Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 50 - Ian Bolliger - CLIMATE CRISIS - Part 2 of 3

Yeah. So, I know thinking about what you do, like my brain starts lighting up because I like numbers. So, I majored in math in college, theoretical math. Unfortunately, there was no applied option where I went.


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JESSE: Yeah. So, I know thinking about what you do, like my brain starts lighting up because I like numbers. So, I majored in math in college, theoretical math. Unfortunately, there was no applied option where I went.

IAN: Your classes were probably way more intense than mine were.

JESSE: Sometimes people give me a hard time about no, they’ll be like, “Can do this math for me?” I’m like, “Hey, just so you know, we stopped talking about numbers after the first two years of college.” So, numbers are almost no longer a thing that we concern ourselves with. But I love it. Just there’s something about numbers I love. So, I think about that.

So, I’m wondering for you, do you– you mentioned there was a particular reason that you got into what you’re doing. Is it a matter of saying this is the rabbit hole, I’ve kind of found myself falling down, and it’s really interesting and it’s just kind of this like, mental excitement for yourself? Or do you feel like there’s an overall larger objective you’d like to achieve?

IAN: Yeah, absolutely. Definitely the latter. Although, some of the details of what I study right now hurricanes, in particular, were not something that I grew up with. I’m from Seattle. Hurricanes were not a challenge that we thought about frequently in Seattle. So, that was kind of sort of the luck of the projects that kind of worked out while I was in grad school.

But thinking in particular about extreme events and what climate change means for extreme events is kind of the place that I will be working in I think, for the long term. So, I kind of maybe just to provide some context give it like, the high-level view of where I came from. So, I also studied applied math, in my case, as an undergrad and also, kind of that my area of application was Earth and Planetary Science. So, I did a little bit of kind of the physical climate science at that point.

But I kind of graduated and realized that my interest was in like, what does this mean for society? And how do we deal with it? Not as much how do we like better understand the physical system, which helps us with all of these, all of the kind of downstream impacts work. But I definitely wanted to be focused more on the impacts work. So, I worked for three years in global health, trying to measure global health around the world and understand how that’s changing over time.

And then coming to grad school, started to blend that back into the climate science side. And so trying to think about how do we use some of these methods that we use to measure societal change in the country texts, understanding climate impacts. And so that’s kind of where I have situated myself now and where I hope to work in the future is how do we provide the actionable information that allows people to understand what does it mean, if I build this new coal plant versus build a solar farm?

Like what does that mean? What is the marginal cost of building each of these projects in terms of the impact on society? And that’s just one example. I mean, energy is a very easy example to pick.

But there’s countless decisions that governments are making that are potentially locking us into fossil fuel emissions or allowing us to reduce those going forward. And so I think that’s some of the key challenges are trying to link the very sophisticated climate science that we have today. And the kind of like long history of social science and economics.

And oftentimes, those are two totally disparate fields and it’s left from people to kind of draw qualitative links between the two. They say, all right, look, we know that heat waves are bad for people. And we can see that heat waves are increasing in this region in the future. So, like, that’s bad. And that’s a great first step.

But then when individuals and governments and businesses are making crucial decisions? They often do that based on some sort of quantitative data, like do we think this is going to be a risky decision or a smart decision? And so trying to link those two disparate fields in a quantitative way, I think has a lot of power to influence the way some of these larger organizations are acting with respect to climate change.

JESSE: Yeah, so I was thinking about like we’re talking about earlier on the individual level, you say, “Okay, well, what can I do as an individual?” Well, I in particular, and not really in a position of power to make any large impactful decisions. I don’t have billions of dollars of capital to go build a solar farm or to do anything of that scale. But–

IAN: Maybe if the podcast keeps growing, yeah.

JESSE: Maybe, maybe. If I get to, I’ll say one billion people on earth, listen to it. But at the same time, I think it’s easy to forget, like we were talking about like governments making decisions. It’s really people who are representatives that make up the government that are making the decision. So, it’s still individuals that need that data to make those decisions. So, it seems like that’s kind of where you come in to say, I say you, I mean, you and your compatriots, your colleagues.

