Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert: Can We Change Nature to Save It?
Michael Rivo: Welcome back to Blazing Trails. I'm your host, Michael Rivo, from Salesforce Studios. How irreversibly have we altered the natural world? That's a question climate journalist, Elizabeth Kolbert, has been trying to answer for decades while reporting on the environment for The New Yorker Magazine. In her Pulitzer Prize- winning book, The Sixth Extinction, she explored the ways in which our capacity for destruction has reshaped the natural world. Her latest book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, examines how the very sorts of interventions that have imperiled our planet are increasingly seen as the only hope for its salvation. And today, in recognition of Earth Day, she joins Patrick Flynn, SVP and Global Head of Sustainability at Salesforce, to discuss what steps we need to take to reign in carbon emissions and save our planet. Elizabeth, welcome to the show.
Elizabeth K.: Thanks for having me.
Michael Rivo: Patrick, good to talk to you again.
Patrick Flynn: Always such a pleasure. Great to be with you.
Michael Rivo: Great. So Elizabeth, I wanted to start with you, and if you could talk a little bit about the latest intergovernmental panel on climate change report. You described it as Graham I saw out there so I figured maybe we'll start there and you can tell us a little bit about what's in the report and some thoughts about that.
Elizabeth K.: Well, we're now on the sixth assessment from the IPCC. Every several years, they come up with a new one, every several years, the science becomes clearer and the impacts become more obvious in the world around on us. When this process started really almost three decades ago, the impacts were not very visible yet, now they are strikingly visible. And that really came through in the last IPCC report, which was about impacts, and where the authors spoke in very unusually blunt terms for scientists, this is a rapidly closing window to maintain a habitable planet. I don't think you can really be clearer than that.
Michael Rivo: Mm- hmm( affirmative). And it's interesting in light of what's happening in Ukraine right now, and the role that energy is playing in that. I think we've all seen that the focus seems to be so much on how to keep gas prices down, what this is going to mean to produce more fossil fuels, which is not surprising in some ways but is also a little shocking, because I think we're all looking for that moment when everybody's going to kind of wake up and say, this is the time to make these changes. I mean, what's your thought about that?
Elizabeth K.: Well, I mean, there's definitely people have written about how this should be. In addition to the gazillion other wake up calls we've gotten, this should be the gazillionth and first and a very striking one. If we had gotten off of gas and oil, we would not be seeing the price spikes at the pump, and this is honestly the problem with our politics is very reactive. We need to be proactive and we have not proved ourselves very adept at that, but it certainly, people have always pointed out, no one owns sunshine, no one owns the wind. And we see how petrostates, which tend to be we ourselves, by some definition, we're a big, big fossil fuel producer in the U. S, so as Canada, but most of the big oil producers in the world are not countries that we admire or want to support.
Michael Rivo: Patrick, I read in BlackRock CEO, Larry Fink, wrote in his annual letter this year that the next 1, 000 unicorns will be sustainable, scalable innovators that will help decarbonize the world. So clearly there's momentum in that direction, at least from Larry Fink and BlackRock, but what's your thought about that?
Patrick Flynn: Yeah. In a prior report, the language said something like meeting a 1.5 degree future is going to require rapid far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. So a previous version of the science community doesn't know how to speak more clearly than what they're saying. To me, that one really underscored the business opportunity and how much innovation is required to rapidly transform every aspect of society in unprecedented ways. And so what we're seeing is that the sustainability revolution will be bigger than the digital revolution, than the industrial revolution, and certainly needs to happen far faster. And I think the point about the next unicorns also has a lot of truth to it. We can talk about digitally native companies who started after the internet, after cloud computing, and how much of a leapfrogging opportunity that presented to them. And I think there'll be very similar things that we find with sustainability native companies whose real central reason for being is rising to this moment. And for what it's worth, I think Salesforce is one of the first of those really sustainability native companies built with an innovative philanthropic model from day one, built on the premise that business can be the greatest platform for change, and that we need to work for all of our stakeholders, including the planet. So we need more of that.
