Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 50 - Ian Bolliger - CLIMATE CRISIS - Part 1 of 3

We’re at a turning point, I think where we have decisions to make that will kind of control what the future looks like. And obviously that future is more uncertain now in the time of COVID. But I’m certainly not one to kind of push the doom and gloom or the existential threat but there’s definitely risks out there.


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“We’re at a turning point, I think where we have decisions to make that will kind of control what the future looks like. And obviously that future is more uncertain now in the time of COVID. But I’m certainly not one to kind of push the doom and gloom or the existential threat but there’s definitely risks out there. A lot of what I do is trying to quantify risk, especially from the economic side and not just to look at what do we most likely expect in the future, but to try and get a sense for what are some of the best case scenarios, what are some of the worst-case scenarios.”

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JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host, Jesse Funk. My guest today is a Ph.D. candidate in energy and resources at UC Berkeley. The more succinct way to say that is he’s a climate scientist for us people who don’t know what that actually means. He is a backcountry skier and also sometimes likes climbing. Welcome to the show, Ian Bolliger.

IAN: Thank you very much, Jesse. Happy to be here.

JESSE: As I often say when I begin these episodes, I try and do my best not to stumble over people’s names. We were just talking about mispronunciations of your last name and I almost did it, but I caught myself right at the last second.

IAN: You nailed it.

JESSE: So, the pressing question of the day, we’ll just dive off the deep end here is we know when we’re thinking about climate change since this is your field of study, I have to ask you, are we going to make it? Or are we doomed?

IAN: That’s obviously a tough question. And probably there are other societal issues right now that lead us closer to the brink in the short term than climate change. But it’s certainly kind of– We’re at a turning point, I think where we have decisions to make that will kind of control what the future looks like. And obviously that future is more uncertain now in the time of COVID. But I’m certainly not one to kind of push the doom and gloom or the existential threat but there’s definitely risks out there.

A lot of what I do is trying to quantify risk, especially from the economic side and not just to look at what do we most likely expect in the future, but to try and get a sense for what are some of the best case scenarios, what are some of the worst-case scenarios. And so not a very satisfying answer to the question. But I think the answer is possibly, and hopefully not if we make the right decisions.

JESSE: I think I try to be the eternal optimist on things like this where it’s like, no, it’ll be fine. Like, we’ll figure it out. But at the same time, the realist in me goes, well… This is a very mundane example. But like, thinking about things that have limits like my pen, for example. If I use my pen long enough, it runs out of ink, and no matter how much I want it to write more, it doesn’t have any more ink.

So, I feel like, I believe in the human spirit and people’s ingenuity to overcome problems, but also know that sometimes you just drove off a cliff and you can’t not– You have to follow like, that’s the only option you have at that point. You can’t back up, you’re in the middle of the air. Yeah. So, I think that’s what I get concerned with. And kind of my facetious question about are we going to make it is we–

IAN: Have we already [??? 04:11]

JESSE: Right. Hear about the inflection points, and are we past that point? Or do we really have the ability to curb or maintain a more hospitable environment for us?

IAN: Yeah. I mean, I think we certainly have that ability. It gets harder and harder each day that we kind of don’t take the decisive action that’s needed. But I think it’d be hard-pressed to say that we’re beyond any sort of capacity to affect change. And I think that’s kind of the state of the world that we try to make clear because it’s an overwhelming problem. And I think a lot of times, people can draw away from that sentiment saying, “Okay, well, we’re past the edge now and like there’s nothing really we can do about that at this point.”

And I think that quick transition between like, “Oh, this isn’t a problem, and oh, it’s a problem, but it’s too late to do anything about it is kind of a dangerous step to make without the middle point, which is recognizing what the potential impacts of climate change may be, which is kind of where my work falls, trying to [??? 05:19] those impacts are. And then trying to see what decisions make the most sense to avoid the biggest negative impacts because a lot of those decisions do take upfront investments.

And so trying to understand what the benefits are long term really helps those cost-benefit decisions when we think about trying to invest in whether it’s renewable energy sources or afforestation or a variety of different technologies and approaches and societal transitions that can help us mitigate some of the effects of climate change.

JESSE: Yeah, well, I was like, I feel like you or the people like you are obviously going to have the knowledge and access to more data to affect greater change than, say, me or average Joe that really doesn’t have what I would consider valid knowledge, you know, like we learn things through pop articles and stuff. But I always try to be a little skeptical because the prerogative of a journalist is to get you to read not necessarily to present the facts. So, we get those.

But I think when we think about– you mentioned the problem of climate change being it’s a global scale, and then us as individuals, we live in a very local environment, you know, I’m in my room, I’m not around the planet.

