How well have humans adapted to the current climate, and how will we adapt to new climate complexities?
This week, the Climate Conversations team is joined by climate research scientist Nick Obradovich, who discusses the many ways the climate affects us in our day-to-day lives, including the way we sleep and exercise. Nick explains how he uses data science to look at climate and behavior, such as social media indications of how people’s mood changes with weather.
We discuss climate change as a human cooperation challenge, and explore how developing countries will struggle to adapt to climate change: Is it time to pay reparations to these countries?
If you’re enjoying our Climate Conversations podcast, you can subscribe on your favorite podcast platform to hear the latest episodes first. Find us on:
[00:00:00:08] NICK OBRADOVICH: I mean, the reality is that every time I uncover an effect in the US and say, oh, look at this thing. Look at look at the ways that we haven't perfectly adapted to our climate yet. I'm in the back of my mind thinking, and what about those billions of other people who don't have the capacity that we do to smooth these shocks?
[00:00:16:01] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: This is Climate Conversations by ClimateX.
[00:00:18:07] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:00:23:17] Welcome to Climate Conversations. I'm Rajesh Kasturirangan.
[00:00:26:00] CURT NEWTON: And I'm Curt Newton.
[00:00:27:13] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: And today, we are going to talk big.
[00:00:29:29] CURT NEWTON: Big data.
[00:00:31:16] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Big data.
[00:00:32:08] CURT NEWTON: And big ideas.
[00:00:33:04] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Big ideas. And how climate change is going to affect the way we sleep, the way we think and behave. Very, very complex, challenging questions.
[00:00:44:08] CURT NEWTON: But you know, really brought down to the level of our individual experiences of climate change, too.
[00:00:49:06] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Yes. So all the way from micro to macro.
[00:00:52:17] CURT NEWTON: Right on.
[00:00:53:05] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: And our guest, Nick Obradovich, is going to help us think through some of these topics.
[00:00:58:07] CURT NEWTON: He's a research scientist here at MIT, and also affiliations at Harvard. On
[00:01:03:17] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: To Nick. You know, there's a very famous statement which says, I can disagree with your opinions, but I can't disagree with your facts. And facts, of course, come under the general framework of data.
[00:01:20:05] And in today's podcast we have Mr. Data Science in Nick Obradovich, who is a research scientist at MIT's Media Lab, and also affiliated with a couple of institutions at Harvard. The Harvard University Center For the Environment, and the Kennedy School. Welcome, Nick.
[00:01:39:21] NICK OBRADOVICH: Thanks for having me.
[00:01:41:00] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So Nick, I have this pop theory of how the climate collapse is going to happen.
[00:01:45:15] NICK OBRADOVICH: The collapse.
[00:01:47:09] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: The climate apocalypse. Which is that as the world warms, we're all going to get hotter and angrier. And therefore, you know, road rage will combine with heat rage. I think that we'll become zombies and start fighting at each other.
[00:02:06:23] NICK OBRADOVICH: So it'll be an angry Mad Max with heat-caused zombies, is your view.
[00:02:11:20] CURT NEWTON: And fewer cars, maybe.
[00:02:14:07] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So what do you think? Is this the likely end of civilization?
[00:02:20:08] NICK OBRADOVICH: I mean, I hope not. It doesn't sound like a very good way to go out if we're going to go out.
[00:02:26:04] CURT NEWTON: You're doing everything you can to help us imagine other futures.
[00:02:30:13] NICK OBRADOVICH: Yeah. Working in this area, I think you have to, day to day, try to stay optimistic in order to get work done. So pondering the various apocalyptic futures that might occur in negative outcome scenarios is not exactly conducive in terms of being productive at solving the problem.
[00:02:50:04] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Yeah. What brings you to climate work? What do you think are the challenges that you find particularly important or interesting?
[00:03:00:13] NICK OBRADOVICH: Yeah, so there's two questions there. The what brought me to climate work I think really just boils down to generally me having a concern and an interest in using science to better the human condition. And when I thought about maybe some of the greatest challenges that we face to human well-being around the world, it was hard to come up with something that was more pressing than the climate problem.
