Climate One - GMOs: Necessary in a Hot and Crowded World?

This program was recorded live at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on June 11, 2014.


Robert Fraley, Chief Technology Officer, Monsanto
Andrew Kimbrell, Founder and Executive Director, Center for Food Safety
Nathanael Johnson, Food Writer, Grist; Author, All Natural: A Skeptic’s Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier
Jessica Lundberg, Seed Nursery Manager, Lundberg Family Farms

Technology is everywhere – in our phones, in our cars and now, in our corn flakes. Biotechnology promises weed-resistant crops, bigger yields, more food for a growing population. But are genetically modified fruits and vegetables safe? Are they healthy? And should foods containing GMOs be labeled as such?

Those were some of the questions on the minds of the audience members who gathered at the Commonwealth Club for a lively discussion on GMOs – genetically modified organisms.

Monsanto Company, a major developer of GMO technology, has long been at the center of this controversy. And for Monsanto’s Robert Fraley, it’s all about better living through science. “Man has been improving crops from the beginning of time, whether it’s the tomato or the corn or all of our fresh fruits and vegetables,” he says. But with modern technology, “we can do what man has been doing for thousands of years really more precisely, and I think it’s a powerful tool…that we’re going to need to be able to meet the challenge of food production for the future.”

Lundberg Family Farms still uses time-honored farming methods to improve its crops year upon year. But recently, says Jessica Lundberg, the rate of modification by commercial growers has accelerated – and not necessarily for the better. “We have been modifying these crops in a way that is different from what we’ve ever been able to do before…to the point that they’re exhibiting traits that they wouldn’t be able to exhibit in nature,” she says. “While it can be awesome from a science and technology perspective…I think from a farming and a consumer perspective, that’s not always something that we should be doing.”

While advocacy groups have questioned the safety of GMO foods, their effects on crop diversity and their efficacy in eliminating hunger, the motivation of companies like Monsanto comes into question as well. “This is about chemical companies selling chemicals,” says Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety. “It’s not about feeding the earth. We have yet to see a GMO crop that has greater yield, that does anything about malnutrition…that does anything about a better taste, a lower cost.”

Nathanael Johnson, a writer for Grist, is a self-identified skeptic towards both sides of the argument. In researching GMOs, he found no hard evidence that proves they’re harmful. “There are some studies that you probably heard about, because they are the ones that get reported on, that suggest there’s some health hazards,” Johnson told the Climate One audience. “But you have to weigh that against the hundreds of independently funded studies that suggest just the opposite. When you do that, they really start to look pretty safe.”

Towards the end of the hour, the discussion returned to its core question: in the face of climate change and its challenges, how will we feed a growing population? According to Fraley, the world’s appetite will double in the next four decades, and they’ll be looking to the U.S. to find ways to satisfy it. “That’s why we need the breeding tools, we need the biotech tools, we need the precision ag tools. That’s where we should put our focus.”

Kimbrell agrees that the problems are great, but favors more holistic solutions: “Not growing commodities but growing food, concentrating on the 2.1 billion people, the poorest in the world who are living in rural areas, how to strengthen their farm communities and their farms.” In the end, he says, “biotechnology offers at best a meager opportunity.”

When it comes to world hunger, Johnson favors a balanced, big-picture approach. Humans should be able to feed themselves “in a way that’s equitable and sustainable, and make the earth a more beautiful and delicious place in doing it,” he says. Technology is only part of the story – we should also be looking at politics and food waste. “And then we’d be looking at individual GMOs, and we’d be saying, “That disease-resistant banana is going to be really useful. I want that.”

Climate One: Weather Disruption

This program was recorded live at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.


To quote Charles Dudley Warner, “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Dr. Jane Lubchenco was tasked with just that when President Obama named her to head up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2009. It turned out to be the start of the most extreme four-year weather period in U.S. history.

“We had over 660 major tornadoes,” Lubchenco remembers. “We had sixty Atlantic hurricanes, including Sandy, Isaac and Irene. We had six major, just devastating floods. Record-breaking snowfall, prolonged heat waves, wildfires — you name it, pretty much every category of weather, we broke records.”

