Transcript for Episode 24, Catherine Riihimaki

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Women are raising our voices.

Solving the problems of the world.

You’ve got to be at the table.

Your voice does matter.

She roars! Let me hear you roar one more time!

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MARGARET KOVAL: Hello and welcome to She Roars, a podcast celebrating the women of Princeton University who are doing exceptional and unusual things to make the world a better place. My name is Margaret Koval. I’m a graduate alumna from 1983, and my guest today is Catherine Riihimaki. Catherine’s main affiliation is with the Princeton Council on Science and Technology. She’ll tell us more about that in a few minutes, but the mission of the council is basically science education and science communications. Catherine is a geoscientist who mostly focuses on environmental issues and climate change. And in the spirit of full disclosure, she and I have recently teamed up to channel her expertise in a new podcast miniseries. It’s called All For Earth. Catherine is the host, and you can find it on all the usual podcast platforms. Catherine, thanks for agreeing to sit in the interviewee seat today, instead of the interviewer seat.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: I’m a little nervous, but I’m really happy to be here.

MARGARET KOVAL: I’m sure you’ll be fine. I want to dive right into All For Earth if I can. First, I think the obvious question is, can you just tell us what it’s about, or summarize, since I do actually know what it’s about, summarize what the podcast is about.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Sure. Our goal is to capture the voices of people who are mobilizing to address the most pressing environmental issues facing society today, from a variety of different angles. All with the point that, you know, what we’re facing is very serious, but that we have the tools to actually address the problems if we get on it, as soon as possible. And so, we have guests from business, from politics, from communication, you know —

MARGARET KOVAL: And sports.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: And sports. And sports, yes.

MARGARET KOVAL: And it grew out of some other thinking that you’ve been doing, other work that you’ve been doing. I wonder if you can kind of explain the frame of the podcast, and what its genesis was.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Sure. You know, there are a couple of different ways I can answer that. One is just the very pragmatic, this is a coming together of three different groups on Princeton’s campus. The Princeton Environmental Institute, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this fall with a two-day symposium, late October. I’m hoping everyone comes, October 24th and 25th. And so they’re interested in sort of celebrating what their staffing and alumni have done. Meanwhile, the University through the Office of Communications is interested in communicating out all the things that Princeton — the Princeton community is doing in the world. And in this case, around the environment. And my group, the Council on Science and Technology is really about promoting scientific literacy, or more generally — including technology, engineering and math — STEM literacy. Education beyond the classroom, and what does it look like to try to help a STEM-literate society through this different medium.

MARGARET KOVAL: Yes. Well if I can just stick with the themes of the podcast for a second.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Yes.

MARGARET KOVAL: Because we do look at an “environmental nexus” is one term one of our guests uses. And I wonder if you can unwrap that a little bit. What is this environmental nexus that you talk about on your podcast?

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Yes, absolutely. So our first podcast guest, Steve Pacala, is a professor here in ecology and evolutionary biology, and he and I work together to develop this exciting and innovative course called “The Environmental Nexus,” which is bringing together four huge environmental issues that intersect with each other. And so it’s climate change, it’s biodiversity loss, it’s water scarcity, and it’s agriculture, and whether we can feed a growing population moving into the future. And so that course really looks at how, you know, solving one can create trade-offs that make another of these issues worse. You know, the course is founded around this idea that you have to look at this in multi-dimensional ways, different disciplines. And so we have the scientific expertise, and the political science, and economic expertise. Someone who’s an ethicist, and someone who really specializes in communication through literature and the arts. And so, you know, that has framed the podcast, because we’re looking at not just one particular environmental issue, and not just one particular framing of it, but how are people, really across the country and across the world, looking at this from whatever their professional, personal life is. And that’s not the same for every single person.

MARGARET KOVAL: Yes. I don’t think I appreciated until we started this project how, as you say, improvements in one of these categories could exacerbate the other.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: My expertise as a geoscientist is in water issues. And I’m a geoscientist, so often that’s over million-year time scales. But there are lessons we can learn for today. And so, you know, one of the biggest uses of water is for agriculture, and not just like, oh everything is almost equal, but this one’s a little bit bigger. Seventy-five percent or so of the water that we use in this country goes to irrigation. And so, that’s a huge amount. And so, what that means is that any change in our agricultural system changes what our water needs are. And there can be incredibly perverse incentives. So, you know, almonds are an incredibly water-intensive crop. But they’re also valuable, and so there are farmers in California who are digging up crops that are better able to deal with water scarcity, and planting —

MARGARET KOVAL: Almonds.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: — almond trees. Which will make agricultural feeding people easier, because people want almonds, or almond milk. But it will make the — you know, needs for water much more acute in a dry area.

