Kirk: Welcome to Let’s Hear It.
Eric: Let’s Hear It is a podcast for and about the field of foundation and non profit communications, produced by its two co hosts, Eric Brown and Kirk Brown. No relation.
Kirk: Well said, Eric. And I’m Kirk.
Eric: And I’m Eric. The podcast is sponsored by the College Futures Foundation. which envisions a California where post secondary education advances equity and unlocks upward mobility now and for generations to come. To learn more, visit collegefutures.org.
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Eric: So let’s get onto the show.
Kirk: And we’re back. Welcome in. It’s another edition. It’s Let’s Hear It. You found us. We found you. We’re glad you’re here. Mr. Brown, so glad you’re here. Welcome in, everybody. It’s Let’s Hear It once again.
Eric: Findings. We found our findings.
Kirk: We found you. We found our findings and we found you. And you found a very interesting and provocative guest today. Tell us who this is. Set this up and we will have a lot to talk about when we come back.
Eric: I had a fascinating conversation with Alison Smart, who is the Executive Director of an organization called Probable Futures, which is a nonprofit climate literacy initiative. And what they’re doing is they’re making tools and stories and resources available online for free to anybody, anywhere, who has the internet, and I have to tell you, I’ve been working on climate stuff for a long time, 20 some odd years. And this is not to say that I know everything about climate communications, but whatever I thought I knew about climate communications, I didn’t know.
Kirk: That’s great. That’s great. Well, you can find Probable Futures at probablefutures.org. Who would’ve thought that that URL is still available? Very clever. Probable Futures gets started in 2020, and we’re with Alison Smart, but we should acknowledge the team and also Spencer Glendon, who is the founder of Probable Futures. But let’s listen to Alison and Eric talk about Probable Futures. Then we will come back. There is a whole lot to talk about here, so this is Alison Smart on Let’s Hear It.
Eric: Welcome to, Let’s Hear It. My guest today is Alison Smart, the Executive Director of Probable Futures, a nonprofit literacy initiative that makes practical tools, stories, and resources available online to everyone everywhere.
Alison, thank you so much for coming on to Let’s Hear It.
Alison: Thanks for having me.
Eric: I mean, let’s just dive right in. I think anybody who has worked in climate communications feels a little bit frustrated. I think they feel frustrated that people don’t understand the challenges of climate. They’re not willing to make the decisions to address these issues, and I think they also are frustrated that the message, in many ways feels like it’s not getting through.
Would you agree with that?
Alison: I think I would. It depends. So first I would say that awareness of climate change has certainly grown in the past several decades. So there’s no question about that. And there’s no question that the conversation has changed significantly to from is it real? Is it not real? Is it natural variability? Is it human caused? You know, we seem to have moved beyond that. And are now dealing with much more difficult topics, which includes how do we. Change our lives and our behavior and our systems to be able to operate within the limits that the earth and the climate gives us. I mean, that is a very sticky, difficult problem, and I will say, I have empathy for the people that don’t wanna hear it and don’t wanna believe it. It, it is a real challenging thing. So I think that the message has gotten through two different extents over time and has changed over time. And now we’re at a different stage in climate communications.
Eric: Yeah, there’s a, a, a very interesting and fun paper in the Stanford Social Innovation Review recently called Stop Raising Awareness already. Because this notion is that you can raise all the awareness you like, but getting people to act as a result of that awareness. Mm-hmm. Is another thing entirely. I mean, I definitely know about what Bacon does to my arteries, but I love it and I figure, uh, I don’t know. I’ll take a pill or science will solve my problem. Or you know what? I just like bacon and I think many of our behaviors as a society, were in that same boat. It’s possible that our awareness is excellent about climate change, and then at the same time we have this kind of dissonance that there’s either nothing I can do about it, or someone is gonna come along and solve the problem for me. Or, I don’t know. It’s just too unpleasant to think about what are you doing to try and move some of that?
Alison: So one of the things that we’re doing is reframing how people understand what climate change is and why it is an issue at this moment in time. The context for climate change and other words, and the context for climate change is really civilization. That is what’s at stake here is civilization. So humans have been on the earth for 200,000 years. Our first ancestors emerged in Africa around 200,000 years ago, and then for the next 190,000 years, we were a nomadic hunting and gathering species. For the vast majority of our time on this planet, we have not had civilization.
Around 12,000 years ago, something really amazing happened, which was the climate stabilized. So over those 190,000 years, the climate was changing constantly. If you look at a, a graph of the history of the global average temperature, which we show a lot on our website and in our educational sessions at probable futures, you would see the global average temperature and by extension, the climate, changing, changing constantly. And then 12,000 years ago, the climate stabilized and it stayed within a very narrow range of global average temperatures. It barely even fluctuated a degree over the course of 12,000 years. And that climate stability gave us the ability to settle in one place, for example, and know that this community could stay in this place for as long as we wanted to, because the seasonal patterns would be the same year after year, and we could know. What plants we could grow in this place. We did not have agriculture. We did not practice agriculture as a species until the climate stabilized, and it was because of that stable climate that we were able to build a more and more sophisticated society and civilization.