Lubchenco was at The Commonwealth Club to receive the Stephen Schneider award for Outstanding Climate Communication, honoring the late Stanford climate scientist and a founding member of the Climate One advisory council.

There was one upside to all this crazy weather, Lubchenco continued, and that was a heightened public awareness of the very real effects of climate change. Americans paid attention, she says, “because it was no longer, in their view, something that was way far down the road in the future or someplace way off in the Arctic. They were actually experiencing something that they knew was weird.”

Describing the connection between climate change and recent extreme weather events, Lubchenco used the all-American analogy of baseball. “If a baseball player starts taking steroids, he has a much better chance of hitting lots more home runs, and some really big ones,” says Lubchenco. “Now, that doesn’t mean you can point to any particular home run and say aha, that home run is because he’s taking steroids. But the pattern of a lot more and bigger is attributable to steroids…what we’re seeing is weather on steroids.

“We’re not there yet to be able to say with any certainty in real time whether an event is caused by climate change,” she continued. “But stay tuned, because the science is getting better and better, our models are getting better, and I think in the not too distant future we’ll be able to answer the question more directly in real time.”

Climate One’s Greg Dalton asked Lubchenco, a marine ecologist, to talk about the effects of global warming on the oceans. “The oceans are definitely warming,” Lubchenco reported, “that’s true around the globe.” She went on to describe how warming oceans become more acidic as they absorb more carbon dioxide caused by human activity. “That’s very problematic for a lot of marine life that makes shells or skeletons of calcium carbonate. We’ve already seen oysters and other shellfish be seriously affected by this increased acidification. And obviously, sea level is rising. So there are multiple different ways that climate change is affecting oceans and that in turn, of course, affects people.”

There has been some good news regarding marine repopulation efforts, she says. “The four years that I was at NOAA we saw very, very dramatic changes in U.S. fisheries,” That, she says, is thanks to new government legislation as well as teamwork between NOAA, non-governmental organizations and the fishing industry itself.

The discussion then moved from ocean depths to stratospheric heights. Lubchenco and Dalton were joined on the dais by Alex Bakir of Planet Labs. The company is engaged in deploying “microsatellites,” about the size of a digital camera, for mapping climate change and other applications.

“What if you could launch many satellites that size?” asks Bakir. “What could you do? What if you could put a camera inside every one of them and operate hundreds of these things, what does that mean for the planet? Our goal over the next 12 months is to take a composite image of the entire planet once every 24 hours.”

Lubchenco sees this nimbler, comparatively inexpensive technology as complement, not competition, to the array of multi-billion-dollar satellites operated by NOAA and NASA. Those massive satellites, she explains, are equipped to measure “things you can’t see in the atmosphere — ozone, the chemistry in the atmosphere, measuring rain, ocean color, sea surface heights…not just visible wavelength information but other wavelengths, radiation, calculating the earth’s radiation budget, the solar radiation.” All of this information, she says is critically important to understanding climate change.

Lubchenco says persuading a reluctant Congress to fund such expensive equipment has been a challenge. Still, she got a laugh from the audience when she related that “one member of Congress looked at me and said, ‘Doctor, I don’t need your weather satellites — I have the Weather Channel.”

Both Lubchenco and Bakir are excited about using crowd-sourcing to enhance the scope of satellite data, through sites like Zooniverse and Planet.org.

“It’s a very powerful tool,” says Lubchenko. “More and more scientists are using it to help analyze very, very large amounts of information where you really need people to do something specific, like identify something.”

So back to our Dudley quote: what can be done about the weather? Or more to the point, what can the average citizen do to address the impact of climate change?

“Being active in reducing your own footprint and making your own decisions is important,” Lubchenco reminded the audience. “But really paying attention to the politics of it, having members of state legislatures, of Congress, having businesses and communities really show leadership” is key.

“Things happen because citizens make them happen. And, you know, California has certainly been a leader in much of that. And it’s making a difference.”

