Drew Pendergrass

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Drew Pendergrass graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 2020 with a BA in Physics and Mathematics and a minor in English, and is now doing his Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Engineering at Harvard’s Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. His research in atmospheric physics includes work on real time satellite tracking of pollutants. With Troy Vettese, Pendergrass is the co-author of the book Half-Earth Socialism, which comes with a free online video game, play.half.earth.

Listen on Spotify or on Apple; video excerpt and transcript below:

Video excerpt

Podcast transcript with footnotes:

Drew Pendergrass

So socialism is this project of expanding democracy. That’s the way I see it.

Now, this might be surprising for some people listening because socialism does not have the reputation of being a project to expand democracy and in sort of the popular lexicon, it’s anti-democracy. What we are trying to do in the book is a thoroughgoing reevaluation of what socialism means.

Eli Gitter-Dentz  00:40

Thank you for listening to Bridging the Carbon Gap. Drew Pendergrass is a Ph.D. student in Environmental Engineering at Harvard University, as well as a freelance writer. He is the co author of the 2022 book Half-Earth Socialism. We spoke with Drew on January 8 2024.

My name is Eli Gitter-Dentz. I’m a senior at Hunter College High School.

Gabe Gitter-Dentz  01:06

My name is Gabriel Gitter-Dentz. I’m Eli’s brother, and I’m a junior at Bowdoin College.

Marie Fadeyeva  01:13

My name is Marie. I’m a senior at Columbia University graduating this spring.

Drew Pendergrass  01:20

Awesome. Well, thank you for having me. My name is Drew Pendergrass. I’m a climate scientist. I work on satellite observations of greenhouse gases. And I’m also an environmental activist and a writer on environmental issues. I wrote this book Half-Earth Socialism with Troy Vettese, who’s an environmental historian, and it’s a collaboration between a scientist and a humanist, which was really valuable as it pushed us both to be much more precise in our analysis. 

I pushed Troy to go into the depths of all these technologies and all these scientific problems and Troy pressed me to think about what are the causes of all these crises? And this has created a book that is mixed genre, it has a lot of science in it, a lot of history, and then lots of fiction and other elements in it. 

And the whole point is to just to imagine concrete alternatives to our current environmental crisis. So we don’t say oh, the environmental crisis is bad. We try and think about, oh, what would it take to overcome this crisis? And how can we productively debate about the technologies and social changes that are necessary? It comes with a video game where you can try your own ideas. You don’t have to agree with the book.

Marie Fadeyeva  02:40

Drew, I have a question from a perspective of a soon to be graduate. And if we look at the profile of your college class, Class of 2020 at Harvard, you can see that over half of the graduated students are choosing to go into industries like finance, consulting and technology and then there’s a very big gap. And that’s followed by academia, health, the arts and government. And this is definitely not just a Harvard thing, I’m at Columbia, and I definitely see the same thing happen there, as well as at other Ivy League schools or institutions that we choose to call elite. So I wanted to ask you, I have my own opinion on this and perspective, but I’m very curious about your perspective. Why?

Why do you think this is something that’s happening? And maybe what is different between the students who are choosing those industries, right, finance, consulting and technology, and those who are choosing a path to go elsewhere in their professional career? And kind of following up on that, I’m curious what you think can be done to steer the students who do choose to go into the higher paying sectors that I mentioned, to become more environmentally actionable? 

Part of me wants to just be like a Ivy League abolitionist, because I think the whole point of, you have to follow these rules to get into these elite institutions to go up to this elite level of society, I feel like there’s almost no hope for it.

Drew Pendergrass  03:56

Yeah, this is a really interesting question. So I think there’s a couple things. One is it’s very easy if you’re at these sorts of institutions to go into consulting, finance and tech, they recruit on campus. There’s a very established track. You can even study for it. You buy the consulting book or the finance book or the tech interview book, study for it. You go to the interviews that particular time on your campus and you get channeled right into a prestigious high income career that no one will look at you and say, Oh, you wasted your elite education or something like that. 

It’s like, you’ve checked the boxes. You’re, you’re good to go. And the reputation is, this is even a non decision. Because the idea is that you consult, you do finance, you do your tech for a while and then you can transition to another career, that is the way it’s often sold. So I think it’s a combination of just this fits the sort of person who gets into Harvard, Columbia, etc, very good at following rules. They’re very good at taking tests and you know, going through the established lines, and this is like that. 

