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Laur Hesse Fisher works at the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative to expand MIT’s public engagement on climate change. The MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) is MIT’s institute-wide and primary effort to enlist and mobilize the substantial scientific, engineering, policy, and design capacity of the MIT community to contribute to addressing climate change and other environmental challenges. Read more at https://esi.mit.edu Throughout her career, Laur has focused on building robust and self-sustaining projects and initiatives related to climate change and community engagement. She has worked for public, private and non-government organizations in the US, Sweden, New Zealand, and Canada; and has experience in a wide range of fields, including carbon reporting, green building, waste management, issue literacy, communications, and collective intelligence. Before joining the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, Laur spent five years at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence leading Climate CoLab, an online community and contest platform where over 100,000 people work with experts and each other to develop proposals on how to address climate change. She also founded and leads Civic Series (www.civicseries.org), an international non-partisan, volunteer-run organization that helps people in their 20s and 30s understand, think for themselves, and have meaningful conversations about the most important issues of our time. Laur holds a self-designed Bachelor’s degree from Tufts University titled, “Engaging Sustainability as an Innovative Process.” When she’s not working on ESI and Civic Series, you’ll find Laur hiking a mountain somewhere, restoring a circa 1903 home in Philadelphia with her husband Shawn, and fulfilling a lifelong dream of learning piano.
Lindsay Gearheart: I’d love if we could start off by talking about how you first became interested in climate change. I know you have a really robust resume, so I’d like to know how you decided to make this your life’s work?
Laur Hesse Fisher: I can trace it all the way back to high school. I took an environmental class and I learned about solar energy. I thought, “This just makes sense, why aren’t we doing this? We should be doing more of this.” That’s really what’s driven me my entire career. Being smart about how we take care of the environment does good things for us as humanity. It makes us healthier, makes our lives better. Especially for the long-term thriving of our species, doing things in a way that ensures that we have clean air, clean water just makes sense.
As I started getting more exposed to the issues surrounding climate change and as the conversation around climate change started rising, doing work in this area also made sense to me. When it comes to climate change, humanity is painting itself into a wall. I wanted to be a part of work to change the way we do things so that we can all thrive – have healthy, vibrant, diverse places to live, grow, work, and raise children. That’s a win situation overall, and I wanted to be a part of that.
With climate change, I had to think on a lot longer timescales than some other environmental issues, and I had to get comfortable working within a level of uncertainty. We know that our actions are causing the planet to warm, but we aren’t sure exactly by how much. It causes us to look ahead in the future and imagine several possible worlds that could exist, and make big decisions now, without complete information.
Climate change also touches everything, it changes everything. Raj Pandya of the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange once said, “Climate change is no one’s first priority, but it impacts everyone’s first priority.” Climate change can be a hard thing to grasp; I still struggle with the reality of it, although I work on it every day. But things that are much more real to people – flooding, heat waves, immigration crises, energy accessibility – climate change will impact those things, too. Which makes it even more important of an issue to work on. And there are all these software and political issues… It’s just so complicated. It provides an infinite amount of problem solving to be done.
LG: Definitely, that’s a great point. It ties into so many other issues, so you’re not really focused on one thing, you’re focused on a giant web of things.
LHF: What I try to do is talk to people about climate change and see what they think, what they know, what they are worried about, or not worried about. What I am personally very fascinated by is the human element and what causes people to prioritize or not prioritize climate issues, and just the concept of political and human values in general. In all the work that I do, I prioritize trying to speak across party lines and speak to the value set of the audience I am trying to reach and find the things people can agree on no matter what their values are, tapping into shared values.
That’s one of the reasons why it’s great working at MIT, because we are so based in science. We are not about taking political sides. We’re really about providing the science and providing what we know, but then also helping people think through it, and applying it to their own decision making. It’s a great place to be for that kind of work.
LG: Speaking about MIT, I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your work for the Environmental Solutions Initiative. In what ways are you expanding MIT’s public engagement on climate change?
LHF: Part of my work is digital. We are creating a set of digital products on climate change to help better tell the climate change science and action options from a brand that many people trust, MIT.
