Katharine Wilkinson: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming
On this episode…
Vice President of Communication & Engagement at Project Drawdown, Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, is advancing the organization’s message, reach, and influence around the world. She was lead writer for the New York Times bestseller Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. While Katharine didn’t have time to go into each of the 100 strategies for addressing, adapting to and mitigating climate change that are in this book, she does touch on some big ones: reducing food waste, plant-rich diets, educating girls and family planning, to name just a few!
Tune in to hear about:
- Why Katharine chooses to steer clear of the terms ‘hope’ and ‘optimism’ in regard to climate change (this doesn’t mean she’s resigned to the end of our planet though, not by a long shot!)
- How many of the solutions identified by Project Drawdown can be undertaken by anyone anywhere in the world.
- How gender equality is, in itself, a solution to climate change.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio with Katharine Wilkinson
Air Date: October 15, 2018
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m honored today to be here with Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, who is the Vice President of Communication and Engagement at Project Drawdown, where she is advancing the organization’s message, reach, and influence around the world. Katharine was lead writer for the New York Times best seller Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, the number one environmental book of 2017. Welcome, Katharine.
KATHARINE WILKINSON: It’s such a pleasure to be on the show, Theresa.
TM: I can’t tell you how honored I am to be speaking with you, because whenever I meet a climate change activist like you, I feel so good, and I feel like there’s some real hope here. But I thought I would start out, before we dive into your work, which is not just with Drawdown but actually you wrote another book, Between God and Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change. What a provocative title! I hope that we can talk a little bit about that too. But I thought to ask this: I recently saw a rather interesting two-minute video put out by Wisconsin Environment, and you know, it said that there are four things, when we want to really look at climate change and its impact, that we need to understand. And the first is that we have to acknowledge that we have a problem. The second, we have to adapt to what it is we know about it. The third is we have to mitigate. And then someone told me they missed the fourth, and that was we have to engage in healing and what that’s about. So when I was reading a lot about you, I thought about that: that you dive into both adaption and mitigation, but have we actually gotten to a point where people are acknowledging it? And do we have more work to do there?
KW: Yeah, I really like that addition, that there is also work of healing to be done. We are really getting incredible feedback from the planet, from this living planet that we call home, that the way we have been doing things hasn’t been working. The status quo isn’t working. And we are really being called to a better way of being and a better way of living on this planet as a human species. And I actually think that we can hear that call, even when we don’t heed it, but I think it’s going to be getting louder and louder.
TM: And so you’re saying, though, that yeah, we’re ready to get into looking at things that we can adapt in mitigation, which is clearly what Drawdown is about. Drawdown was written by Katharine; in 2017 it was published, edited by Paul Hopkin, and it has 100 of the most comprehensive ways that we can think about how we can sequester carbon or adapt and mitigate climate change.
You know, maybe we should back up just a little bit, Katharine, and say why you feel right now that this is most important, just so that we can make sure we’re all in the same frame and context.
KW: Yeah, let’s do that, let’s set that context. So I think it’s easiest to think about Drawdown in terms of the gap that it fills. Scientists have done an absolutely extraordinary job detailing the problem of global warming, the damage that is already beginning to play out in our climate-changed world and the future we could face. But what humanity has not had is a comprehensive, compelling, and accessible path forward to address that challenge. We have not had a vision of possibility in the face of something that seems so impossible.
And that is really the reason for being of Project Drawdown, which is a nonprofit organization and global coalition. Our work aims to fill that gap, to map a path forward, and to tell another side of the story. And we do that by focusing on, as you said, Theresa, 100 solutions, technologies, and practices. Eighty of them are things that are already in hand; they are commonly available, economically viable, and scientifically valid, and they are solutions for reducing emissions over the next 30 years and getting us to the point of drawdown. The name Drawdown refers to the point in time when concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere peak and then begin to decline on a year-to-year basis. So I think about drawdown as a really, maybe the critical threshold for life on this planet and for heading back to conditions that are most conducive for life.
So, to your question about mitigation and adaptation, kind of the price of entry to the Drawdown party is that a solution had to have a substantive impact on reducing emissions—whether carbon dioxide or methane or a number of other greenhouse gases. So those technically fall under what people talk about as mitigation. But many of them also have benefits for resilience and for what often gets framed as a separate bucket of adaption. Actually there’s a lot more overlap there than we typically talk about or acknowledge.
