In This Episode
Our health is inevitably tied to the health of our planet. At COP26, the world’s leaders tried to save it—but did they do enough? We speak to Prof. Jisung Park, an environmental economist, about how climate change is shaping inequality, and about what we hoped for and what we got from COP26.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: COVID cases are spiking in Europe right now. Meanwhile, cases are starting to creep up here, too. Pfizer has asked the FDA to approve its booster for all adults as new evidence emerges that its efficacy may wane over time. President Biden has nominated Dr. Robert Califf for FDA commissioner. He led the agency under the Obama administration, but since, he’s consulted with Big Pharma. This is America dissected. I’m your host, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed. It’s a conceit of our individualistic society that we’re in control of our own health. If we eat the right foods and do the right workout, if we take the right medicine or get the right procedure, then we can all live the long, healthy life we desire. We’re all the captains of our own ship. But so much of what happens to a ship is a function of the seas on which it’s sailing. And right now, those seas are choppy and the sea level is rising. As we’ve discussed quite a bit on the show, environment shape health in some profound ways, it’s whether or not you can take a walk in your community and know you won’t be victimized by a neighbor or even the police. It’s whether or not you can get to healthy food options or if you can afford them if you’re close. It’s whether or not the air you breathe has been polluted by some corporation next door, or the water you drink is safe and healthy or leaking lead from infrastructure long since ignored or forgotten. But zoom all the way out and the boundary of our human environment is the Earth itself. And right now, that environment is suffering. For the past 200 years or so, since the industrial revolution, when we decided we would burn the black sooty stuff we found underground to power our mills, heat our homes, and drive our vehicles, we’ve released huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. That carbon acts as insulation, trapping the sun’s heat, heating the Earth. What’s worse is that we have destroyed the Earth’s own buffer, its forests, through deforestation. Trees that would have once pulled carbon out of the atmosphere are now replaced by cattle that release carbon in one of its most harmful forms: methane. As the Earth heats, the polar ice caps have begun to melt, the summers have gotten hotter and drier, and the winters more severe. Climate patterns that reflect the complex interplay between heat, moisture, and geography have delivered once-in-a-century storms many times every summer, historic flooding and massive wildfires. Those wildfires burn more trees, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. And that vicious cycle I’m describing here, that is climate change. It’s threatening humanity and our environment in some really severe ways. If it’s not the storms, floods, and fires that are destroying people’s lives and livelihoods, it’s the receding coastline swallowing up whole island nations. It’s turning once prospering communities into climate refugees. And as more of a struggle over fewer and fewer resources, that’s bound to cause violence, which turns yet more people into refugees. But it’s not just these disasters in the making, it’s also the subtler ways that a few hotter days can shape everything from students’ test scores to the likelihood of a worker getting injured on the job, as our guest today has discovered. It’s these subtle consequences that can shape lives, livelihoods, and society in ways we don’t always perceive because they aren’t always obvious. And yet they can have massive long-range consequences over time. Who suffers worst of all? Society’s marginalized, who racism and inequality have robbed of the basic resources they need to protect themselves. Inequality will get worse. So in addition to mitigating climate change itself, we have to learn to adapt, to protect the most marginalized people from the inevitable consequences of a heating planet. Make no mistake, climate change is the single greatest public health challenge of our time. Over the past two weeks, leaders, policymakers, and activists from around the world came together in Glasgow, Scotland, for COP26, a global climate summit.
[clip of Boris Johnson] Welcome to Glasgow! If we don’t get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Climate change, along with being the most existential policy challenge we face, is also one of the hardest to solve. The fossil fuel corporations are powerful and they spend their money to influence politics in countries all over the world. In fact, the single largest delegation to the COP26 meeting was from fossil fuel industry lobbyists. Here’s the climate activist Greta Thunberg leading a protest in Glasgow:
[clip of Greta Thunberg] This is no longer a climate conference. This is now a global north greenwashing festival. A two-week long celebration of business as usual and blah blah blah.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: No more blah blah blah. After all, how many more men in suits are we willing to listen to tell us about how much progress we’re making, only to watch every summer gets hotter than the last. Scientists tell us that time is ticking. Global surface temperature has already increased by 1.1 degrees Celsius, and is on pace to hit 1.5 degrees within the next two decades. The consensus of scientists believe that we have to stay under that 1.5 degree Celsius limit to avoid the worst, most permanent consequences of climate change, and that’ll require us to have net zero emissions by 2050. Given the existential nature of climate change, it’s hard to have hope. There were some important breakthroughs. India, one of the world’s largest and fastest growing economies, announced a target of net zero emissions by 2070. Leaders from over 100 countries, which contain 85% of the world’s forests, pledged to end deforestation within the next decade. And leaders from over 100 countries pledged to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. But these pledges, they’re just that. What speaks louder than pledges? Plans and policies. And there was little of that COP26, and last minute wrangling by fossil fuel lobbyists and larger nations watered down consensus agreements too. Rather than phase out coal, a last minute change of language had countries phasing down coal. As it is COP26 ended with no plan to keep global temperature rises below 1.5 degrees. The can was kicked yet again down the road. And back here at home, we’re still struggling to do our part. Make no mistake, the US is the single largest emitter of carbon in history, and yet we have yet to do much about it. President Biden is committed to a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030 and a net zero economy by 2050. But his keystone piece of legislation to achieve it, the Build Back Better plan, has yet to pass. And even that legislation’s most important climate policies have been gutted by a single senator whose fortune sits in the coal business. And yet it still contains $500 billion that will be critical toward achieving those aims.
