A conversation with Tom Romito, Western Cuyahoga Audubon and Stefanie Spear, Founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of EcoWatch about education, leadership and social change to help our planet survive and thrive.
Introduction and Background
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Tom Romito: I’m Tom Romito from Western Cuyahoga Audubon Society and I’m here with Stefanie Spear. Stefanie, would you please introduce yourself to our audience and your affiliation?
Stefanie Spear: Sure, I’m Stefanie Spear, I am the founder and CEO of EcoWatch. EcoWatch.com is one of the leading environmental news sites. We report on a broad range of environmental issues and work to educate and motivate people to care about human health and the environment.
Tom Romito: Thank you. Could you please describe your work and how you got into it?
Stefanie Spear: When I was a college student I personally became conscious of my impact on the earth. For me, it felt just like a light switch. It started mostly with solid waste issues, but I was at University of Wisconsin at Madison, a really progressive town and college, and just felt that people should have been more conscious and I became of solid waste issues and the amount of garbage being generated in our student union every day, and I thought, wow, for me as a person and a human to be healthy, the planet needs to be healthy too. Once I started on that journey, I wondered, Why aren’t people more aware? Because once you become aware you notice all these other issues.
I decided it was because they lacked education on the issues and so I started publishing a newspaper as a student back in 1990. I saw it was starting to get more people engaged, and all of a sudden all these people started contacting me with all of their issues, and I realized there was a huge need for a venue, a platform, a home, for the news of the people who were rolling their sleeves up every day to protect our water and our air.
So, the idea of educating people back then is really today when you see EcoWatch, that’s the culmination of my passion and work trying to get more people aware and conscious of their impact on the earth and begin what I call a journey, from a humanistic view to a biocentric one. People who just begin to connect the dots between human health and the environment, to people who are voting with their dollar everyday, they’re ready to join a protest, they’re contacting their elected officials.
You don’t go from consciousness to complete enlightenment in a day, it’s a journey. EcoWatch works to help people along that journey. Obviously, we want people to move along the pathway as quickly as possible as our planet is in crisis and we need more people to be conscious and to make the changes to their lifestyle so that we can be sure that we have a planet for future generations.
Public Engagement for Public Policy
Tom Romito: Stefanie, that is an excellent segue to my interest for Western Cuyahoga Audubon Society which is to trying to garner a grassroots commitment to a public policy agenda about climate change and clean energy. I’m interested in your perspective about how to garner this grassroot commitment. Could you please share some thoughts about that?
Stefanie Spear: Yes, I think that, fortunately, we have amazing grassroots environmental organizations all over the world, including Audubon, that have members. Organizations are doing, I think, an excellent job of educating these members and people engaged on these issues about the climate crisis, and other environmental issues. I think it’s vitally important we keep getting out the news of the changes that can be made to transition to a low carbon economy and make sure that people become aware of what really are the most important issues and how they can become involved. So groups like Audubon, and other organizations such as Sierra Club, 350.org, Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network, all these amazing organizations and making sure that they’re doing their best to keep their constituents or their members engaged on these issues. It’s not just policy that’s going to transition us to a clean energy future, it’s also individual action.
Presenting Climate Science to the Public
Tom Romito: Thank you and that’s very interesting. The Audubon is a latecomer to the climate change discussion particularly at the chapter level, like Western Cuyahoga Audubon Society, and I personally have become a champion of trying to present climate science to an audience that is not necessarily attuned to that. They’re interested in conservation, they’re interested in learning a lot about birds, but not so much about climate change, at least talking about it. I would very much like to hear your perspective about the best way, if there is one, to present climate science to any audience.
Stefanie Spear: So climate science sometimes takes the conversation too far for a lot of people. At EcoWatch I’ve learned to break it up in many different ways. Again, we’re hitting a very broad audience. We call it “All Shades of Green” and some people love that climate science and want the figures and the numbers which we have plenty of articles that dictate that. There are a lot of people who are just not going to digest that type of information so we try to find articles like, “Ten Foods That Climate Change May Take Away From Our Planet”. Avocados is a big one. Those types of things resonate much better with readers per se than science data.
