Climate Change Q&A : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Ahead of the U.N. climate talks in Glasgow this weekend, Sam chats with climate experts Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, marine biologist and writer, and Kendra Pierre-Louis, senior climate reporter with the podcast 'How to Save a Planet.' Together, they answer listener questions about everything from how to talk to your kids about global warming... to how to deal with all of this existential dread.

Should I have kids? Move? Recycle? Your climate questions answered

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AUNT BETTY, BYLINE: Hey y'all. This is Sam's Aunt Betty. This week, answering your questions about climate change. All right, let's start the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Hey y'all. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. Beginning this weekend, the U.N. will hold a conference on climate change in Glasgow. And, as you've heard by now, more than ever, scientists have said it is very critical for us to start making some really big changes to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming. Happy Halloween, everybody. The scares are coming from inside the house. Climate change is here.

You know, climate change is such a big problem for everyone that I sometimes find it very difficult to even talk about, both in my personal life and, frankly, on this show. But all that aside, I am still kind of hopeful, because I think that hope is something we should have, something we have to have for this kind of thing, right? I mean, that's what the posters tell me. That is the thing that keeps people going in sad movies and TV shows - hope.

Are y'all hopeful? Do you ever feel the defeatist weight of it?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: No, no, no.

AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: No (laughter).

SANDERS: OK. Tell me, tell me.

PIERRE-LOUIS: I don't like that word (laughter).

SANDERS: OK.

JOHNSON: We are anti-hope establishment (laughter).

SANDERS: OK.

This is Kendra Pierre Louis and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

PIERRE-LOUIS: My name is Kendra Pierre-Louis. I'm a senior climate reporter with the Gimlet Spotify podcast "How To Save A Planet."

JOHNSON: I'm Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. I'm a marine biologist and a writer, formerly co-host of "How To Save A Planet," co-creator of that show and co-founder of a think tank called Urban Ocean Lab.

PIERRE-LOUIS: I'm going to own the fact that I grew up extremely Catholic. And so for...

SANDERS: OK.

PIERRE-LOUIS: ...Me, the thing that I feel like gets lost in all of this is, like, morality, right? Like, and I think that's why I don't like hope, because hope has this expectation that's tied to an outcome. So if you don't think that you're going to achieve this outcome, then what's the use in trying, right? Whereas I'm very much shaped in the idea that there's a right thing to do and a wrong thing to do. And so, like, why would I do the wrong thing just because doing the right thing may not get the outcome that I'm looking for?

SANDERS: Also, can we just preface this whole conversation by saying that going to Mars is probably not the answer.

PIERRE-LOUIS: Like, it is absolutely bananas to me that somehow we think we can colonize Mars, which it doesn't have - you know, like there are just many - you know, doesn't have a breathable atmosphere.

SANDERS: They don't have the water or anything that we got down here, you know?

PIERRE-LOUIS: Right?

SANDERS: And it's like, really, guys?

Anyway, we invited Kendra and Ayana on the show this week to answer some questions from listeners and myself about climate change, from where we should live, to how to talk to your kids about it, to what we could do that might actually help. Spoiler alert, your compostable straws - not really doing that much.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Let's get to our questions from our listeners. Both of you answer at will, as you feel it. This one comes from Elizabeth (ph). She wrote, quote, "I've moved around the country a fair amount, for school, for work, but it seems like almost everywhere is plagued by some elements of the climate crisis - fire season in California, dwindling water in the Southwest, hurricanes along the East Coast. As I try to decide where to put down roots, everywhere feels precarious. My question is, how other people dealing with this? How do you decide? Am I freaking out because I'm an older millennial and this is our thing?"

PIERRE-LOUIS: I have a solution as to where she should live, though.

SANDERS: Ooh, say it.

PIERRE-LOUIS: I mean, it's half a joke, but Duluth, Minn.

SANDERS: Really? OK.

PIERRE-LOUIS: I did a story years ago where these researchers sort of crunched the numbers about, like, where would be the better places in the United States to live in a warming world. And a lot of the sort of Northeastern Finger Lakes - or not Finger Lakes - Great Lakes regions sort of hit that sweet spot. But it's really tongue in cheek. She's right. There's no place on the Earth that is untouched by climate change. And she is not wrong to be thinking through sort of where does she want to live. It absolutely drives me bananas when I see things like - I like looking through, like, Redfin, you know? And I see these beautiful homes that were built in a flood plain two years ago. And that makes me absolute bananas.

