Discussing Climate Change and COP27 With Comedian and Climate Scientist Matt Winning

Nov 22, 2022
This week we spoke to Matt Winning about climate change and COP27 on our podcast The Activist Investor. Here is an excerpt from that interview. You can also listen to the whole episode here (or wherever you get your podcasts).

Christine:
Hello Matt, thank you for coming onto the podcast.

Matt:
Thank you for having me, Christine. Absolute pleasure to be here.

Christine:
Do you want to go through all your job titles one by one? Because there are quite a few.

Matt:
Yeah, very happy to. I am a senior research fellow at the UCL, the University College London Institute for Sustainable Resources. I've been there for ten years this year and I do lots of research on loads of different climate related topics, mostly around mitigation and policy. I am an author on the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change. My work has been used in the recent IPCC, stuff like that. Do a lot of the climate stuff. Basically, that's my day job. My nighttime job is I'm a stand up comedian, which is where we originally met years ago.

Christine:
My secret past.

Matt:
Absolutely. Which is, yeah, where we met. I did comedy for years. Again, quite a long time, I think now 14 years, something like that. But about five years ago, I started talking about climate change using comedy and now I exclusively do that. So I've written a book called Hot Mess: What on Earth Can We Do About Climate Change? That is, I believe, the world's one and only comedy book about climate change.

Christine:
Very good.

Matt:
And I've done lots of shows and had a BBC Radio Four series very recently.

Christine:
Can you paint a quick picture of how we are doing in the fight against climate change?

Matt:
Not great. I mean, the world's warmed already by over a degree Celsius on average, and it's warmer in different parts, and that's what has already happened and is very much a different world than the world that you and I were born into. So already we're not doing great, so that's the bad news.

The good news is that what happens in the future is very much within our control, essentially. There's optimism there, I think, but it's really how quickly we can change society and restructure in a way which is geared towards ending any contribution whatsoever towards climate change.

Christine:
You've been a climate researcher, you said, I think, ten years, and I presume you've known for the whole ten years that it's not going very well. And so I wondered if we've made any progress at curbing the warmth of the planet?

Matt:
Yeah, so far the progress hasn't necessarily been on curbing how we're warming the planet thus far, but it's very much about the direction we're likely to take in the future. And with that, I think there is room for optimism versus where we were before the Paris Agreement. Essentially, I started working on this in 2008, which was a time of sort of real progress. The UK got a Climate Change Act, which was the first ever national piece of legislation anywhere in the world to tackle climate change.

And it was like there was a few years around the end of that decade where things were really positive in terms of the action that we might take. And then I'm not really sure what happened. I think it was partly, again, due to the global recession that we had at the time.

So it's good that we're not having one of those again to distract us from tackling climate change. But yeah, so we sort of got distracted and there was a few years of not really much progress. But since the Paris Agreement, I think there's been quite a substantial change. I read a stat this week that someone said, I think since Paris, it's knocked about one degree off of where we thought we were heading.

Christine:
That’s good! That's progress.

Matt:
So that's absolutely progress.

Now, it doesn't mean that we're heading where we really need to head. I wouldn't say that that one degree change has been solely down to the Paris agreement, but clearly that's a factor among many factors that have changed the trajectory and sort of helped us progress.

A boring but really important thing to always qualify is that we're talking about massive global averages here. And actually there's already a lot of suffering around the world because of climate change. It's already happening and it will happen. And so it's about trying to reduce suffering.

Christine:
It certainly feels as though it's come more into the forefronts of our minds, like you say, with the Paris Agreement and COP26. I feel like COP26 is the first time people kind of paid attention to these big meetings that happen where world leaders come through, and it sort of felt like people were tuned into this for the first time ever. And so now here we are with COP27 and everyone's hyper focused on it. I wonder what your thoughts are with COP27 so far? Like, have we made progress since COP26? What do you think about all these corporate sponsorships? And is it a sham? Like Greta says…

Matt:
A lot to unpack there, but essentially I think there has been a change, especially in the UK. The fact that we hosted it with COP26 last year, I think it was a massive thing for us to do, and helpful because it sort of shone a light on what the UK is doing and on the process. And it's almost like hosting the olympics or hosting a World Cup or something to sort of…

Christine:
Yeah, feels that way, doesn’t it?

