Episode 51: No Planet B
Click below to simultaneously play the transcript and the audio.
with Prof Travis Rector
We are joined by the co-founder of Astronomers for Planet Earth Professor Travis Rector who joins us via Zoom from Alaska!
Travis is a Professor of Astronomy at the University of Alaska and is the Chair of the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) Sustainability Committee, as well as the Chair of a task force aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of the AAS.
Travis speaks with us about his efforts to teach climate change to students and why it is important for astronomers to do so. Travis shares some tips on how to communicate climate change science better and offers some hope that all is not lost for Earth!
How our planet looked at the time of recording: (Alaska not visible, thanks for joining us late at night Travis!)
This week’s guest
Why (and How) Astronomers Should Teach Climate Change: https://aas.org/posts/news/2021/03/why-and-how-astronomers-should-teach-climate-change
Astronomers for Planet Earth: https://astronomersforplanet.earth/
Climate Change for Astronomers Book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Climate-Change-Astronomers-consequences-communication/dp/0750337257
Project Drawdown: https://www.drawdown.org/
By Justine Crook-Mansour
[00:00:00] Jacinta: Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah, with Dr. Jacinta Delhaize
[00:00:09] Dan: and Dr. Daniel Cunnama. Each episode, we’ll be giving you a behind-the-scenes look at world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.
[00:00:17] Jacinta: Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.
[00:00:25] Dan: Sit back and relax as we take you on a safari through the skies.
Welcome to episode 51.
[00:00:36] Jacinta: Hi everyone.
[00:00:37] Dan: No planet B. Well, let’s get right into it. I mean, we’ve seen the title.
[00:00:48] Jacinta: I wasn’t expecting that. Yes. Hi everyone. Today, we are talking with Professor Travis Rector, who is a professor of astronomy at the University of Alaska. And he’s also the Chair of the American Astronomical Society Sustainability Committee. So, as Dan has said, we will be talking about the fact that there is no Planet B, and how and why we have to look after this one, and how we can talk about climate change as astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts. Right?
[00:01:20] Dan: That’s right.
[00:01:21] Jacinta: Okay. But just before we get into that, I wanted to talk about the transcript for our episodes, which I’m very excited about. So you might be familiar, if you go to our show notes, with the fact that we have the full transcript – written transcript – down below all of the show notes on our website. And so you can read along with that. But now, because we use a software called Descript, which basically has an AI transcription and then we have volunteers who go through and, you know, very carefully make sure that the transcript is accurate.
[00:01:54] Dan: They’re not AI. They’re just II.
[00:01:56] Jacinta: What does II stand for?
[00:01:58] Dan: Just intelligent, intelligent. I don’t know.
[00:02:00] Jacinta: An intelligent, intelligent intern.
[00:02:03] Dan: Yeah, there we go. Yes.
[00:02:08] Jacinta: Hi Justine.
[00:02:09] Dan: Thank you Justine.
[00:02:11] Jacinta: And so then after, you know, maybe a week or so after the episode comes out, that’s all done. And what you can do is under where you click ‘play’ on our website, on the episode, there will be a link now where you can actually click that one and you can –
[00:02:27] Dan: I’m doing it now.
[00:02:28] Jacinta: Are you doing it now? Okay. Live demo, everyone. Not that you can see this. There’ll be something that says, “To automatically follow along with the transcript as you listen, go to …,” and then there’s a link. So you click on that. Dan, have you clicked on that?
[00:02:39] Dan: I’ve clicked on it.
[00:02:40] Jacinta: Okay. What do you see?
[00:02:42] Dan: I’m hearing music.
[00:02:43] Jacinta: Okay. So you’re hearing our episode.
[00:02:46] Dan: Hey, yeah, wow! And it highlights the little word as you go along. It’s really quite fun.
[00:02:52] Jacinta: So it’s a kind of a synchronized transcript. And so that if you would like to read along as you listen, you can do that. And also we have a YouTube channel and you can go to that. You can turn on the closed captions, which we upload accurate closed captions based on this transcript. And then you can actually get YouTube to auto translate that to any language. Over a hundred languages, isn’t it Dan?
[00:03:16] Dan: Yes. So, I mean any of the languages that YouTube translates to, which I think has over a hundred at the last count.
[00:03:21] Jacinta: Yeah. So if you prefer to read along in a different language, you can do that. Obviously we can’t vouch for how good the translation is, but it may help. Okay. So that’s all I wanted to say there. Now onto the next topic. Dan, how do you feel about New Year’s resolutions?
[00:03:39] Dan: Well, I’m not big on them, to be honest. I think I don’t announce them, definitely. But maybe quietly in my head try and make some changes around the beginning of the year. I don’t know where this is going. I’m so scared right now.
[00:03:57] Jacinta: He looks so terrified. No, just –
[00:04:00] Dan: What haven’t I done?