Host: Greg Dalton. Guests: Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D. Ecology, Harvard; Former Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Alex Bakir, Director of Business Development, Planet Labs

Climate One: Climate Denial, Education and Politics

This program was recorded live at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.


Do you believe in climate denial? To hear climate scientists tell it, there is a war being waged on science by government opponents and special interests, designed to fuel skepticism and discredit their work in the eyes of the public. Two of them told their stories recently at The Commonwealth Club.

Ben Santer of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory says that being a climate scientist today feels “a little scary.” He’s been targeted by congress and threatened with referral to the Justice Department; threatening emails from strangers have filled his inbox. Michael Mann, a professor of Meteorology at Penn State who has written on the climate wars, tells of having his emails hacked and used out of context to malign him, his colleagues and climate research. “I see that as a direct assault,” he told the audience.
“Not just on us, but our children and grandchildren, who stand the most to lose if we fail to act in time.”

Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes has charted the history of climate denial, which, as she explains it, has its roots in the final days of the Cold War. Physicists who had previously used their degrees to downplay the dangers of tobacco use now turned their attention to the climate awareness movement. “And not just climate science,’ she continues. “Acid rain, the ozone hole, the role of pesticides in harming the environment, they begin to challenge the scientific evidence on all of these issues…and they pursued that strategy successfully for more than 20 years.”

Oreskes says such spin doctoring is designed to distract the public and cast doubt on the scientific evidence of global warming. “This is about an organized campaign to undermine the work that we do and to make people think that the science is unsettled.”

It’s a technique that goes back to the Greeks, says Joe Romm, author of ‘Language Intelligence.’ “The key to being persuasive,” he says, “is to be memorable. And modern social science basically shows the stuff that’s easier for you to remember, you’re more likely to believe is true.”

But how good are scientists at being persuasive? Popular wisdom has them squirreled away in labs, focused on the pursuit of knowledge yet collectively tongue-tied when it comes to championing their work. Oreskes says the notion that scientists can’t communicate with the public is a fairly new one — as is the idea that the public isn’t aware of, and hungry for, their information.

“In the late 19th and early 20th century there was a great tradition of scientists reaching out to the public,” she relates. “The British Association had public meetings in which thousands and thousands of ordinary British citizens would come to hear lectures on geology. Thousands of people would come to hear Michael Faraday lecture on electricity and magnetism.” Twentieth century scientists, she says, frequently published best-sellers, which were gobbled up by the public; one of her favorite examples is William Bowie, who also had a Sunday radio program on geodesy – the study of the shape of the earth. “Now, if you can make geodesy fun,” Orestes laughed, “you can make anything fun!”

As to the question of whether social activism can discredit a scientist’s reputation, Oreskes dismissed that notion out of hand. “Some of the greatest scientists of the 20th century became very active after 1945,” she reminded the audience, “I don’t think anybody ever said that Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity lost credibility because he spoke up about the dangers of atomic weapons.”

Fast forward to the 21st century: how to counter the pervasive message that the science of climate change is “inconclusive?”

Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education agrees with Romm that “the best way to communicate is to tell a story.” Conveying a personal message, she says, resonates with listeners, whether you’re at a cocktail party or in a public forum.

“When you go on that talk show, when you go to that school board meeting or that congressional hearing, you tell the stories. You try to make that personal connection just like you would if you were an accountant or a plumber or a ballet dancer. It’s nothing that’s specific to scientists,” she continues, “it’s specific to people who want to get something accomplished. You have to talk in the language of the people that you’re talking to.

“You’ve got to repeat your message frequently, have it come from a trusted source, have a message that assuages the concern of the person that you are trying to convince, and then the science has a chance to be heard.

And getting the science heard, I think, is what we’re all about.”

Host: Greg Dalton

Guests: Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science, Harvard; Co-Author, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press, 2011)

Joe Romm, Founding Editor, Climate Progress; Author, Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga (CreateSpace, 2012)
Eugenie Scott, Chair, National Center for Science Education


Climate One: Climate Cartoons

This program was recorded live at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on October 24, 2014.