So, you get this almost like, well, I’m just one person, what can I do kind of mentality. Yeah, which I talked about with Madie Steer a few weeks ago. Episode 43, I believe it was. And she’s researching the effects of microplastics in the oceans. And she was just like, “Well, yeah, but just like voting one person collectively, all these one people together change their habits to, in our case here with this conversation, slow the tide of change, of climate change by doing certain things.

Versus like you’re talking about larger investments in changing over an energy grid or something, which, as individuals, we don’t have as much control over.

IAN: Yeah, totally. So, I think the way I approach my research and definitely the folks that I collaborate with as well, I think the point that you’re making is really valid and that people respond to their local environment and what they perceive is affecting their local environment. And so we try to make that connection to whatever our audience is experiencing.

So, one of the projects I’m working on right now is trying to quantify what the economic impacts of changes to Hurricane patterns and sea-level rise, like the combination of sea-level rise and changes to hurricane patterns, what those economic consequences might be for coastal regions. And we try to do that keeping in mind who the audience might be.

So, it might be governments at the municipal or state level that are worried about infrastructure damage, and are worried about maybe the municipal level, their municipal bonds, the rates may increase and so they’re worried about a lot of these kind of financial challenges. And then when we’re communicating to the public, we’re trying to develop this hyperlocal climate risk information so that people understand in their city, in their zip code, in their county, what do we see the biggest impacts being.

And kind of, what does that mean for, oftentimes, in our research the local economy but also for human health, and ecological sustainability and a variety of potential impacts.

So, it’s kind of this cross between, or not across, but like recognizing who the audience is, and making sure that the message is appropriate for that audience. Because you’re totally right, that it’s easy for an individual person to zone out and say, yeah, I think including renewable energy in the like, trillion-dollar stimulus package is a good idea, but like, I’m not gonna– What am I gonna do about that?

Or trying to connect that to what the local impacts are, I think, helps people make those kinds of cost-benefit analyses work in their head and then the collective voice I think, helps us drive policy. But not just policy also business and a variety of sectors rather than just the government.

JESSE: So, how much of your job is, I’ll say job, but work. How much of your work is research and how much of it is marketing? Because as you’re describing it, I’m like you’re basically marketing this research when you’re talking about finding, like message audience fit, essentially, is I need to make sure that the audience, the people I’m talking to, the information I’m giving them is relevant to them and they know how it affects them. So, I mean, that’s marketing 101, basically.

IAN: Yeah, yeah, totally. I mean, I completely get that. I think most academics would kind of like cringe at the word marketing. So, I think people would generally try and not classify it that way, but it’s trying to say look, what about my research can be the most relevant to people? Why am I studying what I’m studying? I obviously didn’t just pick this topic out of the blue because it seemed intellectually interesting and suddenly realized there’s some sort of real-world connection. I got into this research because of that, and because I thought that there was information that needed to be shared and kind of used to help us improve our decision making.

And so I think the key difference there is that we try to craft what we focus on, and how we message things based on what we believe will be the most relevant for society, but not what the results are. And so there are some cases where I and groups that I’ve worked on have presented results that suggest climate change will have a large impact on outcome X, let’s say mortality in this region, but it won’t [??? 11:45] much in this region. Maybe mortality will decrease, maybe agricultural yields will increase in certain areas.

So, we try to be agnostic with what the results are. It’s not all trying to back up our message. But any scientist in this field who argues that they have no opinion or no kind of like, belief that they should try and make their results actionable, I think is doing a disservice to the reason that we do this research.

JESSE: Yeah. So, I actually want to back up a little bit. Yeah. So, I’m on board with you. So, if I give you a hard time, it’s for the sake of argument.

IAN: No, please. That’s what we’re here for.

JESSE: So, there are. and most likely they’re not listening to this particular podcast, but if they are, people that say climate change is not man-made, and we don’t have an impact. It’s part of a natural cycle. What data do we have to say that it is, in fact, of our making? And then thinking about that, I guess I’ll follow up with kind of where we are right now I guess after you’ve answered that.

IAN: Yeah. No, I hear that a lot. And it’s certainly, Yale puts out a lot of climate awareness polls and does a lot of good research on kind of what the public is thinking about climate change. And that has shifted a lot lately. And I think there’s a very noticeable transition where people are starting to agree with the scientific consensus that climate change is happening, that it’s manmade, and that it’s projected to be fairly substantial, increasing in terms of the overall changes over the course of this century. So, I think more people are getting on board with that the argument.

