Climate Activist: How I Convince Comedians to be COPtimists

Ed Gillespie has many reasons to be downcast about the climate crisis, but lately he's been convincing one of the UK's funniest comedians to be more hopeful

Ollie Smith 22 November, 2022 | 8:35AM
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Ollie Smith: I'm Ollie Smith and I've been asking climate writer, presenter and poet, Ed Gillespie, about COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh. But I want to ask him some questions more generally about climate change.

Ed, thanks for sticking with us on this. You present a podcast with Mark Stevenson and the comedian Jon Richardson. I'm very intrigued to know whether there's anything you disagree on about climate change.

Ed Gillespie: Loads of things. I mean, I think that's the nature of system change. We all come at it from slightly different perspectives. I mean, I've been doing this over half my adult life. So, I am a, what you might call, a deep green activist 25 years in. What I'm trying to, sort of, tackle is Jon's resigned fatalism. We're almost trying to talk him up a little bit sometimes. And Mark's obsession with various different things, not just prog rock – and he obviously hates my poetry. But I think we do disagree sometimes on the range and the prioritization of different possible resolutions and solutions. I think the common ground we often find is where we agree on asking much better questions. Because if you ask the wrong questions, you often come up with the wrong answers. And perhaps one of the most live debates we have and have had recently is in regard to carbon drawdown.

Now, Mark has a slight vested interest in that because he just started a carbon drawdown brokerage. And I think I'm still a little bit old school in terms of my environmentalism here. I'm a bit worried that carbon drawdown perpetuates an element of business as usual. I think we need it. I mean, there's no doubt about it. We need it. But I think I'm guarded in regard to its perpetuating the status quo, where I think we should be pushing and pressing ahead much faster. I mean, that all said, I love them both dearly. And doing the podcast together is actually one of those things where work doesn't feel like work. It feels like sharing important stuff that matters with people who really want to listen.

OS: It really comes across well if you listen to the recordings. I listened to the episode on Ukraine, and I think it was recorded some months ago, where you spoke to a British army officer about the situation on the ground, and then linked it to the rise of renewables and the pressure diplomatically to find not just kind of geopolitical and military solutions but also environmental ones as well. I wonder, perhaps cynically, is the question of Ukraine, is it doing more harm than good to the environmental agenda? I mean, I know that we have the rise of renewables and the pressure to become energy independent. But I think also, it's very obvious that in time terms alone, it just takes up a staggering amount of everyone's time and energy at a point where we arguably should be further on in this journey than we should be. What's your thought on that?

EG: I mean, I completely agree. I mean, full stop – war is almost always terrible for the environment. It doesn't matter which way you decide to slice it. I've actually just started hosting two young Ukrainian refugees. So, I feel like I have a much more intimate personal connection with that conflict now, not least because their families are obviously still there, literally, in the thick of it. I think one thing we have learned is that fossil fuels are uncertain and suffer from the same intermittency of supply and price volatility that have always been leveled at renewables. So, that supposedly guarantee a predictability that fossil fuels brawl has been thrown into a very stark light and proven not to be true.

It's obviously also clear that Russia's exporting income is so heavily dependent on oil and gas. I think about 75% of their export revenues come from fossil fuels, and that's being trillions of dollars' worth of funding for the war machine. But I think where we get into this shakedown – I said, I think there are some short-term blowback effects or some backdraft effects, as I said about, prolonging and keeping coal open and having this sort of slight dash to liquid natural gas. But I do believe the writing is on the wall and this can still be a massive fillip and accelerator to energy sustainability, security, sustainability and independence as you alluded to. And I'm hoping that that is still the case. We mentioned Rishi Sunak going to COP27, but he, sort of, said there's no energy security without renewables. Particularly, from a British perspective, this is about our fantastic windy, wet island potential which still works with solar. And I do believe that…

OS: Just...

EG: Just, yeah – we are on the sort of cusp of people genuinely appreciating that. As I said, my long in the tooth service here means that when I was a marine biologist up in Orkney in the mid-90s looking at one of the U.K.'s first wind turbines there, which was a concrete structure with two blades which sounded like a plane taking off when it was windy. I mean, we have come a vast distance in 25 years to become a key global player, particularly in offshore wind, and I think that's incredibly exciting. It's something we should be rightly proud of. If we drove the first industrial revolution, we should be in the vanguard of driving the second one, which is how do you move towards a 100% renewable energy powered grid with a combination of solar, wind and batteries, where the customer is also a generator and an active participant in a dynamic two-way often decentralized system. Now, that's a very different kind of system to the one we have now, but it's not impossible to transition towards that. And I think that's what keeps me excited is that that potentiality is still genuinely there, and that's why I talk about the failure of political imagination. It's like this is a vote winner. This is a way of taking people from being passive consumers to active energy citizens in a renewable energy powered system, and I think that should be tremendously compelling to people.