Michael Rivo: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And Elizabeth, you write in your book, your most recent book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, and you describe many of the engineers and scientists who are working on solutions to this that could potentially be the companies we're talking, but it's a long way off. And I think there's some excitement there and enthusiasm, but there's a long way to go, and it feels early. What's your take on the impact that some of these technologies? And can you tell us about some of these technologies as well?
Elizabeth K.: Well, one of the technologies that I talk about in the book is called Direct air capture, and it's about actually taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And it's one of these very interesting situations where, go back to the IPCC, if you look at the projections for the future and what are called the sort of scenarios for keeping temperatures to 1. 5 degrees Celsius, keeping the temperature increase to 1. 5 degree Celsius or even two degree Celsius, which is considered really risky, really, really risky to go beyond two. We're already seeing tremendous impacts. We're at about 1.1, 1. 2 degree Celsius, higher temperatures than prior to the industrial revolution. And if you look at the scenarios for doing that, they already include tremendous amounts of not just cutting carbon, but actually taking carbon out of the atmosphere. And that's a going to be, I think you're going to hear more and more about that, and you're going to see more and more venture capital going into that area because we're sort of betting the farm on it, betting the planet on it already, and we don't have it yet. And it's not clear, to be perfectly frank, that it is viable and scalable. So I think actually it's a perfect metaphor for where we are. Maybe we will find the technologies that will save us from ourselves and maybe we won't, but we're certainly have put ourselves in a box where we better. How's that? And the other thing I would just want to say that brings us back to this sort of earlier point that you made is there is a large part of the financial world, the business world, the investment world focused on sustainability. And there's also a large part that's focused on unsustainability. And we need to get the key here, if there is a key, in my view, is getting all of the arrows pointed in the same direction. You don't get here without that. So if you still have a fossil fuel industry that is becoming right now, you could argue ramping up once again production, you are not heading in the right direction.
Michael Rivo: Mm- hmm( affirmative). Yeah, I think what was an interesting takeaway for me from the book was this framing, and I think it's the physicist Klaus Lackner, who's working on the removing the carbon that you were describing, talked about this framing where it makes virtually everyone a sinner and makes hypocrites out of many who are concerned about climate change. And I think we all look at that. Patrick, in your case you're going off to talk to customers, you're going to events, and you're flying in an airplane, you're driving in a car. Elizabeth, in your book, you're going to Iceland and far falling places. So there we are, we're living in that world, and that's where coming up with solutions where I can't see that that's going to change so significantly, that people are not going to travel, we're not going to use energy, where we need to find these solutions that take into account that's going to happen, and doesn't frame it in a way that makes us hypocrites or sinners. Patrick, in talking with customers, because we have customers in so many different spaces, how do you see that paradigm? And how are different companies thinking about that?
Patrick Flynn: Yeah, well, I think first is whether it's Direct Air Capture versus the existing technology. The phenomenon at here is we need all of the above rapidly executed with expert precision. We need to put a lot of resources in the decarbonization today with existing technology today, and we need to start investing in the technologies we need a decade from now yesterday. Right? And so some of this tension and hypocrisy or pointing fingers at different approaches that we get in the environmental space right now is really rooted in well, we actually need it all, right? And your solution and my solution, my way, your way, let's all just wake more people up and get more putting one foot in front of the other. And I think when I think about Salesforce's opportunity and responsibility, getting to our customers is the most important thing. And that's rooted in sort of almost a philosophical belief that in this emergency, I think we need everybody to do what they do best for climate, whether that's the individual or the organization. And what I think Salesforce does best is put the tools in the hands of our customers to help them navigate successfully into the future. We've done that through digital IOT, mobile, social, all of these chapters of innovation, and we need to be there in the decarbonization adventure ahead with our technology. So we've got customers across all sorts of industries, all geographies, all shapes and sizes, all of them need to transform. And what I'm most focused on is helping those who are committed to taking action to get there faster, accelerating them on their net zero journey.