[00:03:26:24] And so for probably going on a decade now, I've variously focused on thinking about the climate problem. Now, in so doing, I have come to a number of different conclusions, personal conclusions, about areas that I can be the most effective in terms of trying to answer the outstanding questions. One of those relates to how is the changing climate likely to impact human well-being. So how do we respond to a changing climate, what does it do to us on a day-to-day basis.
[00:04:02:01] And the other, I would say, is trying to understand how we may be likely to adapt to that changing climate over time. And the areas where we will face easy adaptation, and the areas where we will face more difficult adaptation. And both of those themselves are still areas where science is largely still somewhat nascent.
[00:04:24:03] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So what I find exciting about that is some of the questions when you're studying the impact of climate are not necessarily the traditional kind of impacts of the climate, right? So for example, how well will we sleep.
[00:04:37:11] NICK OBRADOVICH: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think that there are some very obvious impacts of climate. Sea level rise is going to be very costly. And there are these large geophysical impacts-- failing crops-- that are unquestionably-- if the models turn out to be right, and the evidence on the main turns out to be right-- going to cause large disruptions.
[00:04:57:16] But we interact with our climate on a day-to-day basis, not just at its extremes. And we don't have a very good understanding of the many dimensional ways in which, as we go about our daily lives, the climate affects us. So climate and sleep was one area that I worked on. And that stemmed largely from the fact that, as someone who works on climate, I pay a little bit more close attention to what's going on with people and myself when they experience anomalous climate events, or hot weather, cold weather.
[00:05:33:05] And in San Diego, back in October of 2015, they had a big heat wave-- we had a big heat wave. And I was living there and finishing my graduate studies at the time. And that heat wave had some very hot temperatures for San Diego at night, and San Diego typically has a very temperate climate. So there's no real air conditioning in the city.
[00:05:54:16] And I wasn't sleeping well, my friends weren't sleeping well, and people were grumpy. And I thought, well, surely someone will have looked at the fact-- I mean, we know from lab studies-- I'd even heard this and read these studies previously-- that ambient temperatures in the context of a lab disrupt sleep. And so I thought for sure someone had looked into this and made the link, but no one has done it yet.
[00:06:15:21] And that, I think, speaks to-- not that I'm some super bright person or anything like that, or had this most ingenious idea, but instead that we are still just in a very nascent stage with respect to looking at the ways that the climate and the changing climate might impact our well-being into the future.
[00:06:32:15] CURT NEWTON: Yeah, I think this is a really important thread, and glad that you're doing this work. It brings to mind for me here, living in New England, we've had, with the exception of the Snowpocalypse year of 100-plus inches of snow back in 2015, we've actually had incredibly moderate and pleasant weather. Warm winters and cool summers. And it would seem-- and I think you've done some research on this-- that one's exposure to nasty extremes of weather affects your perception of the bigger climate problem.
[00:07:07:09] But the flip side of that is if you're living in a place that, hey, if this is climate change, I'm all for it. That kind of frustrating thing that we hear. Those attitudes really come out of individuals day-to-day lived experiences. And understanding how all that fits together in the kind of collective mind of people is a really important thing to be getting a grip on.
[00:07:31:16] NICK OBRADOVICH: Yeah, I think that's a very good point. And I think what is at the crux of that point is something that many people who are concerned about climate and focus on climate don't think as much about, in that we think about the hot side of the temperature distribution becoming hotter. But we don't think about the cold side of the temperature distribution as often becoming warmer.
[00:07:53:14] I found this out in an interesting way as I was doing my normal data science work related to not sleeping well in San Diego back in 2015. I was also on a running regimen. And I just didn't run as much because it was 100 degrees at 4:00 PM or whenever when I would normally go running. And I was just not going to go running in that.
[00:08:13:03] And so I thought, well, maybe physical activity is possibly altered at these heat extremes as well. And the data that we had showed that indeed, at heat extremes, you did see this decline in probability of physical activity. The problem is you also saw that decline at cold temperatures as well.
[00:08:32:28] And so what you see given how high the peak was in terms of when people started to be less likely to engage in physical activity, because that was, I think, around 82 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit. The other side of that distribution, as it warms, means that people are going to go out and be more physically active.
