Kim Nicholas

Sonoma, California (Photo: Mark Vogler)

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KIM NICHOLAS, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE, LUND UNIVERSITY:

We could say wine was the canary in the coal mine for climate change. I don’t think we need canaries anymore. We are seeing signs of it, anywhere you live on Earth in your daily life. But, you know, coming up on 20 years ago now, it was less clear, so wine was an important starting point. So that was why I picked it, it was something that I had a strong personal attachment to and that I think was a way to help make some of these connections. Here’s climate change that you can taste, here’s something that’s familiar and beloved, that is threatened and is being now changed by climate change.

GABRIEL GITTER-DENTZ:

My name is Gabriel Gitter-Dentz, and I’m a senior at Hunter College High School from Manhattan.

ADAM RUDT:

My name is Adam Rudt. I’m also a senior at Hunter College High School and I’m also from Manhattan. 

KEVIN ZHOU:

My name is Kevin Zhou, and I’m a senior at Hunter College High School, but I’m from Queens.

ADAM RUDT:

So welcome back to another episode of our podcast. High school students may talk about the climate briefly and their science classes, but many go their whole high school careers without significantly thinking about or discussing, one of the most pressing issues of today, that is climate change. Our aim in producing this podcast is to promote conversation about climate change among family and friends, specifically between young people who are the future of climate action.

KEVIN ZHOU:

Today on this episode we welcome Professor Kim Nicholas. Can you introduce yourself?

KIM NICHOLAS:

Hi everybody I’m Kim Nicholas. I’m an associate professor of sustainability science at Lund University in Sweden.

ADAM RUDT:

So, yeah we’re really excited to have you. So can you tell us a little about what you’re working on  in the past couple of months?

KIM NICHOLAS:

Sure, my big project in 2020 has been writing a book, which I have here in a binder format and it’s on its way to be printed and will actually be ready for people to read in March, so it’s coming out soon. It’s been a long road. I started in 2017 with the writing and the last year of working on it pretty much full time.

GABRIEL GITTER-DENTZ:

So are you working with editors right now?

KIM NICHOLAS:

Kind of against their will. My editors have said, you should be done with this by now. No, I have to see it one more time and make sure all the changes are right and everything. But we’ve gone back and forth many times, and the focus is on harnessing facts, feelings, and action for climate stabilization.

ADAM RUDT:

What’s your writing process like?

KIM NICHOLAS:

Let’s see. I started in 2017 with inspiration to start working on a book and at that point, it was very loose and unstructured, I didn’t start with an outline which I think was quite apparent later. But I had a lot of stories to tell and had a lot of experiences that I thought were valuable and that could maybe be helpful for people who are concerned or even alarmed about the climate crisis, which is actually the majority of Americans. So most people know that climate is warming, it’s because of us. Scientists are sure. We know that it’s bad and then people can get stuck on how bad and how overwhelming the problem is, and it’s really important to get to this fifth point of we can fix it because there’s so much we can do. We have the solutions we need, we know what needs to be done, and there’s such a huge need for everybody to pitch in and contribute their skills and talents to help make this heroic change happen in time.

GABRIEL GITTER-DENTZ:

Your book seems to have a large focus on the cultural and societal shifts that need to take place in terms of climate change, and the description says that saving ourselves from the climate apocalypse will require radical shifts within each of us to affect real change in our society and culture. Could you elaborate on the types of change we’re talking about here specifically, whether they are changes in the actions people take or the mindsets people have towards climate change?

KIM NICHOLAS:

Sure. So my diagnosis is that one of the fundamental problems we have today is this mindset of exploitation, and that plays itself out in some people thinking that they are more worthy than other people, and people in general thinking that they have the right to dominate nature. And I think those two principles are behind many of the crises that we have today, the climate crisis, among others. So, what I’m proposing is taking a step back and focusing on three principles that get us away from this exploitation mindset and towards the mindset of regeneration. So that means centering people in nature, making that the focus of everything that we do, recognizing both are critical and need to thrive to support each other and have a good life for everyone on Earth within the physical and biological, chemical limits of the planet that we share. Second is reducing harm and recognizing the source of harm and getting to the root cause of problems and not just trying to clean things up after the fact. And third is increasing resilience, so strengthening our ability to cope with changes and to support each other and communities and work towards those goals.

ADAM RUDT:

So that’s sort of trying to, I guess I’d call it changing people’s minds. Seems like the meat of the problem for me is how do you tell someone that what they’re doing isn’t helpful, or is wrong, or takes a dominating mindset?

