Skip to main content

Dr. Jonathan Foley is a world-renowned environmental scientist, sustainability expert, author and public speaker, and the executive director of Drawdown. Drawdown’s mission is to help the world reach the point in the future when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to decline as quickly, safely and equitably as possible.

Dr. Foley’s work focused on understanding the changing planet and finding solutions to sustain climate, ecosystems, and natural resources. He has been a trusted advisor to governments, foundations, NGOs, and business leaders globally. He has published over 130 peer-reviewed scientific articles and, in 2014, was named a Highly Cited Researcher in ecology and environmental science. 

He has also presented at the Aspen Institute, the World Bank, the National Geographic Society and more. He’s taught at major universities on climate change, global sustainability solutions, the food system and other major world challenges. 

Dr. Foley has won numerous awards and honors for his work, including the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, awarded by President Clinton; the J.S. McDonnell Foundation’s 21st Century Science Award; an Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellowship; the Sustainability Science Award from the Ecological Society of America; and the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Award. In 2014, he was also named as the winner of the prestigious Heinz Award for the Environment.

Prior to joining Drawdown, Dr. Foley launched the Climate, People, and Environment Program (CPEP) at the University of Wisconsin, founded the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), and served as the first Gaylord Nelson Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies. He was the founding director of the Institute on the Environment(IonE) at the University of Minnesota, where he was also McKnight Presidential Chair of Global Environment and Sustainability. And he also served as the executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, the greenest and more forward-thinking science museum on the planet.

In this podcast, Sonya and Dr. Foley talk about climate solutions, food and agriculture, deforestation and how you can make a difference.

“The most important thing we can do about climate change is talk about it because it is kind of scary. It does leave people feeling kind of paralyzed and hopeless sometimes if all they hear about is the problem. But when you start talking about solutions suddenly I think we see opportunities and possibilities and the benefits these solutions could give us like new and better jobs, cleaner and healthier air, more security, more economic stability, a lot of health benefits as well. So I think when we start to think about solutions we get a little less stuck and start to see, hey, I can do something and the things we’re doing are actually good for us in ways that go far beyond just climate change alone; they help almost everything in society if we do them right.”

– Dr. Jonathan Foley

Listen Now


Key Takeaways

  • Where do greenhouse gases come from
  • The five sectors of climate solutions
  • How to feel empowered with climate solutions
  • The food and agriculture sector 
  • Deforestation
  • Methane from cows/ruminants
  • Fertilizers
  • Things you can do at home




Sonya Looney: Dr. Foley, welcome to the podcast. Great, thanks for having me here today. Really excited to hear your expertise about climate change, and also to hear about Drawdown. A lot of people haven’t heard of that organization. So can you start telling us what that is first?

Dr. Jonathan Foley: Yeah, sure. So I work at a place called Project Drawdown or, if you’d like to come visit. And we’re really the world’s leading kind of resource around defining excellent climate solutions. We all hear about solutions to climate change. And there are people out there kind of pitching this one and that one and the other. What we do is we use science to kind of look at what are the best climate solutions and the best way to implement them. And we do that from a kind of non commercial and nonpartisan perspective. So we’re kind of like a Consumer Reports for the planet when it comes to climate change, trying to figure out what works and how do we make it better.

Sonya: I think a lot of people think about climate change and they think about maybe electric cars or composting or using less water. And those things are certainly helpful, but what are some other areas that people maybe haven’t considered yet?

Dr. Foley: Well, yeah, in first of all we have to do is kind of step back and ask ourselves where the pollution that causes climate change comes from, because that’s the key. If we stop the pollution, we eventually stopped the climate change. And that kind of greenhouse gas pollution that we’ve all heard about, some of that comes from burning fossil fuels, which we use to make electricity, we use it in transportation, we us it to heat buildings, we use it in industry and a few other places. But greenhouse gases also come from our food and agriculture as well, it turns out. It comes from like burning down trees and deforestation or the methane that animals can release into the atmosphere. Or sometimes from fertilizers mixing with water and air in the soil releases something called nitrous oxide, which is another greenhouse gas. So primarily, it’s related to energy. But we also have to look at food and we have to look at some materials. And when we do that, it turns out there are basically five big areas we have to focus on. First and foremost is electricity, then food and agriculture, then industry, kind of making stuff like steeland cement and glass and plastic and all that. Transportation, moving things around, and cars and trucks and airplanes, and then buildings, homes and offices and schools and all that. So those five things, electricity, food, industry, transportation, and buildings, cause 90% of our climate change pollution just on one hand. And what we need to do is kind of find ways to be more efficient in each of those sectors, like use less electricity, maybe waste less food, be more efficient with our cars and trucks. And then what we call decarbonize the rest, which is like, let’s go ahead and make the same thing, but without releasing greenhouse gases. So electricity is use less electricity, but also then make it with solar panels, and wind and hydro or nuclear, things that don’t burn fossil fuels. So that’s kind of how we have to look at it is across multiple areas, and looking at efficiency, and then what we call kind of decarbonizing, what’s left.

Sonya: For those who aren’t familiar with how greenhouse gases contribute to problems with our planet, can you shed some light on that for people?

