Living in an Age of Dangerous Climate Change — A Conversation with Dr. Kim Nicholas
Kim Nicholas and I went to college together, overlapping slightly in the Earth Systems Program at Stanford University. In the midst of the global pandemic, we hopped on a Zoom call from Lund, Sweden and Brooklyn, New York to talk about growing up, wine, and climate change.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
RRD: I want to just start with growing up. You grew up in Northern Calinfornia, in Sonoma, is that right?
KN: Yes, I grew up in Sonoma, the town of Sonoma, a couple of miles north of the plaza in the Mayacamas Mountains, so kind of out in the countryside.
What was growing up like?
I loved growing up where I did because it was really beautiful. My parents still live in that house, and it is up on the hills over the Sonoma Valley so it feels very peaceful and lovely. It’s looking out over the vineyards, and then I can see actually to the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge off in the distance of the horizon.
So it definitely feels out in nature, and I think that had a big influence on me growing up. There weren’t really any neighbors or other kids around to play with, and my sister was, or still is, seven years older, so we hung out a lot but she was out of the house off at college by the time I was in seventh grade.
My grandfather bred a turkey, which has become the main meat turkey in the world, called the Nicholas Broad Breasted White.
I definitely spent a lot of time outside and that influenced me quite a bit. My parents are lovely people. It’s a struggle right now under the Trump administration, because they are Trump supporters, and as a scientist and someone who cares about climate change and cares about equality, in many ways, I find that really challenging.
But my mom was a Republican politician actually, so she worked in local and then state politics, she was on the State Board of Education and the State Board of Prison Terms. So she had a really interesting active career and did a lot of good, I think, in preserving open space in Sonoma County, doing a lot for education for kids.
And my dad was in… My grandfather bred a turkey, which has become the main meat turkey in the world, called the Nicholas Broad Breasted White. So my dad was involved in that business until he retired and that was his work. And, yeah, I think I spent a lot of time playing games with my dad, going fishing, spending time outside. My mom loves gardening. So those are some of the reflections of growing up.
How far back in California does your family go?
On my dad’s side, I am a fifth generation Californian, from Sonoma County, though obviously, I now live in Sweden. So that does feel like a long family history and roots and something I’m thinking about, especially under lockdown.
I do feel like I have a strong connection to Sonoma, and the landscape there really speaks to me and is something that I really love, and that also influenced, I think, what I studied in college.
Enjoying time outside and hiking and knowing the names and something about the plants and birds and flowers. So it is something I’m thinking about now, being so far away.
It seems like you had a pretty good childhood in terms of just connecting with nature. How did that create a path for you to think about earth systems and climate science?
I went to Brown University for my freshman year. I remember filling out this form to register for college, and I think I said my major was gonna be physics and poetry, which was a thing, and then that was not at all what I did.
It’s just funny to imagine that now. I studied the Biology and Evolution of Language, which was a class that I thought I was gonna get in to, and totally didn’t.
Then I transferred to Stanford, and I took the Human Biology core and ended up minoring in that. I took Geology of California with Gary Ernst towards the end of my sophomore year, and I loved that class and it was so fun and he was such a great teacher and I really loved being out in the field and driving around California and going on hikes and looking for… Gary’s just… Did you ever have him?
Just lectures. I never had a full course with him.
Okay. He’s just a really delightful and charming guy, and I ended up being his research assistant for two summers. So I got a job, which to me seemed magical that someone would pay me $1000 to hike around for two weeks. That just seemed amazing, and I had basically no skills or knowledge, but was able to participate and learn on the job, and it really de-mystified research for me.
“It’s just looking at stuff and counting stuff and deducing patterns. I can do this, this seems alright.”
Until then, I thought of research as something… I guess I really didn’t know what it involved, to be honest. And when we got out in the field and had some sharpies and some Ziploc bags and a clothesline, it was: “Alright, we’re ready. Let’s go do research.”
I was like, “What? It’s not more complicated than this?”
I thought it would be, I don’t know, some sort of magical, very elite activity.
And I figured out, “Oh, it’s just looking at stuff and counting stuff and deducing patterns. I can do this, this seems alright.”
After freshman year of college, I had gone back to Sonoma and worked in a bakery and helped sell bus tickets to senior citizens going to Reno, at a travel agency. I was really bored and I thought I have outgrown this little town and I don’t wanna come back here for summers. I need to do something more intellectually exciting.
