Season 2 Episode 11: Matt Winning – Edited transcript
Section one: the scholar and the clown
Chris: Matt, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us today, and thanks very much for arranging for us to come to this wonderful venue.
Matt: Thanks for having me.
Chris: To jump straight in: you are, if I may dare say so, unique.
Matt: I hope so!
Chris: Everybody’s unique of course. But in your background, you come from hardcore climate academics, you’re a climate economist; and you also have a very successful career as a stand up comedian focusing on climate. Which is a very unusual set of structures. There must be two sides to you, the scholar and the clown. How do they fit together? They seem like polar opposites, but they’re embodied in the one human being. How does that work?
Matt: They’re all complex, is the short answer to that. You’re right in saying, ‘the scholar and the clown.’ I’ve never quite put it that way before but I like it. Certainly when I do the clown part, the comedy part, I often play up to the stereotypes of the scholar and the academic stereotypes that we have. But I didn’t think I would necessarily become an academic when I was younger. It wasn’t something that I intended to do, but I came at it from being interested in the problem of climate change and trying to solve that. It just so happened that the route I ended up taking felt like a very academic subject. That was the way in, and it feels like only recently have other industries and sectors said, we really should have someone that’s looking at this. I feel like when I started 15 years ago or whatever, it was a lot more like, this is an academic issue and you have to go through academia to solve it. I think thankfully now there’s less of that.
But yes, I think everybody’s a bit more complicated than stereotypes would let on, so both of them are very much parts of my personality. And they were very separate parts of my personality for about eight or nine years where I was doing comedy as a way to not talk about climate change. And eventually, I ran out of material and decided to talk about climate change. And I’m glad that I did, because I was quite lucky in the fact that I came to this epiphany that this is actually quite a useful way to talk about it. So it made my life a lot easier when I combined those two things. It was a lot more of a Jekyll and Hyde beforehand. But doing the comedy about climate change gave me some inner peace afterwards.
Chris: They’re not natural bedfellows!
Matt: No, not at all. I think it’s quite surprising. I didn’t think it was necessarily possible or a good idea, and I was somebody that had done comedy for almost a decade at that time. When you do speak to members of the public or you tell people that’s what you do, it is a bit of a surprise.
My opening joke is literally that I say I’m a climate researcher and a stand up comedian, which is a bit like finding out someone is an estate agent and also a really nice person!
I was surprised that it worked, or that it was a good idea. But slowly when you do it and you perform to people, you quickly come around to seeing why this is effective, why this is a good thing to do.
Section two: the changing climate of comedy
Chris: You’ve had some really notable success in your stand up career. You’ve had four sell out shows in the Edinburgh Fringe? That’s fantastic. They’ll give you some unique insights into how comedy and climate fit. What do you think the appetite for, and reception to, climate change comedy is, and how has it evolved over the last few years?
Matt: That’s a very good question. The first year that I tried it – and I say tried it, I dabbled in it a little bit for, a routine, five minutes or something like that – and I thought, nobody really wants to listen to this. That was the early half of 2010 to say 2015, something like that.
And then when it came to 2016, 2017, I decided I wanted to talk about it at length. And so I committed talking about this for an hour. People will be in a room, unless they leave, listening to this for an hour. It’s much more of a commitment then, where it wasn’t part of lots of other bits of comedy. It was this hour-long show about climate change. When I did that, no one else was doing it, and it still wasn’t particularly in the zeitgeist I don’t think, at that point in time. We had things in the UK like Brexit, these were the big issues. And the impacts of climate change were perhaps not quite as apparent to the public in general.
So that first year, it was a bit different. Nobody had really done it. I’d been aware of one or two other comedians that had touched on it a little bit, but not really. So it was quite a unique thing to do that year, and every year since then it’s become more and more of the zeitgeist. Certainly in 2019 with Extinction Rebellion and Greta and all these things, every comedian at the Edinburgh Fringe had a joke about climate change that year. That was not the case a year or two previously.
And now it seems like there are more people talking about it. It’s becoming part of the conversation and part of what feels like audiences would want to hear about. And I don’t know if that’s better or worse for me because more people are interested in doing it. But it’s a good thing for climate change.
Chris: Yes, I fully agree with that. One topic we keep on coming back to in the podcast is related to that: what is the role of the expert in these conversations? Is there a value to the non-expert talking about things that are pretty nuanced? They’re very nuanced, they’re very complicated; should we be trying to defer to expertise, or is there a role to be played for the non-experts also going out and talking to a mass audience about things?