Dr. Foley: Yeah, well, how these gases work in their whole bunch of other ones, too. And these gases naturally occur in Earth’s atmosphere, we humans didn’t create them, they’ve been there for millennia, then well beyond that. But we’re increasing the amount of them in the atmosphere. And what they do is these gases are basically transparent to the sun’s radiation coming from outer space into the earth, which warms our planet. But in the infrared wavelengths, the earth kind of radiates back into outer space, those gases absorb some of that radiation and trap it near the Earth’s surface. They could absorb it and be radiated down to the surface, technically speaking, but it’s kind of like trapping heat. It’s like a blanket on you in the wintertime at night. And it doesn’t create heat, but it traps the heat closer to your body making you warmer. So essentially, what these gases do as we’re increasing them, or essentially kind of adding a little bit more of a blanket in Earth’s atmosphere, keeping Earth’s atmosphere than it otherwise would be. And that’s fine with a limited range. But now we’re already well beyond anything we’ve seen in kind of recent geologic history, and certainly during the time of any humans being around on this planet. And so we’re now kicking the planet into kind of a very different place than any of us have ever experienced before. And that’s a big problem because it will affect where we grow our food, where we live, what our waters resources look like, where our sea levels will ultimately be, where cities can thrive and where they can’t. So this could be a very, very disruptive and dangerous force, wreaking havoc all over the planet, if we don’t stop it pretty soon.

Sonya: Yeah, I can feel just tension just hearing about that in myself. And then I was at the dentist the other day, and when you’re laying there they have a TV screen, and they’re playing planet Earth. And it was just talking about the importance of know a lot of these things, but then it doesn’t say specifically what people could do. And at the end of if you’re watching one of those documentaries, it’s like go to this link. So for the person that’s listening to this, and they already are feeling overwhelmed without us even getting into any of the details, how helpless are we as individuals or how empowered can we be as individuals to make changes?

Dr. Foley: Well, there are a lot of ways we as individuals, and as a larger society, can kind of get unstuck. Where we are today is we know what the problem is. We know what climate change is. So we’ve known about this for actually well over 100 years, that we’re causing some changes to our climate, and this could be very dangerous for us. So that’s one thing we know. The other thing we know is we actually do have solutions if we want to use them that could solve the problem, like solar and wind and electricity, for example, maybe with some nuclear and bigger batteries, electric vehicles, more sustainable ways of growing our food and so on and so on. And that’s what we do at Project Drawdown, we have about 100 solutions to climate change we’ve looked at really carefully and add it together, they will get the job done. But the problem is we have the solutions, they’re just not growing to the scale quickly enough to address the problem because we have a lot of barriers in the way. We have barriers in policy, kind of the laws and regulations and what governments are doing. Because governments, well, frankly, they’re not leading on climate change, they’re primarily kind of stuck or they’re too beholden to the old special interests that want to keep us the way we are, like oil companies and the rest. So that’s a big barrier there. So we as voters, and as citizens and participants in democracy, we can help change that a little bit at a time hopefully, through voting through getting more engaged through activism and whatever. So that’s one way we can participate. Another though, is through our own personal behavior, like in what we buy, what we use, and how we change things around our daily lives. That may seem very small, but kind of like voting, it does add up eventually, and causes larger changes. And also what we do, what we buy, whether we buy a really fuel efficient car, or the next car maybe being an electric car, whether we insulate our houses or not, whether we eat less meat or not, or we try to cut back on food waste or not, those kinds of things not only affect the kind of our own personal environmental footprint, and it does kind of significantly, it also sends pretty powerful economic signals, and political signals and kind of social signals to everybody around us. And it begins to change society, too. So yeah, as one individual out of 8 billion, we can only do so much. But through voting and political work, we can change some of the bigger systems. We can also change some of them more immediately around us through our own personal behavior. We also can look at like where our, if you have a retirement account at work or something like that, where our money’s invested, whether that is investing in good green technologies or still invested in kind of old, dirty technologies. That’s another way we can affect things. Also through the kinds of technologies that are available and what we use, and what do we kind of try to support out there. But probably the most important thing, my friend and colleague, Catherine Hale, likes to say, the most important thing we can do about climate change is talk about it. Because it is kind of scary. And it does leave people feeling kind of paralyzed and hopeless, sometimes, if all they hear about is the problem. But when you start talking about solutions, suddenly I think we see opportunities and possibilities and the benefits these solutions could give us like new and better jobs, cleaner and healthier air, more security, more economic stability, a lot of health benefits as well. So I think when we start to think about the solutions, we maybe get a little less stuck, and start to see like, hey, I can do something. And the things that we’re doing are actually good for us in ways that go far beyond just climate change alone. They help almost everything in society if we do them right.

Sonya: I love that. I love the optimistic point of view. And I’ve heard you talk about this on several other podcasts. And one of the things that comes up frequently when I’m talking to new acquaintances, just in general, is that they feel helpless. They feel like they can’t do anything. So one of the reasons that I wanted to have this podcast was to tell people that there’s a lot you can do. And it’s not all gloom and doom and I love that Drawdown has so many different forms of information, like you have the book that was published several years ago, you have video courses, and there’s just a lot of ways that people can learn about it.

Dr. Foley: Yeah, I think that’s right. We have to remember it’s so weird right now that it’s not just in climate change, it feels like it’s true for almost everything, I really worry that at a bigger scale, bigger than climate change, or any particular issue, we have in our politics, and our kind of media discourse, in social media, and our activism, we tend to have a bias towards polarizing ourselves into very, very fierce and opposing positions. And also kind of a negativity bias that basically we’re all saying, the world is going to hell, and they’re to blame for it. And everybody’s saying that whether you’re the far left to the far right, or whatever, on every issue, and it’s really hard to solve problems that way, when you’re convinced the world is going to hell, and rather than doing something about it, you’re looking for a scapegoat. We’re looking for those who are the villains, they’re the bad guys, so we can go blame. I just reject that and say, Wait a minute, actually, the world is pretty damn great. We live better and healthier and more interesting lives than anybody in human history has ever lived. Is it perfect? No, not at all. We have a lot of work to do, but I’d rather roll up our sleeves and get to work at making it even better. We have a lot of good things happening in the world today, a lot of tools we’ve never had before. And we have a lot of really smart people who care deeply about the future. Why don’t we get to work? Why don’t we roll up our sleeves and use the tools use the energy and the creativity we could unleash to make a better world, a world we can be proud of? And it’s not too late to do that. Not at all, we always have a choice of making tomorrow better. We can do that every single day. But every day that we let go of it, where we don’t do anything, we kind of close the window of opportunities that we still have open to us. And that’s why it’s important to get started now. And I’m not saying be blindly optimistic that everything will be okay. But there’s a difference between optimism, which is a noun and its passive and hope, which is a verb and is active. And hope means you try, at least, you go out there and give it your all and you roll up your sleeves and get to work and hope that tomorrow will be better. But it’s an act of stances one that takes risk takes chances and puts a lot of work and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. And that’s what I think we need more of today. And maybe sounds naive, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s actually recapturing the narrative away from people who are intentionally trying to divide us for money. Just look at our politicians, look at our media companies, look at our activists, people who are intentionally trying to make us pissed off, polarized and grief stricken, and hopeless, so they can cash in on it. And I’m tired of it. The world is what we make it right. So let’s go make a better one.

