Sarah Stonich Q&A
November 8, 2021
Sarah Stonich believes literature is activism.
“I see two issues at the intersection of climate change and racial justice — leading to the idea of climate justice. The first is an issue of differential vulnerability: that the people least responsible for causing climate change bear disproportionate consequences from climate change, and that’s not fair. This part of climate justice demands action from those responsible for causing climate change. The second is that all people should have the opportunity to participate in solutions to the climate crisis, including renewable energy deployment and the resources and jobs it brings. This requires investment in historically marginalized communities at a scale that government and industry hasn’t done so historically. If we fail on either of these fronts, we will see inequities increase and miss an important chance to address past wrongs. We also cannot achieve climate action at scale without all people and communities participating.”
Every year the global community comes together and works collaboratively toward tackling climate change. But this year, the 26th such meeting, is important because nations are due to check in on the greenhouse gas (GHG) commitments they made at the 21st meeting in Paris — where the Paris Agreement was signed. Glasgow is where we will find out if countries are delivering on their promises and if they are willing to increase their efforts toward achieving the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 2 degree C. The world is particularly watching to see if the U.S. will deliver on its commitments, because progress without one of the world’s largest economies will be extremely difficult. Policy actions are needed on several fronts in the U.S. — as the sources of climate change are several. Importantly, the U.S. needs to accelerate a nationwide shift toward renewable electricity production; it needs to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector such as facilitating the transition to electric vehicles (plugged in to renewable power); and it needs to confront through regulation, technological improvements and other tools, the potent greenhouse gases, methane, that arises from livestock production and leaky oil and gas production and distribution. It will be a great disappointment if governments do not report substantial progress and announce new, higher goals at Glasgow. But the work to slow and then stop GHG emissions and climate change must — and will — go on, even if the Glasgow meeting underwhelms. Every ton of CO2 and other greenhouse gases that we do not emit to the atmosphere is a little bit less climate change, so GHG reduction always matters. Some government and private sector leaders will find ways to innovate and build sustainable economies around green technology and green jobs, and those leaders will win political and economic influence as a result. (By extension, those that don’t will fall behind.) Those of us in research will keep studying the impacts of climate change to raise awareness, identifying ways of reducing negative effects through adaptation, and inventing ever-better emission reduction strategies. And educators will keep doing their work too — building a corps of people with the knowledge and savvy to affect change. I find hope in the fact that all action matters, that people can join together in their climate change efforts, and that the mainstream media is paying attention to Glasgow and climate change in general. The general public may not know exactly why the Glasgow meeting is happening or how it fits into the arc of history and global striving for GHG reduction, but they do know that it’s a pivotal moment in a global marathon.
Yes, many young people are anxious about the future. They’re anxious about the state of the world generally and the impacts of climate and other environmental changes on the people and places they love. They’re frustrated about the forces that enable policy makers and businesses to ignore information about climate change — coming from thousands and thousands of scientists — for so long. Students always worry about finding a job at graduation and the opportunity to build a stable financial situation for themselves — and there’s plenty to worry about in our current economy. But today they worry that the costs of climate damages will drag down future economic opportunities. On the other hand, there’s also opportunity in solving climate change. Where policies and other incentives allow solutions to flourish, there will be jobs for smart and industrious people — and that’s exciting to young people. For many college students, confronting climate change also represents an exciting opportunity to do differently than we have before, including investments in communities that have been historically overlooked and discriminated against. At the university, we are working to give students the information they need to confront the current and future situation, and, importantly, we show students that they’re not alone: many other people locally and globally are applying ideas and actions to bring about sustainability.
I’m not an expert on human psychology and the magical ways that misinformation travels in modern social networks, but, like others, I have seen growing distrust in experts. The psychological literature tells us that it’s possible to overcome distrust when people make a personal connection and identify common values — and that’s been my personal experience too. I don’t see us making progress in the U.S. around climate change without forging connections and finding common ground — and this is why climate change is so tightly coupled to democracy. I also think we need to stop asking people if they “believe” in climate change. Instead, we should be asking things like: what do you do know about it? where do you get your information? who do you trust to talk with about climate change? what do you think could or should be done to address it?
I see two issues at the intersection of climate change and racial justice — leading to the idea of climate justice. The first is an issue of differential vulnerability: that the people least responsible for causing climate change bear disproportionate consequences from climate change, and that’s not fair. This part of climate justice demands action from those responsible for causing climate change. The second is that all people should have the opportunity to participate in solutions to the climate crisis, including renewable energy deployment and the resources and jobs it brings. This requires investment in historically marginalized communities at a scale that government and industry hasn’t done so historically. If we fail on either of these fronts, we will see inequities increase and miss an important chance to address past wrongs. We also cannot achieve climate action at scale without all people and communities participating.
I had not met Vice President Gore, but he is a friend to a couple of my mentors, including Dr. Steve Schneider, a leading climate scientist who is now deceased. I know that Steve appreciated Gore’s long-standing commitment to listening to the science and making space for scientists to inform policy makers.
Oh, what a great question. I’m enamored with climate change in fiction at the moment. I think that science-informed fiction has a lot to teach us about what we are confronting and who we are as human beings. Some of that is in science fiction like Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, but climate literature also is exploding in the mainstream. As an ecologist, I love Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, and I just finished Anthony Doer’s Cloud Cuckoo Land that I thought explored the interconnection of people across time and space in interesting and important ways. Just two examples.
I’m inspired by his call to action now — at 100 years young. He says that Greta Thunberg is his hero because she holds her elders accountable and calls attention to the science. Tom wants to do his part to wake up society and drive action now — for the benefit of all the people who share this state and the earth. Those people may follow behind him in time, but he’s right to feel a duty to them.
The IonE is dedicated to three pillars of activity: interdisciplinary research that moves the needle toward key sustainability goals, building leaders who can take action on sustainability, and telling stories at scale about sustainability issues and people. We have more than 250 scholars who are affiliated with IonE, programmatic and research staff based at IonE, and hundreds of student participants, and our job is to build the capacity among these people and deploy their skills and expertise in the real world. We are particularly known for our work in climate change, sustainable land use, the ecology of economics and the economics of ecology, and the sustainable transformation of agricultural supply chains. We will be continuing to carry the torch, with that UMN Humphrey School of Public Affairs, on climate policy and the Swain climate policy lecture series. We are already planning for the next big speaker that can engage our academic community, and we are planning for a university-wide week of climate action for spring 2022. We’re excited to get back to in-person collaboration, including a long-standing collaboration between policy makers and energy leaders in Minnesota with counterparts in Germany. This knowledge exchange is precisely what we need to accelerate clean energy technology adoption, smart energy policy development, and local efforts to tackle climate change that make a difference at scale. In other news, we are in the midst of launching a new Climate Science Adaptation Center at the UMN and IonE, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Interior and four other state universities, the College of the Menominee Nation, the Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the Nature Conservancy. We know we’ll have to manage forests, grassland, wetlands, lakes and rivers—as well as farms and cities—in new ways because of climate change, and our center will design and test those techniques for the Midwest and the U.S. Just one example of the kind of thing we do at IonE.
November 8, 2021
Sarah Stonich believes literature is activism.
November 22, 2021
Mark Fearing keeps his creative juices pumping by working on 20 projects at a time.