27 August 2023, 05:39
Interview by Kari Klaus, Founder of RealtySage.com
Climate Change is the most formidable challenge our Earth has ever encountered. Yet, there are reasons to be hopeful that we can not only turn the tide but also propel humanity into a new era of unparalleled technological innovation, transformative social and political shifts, and a radically enlightened perspective in our role as stewards of this planet. The question that lingers:: How do we achieve this monumental task and where do we even begin?
In the idyllic setting of Phuket, Thailand, Kari Klaus, the founder of RealtySage, sat down with her friend and neighbor, Palmer Owyoung, an author and individual passionately engaged in ecological matters to interview Owyoung on his recently published book, Solving the Climate Crisis: A Community Guide to Solving the Biggest Problem On the Planet*
Owyoung’s book is an all-encompassing resource to understanding the issues around climate change and providing meaningful and positive ways for us all to make a difference. Owyoung answers questions about his book and his own personal journey to live a sustainable life.
Imagine you're in an elevator, and someone asks about your book. How would you summarize its essence and importance in under 30 seconds?
I’d say that it is a guide on how to solve climate change using a multi-faceted approach that includes renewable energy, changes in legislature, wealth taxes, new technology, repairing our oceans, forests, and soil, fixing the food system, restoring biodiversity, and individual and collective action. I also look at the most effective things we can all do to fight climate change, like giving to the organizations profiled at GivingGreen.Earth that are lobbying to change the energy, food, and construction industries.
*Kari Klaus with Plamer Owyoung in Phuket, Thailand
Your book provides a comprehensive look into the current state of climate change. Considering the fast-paced changes in geopolitics, technology, and climate events, how do you envision our world in the next half-decade?
Since technology can improve exponentially, I expect a lot of the nascent technologies today to be mature and more available. This includes things like cultured meats; vertical wind turbines; organic photovoltaics that can turn buildings into wind farms; and iron-air and gravity batteries that will reduce the need for lithium-ion batteries for large-scale storage. This will lead to a faster adoption of renewable energy.
I expect that climate events will increase and worsen, but so will adaptation strategies like sponge cities which can absorb water and prevent floods; AI technology that can predict and prevent fires; and technologies like cool seal, which is a grey reflective paint that cools the asphalt and can reduce the frequency of heat waves, will be widely deployed.
Geopolitical events are also likely to worsen as resources like water become scarcer because of droughts and we see mass migrations from places, particularly in the poorer countries in Africa and Asia that are less able to adapt and are being hit hard by climate change. This is why mitigation is so important to prevent these mass migrations. It’s also important for the wealthier countries to help the poorer ones to adapt.
Has your research altered any of your prior beliefs on certain issues?
When I first heard of carbon offsets, they sounded like a great idea. This is when, for example, you are taking a flight and they ask you if you want to offset your emissions by donating a few extra dollars to plant trees. Many people do this so that they can fly guilt free. I noticed that they’ve added it to the Grab Food delivery app as well.
But the fact of the matter is that carbon offsets don’t work. It sounds good in theory but with tree planting schemes you end up with monocultures that kill off biodiversity, or non-native species of trees being planted. Most of the time the trees die. Even if they don’t die, they could go up in flames. Even if they survive, it takes 10 years for most trees to mature before they sequester a meaningful amount of CO2.
At best, carbon offsets don’t work. At worst, they are damaging the ecosystems they are supposed to be protecting. For example, there have been documented cases in Chile where native trees were cut down and replaced with monocultures. In Kenya, Indigenous People have been thrown off their land so that tree plantations could be planted.
Carbon offset schemes are like a get out of jail free card for corporations who use them to claim that they are carbon neutral when they are not.
Instead of planting trees, the best way to protect forests is to protect the rights of Indigenous People who act as stewards of the land. So, donating to an organization like Pachamama.org does a lot more good.
I also write about how Big Oil is still lying and manipulating us. Today you’ll see a lot of commercials from BP, Shell, Chevron, and Exxon are transitioning to greener forms of energy. However, a study by a non-profit named Client Earth found that each of these companies is spending about .5% of their revenues on renewable energy while they are still spending billions on new fossil fuel discovery.
Which findings from your research took you by surprise the most?
The enormous chasm between how much CO2 the wealthy emit compared to middle and lower incomes. A study was released in 2020 and it revealed that out of 20 famous billionaires their average footprint came in at a whopping 8,190 tons per year, mostly because of their helicopters, yachts and private planes.
The average American emits 14.8 tons and the average global citizen emits 4.7 tons. So just one of these billionaires emits almost 1,750 times more than an average global citizen. But you don’t have to be a billionaire to have high emissions. The top 10% emit close to half of the world’s greenhouse gases. The top 1% emit 15% of emissions, more than twice the amount of the bottom 50%. That means that the top 80 million people emit more than twice that of the bottom 4 billion. Another way to look at is that 1 person in the top 1% emits as much as 100 in the bottom half. The wealthiest 1% generates roughly half the world’s aviation emissions. An Oxfam study says that to stay below 1.5 C of warming, the top 1% need to cut their emissions by 97%.
Have any of your personal behaviors evolved due to your research? Which changes have been either exceptionally rewarding or challenging for you?
I was eating a mostly vegan diet for about 2 years before I started writing the book. But writing it helped me to validate that decision even more. Our food system causes about $12 trillion of damage per year in the form of CO2 emissions, pollution, and health care costs. It is one of the most destructive parts of modern society.
Although I don’t think everyone has to go vegan, we do all need to cut down on our meat and dairy consumption and save it for special occasions rather than eating it as a staple part of our diets. One thing I would recommend is becoming a weekday vegan or vegetarian. So, during the week, you eat a vegan or vegetarian diet and on the weekends, you eat what you want. Doing this would mean that about 70% of your meals are meat and dairy-free.