So I was looking for something and found research opportunities at Stanford starting my sophomore summer. And then that helped kind of seal the deal, and I switched into Earth Systems.
“I can do grapes, I’m from Sonoma.”
So tell me a little bit about wine… I forget. You did wine and soil and climate during your master’s or PhD, which you did at Stanford after undergrad?
No, I started working with wine in 2003 when I started my PhD at Stanford.
Before that, after I graduated from college, I worked as a policy analyst at a nonprofit for a couple of years in Philadelphia. Then I went to Wisconsin, and did a master’s there, and I was working on prairie restoration and degraded agricultural land. How farmers can restore carbon, basically, to degraded farmland.
And then I came back to Stanford for my PhD. So 2003, I started working on wine and that was kind of… When I came back to Stanford, I thought I was gonna do something with tropical biodiversity, Costa Rica, something, something. Pretty vague.
I I lived in Marin, and was commuting to Stanford, and so I would stay with friends when I was on campus. And I remember spending the night on my friend Becca’s floor and having this insight of “Actually, I really want to work in California.”
[And I had] this chance to get involved with the research project that my supervisor was doing. We were asked to be part of a team that was looking at impacts of climate change on California, and they had assembled a bunch of people who were looking at health and water resources and other things that are important to the state. And so Chris Field, my advisor, was leading the agriculture piece and he asked a couple of his grad students if we wanted to join.
I remember just printing off a list of the most valuable crops in California. And at that time, number one was dairy, and number two was wine grapes. And I said, “Oh, I can do grapes. I grew up in Sonoma.” So it was kind of chance that I got into it.
But then I really enjoyed studying something that is both important and you can justify it economically, and it’s a good canary in the coal mine for climate change, although the coal mine is now hot enough that we don’t really need canaries because everything is a canary.
But at that time, it was… The signal was not as clear. And also something that I really care about and love and enjoy and it’s more personally connected to where I’m from, and the culture and the identity of the place where I grew up.
The coal mine is now hot enough that we don’t really need canaries because everything is a canary.
So, that’s the journey into wine. “Hey, this is a good opportunity, it makes sense,” and you jumped into it?
Yeah, so I grew up around it. In my high school, many, many kids had families who were involved in the wine business. I think if I look at my high school year book, it probably reads like a shelf of California wine if you go to wine stores.
My parents had a small vineyard, so they have a few acres of vines that they had as a hobby, and now is being taken care of by a young wine maker in Sonoma who’s both growing the grapes and then making the wine. They never did it as a business, but I think it was an important part of life growing up in Sonoma.
It sort of surrounds you, the landscape, and is half of the economy and a lot of the employment and a big part of the culture with food and wine, and so on.
So it definitely influenced me, but it wasn’t until 2003 that I started this project. And then, I got much more into it and ended up going to UC Davis and getting a master’s in, basically, in the Department of Viticulture and Enology. Learning about wine growing and wine making there and taking a bunch of classes and doing some lab work for my PhD in Davis, getting more in to the wine side.
What was that like? It seems like a pretty unique set of coursework to focus on.
Super fun. I think it was the best of both worlds to be dividing my time between Davis and Stanford. It was sort of a nightmare in terms of commuting, but that was my life in California at that time. I was living very far apart from where I needed to be and spending a lot of time driving, which I now do not miss at all.
I said, “I want to be an academic. Where are the academic jobs to be a professor with this degree when I graduate?” And they said, “They don’t exist yet.”
But that said, both Davis and Stanford were really nice places to be. Stanford was very intellectually exciting. I was in this new PhD program, so we were the second cohort of this interdisciplinary environmental PhD. It felt like we were learning a lot and blazing new territory.
When I started I said, “I want to be an academic. Where are the academic jobs to be a professor with this degree when I graduate?” And they said, “They don’t exist yet but they will by the time you graduate.” So I was like, “Oh, okay.” So, that was a fun environment.
Davis was also really fun and very applied. They have basically the world leading department on wine. It was an interesting contrast, because at Stanford, everybody were experts and doing interesting things in their field and they sort of shared a topic of sustainability in some way or another, and then looked at different dimensions of sustainability in different ecosystems or cases or using different methods and tools and disciplines. It was very interdisciplinary in that way.
And then Davis was kind of the opposite. Everyone was an expert in this one subject of wine, but using science or soil science or economics or biochemistry or whatever it is, so you do have this really deep understanding of this one topic.
