On the Side of Climate Solutions: An Interview with Paul Lussier

By: Janet K. Swim, John Fraser and Nathaniel Geiger

Two days after the 2016 presidential election I found myself eavesdropping on Paul Lussier and a group of students at the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment as they discussed the future of climate science. The students feared that the things they held dear—renewable energy, sustainable development, ecological conservation (and no doubt their careers)—would be derailed by Donald Trump, who has expressed skepticism about climate change.

I listened as Lussier, who directs the Yale Science Communications with Impact Network, reminded them how researchers, businesspeople, policymakers, and media can work together to inspire action around climate change, regardless of the government’s stance on the issue.

The following is an edited version of our conversation.

Catherine Halley: You’re a literary critic by training and spent a long time as a journalist. Where does your affinity for science come from?

Paul Lussier: Through media. I was both a producer and a buyer of programming, as well as a writer. My experience with the Discovery Channel really prompted me to see that the media world was stuck in a single-issue, literal-minded, planetary care and responsibility and stewardship ethos. We were trying essentially to activate people around the science and activate planetary concern. The bottom line is, it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t activate people?

It doesn’t activate people and it doesn’t operationalize strategy. Say we want to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius. So what do I do about it: recycle, reuse? No one knows where to begin.

In the media world we didn’t have a way to produce audiences and revenue with put-the-planet-first environmental messaging. We now know through research that there’s a very small group that responds to that science-based message, and they sit at the top of the Abraham Maslow humanistic triangle of constant fulfillment. That’s less than one percent of the entire global population.

I left the Discovery Channel and the media world to begin to research communication architectures where different stakeholders, who might even be hostile to each other, might all come together to achieve outcomes that were congruent with, but not driven by, planetary and science-based concerns.

You did some work on emergency preparedness in Mozambique?

Ostensibly I went there to help improve people’s climate IQ. You learn really, really quickly the second you do that, that nobody cares about climate change. People don’t have a way of understanding it or appreciating it. So we pulled together a series of partners. We said, “How can we achieve a result that is congruent with climate action, relies upon the science of climate science, but also has the capacity to engage the public. How do we do it?”

That was really the birth of the work that I do now, because we learned that the only people who really needed to know about the science were the meteorologists. They become the heroes who warn their audience that the frequency and the intensity of typhoons in the area were going to grow, explain why they’re not anomalous, and help the residents prepare.

“We need to transform climate change into an opportunity for people to act on what they care about.”

All of my work since then and everything that I do is much less about how to communicate science, and much more about how to make science relevant to the things people care about, period.

We have an enormous opportunity to see and view and treat climate change as nothing but essentially a big, huge house of narratives that we can all connect to. That’s what we haven’t done. We have treated it monolithically as an issue.

In Mozambique, we began to see possibilities of developing networks between sectors who don’t speak to each other already, to treat climate change as a connective tissue. We need to transform climate change into an opportunity for people to act on what they care about, saving lives, social justice, feeding themselves, etc.

The brunt of the challenge for you is not that there’s no basic science literacy, because it’s not science that you’re trying to translate or that you think needs to be translated?

Correct. As far as I’m concerned, we can stop right now, because we have more than enough science to engage the world in action. We don’t need to be told this twice. We need to be told this once right, and that’s not what’s happening.

Instead, we need to be creating outlets for publishing new research projects that are based specifically on colloquies between science and policy, science and business, etc.

What do you mean by “climate action”?

Take natural gas—big, bad natural gas, fracking, etc. Well, guess what? Science tells us that we need a transition fuel. Science tells us that renewables are likely not going to scale fast enough, so we have a transition problem. We think, “Okay, natural gas, got it.” It burns half as clean as oil and coal, but it requires investment. Who’s going to invest in a 50% natural gas solution, with all of the cultural, political, social barriers that are preventing natural gas from even being distributed?

Tackling that problem systemically, for me, that’s a climate action. Aggregating research projects, principals, protocols around that challenge and saying, “Okay, let’s lay down our ideological arms. We’re either going to all believe in the science or not. Either way, we need the possibility at least of a transition fuel.”

What that ends up being is a natural gas system. For example, there is a new turbine innovation that burns natural gas 100% cleanly, no carbon. It’s scalable; it burns more efficiently; it’s driven by super-critical CO2 instead of steam. If it were possible to scale it, it’s a 0% carbon solution. Natural gas is now not a 50% improvement. This is a 100% improvement.

“Before environmental science, science was always on the side of what we call ‘the cult of progress.’”

These big financiers say, “Okay, well, great, but it’s just a turbine and you want me to throw 10 million dollars at it.” But what about if that turbine were at the center of an ecosystem that would also address social, cultural, political, all the other concerns about natural gas that could actually advance the natural gas market? That’s more attractive to the financier.

And then what if you marry that turbine with a new technology that measures methane emissions and leakage? And new waste water technologies that allow the waste water from natural gas processing to not be buried underground, to be usable for agriculture and possibly even drinking? Combine that with less seismic fracking technologies, put them all together in a system, and let’s mix and match technologies and see if we can create an ecosystem that could address the moral hazards, the social concerns, the political concerns, the science concerns, the engineering concerns sufficiently to also invite huge investment. To me, that’s climate action.

How do you educate people? What’s the outreach, or how do you educate people about it? I heard you talking to some students, asking them to think about somebody in rural Pennsylvania, who has worked in coal mines their entire life. How do you educate those people and get those people on board for these new systems?

