Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Author and scientist, Dr. Kim Nicholas, is a professor of Sustainability Science at Lund University who is passionate about using science to scale climate action. In this fireside chat, Dr. Nicholas dives deep into her role as a scientist, her writing process for Under the Sky We Make, and the ways we can make individual and structural changes for our planet.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
As she reflects on her experiences, Dr. Nicholas emphasizes the importance of individual and community action in reaching global climate goals.
What’s your journey to becoming a professor and scientist?
I’m originally from Sonoma, about an hour north of San Francisco, and did my PhD at Stanford. My research is on sustainable agriculture and sustainable behavior change. I wanted to understand how we are going to meet the climate goals, stop the climate crisis, and have a good life for everybody on Earth.
How do you feel now about your role in the climate movement?
I definitely feel a moral responsibility to speak out. That’s been a process and a journey for me.
In 2014, I heard a talk by Bill McKibben, the co-founder of 350.org. He was saying that tenured professors should be the most vocal, the most active, and the first on the frontlines. They have the most privilege and security to raise their voices. Many people who are less advanced in their careers, or certainly in many parts of the world, don't have that option to safely speak out. That really struck me because I had just gotten tenure at that point.
As a sustainability scientist, I see it as my mission to help society meet the goals that we have set through democratic processes, like the UN Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. We need experts to separate fact from fiction and point out when we're not going in the direction society has said we want to ensure, which includes a stable climate.
How do you balance negative/alarmist feelings with optimism and having the power to make a difference?
I don’t know if I balance them, so I’m not sure if I have a great answer. I write about having all these feelings, and I think we need to acknowledge and make space for that. It’s not just this polar between good climate feelings and bad climate feelings. I don’t believe that’s a real distinction.
It's necessary and appropriate to have difficult and tough feelings about grief, loss, and anger about injustice. Those are necessary, healthy, and appropriate. Hopefully, we can harness both of them to individually and collectively increase our resilience, come together in communities, and do what's necessary to make the changes.
So, I don't see it only as a balance, but maybe just continuing to work through it. I think working through those feelings and not avoiding them are ways we’re able to find purpose and put that into action. I think avoiding these feelings is doing more harm than good.
Why did you decide to focus your book on individual action vs. structural change?
We know we need both individual and collective action. I want to be really clear that we need individual action from people like me who have historically or even still maybe have our fair share of the carbon budget (i.e. how much climate pollution humanity can release). Every bit of carbon that we emit really matters.
A lot of what I write about is my own journey of realizing that climate justice means everyone should actually have an equal share of this global, shared common resource of the safe carbon budget for the atmosphere. I'm taking way more than my share. That means that I'm harming other people, and limiting their options and opportunities. Taking that on was really important for me. I cut out flying by 90%, live car-free, cut out meat, and made some high-impact, personal changes through my own research to make systemic, necessary changes.
In my case, it's also been a driver and a pathway into more collective action. I wouldn't say I don't see my book as being only about individual action, but I see it as a guide for how people find their own climate path for where they can contribute.
It’s important to consider — What are the high-impact lifestyle choices that are important and necessary for social and cultural change? Also, how can we as individuals also come together to be a community and a movement? How can we be a part of economic, political, and cultural changes? I think it's very hard for the average person to say that we need systemic change. Well, what does that look like? Where do I contribute?
I tried to break it down in my book. I talked about banks and the finance system. I explained what you can do and included examples of employers, communities, and divestment movements that have actually made a difference. The book also talks about how you can get involved on more systemic levels and address your climate privilege.
What is climate privilege and how did you come upon this term for your book?
I define climate privilege as acknowledging that climate change is not fair, which of course, we know on many levels. It's also recognizing the ways in which I have been a part of systems that have inadvertently or purposefully contributed to climate harm.
Countries that historically have had high emissions are responsible for taking action first and fastest. I think that exists on a personal level as well. It’s recognizing that I’ve consumed more than my fair share of fossil fuels and other limited resources. For 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. It’s one of the fastest ways to actually really reduce emissions. We know we're just about out of time to do that, so we have to pull all the levers that we have.
Your book mentions three ways that people like us can make a difference: going car-free, meat-free, and flight-free. Which one is the most challenging for you?
Flights were the hardest for me. The research shows that even environmentalists, environmental scientists, or climate scientists often have the hardest time making that change.
I lead a research project called The Takeoff of Staying on the Ground, which is a social movement that started in Sweden and is now spreading internationally. People are pledging to go flight free or dramatically reduce their flying in order to acknowledge the climate impact and make that cultural change.
The last few years have really been interesting to watch, but I think for me, it was much more part of my identity. I thought of myself as a traveler, as someone who wanted to have adventures to meet and see other parts of the world and learn from other cultures. It’s been important for me to reframe, honor those core values, and find ways to live them out without seeing flying as the only way to do that.
It's also been a big part of the cultural shift happening in academia, which is a very high-flying sector. There's a lot of expectation of frequent travel for conferences and so on. I think that also has really changed in the last few years. People began questioning the value of flying 10 hours for a one-hour meeting. Is it actually worth the carbon, our time and health, and other trade-offs?