So over time we built cities. We had long-term communities, and those communities had long-term cultures and eventually those cultures formalized into governments and then governments built infrastructure until eventually we have this like very sophisticated, very complex civilization that we have today. A stable climate underpins all of it. All of it assumes that climate stability will continue.
So the issue is now the climate is changing. So climate change has been largely understood as something we need to worry about because. There will be warmer temperatures, and that is true, but what’s really the issue is that it, it’s about instability.
So it’s about the fact that we have never maintained civilization in a changing climate before. That is unprecedented. It is a paradigm shift, and we’re going to need new skills, tools, and education to live in that new paradigm, and that’s what we’re working on doing at Probable Futures.
Eric: We spoke before our conversation right now and, and something went off in my lizard brain. This is really about planning. This is about being able to plan for the future, and whereas, as you just said, you, you could build a civilization based on a one set of climate, and now all of a sudden we’re seeing cities are built into low lying areas and you’re gonna deal with flooding, or there are folks on coasts that will just be blown away by hurricanes and things like that. So the whole nature of planning feels like it’s going to shift dramatically in the next, whenever by Monday or else, you know, we’re just dealing with the, with the effect of that.
How do you help people plan for this big change? What are the kinds of either recommendations that you make or policy solutions that you, that you might come up with. Well, how do you, how do you change when we’ve been stuck in the one place for 19,000 years?
Alison: Before we get to the recommendations and the solutions, we need to understand the nature of how it’s changing and we need to use the information that we have at hand to inform that planning as much as possible. And there are two things that that go into that.
One is climate literacy, kind of a literacy about how the earth systems work and how they are changing. As the atmosphere is warming.
And the second thing is that we have climate science. We have decades of research and data and information that when presented in a, a resonant way, can be a really practical tool to help us plan. We, we really are very lucky that we are dealing with this enormous issue. We have this gift of climate science to help us navigate through it. So we have global climate models that can tell us at a pretty detailed level, at a pretty granular scale, how the climate in this particular place is likely to change.
What are the ways that it’s going to change? How many more days above 90 or a hundred degrees will we have at current or future warming scenarios than we had in the past? How much rain is the big storm likely to bring in this place? So we have these tools that are available to us, but when we started probable futures, in particular climate model data, which had been being built up by the scientific community over the past 40 years, and it’s technically public information, but it only really, even a small slice of the climate science community knew how to access those climate models and use that data so. What we did was we stepped in, we worked with scientists to tap into those climate models, create interactive maps and tools, and translate it in a way that the everyday person could actually understand the information that it’s giving us.
So those are the two things that we’re focused on.
Eric: So I wanna go back a little bit and, and talk about you for a second. My guess is based on your resume, that you didn’t graduate from kindergarten and say to your parents, I wanna be a climate science communicator.
Alison: I did not. Far from it.
Eric: Can you talk about that? You have, like a lot of people I know, had a really interesting and varied career. Before you got to this place where you landed here, can you just talk a little bit about that?
Alison: Sure. I mean, in some ways it’s varied and I think in a really important way. I’ve been doing really similar work my whole career and my career has really been about helping experts translate their work in a way that makes it resonant and understandable and meaningful to general audiences, to non-experts. And the way that I got into that work was through the arts. So I grew up being very interested in music and performance and theater and ended up, uh, going to college for those things.
And after college, I started working in the museum field and I was working in philanthropy, so in fundraising communications. And really what that’s all about is helping people tell stories with their work for general audiences. For funders, for example. And then after about a decade of working in museums, I was recruited to the What’s Now the Wood Well Climate Research Center. At the time it was the Woods Hole Research Center. And I was recruited there, not because I had a background in science, but because I had this background in kind of translation, storytelling, interpretation of academic material for general audiences. And the climate scientists at wood, well at the time, really wanted help from people outside of their discipline so that they could understand how to tell better stories with it, understand what, what would be meaningful for. Audiences outside of the climate science community. So they really had the, the vision to bring together people from different disciplines to better communicate climate science. So it was there at wood well, that I. Got my own education on climate change and climate science, and it was also there that I realized that climate science is actually very intuitive, especially the, the most critical aspects of climate science, the most important concepts to know are really intuitive.
I mean, these are things that we experience every day. We experience the climate every day, so I felt very inspired to continue with that work and help people build their climate literacy.
Eric: Well, yeah. I wanna interrupt this conversation with a rant because as a, as a communications person, we have spent so much time listening to the so-called program experts talking about their work and, and they always invariably say, oh, you, you don’t understand. It’s complicated. And my response is always, if you make it too complicated, then no one’s gonna understand. That our job has been to be able to communicate complicated concepts maybe, or potentially complicated concepts and help people understand why it matters, what they can do about it, what the future could look like.
So I’m not surprised, for example, that you came from museums, which is one of those few places in our culture, I think, where the So-called regular people. Come in to learn about science or art or any number of other things in a kind of a popular way. And that, that the idea is in many instances to popularize it so that more people can, can engage with it.
So, uh, congratulations to Probable Futures for kind of seeing that. And obviously it has something to do with it. How are you seeing, are you seeing much of a shift? The, the great wood? Well, people who saw that they needed to do a better job of communications is a great example of leadership. But there’s other places where we need to move this along, but where are you seeing that kind of shift starting to happen?