Our guest today is someone who’s been watching COP26 and climate policy closely. As a climate and labor economist at UCLA, he studies the impact of climate change on human welfare and inequity. Professor Jisung Park on climate mitigation, climate adaptation and COP26 after the break.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: All right, can you introduce yourself for the tape?
Jisung Park: Sure. So my name is Jisung Park. I am an assistant professor at UCLA. I’m an economist by training. I specialize in environmental and labor economics.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: I am an accidental environmentalist. And the first person who ever told me I should be, is our next guest. We were having lunch at my favorite place in Oxford when we were grad students together. He was studying climate economics. I was studying public health. Given what we know now, it’s hard not to see them as almost the same thing. Professor Jisung Park studies the intersection between climate change and human welfare. He joined me to talk about how climate change may be getting underneath our skin, what that means for inequality, and how COP26 may or may not have helped. Just to note, this interview was scheduled last week.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Ji sung, thank you so much for taking the time. I really appreciate you joining us because, you know, we have a long, long history together, and I remember sitting in the covered market in Oxford when we were both grad students and you making the case to me that I should focus a lot more on climate change. That climate change was a public health issue. It took me a long time to understand it, frankly took me until I was serving in the city of Detroit’s to really understand what you were trying to tell me. But for our listeners, can you make the case as to why climate change is a public health issue?
Jisung Park: Sure. So Abdul, let me first take a step back and start by saying how much of a pleasure and an honor it is to be on the show to be recording this with you in person, actually.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: In person, in my basement.
Jisung Park: In Abdul’s basement. This is such a treat. So I really appreciate it. You know, I probably, the weather in the United Kingdom probably was not on my side in terms of trying to make the case. We were freezing our butts off most of the time in the covered market. But let me try to do my best here. So I think one thing to note is that I would imagine for most of your listeners—certainly this was the case back in, what was it, 2010 2011—most people probably associated the impacts of climate change with, you know, things like polar bears on melting ice sheets, the effects on ecosystems, on agriculture, maybe on sea level rise—more indirect effects, right, on the world and aspects of our society that may ultimately affect us humans. I think perhaps equally important are the direct effects on human physiology and cognition, and ultimately through those channels, on health. We’ve known for a long time that, I mean, you know, as a physician, right, that the human body is quite sensitive to temperature stress, both the brain and just the functioning of the, right, the physiological systems. But it hasn’t been until relatively recently that we’ve been able to sort of connect the dots in the real world to establish a clearer link between how changes in the climate that we live in may affect human health and well-being broadly. Happy to go into more details, but I think there’s been a shift in sort of our understanding and just to give you some data points, you know, heat already kills more people than all of the other natural disasters that we keep track of. And there’s reason to believe that the official statistics with regard to the heat-related deaths probably undercount heat-related mortality substantially. And then we could go on and talk about the effects of heat, those subtle effects of heat, on things like workplace safety, occupational health, things like that.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, you’ve done a lot of a lot of work in this respect, and I want to jump into that. But you know, one of the, one of the overwhelming movements in the space right now has been to relocate the frame of the debate from exactly those things, these far off environmental and natural phenomena, to the ways that our changing climate impacts people and impacts people in the kinds of places like Detroit where I used to, I used to serve. Your work has really focused on helping to measure and understand what the consequences of climate change are for human productivity and human health, with a real focus on the inequity of the impact there. Can you walk us through some of, some of your findings and what they tell us about the human impact of climate change?
