Scientist who once feared climate change catastrophe reveals how she got it wrong

A scientist who believed climate change meant certain doom for humankind has since made a 180-degree reversal.

Hannah Ritchie is her name, she’s a data scientist at the University of Oxford, and she has admitted that she used to be a climate change zealot.

“I grew up with climate change,” she said in a recent interview with The Guardian. “I don’t really remember a time when it wasn’t talked about, so I became obsessed with it – a big part of my life was worrying about it. ”

“Then I went to university and that was all I was studying. The environmental metrics were getting worse and worse,” she added.

So what changed?

“A key turning point was discovering the work of [Swedish physician and academic] Hans Rosling,” she explained. “He did these Ted Talks, mainly focusing on human metrics, where he would show how the world was changing, through data. And it turned out that most of the human wellbeing metrics that I’d assumed to be getting worse were actually getting better.”

“Take child mortality: 200 years ago, almost half of children would die before reaching puberty, and that’s now less than 5%. Now, the world is still terrible, and we have a lot of progress to make. But the realization I came to was that we have the opportunity to improve both of these things at the same time: we can continue human progress while addressing our environmental problems,” she added.

Bingo.

Equipped with this new mindset, she penned a book, “Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet,” that finally views climate change through a pragmatic, reasonable lens rather than one of fanaticism and frenzy.

She’s also penned an article for The Times offering tips on how to adapt to climate change without going crazy.

Tip one is to stop focusing on the small stuff – like plastic straws and energy-efficient lightbulbs — and start focusing on the big things.

“What they often miss is the big things: installing a heat pump, shifting to a more plant-based diet, reducing food waste, buying clean energy, and driving and flying less,” she writes. “These are the behaviors that will have the biggest impact in reducing your carbon footprint.”

Tip two is to stop trusting in local/organic food.

“Most people … think that eating locally is the best way to reduce the footprint of their diet. … But this isn’t true,” she writes. “‘Food miles’ account for only 5 per cent of global emissions from food systems. What you eat matters much more than where it comes from.”

Take meat. Local meat sounds nice in theory, but meat in general has a much higher carbon footprint than most non-meat foods.

Even so-called “organic” food isn’t necessarily all that great.

“The reason is that organic fertilisers such as manure also emit greenhouse gases and lead to water pollution,” Ritchie explains. “Organic farming tends to need more land. When we take land use into account, going fully organic could emit more carbon, not less.”

Tip three is to change your behavior not only for yourself but others.

“When you switch to a lower-carbon product, you’re sending a signal to governments and the market that this is what people want,” she explains. “If you change your petrol car for an electric one, you’re telling manufacturers that this is where demand is growing, and the government that the public needs more charging infrastructure.”

“The same is true for food. If you swap a beef burger for a plant-based one, you’re sending a signal to the market. Innovators get excited and try to create better products. Not only that, the price of these technologies tends to fall as we deploy them,” she adds.

Read her full article at The Times.

Vivek Saxena

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