Yeah. No, it’s all on you, Ian like, the world is now yours to save. But yeah, I mean, ‘cause it’s– You see this, I think we think about or maybe we aspire or hope that our leaders are more intelligent than us. And sometimes they’ll make decisions that we don’t agree with. And sometimes they’re right. Sometimes they’re not. But I think it’s like, we hope that they’re more intelligent than us and can make better decisions than us. But at the same time, if they don’t, they can only make decisions as good as the data they have to work with.

IAN: Yeah. Yeah, that is like the best case scenario. It’s not always the case that those decisions get made with the best data. And I joke about that, but I think that’s also kind of going back to the beginning of our conversation, like a key reason that messaging and setting up your data in the right context to make people understand what it means for them is super important. Because I think we’re human beings, we’re emotional, we make decisions based on what we feel, frequently.

And if you strongly feel one thing, it’s easy to ignore data if that data isn’t kind of like, relevant and present in mind in terms of how it’s affecting your actions. And so I think you’re right that in the ideal situation, our leaders are making decisions based on the data that’s in front of them. And that’s not always the case. And it’s not always their fault, right?

It’s they have so much data to process about so many different challenges that the world is facing or that their particular area is facing, that you need to make sure that the ones that are important, like connect with them in the right way. So, I think that’s kind of one point. And the other I think, is just that like– I think you’re bringing up something pretty valuable which is like as an individual, some of the strongest things– There’s a lot of things you can do as an individual that kind of reduce your own carbon footprint. And I think that I would 100% advocate for those actions.

But ultimately, it takes collective action. You know, people composting more is fantastic. It’s not going to solve the climate crisis on an individual level. It’s going to take larger collective action. And so, in many ways, the strongest thing you can do as an individual is be informed and to make your voice heard as much as possible. And that’s by voting, that’s by expressing your opinion to elected representatives. You know, supporting groups that advocate for the positions that you believe in, etc.

And so some of the work I’ve done, we were talking about this a little bit before the podcast, but some of the work I’ve done is to try and make these climate impacts information accessible and available to individuals alongside our approach that kind of tries to produce data for governments and for larger institutions to make decisions with.

And so I partnered with Protect Our Winters, which is a nonprofit that works with a lot of outdoor athletes. It was founded by Jeremy Jones, a professional snowboarder. And so they do a lot of education of climate issues among the outdoor recreation, outdoor sports community.

And so we started hosting some talks on climate– like what are the local impacts of climate– How is climate change can affect our local environment? What does that mean for the economy, for health, for everything that we care about from a local community? And then finally, what can we do about it? How can we get involved?

And so so POW, Protect Our Winters have been doing this for a few years and my colleague, [??? 10:00] Kerry and I got some funding from the American Geophysical Union to join forces with them and to kind of expand the reach of these talks that they’re hosting at ski areas around the country. We started to do that this year and had a very successful one out in Reno.

And then COVID came along and there’s been no more gathering since then. But I think it’s a crucial– I tried to budget a fair amount of time, it’s hard right now while I’m trying to graduate. But in general, try to budget a fair amount of time to working to make the research that we’re doing accessible and available to individuals and the broader community rather than simply like organizations making large scale decisions because those individuals influence those large scale decision making.

And nothing will happen at the institutional level until there’s enough collective opinions and pressure at the individual level to make that happen.

JESSE: So, I’m wondering like at one of the conferences of Protect Our Winters, I assume you have like speakers and stuff.

IAN: Yeah.

JESSE: This is going to be me referring to it as marketing, but like, I’m just thinking about if– So, if you’re doing a conference for, say, other Ph.D. students, it’s going to be a certain kind of presenting here’s the research, here’s the data we went through and this is our method. Like it’s a very, I’ll call it dry presentation. But because you’re speaking to a highly educated and specialized audience that is able to digest that information.