Matt:
People become more involved in it. It becomes more of an event. And I think people wanted to contribute…it was on the news constantly.

And I think for me, the main thing that's opened up is the space for people to talk about it and whether that's the public or whether that is corporate or whether it is quite often the media, which I've now, I guess, gone through enough of a COP - trained a little bit that they're kind of refocusing a bit more on again this year.

Which I think is good, because, as you say before, that it would often be very limited in the amount of exposure that it had and the details of it. And so it feels like a lot more investment from a lot more people.

As you say, there are potentially negative impacts of that, which is people want to make themselves seem that they are part of the solution. Greenwashing, essentially. I guess it's like any event, it becomes slightly more corporate as time goes on.

You and I have a lot of experience of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which I would say is incredibly similar to COP in the sense that it's a massive, sprawling event that people are trying to often publicize themselves rather than focusing on the purpose of why they're there.

Christine:
I can remember clearly you at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the one voice among the many being like, guys, we don't need so many flyers, but if you do need a flyer, make them smaller.

Matt:
If there's one thing that I leave when I go, that I'll be remembered for in the comedy world, jokes, smaller flyers, anything, it'll just be really tiny flyers. I think they were like half the size of everyone else.

So I think there are problems with it and we have to be aware of that. But I still think overall, it's far more important that it happens, especially to give voices to different countries, because everyone's on unequal footing there. And so I think that's one thing that's sort of often forgotten. Depending on what country you are, what's important to you will be different.

So a lot of the Western perspective on this is very much about, like, how bad is it going to get? Are we going to stop climate change? But there are other countries that are already dealing with climate change much, much more than anywhere else and are actually just like, well, we have to just deal with this today. It's not theoretical and we haven't caused any of this, so we need help.

There's lots of different elements playing out at COP adaptation to climate change and also damage, whether we have emissions trading and how quickly countries are committing to make changes. All that sort of thing is really important. But there are other important things to different countries as well.

I think the problem is that often with climate change because it's such a scary big subject, it often feels like anything we talk about, it's either all or nothing with it. Everything's either this COP has to solve climate change or everything's going to…and I don't know whether I'm allowed to swear on this podcast, I'm going to say…*&$!

Christine:
Bleep…yeah, we didn't get the timing right.

Matt:
So it feels like there's almost too much pressure on these things, whereas actually it's part of a much wider process that has to continue during the year and we have to continue to keep pressure on in many different aspects around it. So it's far more important that it happens every year than it not happening. And it does have positive impacts, though they're quite hard at times to quantify.

Christine:
What do you feel, as a climate researcher, would have the biggest impact on stopping climate change? Individual action versus corporate action versus government action? Should I buy a metal straw or is that not doing anything in the face of what's going on with fossil fuel companies, big oil, etc. Pure stats, pure numbers, what would have the biggest impact tomorrow?

Matt:
So the two questions I'm most asked are, are we screwed? And what can I do about it? And that second one, what can I do about it? You have to ask the question that you are asking there, which is, is what I do about it important? Or should it be: what can we do about it? Or what can they do about it? And so if we're going to put numbers on it, it depends on what you define around the boundary of what an individual person's actions are. Because I think I know you've talked about this before on the podcast with pensions and other things like that. If you're only thinking about those straws or people driving cars, then, yeah, individual action is quite limited to some extent.

But when you start to expand what individual action means, which is voting, therefore it's impacting what governments do and it's where you invest and where you shop, and that impacts what corporates and others do, then those three things are actually all kind of one and the same. I think this way of looking at it as if these are different elements isn't particularly helpful on how to solve the problem.

