APU Environmental Exploring STEM Podcast

A Conversation about Climate Change (and What to Do at the Local Level)

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Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, DMA, Department Chair, Communication and World Languages and
Dr. Kristin DrexlerFaculty Member, School of STEM

Climate change is a global crisis that requires local, national and international solutions. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU science professor Dr. Kristin Drexler about various ways to address climate change. Learn about international efforts like the UN Climate Conference, COP26, which encourages nations to implement measures to reduce pollution and other contributing factors to climate change. Also learn the ways that individuals can reduce their consumption and waste to help better care for the environment.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking to Dr. Kristin Drexler, full-time faculty in the STEM school. Today we’re going to be talking about the recent climate report and the UN Climate Conference, COP26, going on in Glasgow, Scotland. Welcome, Kristin.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Hi there, Bjorn. Good to be back.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. This is an important topic. It’s in the news, and depending on, I guess you can say what side, it’s either really important or not important, but most importantly, we’re talking about it and we’re learning more. So what’s going on in Scotland?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Well, what’s going on in Glasgow, Scotland is the COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. It started on Halloween and it goes for a couple more days through November 12th. This is the 26th conference of the parties or COP26, and it’s where nations can gather, the purpose of it is to discuss climate change, the Paris Agreement, what we’ve done since then. It’s a convention on the climate change.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Now, just a random question. Were they meeting before that or was that the first time the climate as an international issue, started gaining that attention internationally?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: This was intended to be a discussion or bringing your cards to the table from the IPCC or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change the report that came out in earlier on August, this is the one that was described as “bleak.” This was the time for countries to put down their cards to make commitments and action commitments as far as the climate change crisis – it’s a global crisis. So this is a chance for the countries to get together and to develop a plan.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Can you explain why is it that there needs to be a plan that intergovernmental panel, multiple governments need to work on? Example, the U.S., just go alone. Sounds like a silly question, but the need for international cooperation, especially when climate is very important. Can you explain a little why?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: In the last 50 years, the global temperature has risen over a degree Celsius, due to greenhouse gas emissions, and so what this IPCC report is saying that, it’s definitive in that it’s saying that humans are a cause of global climate change.

As such, because it impacts the entire planet, every region on the planet is feeling the effect and the impact of climate change. We all have a role to play in slowing the trend, the increase of climate change. What they are trying to do at COP26 is to slow the increase. What we’re doing is we’re pumping carbon emissions into the atmosphere and creating this greenhouse situation where it is a sort of an irreversible and irretrievable climate impact or accelerating of climate warming that has all sorts of impacts.

I mean, you’re looking at, not just the warming of the temperatures, but warming of seas, which causes storms, not just the number of storms, but the intensity of storms. Talking about drought, all sorts of impacts, sea level rise, disproportional adverse impacts to folks that are marginalized, like the country of the Maldives, for example, they are experiencing already the loss of resources, the loss of coast areas. They’re probably the ones who are going to lose their sovereignty, the first in terms of the climate change impacts of sea level rise.

There’s a lot at stake, and the fact that COP26 is meeting… all these countries, and the fact that several countries didn’t show up for this meeting like China, Russia, Brazil had no presidential leaders, I should say, present, speaks volumes in terms of commitment to slowing their climate change contribution.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m glad you brought that up because climate change, although it might be somewhat divisive or people might disagree on how serious it is and I just talk about that in the context of U.S. political discourse, I think most people will agree. It’s a good thing to take care of the environment, it’s a good thing to really care about the climate if you have kids, or if you do just care about other people, you care about how the environment around you is.