Jisung Park: Absolutely, man. And I will try my best, but I just, you know, you know how much I am a child of the great outdoors. And so this is not to downplay the significance of the ecological impacts, but in some ways it’s to, in addition to those impacts, highlight how closer to home these effects yet. So maybe I’ll just walk you through a couple of studies that I’ve had a chance to work on recently. We’re trying to understand how heat affects something like workplace safety. And you may not immediately associate that with climate change, but it turns out that hotter temperature in a state like California, for example, may be responsible for upwards of 20,000 heat-related injuries and illnesses per year. Now how do you get to such a number? Well, a lot of it comes down to the fact that it appears to be the case that when it’s hot outside or even when it’s hot inside, a lot of these warehouses or manufacturing plants, right, are not air conditioned, it affects the likelihood that workers engaging in baseline dangerous work are hurt on the job. And getting back to sort of the statistics earlier, the vast majority of these cases are not counted as being heat related because they’re things like someone fell off of a ladder or, you know, they got their hand chopped off by a chainsaw, right? Or you got hit by a moving vehicle. The likelihood of these kinds of accidents appears to increase substantially on hotter days.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And that’s just heat-related stress, right. We just don’t focus as well when we’re hot.
Jisung Park: That’s right.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I know I don’t focus on as well when we’re hot.
Jisung Park: Well, part of the motivation behind my research was actually watching you sweat through the New York City subway, literally, as we were both in New York the summer.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Oh, I remember.
Jisung Park: Yeah. So that’s just one example of the myriad ways in which hotter temperature affects, it’s not clear exactly whether it’s because of its effects on cognitive function or focus or just fatigue, but the combination of those factors seems to result in an increase. And to your point about inequities, you know, I think one of the findings that concerns me most is just how much our previous sort of conclusions about how climate change is mostly a problem for those other people over there, by which we kind of mean people in the developing world, were based on—what is the adage—evidence, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It was just a matter of not having the granularity of data that allows us to see that actually, climate cuts closer to home. We’re already affecting many individuals, even in the United States, it just was hidden from view. And it’s just that the average effect in a place like the United States, which has, you know, 80+% of U.S. households have air conditioning, but for the 10 to 20% who don’t, right, it’s a much bigger effect. On average, it may not, it may not look that big if you use aggregated data, but—and we can talk about some of the advances in methodology that allow this granularity—but with the increased granularity, we’re able to see more clearly how how these climate cuts are manifesting course at home.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And one line of research that you’ve pursued is the impact of hotter days on test performance in kids taking standardized exams. Can you can share some of that?
Jisung Park: Sure. So this started with my Ph.D. research in New York City, where basically I found that high school students taking their exams, what were called regents examiners, they’re sort of like high school exit exams— think about the AP or an equivalent of that. A student who takes their exam, his or her exam on a 90-degree day, for example, appeared to do roughly 10% of a standard deviation worse than he or she would have on, say, a more pleasant 70-degree day. And this has real world consequences, right? I mean, these are exams that for the average student in New York City, often determine whether or not you’re graduating from high school and thus eligible to apply to college and so on. We actually document that it affects the likelihood of graduating from high school on time, which has ripple effects moving forward. And I guess the takeaway from that is, right, again, to highlight the inequity aspect of it, some schools have air conditioning, some don’t. And in other research, we find that the profile of air conditioning both at home and at school in the United States is very much something that falls along income and racial lines. And so you can kind of again, that’s just one example of the ways in which, you know, the climate we live in can have these subtle effects that are felt unevenly across the income distribution.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And of course, as the temperatures get hotter, the implications of that and the downstream implications for widening inequities are pretty profound. I want to move to this global climate summit. Can you just tell us a little bit about what COP is? COP 26 seems like just, you know, exactly, some other policeman, just COP number 26. Can you walk us through what Cop 26 was? What is it in terms of the goals that we had? And what is it about this idea of a 1.5 degree increase in global temperature that matters so much?
Jisung Park: Right? It’s like COP26 is like Fast and the Furious 19, but not very fast, increasingly furious.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I feel like climate change is pretty fast and pretty furious.
Jisung Park: Right. Well, the action on it not as fast as we want it to be. Right, so 26th iteration of what’s called the Conference of the Parties. Basically is the whole world, the world’s governments and other actors who care about climate change coming together to try to hash out a global agreement to try to limit our greenhouse gas emissions. You asked about the 1.5 degree target. I don’t want to start by being such a Debbie Downer, but I kind of feel like the two degree target is the more realistic target. And that itself is at least at the present moment, kind of a reach. The way I think about the 1.5 is more of an aspirational reminder that for some subset of the world’s population, passing 1.5 means what you might call existential damage. This is mainly for, you know, I’m thinking of the small island nations who literally, right, may no longer have a home in a world of 1.5 degrees. But I say that not to take the air out of our ambition, but just to be realistic about where we are in terms of emissions.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And so when you say two degrees is more realistic, what is that based on, and what are the consequences of getting the two degrees? I mean, and what kind of world will that be?
