The discoveries you make, while important, can be quite overwhelming to comprehend. How do you stay inspired to keep on working in this area of science?
Of course, you're right. A significant portion of the work that I'm advancing comes up with conclusions that convey the message that we are, if anything, at even higher risks than we previously thought. We in the earth system sciences are sitting on so much evidence surrounding dangerous risks. So yes, it’s a challenge just to keep the mood up, but I must admit that personally, I don't have any problems keeping myself motivated. For the simple reason that my frustration has turned into what I would call constructive anger. It becomes like a quest and a responsibility to convey the truth.
I sometimes just sit back and say, “How can we not rise and solve this more decisively, number one. But number two, how can I stay quiet about this?” No. I need to act. I need to also be part of this conversation, part of engaging and being innovative in creating new alliances and offering myself in the service of humanity. Because I cannot sit here with this really decisive insider information that influences the outcome for so many. If you were sitting here knowing that a train is going to crash into a building, you would pick up the phone and warn somebody. I think many scientists today feel that we have an obligation to warn, and we have an obligation to tell the story. An evidence-based story of the future that we can meet if we solve this.
There is more than frustration, however, because we have so much evidence that we still have solutions. Solutions that are increasingly proven to give better outcomes for health, for security, for peace and for reducing risk of pandemics, and even for better economies and jobs. We can solve this in ways that make us all winners.
What advice would you give to people who want to do their part?
I think the most important thing that we can do today as, as cohabitants of earth, is to talk to each other and to spread the message. Try to follow the science, try to talk about the evidence, try to talk about the problems that we're facing; the ice is melting faster than ever, the forests are being cut down – which is impossible to accept because we need to keep the biodiversity and the carbon sinks intact.
We need to maintain a lively debate surrounding what is at stake and introduce a new narrative of how sustainability can give better outcomes. I say this because we are in a very interesting moment right now. We’re so close to a social tipping point, but we're not across that tipping point yet. It's not as if we can say we're in a home run now towards decarbonizing the world economy, oh no. But there are so strong signs that we will soon arrive at a point of no return in seeing the end of the fossil fuel era, for example.
I don't think we need a lot more pushing to succeed, but the pushing must come from the masses. It must come from the conversation, that willingness to act among us citizens. If every individual talks to one friend about how important it is to keep the whole climate, nature, and environment agenda live, I think that is number one.
Number two is that while the choices we make may seem very insignificant as an individual, when they add up, they influence the big forces around us. That means the choices we make as to what we eat, how we go to work; if we go by bicycle, public transport or our own car. The choice we make to switch from coal-powered electricity to wind-powered electricity, all these choices matter and they come together to make a big difference.