Sonya: I want to pull on the food and agriculture lever of the five different sectors, because it seems like that one is the one that’s not talked about as often. There are certainly things that are missing from these other sectors as well, but personally, I find that the food and agriculture one is one that a lot of us have a lot of direct control over. And it makes a big impact. And I think that a lot of people don’t know what that impact is, or even what’s what’s going on there. So can you shed some light on that for us as well?

Dr. Foley: Sure, sure. Yeah, you’re right, we get to engage with food about three times today on average, right. So that’s a really, really important place to focus and internationally now depends where you live is different in the US then it’d be in like China or in Brazil, or someplace, but globally, about one quarter of climate change producing greenhouse gases comes from food and agriculture. And most of that quarter of climate change, like a whole quarter of the whole pie, comes from just food. A lot of that comes from first, deforestation. There are places in the world where we’re tearing down rainforests to grow more beef, more animal feed, and more palm oil in particular, those three commodities really drive most of it. We also have a lot of greenhouse gases coming from animals themselves. We call ruminants, especially cows, cattle, things like this, sheep, goats, things like this, that digest food in their four chambered stomach and then burn a lot of methane into the atmosphere. That’s a big deal. So animal agriculture turns out to be a big part of this as well. And then third is overusing fertilizers, which I mentioned earlier, when fertilizers mixed with water and air in the soil, the nitrogen in the fertilizer can form nitrous oxide, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. And there are thousands of other ways food contributes to climate change by referring to… we have to refrigerate it, we’ve got to move it and ship it around, we’ve got to cook it and store it and do all sorts of things. But the big things are still deforestation, too much meat and too much fertilizer. So if we focus on that, we actually see a lot of opportunities to address climate change. And at the individual level, for us, the biggest ones of all are reducing food waste, and changing our diets. Now, food waste is kind of amazing, because like 30 to 40% of all the food in the world, not just the United States, in the world is never eaten. Can you imagine that 30 to 40% of all the food in the world rots, and at the same time, we have people who are not getting enough food, we have some people getting too much. And we have obesity and diabetes epidemics in many rich countries today. And then we have a lot of malnutrition on both ends of the spectrum. And on top of that 30 to 40% of the food we grew never even got eaten, this is a broken food system, we’ve got to do better than that. And that means 30 to 40% of all the land it took to grow the food wasn’t even necessary. 30 to 40% of the water, chemicals, labor and yes, greenhouse gases, went to waste too. So we can do better by reducing food waste dramatically. That’s the number one thing we can do in the food system. So that means eating smaller portions in restaurants and wasting less of it. taking home the leftovers, eating the leftovers, putting food by making sure things for leftover from big events are sent to people who can eat the food and we can tighten that up dramatically. But the next big area is one where people get really passionate, and they like to fight a lot about it, is changing diets. I’m not an absolutist on this, but it’s very clear from the math that eating less animal products, especially beef and lamb and dairy products, can dramatically reduce your impact on the environment. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to stop eating red meat altogether. I wouldn’t tell people any absolute, but let’s see if we can cut it down because guess what the environmental scientists are telling you that. And your doctors are telling you that at the same time. It turns out Americans eat a lot more red meat than we probably should. So can we dial it down? And now some folks will want to just eliminate it all together. Great, go for it. Other folks don’t want to do that. And there are people in some countries that depend on animal agriculture to get them through a hungry season where maybe the crops have failed, and they need dairy products and meat to get through a tough season. Absolutely. But if we could globally, especially in rich countries, cut back on red meat a bit, or a lot depending, that can make a big difference too. And that’s again, where our personal choices can help too. And we can do things like maybe eating more chicken instead of beef, for example. If you like the plant based meat alternatives, like a beyond burger, or one of those kinds of things, that’s great. Or you could just skip right to eating the vegetables in the first place like chickpeas and beans and things high in protein and skip the intermediate step. Fine. That’s all good. But that’s a lot of great options. By the way, a lot of very delicious options. And nobody’s tried to take your freedom away from you or anything like that. But just a little more guidance on maybe let’s tone down the red meat because your doctor says so and turns out those are really pretty tough for the environment.

Sonya: Can you go into a little bit more detail on the numbers and how red meat is tough on the environment?