I think there’s a couple things. Part of me wants to just be like a Ivy League abolitionist, because I think the whole point of, you have to follow these rules to get into these elite institutions to go up to this elite level of society, I feel like there’s almost no hope for it. I wonder what you think is the reason for this and if you have any recommendations as a as a senior. 

Marie Fadeyeva  05:33

I thought that was a great answer, I think from my perspective, so I do a lot of advocacy for first generation low income students on campus and what I’ve noticed is that the class divide is really, really noticeable at elite institutions and on the campuses of the institutions, and there’s less and less and less people coming from middle class backgrounds. 

So it’s either students who come from great wealth, or students who come from like pretty much nothing. And yeah, that’s what I noticed, I think, maybe goes to your point of campus as being like a microcosm of what is going on on like a broader level and like, maybe the US as a whole. 

Yeah, I think maybe if you come from a wealthy background, you maybe want to keep that status that you have. So that’s why you’re attracted to consulting, finance, technology, regardless of maybe your personal interests. You see maybe that as the only way to continue that, like the status to uphold it that you’ve had since you were like a kid and your family has had. And if you are coming from a low income background, you see those as the only way to be like the first person who brings your family out of poverty.

Drew Pendergrass  06:48

Yeah, that’s interesting. I did notice when I was an undergrad that it seemed to be another way people would justify these industries on campus is that the low income students might want to take the step up the next class level or several class levels. Whereas, you know, richer students might be more able to go into a nonprofit world. I actually found it to be the low income students were more likely to go into the nonprofit world and the higher income students were more likely to do these stepping stones. And I don’t have any data. This is all anecdotal, but I would actually not be surprised if that’s true, because, you know, the sorts of this sort of buddy buddy systems that those sectors reward insiders.1

One thing to think about in terms of Harvard classes being a resource is that they can be a resource for a lot of things. They can be a resource for making change, and they can be a resource for not making change, for the opposite.

And I think it’s really I think you’re right about this sort of formation of priorities. It’s really important because as you participate in an institution, like finance, or like consulting, you start to be taken into its ideology. And its goals. And it shapes the way you see the world. And it is essentially the way the world works, right? 

The way Wall Street works, that is, in essence, how it works, but that’s not necessarily the way it has to work, right, we can do things differently. 

And I think I guess what I’m getting at here is a curriculum or an education is a way to understand how things work but also how things could work and how things have to work if we want to make the world a safe ecological space for humans and nonhumans alike to flourish, and how the world works on Wall Street-wise and how the world will need to work if we want to prevent mass extinction and a really dire climate system, those are not necessarily the same thing. 

So I think I think I think you’re right, just having that priority, priorities, is really powerful. And it’s an important — people in the education world that’s an important important thing to keep in mind.

Eli Gitter-Dentz  09:35

You mentioned a little bit about social movements on campus. So I’m wondering what the atmosphere around climate change is like at Harvard and also possibly what the reaction was on campus to anyone who read your book.

Drew Pendergrass  09:55

Yeah, this is a good question. So I mean, like many campuses, right now, or really more like a few years ago, divest was very big. So divestment from fossil fuels, has been a pretty consistent university campaign point, and I actually, I think this is really good. 

The reason why I think it’s good is not necessarily because I think divestment of endowments is the way that we’re going to solve climate change. And I don’t think anyone who’s doing this certainly thinks this is the way either. But because you’re a student, students are here to learn and divestment is a great campaign to learn on because it’s, it’s a nice campaign. 

It has a clear goal. It has a clear sort of target. And you know, the university president or asset managers, like you have these clear targets and you can have this clear set of escalatory strategies to get to the goal.

It’s a great way to learn how to be an activist. So I think this is really powerful, even if divesting all the endowments isn’t going to stop climate change. 

So that was a lot of the activist energy until recently, I think 2021, Harvard divested ish from fossil fuels. 

Other than that, it’s sort of weird. There’s COVID and then now I’m much more involved in and other aspects of the university than direct fight for climate, at least on the university campus. So I don’t know as much what the fight is now. 