Jisung Park: There’s a lot to unpack here. So just some basic numbers, right? For most of human history, the concentration of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere was around, I want to say 250 parts per million. We’re at around 400 mm. And there’s obviously uncertainty. As your listeners know, there’s always uncertainty bounds around any number like this. And so 2 degree target, 1.5 degree target, there’s no like clear bright red line that we pass in terms of emissions that gets us to one target or another. But the reason why I say that two degrees seems more realistic is just that we’ve already emitted so much, right? And unless we are able to ratchet down emissions very quickly, and in addition—and here I’m talking about 1.5—to get to 1.5, it looks like when in addition to getting to zero emissions, right, we may need to get to negative emissions at some point. So just again, take a step back. Climate change is a stork problem, not a flow problem. You know, you all have the bathtub analogy, right? The amount of warming that occurs on the planet is a function of the stock, or the cumulative amount of emissions that are floating around in the sky, in the atmosphere. That’s something that is a product of the past 200+ years of human activity. So even if we were to turn off the faucet today completely and go to zero emissions today, that stock isn’t going anywhere. It’s just that the rate at which we’re adding to it is slowing down but because we’ve already emitted so much, right, unless we take stuff actively out—which hopefully will get to talk about later—we’re going to have trouble, you know, reducing the amount of warming. And we’ve already warmed by around 1 to 1.2 degrees. I personally find it really hard to conceptualize what 1.5 or 2°C global mean surface temperature means. It can all sound so abstract. Another way to think about it is, you know, 1.5 degrees of warming in the United States means that there will be places that experience 50 additional days per year above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. So like Atlanta, get something like 30 to 40 of those a year. Those are humid, hot days, right? And they’re going to double that by mid-century at the current pace. So I like to think of in those terms because it’s more tangible to me anyway, 1.5, increase of 1.5 actually sounds nice on a cold day in Detroit, right? Um, so I just want to get that out there for the listeners.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: It also means a vastly increased number of these storms and wildfires and potentially the inability to wind it all back, right? Because, you know, every time there’s a wildfire, there’s more carbon released into the atmosphere because you’re burning trees.
Jisung Park: They’re tipping points, for sure.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. And so this is what we’re after here. And just for folks to understand, right, part of the reason that the carbon matters, just, you know, to review a lot of this, the carbon matters because it traps heat in our atmosphere and that’s what heats up. It’s like insulation. We’re putting more and more insulation in our atmosphere to trap heat in the atmosphere, which leads to that, that warming, that makes global warming what it is. And climate change follow thereon. I want to just think a little bit about the geopolitics here because you’ve got this, this conference of parties, you’ve got all of these countries coming together and you know, you’ve got the Fijis of the world, the United States of the world and Indias of the world and the Chinas of the world, and there are a lot of challenges and tensions going in. Can you walk us through what some of the main ones look like?
Jisung Park: Yeah, so first of all, everyone who cares about this issue is crammed into a convention center in Glasgow, right, in the middle of November, you can just imagine the scene. Apparently former President Barack Obama, made a cameo recently. There’s a sense in which because there is no such thing as a global government per se, this is our best attempt at getting as close as possible to do. And why do we need that? Because, well, climate change is a global, fundamentally a global public good problem. Or put another way, it’s a global free rider problem, and you need the coordination of all of these parties to actually have a chance at solving this issue.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: When you say free rider problem, what you mean by that?
Jisung Park: Remember how hard it was to keep the common area, especially the kitchen, clean in the dorm room? It’s kind of like that, right? So everyone shares a particular space. Everyone through their natural daily activities contributes to the dirtiness of it. But you know, if we were roommates and you out of the goodness of your heart decide to clean up after me, well, I can free ride on that. And so there’s no, unless you have a coordination mechanism, right, that says, OK, Abdul pitches in on Mondays, Jisung pitches in on Tuesdays, [unclear] pitches in on Wednesdays, you need to have an enforceable mechanism for that. It’s hard enough, with three people. We’ve got 8 billion people and 168 different countries, right? That’s the nature of the challenge.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And there’s also just a fundamental inequity, right? Because some of us have been contributing to the dishes a lot longer than others. Can you walk us through that?