A climate scientist, an economist and a politician walk into a bar, and…well, if you follow the news about climate change, you know it’s no laughing matter. But there were plenty of smiles, chuckles and belly laughs when “the world’s only stand-up economist” visited The Commonwealth Club.

Yoram Bauman co-authored The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change, described by one reviewer as “An Inconvenient Truth meets Peanuts.” His Ph.D. in economics is fodder for some self-deprecating humor about his chosen profession, such as his series of “you might be an economist if…” jokes (“You might be an economist if…you’ve ever gone to a bank in hopes of getting a date”). Bauman joined host Greg Dalton and Free Range Studios co-founder Jonah Sachs to talk about how to tell an inconvenient truth – and be heard.

So, what’s so funny about climate change?

Read the rest of this entry »

Climate One: Powering America’s Economy


This program was recorded live at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on October 24, 2014.

At a Climate One gathering last October, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz outlined three major objectives for addressing the country’s energy challenges. “One is to support economic growth, good jobs, et cetera. Secondly is to reinforce our security. And third and perhaps, in my view, of greatest interest right now, is addressing the climate challenge.

So the issue is, how do we do all those three together?”

Moniz started things off on a positive note: the nation’s energy renaissance has meant good news for the economy. “There’s no question that what’s happening in energy has led to economic growth and jobs,” says Moniz. “Recently Fortune Magazine put out a list of 100 fastest-growing companies; 26 of those had their growth pegged to what’s happening in energy.

Read the rest of this entry »

Climate One: Powering Innovation


Imagine you’re remaking “The Graduate” for today’s climate-challenged world.  What would be the one word you’d whisper in Dustin Hoffman’s ear to signal the business opportunity of the future?  That’s the question that sparked a lively conversation about innovation, technology and entrepreneurship at The Commonwealth Club recently.

For Arun Majumdar of Stanford University, the word for the future is “storage” – as in energy storage. “It’s a game changer,” he says. “Especially if you are transitioning to renewal sources, which are intermittent.  If you could get storage out there at low cost that would be game changer.”

Adam Lowry of Method Products bypassed “plastics” — despite the fact that recycled plastic is a central component of his ground-breaking eco-friendly household products. Instead, he cites carbon capture as the next big thing. “Because whether we like it or not, we’re in a period where we have to go negative carbon.  We have to take carbon out of the atmosphere at this point, given where we are.  And so if you can solve for that problem, you’ll be a billionaire.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Climate One: Beans & Brew


Coffee, beer and chocolate – while it would be a stretch to call them necessities, many Americans refuse to live without them. But how is global warming affecting the companies that produce our beloved guilty pleasures?

Will it take a shortage of craft beers, chocolate kisses or mochaccino lattes to finally wake Americans up to the dire consequences of climate change? (View Full Description)

Climate One: Climate On Our Brains


Part 1: Ecological Intelligence

Daniel Goleman, Author, Ecological Intelligence
Joshua Freedman, COO, Six Seconds; Author, Inside Change
George Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics, UC Berkeley; Author, The Political Mind

Part 2: Climate on Our Brains

George Marshall, Author, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change
Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology, UC Berkeley

Part 3: Deepak Chopra

Deepak Chopra, M.D., Mind-Body Physician; Author, The Soul of Leadership
Rinaldo Brutoco, President, Chopra Foundation; Founding President, World Business Academy; Author, Freedom from Mid-East Oil


Talks about protecting the climate are peppered with Megawatts and BTU’s; parts per million and fugitive methane; wind velocity and crop yields. All these terms can make your head spin – even if you understand and accept that humans are frying the Earth.

But behind the numbers are hearts and minds. And that’s what we’re talking about today. How do people think about climate change? Why aren’t more Americans engaged and actively addressing the most pressing issue of our times? And how do social groups shape individual attitudes toward climate disruption?

Climate One: New Food Revolution

Climate One: Chasing Water

This program is a re-broadcast from November 16th, 2014.