[00:08:49:26] So if you have a temperate winter when you normally have a cold and harsh winter, you may go for more walks, and you may go for more runs. And you may enjoy the fact that it's kind of nicer outside. And this is particularly problematic if you think that these sorts of positive experiences with climate change are more likely in more temperate and northern latitudes-- the US is a temperate nation-- especially temperate nations that have a large influence on the global emissions of CO2. And that are democratic and rely on people's opinions to be supportive of policies that may be somewhat economically costly to change economic output.
[00:09:27:13] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: But climate change is very much, I think, a big data problem.
[00:09:32:03] NICK OBRADOVICH: Climate change is a lot of problems. And I would say that, fundamentally, climate change is a cooperation problem. It's a human cooperation problem and a collective action problem. Big data can give us a lot of insight into aspects of that problem and how we might be able to address the cooperation problems, how we might be able to address the impacts of climate change. How we might be able to determine better and worse ways to try and adapt to those effects.
[00:09:59:16] But fundamentally, it's a problem that we've dealt with as humans in human societies for millennia, as long as we've had agriculture, in terms of collective action problems. It's just applied on a scale that we've never before seen.
[00:10:14:09] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: I want to understand, what is data science? Or rather, what is not data science? Because, I mean, what is science without data?
[00:10:22:09] NICK OBRADOVICH: Well, so, there are all different kinds of data that you can gather about the world. And I think that the definition of data science is quite amorphous. And I think that there is not one clear definition of-- if you tell someone what a data scientist is, then you'll just be able to pick out all the data scientists in the world.
[00:10:42:23] I mean, maybe you can give a very broad definition of someone who works with data to do science. But then all scientists, as you note-- all quantitative scientists, all empirical scientists-- will fall into that realm. A lot of scientists just focus on pure theory. So they might not be considered in that definition of data scientist.
[00:11:02:20] But I think when we refer to it in a colloquial sense of, oh yeah, the data scientists tell us, or those data nerds have said. They're oftentimes referring to people who work with big data, with the newer sets of data that have been made available by the increasing penetration of technology into our society. And the data that is being collected and generated by the fact that we engage with our phones all the time, and that we move around cities in a way that creates digital traces of how we've moved around those cities.
[00:11:34:11] So I think that it really has to do a lot more with the scale of data, and being able to handle and work with those scale of data, than it does just that you work with data.
[00:11:43:22] CURT NEWTON: It holds out the promise that what we may in the past have modeled based on a kind of theoretical understanding of how stuff works, we've got now millions of little pieces of data. And when it's done right, our models and our understandings of all these behaviors and systems have that kind of grounding. Is that right?
[00:12:02:10] NICK OBRADOVICH: I think that's right. So science can progress with better measurement. And that works in physics. So you have the gravitational waves being detected as a result of improved measurement capacity. And that can work just as well in social sciences as well.
[00:12:16:29] For a long time, the social sciences relied on very low resolution spatial and temporal data. And so a lot of the theories that we had that we wanted to test, we just couldn't.
[00:12:25:26] CURT NEWTON: Can you unpack that "spatial and temporal data"?
[00:12:29:13] NICK OBRADOVICH: Yeah, yeah. So spatial data being data that we can tag in some form of space. So if, for example, you're on your phone, and you're tweeting from your local cafe. And you say, ah, I want a tag that I'm at this local cafe to talk about how good the coffee is. That creates a spatial trace.
[00:12:49:09] It gives you some geolocation coordinates of where you were at that time. And it also gives us the time stamp, the date and the time of day, that you made that tweet. Which gives us the ability to be very precise in terms of when that data was created.
[00:13:04:09] So for example, if you were saying that you just feel terrible right now, and you said that in your tweet, and you geotagged it to your local cafe, on 7:13 AM on October 21, 2014, we have that data. That's largely due to the fact that Twitter is a public data stream. But what that gives us then in terms of the resolution, spatial and temporal resolution, is something that now we have to the exact timestamp in the exact location. As opposed to, well, we know that people in this city in this year had some characteristic associated with them.
[00:13:42:18] So now we can track data that relates to individual humans as we go about our daily lives with much finer grained resolution.