Now, can you briefly describe the tensions between “more developed worlds” or more developed countries and developing countries because countries like England, Germany, the United States, I’ll say even Japan have been industrialized for a long time, 100 years, 150 years, even more. They have been pumping out a lot of noxious fumes for a long time, but then they’ve developed a lot of technology that has cleaned it up. So how are there tensions between the developing countries that are pumping out a lot of fumes, because they need to develop, they need to help their people, but it’s also a detriment to the environment. Does that make sense?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: We have to see this as the highest emitters, possibly having the highest responsibility. What is the moral responsibility, what should be the percentage of responsibility? I think we also have to look at different emitters, we have to look at industry and agro-industry versus what we can do as private citizens, what we are doing, we’re driving our cars, we’re using electricity, and what percentage of impact that is compared to agro-industry and industry.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’ve watched a variety of documentaries about the agro-industry. The agro-industry does contribute a lot versus I think, typically people think, well, it’s like coal plants, it’s driving the car, things like that, but there’s a lot of things that contribute to greenhouse gases and climate change. Here’s a question: Earth Day has existed for 51 years. How is it that climate has gotten worse since 1971?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Right. That’s a great question. I think of this as like a hot air balloon. We’ve been emitting for the last 200, 250 years since the industrial revolution. We have been accelerated, our impact has accelerated a climate change to the degree that we can’t undo what we’ve done in the last 50 years say. Are we feeling what we did 50 years ago? You know how hot air balloon rises. The fire goes and the air heats up in the hot air balloon, and then it rises, hot air rises.

So, the point of this, is that it takes like seven seconds for that balloon to rise. I’m lucky, I happen to fly with some balloonists and so I can see this firsthand where they’re pulling the heat on, and then it takes seven, they have to think ahead, where do I want to be seven seconds from now?

Anyway, the point of that is that you have to think about climate in terms of it’s not immediate, whatever we do now, it’s not going to have immediate reversal or an immediate positive effect, because it’s going to take a while to realize what we have done, what we have been doing the last 20 or 30 or 50 years. In other words, we have to start yesterday making a positive influence and making some positive changes, this is why everything is, do this now, start today. Yes, start today, and maybe by 2050, we’ll start to see some positive trends.

This is why Greta and other young activists are saying, Hey, put your money where your mouth is, we all know what we should be doing, we need to be doing things on a large scale. Let’s start today. We need to be in this, 100% in this with tangible, measurable things. This is why the intensity is so high with young climate activists right now, is because we have to start. There’s no choice, we have to start now in order for us to simply have a habitable world for human beings and for wildlife.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. Humans always think it’s about humans, because well, for humans, we’re the most important thing, but there’s also wildlife. If as an individual, you eat meat, which a lot of people do, you have to have a world that sustains those animals, and you have to have a world that sustains us, and you have to have a world that is clean enough to sustain everything.

With Greta, I admire her a lot because she is very unique in the sense that she has somehow gotten the attention of so many people around the world and it’s wonderful, but it’s also, if you look at her age and she’s thinking, I have to live another 80 years on this planet.

It better be okay and then once she looks at, I’m assuming, at the older generation where they just seem to be not caring, of course, she’s going to get pissed off. And the grandparents should be pissed off too, where you look around and there are politicians who say, “No, it’s not important, it’ll take care of itself.”

It’s interesting because for many years, the Earth did take care of itself, but if you look at the population, if you look at the world population in 1800, it was about a billion people. And at the beginning of the industrial revolution, the industrial revolution had already started in England, but hadn’t spread to many other countries.

Then you fast forward to 1970 and there’s about 3.7 billion people, and you fast forward to today, there’s about 7.3 billion people. It took hundreds of years for the human population to grow, grow, grow. Then literally over the last 120 years, it’s doubled and then doubled again. How do you feed, how do you house, and how do you provide for 7.3 billion people?

Now, there’s amazing things out there, just how we grow plants can feed that many people, but we have to be good stewards over this Earth or else the Earth will start “fighting back.” Now, as far as the population, do you see that the high population is an issue or is it more of just, we have to figure out how to better take care of everything.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Part of the problem is in industrialized countries, there’s a lot of consumption. If we’re really talking about affecting climate change and ecosystems, and caring, and being stewards for ecosystems, we have to reconcile the consumption needs of people in a growing population; so, it’s projected what 9 billion by 2050, I think we’re going to beat that. If you look at worldometer.com, you’ll get an instant anxiety attack. You’ll see like minute, second to second, the population changing, increasing. Where is that population increasing?

We have to be stewards, we have to be better stewards of our natural environment because that’s the best technology we have. I mean, look, at COP26, we’re talking about developing technologies to reduce carbon in the atmosphere and sequestrate, and the best technology we have is trees, so why is it that we aren’t better stewards of our trees and forests?

We look at, for example, one of the world’s mega forests. Think of other mega forests like the Congo or the Amazon, these are mega forests. That means that they provide ecosystem services on a global scale. What I mean by ecosystem services is clean water, clean air, climate regulation, storm erosion control, things like that. If we have a government and what I’m thinking, I’ll pick on Bolsonaro from Brazil for a minute.

