In a rising sea of climate professionals who are understandably discouraged, burnt-out or angry about the state of the world, Dr. Beth Sawin’s calm, imaginative and often whimsical voice stands out.
The co-founder of Climate Interactive, a 10-year-old non-profit think tank best known for its climate simulation tool ENroads, Sawin is plenty aware of the urgency of the climate crisis. But rather than seeming crushed by the devastating impacts of climate change on health, the economy and society, she sees this confluence of issues as presenting a silver lining—because their interconnections mean they can be addressed simultaneously.
She refers to this approach as “multisolving,” and has made it core to her work for years.
“So much of what we have to do to address climate change is going to solve other problems too,” she says. “I love surprising people by saying, ‘Did you know the World Health Organization said the cost of getting on track to meet the Paris Agreement goals will be completely offset by the health benefits?’”
So much of what we have to do to address climate change is going to solve other problems too.
Despite her current bent toward what positive action can be taken, it hasn’t always been easy for Sawin to maintain this outlook. On the morning that the IPCC released its “code red” sixth assessment on climate change, we hopped on the phone to learn how the biologist-turned-climate professional went from making people cry when she talked about the future to pointing them toward solutions that offer emotional—as well as practical—ways forward.
Why is multisolving such an important framework to you?
Dr. Beth Sawin
In the climate field, we often act like the main benefit of shutting down a coal plant is protecting the climate, and then a nice co-benefit is fewer kids with asthma. But if you’re a parent of a kid with asthma, you might be working to shut down that plant for an air pollution benefit, and climate might be a co-benefit.
Multisolving is a way of saying, ‘If we start to understand all of these impacts as one whole system and work together, we have more possibility to make change.’ Because we have more political will and more resources. We need all of those alliances to overcome vested interests.
At first, Climate Interactive’s work on multisolving was about naming this potential and making a numerical case for it. But we started to realize we could have all these co-benefits, but only if we get better at getting these groups to work together. So in the last few years our work is shifting more to the ‘how.’ Multisolving involves healing relationships between people—racial reconciliation is part of it, but it can also just be the guy from the sustainability department and the guy from the health department meeting for coffee.
Multisolving involves healing relationships between people.
How did you go from a Ph.D. in biology to creating an organization that’s best known for a climate simulator?
Dr. Beth Sawin
I studied molecular neurogenetics at MIT and loved it. A lot of my PhD was sitting in the dark by myself because of the organism I studied. I realized that if I continued on the path to become a professor and run a research group, it would stay narrow and fascinating.
And yet, I was beginning to really understand the crisis we were facing through my volunteer work with an organization focused on nuclear disarmament and environmental issues. I felt like so much had been invested in me by my parents and teachers. I had a good brain, I was a decent communicator, and it seemed like that should be used for a more urgent issue.
A few years after that, I met Donella Meadows, who became my mentor. She was starting the Sustainability Institute. [My family and I] had a brand new mortgage and a baby, and Donella offered six months of job security and a 50 percent pay cut. And we said yes. We were rash young people, but it worked out.
It was one step after the next from there. Donella Meadows also had a vision of an intentional community. My husband and I ended up being one of the founding families of that place, which is where I still live: 23 families share 280 acres of organic gardens and forests. There’s a dairy herd and cheese-making facilities. The community owns the property and some common buildings together, we make decisions by consensus. That’s been a huge part of my life.
Donella Meadows is partly known for her work on systems thinking. Why is that such an important part of tackling climate?
Dr. Beth Sawin
In complex systems, none of us see the whole thing. There’s 192 nations, but one atmosphere. Everything is interconnected—ecology, our economies, the climate system. Systems thinking is just an approach to comprehend interconnectedness. If it’s an interconnected problem, you’ve got to approach it with tools designed for interconnectedness.
One of the core tenets is that it’s the structure of systems that create their behavior. So CO2 emissions going up would be the behavior of the system, and the structure would be the laws and incentives on individuals and corporations and governments. If you change the structure, you change the behavior. There’s no physical reason to have organized ourselves the way we are; we could choose at any point to be organized differently.
