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Saul: Welcome to episode seven of Life in the Time of Corona, a podcast exploring the many ways to stay healthy and sane in these strange times. I am Dr. Saul Rosenthal, a developmental and clinical health psychologist. For the first few episodes of this podcast, we’ve mainly focused on mental health and interpersonal topics like stress management and parenting. However, the impact of the pandemic is much broader. Massive changes range from our day-to-day lives through national and international policy. The global nature of this pandemic shares similarities with other worldwide crises. You may have seen some of the growing number of analyses considering parallels between the coronavirus and climate change.
Today we are joined by an individual who can help us make sense of it. Dr. Heather Goldstone earned her PhD in Ocean Science from MIT and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. After 10 years as a research scientist, she pursued a career as a journalist. Her work has appeared in local Massachusetts and national venues, and she hosted Living Lab Radio on WCAI, the NPR station covering the Cape Cod area. The show drew together science, culture, and our everyday lives. She continues doing this as Chief of Communication for Woods Hole Research Center. Heather, thank you so much for joining us today.
Heather: My pleasure.
Saul: One of the questions I am asking everybody who comes on here — What are some of the biggest changes you find yourself making in your life during the pandemic?
Heather: Oh wow. I mean there are the obvious changes that we didn’t really have a lot of choice about, like the fact that we’re working and schooling from home, which is a huge change… obviously there were some people who were working from home before and there were people who were homeschooling before, but I was doing neither of those things so that’s been a huge change and I am a mother of three. So, it’s a big juggling act, and as a result, I would say another change that I feel like has kind of happened to me as much as being a change that I have made, is that my exercise, and to some extent self-care regimens, have changed. There is just not as much time or for that matter physical space when there are five people on the property all the time and so finding different types of workouts, involving family more, and so I would say that’s one example where I see both negative impacts, but also silver linings. There is something wonderful about replacing a solo yoga class, which I do still love, with a family walk, for example.
And so the other thing that I would say is not a huge change, but that has become of much greater emphasis in terms of daily practices is gratitude practices… both myself and with my family every single day, making sure that we are finding those silver linings and expressing our gratitude to each other for everything we have.
Saul: It’s interesting hearing the number of people who are talking about newfound gratitude for even the small things in life that, I think, we tend to take for granted. Now obviously, the COVID pandemic and climate change are each incredibly complex topics on their own. What are some of the parallels that you’re seeing between the two?
Heather: You know, the parallels are at this point almost countless and continuing to grow and I would say the recognition of those parallels for myself and the climate scientists that I work with on a daily basis really emerged extremely early on, and I think some of that the first parallels we recognized were not even in the crises themselves, but in government response and also public response to the crises and so we saw from our federal government, unfortunately, a questioning or denial of scientific expertise with the coronavirus, which of course we’ve been seeing for years in varying extent from our federal policymakers when it comes to climate change, and I think climate scientists felt a real empathy with public health officials and for myself as a science communicator, I think I felt a real empathy with those trying to raise the alarm about COVID-19 because those of us who had been trying to raise the alarm about climate change for years had that same sense of kind of shouting into a void, really genuinely trying to warn people about an impending crisis and not being heard and that frustration.
So I think that was the first parallel and then it just goes from there… flatten the curve… which we are now all familiar with because of COVID, but there is a very direct parallel to climate change, which is that just as we needed and still need to flatten the COVID curve in order to not overwhelm our healthcare system, we need to flatten the curve with regard to temperature increase in the planet in order to not overwhelm all of our systems that we have in place that have been built on a very stable climate and could be overwhelmed by the kinds of rapid and dramatic changes that we’re starting to experience and will continue to experience in coming years.
And then, as I said, the parallels just kind of continue to build because in both cases, what we are looking at is a global scale crisis in which individual action is necessary, but is obviously insufficient to the scope of the problem. We need coordinated government responses and private-sector responses at all levels. So watching how, kind of, patchwork responses have played out over the past couple of months with COVID, again having this feeling of déjà vu that this is what we’ve been seeing with climate change as well and to try again to find what we can be grateful for here and what we can learn from this.
There is a potential here to learn some really hard and important lessons from what we are all going through… that we are capable of changing the trajectory of what seems like an overwhelming global crisis… that our individual actions, while insufficient, do make an important difference, and that scientific expertise when listened to, can help guide the best decisions and avert the worst impacts of those crises. Those are all lessons that if we can learn those from COVID, will be that much better off in addressing climate change.