KIM NICHOLAS:

Well I guess it’s my goal. My theory of change is to reach the people who are already thinking along these lines or at least are open to some of these ideas, and I think that’s actually quite a lot of people. I’m really encouraged by research that shows that to actually have a social tipping point you only need 25% of the population. So it’s not actually an election or it’s not a consensus, that the way that social conventions work, the sort of norms that people agree upon, the expectations we have for each other and for our societies, tend to be repeatedly shown that there’s a tipping point around 25%. So that gives me a lot of hope and energy because there’s just definitely that many people out there, I think, so kind of reaching those people helping them connect the dots.

I don’t think it’s so much about, you know, huge changes in mindset necessarily but in tapping into people’s existing values, actually, that are not being realized by the system of exploitation or being actively hindered or blocked or prevented from being realized by the system of exploitation we have now and that’s kind of a starting point. That way of looking at things that I take through everything from personal lifestyle choices to global food and energy and political systems. I think those things are very deeply interconnected so we actually need to talk about both and understand how they’re connected to each other.

ADAM RUDT:

That’s something that I found so interesting about your work was that a lot of the time, climate change is presented as a problem that’s gonna have really like dire consequences, which is true, but people don’t focus on maybe the consequences that’ll affect like just our wants and our desires and our values. That was in your work about wine, a huge thing. What happens if our wine is worse? I mean we don’t know. But in general people who are over 21 would know.

KIM NICHOLAS:

Right. So I come from a town called Sonoma, which is an hour north of San Francisco, and it’s a wine growing region, it’s next door to Napa which is where I went to high school which is maybe even better known but Sonomans will probably tell you that we’re the real wine country. That’s the slogan, but anyway. Both of those are obviously wonderful places to grow and enjoy wine, and have a long history of doing that and it’s part of the landscape and culture. So for me, that’s what I did my Ph.D. on actually when I was at Stanford and doing some of the lab work at UC Davis, trying to make these connections between this system that’s important to people, both culturally, economically, it’s about half of employment, or not entirely employment, but a lot of the employment and about half the economy ultimately comes down to tourism and the production and distribution of wine and all the industry that’s there.

So it’s a really big part of life there and I mean, when I was doing my Ph.D., which I started in 2003, we could say wine was the canary in the coal mine for climate change. I don’t think we need canaries anymore because we have all kinds of birds. It’s not just canaries anymore that are feeling climate change. I mean, we are seeing signs of it anywhere you live on Earth in your daily life, you can observe signs of a changed climate, but you know, coming up on 20 years ago now, it was less clear, so wine was an important starting point, and so that was why I picked it. It was something that I had a strong personal attachment to and that I think was a way to connect with people, hopefully. Here’s climate change that you can taste, here’s something that’s familiar and beloved, that is threatened as being changed by climate change.

GABRIEL GITTER-DENTZ:

So in terms of the actual chemistry, what’s happening in wine that’s causing the changes in flavor composition?

KIM NICHOLAS:

Sure. So, wine is kind of, ripening is kind of this natural ballet and what’s happening is you get heat that is causing the process of ripening which is accumulating sugar, and that sugar, the plant is converting acids into sugar, through the process of respiration, and ultimately you want to pick grapes when they have a good balance of acid and sugar. That sugar is then fermented to alcohol. And so you want there to be a level that’s appropriate for the style of wine that you’re making.

One problem that’s happening now, with warmer and longer growing seasons and earlier ripening, is that wines or grapes are tending to accumulate more sugar and therefore tending to produce higher alcohol wines. So that can throw off the balance of wine that can, you know, interfere with the style that growers are going for and overpower if you have too much alcohol. Maybe you don’t get as much appreciation for the aromas and flavor compounds and the texture from the tannins and all the other things that people really appreciate about wine. I think most people who love wine are not just drinking a red fluid that’s you know 13.5% alcohol. Like there’s much more to it that people enjoy.

So, the other big issue is aroma and flavor compounds. There’s over 1000 of them at least, and there’s more still being discovered, but we do know that they tend to accumulate in the last month of ripening so that’s a really critical period for getting the balance, and the grapes that can have the potential to be made into great wine, and we know that the potential to develop those compounds is actually lower in climates that are too hot, and the pace of ripening that can be too fast also is detrimental.

So, when I was doing my Ph.D. I interviewed a lot of growers in Napa and Sonoma and consistently the best winemakers in the world told me, great wine is grown and not made, my job is basically not to screw it up, you know I have this privilege to work at this wonderful estate and get these beautiful grapes, which are carefully taken care of in the vineyard in collaboration with my colleagues who are out there doing the farming, but you know, really, of course, there’s a lot of skill in being a winemaker but even the most skilled winemaker in the world can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear if they have grapes that are from a region that just doesn’t support the kind of characteristics that people love and value in wine, then there’s no way to artificially overcome that or create that.

