Illustration by Tatiana Braga

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.

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.

“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 can do grapes, I’m from Sonoma.”

Illustration by Tatiana Braga

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.

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.

[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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

Studio Rodrigo. State x State. Brooklyn, NY.

Studio Rodrigo. State x State. Brooklyn, NY.