10 minutes with John R. Platt
What first brought the climate crisis to your attention?
I grew up just a few miles away from Love Canal — the New York neighbourhood built over a toxic-waste dump. That horrible disaster probably had a lot to do with shaping my environmental awareness. The case obviously wasn’t climate-related, but it was just one of many stories in the 1970s and 1980s that made it clear that we were polluting the planet, poisoning people and causing irreparable harm to our ecosystems. That came to a head in 1988 with NASA scientist James Hansen’s testimony to the Senate, which really drove the climate crisis home for me.
What environmental issues most concern you right now?
For me, it’s the extinction crisis. We’re losing species and habitats at an unprecedented rate, and it doesn’t get nearly enough attention from the public or world governments. The pandemic is a side effect of the wildlife trade, so hopefully that will start to generate some attention — but we’ll see.
What gives you hope?
The people working to make things better. I talk to scientists, activists, educators and other experts almost every day. Even if they don’t have solutions (yet), they’re working to understand the problems we face. Every new piece of the puzzle that we can communicate to people helps.
What’s the most inspiring solution you’ve seen so far?
Sticking with wildlife issues, and going back a few years, I think it was the 1989 ban on ivory sales. At the time, elephants faced a poaching crisis that threatened to wipe them off the face of the planet. The world agreed that there would no longer be a market for elephant ivory, and as a result the poaching all but stopped. Simple.
Of course, they screwed that up a few years later by allowing a few one-off sales of ivory stockpiles, which reignited the market and kickstarted the whole poaching crisis into hyperdrive again. Now elephants are even worse off. Sigh…
But it’s proof: We can do it. We need to base our decisions on science and give them the support they need — and maintain that support long enough for them to make a difference.
What do you do to feel connected to nature?
Well that’s simple — I just take a walk!
Of course, that’s too simplistic an answer. I live in a small town, on a walkable street, near plenty of trees and abundant wildlife — but at the same time, I see that nearby nature rapidly being chipped away by new development every time I walk around. These walks give me both a vital dose of nature and a harsh reminder of that it’s all too easily lost. Eventually I may need to find a different neighbourhood to walk or a new way to stay connected to nature. That will be a mournful day.
What book or film would you recommend everyone reads or sees?
Oh geez, I review about a dozen books a month so it’s hard for me to boil it down to just one. But I’ll pick a brand-new book: All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Keeble Wilkinson. It’s an amazing collection of essays by a wide range of experts who aim to enable and empower the next generation of women climate leaders. The advice can apply to any reader who wants to make a difference.
Who inspires you when it comes to tackling the crisis?
Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe. Not only is she an important researcher and leader in the scientific community, she’s an especially effective communicator to the general public. Her videos, articles, social media feeds and interviews have made a huge difference.
Of course, I could list 127 more people without batting an eye…
If someone asked you what climate action they should take today, what would you say?
Vote, not just in this election but in every election, public referendum or whatever other opportunity you possess to shape the future. Check out the record and public statements of every candidate up and down the ballot, all the way down to dog catcher.
But don’t stop there: Stay in touch with these representatives after the election and make your voice continuously heard. If they don’t hear from you, then you (and the issues that matter to you) don’t exist.
If you could implement one global policy tomorrow, what would it be?
We need to ban fracking. Natural gas was once positioned as a “bridge fuel” to a safer climate, but the evidence is now incontrovertible that it’s a significant threat to the planet and to human health and wildlife. On top of that, the industry itself is a failure. It’s a house of cards, with cratering profits and mountains of debt. No one will miss fracking once it’s gone — except for the executives and bankers who have gotten rich off it.
What does 2050 look like to you?
Okay, look, I got my start writing horror fiction before moving into the extinction journalism beat, so my natural inclination is to go dark with this answer. And it wouldn’t be a bad instinct for me to predict a future of flooded coastlines, killer storms, millions of people dead and uncountable extinctions, along with increased income inequality, hyper-partisanship and authoritarianism. The writing is on the wall.
But at the same time, I remain a bit of an optimist. I’ve seen the evidence of positive change. We’ve saved species from extinction. We’ve abandoned deadly chemicals and technologies. We’ve restored habitats. The old ways are dying out and the new sprouts are taking up the challenge for a better planet.
That’s the oxygen we need. It won’t be enough to make this planet a paradise by 2050, and a lot of people will suffer over the next three decades, but I think we can at the very least maintain the status quo and improve a few things along the way.
And if we’re lucky and work hard enough, who knows how more progress we can make? There are too many people and ecosystems depending on us to give up.