But it's not, like, an absolute. With very few exceptions, if you're talking about the United States, there are very few places where you absolutely cannot live and you absolutely should not live, right? Like, there's a saying in disaster research that there's no such thing as a natural disaster. There's a natural hazard - a tornado, a wildfire, a hurricane. But a disaster is when that natural hazard meets a human population. And so when you talk to researchers about climate change, they don't just talk about mitigation, which is, you know, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, stopping the worst effects of climate change. They also talk about adaptation. Climate change is here, and it's with us. And we need to learn to live with it.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, also, you know, I think what I hear in this question - because I hear people ask it a lot, where can I live to avoid climate change? - what they're also asking sometimes is, where can I go live to not have to change my way of life whatsoever?

PIERRE-LOUIS: Nowhere.

SANDERS: Where can I go where I still get the same big house with the big yard and grass that I water every day and an SUV that guzzles gas, steak every week and never having to think about climate change? And the question perhaps is not just, where should I live, but also, in what way should I change how I live wherever I am?

JOHNSON: I think we can still have a nice quality of life in the future. I think we just need to shift our expectation of what that looks like, especially around consumption. And so I think, yes, if the thing that brings you joy is, like, huge bonfires and Hummers and...

SANDERS: Big lawns.

JOHNSON: ...Traveling everywhere by airplane and...

SANDERS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...Eating nothing but factory farmed beef three times a day, like, yeah, it would be great if you stopped doing those things. But also, like, I think it's been such a distraction and honestly, like, a failing of the environmental movement in some aspect to allow this whole question to be framed as one primarily of individual choice as opposed to, how do we change building codes? How do we change our agricultural policy? How do we change our transit options? And what fossil fuel companies have done expertly with billions of dollars of investing in marketing is to convince us to all obsess over our own carbon footprints, over our own waste...

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...Over our own individual impact instead of saying, yo, it's not my fault that every time I turn on the lights, it comes from coal. Like, can y'all please fix that? Can we just...

SANDERS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...Start with that? I think it's also important to think about whether we should rebuild in some places at all, right?

SANDERS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: It becomes this thing where it's like...

SANDERS: I think this about New Orleans all the time, and I feel bad even thinking it.

JOHNSON: I think it about a lot of coastal places. And it's, like...

SANDERS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...This concept of managed retreat. And so figuring out what managed retreat looks like in a way that is respectful of communities and cultures that doesn't just displace low-income people is really hard. And I think the sooner that we start talking about that kind of thing, the better because we're talking about huge investments after every storm. And every storm is an opportunity to think not just about how we rebuild but about where we do that.

SANDERS: Exactly.

PIERRE-LOUIS: And it's not just water. Remember; it's also - like, wildfires are another huge...

JOHNSON: Yeah. Oh, Lord, yes.

PIERRE-LOUIS: ...Issue.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

SANDERS: Or if you're in Southern California, it's both.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Coming up, we answer more of your questions, including how to deal with all of this existential dread. There is a way. I promise.

I know that we talked about collective versus individual action already, but because we got so many questions like this from our listeners, I feel like I have to ask it at least once. This one comes from Amy (ph). She wrote, quote, "what's the easiest change I can make to mitigate climate change? By easiest, I mean something a fairly ordinary middle-aged mom can do and stick with." And, like, I know it should be about the collective, larger, structural. But people still want to know, what can I do right now?

PIERRE-LOUIS: Drive less.

SANDERS: OK. I hear that. I could do that. What else?

PIERRE-LOUIS: Or give up your car altogether. But...

SANDERS: Ooh, no, no, no, no. I don't know about that.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: That's not easy, Kendra. I mean, I think the hard answer is, like, there isn't that much easy stuff that's going to make a big difference. The bigger a difference you want to make, the more you have to, like, actually do, right?

SANDERS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: I mean, quantitatively, in terms of carbon emissions, the biggest thing you can do is often just not make more humans. And no one wants to hear that, of course. So I think the option that I often push people to is politics.

PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: Like, make sure you are pushing to elect representatives at all levels of government and voting in every single election to ensure that we have people in power who actually get that climate change is happening and are willing to make laws to address it.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah. Piggybacking on that, there are a lot of - she said she was a mom. This is the only reason I'm saying this. There are a lot of mom climate groups. So she can find one and she can join them. And because they are mom climate groups - like, I don't know how old her kids are, but, like, they're generally kid-friendly, right? Like, it's not a thing...

SANDERS: OK.

