Dr. Alexander Moore
Courtesy photo
Dr. Alexander Moore

Changing our lives to curb climate catastrophe

Alexander More, an environmental health scientist and scholar, says that an interdisciplinary approach to research raises difficult questions about how much we’re doing — or not doing — to address the problem of climate change

BRATTLEBORO-The Windham World Affairs Council (WWAC) will continue its America 250 Speaker Series at 118 Elliot on Sunday, April 28, with climate change scientist Alexander More, an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a research scientist at Harvard University.

His talk, "10 Things You Think Will Save the Planet, but Probably Won't ... and What Will," reflects his extensive research on the impact of climate change on the health and economy of populations and ecosystems worldwide.

More grew up in southern Italy, where his parents are from, and came to the United States at age 17. After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, he entered a doctoral program at Harvard in a focus of his own creation with a full scholarship.

"I petitioned the graduate school to allow me to create an interdisciplinary Ph.D.," More told The Commons in a recent interview. "There was no program that covered the issues I was trying to address all together, so I covered environmental science, economics, and public health."

More's work has been published in academic journals and in periodicals such as The Washington Post, The Guardian, Popular Science, Forbes, Smithsonian Magazine, Newsweek, Natural History Magazine, Archaeology Magazine, as well as several European publications. He has spoken widely and, according to a WWAC press release, has authored "several landmark studies of the impact of climate on pandemics and pollution, and [is] an active contributor to the fields of environmental health, health economics, sustainability and planetary health."

What follows is an edited version of an interview with More, in which he shares additional thoughts on climate change - and what it will take to really do something about it.

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Annie Landenberger: I'm curious about this statement in the [WWAC] press release: "By using ultra-high-resolution climatic, epidemiological, ecological, and archeoscientific records, Dr. More brings recent drastic environmental changes into a broader perspective, one that allows stark comparisons between current and past trends in temperature, pollution, pandemic, disease, and extreme weather, all of which directly impact food production, human health, economic prosperity, and political stability."

Can you tell me more?

Alexander More: I work with data from all over, from public health - how many people get sick because of what diseases - from economics - how do social determinants such as poverty and location affect people's health - and of course from environmental records [...] such as records of rain and storms, and I combine all these things because in my research I've found that focusing on only one of these fields gives us a very partial view of reality.

You have to have a much broader view of the effects of this massive problem and one discipline will not do. That's why I use data from as many sources as possible. That is also why my Ph.D. was interdisciplinary, why my post-doc was, and why my lab is.

In the talk, I want to discuss how media - and especially certain companies' marketing lately - have tried to capitalize on solutions that aren't really solutions to climate change.

Perhaps the most common one that we see on our roads every day is the EV, which is powered by a massive lithium battery. The lithium can be sourced from three major places in the world; it's destroying ecosystems in all those places and is also taking land and threatening the water of Indigenous communities where those minerals can be sourced.

Not to mention the "latest and greatest" idea that this bunch of people had, which is to mine the deep ocean to get these minerals in order to continue to run our car culture instead of actually converting to truly sustainable solutions for the future.

There are a lot of those "solutions." They make us feel better for a moment because that is what advertising is about - making you feel good about what you're doing, that it's OK, but in reality we're not solving the problem.

We're still seeing that in the effects of climate change. We're still seeing that in the effects of pollution that continues to rise. Because Clare [Morgana Gillis, historian, journalist, and WWAC board member] is a good friend of mine, I felt confident enough to have this conversation that is otherwise pretty tricky.

A.L.: So how should we be getting around?

A.M.: Public transportation. Like every other developed country in the world.

You can see examples of various very effective climate policies and measures that improve the standard of living of an entire nation in the most recent public transportation systems in countries like Spain and France. A train route in Spain similar to the New York–to–Boston route would take 70 to 80 minutes. In the U.S., it takes us, on average, four hours.

Now, the federal Inflation Reduction Act [aka the "climate bill" energy.gov/lpo/inflation-reduction-act-2022] has a lot of funds for redoing the rail system - for improving it - but I don't expect we're going to see a high-speed train between Boston and New York anytime soon.

Other solutions are to redesign our cities and redesign the way we work in more efficient ways so we don't have to commute an hour and a half each morning to go to work.

We thought the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that you didn't have to do that and you still could be productive. Apparently, we did not learn that lesson, and it's not because of productivity. It's most likely driven by that fact that commercial spaces still need to be commercial.

Meanwhile, we have a whole housing crisis- especially in New England. These commercial spaces could actually be repurposed for affordable housing.

A.L.: Are there any visionaries with power who would take a lead on such redesign?

