NATURE PODCAST

Podcast: XKCD, and Extinction Rebellion

Hear the latest science news, with Benjamin Thompson and Noah Baker.

This week, absurd advice from XKCD’s Randall Munroe, and a conversation with climate lawyer turned activist Farhana Yamin.

In this episode:

00:46 How to do things (badly)

Cartoonist Randall Munroe tell us about his new book: How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems.

08:21 Research Highlights

How insemination makes honeybee queens lose their way, and ‘toe maps’ in the brain. Research Highlight: Sex clouds queen bees’ vision; Research Highlight: ‘Toe maps’ in the brain guide painters born without hands

10:31 From climate lawyer to climate activist

After three decades of climate advocacy, renowned IPCC lawyer Farhana Yamin decided to join Extinction Rebellion – she tells us why. Comment: Why I broke the law for climate change

17:48 News Chat

How nations are progressing towards limiting greenhouse-gas emissions, and climate cash flow. News Feature: The hard truths of climate change — by the numbers; News Feature: Where climate cash is flowing and why it’s not enough

This episode of the Nature Podcast is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 media outlets to highlight the issue of climate change.

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Transcript

This week, absurd advice from XKCD’s Randall Munroe, and a conversation with climate lawyer turned activist Farhana Yamin.

Host: Noah Baker

Welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, bizarre solutions to simple problems.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And one person’s journey from climate lawyer to climate activist. I’m Benjamin Thompson.

Host: Noah Baker

And I’m Noah Baker.

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Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

First up on this week’s show, I recently had the chance to talk to Randall Munroe, the cartoonist behind the hugely popular web comic, xkcd, which features stick figures, a lot of pop culture references and science jokes. If you’ve ever been to a scientific conference, I’m willing to bet you’ll have seen at least one of his cartoon strips used by a speaker to illustrate a point or to get a laugh at the end of their talk. Randall has also written a series of books, the latest of which is called How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems. I asked him about some of the real-world problems he looked at.

Interviewee: Randall Munroe

I took a lot of simple problems that you might encounter in everyday life, like the hassle of packing to move or how to make friends with people. And I’m one of those people who will always find a much more complicated way to do things that I have convinced myself is going to be worth it in the long run, and so I’ll say okay, I know this looks like it’s too elaborate or too complicated, but once it gets going, you’ll see what a good idea this was, and inevitably I’m still trying to get it working when the people who are solving the problem the normal way are already done.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Yeah, and I would say all of your questions, I’ve got some in front of me here, how to jump really high, how to play football which works on both sides of the Atlantic, which is great, I mean they all have sensible starts and then things quickly veer off into maths and physics and ridiculousness.

Interviewee: Randall Munroe

Yeah, I usually start somewhere kind of straightforward and then I often find I’ll come up with some weird idea and then of course, I just want to know would that actually work? So, my friend had ants that were in his house and he texted me and said, ‘I’m so frustrated trying to get these ants out. We’ve tried out all these different things. Could I just build a moat of lava that the ants couldn’t cross? How much would that cost?’ And right away, I was like I don’t know, that’s really interesting and then it’s like getting a song stuck in your head. When I hear a question like that, I just need to know the answer and so I think I sort of stopped on the sidewalk and started researching lava heat flow and the engineering involved in keeping a moat of lava hot so that I could come up with a price estimate.

Interviewer: Benjamin ThompsonWell, Randall, what does your sort of research process look like? Do you start with a blank piece of paper and a question mark at the top?

Interviewee: Randall Munroe

Sometimes I’ll have read a research paper or I’ll have a book on hand that I think has an answer in it. Sometimes the questions are strange enough that the best place to look isn’t necessarily a research paper or a scholarly source. At one point, I remember I wanted to find out whether or not pollen, when it falls from trees, is particularly flammable. I thought it might be because it’s dusty particles, but I wasn’t sure, and I was reading through a couple of papers on pollen and fire risks and I was having trouble finding a straight answer and then I realised, wait a minute, the world is full of teenagers with matches, and I just went on YouTube and searched ‘pollen flammable’ and found all these videos of people lighting pollen in their driveway on fire and causing a huge, dangerous foosh, and that was a much faster way to find the answer to the question ‘Is pollen flammable?’ than a research paper.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, what is the value of talking about, well, the absurd, in many cases? You talk about opening water bottles with a nuclear bomb to fill up a swimming pool, for example. What’s the value of using these scenarios to answer questions?