Matt: I think it’s really important to have non-experts. And ideally, if they can work with experts, that’s probably the best combination. But the reason that we need non-experts is we need everybody to be talking about climate change. We need people, audiences of different types to see people that are like them talking and caring about climate change because that’s how people become invested in it and understand it – through seeing someone that you know being able to put themselves on stage or in the film or whatever it is. And so we need lots of different types of people talking about climate change, because lots of different types of people need to see themselves on stage talking about climate change.
It’s so important that non-experts talk about it because if you’ve just got experts, then it comes back to that way that it’s seen as, ‘only experts can talk about this, because they’re the only people we see talking about this.’ I would say it’s the other way around. I say there’s a small role for experts in talking about climate change; but actually, what we need 90% of is sports stars, or a person at your bingo hall, whoever it is that’s there and into this. Maybe they’ve got an expert in their area that they talk to or that they get information from that they trust. But I think you’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head with that question. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have non-experts talking about climate change.
Section three: How funny is climate change anyway?
Chris: Could I drill down a little bit more specifically into comedy? Again, there’s another debate that goes around: is climate this existential threat that’s just coming to eat us all, and is it a laughing matter? Should we be laughing about it?
Matt: Yes, and I get where people are coming from with that, in the sense that it’s not funny. It’s an inherently unfunny subject. But neither is war, and MASH, for instance, was the most popular sitcom of all time in the United States. It was about a horrible war. It’s how it’s done and how you talk about it. Things need to be talked about through different mediums. It could be really dark; I’ve seen lots of heavy plays about climate change. But that doesn’t actually help that much because it’s already a really heavy subject, and so to balance things, to make it more relevant to people’s lives and to their spectrum of emotions, I think comedy is one thing that can do that. Ideally you would have the light and the dark in there because again, we’re complicated. I’m a comedian and a researcher, and climate change is really heavy and serious and funny at times. Everything’s far more nuanced than we give it credit for.
I don’t know whether you’re going to ask more questions on this – I can always answer them again – but the reason that comedy is so good at talking about climate change is…
Chris: Which actually was the next question!
Matt: Yes, the reason that it’s good for talking about it is firstly, it doesn’t feel as heavy. A lot of people don’t want to listen and talk about it because it is so heavy. So then to say it’s not something we should laugh about, means that you’re entirely negating a way of talking about something and getting people engaged. If anything, it’s a self defeating notion. So it is actually really important to use comedy because it’s a way of getting people to put their foot in the door to listen to someone talking about it for the first time ,and maybe understanding a bit more about it. And then feeling, ‘maybe I’m actually able now to read a more heavy book about it, or spend a bit of time listening to this.’ So it’s a really good first step for people. It keeps them entertained and engaged.
Even as a teaching tool – and we’re at the Festival of Education today and maybe I’ll mention it later on during my talk – but using comedy is a really good way of just stimulating positive parts of people’s brains so when they’re learning, they’ve got much more positive associated thoughts with something because they’re enjoying themselves. They’re much more likely to retain information and have a positive learning experience than they would have if you’re just giving a really heavy lecture, where the brain shuts down. I’m not enjoying this, so I’m going to shut off. So it has an educational benefit and I think it’s an important way for society to talk about it. And probably, as a third benefit of using comedy, it’s a way of coping. We use comedy to cope with grief and other things, and that’s very much climate. There’s a lot of grief and loss around it.
So I think that as long as it’s done well, and you’re punching up and not down, then it’s a good way of talking about it. But there are things I shy away from because you’re not making light of people’s lives, at all. And there are really complicated parts that are really difficult to talk about as well. So it can be hard to get into it with some stuff. But I think it’s a really important way of talking about it.
Chris: Are there particular genres of comedy that are better suited?
Matt: The answer to that is no. Like with all climate action, you need a palette, you need to just try everything to reach different people. Because if certain people like one type of comedy, then if you say we shouldn’t use this, we should use something else then maybe those people aren’t being catered for. It’s about trying to reach different audiences.
Chris: I’m just going to go back to a theme that we touched on a little earlier. Comedy has in a lot of ways had very positive impacts on changing social norms. But it’s also been used as a way of minimizing – of laughing down at, as you said – important issues.