OS: Do you think it should also be a great opportunity to reduce people's (climate anxiety) – that's been one of the big topics of conversation this year really is climate anxiety and the sort of mental health effects of worrying about the world?

EG: Oh, exactly. I mean, it's like feeling like you're doing something. It's one thing Jon says a lot on the podcast. He goes, you know – we reassure him from his doom and gloom because he has become much more active in his own personal life. And to be engaged is enormously powerful, as you say, in terms of alleviating some of the angst and stress. It doesn't take it away, but it is about aligning your behaviors with your values. And when we do that, we get into a better state of flow, we feel more centered and grounded, and that genuinely helps, and it's going to be particularly important, I think, as things get bumpy, because I suspect they're going to get worse and better at the same time, and it's going to be difficult.

OS: So, you mentioned about you housing some Ukrainian refugees. Are there any other lifestyle changes that you've made more recently to deal with the climate? I know that you've been very conscious for a long time about your travel and about your carbon footprint. But is there anything more recently that you've done in response to the changing picture?

EG: Well, I mean, as a self-declared member of the tofu-eating wokerati, I have been in this space for some time. I don't know what the opposite of that is, but I'm being a red meat devouring harvest league culture warrior.

OS: Yeah, that's pretty much it, actually. I don't think I could have put it any better.

EG: I mean, I've been very inspired, as I said, because the Committee on Climate Change talked about 60% of the changes requiring some kind of behavioral shift. And actually, there's a wonderful campaign called the Jump, which has calculated the six different behaviors that we can all undertake, which actually deliver 25% of the emissions cuts we need by the end of the decade. And I think they're all achievable. I mean, one of them is obviously, only taking a flight every three years. Well, I mean, I haven't flown on holiday for a very long time. But limiting that flying. It's eating mainly plant-based. Everyone doesn't have to go and become a tofu-eating vegan, but to dramatically cut down on that meat and dairy and save it as more of a treat rather than a daily bit of sustenance. I think there's the buying only three new items of clothing a year. A dedicated follower of fashion as I am, that's not a problem for me either. I mean, it's living car free and walking and cycling. It's keeping your stuff longer. They say seven years.

OS: And fixing it when it breaks. 

EG: And fixing when it brakes. But I mean, I'm 3.5 years into this phone now, and that is a kind of big shift for me. I mean, I would have previously updated that every year. And then, obviously, shifting your energy provider, changing your bank account, trying to change your pension and where your investments sit, because I still think that's another bit that doesn't get addressed enough. We're still passively investing in things which might directly undermine our future quality of life, and that is daft.

OS: Sure. Just finally, Ed, I have to ask you – I mean, I think as in previous conversations, you've traversed this span between optimism and pessimism. Do you find it harder at the moment to maintain hope and optimism. 

EG: Yeah, probably. I mean, Aldo Leopold, the American ecologist, said, to be an ecologist is to live in a world of wounds. And whilst sort of hope springs eternal, my optimism tends to be fairly dark. As I said, I think it's going to get messy, and it's certainly not a one-dimensional brittle, happy clappy techno utopianism. And I was having a discussion with someone – I'm sure many of your listeners might be familiar with – but my old friend, Paul Dickinson and founder of the Carbon Disclosure Project, we've known each other for 20 years. And we were talking about this exact point – how do we stay optimistic or upbeat in some way? And he pulled out a £5 note and he just pointed at the Churchill quote on it, which says, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. And that's what I bring to this agenda. And the future is unwritten. No matter how awful it may look, climate change is a predicament. It's not something that we fix or solve easily. Indeed, it's something we have to live through. But yes, my optimism is a dark grounded one, which is shot through with a lot of real politic. Because yeah, as I say, I don't think it's going to be comfortable.

OS: Okay. Ed Gillespie, thank you so much. For more on the climate crisis and sustainable investing, check out any of Morningstar's editorial sites internationally. Until next time, my thanks to Ed. I've been Ollie Smith for Morningstar.

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Ollie Smith

Ollie Smith  is editor of Morningstar UK

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