Dr. Foley: Yeah, well, it depends, of course, how it’s grown. This is kind of a big split in how beef, for example, is produced. In the United States, most beef is finished. All beef spends time on a ranch where you have animals that they’re grazing, eating grass, turning grass into more milk or more beef. All animals in America basically do that for a while. But most beef in America is what we call finished in a feedlot, where the animal is confined into a little stall in fed corn and soybeans and a lot of additives. So they bulk them up as quickly and as economically as possible. It’s almost like forced feeding the animals to finish as quickly in a shorter lifespan. So we’re kind of getting the animals to be big and huge in fewer months, we can slaughter them faster. It’s kind of brutal when you think about it, but that’s what we’re doing. And about 98% of American beef is finished in a feedlot. Well, it turns out, it takes about 30 calories of soybeans or corn to make one more calorie of boneless beef. It could be 20 to one but it’s a big number. So it’s very, very inefficient. So every calorie of beef we eat, it took about 20 calories of corn or soybeans at a minimum to make it in the finishing process, not to mention the grass in the mother’s milk that animal ate earlier in its life. So it’s just really, really inefficient. Chicken is not nearly as bad or pork or fish or other things. Beef is particularly inefficient at the feedlot. The other thing we have to think about is the greenhouse gases it took to grow the feed but also the fact that beef and cattle burp methane out of their body. By the way, a lot of people think cattle like fart methane, they don’t any more than other animals, they burn most of their methane. It comes out the front end, not the back end. And that’s because they’re eating stuff we can’t eat like these different chambers in their stomach filled with rumen, which is kind of helps break down that stuff into digestible products. That’s what those animals are called ruminants. Anyway, so between the fact that you eat a lot more stuff to put on another calorie of beef, and that they burp methane, a powerful greenhouse gas in the process, means a feedlot beef is a really tough thing for the environment. Now on grass finish to before they finish about 2% of American beef, maybe a little less is grazed and is lives out its entire life in a pasture and out and eating the grass kind of grass fed beef, what they really shouldn’t mean is grass finished beef that doesn’t go to a feedlot, that might be a little bit better to the environment. Because the idea is, even though it’ll take longer for the animal to grow, it’ll burp more methane during its lifespan for the same amount of meat. It could build up the soils in the pastures and kind of recover some of the carbon and stick it below ground what you call what’s out there called regenerative grazing. But a lot of scientists are getting skeptical about how big a carbon benefit that really is. The more we look at the data, the more question marks kind of keep popping up about it seems to take more land and she the more data come in, the more we see that there’s not as much benefit of sequestering carbon in the soils. So there’s a little bit more to sort out there. But probably it’s good for the environment in some ways, but whether it’s a big climate is still debatable. Overall, though it’s best either feedlot or grass fed just to eat less beef overall. And then let’s eat less beef. Let’s make sure we don’t waste any of it because it’s so precious in the food system. And then third, if we do eat, what beef we still eat, let’s try to grow that in the most sustainable way we can, which is probably grass finished, but with some other tricks, we have yet to figure out about how to make it truly a bit more sustainable than it’s been in the past. And that can be really good.

Sonya: I hate telling people to do anything, number one, because that’s a hard way to help people make change. It’s usually about asking them questions and helping them come up with solutions on their own. But in terms of reducing eating red meat, as a large population, what type of reductions are we talking? Are we talking people only eat it once a week? Are we talking they eat it once a day? Like what would be enough to make a difference?

Dr. Foley: Well, again, there’s more than one lever to pull here. We got food waste. And I’ve never met anybody in favor of food waste, sso that one I think we can all agree on like. Wouldn’t it be better not to waste very expensive, especially these days and foods getting more expensive, especially meat. Like, hey, let’s make sure we don’t waste what we do buy. Let’s make sure the farmer doesn’t…and getting from the ranch to the supermarket, let’s reduce food waste along the way in the supply chain. Also, that has the benefit of making food safer. If we can reduce food waste and spoilage it’s also less likely to be like a food born illness. So that’s all win win right there. This good economic census wasting less, it’s safer. And I think most people like that idea. And then on the diet side, again, I wouldn’t want to argue with a vegan or somebody from the Beef Council on what’s the perfect diet? I don’t know. All I know is that if all Americans eat a lot of red meat, our doctors and nutritionists are saying, that’s not good for us in terms of our cardiovascular health and other kinds of things. So we could cut that back. And I know every bit we cut will help the environment. And of course, vegetarians and vegans and animal rights advocates would maybe take it all the way to zero. And that works for them. But I think we just need to kind of find our space in the middle and say, hey, look, are there some win-win things. Like you said, it doesn’t really work to have a finger wagging environmentalists telling you should do this. When has that ever worked? So I think when people see like, hey, this is good for my pocketbook, I don’t need to eat as much beef. Like I still, personally I still eat beef, but very, very rarely. I like a little cut of beef once in a while, but I’m going to have it rarely, I’m gonna have it maybe like a little flame in neon or like a maybe a kebab every so often. And I’m going to make sure it’s really good and really tasty. But it doesn’t have to be taking over the whole of my plate every day, that’s crazy. I can make it the garnish and have other things be the center of the plate, maybe more vegetables, maybe more beans or other things that are pretty healthy. And I’ll try to eat more chicken or more fish or something when I do eat other meat. So I think we can find a space in the middle where it’s comfortable for everybody. But I think this kind of you have to do it my way or the highway kind of talk just doesn’t really work. It’s kind of got us very polarized. And I would just rather invite people to think about, hey, this will save you money, your doctor think this will make you healthier, it doesn’t mean cutting out something you love completely from your diet forever. But maybe you’re substituting it for a higher quality less often might be nice. And frankly like the fast food hamburger you could replace all those with a plant based alternative and nobody would notice. Because these weren’t really great hamburgers to begin with, right? So I think we can chip it away from a lot of different angles. So eating less, substituting some wasting loss, smaller portions, and looking for the benefits like saving money, improving health, reducing food waste, improving food safety, and oh yeah, helped with the environment too. That’s a win win.

Sonya: I’m gonna come at it from a different angle that some people might be thinking in their head of, well, okay, so I’m going to eat less of this meat or I’m going to choose to buy an electric vehicle or I’m going to waste less food. Well, it’s already been made, like the animals already grown up through the system, the food’s already on the shelf, or the food’s already been grown. So what difference does it make if I buy it or not? I know that people kind of come at it from that angle too.