Saul: Now, one of the hypothesized effects of climate change is an increase in pandemics and I don’t want to start asking causality questions, but what is the relation, if any, between climate change and the COVID pandemic?
Heather: I think I would not feel comfortable trying to assign as you said, any causality in this particular case. There is certainly science that both patterns of human development and behaviors that go along with that… being in closer contact to wildlife and the incursion of human development into previously wilder areas, as well as changes in the climate can all contribute to greater frequency of jumps in infectious diseases from other organisms to humans and their spread. So yes, that is one thing that has been studied, but I think that’s, of all of the things that are the intersection of the COVID-19 crisis and the climate change crisis, that’s really just a very, very small portion of it.
Saul: One of the things you had said that we can learn between the two crises is that we are capable of changing the trajectory of crisis. I wonder if you could develop that idea a little bit… sort of in the idea of giving us hope… for things that we can do as individuals.
Heather: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it varies in extent and speed and efficacy from place to place because we have seen patchwork and variable responses, but we’ve seen that it’s possible through collective action with social distancing, with wearing masks and washing hands and staying home more, to actually get this outbreak under control. I think it really highlights all of the different levels of response that are necessary. That federal policy, international coordination are key parts of this but then it’s got to work its way all the way down to every single individual doing their part… wearing their mask, washing their hands, staying 6 feet apart… all of those things.
And so that translates very clearly to the same sorts of things, the exact actions and policies that need to be put in place obviously are different, but we see the same sort of need for international and national coordination of responses and a range of policies and decisions that come all the way down to each of us making the choices that we feel able to make in our daily lives, whether that’s engaging in more active transportation in order to not drive as much or changing where we get the energy for our home, changing the amount of meat that we eat. Obviously none of those things — and I think the one that often gets raised is like, you know, I can change my lightbulbs, but that’s not to change the world — and obviously on its own, changing your lightbulbs won’t change the course of climate change. Me wearing my mask won’t change the course of COVID, unless it’s widely done. And so it’s that collective action part of it that I really hope we’re seeing that play out and people are able to see how all of these different levels of response are integral and connected to each other in order to respond to something this big.
Saul: It really has struck me how… to overgeneralize, I guess, a bit… that governments and policymakers and individuals have better followed guidelines during this pandemic than we all have for climate change, particularly when the consensus about climate change has certainly been around for many, many years. The effects have been studied for so long. What do you make of that?
Heather: Well, I think it’s a huge difference in the immediacy of the crisis. It became very quickly very clear to most people that every single one of us was at risk, and even if we did not feel that, because of our age or our occupation or whatever, that we were not at very high risk…that someone we were close to was probably at very high risk. And so that real immediacy, the proximity of the risk, I think, has been very clear with COVID, and that’s where I think the difference is between the two of these. Not in the reality of the situation, but in the perception of the situation, because climate change is impacting every single one of us. It will continue to impact every single one of us.
In both the case of COVID, as we’ve increasingly seen as the weeks have gone by and with climate change, it will not impact all of us equally and we should not think that. It will impact in the case of climate change, just as it has been with COVID, it will impact the poorest and the most vulnerable and the least powerful in our world the most. There’s a great injustice in that and all of the socioeconomic disparities that are in existence in our society will just be highlighted and exacerbated by climate change, but each of us will be and probably already are being affected by it. And so the challenge is to make that clear to people… how are you being affected… how will you be affected by climate change? Because I think that’s really what makes the difference in behavior. It’s when you understand how you personally and those you care about are affected by a problem that you’re really motivated to take action and so I think that’s in some cases where we’ve seen the real difference is that that difference in sense of personal investment in the crisis.
Saul: Yes, the personal investment that we’re having an impact on the health and lives of our family and that simple… relatively simple actions… like wearing a mask or social distancing can actually have such a big impact on transmission of the virus. I guess it’s hard for me to think about how to go from those individual actions which do seem to have an impact… It’s the perception question you were talking about… to go from that to how recycling can really have a big impact on the climate change question. In fact, with climate change, some of the changes we are making whether it’s the lightbulbs you mentioned or driving hybrid vehicles or electric vehicles actually ends up costing a lot more money, at least in the short term, and so it’s harder to do particularly for those who are most affected.