Out of curiosity, were the Davis classmates more on a path to be in the wine industry, whether it’s growing or, I don’t know — they were not necessarily trying to be academics, is that right?
Yes, very much so. I don’t know the numbers, but my impression is 80 plus, maybe 90% of the people there were going on to careers in the wine industry, which they’ve done very successfully.
The people I’m still in touch with, they’re working in big wineries. Or they’ve started their own [things]. A lot of them went up to Oregon and staked out their own territories. There are some who have become academics. So there are people who are researchers now in that field, but I think most people did it from a more applied interest.
[It’s] about as inspiring as shopping for wine at the DMV. Very competent and well-organized, but totally uninspiring.
What’s your relationship to wine now?
Severely diminished by living in Sweden.
We have an alcohol monopoly and a very different culture. Although, it’s funny that it took this pandemic to make me do this, but we’ve just today, for the first time, received a home delivery of, in this case, beer, local beer that we ordered from the state alcohol monopoly.
The only place you can buy liquor to drink at home in Sweden is the state alcohol monopoly, and their expressed purpose is to limit the harmful effects of alcohol.
They’re trying to sell less alcohol, basically, which I understand and respect and there’s definitely a social benefit. But on the other hand, it’s about as inspiring as shopping for wine at the DMV. Very competent and well-organized, but totally uninspiring.
What I really love about wine is the people who have their own taste and that you can follow and learn from or develop your own idea of, “Oh, these are the wines I really like,” or, “This is the style that I really appreciate.”
That was really fun about being in Davis, that there were tastings every week, and that they were so friendly and accessible. I think the least wine snobby experiences I’ve had were with the people who know the most about wine and who are studying and learning about wine. There was no preciousness or gatekeeping around that experience, which I really appreciate.
So I do still appreciate and enjoy wine, but I actually don’t drink that much wine nowadays. It’s not really part of the culture here, and it’s harder to find stuff that I really enjoy drinking, and so it’s not very exciting. We have boxed Spanish red for our everyday dinner.
But, yeah, it is something that I miss.
You calibrate your body and brain to agree. “Okay, here’s a standard with 14% ethanol and it has crushed up raspberries in it. When we smell this, this is what we’re talking about when I say raspberries.”
There’s this culture that maybe comes from movies in the 1980s or something, where wine is unapproachable and snobby. And there’s this maybe more fundamental, philosophical, ontological thing — when I taste chocolate in a wine and you taste chocolate in a wine, is that the same thing?
So I feel people sometimes think, “How do you both trust and know how to you use your mouth as a sensory organ and then connect that to language?”
Totally. I wrote something for Scientific American about wine tasting, actually, and how to do your own wine tasting at home.
There’s something called the “aroma wheel” that a professor at Davis developed, which is really helpful in realizing, “Okay, I’m smelling this wine. Am I smelling something that is fruity or chemical or nutty or…” These very broad categories. And you say, “Okay, it’s more fruity. Is it more dark fruit like blackberry, or is it more red fruit like raspberry, or…” You kind of go through these finer and finer gradations, and it’s a very helpful tool and I think it does…
That’s what we did at Davis. So when I was doing sensory panels, you would train yourself as an instrument, basically. You calibrate your body and brain to agree. “Okay, here’s a standard with 14% ethanol and it has crushed up raspberries in it. When we smell this, this is what we’re talking about when I say raspberries.”
And then we’ll smell the sample wine that’s part of the experiment and rate it ourselves and how much raspberry do we think it has. So, it is calibrating yourself to physical standards, basically. And then training yourself to make that connection and recognize, “Oh, okay, this is blackberry,” or, “This is whatever.”
Some of it’s just a common vocabulary on flavor and other sensations, mouth feel, or whatever, that you just need to learn. It’s like any language then.
Totally. I think there’s a lot of mindfulness to it.
Basically, all science is interpreting observations. And of course, you can use tools and instruments to amplify your senses and see distant stars through telescopes, or microscopes let you look inside cells and so on, that you couldn’t do with your naked eye, but you’re still… That is what science is, is basically looking at the observable world and making observations and maybe eventually predictions. So it’s weird to me, actually, that I was in my late 20s, before I really thought about training my senses as a scientist.
I was in my late 20s, before I really thought about training my senses as a scientist.