In systems theory, all those things are up for change. If you had a different worldview, you’d have a different set of structures, and you’d have a different system behavior.
In complex systems, none of us see the whole thing. There’s 192 nations, but one atmosphere.
You seem to operate out of a very emotionally grounded place. Is there a particular spiritual or philosophical tradition that you’re drawing from?
Dr. Beth Sawin
I don’t identify with any organized religion. But when I first started devoting a lot of my time to climate change in the early 2000s, I carried around this slideshow to libraries and church basements, which was based on research that showed even well-educated people were underestimating the climate threat.
For many people, this was their first time facing the magnitude and urgency. People cried and left the room. I was like, ‘I can’t responsibly do this unless I find another way to communicate.’ That led me to Joanna Macy. She has two really interesting areas of expertise: Buddhism and systems theory. In the late ‘80s, with so much concern about nuclear weapons, she found that people were paralyzed by despair. She was developing methods for people to grapple with their fear, anger, and despair about nuclear weapons, then environmental problems. We spend so much energy repressing and not feeling, which paralyzes us from acting and also paralyzes our ability to feel joy and happiness.
Joanna offered a month-long intensive, and I more or less cried through that and the year after. I was leaving people paralyzed, angry or in tears because I was paralyzed, grieving, and angry myself. I had a baby and a toddler at the time, and I was really feeling the time horizon of their lives.
Now, if I notice cynicism coming out of me, I’m like, ‘I need to go sit with that and figure out what I’m sad about.’ I think for people who want to commit to sustained effort on climate, finding the way that’s right for them is really important.
Are there specific practices you’d recommend for people who are trying to build their own approach to climate work that leads somewhere beyond despair and cynicism?
Dr. Beth Sawin
We’re animals and our life support system is in serious trouble. It would be weird to not be distressed. But I try to remember that each of these challenging emotions has an evolutionary intelligence. Fear tells us to prioritize this issue. Anger tells us there’s something precious that needs to be protected. And grief is how we come to accept the things we can’t change.
I have two quotes that hang over my computer. One is from Wendell Berry, to the effect of ‘we’re in the kind of emergency that takes a lot of patience.’ That’s important because multisolving only happens with trusting relationships, which only happen with time. The other is from Grace Lee Boggs. She says, ‘we’re not suffering from a lack of critical mass, we’re suffering from a lack of critical relationships.’ Multisolving is basically rewiring to create new connections between parts of systems in order to change the direction of the system.
One more thing I say a lot: Nobody has to do everything, but everybody has to do something. That’s about the humility of finding your piece, and knowing that there’s other people doing theirs, and making sure your life has connections to some of those people so you’re not isolated.
One more thing I say a lot: Nobody has to do everything, but everybody has to do something.
What do you see as the biggest gaps in the climate movement right now?
Dr. Beth Sawin
It’s pretty hard to fund an approach that says, ‘I’m going to build a more healthy and interconnected system which will be better able to respond to threats and lead the transformation we need.’ Look at the $17 trillion being spent in COVID economic recovery around the world. If even 10% of that 17 trillion had been spent in a way that protected the climate, invested in clean energy infrastructure, fostered racial equity, economic equity, and gender equity, that would change the world.
Whether it’s philanthropic or public investments, people don’t have faith in that interconnected approach, or they don’t trust that it will produce results, because you can’t control it. In systems theory, we talk about ‘emergence’ as something that happens when you change the connections in a system. A famous example is from chemistry. Water is made of two hydrogens and one oxygen. They’re gases, and if you only studied hydrogen alone and oxygen alone, you wouldn’t necessarily think of wetness, right?
That’s what emergence is like. You don’t know exactly what will happen when you connect the affordable housing group, the land group, the water group and the jobs group in a city, but something different will happen than if they had been disconnected.
What’s the biggest takeaway you’d like to leave people with?
Dr. Beth Sawin
The world we have to make to address climate change is going to be better in so many ways for almost everyone. It’s going to be healthier and more just. It’s going to be better suited for our bodies, our minds and our souls. And I’m excited for that world. I’ve seen little snippets of it, and it’s quite something.