Alison: I would say I’m definitely starting to see more non-traditional climate communicators who are seen as real authorities. So I think for a long time it was really on the climate scientists to be the communicators for this issue. And I have a lot of empathy for the climate scientists because what they’re, you know, they’re great at doing research and analyzing data and being really observant and I mean, they’re great at so many things and not all of them are amazing communicators or amazing storytellers. I mean, there are some that that happen to have both of those skill sets, but I think it sent the message for a long time that climate communications could only be delivered by a person who is actually doing the research. And so the flip that I am seeing and that we are working towards is helping many other people in society build their climate literacy so they can not only. Communicate about climate change and climate science, but also have that awareness of their particular community bring other kinds of expertise to that climate literacy.
And then with those things, those two things together, you have a much more meaningful story about. What climate change will mean to this particular space, whatever it is. So I’ll give an example. I am very inspired by and feel very hopeful around the storytelling happening in the entertainment community, in the arts community, bringing climate storylines into popular culture and entertainment.
And so there are great organizations who are kind of serving as. The bridge between those two communities, between climate science and climate policy experts and Hollywood, for example. And so I think that that is really promising and we need many, many more of those people who can serve as the bridge between those communities who have a really strong foundation, you know, have a really strong climate literacy, but can also knowledgeably bring it into another discipline.
What are some of the ways, Alison, that, that probable futures is, is starting to help change? How people are preparing for the future.
Alison: Our two goals as an organization are one, to democratize climate science and to build societal climate literacy. So on democratizing climate science, we’re making available at probablefutures.org, uh, digital Climate Literacy platform and kind of one of the core parts of that platform are interactive maps, where you can look anywhere, almost anywhere in the world, drill down to a local area and see what climate models tell us about how this place will change under different warming scenarios. So. One of our offerings is simply making that kind of education and that kind of power tool available online to everyone everywhere for free.
And we recently launched it in a few more languages too, so it is available in English, Spanish, French, and Chinese. We make that available at probablefutures.org. The other thing that we do is partner with organizations and entities that can then bring these tools and resources into their community in a way that makes sense for their community.
So we have lots of different communities. Communities that are, businesses that are industries, that are organizations that are actual governments or neighborhoods even. And all of them have different norms and different practices that they use, and we wanted to help those people. Bring this information and bring the resources in in a way that would look familiar and make sense to their community.
So a couple of examples on that. One kind of more technological example is we’re working with a supply chain software company. So if you are a supply chain manager for a big. Complicated company that has a supply chain in multiple countries, you’d likely use this software. And so what we’re working on with them is bringing the data and the maps into that software and building functionality around it so that supply chain managers can build their climate literacy and explore the maps and do climate risk assessments within that environment that they’re already used to working. Another example of this that’s very different is making the resources available to teachers in a way that are recognizable and that are useful to them. So there’s an organization called Subject to Climate, great non-profit organization that aggregates climate education resources and then creates lesson plans out of them and then maps them to standards. So if you are an eighth grade social studies teacher and you want to integrate some climate themes and you can go on this website and, and search through it and actually find out of the box lesson plans that you can then use to, to teach your class about climate change or incorporate climate themes.
Um, we’re also doing similar work with Harvard Business School, for example. We’re helping, um, we’re collaborating with some faculty there to make materials available to instructors so that they can bring a climate risk lens to the kind of work that they do. So I could. Talk for a while about that aspect of our work, and we’re always looking for interesting partners to work with in this regard.
And then the last thing that we do is we do a lot of public speaking and publishing. So we are continually publishing climate literacy resources and stories on probable futures.org. And my colleagues and I. Are often speaking in public settings, at conferences, at industry events. And then often we do the same thing in private settings for sometimes elected officials or government leaders, sometimes corporate c-suites, for example.
So we do a lot of that in-person kind of workshops and, and training as well.
Eric: We’ve noted, uh, on the show and elsewhere that if funders are interested in mitigating climate, they’re, it don’t seem as enthusiastic about adapting to it. What do you think the proper mix is? I mean, is adapting are a, why are they funding adaptation? Beause much of what we’re talking about is here, here’s what do you do Given that climate, the climate is changing, so not just, you know, get off of fossil fuels, but how do you adapt to it? What, why aren’t funders funding adaptation and what should they do?
Alison: I mean, I think the first answer to why aren’t funders funding adaptation, they may just not have gotten there yet.
I mean, we still are looking at global philanthropy. Only 2% of global philanthropy is going towards climate change at all. That is a minuscule number, and though it is. Growing. There’s definitely a concern for how many funders are are going to tackle it at all. There is recently a report that came out from the Aspen Institute about climate philanthropy.
It was really, really interesting. It said that while 85% of US foundation funders ranked climate change is a top three concern, only about one third. Actually expressed openness to considering funding efforts to, to tackle it. So not even just committing to it, but like just considering funding. So, you know, there’s a, there’s a real issue there and there, there are explores, uh, what the reasons are for that.
