Apr 6, 2022 - Podcasts

How civic engagement can combat climate change

UN climate scientists gave governments a “final warning” in a new report on Monday, saying that to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, emissions must peak by 2025. At the Axios What's Next Summit in D.C. yesterday, Niala asks Ali Zaidi, White House deputy national climate advisor, what individuals can actually do.

  • Plus, how young “techno-optimists” are driving the future.

Guests: Deputy National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi and Axios' Jennifer Kingson.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Wednesday, April 6th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today, we’re covering how young “techno-optimists” are driving the future.

And, our one big thing: the role of civic engagement in combating climate change, with White House Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi.

UN climate scientists gave governments a “final warning” in a new report out on Monday – saying that to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, emissions have to peak by 2025… that’s just 3 years away! And in what Axios climate reporter Andrew Freedman calls a cold slap of water to the face – emissions also have to decline by almost half by 2030.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is going forward with the largest strategic release of oil in our history - 1 million barrels of oil a day for the next six months.

In the face of all this, many of you have been emailing the podcast asking the same question: what can individuals actually do, to help combat climate change? I put that question to Ali Zaidi, White House deputy national climate advisor, and former New York deputy secretary for energy and environment. He joined me in DC at the Axios What’s Next summit yesterday.

ZAIDI: I think probably what folks are looking for is an answer as simple as, you know, don't leave the water running, uh, or recycle more or switch to a certain product or another. And those are really important personal actions. But what's really, really important I think at this moment is that we press the entire system to meet the moment and that's going to require a real engagement with the broader society.

NIALA: So you're talking about civic engagement.

ZAIDI: Civic engagement is going to be the critical ingredient in tackling the climate crisis.

NIALA: And so when people are listening to this thinking in their small town, you grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, how do you see that happening at a local level?

ZAIDI: I think at a local level, it's folks being very clear about their priorities. When a school is thinking about making its, uh, changes to how it buys electric, it's showing up to that school board meeting and making sure that this is on the radar of the leaders. Um, so it's sure it's making a difference in your home, but school board, uh, city, town council. And then obviously in the federal government holding federal leaders to account to follow through on these bold climate commitments.

NIALA: So you said something to me on stage. People don't want to lecture about science. Do you think that's been a mistake that we, that we feel like that people have been heavy handed? Or do you think it's just a question of trying to meet people where they're at?

ZAIDI: I think it's a question about meeting people where they are. Sure, there are folks in America who subscribe to Scientific American, they just love to get deep on this stuff.

But for a lot of folks they're going around just trying to live their life. And they want to know, you know, where they're going to get their next paycheck. They want to know how they're going to get from point A to point B and how much that's going to cost them. And I think one of the things we're seeing resonate a great deal with folks around the country, is just boiling it down to the economic opportunity that exists in tackling climate. So, it's about attracting business investment into communities. It's about helping companies see around the corner and recognize that by investing in cleaner products, they're not just becoming more competitive globally. They're making sure that workforce has decades more of a demand because they're positioning for where the puck is headed.

So I think it's maybe if it's not a conversation about the science, it can be a conversation about the economic imperative that we're seeing all, all around the country.

NIALA: I suspect a you're the guy who likes Scientific American.

ZAIDI: Yes. Yes. I do like Scientific American.

NIALA: So how have you modified or changed the way you have thought or approached this issue? You know, this has been your life's work dealing with this, but as you've seen our politics become more divided in this issue become more contentious, how have you thought about reframing it?

ZAIDI: For me, it's been really easy as excited as I get to geek out on, you know, the cost curves on electrolyzer technology, or to understand new ways with which we're approaching fusion technology to basically build a little star that's going to power our earth. As exciting as all of that is, when I think about climate, I think about that sense of opportunity, not just to get a paycheck, but to be part of the project taking on one of the greatest crises of our time. So that's why it's easy, is because that's my reason for being in public service to begin with.

NIALA: Ali, thank you so much for being with us. I appreciate it.

ZAIDI: Thanks so much.

NIALA: You can watch my conversation with Ali for the What’s Next summit —where we went deeper into some of that scientific and technological conversation—by visiting the link in our show notes.

We’ll be back in a moment with new data on young people and tech.

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo. Young people under 25 are excited and optimistic about the future of new technology. Everything from crypto to smart home technology. That's according to an exclusive Axios momentum poll out this week. Jennifer Kingston is the chief correspondent for the What's Next newsletter, where she's also an editor. She's here with me at the What's Next summit in D.C with this glimpse into how young Americans are feeling. Hi, Jennifer.


NIALA: You asked about a lot of new technology in this poll, how would you describe this generation that have been dubbed the techno-optimists?

JENNIFER: We saw a big age divide in the poll that we did with Momentive. It tended to be that the younger you are, the more excited you tend to be about everything from drones delivering food and drugs to your house, to buying cryptocurrency. Fully a quarter of the young people whom we polled have invested in cryptocurrency, where the older people are much more skittish about it. Young people all want to buy electric vehicles if they could afford them. And, they're very excited about the prospect of living in a quote unquote “smart city.”

NIALA: That number about electric vehicles, that seven out of 10 young Americans would drive an electric car if they could afford it, which is a big if, but does that enthusiasm actually change the market for this technology?

JENNIFER: It suggests that the conversion to electric vehicles will probably take place more quickly rather than less, because the young people are going to be the consumers of tomorrow. There's an extremely big push by automakers to get as many EVs on the street as possible and to make them more affordable for the younger cohort. So it really does all point towards a future where the conversion to electric cars is going to continue to happen more quickly.

NIALA: This poll also covered things that people are worried about, or not ready to jump on, like the metaverse. What did we learn about those worries?

JENNIFER: People are saying “meh” about the metaverse. Nobody quite knows what it means, despite the fact that Facebook has rebranded itself as Meta to emphasize the centrality of this virtual world and our lives going forward. So far, it's not ready for prime time and everybody's still scratching their heads about what it is and how to define it. So it remains to be seen if that will actually turn out to be something important in our futures or not.

NIALA: Jennifer, the idea that the youngest among us are the most excited about technology is probably generally how it works, right? Like younger generations adapt technology that become part of the mainstream. Why is the techno-optimism so significant at this moment in 2022?

JENNIFER: You're right. But because of the pace of change that's been brought about by the pandemic, it stands to reason that all these different types of technology are going to advance even further because they have the young people championing them. One thing that was striking in our poll was that 82% of the people under 24 were huge supporters of so-called micro-mobility devices: e-scooters, e-skateboards, e-bikes. Those shared devices that are out in the streets. Older people really don't want these things around. They're worried about safety issues and so forth. Yet they're going to persist because this is something that young people have grown accustomed to and want in their lives going forward.

NIALA: Axios’ chief correspondent, Jennifer Kingson, editor of the What's Next newsletter. Thanks, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: Thank you.

That’s all we’ve got for you today! I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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