The idea that agribusinesses, and large-scale timber harvesting, and development is occurring in the Amazon at an unprecedented rate. I mean, it is absolutely bonkers that we are not valuing our forest, especially our mega forests that have global ecosystem services. It’s pretty astonishing, and I think it’s important that the COP26 addresses deforestation and makes that a critical part of the plan using the technology we have in trees to sequester carbon, that is one huge thing.

With a growing population, as you mentioned, Bjorn, with a growing population, there’s just going to be more and more pressure on natural resources for producing food in agriculture, but also other non-timber forest products and timber forest products. We have to be very proactive in how we manage our resources and conserving our resources for future generations. This is what the youth climate activists are very concerned about, and rightly so.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. What you brought up about Brazil, it connects to the question I inarticulately asked earlier, where you have countries like Brazil, which is both rich and poor, and you have countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is unfortunately a poor country, and then other countries like India, which is developing with a huge population, and so those countries are trying to survive and trying to make money. But at the same time, they’re pumping out a lot of climate gases and they’re looking at the “richer” countries and saying, look, you already did this for 200 years, you need to help us.

That creates quite a messy political dynamic, if you throw in colonialism in there, it gets even messier. But one of those things, especially with people who care about the climate, it’s a lot more complicated than just, I’m not going to drive as much, unfortunately. I wish it was easy. My wife and I are about 95% vegetarians, it turns out if a lot of people just reduce their meat consumption that could actually reduce a lot of greenhouse gases. But even that isn’t enough just in one country. Is there a reason to be hopeful, not to be too gloom, but.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: No, there is. We have to take guidance from our young people. We have to, and I’m speaking specifically of a program that I did last year, called Science Talks with Dr. Kristi and Friends. And so this was during the beginning of COVID, when we were realizing that we were going to be quarantined in isolation, this last year, March. March and April, I had agreed to visit Ms. Wang’s fifth grade science class over Zoom and help them with their science fair projects.

What I ended up doing was for a year, it just turned into, it was supposed to be a one-off visit, turned into a year’s worth of weekly visits. On Tuesday afternoons I would show up and I would either bring a friend with me, it could be a climate scientist, it could be a biologist, they were very interested in wildlife and fire and geography and marine biology and all sorts of things and COVID of course, and we talked about that.

Anyway, we spent a lot of time on climate and discussing climate and what we could do to be part of a solution and not part of the problem. What can we do individually at local levels? I think I got a lot of hope from them, from young minds and even my students in class.

Checking on discussions today, we’re talking about COP26 and their perceptions of what’s happening, what should be happening at COP26, and so it’s important, I think, to pay attention to the young, energetic minds and see what sort of innovations and different ways of thinking that they bring to the table.

Incredibly smart, I mean, the students and the fifth graders going back to last year, the fifth graders, extremely smart, and they know, we all know exactly what we need to be doing, we need to be protecting forests, protecting our carbon sequestration methods, mitigating our waste, especially our plastic waste, saving energy and investing in renewable energies.

I mean, we’ve heard this all before, but do we know that unplugging electrical appliances actually saves electricity, too, and switching to LED lights has a huge impact on our electricity use? I mean, these things, and also of course are ditching the car, walking and biking, taking public transportation. These things are important things that we as individuals can do. And, if collectively, we can do them on a larger scale, we will make an impact. Yeah, I think there is cause for hope.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s one of those things where just like you said, all these individual things that we can do, it all becomes part of the whole. One of the things I always say is, if people have more of a vegetarian diet, you don’t have to become a complete vegetarian, not at all, but that can actually help the climate change. And I think most people don’t know that and it also helps with your health. So it’s a win-win.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Yeah, I agree. Eating less meat, but also even reducing food waste, that’s a huge impact too. There’s several things we can be doing as individuals and getting other people in our networks to do too, that help. I mean, we’ve all heard of reduce, reuse, recycle, we’ve heard of those, but there aren’t just three anymore. There’s also refuse, if you’re at a restaurant and, by the way, they should be by now asking you if you want a straw, and always just refuse it, just go back to the technology we have our mouths, and so there’s refuse, there’s also rethink, there’s repair. I like to add repurpose to that. Really developing the concept of a circular economy, where we have an item and if it’s broken or if it’s something that’s not perfect, we don’t discard it immediately.