I feel like that is a skill that probably used to be more emphasized. I have a dissection kit from my ex’s grandfather. And I think… I’m not saying I wish there were more dissections necessarily, in labs or something, but just that there used to being more emphasis on the physical skills of drawing what you see in the microscope, or if you look at the old style naturalists — I just read Walden recently for the first time — the kind of observations that people make when they are just using and relying on their senses, I think, is super interesting. You can learn a lot from that.
Sometimes I feel like our understanding of science has kind of gone down this path of being very procedural and process-driven, which it fundamentally is. But maybe it should be more sensual and erotic. It’s about interpreting your senses.
There’s a great book you probably would love. It’s called Perfumes: The Guide, and it’s this description and rating of these two people smelling perfumes and describing what they smell like.
I got it when I was at Davis, because at Davis, you learn, basically, it’s not valid to say a wine is something like elegant or balanced, because that’s not a physical standard that you can calibrate to. So you have to describe things in terms of the sort of flavors that we were talking about earlier, black pepper or raspberry or whatever. You could talk about texture, astringency, which is a sensation, but it’s really rigid what you’re allowed to talk about there.
And then, this book is really fun because it’s describing things in terms of much more kind of abstract experiences, like, “Oh this perfume reminds me of… It’s like this woman that I saw on the subway 20 years ago, who was wearing this and reading this and doing this.” And it gives you a vibe or an experience or like, “Oh, if this perfume were an animal, it would be a unicorn wearing a top hat.”
It’s the poetry side of the physics and poetry.
I really liked being a student. I like being in a classroom and learning, studying and learning stuff, ’cause I’m a giant nerd.
I want to circle back to one thing you said. You said that in your PhD program, you knew you wanted to be an academic. What made you know that you wanted to be an academic as a life choice? And then maybe, how did that bring you to Sweden?
I’ve been thinking about that recently, actually. I had professors who I really looked up to and respected and admired, and I thought it seemed really interesting and fun to have this job where you got to learn and discover new things all the time, basically.
It was also very appealing for me, the sort of lifestyle of traveling and going to international conferences and doing field work and having those kind of experiences.
And that’s something that’s kind of complicated for me now because, obviously, I live in Sweden, but I’m from California.
Those two places are quite far apart. Some of my research now is focused on, how are we gonna reduce emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change?
How can you have collaboration and learn from each other and exchange ideas, and to develop research frontiers without physical travel?
It’s really clear from a carbon budget perspective that flying is pretty much the worst thing that individuals can do for the climate, so I’ve been cutting my own flying about 95%. It’s interesting that some of the reasons that I was attracted to or got into academia was travel.
Now thinking about, okay, how can you have collaboration and learn from each other and exchange ideas, and to develop research frontiers without physical travel? That’s something, obviously, everyone is working on now when people are not able to travel due to public health reasons, but it’s something that I’ve been working on for a while in a research and personal context, and it’s interesting to see that taking off.
But your question about why did I wanna be an academic… Well, I really liked being a student. I like being in a classroom and learning, studying and learning stuff, ’cause I’m a giant nerd, so I think it’s fun.
Starting with my master’s, even before that, I guess. I sort of realized what I love and I think is really fun, is hiking around in the mountains, and if there are research questions you can answer by doing that, I think it’s really awesome. But it was apparent 20 years ago when I was an undergrad, and even more now, that there’s no true wilderness left — because human impact is everywhere. Through climate change and other global changes, even if someone hasn’t physically set foot on the mountain or climbed it before, it’s affected by the changes we made to the atmosphere and other parts of the Earth system. So I kind of realized that if I wanna spend my career documenting what are the impacts of climate change on beautiful natural places, the answer’s gonna be, “It’s really bad.”
I don’t see that being the kind of research the world needs more of, or at least for me, I didn’t feel like that’s what I wanted to be doing.
So I’ve gotten more and more into more applied and more solutions-focused research because I feel like that’s where I can hopefully make a bigger difference.
And I’m happy with that and I do find it meaningful. But day-to-day, it would probably be more fun to be hiking around in the mountains.
A scary realization I had only a few months ago, is that we already are living in an age of dangerous climate change.
Let’s shift on to that climate topic. You’ve been thinking about this for a long time — as have I. In 1999, I was working on some early environmental footprinting methods with this guy, Dr. Mathis Wackernagel. I don’t know if you…
Oh, yeah, sure. Yeah, I heard him give a great talk.
