A Clim8 Q&A with special guest Hannah Fry
10 March 2022 Community
We were thrilled when mathematician, science presenter and all-round badass Hannah Fry agreed to add her voice to our recent TV ad. We sat down with her to talk about climate change and investing, living more sustainably and how we can all do more for the planet.
Your work involves studying patterns and trends before they become mainstream. What is the most powerful idea or story that has captured your attention recently, and why?
I am most excited by the seemingly small breakthroughs that have the potential to go on to make a gigantic difference. Like the groups who are creating enzymes that can eat plastic, or the teams who are trying to work out a way to cheaply extract salt from water, or build better batteries to move energy around the globe.
Are you an optimist when it comes to climate change? What does the data tell us?
I might be using optimism as a coping strategy, but I do think that we’re at a moment in history where the greatest challenges we face are fundamentally scientific ones. When the will and support is there, science can achieve truly remarkable things. A decade ago, solar panels could convert only 12% of the light energy hitting it into electricity. Now it’s more like 19%. The newest designs can go up to 47%. It isn’t a silver bullet, but as solar energy is getting ever cheaper and more efficient, the technology for wind turbines has also come on in leaps and bounds. Renewables are now regularly breaking records for their share of the UK’s energy generation. Electric vehicles with better batteries than ever before are now firmly in the top selling cars in the UK. And as the science improves, so too does the public’s will for change.
Can you remember having a personal ‘a-ha’ moment to take action on climate change?
One night, after having children, I was lying awake worrying about things (as I have a habit of doing). I had this clear moment of horror at the sheer volume of stuff that my family was surrounded by. I started thinking about how many people there are on earth and what that looks like when you multiply it by billions. How easy it is to carry on with your daily life and pretend there isn’t a problem, and how obvious it is that we cannot possibly continue extracting from the earth in the way we have been. I haven’t quite sold all my possessions and moved off grid, but from that moment onwards, I’ve done everything I can to make sustainable and environmentally friendly choices wherever I possibly can and educate myself on the nuances of the climate challenge.
As consumers, we’re bombarded with confusing and often competing claims, especially when it comes to climate solutions like carbon offsetting. How would you help people sort fact from fiction?
With difficulty! I think it’s become obvious to companies that people are increasingly climate conscious, and so labelling clothing as sustainable, or food as environmentally friendly can translate into sales. But there are hardly any rules in place around what justifies these kinds of claims, and there is a great deal of greenwashing out there. We’re at a moment where the onus to understand and act is placed entirely on the shoulders of the consumer. And deliberately so, by the way – even the phrase ‘carbon footprint’ was devised to distract us from the fact that the vast, vast majority of emissions are beyond the control of the public. Companies have little incentive to do anything about it.
We support technologies and solutions that can benefit the planet, like green energy and sustainable food. What excites you the most about this new world we’re trying to build?
The problem with where we are now isn’t one of limited resources, so much as how they’re distributed. There is enough food. Enough clean water. Enough energy to be harvested. The problem is getting it to where it needs to be. Like most people I care about global health and global poverty, so it’s important to remember that these are serious problems that need to be addressed as we head towards the future. But with those in mind, the crisis can be seen as a great opportunity too, to redesign our world to be fairer and more equitable.
Change is hard. But the world our parents had – where they could consume limitless amounts without concern for the planet – is already gone. A failure to accept and address our collective fate will lead to the hardest future of all.
Many people in our community are parents. They tell us that their decision to live more sustainably is shaped daily by their children. As a parent, what has been your experience?
I don’t think you need to have children to care deeply about the future of our planet. But I do think that it’s difficult to be a parent in modern Britain and not be confronted head-on with the colossal amount of plastic waste and energy consumption that having a baby generates (unless you actively go out of your way to mitigate it). As those children grow, they start to ask you questions about their future, and it’s hard to find answers that will satisfy their curious minds about why we are where we are and how we are failing them by collectively choosing to do the things that are easy, rather than the things that are right.
What advice do you have for people who want to have the most impact possible in fighting climate change?
I think that you should never underestimate the power of social proof. Every time you speak to someone, every time you visibly make an environmental choice, you have the opportunity to create a little nudge in someone else’s mind. The last two years have demonstrated the terrifying speed at which exponential change can move. But those curves don’t have to denote bad things. There can be exponential changes for the better too – in how we spend our money, in how we choose to behave, and in the environmental shift that we collectively demand from companies.
Thank you 🌍