Dr. Foley: Well, okay. I mean, if you only decided one day, it doesn’t matter. But if you do it consistently, it does matter because the food that’s on a shelf today was grown a couple of weeks ago and slaughtered then. The markets adjust to consumer demand. If consumers more and more of us say hey, wait a minute, I’m not going to eat that beef, the prices will go down, demand will go down, supply will eventually go down. In fact, Americans reading a lot less beef than we did in the 70s and 80s. We’re eating more chicken. But American beef consumption has gone down by like 30 to 40% in the last couple of decades, and that’s probably a good thing. So markets do respond to consumer behavior, we just need to keep at it and do it in larger numbers. And, again, if it were like, well, I would say to any individual moment, if so, you go to somebody’s home and they stick a cooked steak on your plate, and you’re not eating a lot of beef and say, well, I don’t eat beef, you could throw that away, I suppose. And that seems kind of wasteful. Or you could just eat it and maybe mention to the people that are your hosts politely, oh, thank you so much, this is great. I don’t really eat a lot of beef. But this is really delicious. But I’ve been trying to cut back and here’s why. But not to be like lecturing people or throwing food away. That seems kind of wasteful. But if we kind of lean in and say over the months and years of our lives that we say you know what we’re going to cut back on that and we start doing that on a larger scale, and we talk about it in ways that don’t piss people off and just get them irritated, I think we can have a big difference there. And that’s where, again, finding some common ground and then chipping away at a little bit of time as the way to go.

Sonya: I want to move on to land use deforestation, and how to sequester carbon dioxide and methane. And can you sequester nitrous oxide out of the air as well?

Dr. Foley: No, basically, when we’re talking about sequestering greenhouse gases, we’re only talking about carbon dioxide. Methane is also not sequestered in the soil, or anything like that. It can be destroyed by some microbes. That doesn’t really happen very much once it’s released from the atmosphere. About CO2 being taken up by plants and eventually the soils.

Sonya: So can you talk about the problem with deforestation because I think a lot of us that listen to this podcast, most people are some sort of endurance athlete or just somebody that just generally likes to be outside, whether it’s just walking recreationally or whatever the means may be. And we think like, oh, I love my mountains, I love walking in the forest. But most people haven’t been to the Amazon. Most people haven’t been to places where a lot of this is really causing problems. So can you talk about that?

Dr. Foley: Yeah, well, it turns out forest all over the world have been cut and recode and regrown and changed a lot by people over the thousands and thousands of years, we’ve been doing this. But right now on this planet, we’re cutting down a lot of forests in the tropics, along the equator, essentially the Amazon rainforest and South America, the Congo rainforest in West African rainforest across Africa, and then rainforest, across Indonesia, and Malaysia and up into Guinea in the southeast Asian region. Those three big areas are not only forest that are huge forest where the trees are really tall and really large and when we burn them, those release a lot of carbon dioxide, just like burning coal, or burning gasoline, or anything made out of carbon releases CO2, so does burning trees because they’re also made out of carbon. They just happen to be alive. And so we cut down and burn those trees, that also releases a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. In fact, deforestation right now is emitting about 12% of all the greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. The United States of America as a whole is only 11% and falling. Deforestation is 12% and going up. So that’s a really big issue. We hear a lot about the US in our emissions, but we don’t hear so much about these forests. And they’re just as important as far as the atmosphere is concerned. So that’s kind of a big deal. What we need to do is figure out ways to slow and eventually stop and reverse deforestation because a lot of the deforestation is happening for things that don’t really need to happen, like clearing the Amazon to grow more beef, and actually a lot of it very inefficiently. That’s kind of crazy. We don’t need more beef produced there. It can be produced elsewhere when the land has already been cleared, or maybe just reduced beef consumption at all, all together, like we talked about before. Also, a lot of deforestation is happening to grow soybeans, and the soybeans are used as animal feed, not in tofu, and not like impossible burgers or whatever; it’s used for feeding animals, especially in China, especially pork, and pigs, essentially. So that’s another big thing where animal agriculture is causing deforestation in the Amazon between beef and soybeans. It’s animals and animals driving deforestation. A third big driver is to grow a crop called palm oil, which is used as a cooking oil in most of India and China and kind of eastern Asia, if you will. But it’s also used as an ingredient in a lot of other things. Palm oil itself is actually a really great crop. But if we’re clearing rainforests to grow it, that’s not so smart. We need to grow it in places that have already been clear that could be growing efficiently and not need more land. So it basically stopped the expansion of these things of animal feed beef and palm oil into these tropical rainforests because the land is too cheap. Nobody really owns it, it’s just kind of the last frontier. And a lot of times people are kicked out of their lands, especially indigenous communities are removed or basically shoved aside so others could come in and exploit that land. And that’s a huge problem. So it’s a human rights issue, as well as the climate issue. And on top of all that, it’s a big biodiversity issue because these forests are home to countless species of plants and animals that don’t have anywhere to go if we cut down the forest. And so we can be losing a lot of species of very important forms of life on Earth along with this as well. So deforestation to me, it’s like one of the top environmental issues, not only because it’s important to climate change, but also to biodiversity and the richness of life on our planet, but also to the people often in indigenous communities who’ve been there for millennia, as a human rights issue that we need to think about as well. So we can do a lot better than clearing rain forest for a little bit more food. That’s a bad place to be going as a civilization, we can do better there.

Sonya: This is probably a really big question, but who’s in charge of that, making that decision?