[00:04:04] Jacinta: No, I’m mentioning this because one of my… I don’t like New Year’s resolutions, but at the start of every year, I like to make a list of things I’d like to get done that year. I listened to a podcast called ‘Happier’ and they like to do ’22 for 22′. So 22 things you want to get done in 2022. So I made one of those lists and one of those things was learn how to better speak about climate change. Do you see where I’m going now?
[00:04:30] Dan: Ah, well actually, so my one for this year was learn how to speak Spanish. Well, I’ve done Spanish once before, but sort of brush up on my Spanish. So I’ve been doing Duolingo and I don’t know how many days we are into the year, but I’ve got a streak going. And yeah, that’s mine.
[00:04:46] Jacinta: Okay, well –
[00:04:46] Dan: Maybe I’ll be able to talk about climate change in Spanish by the end of the year.
[00:04:50] Jacinta: Okay, great. Anyway, not quite the same, but that’s fine. So, I’ve always been very interested and passionate about, you know, the welfare of our planet. Because, of course, as astronomers, we know that there is no other planet to go to. Mars is the closest planet and yes, we want to send people there, but to be able to colonize it and terraform it will take, you know… what, millions of years?
[00:05:17] Dan: Millions of years.
[00:05:17] Jacinta: Yeah, millions of years. So just not a thing that’s actually going to happen. And looking for exoplanets, so planets going around other stars, that’s definitely a thing that’s happening. But you hear of these planets… like searching for planets in the habitable zone, in the Goldilocks zone. That doesn’t actually mean that those planets are habitable. It just means that where they are away from their star is in a range of temperatures where liquid water could exist. Not that it does exist. And even if we found one, it would be extraordinarily difficult for us to actually get there. So –
[00:05:46] Dan: Because it’s so far away.
[00:05:48] Jacinta: Because it’s so far away.
[00:05:49] Dan: It would take generations and generations.
[00:05:51] Jacinta: Yeah, exactly. So unless you want to be stuck on a – what’s that sound in background?
[00:06:01] Dan: A helicopter.
[00:06:01] Jacinta: I was just about to say, “on a rocket ship,” and it sounded like some sort of rocket in the background there.
[00:06:07] Dan: We have sound effects now, ladies and gentlemen.
[00:06:11] Jacinta: Anyway, the point is there ain’t no other planet for us to get to, so we have to take care of this one. And it’s extraordinarily important. But what role can we as astronomers or people who are interested in astronomy and science, what can we do about it? And I have joined a group called Astronomers for Planet Earth, which was co-founded by Travis. And so I’ve wanted to speak to him for a long time on this podcast. I’ve heard him talk a couple of times. He just does an excellent job about explaining this really, really clearly. And so we finally managed to get hold of him and he joined us from Alaska, very late at night. And so we thank him for making that sacrifice for us.
[00:06:57] Dan: Yes, we did some very long baseline podcasting.
[00:06:59] Jacinta: Very long baseline podcasting. That’s an astronomy joke. So congratulations if you understand it. If you don’t, you have not lost anything.
[00:07:07] Dan: I feel like we’ve explained very long baseline interferometry before. We would have when we did the black hole episode. You know, having telescopes as far apart in space as you can, on the other side of the world, to try and get as high resolution. So we can’t promise the resolution of this podcast will be brilliant because it was over Zoom. But we can promise it was very long baseline.
[00:07:29] Jacinta: Yes we can. And with that, I think we should just hear from Travis.
With us today is Professor Travis Rector, who is a professor in astronomy at the University of Alaska and Chair of the American Astronomical Society Sustainability Committee. He is also the co-founder of Astronomers for Planet Earth. Welcome Travis.
[00:07:55] Professor Travis Rector: Thank you very much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
[00:07:57] Dan: Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah. And I think today we hit some sort of record because Travis is joining us from Alaska. I’m in Cape Town and Jacinta is in Perth, in Australia. So we’ve managed to find a time when all of us are awake. Travis, thanks for staying up a bit later than usual, perhaps.
[00:08:16] Professor Travis Rector: No problem at all. I’m used to being the odd one out.
[00:08:20] Jacinta: And you’re in the Northern Hemisphere. So how’s the temperature there? Is it a bit chilly?
[00:08:25] Professor Travis Rector: Well, I am in Alaska right now and it’s about minus five.
[00:08:29] Jacinta: Okay. It’s about 35 degrees here today, at the moment. So I’ve just had to turn the air conditioner off for recording. And I’m already starting to sweat. How’s it over there in South Africa?
[00:08:40] Dan: I’m right in the middle at a pleasant 20 degrees here.
[00:08:44] Jacinta: Oh, okay. Dan’s got the pleasant weather. Okay. Yeah. Thanks again for joining us today, Travis. Can you just tell our listeners a little bit about who you are and what you do?