Heather: Yeah, I guess I would… just in in terms of kind of continuing this… what are the parallels and where they diverge, right, the cost-benefit analysis that has been done and continues to be revised every day by policymakers responding to COVID-19 is, “What is the impact on the economy if we keep things shut down and keep people at home as much as possible versus how many lives do we risk if we start to open the economy more and allow people more freedom of movement and more contact with each other?”
I think what hasn’t always been clear to people when we talk about the cost of addressing climate change, whether it’s at a personal level or you know when we hear about presidential candidates’ 1 trillion or 3 trillion dollar… or however much money they are saying they’re planning to spend on addressing climate change… all we hear is that cost… how much will it cost me to buy that car… to make this change in electricity… and we don’t get to the other side of the equation, which is, first of all, what benefit… and if we could translate that benefit into money… would this actually be an even cost… and for that matter, we frequently, kind of, bury and don’t fully consider… and when I say “we” I don’t mean to impugn economists who are studying this… they usually are going all the way but you know, kind of in the public discourse and in the public mind, we often don’t get to thinking about what is the cost if I don’t take that action, right?
And that’s where with COVID the cost if we don’t, is that people will die, and it will happen in the short term and we’ve gotten that message. With climate change, the message is if we don’t take that action, we will incur an even greater cost in extreme weather, in lives lost during extreme heat events and natural disasters, and we’ve not always really considered both sides of the equation, right? We’ve only done this incomplete one-sided equation… What will it cost me right now to do this, without considering what will it cost me and maybe all of us if we don’t do this?
Saul: Right, it’s hard, I think, for us to imagine the empty data cells, what is not happening because we are wearing masks or because we’re doing social distancing or because we are engaging in activities that may help to slow down climate change. I think we’re just much more responsive or reactive to when we see things, so what seems to be happening a little but now is we’re reacting to loss of economics, loss of income, loss of perceived freedoms, which may be at least part of what is driving some of the current pushes to open states up regardless of the medical advice.
Heather: Right, you know, and I would say with regard to those empty cells that you are talking about, right, not being able to see what the other side of the equation is… this is actually one place where we’ve talked a lot so far about where that the case for action with regard to COVID is clearer to people because the other side of the equation seems more visceral and immediate. But in fact, we can see if we just open our eyes to it all around us, what those empty cells are when it when it comes to climate change. So we can look at extreme weather and climate events last year here in the United States and see the price tag that we had more than a dozen natural disasters, each of which cost over $1 billion. So if you think of that as just one year worth of climate impacts, and I wouldn’t say that we can attribute every dollar in that to climate change. Obviously, there have been hurricanes and tornadoes and floods for a very long time. But if we wanted to get into all the nitty-gritty you know, you could go down the list and figure out, actually, we have the science to figure out how much more likely are each of those events as a result of climate change, and therefore how much greater is the cost as a result of climate change, and therefore we can actually look around us already and see, “This is the cost of our inaction so far and that’s only going to get greater the longer that we wait to act.”
You know, again, it’s maybe even more visceral with COVID-19 that we can look around and say, “Oh, if we had started sooner we would probably have a much lower death toll than we have now”, but the same thing is true with climate change, and I think one thing that I’ve heard from climate scientists a lot in the past couple of months is… and this is not by any means to cast aspersions or doubt on any of the modeling and data that we are getting about COVID-19 but… I think all of the experts would admit that there is a lot of uncertainty in the models about where COVID-19 will go, in part because so much of where it will go is dependent on decisions that we make and that’s not something that we can predict, right? The same is true of climate change, but in fact we’ve been studying it for so much longer and you mentioned the consensus earlier, right, the consensus on the key points of climate change, that it is happening rapidly, that it is caused by humans, that it presents a real and present danger… those things are virtually unanimous and so it’s a matter of opening our eyes to that and starting to really grapple with that, because we are responding to the information that we have about COVID-19 and we need to start doing that with the information that we have about climate change.
Saul: As you’re talking, it makes me think about messaging. How do we get that information to people… and by people I do mean us as individuals… because I think ultimately any kind of change is going to be driven by us making demands on government and policy.