Dr. Foley: Well, no one. And that’s part of the problem. These are all different countries. But half of the deforestation in the world, at least historically, over the last 20 years or so it was happening mainly in Brazil and Indonesia, a handful of countries does most of the deforestation. But those are folks who are cutting down the forest, where those things are then sold to, where the where does the palm oil go that’s grown in Indonesia? Well, mostly to China and India. Where did the soybeans go? They’re grown to the Amazon, mostly to China. Where does the beef go grow mostly in the Amazon, mostly to Brazil, Argentina, and a tiny bit of the United States, but mostly South America. So you can work on the people that are clearing the forest and try to get more regulation, more rules. But Brazil and Indonesia, it’s really tricky to do that right now. Or you can work in the other direction to try to get the people who sell soybeans, beef and palm oil around the world, to not be linked to deforestation. You could have activist groups going after those companies saying, hey, we’re going to make your life a living hell, for a company that sells palm oil irresponsibly, until you can prove that your palm oil didn’t result in the destruction of a rainforest, you grew it some other way, and so there are these kind of like certifications and labels and things to be like in rainforests free beef, or rainforest free soybeans, or responsibly harvested palm oil. Those are starting to exist, but we need a lot more kind of activist pressure, market pressure, business pressure and investment pressure, as well as the policy and political pressure that the United States, or European Union, and others could exercise in some of these other countries. But right now, there’s no…it’s not gonna be the UN, it’s not going to be the White House or the Senate that fixes this all by itself, that’s for sure. It’s going to be a lot of other players, probably business and activism, investors and some political pressure too. Brazil is particularly interesting, because they have a President right now named Bolsonaro, who’s a little bit like the Brazilian version of Donald Trump, pretty conservative. He’s promoting the clearing of the Amazon to get people to move up there and get their rights to get free land and kind of explore their frontier, that kind of thing. And before he was President, deforestation in Brazil had been going down dramatically. He comes into office, and it goes back up dramatically. So a lot of it does depend on elections and who’s in charge, just like we saw in the United States with different presidents, we see a bigger change in Brazil with different change some political leadership. So that could be important as well.

Sonya: Okay, so food and agriculture is about 1/4 of greenhouse gas, right?

Dr. Foley: Yeah about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases come from food and agriculture.

Sonya: I’m just summarizing what we talked about. So number one is pay attention to food waste, and eating smaller portions, maybe not buying as many groceries as you need. Or if there is extra food, finding a place for that to go, that’s going to be useful for other people. Number two is considering reducing the amount of red meat that you eat. And if you are eating red meat, trying to understand where its source where it comes from, and even with palm oil, and just paying attention to what you’re voting with when it comes to your dollar, when it comes to your investments, and the choices that you make about the things that are in your house.

Dr. Foley: Absolutely. When it comes to food again, your food waste and less red meat and dairy products will be the number one and two things that I would do. When it comes to other things we can do at home around energy of course there are lots of other things like electricity use in our home is primarily driven by air conditioning, and refrigeration, like do you have an old refrigerator that next time you replace it and pay attention to the Energy Star ratings on their fridges and freezers at the store and maybe try to get a somewhat more efficient one, that kind of thing. Next time you buy an air conditioner, look for the more efficient one. Make sure it’s tuned up. Make sure your windows are sealed and that you may be turned the thermostat to a higher temperature in the summer that I don’t see why you need to keep your house cooler than 76 to 78 degrees that would help a lot, especially to 72 or 68. Those things help a lot. And when it comes to heating in cold climates, you primarily are using natural gas or oil to heat homes and most of America. Again, looking at your thermostat, how warm do you really need it? Can you turn it down at night? Can you make sure your doors and windows are weatherized and sealed pretty well so you’re not leaking a lot of air, keep your house more comfortable and save you a lot of money. And then if you’re doing some retrofits around your house, think about insulating your attic, your basement your walls when you can. Not everybody can afford to do that on day one, but maybe chip away at it as you look at your house. Now, of course for renters, that’s a much more difficult kind of thing. And that’s where we need to incentivize landlords and others to do some of these fixes says they can too. But there’s kind of a disconnect for renters making them have a harder time with this, of course. I was just mentioning and we talked about food and I mentioned a few things about like electricity and air conditioning and refrigeration are big ones. Lighting matters, too. So yes, every time a light bulb burns out, do you replace it with one of these new LED lights that last longer, they’re cheaper to operate, they’ll save you a lot of money, and they last for a long time. And then of course vehicles. Let’s try to drive less. Especially with gas prices the way we are maybe you can skip a few errands if you can. Take public transit if you can. That’s not every place that by you can walk when you can, that’s great if you can make that work. But it’s not fun when we replace the vehicle in this country, like you know, hey, it’s time for this car to get replaced. Maybe you’re buying another used car or a new car. The fact that we buy the most, the biggest selling car in this country is actually a pickup truck is the Ford F 150. And most of them are not used at all to the haul things. They’re just looking cool. In rural America and winter. I live in rural Minnesota, and they’re everywhere. And they’re always empty. And I’m like, this is a status thing of country bumpkins, who like to drive pickup trucks and I grew up in the country, I get it. But they are electric ones or maybe you can get a smaller car that gets 40 miles per gallon is at a 12. And you can save a lot of money at the gas pump. So I just don’t understand people bought something that gets terrible mileage that they drive all the time. And then they’re complaining about gas prices like crazy, right? I’m like, well, you kind of made your bed here. We can do better. That sucks when you know it’s a pain point right now. But the next time you buy a vehicle, why are we getting more efficient vehicles. And not to mention the hybrids and the electric vehicles are becoming more and more available too. That’s great as well. But we got a long way to go in all these different areas, whether it’s food, or cars, or homes or electricity use. These are all things we can do where we will save money, and probably make our lives a lot better, our homes more comfortable, our pocket looks a lot fuller, and give ourselves more free time. And we help address climate change. And we stuck it to Vladimir Putin a little bit too all at the same time. I kind of like this. This is actually pretty amazing world we could build if we wanted to.

