Climate Change, Coronavirus, The Global Cable Confronting Climate Change with Koko Warner

April 24, 2020
By Perry World House | The Global Cable

This week's episode of The Global Cable features Koko Warner, a Visiting Fellow at Perry World House. Warner has been Manager of the Climate Impacts, Vulnerability, and Risks Subprogram at the United Nations Framework on Convention on Climate Change since 2016.

Warner talks to us about coronavirus exposing how ill-prepared the world is for a global crisis like climate change; how we get the public to take the enormous risks of climate change seriously; and what gives her hope for the future.

Listen on Apple Podcasts | Libsyn | Spotify | Stitcher

Music & Produced by Tre Hester.

Franklin Few

On every episode of The Global Cable, we ask our guests the 'Franklin Few' - an updated version of a questionnaire used by Penn founder Benjamin Franklin. Here are Koko Warner's answers.

Someone you'd like to meet: Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States.

A book, movie, or anything else you'd recommend to listeners: Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin, where Goodwin draws upon the four presidents she has studied most closely—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson —to show how they recognized leadership qualities within themselves and were recognized as leaders by others.

Someone who's recently done something that deserves praise or attention: Everyone who is putting others first amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Something Penn and Penn students can do to be of service to the world: Building trust with each other and working together to build a more resilient, sustainable world in the face of climate change.

Listen now.


Koko Warner [00:00:09] You know, with this pandemic, I think as it was emerging in Asia in December, January, it was, for those of us who live in the West—I live in the West and in the northern hemisphere—we saw it coming.

[00:00:25] We thought, oh, wow I wonder what that is. Those poor people, but it's so far away. And you think aw, that's really too bad that that's happening out in the world, but there was this cognitive dissonance that it could possibly come to the place where I live and affect my life and my family and this and that. And as the pandemic has been rolling across the world, it's become so clear we can be taken by surprise. Life is full of surprises. And although we think that things will always be the same, if you look back in history, things are never the same. The course of history always takes us in surprising new directions and really big new directions.

John Gans [00:01:11] Welcome to the Global Cable, a podcast from Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, where we discuss the world's most important issues with people who work on them. I'm John Gans, Director of Communications and Research here at Perry World House. Our guest today is Koko Warner, who is the manager of the Climate Impacts Vulnerability and Risks sub-group at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change since 2016.

[00:01:35] Before that, she founded and then led the Munich Climate Insurance Initiative. In 2014, the International Council of Science named Warner one of the top 20 women making waves in the climate change debate.

[00:01:48] Warner, who grew up in the United States, has a PhD from the University of Vienna. Today, she talks to us about why the coronavirus pandemic highlights how poorly prepared the world is for a crisis like climate change, how we can get the public to take the enormous risks of climate change seriously, and what gives her hope for the future. Koko Warner, welcome to the Global Cable.

John Gans [00:02:10] You've been working on climate change for some years and climate change is usually in the news a great deal. But as you know, the coronavirus pandemic is dominating headlines worldwide. What does this current pandemic, this current global crisis, show us about how prepared the world is for a global crisis like climate change?

Koko Warner [00:02:33] Mm hmm. You know, with this pandemic, I think as it was emerging in Asia in December, January, it was, for those of us who live in the West—I live in the west and in the northern hemisphere—we saw it coming. We thought, oh wow, I wonder what that is. Those poor people, but it's so far away. And you think aw, that's really too bad that that's happening out in the world, that there was this cognitive dissonance that it could possibly come to the place where I live and affect my life and my family and this and that. And as the pandemic has been rolling across the world, it's become so clear we can be taken by surprise. Life is full of surprises. And although we think that things will always be the same, if you look back in history, things are never the same. The course of history always takes us in surprising new directions and really big new directions.

[00:03:35] And it's essential to be thinking about those possible futures and to be adaptive. That is what we are as a species, we're adaptive. It's uncomfortable. And maybe the last thing—these are just impressions from the pandemic—it takes coordinated action to save lives. And that's what we're seeing. We're seeing heroic action all over the world from, you know, people at the frontlines, health workers and first responders, mayors, institutions are reacting in a coordinated way to try and save lives and spare people from this difficult suffering that the pandemic has brought to our globe.