But for Audubon, the impacts that coal-fired powered power has on birds, and the fact that it emits carbon dioxide and the greenhouse gas. Look for ways to bring it to their affinity, their passion, I think can have a huge impact. I’ve certainly tracked what the Audubon is doing and their huge Climate Report that came out two years ago on the impacts of climate change on birds, and Audubon’s position came out very strong in reducing carbon emissions.
I think birders are just an awesome example of people, who if they just rally behind this, can have a huge impact on policy and their individual actions. I think the Audubon’s challenge of getting more of their members engaged on the issues is similar to a lot of other organizations. So, just finding that common ground, and pieces, parts, of the climate debate, which may not be the climate science.
There’s so many ways to engage people on the issue of climate change that impacts their daily life. We just ran a great piece by Dr. David Suzuki that talked about species and where they live is changing because of the warming planet. I know that’s impacting birding. I’m sure birders are noticing different species of birds that are typically not in their region.
So, I think more honing in on something that’s going to be directly related to their daily life or impact one of their passions may be the better way. A lot of people get very glassy-eyed when you start talking, even about 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to 2 degrees Celsius. There’s really important information in there. What we’ve had to do is take that 1.5 to 2 and bring in content that describes it in a way that the average person is going to want to read. That data is vitally important for people to digest and understand, but how you present it is definitely how well you’re going to get people engaged on it.
Paris Talks Report for a Clean Energy Economy
Tom Romito: Thanks Stefanie. When you presented to a local public your report on the Paris Talks, you introduced a topic that was new to me and that was the clean energy economy. To that end, when I talk to an audience, whether it’s Audubon, or even individuals, friends and family and relatives, I talk to them about how to promote alternative energy sources to drive the clean energy economy. I’ve found that this is the lowest hanging fruit because talking about greenhouse gases or the melting polar ice cap or rising sea levels just goes right over their heads, they don’t want to accept that. But clean energy is something that everybody wants because they don’t want to live with dirty energy, either for them or their heirs. So, I would be interested in your perspective on how to promote the clean energy economy, alternative energy sources, could you share that please?
Stefanie Spear: One way that we like to do it at EcoWatch is to just share the success stories. There are so many success stories with renewable energy all over the world it’s just incredible. That is one great way. And then there’s really amazing statistics that have come out over the last many years that show that the cost for renewable energy, especially solar panels, has dramatically decreased. The amount of installed capacity per quarter, and even of last year, renewables are winning out. The fact that we know that we have to leave the majority of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground, there’s just no other choice - so a clean energy future, a clean energy economy, a world that relies on renewable energy is our future.
Other ways are, I love to talk about innovation, I love to talk about Elon Musk, and SolarCity, I think he’s the President of the Board of SolarCity, and then of course he’s the founder and CEO of Tesla Motors and the power wall battery store to actually I love content on Battery Store it does really well on EcoWatch. I go “Wow, people really get it!”
Try to steer clear or at least set the record straight on myths about renewable energy. Yes, if the sun’s not shining the panel’s are not generating power, but we can store that power, we have a grid that needs to be revamped but there are a lot of innovative ways to store energy today. Just the positive message that we are a world that can be powered by renewable energy is a really great direction to go.
You can begin to talk about some individuals like Mark Jacobson from Stanford who has come with a plan to exactly how every country in the entire world and each continent can transition to renewable energy and you read it and it just makes sense.
I think the more information, the more positive stories of countries and places that are actually doing it, to get that word out.
I was super fortunate to speak at a climate conference in Copenhagen and I wanted to go to the Island of Samsø, it’s the first island in the world to go 100% renewable. I had the chance to spend about twenty-eight hours there and it was amazing! First, I wrote a five page piece on EcoWatch that explains my entire time there that covered solar and wind and all the things that they have integrated and then talking about Germany and what they’ve done with renewable energy. So, really pulling in these positive renewable energy stories that show that renewables work. That is going to make people want to engage more and understand the importance of cleaning our air and our water and the impacts of carbon and carbon dioxide and the atmosphere as well as just how dirty it is for people. So, if you’re talking with health professionals, or people who are more engaged with the health and wellness world, we can talk about the positive impact changing to renewables has on human health.