PIERRE-LOUIS: ...Where they will need to find child care any - you know, like, they will work around you as a mom. And so that may be an entryway into it because I know that saying, you know, get involved in politics - it's like, well, how? Well, that's an - like, finding a group of people who are already doing it, and there are a number of them in your area, is an easy sort of way of figuring out how to get involved.

SANDERS: I have a follow-up question in terms of, like, what things can people do individually? And that is, what stuff should I stop caring about when it comes to individual action? Like, over the course of the pandemic, just being at home a lot more, I've started to think a lot about how much food I'm wasting. And it's like, to the extent you can, eat all the food you buy because it takes a lot of water and energy to make all that food. And I feel like doing that and taking that seriously has been good for the planet. But there are other things that just increasingly feel nonsensical and not worth the ugh (ph). Like, what is the deal with the straws? Do I have to have a pasta straw? Do I have to have a compostable straw that, like, breaks down in a few minutes?

JOHNSON: Do you need a straw at all?

SANDERS: That's - there you go. There you go. But there's, like, this, like, obsession with that stuff.

JOHNSON: I mean, some people do, but, like...

SANDERS: Yes.

JOHNSON: You may not need any sort of straw.

PIERRE-LOUIS: The funny thing about the straw, though, is that we...

SANDERS: Yeah.

PIERRE-LOUIS: ...Obsess over the straw, and we don't obsess over the, like, thing that we're putting the straw in, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: Oh, my God. I saw this dude walking down the street in Brooklyn carrying, like, a plastic to-go iced coffee cup with a metal straw in it. And I was like, bro, you have completely missed the point.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: There is so much plastic that you're about to throw away. Just miss me with this virtue-signalling.

SANDERS: That's the thing, the virtue-signalling.

PIERRE-LOUIS: That kind of goes back to the systems thing. A lot of it is baked into, like, how we structure everything in this country, and it's, like, structured to go. And a friend of mine brought in one of those, like, reusable cups. She, like, went to all the effort. She loved iced coffee, would carry her cup around. And she went to - I'm not going to name the chain - but she went to the chain. And they literally took a plastic cup and tucked it into her reusable cup.

SANDERS: Oh, lord.

(LAUGHTER)

PIERRE-LOUIS: And so, like, there's, again, a limit to how much you can expect an individual to do.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PIERRE-LOUIS: It takes so many of us acting in mass, you know? So, like, I know in California, there are anti-plastic legislation bills. Like, that is where the change happens, right? It doesn't happen because you're a good person and you don't use a straw or whatever. It happens when we change it so that, like, it's not an option for most people. And it's bizarre that it is an - like, you know?

SANDERS: And also, I bet that place that you're ordering delivery from, you could probably walk down the street and go pick it up maybe. Like, I've been trying to do that more.

PIERRE-LOUIS: (Laughter).

SANDERS: I wanted to get my little boujee (ph) artisanal sandwich today for lunch, and I walked to go get it.

JOHNSON: Get out of here (laughter).

SANDERS: Listen, felt nice. Took the dog, too. All right, next question comes from Ellen (ph). She wrote, quote, "What can I tell my 15-year-old when she is scared about her future because of climate change?"

PIERRE-LOUIS: Tell her to get to work.

JOHNSON: Yeah, channel that fear...

PIERRE-LOUIS: She's part of the solution.

JOHNSON: ...That anxiety into action. I mean, the only reason I'm not constantly having a panic attack is because I'm doing my part, right? Like, I'm trying to figure out how to be useful every day. And the way that I recommend that people think about that is think about this Venn diagram of, like, what are you good at in one circle, another circle being, like, what part of this, like, huge challenge of addressing the climate crisis do you want to work on? Is it bike lanes or composting or energy efficient buildings or whatever? Pick your part. And then the third circle of the overlapping Venn diagram would be, what brings you joy? What gets you out of bed in the morning? And figuring out where those three things overlap for you - your skills, your - which part of the problem you want to work on and what brings you joy - that's the way to deal, I think, with the sort of emotional overwhelm. And joining something - do not try to save the entire planet by yourself. It is literally impossible. So think about what group or initiative you can be a part of.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, I have a follow-up just from me. I'm hearing you, Ayana, say composting a lot but not say recycling.

JOHNSON: (Laughter) Uh-huh.

SANDERS: And I'm bringing this up because I have increasingly read reports and stories and heard podcast episodes that kind of speculate or say that, like, a lot of recycling that we think is being recycled is not being recycled. Can I get some expert feedback on that?

JOHNSON: Yeah, only about 9% of the things we toss in that bin only get...