Interviewee: Randall Munroe

I think that it lets you explore ideas that would otherwise be kind of abstract. So, in the example of using nuclear weapons to open water bottles, for one thing, it sounds ridiculous but it is something that the US government actually tried in the early Cold War era. Now, they were actually trying not to open the bottles. What they did was they set a bunch of bottles out near Ground Zero – they mostly used beer, I think, but also carbonated beverages – and measured how well they survived the blast and whether the liquid inside was still drinkable. Exploring this idea is a way, like I learned this history that I didn’t know about and it also is a way to learn about nuclear weapons and glass bottles. They found that in general, the bottles were not broken unless they were knocked off the shelves and it’s also just fun. I find that even when a question is not practical at all, I get excited about knowing the answer, and if I find out that there’s a way to get it, especially if it involves some interesting research, I just really enjoy it.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

You’ve got some guest stars as well as part of your book – notably Chris Hadfield, astronaut, and Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time – and they got involved too and seemed to be quite good sports about it.

Interviewee: Randall Munroe

Yeah, I think that the chapter where I talked to Chris Hadfield was probably my single favourite part of the book. I did a chapter on how to make an emergency landing and Colonel Hadfield is a test pilot in addition to being former Commander of the International Space Station, and so I asked him about unusual landing situations. He just answered every question – no pause, no hesitation. When I asked him the first question about if you have to land in a cultivated field, which crop is the best to aim for, and he just immediately says, ‘Well, I fly small planes and that’s the kind of stuff we think about all the time. When you’re driving to the airport, you keep an eye out, you look around at the fields and think how high are their beans right now? Have they brought in their hay? Has it rained recently because you can’t land in a muddy field?’ And he just went on like this, laying out answers to every stranger and stranger question, and it was all very matter of fact and he had a flight he was going to. He actually kept talking to me. He said, ‘Oh no, hang on, I’ve just got to scan my boarding pass and I’ll be right back,’ and then he continued talking to me as he walked down the jet way onto a plane, and I think at that point I finally had to end the interview because I didn’t want him describing how he would land a plane if he were trapped on the outside as he walks down the aisle past all the other passengers. I was like we must be freaking someone out here.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Your book is absolutely rammed with facts. What’s the one that kind of blew your mind the most, that if our listeners were to hear one fact, what was your favourite?

Interviewee: Randall Munroe

One really surprising fact I learnt was in the chapter on how to deliver a package from space. How do you throw it out of the space station and protect it so that it will make it down to the surface without burning up? Almost anything you throw out of the space station will burnt up in the atmosphere, but certain very thin and lightweight objects may slow down and descend without ever reaching high temperatures, so if you wrote a message on a piece of paper or a piece of baking paper and it were curved right, you could potentially toss it out of the window of the space station and it would just flutter all the way to the surface intact. So, there was actually a project to launch paper aeroplanes from the International Space Station by some Japanese researchers which sadly never went through.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Goodness, I guess if we ever see a piece of paper fluttering down with ‘help’ and just an arrow fluttering up, then we need to have a close look at it, right?

Interviewee: Randall Munroe

Yes, the return to sender is a little bit more difficult.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

That was Randall Munroe. His new book, How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems, is available now. If you’d like to hear a longer version of this interview, where Randall tells me about moving house, physically moving a whole house on the back of a truck, getting Serena Williams to hit tennis balls at a drone, and more of the questions he threw at Chris Hadfield, we’ll be putting up a podcast extra later in the week.

Host: Noah Baker

And later in this show, we’ll be finding out how well countries have been doing at meeting their climate targets – that’s in the News Chat. Now though, it’s time for the Research Highlights, read this week by Dan Fox.