[00:13:50:04] CURT NEWTON: And as I understand it, one of the things you're doing in your research is you're able to correlate that kind of data with similarly fine-grained weather measurements, for instance.
[00:14:00:26] NICK OBRADOVICH: Yeah, actually, at this point in some of the projects, the weather measurements are the limiting resolution factor in the sense that we have maybe even finer grain measures of people's locations than we do of the distribution of weather stations in a place. Now, there are some technical aspects related to why that's not hugely important. And mostly related to the fact that when you have weather in a city on a day, you have weather on a city in a day, and there's not a huge amount of variation within that city.
[00:14:32:06] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Unless you are in Berkeley or someplace which has microclimates.
[00:14:35:06] NICK OBRADOVICH: Exactly. If you have microclimates, then you certainly can get-- the worst winter that I ever spent was summer in San Francisco, is a very famous quote. And the last time I was in San Francisco, they hit 106 degrees. So it was not exactly the typical foggy cold. They hit the all-time heat record, actually, this past summer.
[00:14:54:19] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So you take this kind of geotagged data, and what do you do with it?
[00:15:00:11] NICK OBRADOVICH: Well, it depends on what we're interested in. So maybe you look at-- so, say you take Facebook data or Twitter data, and you take people's status updates or their tweets. Ideally, you want to know how people are feeling at that point in time. What you end up with are how people express words related to maybe how they're feeling. And you try and use algorithms to come up with sentiment scores for the aggregate of tweets or for that user's tweets on a given day.
[00:15:30:14] And you want to see, for example, is it the case that when it's really hot out, our sentiment, our expressed well-being, decreases.
[00:15:37:19] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: How do you-- and this brings, I think, perhaps to one of the critiques of data science, which is that this kind of public data, like your Facebook updates or your Twitter updates, people may not necessarily be telling the truth about how they're feeling.
[00:15:53:16] NICK OBRADOVICH: Right, that's a huge-- so if we talk about quality of measurement in science, that is one of the areas that data science still stands a lot to gain. And actually I'm teaching a course here on research methods at the Media Lab. And that's something that I try to emphasize to my students very explicitly, is that big data doesn't solve measurement. It improves measurement, but you still have to be concerned about the underlying concept that you want to measure. And if it's emotion, then you need to be sure that you don't have a biased measure of emotion.
[00:16:26:16] So yeah, there are all sorts of different concepts with respect to data science. Data science is not a panacea. You can't forget to do the science portion of data science.
[00:16:34:13] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So on a day-to-day basis, what are the kinds of problems do you think-- so sleep is one of those things that will be affected, which happens to us every single day. I hope, right? What are the other things that social scientists study that can be tracked vis-a-vis the climate?
[00:16:57:25] NICK OBRADOVICH: I mean, realistically, every aspect of our behavior that is measured. So any way that we have data to look at something, whether it's your movement patterns, whether it's your mood, whether it's your voting behaviors in aggregate, whether it's your gross domestic product, whether it's the yields on your farms. All of the things that we have data on, because we have data on weather for the US and reliable data for many places around the world, we can look at all of those things.
[00:17:30:20] And the interesting thing is that what we're finding with the social impacts of climate literature is that climate and weather does really impact humans on so many different dimensions. And if you think about it, it's things that oftentimes we may not even pay acute attention to. But if today I went out, and it was hotter than normal, and I kind of had to deal with the fact that I was having to walk quickly to get to a meeting or something, and now I'm a little bit sweaty, and a little bit more stressed out, and I'm a little bit more disheveled.
[00:18:05:10] All these very small effects can do something that I think is an area where, really, we are lacking in the social impacts of climate. And that is understanding the way that the effects that we've identified individually systematically work together. And maybe that's because the individual effects are themselves an effect of something else that we identified.
[00:18:27:28] So maybe, for example, with respect to sleep. Maybe it's the fact that we found that your mood declines in hot temperatures, and that stresses you out, or you have frustrating interactions with other people. And then before bed, you're lying in bed and thinking to yourself, man, I really wish that I didn't say that, or man, I felt really stressed out at work today. And that has you kind of riled up so, you're not sleeping as well.