But one of the reasons is that it feels too big for funders to tackle. And you know, it’s interesting because I think that’s a lot of times how individuals feel too, or corporations feel that, you know, it’s too big. What is our little piece of it going to do when it’s such a big problem? Well, the problem is if we all think that and we all do that, then no one actually does anything.
So I think the first issue is that there just isn’t that much philanthropy going towards it. Um, and then also there’s real urgency to mitigation and frankly, it, it hasn’t been until somewhat recently that we are really starting to see this constant extreme weather in different parts of the world really start to wreak havoc.
So I think there’s just a little bit of a lag there, and it’s taking a little while for folks to wake up that. Climate change isn’t something that’s happening in the future. It is already here. We are living with climate change right now. Communities around the world are dealing with the impacts of climate instability, and they will continue to for several decades, even in the absolute best case scenario.
So I, I am sympathetic to the fact that with mitigation there is a real urgency there. We need to work as quickly as possible, but the problem is we often talk about adaptation and mitigation as if there to total separate streams of work, and it as if they’re completely unrelated. But the fact is. We have a lot of work to do on mitigation.
We are talking about transforming the entire energy system, the entire economy, and if we are doing that. Also, while trying to deal with small or big climate crises on a regular basis, it is going to make that mitigation work much, much harder. So we need to start thinking about adaptation and resiliency, not just I, I mean it’s needed for its own sake, but it is also needed to achieve the mitigation, the really ambitious mitigation goals that we have set out to do.
So I think. Part of the issue too is just like a lack of seeing the connection between those two things.
Eric: That was really smart. I’ve never heard it laid out in exactly that way. And I, I think it’s really, it makes a lot of sense. And yes, as you say, our foundations have high awareness and, uh, have a challenge in acting on that awareness.
So for folks who are thinking that awareness is enough, then it’s not, uh, just in the last couple of minutes that we have, you, you’ve spoken to me about how. Local governments still function. Many of us are fairly despondent about the state of national politics and the ability to get anything done, particularly like big thinking that will be costly and economy shifting.
Although obviously we’ve already seen a, a lot of stuff come outta this last Congress. How is it that local governments, how are local governments addressing these issues and are you seeing. Some opportunities kind of in left right. Partnerships or, or not? I mean, I’m, I’m really curious to see whether this, again is another opportunity for funders and folks who care about these issues to focus on what you can do in places where things are actually still functioning and happening.
Alison: I think there’s a lot of promise and opportunity in local governments for a few reasons. I mean, one is, well, to your point, yes, they do still function better than our federal government. Number two is that the federal government may through the IRA and and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act made a lot of resources available for communities and for individuals to take some of these steps on both mitigation and adaptation.
But communities actually have to. Go after that funding. They have to understand that law and what’s been made available. So I think there’s a lot more opportunity there for just translation of what has been made available through the IRA and how local governments can access that funding for projects.
I also think adaptation and resiliency is a real opportunity because first of all, that has to be managed locally. There are, you know, the climate change is going to manifest differently in different places, and the people in those places and those communities are really best positioned to know what are the best adaptation.
And resiliency measures that we can take here. One of the things that I think is really motivating about working on adaptation and resiliency is that it is available to everyone. Not everyone can come up with some new kind of nuclear fusion that’s going to avoid a mission, and really not every community is contributing significantly to the problem either.
But every community is going to be dealing with the impact. So it is a form of climate action that is absolutely available to everyone. And it’s, so, it’s one of the reasons that I find it to be a promising area of climate action and the promising area of work.
Eric: Well, on that very hopeful note, uh, we have to look for our hope where we can find it.
Uh, I just wanna thank you so much, Alison, for, for your work, for talking with us. It’s, it’s so interesting and I’m, I, I learning so much about how to communicate about this and, and I, I love it when the time is over and I go, wow, I just learned a ton. So I really appreciate it.
Alison: Well, I’m happy to, to leave you with a little, or leave you with some hope here because it’s something that we think about a lot, especially when we spend a lot of our time helping people understand what these impacts are going to be and how they can prepare for them.
And I think. One of the areas of hope is that we still have a really amazing planet. Like we’re all getting very down on climate change, that it’s not as perfect. The climate isn’t going to be as perfect as it once was, but we still have an amazing planet is way better than Mars, and we should feel very lucky that we know.
How it works, that we know how the earth systems work well enough that we can figure out how to live within the boundaries of the planet. And one of the, the framings that we have found to be very honest and very effective, when we think about this, like this idea of what hope is there is that. We can still live well in a changing climate.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything about it, but you know, if we mitigate the worst possible scenarios, we can still find ways to live well and to thrive in a changing climate, but we have to actually think ahead and plan for it. So I’ll leave you with that.
Eric: I I like that too. Yeah. And earth.
Welcome to Earth. It’s way better than Mars. I think it’s, yeah. That’s a good calling card as well. Well, thank you again, Alison, smart Executive Director of Probable Futures. Thank you so much for your work and for your time and for talking to us.
Alison: Thank you Eric. Really appreciate talking to you and I appreciate the work you do.
Kirk: And we’re back. So, Alison, thank you, very gracious of you to take this invitation from this person, Eric Brown, and this podcast, let’s hear to talk about your group. And so pleased to hear that this organization is underway in doing its work. So Eric, what do you make of this? As you mentioned, you’ve been involved with climate communications for a long time.