[00:08:55] Professor Travis Rector: Yes. So I’m a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. And I’m also one of the co-founders and organizers for a group called Astronomers for Planet Earth, which is an organization of professional and amateur astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts who are interested in addressing the problem of climate change.
[00:09:16] Dan: And then you also are chairing now this task force for the AAS. So firstly, what is the AAS?
[00:09:22] Professor Travis Rector: So the AAS is the American Astronomical Society. It’s the largest society for professional astronomy in the United States. And I’m the chair of the Sustainability Committee, and also leading a task force. And, to address the issue of climate change within our profession, we recognize, as astronomers, that we do have a significant carbon footprint. And so our goal is to find ways that we can reduce our carbon footprint on the scales commensurate with the Paris Agreement. So our goals are to cut the carbon emissions associated with professional astronomy in half over the next decade, and then plan to be carbon-neutral by 2050, which is the terms that the Paris Agreement has for everyone.
[00:10:07] Dan: What are some of the things contributing to our carbon footprint as astronomers?
[00:10:11] Professor Travis Rector: The two largest contributors… the first, I think, is the obvious one, which is air travel. So when astronomers fly to go to conferences, or we go to telescopes, or give invited talks, that has an outsize carbon footprint. And so we’ve learned through COVID that we can actually do our profession without that travel. So there’s exciting opportunities for us to reduce our emissions by travelling less. The other interesting source – and this was a surprise to me – is supercomputing. We use supercomputers to process very large datasets from radio telescopes and optical as well, and also for running numerical simulations. So when we simulate galaxies colliding with each other or the evolution of the universe over cosmological timescales, this uses a lot of supercomputing power, which uses a lot of electricity. And so those are the two primary contributors to the footprint associated with professional astronomy activities.
[00:11:14] Dan: I’m feeling pretty guilty on both counts, yeah. I did my PhD on computational cosmology. So basically was running on supercomputers 24/7 for a couple of years. Okay, so I’ve got some work to do. Right. Let’s communicate about climate change and make me feel a little bit better about myself.
[00:11:36] Jacinta: So Travis, what is your actual research? You are an actual astronomer. You’re a lecturer of astronomy. So what do you research or do you teach and how did you get interested in sustainability in astronomy?
[00:11:48] Professor Travis Rector: So my research in recent years has been focused on star formation and so I’ve been using telescopes in Chile. And while, as an observational astronomer, I could, you know, claim to have maybe a smaller carbon footprint than those who use supercomputers… but the reality is, as we, you know, for the most part have had to fly to telescopes to use them.
My interest in climate change really grew out of living here in Alaska. As you may know, the Arctic is warming at about three times the rate of the rest of the world. So we see the effects of climate change here in Alaska every day. And this has been true for quite a while. So in many ways, climate change has come here before the rest of the world has faced it. Now everyone in the world is feeling the effects of climate change in one way or another.
But what happened for me is when I came to Alaska about 20 years ago, I started teaching at the university. I realized that my students had a lot of questions about climate change. That when we would talk about the atmospheres of Venus and Mars, and especially Venus with its raging hot atmosphere, our students wanted to know, “Is that what’s going to happen to us? Is that what the future of the Earth is going to look like?” And while I could assure my students that no, we’re not going to become Venus, I couldn’t really answer the other questions. They wanted to know how bad the problem was going to be and what they could do about it. And what I realized is that, in my astronomy classes, I was teaching the science of climate change even if I wasn’t intending to, by teaching the physics of how atmospheres work, about geologic history, about how the Earth’s climate has changed naturally, and how what’s happening now is different. And I also realized that my students had a lot of questions about what we could do, and I didn’t have answers for them at first. Students would ask, “Well, what can we do about it?” And I didn’t know. And I felt like that was a really bad place to leave students. That really developed a sense of hopelessness and despair. And I realized that I had to help students understand what their role could be in finding solutions.
Now, over the 20 years or so that I’ve been teaching climate change, the message of climate change has changed a lot. At first, the message was really we have to use less energy. And now the messages is we just simply need to transition to the new forms of energy that we have access to that don’t produce carbon emissions. So the good news is that we can address climate change and still lead quality lives… lead the lives that we want. And so what I’m trying to do is help my students understand what their role can be in helping us to address that.
[00:14:36] Jacinta: Okay. So there’s a whole range of things that we can do. So you’ve mentioned that in astronomy in particular, the carbon emissions mainly come from flights, from the planes, and from the supercomputers. So we can fly less and, you know, do online conferencing a bit more. We can try and limit the number of times we execute a run on a supercomputer. Daniel, looking at you. And we can also try and power, of course, the supercomputers and the telescopes with sustainable energy options – solar, etc. And we spoke to Phil Diamond earlier on in this season and he mentioned that they are trying to look into sustainable energy options for the SKA. So what else can astronomers or astronomy students or people interested in this actually do? And how can we push for these changes to be made?