I know there’s also a question of whether you’d want to be trying to put normative limits around comedy. But is there a way of protecting against comedy being used as another form of greenwashing?
Matt: It’s a really good question actually. I think the answer is unfortunately not. I think you have to accept that it’s an approach that can be used for good or evil.
Chris: Without getting too Star Wars!
Matt: Yeah! The light and the dark side of the force have equal ability to become comedians, and use those tools. You can’t really stop people doing stuff, but you hope it has less impact as people understand climate change more. You hope that people become a bit more aware of what’s being used against them, or aware of the types of messaging. But it’s a really tricky area where the messaging and communication, talking about climate change, is an area that can have massive impacts on large groups of people. Given where we are today with YouTube and whatever, it’s a bit of a wild west in terms of the types of comedy that’s out there and how it’s used. And as you say, large advertising budgets for companies can be used to try to undermine or take people’s attention away from it in different directions as well.
Section four: Hot Mess and our messy feelings
Chris: That’s a nice segue to your book Hot Mess. A brilliant title, I really enjoyed it. Of course, it takes a light hearted view on climate. But one thing that’s really striking in it, is that you do not shy away in any way shape or form from the emotional side. Could you give us a little bit of background insight into your own emotional journey with climate?
Matt: It’s a tricky one. I started working on this 2007-8, and I’ve been aware of it since the mid-2000s. The way that I got into it was at university, finishing up doing my undergraduate degree and doing my master’s degree. I kept taking environmental courses, and then for the first time in my life noticing that I enjoyed learning. I was really invested in a way that I hadn’t necessarily been. So it felt like a sensible thing to do; I don’t know if at that time I would even say I cared about it, but I am clearly enthused by it. so why don’t I try and take this on? And you learn at the time more about climate change and the injustices of it all, and it felt like nobody was talking about it. Then starting a PhD, and you fast forward 12 years later I’m then starting to write a comedy book covering the entire spectrum of climate change and how I personally feel about it.
I had a child at the time, a baby that year. How does that make you feel? You can’t separate climate change from where you are in your life as well. It’s a journey that we will all continue to go on, and sometimes you’re really emotionally invested in it, and other times there are other things happening in your life where there’s maybe not enough headspace to think about it. I feel like I’ve been really up and down over the years in terms of how emotionally invested I feel in solving it. I feel like that evened out over time – and maybe that’s not a good thing Maybe that’s why you then need the people that are on the heightened part of their emotional spectrum, to be coming in and talking about it and reminding you that, if you’ve been doing it for 15 years, maybe you aren’t able to sustain the same levels of constant fear or whatever. But I think that the more you go on, the more you realise that there’s only so much that is within your control, so much that you can do about it. As long as you feel like you’re pushing the boundaries of what you can do, given who you are and what background you have and where you are in your life, and what access you have to things.
Chris: A really brilliant answer. In your book you frame the chapters in part around the stages of your wife’s pregnancy. Has having a child changed your relationship with climate?
Matt: I don’t know, is the real answer to that. I think my defence mechanisms to climate change– the walls, the turrets or whatever – are being built higher and higher. Because when I do open myself up to it emotionally, it can become even harder than it has been, to be able to deal with those things. I do find myself getting angrier quicker about stuff, but that could be the lack of sleep!
It’s hard to know, but yes, it does make it feel a bit more visceral, if that is the right word. But not in a way that makes it even more important than how anyone else feels about it. It just gives you this view of life and where you are at; the different stages in your life and how you realize that you’ve been the first generation, and now you’ve moved into this middle part of your life.
That responsibility perhaps restricts you a bit. In my twenties, I went out and just did comedy every night and it was a lot easier to do that and not worry. I think that’s a good time in your life to be able to do that, yo go out and to do stuff and make noise and explore things. You don’t want to lose that, but then you realise with other responsibilities, time becomes a bit more limited to be able to do things like that. So you have to pick and choose things a bit more. And that can be, not frustrating, but it can be a bit challenging at times, to know what’s the right amount of time for me to miss bedtimes to go and talk to other people about climate change. Before, that wasn’t an issue. People asked me to do stuff, and as long as it seemed like a good idea, I’d go and do it. What I’m saying is that I should probably be franchising my shows out to people in their mid-twenties. So if anyone wants to do that, do get in touch!
Chris: Why do you think it’s people in their mid twenties that are far more invested in climate than generations previous?