TM: So, Katharine, I guess I should say that I think what inspired you, basically, was you saw a big hole: Wow, we’re not talking about the solutions enough. And so you dove into it, I’m assuming, from We need something like that. And do you know, a lot of people have a lot of doomsday approach to this: “Oh boy, we’re sliding down fast, we probably can’t reverse this.” Do you feel that kind of hopefulness in coming up with solutions here?
KW: So I really steer clear, a bit, of the terms hope and optimism, because I think they’re a little bit kind of like what side of the bed do you wake up on that day? I really think about Drawdown as a blueprint of possibility. The work of our organization was to gather and codify the collective wisdom of humanity, and to do that, we built this big collaborative. So 65 researchers from 22 countries across six continents have worked on the project to date, and more have just joined as research fellows. And it’s in that global, diverse, interdisciplinary perspective that we were able to bring together the different fields and the different sectors that get covered in our work for Drawdown. So there is really rigorous math behind the work. And I think it’s in that rigor that we can find a sense of possibility. It doesn’t mean that the bar isn’t high and the odds aren’t long. But we do actually have a path forward.
TM: I wanted to jump into some of these solutions. Doesn’t it rank from the ones that have the most impact down?
KW: Yes. So what our research team modeled was, if you took onshore wind turbines, for example, and you scaled them from where they are now over the next 30 years, how much impact could they have on reducing emissions globally over that time and as part of this whole system of 80 solutions? And then they’re ranked according to that impact. And I always say they’re not ranked because we’re going to pick some and leave others—we need all of them and they’re interconnected and they’re part of a system. But it gives us a sense of where some opportunities are, and I think it actually lifts up some solutions that have maybe not gotten as much attention as they should—kind of the unsung heroes, if you will.
TM: What stands out for you as one of the unsung heroes?
KW: Well, there are a few in the top 10, actually. So the number 3 solution is reducing food waste, and the number 4 solution is plant-rich diets. And those, I think, are really interesting because they are both about kind of the demand side of food, and they’re things that anyone can have an impact on, anywhere in the world, and probably see financial savings. Food waste, it turns out that roughly a third of the food that we produce around the world is not consumed. But you can imagine, right, how many resources are invested in food at every stage of the journey. And in regions of higher income, like ours, we tend to waste by choice—so we don’t like ugly produce, and we overserve, overbuy; we don’t necessarily treat food like the incredibly precious resource that it is. So it’s an opportunity both to reduce the emissions that are created by food waste but also to advance food security and address hunger, which is still a condition of life for nearly 800 million people around the world.
TM: Well, you know, I was surprised to see food waste also as number 3. It was like, wow, that’s amazing. That, and then the next one, I was also surprised about plant-rich diets. And we all so often hear about why you should cut your meat, and oftentimes it’s associated with health, that—
TM: —we’re eating too much meat. We don’t need that much meat, and it’s creating a lot of health problems for those who do have the luxury of having it—not to mention those of us in the Midwest who have to live around the corn and soy production, which is the intensive use of agrichemicals. And I think I have this one right, but right now the statistic I’ve been working with is 21 percent of greenhouse gases are caused by the way that we farm, so that anything to do with food and changing food, in the way we produce it, certainly could be a major contributor to greenhouse gases.
So Katharine, in your world, is that 21 percent about right for agriculture’s impact or contribution to greenhouse gases?
KW: I haven’t seen the 21 percent statistic. I would guess that it might actually be a little bit higher. We think that livestock production alone produces just under a fifth of global emissions—
TM: Oh, wow!
KW: —and most of the world’s deforestation. So by the time you take into account agriculture, beyond producing food for and producing livestock, I would imagine it could even be a bit higher. And what’s interesting, Theresa, we’ve talked about plant-rich diets and reducing food waste. The food sector within Drawdown represents 8 of the top 20 solutions, and it’s the largest sector for potential impact overall. And that’s because it also includes a whole suite of regenerative agriculture practices that can, in some cases, not just avoid emissions but also tap into the power of photosynthesis to bring carbon back home and sequester it in plants and soils.