But if you go, if instead of over Skype, we are having this conversation in my friend’s yard and people were walking by and stopping to listen to us chat. They might go, “I don’t know what Ian’s talking about because I’m just coming in the middle of this. I don’t have any information. And you’re trying to you’re like, trying to present charts. So, do you, for conference like Protect Our Winters, do you try to make the presentations, for lack of a better term, sexy? Or how does that conference come together when you’re trying to present to like a layman, basically?

IAN: Yeah, yeah. No, that’s a really good question. And I think, again, yeah, you’re right, it goes back to the beginning of our conversation, which is like, how do you tune the message to the people that you’re speaking to so that the impact of what you’re trying to say comes through? Because it won’t necessarily be impactful to different groups of people.

So, the way we structured these, and they were talks, they were like, hour long. There was like, happy hour food and drinks that people came and listened to folks and then there was Q&A. So, it was like I think it was important for us to make sure that the audience was engaging and not necessarily being talked at because you’re gonna miss people, even if you think you kind of like tailor the message in the right way, you’re gonna miss people for sure. [??? 13:09] kind of sees things in the same vein.

So, the way we structured it, we had somebody talking about physical changes to climate. And so what does it mean in the local region? Are we going to have more rain, less rain, more intense rain, more snow, less snow, etc. We had one person who focused on the social science side, so somebody who worked on water rights in this particular case, but other people that worked on impacts to the outdoor industry or impacts to local health, etc. And then we had folks that work in local businesses.

So, folks that worked in, in this case, it was outdoor recreation and tourism, and trying to get their perspective to hopefully make that connection with people who are living and working in that area being like, “Oh, this is a business that works in my local area. And this is how they’re thinking about climate change and what they’re planning to do to adapt to it, what it means for them.

And then finally, because of POW’s connection, we had athletes, winter athletes that came in that talked about how it’s influenced their sport and the activities that they do as a profession. And that hopes to make things a little sexier, as you suggested, and also connect things to the sports that people in this particular audience happened to be participating in.

But yeah, the talks were nothing like a scientific conference. We did five-minute talks, where each person would kind of show a couple slides and talk about how climate change enters into the work they do. And then I moderated a little discussion, and then there was some Q&A.

So, it was trying to, again trying to tailor to the audience at hand, and it’s a working progress. Scientists are never great at that. We’re used to– We do a lot of conferences and we’re used to kind of the same style of presentation. It’s tough to switch that around. But I think incredibly meaningful and the most successful scientists are the ones that are best able to communicate their work to the broader audiences. Because that means they’re doing relevant work and understanding how to communicate that work to other people.

JESSE: Yeah, well, this is kind of a sidebar, but that’s one of my many, many missions of this podcast is basically to give a voice to people like you, that wouldn’t necessarily be heard by a larger audience, assuming you don’t want to just go out and grow your own social media audience and be able to help try to translate some of the jargon into like, more understandable bite-sized pieces. Not that people listening to podcast are dumb by any stretch of the imagination, but there are so many different topics that we talk about that it’s like it’s hard to digest all the information.

You know, just anytime you’re talking to– especially when you’re talking to somebody who is very specialized, sometimes if they’re not used to talking to layman like me, then it becomes a matter of speaking like they always speak to their peers as a good example, the very first 400 level math class I took in college was taught by a brand new professor, it was his first year teaching, and we were taking analysis and that class was his Ph.D. field.

So, he’s very deep into it. And I almost failed that class. And afterwards, much to my [??? 16:49]. He let us know, I’m sorry, I think I taught that at a graduate level, not an undergraduate level. Because he was so deep in it, it was hard for him to step back and be like, “Oh, you have absolutely no idea what’s going on.” Like the first day of class was simply he walked in, he did not say hi, he just began writing on the board and away we went. And that’s how it feels.

It’s like trying to drink from a firehose sometimes when you’re speaking to somebody that’s so in depth in a particular topic.

IAN: Yeah, I think that’s 100% true. And having listened to a few of the podcasts previously, I’m impressed by what your guests have done to make sure that the thing they specialize in [??? 17:35] well to everyone. I’ve definitely learned things from particularly, the like sports performance and nutrition and mental side of things. That was cool to listen to.

