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Is it too late?

Welcome to the last installment of Is it too late? During the course of this series, we’ve talked about the climate crisis with everyone from a direct air capture expert to a scientist studying climate engineering.

So, it seemed fitting to end the series with the only kind of expert that can keep us from losing our minds: a comedian.

<strong>Rollie Williams</strong> is a comedian that recently received a master's in Climate and Society from Columbia University. He's also the host of Climate Town, a Youtube channel that breaks down climate issues in an easily accessible format.

Let’s be honest — the climate crisis is a little funny. Maybe just in a gallows-humor kind of way, but it’s still chuckle worthy at times.

This global catastrophe is messing with just about everything our species needs to survive, and somehow millions of people are being spoon-fed lies about it from a sentient trust fund in a bow tie.

Yes, I know Tucker Carlson doesn’t wear bowties anymore. No, I don’t care to change that joke.

Regardless, comedy has helped people understand and reckon with all kinds of horrible struggles, and climate change is no different. Joking about something makes it mentionable, and if it's mentionable then it’s manageable. Our final guest understands this better than most.

Rollie Williams is a recently graduated climate grad student, a professional funny man, and the exact person we needed to end Is it too late?

Remember that GM Super Bowl Commercial? The one with all the celebrities and a promise to move toward electric vehicles? Williams breaks down GM’s real history with electric cars

With a combination of hard-hitting facts, honest investigative journalism, and some spicy memes, Williams’ Youtube show Climate Town gets the message across without shoving you into a deep pit of despair. 

For the final Is it too late? article, we talk with Williams about climate apathy, Bo Burnham’s new comedy special, and how to have some fun with one of the worst environmental disasters humans have ever seen.

I was looking for somebody to do the final Is it too late? and I've been a huge fan of yours since I saw the GM electrric vehicle commercial. The whole point of our series is climate apathy, and you seem to do a pretty good job of knocking that away. 

I appreciate you saying that. I think my whole shtick is that I'm a comedian first and then I went back and got a climate science and policy degree. I don't have much to offer the field besides communication. All the other people that I was studying with had a brain the size of a damn planet. 

But yeah, I think I can talk about it in a little bit of a snake oil salesman kind of way. Except in this case, the snake oil is peer reviewed and double-blind tested and actually effective.

I usually end with this question but let’s start with it here. Is it too late to save human society from the worst effects of climate change? 

I believe that question is syllogistically flawed.

We will suffer the worst effects of climate change, because worst is a relative term. Whatever effects of climate change we suffer, it will be the worst effects because we suffered them. 

<strong>If we solve climate change</strong> with only a couple degrees of warming, that will be the worst of climate change. If we survive some epic “Day After Tomorrow” storm, then that will be the worst of climate change. Our lives will change no matter what we do. All we can focus on is lessening as much suffering as possible.

So, technically, the answer is yes. 

However, I think if we look at the worst projections — no, it's not too late. 

We are an effective species as is evidenced by the fact that we made Wi-Fi and toasters and the Berlin Wall.  If we get our act together and we vertically integrate our interests, then yes, I think we can mitigate a ridiculous degree of climate change. 

That’s the reason I started this series. Does it matter if it's too late? We're going to have bad things regardless. Let's lessen that suffering as much as possible, right? 

Yeah, I mean, it's a little like we're treading water, and maybe there’s a boat coming. And then there are some people who are like, “Guys, we are going to drown. Let's just drown right here, right now. Like let's do it on our own terms, man!”

It makes no sense to give up, because your life isn't better when you give up. In the same way, you'll eventually leave your job. Odds are you will not stay at your current job forever. But that doesn't mean quit and take whatever severance money you get and shoot it straight into your veins. 

Time doesn't work like that. You're going to run out of gas before you make it over the cliff, right? 

We're pretty much past the point for most people where they can deny climate change is happening. It seems to me that climate apathy is the only way to live your life in the way you did before you accepted the crisis was happening. 

