The World is in Trouble if We Don't Solve the Climate Crisis
Updated: Nov 20, 2022
Note: transcription provided by Otter.AI, which is a technology company that develops speech-to text transcription and translation applications using artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Christopher H. Loo, MD-PhD: Welcome, everybody to this week's podcast episode for the financial freedom for physicians podcast. And I'm your host, Dr. Christopher Loo. And as you know, we talked about four different types of freedom: time, location, emotional and financial freedom. And as you know, our audience and guests started out as physicians, and now our brand has grown so that we are on the cutting edge, interviewing entrepreneurs, investors, business owners, people doing fantastic things. And really, the idea is to get empowering information out there so that you can become inspired, motivated, and educated and be more productive in today's volatile society.
So today, my guest’s name is Ethan Brown, and he's the founder and host of the PBS climate podcast, The Sweaty Penguin. But what's particularly interesting is, I want the audience and guests to really focus on change, social impact in creating a long lasting legacy, and really creating a better future for the next generation. So I'll even introduce myself. So Ethan, welcome.
Ethan Brown: Thank you so much for having me.
Christopher H. Loo, MD-PhD: Yeah, I really really love just talking to guests from all different fields and just assimilating trends and different ideas. So tell us more about yourself, and we'll get started into the conversation.
Ethan Brown: Sure. I am Ethan Brown, I'm 23 years old. And I am the host of The Sweaty Penguin, which is a comedy climate podcast presented by PBS as National Climate Initiative, Peril & Promise. And our goal is really to try to make climate change less overwhelming, less politicized, and more fun and more digestible. So definitely, feel free to check us out.
Christopher H. Loo, MD-PhD: Yeah, how did you get started in this, this was just something you felt called or was it you know, something you, your career, tell us more?
Ethan Brown: So going back to high school, I learned about climate change for the first time. I thought it was terrifying. I was super overwhelmed. But it didn't seem interesting to me, it wasn't something I wanted to go learn more about. And I think that that was kind of weird, because I felt like, if I'm going to do anything to help, I need to be able to learn about this. But I wasn't finding it interesting or compelling. So it took until I was going to college for film and television at Boston University. I felt like, if I'm going to be a storyteller, I need a story to tell how climate change seems so important. So I started taking some classes, and that was when it sort of came together for me that there's just so much more nuance to this than I had realized when I first learned about it that was just present in the news or whatever.
So I was kind of developing this environmental communication style in my early college years that was really about exploring nuanced, thinking critically, taking out the politics and just analyzing facts and having fun with that. And at the same time, I was running my college satire publication, The Bunion. For two years I had all this comedy writing experience and opportunity. And then when quarantine hit in early 2020, I was home bored for the first time in years. And I thought, okay, how can I kind of combine all of this together? And that's how The Sweaty Penguin was born.
Christopher H. Loo, MD-PhD: Oh, interesting. Yeah, yeah. I think for creatives, and digital entrepreneurs the pandemic was a great time for creative influx and innovation. So what's interesting is you describe climate change, as was really politicized. What do you mean by that? I’m just curious.
Ethan Brown: So I think that there is obviously climate science. Things like the greenhouse effect, carbon dioxide or other gasses will absorb solar radiation. And that warms the planet, things like that, which, yes, some people dispute. But that is an established fact. But then there are political questions, things like how do we decarbonize? How do we prepare for increasingly worse wildfires and hurricanes? How do we adapt? These sorts of questions? Do they not have the right answer? There are lots of different answers. And that's where policy can really come in. You can have a debate and that debate is good and constructive about how to solve these problems. So very often, I think the whole issue of climate change gets turned into this political thing, when really there are two different pieces. There is a science piece, and there's a policy piece, and there's actually a lot more pieces than that. There's economics, history, anthropology, we could go on. but I feel like it's a lot more constructive to kind of split that apart a little bit. Obviously, we'll talk about both in a single episode, but not in the same sentence maybe. Because that can get confusing. And ultimately, we want to get on the same page about the facts. And then once we're there, then we can have a much more constructive political conversation.
Christopher H. Loo, MD-PhD: Yeah, so interesting. I think, no, I was reading somewhere where Elon Musk says that the top five things that can destroy us as a civilization. And I think the top of like you said, artificial intelligence, climate change. Third was, we get destroyed by an asteroid or meteor. But it's quite fascinating, because all of this stuff that we're seeing, like hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves. I live in Texas and the whole energy grid is under serious strain. Texas isn’t prepared for these heat waves. I mean, if it's straining, there's a problem. So how do you find hope and optimism in all of this,when it seems like our world is just going to shambles, for lack of a better word.
