The Sustainable Futures Report aims to bring you news and insights into the ongoing climate crisis, but other such podcasts are available. On this occasion I bring you an interview with the founder and presenter of the Sweaty Penguin, Ethan Brown.
Right. Well, I wanted to talk to you because I think we're in the same business. Although we've got some pretty different approaches. Because look, I do a podcast called The Sustainable Futures Report. You do a podcast called The Sweaty Penguin. Now Sweaty Penguin, what's all that about?
We're imagining what might happen during climate change in our imaginary world there. The idea to try to come up with a name that captured what we're doing, which is talking about climate change, but also trying to be a little funny.
Yeah. You say sometimes climate change is a laughing matter. Yes. Most of the time it's not, but I can hear where you're coming from it. If you make people laugh, they'll remember it. I mean, is that your philosophy?
Yeah, I think our goal has been to try to make climate change less overwhelming, less politicised, and more fun and more digestible. And so humour was one tool in our toolbox. You can use humour to address some serious issues like we would do on campus sometimes. And when I combine that with my environmental experience, it seems like a more surprisingly natural fit than I think a lot of people would expect. It's not that climate change itself is funny. But by incorporating some humour, I think you pull in an audience that might otherwise just not be interested and ultimately that can help people engage. And that's ultimately the goal.
Okay. Tell us a bit more about your environmental background.
I started taking some college classes on environmental topics and finally through that, I started to find things I found interesting. I started to really enjoy learning how nuanced these issues are, how much critical thinking goes into them. Which I hadn't realized before when it's just like super simple headlines about how doomed we are or whatever.
So that kind of intrigued me and that ultimately led to my communication style, which was, I think very different from the norm. So I ended up doing a dual degree with environmental analysis and policy, and film and television. And very much combining my communication and my environmental when I created this podcast. Now we have a second weekly episode that covers whatever the big environmental news headline is. I'll give some context on that and then answer an audience question. And we've done some bonus episodes along the way as well.
Now in one of your episodes, you reported that environmentalism, the number of people in the United States who thought they were environmentalists has dropped from around 70% down into the forties. Now, what do you think's behind that? And what can we do about it?
I think there's a number of factors. In the episode specifically, we talked about how first off there's this idea that the environment is this out there thing that we have to protect. When in reality, the environment is a part of our lives. It's our food. It's our water. It's the resources that fuel our economy. It's the air we breathe. It's inherently part of us. And so in that sense to not care about the environment doesn't make a lot of sense. But you can see why when the environment is not that, but rather on a list of other issues like the economy and healthcare and justice, and compared against them, then people might not see it as a priority. Whereas to me, they're just fundamentally intertwined with every single issue.
Another thing we found is there are ways where environmentalism focuses very heavily on individual actions. We talked a little bit about littering campaigns and how some of those have actually come from the beverage industry. And so they're able to say our waste is on you, not on us. So there's things like that where we, even if it's not the whole environmental movement saying a certain thing, something gets out well enough that it's in the public perception. And then that might turn off a certain segment of people. I think it goes beyond even some of the things we talked about in the episode, which I mentioned. We've done another episode on NGOs in the past, which talked about how some of the ways they may be able to increase their impact. Obviously all the time we're talking about policy. And we always approach it with, there's multiple solutions to every issue, all the solutions have pros and cons. But I think some people, if they don't realize that, they may think climate just a political thing and get turned off to it. So a lot of different reasons, I think.
Are you finding much greenwash these days?
Yeah, I think we talked about that a bit too. And we talked about what it means to have baby steps. Because the example we used in the episode was Shell had put out this commercial with some very inspirational background music and a very well done voiceover about all the things they were doing for climate change. But the things they were bragging about, the one I kind of zeroed in on was that they had built a renewable energy powered gas stations and a natural gas installation. And I mean, there's just a fundamental irony there. And what I was kind of saying is I may be way more optimistic than anyone else, but I felt like the issue wasn't as much that they did that. Because I mean, it is a transition to renewable energy if that's one step along the way. Sure. I think the issue was that that was what they felt so comfortable bragging about in their commercial.
I mean, I was saying if you had the CEO on the screen saying like, "Look, we know this is kind of stupid, but this is just one step along the way. We've also got a much better plan moving forward. And here's what it is." Then it would've come off way differently. But when that's what you're so excited about and acting like this is making the biggest change in the world. That's where I think we start to get into greenwashing a little more. So I think it's always an interesting conversation. And I get why someone would be way more cynical about that than I was. And I'm certainly not meaning to say that any company has their act fully together, but certainly the way you communicate something like that can very much turn an okay baby step into greenwashing.
