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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Democratizing Climate Science with Spencer Glendon, PhD

Combating climate change, and its impacts, is at the heart of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). More specifically, public education is key to addressing UN SDG 13, climate action. In this episode, Spencer Glendon PhD, talks about his efforts to create a public utility for climate change through his nonprofit climate literacy initiative, Probable Futures.

Spencer Glendon headshot

The private sector can do many things, needs to do many things, but we need public services around climate change. And in particular, what became clear was there is a body of knowledge that was created by scientists over decades that theoretically we knew as human beings. But it became clear that even most climate scientists couldn't access it. And so I said, ‘Could we make it a public utility, that anybody could access it, in a way that was vivid, resonant, useful and also beautiful, that it could convey the wonder of knowing?’”

– Spencer Glendon, PhD

Background reading

  • Connect with Glendon on LinkedIn
  • Explore the Probable Futures website
  • Read more about Glendon’s recent visit to campus


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Read the transcript of this show

Annelise Riles [00:00:03] Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I'm Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffett Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertise, geography, culture and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. Combating climate change and its impacts is at the heart of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. More specifically, public education is key to addressing U.N. SDG number 13, which is climate action. Today's guest, Spencer Glendon, is devoted to this mission. He's the founder of Probable Futures, a nonprofit climate literacy initiative, and he's also a Northwestern graduate. Spencer, welcome to the podcast. 

Spencer Glendon [00:00:57] It's my pleasure. 

Annelise Riles [00:00:58] Spencer, let's dig in a little bit to your own history and how you came to this work. So for 18 years you worked in finance, not in climate change, and you were not a climate scientist. You were a macro analyst and a partner and director of investment research at Wellington Management, which is a large financial firm. So why did you become interested in climate change? 

Spencer Glendon [00:01:21] So I was hired by Wellington in 1999, having just finished my Ph.D. and my background, starting from when I came to Northwestern in 1987, had been in trying to understand how do societies wind up on divergent paths. So I grew up around Detroit and was obsessed with why Detroit was really a very hard place to live. And during my childhood, during the seventies and eighties, there was a lot of obvious misery, violent suffering, but also outmigration. Population of Detroit plummeted, and my mother's family moved out. I was obsessed with sort of how do these bad things happen? But other places, these good things happened, and in both places in a pretty uncoordinated way. It was pretty clear by the time I was even 18, nobody was in charge of this thing. There were systems at work that I didn't understand. When I came to Northwestern, it was to be a systems engineer and I then worked in a bunch of different places. And so when I was hired at Wellington, it was to figure out essentially a large systems problem. So in 1999, the Asian financial crisis had just ended and they didn't really know how to approach that area of the world. And I wound up helping them with this sort of unconventional problem of how to think about China when China wasn't investable, and then how to think about other sort of not traditional finance topics in a financial setting. I worked on China before China was part of financial markets. I wound up working on a bunch of things that were outside of finance but turned out to be relevant within finance. And so my expertise I developed over the course of 18 years in finance was finding things that both finance and the Academy had not identified as tractable topics, making sense of them and then figuring out their implications. And what I discovered was that there were topics that I now call transgressive. They didn't fit neatly into one slice of either the academy or industry. And so what I got interested in, in finance were these topics that really nobody worked on because they weren't assigned. And so these could include things like Big Data, which, okay, there's an analyst for the companies that make the servers and there's an analyst for the software companies involved, and there's a separate analyst for somebody for Microsoft. But it turned out that what were the implications, for example, to insurance, to banking, to investment banking? Well, that wasn't anybody's job. And so I took on these sort of messy topics and tried to make order out of them. And so in 2012, climate change just seemed like a good candidate to me. It never came up at work. It seemed like it might be understandable, but nobody seemed to be applying it in any way. And so I started reading old journal articles from the seventies and eighties and discovered that this science had been incredibly predictive. And I was in a field, finance, where people are trying to build predictive models. And if your model is better than throwing darts in finance, you can make a fortune. And so here was this industry that built models that was not using really what are the best models humans ever made. And so I tried to bring in to finance these climate models to say, hey, we actually do know some things about the future and they're really valuable. And so that's what got me started on it, was that it was sort of a misfit topic. And so it just met the criteria for me to start working on them. 