Jisung Park: Right. Yeah. Let’s run with this metaphor. So right, it’s like there are the college seniors who have already done all of their partying, they’ve done all their, you know, yeah, they’ve thrown their parties, they’ve contributed a lot to the mess already. And maybe now they’re like slowing down and focusing on their studies and trying to get a job, whereas—maybe those are like the UKs and the United States of the world who have with the benefit of cheap energy thanks to greenhouse gas-intensive fossil fuels, right, that’s what fueled the industrial revolution, grown a lot economically. And you’ve got other countries the Chinas, the Indias, the Bangladeshes of the world, the Brazils, who are in some sense now ready to party, wanting to grow quickly, catch up in terms of standards of living, which is, at the moment anyway, easier to do with cheaper fossil fuels. And so you have this tension because we all share a global climate but we have different priorities. We’re coming at it from different sort of starting places, both in terms of where we want to go in terms of economic growth and what that means in terms of emissions, and also historical emissions.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And so, you know, just as we are in the United States, we’re like the super senior who did all of the biggest partying.
Jisung Park: We’re the Big Lebowski! No, is that the wrong movie? No. Who’s the guy?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Animal House.
Jisung Park: Yes, right. Been around forever.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. And we’ve partied and and now we’re asking everyone else in effect to pay for our partying. So, you know, you got this conference of parties and we’ve got this dire circumstance where, you know, we have this aspirational goal of staying under 1.5 degrees Celsius. It’s looking like more like two, and it may even be hotter than that. Have there been any real wins at the COP26 conference?
Jisung Park: Yeah. So leave it to the economists to be dismal all the way through. Let me try to reverse that a little bit. There absolutely have been. Right, so again, let’s take a step back. The biggest win in my mind is the fact that the US is back, right? Just between a year ago today and today, it has been, I can’t describe to you Abdul how different the mood is in the circles that I inhabit professionally, people who care about climate change, people care about environmental policy, because both symbolically and substantively, it matters so much that the United States is serious about the issue and at least has the political aspiration, right, to do something about it, and to be there, right? Actually, there contributing. I think that in itself is a big win. It’s hard to say at the moment what the specific agreements will be from COP26. It looks like we’ve had a serious win in terms of agreement on deforestation, and let’s talk about why that’s important if we have time. I would hope personally, I’m hopeful that there will be some agreement in terms of climate finance, right? And this is kind of getting to the global aspect of the inequity you referring to where it’s sort of like the seniors saying, OK, like, look, we’ve benefited from the earlier partying, we’ll in some sense, if we can’t do your dishes for you will sort of pay you to buy you more time to do it yourself. That’s not the, kind of torturing the—
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: We’ll hire a house keeper.
Jisung Park: Thank you. Thank you. We’ll pay to hire a housekeeper for you. And that’s sort of this 100 billion pledge of climate finance. We’ll see whether we meet it. But to just get to the deforestation point, if I may, I think it’s really critical, both for climate change and just for ecological stability generally. Because deforestation is what I like to think of as sort of a triple market failure where one, you know, whenever you have deforestation going on, you’re contributing a surprisingly large amount of emissions. I think something like 11% of all global emissions come from deforestation, from land use change. So so there’s that global sort of carbon emissions externality. Two, there is a lot of biodiversity loss that happens, especially in tropical deforestation. I think the great biologist E.O. Wilson once said that chopping down or, often burning down tropical rainforests to plant soy or graze cattle, which is often what happens in the Brazils of the world, for example, is sort of like burning a Monet painting to cook a meal. Right? It kind of gets to what we’re losing. And that’s a market failure because there are no markets for biodiversity conservation, or at least not as much as we’d like. And then three, there is the market failure of local ecosystem services that are lost when you degrade and deforest. Things like, services like air purification, water purification. And actually the rainforest, the Amazon rainforest actually affects the amount of moisture in the local atmosphere, which affects the amount of rainfall in neighboring countries, which affects agricultural productivity. All of these things are so interdependent, and right now, because we don’t have good markets for, good institutions to sort of quantify and incentivize the preservation of those functions, we have so much deforestation, that again is sort of like burning Monet paintings to cook meals. It looks like this COP may make significant progress on the global coordination both of the finance and the messy details. The details really matter here in terms of how we’re going to incentivize people in developing countries to protect the forest there, while also making sure that they are incentivized and compensated for doing so in such a way that is commensurate with all of these goals that I just mentioned.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Because that’s the other side of it, right, is that, you know, you have a lot of folks living in a degree of poverty that we’d never, we would never tolerate in this country, and asking them to then bear the brunt of today’s action on climate change after we have made so much mess with it all, is fundamental inequitable. And so, you know, getting the details right to make sure that we are both promoting the capacity for these folks to come out of poverty and also to protect our natural resources and protect the globe itself from climate change, like that is the name of the game. I want to ask on the the role and the responsibility of the private sector. We see a lot of commercials from corporations, be it, you know, the Cariuma who
Jisung Park: So many more this year, it seems.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. Whether it, whether it’s a brand that, you know, plants a tree in the rainforest for every shoe that they sell, or on the other side of of it, people like Exxon and Chevron who are, you know, talking about their commitments to renewable energies, despite the fact that they are, you know, the world’s big purveyors of fossil fuels. How should we be thinking about the role of the private sector and their responsibility to taking on climate change?