[00:15:30] Professor Travis Rector: Well, I think the most important thing is we have to walk the walk. It’s very hard to tell other people they need to do something about climate change when we ourselves are not willing to. I saw an article a couple of years ago – it was in a French magazine – and the article claimed, and I don’t know if this is true, but the article claimed that who has the largest carbon footprint – it’s climate scientists. And what it really did is it said, “Well how can we be expected to take this seriously if they don’t.” And so I think by walking the walk, we demonstrate our commitment to the issue.
Now, the other thing that’s really important, though, for us, is to help people understand the issue and the scope of it. And one of the benefits we have in astronomy is that everyone likes astronomy. It’s an incredibly popular topic. People go, they take astronomy classes, they go to museums, they go to planetarium shows. And these are all opportunities to help people understand the issue of climate change from the context of astronomy. And I find that many astronomers feel uncomfortable talking about climate change because they feel like they don’t know the science well enough – that they’re not climate scientists. Maybe it’s not their place. But astronomers offer a very important perspective about the issue of climate change. We understand the finiteness of the Earth, we understand that there’s no place else we can go. I’m sorry to those billionaires who think we’re going to colonize Mars. It’s not going to happen. And we know about exoplanets and we know really how special life is here on Earth, and that it really is truly the only place we can live. And we also understand that fixing the issue of climate change is going to be a lot easier than those other solutions. So there’s a lot of misconceptions out there that are particular to astronomy, and it’s important for us to address them.
[00:17:23] Jacinta: So there really is no Planet B?
[00:17:25] Professor Travis Rector: There really, truly is no Planet B and I mean… and that has become the mantra or the calling card for the climate change movement. And what could be more astronomical than that?
[00:17:36] Jacinta: And so is this part of the reason why you co-founded Astronomers for Planet Earth?
[00:17:41] Professor Travis Rector: Yeah, it really… I mean, the founding of Astronomers for Planet Earth came from different groups of astronomy, some in United States and in Europe. We were in this situation where we realized we know the science of climate change – we’re teaching it – and it really grew out of a sense that we need to work together to address this. And part of it is, you know, at first when you’re on your own, you feel a sense of despair. Like how can I as an individual address this issue? But once you start working together with people who are like-minded and share the same concerns and are willing to address it, then you start to build momentum and you start to see change. And what happened for me was I decided I’d been teaching climate change for years. So I talked with some people about it and I decided to host a special session at the American Astronomical Society meeting about astronomers teaching climate change. And I was really nervous because I thought, you know, this is dumb, no-one’s going to come. It’s going to be me and five people and it’s going to be really awkward. And over a hundred people showed up.
[00:18:49] Jacinta: Oh, wow.
[00:18:50] Professor Travis Rector: And it was just this watershed moment for me to realise how much concern we all had because we know the signs, but we didn’t know what our role could be in addressing it. And so that led to a strong risk for planet Earth, at least as far as my part in the involvement in the group. And now we have, I think, like 2000 members and it continues to grow. So the good news is that astronomers really do care about the issue and not just professionals, but amateur astronomers as well. And everyone wants to know what we can do. And so that’s our role, and Astronomers for Planet Earth is to help people to find their voices and addressing the problem.
[00:19:30] Dan: And you mentioned, you know, non-astronomers, amateurs, too. What sort of role can they play other than maybe just communicating it a little bit, and where can they find resources to understand better, particularly if they aren’t necessarily a scientist? And to try and gain trust from people.
[00:19:48] Professor Travis Rector: So Astronomers for Planet Earth does offer resources. Admittedly, our resources for amateur astronomers are not as strong as what we offer for professionals. So that is changing. I think really the most important thing is to create spaces for people to talk about it. Even just bringing up the topic of climate change in a way that’s not political, that’s safe, and gives people an opportunity to ask questions. And so if you’re talking about the planet Venus, I mean that’s the easiest way to get into it is to say, you know, you’re holding a star party… you’re looking up at Venus and you talk about the raging hell that is the surface of the planet. And it’s because of its carbon dioxide atmosphere. Then you’ve opened that door. You’ve created that space for people to talk about it. And what I have found is that the majority of, you know, you will have people who are doubters or deniers, but the far majority of people really do want to know what’s going on, how bad the problem is, and what can we do about it. And so that’s creating that space to talk about it and for people to express, you know, ask questions, express their concerns, is the most important thing you can do.
[00:21:08] Jacinta: So I’m going to name-drop for a moment here. In 2012, I went to the 62nd meeting of Nobel laureates in Germany, and I met Mario Molina who, of course, was one of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for discovering that CFCs are a huge threat to the Earth’s ozone layer. And he was sort of talking about the climate change and how it’s become a debate, even though it isn’t, and what we can do to help with that discussion. And so I put my hand up and I was like, “Well I’m an astronomer. I’m not a climate scientist. I don’t know anything about this. How can I help?” And his message was, well, you are scientist and one of the main things is to teach people about the importance of critical thinking, of not just believing whatever you hear, in thinking about it yourself and analysing it yourself. And also in the scientific method. You know, people may not even realize that’s what it is, but just to appreciate the evidence-based way of thinking about these sorts of things is really important. And so I guess as astronomers, we sort of hold a special place, don’t we? Because almost everyone’s fascinated by the stars and astronomy and the sky. Is that your approach to use that as a hook to talk about climate change?