As far as the book reaction, it’s very funny. It’s very funny what the reaction is. There’s a professor at Harvard Business School who really liked it, even though she didn’t agree with it. And so we’ve been having these debates with each other, and I might be going to do a class visit with her class, which will be an interesting environment to go in with all the business students and have a nice argument. 

So it’s been positive in that way and then the science world the book is not, people haven’t really talked about it much at all. 

I mean, people know that I’ve written and I’ve talked about it, but scientists, it feels like we’re very professional. We’re just very, you know, on the, on the topics at hand, like, we’re gonna do this science work. And not all scientists are like this. And I think increasing numbers of scientists are willing to speak out on climate issues.2

But yeah, it’s sort of interesting. And Harvard is an interesting place because that’s where a lot of geoengineering research is conducted. In the book. I come up with very strong critiques of solar geoengineering, this is the idea of flying planes up to the stratosphere to spray particles to block out the sun to cool the planet, which is a very serious proposal on climate change mitigation. 

And so that aspect, I think, it’s almost like a weird commitment to civility slash siloing that we don’t really get into it about solar geoengineering as much because opinion in our department is extremely polarized. There are leading solar geoengineering researchers and then people who think solar geoengineering is the worst idea they’ve ever heard in their entire lives. And yet, somehow we don’t fight each other every day. So I guess it’s just like a professionalism thing. I don’t know. It’s sort of an unusual environment in that way. 

Gabe Gitter-Dentz  13:23

I was just wondering, does the research that you do for your Ph.D. overlap with climate? How does that give you information about geoengineering and these tactics?

Drew Pendergrass  13:41

So I have a few research projects, but the main one is I’m trying to use satellites to estimate global emissions of methane, which is an important greenhouse gas. Second most important after CO2. So I’m using the satellites to basically look at these countries reporting their emissions to the UN, I run simulations as if those emissions estimates were true. And then I compare it to the satellite whether the satellite sees something different than that, correcting those emissions inventories to better match reality. 

And so I’m trying to do this in real time. And that has, you know, implications right, methane is an important greenhouse gas as some other implications to political and otherwise. 

So methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, but it lasts less long in the atmosphere. So CO2 lasts over a century, methane lasts about a decade. Methane is a lot more potent on a per molecule basis than CO2. 

And so when you emit methane, you get a lot of warming now, and then in 10 years, you don’t get very much warming at all, or 20 years or whatever. So if you want to stop climate change, or if you want to mitigate climate change now in the next decade, a really good target is methane. Now of course, this doesn’t substitute for reducing CO2, right? CO2 is just an extremely important lever. But if we want to, you know, bend the curve to borrow the COVID phrase, like if we want to reduce overshoot, or these other ideas, cutting methane quickly now is really, really, really useful. 

This is also the argument for solar geoengineering. Solar geoengineering, the idea is that we’ll just fly these planes for a few years, 20 years, 30 years to blot out the sun for a little bit while we work on reducing CO2 And then we can take them back down. I think that politically is a disaster because I think once you start doing something like solar geoengineering, you’re never gonna stop. Like I just think there’s, there’s no, you imagine like countries giving up trillions of dollars of the sovereign wealth stuff, right? We have this solution, quote, unquote, just floating in the air with these, these particles. 

How the world works Wall Street-wise, and how the world will need to work if we want to prevent mass extinction and a really dire climate system, those are not necessarily the same thing. 

Also the sort of technology that I am working on is this sort of ability to fuse models with observations. We talked about it a little bit in the book in terms of the theory of planning and economy, which is something we haven’t talked that much about on this podcast, but you know, the book, we’re making the case that with this sort of, aspect of solar geoengineering, we’re looking at this future where we either plan nature to make the nature safe for the economy. So we just do solar geoengineering and keep going let the economy go as it was before, or we plan the economy, we reduce certain sectors we consciously change the metabolism between humanity and nature, and change energy, change this biodiversity structure, to plan the economy and then we can not plan nature we can allow nature to heal. So these are like, you know, troubled binaries to be setting up but I think that’s roughly what’s going to happen. It’s either going to be run roughshod over the climate, or change our society.