Annelise Riles [00:04:42] Why did no one in the industry see the value of these models at that time?

Spencer Glendon [00:04:49] There was no price. So anything that has a price, somebody works on it. Lots of people work on it. And so not having a price is the first category of topics that don't get worked on. The second reason is for 12,000 years, the Earth's climate was stable. That's why we have civilization. So humans have been around since 200,000 BCE, roughly. But until 9500 BCE, nobody settled. They stayed mobile. They didn't build permanent structures. And we now understand the reason for that is that the climate instability, those first hundred and 90,000 years meant that you needed to keep moving to be in the nice places. People wanted to live in comfortable places with the species they could hunt or live with. And those kept moving. Being settled didn't make sense if the climate was unstable, but that stability that started in 9500 BCE meant that people over time stopped paying attention. It didn't seem like a source of uncertainty. So the other thing that people in finance care about is uncertainty. But the climate seemed certain, and until 2012 they'd been told to anticipate uncertainty. But it really had been so mild and been so minor that it didn't seem like it was a source of uncertainty. So you had the lack of price, a lack of volatility, really. It just seemed like it was a reliable system you didn't need to pay attention to. And then the third is, I think in some ways the most interesting socially. So finance is a hard industry to work in because you're taking risks of certain kinds, and it routinely gives people ulcers, back pain, all these things because you're taking someone else's money generally and you're being trusted with that to then buy one stock instead of another or one bond instead of another, and there will be a score kept. You will be revealed to have been right or wrong. And living with that stress is a real thing. But there is one thing about it, which is when you go home from finance, your family doesn't care whether you are long one bond or short another, whether you are making a bet on Pepsi or Coke. And so there was a way that finance could compartmentalize everything at work. And climate change is not like that. It's the one thing where if you're wrong about it and you go home, it's still there with you. If it turns out that you're financing the destruction of the planet, it's a moral and it's an emotional and it's a personal link to your own children. So one of the things that started to happen is I started to talk about climate change was people would say, well, I'm not interested, but would you talk to my daughter? I don't want it to influence my portfolio. My portfolio is fine, my stock picking is fine, but my son is really into ecology. It would be great if you could talk to my son. And so there was a I think, this idea that if I accept climate change as a thing, I'm accepting a kind of responsibility that's more than I signed up for. 

Annelise Riles [00:07:42] So tell us a little bit about how you made the decision to leave the world of finance and to found Probable Futures. And what do you understand Probable Futures to be doing about this problem of the unknowable, really. 