Matt: Yes, mid-twenties and teenagers. I think these people understand, they’ve grown up with this their entire lives, certainly their entire teenage or adult lives. It’s a constant injustice. It doesn’t feel like that to older generations, it maybe feels there’s this new thing that’s come along.
I think younger people quite rightly are massively engaged in climate change at the moment, because it’s their lives, the rest of their lives, that are going to be impacted by this. They feel let down, and they should feel that. A lot of people over the last couple of years, with the school strikes and stuff, would say, ‘it gives me so much hope seeing these young people in the streets.’ That’s the weirdest thing in the world, to look to young people to give you hope. That’s the most selfish, internally focused view of the world possible. It’s not saying, ‘what should I be doing to help these people, to stop them having to feel like they have to go and do this?’ I’m sure some people did, but if your response to seeing that was, ‘that gives me hope,’ and then going back to your own daily life and not trying to change anything yourself…
Chris: Yes, there’s something fundamentally wrong about taking hope from the despair of children.
Matt: Yes, that’s a much more succinct way of putting it than I did.
Chris: There’s a tendency amongst the likes of us, who spend a lot of time looking and thinking about this stuff, to say that everybody knows this is an issue. But then you go out and talk to people and you realize that no, actually, there’s still an awful lot of people who aren’t ready for talking about the nuance. They still need to be talking through first principles.
Your book is very much framed for that for that type of market. What was your decision making process on that?
Matt: I always want to have it as introductory. So anyone that could be coming at this that doesn’t have a detailed background around climate change, or just knows the rough idea of it, I wanted to aim it at them. People will write a book that is, ‘if you want to know about climate change…’ but it’s heavy. Not that many people want to just read a heavy book about a subject that they know little about. So the idea was to try to make it an accessible thing, that maybe someone like us would buy for our sister or brother for Christmas.
One of the problems I had with the book when it came out was that the publishers put it in the environmental section of bookstores, and the only people that go to the environmental section of bookstores are people that already want to read environmental books.
How do you market that? The hardest problem I’ve had with climate change comedy is how do you market to people that like comedy but that aren’t already into climate change. Once I’ve solved that I’ll come back to you and I’ll let you know!
When people do read it that don’t have that climate change background, they do tend to really enjoy it and be surprised. It’s the surprise that’s there where they say, ‘I didn’t think I would necessarily enjoy this as much as I did, or learn as much as I did.’ That’s where I get the most from this, is when someone contacts me who’s a trucker in America who’s listened to the audiobook and loved it. People that are just dipping their toes into that aspect.
I’m already pitching ideas for other things, but I’m trying to aim it much more at specific audiences, because I think that’s the way to know who it is you’re speaking to. So the next book, fingers crossed, is going to be a sports book about climate change. It’s aimed at people who like sports, and it’ll be in the sports section. And then you know who you’re talking to, and you can narrow it down and be specific about that. I think that’s what we need to be doing more with climate change, is we need to have specific audiences in mind, and we need to be aiming things at those audiences, what they care about and what things they want to consume. Because climate change is about everything, literally about everything. There’s nothing that climate change shouldn’t be about.
Chris: You’re heading towards what I was going to ask next. Climate is about everything. It’s a massive, systemic problem. The whole world – politics, business, everything – needs to get in behind it. But the advice in the book is very much about individual actions. How do you deal with that tension?
Matt: The reason that a lot of the book and a lot of the stuff that I talk about tends to be about individual actions is that it’s trying to personalize it. A lot of comedy is observational comedy, for instance. You have to have observed something and we have to have something shared, that you show from a surprise angle. It’s very hard to do that about carbon trading!
Chris: It’s a bit of a joke in itself!
Matt: That’s true! But beyond that it’s hard to go into detail and make it relevant to people’s lives, and it’s something that I struggle a bit with is that I probably put more emphasis on individual elements because it’s easier to talk to people about those. Media has the same problem; media often does the exact same thing because it knows that it’s personalizing it and making it relevant to people so they’ll read about it. But not everybody wants to read about really complex, nuanced, dispersed topics. So trying to get that bit across can be a little bit harder.
I did try; the last third of the book is more on that. But it’s also about how do we as individuals – because we are coming at it from us as individuals making decisions – how do we stop looking inwards as individuals and start looking outwards to how we can impact the rest of society, rather than how can I impact my own life? And then that outward-looking part hopefully begins to have more of a wider impact on these sorts of topics that are a bit more nebulous.