Yeah. Yeah. There are a lot of ironies. I think there's a major port in Australia, which is going to run completely on renewable energy and the port has been built for the export of coal.
Do you think people are moving fast enough? I mean, we are now on COP number 26. We just had that. It's COP 27 this year. But do you think we're moving fast enough as a global community?
Well, I want to emphasise that's the correct question to ask, are we moving fast enough? Because no, that's a fact. That's not something I can opine on, but that said, we are moving. We're not standing at the start line, which is what I think a lot of people feel like. And why I think there's sometimes more doom and gloom than there necessarily needs to be. From when the Paris Agreement was signed back in 2015, the projection was that the earth would warm by four degrees Celsius at our current action, our current rate. Now that's down to three based on how renewable energy has improved and that sort of thing. So is that 1.5? No. 1.5 is where international leaders have agreed we need to get it down to by the end of the century. But that's still progress. So no, we're not moving fast enough.
What the latest IPCC report found is we want globally emissions to peak by 2025, cut by 43% by the early 2030s, and then get down to carbon neutral by the early 2050s. And I like those benchmarks. I think that kind of helps us to say, all right, making policy for 30 years from now is tricky. Making policy for three years from now is, I mean, it's tricky, but it's something you can wrap your head. And we're actually not that far off from peaking. If you just kind of look at our rate of growth and how that's declined. We're still growing, but we're growing by a lot less than we used to be. So there's ways you can look and see that we're making a bit of progress. But no, it's not fast enough.
Yeah. Okay. But we had a major energy report. Well, it was billed as a major energy report in the United Kingdom this week. It actually ran to 15 pages. So it wasn't enormous. But one of the things in there that the government said they would do for energy security is dig for more oil and gas. And this, just a week after the IPCC report. They just don't seem to have got it joined up. And I know that there's a big, big coal lobby in the United States. Of course, yes. It provides jobs in the short term. But this is the thing, surely we've got to be looking at the longer term, and not prejudice it by what we're doing in the short term.
Yeah. It's tricky. And with, I mean, the latest wisdom out of a lot of the International Renewable Energy Agency, even the IPCC reported it. Solar and wind are currently cheaper than a lot of fossil fuel alternatives. In fact, building new solar and wind infrastructure is cheaper than operating existing coal plants a lot of the time. So in the US, actually coal has declined 58% since it's peak in 2007. It's one of those things that even if policy makers try to prop it up, it just can't compete in a free market anymore here. So it's declining on its own.
But I would argue that a cheaper and better technology, like solar or wind, has a lot more potential to create jobs than an outdated one like coal. Not to mention, think about those workers' health and safety. Going into coal mines has led to a lot of deaths and injuries and health issues as opposed to solar and wind, which have a much better track record in that sense. Very often it does get framed as this environment versus economy thing. But given that clean energy sources have trended so much cheaper over the last decade and obviously have a better safety record, health record, et cetera. I think that the environment and economy are very aligned on this issue. And I hope that any policy makers that haven't seen that at this point, will in the very, very near future.
Okay. Where do you stand on nuclear power?
We did an episode on nuclear power, back last fall. And I really just wanted to go in with an open mind. I didn't have a particular stance on it per se. I had heard very strong opinions either way. And I think there are pros and cons, of course. And there are pros and cons with every energy source. But what I think some of the most common cons were, were less so than I was expecting.
So for example, I think the one everyone thinks of is the risk of a nuclear meltdown. We know about Chernobyl, Fukushima. Three Mile Island was a well known one in the United States.
That said Three Mile Island caused zero deaths or injuries from what we found. Chernobyl was the only one where deaths were kind of officially reported. And that was just around a hundred. So it was really not as big an issue, in that sense, as we expected.
Compare the Risks
And in fact, they've done studies to compare the deaths due to each energy source, coal, gas, nuclear, renewables. And nuclear was right in there with solar and wind as just as safe, even in including deaths from the uranium mines, which is actually a much larger source than from nuclear meltdowns. So certainly nuclear safety is important. But our expert was kind of saying like, look, would you trust cars today based on cars in the eighties. We've improved at this and that I have to trust him on. He's a nuclear engineer. But certainly that was a sigh of relief a little bit.
And then the other big one was nuclear waste. And again, I still think that's a serious issue. But I guess I was a little pleasantly surprised, in the sense that all of the nuclear waste that the United States has generated in its totality could fit on a football field about 10 to 20 feet deep. So it's a lot, but imagine for an entire country for decades only producing that. So you can think about, okay, we need to find a spot to put that, but we can put that somewhere.