Sonya: Yeah, pain is often a great motivator for people. So if you look at health as a pain point or if you look at dollars as a pain point, those are ways to inspire change, or even people who are upset about the weather, like the fires and all these things that are happening. That’s also a pain point. And these all these little things tend to be big things whenever everybody does them.

Dr Foley: Yeah, exactly. Although I like to frame it a little differently. I see these as opportunities, not pain points, like, hey, this is a way I can make my house more comfortable in the future and be more valuable if I ever need to sell. That’s a good thing. Who isn’t in favor of that, or here’s the way you can save hundreds of dollars a month at the gas pump, who’s not in favor of that? Here’s the way we can make our country more secure and sunless of our money to Russia and the Middle East. I’m all for that. So I think these are things when we point out the benefits of climate solutions they’re bigger than climate solutions. One thing that drives me nuts about climate activists and climate communicators, we all want everybody to become like Greta Thunberg or something, and that’s never gonna happen. It turns out, this is astonishing, 92% of Americans now believe, to some extent or another that climate change is real. 80% are firmly convinced it’s real. 60% are actually really freaked out about it and alarmed and concerned about climate change. That’s incredible. But only 2% of Americans or less have ever put climate change is the top issue facing the country in Gallup Poll after Gallup Poll after Gallup poll for 50 years. The environment is never gonna replace jobs, or health, or education or equity and justice or other kinds of big issues facing America that climate change will never be in the top five. But guess what? All the things I just mentioned, like jobs and health and community and equity and justice,  those are things that can get better if we do climate solutions. So I want to kind of shift the conversation from like the climate problem big scary He boogeyman towards climate solutions. But then I want to cross out the word climate and just talk about here are solutions that create jobs in your community. Here are ways to save you money. Here’s how to make America more secure. Here’s how to improve the health of kids, especially in inner city neighborhoods, or neighborhoods live near a power plant or near oil processing facilities. Hey, that’s a good day. And oh, by the way, as an extra benefit, we also address some part of climate change. That’s the good thing about climate solutions. Once we start deploying them, we’re going to turn around and go, what the hell? Why did this take so long? This is great. I have a better home. I have a better diet. I’m saving money, I’ve got a cooler car. I have more free time I’m living a better life, there are more jobs are more secure. What’s wrong with that? So I wish we’d stopped beating people over the head with gloom and doom, and scaring the hell out of people that puts people into a crouch where they’re not going to roll up their sleeves to get to work. I want folks to see the benefits of the good things we have in front of us to say, hey, this is awesome. I want that world. I think that’s gonna be great. Let’s go do it.

Sonya: Yeah, there’s something called self determination theory and it is what influences intrinsic motivation. And autonomy is one of those elements of self determination theory and feeling like you can make choices that make a difference really helps you feel more motivated. And then the more you do it, the more other choices that you’re going to make and then like you mentioned before, when other people see these choices that you’re making, they might feel inspired that they can make a difference too. And then they’ll see all of these other positive benefits that isn’t just about one thing, but that it’s all interconnected.

Dr. Foley: Yeah, that’s really interesting. But yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me, too. And I think, again, showing more positive examples of like, here’s the community that created a lot of jobs in their neighborhood, and reduce air pollution and asthma and children and save people money and make their neighborhood more valuable and more desirable and lower crime and better education. Oh, yeah, and they address climate change while they’re at it. That’s a fantastic thing. And that inspires so many others. And I think also, so many of us are kind of feeling lost in despair right now because we all grew up believing the old Schoolhouse Rock videos or something that if we just had good policymakers in Washington, they’ll solve our problems for us. We believed what they told us in civics class. But it’s not true. Washington is corrupt. It’s been thoroughly infiltrated by special interest in money, and media. And we have a system that can’t be redeemed, it’s irreparably broken. So what do we do? I think we have to take some of this in our own hands. So do things at the local level, and the state level and at the business level, and our own personal level or family level. The folks in Washington will eventually catch up when they realize everybody else has left them behind. They don’t lead, but they do follow. And so eventually, Washington will come along. But if we wait for them to lead, I think we’ve had 30 years of disappointment on that front. Why are we still falling for that trick every time? So I think we need to show leadership not just look for it. Obama said it ironically, best, you know, maybe you’re the leader we’ve all been waiting for. This is waiting for the hero to come to our heroine to come to Washington, let’s step up and find the ones in our communities and do the small things every day that we can do now that are inspiring, that show self determination that shows the agency and the power we have as individuals. When I hear about people talking about individual things to do on climate change, we used to do it through kind of a guilt lens to get people to guilt trip, like it’s your fault that this has happened. And that’s not really true. We’re just part of a larger system. It’s not a guilt that I’m gonna get people. I want to give people a sense of power. And agency, it’s not a guilt trip, it’s a power trip. But hey, you have a lot of power, you don’t like ExxonMobil, you can tell them to go stick it and dry it by the filling station every day in your new electric car. That’s power you have that that’s entirely up to you. Or you can reduce your the money you send to the power companies, you can reduce the amount of money you send to big oil, you can tell them to go stick it by making some choices yourself. And that’s a lot of power. I’m not blaming you. I’m reminding you of all the agency you have to change the world around you every single day with money. And that’s what talks at the end of the day sometimes. So I think a lot to that what you’re saying is like the kind of feeling a sense of agency and possibility and opportunity to make the world better around you. And it’s kind of contagious, I think, when people start to realize the good things can happen when we start to do them.

Sonya: Yeah, the other two elements of self determination theory are competence and relatedness. And those play into like all the things that you were just mentioning as well.

Dr. Foley: Self determination theory, I don’t know about those. Sounds like a great framework to be thinking about communication like this. I’ll take a look at it.