Jisung Park: Yeah Abdul, that’s a great question. And if I could just start with a more meta kind of emotional point because I often, I don’t know about your listeners, I don’t know about you, I often feel somewhat emotionally schizophrenic when I’m thinking about these issues. Especially when you overlay the inequity aspect of it, because on the one hand, I believe that we have to be hopeful and optimistic as individuals to move forward and not let our indignation lead to what can sometimes be crippling fury get in the way of ways of wise discernment. On the other hand, it’s hard to separate the signal from the noise, especially given what looks like to me anyway, a ramping up of sort of ostensible climate commitments, especially from private sector actors. And it’s really hard for most consumers to know, OK, is this legit or is this greenwashing? How should I feel about this? And so what I’m getting at is it’s hard to maintain hope and sincerity in the face of reason for cynicism, I guess is the point I wanted to make. And your question about the private sector . . . I don’t know. Let me turn it around. What do you think? We’ve had back and forth—
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: On the one hand, I would be, I don’t think the Chevrons and the Exxons of the world, or the Saudi Aramcos of the world should continue to exist. I don’t think that corporations founded on the harvesting of fossil fuels should continue to be in a world where they’ve both done tremendous amounts of damage and then they prevent us from being able to achieve the world that that we need. At the same time, I think it is really important that the rest of the private sector orient around the kinds of practices that really do protect our environment. I think it’s great, you know, when a shoe company says we’re going to be really sustainable about how we make our shoes and we’re going to make sure that from, you know, the way we produce our shoes to the way that we box our shoes to the way that we ship our shoes, that there is a real investment in thinking about the externalities that could occur because of that. On the other hand, I think even the bigger picture, we have a real challenge in the way that corporations can influence the political space, which is secondary to what the corporations do in the first place. And so, you know, the Chevrons and the Exxon’s will likely continue to exist. I mean, you have some really great stories about activist investors changing the way that these companies move. Simply frankly, simply because, you know, in the long run, it’s no longer going to be lucrative to continue to produce a good that people don’t, that is fundamentally a bad. And yet these corporations can still spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every single day sometimes to shape both our perspectives on who they are and then what our politicians are willing to do about them. And so in some respects, I think about COP26 and I say, my question is, you know, there are some really good things that are happening, but a little bit of good in the face of impending bad is, still leaves you with that, you know, like you said this, this indignant fury about why leaders aren’t willing. I mean, for me, this debate comes back down to I’ve got a three-year old kid and she is going to inherit the world that we leave to her. And right now we are leaving her a tinder box. And it’s not fair.
Jisung Park: True. So let me maybe jump out of character and try to be a little more optimistic then. So first of all, at least from where I sit, I see a sense, a step change—and maybe this could be me projecting my optimism. Who knows? But it feels like there has been a step change over the past couple of years in the degree of at least stated willingness to change and invest on the part of really big corporate players. the Googles, the Amazons of the world. And sometimes when you peel back the, you know, when you peel back the layers of the onion and look into the commitments that they’re making they appear to be a little bit more hot air than substance, but in many cases I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the degree of substance. That being said, I think we should be cautious—again not to put on the professorial economists hat for a minute—but just fundamental economic theory suggests that when you have a fundamental market failure the likes of climate change, there are inherently going to be limits to the extent to which free markets will be able to solve that problem. And that is, my students are often surprised by this, it’s like, Oh, I didn’t know that was basic economics. Economics 101 suggests that when you have a market failure—of which anytime you have an externality or a public good problem, that is a market failure. So climate change is like, as the late Marty Wiseman put it, “the mother of all externality market failures,” you cannot rely only on private actors to solve the problem. What is, what I’m optimistic about is parts of the business community recognizing that it is in their interest to step in the gap that is placed by, the gap that is created by government failures, which can exist as well, recognizing that, hey, this is a serious enough problem. We’ve had our scientists and our data crunchers look at the issue and we know how bad it is. It may take a while for all of these individual national governments to get their political machinery in such a place where we can collectively regulate, right, the way we need to, whether it’s a global price on carbon, cap and trade, what have you. In the meantime, we understand that the young people of the world, the consumers who are educated, recognize this problem. And so being a first mover in this space, even when there isn’t as much government incentive created by regulation, that will be a win-win for everyone. I think that is legitimately possible and we’re seeing a little bit of that.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, and in some respects, right? What I’d love to see is the likes of a Google or even an Amazon, as much distaste as I have for Amazon, decide that they’re going to counter-lobby to the Exxons and the Chevrons of the world. Because you’re right, if it is a market failure, the solution set has to be provided by government and insofar as governments are failing to act as quickly as we need to act, then you have to ask, OK, so what, what does it really look like to put the pedal on the metal on this? Hopefully in your EV. So, I wanted to just talk a little bit about geoengineering. Some argue that it’s going to be impossible to achieve aims without pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. How should we be thinking about geoengineering?
