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Climate Pioneer #1: Dr. Kimberly Nicholas on power, potential and the planet

Raphaëlle Cohen Tue, 12 July 2022

Climate Pioneers' is a series featuring people who think big. We meet with change-makers and innovators and explore their vision for the climate transition in cities and beyond. What makes for successful climate action? How do they perceive tech in climate planning? Why does the scope of their thinking include cities? 

By day, Dr. Kimberly Nicholas teaches sustainability and climate science at Lund University. By night, she is a writer. As an academic, she ‘pushes the frontiers of knowledge’ by producing new research, teaching and mentoring students. But as a person, she realizes how much knowledge sits idle and underutilized. Part of her activity lies in addressing this challenge and putting theory into practice. In Under The Sky We Make, a Los Angeles Times bestseller, Nicholas addressed her Stanford college friends who were concerned about climate change, but struggled putting their power into practice to be part of the solution. She  connects the dots between facts, feelings and action to help readers better grasp what role to play in this ‘enormous project of climate stabilization’. At ClimateView, we thought her book really packed a punch. We also liked her reputation for ‘evidence-based rants’. We reached out to see what makes this climate pioneer tick. 

The power of emotion to get into motion 

What does it take for someone to stop driving to the office, and start taking public transport instead? The answer is: a decision. Namely, shifting from a high-carbon mechanism to a low-carbon one.

A few years ago, Kimberly decided to cut her flying by 80% to privilege stay-cations and zoom meetings over inter-continental round-trips to conferences. But being a climate expert didn’t suffice to make those shifts happen overnight. It took more than that. We asked her about it. 

ClimateView: How did you connect the dots between climate knowledge and actions in your own life? 

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: The missing link between knowledge and actions is emotion. And I learned this the hard way. And that's why I now write about it and focus on linking facts, feelings and action. A lot of what stands in the way of climate action is not a lack of knowledge, but a lack of motivation and urgency.

There's a lack of people really understanding that everything that we love is what's at stake in the climate crisis.

A lot of people, including myself for a long time, in many ways, avoided facing a lot of uncomfortable truths. It felt too big and scary. We actually need to cultivate our emotional resilience to be able to face tough facts. Life caught up with me, and I just had a lot of climate experiences and other experiences in my personal life, the death of a friend and going through a divorce. It's not only climate related, but having to cope with difficult tears or challenges and find the ways that work to do that. And those skills and those experiences are really helpful to draw on in the climate crisis as well.


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Shifting – the crux of the matter

ClimateView: How can behavioral change help address the climate crisis? 

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: The latest IPCC report published a couple months ago, had for the first time a chapter focusing on behavioral change, recognizing how essential it is to climate action. To stop climate change, we need to do two things: tackle and reduce overconsumption, and make it possible for everyone to meet their needs for a good life without causing climate breakdown. And that means we need energy and food systems primarily that work with nature instead of against it and aren't burning fossil fuels. So we have to do both, actually. It's not going to be sufficient, especially in the very limited time that we have to just make the technical changes that are needed. Those are essential, but they don't go far enough. Overconsumption is the responsibility of a group. The top 10% globally which is a group that I'm in and if you earn more than $38,000 a year, you're in that group with me as well. And we're a group who historically have consumed more than our fair share and cause more climate pollution than our fair share. We have to look at our mobility, flying and driving, as well as our diets. Those are areas where behavior change can play a really big role in reducing emissions. 

ClimateView: Most people would say that low-carbon mechanisms are needed to achieve the climate transition, but changing individual and collective behaviors is not easy. In your article for The Conversation, you suggest a carrot-and-stick-approach. Tell us more? 

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: The avoid, shift and improve framework is really helpful for thinking about behavior change. So to ‘avoid’  is actually going to the deepest root of an issue and saying: “wait a minute, what is it that we actually need?” So for example, we want people to be able to get to work and school and parks where they can play and be out in nature and entertainment and culture. It's important that everyone has access to these things, and that it's easy to get to them." She says: 

"The best way to do that is actually to put things close together. And to make it affordable and attractive for people to live close to where they need to work and go to school and carry out their lives. So that you actually avoid the need for mobility in the first place.”

Kimberly continues: In Berlin, we know from research by Felix Kretsen and colleagues that their car users take up three and a half times more space than non-car users. So in terms of equity, there are huge problems with cars. And it's really important then to think about shifting, how can we shift as much mobility as possible from cars, which have all these equity and environmental problems to active mobility, walking and biking, for example, and public transport. And then the end of the pipeline is improved. So switch from polluting fossil cars to less polluting electric cars, for example. But too often we focus on just the technical improvement side of things.

