How We Talk When We Talk About Adaptation
Interview with Doug Parsons
Director, America Adapts Media
What originally piqued your interest in climate change and adaptation, and how you decide to transition from working in the field to starting a podcast?
My first professional job was with a conservation group in Georgia, and I remember after climate change came up, I created a folder that I wrote “climate change” where I kept some notes. This was nearly 20 years ago, so people were certainly working on climate change, but not on adaptation. I moved to Australia where I worked for an environmental natural resource group, and climate change really started coming up in Australia quite a bit. I got caught up in it, and that's where I really started in the field of adaptation, working with the agricultural sector and understanding what it means to adapt to climate change. About four years ago, as I was transitioning out of a previous position, I was thinking about doing a podcast. It's a low cost way to communicate, and it's such a democratic thing that you can put out that anyone in the world can find if they have the technology. I'm always trying to find ways to communicate the issue of adaptation better, and I started using podcasting as a particular tool to do it. After doing policy and implementation on the ground, I decided that communication is probably where my energy and my excitement is now, and I think there just needs to be a lot of more of that in the coming years.
You’ve worked in Australia and in the United States, and you've spoken to people from all over the world about adaptation. How do you see climate adaptation strategies vary from place to place?
The US does adaptation quite differently, and we're still not uniform in it. I now have a new position working with Cimpatico Studios, where I do live-streamed interviews with people. I've interviewed many international adaptation folks, and it's been a learning experience for me. There's more integration with international adaptation, meaning the national government gets involved, especially if it's a developing country. Other countries tend to tap into the United Nations’ international aid groups, whereas the US has more of a go it alone, state-by-state approach. Some states don't do anything and are still in denial about climate change, whereas others are quite aggressive. So much is still happening at the local and city levels in the United States, and there's still way too much planning going on, and not enough implementation. People are still trying to figure it out what adaptation means, and I think that's probably a common thread between other countries and the United States. There's so much planning going on, and actually doing on the ground adaptation is piecemeal.
Have you found that there are groups that frequently get left out of conversations surrounding adaptation?
The public, definitely. How many people really know what urban planners are up to in a given city? For the public, even the concept of adapting to climate change is so new. They're still getting their heads around that climate change is happening, what might that mean. Now we're going to have to assertively adapt to those impacts – with that, we've barely scratched the surface. In regards to sectors that adaptation is impacting, I'm encouraged that we’re hearing a lot more environmental justice and climate justice conversations happening. People of various backgrounds and economically disadvantaged people – there's a lot of intellectual energy trying to help these groups. There are organizations that represent these groups who are being aggressive in trying to factor in these groups, so I'm encouraged by that.
I've read through the Green New Deal, which has gotten a lot of attention. It's become a political hot potato for some, but it's quite modest in some ways. Everyone's trying to make it into this Boogeyman since it touches upon climate justice issues. It's actually a really useful document to be multisector what climate change is going to mean and how do we build resilience. It's a great communication piece, and it has a great vision for what direction the country should go in, how to fund it. Those are all policy battles that need to happen, but I think all the controversy around it is just artificial. At the end of the day, I think it's a modest proposal, compared to about what we should be doing.
How do you think the new administration will affect climate adaptation efforts around the US?
It's so important to have a friendly administration. There's so much work that gets done in the bowels of the bureaucracy, and it helps to have political appointees who are experts in and are friendly to climate policies. On the flip sides, a lot of bad things didn't happen during the Trump Administration, because even political appointees had a hard time steering the ship in a new direction. The bureaucracy works a certain way – there's a certain momentum to maintain the status quo, and so political appointees are going to have to deal with that. But, having heads of every agency that will go full steam ahead is very exciting, and they're going to have important conversations with the states and cities. A lot of states and cities are run by people who don't necessarily think climate change is an important issue or a serious issue, and they're not going to engage as much. This separation between those camps is only going to enlarge, and though the federal government can’t enforce most of it, they're going to be there with resources and encouraging these dialogues.
What do you think the role of international agreements like the Paris Agreement is in climate adaptation, and do you think that they can be effective in encouraging people to take action?
Other countries take those agreements a lot more seriously than the US does. Of course the Paris Agreement was a voluntary document, but the US was committed to doing it. Even through the Trump years, our trajectory was lowering carbon to certain extent, and I think so much is happening, at least in business, in trying to shift away from fossil fuels. You really do need the individual governments setting mandates and really directing these policies. It's just a framework—something that guides us. We can point to the Paris Climate Agreement as a North Star, which is very useful even though it’s not creating mandates. There are nodes of interaction between every country, and trade is probably one of the most serious ones. Tariffs can make it hurt economically for different countries, and if other countries felt like we were ignoring our commitments to the Paris Agreement, they could tax us. International agreements don’t have a regulatory component, but because we rely a lot on international trade, if tariffs were embedded into those kinds of international structures, then everyone would be more serious about it.
Besides podcasting, what other communication tools have the potential to be effective in getting people to care about climate change?
Right now, it's more about influencing the influencers. I mentioned Cimpatico Studios where we've just created a Climate Adaptation channel that you can stream. We're trying to engage with climate professionals, and we’re really creating a platform to empower professionals to do more in their field. I like this kind of platform because I don't consider myself a professional climate activist. We need activists and the people who are out there marching and being vocal, but platforms for activists, I think are broader, like Twitter. Social media platforms are much more effective for climate activists than targeted professional, so you have to know what medium to use based on your audience. The bully pulpit of the presidency is going to be great. Biden said all the right things about climate change, but he’ll need to give the speech on climate change as a national emergency. And then weekly, there should be some mention of it so that it's constantly in our face and make it harder to be in denial about climate change being a part of our lives. Leaders should be using their platforms to talk about those issues, and environmental groups should do more to target these leaders. There’s a lot of value in spokespeople, because a lot of the work people are doing on the ground goes unnoticed. If you can get the message out to the public and get the public to support and spend money on it, you can have a chain reaction of positivity, if you do that right.
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