TM: Yes, I’m so glad that you brought that up. One thing that really strikes me about 3 and 4 and some of the other food-related Drawdown topics is that it isn’t just about, now, the fact that it could help mitigate climate change and maybe even sequester carbon, but it turns out that it’s probably healthier for us. Our personal health definitely is going to be way better if we reduce the amount of meat that we consume and look at more diverse diets that are, as you put it, plant-rich diet. That’s just common sense, I think, at this point.
KW: Yeah, the whole food sector is full of kind of win-win-win-win-win sorts of solutions. So, as you’ve said on plant-rich diets, there’s a great benefit for chronic disease and health-care costs, not to mention the pollution from intensive livestock production, not to mention the inhumanity of many of those systems. But when you think about all of these different regenerative agriculture solutions, they are also the means of restoring our soil to health. And without healthy soil, fat chance we’re going to be able to continue farming effectively far into the future. So that is a really critical area where, even if you totally ignored the emissions impact, it’s a direction that we would want to go.
TM: Yeah, well, here in the Midwest, for every bushel of corn that we grow, we lose two bushels of soil, going down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico, which has now got a dead zone that was the size of Connecticut but now is even larger. So certainly, once again, lots and lots of reasons besides mitigating climate change for changing food.
Number 6, which really stood out for me: educating girls. Of course, number 7 was family planning. Can you talk a little bit about that? I think that someone who was just going to open it up and say, “What? What does that have to do with drawdown?”
KW: I’d love to. I would love to talk about it. So there’s a sector in Drawdown that we call “Women and Girls.” So we cover kind of a whole host of sectors: electricity, materials, transport, land use, food… And one of the sectors that we cover is called “Women and Girls.” Why is that the case? Well, of course women and girls are relevant to every single solution in Drawdown, and we need women’s leadership across all of the solutions. And in fact, you could argue that women and girls have the greatest stake in the solutions because we know that the impacts of climate change hit women and girls the hardest. Just one statistic: in some cases, women and girls comprise up to 90 percent of those injured or killed in a natural disaster.
TM: Oh gee…
KW: So you think about existing vulnerabilities, particularly in situations of poverty, and women and girls really are set to suffer the most, and frankly already are. But there’s also another side of that story, which is that gender equity is itself a climate solution while also shoring up resilience. And two of the three solutions within that sector you’ve mentioned—number 6, educating girls, and number 7, family planning. What’s that about?
So educating girls, there are more than 130 million girls today who are denied their basic right to go to school, around the world. And you can imagine all of the reasons why that matters, because education leads to ripple effects on better health and financial security and more agency at home, at work, in society. But there’s also a ripple effect on population, and thus on emissions. So for a variety of reasons, women with more years of education choose to have fewer children and they more actively manage the size and spacing of their family. And if you add up that ripple effect on fertility rates across the world and over time, securing this fundamental right for girls to go to school will affect how many of us are inhabiting the planet at midcentury. Now, that’s not why girls should be educated, but it is a really meaningful outcome.
And if education is one side of a coin, family planning is the other. So we look at the importance of closing the gap on access to high-quality voluntary reproductive health care and contraception. Another sort of shocking statistic is that in the U.S. today, 45 percent of pregnancies are still unintended, and 214 million women in lower-income countries say they want to decide whether and when to become pregnant but they don’t have access to contraception. So there’s this great opportunity, again, to address what women say they need and to advance well-being and equality, and also to have this ancillary benefit of slowing population growth—which means, you know, fast-forward to 2050, less demand for food, transportation, electricity, buildings, goods, right? All of those things that have an impact on emissions. So if you actually add up educating girls and family planning, they turn out to be the number one solution within Drawdown. Advancing gender equity is the most impactful thing we can do to address global warming.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, Vice President of Communications and Engagement at Project Drawdown, which is all about how we can sequester carbon and mitigate our rapidly changing climate. Katharine is also the author of Drawdown, which is The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. And we’re talking about the role of educating girls and women and family planning as a major component of what we can do to actually help mitigate climate change. And it’s very exciting to hear that this is something that seems very accessible.