But yeah, I think it’s not just scientists. I mean, everybody if you’ve been working in the field for 20 years, like you’ve got the jargon down, it’s hard for you to kind of like communicate. When you’re talking about I mean, people communicate about all kinds of daily things fine. I have no problem having a conversation about the weather.

But when you talk about the thing that you’re particularly invested in and knowledgeable about, there’s often like very precise language that you use because the challenges that you’re talking about are very nuanced. And like you’re deep into the field and so you want to be precise with what you’re saying. But that’s just like, not jargon that people use in other fields and in another context in life. And so not just science, but science happens to be, a very technical field most times. And so it often, it comes off as the most hard to penetrate when somebody is not able to communicate that in a kind of more general way.

JESSE: Yeah. So, I don’t want to miss this kind of question or thought I’ve written down. So, is the whole idea here in part because this is such a large idea, and there’s a lot to kind of wrap your head around as somebody, again, if we come at it from the perspective of I know nothing, and I’m presented with this idea that we as humanity are affecting our climate, on this giant ball we live on. Is it a matter of we’re having a tough time as individuals digesting the information, or are there larger, we’ll say forces, but I don’t mean like malevolent forces at work. Are their larger forces and complications to why it’s so difficult to enact change?

IAN: Yeah, that’s a very big question.

JESSE: I know.

IAN: And I will kind of, throughout the caveat that this is my personal opinion. I’m not representing anybody here. But I think, yeah, I think that one of the biggest challenges is inertia, like inertia in all kinds of our systems. So, in our economic system, we’ve built up like very substantial structure that relies on burning fossil fuels. And we’ve done that over the course of many decades in which we didn’t necessarily see this to be a problem.

And we’ve created not only infrastructure, but also like government and power structures that favor the continuation of kind of the status quo. And so that’s not to say that it’s impossible or improbable even that we can turn that around. But it’s very as we’ve seen over the past several decades, it hasn’t been a question of better climate science. It’s been a question of moving the needle in the policy and the business worlds.

And so there certainly are larger forces at work. And I think the primary culprit, I think, is just inertia. We understand the world as we see it right now. And you know, 30 years ago, we understood the world as we see it right then. And we kind of develop our society based on what we believe to be kind of the best way to do so. And for a while, we believe that to be fossil fuels.

Then there’s obviously issues with fossil fuel companies burying evidence that it was affecting the climate– Oh, God. Sorry. That’s gone. Yeah. But it’s not, you know, you say there’s no malevolent forces. I think in general, that’s probably true. But there’s definitely businesses and corporations looking out for their best interest, which goes– which often is not as consistent with improving overall welfare for humanity.

So, we’ve put a ton of power in the hands of corporations. And like, I’m not going to say that that’s all bad. I mean, there’s been a lot of benefits that’s come out of that, but it has kind of enabled the situation in which corporations looking out for their own best interests can cause harm to the broader society. And so that’s kind of, I think, one of the main challenges.

But I will kind of like to flip that around to a positive note, I think the incentive structures are lining up more and more these days for some of the larger organizations, particularly financial institutions to better understand what the risks of climate change are.

And so I don’t know if you saw that, like the BlackRock letter to shareholders recently, where they kind of like, fundamentally changed their stance on kind of not incorporating climate change into their decision making in order to outline a pretty substantial plan about how climate risk was going to influence, essentially every decision they make from here on out and was going to result in a very substantial reallocation of capital over the course of several years. And they’re not alone in that.

There was, was it Microsoft recently came out and said that they’re going to try to remove all of the emissions they have generated since the beginning of their company by, I don’t know, 2030 or something like that?

So, there’s pressure from the public, as well as just business incentives that are well aligning for some of these larger corporations to kind of shift the way they operate. So, I want to end on a doom and gloom standpoint, I think we’re definitely at a transition point. And who knows what COVID has thrown into that, what sort of wrench COVID’s thrown into that transition.

But a month ago, I would have told you this is something that’s happening and changing not over the course of the last Five years 10 years but like really in the last year or two is we’ve definitely seen a very substantial shift in the business community and to some degree in government as well.

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