Spencer Glendon [00:07:55] I was very fortunate to have the have privileges at my work that were given to me by my generous colleagues to keep working on this. So I stayed for six more years, really focused on climate change. But I came to the limits of what could change within the firm. And one of the main reasons is that finance is an extremely regulated industry. It is hard for financial firms to take much action at all because the money isn't their own money. If someone else's money and they have a pretty narrow contract with that person or that institution about what they will do with it. And moreover, finance is governed by a set of ideas that started in academics around portfolio construction, modern portfolio theory. And listeners will know that as this idea of diversification. And the main idea is you should own a bit of everything. And so what I don't think many people understand about finance is that individual investors and institutions are encouraged to break their investments up into lots of itty bitty pieces and spread them all over the place. And none of those pieces have much agency or volition. And so while Wellington managed $1,000,000,000,000 nominally, in essence, it couldn't do very much with that money. It's not like it could turn around and say, we're going to take this trillion dollars and do something different with it. The other is that finance is largely a following industry. It follows society. It does provide capital for the future, but it's not a very innovative industry. And so I felt the need to leave to do something that was very different and find new people to collaborate with. And so I stayed long enough to validate that this work could be useful in finance. But then I left to collaborate with other institutions that I offer my services for free because I was well-paid in finance to institutions that want to do something about climate change and want to make it public. I spent a lot of time on was with the consultancy McKinsey, who wanted to figure out the global risks from physical climate change. And so together we embarked on a whole research project to do that, which I think is some of the very best work done anywhere in the world about climate change. Is this work that I helped lead. I helped them build a research agenda and then they came to the Woodwell Climate Research Center and visited where I was doing some collaborative work and the Woodwell Climate Research Center then did the underlying science for it. And so I did that, and that made it even more clear there are lots of applications for this work. And the reason I like working with McKinsey was partly I worked with some really great people, but also they are happy to be transgressive. If they can offer help in leadership, they're happy to, you know, bust things, break things, figure out new ways to do things. So I did some of that, and then it became clear to me, we need a public utility. The private sector can do many things, needs to do many things, but we need public services around climate change. And in particular, what became clear was there is a body of knowledge that was created by scientists over decades that theoretically we knew as human beings. But it became clear that even most climate scientists couldn't access it. And so I said, "Could we make it a public utility that anybody could access it in a way that was vivid, resonant, useful and also beautiful, that it could convey the wonder of knowing?" Because along this period of time, there's a way of life in which I became more worried about the world, more angry about the world, but also much more appreciative of the world and much more aware how beautiful the world was and also how beautiful knowledge is. The idea that we can understand our world is grossly underappreciated as for just its esthetic beauty. And so the idea that we could have a public utility that instead of being dry was evocative, encouraging, resonant, became more and more clear to me. And, you know, if we lived in a world with a much better set of governing institutions, the government would provide this in some way and everybody would be able to understand climate change. But it didn't exist. So my wife, Lisa, and I took the capital we had saved from my being, well paid to pour into making this public knowledge, some of which existed on servers in Germany, others in in Iowa, others in Italy, others elsewhere, and working with climate scientists at the World Climate Research Center to build a public utility where you could just look around the world and see what the weather would be like, where you live and actually what it was like in the past, what it is roughly like now and what it would be like at one and a half to two and a half and three degrees C if we warm that much globally and this became clear, it was a doable thing that nobody had done. And I felt like I think we could do it. Alison Smart, who is the executive director who came from a background in theater and museums with a mixture of science, design, technology, we thought we can make a public utility that anybody can use and make actually public the public good that existed. 

Annelise Riles [00:12:49] Your vision is in many ways quite close to, I think, what we're trying to do at Northwestern Buffet. We often talk about how silos kill here, but you're also talking, it seems, about how radical transformative boundary breaking projects kind of get ground down and killed and how do we get those things restarted again. So tell us a little bit about what you've learned through this process of trying to improve communication about climate change, about that gap and about how we can bridge it better. 