SANDERS: Wow.

JOHNSON: ...Actually get recycled.

PIERRE-LOUIS: Plastic.

SANDERS: Nine percent.

PIERRE-LOUIS: Plastic.

JOHNSON: Plastic.

SANDERS: OK.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

PIERRE-LOUIS: Plastic.

SANDERS: OK.

PIERRE-LOUIS: So paper, glass, metal - you're golden. Plastic is the problem.

SANDERS: Oh, that's good to know because I was at this point where I'm just like, I don't even know if I should do it.

JOHNSON: So you should absolutely feel like [expletive] about your takeout containers that are all plastic.

SANDERS: Yes, but you can recycle other stuff pretty successfully.

JOHNSON: Aluminum cans, newspapers, yeah. Yep.

SANDERS: OK. OK. I like that.

JOHNSON: Wine bottles.

SANDERS: I mean, that's better than nothing. Yeah, yeah.

PIERRE-LOUIS: But the other thing is we always focus on recycling, but we forget the first two Rs are to reduce, reuse.

SANDERS: Come on.

PIERRE-LOUIS: Right? We go straight...

SANDERS: Come on.

PIERRE-LOUIS: ...To like...

JOHNSON: Repair, repurpose - there's plenty of other R's...

SANDERS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...Before we should get to recycle.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Stay with us. Coming up, how movies like "The Day After Tomorrow" can actually make a difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: The team and I noticed with all the questions that we got from listeners, whether on Twitter or in our inbox, there was just this tone of defeat and nihilism and what can I do? It's all the worst, and it will never, ever get better. And I think some of that, if not a lot of that, comes from the way that my industry, our industry, covers climate change.

This is not to cast aspersions on those out there in the trenches covering the story of our time. They are doing the work that needs to be done in many respects. But I, as a news consumer, often feel like the way that American news media covers climate change just isn't quite right.

PIERRE-LOUIS: Yep.

SANDERS: And it's not helping.

PIERRE-LOUIS: Yep.

SANDERS: But I want to ask you two, who are really in this work, am I right to feel that way?

JOHNSON: Yes.

SANDERS: And if so, what should change?

(LAUGHTER)

PIERRE-LOUIS: OK, let's start with fire. Because you live in California, one of the biggest issues with the way national media in particular reports on wildfire is that they treat fires uniformly bad. And that's a problem because we know that the thing that we need to reduce fire risk out West is we need to burn more fires.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PIERRE-LOUIS: But it's hard to get people on board with that messaging if the only thing that they've ever learned is that fire is bad, right? So that's just, like, one concrete example. The other is kind of hinting at more broadly, which is journalism will tell you the problem, but it very rarely centers a solution...

SANDERS: Very true.

PIERRE-LOUIS: ...Often, I think, because national media overall is a little bit actually uncomfortable with climate change because it really challenges journalistic strictures of objectivity because I joke all the time that I have a pro-Earth bias, but that doesn't mean I have a technology bias, right? Like, that doesn't mean that I'm like this technology is a solution, and that isn't the solution. And that's where I think objectivity comes in. We all want a habitable planet. And it's dumb for me to pretend that I don't, (laughter) right?

SANDERS: Yeah.

PIERRE-LOUIS: And so because the solutions are telling people to get civically engaged, it brushes up against this idea of activism. And often, we - where I think we draw the line as a podcast is we kind of think of it as a buffet. So we're going to give you an - as many solutions as possible, and you can choose how you're going to enter into acting on climate based on the number of solutions that we highlight that are out in the world.

And often, climate reporting doesn't even tell you the name of a bill that's on the docket. They often don't tell you when public comment periods are open so people can engage in that way. They often don't tell you - they bury what a political candidates' climate affiliation is, right? Even now, when we're talking about Joe Manchin, very little of the coverage is focused on what is the impact of climate change in West Virginia, right? Like, he's making a decision for his state, but what is that decision going to do to impact his constituents?

SANDERS: Come on.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

PIERRE-LOUIS: We're not getting that.

JOHNSON: Very vulnerable populations there in terms of...

SANDERS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...Flooding and other impacts and...

PIERRE-LOUIS: Landslides.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

PIERRE-LOUIS: It's a huge risk for landslides. West Virginia has very little climate coverage, actually. And so - on both sides, right? Like, both - Manchin is not an acting in the long-term interests of his own constituents, but also, his constituents are underserved because many of them, based on the reporting that I find, don't clearly understand what their climate risks are.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah. And so the reporting that we do have is disaster reporting often, which then doesn't...