Sonya: The person who’s kind of coined the research is I forget his first name, but his last name is DC. So it’s D-E-C-I. So in a lot of the research papers, you’ll see DEC and I, or might be pronounced deci. And Ryan, but yeah, so just check out self determination theory. I’m a health and mental performance coach so a lot of the work that I do is helping people find their own motivation to make changes that they want to make. And though that’s like one of the key elements of helping people make change, feeling like you can do it.

Dr. Foley: Yeah, well, exactly. And I’m tired of being told what we can’t do. And being kind of deliberately divided and polarized by people on the far left on the far right, who are making money and clicks and power off of us all. This is not the way this country used to be, you know, that sounds nostalgic, and to be a bit of like, privileged from where I come from, or something like that. But I’m like, where are the leaders like Martin Luther King, who say, I have a dream. Instead we have leaders that say, I have a nightmare. I have a nightmare. And they’re to blame. Martin Luther King said, I have a dream. And you can all join me. And making that a reality. Or Bobby Kennedy or John Kennedy, asking, don’t ask what the country can do for, but what you could do for the country. Looking kind of at a higher, better version of ourselves, asking us to reach to be better people to be more engaged and do something great. We don’t have a lot of that these days. And maybe that’s where we need to change our tune, and focus on what we can do, and how it makes us and the world around us a lot better.

Sonya: That’s actually something I do keynote speaking. And one of the things that I always say is focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do.

Dr. Foley: Yeah, exactly. Flip of the Serenity Prayer, right, you know, Lord, give me the strength to accept the things I cannot change. Maybe it’s the other way around. It’s like we’re getting the strength to change the things I cannot accept. I like that kind of turn of phrase on that. Yeah, exactly right. There are so many things within our fingertips to change. And yet, we’re being told that it’s hopeless, and there’s no point. And that’s a lie. It’s not just wrong. It’s a deliberate lie. And this is something that’s just really discouraging, that people have kind of fallen for, and that we’re feeling a widespread anxiety and fear and despair around climate change, for example, and many other things. And that’s totally understandable. And we do have to work through that, acknowledge that, and process that kind of grief and anxiety that we might feel initially. I’m never going to say people shouldn’t acknowledge that, of course, we should. It’s real. And it’s how you feel, who am I to say you shouldn’t. But I’d like to see at the end of the day, we get back to a sense of connection and agency. We process that kind of grief for how we might feel bad about something for a while or the fear we might have, and then turn it around to say, hey, wait a minute, but we can change this, what can we do? There’s a lot still within our power. And don’t abdicate that power, or that sense of agency and that possibility to do something you can do. And there’s so much we can do. And we barely scratched the surface on it.

Sonya: So the last couple of minutes, can we talk about how people can put their agency to use by going to And what they’ll find there and how they can find more climate solutions?

Dr. Foley: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. So, our organization, again, we exist to be a resource for people who want to make climate solutions reality. But first, we have to know what the science says. Science isn’t all of the answer, but it’s a very important part of the answer. We got into this mess by ignoring the science. So we’re trying to do the science not on the problem, but on the solutions and tell you like this solution actually works, it can prevent this much pollution, and it would cost about that much. So we kind of crunched the numbers all the time on about 100 different climate solutions. We just updated them a few weeks ago. But every two years, that’s how long it takes us to run through all this data and calculate all this stuff. It’s a big, huge undertaking. And we’re kind of the final word in a lot of ways on like, here’s the possibility of different climate solutions, given today’s technology and economics and our current science. So that’s really good. But maybe more importantly, for listeners here would maybe be to learn more about the basic ideas. So we actually offer a mini class called Climate Solutions 101, which you can go to  at Just go on the front page and down below further, there’ll be a button for Climate Solutions 101. And it’s a very short little class is made up of about six 10-minute talks, kind of like little TED Talks. The bad news is I’m giving them so that’s the downside. The good side is they’re very, very short. But I kind of walked through the basic ideas of here we have the basic science behind climate solutions. I get to go into a little more detail that we were able to do today, but also the whole bunch of visuals and graphics, which are also included there for free. So people who might want to share this with others or use it in their own teaching or their own work or whatever. This is a whole bunch of free materials there. 100% free, no paywall, no subscription, no donation needed. Just go ahead and take it and share it and give it away. We also are putting together a lot of information on the benefits climate change has for other things, including health or alleviating poverty in developing countries; this is a big area we’ve been focusing on and so on. We also you can read a lot more about how people were taking action at the local level through what’s called drawdowns neighborhood. We have a series of short video films. The first batch were all filmed in Pittsburgh. We have another batch coming up from Atlanta, and then New Orleans, then Minneapolis, where we go around the country looking at possibilities for communities, or solving climate problems on their own, with new and interesting voices, especially for more diverse communities. The environmental community has been way too white and way too privileged for way too long. So we’re trying to make sure we hear stories from other areas of our society, that we haven’t passed the mic too much before we need to do that better. So I’m really excited about that, too. So this whole rich array of things on our website that are all available for free. We’re a nonprofit. We give everything away. And yeah, please come check us out. And also follow us on social media, as @ProjectDrawdown on Twitter, most of all, but also Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn, I suppose. I think we’re starting at Tik Tok page down the road.

Sonya: Great. Well, thank you so much for the actionable information that you gave us on how people can start moving the needle, but also on your realistic optimism, or I think Abraham Lincoln calls this tragic optimism, where it’s not just blindly believing that all of these things are just going to happen on their own. And I’m really excited about what people have learned today and how they can go to Drawdown and get all this free information to start feeling like they are making a difference too.

Dr. Foley: Well, thank you for having me today. Really appreciate it. And yeah, please check out and follow us at Project Drawdown or follow me on social media @globalecoguy, stupid handle, but it was available on mostly Twitter and other platforms as well. So yeah, looking forward to more conversations, and I hope listeners get to learn more about climate solutions. And remember how much we can do to solve this problem and why it will make our lives better when we do it.

Leave a Reply