Section five: The Lancet Countdown
Chris: Let’s take the opportunity to bridge between climate communications and the academic side, taking your work with the Lancet Countdown as that useful bridge. It covers both sides of your work.
Lancet, for those who don’t know, is one of the leading medical publications in the world, and they put together this publication, which takes all sorts of different parts – it isn’t just about medicine, it’s also economics and politics, and brings it all together into one publication. Could you tell us a little bit more about that and how you got involved in the first place?
Matt: Yes, it’s an annual publication about climate change and health, trying to track that over time with lots of different indicators. It’s evolved and they’re trying to add indicators over time. It’s been going from 2015, roughly. It’s academics working on different parts, whether that’s looking at the impact side of things, changes related to heat, and health impacts. I specifically look at one indicator on fossil fuel use and how that evolves over time for different countries and different regions.
Obviously fossil fuel use, especially in homes for cooking, is not something we want to use, but it’s also from coal and other things. So it has massive health impacts that can be tracked. And then there’s stuff on the health industry itself. So it’s really wide ranging, and it’s got a lot of academics from a lot of different areas. It’s trying to really bring together a coherent narrative about what’s happening at any point in time between climate change and health.
The reason I got involved was that I think it’s a really important way of making it accessible and relevant to people’s daily lives. People understand health, but we still struggle a little bit even with our own health. We can struggle to remember constantly how important it is, and to look after ourselves when there are so many other things happening. And that’s the same with climate change; we know that these things are important and that changing it will impact our health, but we maybe don’t make the connections. If you can have a conversation with someone about it or get some really good statistics in front of them about it, it’s a really accessible and obvious way to start those conversations.
Chris: One thing that’s a really positive development in that publication (and others) is that up until quite recently, we were all working very much in our own little silos. This publication pulls together all sorts of different strands and tries to unite them. What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of that type of approach?
Matt: The strengths are that it’s bringing it all together and that it’s easy to communicate those things all together and to link them. So the strength is really instead of talking about each silo individually, you’re talking about health, but you’re also talking about: here’s the health impacts; here’s the solutions; here’s the finance related to that; and you can string a narrative together that works for those things. The difficulty is academia, essentially. Getting people to talk to each other across different disciplines is a tricky thing to do, and I think it’s really important to do more of that interdisciplinary work and to have big publications that push that.
I think it’s actually really helpful. You need to understand other approaches. The siloed thinking of academia is one of the reasons why we’ve struggled with a lot of movement (within academia, but then that translates to other sectors as well) on how we think about climate change. You’re not thinking about how’s that going to impact industry or what they think about it, or how…I’m an economist, but maybe you don’t understand the impacts or the engineering problems with this. And a lot of engineers think we’ll just solve this problem and you say, the economics of this don’t work. So it’s massively beneficial.
And it’s tricky. Thankfully, I don’t run it. I know the people that do and they do a great job, they bring it together really well, which is so important. But the benefits far way outweigh any of those difficulties, and I think we need more of those types of things. Finding a topic and working on it, whether that’s within finance, but bringing together lots of different parts of finance to make things more coherent, and to make it easier for people to communicate between each other within an industry or within academia.
Chris: In the 2022 report, things were getting pretty political.
Matt: They’re beginning to.
Chris: The opening line is: ‘the health of the people of the world is at the mercy of a persistent fossil fuel addiction.’ Those are pretty strong words for scientists and academics.
Matt: Yes, and it’s probably quite different to what you find in, I imagine, the IPCC report.
Chris: Even IPCC is getting there.
Matt: It’s beginning to. And certainly within the COP talks and stuff, there’s not a lot of talk about that. I think it’s academia, shall we say, getting pissed off? That’s probably what that is. You’ve not listened to us when we use more, nuanced, polite language. We’ve been saying this for a while, but maybe we need to say it in a way that is…
Chris: Is that a particular trait of climate academics? That they’re just getting annoyed?
Matt: I think so, yeah. I feel like I’ve been getting more annoyed. Because we’ve been saying this, we’ve been trying…people don’t listen, so sure you can try other things, but also you can try being more clear about what you mean.
There’s the famous thing about academics doubling down and thinking that more facts will change things. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think, ‘people don’t understand, so we need to give them more facts.’ But maybe the language we use needs to be less academic and more straightforward. And that’s a health journal.