I think you don’t educate them period. What you do is bring them opportunity. You want a climate action? There are enormous opportunities, you know, to zero in. I made that mistake in Mozambique. I went to Mozambique to try to tell people and educate them about climate change and expect them to not cook their food on charcoal-driven stoves. I’m really going to expect that to happen? Yes, in my imperial colonial, affluent, liberal, Western-minded way, I actually thought I could do that. I was wrong. The answer is, if climate change scientists, sociologists, policy makers, entrepreneurs could come together, we would develop alliances that would retrain coal mining workers and provide opportunities. Now that’s a climate action.

How does this relate to your work here at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Science?

Obviously we have to transition out of coal. I train students to bring everyone to the table. I teach them the specific languages that we need to ultimately understand and be sufficiently fluent in, to be able to transpose science and business. Each sector has different language determinants; they have different values. I ask them to think: What are basic core values that drive the narratives of the partners that you’re involved with? That gets increasingly more specific. That’s number one.

Number two: We teach them the skills to facilitate conversations across the various sectors. How do we as scientists and policymakers address each of these sectors? Then how do we facilitate conversations between these sectors?

Thirdly, we teach a series of very basic communication processes and methods by which you achieve collaborative systems. That’s why I’m here. That what I do, which is moving us off the advocacy dime and moving us into the activation dollar.

Do you see any conflict there with scientists who are trained in some ways not to be activists or not to be persuasive or to use rhetoric to persuade?

Yes, and some do and some don’t. I’m very cut and dry about that. The scientists that do will be part of the solutions of tomorrow. The scientists that don’t will have the dusty offices in the corner without the windows. You want a strong opinion on that?


Engage or lose. I made this mistake in the media for 20 years. Environmental science itself changed the game of science. Before environmental science, science in my view was always on the side of what we call “the cult of progress.” It was essentially driven by physics, and then engineering was supported by what the culture of physicists had to say. When you’re going to the moon, and scientists are essentially converging on getting us to the moon, there isn’t a heck of a lot of questioning of the way we live our lives. There’s a kind of consensus that science essentially supports progress. Science speaks on behalf of progress. Well, climate change and its environmental science reared its little head and said, “Well, wait a minute, how are we defining progress here, because there’s something happening.”

The second you step into that, call it what you want, it isn’t objective anymore. You, your science, the objectivity of your practice are now questioning the heart of the values that we live, period.

What about the people whose religion tells them it doesn’t matter because this is part of “God’s plan?”

People are matrices, and they’re enormous. In fact, in my class that question comes up all the time, and we work specifically with religious groups on this. Every person is more than the belief system or the defense mechanism that you trigger when you challenge them.

And we all welcome that opportunity?

I talk about the ability for you essentially to begin to take hold of your community with new energy solutions that ultimately might better meet your needs and how climate change becomes an opportunity for you to diversify your energy portfolio. How climate change becomes an opportunity for your farm to be more productive and better compete in a globalized environment. How climate change is an opportunity for you to have more of the sense of empowerment and self-determination in your life. How climate change ultimately gives us an opportunity to really talk about what we mean—whether you’re a rancher or whether you’re Native American—by “seizing public lands.”

What is this about? What if the Dakota pipeline folks—and and my class was working on this project—if all of us had taken that Dakota pipeline situation and not made it a Native American indigenous issue and not made it an environmental issue and instead made it an issue that every single religion is concerned about—that their sacred sites are ultimately being trampled by progress? Every single religion ultimately had an opportunity to connect.

To answer your question: The way we address this in my view is stop focusing on trying to change people’s religious beliefs. That’s what we do in the classroom. We map out people in quadrants: egalitarian, communitarian, hierarchical.

What are all these things ultimately that move the needles of these communities? What are different narratives ultimately that climate change can allow you to embrace? Those connections are there. They’re all there.

The news is so negative about climate change. All you see is doomsday, and there’s nothing else out there. I imagine there’s a lot of opportunity to shift the conversation to these kinds of things. Is anybody doing that already?

What I intend to do here is produce an entire fleet of next generation climate researchers—what I call solutionists.

It’s really inspiring to hear you talk after the 2016 election because so many people who work in climate think that the government is responsible for fixing these things and there’s not going to be funding in the U.S.

They do, and to some degree this is true. I said to my students exactly what you just said. I’m like, “Uh-huh, and how is your worrying about a job any different from the coal people worrying about their job? And we need to be a little bit more worried about their coal jobs, and you would see that we both have something in common now. You’re panicked. Guess what? Coal miners are too.”

“I cry when I kayak, okay?”

It may be that sometimes we need to adjust. If we find that a two-degree target is incompatible with putting food on people’s plates, then you know what? We’re going to have to focus as much on resilience and adaptation and proceed apace, and then develop networks of resilience and adaptation. We cannot do this without people, ignorant, stupid, lecherous, red neck, psychopathic, etc.

Do you want to win? Do you want to win at this? Do you want to win this through ideology and have a better liberal barefoot Contessa, Birkenstock world? I’m right with you. I cry when I kayak, okay?

At the end of the day there are not enough of us who cry while kayaking to make it work. Do you witness your ideology by what the world should be like, or do you want to solve this problem? If you want to solve this problem, you have got to change as much as the others do. It’s painful. I don’t say this lightly. It took the few hairs I have and several nervous breakdowns to get to me to this point, but we’re there.
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