Marie Fadeyeva  16:57

I have a question similar to Gabe’s, but coming from a bit of a different angle. Even though I don’t study environment and climate, I still talk to my friends about climate change pretty frequently. And right now, it seems that you’re thinking about climate every day with what you’re working on. And I’m wondering if that affects your personal life in any way. And if you’ve ever experienced eco anxiety, I know that’s definitely something that people in our generation and people honestly I think people across all generations at this point are probably experiencing, and definitely at high levels. And action is known to be like a very good antidote, but I’m wondering if you have a personal experience with this as this is like something that you haven’t touched on in your book?

Drew Pendergrass  17:46

Yeah, that’s a great question. Well, firstly, there’s a certain gallows humor in climate science world. There’s lots of jokes about geoengineering or whatever that we have in our department, or we’ll be like, Oh, the sky is blue, you know, enjoy it while it lasts, you know, geoengineering will bleach the sky white, that’s the background of that joke. 

Or you know, like it’s the warmest year that they’ll, you know, so far but coldest for the rest of your life, whatever, all these sorts of dark humor, not really a coping strategy. I will say that action is a good antidote for eco anxiety. Although I feel like I’m not doing anywhere close to enough. It’s funny writing a book that’s utopia, andlike this is what it would take to overcome the environmental crisis. And then it feels like you know, what I do day to day is so inadequate compared to that, so I, you know, I work on this project, and I try and make it applicable and I try and do things but just sometimes it feels like you’re just writing scientific papers and throwing them into the void. 

In my post doc, which is what you do after you get a Ph.D., I’m trying to do more activist informed research or research that directly will have this role in changing things. 

Then I also have an activism side. The main campaign I’m involved right now in is to decarbonize Somerville public schools. So the school system, public school system in the Boston area, and we picked this campaign for a lot of strategic reasons. The goal is to really grow a climate movement. That seems very inadequate to what we need to do to decarbonize the whole economy or to predict biodiversity, right? A city school system might be the biggest municipal polluter, but it’s a drop in the bucket, right? 

We think of it as this way to build up a movement and get some good done but it feels so inadequate to the scale of the problem. I don’t know if I feel as much eco anxiety as I feel sort of flummoxed a little bit, you know, it’s hard to know exactly what to do. And I feel like I’m doing what I can. That’s enough so far for me to not feel so terrible all the time. 

Eli Gitter-Dentz  20:16

If we could shift to talking a bit more about your book, I have sort of a heavy question. There was one line from your book that really stood out to me. You wrote, any attempt to revive the utopian dream of a consciously planned economy, which is Half-Earth socialism, must reckon with the failures of past socialist societies.

I’m wondering, obviously it’s a really difficult task, how is it possible to acknowledge these past failures and then still move on to inspire trust in socialism?

Drew Pendergrass  20:55

So I’ll first start by defining socialism. And to me socialism is extending democracy to encompass the economy. So we live in a system where we have democratic ish control over the political realm, so we can vote for government officials, and then no democratic control over the economic realm. So you know, whatever your boss says, goes. 

And more importantly, we don’t really have a say over what we want the economy to become. Like we might all sit here and be like, it would be nice if we had an economy based on green energy rather than fossil fuels. But there’s nowhere to go to make that choice. Or you can go to vote for people who say they’ll push for this, but those people are constrained by the economy too, right. Biden is constrained by this economic system, and can’t just, you know, destroy all the oil companies right now without getting a lot of backlash. 

Now, there are things you can do about that. You can have the social movements that are more powerful than the oil companies, right. That’s a difficult task. So socialism is this project of expanding democracy. That’s the way I see it. Now, this might be surprising for some people listening because socialism does not have the reputation of being a project to expand democracy in sort of the popular lexicon. It’s anti-democracy. It’s the opposite, sort of, of democracy. And that’s a real historical fact, that’s a real thing that happened, you know, there were these socialist movements that notched a lot of victories, like the expansion of democracy to the franchise that we have to everyone, regardless of class, that was really a socialist and left led movement. And suffragettes were involved, but many of them were socialists, there’s a lot of cross pollination between these movements. 

So in the notching of these wins, things like the eight hour workday, so reducing the amount of time you spend in the workplace so that you have more freedom outside, these are wins of the socialist movement, in addition to the failures of the socialist movement to establish an alternative that really did expand democracy everywhere. 