I think that being on that high energy and positive direction toward where we can head and showing the positive examples that exist around the world.
One of my favorite thoughts about the transition to renewable energy is really looking at people who are in energy poverty. There are places all over the world where people don’t have energy. What is so exciting is they are completely leap frogging the industrial revolution or the large coal-fired power plants and they’re installing their own community based solar projects that are bringing electricity for the first time to their villages and they own that power.
So, instead of going from the big centralized coal-fired power plant, they are doing renewable energy stations that they own and that benefits their community. Those kinds of stories are fantastic because they never had to deal with the big fossil fuel company coming in and building the big coal-fired power plant that makes the planet unhealthy, that makes the people unhealthy, they don’t then have control of that energy that they can’t even afford. Greenpeace has been a leader in that as well as many other organizations and companies to bring this renewable clean energy to these communities for the first time.
Wind Turbines and Birds At Risk
Tom Romito: Thanks very much. This brings us to the elephant in the room as far as the Audubon Society is concerned. And that is that wind power is, obviously, an alternative energy source to fossil fuels. Everybody wants that but nobody wants the birds to be at risk to wind power turbines. This debate rages in the birding community. Everywhere, particularly in Ohio, because of the initiative to put wind turbines on Lake Erie. The problem is that there is no evidence of post mortality studies on the impact of the turbines on the birds. So, the discussion is, Well, what to do about that? Do we allow these folks to go ahead or do we continue to press for studies on post construction mortality on birds? What are your thoughts on that?
Stefanie Spear: A topic I’ve given a lot of thought to. Wind energy is an essential component and part of transitioning our world to a clean energy economy. In relevance to Audubon and to birders, I think that a lot of points need to be laid out. No question that wind turbine farms should not go in a migratory path. So, there is a need for studies. I’m fairly confident that the migratory routes are known. I’m familiar with a lot of wind projects, the wind project on Lake Erie being one, and they have had to go through a lot of different studies with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the ODNR (Ohio Division of Natural Resources) and the Fish and Wildlife Service, to make sure that the project won’t have significant impact on other species.
Making sure that the process through NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) or whatever type of environmental impact statement has to happen, has to be part of the program just as if a coal-fired power plant was going to go in or nuclear-power plant or some type of energy generating facility. There has to be these pieces, parts in the process. I do know, however, that we also have to pull into the equation the impact buildings have on birds. I’ve run many studies where the number of birds killed by tall buildings compared to wind turbines, tall buildings wins out every time on number of birds killed.
You also have to take into account the impact that carbon dioxide and mercury have from the burning of coal has on our water, which impacts our fish, as well as our birds, as well as human health. So, it’s just not what impact it (wind power) has on birds if a bird is hit by a blade, it’s what impact, the true impact, that coal-fired power plants have on bird species as well? If you don’t bring that in, you’re just not looking at a level playing field.
Mercury pollution, which comes from the burning of coal, has several different things happen: it goes up in the air, it comes down into the water and that’s one of the reasons why we have high levels of mercury in fish. If there are scrubbers on the coal- fired power plants, there’s left over coal ash that ends up in these compounds, they leak and then that ends up in our waterways.
So, you have to look at what is the true impact of coal-fired power plant? What’s the true impact of wind farms? And take all that into account when you’re thinking about doing a wind project. I think more education around the impacts of coal, which powers more than 50% of our country, in some states clearly more, we need to take all that into account. I think further education on those issues is vital. Where the projects are sited is the biggest piece of it as far as the potential impact can have on birds.
My personal feeling is we have to move forward with a significant amount of wind projects. I prefer distributed generation projects where a solar or wind project is built to generate power for “x” for this particular facility, instead of huge wind farms everywhere that power a lot of different things.
In order for us to get to scale that we need to get to to transition a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable energy one, we need to do these larger projects as well. I think dialogue and debate are really great but I think the proper information and to look at all the issues at hand have to be part of the conversation to really understand if that particular project is a really good one or a bad one. Under the premise, of course, that nothing is perfect. Energy efficiencies is about as perfect as we can get, where we don’t use what we don’t need. Therefore, maybe, we didn’t have to put up 300 wind turbines, maybe we only had to put up 150 because we became energy efficient first. Efficiency should always be number one, it is the low hanging fruit before coming up with some generation facility, be it wind or solar or any other type of power generation.