[00:22:28] Professor Travis Rector: It definitely can be a hook. One thing, though, I do like to emphasize to astronomers is that we’re accustomed to being liked. And as such, we’re often not used to working in an environment where people are doubtful or that it’s politically charged. You know, the irony is we can describe to people how we have made an image of a black hole at the centre of our galaxy. And even though it uses the same technology that we use to measure the temperature of the Earth using satellites, once we turn that around and say, “Oh, and we used these satellites to measure the temperature of the Earth,” then it gets controversial. So people readily accept that we find black holes, but then they get sceptical. They can get sceptical the other way. And And it’s because of how it’s become politically charged. So there are things that we can do to help people understand this.
You mentioned CFCs and that’s an example of a success story, where we used the process of science to identify how a gas we were adding to the atmosphere was damaging the ozone layer. And the language behind that was very tactile. It was creating a hole in the ozone layer. Well, everyone can relate to that hole. You know what a hole is, and that it was dangerous. And fortunately, we had solutions already. Dow Chemical and other companies had examples of gases they could use to replace CFCs. And so it was a fairly simple transition to make.
There’s plenty of other examples as well. DDT is an example of a chemical we discovered that was harmful to the environment and we stopped using it. And the environment healed. The damage was undone. And so those are all good examples I think we can share with people to help them understand how science is able to help us to make our world better.
Another thing that I do is I share examples of where people haven’t always been happy with scientists making these discoveries. And the most obvious is tobacco. When scientists discovered that tobacco increased your risk of cancer, well naturally the tobacco industry wasn’t happy with that. And what they did is very similar to what’s done with climate change now. They try to push forth examples of scientists who claimed that, “No that wasn’t. The tobacco’s not to blame.” But eventually it became clear that was the problem. And so, I think, in helping people see this isn’t about whether or not climate change is real, it’s just a natural consequence of when science makes discoveries that are a threat to a certain industry, that industry will push back. And so whether it’s tobacco, or sugar and its health impacts, or leaded gasoline, these are all examples of industries that have pushed back when science has found things that are damaging to their bottom line.
[00:25:33] Jacinta: How did the issue of climate change become a debate and become controversial?
[00:25:37] Professor Travis Rector: Well, it’s not controversial amongst scientists. And that’s something that’s important to emphasize is that there have been many studies that have shown that basically over 99% of papers on climate science agree that climate change is real and that is human cause. And so the debate really has come in the public and political eye.
And my wife’s a journalist. And so I get to pick on journalists, but one of the things that you see in the news is whenever the issue of climate change comes up, they have the issue of false equivalence, where they will have someone speaking about how climate change is real. And then they’ll have another person who’s saying it’s not. And so what it does is it gives this illusion that it’s something that’s still being debated. And unfortunately the two people they choose aren’t even scientists usually. It’ll often be, you know, like maybe a science populariser. Like here in the United States we have Bill Nye the Science Guy. Or it may be… the contrary viewpoint will be maybe a political operative. And the reason why they do that is because it wouldn’t be interesting at all to have two climate scientists on television saying, “Yep, absolutely. We know this is happening and it’s real.” It doesn’t create the sparks and the tension that a lot of media likes.
And so, unfortunately, the way climate change is reported in the news and discussed, it is often portrayed as something that’s still a debate. And so that often creates the illusion that it is. And so that’s one of the things that’s important for us to teach to people. Is that among scientists, it’s not a debate. And the science, we actually understand the science of climate change better than we understand cancer. And so those are examples. I think those help people understand the issue.
[00:27:20] Dan: What sort of impact have you or Astronomers for Planet Earth had so far? I mean, have you tried to measure your impact? And then, where do you see this going? I mean, in what timescale? I know there’s been a lot of talk recently and, you know, there was a lot of talk in the UN about… we’ve got say 10 years to act or less now to prevent massive change. Do you think it’s possible to make that massive change with society’s view of this in the next 10 years? Are you positive about this?
[00:27:52] Professor Travis Rector: So I’m hopeful, I think is the best word. And there’s a lot of things that are happening right now that should give us hope. The first and foremost is that renewable energies have changed drastically over the last decade. The argument used to be, yes, renewable energies are more expensive, but we have to use them because of the issue of climate change. Now, the debate is why aren’t we using renewable energies anyway? They’re cheaper. And they’re better. So there’s no reason not to switch. And those economic factors are coming to play.