Michael Rivo: Mm- hmm(affirmative). And what do we see as those accelerants? I know in an earlier conversation, we talked about what we can do with Net Zero Cloud, where companies can look at a supply chain of a potential supplier or somebody they're going to work with and be able to see this is what the emissions look like, et cetera, and start making business decisions based on those characteristics. Are there some other examples out there of how companies are pushing each other in this area?
Patrick Flynn: Yeah, I'll jump first, but I'm sure Elizabeth can add. One of the really nice phenomenon right now is it has to do with accounting and Scope 3 Accounting. So in greenhouse gas accounting, you've got direct, indirect, and then value chain impacts upstream and downstream of your business. And Scope 3 is that interconnected impact, all the way upstream, all the way downstream. The nice thing is we're in a new paradigm where every organization's reputation is completely inseparable from that of their full value chain. In account parlance, Scope 3 is unquestionably part of your accounting from here on out. And that links action through the links of that value chain. So one of the best things companies are doing is embracing that, looking at those numbers, and using their influence over their suppliers, using their influence over their customers, and really coming together in collaboration up and down the value chain with big opportunities for levered impact.
Michael Rivo: I'm wondering where you're seeing opportunity for more of that leadership between government corporation. What does that look like?
Elizabeth K.: Well, I want to say I don't usually speak to corporate audiences, so I am actually really happy to be doing that, because I do think our politics around climate change, I don't think there could be more proof than what's happened over the last couple years to demonstrate that they're broken, that we cannot get off the dime. And you don't want to go too far a field, but we're also waiting for a supreme court decision that will probably be quite bad and will affect the Biden Administration's ability to do something significant on a regulatory front. So we need lead climate legislation and we need it, as Patrick said, really 20 years ago. And I think that the role that if corporations are serious about squeezing carbon out of their whole supply chain, it's not going to happen by everyone doing it voluntarily. We need either an accounting, a carbon tax, or a legislative framework. I don't think that we can imagine decarbonizing the whole American economy on the basis of the goodwill of corporate America. And so my real message is we need corporate corporations to be putting as it were their money where their mouth is in the political realm. And there should be no corporate money going toward too, supporting candidates who do not support climate action. And I can assure you if that happened on a large scale, our climate politics would change very quickly.
Michael Rivo: I'm just curious in all the reporting that you've done on this. Where do you see is that sort of this is a race, how do we go faster?
Elizabeth K.: Well, I think that there was this thinking and Google had this idea cheaper than coal, you produce some energy source that's just so cheap and so attractive that we magically get off fossil fuels. And I think that 20, 30 years into this, solar panels are very cheap. New solar is the cheapest form of energy, but we're certainly not moving their fast enough. And they just turn out to be hurdles or logistical hurdles or political hurdles. So I don't think that we are... I think that we have to be honest and say, we need technological innovation. We've had a lot of great technological innovation and we need to implement it. I mean, as Patrick said, boots on the ground, we need to be doing what we can do now, and then we need to be investing in those areas where we know that we don't quite have the technology yet, but we have a lot of technology to get a lot of things done. And that just gets to the point of all being pointed in the same direction. For example, if we were living in a better world, the response to higher gas prices now would be to say, great, let's use this as an opportunity to get off gasoline, but that is unfortunately not the political world we live in. And I don't see that a technology is going to magically deliver us from this. You just see there's too many vested interests, there's too many hurdles. We really do need policy. I just unfortunately think there's no escape from that.
Michael Rivo: Yeah. I mean, Patrick, this is a good opportunity to talk about our message around this and what your message would be too. When you're out talking to customers and prospects, et cetera, what's the question that comes up, that folks are most interested in? And then what's your message to them about what they can do?