[00:18:51:12] Or maybe it's the direct effect of temperature on your circadian rhythm at night that then increases the probability that you have the next day negative interactions at work, and are more grumpy in your expressed linguistic patterns and things like that. So we don't know the answer to those questions yet. And we don't know to what degree there are feedback mechanisms-- positive feedback mechanisms with all these things.
[00:19:13:03] I think theoretically you could imagine that both of those things play off with one another in a positive feedback loop. And understanding those systems level, both causal mechanisms and the systematic effects of all this, systems level effects, are really important. And I that's where a lot of research in this area is headed.
[00:19:32:02] CURT NEWTON: Kind of, to me, brings to mind brain research that goes on in MRI machines. And you give somebody a carefully constructed task, and a little region of the brain lights up. And it's like, oh, that's a piece of data. And now people, having done a whole bunch of those kind of studies, are now starting to knit it a little bit more together into something where we can start, just start, to understand maybe some of the causal links, and who's in charge of what.
[00:20:01:01] NICK OBRADOVICH: It's incredibly complex, it really is. That's a very, very hard field of science to understand how brain systems work in response to stimuli, as opposed to just understanding the marginal effects on a region and the blood oxygen level-dependent response in the fMRI as a result of the changes in the oxygen in the bloodstream.
[00:20:18:15] CURT NEWTON: So from a climate perspective, what you're saying is we're at the early stage? We're doing some of those first studies of just seeing what regions light up in response to something?
[00:20:28:03] NICK OBRADOVICH: In some ways, yeah. And obviously, you have the kind of big system level effects. We know what is going to happen when cities are under water. We don't know what's going to happen to the global political system, though. We don't know exactly what's going to happen with respect to conflict, with respect to international relations, with respect to domestic politics. And these are still big, open, systems level questions that occur over longer time frames than do the micro level questions with respect to individual sleep.
[00:20:54:28] But really, the reality is that all of these things are related. They're all related through time and space. And we live in one big system. And understanding how all of that relates is a huge scientific task, regardless of any domain. Whether it's in the brain, or in society broadly.
[00:21:13:19] But we are just now, as you say, just kind of taking those first cuts to try and more systematically map things together.
[00:21:20:12] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: In my head, I'm imagining this apocalyptic version of the butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon. Right? So imagine a butterfly flaps its wing just one more time than it normally does. And that heats up some molecules a little bit more than it should have, and so on and so forth, until it gets to some White House staffer who rushed into a meeting and insulted President Trump, who then was so angry that he launched rockets against North Korea. And then the world ends.
[00:21:55:14] CURT NEWTON: Thank you, good night.
[00:21:57:23] NICK OBRADOVICH: Yeah, I mean, I would say that the crux of that thought, it stems from the notion that the system we live in is very complex. And small perturbations, to some aspects or one aspect of that system, can dramatically change the trajectory of that system in the future. That's true. We live in that system.
[00:22:18:24] That makes doing science around that complex system all the harder.
[00:22:23:09] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Right. And I'm assuming that climate change increases those perturbations. At least in some things.
[00:22:32:12] NICK OBRADOVICH: Yes, exactly. It is going to increase the degree to which we experience the unexpected. Experience the non-normal. The thing that we haven't built our society around.
[00:22:45:07] And this is an interesting point in the thought of climate adaptation. And we always talk about it in the sense that we will need to adapt to the new climate. And not very often as it talked about that we've already adapted to our climates. We exist in states of adaptation to climate.
[00:23:05:11] We wear coats in New England, and we don't wear coats in San Diego. I had to buy a coat when I moved here. We adapt to our climate with our infrastructure, with our behaviors. But we haven't done it perfectly, right? That's an important thing to understand when people say, oh, well, aren't we just going to perfectly adapt in the future?
[00:23:25:05] We haven't adapted to our current climates perfectly. If we had adapted to our current climates perfectly, we wouldn't observe any of the impacts of climate that we observe in our studies. You wouldn't be at all angrier when it was hotter in your location, because you would have adapted in some way to smooth your mood across those perturbations in weather that you were exposed to. You Wouldn't notice a slowdown in your GDP because you would have figured out mechanisms to ensure that production went ahead regardless of the weather extremes or climate that they were exposed to.