Our culture is such that we at this generation that are living on the planet today are very much disposable. Something’s not perfect, we dispose of it immediately, rather than let’s go back to how our society was. For example, our grandparents or great grandparents and how they fixed things. They didn’t have the resources that we have or the consumer power maybe, is that the right word term for it? They fixed what they could, they used their ingenuity and their resources. They were very resourceful and they fixed. This is the idea of this repurposing and reusing as part of the circular economy that I try to talk about in my classes.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. I also think of fast fashion. People don’t need clothes, lots and lots of clothes. We just don’t, that adds to climate change. You can also say that it also adds to unfortunate working conditions in other countries, specifically Bangladesh and other countries like that.

These are all different things and none of these have to have a political lean to it, buy quality clothes that lasts a long time, buy things made out of wood. Again, maybe better crafted wood, better crafted items. For me, I love guitars, so buy a guitar versus buying a bunch of plastic things. Or advocate for better plastic recycling that actually recycles versus so many cities and countries in America today they’ve stopped recycling X amount of products because it actually doesn’t help, or there is nowhere to recycle. It’s like, well, we need to rethink how we use plastic items, and we need to honestly demand that the people who make this stuff will actually respond to those demands.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: I agree with that, demanding. If we’re going to be consuming, we have to have an expectation, a higher expectation of the people that, or the companies that are producing what we are consuming. So, absolutely. Absolutely. I agree with that, and being innovative either with things we develop or how we think of things.

For example, let me give you one quick example. So last year the fifth graders were teaching me new and innovative ways of thinking, not just developing technology, but ways that we think about things in a more, for example, systemic way where A doesn’t just impact B, but A impacts B and C and D and also B impacts C and D and rebounds to A again. You’re thinking about actions and consequences. These fifth graders know exactly what they’re talking about. We have a lot to learn from them.

Here’s one example. We’re talking about innovative ways of reducing our carbon footprint, reducing our water waste as one specific example of this, during the science fair, one of the students presented his idea of water reuse in our bathroom. Something we can set up very easily, and that is from the shower, harvesting the water runoff from the shower and filling up the toilet tank with that water, with that gray water from the shower. If there’s a way to harness or capture that gray water and use it for our toilets, that’s great.

Because I think, future historians, these fifth graders when they’re adults and when they have kids and grandkids, how are those people going to be thinking about how we managed water resources, climate, you name it. Even socioeconomic things like poverty, how all plays, it’s all part of the socioecological system, and one impact creates a host of other ripple effects or other impacts to the whole system.

If there’s a way that you can’t innovate to find a solution for this one example, using this one fifth graders idea of reusing gray water, that’s brilliant. That’s the sort of thing that we have to be promoting. We have to be promoting those ideas and using those ideas in action on large scales.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent, excellent comment. We need to listen to the youth because the youth have a crystal clear view of things sometimes where they can see through all of the BS, all the political baggage that adults sometimes can’t get through. And they see it and you know where this is going to affect me when I’m older and I want the world to be there and they come up with great ideas.

And it’s just one of those things that to be innovative, sometimes we don’t need to try all these different things, we just need to listen to our kids or to sometimes listen to our gut issues like that, like reusing water from the showers for the toilet, of course. Absolutely wonderful conversation. Any final words, Kristin?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Well, I would encourage everybody not to forget their farmer’s markets, to go out to your local farmer’s markets and eat local, produce, support a farmer and reduce your carbon footprints by eating less meat, shopping locally, unplugging or not using items that you don’t need to use right away.

Then just being conscientious of not wasting water and electricity, walking, using your bike, public transportation, saving electricity at home and making smart decisions for our future. I think that’s an important thing. That’ll be our way of giving ourselves hope and our way of making a positive contribution to climate change and other issues that are impacting us. Oh, and don’t forget to plant a tree.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. My wife is a backyard gardener and we’ve planted an additional 15 trees from where it was before. If everybody did that, obviously that takes more water, but that’s one of the things from municipality, they have to work on that, but more trees, it helps out everywhere. If you’re a backyard gardener, then you can grow some of your own crops, and that helps everybody. Today we’re speaking with Dr. Kristin Drexler about the climate report and the UN climate conference, COP26, going on in Glasgow, Scotland. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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