Not only does it cut down on emissions, but it also reduces air and water pollution, reduces biodiversity loss and it’s better for your health.
There was a shift in environmental activism in the early 2000s, from a nature-centric perspective to emphasizing the human implications of climate change. Do you view this shift as a positive evolution for the movement?
Yes, I think it’s more relatable for people when they see how climate change is directly affecting their quality of life. In the book, I write a lot about how having healthy ecosystems is also an intrinsic part of our health and happiness and is part of a robust economy.
So many denialists try to make the argument that fighting climate change will hurt the economy. But in my research, I found that is simply not true. A healthy ecosystem is more productive economically and gives us clean air and water, two things essential for human health and happiness.
Works like Aldo Leopold’s "Sand County Almanac" and Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring" have significantly shaped environmental thinking. Were there particular books that kindled your passion for environmental issues, and how did they influence you?
I spent 3 weeks hiking the John Muir Trail, which is a 200-mile stretch across the Sierra Nevada, after I finished graduate school, so I read some of John Muir’s essays. He is considered the father of the National Parks system.
I also read a lot of Jack London about his adventures in Alaska and I’ve read a few of Jon Krakauer’s books, especially Into the Wild, which was based on an article he wrote for Outside Magazine when I was in college. It was about Chris McCandless, a young man who walked into the wilderness of Alaska with little food and no map. He was a bit of an idealistic romantic and thought he could just live off the land and he ended up dying. In retrospect he was reckless, but at the time I was obsessed with the article because I was just about to graduate from college and about to embark on my own adventures in South America, Africa, Alaska, and eventually the Sierra Nevada.
From my reading, I learned a respect and reverence for nature. It gives us the gift of life, and we also need to live in balance with it and I think that’s something that the modern world has lost sight of.
Your book delves into a vast array of topics, from oceans to housing, capturing their intricacies. What drove you to pen such a wide-ranging narrative instead of focusing intensely on one specific area?
Because climate change is an interconnected problem that affects all aspects of life on this planet. As much as technologists like to claim they have the answer, there is no “One Answer” to solving climate change. For example, direct air carbon capture, which removes CO2 from the atmosphere like a vacuum cleaner, has been in the news recently since billions of dollars have been invested into it, even though it’s expensive and doesn’t work very well. But even if it did work, it wouldn’t address things like biodiversity loss, which is crucial for having healthy ecosystems and is responsible for clean air, water, soil, plants, trees and protects us from the spread of disease. It also wouldn’t bring us back into a balanced relationship with nature, which is what is needed for a long-term sustainable future.
In your opinion, which two hurdles are the most formidable in our battle against climate change, and why?
I’ll give you three hurdles. Public apathy, government backpedaling, and corporate malfeasance.
Public apathy is a big problem because it is what drives consumer demand and without it, corporations don’t feel the need to change. It also means less voter participation and fewer donations to climate-related non-profits that are doing the work of changing policies.
The Biden Administration has made a lot of promises and he even ran as the “Climate President.” It’s true that he got the Inflation Reduction Act passed, but he has also approved more leases for drilling on federal lands than Donald Trump or George W. Bush did at the same time in their presidencies. So there has been a lot of backpedaling on his promises.
Corporations are continuing to lie and manipulate us with carbon offset schemes and ESG investing. Neither of which works very well. So I really think we need a grassroots movement from communities to push us over the tipping point for change, and that is what my book is about.
You've analyzed the influence of the world's wealthiest on climate change. What's the key takeaway you wish they'd derive from your book?
I want people to understand that this is a solvable problem. The center of my argument is a plan to transition the world to renewable energy by a Stanford Engineering Professor named Mark Jacobson. Under his plan, we could transition the world to solar, wind, and hydro-power by 80% by as early as 2030 and 100% by 2050. Doing this would create 28 million jobs, save trillions of dollars over the long-term, and save 5.3 million lives per year from air pollution. The total cost would be about $2.21 trillion per year for the next 30 years. But the plan would pay for itself in just 1.5 years in lower energy costs and lower healthcare costs.
To pay for this transition, we need luxury and wealth taxes and we need to stop pandering to the needs of the rich. Remember that the top 1% emits more than twice as much as the bottom 50%. It’s unfair that such a small part of the population should be able to use such a large portion of the world’s resources without regard for anyone else.
When I talk about a wealth tax, most people roll their eyes and say that the wealthy would never allow such a thing to happen. But this isn’t unprecedented. Between 1945 to 1978, the highest marginal tax rate was 91% for people who made over $1.9 million dollars. So, anything above $1.9 million was mostly taxed away.
But I’m not talking about anything that steep. I write about an Oxfam study called Taxing Extreme Wealth that shows that if we just levied a 2% tax on anybody with a net worth of $5 million or above, 3% for those with $50 or above, and 5% for those that have $1 billion or more we could raise $2.52 trillion per year which would be enough to completely transition the world to renewable energy and leave about $300 billion per year to repair our forests, the ocean, and the soil.
RealtySage.com is one the most comprehensive websites for green homes, providing information about the value and benefits of eco-friendly and energy efficient home listings. What would be your ideal eco-friendly home and where would it be?
I like tropical climates and I’m a surfer, so ideally, I’d like to retire some place in Hawaii and live in a house powered by wind and solar, and made from bamboo and hempcrete. I would also like to have a small garden where I grow some of my own food.
Pick up your copy of this engaging and informative book today. Solving the Climate Crisis: A Community Guide to Solving the Biggest Problem On the Planet*
*Realty Sage contains affiliate links. Which means at no additional cost to you, if you click through and make a purchase, Realty Sage may earn revenue.
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