So without trying to completely dodge your question, the answer is that none of them individually will achieve anything and disentangling what the biggest and smallest ones would be. I don't think it's even that helpful because you almost need all of them to happen for any of them to happen.

Christine:
So I think what you've done there is had a very mature response, which is that we should all stop pointing the finger at whose fault it is and who should be doing what and everybody has a sort of role to play…

Matt:
100% yeah. Because the problem is that, and this is something I've experienced over the last decade or so working on this is that everyone always says it's someone else's responsibility. People say it's up to governments and governments say we won't regulate until the people want us to. Or industry thinks that they're ready to do it. And industry says the government needs to tell us what to do.

So the answer, then, the solution is, where is the easiest to get consensus about change that will have the largest impact?

Let's give a quick example. Insulating all of our homes right? Now that is a massive problem right now in the UK. The UK has one of the leakiest housing stocks in the world. It loses heat three times faster than the European average home.

Christine:
I mean, I have noticed - coming from California. I didn't want to say anything and be rude, but I have noticed.

Matt:
So, yeah, that is very difficult for individuals. So, an individual level, are we going to solve that? Absolutely not, because it's quite an expensive thing to do for people. The solution to do that, which would be a massive low hanging fruit in terms of reducing emissions, because you're cutting energy use, it requires some intervention at a much higher level, or probably government, along with the supply chains of the companies that would do that type of work.

So you need national schemes to be able to loan people the money or to be able to try to do it at scale, whether it's a street at a time or whatever it is. So that's an example of where it's not going to happen if it's left to individuals.

And there's other areas where the market is much more adept at trying to solve some of these problems. Solving how we produce zero carbon steel probably shouldn't be left up to individuals. It really is something that needs to be to be worked on by steel companies and countries…

Christine:
That makes sense.

Matt:
… and the rest of the sector, like housing companies, whatever it is.

So you need to get the people that can solve the problem the quickest and have the most agency, I guess, to come together.

It came up recently again in the UK. One of our new ministers was asked by someone in the media of what she did to help save the planet. And her answer was terrible and people were upset about it. But what angered me far more was the fact that she was being asked that on national television.

What she does as an individual…

Christine:
It’s pointing the finger…

Matt:
It's pointing the finger and it's also completely pointing the finger away from where her power lies, which is, as a government minister, to make policy which can have an effect millions of times the size of what she can do.

It doesn't matter what she's doing as an individual, but to frame it in that way, it's this weird thing that the media does by… we can make this more about people. And the sort of a personalization thing there, which I do when I do comedy as well is you end up talking about individual actions because it relates to people's lives so they feel connected to it. But what you're actually doing at the same time is then making that appear to be equally as important as the other things.

And I always try to come back to that when I talk about it, which is like it's nice to talk about these things and make jokes or whatever, but then we have to move on and be like well that was just to get you engaged in this.

Christine:

Matt:
There's a lot of stuff that businesses can do. Transparency is really important. Being much more clear and open about how much you're actually doing as opposed to how much you're just paying someone else to maybe do is massively important. So I think that really helps.

The other aspect is that you can band together and I realise again, this example may not work for everybody, but if you can create the demand with lots of other companies by creating initiatives that say well we will buy the low carbon products together so that there's mass orders for it.

So again with steel and steel masses - I don’t know 7% or 8% or something of global emissions is just producing steel - you need these companies to club together to say we are a big purchaser of steel, we will buy low carbon steel when it's produced to drive the demand so that the demand for the clean product is there.

There's not enough demand necessarily for those products if it's just your company that's asking for it. But if you can come together as an industry or whatever, as a group of responsible investors and say we will buy this product, then it creates enough demand for new sustainable products to make it to market and we need that for the key emitting industries.

Christine:
I'm sensing a theme here is that it's going to take a lot of working together on all sides through business.

Matt:
Absolutely, yeah.

Christine:
I'm starting to sense the moral of the story.