Spencer Glendon [00:13:20] So it's been enormously rewarding and just sort of intellectually fascinating to learn about that gap. One of the things I've become very aware of is the power that humans discovered in building these small silos. So we divided the world up into these tiny, tiny, tiny parts which made people be able to focus on something small. And by doing so, they could expand. If you have in your mind, a circle of of knowledge, that circle gets bigger by dividing the circle into very, very small slices. And the people in the slices are just interested in pushing, if we call it a pie, pushing the crust further out. But nobody really works on the middle of the pie very much. Everybody's interested in just pushing the crust out, making the pie bigger by making the slices smaller. And and so one of the things that was probably a key moment for me in this understanding was I started to look for think about what is the expression in language of that idea. And for some reason I stumbled on the term someone else. So someone else is not me. It's not Annelise. It's not even the mayor. I don't know who it is. It's somebody I don't know, and I don't even know what to call them or who they are. That is this idea that it's someone else's job. And so I went to the history. I really liked the Google tool engrams, which allows you to see the frequency with which terms or words are used in the English language going back to 1800. And what I discovered was the term someone else doesn't appear in the English language in until around 1900. It really just what nobody lived in a world where you just had no idea who was responsible for something. And so if you look at up the terms, someone needs to. Someone has to. Someone should. They don't really appear until the 20th century. And this idea that. What I find fascinating about it and in a way heartwarming, is there's an implicit, a level of trust that someone else is going to do something that I'm not going to be responsible for all of it. And so this fits in nicely with some of your work, which is this idea that we engendered forms of trust, that we could trust that someone else was going to take care of all the things. But what it also meant was that the world was so complex that we didn't even know with whom to work. You didn't know how to start. You were so small that this idea that, well, we'll just combine we'll work with the physics department on climate change, and you go to the physics department, you figure out climate change is nobody's job in the physics department, because the physics department is divided up into very small pieces. And so this idea of starting things that are collaborative is very hard because we have almost no generalists. And if you were to ask what is the main feature of the people who help build probable futures, it's that they're really stubborn generalists, which is that they want to know different things, but each thing they know, they want to know a lot about it. So I think it's likely that I'm in the top point 5% of people who don't actually understand climate science but understand climate science. So I've learned as much about it as you can learn without actually knowing how the physics works or how the biology works. And so it's this sort of very. Sort of ferocious desire to be a good lay person, a good lay expert. And lay expertise is not prized at the academy, not prized in society, and is, I've found, very helpful and useful. But it is and I can't really explain why I've been stubborn about that. It's why I didn't stay in academia. But that kind of connective person who wants to be across groups, across slices, across borders is necessary to make things collaborative happen. And we've discouraged that very actively as a society with this sort of implicit trust. And to tie this back to climate change. That trust was only possible because the climate was stable. In an unstable climate, you become a migrant. In an unstable climate, you become a nomad, and there is just no way that nomads have a someone else term in their language. And so this idea of rooted I'm looking out a window on a gray Chicago day or a gray Evanston day at buildings that were built with a very specific range of weather expectations. And so this is the last piece of my answer was I discovered that the physical world was almost no one's job. And so most of your listeners probably work in services or some sort of what I would call symbolic work. They work with computers. They work in various ways that are language based or that are between people. And around them is a physical world that they think of implicitly as just being there and being in the right place, being stable. They may like it or dislike it, but I'm looking at a stone building that was never supposed to have air conditioning because it was never supposed to be over 100 degrees in Evanston. And that building had built into it this assumption of climate stability in the form of norms, standards and regulations and reawakening that awareness of the physical world has been is violent to some people that don't want to do it. But it is also liberating to other people because they discover, Wow, I had been completely out of touch with the physical world. In fact, as a child I was in touch, but I divorced myself. I recused myself from the physical world in my work. And so when you ask what's been effective, getting people to just see their physical world have a relationship like the first image in Probable Futures, which teaches about heat, is just of a road and how that road changes over the course of the day as it gets hot because grades of asphalt are based on the past climate. And you may notice wherever you live that roads are failing faster, more potholes, more cracks. It's because that road is actually not suited to that climate. It is under stress as it wasn't under before. And it turns out that the physical world is a way into people's lives because it was so other that it's not like they can see it, they can see it wherever they go. And so you start to have a conversation about the physical world with them. 

Annelise Riles [00:20:05] It opens up many of our listeners, our students around the world, whether they're undergraduate students or graduate students, students of really any age. And you're talking about the kinds of people who are interested in that center of the pie. And one way of thinking about it would be it's just a kind of innate quality. It's like you either have the body to be a basketball player or you don't. And another view would be, No, no, no, It's a skill set that we need to teach and practice and make mistakes at and get better at. I'm wondering what you think about that and how you think we can foster that kind of sensibility more in in ourselves as we we learn and grow as students or mid-career people. 