Another two that are on the top 12 that do make sense, and of course you expect that they’ll be there, is wind turbines and solar farms.
KW: That’s right.
TM: That seems like low-hanging fruit.
KW: Yeah, we’re seeing the growth in solar and wind around the world, and part of that is about climate change. Part of that is about money. So the cost of solar panels and wind turbines and their effectiveness has changed dramatically and more quickly than many predicted. So now you have situations where actually putting in a solar farm makes more financial sense than building a power plant. And I think that’s been really exciting and pretty game-changing. And when we think about distributed solar and other forms of distributed energy and micro-grids, this is another place where we see kind of a win-win-win, which is there are still 1.1 billion people around the world today who don’t have access to electricity. And we don’t have to build the grid in the way that we once did to bring electricity to all of the people who need it. You can have a standalone solar panel and battery storage, or a solar light, or a micro wind turbine, and provide electricity right on-site, which is an incredible opportunity to enhance livelihoods as well as to address emissions.
TM: The other two I really just want to make sure we touch bases on are the agricultural—and these are on the top 12. And you have silvopasture.
KW: One of my favorites!
TM: I know what it is, but I think it’d be great if you could talk to our listeners who might not know exactly what silvopasture is.
KW: I would love to. I’ve become maybe the president of the silvopasture fan club these last couple of years. Yeah, it’s the number 9 solution in Drawdown, which I think is a big surprise to a lot of folks. And silvopasture comes from the Latin for “forest” and “grazing,” which tells you a lot of what you need to know about silvopasture. It is a system that integrates livestock and trees in different kind of ways, and it’s not some newfangled technology. It’s ancient practice. And again, I feel like I’m becoming a broken record here, but it’s advantageous for many reasons. Farmers can have multiple products coming to market on different timelines. These systems are more resilient to extreme weather and drought. But the price of entry to the party, the drawdown party, is about emissions. So if you compare a pasture with trees to a pasture without trees, the pasture with trees sequesters five to ten times more carbon, which is pretty incredible.
TM: That is incredible.
KW: So you have an opportunity over the next 30 years for silvopasture to scale, and it works best in kind of warmer and more humid parts of the world. But it could reduce almost a year of our annual emissions today.
TM: Wow! That’s a lot. And of course—
KW: Pretty cool!
TM: Yeah, pretty cool! And of course, if we used that kind of system for raising our meat, we would not probably raise as much meat, correct?
KW: Yeah. So what we know is that between silvopasture and then managed grazing, kind of an intensive rotational grazing, which also can sequester soil carbon—not to the same degree as silvopasture, but it’s also effective—we have some options for how to continue raising livestock for dairy or for meat. But we have got to do that at the same time as we reduce the amount of animal-based protein we consume globally. And so again, it’s about always seeing these solutions as part of a system. There are no silver bullets, but when you start to pull those whole suite of levers, we can really see some change.
TM: Well, for our listeners, we probably are not going to get to all 100 of these drawdowns. But if you go to www.drawdown.org, you’re going to see that whole list and also the book, a New York Times best seller, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. And it feels like if we did even half of the things, of the 100, that we probably would be mitigating climate change in a very substantial way.
KW: So we need to pursue all of them and then some. But I think what’s really incredible about Drawdown and about bringing this whole mosaic of solutions together into one resource in a way that they have never been gathered before, is it becomes so clear that there are footholds of action for every person, every community, every institution on the planet. And indeed we need everyone stepping into the footholds at hand.
TM: Katharine, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. I do want to remind those people out there who are listening: we have a November election coming up—
KW: Oh yes!
TM: And I’m hoping that everybody gets out there and votes, because when we vote we are voting for some of these drawdown ideas coming into actualization, because some candidates are certainly more in favor and more acknowledging of our problem and willing to take some real big steps towards change. So I think that’s what we’re looking for. But it’s so important for us to exercise our right to vote.
And Katharine, it’s such an honor to talk with you, and thank you so much for your great work. And I’m really looking forward to following you as you weave through a lifetime, I have a feeling, of trying to make these solutions come to fruition. Thank you so much.
KW: My pleasure, Theresa. Thanks again, and thanks to all of your listeners for taking an interest in Drawdown.
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