I have too. But you’ve also seen it from the philanthropic side. So an org organization comes to you three years ago and says, we wanna develop a new institution focused on climate communication and democratizing science. How do you respond?
Eric: All I can tell you is that after speaking, , Alison, it just occurs to me now.
What we’re dealing with and, well, I’ll back that up slightly in that everyone is, who understands the climate right now is walking around going, oh, we’re screwed, we’re screwed, we’re screwed, and we can’t get anything done. And even if we did get everything done, then we’re still gonna end up being screwed and that the climate is beyond us and you know, whatever.
There’s a lot of, kinda a lot of negativity going on out there. Then there’s the other bunch of people who’s like, I don’t wanna know. Like the three monkeys, you know, see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. And what Alison is reminding us is kind of where we are, first of all, which is that for, I think it’s 12,000 years, and then of course I made it into 19,000 years in the conversation, but for some 10.
But somewhere between 10 and 20,000 years, we have been able to live with a stable climate where the temperature didn’t change by more than one degree. And therefore we were able to do a lot of stuff and now lo and behold, that’s changing, which is astonishing in its own right. But the other thing that we need to know is that there are things that you can do to adapt to that.
And that needless to say, we have to keep it from getting any worse, but we’re not screwed. We, there are things that we can be doing and there are ways that we can understand. How to use this information to make decisions, to price things appropriately and to. Then if we, if we can manage that part, then we can set our sights to coming up with how do we stabilize this climate and how do we assure that we’re not going to dislocate a lot of people over time?
So I, I just got a better sense of where we are and where we might go in my 30 minute conversation with Alison Smart.
Kirk: I. That was a great, in introductory Eric, it’s like what are the stakes civilization and how’s it been for civilization? Well, for 12,000 years we’ve had a pretty stable scenario we’ve been working with, and now we’re destabilizing it in a pretty profound way.
Yeah, it’s interesting. Every time we destabilize something, things get harder, things get more difficult, and interestingly, complexity gets smaller too. So, you know, you start seeing the consequence of this instability in terms of what happens to built environments, et cetera, as all these, um, horrible weather effects and stuff related to climate start becoming more.
More severe, more catastrophic. But Alison brings us into her trajectory into the work, and I love that you went here, Eric. You know, kind of the unlikely way that Alison got started and I really appreciated how Alison drew from this range of experiences to say, yeah, you know, I’ve spent a lot of time in my career.
Helping experts translate work so that people who are non-experts can understand that work and came from arts and then, you know, worked with fundraising. And of course, you know, there’s just the initiative and, uh, impetus to get going that is involved with all those pieces. So I, I also felt like that was part of the story for, um, probable futures here.
This desire and this willingness and, and think about this, get started in 2020. I’m trying to remember what was happening in 2020. I feel like, uh, I had some travel plans that got changed. I can’t remember exactly, but so, you know,
Eric: I started ordering in.
Kirk: Yeah, that’s right. Right. It seems like I saw my daughter a lot more.
I think she was home from school a lot. I can’t remember why, but, uh, I. But so, so you actually get this started at also this incredible period of time, and I think that story of resiliency, just personal resiliency, is actually in the DNA of this organization. And then that flows through to actual, actually the mission of the organization, which is to try to tell this story in a way to help people become, become an, an adept and, and be more resilient in the face of this change.
Eric: Well, you know, I also got my start in, um, in show business. I also got started in theater. I got, I don’t know what I got started in, but the idea that we need to draw from people from a variety of disciplines. To be able to tell the story is really important. And I went on a minor rant that you may or may not have heard Kirk when you listened, but, uh, which was that?
Usually it’s the program people, the so-called Experts who corner the market on the Communications, and we schmoes and communications are told that it’s too complicated. And that’s that. It’s not how you communicate. It’s not not how you make change. And that’s why you need folks from a variety of disciplines to tell these stories.
And for our communications brethren and sistern out there who are listening to this, we feel your pain. And for those program folks who are out there listening to this, stop telling people that it’s complicated. You know, stop telling people that you’re dumbing down our message because we have to communicate to a wide variety of people in order to make change and in order to try and turn the ship.
And so there, I, I kind of really, really can connect to what her job is. And I don’t know, it’s, it’s interesting and exciting and, and it’s gonna be tricky.
Kirk: When you’re democratizing, what a powerful word, you’re democratizing the science. And, um, I loved one of the initiatives that she touched on, you know, where that brings you because, you know, you think about this notion of all the different places these stories can be told, all the different ways they can inform sensibilities, and then also how those conversations then.
Themselves can become levers for change. You know, so, so what, where in the system can we create change? And this notion that they’re working with the Harvard Business School to bring climate risk conversations into dimensions of that business curriculum and that business training, um, that ring a bell here.
You know, because, um, as much as we want all of us to understand our options, take our best steps, you know, do what we can in our ways, large and small, when you’re looking at. Business people making decisions at times and involving billions or trillions of dollars of assets, and now starting to think about, okay, the cumulative impact of all this catastrophic change that we’re seeing increasingly and won’t only keep seeing more and more things like that really started making me think, wow, this probable futures approach could actually scale.