She shares an example of the carrot-and-stick-approach: The best way to meet demand for driving is actually to reduce demand for driving and to make it both more attractive and easier and cheaper to have sustainable mobility by walking and biking and public transport. And to make it more difficult and expensive to drive and park. Europe will not meet its goal to deliver 100 Climate-Neutral Cities without reducing car driving in the first place, which is necessary for health inequity reasons, and also to meet climate targets including for 2030, which is very soon. And what our study shows is that the most successful initiatives that have worked in European cities to reduce car driving, combined carrots and sticks. It's not enough to just pick the low hanging fruit and make good things better. You also have to point out and make visible and tangible the imminent hidden costs to society of driving and parking.

Exploitation and regeneration

ClimateView: You make a distinction between the exploitation-and regeneration mindsets. Tell us more? 

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: In Under The Sky We Make I write about a contrast between the regeneration mindset and the exploitation mindset. And to me, I see the exploitation mindset as the root cause of a lot of our problems, both the climate crisis and many other crises of environment and inequality. So basically, the exploitation mindset, which is what we're working to undo and overcome, is this mistaken belief that some humans are superior to other humans, so failing to recognize the intrinsic value of every person, and believing that humans in general are superior to and should dominate nature. And this way of thinking leads to a lot of the systems that we have today that are causing a lot of harm and are unsustainable." She reflects for a moment, before she brings out an idea from her book: "So the way to think about this, in the big picture, is through the regeneration mindset. And that's the idea that we should look at centering the needs and well being and health of both people and nature, that's our first priority. So that should be at the heart of everything we do. How do we make things work better for people and nature? We do that in two ways. The first is by reducing harm at its source. So looking at the system we have today, and identifying root causes and trying to stop the root causes of harm as thoroughly as possible.

"Leave fossil fuels in the ground and switch to reducing energy demand. Shift to clean and renewable energy."

Kimberly says: That's the way we stop adding carbon to the atmosphere basically. And then we also need to build resilience. And that's the ability to cope with and even thrive through change. And we need to increase our resilience personally, for us to get out of bed in the morning to do sometimes tough work and to support others and doing that work as communities, collectively and for nature. So making sure nature is healthy enough to cope with the stresses that it's facing, and be able to recover and continue to thrive.”

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Cathedral thinking, a long-term approach

ClimateView: In the book you refer to “Cathedral Thinking”. Why do we need to start looking at our actions through a long term lens? What is the role of carbon budgets in this?

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: The idea of cathedral thinking when it comes to climate is realizing that we happen to be alive at this really critical moment for humanity and life on Earth. And I believe we're the most important people who will ever live, because we are the last stewards of this very limited carbon budget. That's the amount of fossil fuels that we can use and stay within non catastrophic climate warming. And at the moment, we're really, really close to exceeding that budget to crossing over these really dangerous thresholds. So we actually have the next 86 months from now. July 2027 is when our carbon budget for 1.5 degrees of warming runs out at current rates. So the task right now is to be really laser focused on how to stop adding carbon to the atmosphere because that carbon lasts forever, and shift towards using regeneration, thinking and putting into practice instead? The reason that's so important and the reason I think it's important to have this, longer term perspective is that carbon really lasts forever. And the legacy of carbon that we're leaving today will be our most important legacy, it will define what life on Earth is like for the rest of our lifetimes, but also for the lifetimes of hundreds of future generations.

Role of tech

ClimateView: Can technology help deliver more effective policies? 

Dr. Kimberly Nicholas: I was thinking of work by Jessica Jewel and colleagues who've looked back at history to get an idea of our current transition and summing up a lot of work in very short sentence, I think what they found is that, basically, to make the transitions we need in time to stop warming and make this fast and fair transition to a fossil free world, things have to go about as well as they've ever gone anywhere in one case, for pretty much the whole world. So it's a really big challenge. I mean, we need a lot of things to go right. I guess the good news is, we haven't been trying very hard. I mean, some of us are trying extremely hard, don't get me wrong. But globally, and across the systems of politics and money and power, and the culture that we need to shift – there's so much room for doing more, because we just haven't tried that much stuff. So I think there is a lot of scope to go much faster. And the good news on the technology front is that we have the technologies we need in hand. So scientists and engineers have been doing a great job. And we have ready-to-go about 75% of the tech that we need to replace fossil fuels.

Under The Sky We Make captures the many dimensions of what it means to be human in a warming world. 

“What we actually need right now is for people to realize and accept the power and responsibility that we have of being alive at this moment.”

Speaking to Dr. Nicholas showed us  the potential of emotions to put knowledge into practice. Her book provides the tools to tackle root causes, and navigate these unprecedented times as responsibly as possible. And it all starts by finding purpose and meaning.