we know from science is that basically, the more carbon we emit, the more warming we have, and the more dangerous and scary and devastating the outcomes are. So every, you know, fraction of a degree really matters. Every bit of carbon that we emit really matters. And we know that we're really close to the limit now of how much we can ever release and stay within the 1.5 degree target.

    And that is really important for people in nature and avoiding catastrophic tipping points. So basically, the bottom line is we have to keep fossil fuels in the ground and make that transition happen really quickly if we want to meet the Paris Agreement.

  6. You mentioned taking up more than your fair share of the climate budget and in your book you refer to this as climate privilege. What is climate privilege and how did you come upon this term?

    I define climate privilege as acknowledging that climate change is not fair, which of course, we know on many levels, but it's also recognizing the ways in which I have been a part of systems that have inadvertently or purposefully contributed to climate harm.

    I'm arguing that, on a personal level, those of us who do have the opportunities to make lifestyle changes that still maintain a really good quality of living, we should really be doing so. Because that is one of the fastest ways to actually really reduce emissions. And we know we're just about out of time to do that. So we have to pull all the levers that we have.

  7. You said that the three main ways that people like us can make a difference is going car free, meat free and flight free. Flights are often the hardest for most people who want to adventure - how did you grapple with this?

    Sure, for me, the hardest was flights. And I think for many people, I mean, what the research shows is that even environmentalists and even environmental scientists or climate scientists often have the hardest time making that change.

    If it's something you want to work on but feels too drastic to even consider if it's going to be this totally black and white overnight change, it is really good to think about it in steps. I was inspired by my friend Charlie who had stopped flying within Europe, and was still going to conferences and having adventures. So I realized that was possible.  I made the decision to stop flying within my continent. It is obviously easier in Europe than in North America. But I have also crossed North America twice by train. So that is possible - once on a wedding trip, where my husband and I got married, and in Edmonton, Canada, where he's from, and then traveled around by train, and had about a dozen parties hosted by friends. One way to think about it is, from your pre- pandemic baseline, how could you at least cut your flying emissions in half? Or are things you would miss the least and then starting from there and then also replacing it with something fun?

    So it's not just like, "Oh, I'm not going to do this," but like, "what I really want to do is give my mom a hug or see my best friend from college or go hiking in the mountains". Okay, how can you do that in the lowest carbon way? Is it about finding another way there? Is it about finding your destination that's closer to home?

  8. Okay, onto cars now - do you think it's possible to meet any climate goals if electric cars are the default transportation mode for the next 20 years?

    Nope, the answer is no.

    You can look at research by Costa Samaras, at Carnegie Mellon, and some others. We know that we have to stop using anything that burns fossil fuels. So we shouldn't be making or selling any internal combustion engine cars starting basically now or very, very soon.

    We do need to electrify everything. That's the best way to reduce emissions and by using renewable and zero carbon energy. But that alone is not enough. We actually have to reduce driving in and of itself and reduce the need to drive. So if we just replaced all cars with electric cars, it's actually still not enough to meet the necessary emissions reductions in the US and other countries.

    So we've got to think differently about how can it be affordable and safe and attractive for people to live near where they go to school and work, go to the park, recreation, cinema, healthcare -- how do we make it so everything you need will be within walking and biking distance? And, you know, there's a lot of policies that go into that. But technological change alone will not be enough.

  9. Do you have any tips on talking to people about climate change? And I'm not talking about climate deniers, but I think there's this pretty huge middle ground of people that know about the issue and they care. But maybe they aren't actually doing anything meaningful.

    I
    think it's like the critical question, because I think that a group is going to determine which of two tipping points we reach first. Is it catastrophic, ecological and climate tipping points, which we absolutely do not want? Or is it this awesome social tipping point of people coming together and actually enacting the necessary behaviors and policies and practices and changes and mindsets that will stabilize the climate and improve quality of life?

    So yes, I think that's the group that we have to reach.

    How do you do it? I think what is effective is authenticity, basically, in meeting people where they are and telling your own story and your own reasons for caring and why you got involved in.

    And I think sometimes that gets missed in thinking or talking about climate communication, as if there is this one magic message that we all just need to repeat like robots and and that will somehow, you know, magically transform collective human consciousness.

    And it just doesn't work that way. What social science research tells us is we have the biggest influence on the people in our circles, which is, you know, our family and friends and colleagues and neighbors.

    That's a great place to start having these conversations. And I don't think it's effective to go in to a conversation with a goal of, you know, I'm going to convert this person to do X, Y, Z by tomorrow, but rather to, you know, have a conversation about climate and why do you care and what are you doing. That, I think, can be inspiring and transformative.

    But what I find is that those conversations one on one are often the most effective things, but you know, it doesn't really scale. So that's why we need so many people having those conversations, and that those really are important for all of us to seek out and try to make happen.

  10. What sustainable habits have brought you the most joy? What unexpected happiness have you found during your journey of trying to reduce emissions?

    I think it has it is the staying on the ground. So stopping flying within Europe in 2012. And you know, for that took some time to figure out how to reconfigure my time, and what do I say yes or no to in traveling.

    But what was definitely a point of conflict when I was I got divorced when I moved to Sweden, when I started dating. Some of the people that I was seeing would say, you know, let's take a cheap weekend flight to London or whatever, it's a couple hours from here.

    But I had to be like, I don't do that. And then my husband, when we met, we decided to take a 15-hour train trip to Paris for our fourth date. And I thought this is really risky. And like, we probably will never see each other again. He seems too good to be true. So this will just be an efficient way to filter him out faster.

    And then we actually did like each other better! He's a keeper. And I think it's great to find someone that you like taking train trips with. We're now trying to plan a sailing trip across the Atlantic as a long term goal.

That's it for today's Q&A - we highly recommend you grab a copy of Under the Sky We Make.

Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

💌 Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 4,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
Take action
Headshot of Ash Borkar (a woman with glasses and a cardigan)
"The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar, Change.org
Headshot of Meghan Mehta speaking at Google with a microphone in her hand
"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter." - Meghan Mehta, Google