Chris: We’re all doomed!
Matt: It’s a health journal, talking about addiction and health.
Chris: These are terms that are well understood by the people who wrote it. And also goes on in the 2021 report, it focuses on inequality. These are hefty political subjects. It is interesting to see that there’s a new appetite amongst academics to be stepping into this world.
Matt: I think it’s becoming more obvious to people that rising inequality is a barrier to being able to solve some of this, and also it’s not just enough to talk about who’s going to be impacted by climate change at a very aggregate level. If it is the poorest people, then you need to talk about equality in this. It becomes part of the narrative because, as you say, it becomes a bit more political because the decisions about how to make society more equal are essentially inherently political decisions.
Chris: And upsetting the people who are ‘more equal than the others.’
Matt: Yeah, and it’s not something I lead with when I talk about it in my shows. But it’s something I always talk about because it’s hugely important. But once you’ve built up people’s trust a little bit more and then you start talking about it, people can understand that this is an issue.
It’s so important. I’ve yet to do shows to yacht parties in Monaco, but I’d be very happy to go and talk to these people about their lifestyles and why they might want to accept higher tax rates. If you’re watching and you’re on a yacht, sell your yacht!
Section six: Why is climate economics like a cocktail sausage?
Chris: Moving more firmly back into the academic bit. You are a climate economist, and you have described that as many times as an oxymoron: like a cocktail sausage. Could you talk a little bit about the tensions between the two parts?
Matt: It’s something that’s probably come to the fore even more in the last couple of years. What do we mean, whether it’s green growth, or whether it’s degrowth, or whether it’s a green economy. I’ve done some work more recently on the circular economy, which is a concept that’s talked about a lot more.
These don’t necessarily have to be at odds, I don’t think. On growth, potentially [yes]…but having an economy, and it being a sustainable economy? It’s about what you choose…growth of certain things is good. Growth of small rubbery toys that my son likes, that people have and then throw away – is that a sustainable business that we want to continue? It adds to GDP just as much as education or something like that. If you want to have a market economy – and maybe you don’t, fine – but if you do want to have it, you need to make some decisions about what you want within that. The consumption of yachts and other luxury needs to pay its way, and it’s not [doing so]. It fundamentally comes down to, what do we value as a society? Do we want this type of economy, do we want to be able to consume? I’m not saying everybody, but it seems like our country at the moment, we like buying stuff. But the cost for people of buying lots of luxury things should be higher. The things that we need, like energy where prices are rising, and being able to get to where we work, and buying food, these sorts of things we need. They’re necessities, and they should be protected and everybody should have access to these things.
The types of other luxuries that we have – I’m going to keep using yachts and SUVs because they’re the worst things in the world – they consume fossil fuels, they impact things and people massively. The outweighed impact they have over basic needs…you might drive your SUV to work, but you’re not driving your yacht. You don’t need a yacht. What value does society place on someone having that? Not just from a how much does it cost, but if you want to sell people yachts, this is going to be costly. Partly this is coming back to talking about carbon pricing. But also talking about pricing luxury items, items that are over a certain amount that only people of certain wealth could buy.
Changing the economy to make it more equal is where I come from. But I don’t think that’s necessarily inherently different to talk of green growth and degrowth. I find the conversations around them, people are talking at cross purposes or they’re saying the same thing from different perspectives. What we’re talking about is fundamentally changing developed, wealthier economies to make them more stable, to reduce their environmental impact. That is what all of those people are talking about doing. It’s the language around how you’re talking about doing it. You want to grow the things that we need as essentials and you want to reduce the things that are doing the unnecessary harm. Now, if you want, you can give me the job of going through national accounts, give me everything in the UK economy that we sell and I’ll go through and say, is this good for society or bad for society? It’s a hard question to answer. But I don’t think it’s too hard.
Chris: It’s pretty hard. For example, one thing in economics – and my undergrad was economics – one thing we’re terrible at is counting trees. It’s counting what is the value of the natural world. We’ve done none of it. The entire history of economics has been completely forgotten about that. But we need to find a way of pricing that in. How do you value that? That’s just one of the questions. How are climate economists dealing with properly counting for what’s really important?
Matt: Yes, and should you be doing that in the first place or not is the other question that people come back to. Do we want to live in a society then where that, we put a value on trees?