Matt:
A lot of companies want to be like well we're going to help play our part to solve this. But actually a lot of the part that you can play is working with others. Whether that's others that you would normally see as competitors or whether it's others that are part of the supply chain.

Whatever it is, there's a massive amount that corporates can do because of the scale that they're operating at.

And when you do it you should shout from the rooftops.

Christine:
It has a huge effect as well, just in terms of staying ahead of the curve. You don't want to be the business playing catch up. The market shifted, businesses have shifted. Everyone's going sustainable and now we're the stick in the mud. So I think certainly with the work we do at Tulipshare, our aim is never to antagonise the business, but to help them say there's more we could be doing here.

And again, like you say, it starts with transparency and accountability. And those are step one for what we usually ask for, which is just look at the numbers of your emissions, let's just see what they are, let's report them, let's see where we're at and then we can assess what the next steps are.

And what are your thoughts on Scope 3, which is your emissions that come from transportation, supply chain or even investments your company makes?

Matt:
It is interesting when you start looking at these things. So, as you say, investment is incredibly important and I think that's one of the first things that companies need to look at, because it's something you can change quite easily.

The other aspects, as you say, whether it's your transportation, how far along the supply chain is quite tricky. How do you calculate everything at an individual company level without double counting? So double counting, obviously something no one wants to do, but that works a lot easier if it's done together with other companies.

It becomes a lot easier if you can come up with industry standards, if everybody can get together and say, well, this is how we all think this should be done, and we're aggregating across all of our different supply chains.

Christine:
And I think you're right, everybody does have to do it together, because in business, no one wants to kind of stick their head above the parapet and be the first one to take a hit.

Matt:
But also it's like, well, everybody's just duplicating costs as well by doing because everybody's worried about this and doing it. But if you can do it at an industry level,

Christine:
OK, so let's change topics ever so slightly. Big thing on people's minds, especially with COP27 is fossil fuels. I think I read an article saying there were about 600 delegates at COP27 this year who were from the fossil fuel industry and naturally, people think that's one of the biggest places we can start making changes to stop all this. So, yeah, let's talk about fossil fuel divestment. What are your thoughts on that?

Matt:
First of all, I mean, I'm not an expert on divestment. There are sort of different schools of thought and there are different reasons for taking those different approaches. And both are right, essentially, or the different ways of doing are potentially correct.

What I would say, and I think is the most important point to make is that at this present time making money off of what is happening right now across the world is a massive injustice and shouldn't be allowed. What the global situation just now really strengthens is that we need more investment in renewables. It is a fossil fuel problem that we're having. It's not an energy crisis. Fossil fuel crisis.

Often again, it's talked about as if gas bills are going up and the cost of petrol. When you go, well, yeah, that's all fossil fuels and the cost of food. And you go, yeah, well, the cost of food comes from fertilizers, which come from fossil fuels and from transportation of food, which comes from fossil everything comes back to we're so dependent on fossil fuels.

Christine:
If only there's a way we could get rid of them.

Matt:
And there are. So maybe we should be increasing investment in those other things. Again, what I think has to happen is government intervention to do two things which is loosen the tap on renewables investment so that there's more of that and they need to be at the same time tightening the cap on what's happening with production or investment into fossil fuels.

The whole divestment question is very difficult if there's not a long term plan for what's going to happen to production over time. So we need policies in place that are increasing the stuff we want more of the good stuff but are also decreasing the bad stuff.

And a lot of governments are very very hesitant to do the difficult stuff. So they're very happy to go “we're getting more wind power, we're getting more investment in this, we're doing more of this.” They're always very happy to talk about what they're getting more of and what they're helping to produce more of.

But what we need to do to mitigate the very most dangerous aspects of climate change will not be solved without doing less of the harmful stuff at the same time. So divestment clearly plays a role in that but it has to be, I think, part of a role that's wider where you are aware that the country is going to end production of fossil fuels by a certain year, which I think France and Spain have both committed to.