Audience Engagement and Climate Change
Tom Romito: We’ve covered a lot of ground here in this short interview Stefanie. The one area of concern to me, as an Audubon member, as a public speaker, is trying to gather a diverse audience to bring into this conversation. Typically, when I go out to talk to the public, I find myself talking to the choir. People who are already believers in the need to reduce pollution. To save the earth. But, that’s only half of the people. The other half are denying that climate change is even existing. Or, that it’s even necessary to try to find solutions. I would like to get a diverse audience together in a conversation in the same room, both believers and deniers. I would like to hear your thoughts about the usefulness of doing that and how to do that.
Stefanie Spear: I think it depends on if it’s too polar opposite, I’m not sure if at the end of the day the solution or time will have been beneficial. If you start off with the same goal in mind, which is to leave planet earth in a way that there are resources and the ability for generations to live here, and you can agree on certain principles to begin with, I think there’s a lot of value in having different people in the room who bring different things to the table.
But, I’ve seen many times where if it’s just a climate denier, coming from, “There is no such thing as human-caused climate change” to someone who wants to come up with strategies and ways to mitigate climate change, I’m not sure you’re going to get that much out of that.
At EcoWatch, we believe the consensus of 97% of the world’s climate scientists that say climate change is human induced and that the release of greenhouse gases is warming our planet.
If you’re starting at that premise, I think there’s a lot of value in bringing in people who may not think that that particular wind project is good, but you’re both understanding that something has to get done. Convening conversations like that is fantastic. I’ll typically speak out at this conference at AREDAY (American Renewable Energy Day), Chip Comins puts it on and is able to bring together people from all over the world and we’re not all on the same page. Many different backgrounds, philosophies and thoughts, but we can all have conversations leading up to a more positive solution. I think you have to have some common ground to start with to get to that level.
I’m under the assumption that most Audubon members believe that climate change is human caused. Do you think that that is true?
Tom Romito: The jury is out on that because even in my own group, my own network of conservation people, there are people who are on the fence. I’ve heard things like, “We’re already at the tipping point and it’s nearly too late”, or, “It is too late”. Or there are those who will argue about the composition of greenhouse gases, like that’s the most important issue. I don’t think it is. We need to get out of the weeds on this discussion and look at the greater good. That’s where I am at: trying to include the people who want to talk about the science to that extent and those who are on the fence, along with those who believe, “Yes, I believe in the science, you’re doing right!” That’s where I am, trying to be an includer of all points of view.
Stefanie Spear: I think that it’s clearly important to allow them as members of Audubon to have their say. I think Audubon, as an organization, has certainly come out from what I understand in that they do believe the consensus of 97% of climate scientists. Is this true?
Tom Romito: Absolutely. The National Audubon Society is fully on board with that. I would like to know what to say to somebody who’s saying, “That’s bogus, that study that came up with that number.” What do you say to people like that? That’s the area I’m trying to figure out.
Stefanie Spear: It’s not this one study that came up with that humans are contributing to climate change. It’s hundreds or thousands of scientists. There just was a new study that consensus on consensus. That all these climate scientists coming together to again say now there’s consensus on the consensus that 97% of the world’s climate scientists believe that climate change is human induced.
We’re fortunate to have Michael Mann, as one of EcoWatch’s Insights writers, he’s one of the most world renowned climate scientists. He has the “hockey stick” theory which is very famous that shows exactly what they predicted was going to happen with the warming of the climate.
I think there’s plenty of information out there that is digestible for most people that clearly explains what’s going on. Then, we have many nations feeling the impacts of climate already, so there’s lots of stories to be told there. I think that bringing people together with same or different viewpoints is very beneficial, assuming...I don’t have much tolerance to debate people who absolutely think that climate change is just a natural phenomenon and that humans don’t have any piece of it.
We’ve been really fortunate with the support and ideology around Pope Francis and his encyclical on the planet and climate change has had a huge impact on educating and bringing more people in.
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