If you didn't speak English and you were watching people walk around and live their lives, it would be almost impossible to tell the difference between a climate apathetic person and a climate denier.  

The thing about apathy is it's not so much apathy as our attention is just on other things. Like when the pandemic first hit, and there was one of the biggest social movements with the Black Lives Matter movement — I can't see that sort of thing having happened without all of our other distractions being turned down significantly. 

But once the bell is ringing right in your face, it's easier to engage with it. I think just getting people to focus on it in a way that affects their life in some way is the solution.

I think that's what you're doing with Climate Town.  I see this as a way to have a conversation about the crisis without doing the thing that we've been doing for the past 15 years of just bumming people out. 

That’s the conceit of this show. There are a million places to get bummed out about the climate crisis, including wherever you live. And I just wanted to have a way to talk about it to people in a vernacular that is approachable. 

Brow beating doesn't get you anywhere. Scolding doesn't get you anywhere. 

<strong>We've tried shaming people</strong> and shouting down their opinions, and we didn't get very far. Maybe it's time to try something different?

Let’s say you're in a car and someone honks at you. Even though you maybe didn't do the right thing, maybe you cut them off, they honk at you. And you're like "F--- that guy!" Even though you did the wrong thing, it's just that we don't take in information through honks. 

We're not a bunch of geese. We are people and we like memes and jokes and accessibility. And an average-looking dude explaining s--- that he just learned in school — I think there's something accessible about that.

That's why I'm not more handsome by the way; I want to get out in front of this. I find that looking exactly like the average Kelley Blue Book value of an adult man is really helpful. 

Your videos are fun, but there’s a ton of information there. How do you research for video? 

The research process is a little bit case-by-case, but mostly, I spend a couple of weeks in the material. This is peer-reviewed journals, mission statements, corporate press releases, tax returns, articles from various publications that I recognize. None of this is the perfect research methodology, but it's just what works for me. 

Usually it starts with a concept that I learned. The idea that BP actually coined the term carbon footprint. For that video, I was like, “Okay, so let's go back and let's look at where the term ecological footprint comes from.” 

We all need to do our part to lessen our impact on the Earth. However, as you’ll see, your personal carbon footprint isn’t at the core of the issue.

I looked into the process of BP actually hiring the advertising company Ogilvy & Mather, and then went back to all of the old advertising videos and looked through them for different moments that might be good to pull from. I look at all the corporate statements, because these are publicly traded companies, so they have to disclose what they make and where they make money and what they spend on. 

Then, I aggregate that information and I figure out whether or not I have any friends who want to hold a camera for an afternoon. Inevitably, it's my girlfriend if I ask her to do it really nicely and she’ll do it for a couple of hours. 

I script it out with what media I want to come in and I'll have all the media ready. And when I say media, I don't mean like people who work in newspapers. I mean the videos or the clips or whatever.

A lot of it comes together in the edit. Maybe I'll cut a whole section out of a video because I just didn't do a good performance, or I'll need to go re-shoot something, or I'll shoot something in the shower. And a lot of the jokes are also editing jokes because I'm a video editor by trade. It's kind of a living document.

All on your own? 

Yeah, mostly. Now, I have a couple of my friends who are helping me out on some of the scripting and my buddies do a lot of the shooting. My friend Nicole Conlan, who up until a couple of weeks ago was working on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert — I have people who can help me out with feeling out if jokes are landing or if the structure is good. 

I think because I'm the one delivering the information to camera, I need to be confident enough in the material. And the only way I can be confident in it is if I look over it myself. Otherwise, I'm like “I don't really know how realistic or how correct these arguments are.” And what I don't want to do is do some bulls--- like bad faith, strawman nonsense, and just have somebody in the comments pick something apart.

You mentioned Nicole, and I was listening to your podcast she was a guest on (Sweatpants, a low-key climate podcast.) Nicole brought up that you can't do too many depressing climate stories on the Late Show right before people go to bed. Could Climate Town work on TV? 