I think people often point to the like climate has always changed throughout history argument, which kind of like sounds reasonable at the outset. But the timescales at which things are changing, are so incredible, are so much quicker than it has ever been seen before in terms of like geologic time and climate change throughout the Paleoclimate record. So, it’s pretty inconceivable that these events are simply due to natural cycles. There’s a variety of cycles that people point to like the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit and how it’s related to the sun as well as kind of like a variety of like geological mechanisms that affect the level of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. But the timescales are so different that there’s pretty much no possible way that those could be causing the changes we’re seeing right now.

I also want to just flag one– There’s been some research recently looking at the accuracy– the like predictive skill of climate models as the kind of first ones came out several decades ago. And they’ve progressively gotten more and more sophisticated and improved more and more. And the findings are actually that the initial models, which kind of relied on very basic understanding of how human-generated greenhouse gas emissions would affect temperatures have actually performed really well, as they started to predict the years ahead that we’ve now experienced, but which those models had no ability to know, ahead of time.

And so I think that’s further evidence that our fundamental understanding of these processes, which are not incredibly complex, is accurate and kind of like helps us understand why the world looks as it does today versus the way it did several decades ago.

JESSE: Yeah. And I’m glad you brought that up just because I forgot it. And that’s the nice thing about having someone who specializes in it because you remember all these things.

IAN: There’s a lot.

JESSE: Right. There’s a lot. One thing I will be curious to see amid, you know, and I’m hoping this is a relevant conversation past this point in time. But obviously, right now we’re dealing with economic shutdown, lockdowns and stay at home orders with COVID. And we’ve seen almost immediately that reduction in I’ll say pollution as a catch-all [??? 16:27] from China and in the industry as everything has to shut down. And there have been stories though I don’t know how database they are about water clearing up in Venice and air quality improving and all these kind of things.

So, I’ll be interested to see out of all of this calamity, because I’m sure or at least keep my fingers crossed, hoping that somebody is tracking all of the data so that we have a more definitive like, “Hey, if we shut all these things off like, this happens.” Like there’s a very demonstrable effect of on and off between these two things and how the climate is affected.

IAN: Yeah. No, that’s a great point. It’s kind of people are looking for ways to use this event as what we often call a natural experiment where something exogenous, something that’s unrelated to the state of the economy or whatever just changes all of a sudden. Something that’s not– I shouldn’t say unrelated, but not caused by changes in the economy. It’s kind of this exogenous event.

So, I think while everybody right now is rightly focused on solving the crisis at hand, I think there are lots of folks in the science world, in the economics world that are thinking about what can we use this for from a data standpoint. And then obviously, again, it’s not the pressing challenge at hand, but it will be something that can be very useful and understanding what effects these have on natural systems. I think the challenge is that it’s not just–

So, for instance, I heard one statistic that clear sky days in Beijing have increased by like 25%. And so when you try to, especially when you’re in the business that I am, which is trying to connect environmental changes to societal changes; so, how does climate change affect the economy, etc. Obviously, using this event gets much harder because it’s not only just clearing up the skies, but it’s also devastating our economy. And so trying to un-correlate those things makes it challenging.

But it’ll be the job of a lot of scientists and economists in the years to come to try and see what we can– see what information we can gain from this event that kind of drastically changed the rate at which pollution is occurring as well as a variety of other things.

JESSE: So, you mentioned earlier, in particular, you’re working on the effects of hurricanes and hurricane systems on economies. Am I incorrect in saying that?

IAN: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So, what economic damage is caused by hurricanes in coastal regions, the goal is trying to understand how that may change in future climates.

JESSE: So, in kind of a shorthand way, is that a way to determine how or if coastal regions will basically become inhospitable or uneconomical to live in because of say increased intensity or increased frequency from hurricanes?

IAN: Yeah, yeah. The question is like, what will these costs be? Kind of the first-order question is, what will these costs be if we don’t do anything if we kind of lead people– everybody kind of like, continues to develop coastal regions as we have been. Here in the US, we’ve actually developed the coasts to a very large degree, probably inconsistent with our understanding of risk in those regions.

So, even [??? 20:12] climate change, I think, a lot of the physical capital is distributed in a way that’s not optimal, given current hurricane risk. So, try and understand that. And then also, if it’s changing, what are the kind of the new risks that– where do these new risks pop up? And where do they increase? Where do they decrease?

And so yeah, so trying to figure out what places will not necessarily be uninhabitable, but which will require substantial engineering measures to try and make them reasonable places to live in. And then we have to balance those costs and say, all right, does this make sense to do this? Because it’s never going to be the case that it’s easy to just move people or move [??? 20:57].

So, there’s very clear motivations to try and protect a lot of these areas. But that comes at a high cost. And so we have to balance all these things. Governments are always trying to make decisions, right, between do we build a seawall here?