Spencer Glendon [00:20:49] One of the things that we encourage people to do and why we call it Probable Futures is to think about what life will be like. And the fascinating thing about climate science is it allows us to imagine the future with really good fidelity in certain ways. What I think is fascinating about this is how poorly Western culture has done this. Climate change is now portrayed in one of two ways. It somehow all works out and we have electric vehicles and modernist architecture and everything is great or it's Mad Max. Those are the two modes and there's really nothing in between. And the problem is neither of those is likely. We're not going back to a stable climate that just everything has worked out and we don't need to worry about it again. And we're not anywhere near this sort of dystopian apocalypse. But the probable future is in between there are not populated by stories of any kind, whether there are novels or otherwise. So take the movie, Don't Look Up, which I admire much of what is good about it. I was actually sort of in a roundabout way, consulted about it. I gave four story pitches and then I included one extra, which was don't make an asteroid movie. And the reason I said that is we don't need metaphors for climate change. We need stories about climate change, stories that have climate change in them. We need movies in which climate change is part of life. And that's been a very hard thing to engender in the humanities or in Hollywood. And so our work is to create a kind of cultural and civic literacy around climate change. We call it Probable Futures, a climate literacy initiative. It started out as a data science initiative. It is now a cultural and civic sort of climate literacy initiative so that people can bring climate awareness into their own lives, whatever their scope is. 

Annelise Riles [00:22:45] We at Northwestern Buffett are trying to think imaginatively about the role of the university in addressing these kinds of challenges. What's your thought about that? How can universities participate in this work? 

Spencer Glendon [00:22:59] I will make one very specific pitch. Every university should be teaching risk. Risk is a discipline that is not taught at the university. Pretty much anywhere. Not learning about risk is the same as the corollary to the someone else problem. And so this idea of preparing, being resilient is not what these kids are getting because they're not getting a sense of risk. And the discipline of risk is barely studied in business, schools or finance and then in a dry way. And so I do think that that would be a way to move forward, perhaps. 

Annelise Riles [00:23:36] As you think about the future, as you do constantly, what is keeping you up at night? What are you most worried about and what are you most hopeful about? 

Spencer Glendon [00:23:46] If you ask me what makes me to have the most sort of despair. It's the nature of news coverage in which the banner in the front page changes every day to something else. And so there's always something to be outraged about. And there isn't a way to rank order them or to integrate them or to not have there be just this feel like it's a bunch of chaotic stuff. And why this matters is that climate change probably won't present itself very often as climate change. What it will present itself is as a breaking of other weaknesses. Climate change is I think best call to what's called a threat multiplier. If there's something fragile in your society, climate change will probably reveal it. So in the United States, one of the ways I characterize this is that over the 20th century, the maintenance department became the department that fixes broken things, not the department that maintains working things. That lack of sort of integrity, which goes back to why I became an industrial engineer, which is about maintaining the system. We've maintained the system so poorly that we just always will be fixing broken things. And if you want an exposition of this, the novelist Omar Lockard wrote a book called American War, which I think is a great illustration of this, where climate change happens and it's just constant crisis of other kinds that make people choose teams, but nobody really deals with the climate. If you ask me, what makes me most hopeful, though, is ask people what would surprise them if it were true 20 years from now. But also ask them, what about the present? Would you not believe? And so what gives me the most hope, and this may sound totally perverse, is that people spend all of their time on phones. Now, why does that give me hope? Because if you had told people 30 years ago that they're going to spend all of their time looking at their telephone, they would have told you you're crazy. I will never do that. People's lives have changed tremendously, and now they view that change as irreversible, as hopelessly set. And so actually, people change their behavior enormously without noticing it. And so this idea that we can't change that this has to be the way we live is ahistorical and pessimistic and I think wrong. We will live differently. We can just do so with intention. And so even the evidence of modern perversity is actually evidence of our flexibility. And that gives me hope. 

Annelise Riles [00:26:20] Well, Spencer Glendon, thank you. 

Spencer Glendon [00:26:22] It's my pleasure. Fun to be with you. I hope this helps some people. 

Annelise Riles [00:26:28] For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at Buffett.Northwestern.Edu