And so we often talk about climate tipping points, but there’s also economic tipping points, where you suddenly transition from everyone riding in a horse-drawn carriages to driving automobiles. I mean that happened in less than a decade. So we’re going to see that same tipping point for electric cars and many of the other technologies that we use. And one of the things I emphasize to my students is that throughout history, we have always transitioned from old energy sources to new energy sources and each energy source was cheaper and cleaner than the previous one. First, we used to cut down trees and deforest the planet, and then we switched to coal, and then we switched to petroleum and natural gas. And now we’re switching to renewable energies that don’t emit carbon emissions. Each one is cheaper, each one is better. So those, I think, are ways that we can frame it that help people understand that this is a natural process.
In as much as our lives have changed because of other technologies, these are things that we can look forward to. So often, you know, especially if I’m teaching older students – I teach a continuing education class for those who are young at heart. And so, you know, I remind them of things we used to do that nowadays just seem outrageously stupid, like smoking on airplanes or using metal pull tabs that you would just throw on the beach and people would step on them and cut your feet. We found solutions to all these problems and our lives are better for it. And so those, I think, are ways to help people understand that we should be hopeful. We can look forward to the world we can create. And so moving away from a message of austerity and doom and gloom, let’s talk about a world we want to have where, by addressing this problem, we address other problems.
So I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase “the Global South”. Well, who are the people that are hurt most by climate change? It’s not the people that caused the problem, it’s the people who already are on the margins. And so by switching to these cleaner sources of energy, we can reduce the amount of pollutions in marginalized communities and improve people’s health. And this is something that everyone should want. So those are the things that make me hopeful about climate change.
[00:30:55] Jacinta: So how do you talk to people about climate change? I mean, say, someone who doesn’t really know anything about science or is a scientist. How would you talk to them about climate change?
[00:31:08] Professor Travis Rector: Well, and this is another example where astronomers, I think, need to rethink how they talk about the issue. We often work on what’s called the science deficit model. That is that we assume people don’t understand the science well enough. And once we explain the science to them, then they’ll naturally act. That is, that once we explain what’s causing climate change, and we also explain the consequences of it, then they’ll naturally be inclined to do something about it. And there’s a wealth of research that shows that’s not true.
People get scared, not only about the effects of climate change, but what it means for their jobs. What it means for their livelihoods, for their communities. And so we have to address those issues. We have to address the emotional aspects. So the most important thing we can do when talking about climate change is to listen. To ask people questions about, “What do they know about climate change? What are their concerns? What would they like to know about it?” And meet them on their level. Get down from being the expert to being someone who wants to hear what they have to say. And meeting them where they are. And, you know, move away from our charts and figures and graphs that are very compelling to scientists because we value those things. But other people don’t value those.
And so if we can have a conversation with someone, where even if we haven’t imparted necessarily a tremendous amount of information, if they feel like they were listened to and they were respected and they were taken seriously, then you have helped them to be more concerned about it. But if they leave the conversation feeling like we talked down to them, we didn’t respect them, we treated them as if they were dumb, because they asked a question that revealed a level of ignorance on the subject, then they’re going to hate us. And that’s often what happens with these conversations. So if you can find common ground and have a conversation where they feel respected and listened to, then you have made a change.
And one of the things I think is also important to emphasize is very rarely does one conversation change a person’s mindset. You may be able to increase the concern of someone who’s already concerned, and you may soften someone’s resistance to it because, you know, they had fears that you’ve been able to address. And so here in the United States, many people who are concerned about climate change aren’t actually concerned about climate change so much as they’re concerned about a government response. They don’t like the idea of the government coming in and telling them what to do. And if you can show them that there are free market solutions to climate change, then they’re more likely to be accepting that climate change is an issue. And also, especially if you talk about things like electric cars and cheap electricity – things they would want anyway – then they’re going to be more receptive to the solutions.
[00:34:15] Jacinta: Probably some general advice to help us with all conversations we have with others.
[00:34:22] Professor Travis Rector: And I think that’s important for us to recognise as scientists is that everyone has a value system. And we, as scientists, do too. And our value system is truth and facts above all else. You can be the jerk in the room, but if you’ve got the facts and you can demonstrate it, then that’s okay. But that’s not how most people work. They want to be treated with respect. And so we have to think about what our value system is and how that interfaces with other people’s value system, and be willing to interact with people in the way that they want to be treated.
[00:35:01] Dan: Well, I think you’ve done an excellent job of being respectful, and I hope that our listeners have enjoyed hearing from you. I think that, you know, the points you’ve made… and I think we all agree that climate change is a major problem and it’s just wonderful to hear how we, as astronomers, can help now. And we obviously encourage all of our listeners to get involved in Astronomers for Planet Earth. It is open to non-professionals too, just interested public.
[00:35:28] Professor Travis Rector: That’s correct.
[00:35:29] Dan: You don’t have to be an astronomer for planet Earth to be for planet Earth.