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Dan Fox

They say that love is blind, and that could well be true for honeybees. Queen honeybees often head off on mating flights where they mate with multiple males over several days in order to increase the genetic diversity of the hive. This is great for the queen, but not for the first males she mates with who have less chance of passing on their genes with every additional mating. So, what’s a male bee to do? Well, there’s a sting in this tale, metaphorically speaking. New research suggests that honeybee seminal fluid can alter a queen bees vision. Queens who are inseminated were less responsive to light and were more likely to get lost during their mating flights. There were even changes in vision-related genes in the bees’ brains. This might make queen bees less likely to risk leaving the hive for extra mating flights, meaning more of her offspring will be descended from the first male she mated with. Buzz off and read more on that evolutionary arms race at eLife.

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When you started this podcast, your brain would have lit up differently depending on which digit you used to press the play button. That’s because most people have a kind of topographical map in the part of their brain called the somatosensory cortex, with a different area representing each of their fingers. A group of researchers wondered how much this map might be shaped by experience. They studied the brains of two artists who were born without arms and who paint by holding a paintbrush between their toes. They found that these artists had toe maps inside their heads – brain regions that responded to sensations on individual toes. These detailed maps weren’t found in the control subjects. The authors suggest that human brains are flexible enough to form maps based on our behaviour. There is a limit to the brain’s flexibility though – an experience in childhood may be key. Find that paper in Cell Reports.

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Host: Noah Baker

This week, Nature is taking part in Covering Climate Now, a project featuring over 250 media outlets around the world. We’re all publishing content about climate change in the lead up to the UN climate summit in New York. One of Nature’s pieces is a commentary from environmental lawyer Farhana Yamin. Farhana has a long pedigree on the United Nations circuit, attending almost every Conference of the Parties (COP), and she was an author on three of the five IPCC reports. But after decades spent in negotiating rooms, writing legal advice and constructing treaties, something changed in Farhana. In April this year, she swapped her UN resolutions for a backpack and a fair amount of nerve and glued herself to the London offices of the petrochemical company Shell. She joined an activist group called Extinction Rebellion. Now, six months on, Nature’s Chief Opinion Editor, Sara Abdulla, went at met Farhana at her home in London for a coffee.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

Many people in the UK will actually remember seeing you on the front of newspapers as the woman who glued herself to the steps of Shell. Take me back to that day in April where you found yourselves on the steps of one of the world’s largest oil companies.

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

So, on the day itself, all five digits of both hands stuck completely down on this pool of superglue, and then it took the police officers about 20-30 minutes to prise each finger off, and then I was taken to a police station in Lewisham where there were many, many other activists. I stayed in the police cell for much of the night and then was released.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

So, we’ll come back to the impacts of your night in a cell in Lewisham. It’s not often spending a night in a cell in Lewisham can really change the world, but just the road that led you to those steps. You’re not the sort of person that would usually be gluing themselves to the steps of an international oil company. If we go back 10 years, 20 years, there’s words like Kyoto and Paris on your CV. What does being an international environmental lawyer at the highest levels involve?

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

My work at these negotiations is to support the legal, procedural and strategic interventions by small island states. I often work for the Alliance of Small Island States or a combination of those and the least developed countries, and I give them advice on when interventions are needed, what the contents of those should be. I usually work in close association with the scientists that are also advising all of these.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

So, the volte-face that you’ve been through this year is kind of wholesale. You’ve gone from crafting carbon taxes and carbon markets and levers inside of international governments to writing in the pages of Nature that these things allow the incumbents to just continue to pay to play the same old games. So, what galvanised you? What was the moment when you thought stuff this, I’ve tried to be a good woman for three decades. I’ve really tried, but I’ve reached the end of that particular road for now?

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

I think the IPCC report, the 1.5°C report that came out in October, when it did finally come out, something snapped in me about why we’ve got this report but it’s not going to get listened to. It will get ignored again, and it was too much. I felt like I had to do something different.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

So, you joined Extinction Rebellion. You lent them your skills, honed all-nighters at 22 COPs or most of the COPs and you moved the needle. Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes utterly changed the public discourse on the need for action. So you’ve talked about April – what happened next?