ADAM RUDT:

So are you yourself a big wine savant?

KIM NICHOLAS:

I do love wine, I think, living in Sweden has been not good for my wine consumption although maybe there’s health benefits to that. But it’s certainly less prevalent and common here I mean, as opposed to being in California, where I was living before I got this job and moved here and you know having a bunch of friends who made wine, much more part of the culture. Yeah, much more sort of direct access to locally grown wine and so on. I mean there is actually a growing wine culture in Sweden which I am appreciating and enjoying there’s a grape called Solaris which is grown here and does really well here and has a really nice flavor profile it’s a little bit like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but I have found that Sweden has a state run alcohol monopoly, that’s the only place to buy, to drink at home, and their purpose is to limit the harmful effects of alcohol, which is an important purpose that I recognize but you know they’re like trying not to sell alcohol. It’s kind of like getting your wine from a government bureaucracy, you know, they’re like efficient and effective but not inspiring, so long story short, I have actually, funnily enough during the pandemic one adaptation I’ve made or, one thing I’ve discovered is some great small wine shops in Denmark and I have been ordering some more interesting and smaller sourced wines.

ADAM RUDT:

Now I think we can transition a little bit into some work about air travel.

KEVIN ZHOU:

Yeah. So basically, can you just like give an overview of how you’ve done related to flying and climate change?

KIM NICHOLAS:

Sure. So if I go chronologically it actually starts with a personal story, so in 2012, I had a beer with my friend Charlie, back to alcohol. So, good thing I’m keeping in mind this is a podcast for high school students.

Yes, all these important life decisions. I had an important conversation with my friend Charlie. Let’s focus on that. At a conference in Vienna, and I had flown to this conference from Sweden and he had taken the train from the UK, and it was just a real wake-up moment for me because this was basically every conference I go to, that’s about climate change is about how devastating and terrible it is and how serious the impacts are, but I was really aware that I was in this big fancy conference center with hundreds of people, most of whom, like me, had flown there and all of us experts should be the first to know that this is the most damaging thing you can do for the climate, hour for hour flying is the worst thing for the climate.

So, I just felt like I was, you know, at a doctor, a convention. I felt like I was at a convention of doctors who were talking about how important it is to quit smoking and we’re all puffing on cigarettes, and this kind of cognitive dissonance was getting really stressful and like hard for me to reconcile. So this conversation with Charlie was actually really helpful and important in helping me see a way to try and start facing that and sort of acknowledging the uncomfortable feelings I felt in knowing that my behavior wasn’t in line with both what the science said and with my own values and finding a path that would work for me because, you know, I took this job in 2010. I interviewed for 66 professor jobs all around the world. I got this one, and I’ve been here now for a decade. I’m a Swedish citizen, I have my life here, and I’m very happy here, but my family is still in California and that’s quite far away so I couldn’t imagine at that time giving up flying because I was imagining that would mean giving up seeing my family and I didn’t want to do that. So, this conversation with Charlie was really helpful. What he did and when I have since done as well is stop flying within Europe. So having this kind of clear and self-selected boundary or limit was actually really helpful and saying, okay, I can do that I can make that work. And that means I have to reconsider my time. You know if I’m invited to give a talk for an hour in Spain, and they would offer to fly me there and back in a day or something. I’m not going to do that so can I really justify that trip. Can I make it worth my time if I’m going to take, you know, a day and a half on the train to get there and back and what can I do along the way to see friends, stop and see collaborators, collect data for projects, make this trip, and the journey really part of the whole experience and also really worth the time and the carbon that it still takes to travel by train, even though that’s much less than flying so that was my choice and since then I’ve been decreasing my flying, more and more, down to 90 plus percent from when I was a frequent flyer back in 2010. I actually took 15 round trip flights, which is very unusual globally that was definitely part of this.

A new study from Stefan Gossling just showed it’s only 1% of the global population who causes about half of the pollution from flying. So I was definitely in that group back then, but in my circle, this felt normal this felt like something a lot of people were doing it was quite common to fly a lot to travel to conferences and it was kind of seen as part of the scientific culture, and I mean I, at that time not thinking about the climate impact I also saw that, I thought that could be appealing and oh you get to go to these interesting places and meet interesting people, and that’s, you know, now I have realized that I can still do good work, be a successful scientist, have interesting collaborations, and meet people, and have adventures in terms of personal travel without flying so that’s actually been a big revelation, but then to come to the research part of it so in 2017, Seth Wynes and I published a study looking at the personal choices that individuals can make actually make the biggest difference, that are the most effective for reducing our personal carbon footprints in high emitting countries, and that study actually was inspired by high school students.