[00:35:32] Professor Travis Rector: That’s right. And that’s one of the things I think is important to emphasize to everyone is that everyone has a role to play. And it’s for them to find what role they want to be. And one of the easiest things to do actually is just simply to talk with people about it. Even if you don’t feel like you understand the science well, if you’re not a content expert, all you need to do is express your concern. Just simply saying, “I’m concerned about climate change,” and telling that to your friends and family opens the door for them to express their concern as well.
There was an interesting study done in the United States a few years ago where they asked people, “Are you concerned about climate change?” And the majority of Americans said, “Yes,” they are. But then they also asked people, “Do you think other Americans are concerned about climate change?” And they said, “No, I don’t think they are.” And what it revealed was the gap between the concern people had and what they thought everyone else had. And the reason for that is people were afraid to talk about it. They were afraid of, you know, getting into a fight, causing a political firestorm. And so just getting people to have that conversation just by saying, “I’m concerned about climate change,” it allows other people to express their concern as well. And then start talking about what we can do about it.
[00:36:49] Jacinta: You mentioned that it’s important when having a conversation to make sure it relates to that person’s life. So you’ve mentioned that you can see the effects of climate change very clearly in Alaska. Do you know of any examples from the African continent about how climate change is affecting people’s lives?
[00:37:07] Professor Travis Rector: I don’t. And one of the things that I encourage to everyone is when you talk about climate change, keep it local. Don’t talk about polar bears because, unless you live where I live, what it does is it creates a misconception that climate change is happening somewhere else, and it’s not our problem. So I encourage everyone to find out how is climate change affecting you.
One of the simplest and most common – the biggest threat of climate change – is just simply heat waves. People who don’t have access to air conditioning when a heat wave comes along, especially if their health is already compromised, they’re the most susceptible. Heat waves are the biggest killer of climate change. But we don’t see that in the news as much.
And so helping people understand how their community is being affected is the most important way for them to be concerned about it. Don’t talk about polar bears because, you know, polar bears are being affected, but so is everything else.
[00:38:06] Jacinta: Okay. Thank you so much for all of that, Travis. If people are interested and would like to find out more about this, where can they find you?
[00:38:13] Professor Travis Rector: I am available. People can send me an email. I don’t know if that’s something you want me to spell out here or –
[00:38:19] Jacinta: Sure, what’s your email address?
[00:38:22] Professor Travis Rector: So my email address is email@example.com. So TA Rector.
[00:38:34] Dan: And the @ is the Alaskan university, right? University of Alaska?
[00:38:39] Professor Travis Rector: Yeah, alaska.edu.
[00:38:43] Jacinta: Okay, thanks again, Travis, for joining us. And yeah, this has all been really interesting. And I’m also very passionate about this topic and I’ve been wanting to chat with you about this for ages. So thanks again for making time, even though it’s very late over there in Alaska.
[00:39:00] Professor Travis Rector: Well, I’m more than happy to talk with you and it’s been a real pleasure.
[00:39:03] Dan: We really appreciate it. Thank you, Travis.
[00:39:05] Professor Travis Rector: You’re welcome.
[00:39:12] Dan: Okay, great. Thanks to Travis. I think it was great to talk to him and just to hear what we as astronomers can do. As we said at the beginning, we, you know…we feel passionately about this and it’s not always easy to know your role as an astronomer or as an individual…really, what your role is in this climate change issue and how you can best contribute. So I think as communicators and science communicators in particular, it’s quite clear for you and I how we can do it. And hopefully the listeners also picked up some tips and got some ideas. And we’ll share all the links to the information and brochures that have been produced by Astronomers for Planet Earth and others in the show notes. Travis actually wrote a book – we didn’t talk about it – on teaching climate change for astronomers. Or edited a book rather.
[00:40:00] Jacinta: So definitely go and check out some of those resources. And that’s definitely on my to-do list because –
[00:40:06] Dan: New Year’s resolution?
[00:40:07] Jacinta: Well. Yeah, well, yes. Part of my New Year’s resolution is actually to go and read the documents that Travis has put together. But I thought it was, of course, very interesting and very relevant that what you need to talk about is how it affects people in their more local environment. So that it’s something that is more real to a person, which absolutely makes sense. So I guess like how has climate change affected Africa, the African continent? I mean, I guess drought is one of the main ways, right?
[00:40:38] Dan: So I guess the issue always is, you know, Africa struggled with drought for many years and climate change has definitely had an effect. We know that. But the effects with climate change are always a bit unpredictable. We had a massive drought here a few years ago in Cape Town. You know, we made international press because we were counting down to ‘Day Zero’, when we had no water left, when the taps would literally run dry. And the dams were sort of below 10%. Fortunately that drought is over. But the centre of the country is still suffering from drought. Drought is a South African and an African thing. But, you know, I haven’t personally gone through the history of the major droughts, but with the amount of pressure we’re putting on the water supply in South Africa, just in agriculture, the number of individuals we have, just from that point of view, not to mention the global impact of climate change, we are definitely putting the planet under a huge amount of pressure right now.