No Single Solution
So there were other issues where I think, like you can't get over that nuclear uses more water than any energy source. There's things like that. But ultimately when we think about our future energy portfolio, we're not talking about, oh, solar's the answer or wind's the answer. We need a combination of a lot of things. And what nuclear can provide that those other two can't is a certain amount of consistency and reliability. Not that those two aren't reliable, but if the sun isn't out that... I mean, that's a real thing. You can store the energy or you have a backup source like nuclear. And I think I could envision nuclear playing a role like that. And I wouldn't be too concerned to see that, given some of the pros that you weigh against the cons.
The two things that I have against nuclear power, which are probably not the ones that most people have against it. One is that it takes a very long time to build a nuclear power station. And we are going to get problems a lot sooner then nuclear can be there to solve them. And the other thing is because at least in the UK, we've had our nuclear program on the hold for a generation and they just aren't the skilled people to build or even operate these things. Because they're all retired now. So in practical terms, I think nuclear's got problems. Although I agree with you that safety issues, not as apocalyptic as some people might believe. Anyway, what do you see? Just standing back for a moment, looking at the whole of the environmental situation. What do you see, today, as the key issue?
The Key Issue
Well, that's a hard question because it's a very broad, very broad topic. But I guess growing up in Connecticut, having been on the east coast of the US for most of my life, now on in California, but I certainly have seen firsthand the impacts of a lot of hurricanes. I lived through Hurricane Sandy in the US, which was a big one. Hurricane Ida, I was not there, but certainly I knew tons of people who experienced that one. And I also have good friends who live both in Jamaica and in Puerto Rico. And so they're very, very used to that type of event. My friend and I were just talking about Hurricane Maria the other day, because Puerto Rico had another power outage last week. So I don't want to say like, that's the most important issue, but certainly that's a very clear example of a devastating cost of climate change.
Hurricane Ida cost $95 billion to clean up. So when you compare that to a few billion dollars on a renewable energy investment. Even if, I mean, renewable energy's cheaper already, but I guess that's not a good example. Maybe like reforestation or some land use change or something, that will cost a little bit of money, but not nearly as much as cleaning up a hurricane. So that's a big example just in my life. But again, I think there's just so many important issues and that's why I started a podcast to try to tackle them one at a time.
And finally, are you, do you remain optimistic?
Absolutely. I think the IPCC report from last week actually made me even more optimistic despite some of the headlines. Because first off, they did lay out the goals in clear terms and found that they were very viable. But in addition to that, they looked at 43 environmental or climate solutions and compared them to the 17 sustainable development goals. So UN has these goals that they'd like to meet by 2030. They include things like no world hunger, no poverty, justice, gender equality, all different good things. Also things about economic development and innovation. And they basically made a table with the goals as the column, the climate solutions as the rows. And for each combination, they gave a plus if there were synergies between the solution and the goal, a minus if there were tradeoffs and a dot, if there were or synergies and trade offs.
IPCC and the SDGs
So they did 396 of these combinations. I went and counted myself the other day. And there were close, close to 300 pluses and 12 minuses out of 396. So anytime I hear, we need to balance the environment versus economy, or we need to balance the environment versus this other issue. No, we really don't. And that was just so exciting to me. That all these solutions that they've found, which by the way, they also lay out, these are really categories of solutions. And then they lay out, oh, here's a whole bunch of different things you could do within this category. Here are the many different ways you could approach it politically. So there's so many different options in this report, but the fact that these solutions line up so well with basically every other goal that we have as a globe, kind of makes me excited. I hope that people will see that aspect of the report and get more excited about these solutions because then we'll actually do them. And then we'll start to make progress.
Right. Well, I hope people will share your enthusiasm. I hope we will move towards making greater progress. Ethan, thanks very much for sharing your ideas and explaining your philosophy towards this climate crisis. Thank you very much.
Oh, thanks for having me, Anthony. And if any of you want to check out The Sweaty Penguin, we're on Apple, Spotify, wherever you get your podcast. We're also at thesweatypenguin.com. And if you want to support our show even further, you can go to patreon.com/thesweatypenguin where we've got merch bonus content and a lot of other cool stuff.
Ethan Brown of the Sweaty Penguin podcast. As he says, you can find the Sweaty Penguin on all major podcast platforms and also on Patreon. You can find the Sustainable Futures Report on all major platforms as well, and on Patreon where loyal patrons continue to support my work.
Back to Normal
I hope you had a good break over Easter. I’m getting back to normal and there will be a major interview on Deep Adaptation next Wednesday, 27th April. I intend to get back to the normal two episodes per week from 2nd May. I have a number of heavyweight interviewees lined up for the coming weeks.
For the moment, though, that’s it.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
I’m Anthony Day.
Until next time.
Find the Sweaty Penguin at thesweatypenguin.com