I did this internship with him in 1999. He was applying this methodology that he developed that was very material science input/output driven — literally measure everything you’re consuming, and based on that, you can calculate your environmental footprint.
I was working with him on spreadsheets and scenarios for like three months, and I was just basically like, “This is amazing and also ridiculous — anyone who’s gonna do this is already so bought into the changes that they’re going to need to make, that I don’t know that this is an effective way to put the message forward.”
Basically, the models all boiled down to choices about, like, 13 things. Urban density, cars, flight, kids, housing sizes, eating meat, all those major life and consumerist choices. And that was 20 years ago.
So I’m curious, since you have made this your life’s work.
When you talk about catastrophic global climate change — what does that mean? How should people think about that?
Yeah, so a scary realization I had only a few months ago, is that we already are living in an age of dangerous climate change. I’m still coming to terms with this myself, because going back to 1992, the Rio Convention that established the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the definition there, the whole point, which is the purpose of the Paris Agreement and has been the purpose of every subsequent agreement between now and then, is to avoid dangerous anthropogenic climate change.
Humans should not interfere with the climate system to the extent that it interferes with food production, that ecosystems cannot adapt naturally, and that economic development should be able to proceed in a sustainable manner.
Those are the criteria. Basically, people should be able to grow food, nature should be able to cope with the climate naturally, and it should be possible for everybody to have a good life.
People should be able to grow food, nature should be able to cope with the climate naturally, and it should be possible for everybody to have a good life.
And the data say that we’re already screwing that up, with the climate change we’ve caused already. So, the warming that we’ve caused already from burning fossil fuels and land use change for agriculture means we’ve warmed about one degree Celsius, and there’s already been pretty substantial yield decreases under that warming. We’re making it harder for farmers to grow crops and get good yields.
There is a study by Marshall Burke — I don’t know if you know him, from Stanford? He and I were there together at the same time in grad school.
His work has shown that climate change has already made the income and economic inequality about 25% worse than it would otherwise be. Both within countries and between countries. Basically, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer more extremely. Climate change is driving those experiences further.
Then we know that nature is having a really hard time with the climate change we’ve already caused, so about half of species on Earth have changed where they live or when they live. So, migrating earlier, for example, because of climate change.
That’s one bottomline of climate change. When I teach climate change, I teach it as it’s warming, it’s us, we’re sure it’s bad, we can fix it.
So it’s bad. There’s a lot to, “It’s bad.” Those are the things that are bad already.
We have to do a lot of the heavy lifting now before 2030 to avoid more than 1.5 degrees of warming.
For non scientists, how should we understand the science and the policy around climate change that we read about in the news — like the Paris Agreement or the IPCC reports, things like that?
The goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit warming well below two degrees Celsius and pursue efforts for 1.5. So it’s based on a temperature target.
There’s a long history to that, but essentially, we know that the warmer it gets, the worse it gets, and it’s not a linear response.
Every kilogram and ton of carbon matters, and every 10th of a degree matters, because the impacts get a lot more serious. For catastrophic climate change, I think of it in terms of the five reasons for concern that the IPCC has.
Basically, they’ve been tracking for decades, these integrated measures of the impacts of climate change and the report that came out in 2018 got a lot of attention and galvanized a lot of interest.
That’s where this headline of “12 years to save the world” came from. That’s not exactly accurate, but it is true.
We have to do a lot of the heavy lifting now before 2030 to avoid more than 1.5 degrees of warming. That made it really clear, even at 1.5 degrees of warming, which people have been previously thinking or talking about as like, “Oh, that’s not realistic because we won’t make changes fast enough.”
But it was sort of this light bulb moment of like, “Wait a minute. The impacts are actually really bad at 1.5, and two is not a safe level of warming, that’s a scary level of warming, and then it just gets worse from there.”
So right now, we’re on track for about 3.2 degrees of warming, is the central estimate. And that’s a world that I can’t imagine living in. I’m not sure people would recognize it as planet Earth.
And that’s sort of where we’re headed in potentially our lifetimes, towards the end of our lifetimes.
Wow. Yeah. That’s very sobering. I feel like people have a hard time visualizing that. If you’re a suburban person living in a rich country, it requires a sort of this empathy leap of, “Well, what happens to the people of Bangladesh if there is massive flooding?” Or, “What happens to Syria if droughts lead to armed conflict.”