MARGARET KOVAL: Yes. Yes, a drought-prone area.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Exactly.

MARGARET KOVAL: An area of chronic drought at that.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Exactly.

MARGARET KOVAL: Very interesting.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: So and you know, you can maybe solve water scarcity through desalination plants, but those take energy. And so now you bring in the climate issue. And oh by the way, we’re not the only ones who need water. Our ecosystems need water as well. And so, there you have a good encapsulation of the intersections of all four of these issues.

MARGARET KOVAL: One of the other things that has come up a lot, I think, in the podcast, across a lot of different conversations you’ve had, is the role of working at scale, or the importance of working at scale. And you can parse this in a number of different ways. But I think a lot of us — and this is a great thing, a lot of us have made great strides in trying to be more sustainable on a personal level, but I think your point is — and the point of this environmental nexus framing is — that it’s much bigger. And what more can you say about that?

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: It’s much bigger. Well, it’s interesting because we’re talking in All for Earth, in the same format as this, right, which is one-on-one conversations. And so on the one hand, it’s bigger, but at the same time the conversations are intimate, because it’s real people who are involved, and trying to address these issues. So you know, among the things that surprised me in these interviews, one is how important it is to get that partnerships at scale. And so, you know, we have someone in sustainable agriculture working for the Environmental Defense Fund, a woman named Suzy Friedman. And she’s working not with the small organic farmers, family farms, but this is the huge commodity crops that they’re dealing with.

MARGARET KOVAL: Soybean, corn, rice —

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Soybean, corn, wheat.

MARGARET KOVAL: Wheat, of course.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Those are kind of the three biggies. And the argument is that, you know, it’s important, particularly for fruits and vegetables, to have these smaller farms, but if you want to make a widespread impact on the agricultural system in this country and in the world, you have to deal with the big players.

MARGARET KOVAL: And the issues that are at play there in the agricultural system, just to drill a little bit into that one conversation, are what exactly? They’re in part use of water I’m guessing. Certainly in places like California, as you just mentioned, there’s developing crops that are going to be more robust, and climate change —

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Resilient, yes.

MARGARET KOVAL: Resilient, thank you.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Yes.

MARGARET KOVAL: But other things too, right?

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Well, so that’s one aspect of agriculture interacting with our weather and climate systems is, you know, how do you have the system that’s resilient to the climate that is now, and in the future?

MARGARET KOVAL: Yes.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: But also, you know, the other aspect of that would be how do you have a system that has a lighter footprint on the climate? Because, you know, our farming systems use nitrogen fertilizers, which can become nitrogen — nitrous oxide gases that, you know, in part are greenhouse gases. So there’s that aspect. There’s water pollution, because that fertilizer can run off into our stream system, and ultimately, you know, those chemicals end up in places like the Gulf of Mexico, or Chesapeake Bay, and you have dead zones from nutrification. So that’s an aspect. And probably the third component of sustainable agriculture would be habitat. Because often when you’re clearing an area for new farmland, you are impacting the native habitat. Either destroying it completely or decreasing it, or somehow impacting it.

And so we talked a little bit about with Suzy, monarch butterfly habitat, which I personally found fascinating. Some of these things are win-win. You know, if a farmer becomes more efficient with a fertilizer, then there’s less pollution, and they spend less money, because they’re not using excess materials. With habitat, it’s hard to imagine it being win-win from a financial bottom line, but emotionally, farmers have grown up with monarch butterflies, and so they have this deep, personal connection and so it’s win-win in the sense that they’re helping to preserve through planting milkweed, in the interstitial areas between their fields. They’re helping preserve monarch butterflies, which they care deeply about. And obviously it’s beneficial to the ecosystem.

MARGARET KOVAL: And I’m guessing milkweed is important to the habitat of the monarch butterfly.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Very important, yes.

MARGARET KOVAL: So the other thing you touched on was how the podcast is crossing from scientists to politicians to policy people and so on, so forth to athletes and you know, people in the humanities and so on. I’m really struck by that. I think it’s another area that I wasn’t completely as wide open-eyed about as I am now, how people across the spectrum [are] both mobilizing and are profoundly needed. Why for example do we care whether humanists are all clued up on environmental issues? What’s the role of a humanist? We can see why scientists matter, right?