John Gans [00:04:24] So if I can continue on that and build on that a little bit, we've seen before the coronavirus there was a fair amount of public momentum coalescing around climate change issues, with the emergence of activists like Greta Thunberg and this movement that we saw last fall about walkouts around the United States and elsewhere around the world for climate action. Do you think that this coronavirus pandemic has set back that momentum? I know it's the focus of the world right now, but do you think that more people are going to come out of their homes in the days, weeks, and months ahead and still demand climate action?

Koko Warner [00:05:12] You know, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every country's normal way of doing things. Few people worldwide are not affected now and moving forward. So for progress on climate change, youth coming together, grandparents and other citizens on the street. Just months ago seems like years ago. Those public gatherings and demonstrations created this sense of galvanized public opinion. That ambitious climate action is needed. And of course, the pandemic makes it unsafe to have those large gatherings at the moment. And the pandemic has also strengthened our use of tools that bring us together in other ways. Worldwide networks are gathering and exchanging ideas virtually across oceans and time zones every single day. Now I'm working virtually like so many of us. Every day I'm involved in network calls. Indigenous people, youth groups, finance, every sector you can imagine, the networks are coming together and of course, poring over the pandemic. What can we do to help? And there's maybe the most interesting thing that I'm noticing is three phases. Everybody is asking a question about time. What do we need to do now in the emergency? How do we provide relief tomorrow or next week or, you know, whatever comes next? And then without exception, every network that I've been listening into and participating in has been asking the question, what future do we want once the pandemic concludes, what do we need to build together? And that's crucial because it's not just the emergency. It's coming together virtually not on the streets at the moment and really asking together, what future do we want and how do we build it together?

John Gans [00:07:19] You know, I think in that piece and you were talking a little bit about this: it seems to me that the pandemic, the coronavirus pandemic, could actually remind people that sometimes we don't take action until it's too late. Even with the scientific insight on climate change, how do we encourage people to take this threat more seriously before we get to the stage where everybody has to panic and drastic measures have to be taken for lives and livelihoods?

Koko Warner [00:07:54] Yeah. And with the pandemic, as I said a few minutes ago, when it was first emerging in Asia, it seemed so far away and I couldn't possibly imagine how it would affect my life. And now, two months later, it's the dominant theme—we breathe it, we dream about COVID-19. It's just absolutely omnipresent. And climate change is like that and not like that. Climate change affects every earth system. It doesn't go away and it for sure affects every area of the world. But the time frames are different. So it seems like it's something way off in the future. And so what do I think helps us think about taking the right actions? And I think we have a lot to learn about what we're going through right now. You have across the world, it's imperfect, but you do have this coordination and exchange of experiences. You have people thinking about the future and thinking about different scenarios. If anything, we're taking a crash course on data and asking a bunch of questions about the future. I don't know how many times I hit refresh on CDC and Johns Hopkins data page and of my local pandemic news sources every single day.

I'm just looking at the data asking when is this going to peak and what happens next? And that's the kind of thinking that we need. We need the courage to do things differently for sure. The pandemic is requiring us to change our normal ways of doing things. We're trying to keep the good. We're trying to keep our social relationships alive. I'm calling my family more often. I mean, that's a wonderful thing, even though it's partly motivated by worry. So it's this combination. We need to really have effective ways of envisioning the future, thinking about the future that we want, foresight thinking, futurist type of thinking skills, and having the courage to navigate through a difficult situation and change. Those are all things that in some ways are really the essence of human adaptability. Some of the things that actually make us human, it's incredibly difficult. And what we're learning right now in the pandemic is our communities are engaging in those kinds of things and we will emerge on the other side of the pandemic and those learned experiences I really, really hope will better equip us to take the actions now and tomorrow and next year that will help curb the curve on climate change.

John Gans [00:10:45] That's great. It's a great segway to my next question, which is, how has the trending been both on climate change?  What are the sort of things we've been seeing over the past few years, right? If we're looking at the curve on climate change, what have you been watching and worrying about as you look at the curve on climate change, but also, what's the curve been like on climate action? I mean, I think one of the things we've learned in this pandemic is there's ways to flatten the curve and efforts that are flattening the curve. And I'm sure that's the case on climate change as well. Is there a way to—how do you feel about progress made on climate change over the last five years? Is there anything to give us hope that we can continue to see it, continue to build on that progress as we come out of this current crisis?