So what we are trying to do in the book is a really ongoing reevaluation of what socialism means. And we do this a lot in the early chapter of the book, the first chapter, we get a little bit philosophical and think about the legacies of Marx and we do this a lot through an environmental lens, but in general, we’re trying to think through what what exactly socialism is because we are committed to this idea that we need democracy to be extended everywhere if we want to be able to control things, like really important things like how do we relate to nature, if we’re destroying it, right, like, the system that we have now is automatic, right? 

Capitalism goes no matter what anyone wants, even if you’re a CEO, you’re not in charge, you have to follow the market signals. And you can end up destroying the world without wanting to, right you’re forced to do it, because what could you do if you’re the CEO of these big companies? I guess you could quit but you’re still in the same system just in a lower rung now. So that’s why this attention to social change. Then, you know, we try and think about, what was the Soviet Union? What were these kind of socialist societies? Where did they go wrong? Where were the reform movements within them? What went wrong with those, and how can we take those lessons and build a new movement that won’t reproduce the old problems and would instead build something new?

We’re trying to get these utopian blueprints like, what should we be eating? What should we be using for energy, how much energy should be using at all? 

Gabe Gitter-Dentz  24:45

I had one question. Moving into the game part of things, I believe there are some strategies in the game that you can use that you don’t necessarily advocate for in the book.

Drew Pendergrass  25:01

Yeah, well, in the book, the way we talk about veganism, for example, is don’t make an ethical argument for veganism. We don’t talk about animal rights or anything like that. Instead, we talk about land use, right? 

So going back to the Half-Earth idea, you know 50% of the earth set aside for non human uses, primarily, you know, non human protection and the most significant use of land use now is from agriculture. 

And the vast majority of land used for agriculture goes to animal agriculture, something like over 80% of it goes to growing crops to feed to animals or pasturing animals directly. You know, things like soybeans and corn are fed to these animals. This is not very efficient, because they eat the soy and then they walk around, well, they don’t really walk around but you know, they digest, they burn this energy and then we eat them. It’s an enormous waste of energy, whereas if you eat the soybean directly, it’s much better for the environment and cuts out this animal factory basically, this highly inefficient, sort of factory. 

So you want to keep this idea of end use like if you want to reduce our impact on the environment. A great way to do this is to reduce meat consumption. And we, in the book, we make this case for veganism on these grounds. And I hope it’s clear that we we do say like, you know, if a movement pushed for something else or whatever, it would just be a different costs like it would be a different analysis, but this is what we’re trying to get at with this idea of scientific utopia, which is, you know, if you don’t want a vegan world or if you want just a reduced meat consumption world, what is the cost of that like, what are you giving up to to obtain that, you know, that dietary mix? And is it worth it? 

That’s sort of what we’re trying to get at. We’re trying to get these utopian blueprints like this, like, what should we be eating? What should we be using for energy, how much energy should be using at all? I mean, this is a sort of thing that in the City Atlas game, Energetic, that you’re trying to do with New York, you’re trying to be like, Okay, it’s actually would be really helpful if we have less energy use, right, because actually, a little bit unstated in Energetic is is that you are reducing energy consumption to make it all work. That’s sort of how in Energetic you’re able to win, right you have to reduce these energy consumptions. 

So there’s a lot of things that I think are dismissed as being super unpopular, on the face of it, but I think that if you get to this difficult utopian trade off perspective, I actually think that are not so hard choices, after all, that’s sort of the gambit of the book is that it’s worth it to give up things like energy use and meat, because the freedom you get elsewhere is so great. 

And so we’re not trying to make that as an absolute argument, but we’re trying to make it as a practical argument, that this is an important thing to consider.

And this is why environmental politics is hard, by the way. It’s not like you’re just giving people more. You’re actually saying let’s have less and then we can, we’ll do it. We’ll reframe it as more, like we’ll say, oh, we’ll have freedom elsewhere. And I think that’s true, you know, public luxuries like public transportation or whatever are really nice. But people are attached their cars, even if the car makes you miserable. Like even if you’re stuck in traffic all the time, even if you might be happier in a world with public transportation, people are attached to it and it would be received as a loss for it to go away even if the world that replaces it is better.