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Well, yes. And you know, I forget now who said this to me, but they were observing that, you know, scientists can really capture your head, the intellectual aspect, but you need the humanist to capture the heart. And in order to make progress on environmental issues, it’s not enough to just know the facts and figures. You actually have to capture people’s emotion to mobilize them. And so, you know, as a geoscientist, I love studying rocks because they don’t talk back, and they’re not animate.

MARGARET KOVAL: Pet rocks. We might need to bring those back.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Right. So you know, we really need people with expertise on how to capture the emotions and the psychology of the everyday person in order to actually make considerable progress on environmental issues.

MARGARET KOVAL: And so that is not just journalists, but novelists, and artists —

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Documentary filmmakers.

MARGARET KOVAL: Yes, yes.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: So we interviewed Katie Carpenter who’s a producer, documentary films. And she spoke all about, you know, the importance of trying to communicate effectively. And it is about, you know, capturing the emotions. Not about us, the data.

MARGARET KOVAL: Yes. And she talked about that, I thought in a very interesting way. Something dear to my heart, because I’ve made documentaries in the past as well. How do you frame something so that you do tug at the heartstrings of your listeners, or viewers in her case, without distorting the actual science and fact-based information that is supporting it. And how — sometimes you do have to skirt a knife edge on that.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Right. Right. But you know, really letting the storytelling be the driver. And not to be dishonest in the storytelling, but to find the narratives that will have that hook for the viewer. And you know, we talked about how that’s particularly important when you’re dealing with controversial subjects. Whether that’s evolution, or whether that’s environmental issues, to really capture someone’s attention so that they’re invested in wanting to know the answer to whatever topic you happen to be addressing.

MARGARET KOVAL: Yes. Yes. And she and another one of your guests, Fred Rich, talked about the importance of storytelling, and the importance of story structure for crossing the partisan divide as well.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Right.

MARGARET KOVAL: And I wonder what tricks — tricks isn’t the right word because it makes it sound kind of —

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Nefarious.

MARGARET KOVAL: But yes, what reframing in the minds of the scientists, since you are a scientist, what reframing is useful to embrace in order to cross partisan divides?

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Yes. They both talked about the importance of having people be main players in the stories. Because you can, you know, really fixate on the wildest areas of the world, and Katie talked about the David Attenborough “Planet Earth”-style — where people really are not — until the recent ones, people weren’t a big part of that. They were finding the rarest, the most remote places, the rarest species. But both Katie and Fred Rich talked about the importance of recognizing that environmental efforts and environmental impacts really — people should be a big part of that story. And any solutions, people have to be a part of that story.

So you know, Fred talks in his book, “Getting to Green,” about the, you know, mistakes that environmentalists have made when they propose solutions that ignorant the pain that they will cause to the populations that are impacted. And so, he talked specifically about spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest, which was an issue in the ’90s, and that, you know, environmentalists, when they ignore that loggers are going to be put out of business, will lose their jobs, you know, you do that at your peril, because you are going to lose that audience. You’re going to lose those potential stakeholders as contributors to habitat preservation.

MARGARET KOVAL: Well, it makes me — I mean, flash forward to the very present day where we’ve got the Amazon jungle, Amazon rainforest, burning before our eyes, and it’s been reported in the media quite a bit as a nefarious, I don’t know, bad policy. But the truth of the matter is, there are really important livelihood issues at stake that perhaps we’re not as sensitive to as we could be.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: That’s right. And you know, it’s also very easy when we’re in a different country, with a different lifestyle to sort of say, Amazon, you should preserve the biodiversity in the Amazon because the world will be a better place. And it’s easy to put that on a different community, a different group of people. But, you know, to get buy-in, you have to engage the people who are there.

MARGARET KOVAL: And I think too, that this is a case where humanities can really help us understand — good storytelling can really help us understand a culture that is very different in a place that is, you know, further away.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Absolutely. You know, from anthropology, sociology, political science.