[00:23:54:23] And so we're moving forward in having to adapt to these added perturbations that are going to make possibly complex outcomes occur as a result of this system. And we're going to need to adapt to that complexity, and it's going to be harder to adapt to that than it has been to adapt to the current state of the world that we're currently in. And we haven't adapted to that perfectly.
[00:24:17:17] CURT NEWTON: You know, there's been a running theme on the podcast about trying to understand our deep foundational assumptions and frames of reference on things. And your research being based on, say, big data availability makes me think that it's a little more attuned to the developed world, for instance. And maybe a little bit less so to less developed regions of the world.
[00:24:42:13] Is that a fair assessment?
[00:24:43:26] NICK OBRADOVICH: Definitely.
[00:24:44:06] CURT NEWTON: And if so, what do we do about that? What could we do about that?
[00:24:47:21] NICK OBRADOVICH: That's a fantastic question. So the first part of my PhD studies, I actually did work on African political development. And I spent a number of months throughout various years in the field in sub-Saharan African countries. Malawi, Uganda, Ghana, South Africa.
[00:25:04:20] And I was interested in climate questions then. Primarily at the time, I was interested in how people thought about climate change in sub-Saharan Africa, and how policymakers and politicians at the domestic level thought about climate policy. The somewhat depressing conclusion that resulted from that work was that people, if they're aware about climate, are not concerned about it very much.
[00:25:30:00] I mean, the reality is that there's need for day-to-day improvements and basic development that may help with overall adaptation. But thinking about putting money into an investment that may pay 15-year dividends in the political world just wasn't there.
[00:25:44:14] But what I also saw doing that fieldwork and spending so much time in developing countries is, because of what we were just talking about with respect to the fact that, even in the US, we haven't perfectly adapted to our current climate. Even though we're very wealthy relatively, we have great infrastructure, we have air conditioning, and all of that. The shocks that are observed when it is a hot day-- there is more physiological adaptation. But once it's hot, it's just hot.
[00:26:12:27] And so when I say with respect to a lot of the research that we're doing, because the reality is the good data is in the US, and it's in developed countries. It's very true reality. But almost certainly, those represent some level of an underestimate of the way that people will respond in developing countries, lacking those current adaptive tools to added climate shocks in the future.
[00:26:36:26] CURT NEWTON: They're just more exposed to it.
[00:26:37:27] NICK OBRADOVICH: They're just more exposed to it. They just don't have the adaptive capacity that we have developed here in developed countries yet. The effects that they're going to observe from an environmental standpoint are going to be harder and harsher to deal with.
[00:26:54:05] And so yeah, I think that's the way that I basically conceive of it, is they are starting at a state of less adaptation to climate. And the climate is changing. And they're going to not have the resources that we do to be able to adapt to it.
[00:27:07:14] So it sucks. I mean, the reality is that every time I uncover an effect in the US and say, oh, look at look at this thing. Look at the ways that we haven't perfectly adapted to our climate yet. I'm in the back of my mind thinking, and what about those billions of other people who don't have the capacity that we do to smooth these shocks?
[00:27:25:26] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: I would say reparations given that a lot of why those countries are the way they are is because they were colonized and plundered by the countries who are currently benefiting from that infrastructure.
[00:27:40:17] CURT NEWTON: That could help, that could help.
[00:27:42:19] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Right? And I think that those issues will increasingly come to some international, I would say, debate.
[00:27:52:13] NICK OBRADOVICH: Well, I mean, I think they are already under debate, right? There is a plausible claim to be made for the emitters helping to smooth the cost of those emissions for those who did not emit. And from an international politics standpoint, it is unfortunately the case that many of the most powerful countries internationally that wield the international political power are the ones who emitted, and so are less likely to be like, sure, we will pay you reparations. Because the way that international politics works is largely via influence still.
[00:28:29:13] CURT NEWTON: Let's not forget the Paris Agreement included the Green Fund. The Green Development Funding.
[00:28:34:16] NICK OBRADOVICH: It did. And how is that going?
[00:28:36:15] CURT NEWTON: Yeah, well.
[00:28:41:01] Not as well as people might like. Yeah.