Patrick Flynn: So it does begin with data I think in a lot of ways. What industry are you in? What are the impacts of that industry with large? Where do you operate? What are the political realities of the geographies where you have jobs or you pay taxes and therefore have the ear of a policy maker? Let's examine the leverage that this organization has from the data up, and then let's focus on those strategies that can turn into big impact. Visually, I usually come back to, you've seen these videos of a very small domino that then knocks over a domino that's about one and a half times bigger and one and a half times bigger than that. It can start small, but let's not focus on dominoes that are the same size, and kick off that sort of small strategy, we need ones with a sort of exponential nature to them.
Michael Rivo: Mm- hmm(affirmative). Elizabeth, I wanted to talk a little bit more about out some of the technologies, because I think folks just haven't heard as much about that. So it would be great. I know there's shooting diamonds into atmosphere, there's removing carbon with gigantic machines, there's all kinds of stuff. If maybe you could just give us a little overview of some of the technology that's out there.
Elizabeth K.: Well, the technologies in the book in Under White Sky really span a lot of environmental problems. For example, the sort of center at the book, there's gene editing, which is an incredibly powerful technology we've gotten extraordinarily good at it. And it held as all tech technologies, I guess I would argue, are pretty much all promise and peril. And it's very relevant to climate change in particularly in our food supply, are we going to be able to produce crops? Growing seasons are changing, conditions are changing really rapidly, really buffeting the world's food supply, so one question is, are we going to be able to shift out and have heat tolerant varieties? And can gene editing play a role in that? In a lot of parts of the world, people are very suspicious of genetically modified crops. We here in the states have gone quite big into GMOs of virtually all of our corn, virtually all of our soy is genetically modified. So I think a lot of that innovation, if it's going to happen, will probably come from the states. And then there's the question of, will it be politically acceptable to the rest of the world? That's a really big one and a really interesting question, and I think very, very relevant to our conversation right now.
Michael Rivo: Yeah. I mean, it just talks about second, third, fourth, fifth order effects and like the dominoes that you're describing.
Elizabeth K.: No, I mean, I think that one of the things that's also important to mention, I think, and for people to be aware of, and I suppose people are on some level aware of it, but it's not a choice, we don't have a choice now between a world where everything stays the same and we keep doing everything the way we're doing it. And a world where we change things radically, change is coming at us like a freight train. And I think that when you mention to people how is climate change going to affect you? Well, do you like to eat? That is a key thing. We're talking about really, really fundamentals of human existence and I can't make that point strongly enough. Do you like to drink water? All of these are changing and they're changing fast. We have a epic drought in the Western U. S. right now. That's not getting better, that's only getting worse. What are we going to do? We need to be thinking really, really big.
Patrick Flynn: Yeah. And I think part of the, I don't know if it's a little bit humor, a little scary, but do you like to eat, do you like to drink, I think comes from the fact that so many of us are disconnected from nature, disconnected from where our food comes from, disconnected from where the water comes from. And nature isn't really looked to as a technology because our lives are so technologically oriented in quite a different way, at least those of us who live like we do, but nature as a technology is a huge part of a solution as well, and also has a promise and peril element to it. The head of Ocean Sustainability on my team is eager to point out the oceans are not just the victim of this story, they're also the hero, and the same for our forests. And in them, we've got the opportunity to stop the destruction and also present part of the solution. After all, you think about tree as a carbon sequestration technology, self replicating, just needs lights and water, and some nutrients gets better over time. And sure, we're seeing the devastation of trees that burn or get fell and all of that, but without a doubt, we need to stop deforestation, still happening at about an acre a second. We need to focus on the biodiversity that comes with our existing forest and recapture that biodiversity, the job creation, the opportunities for community to be part of the solution. So yes to the technological future ahead, but also in all of this, hopefully a return and a reconnection to the epic power of nature.
Michael Rivo: Mm- hmm(affirmative). Elizabeth, I think you looked into trees in the last book. Can you talk a little bit about that, and the efforts there?
