Q&A w/ Renowned Climate Scientist Prof. Mark Maslin On How To Save The Planet: ‘I’m Incredibly Optimistic’
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Mark Maslin, a Professor of Earth System Science at University College London, has made it his career to study climate change and has authored hundreds of academic papers and multiple books on the topic. But now, the renowned climate scientist has taken a rather different approach with his new book, How To Save Our Planet, where he breaks down in the most no-nonsense way what we each ought to do – not just to protect Earth, but for a whole host of other reasons, from economic savings to our own health. We recently had the opportunity to speak to Professor Maslin about his latest work and the inspiration behind it, why he remains incredibly optimistic about the future and so much more.
GQ: You’re a leading climate scientist and a Professor of Earth System Science at UCL. Can you tell us a bit about how you entered this academic field and what your career journey has been like?
MM: I call myself a Professor of Earth System Science because I study climate change, both in the past, the present, and the future. Being an academic, I’m very lucky, where I can actually choose the different fields that I study. So I have worked on early human evolution in East Africa, I have worked on changes in atmospheric CO2 and ocean circulations in the past, but I also work on present day and future climate change, and the solutions to those. My pathway started at Bristol University, where I did my undergraduate degree in Physical Geography, which gave me a fantastic grounding into all the sciences that link together into Earth System Science. I did my PhD at Cambridge University, looking at producing detailed records of the last Ice Age, then moved on to doing a postdoc at the Marine Institute in Germany, and then ended up back home in London at UCL and I’ve never been able to leave – it’s where I’ve been for the past 20 years.
GQ: You’ve recently published a new book, How To Save Our Planet. Tell us a bit about it, why you decided to write it and your call to action that is central in this book?
MM: I wrote this book in its unique style because I was frustrated with a large number of books that were coming out on climate change that were doom and gloom, with a little bit of “perhaps we can do something about it” at the end. I have to confess that I have written at least a couple of those sorts of books myself. I wanted something that I could give to my mates that I play football with, I can actually give to the people in the park, a book that people could read and actually get something out of, so they weren’t being preached at but helped them to make a difference.
I got my inspiration when I was listening to a podcast that was discussing one of my favourite books – The Art of War by Sun Tzu, written literally over a thousand years ago. It’s a distillation of all the primary objectives of war, written in single sentences, sometimes double sentences. It has been such an important book that the U.S. Marine Corp still uses it as a core text, so does the British Army. The book says things like: Have more spies than the enemy. Simple. I thought, hang on, why don’t I write a whole book like this – just fact after fact, after fact, and then have chapters that say, this is what you can do, and another thing you can do.
I wanted something that I could give to my mates that I play football with, I can actually give to the people in the park, a book that people could read and actually get something out of, so they weren’t being preached at but helped them to make a difference.
After writing the book, I was doing the final proofs and when I was reading one of the chapters, I suddenly realised that all I’d done was write one very long Twitter thread. So it’s taken inspiration from thousands of years ago to write an incredibly modern social media orientated book, which basically was just a giant Twitter thread.
Another thing about this book is that it’s non-linear, on purpose. So you can choose any chapter and just dive in. The first three chapters are about how we got into this mess, and later on it’s all about the solutions and the actions to take.
GQ: This is only the latest book you’ve written on climate change and the environment, among them Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction, The Cradle of Humanity and The Human Planet, which you co-authored with Simon Lewis. What’s different about How To Save Our Planet? Is it the fact that it’s more action-oriented and focused on what we can each do to make a positive impact?
MM: Absolutely – it’s all the solutions. If you have one of those annoying relatives who don’t believe in climate change, you can get rid of all those silly arguments. If you happen to be an individual and you’re not quite sure what you can do because you’re so busy, I’ve presented pretty much a tick list of the few things you can do to do your part. If you happen to be working for a big company or even a CEO of a firm, then jump to the chapter where I present all the things you can do in the corporate world to make a difference. I’ve also written about what the government can do, and what the international community can do.
The thing is, all the solutions are win-win, or win-win-win. They don’t just reduce emissions, they also improve health, or actually reduce pollution or they lift peoples’ wealth. They are all solutions that we should do anyway because they’re going to improve our safety, security and well-being. I pitched it like this – that each one of these solutions should logically be something you would do anyway, and by the way, it reduces emissions too.
The thing is, all the solutions are win-win, or win-win-win.
GQ: There is a great deal of scientific evidence to back up the sustainability of a plant-based diet and you mention this in your book. Can you talk a little about this and whether you are vegan yourself?
MM: In the chapter about individual action, the first thing I say to do is talk about climate change. We simply need to talk more about the greatest threat facing humanity. Then, the second one is to go for a more vegetarian diet. The reason for that is the huge drop in carbon emissions if you remove meat from your diet. Then it’s even better if you then go towards a vegan diet. In bullet form, I tell people that they should ease themselves into this.