A.M.: I don't currently see anyone in the private sector advocating in serious ways that are actually doable, achievable, feasible. The Inflation Reduction Act is the largest piece of climate legislation that's ever been passed. There are a lot of funds in it for these solutions, but how long it's going to take for all this to actually be implemented - especially given that someone coming into the White House in January could completely repeal or remove all these things - I don't know.

Policy is incremental change: It's not drastic. I think as far as we have seen for the past four years, given the composition of the Congress, we've made huge progress that just didn't happen before, so that's great.

Hopefully it'll continue; hopefully the composition of Congress will make it so that it'll be easier to pass laws instead of getting stuck.

A.L.: Thinking about your talk's title, it's interesting what you say about electric vehicles.

A.M.: if you drive EVs in an area that has only renewable power, they actually do have a positive effect. They lower pollution, and if you drive them long enough, the carbon footprint is offset.

It takes more carbon to produce an EV than a regular car, but in certain areas of the world - very few, where there's only renewable energy - one could make the argument that they're not so bad. Costa Rica, for example is 99% renewable; Iceland pretty much is all renewable energy.

I'm just saying they're not the solution to the problem.

Carbon offsets, however: if you fly, companies will give you an option to pay $10 extra to offset your carbon footprint, and nobody knows what that is, but it certainly makes you feel better if you do it, right?

So essentially, these funds are paid into schemes where the company you're paying money to will give the money to another company that will say they used that $10 to protect this forest, and so this forest is going to capture more carbon.

In principle, it's a great idea; in practice, what this has fueled is schemes where money has completely disappeared. There's no way to track whether those forests are in danger or not, and in most cases they aren't, and sometimes those forests don't exist at all.

Investigative journalists have shown all of this in recent months; they've uncovered a massive scheme to just enrich a couple of people and not actually solve anything.

What will solve something is flying less. There are people who fly multiple times a week for work. That's insane. I can't imagine that anyone who does that understands the true implications of what they're doing, especially if you scale it to millions of people.

One of the main solutions, perhaps, to this massive problem is that we have to be thinking about our personal behaviors as consumers in terms of eight billion people, not in terms of one - and, if not eight billion, because half the world's in poverty - then four billion putting their finger on one button all at the same time.

Whatever that button does is going to be unsustainable, because four billion people doing the same thing at once is not sustainable.

David Attenborough says the only thing that is sustainable is whatever you can do forever. You can't fly every day forever. You can't leak methane or use methane forever, which heats the planet 80 times worse than carbon dioxide.

All I'm saying is perhaps we should start being aware that we're fooling ourselves.

A.L.: I use the argument about carbon footprint as to why my partner and I are not doing any big air-travel holidays, and yet folks who travel a lot say, "Well, the plane's going to fly whether you're on it or not." But if fewer of us make reservations, they won't need to fly as many planes....

A.M.: We have the memory of the pandemic, when people didn't fly as much and fewer planes were leaving each airport.

People say, "I can't do anything myself because it's just me: All I can do is vote, and I'm not even sure that does anything."

You vote with your dollars every day. Every time you put down a dollar for any product, you're voting to either save the planet or not save the planet. You're voting to maintain an unsustainable market, or you're voting for local farmers and a lower carbon footprint. You're voting.

Whether or not you want to participate, you are because you've got to survive. You can't not buy food, so you're voting.

It's just that people don't realize the market impact of 300 million people doing the same thing in the U.S. - if 300 million people stopped eating meat, for example.

I was interviewed a couple years ago about how meat consumption is driving the deforestation of the Amazon and how that has a climate impact.

Beef is taking all the water. It takes, what, 400 gallons to make a quarter-pounder burger?

The audience said, "Well, you know, nobody's ever going to give up meat," and I showed them a map of meat consumption worldwide: The highest consumption rise worldwide is in China, and the lowest consumption is in India, which just now exceeds the population of China - around one billion - and yet India has worldwide the lowest consumption of meat, while China has the fastest growing consumption of meat.

So what is it we can't do exactly? Why is it? Because Hindus consider cows sacred.

It's culture. They choose not to do that for religious reasons.

It's something a billion people in India decide not to do - not to eat beef, the most carbon-intensive meat in the world. There's a natural demonstration here that this is possible.

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More will speak to the Windham World Affairs Council at 118 Elliot in Brattleboro on Sunday, April 28 at 5 p.m. Admission is free, but a $10 donation is suggested and registration is encouraged at WWACmigration.eventbrite.com. If you are unable to attend in person, a Zoom link is available upon registering.

For more information, visit windhamworldaffairscouncil.org.

Annie Landenberger is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to these pages.

This News item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.

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