And similarly interesting ways.
Eric: I mean, the business community is understanding this for sure. You can barely get insurance in much of the state of California due to climate effects, and we’re beginning to see this. Now, the trick is how do we predict it? How do we manage it, and how do we adapt to that as well?
Because if we stop insuring everything, then business and just kind of life gets extremely difficult. Really complicated, right? You can’t buy a house. You can’t. Do all sorts of things. So that idea, that using that information more intelligently, helping people to understand how these pieces fit together and the business implications are huge, huge.
And anything that helps us make sense of where we are and where we’re going and what we need to do is gonna be incredibly important, especially now.
Kirk: It starts with that ability to tell the story to your point earlier, you know, starts with the ability to really anate people around, animate people around the story.
Um, and I think it’s interesting, you know, Spencer, who’s the, the founder of Probable Futures comes from that background seemingly, you know, of, of being involved in big investment enterprises. And so probably understands that scale perspective. So you, you touched on something briefly though. I know has been a challenge and a concern for many, which is as significant as the climate crisis is in its global implications and everything, civilization is at stake.
We have an issue that there’s just simply not enough philanthropy involved with this topic. And, um, I love that reflection. You know, only 2% of global philanthropy is targeting this topic. 85% of foundations will say it’s a top concern, but only a third are considering funding it. And we get to that piece, which is, it just feels like it’s too big of a deal.
It’s too heavy of a lift. And I actually thought there were some interesting ways that probable futures could actually help start unpacking that even for the philanthropic. Universe, but you’ve been involved in the background with some pretty major startups, including one of the largest philanthropic vehicles that I think ever envisioned in the world to address climate change.
What do you make of this whole conversation around philanthropy? How do we dip into more philanthropic dollars and just drive more action and change about what’s happening in the field?
Eric: Well, if you care about health, for example, climate has a huge, IM implication if you care about justice. Climate has a huge implication.
If you care about so many different things, you have to start almost with climate. We had this conversation with Larry Kramer. Very recently in which he’s funding a lot of democracy work at the Hewlett Foundation, he stood up a large democracy funding operation because democracy is the underpinning for many of the policies that are driving all of the other things that the Hewlett Foundation cares about.
And I would just submit that, that hand in hand with democracy, a getting Things done initiative, you have to have a climate. Approach because all of these things hinge on it. So I think the only thing that you can do is to understand what a portfolio approach to your grant making needs to be. And we’re not saying that you take all of your money and put it into climate, but you have to understand the implications of climate on all the other things that you care about and support it appropriately and in partnership with a lot of other folks who are doing similar types of work.
So yes, I think that. For one, you can’t just hope that it goes away, it won’t. Two, you have to do what you can do. And I thought that Alison’s approach to local or regional governments and decision making was an interesting one as well. In this instance, if, if things are blocked in Washington and we are they ever.
Where are they not blocked and what can you do about that? And it’s a very pragmatic approach, but it’s also in a, in a weird sense, it’s a little more optimistic about how we can make change in our country is that you go to places where you have these functioning where people understand the real life implications of day-to-day decisions.
And they’re addressing them and they’re deal taking them on. So if I’m a funder, those are the things that I’m thinking about. Where are things actually. Functioning and how can I support there and what are the underpinnings for all the other things that I care about and how do I support there?
Kirk: And I think there’s a nugget here in terms of how probable futures is setting up storytelling around specific scenarios and then trying to help specific communities.
- Internalize what those scenarios could mean for them that could even bridge to this topic around philanthropy. Because I think in so many ways, this conversation, we’re using words that are too big. So first of all, philanthropy is too big of a word. You know, what does that mean? How do we give money?
Where do we give it? What are the mechanisms of change? Why do people give it? Same thing. Climate’s too big of a word in many respects, you know, because it has so many ramifications. What are we talking about? Are we talking about the weather impacts? Are we talking about, you know, public health crisis affecting, you know, low income communities, elderly communities?
There’s so much wrapped into that. And, um, you know, when I think about this conversation about philanthropy and wanting to mobilize more dollars. I think, I almost wish we could do some coaching for our folks that are trying to wrestle with that to say, I think we should say, stop saying that only 2% of global philanthropy is doing this or that.
Let’s start saying there’s a thousand ways. Anybody who cares about their community could invest in locally relevant and actionable things. And, and, and the price tag for those investments can range from $5,000 to $5 billion. But there’s everything in there. And I think it’s that, that notion around creating real actionable opportunities for people.
To do something that speaks to them, meets them where they’re at, that something like a probable futures could actually help be a, be a bridge on there and, and another place where probable futures is bridging. It would very interesting, this conversation around mitigation, what are we gonna do to solve the problem?
You know, produce less carbon versus adaptation and resiliency. Now that the sea levels are rising, what do we do about that? Now that there’s greater wildfire risk? What do we do about that now that there’s gonna be more drought? What do we do about that? So what do you think about this balance between, uh, mitigation and adaptation?
Because I really appreciated how Alison said, you know, I. It’s really a both and, and in fact, you have to start doing the adaptation work well and soon so that you continue having resources available to do that paramount mitigation work, which we know is really gonna solve this challenge, uh, writ large.