This is really hard politically to deal with. And this is our attempt to do it. And the video game is a sort of a public education tool so that people can experiment in a pretty fairly depicted world. You can keep meat consumption all you want, or you can do really go hard on like, you know, artificial cellular biology meat or something like that to replace it without taking anything away. So you can try and see how it works and get a sense for these trade offs. That’s, that’s the goal of the game. And that’s really the point of the book. Instead to inspire this, this utopian imagination.

Gabe Gitter-Dentz  29:31

Yeah, I think that makes sense. And I think I was listening to another interview you did where Troy described veganism in particular as like low hanging fruit. Like, that it was easy to cut out and that the more of that you do, the more wiggle room you have elsewhere in areas where it might be a little more difficult. Just in terms of like the energy or land required to accomplish one thing or another.

Drew Pendergrass  30:05

Exactly. We can be vegans tomorrow, but it would take more than tomorrow to change the energy system. Right. It’s a lot easier to do quickly.

Can we build a movement that demands something, and then can we have the ideas in place to put them into action when the demands are so great that they can’t be ignored?

Marie Fadeyeva  30:14

I really like what you mentioned about the utopian blueprints that you just talked about when you were answering Gabe’s question. I wanted to ask, so I was really pleasantly surprised when I was reading your book, because my grandparents grew up in the USSR. My parents came of age in the USSR and I was born in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR. So the thinkers that you mentioned were definitely familiar. And what you talked about earlier, when you said you were looking at the USSR and the ideas and lessons that were born there, I’m curious if there’s any of those lessons or initiatives that you think would be most feasible to be implemented in like the next five to 10 years? I know you just discussed veganism. Okay. But is there anything more on the economic level that you think would be feasible to implement in the US in the near future?

Drew Pendergrass  31:13

That’s an interesting question. So the first thing I think of is, you know, one of the technologies slash algorithms we talk about in this book is linear programming, which is an optimization algorithm and it’s used all over the place. It’s used all over the place in businesses, in doing their profit calculations, but it originates in the Soviet Union. And this is a really interesting history, and that sort of optimization method is exciting because it allows you to set up these material constraints, like how much land or how much resources to use, and then it can provide a blueprint for how to allocate other other inputs. And this is, I think, a really powerful tool in terms of reducing the problem space of an economy. 

So, you know, while algorithms are never going to run something on their own, and I don’t think we would want them to, it’s a great way to, we have this incredibly complex world, and we can reduce that complexity, while still expressing these things that we want with these tools that were developed back then. 

Now, is that something that we can implement now? In a way, yes, in a way, no, I mean, one, there’s sort of a moment where planning is coming back. Right now. Not just among socialists, so this is often expressed as industrial policy, if you’re reading it in the news, industrial policy being, you know, state intervention in the economy’s direction. So you know, the IRA, Inflation Reduction Act, the Joe Biden green bill is an industrial policy, because it’s trying to build up one sector of the economy, the green sector, in these complicated ways, and mostly through subsidies and tax breaks. 

Now, it would be really exciting if we could have an industrial policy that’s more muscular than that, right? That’s more focused on you know, maybe instead of just doing subsidies and tax breaks, maybe we start picking winners much more explicitly, we start phasing out these fossil fuel companies more directly, that we might even make a state led investment infrastructure like a state led bank or something. These ideas are out there and at many institutions, they’re put forward by a place like Jain Family Institute, etc. that are thinking about, you know, ways that you know, with the country that we have now, could we put some of this planning back into the economy, and then there are more you know, social movement led, let’s push from the ground up. So there’s sort of these top down ground up approaches. So can we build a movement that demands something and then can we have the ideas in place to put them into action when the demands are so great that they can’t be ignored?

Eli Gitter-Dentz  34:23

So I wanted to make sure that we touched on sort of the core question of the podcast, which is, what would you add to a high school curriculum? Or maybe even a college curriculum because we have some college students but yeah, I’m curious what your thoughts are on that, how to sort of develop like a new generation of environmental thinkers?

Drew Pendergrass  34:50

Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I mean, on the one hand, there’s not a lot of climate science taught in schools and I think it could be very useful. There’s AP environmental science, or whatever. But it would be really powerful, I think, for students to have a sense of, you know, how does the climate work broadly? What are the drivers of climate change, like having a sense of like, how much energy we use, we use an unfathomable amount of energy, you can just see these giant piles of coal that go into coal fired power plants, and just just get a sense of the scale of what it takes to keep us going. Something like that might be useful and also might help. 