Jisung Park: Great question. So, so let me differentiate two different types of geoengineering here. There’s the kind where you pull stuff out of the atmosphere, and then there’s the kind where you put more stuff in to try to prevent the warming. Where do you want to start?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Let’s talk about pulling stuff out first.
Jisung Park: Okay, so that’s the more, that’s the less controversial kind. That’s the kind of geoengineering where, as you put it, right, we’ve we recognize that we’ve overspent our carbon budget, we’ve put too much into the atmosphere. We need to take stuff out. There, there seems to be more optimism than certainly was the case when we were in Oxford 10 years ago. It’s, basic physics, right? When we put greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it stays there for many decades. Geoengineering, this form of geoengineering is using physics to our advantage to somehow pull it out faster, and then you saw it in limestone underground or what have you. My understanding is that it’s still quite costly, but the technology is proven. There are plants that are actively doing this today in Iceland, for example. I think the cost is still something like $500 per ton CO2. Compare that to, you know, carbon prices in the EU ETS market, for example, of 50. It still means we’ve got a ways to go. But but the investors anyway, of such enterprises seem to think that we’ll get there eventually.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And what about the other kind?
Jisung Park: So the other kind is much more controversial. Uh, and this is sort of the geostorm world where it’s planetary thermostat territory. There are many ways to do this, but the most, the kind that has received the most attention is—I don’t know if you’re familiar with the term SRM, Solar Radiation Management. Think of it essentially as putting shades on the Earth. Technically, we’re putting stuff into the stratosphere that would, you’re putting little particles into the boundary between the sky and space that, in a sense, reflects more sunlight back. So instead of pulling the greenhouse gas emissions that are keeping warmth in out of the atmosphere, you’re putting other stuff in that keeps a little bit of sunlight from coming in in the first place. Ten years ago, you were sort of booed out of the room for even mentioning it. Now I’ve seen very serious policy makers having very serious conversations about how SRM might need to be employed as what’s called a “peak shaving device” which is sort of an insurance mechanism against the most dangerous effects of warming. But I just want to say, personally, I find the fact that we’re in this situation to be very distressing. I don’t want to, I don’t want to engage in sort of armchair medical analogies, but I think it’s sort of like, it’s either triple bypass surgery or massive statin injections when we’re still thinking about exercise and dietary restrictions as the best options.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: It also speaks to the notion that a lot of these policymakers are giving up on our capacity to actually achieve the outcomes that we want at a place like COP26.
Jisung Park: Maybe. So I don’t know why I’m more optimistic. Maybe you’re setting me up to, you know, to counter my economist tendencies, which I appreciate Abdul. But I think we might—I don’t know, this may not be popular with your listeners—but I think it’s worth cutting the individual policymakers a little bit of slack, given that this is just, this is a really hard problem. You know, the political economy of this is ridiculously difficult, not just in the US. There are 700,000 Indian coal miners. So you can imagine the politics of trying to go off of coal in a place like India. It’s challenging. Yes, we should have done more. Yes, we should have heeded the signal sooner. It’s a fundamentally challenging issue. But I actually really think that there’s reason for optimism. You know, we’ve got these commitments. We made commitments in Paris that at least get us in the ballgame to attempt two degrees. And maybe even 1.5! Really, I didn’t mean to rule that out. It’s just that 1.5 will require some geoengineering of the former, the first kind.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I always appreciate the optimism. You know, I want to end finally on the human consequences again, where we started. And you know, you mentioned the 700,000 coal miners in India. What and how should we be thinking about protecting people from the consequences of climate change, and not just stopping climate change itself?