Seth used to be a high school teacher, he was a science teacher in Canada, and his students there would ask him what they could do basically, what are the most effective things to do, and he wanted a really solid science based answer for them and had trouble finding a source that had really done the math and put everything together. So part of his master’s thesis what he really wanted to look at was actually education which you started out talking about how, how is climate taught in high schools, and is that in line with the science. So in order to do that, he went through the work of saying okay what does the science really say. So, what we came to after crunching all the numbers from these 39 different sources, was there are three things that work to really quickly and effectively reduce today’s climate pollution and that’s what we have to focus on to get where we need to be by 2030, basically to be able to meet the Paris agreements in line with what science tells us is necessary cutting emissions — about in half by 2030. So, cutting flying for people who fly, reducing or eliminating flying is probably the most high-impact climate action because flying is so disproportionately climate polluting for the average person. I mean, more than half of Americans didn’t fly, even in 2018 so not talking about the pandemic but before air travel was affected by that.

So, on average, most people don’t fly even in the US and certainly, globally most people have never been on a plane, but for those people who do fly they cause a lot of climate pollution, so that’s been part of our work and I think another part of that has been, I now lead a project called the takeoff of staying on the ground and that’s studying the social movement and discussions in media and some of them are cultural aspects of how these changes actually happened where, as of a few several years ago now actually, there’s this growing social movement in Sweden to stay on the ground and avoid flying for the climate and there have been celebrities and journalists who’ve made declarations that they won’t fly again there’s a woman named Maja Rosen who runs a campaign called Flight Free every year and gets people to sign on and that’s been really effective, and really influential I think an influencing policy in the media debate and so that’s something that we’re studying here.

GABRIEL GITTER-DENTZ:

So how would you say this no-flying movement in Sweden compares to what you’ve seen in the US with similar movements?

KIM NICHOLAS:

Sure. I think there is also a movement in the US both, a lot of academics are really leading the charge and trying to push on, for example, scientific societies to hold conferences that are more accessible virtually that don’t require physical travel to participate and pledging themselves not to fly getting institutions like universities and businesses to reevaluate their travel policies and make sure that they’re not incentivizing, the most climate destruction when they’re writing the rules for how people are allowed to travel are expected to travel for work, for example, and so there are a lot of folks who are doing a lot of work in the US, and the whole FlyingLess group that Parke Wilde runs is one that comes to mind, but I think what I see as the biggest difference, it certainly seems, I think Sweden is further along on the path which I hope that the US is actually going to be on as well, where it’s a bigger and more mainstream part of culture here it’s just gone a bit further. So there’s a larger proportion of the population here who’s taken this on and who’s chosen not to fly or to reduce their flying because of climate. There have been a number of studies now looking at that as an early case in Sweden and drawing lessons which I think is really important because it’s a case where behavior has actually changed. So that is really valuable to see okay well what actually works in practice. So Seth Wynes actually led another study that I was a part of in 2018, where we looked at, okay, we know that you know flight, car, and meat free these are the biggest personal actions and home energy use, we also included there. What previous studies if we know people need to who are over-consuming our share of the carbon budget and we need to reduce our energy use some carbon footprint. Those of us who emit too much. That’s the most effective way to cut down. And, how has that worked in the past what have people done to actually successfully catalyze those behaviors and actually from that study where we looked at 1000s of previous studies to see what had been done, we didn’t find a single one that had tried to reduce flying. So for a long time. I mean, that was 2016 to 2017 that we were collecting the data and we publish it the next year so at that point. No one had even tried to reduce flying, whereas there were lots of studies about reducing energy use, but the thing is it’s much more effective per person to reduce flying them to reduce home energy use, actually. So, now I think that is changing and we are seeing these campaigns that are working and people have changed their behavior so I think, to me, that’s the big difference that there’s this backlash in the US, that I don’t see here in Sweden where, if people talk about reducing flying, as a high-impact climate action. The people in Sweden who say no, that’s not a good idea, are kind of dismissing the problem of climate change, in general or saying, oh, technical solutions are the only answer and we don’t really need to change anything else and everything will happen on its own. Whereas in the US, unfortunately, there’s a group of people who are experts or work in the climate field and certainly are well aware of the severity and urgency of the climate crisis but still are giving a message that reducing flying is not important for frequent fliers and I think that’s unfortunate and unhelpful.

GABRIEL GITTER-DENTZ:

Thank you for listening to the first part of our talk with Kim Nicholas. The second part of our talk we will be releasing in the future. We discussed carbon capture, how a climate change aware high school education curriculum could be built, and much more. Thank you for listening to Bridging the Carbon Gap.