Or do we build another school? And kind of we have to balance those. Those are both competing objectives for a finite resource, which is those government funds. And so just having a better sense for what that economic risk is helps governments make those decisions. It helps any sort of company that’s managing a bunch of physical assets decide how they allocate that portfolio, etc.

JESSE: Yeah. So, I remember– That makes me think about New Orleans. And, obviously, they’re devastated and had to rebuild and, as I understand it, still really kind of in the process of rebuilding both in terms of infrastructure and just human capital. But it’s like– I can’t who it is. I wish I knew who to attribute this to. But somebody made the comment, some kind of TV personality, about why would you try to rebuild a city that is below sea level that’s so subjected to these kind of events.

And it’s like as you mentioned, number one, it’s hard to move people, all the buildings, like you have some capital in all of those things where it’s like, if you’re going to replace them, they cost more to replace them than to repair them. And then where does that money come from?

IAN: Yeah. It’s not an easy answer. And from the viewpoint, from the typical economist’s viewpoint, you look at it and you say, okay, maybe it’d be better to just move this entire city. But that’s not taking into account all the costs that people would bear, leaving the society that they live in to go be transplanted into some entirely new place. And so the typical, I keep kind of going back to the economist in me, which is only part of what a typical economist would say, all right, we just need to quantify those costs.

But that’s difficult to do, right? You can’t always put a price on what the value is for somebody staying in a certain location. But we certainly try to do that and try to take into account what are those costs of shifting, of abandonment of certain locations and moving?

And those are massive decisions. And so we want to make sure we have all the information that we possibly can to try and understand how do we protect New Orleans? And for areas we can’t protect, what do we do about it then? But I think it’s a kind of easy gut reaction to say, we shouldn’t be rebuilding, we should just be constructing somewhere else. But that comes from folks that haven’t lived there.

I mean, New Orleans is kind of a society and a place that has a lot of value in preserving, regardless. And so we need to take that into account when we’re trying to make these decisions.

JESSE: That’s one thing I’m curious about, is that obviously, we can say, we can go at it from the– what’s the name, like an insurance adjuster’s perspective and say, “Well, the replacement value of this building is X and to replace all the streets and the plumbing and everything in the sewer system, and all the infrastructure is going to be Y.”

And we can go at it from that standpoint and say, “Okay, now we know how many dollars it will cost to reconstruct New Orleans, except we’re going to put it in the middle of Missouri now well away from the coast.” But I feel like it’s gotta be harder. And I want to know if you do this work to quantify the cost of culture in a place. Because even if you took all of the people of New Orleans and move them someplace and even built the city the exact same,

I feel like you would still fundamentally change the culture of the place because it no longer exists in the original place and that culture is in our minds. So, I’m just curious if you work on that aspect of it.

IAN: That’s a little afield from what I focus on. And it’s certainly, like valuable and something that a lot of folks are thinking about. I don’t want to make it seem like we’re like, ready to move New Orleans and there’s like plans in place to put it somewhere. [crosstalk]

JESSE: Right. To be clear, I’m the one that has latched on to [??? 25:42]. Ian did not do that, I did that.

IAN: Yeah. No. And New Orleans is not the only example, right? There’s a lot of low lying islands that are already becoming uninhabitable with climate change. New Orleans is a focus for us because we’re here in the US and because it’s a highly densely populated area. But people in islands around the world, their livelihoods, their culture, their history is threatened.

And so we need to think about kind of incorporate, or we need to incorporate that into our decision making. And the exact mechanism by which you incorporate that into decision making is kind of like, that’s a challenging point. And when you suggest how do we kind of put a value on what it means to move a society, it’s tough, it’s really hard. It’s not something that at the moment I focus on, in particular.

I generally focus on what are the impacts, if we leave everything in place. And then trying to kind of quantify the other costs which are like, all right, what if we make a decision, what does it mean to move people around? It’s not something I focus on but it definitely is an active area of research.

A lot of times, again, from the economist side, people use these willingness to pay studies where they try and see when people– for instance, for example, if people moved for a job, what have been the raises in salary that caused people to move. And so you try and say, all right, people aren’t going to move if the new job offer is like the same salary for the same position. Because you’re setup in where you are, you have a lot of kind of like benefits to not uprooting your life.

And so, just from a very kind of like cold-hearted economic standpoint, you try and say, all right, what is the willingness to pay [??? 27:43] people to move locations? So, alternatively, like how much would they require to be paid extra in order to uproot their lives. And so you can try and come at it from that way, but that’s still kind of from an individual level, and you can still fail to get the overall cultural value of a given place which is much harder to quantify in terms of dollars or any other metric you might come up with.

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