But that’s a, that’s a tough balancing act that I know that sometimes those mitigation adaptation worlds feel like, you know, it’s the circular firing squad once again. ’cause you know, they’re, they’re, they’re, they’re, they can feel like they’re working cross purposes from, from each other, those communities.
Eric: I, I agree with her perspective. It makes total sense. If you’re so busy putting out, literally putting out fires, you will not have time to prevent them in the future. And. That, that’s kind of the, the size of it. We have to deal with the effects as we are trying to reduce the possibility of worse effects.
It just makes sense. The other thing is, I do think that if we can, and I don’t think anyone is under the impression that by dealing with adaptation, that we’re solving the problem, that it’s okay then to continue to burn fossil fuels and that, you know, we can let things go wherever they go because we’re gonna adapt.
You’d have to be crazy to think that that’s a, a reasonable scenario. Mm-Hmm. At the same time, I think that if you deal with some of the more challenging aspects in, in the course of doing adaptation work, it might kind of relieve some of the existential doom that. Is occurring with climate. So if we’re able to address some of these issues, then it might give us a little bit of confidence to go forth and think that we’re not all screwed.
So that, that’s how I, that’s how I think about that kind of stuff.
Kirk: Well, in fact, Alison, you know, Lisa set the note of hopes, says that, you know, hey, it’s not perfect, but it’s, it’s way better here than Mars. And, uh, and we’ve got, we could live within the boundaries of our planet even, even as it changes. So I, I wanna ask you a couple of tough questions in this whole regard.
So first, how often have you ever spent time trying to intentionally write and communicate at a sixth grade level? How often has that been something that you’ve had to do professionally?
Eric: Uh, I try to actually do it a lot, lot. I’ve sixth, sixth grade, maybe seventh stuck. Uh, so, but I’m, you know, I’m a simpleton as anyone who has met me knows I am a very simple dude.
Kirk: Right. Well, we’ve been doing a bunch of writing recently. It, it’s explicitly in that style and actually using tools to assess ourselves and see, okay, you know, what are we writing at because we’re one of our projects really requires it. And one of the things that came just, just leapt out at me as we’re going through this exercise, I was like, so.
Sometimes if you use words together, if you use the word climate communication together, you’re no longer writing in a sixth grade level. Like, you don’t, you don’t even, you don’t, you don’t even get to use those words and like, like so many of the words that we need to use to express what we’re talking about.
Take us outta that realm. And then we have this other demand, which is average household incomes in the United States right now, I think are running at like 40, $45,000 a year. So there’s this piece around what we do. You know, we’re, we’re trying to communicate at a sixth grade level. We’re trying to communicate into an environment where household incomes are like below $50,000 a year and trying to engender and ac catalyze and get, motivate.
All of this support and engagement around this change that we know needs to have, needs to happen. And in some. Somehow I’m stepping back ’cause we’re now coming into another political cycle and I’m seeing these two major exercises going on. One is the one we know so well, which is, um, we wanna make things better in all these different ways and, and improving, you know, the, the landscape around climate change is certainly a big part of that.
And at the same time we see another playbook unfolding, which seems to have at its root, something about let’s end democracy in the United States. You know, and, and, and then there’s, and there’s a push pull between these, between these things going on right there. There’s this, this, this whole piece going on around how do we make things better?
And then there’s this piece where, where many of us will look at and say, there’s, there’s no way you can look at that any other way and say, this is gonna make things very much worse. And, and we’ve talked conspiracy Kirk has come on this podcast before and said, I think these things are linked. I think that the project in democracy in the United States has everything to do with this whole, you know, thing that’s going on around the, the global.
Oil economy, but how do you think we’re doing? Because even in this conversation on climate communications, I feel like we’re starting from a place that’s almost too far removed from our audiences. You know, like when we start saying climate communications, we’re no longer at that sixth grade level. Yeah.
I loved your reflection that, that piece, that was, I think, what an SRI, you know, stop raising awareness. Yeah. Like, like as, as we’re trying to tell these stories for what purpose and to who, so, so who can do what? It just keeps coming back to me around that. I mean, what do you think about all of that?
Because I, there’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’m like, so all this work we wanna do, how does it appeal to you if you’re operating in a sixth grade level? How are we speaking to you? If you’re household income is below $50,000 a year? Are we with you and are you with us? And I think that there’s some evidence in our public discourse that there’s a big disconnect happening there that we need to start bridging better.
Eric: One of the joys about being asked 400 questions in three minutes is that I get to, I get to pick which one I wanna answer.
Kirk: Pick the one you, you feel most compelling,
Eric: or I get to make up one instead. Here’s what I think for starters, what we are seeing, there’s, there are cultural and economic and class divides for sure in the conversation around our changing.
Climate and weather and what we’re gonna do about it. Whether we’re going to continue to operate mines and wells and burn fossil fuels, or we’re going to transition to a new economy that doesn’t have as many pollutants that, uh, that deals with the issues of climate change. And I think it’s not hard to understand why people might be skeptical of this latter approach.
People feel like they’re being talked down to, they. Don’t understand something that hasn’t worked yet. They don’t. They don’t. They don’t have any friends in that business. They don’t have a hundred years of family culture or community culture. 50 years of community culture around a certain way of living and being.