SANDERS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...Say, like, how could we have avoided this? What could we do differently in the future? - which is not biased. It's just practical, right? It's solutions journalism, which we're starting to see more of but not nearly enough.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, and also what I hear you saying when, like - I could see a whole lot of old-school news editors pushing back against the very idea of solution-based journalism 'cause I know some folks that have been in the field for decades who would say a journalist's job is not to solve a problem but to explain it to you. But I kind of feel like, all right, if the whole world is damn near on fire, how about y'all do give me some solution journalism, too? I want that, right? And that requires a certain shift.

JOHNSON: Profile the people who are working on the solutions, right?

SANDERS: Exactly.

JOHNSON: Profile...

SANDERS: Exactly.

JOHNSON: ...case studies of people trying to implement things and do what Kendra was saying about really dissecting what is working, what isn't and why. That doesn't mean you have a bias. It means you're reporting on the world's attempt to deal with this problem.

And I guess I would just add that when it comes to media and climate, it's not just the news, right? What we need is climate to be a part of every story. I mean, Michaela Coel - I loved your interview with her, and I loved "I May Destroy You" because there were those moments where she talks about climate anxiety, right? She acknowledges...

SANDERS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...That this is the context of the world that we live in. It should be something that comes up in every sitcom, every romantic comedy, every drama. Every, you know, genre of music should have this as the context within which our lives are now unfolding because that is the truth. And when we look at culture and we don't see in art and music and TV and film any evidence of the fact that we are in a global, devastating, terrifying, already unfolding crisis, then it's very easy to pretend that this is an isolated problem.

And so what I would say is, in addition to needing much better news reporting, we also need media writ large and culture more broadly to be including discussion of climate, not as necessarily the theme. I'm not saying we need more documentaries that no one's going to watch on Netflix, even though we all put them in our queue, right? Like, that's not what I'm advocating for. But, like, let's just acknowledge that this is the context within which every other decision we make unfold.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PIERRE-LOUIS: I interviewed the director of "The Day After Tomorrow," Roland Emmerich, and that movie did more to move the needle on climate change than - what's that Al Gore documentary?

JOHNSON: "An Inconvenient...

SANDERS: Oh.

PIERRE-LOUIS: Right. Like...

JOHNSON: ...Truth."

PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

PIERRE-LOUIS: People...

SANDERS: The frog-boiling...

PIERRE-LOUIS: ...Who watch...

SANDERS: ...Documentary from Al Gore.

PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah. People who watched "The Day After Tomorrow" bought hybrid vehicles 'cause it was, like, 2004. They started pushing their elected officials to do things on climate change. It made it real and palpable to them in a way that nothing prior to it had.

And I re-watched it before our interview. And there's a scene in the movie where there are all of these Americans crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico to get away from the effects of climate change. And obviously, the reality is that the reverse is happening. A lot of people in Central America are being impacted by climate change, and that's why they're migrating north. But it was really interesting to see that he was predicting these migrations, you know, 15, 17 years ago.

SANDERS: Wow. Wow.

JOHNSON: So, Sam...

SANDERS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...When you talk about migration, when you talk about justice, when you talk about TV shows, all these amazing guests you have, I'm sure there's a way to bring climate into the conversation (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Yes, there is. Yes, there is. My first question will be, to any guest, all guests from now on, tell me your thoughts on pasta straws. Let's start there.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: No, that's not the point.

SANDERS: I'm kidding. I'm kidding. I know, I know. I'm teasing.

Big thanks again to Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. She's a marine biologist, a writer and the co-founder of the Urban Ocean Lab. And thanks as well to Kendra Pierre-Louis. She's a senior climate reporter with the podcast "How To Save A Planet." And, of course, thanks to all the listeners who wrote in with their questions.

All right. This week's episode was produced by Jinae West, Anjuli Sastry, Liam McBain and Audrey Nguyen. Our intern is Nathan Pugh. We had engineering support from Daniel Shukin. And our fearless editor is Jordana Hochman. Our big boss is NPR's senior VP of programming, Anya Grundmann. All right, listeners, till next time; be good to yourselves. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Thank y'all so much. I rarely have a talk about climate change that leaves me feeling a bit better. But this one did that, so thank you.

JOHNSON: You just like our jokes. We're saying the same scary facts, just with more jokes.

PIERRE-LOUIS: (Laughter).

SANDERS: The comedic timing makes it all different.

(LAUGHTER)

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