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

Greta came to the UK and met with all of the political leaders from every single party, asked those political leaders to do something and also to talk to Extinction Rebellion. Extinction Rebellion then had meetings with the government and I coordinated a team of Extinction Rebellion rebels to be present at that meeting, and then a motion was passed which recognises that we are in a climate and environmental crisis and which calls on the government to take urgent action. So, it was the first time that a motion of this kind had been passed by a national government, and now more than half the councils in the UK have declared a climate and ecological emergency or a climate emergency.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

So, that’s the kind of professional success, but on a personal level, one of the working titles for the piece that you’ve written for Nature was ‘No going back’. So, you’ve stepped away from XR now, Extinction Rebellion, can you just go back to being a lawyer at the highest levels?

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

I hope so. I think so. I feel that most of the climate environment community that I was part of, the policy community and some of the green environmental NGOs that I worked very closely with were in fact very proud and I think Extinction Rebellion built on all of their work, actually. So, one of the most concrete things that happened is that Theresa May’s government then passed legislation making the UK one of the first countries to have e legally binding net zero by 2050 target, which had been worked on for decades, including by me, including by all of the environmental NGOs in this country, so it was a collective win for everyone.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

Having had a taster of overnight, more or less, change, does part of you worry that you could be back inside another airless committee room getting really cross with everybody?

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

Yes, I do, a lot. So, I’m sort of training myself up to be more patient again and remember that I can’t just be a rebel inside the UN in that way. I’ll have to make sure that the countries whose future is at stake become more rebellious. Actually, my role is to make them shout and scream not accept a less ambitious outcome. So, I feel I understand what my role as a rebel inside will be and I hope that members of the public, other professionals, will keep on rebelling in their roles, wherever they find themselves.

Host: Noah Baker

That was Farhana Yamin in conversation with Nature’s own Sara Abdulla. To read Farhana’s Comment piece and all of Nature’s Covering Climate Now content, head over to go.nature.com/climatenow.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

We’ve also got a Covering Climate Now News Chat this week, and I’m joined on the line from New York by Jeff Tollefson, reporter here at Nature. Jeff, hi.

Interviewee: Jeff Tollefson

Hello, Ben.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, Jeff, for our first story today, you’ve been taking a look at how different countries are getting on at sticking to their pledges for the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Maybe you can give us a sense of what that agreement was and what they agreed to?

Interviewee: Jeff Tollefson

Yeah, the 2015 Paris climate pact was signed as one might guess in Paris and basically the countries of the world came together and they set a collective target of limiting warming to between 1.5–2 °C above pre-industrial levels over the coming century. So, that’s the kind of overarching pledge that all countries made, and then as part of that, each country submitted its own individual pledges saying what said country would try to do over the coming 5-10 years in order to reduce emissions.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

You’ve been taking a dive into the data for these countries’ pledges then. What sort of things have you found? How are they getting on?

Interviewee: Jeff Tollefson

Well, I think generally the news is bad on two fronts. Many countries are not quite keeping up with their pledges. Governments are coming up in short in many cases, though there has been progress. The larger concern perhaps is that these pledges are in and of themselves insufficient in order to meet the goal of limiting warming to 1.5–2 °C above pre-industrial levels. So, even if the countries did meet their pledges, it still would not be enough to accomplish the goals of the Paris climate pact.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

So, which countries are falling short of their pledges and who is maybe doing better than expected, Jeff?

Interviewee: Jeff Tollefson

Perhaps the United States is a big one as far as falling short. It will come up short in terms of its overall emissions pledge and President Donald Trump has pledged to pull the United States out of the Paris act altogether. China is a case where the country is doing fine in terms of meeting its pledge, which was to cap the overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, but China could do more and some researchers think that they could indeed cap their emissions well before that. But coal is growing in China, again, and if you’re serious about t climate then you don’t want to burn coal. So, they may be doing renewables but they’re also pushing forward with coal again. The EU falls somewhere in the middle. The EU is likely to miss its target, perhaps by a few percent. It might even meet its target but again, that target is insufficient if you believe in the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Speaking of coal then and of fossil fuels in general, if a county wants to lower its emissions, it has to stop burning them, and if you’ve been looking at the trends moving towards renewable energy sources and how this might be used to mitigate future warming.