One of the major things we’re doing is creating the MIT Climate Portal. It is a public, trusted online resource of valuable and timely information about climate change, written by experts, and also it will bring together and showcase the diverse work that’s happening across campus. We’re building it so that it’s accessible for multiple levels of knowledge and learning. We are gearing a large part of the site toward people who don’t necessarily have a lot of scientific background or technical knowledge, but are curious and concerned about the issue. The site will help orient people what we know about climate change and what can be done about it, as well as introduce and explain complicated topics like energy, materials, and natural disasters. And giving them access to the very wide range of research and resources that we have at our institute.
We’re also going to be launching the MIT Climate Primer for people who want to learn the basics of climate change, why it is happening, and how it’s different from other changes in our past climate system. What we’ve done is take something that was written by one of our professors and making it an engaging way to interact with this kind of information. It’ll be an interactive multimedia website on climate science and climate change as well as the risks and an overview of the solutions. This will link with the portal so you can go back and forth between the two. The portal will be there for people to learn more specifics and get updates, but the primer will be the place to start.
Then in addition to those two resources, we also have our podcast series, Today I Learned Climate. TILclimate has quick, 10-minute episodes on things related to climate change. We interview our professors and experts from within our community on different topics, and we do it in a jargon-free way.
Those are just some of the many resources we’re building to expand how people engage with issues related to climate change.
LG: What do you think is one of the more misunderstood aspects of climate change?
LHF: In working with Professor Kerry Emanuel in this primer, he emphasizes the “risks of climate change”. I think this is a way that the public really doesn’t think about climate change. A lot of people ask me what will happen, what do we know, what is my community going to look like. The thing is that there is a level of uncertainty in what exactly will happen. Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t know that something’s going to happen. There’s just different levels of exposure and risk. And we know the things that we’re doing that are risky. Mostly, that’s putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
It’s like if you start eating a lot of junk food. Most of what you’re eating is junk food. You go to the doctor and she tells you that you better cut it out or else there’s a really good risk you’ll get heart disease, diabetes, or some other disease.
Can the doctor tell you with 100% certainty what kind of disease you’re going to get and how bad it will be? No, they can’t. But the medical profession has a very long history of research and tons of great data in this area. Pretty much all doctors trust it, and it’s clear that the more junk food you eat, the more you increase your risk of getting those diseases. But if you were to start cutting back, you would get healthier, and every day you cut back improves your health.
We’re taking risky behavior now, by adding so much greenhouse gas to the atmosphere. The doctors – the world’s climate scientists – are telling us that, if we don’t cut it out, it is very likely that this will lead to a very challenging future world for life on earth. And it’s possible that it could be catastrophic for many, many people: mass migrations, food and water shortages, violent storms.
That being said, we’ve already eaten so much junk food (emitted so many greenhouse gases) that we’re almost certainly in store for a certain amount of warming. That damage is done, so to speak. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to throw in the towel. We can always get healthier. If we continue to eat less junk food (lower the greenhouse gases we emit), we will continue to lower our risks of devastating climate change. It’s not too late and there’s always more we can do. We get to choose.
LG: Could you talk to me about the Civic Series, the nonprofit you run, and how people can get involved?
LHF: The Civic Series stemmed from me wanting to understand what was going on in the world, understand what’s behind the big issues in the headlines. There were these big issues and things that were happening, and I would check Wikipedia and it would be way too complicated. I would read forums, and they would be so opinionated. Books would be very specific, and courses were expensive and time consuming. I just wished I could sit down with someone who was really knowledgeable on a topic, who wasn’t trying to convince me one way or another, and just ask them my questions. That’s what the Civic Series became.
So we’ve run about 50 events to date in five different cities in the U.S. and Canada on topics ranging from climate change to blockchain, to what’s happening in North Korea, to Russia’s relationship to the U.S., to Ukraine, to the United Nations, to the Iran Nuclear Deal. Just things that we hear about in the news, but frankly no one explains to us in a really simple way. It allows us to ask questions without being convinced one way or another what we should think.
LG: Do you have events upcoming up this year?
LHF: Yes, we have one on the economic recession and what it means for the U.S. It’s being held virtually on Wednesday, April 29, from 5:30 PM – 6:30 PM. You can learn more here.
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