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  • Writer's pictureRamsey Cook

Interview with Bina Venkataraman: Journalist, Author, and Advisor to Obama White House

By Oriana Silva and Ramsey Cook

Bina Venkataraman's portrait

Bina Venkataraman is a journalist for the Boston Globe, author of the recent book, “The Optimist’s Telescope,” and served as the Senior Advisor for Climate Change Innovation during Obama’s presidency. A graduate of Brown University and the Harvard Kennedy School, Venkataraman currently works as Director of Global Policy Initiatives at the Broad Institute of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and as a Senior Lecturer and Research Affiliate at MIT. You can learn more about her and her work on her website.

Members of the Sustainable Age - Student Journal had the opportunity to attend a Q&A with Prof. Venkataraman about her book, “The Optimist’s Telescope,” during the 2021 Texas Regional Alliance for Campus Sustainability Summit (TRACS). “The Optimist’s Telescope” explores how we can look to the future to inform decisions in the present. By envisioning what we want our society to be, we can face challenges with optimism and wisdom.

The following Q&A is from a follow-up interview with Prof. Venkataraman. Because we were so inspired by her words during the TRACS Q&A, we wanted our readers to have the opportunity to learn from her perspective.

The United States is in the process of shepherding two bills through Congress that would have significant impacts on sustainable infrastructure - The Infrastructure Bill (which Biden signed into law in November) and the Build Back Better Bill. How do you envision the future of the United States’ climate action if these bills are passed? What if they are not passed?

So the Infrastructure Bill has passed and that will make a big difference because there are a lot of resources there to invest in transit and green infrastructure. It will help us make our infrastructure across the country more sustainable and resilient and hopefully less carbon-intensive. It is essential and overdue both from a social resilience and mobility perspective, but also from an environmental perspective. So I’m very glad that that has gone through.

The Build Back Better Act, which is now pending in Congress and is being negotiated on some final points in the Senate, is also critical when it comes to climate change. There are significant resources in the BBB Act that would go towards climate change and clean energy, something like $500 billion over ten years. These resources are primarily around tax credits and finding ways to create incentives for cleaner and less fossil fuel-intensive energy to be used at the local and state level across the country. The BBB Act also creates the possibility and incentive for more vehicles to become electric so that we can move towards our climate targets and carbon-neutrality much more quickly than we are at present. All of it is very important.

Unfortunately, the BBB Act does not include some provisions that were originally proposed, including a carbon price. Additionally, there was this idea of giving utility payments to help them move towards zero emissions, which would have been a great way to get rid of lingering fossil fuels in the electricity sector. The state of our politics prevented those provisions from making it through, but there is still a lot in the BBB Plan that will make a huge impact on climate change. Compared to what we have done historically, it is a huge step in the right direction.

One of the Youth4Climate - Manifesto’s goals is to emphasize the role that young people play worldwide in raising awareness and providing innovative solutions about how to address climate change and its challenges. You were named Global Young Leader by the French-American Foundation in 2015. How would you advise youth leaders and encourage young people in general to take action regarding this subject?

Well, I think one of the most inspiring things to me about today's landscape of climate awareness and climate policy is that young people are taking action on climate change. They are very mobilized and aware; look at the traffic of people who are taking to the streets to protest fossil fuel development and demand that world leaders take action. Even the mobilization of the Sunrise Movement here in the United States for the 2020 cycle of the Democratic primaries and beyond. Young people are getting politically organized to hold public leaders accountable. There was a CNN Town Hall of the Democratic primary candidates for the 2020 cycle that was devoted to climate change. That's not something we've ever seen in a presidential election cycle before. So I want to just say that a lot of what I see happening today in the climate change arena, which is positive and momentum-building, is coming from young people.

There is a lot of knowledge, expertise, and wisdom coming from people (older generations as well) in terms of how to practically get about solving this problem, how to work the different levers of policy and politics. So it's not only young people. I think one of the questions that I have for people who are young today and who are going to be alive on this planet 50, 60, or 70 years from now, whose children are going to be alive on this planet in the next century: how do we help, not just engage young people to action, but also help them sustain their ability to engage with a problem that they're going to face over their lifetime. That's a big responsibility and it can feel like a burden that the older generations have left behind to the younger ones on the planet.

How do we spark young people into action? Many of them are already motivated, and if you look at people who aren't motivated, it's often not that they don't want to work on it, it's that they don’t know how to engage with it. It feels too daunting for them to address. It feels like the world is falling apart, so people disengage.

So the question is not: how do we get young people to think about climate change, but how do we get young people to feel that they can have an impact on this problem? And I think part of that is to engage with young people, to help them shape policy, even at a very local level. The city of Eugene, Oregon has brought young people onto the city council to advise them and to help them form better policies concerning clean energy and public utilities. We also need to represent young people’s interests more formally in government. Wales has a commissioner for future generations and Finland, at one point, had an advisor for future generations.

We need to help young people have an impact in order for them to stay in climate action, sustain their interest, and grow their commitment to this problem. In order to grow your commitment, you have to feel like you can have an impact. And that involves getting together in collective action, not just acting alone, and also involves creating more vehicles for young people to make a difference in policy at whatever scale is possible.

At the Sustainable Age, we write articles directed to a student audience and we aim to reach a student demographic that has historically been less responsive to climate change. How do you recommend addressing an audience that has been somewhat deaf to climate change information?

One thing you have to understand is that people come to information not as blank slates. We have what are known as frames. We are like baleen whales and we filter feed on information and we filter that information through our preexisting beliefs and values and assumptions. So when you want to share some science with me that's going to warn me about the future, whether it's a pandemic or climate change, I am going to filter what you tell me through my existing values and beliefs. When you understand more about a person's values and beliefs, you can be more effective at helping them understand and receive that information in a way that's going to resonate for them.