Elizabeth K.: Yeah. I mean, I completely agree with Patrick. I mean, forests are absolutely crucial, there's tremendous amounts of carbon sequester now in our forest, and every time, big part of our carbon emissions are cutting down forest and land use change. The primary source is fossil fuel emissions, but land use change is also very significant. So there are tremendous opportunities for reforestation or simply stopping deforestation. And then trees take up carbon as they grow. So in the sort of short to medium term, reforestation could draw down a significant amount of carbon to a certain extent. The effects are sometimes exaggerated, but they certainly could be significant and they would serve a double purpose of reforestation and recreating habitat. So that's key. In the long term, I mean, then you do get into some kind of wild things because trees die and when they die, they give up their carbon, so then you have thing of, well, can you prevent them from doing that? Can dump them in the bottom of the ocean or something like that? You have people talking about building out of wood to prevent rot. You really need to prevent those trees from rotting, but as far as grow, they are taking up carbon.
Michael Rivo: Okay, wonderful. So I would love to just do a closing thought from each of you. We did it a little bit, but I think Elizabeth, again, I really appreciate you doing this and speaking to this audience. And so if there's anything more that you wanted to sort of communicate to a more business audience about what they should be thinking about what we can do, that would be great.
Elizabeth K.: Well, my message is if I could speak to all of corporate American in one spot, it would be please put your money where your mouth is. There's a lot of talk, but talk, she's in another cliché, talk is cheap, and we really need to see action, and we really need to see, once again, all the arrows pointing in the same direction. We need to see corporations working on their own operations, and we also need to see them working with their fellow peers, and then we need to see them supporting the kind of accounting rules that are going to push this forward, which once again, we recently saw someone torpedoed at the Federal Reserve, precisely because she was pushing this sort of thing. So that's not good politics, in my view. And we need to see supporting candidates and policies at all levels of government that are going to move this forward. Otherwise, even if you're well- intentioned but part of your budget is going towards just supporting that person who has some other part of your agenda that you're interested in, but he or she is trying to undermine climate progress, then that is self- defeating.
Michael Rivo: Okay, great. And Patrick, from your perspective, what's your advice?
Patrick Flynn: Yeah, companies are steered by individual listeners like those of you out up there. And I don't know a single individual whose climate journey didn't begin with something like, I saw something broken that woke me up and I started taking action. So whatever organization you're in, use your voice. You're prepared, you're in this adventure already, and we need everyone's help. So the best thing you can do is focus on big scale change, grab the reins of the organization that you're a part of, and start helping us steer it towards the better.
Michael Rivo: Okay. Great. Well, that was fantastic. Elizabeth Kolbert, thank you so much for joining us today.
Elizabeth K.: Thanks for having me.
Michael Rivo: And Patrick Flynn, thank you for being on Blazing Trails again.
Patrick Flynn: Great to be with you again, and thank you, Elizabeth. Great to speak with you.
Michael Rivo: That was Pulitzer Prize- winning climate journalist, Elizabeth Kolbert, with Patrick Flynn, SVP and Global Head of Sustainability at Salesforce. You can learn more about heading over to salesforce. com/ sustainability. We've got information about our Net Zero Cloud to track, analyze, and report on your company's environmental data. Or head over to Trailhead, our free learning platform to take our climate action trail, and learn how business, government, and individuals can drive climate change solutions. Thanks for listening today. If you like this episode, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcast. I'm Michael Rivo from Salesforce Trails.
How irreversibly have we altered the natural world?
That’s a question climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert has been trying to answer for decades while reporting on the environment for The New Yorker magazine.
In her Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Sixth Extinction, she explored the ways in which our capacity for destruction has reshaped the natural world. In her latest book - Under a White Sky - The Nature of the Future she examines how the very sorts of interventions that have imperiled our planet are increasingly seen as the only hope for its salvation.
And today—in recognition of Earth Day, she joins Patrick Flynn, SVP and Global Head of Sustainability at Salesforce, to discuss what steps we need to take to reign in carbon emissions and save our planet.
Elizabeth’s Book – Under a White Sky, the Nature of the Future