MARGARET KOVAL: In addition to communicating, and helping to move the needle, raise awareness, get people to do things in the great beyond about climate change and environmental issues, we have a generational obligation. I mean, interestingly the podcast grew out of a course that is aimed at undergraduates, 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds. That age group. And that’s not incidental. That’s not educating them, right? I’m teeing you up to [laughs] to give a pitch. But I think a key theme that you’ve taught me is this is a generation that is really going to get stuck holding the bag, and we’ve got to give them the tools that we need — that they need, I mean, to solve it. Because it’s their lifespan that’s going to see the worst of it come to — fruition is not the right word, but — [laughs]

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: And that’s right. I mean, I think that the people who are going to live further out into the future are going to obviously experience that future more directly. And so they have a great stake in that. That is so critical in thinking about these solutions, and you know, aside from that, there’s just a mentality that these are solvable issues. And that when you have new energy coming to the table, I think that really mobilizes lots of people, because I think the youth are basically saying, you know, I don’t accept that we can’t change this.

MARGARET KOVAL: Yes.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: We absolutely can, and you know, that’s true across many different political issues. That they’re not weighed down by the baggage of previous failures. They’re coming at it with an urgency, and a personal stake.

MARGARET KOVAL: The tipping point in so many of these systems that we’ve been describing — food, climate, water — it is going to happen in their lifetime. The point of no return could come in their lifetime. Am I overstating that?

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Well. I wouldn’t state it quite that way, because a tipping point makes it seem like it’s an on/off switch. You know, you flip the switch and the lights come on, or the lights go off. And you know, it’s really a continuum. And so for something like climate change, the sooner we act, the less severe climate change will be. There are a couple of thresholds that we have to worry about. One is coral reefs, bleaching of corals that seems to happen at a very narrow range of temperatures that in many places in the world we’re approaching, or sometimes exceeding. And so among the people who are freaking out the most about climate change, coral biologists are among them. And the other, and this touches on my area of research, is the boundary between what’s snow and what’s rain. Because that impacts whether you have glaciers or whether you have rivers. And that loss of ice around the world, which, you know, impacts sea level rise, but it also impacts the local communities that rely on glacial meltwater for power, for drinking water, and so on. You know, that’s a really profound impact.

MARGARET KOVAL: Yes.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: And I can see that in my research community, you know, going to professional meetings of glaciologists, the weight of that loss of ice is just devastating for most of us.

MARGARET KOVAL: Yes. And I don’t want to dwell too much, but biodiversity is also — I mean, once you’re extinct, that’s it. That’s an off switch.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: That’s an off switch. And that’s actually — it’s the most profound off switch, because glaciers can re-grow, and sea level can drop. But you don’t get that species back. And so that’s the one thing — we talk about this in one of the intro climate classes I work on, that that’s the one thing that you can’t directly undo.

MARGARET KOVAL: I think another big — not a big surprise, that’s not the right way to phrase it, but I think another interesting framing that you brought to my attention that has to do with the importance of engaging corporate America and/or entrepreneurial interests, or the business community large and small. Can you tell me a little bit about how that’s come up in your conversations, and how that’s actually a surprise to you? Or how you’re thinking about that?

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Sure. I mean, it is I think getting back to what we talked about dealing with scale. So the Environmental Defense Fund, we also talked — I talked with Carter Roberts, who’s the head of the World Wildlife Fund, and both of those environmental groups are deliberately partnering with corporate America, because you know, they’re recognizing that if you want to have a big impact then, you know, one of the most immediate things you can do is tap into what people are buying at the store, and tap into the supply chain of how you get either food or products from where they originate into the stores, and ultimately into the consumers —

MARGARET KOVAL: Now when you say tap into, what do you mean? Do you mean kind of re-engineer it at a certain stage, so that it’s more sustainable, or — ?

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Yes, exactly. I mean, they’re looking for ways to lighten the footprint of companies like Walmart, and so you know, what can World Wildlife Fund do to guide those corporations, and then communicate out to the public that you know, these corporations are taking their environmental stewardship seriously. You know, is it that — how the materials are getting out of the ground and manufactured? Is there some place along the line, whether it’s a particular factory, or transportation, you know, where is it that they can find win-win situations where it will cost the company less money, it will cost the environment less, and therefore the consumer, company, the environment, all benefit. And so, you know, that actually surprised me because it has come up unprompted in a number of different interviews. The two of them, Fred Rich talking about how to bridge the partisan divide. And one of his messages is don’t demonize capitalism.

MARGARET KOVAL: Yes.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Because the moment you do that, you will lose a good chunk of the right part of the political spectrum.