[00:41:39] Jacinta: Yeah. And there are so many follow-on effects. Like, you know, crops can’t grow, you can’t get hydropower, all of these sorts of things. Yeah. As listeners know, I’m in Australia at the moment. And we’ve also struggled in so many ways… you know, extreme temperatures. Just so many more extreme events. We had those horrific bushfires at the start of 2020, and we’re actually having terrible flooding at the moment. It’s a once-in-a-thousand-year event. Yeah. Over on the east coast… extremely bad flooding. You know, people have lost their lives, whole cities are underwater. Usually this would make sort of the international news, but of course, at the moment, that’s mostly focusing on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the war.
So, you know, these kinds of things do affect our lives even if we kind of… maybe we don’t identify them as such, but it’s this frequency of the extreme weather events. And of course just mentioning the war in Ukraine. Of course, I just wanted to mention that since we’re talking about the topic of kind of being one world and we’re all under one sky, if you can send any support to international organizations and donate to the humanitarian initiatives that support the Ukrainian refugees, please do consider doing that.
[00:43:00] Dan: Yeah. Thanks for that. And I guess just very positive to hear Travis talk about his hope and that there is hope that we can overcome this climate crisis and make real changes to how we live without sacrificing quality of life and really see a future for Earth that isn’t catastrophic.
[00:43:23] Jacinta: Yeah. I like kind of what Travis was saying about how we do need to convey the urgency of the situation, but also create hope. And there is so much amazing stuff going on. So many amazing initiatives. Travis mentioned to us that Project Drawdown is a particularly wonderful resource for learning about solutions. It might be more US-based, but I know there are quite a lot of things going on in South Africa and Cape Town that I’ve heard of. And so hopefully we can – if we get any links to that, if you know anyone who is making any efforts towards sustainability, please let us know and we can link to it on our show notes.
[00:43:59] Dan: Yeah, absolutely. Or speak with them if we can.
[00:44:02] Jacinta: So that’s almost it for today, but just before we end, I’d like to do something new to end our episodes. So Dan, how are you?
[00:44:11] Dan: Once again, taken by surprise.
[00:44:14] Jacinta: It’s a bit of a theme running through this episode. Isn’t it?
[00:44:18] Dan: Oh man. How am I? Physically quite well. I’m running again. Emotionally, a little bit strained talking about climate change. You mentioned the Ukraine. The world feels a little bit fragile right now. And I’m certainly feeling that.
[00:44:35] Jacinta: Yeah.
[00:44:36] Dan: How are you?
[00:44:38] Jacinta: Pretty much the same, I think. Physically very well. Mentally very well. Emotionally pretty good, but a bit sad. I don’t think anyone can be, you know, a hundred percent with the world in the current circumstances… with COVID continuing and the war and, you know, climate change, or always thinking about these sorts of things. But for the most part, pretty good. Yeah. So I hope everyone out there is doing all right as well.
[00:45:05] Dan: Yeah. Thank you. That was nice.
[00:45:08] Jacinta: Yeah, maybe we can make that little tradition at the end of our episodes.
[00:45:11] Dan: Okay, yeah. I like that.
[00:45:13] Jacinta: Checking in with people. Mental health. Very important.
[00:45:16] Dan: Absolutely.
[00:45:17] Jacinta: All right. So I think that is really it for today. Thank you very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of The Cosmic Savannah.
[00:45:27] Dan: As always, you can visit our website, thecosmicsavannah.com, where we’ll have the transcript, links, pictures and other stuff related to today’s episode.
[00:45:35] Jacinta: You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, @CosmicSavannah that’s savannah spelled S-A-V-A-N-N-A-H. You can also find us on YouTube, where audio-only episodes are uploaded with closed captions, which can be auto translated into many different languages, including Africaans, isiXhosa and Zulu.
[00:45:53] Dan: Special thanks today to Professor Travis Rector for speaking with us.
[00:45:57] Jacinta: Thanks to our social media manager, Sumari Hattingh, and our audio editor, Jacob Fine.
[00:46:02] Dan: Also to Mark Allnut for music production, Michal Lyzcek for photography, Carl Jones for astrophotography, Susie Caras for graphic design, and Justine Crook-Mansour for transcription.
[00:46:12] Jacinta: We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement, the South African Astronomical Observatory and the University of Cape Town Astronomy Department.
[00:46:24] Dan: You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, wherever you get your podcasts. And you can now follow along with the script on our website, and we’d really appreciate it if you could rate and review us and recommend us to a friend.
[00:46:35] Jacinta: And we’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.
[00:46:42] Dan: Are you positive about this?
[00:46:44] Jacinta: That was a lot of questions, Daniel, but I understand I’ve been monopolizing the questions here.