[00:28:43:17] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So I think that that's-- to me, these are the real question marks, right? As you are saying, some things like we know what it means for a city to be flooded. What we don't know is what that's going to do to political systems, and what kinds of new demands will arise as a result of these new weather and climate patterns.
[00:29:07:16] NICK OBRADOVICH: I mean, I think one of the things that's useful to look at is to see the level of political and social disruption that the war in Syria caused. And then to think back to World War I and World War II. And put the level of disruption that Syria evinced in the scale of the disruption that we saw during World War I and World War II.
[00:29:30:15] Syria created lots of political disruption. And arguably, in some systems ways, it has changed the nature of politics around the world. And it's just one country. And I don't mean to at all minimize the severity or the horrific nature of the Syria problem, but it can get that much worse.
[00:29:48:05] CURT NEWTON: It's a big butterfly.
[00:29:50:11] NICK OBRADOVICH: Well, it's not even that Syria creates that. It's that in the future, we need to keep in mind the scale of what it means for there to be worldwide wars, and disruption, and migration in the context of what we, our lives have not-- we haven't led that. We haven't seen that personally. We've seen the consequences of Syria. But it can get a lot worse than just what we observed with Syria.
[00:30:13:19] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: I mean, I can say because I grew up in Delhi at a time when most of my neighbors were families that had moved from what is now Pakistan after the partition of India, right? And a few million people died at that time. And so that era of the Second World War was incredibly violent across the world.
[00:30:39:16] I mean, so I experienced a second-- what we say, one generation removed version of that violence.
[00:30:46:16] NICK OBRADOVICH: Yeah, the secondhand effects of the violence. And the persistence and the power of that violence to persist and cost society is huge.
[00:30:57:00] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Yeah. I mean, and I can only imagine. So Bangladesh is a country of, what, now 150-plus million people which may not survive.
[00:31:11:00] NICK OBRADOVICH: I think it's very likely that most of Bangladesh will be under water. Not necessarily this century, but the climate system works with a very long lag.
[00:31:22:13] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Yeah, so I'm just thinking, what happens when 100 million people need a new place to live?
[00:31:30:17] NICK OBRADOVICH: Well, let's hope that doesn't happen. Hopefully there is some ability to mitigate. But I think as a realist, as an empiricist, I think that we will see scenarios in the climate that are that dramatic. We can just hope that it occurs hopefully somewhat slowly so we have time to move and adapt. Probably won't, though.
[00:31:50:23] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: But as a world system-- because these cannot be addressed by any single nation. I just don't think it's ever going to work that way. So as a systems person, and as a political scientist, do you have thoughts on what kind of international systems do we need to address these challenges?
[00:32:11:25] NICK OBRADOVICH: Yeah. I mean, I have thoughts, which is actually I'm not sure that we will see those international systems. I mean, the way that you solve collective action problems in the US, the way that you solve, for example, the fact that one state might want to do something, and another state might not want to do something, is you have some higher level of governance. And at some level, a theoretically better international government would be one that was an international government.
[00:32:39:00] That's not going to happen. And there are lots of reasons that's not going to happen, but it's, I think, just really not-- at least in the short term-- going to happen. And I think it's less likely to happen the more destabilized countries and regions become. So I just don't see that as very likely to happen.
[00:32:55:15] And you said something briefly in your comment, which maybe I would actually hope is not the case, which is that no one country can solve it. And the reason why I would hope it's not the case is because one of the biggest ways that we avert the climate catastrophe is by placing some hope-- and it's sad that we have to place a lot of hope on this-- but that we do come up with some technological solution to cost effectively capture and store carbon. Because without a cost-effective solution to capture and store carbon, we are in a world of hurt.
[00:33:29:10] And if that technology is there, then arguably a rich country could just decide to invest lots of money to capture and store carbon. It would take probably trillions of dollars, even if it was relatively cheap. But that is one of the last best hopes that we realistically have, which is sad to say.
[00:33:48:16] CURT NEWTON: A form of reparations. You know, I'll take that $1 and 1/2 trillion dollars that we're spending on the F-35 Strike Fighter and redirect it to carbon sequestration. You with me?
