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What’s the Best Diet for Planet Earth?

Data scientist Hannah Ritchie joins Derek to discuss why some food choices, such as eating local and eating organic, aren’t as ecologically beneficial as people may think

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If you love food and also consider yourself a good person, you probably care about where your food comes from, how it’s grown, and whether it’s part of a system that is destroying the planet. After all, if you study just about any problem related to the environment, sooner or later your study will make solid contact with our food systems. Our food is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

But not everybody who claims to care about the environment knows what they’re talking about. Eating local? Eating organic? Counterintuitively, these behaviors aren’t as ecologically beneficial as many people claim.

These facts and more come from Hannah Ritchie, a data scientist, the deputy editor of Our World in Data, and the author of a new book Not the End of the World. As Ritchie argues at length in her book, a lot of liberals assume that anything that sounds like pastoralism and natural living is better for the planet. But in fact, it is technological progress that allows for highly efficient farming, high-quality foods with less land consumed by agriculture, less water wasted, and more forests spared. Many times, our pastoralist instincts to appear virtuous when it comes to food and the planet don’t actually achieve virtuous outcomes.

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In the following excerpt, Hannah Ritchie explains to Derek why she doesn’t have an apocalyptic mindset when it comes to climate change and where people can look to find optimism.

Derek Thompson: I believe you and I are both in our 30s, and a lot of people our age who prioritize the issue of climate change the way that we do, who care about the issue of climate change the way that we do, I think a lot of people like us think that what we’re facing is something like the end of the world. The people like us believe that climate change will destroy the world in triplicate: that the first-order effects will be higher temperatures and sea levels; the second-order effects will be drought and starvation, especially in low-income places; and the third-order effects will be things like migration surges that reshape global governance for the worse.

And the people who deny these facts most loudly, who say, “This is no big deal; it’s mostly a myth,” the denialists, they tend to be people who do not engage with the numbers of global temperature and green energy. And that makes you a very special case because you take climate change very seriously, but you also engage just about as deeply as anybody I know with the numbers and the facts. Do you believe that the apocalyptic argument about climate change is wrong?

Hannah Ritchie: I don’t believe that we’re headed for the apocalypse. The way I frame climate change is that we are on course for really catastrophic impacts on the current trajectory that we’re on. The problem with how we often frame the climate change problem is that we frame it as one or the other. It’s either “It’s not a problem at all” or “It’s the end of the world.” And the reality is that it’s somewhere in the middle. There’s a really broad spectrum of climate impact. What’s really important to communicate is [that] where we end up on that broad spectrum of impacts is largely down to us. We’re still in control of the temperature knob at the moment, and it’s largely determined by our emissions.

So where we’re currently headed on climate, we’re headed for a world of [temperature increases] between 2.5 to 3 degrees [Celcius]. And for me, that’s pretty catastrophic. We will see extremely large impacts on that trajectory. Where I differ on some of the doomsday scenarios is that I think we can bend that curve. We are now starting to see action. Many of the solutions we need are there. They’re affordable. And I can see a trajectory where we start to bend that curve much, much closer to 2 degrees, and ideally below 2 degrees, which is where we want to be. So my issue of many of these framings is it’s very polarized. It’s either win/lose. But in reality, it’s somewhere in between, and we are in control of where we end up on that spectrum.

Thompson: Before we get into some of the details, you work at Our World in Data, which is this extraordinary index of searchable information on climate and energy. Let’s say someone’s listening to the show, and they say, “OK, Hannah seems to know what she’s talking about. She seems to have some kind of optimism that this is a solvable problem.” What would you direct people to look at? If they were only going to look at one, two, three pages on the internet in order to get a sense of the optimism that motivated you to write a book called Not the End of the World, where would you encourage them to look to get that optimism?

Ritchie: I think two places. I think one place is—what makes me most optimistic is the plunging costs of low-carbon technologies. I mean, where we were sitting a decade ago, for me at that time, I was very pessimistic because the alternatives we had to fossil fuels were just so expensive. There was no way that—it was a struggle to even get rich countries to deploy them, but there was no way that middle- and low-income countries would apply them because they were just far too expensive. The really dramatic change we’ve seen is that the prices of solar, wind, batteries, electric cars have plunged, and they’re actually still falling. And in many cases, they’re competitive if not cheaper than fossil fuels.

So for me, that’s where a big part of the optimism lies. The other half to that equation is when we think about climate impacts, we focus on the actual physical climate impact, the actual physical thing that’s happening. The other big part of that equation is, one, exposure—so the number of people in that harm’s way, the number of people on that coastline, or the number of people in that heat-wave zone—and then resilience. Resilience, a big part of resilience is about having wealth, having early warning systems for storms, having seawalls against coastlines. There are a range of measures we can take against climate impacts, which make us much more resilient to them. If you look at general human development trends, they also point in a very positive direction. While climate impacts will continue to escalate, we can also increase our resilience to them.

This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Hannah Ritchie
Producer: Devon Baroldi

Subscribe: Spotify