Koko Warner [00:11:40] That's right. You know, I work in the United Nations, so almost by definition, I have to be optimistic. In the United Nations, we strive for a better world for all people. And some people make fun of us because that's so aspirational and so optimistic. But I think now is the time when we must. It's an urgent optimism. So, yes, there has been progress on climate change in the past five years.

[00:12:11] If you look back to 2015, five years ago when the Paris agreement was formulated by almost all countries of the world, that was a big step for countries to be willing to set a common goal to keep the world well below two degrees above pre-industrial averages. That's kind of a wonky way to say world leaders agreed. They want to keep this planet beautiful and livable for all of humanity, for the future. And then since then, public awareness,—you mentioned that—has been one of the greatest areas of progress on climate change. There are very, very few people across the world who haven't heard about climate change and haven't engaged on that topic. Some people don't think climate change is real. There are lots of skeptics. But I have to say, even then, engaging with the idea of climate change and what your role is in being a positive force to fight climate change and fight for a better future. I think that public awareness has been a massive win. And people going out before the pandemic and really telling leaders, we want a better future. We want public infrastructure, we want public transportation, we want different forms of energy. There are also some areas. I'm from the United States and many of your listeners maybe, I also live internationally, so I get that side as well. But across the board, whether you're left or right or up or down, everybody agrees. We all need clean water. We all need pollinators. Bees. We all need healthy soil. And there are very significant areas of high public agreements about the future that we want as humanity. People want livelihoods.

And the good news about ambitious climate action is that it tends to align with a bunch of things that people in cities and people in the countryside want anyway. They want a good life. They want to have a good livelihood. They want healthy communities, enough food to eat. You know who can argue with that? An ambitious climate action aligns with that. So I think the greatest progress that we've made in the past five years is awareness and people going out and telling their leaders what they want. They want that good future that that requires climate action. Where we are not yet there is that our actions haven't yet followed our aspirations and that is what we need to see now in this early part of this decade.

John Gans [00:15:08] I think one potential challenge ahead to global action is, I think, in some ways we've seen the global community struggle a little bit with this pandemic. We've seen a lot of, even Europe, we have seen a reversion to national policies, if not nationalist ones. And so what can the international community and multinational institutions like the U.N. and others do to pull countries in the global community together again? Whether it's on coronavirus or whether it's on climate change or just in general?

Koko Warner [00:15:45] Yeah, yeah. Not every world leader has the same opinion about the United Nations, so let's take the World Health Organization, which is very much in the news these days. The World Health Organization was working very closely with the countries that were first affected by COVID-19. It declared a pandemic early and has been working tirelessly over the past months and weeks and to help countries consolidate their efforts to find a vaccine. That is an enormous endeavor. And you could say that we are stronger together. Many countries coming together in a scientific race to find the vaccine, to test it, to implement it. We're better together. And that takes coordination, sharing of experiences in this modern age. It requires sharing of data, transparency. And all those things are happening to some degree in our multinational environment. Yesterday, just by chance, the International Monetary Fund was having its spring meetings.

And as they wrap up, they've been having a series of press briefings. And I was listening in yesterday, and they were comparing the economic impacts of COVID-19 with the economic impacts of the Great Depression. And one thing that came out from that short segment was the causes of the Great Depression were largely a lack of international collaboration and cooperation. There was no policy coordination, little effective discussion between countries about what they needed to do to stem the economic crisis. And the impacts were horrendous. And ultimately, you know, the early part of the 20th century just was a terrible time of suffering and war. The pandemic requires us to have that international cooperation. It requires us to exchange data, learning, to help each other, to send medical supplies. And it also requires us to think about how will we recover together, because it is a global pandemic. It's affecting all of us at once. So if anything, the pandemic strengthens the case for countries working together rather than working against each other or going at it alone.