Ethan Brown: Yeah. So I think, first off, if we take a step back, in the United States, greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2007, they've come down, I think, around 12%. Since then, coal consumption has gone down, like 58%, or something since then. And if we look globally, even when the Paris Agreement was first signed in 2015, we were on track to warm by about four degrees Celsius over the next century. Today, we're on track to warm about three degrees Celsius by the end of the century. So is that fast enough progress? No, but it's something and I think very often, we'd start from this idea of, oh, we need to start acting on climate change. And now we have been, we just have to do it a lot faster. When we continue from there and think about how we actually do that.
So solar and wind and batteries are increasingly becoming cheaper than the cheapest fossil fuel alternatives. It is. Now, I think, it is cheaper to install new solar panels and new solar farms than it is to keep existing coal plants running. So, a lot of the economic incentives are also aligned with the environmental incentives. And if we zoom out even further, and we look at human rights, we look at justice, we look at health, all these different things. Climate Action helps these other issues we care about too. So I know, it's easier said than done. But I think I get a lot of optimism in the fact that we are making progress. We do have some irreversible damage. But that doesn't mean everyone's going extinct. There's somewhere in the middle there, where we can create a future that's better for ourselves, and hopefully more prosperous as well.
Christopher H. Loo, MD-PhD: Yeah, it's so interesting. I remember growing up, I'm actually Gen X Millennial, and growing up when they said climate change and all of that, the corporations were like, Oh, this is not true. And same thing with my parents' generation, they said that smoking doesn't cause cancer. But that's just corporate rhetoric.
With the recent Supreme Supreme Court ruling stating that the EPA doesn't have power over corporations, and all the authority and legislative authority comes from Congress. What do you think that'll do to climate change? You think that'll help it or hurt it?
Ethan Brown: So I did read the actual ruling. And it's a lot more nuanced than I think a lot of headlines have given it credit for. So basically, the case was about the Clean Power Plan, which the EPA proposed in 2015, to try to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. So, traditionally, they're regulated under the Clean Air Act, which was passed in 1963. There were amendments in 1970, 77, and 90. And this bill was designed to delegate the power to the EPA to regulate various air pollutants.
So the EPA had this section in there where they say, Okay, we have to regulate power plants, greenhouse gas emissions are a pollutant, so we're going to pass this law. But the way that they constructed it, a large part of it called for what they call generation shifting, which basically meant switching from coal and gas to sources like solar and wind. And that was the first time that EPA had tempted something like that, generally, they would talk about a modification at the plant, some new technology, something like that. So this generation shifting, the Clean Air Act didn't really say they could do that, that was maybe a step further to say, okay, because of this one small section in this bill from 1963, we can decarbonize the entire electric grid. So that was what they had proposed. And, again, I'm talking purely from a government perspective; from a climate perspective, we can say, awesome, yes, do that. But from a government perspective. I forget how many states but a bunch of states basically came back and said, No, you can't do that. That does, you don't have the authority for that.
The way that the ruling was decided, it could have gone in a number of ways. They could have just said, You can't do that one specific thing. Or they could have gone back and started overturning old precedents. There were precedents like Massachusetts v. EPA, which allows the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in the first place and actually mandates them to do that. There's cases like Chevron V. NRDC, which gives agencies the authority to interpret confusing statutes. The Supreme Court didn't overturn any of that. They just said this one thing, not even generation shifting as a whole, just generation shifting as it was in the Clean Power Plan, was something they can't do. They answered a very narrow question there. So that's a little long winded, and I apologize.
But in terms of what that means for future climate policy, I would say very little, because, okay, they lost one tool in their toolbox, the Clean Power Plan never actually got enforced because it was tied up in these lawsuits. So it's not like anything really changed. And in the meantime, emissions dropped faster than the Clean Power Plan had suggested was possible, which is really interesting. But we say, okay, Congress has to make a law. This was a separation of powers case, but Congress always had to make a law. Climate change is a big issue that has so much nuance, and the EPA only has the power to enforce existing statutes. They can't make policy. So I think the status quo is just maintained here. And ultimately, I mean, this is a serious case, obviously, I don't want to diminish that. And sometimes these narrow rulings can set larger precedents. But I'm not too worried, just because I think Congress has the responsibility and the opportunity to actually take care of climate change. That was a little unfair to put all of that on the EPA.
Christopher H. Loo, MD-PhD: Yeah.It's quite interesting. Just looking at how our society is changing, and first was social progress, now we’re backtracking. Now, what's interesting is, because you did The Sweaty Penguin, and basically, you talk about these really important issues, and you inject a little bit of humor. And you also talk about education, and talk about Gen Z activism. So, tell us more about the podcast, because it's creative, and you're doing a lot of interesting and fun things in an educational way.