And when these folks from New York or LA or wherever come on in and tell them, you know, we’re gonna make things better for you, they’re skeptical. And it is essential to be able to build the relationships with folks, to show them the tangible benefits of what the future. Would, will bring and build relationships that way.
And you’re right, stop using ancy words and stop telling people that it’s too complicated, and stop telling them that what we have is better for you. And you don’t know what’s good for yourself. It’s elitist, it’s distancing. It’s complicated. john powell, who came on recently would tell us it’s a bad idea.
Trabian Shorters, who we have spoken with about narrative, would tell us it’s a bad idea. So we, we have to start understanding how to build these bridges across differences. How to help connect on a visceral and emotional level with people about their future. Not about what they need to do so that some other thing can happen, but what about their lives and their futures?
And I think that’s the crux of what these important communications are gonna have to start to look like or else you will continue to lose elections. And you, you will certainly see the effects of this politically and it’s, it’s not good.
Kirk: Well, and you can see the value of a tool like. What probable futures is put putting together here in the sense that their tools allow you to put yourself at the center of that story, right.
You know, what does this global thing mean gonna mean for me and my community? My last comment here that I almost think in some respects we’re in the era of post climate communications, and that’s something that all of our climate communicators should think about. And I, and I think actually you could almost argue that the, the Inflation reduction Act could be the, the, the marker for that.
You know, because. I remember when we first got started all this stuff, you know, Al Gore just come back from Rio. There was one scientist out there saying this was a big problem. The whole field of climate communications was really built around this notion of getting people to know this was a problem, so they would do something right.
But when you, but when you start looking at what we have to do, what has to happen, I think the Inflation reduction Act is such a great illustration. What, what really took place there? A global pandemic explodes, we change, uh, global economies through as a result that’s, that ignites a wildfire of inflation globally.
So what happens? We pass the inflation reduction act in the United States. ’cause that’s what requires, that’s what gets every, it’s a bipartisan, right? And, and what, what’s at the heart of it? Spending more money. In a period of inflation, we’re gonna spend more money why? To address these climate things.
And we all know that That’s right. We all know that’s needed, but, but we start seeing what’s happening there. The, the solution to climate change starts being what happens when we can sort of add it in as the, it runs shotgun, it runs in the, in the side card to these other issues that are gonna really capture salience for people.
And, and so I wonder in some respects if that’s almost a post climate communications world, world. ’cause if you came into the Inflation reduction Act and you said, Hey, this is the world’s. Biggest signature piece of climate policy that’s ever been done. You, the bipartisan alignment behind that would’ve evaporated in a heartbeat.
And so there’s, there’s just, there’s just so much here in terms of how we’re talking about this stuff. I start, I start wondering if maybe we should just take the words climate communication and say, thank you. You, you did your job for about 20 years, but now we’re actually, now we’re talking about some other stuff, which is the kind of storytelling that makes it, that becomes possible when you have tools like what probable futures is pulling together.
Eric: Yeah. Well that, that’s for sure. I mean, I. Without getting into the economics of this too much, I don’t see it as spending money nearly as much as investing in the future. I’m gonna put solar panels on my roof, and now I know what my electricity is gonna cost for the next forever. Forever, which is zero, or you know, near zero as long as.
Uh, I can sell my power back to the state and whatever we can, we, that could happen, that could change. But the idea is that, you know, we are producing a net zero of, of energy in our house, and that’ll be the that way forever. And that is an investment and it pays off over time. But anyway, the but this idea, yes, you’re, I think you’re quite right.
We have to continue to figure out how to talk about our work in ways that connect with people in an authentic way. So you have to tell the truth. It has to ring true. And those are two different things. And I think that’s what the crux of good communications of any kind need to be. And we just, I’m, I’m delighted that, that Alison is doing this work because she’s giving us tools to see what we are experiencing in new ways, and that’s really important.
Kirk: Absolutely. Well, Alison Smart, executive Director from Probable Futures. Thank you Alison. Thank you, Spencer. The entire team at Probable Futures for all the work that you’re doing. It’s a new story gets you got started in 2020. We’re excited. We wish you well. We want to see how all the work you do manifests as you move forward.
And Eric, thank you for bringing Alison to the podcast. That was an awesome conversation. I’m so glad we got to listen in on it.
Eric: Yeah, that was great. I really, really enjoyed that.
Kirk: Okay, everybody. That’s it for this episode. Please let us know if you have any thoughts about what you heard today or people we should have on this show. And that definitely includes yourself. And we’d like to thank…
Eric: Our indefatigable producer, Harper Brown.
Kirk: John Allee, the tuneful and inspiring composer of our theme music.
Eric: Our sponsor, the Lumina foundation.
Kirk: And please check out luminous terrific podcast. Today’s students, tomorrow’s talent. And you can find that at lumina foundation.org.
Eric: We certainly thank today’s guests. And of course, all of you.
Kirk: And most importantly, thank you, Mr. Brown.
Eric: Oh, no, no, no, no. Thank you, Mr. Brown.
Kirk: Okay, everybody, until next time.