We also need to consider what is fair from an equity perspective. We know that it's usually a very small group of people who do a large amount of flying and cause the most pollution. We need to consider how we can approach that issue more fairly.
What are tips for people like us who want to be more conscious about the way we travel?
Goal setting is the key. There was a study saying that the most prominent behavioral changes made by people during the pandemic were cutting emissions while maintaining or increasing well-being. Work travel is the biggest factor. Depending on your work policy, reducing your travel to work is an option. I know folks who are doing that now and are realizing that their industry still works without the need to travel and fly much. We need to consider how we can be more thoughtful going forward when there aren't travel restrictions to make that happen.
Another general rule of thumb is to start cutting your emissions where you can. From your pre-pandemic baseline, ask yourself— How could you at least cut your flying emissions in half? What activities that require flying would you miss the least? Think about how you can do that in the lowest carbon way.
Thinking about it in steps has helped me. I was inspired by my friend, Charlie, who had stopped flying within Europe and was still going to conferences and having adventures. I realized that it was possible, so I made the decision to stop flying within my continent.
What is one fact or idea from your book that might be surprising to someone who isn’t a climate expert?
The first thing that comes to mind is a friend who just texted me. She read my book and said, “Wow, it was really brutal. I consider myself well-informed, but things are much worse than I thought.”
I wanted to put together a coherent story because the data show that most Americans (and likely people in other countries) only hear, think, or read about climate change less than once a month. They talk about it with friends and family less than once a month. Most people do support actually addressing it. It's not that I think everyone needs to become an expert, but I think we need to be aware that we’re in a really deep hole, both from the climate and biodiversity side. The urgency is definitely not widespread yet and that might be surprising for some.
“Both sides journalism” tends to pit scientists against special interest groups. What do you wish for the future of the media? How do you see the media’s role in fighting the climate crisis?
The media does have a really important responsibility to play. I think “scientists being climate alarmists” has been a narrative for a long time. Thankfully, that is now changing.
I wish that journalists told climate stories more often. At this point, every story is a climate story and there are so many opportunities to tell it that way and make climate change feel like it's part of our lives. It would help people make those connections. We know from research that media plays a really important role in creating and sustaining public concern, motivating public action, and shaping public opinion. The biggest thing that the media reports on is what leaders are doing, which is an important part of their role. That’s why we need leaders in Congress and in boardrooms who are actually doing something worth reporting about on climate change. The media can highlight and evaluate those actions, and discuss if they lead to the necessary changes.
There was a good example that I read about, which was a Swedish newspaper that told every story through a climate lens in one issue. Every story had a climate angle to it, whether it was sports, real estate, local news, etc. I would like to see more of that.
What are your favorite publications?
What questions are occupying most of your space now?
For my research, I have three different projects that I'm focused on now. One is The Takeoff of Staying on the Ground. We’re setting the narrative in Sweden and in the media for how that movement has developed. My main project at the moment is working with Lund's municipality for my city government. I have a grant to try and help my city meet our climate goals. For example, I'm collecting soil samples to try to get a baseline of how much carbon our ecosystems around Lund is storing because we have a goal to increase our ecosystem carbon storage by 2030. However, no one really knows how much there is now. It's very interesting to translate from theory to practice in this way. Like every other good climate goal, we are not on track to meet it. We need more ambitious and coordinated policies.
For those policies, I think about what that would look like here and who would be responsible. One big example is reducing private car use. We know that it is primarily high-income, middle-aged men who are doing most of the driving and who are the most resistant to reducing car use. So, we need to ask—How do we make that politically feasible for politicians to actually implement? The same applies to all policies.
I realize that politicians get very anxious when we start talking about this. I’m trying to figure out what this will look like in practice through my research. Will we have a climate assembly? How can we build support for the kind of necessary policy measures?
Is technological change enough? For example, is it possible to meet any climate goals if electric cars are the default transportation mode for the next 20 years?
The answer is no. You can look at research by Costa Samaras from Carnegie Mellon. 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.
In terms of electrification, we need to electrify everything. The best way to reduce emissions is by using renewable and zero-carbon energy. However, that alone is not enough. We have to reduce driving and the need to drive. If we just replaced all cars with electric cars, it's still not enough to meet the necessary emissions reductions in the US and other countries. Technical change alone will not be enough. We need to continue raising awareness about these issues to scale impact.
What are tips on talking to people about climate change?
I think authenticity is effective by telling your own story, your own reasons for caring, and why you got involved.
We tend to believe there is this one magic message that we all just need to repeat like robots that will magically transform collective human consciousness. It doesn't work that way. The message and the messenger matter, and different messages will resonate with different groups.
How can we compel the middle ground (ie. people who know about the issue and care, but are unsure how to take action) to get involved in climate?
Social science research tells us we have the biggest influence on the people in our circles. Our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors are great places to start having these conversations. I don't think it's effective to go into a conversation with the goal of converting this person to do X, Y, Z by tomorrow. However, having a conversation about climate, and explaining why you care and what you're doing can be inspiring and transformative. I find those 1:1 conversations to be the most effective. If we have many others starting these conversations, the change is exponential.
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