Ethan Brown: Sure. So The Sweaty Penguin we do two episodes a week. On Fridays, we do what we've nicknamed deep dives, because penguin pun, and those have gone back since the very beginning. We will discuss a specific topic. I'll do a late night comedy style monologue kind of breaking down the topic, looking at the issue, how it affects not just the environment, but also the economy, health, justice, etc. And then we'll talk about some solutions. And there I'll kind of propose some options, let our listeners think about it. I'm not really there to tell you what to believe. But we get into that conversation.
And then in the second segment, I'll interview an expert, and they've been professors. We've had ones from 14 countries and five continents. So all over the world, a really great group of guests. I think we've had 91 of those come out at the time we're recording. So lots of topics for you to choose from. And then a little more recently, we started a second weekly episode on Wednesdays called tip of the iceberg, where I will break down whatever the big environmental news story of the week is. Again, that's a comedy monologue, but maybe a slightly slightly different flavor from the Friday ones. And then in the second segment, I answer a question from an audience member. So if any of you have climate questions, environmental questions, anything about the news, feel free to send those in and we can answer your questions on the show.
Christopher H. Loo, MD-PhD: Yeah, that's interesting. Which generation do you think would make more impact? Millennials? Because Millennials actually started this whole movement against the “establishment;” or Gen Z? I'm just curious. I have my own thoughts. I just wanted to get your take.
Ethan Brown: It's an interesting way that you frame the question, because I think a lot of generations have had counterculture movements. We think back to the 60s, I can't do the math to figure out which generation that is. But certainly there was a large counterculture movement then. So in terms of the climate movement, that's been evolving for a long time. I think an interesting layer that has been coming in more recently is the focus on justice, which is maybe, I mean, it remains to be seen how that goes. But when I was a kid, it was all about polar bears, and recycling, that's a little harder to wrap your head around. Whereas now I think it's moved into a more human dimension. And I think that that may be more appealing to a wider base of people.
Ultimately, though, I think my hope is that people older than both of us can make some progress, because ultimately, they have the political and corporate power right now to make a change. But I think that our generations certainly have a very important voice in this, we are the ones who will live with it the longest, maybe. And I think that climate is maybe a unique space in which young people are respected as experts, maybe because we are the ones actually going through it and feeling it. Not that old people don't, but they may not have to deal with it for quite as long. So I don't know exactly how to answer your question. But I think everyone ultimately needs to be a part of this.
Christopher H. Loo, MD-PhD: Yeah. It's interesting. A lot of people think of figures in the Gen Z climate movement as activists, protesting or making massive demands of politicians. But you've actually taken a very different route, to become an informer and educator, and not demanding anything of anyone. So you're creating value and putting it out there. Why did you choose this niche for yourself?
Ethan Brown: I think it goes back to just what interested me about climate change, was really the nuance and the critical thinking. And I found that I tried interning at an environmental nonprofit one summer, and I think that it just wasn't the right path for me, because there's nothing I could put on a sign that I would feel comfortable about. I need to get into the nitty gritty and actually explain all the nuances and all the options.
I think also, I'm not someone who cares as much what specific policy happens, I just care more that something happens. So I felt that my best approach was maybe to just be delivering information, getting into that nitty gritty and then kind of giving people options that they can think about. Ultimately, if I move the conversation away from is climate change a serious problem? Is climate change real? And over to, how do we fix this? What policies do we like? I think that's very constructive. And I think once people are there, then there's other activists and other folks my age that might be more appropriate for them. But if I can move the conversation to that point, then I'll feel very happy.
Christopher H. Loo, MD-PhD: Yeah. That's awesome. Well, I applaud you for all of your successes. You started during the pandemic, you've got 23,000+ downloads and you have a PBS partner as well. So this is great, keep up the great work. And I know a lot of people are interested in visiting your podcast, your website or contacting you. How can they do that?
Or if you want to support the show even further, we have a Patreon page patreon.com/theSweatyPenguin. So there you can get merch, bonus content. For tip of the iceberg, your questions will move to the front of the lines and you might get them answered within a few days. So definitely, definitely go check that out.
Christopher H. Loo, MD-PhD: Excellent. And for all the listeners out there. All of the resources and links will be in the show notes. Ethan, thanks so much for coming on to the podcast. I really enjoyed this conversation. You're very well informed, and I wish you continued success in your future endeavors.
Ethan Brown: Thank you so much for having me. This was a lot of fun.
Christopher H. Loo, MD-PhD: Many thanks again for being here. If you’re new, you can find me online at Christopher H. Loo, MD-PhD, where I have links to other episodes or links to online resources that will support you on your financial literacy journey. I’ll see you there in on next week’s show. While I bring you thoroughly vetted information on this show regarding a variety of financial topics, I cannot promise you a one size fits all solution. This is why I caution you to continue to learn. Educate yourself and seek professional advice unique to your situation. If you want to talk to me, I welcome it. Please reach out via my website or email at Chris@drchrisloomdphd.com. I read and personally respond to all of my emails. Talk soon!
Editor's note: This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.