I don’t know if that’s something that you cover or think about in your upcoming book. How do you connect these really big global future ideas, that I think are really hard for people to visualize and internalize in terms of how it impacts their day to day lives. How do you communicate, “This is what might happen,” or, “This is what life choices I should think about,” in a way that balances scary versus reality in that conversation?Yeah. So I guess what I’m doing in the book.
There’s plenty written already about climate change that’s really scary. And so, that’s out there for people to read already.
What I am trying to do is tell my own story about the people and places that I love and how they’re already affected by climate change and what’s at risk. So I’m writing about the wine industry in California, and I’m not sure that it will be possible to really continue the wine industry in California with more than two degrees of warming. Certainly, not in a way that we know now, and for many of the places that exist now.
We have a study that came out a few months ago, showing, okay, there’s a lot of potential for adaptation if we switch varietals. There are places that are warming beyond where it’s good to grow Pinot Noir, for example, that’s a cool weather grape.
If you switch to Syrah, for example, in those places, they might still be suitable for wine growing. And Syrah might switch to Cabernet Sauvignon, for example… So, people can adapt to some degree.
I think some lines become really clear, not just for wine, but basically in everything. There are real limits to adaptation.
I think people used to think and talk about adaptation as if it were possible to completely substitute human technology and ingenuity and wealth for well-being. And I think that’s not the case, as both for human and for natural systems, there are real limits to how much we can adapt to. And IPCC has gotten much more clear about that in recent reports.
If you were speaking to our friends and peers, and you could say, “Here’s what I want you to pay attention to” — what would that be? “These are the indicators that you’ll see maybe in your own real life, where things might change and you might notice them?” Or maybe how to be more attuned at that personal level to what’s gonna happen?
I read a story that stayed with me a few months ago that I’ve kinda been thinking about. People were saying, “Well, what I can understand is, at what point will there no longer be sushi in Chicago?” And I was like, “Okay, that’s a good question, I don’t know the answer to that question.” But those concrete things that the people that were like you and me and the group I’m trying to reach, can relate to and care about, that is something I’m trying to do.
I guess, a major point I think is important for people to understand is that climate change is here and now where we live. It’s not something for future generations. In my book, I say, “Don’t worry about future generations.” Sarcastically, of course.
A major point I think is important for people to understand is that climate change is here and now where we live. It’s not something for future generations.
I think we should worry about them and we owe them a responsibility that we’re really morally obligated to deliver on to secure their future. But even if you, for some reason, don’t care about future generations and you just care about yourself, even us around 40 are going to live to see whether or not the world makes it to stay below 1.5 or two degrees, right?
And that’s a really different world to live in that we’re gonna spend the rest of our lives experiencing. So I think trying to make that argument of, it’s not only self-interest, but it is even for wealthy people who are pretty insulated, everything in our lives depends on a stable climate.
Food production, which we all need, and all the ways in which the planet functions to provide nature, which is basically what keeps us alive in every way, is dependent on the climate, and there’s really a limit to how much money can substitute for those kind of services.
As a follow up, Kim sent over some resources in response to a request for specific news or other sources to pay attention to.
I think it’s really powerful to see historical climate data for your hometown or current location. Very large changes have already happened during our lifetimes, it helps put the projected changes for the future in context.
Here are some good resources that I’d suggest people look at:
Good global overviews of current temp change already experienced:
Future sea level rise projections, very sobering:
A more photographic take:
If you were to give people a more hopeful view on climate — are there examples of communities or people that you feel are doing inspiring and effective things?
In general I agree with Greta Thunberg that hope follows action. It is not a precursor for action. But, to answer your question, I put together a short Twitter list of Climate Inspiration people and orgs:
You’ve communicated a real sense of urgency — but I want to ask the question directly. Why do you think we have to act now?
Because humanity has nearly used up our entire carbon budget for all of time, and if we don’t start reducing our current levels of climate pollution and fossil fuel burning, we will overspend our remaining carbon budget in less than a decade, and be committed to catastrophic climate changes for millennia to come.
The carbon budget is the amount of carbon we can safely burn across the whole world and throughout all of time, since some carbon lasts in the atmosphere essentially forever. This means that those of us alive today are the last group of people who can prevent catastrophic climate breakdown.
To do so, we need to cut global emissions about in half by 2030 (rich countries/industries/individuals should aim for more like 70%, since we have already more than overused our fair share.)