Heather: Yeah, you know this is a question that many people, science communicators, social scientists, psychology researchers, have grappled with for years. I think if we go back 10 to 15 years, there was a widespread idea that somehow we were just failing to get the scientific understanding across to the public and what we needed was just more and better information and that would solve the problem, and once people had that information in their hands the problem would become clear, the need for action would become clear, and it would just take off. And that isn’t what we’ve seen play out and instead, over time, We’ve learned and you know, I’m telling this to a psychologist, but what we’ve learned is that the brain is not that simple. And we don’t just take factual information and in a completely objective, rational way, say, “Great, there’s a fact, I’ll act on that, right?” We are constantly filtering the information that’s coming at us, to figure out is this information that I should trust? Is this information that fits with my worldview and is this information that is relevant to me or that I can act on and oftentimes just that the sheer enormity of the climate change problem makes it really hard to face the fact because it does seem overwhelming.
I think something that happened really well with regard to COVID-19 was that the extreme peril of the situation in the messaging was coupled very tightly with here is what you do about it. Now, the guidance has changed absolutely. It didn’t mean that it wasn’t scary and that we all felt great about it but there was this very clear thing that you could hold onto so that when you heard that there is this crisis unfolding, I think it was less of a temptation to just try to ignore it and bury your head in the sand because at least there was a nugget of here’s what I need to do about it, right? And so we need to do a better job of that. It’s not necessarily just about telling people more facts about climate change.
It’s about connecting at a personal and an emotional level, perhaps at a moral and ethical level, and really talking about what’s ahead… what could be ahead both bad and good, and how we might get there in a way that is true to the science, that does not sugarcoat things but that also does not make it seem impossible and hopeless. I often compare this to, you know, like the Titanic… a sinking ship… if the ship is going down, and there is nothing that can be done to stop it, it’s tragic but it’s not actually urgent because there is nothing you can do about it. It’s only urgent if there is something that can and should be done about it. And so that’s where I think our messaging around climate change we need to realize that urgency does not just mean telling people how bad it is and is going to get… but urgency means telling people how much their contribution is needed in this situation.
And a contribution can be… as we’ve kind of touched on… but you know, it to be true to that and to live what we’re saying, to follow our own advice, right, that could be, again, changing your diet, it could be changing daily routines or changing your electricity source, it could be writing a letter to a policymaker for that matter. We recently asked our scientists at Woods Hole Research Center for Earth Day, what climate action meant to them and you might be surprised how many of them said, “Just vote,” but make climate change a voting issue, a vote deciding issue and then go vote. That’s climate action. Climate action could be choosing your job and not necessarily choosing that you go install solar panels. I loved a response that came from our human resources director who said, you know, taking care of the climate scientists in our organization is part of her climate action for her personally. So as an HR professional, she is putting that also into the category of climate action.
So I think there is also may be a need to rethink what climate action… or maybe not even climate action… what climate-aware decision-making and climate-aware living looks like and that it does not just mean one thing. It means that we need to rethink everything in light of this, the same way that we’ve had to rethink everything in light of COVID-19, whether it’s where or how we work or how we get our food and how we get around, what we deem as essential. We’ve been forced really rapidly to reevaluate a huge part of our lives and we need to give climate change that same sort of weight and heft in our lives and in our society because it really is equally big.
Saul: I really like your idea of climate-aware living and my biases are showing. The idea of awareness is really important in the work that I do and is also a theme that has actually been coming up throughout the episodes of this podcast… the idea of having that immediacy, which the coronavirus has, and certainly how it has a personal and emotional effect on us with so many of us knowing people who are getting sick and perhaps dying, but then also having relatively straightforward advice about what we can do in order to change the trajectory, in order to have an impact. And that that action does demand a certain awareness that we otherwise might not have. We have to think about, “Do I have a mask on?’ We have to think about, “Am I 6 foot away from the person?” And I wonder if somehow we can take that and apply it, as I think you are suggesting, to the to the climate change problem to be making it more personal, more immediate, and to recognize that whatever actions we’re doing, no matter how small or how seemingly indirect, they are all about making the change to this bigger system.
Heather: Yeah, I mean I think awareness helps in in so many aspects of our lives. And I guess for me it plays out, kind of, in cycles where it can be easy because so many of the systems around us in our society as a whole has not been built based on climate change, right? It has been built and has evolved over thousands of years in a relatively stable climate where we did not have to think about climate all that much. I mean, yes, if you live in a tornado prone area or a hurricane prone area or, you know for me here on Cape Cod, you learn to adapt to things like nor’easter’s and storms, but they were relatively stable and so we were able to kind of put those in the background, right, and not have to make that a major part of our awareness.