Interviewee: Jeff Tollefson

Well, there’s the good news in this story. Renewables are exploding, and by renewables we are usually talking about solar and wind. The prices for both have plummeted in the last decade, prices for batteries have gone down, so there’s a lot of movement in the renewable energy industry and if you kind of project forward long enough, it seems perhaps inevitable that solar will overtake coal and that renewables will become the leading source of new energy. The problem again is that we don’t have time to wait for those curves to bend the way that they might normally under conventional economics. Governments need to do more to push those curves down.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

In many cases, the graphs are very much going in the wrong direction, Jeff, and if countries are going to meet their pledge to try and limit warming, they kind of really have to get a move on. I mean what’s your reporting uncovered on how likely it is that this will happen at all?

Interviewee: Jeff Tollefson

Yes, well, the leading authority on all of this, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, put out a report in December of last year looking at 1.5 °C of warming – both impacts and how to get there – and their bottom line conclusion was that if you want to limit warming to 1.5 °C, you have to cut global emissions in half by 2030, and zero them out by the end of the century. Those are stark numbers indeed and there’s zero evidence that governments are up to that task, so the question becomes how fast will governments be willing to move and how fast will new technologies come along that will reduce the costs and make it easier to mitigate in the future?

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And what about the toll of future climate change on different parts of the world?

Interviewee: Jeff Tollefson

Well, the gist is that the countries that have emitted the most in terms of greenhouse gas emissions are seldom the countries that will be impacted the most. If you think about global warming’s impacts around the world, they’re likely to hit the poorest regions the hardest and within those regions you’ve got vulnerable populations where people don’t have the resources to respond to climate change, to move away after a storm, to adopt new technologies in agriculture, so these are the people who are going to get hit the hardest in the decades to come.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

One of the factors that is obviously very important for countries who are trying to mitigate the effects of climate change and particularly the ones the most disproportionately affected is, of course, funds, and that’s the focus of another news feature we’ve got coming out this week, Jeff.

Interviewee: Jeff Tollefson

That’s correct. This one focuses on the transfer of money from wealthy nations to developing countries to help pay for climate activities, and the short story here is that wealthy nations committed to provide US$100 billion a year by 2020 a decade ago, and it looks like they’re going to fall short on that goal. Also, how you measure progress on that goal depends on how you define what you call climate finance.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

I mean, so much arguing over the details, Jeff, when clearly things need to be done now. The numbers involved are fairly staggering but who’s putting up the most? Where is this money coming from then?

Interviewee: Jeff Tollefson

Well, it depends on how you look at it. In terms of total financing, Japan, Germany and the EU are on top, but if you think about it in terms of per capita financing then Switzerland comes out on top, followed by Luxembourg. So, the numbers vary depending on how you look at them but they are fairly substantial. If you think about the United States, there’s a commitment for US$3 billion in financing, but President Donald Trump has committed to withdrawing US$2 billion of that.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

We might not be quite reaching the targets of what was promised then in 2009. What sort of things are current funds being spent on?

Interviewee: Jeff Tollefson

Well, I think a lot of the money goes to renewable energy projects, but the money could be used to fund anything from agriculture to sea walls to hold back rising oceans, so there are a lot of needs in these developing countries and the reality is that US$100 billion a year is not going to be enough. It’s a drop in the bucket.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Finally then on this one Jeff, the US$100 billion a year spending commitment then was due to be reached by 2020. If nations aren’t going to meet that target, what happens next?

Interviewee: Jeff Tollefson

Well, that’s an open question. This is just one phase in a very long programme that governments have committed to and there are discussions ongoing about what qualifies as finance under this commitment. Does it have to be government donations and come direct from government coiffeurs or can it include business investments or loans? These are all questions that governments will have to sort out over the coming years and the biggest question perhaps is whether wealthy nations will eventually step up to their future commitments.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, certainly something to keep an eye on there, thanks Jeff. Listeners, head over to go.nature.com/climatenow to find more on those stories.

Host: Noah Baker

That’s it for the show. Keep an eye on your podcast feed this week for a Covering Climate Now edition of Backchat, where we’ll be finding out why Nature is taking part, and the importance of the words, phrases and images used when covering climate change. I’m Noah Baker.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And I’m Benjamin Thompson. Thanks for listening.