Jisung Park: Yeah. So this is this is where I think the conversation needs to go. And unfortunately, I don’t think at COP26 there will be enough time or bandwidth to talk about adaptation, which is the direction which I think has to go. By which by which I mean, while we are putting pedal to the metal, as you put it, to furiously ramp up emissions reduction, what we call mitigation, we seriously need to be thinking about adaptation as well. And the reason for that is because of the way climate physics works, it’s a slow-moving leviathan. There is a lot of momentum in the system. There’s a lot of warming that is baked in. And because as newly-emerging evidence suggests, the most vulnerable populations not only across countries but even within rich countries are going to face the brunt, it looks like the brunt of the warming that we’ve baked in starting today, even this past summer, right, with the record heat waves in the Pacific Northwest, for example. The data is suggesting that there are these hidden harms that are already happening. And there is a lot that both individuals and governments, national, state and local could do to proactively plan for a warming future, continual warming that we baked in, in such a way that at least blunts the most acute impacts of the warming that is unavoidable. And just to add one last thing, Abdul, this is, I think this is doubly important in part, because as you and I have talked about a lot in private, this warming comes amid a backdrop of growing economic inequality, particularly between the educational haves and have nots. Not only in the US, but in many societies, whether it’s the U.K., Germany, France, South Korea, where I recently spent some time. And it increasingly looks like unless there is smart policy action, both the costs of doing something about climate change and the damages from the climate change that is already occurring, may fall disproportionately on the sort of have nots of society. And again, not just in the developing world, but even in even closer at home.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: That was Ji Sung Park. He’s an assistant professor at UCLA. We deeply appreciate you joining us and it was a pleasure to have you.
Jisung Park: Pleasure’s all mine.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: As usual, here’s what I’m watching right now. Cases across Europe are spiking as we head into the holiday season. And now they’re starting to creep up across America too, particularly in the colder regions like the Midwest. Look, that’s not great, but I’ll be honest, this November, I’m a lot less worried than I was last November. Let me explain why. Europe has been about a month ahead of us throughout the pandemic, and COVID cases are popping off there. But let’s look deeper at what’s happening. Let’s look at the U.K., for example. Cases are up to where they were at the Christmas holiday last year, near the height of the UK’s largest and deadliest surge. On Christmas last year, there were 570 deaths in the UK. But right now, despite the same level of cases, the seven day average for deaths is 156, less than a third as many. What’s the difference? Vaccines! Last year, next to no one, had been vaccinated in the UK. Today, 68% of the UK has been vaccinated. Remember, though the vaccines are effective in reducing infection with COVID, that wasn’t the main point. They were tested for their ability to prevent symptomatic illness, not transmission. And they’re doing just that. There’s also way more testing than there was before. Meaning more of the cases that we’re seeing are asymptomatic. Let’s come back home. Not only have we reached more than 70% adult vaccination in the country, but the FDA will likely approve new oral antiviral pills that could cut the risk of hospitalization by 90%. They’ll be yet another powerful tool in our armament against COVID. All of this suggests that we may need to rethink the way we think and talk about COVID-19 right now. Cases going up or down may not be the best way to talk about it any more. Having lived through the horror of the past 20 months, most of which occurred without vaccines or effective medications, cases inevitably meant hospitalizations and deaths. But that’s changing. And so the weight we give to rising or falling case numbers with respect to public policy and personal decisions, that should change too. Look, I’m not saying that the pandemic is over. By no means. I repeat: the pandemic is not over. Best way to do that is to get more people vaccinated. And even for vaccinated people, long COVID is still a real risk. But in a recent study of about 1,500 vaccinated health care workers, people who by virtue of what they do have a higher risk of exposure than most of us, only about half a percent experienced symptoms lasting six weeks or longer. That’s seven people out of nearly 1,500 in the study. And importantly, we can never forget about people who are particularly vulnerable, like those who are immunocompromised, for whom it’s critical that we continue to drive vaccination rates higher to increase herd immunity and take care to protect them from the risk of infection. Toward that end, Pfizer has asked the FDA to approve its COVID-19 vaccine booster for all adults, given new evidence that its efficacy may wane over time. If you’re a regular listener, you know, I’ve been dubious of vaccine boosters, but the evidence demonstrating waning efficacy in a general population is convincing, and considering that a booster may reduce transmission as cases climb, this could be a valuable tool in the effort to get us beyond the pandemic. But it doesn’t help when the very people who are supposed to make decisions about drug safety and efficacy approval have been paid gobs of money by the same corporations they’re supposed to regulate. And that’s what it looks like is about to happen. President Biden nominated Dr. Robert Califf for FDA Commissioner Califf knows his way around the job. He ran the FDA under Obama. And I have no doubt that he could perform the job well, but he’s also consulted for the pharmaceutical industry since he left the job. To me, that should be disqualifying. And at the very least, the FDA under Dr. Califf should be required to demonstrate exactly how they’re going to guarantee that Dr. Califf’s past relationships won’t interfere with his leadership of the agency.
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Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: America Dissected is a product of Crooked Media. Our producer is Austin Fisher. Our associate producer is Olivia Martinez. Veronica Simonetti mixes and masters the show. Production support from Tara Terpstra, Lyra Smith, and Ari Schwartz. The theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Sugiura. Our executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Sandy Girard, Michael Martinez, and me: Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, your host. Thanks for listening.