Chris: Unless you do that, it will be seen as a factor of production and valueless, and be destroyed as we have been doing forevermore.
Matt: I agree, but I think other people would say that’s only when you come at it from a perspective of how we currently value things, and the current economic system.
Chris: Yes, but if we’re working in the system, then we have to be counting it. Or we blow up the entire system and do something better, fine.
Matt: I do completely agree that you need to be able to make these arguments to people. What do we value, and how do we value it? It’s something that, since I’ve really become an economist, I’ve always been thinking about GDP as a measurement of certain stuff. How do you change how we measure things? You fundamentally need to change some basic economic theory. about utility maximization. The stuff that we do is based on: I’m an economist, we’re going to take an example person and they’re going to maximize their utility, and their utility is based on its consumption. So you fundamentally have a problem with year one undergraduate economics being entirely at odds with overconsumption and environmentalism and so forth.
How do you fix that? You need to overhaul how we’re taught about these things from our teenage years or our early twenties. And lots of economics, entire treasuries are run based on these principles. As much as I’m an economist, I think economics is almost entirely wrong from its first assumptions. And that’s frustrating. But shifting entire areas of thought is very hard. It’s hard to do and it takes time to do that. It’s maybe getting a bit too academic thinking about that here, but fundamentally you need basic change in how we approach our methods.
Chris: This could be a difficult question, but what’s the solution?
Matt: What we like is numbers, so you want to look at what is utility.
Chris: Do you have a happiness quotient?
Matt: Yeah, how do you begin to attach…and I’m sure people have done it, I’ve been reading about this for 20 years now and I’m pretty sure it’s been done. But it’s how do you take those types of things and make them the mainstream thinking. It’s hard to do in academia when people don’t have the time or the capacity. There are expectations on what should be in courses. I think a lot of people think academia is incredibly radical, in what students are being taught. In my experience it’s exactly the opposite of that. It’s the orthodoxy of what people are taught, is almost always the case.
Section seven: Time, change and forecasting
Chris: One thing I heard you talking about on a different podcast was the advantage that the young have over the older generation in that they can adapt, because they don’t need to change. The older generation have lived with certain expectations for an awful long time, and it’s difficult to be giving things up.
It sounds like there’s a parallel situation in academia, where younger academics like yourself will be looking at it and saying we need to be making fundamental changes, pull out the roots and start again. But there’s a lot of institutional resistance to that. Is that a fair comment?
Matt: I’d completely agree. I think you’ve summed up that far better than I could have. So that’s the end of this conversation, thank you! No, you’re absolutely right because change is hard. It takes time. So because there’s the resistance to change, it’s hard to change climate change, because of the institutional inertia of incumbents. It’s the same with academia, it takes time. So yes, we might fundamentally overhaul things, but it might take another, 30, 40, 50 years to be able to do that. Do we have the time to do that? That’s the problem we always come back to with trying to solve this, is the time frame. And the time frame now is nothing. It’s the time that companies will invest. A solar panel or whatever lasts 25 years, that’s taking us out to almost 2050 now. The investments that people are making are maybe over that life cycle. So the investments made today are being made based on when we need to roughly be solving this. The time frame’s so short, and nobody has any urgency around that. The decisions being made are that we’ve still got loads of time. And we’re far from it.
The thing that probably bothers me the most around climate change as well is that oil and gas companies could have solved this, pretty much, about 20 years ago if they’d invested at that time, taken profits, invested it in carbon capture, built that up and said we’re just going to do this together as an industry. We’ll all take 5% of our profits or whatever, we’ll build up carbon capture, it’ll be everywhere and we can exist for the next hundred years and no one will notice. We won’t get much kudos for it, but this alternative pathway that we’re on now wouldn’t happen. No-one within that industry clearly was brave enough to put forward these sorts of decisions. What we’re left with now is a scrambling of the night before the exam. There’s no time left, how do we solve this? Fundamentally, to do it in the way that we would like to do it, which is slowly, is not possible. And that to me, given the example of oil and gas companies, they could have achieved this in a way that would have done it in that slower manner, where you don’t notice it. You don’t have the upheaval, you don’t have the massive transition. Essentially with carbon capture, you move to electric cars, and you continue. And sure there’s other massive problems with the world: biodiversity loss, inequality, other things that we’d still need to solve. But the ire of that probably wouldn’t be focused so much on these companies. It would be more general and we’d have one less thing to have to solve.