John Gans [00:18:30] You've given us some hope which I do appreciate, both on the pandemic and the global crisis of climate change, so that's a good segue to our set questionnaire that we ask all our guests, which we call the "Franklin Few." Almost 300 years ago, one of Penn's first trustees, Ben Franklin, who knew a thing or two about the weather, among other physical and social and governmental phenomena, developed a questionnaire he used for conversations among fellow citizens interested in current global affairs. We've updated it for use today and to anchor our podcasts. These are short questions that can have short answers. And so the first question I have is who would you most like to meet today and why?

Koko Warner [00:19:16] So my American roots are going to come out very strong here. But I would like to meet Abraham Lincoln because he had a clear vision of the future, which was to keep the union together. And he was able to work with enemies. He was able to forge friendships and trust. And that's what we need today as well.

John Gans [00:19:46] We've had a few folks who suggested Abraham Lincoln. Absolutely. He's a good one. Nobody yet has, I don't think, said Ben Franklin. I'm thinking about that now. Okay. So everybody's sort of on lockdown. So we've been using this as a means to provide suggested readings, books,  things on those lines. So have you read anything, articles, books, seen anything, documentaries, movies, or listen to anything, podcasts, music, or anything related to world affairs or not that our viewers might be interested in?

Koko Warner [00:20:26] Oh, yes. So there's a historian that I like a lot. Her name is Doris Kearns Goodwin. And I finished a book she wrote called Leadership just a week or so ago. And the reason why this book comes to mind is it looks at the lives of four American presidents. Again, those American roots, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon B Johnson. And it examines a few phases of their lives. And one of the sections of the book that stood out most prominently to me was not the successes of these leaders, but rather their setbacks and their deepest points in life. And the point that the historian made that sticks with me is, it is the deep points in our lives that help us connect with humanity. And it was certainly the thing that helped each one of these leaders ultimately make their greatest contributions to society. And that was because they were able to connect with people and understand other people. Franklin Delano Roosevelt struggled with polio and ultimately died from it while in office. And it was that struggle that gave him the ability to understand the millions of people worldwide and in America who were struggling through the Great Depression, to comfort them and to cheer them, and ultimately give them courage to move through those tragic experiences in their lives.

John Gans [00:22:03] Yeah. His example is one definitely I'm sure more than a few people are gonna be gaining strength from in the months and months ahead. All right. So in addition to what people should be reading, the next question is, do you know of any individuals in the United States or elsewhere who've recently done something that deserves praise or attention? Anybody who's caught your eye?

Koko Warner [00:22:30] Oh, most definitely. And I think I think you'll see a theme here. My mom, my sister are the ones that come to mind. Everyone who is struggling through the pandemic and who is putting the person across from them first. My sister called me the other day and just in the course of our conversation, she lives in in a rural area in Colorado. So she wrote a little note to the clerk in the grocery store and then she checked out. She just handed the note to the clerk. And she just wanted the clerk to know that she admired the courage. And you know, that this clerk was out there working in the midst of a pandemic. Many of us have the safety and protection of being able to work at home. And here's all these people on the frontline. The clerk was so touched. She actually came out into the parking lot. They had this six foot distance conversation.

[00:23:27] And the woman said, "I'm really scared. And thank you so much for acknowledging." And my mom's sewing these homemade masks for the local hospital in her neighborhood. And all of this stuff, you know, people just thinking of each other, giving each other courage and encouragement. I admire that. And we need more of that.

John Gans [00:23:51] That's excellent. I agree. And then the last question is, is there anything that Penn and Penn students can do to be of service to the country and the world at this moment?

Koko Warner [00:24:03] Now, most definitely, Penn has such a talented and wonderful student body and faculty and community. My sense is what the world needs right now in the pandemic, certainly when it comes to building a sustainable, resilient future, fighting for all of that in the face of climate change, we need to build trust and we need to find ways to work together. And it's not a big sweeping thing. It is the micro things that we do on a day-to-day basis in our homes, with our friends, in our networks. We must build trust. We must collaborate. Because, again, I'm just hitting that theme again. Humans are adaptable and we do better when we work for each other. And that's what we need now.

John Gans [00:24:57] That's excellent. Well, I agree. And thank you so much, Koko, for joining us here and for being a virtual fellow at the Perry World House this spring.

Koko Warner [00:25:09] It's such a pleasure. Thank you so much for the chance to connect today.