For example, if I tell someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time in nature that we're going to see loss of forests due to climate change, that message might not resonate for them. But if I understand that this is a person who really cares about their kids' health, then I can talk about how, when we address the sources of pollution that are warming the globe, we can actually make the air cleaner in cities in a way that helps prevent respiratory illness in kids. This is something that is an actual upside of addressing the changing climate for this audience.

Similarly, we know that there are Evangelical Christians who care a lot about preserving the planet as god’s gift to humanity. When you talk to someone from that community, the way you talk about climate change will be very different from how you might talk about it with someone who is an atheist who lives in a coastal area and is going to face floods of their property because of sea-level rise.

A lot of how we get past this idea of people who seem to not care about climate change is to stop presenting it in such an abstract way. Obviously, climate change is happening at the global level. It has to do with atmospheric parts per million of carbon dioxide and degrees of warming and all of these physical phenomena that are important to understand for scientists. But when we try to bring people in the door, we need to bring it down to their kitchen tables and to what matters to them.

For some people, having a sense of the magnitude of the problem can be a difficult message to hear over and over again. Psychological research shows that if you keep giving people a sense of doomsday, their natural, human response is going to be to say, “I can't take do anything about this.” So one of the things we need to focus on in our messaging is: what does it look like to address climate change?

We need to start talking about the ways that life gets better when we solve the climate crisis and also about the fun and joy of trying to solve problems together. There was a lot of joy, for example, in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, in the 1960s. That's been true of global movements around the world. I think we need to avoid sugarcoating the crisis, we don't want to pretend like it's not going to be that bad, but we also need to focus on the opportunities for improvement that climate action brings us.

You have had the opportunity to work in many different countries. What was the most challenging of these experiences and how did they impact your career?

Yes, when I worked in Vietnam 16 years ago, I was trying to increase the capacity of a rural hospital to diagnose and treat HIV patients. There had been this propaganda campaign from the government, called the Social Evils Campaign. The government tried to discourage people from prostitution and using intravenous drugs. In doing so, they demonized people with HIV by putting them on these posters. The posters did not make them look like people who are victims or survivors but like bad people. The effect was to create a big stigma that drove the underground diagnosis of HIV/AIDS in Vietnam and also stigmatized sex workers and drug users.

So trying to work in that context and trying to understand what it is like to work within the political and cultural norms that reinforce the idea of not getting that test and not figuring out what's wrong with you was a huge a-ha moment in my career. Sometimes there is information that can really serve people and save their lives, but if there is a pre-existing belief system, the information alone is never going to be enough. And so for me, working in a country where that difference was so apparent, shaped my thinking on how we go about providing people with knowledge from science in a way that actually changes people’s lives for the better.

The Sustainable Age - Student Journal is a multicultural organization and we believe that diversity of opinion and experiences is an important avenue towards sustainability. Are there any distinct differences in the ways that cultures experience or address climate change? How can these cultural differences inform climate change action in the US?

Definitely! There is a lot of wisdom that comes from indigenous communities around the world, across generations. In communities from all over the world, there are people who think of a resource not just in terms of “what can we get from this in this lifetime” but “how can we leave it for our children.” There is a lobster fishery in Mexico where communities come together to save and conserve the lobster for future generations while they still harvest it.

We see it in a sort of ethic of trying to live more connected to the land in many cultures. I was in the Malaysian part of Borneo, in Sarawak, several years ago and was struck by the tradition of the Kelabit people. They would move where they were harvesting and farming and where their communities were over time so the impact on the land was not in one place. Instead of taking and taking, they were moving around and adapting to changing landscapes and changing needs.

We see echoes of that in concepts like crop rotation, in which you don’t have to keep planting the same monoculture over and over, which is the way that most industrial agriculture works. Industrial agriculture is very fossil fuel-intensive and not very adaptive to a changing climate. It is very much not sustainable in both senses of the word because it strips the fertile topsoil; we’re not replenishing the earth; we’re not creating the capacity to feed people of the future. But it also cannot be sustained. It requires so many resources that eventually you are going to starve that land.

We have a lot to learn from the traditional practices around the world about being stewards of the land, about replenishing the resources we use rather than just stripping them away and then panicking to find the next resources we can strip away next. That knowledge and wisdom have been there for a while. Some people have been looking for a while, but I think what is interesting about the moment we are in right now is that more and more people in the so-called wealthy and developed nations on this planet are aware that this way of life that we have now has serious problems. That we have severe inequality and that we are living out of balance with the Earth and the natural resources that we have been lucky enough to use to grow our society. We’re poised now, if we’re willing, to learn more here in the United States than previous generations have from these cultures around the world.

As Bina Venkataraman notes, the key to communicating about climate change is to focus on the impact on individuals and the joy that comes from devising solutions to these impacts. In the coming years, we will likely see the narrative surrounding climate change drastically, especially with the emergence of youth voices and sustainable infrastructure funding in the United States. The hope is that we will integrate a myriad of voices in the fight for climate action. By creating spaces for young people, proliferating indigenous knowledge, and understanding the socio-political systems in which we hope to make a climate impact, we can create a public that is more engaged with climate change. In short, when we have a thriving community of mothers, lobster fishers, politicians, and students that care about climate change, the magnitude of the climate crisis will be a bit less daunting. Thanks to Prof. Venkataraman and all of the people out there trying to make their own dent in the climate crisis! We see you and we stand with you.

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