ClimateYou.org Senior Editor George Ropes discussed his own evolution in learning about and formulating views on climate change, his thoughts on COP26 in Glasgow happening now, and global warming going forward. Abby Luby, ClimateYou Editor was the interviewer. This interview has been edited for publication purposes.
AL: When did you first realize that climate change was a serious threat to the planet?
GR: Initially climate change had entered my consciousness because of my interest in world hunger. I took a course at MIT called International Nutrition Planning after teaching for several years and that was before I joined the Catholic Relief Service. It became clear to me over the years that hunger was important, but that climate was even more important. Because my family was also interested in climate change (my Father developed some of the first interactive software for students on the topic), they suggested that I start a blog. That was around 2006 and I started surfing the web to find articles on climate change and global warming. On some days I didn’t find any, other days there was just one or two articles. That has changed dramatically. But back then, I initially tried to write an abstract on each article or study I read and tried to succinctly summarize the findings and themes — I wanted to give people reading the blog the high points so they would read the whole piece. Since 2008, I’ve written about 200 blogs. At the same time I started writing my commentary pieces under the heading “Our Take.”
AL: How was “Our Take” different from what you had been writing?
GR: My thinking did evolve and my writing took on a much greater tone of urgency. It became clear that global warming was not just a scientific phenomenon, but it touches everything, politics in particular. But it’s not just politics, it’s also public health, biodiversity, and environmental justice. We are exploiting our natural resources faster than nature can regenerate them. It all circles back to the economy and the need for perpetual growth under current capitalism.
AL: In 2008 another outreach started at ClimateYou.org to engage New York City College of Technology (City Tech) students and have them post their own blogs. How would you like to see students become more involved?
GR: I’d like to see students write longer articles and commentaries. For example, I’d like students who are from countries outside the U.S. to dig deeper into climate stories they have a personal connection to. Recently I suggested that students from Puerto Rico comment on the continuing lack of electricity since the country’s power grid was destroyed in 2017 by Hurricane Maria. It’s a terrible situation. The government wants to build back the centralized fossil-based natural gas systems and instead of turning to solar or other sustainable sources of energy. It would be ideal if students from Puerto Rico could write about that. Going forward, ClimateYou.org is developing a single private voluntary network (PVN) so students don’t have to search the entire web for current and past articles and can access them all at one site.
AL: Do you see the youth involvement in the climate change growing?
GR: Yes, I think there is a general feeling today among younger people that they need to be involved. Each succeeding class of student blogs has shown more concern. How could they not be? If they don’t get energized to start doing something about the climate, they are not going to have much of a future. They are going to have to make major adjustments in their lifestyles due to increasing heatwaves, droughts, and floods as well as changes in their homes and transportation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
AL: When it comes to education overall, do you think enough about climate change is being taught in the public school systems?
GR: More needs to be done in terms of curriculum development because, at this time, climate is not often taught in elementary, middle or high schools. The basics certainly ought to be included at all levels of education. I think there is new movement in that direction, but it’s not yet a groundswell by any means.
AL: Your blogs have been collected in the new book “Waking Up to Climate Change: Five Dimensions of the Crisis and What We Can Do About It.” soon to be published by World Scientific Publishing. What are some of the themes the book focuses on?
GR: One dominant theme is the need to rapidly and drastically cut carbon emissions. That is far and away the biggest take-home message I repeat time after time. But that is not the whole ball game. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) did a service in its penultimate — not their last — report that entailed the need to focus on preserving biodiversity and habitats. This helps to store carbon in trees and helps farmers be resilient.
So, another main goal of the book is to bring forward what climate issues are under emphasized. Cutting carbon from fossil fuels is over emphasized whereas regenerating the soil is woefully underemphasized as is stopping deforestation – which is not happening in Brazil and other places where forests are getting cut down to make grazing pastures for cows.
Changing our diets eat less beef is going to be part of the solution, not only through vegetable alternatives but also with cell-based meat alternatives. Get ready: A few years down the road you won’t be able to tell the difference. However, like all solutions that require changes in behavior, it takes time not only to develop the technology, but get broad acceptance.
AL: How do you see us moving forward towards curbing carbon emissions and lowering the planet’s temperature?
GR: Climate change has faced a huge barrier to action because of its nature and because of human nature. Humans are oriented to the short term and the local scale, while climate change is long term and ubiquitous. The climate change issue has engendered tremendous pushback, due not only to our human failings but also due to the entrenched interests of the fossil fuel energy companies. But I think the pushback is losing strength and that climate denial has run its course. It’s becoming an indefensible position. It’s remarkable to me that over the course of the last few years public awareness of climate change as an existential issue has burgeoned. That alone has begun to translate into more climate mitigation and adaptation policies on the part of governments.
AL: As you know COP26, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference is coming up in Glasgow, Scotland. between October 31 and November 12. What do you think will be accomplished?
GR: I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, Glasgow is likely to be a big disappointment in terms of not really biting the bullet to increase world-wide commitments to curtailing carbon emissions by turning away from coal and even natural gas. The conference’s final declaration will likely be a let down. But I also believe a lot of good will come out of the event. COP26 serves a major purpose by bringing together some 30,000 scientists, government officials, private sector representatives, and public sector leaders. All these people will come together for intensely active knowledge interchange; numerous personal connections will be established via interactions in the pavilions and corridors, over lunches and dinners, or in the bars. Being among like-minded people doing similar things will energize new relationships, which in turn will enable learning how other people are responding to the climate crisis, what are the successes, the failures, and the lessons learned. Those messages will get carried back to every country to be shared widely once the attendees are home. I think that this will engender the true positive outcomes from the gathering in Glasgow. On the whole, more credit needs to be given to the global public who have recognized and rallied to the climate issue despite it’s being neither immediate nor personal/local.