I mean, what’s coming for us if we do nothing about climate change isn’t the apocalypse of all humans, right? It’s, it’s just, you know, it’s a terrible world with much less biodiversity, no coral reefs. Rising seas, different social problems. And that’s there’s a lot to be anxious about, but there’s no you don’t need to be anxious about humans being gone. For example, I think it might be useful to like, be more precise about what it is that we need to be worried about and what we need to take action on because I think I think it’s important to not let the ruminations explode into a world of fantasy. So that’s one thing that would be pretty easy to do. 

It would also be really powerful, I think, for students to learn how activism actually happens and how social change actually happens. Things like the civil rights movement are taught, but it would be cool if people learned like, how did they actually sit down and decide what strategy to use and how did they actually win? Like, how do you actually design a campaign, get people in the same room and make a movement that actually wins something, the nuts and bolts of it, trying to put people in that moment? Again, I think that’d be really powerful. 

We’re kind of getting a little bit of this in my current campaign about decarbonizing school systems because, and this is early phases, but the hope will be that students will be a part of this and they’ll learn things like this is how we think about who’s in charge of the school building. You know, here are the people in power, here is how we can influence them. These are the sort of variety of escalatory tactics that we can take to push them to give us what we want, give us this, this target and then also holding together this coalition of a variety of groups with a variety of things they want and a variety of perspectives that they don’t agree on everything but they agree on this. I think that would be really cool, because then the students could go out and make trouble extremely effectively. Whether that’s what the school system is designed to do, that’s another question, but I think that would be a really cool, cool thing to add.

Marie Fadeyeva  38:03

Maybe one brief question is if you have any advice for us, we’re at different points in our lives right now. If you have any questions like depending if someone is a student like in high school about to graduate or someone who’s a college student and someone’s about to enter the professional world.

Drew Pendergrass  38:19

Oh, man, that’s, that’s tough. 

I’d say if you’re going into college, a good thing to keep in mind is, you want an open mind. So try different things, if you know your major now. Be open to being interested in different things. Think a lot about what you want out of your education. You know, what you want to learn and use that to pick your classes. 

And don’t be afraid to take time off, if you need it, to think about how to do that well, but don’t have too open a mind. I would also say think about thinking about what you want and then and then stick with it a little bit, have some inertia. And, follow that through, so having this middle road I think is really valuable because it’s pretty easy to follow people into a place where you don’t necessarily want to be or maybe you’d be better off somewhere else. That might be a little bit vague, and I think that goes all the way through college.

And then I think leaving college it’s amazing how unstructured the real world is, like how much you can do whatever you want. And it’s an adaptation I think when you first leave to not be on a campus or in a school setting if you’ve gone right from high school through college. So you know, taking the time to adapt to the new environment is really valuable and, and I think being willing to take risks is is important. So, if you don’t like a job, it’s your life. You know, you could stay at that job for as long as you want. So there’s never really a great time to leave. So if you don’t like it, I think you should leave and try something else. 

Time passes a lot faster, I think, once you’re out. 

Maybe I can end with this thought, which is that I think people change their minds not because they’ve necessarily heard an argument and have decided that that argument is right, and therefore I’m going with that. I think people change their minds because they’re socialized into an opinion. It’s not that I hear an argument and therefore I’m convinced, it’s more like I’m around people I respect or that I see every day or otherwise, you know, take seriously and then if they express something to me and you know, I start associating with them, I learned about it from them. My skeptical questions are answered by them. Maybe eventually I changed my mind. 

And so in other words, I think education happens in places and, especially for older people, I think in movements and then environments like that. School is sort of an unusual educational environment. Whereas, you know, I think there’s a lot of examples of people joining movements, because they kind of want friends and then and then they’re convinced about the movement later on. And this happens with things like labor unions, right, like, labor unions are an excellent place where people are educated, because you join the union. And then as time goes on, you might learn about things like health and safety, etc, and are convinced that it matters because you’re in this environment that teaches you about it. This is something that people talk about with ecological issues as well, that those environments are really powerful places where people learn values, and so I would say that there’s something about an environment that can convince people that climate change is really, really powerful and important thing to focus your life on. If you’re around people like that. So your idea of a cascading effect, I think, is right. And I think this idea of building movements and convincing people, they’re the same problem, right? Building the movement and convincing people to put climate change first. Those projects are, they go hand in hand. So, I guess the question is, how do you get the ball rolling, but I think I think any of those directions can help it and it’s just a matter of building these cascading movements and ideas and movements and ideas. And that’s a way to build that coalition. 