People should become flexitarians, and it can sometimes be hard to cut out meat completely without having the right background or cooking skills, then move to being vegetarian. I think that’s really important, I actually re-emphasise that in the corporate and government part of the book. There are calls to change to more sustainable agriculture, to encourage and regulate for a much more plant-based diet for the population, not only because of emissions but also because it’s so much more healthy for people to basically cut out red meat and meat from their diet too.
Personally, I have to say I am a flexitarian, but I am gently drifting my whole family towards vegetarianism and at some point, veganism. Therefore, I really empathise with other people who struggle, especially when you’re trying to cook for a whole family. My eldest daughter is fantastic, eating any vegetable and fruit under the sun, but my youngest daughter probably thinks that chicken is a vegetable! It’s a work in progress.
GQ: Why do you think food hasn’t been as big a part of the climate discussion when it takes up a huge portion of our global carbon budget, say compared to other things like carbon offsetting, renewable energy, ESG investing?
MM: Two reasons. One, because it represents about a fifth of global emissions, so it’s big but it’s not all of it. Second is that we’re trying to tackle agriculture – and the problems in agriculture are much more complicated than other issues that have a more direct messaging.
The really interesting thing about Covid-19 and its related lockdowns is that over 2020, we still emitted huge amounts of carbon dioxide, but it was 7% less than in 2019. We had stopped doing things like travelling, we stopped flying. What this means is that people are beginning to realise that several main things are the source of emissions – the production of food, production of energy and movement of goods. It’s become much more clear, for instance, that if we all switched to renewable energy, a huge chunk of our emissions could be taken out. That interestingly enough feeds into agriculture because agriculture and food production also uses a lot of energy – it’s a domino effect.
What we want and need everybody in this country and other countries to be able to have a very healthy plant-based diet.
Another thing that makes tackling food production difficult is the issue of food distribution. We do produce enough food to feed 10 billion people. Right now, we have 7.8 billion on our planet, but 825 million people go hungry every night, because they don’t have money to buy food. We have some real issues about food security and that’s something we have to tackle at the international level and it’s a hard one to crack.
The other thing we need to do is we need to really make food priced correctly. We have all this cheap meat, but that’s because they are cutting down rainforests to farm animals, and therefore the price of the environmental damage isn’t being reflected in say, our McDonald’s. The ecosystem services cost isn’t being put into classical economics, we’re not costing our food.
Back when I was a kid, we had a roast dinner on a Sunday, and that was probably one of the only bits of meat we would have that week, because it was so expensive. We would then be eating cold cuts from that for the rest of the week. We’ve shifted away from this mindset and now people can just walk into a supermarket and buy cheap meat – and that’s why we need regulation, we need people to be helped. On the flip side, in other countries, many other people don’t even have this choice. What we want and need is everybody in this country and other countries to be able to have a very healthy plant-based diet.
GQ: How we can talk to people who are skeptical or even climate deniers? How do we approach this?
MM: In my view, there are different levels of climate deniers. There are all the “normal” people who haven’t got time to worry about the planet – they basically haven’t gone into depth about it, so they just read what’s in the newspaper or they are in that climate denial echo chamber on social media. With those people, you should always approach them as you would approach yourself and ask them: look, why would the scientists lie? Because actually, even if you’re not convinced of all the solutions, these are things we should be doing anyway due to all the other benefits – renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuels, electric cars get rid of air pollution in cities so our children won’t have asthma. So for me, I always approach this group of “honest deniers” as I call them, and tell them all the reasons why we should be putting in all these solutions regardless of climate change.
People are seeing events like the wildfires in Australia and California, the floods around the world, and it’s becoming clear that this is not normal. This is not like it was 10 years ago.
Then there are people I call “hardcore deniers” – people who are sometimes paid and politically motivated. What you’re going to do there is, sometimes, you will just need to block them and you just need to tell them to look at the science. This is why I have a lot of respect for Greta Thunberg, because she doesn’t argue about the science. She’s not a scientist and she just simply tells people to look at this data, read the IPCC report, telling people why she trusts scientists and what reasons they would have at all to lie to them. They aren’t billionaires.
And I think there’s now a huge shift in people’s views around the world, where people realise that something really is wrong and we can’t argue with that. This year, cherry blossoms in Kyoto came 21 days earlier than 100 years ago. In America, they are seeing the first leaves of Spring coming out on the trees at least three weeks earlier than 50 years ago. Gardeners are getting frustrated because some of their flowers are coming up in the middle of December, and then being killed off by force. People are seeing events like the wildfires in Australia and California, the floods around the world, and it’s becoming clear that this is not normal. This is not like it was 10 years ago. Even major politicians of all spectrums, from the very right to the very left, are now recognising that this is an issue and we need to deal with it – and that gives the climate issue a big level of credibility. I think the days of denial are over. The big problem now is that there are interests, such as the fossil fuel companies, who are trying to blame the individual.