Chris: But aren’t we making the same mistake again? And by we I mean the IPCC, by making assumptions on large scale adoption of carbon capture technologies in forward looking forecasts. And by doing so, giving each country an individual a higher carbon budget than in reality we have. Sorry, ‘in reality’ is a little harsh; but on the bounds of probabilities, we’re not going to get to the levels of carbon capture as they’re talking about.
Matt: Yes, and to be fair, often with the IPCC, I know lots of the people that work on that and they do put forward different options. It’s that the options with the carbon capture are the ones that are often taken and parroted, shall we say. So it’s not that there aren’t scenarios in there. And the IPCC doesn’t do that, it’s actually me and other people that run these models that decide whether to do runs with it. And we do tend to do runs with or without [CCS], and then you put that forward and then people take the numbers with those runs and go, ‘if we have CCS then the budget’s this, so we’re going to base it on that.’ So who’s to blame? Lots of people, very much. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg with that.
I think it’s absolutely a fair enough question: should we be anticipating any [CCS] or what levels of that should you be anticipating? Any at all? Again with the nuance here – this is me coming back as an academic and being incredibly boring – but you will need it for things like cement, because you have industrial process emissions that you need carbon capture for. Unless you’re not building roads in Malawi. It’s fundamentally required for certain things. And so there probably is a minimum amount that is needed. But yes, should we be running scenarios that only have those minimum amounts, or should it be larger? And the difficulty there is as academics, about as much steel production happens, roughly, using high green hydrogen just now (which is almost nothing) as is happening with carbon capture technologies. But the type of scale up of that is considered fine. Because it’s a positive thing that certain people are happy as a technology to talk about. There are probably issues with where do you get the hydrogen from, are there going to be a global hydrogen market or national hydrogen markets large enough to be able to scale these things up?
It’s hard. As academics you can’t be making decisions about one technology in a positive light and other technologies in a negative light just because that’s how you feel. And that’s where the problem with CCS often comes from. Now do I personally think it is going to be scaled up to such levels? Probably not, depending on what decisions are made and who’s investing in this. Probably not, but how do you make these decisions as an academic as to what things that don’t exist now, in the future do exist or don’t exist? What you try to do is run different scenarios with different assumptions about those, and who picks up those scenarios and uses them is out of your control to some extent.
Section eight: Closing advice
Chris: Last questions. How do people find you?
Matt: It’s mattwinning.com. Or on Twitter, Matt Winning, Instagram, all these things. Go to my website, there’s lots of links and please do buy the book. And if you’ve got questions, email me and I’ll try and get back to you as soon as I can.
Chris: Here’s actually the last question. Climate is a really hard thing for the listeners to broach. So you’re sitting around, you’re talking to somebody, you bring up climate, the natural instinct is, how do we get better at that? Not being a comedian or a scientist, how do you broach that and make it a little bit lighter, a little bit more approachable, to get those conversations going?
Matt: It is hard, but I think what you need to do is think about, who are you talking to? Who are you having the conversation with? What are they interested in, and what is it that you’ve found out or the knowledge that you would like to begin to talk to them about. Often that is hard, but if you find a funnier news story or if you find something that you share, that you like, whether it’s snow sports or something, and that is a way into talking about it. What are our holidays going to be like together in 25 years or something like that. And my instinct would then to be to think about how we’re going to have to find something else to do.
It’s starting to have light-hearted conversations, but you’re clearly talking about the subject. And I don’t think you can necessarily get rid of that. It’s just there’s choices that you’re constantly making when you’re having conversations, about whether you’re making things more or less depressing. And it’s actively trying to keep the positive parts of your brain engaged and trying to constantly engage other people within their positive parts of the brain.
You have to take a little bit of a step back if you’re too emotional. I found it really hard to do it initially because I was so emotionally invested in it. It actually took me going and speaking to other comedians and showing them the stuff that I had and the jokes that I had at the time, and beginning to start seeing it from their perspective. They would come out with other stuff really easily, because they weren’t emotionally involved in it.
Basically what I’m saying is, go and talk to some comedians! I don’t really know how else you do it. I’m not saying don’t be engaged in it, because we are engaged in it. But it’s to take yourself out of it, to try and see it how other people see it for a bit. In fact, it’s healthy to do that.
Chris: Thank you very much. Real pleasure, I thoroughly enjoyed that.
Matt: It was great!
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