[00:33:59:07] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Yeah. I mean, and maybe a few other weapon systems to go with that, too. We do want to ask a final question, though, which is you do work with groups all across the world. And I think many of our listeners are keen on understanding how can they, and we, contribute to this work? How can we engage with the kind of work that you are doing and get a taste of it?
[00:34:27:16] NICK OBRADOVICH: Yeah, that's a great question. And I think one of the things that has been instrumental in my work is paying close attention to the ways that climate and weather affects people. And so if people could themselves try and just pay a little bit more close attention to how they think that their world is altered by the different weather and climates that they experience.
[00:34:52:12] And maybe just-- this is really an area where citizen science could actually be useful. They may not be able to run their regressions and do the data manipulations. But if they see something like, wow, I didn't sleep as well with respect to this heat wave, and I wonder if climate scientists have looked into this. Some analog of that, because there are myriad human behaviors that we haven't yet studied, is an area that's very ripe for citizen science. Tell us the ways that climate and weather affects you.
[00:35:20:26] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So is there an app for that?
[00:35:23:02] NICK OBRADOVICH: There is an app for that, I believe. And what is it called? Remind me.
[00:35:27:09] CURT NEWTON: It's I See Change. That's I S-E-E Change.org.
[00:35:33:01] NICK OBRADOVICH: There you go. And one thing I would say with respect to if you do want to engage with that app is that it doesn't have to be examples of just extreme weather, or showing flooding in your location. It can be just commenting on the ways that you experiencing unusual weather altered your life, even in small ways. Because small ways accumulate across billions of people into large effects.
[00:35:56:18] CURT NEWTON: I posted something a few weeks ago, which I'll share. It was a mid-August day in the '90s. I'm biking home in the afternoon, and there's this sound of dry leaves all over the roads. Which I realized viscerally, man, this just does not match. I think of dry leaves blowing around as a crisp fall day, and I'm sweating bullets here.
[00:36:21:02] And the leaves had fallen due to the various weather- and climate-induced stresses, and I posted that. And the I See Here folks said this is exactly the kind of stuff that they'd like to see people contributing.
[00:36:34:08] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So if you see or hear, then tell us.
[00:36:38:09] CURT NEWTON: Yeah, yeah.
[00:36:39:20] NICK OBRADOVICH: There you go.
[00:36:40:16] CURT NEWTON: Yeah, so we'll, as I said, put some links up on the podcast to help you check out that app. And please post your thoughts.
[00:36:50:02] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: And with that, thank you so much, Nick, for sharing your thoughts on, I think, clearly very, very complex issues that we are going to increasingly be forced to confront.
[00:37:02:23] NICK OBRADOVICH: Well, thanks for having me. And I'm always happy to talk about climate.
[00:37:06:27] CURT NEWTON: Thank you, Nick.
[00:37:07:07] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Thank you. Wow. So many questions and swirling topics. Complex.
[00:37:16:15] CURT NEWTON: Yeah. Yeah, we went pretty far afield. As I think we should, right? When you start thinking about the intersection of lived experience, and the bigger human systems, and politics, with all of this data insight, all kinds of questions come up. And it's clear we are just beginning to scratch the surface. So the future holds all kinds of possibilities.
[00:37:42:13] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: And as they say, it's very hard to predict.
[00:37:44:09] CURT NEWTON: Yeah, yeah. Let's see what we can do to avoid those apocalypses.
[00:37:49:29] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: In the meantime, if you have any feedback or questions, we would love to hear you. You can write to us at email@example.com. And
[00:37:59:19] CURT NEWTON: If you're getting this through a podcast service, please rate and review the podcast. It really helps us a lot. And you can reach Rajesh and I on Twitter. My handle is @qwertnewto. Q-W-E-R-T N-E-W-T-O.
[00:38:18:19] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: And my Twitter handle is @rkasturi. So R-K-A-S, T as in Tom, U-R-I.
[00:38:29:12] CURT NEWTON: And we look forward to engaging with you on these topics and anything else climate-related that's on your mind.
[00:38:34:02] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: And thank you so much for listening.
[00:38:35:17] CURT NEWTON: Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.
[00:38:36:03] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Goodbye.
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