Let’s switch to one last topic. We didn’t really talk about it, but just, what’s life in Sweden like?
Yeah. I’ll answer it generally, not under this exact pandemic moment, but I think, in general, life here is really great. It’s a very nice quality of life. Work-life balance is much more highly valued and integrated than I found in the US, at least, and I really appreciate that.
People take weekends and vacations seriously, and I’ve deleted work email from my phone, which I’m enjoying.
It’s a very nice quality of life. Work-life balance is much more highly valued.
But that said, I think I really appreciate how society is structured. I think it makes a big difference, and I guess this current moment… I mean, you wrote very well, in your email, some of the inequities that this moment is highlighting that were obviously there but are being brought to the surface by the kind of health emergency of the pandemic.
I’m not saying that that’s not a problem in Sweden, but I think it is a much more egalitarian society, and the way they do it is by redistributing wealth. Income differential is similar in the US and Sweden before taxes, and then they just redistribute more of it in taxes.
I make a high income in Sweden, although it’s not considered that high in the US, but I also have free healthcare and all these other social benefits. And I think I pay 34% taxes or something, so it’s not crazy.
In terms of quality of life, we live… Well, you’ve been here. We live in an apartment in the center of town and that was a huge difference for me coming from California. We’re car free, we can walk or bike basically where we need to go. I have a 12-minute walk to work for my commute, and that is a huge improvement for quality of life compared with a hour-long commute, or more by car, which is more like what I was doing in California.
And then, I think it’s a really nice community. We’ve made really good friends here, both Swedes and people who’ve found their way here from all over the world, and that’s really fun and interesting. I have a much more diverse group of friends, I guess, than I did in the US.
Have you watched Midsommar?
No, but I’ve lived it. [chuckle] Maybe that would be a candidate for one of the most fun times I’ve had, nothing like the horror film. It’s really big here.
Last question, what’s the most fun you have had as an adult?
Well, we’ve had a lot of really fun parties. I think the most fun I’ve had would be probably…
You said as an adult. So, one thing that came to mind, which is very Swedish and very lovely.
Believe it or not, Sweden is the world epicenter of Lindy Hop, which is an African-American street dance that started in Harlem in the ’20s and ’30s.
Some Swedes in the ’80s basically revived it. It was basically about to die. And some Swedes brought it back, and watched the old films, and started training, and met some of the original dancers, and started this summer camp with this very magical five weeks of intense dancing in this tiny town that has two stop signs, no stop lights, a couple hours north of Stockholm, called Herräng.
You dance 12 hours a day, and then stay up all night dancing.
And I’ve gone a couple of times, and that is really, really fun. So it’s kind of this amazing, very international… People come from like 100 countries. It is a really cool exchange where people share this random passion for this style of dance. And the best teachers in the world come and teach.
So you dance 12 hours a day, and then stay up all night dancing. I have really fun memories from there. And I guess the other, my other favorite moment would probably be our Halloween parties, which are epic and people spend months preparing their costumes, and the costume contest is taken very seriously.
So we have introduced one nice American tradition that I’m happy and proud about to Sweden and that is a lot of fun.
The Race to Zero Emissions, Quartz (short news tidbits with links about what policies and current events helped reduce or increase emissions globally last week)
Bloomberg Green, Ashkat Rathi (daily digest of climate news, science, impacts, tech, green finance)
HEATED, Emily Atkins, “a daily newsletter for people pissed off about the climate crisis”
Outrage and Optimism- weekly discussion of current events through a climate lens + interviews by architects of the Paris Agreement
Climate One — in depth exploration of one topic per week with experts.
Yale Climate Connections- daily 90 second podcast about climate change, very accessible
Mothers of Invention- “climate change is a manmade problem with a feminist solution.” Accessible for people just getting up to speed.
Drilled — a narrative podcast by investigative journalist Amy Westervelt, “investigating delay on climate action.” Guaranteed to piss you off.
CarbonBrief: wonky but accessible explainers on current science and policy.
#ClimateBookClub on Twitter led by Leah Stokes
Climate fiction reading group at Lund University- here’s what my book club has read so far, and here’s a recommended list of 10 must read climate fiction books from my colleagues Johannes Stripple and Alexandra Nikoleris.
Dr. Kim Nicholas is an Associate Professor of Sustainability Science at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS) in Lund, Sweden. She studies the connections between people, land, and climate.
She is currently on leave writing a book.