MARGARET KOVAL: Not to mention a good toolkit. I mean, let’s be honest. We — you know, the tools of business also need to be brought to the table.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Right. And they’re here. So you know, on the one hand, I personally applaud the idea that we’re looking at existential threats, and therefore, business as usual can’t be your model. Those approaches I think are really interesting. Another person I haven’t brought up is Marilyn Waite who works in sustainable finance for the Hewlett Foundation. And she likewise is dealing with, you know, our financial systems as they exist, also trying to make them more environmentally friendly, using capital to open up bottlenecks in getting things like solar panels, or other green projects that, you know, just need the financing to make them happen.

MARGARET KOVAL: Yes, she to me was a big surprise, because she was on some levels was very reassuring. I mean, she said we need what, a trillion dollars annually in order to solve this, which sounds like a ton of money on the one hand. On the other hand, she says it’s out there. We can mobilize. We just need to have the right tools, or the right incentives —

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: That’s right.

MARGARET KOVAL: — to mobilize that capital. And for some reason that struck me as very encouraging. I am not a financier by any stretch.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Well, I mean you may be like me, which is once you start talking big numbers, all the big numbers sound like big numbers. So to be able to say we have $100 trillion, we need $1 trillion, suddenly that becomes doable, because you have some comparison.

MARGARET KOVAL: Right.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: OK. We need 1% of the capital we have, going towards these green initiatives.

MARGARET KOVAL: Yes. Yes, that’s really interesting. Well, Catherine, I’ve noticed that you do tend to end most of your podcasts by turning to your guest and sort of saying, something akin to, you know, how bad is it? So after you’ve done this podcast series, which I should say is a limited series, it’s only 10 episodes. How bad is it? How bad have you figured out it is?

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: It’s bad. I’m going to echo Steve Pacala, because, you know, you and I, we’ve worked on how do we introduce him? Maybe we can have him say it’s not that bad. And that was the one point that he pushed back and he said, no, no, no. It’s bad. But what I have become much more optimistic about is that there are very pragmatic solutions. And there are a lot of people who are working on creating those solutions. And the solutions are anything from you know, calculations that Steve and colleagues are working on to figure out, OK, you know, if we’re going to go solar and wind, how much steel do we need? And how many — you know, where are the power lines, and getting down to that detail, is this doable?

But then there are people like Katie Carpenter, or Clare Gallagher, who is an ultra-marathoner out of Boulder, Colorado, who are really reaching out to the general public to say, look, you know, all of us should be invested. And you can use your voice to enact change. And it is deeply heartening to me that those people are in a whole variety of roles across society trying to create that positive change. And you know, ultimately that’s what we’re trying to do at Princeton too, you know. The Council on Science and Technology is furthering scientific literacy, so that we have our future leaders in business, and politics, and literature, and so on who can be the voices for change, grounded in some —

MARGARET KOVAL: Yeah.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: [laughing] — real rigor about environmental science, or it might be vaccines. Or it might be, you know, other issues. Technology issues. But that, you know, we have that expertise, and that initiative in all aspects of our society.

MARGARET KOVAL: Yes. That all disciplines — or students in all disciplines need to understand some level of it so that they take it with them for the rest of their lives.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Yes. And since we’re citizens of the world, we all have a stake in that, and so it’s not acceptable to say, well, I’m not a scientist, so I can’t weigh in on that issue. We’re being asked to weigh in on it by the choices that we make at the grocery store, by the, you know, choices we make at the ballot box.

MARGARET KOVAL: Our investment decision.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: By just how we decide to live our day-to-day lives, and our investments, and so on. That you know, we can’t just wash our hands of it, and say it doesn’t affect me. And I don’t affect it. No. We’re in this all together. So.

MARGARET KOVAL: Yes.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Hence All For Earth.

MARGARET KOVAL: Very good. Thank you. With that I will end, because I can’t think of a better way to end. Catherine Riihimaki, the host of All For Earth, the new podcast that you can get in all the usual podcast platforms, as well as an educator here at Princeton University. Thank you very, very much.

CATHERINE RIIHIMAKI: Thank you. It was wonderful to be on this side of the microphone.

MARGARET KOVAL: Great. I’d like to also thank Danielle Alio, who is our producer, and Dan Kearns, is our audio and video engineer, and ask our listeners to come back soon for another interview with a fascinating woman from Princeton University.

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