Eli Gitter-Dentz  42:59

Thanks so much for joining us today.

Drew Pendergrass 

Thanks for having me. This was fun.

Eli Gitter-Dentz 

Thank you for listening to Bridging the Carbon Gap.

Footnotes and related reading:

1 – Hopson, C. (n.d.). The draw of consulting and finance | Harvard Political Review. https://web.archive.org/web/20190202040746/https://harvardpolitics.com/harvard/the-draw-of-consulting-and-finance/

2 – Among the scientists participating in civil disobedience with the group Scientist Rebellion are Peter Kalmus (Harvard BA 1997, Columbia Ph.D. 2008, Physics) and Gianluca Grimalda. James Hansen, NASA’s chief climate scientist at the time, was arrested protesting mountaintop removal coal mining in June, 2009. Neuroscientist Adam Aron returned a $350,000 grant to NIH to focus on research and action on climate change, as described in Nature, March 2024: I returned my neuroscience grant in order to devote my career to the climate crisis.

Sources on the proportions of emissions and the relationship to income:

Emissions Gap Report 2020. (n.d.). UNEP – UN Environment Programme. https://www.unep.org/emissions-gap-report-2020

Staff, C. B. (2022, October 31). UNEP: Meeting global climate goals now requires ‘rapid transformation of societies.’ Carbon Brief. https://www.carbonbrief.org/unep-meeting-global-climate-goals-now-requires-rapid-transformation-of-societies/

Starr, J., Nicolson, C., Ash, M., Markowitz, E. M., & Moran, D. (2023). Income-based U.S. household carbon footprints (1990–2019) offer new insights on emissions inequality and climate finance. PLOS Climate, 2(8), e0000190. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pclm.0000190

Can people, even well-educated people, autonomously change their behavior?


Harder, A. (2023, January 25). Why we can’t sacrifice our way out of climate change – Cipher News. https://ciphernews.com/articles/why-we-cant-sacrifice-our-way-out-of-climate-change/


Why is behaviour change a better bet than techno-optimism? (n.d.). Scientists for Global Responsibility. https://www.sgr.org.uk/resources/why-behaviour-change-better-bet-techno-optimism

Here’s how:

Hauser, O., Rand, D. G., Peysakhovich, A., & Nowak, M. A. (2014). Cooperating with the future. Nature, 511(7508), 220–223. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13530

Also available at: https://www.oliverhauser.org/publications

Short explainer video: Handing on a sustainable future (3:55)

Here’s why:

The solution space discussed at COP26 is unrealisable: comparing supply and demand for the three zero-emissions resources – UK FIRES. (n.d.). https://ukfires.org/blog-cop26/

Making our collective response to climate change more equitable – C40 Cities. (2021, October 15). C40 Cities. https://www.c40.org/news/making-our-collective-response-to-climate-change-more-equitable/

The future of urban consumption in a 1.5°C world. (n.d.). https://www.c40knowledgehub.org/s/article/The-future-of-urban-consumption-in-a-1-5-C-world?language=en_US

New resource: Real Climate Solutions. (2022, December 14). Cambridge University Department of Engineering. http://www.eng.cam.ac.uk/news/new-resource-tick-zero-s-real-climate-solutions

Allwood, J., Azevedo, J., Clare, A., Cleaver, C., Cullen, J., Dunant, C., Fellin, T., Hawkins, W., Horrocks, I., Horton, P., Ibell, T., Lin, J., Low, H., Lupton, R., Murray, J., Salamanti, M., Serrenho, A. C., Ward, M., & Zhou, W. (2019, November 29). Absolute zero. Absolute Zero. https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/items/33aaf353-b7de-45b0-9c40-5f62975b2127

Video: Absolute Zero by Professor Julian Allwood (25:00)