GQ: Exactly – it’s clear that awareness about climate change has never been higher, especially with the rise of youth-led movements and protests. We’re also seeing so many tech advancements. Are you saying that ultimately, it’s the lack of willpower and action on the part of governments and corporations that is missing?
MM: Yes, and that’s the final thing that I say in the book. I point out that we now need to think as a global species. We’re very good at being in our own tribes, groups and nations, but we haven’t gotten the hang of working as a global species in control of our planet – and that’s exactly what needs to be done. We have the experts, we have the technology, we have the entrepreneurs. What we don’t have is the policies, local, national and international levels.
That’s where we need a different type of politics that actually thinks about the Earth as a system and as one species. We have to scale up our thinking. There’s no alternative. We need governments to regulate – and that’s not to say that individual action isn’t important, because it is and it sends a message to corporations and to the government. Individuals are powerful with our consumption and our choices. But ultimately, the solutions our governments will level to regulate and encourage corporations to do the right thing.
We need a different type of politics that actually thinks about the Earth as a system and as one species. We have to scale up our thinking. There’s no alternative.
GQ: Are you hopeful that the tides are turning? Will we be able to survive the climate crisis?
MM: I have to say, I’m really optimistic. I study human evolution. What’s really interesting is that the human brain is incredibly flexible. Therefore, with the rate of change in technology and society being so quick, each generation is almost like a different species. For example, my kids feel that they are completely connected to every other person in the world. They have a mobile phone, they realise how small the world is, they understand that they can communicate, they can get knowledge within minutes. It’s different with my generation, and people’s mindsets have completely changed. Now, what you have is millions of young people around the world who are stopping school and stepping out to say that you old people have mucked it up and that needs to be solved – which is an incredible sort of intergenerational message.
I’m also very optimistic because we have just gone through a global pandemic, which I would have thought would have dominated all narratives, except it hasn’t. Climate change has been talked about throughout the entire crisis the whole time, perhaps even more so before the pandemic. You have the International Energy Agency, the World Bank and the IMF all saying that we have to rebuild the economy green. When we had the financial crash of 2008, climate change completely disappeared and it was about the great crisis of capitalism. Basically, nothing changed and climate change was thrown out of the window. Not with this pandemic. So I think we’re in a very different place to where we were 10 years ago or so.
GQ: But do you ever feel depressed about the state of the planet? Do you feel climate anxiety?
MM: I don’t. But I do know a lot of colleagues that do and I sympathise with them. I have no idea why I don’t feel climate anxiety. I really should. Because I know exactly how bad it could be. I mean, I’ve just written an article on how if we hit four degrees by the end of the century, this is exactly how bad it’s going to be. But I think I stay incredibly optimistic because all the solutions exist and because of the younger generation. My youngest daughter dragged me on one of the climate protests and I have to say, at first I was worried she was going because I’m a climatologist. It turned out that it had absolutely nothing to do with me. It was more about her influencers on social media. What was interesting about going on a climate strike was also the energy positivity. It wasn’t like marches I went to in my youth, when we were throwing bricks and incredibly angry. My generation hasn’t really helped at all. But the next wave of generation is thinking in completely different ways to us, which is fantastic, and if I’m able to help in any way with my expertise or knowledge or writing things like this new book, then that’s brilliant.
GQ: With your expertise as a climate scientist, how long would you say we have to avert disaster?
MM: Climate disaster is a difficult thing to determine, because it depends who you are and where you live. For example, if we go two degrees hotter, a lot of people are going to be affected, but if you happen to live on a small island nation you’re going to need to abandon your home. Many scientists like myself, we talk about trying to avoid the worst aspects of climate change, because already there are people losing out due to climate change. Whether it’s changing rainfall patterns or wildfires. People are already being affected now, and what we need and want to do is to keep this number of people affected as low as possible.
I stay incredibly optimistic because all the solutions exist and because of the younger generation.
I love the Chinese saying, which asks: When is the best time to plant a tree? 20 years ago. When is the next best time to plant a tree? Now. So my answer to you will be: would the best time to have dealt with climate change been 30 years ago, absolutely. But the next best time is now. We have all the politics in place – America, China and Europe all saying they want to go carbon neutral by the middle of this century. We just need to keep pushing and we must get a great outcome at the upcoming Glasgow COP26 and we have to make sure we don’t let the pressure up. What will be amazing is when people see their lives being improved and get better – that’s when people will realise that climate action is great, and we should deal with the climate even more.
GQ: Finally – team rice or team noodles?
MM: Rice, always! I think it’s because the vast quantity of my cooking actually involves rice – it’s either vegetable tikka masala or sweet and sour with some corn. Rice and vegetables are great.
All images courtesy of Mark Maslin.