And so part of what we need to do is start bringing a new awareness to all of the different parts of our daily lives that impact climate and are impacted by climate, and then the challenge… and then this is where I think for me it goes in phases… is to not get lost in, “Oh my gosh everything I do has a carbon footprint and everything is impacted by climate change”, and get into that that hopeless mode, right? The awareness leading to hopelessness… and so there is a real need to, I guess, focus awareness kind like a gratitude practice… focus awareness on the successes and the actions that are moving things in the right direction, even recognizing that they are not the prevailing norm at the moment, that they are not solving the problem all by themselves. And I would say one other thing with regard to, kind of, personal action and maybe which ones to pick or how to get started. I mean, you know, we’ve talked about how the advice is pretty clear and it’s a pretty short list when it comes to COVID-19 and one thing that the people often raise to me when I’m talking about climate change is, you know, this this question of what should I do… and I‘ve heard so many different things, which one is the right one? And the answer… I don’t want to, you know, say that everything that’s out there is good information… that’s not what I’m saying… you can find bad information and false solutions, absolutely.
With climate change there isn’t just this short list of, “This is the list of 3 to 5 items that’s going to solve climate change”, and that’s often held up as why we haven’t done it yet, because we just don’t know the right thing to do. And, I guess, I look at that in a different way and say the fact that there is not one right solution, doesn’t mean that there isn’t any right solution. It means that there are a lot of right solutions. And so trying to just kind of flip the lens a little bit and look at that not as, “I need to figure out what is the one right action that I should take in response to climate change”, but figuring out what is the action that fits best with my values and my lifestyle and where I am right now, that I can take. And so I think that actually brings us back to that awareness piece of being aware of where those intersections are, being aware of your emotions, your response when you encounter those connections and realize either that an action you’re having is impacting climate or that something that you do or love is being impacted by climate change… to be aware of that and go. “Oh, maybe that’s a place for action, right, how do I find a way to take action there?” So if that ends up being with diet and eating less meat or eating more locally or something in that realm feels good to you and hits that kind of emotional resonance, then that makes it a great place for you to start and if writing to your elected representatives or protesting or taking some action in the political realm is what resonates with you, then that’s also a great action and it doesn’t mean one was right and one was wrong.
It’s going to take a whole lot of different things and so bringing that awareness to what fits best for you and responding to that, I think, can be a really powerful way to get started and not get overwhelmed realizing that it’s not that all of us can or even should do all of them. All of these things are going to be needed and it’s for us to figure out which one is the piece, at least, that we can start with.
Saul: So thinking about what actions we may engage in that are consistent with our own values and that help us to feel like we are actually contributing to the solution.
As we wrap up this conversation, there are a few “one thing” questions that I like to ask. What is one thing that people should take away from our discussion?
Heather: You have a role to play in changing the trajectory of climate change and it’s important to do that.
Saul: What is one thing that you’re doing to take care of yourself?
Heather: I am trying to spend more of my days outdoors and am making my back deck my office as much as possible because that’s something that I wouldn’t be able to do if I were working from my office and so it’s an act of finding a silver lining in the situation that we’re currently in.
Saul: And finally, what is one thing that you think the coronavirus experience has changed forever.
Heather: Hmm… our sense of connectedness. I really don’t know if we’ll ever go back to thinking about social interaction and travel in the same ways that we did before and I think that has both good and bad aspects, but if you take it simply from that point of awareness… we are now all acutely aware of how many people we might normally encounter both casually and deliberately in the course of a day and acutely aware of how much that has meant to us and means to us and what that value is in our lives.
Saul: This is Life the Time of Corona. You can subscribe to the show at iTunes or wherever you get podcasts. Please rate the show and leave comments. Find out more at my website, saulrosenthalphd.com and follow me on twitter and Instagram at @drsaulrosenthal.
Dr. Heather Goldstone has a PhD in Ocean Science and has developed her career as a journalist and scientist. As the Chief of Communication for Woods Hole Research Center, she focuses on bringing climate science into the hands of those can make real-world change and into our everyday lives. Heather, you’ve given us a to wrap our heads around, especially ways to stay hopeful and ways to take meaningful action to help change the trajectory of a problem that often seems too big to face. So I really want to thank you so much for joining us today.
Heather: Thank you. It has really been a pleasure talking with you.
Saul: And thank you listeners. I look forward to continuing the conversation on Life in the Time of Corona.
Saul Rosenthal, PhD May 19th, 2020