And every company that's involved in this should be potentially saying well we are going to reduce or leave X percent of our reserves in the ground essentially write them off. It's very unlikely that that's going to happen but that's what should be happening.

Christine:
So it seems as though everyone has to work together. Again, we're here at our theme and there needs to be some government action to put the pressure on and maybe relieve the people who will get squeezed by the energy crisis and help with that and then the companies who are profiting off it. I mean it may be worth putting those profits back into research, renewables, finding ways… so I guess my other question is, is it good that all those fossil fuel delegates are at COP27? Is it essential that they're there?

Matt:
No, absolutely not. They will say there's a role for them at the table and to some extent there is. There are good people that work in these companies, in these industries. But that juxtaposition that I just talked about, the idea that you have shares and value, that you're beholden to your shareholders to make profit, whilst what you should be doing is writing off value is always going to be a problem.

So the individuals can be good and be wanting to do the right things, but when it comes to that, what they're driven by as a company, it's always going to be pretty impossible to square those things.

And so I think if all of your companies had wanted to be credible, what they would have done is they would have invested lots of their profits over the last 30 years in carbon capture technologies so that they could continue using their products indefinitely and they didn't. So in my opinion, they don't really have much credibility in terms of being part of how this is going to be solved.

Christine:
It sort of is down now to changing the priorities here and like you said, prolonging the business is in their interest. And so to shift shareholders from saying, okay, yeah, there's these profits to make but also the business needs to last and the planet needs to last. So the pressure now has to come down to, I guess, the shareholders.

Matt:
It really does for those companies, more than any other company, it comes down to shareholders.

Christine:
It's up to shareholders to save the world, is that what you're saying?

Matt:
I'm saying it kind of is to some extent, or at least to give those companies a transition out of it. But then you look at it and you go, well, a lot of the largest oil companies are national states and stuff like that and that comes back to not shareholders, but governments.

Christine:
So I'm coming up to my final question and I've heard you talk before about how climate change PR kind of didn't get off to the best start with Al Gore at the helm and everything. So I wanted to know what are some ways you think we could change climate change PR to make it effective?

Matt:
Nothing against Al Gore, by the way I think he’s great, big fan, but the difficulty there was you had very easy target for vested interests to point at a sort of bogeyman that would be the other side…

Christine:
If you weren't politically aligned with him. It's often the way if that person isn't to your political taste, you then automatically say well, then I don't like climate change, or I don't like people who don't like climate change. *

Matt:
But, yeah, you're right. So you've got this sort of PR industry for fossil fuels, essentially vested interests, and then you've got, I guess, the PR industry for taking action on climate change and solving it, which is a lot more diffuse, which is basically tended to be environmentalists or greens or whatever and seen as this sort of left wing thing which I think has been very problematic to building enough of a consensus around it.

And it's one of the reasons why it's been really only in the last couple of years where we've seen climate impacts hitting harder more regularly and more extremes in countries that I think people have kind of woken up to a lot more.

I mean, for me, it's very much about trying to broaden the types of conversations we have about this. I'm probably getting lots of different people to talk about it. So this is great. And different voices are really important. We've got Greta, who is a voice of a generation. I think we need some sort of like 75 year old Greta. We need like an old woman Greta.

Christine:
We just need to spread the word of this whole working together thing now. That's got to be the focus.

Matt:
Absolutely. Working together, but also from a PR perspective. We have to bring it to people in their lives and make it relevant to them. And it's not a one size fits all. We have to try more things. We have to communicate to different people and we have to have different spokespeople talking about it. And that requires a bit of a shift, I think, away from framing it as this the domain of scientists or the domain of green hippies with dread locks. Do we need more science on this? It's not actually the most important thing.

Matt’s book 'Hot Mess: What on Earth can we do about climate change?' can be found in most major UK bookshops. You can also visit his website https://mattwinning.com/ for more information.

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