I hope that the answer is it could work because I'm working on a pitch for a team. I think it works fine in somebody's cell phone. I think it's memey enough that it could feel like it's on Instagram. And I think the idea is to be playful and comedic and informative. And that is maybe not a “I'm going to bed. I'm going to rip through an 18 minute video about the history of the auto industry.”

There’s gotta be like a really specific time when my s--- is palatable and every other time is kind of like I don't need any vitamin Rollie right now. So yeah, I think it's a different thing, but it's also like hopefully I'm making it funny enough that you can watch it and not walk away as depressed as you are informed.

What I’m going for is that emotion you get when you're walking across a crosswalk and you have the walk sign and a car honks at you. And you just stand there and look at the driver. And then without looking at the sign, you point at the crosswalk sign. And then you look at the crosswalk side, and then you keep walking. I want people to feel that feeling. 

Our favorite bowtie deserter made some pretty bold claims about windmills and their role in the 2021 Texas blackout. As you’ll see, these claims are pretty easy to prove false.

This is the only thing I can really feel like I can contribute, just communicating. 

People can reflect on the implications and draw their own conclusions. And I don't have the answers. I just looked up a bunch of s--- for a couple of weeks and I edited it together. I think them getting some facts and getting some implications allows them to chart their own path through the climate crisis. 

I’m hoping we’ll have people who will read this article and get all jazzed up about climate change. What’s next for these kinds of people? What would you suggest they do? 

I think the best thing they can do is to aggressively educate themselves and then help organize for people who are working in the fields — or get into the field themselves. I think politically, it is a tough subject to interact with. And socially, it's the same. It's very difficult.

Imagine going to a party and there being a group, having a heated talk about climate change. That doesn't feel like a fun party. It's just a subject that is difficult to enter into. And I think normalizing it is really important in creating a dialogue around it. And the easiest way to do that is to educate yourself to read up on it.  

Read both optimistic and pessimistic books. I think maybe alternate between them. All We Can Save is a good collection of essays, and then read The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells. 

I want to say The Uninhabitable Earth is pessimistic, but it’s just a very accurate accounting of what's happening. And it just happens to be pessimistic because we're on a trajectory that is leading to a less than ideal kind of future. I had [David Wallace Wells] on my comedy talk show and he did a great job on the show.  

I'm looking at my bookshelf right now to see if I've got anymore.  Merchants of Doubt is amazing. Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows is cool. I got the MaddAdam trilogy by Margaret Atwood. Not so much a climate change book as like a little bit of a dystopian future, but it's really, really well done. 

I'll read anything by Atwood. Her and Ursula K. Le Guin. Check out The Dispossessed by Le Guin. She has a lot of better books, but that one will get you. 

I'm gonna try to get it from my local bookshop. I still have the impulse to just open up Amazon and buy it, but I gotta fight that every day. 

Since Bo Burnham’s Inside, I've been avoiding Amazon as hard as possible. Burnham was discussing climate apathy in an interesting way. Like the line “You say the ocean's rising like I give a s---”. How many people felt that in 2020, right?  

I listen to a couple of the songs regularly. I would have worn out that cassette. It's good. Man. If you're reading this and you haven't seen Inside, go watch it. Stop reading this. Close your computer; open it back up. Open up Netflix. Type in your mom’s new boyfriend's password or whatever you use to get into Netflix and watch Inside. And then if you don't love it, that's fine. It's not for everybody, but it's good.

I mean the line, "You say the oceans rising like give a s---, you say the whole world's ending, honey, it already did."

Maybe his answer to “is it too late?” would be a resounding yes. But I don't know. I'm a little more optimistic than Bo Burnham, I guess. 

Is there anything else?

Get educated, everybody. You don't have to go to grad school to get educated. You can just read a book and save $70,000. And on some level, I wish I had done that, but also I appreciate the academia. 

But by all means, this is a solvable problem and it just takes people who know enough about it to give a s--- and everyone is that person after a few books. 

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