Happy New Year! So much has already happened this year, and it’s only February 1. After an insurrection at the national capitol, there’s a pending POTUS impeachment trial. Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on and vaccine roll-out has been, well, less than ideal. With so much to rally and advocate for, climate change can get lost in the shuffle. But it isn’t going away. That’s one reason why I asked Doug Parsons, creator and host of the podcast America Adapts, to be my first interview of the year.
Doug is a climate adaptation specialist who’s worked in Queensland, Australia and as the first Climate Change Coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Knowing that storytelling is key to climate action, he launched America Adapts. Every episode features a conversation with a different kind of adaptation professional – professors, journalists, urban planners, and even yours truly, have made appearances. The podcast gives narrative shape and fascinating insight into the nuanced and often scientific work of climate specialists. More recently, Doug has taken his storytelling and media expertise to Cimpatico TV, a San Francisco start-up, where he hosts a live talk-show on their climate channel.
I spoke with Doug about why he launched America Adapts, what he thinks the future of climate podcasting looks like, and what he hopes listeners and viewers will take away from his creative media projects.
What inspired you to launch your podcast? Was it a climate-related event? Or perhaps something more personal?
Since I joined the climate workforce, a long, long time ago, I’ve been obsessed with trying to communicate the issue of climate change. I quickly went into the field of climate adaptation. In case you’re not familiar with the topic, it just means how society is going to adapt to all the impacts of climate change no matter what we do to reduce our carbon emissions. That said, we need to reduce those emissions! We’re going to have impacts like sea-level rise, extreme heat, drought and much more, so we need to prepare to adapt to those changes.
That’s the area I’ve spent most of my career on and I’ve become obsessed with trying to communicate this huge issue to the public. It’s become politicized, so communicating the issue is that much harder. That’s why I started the podcast. If you’re a podcast listener, you recognize that it’s a great way to learn things.
What kinds of guests do you have on, and what do you discuss?
My typical guests have backgrounds in adaptation. I’ll talk to professors, journalists, practitioners, urban planners, you name it; if they are doing work related to adapting to climate change, I’m interviewing them. The goal is to share their expertise and experiences with my listeners. I’ve talked to climate activists of color working in the New Orleans area. That was truly an eye-opening experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Quentin Bell, a Trans-man, and learning how his community is uniquely vulnerable to climate change. I’ve interviewed prominent politicians, climate scientists, among many others. I feel very lucky to talk with those folks. On occasion I go somewhat off topic. For example, you (Amy Brady) have been on three times to talk about climate fiction! I’ve also spoken to a professional climate skeptic, which was a bonkers and enlightening conversation.
I also like to talk more broadly about climate communication so I might have someone on to talk about that. Those are always fun conversations. I also have journalists on because they’re doing really important work. Sometimes I get sponsored to go on location. The podcast has taken me to Africa, Australia and all over the U.S. Obviously, because of the pandemic, I’m not doing any travel now, but I’m hoping by the end of 2021 I’ll get back to it. I did an episode on urban forestry in New York City that was super fun. I was taken all over the city and got to learn how their urban forests are helping the city adapt to climate change.
What do you hope listeners take away from America Adapts?
America Adapts is not a doom-and-gloom podcast. I want my listeners to feel like there’s something that we can do. Even though the challenges of climate change are going to be severe in the coming decades, there are things that we can do today to get ready for it. There’s warming baked into the system, so as I said before, even if we reduced our carbon emissions – which we have to do – we can expect rising seas, extreme heat, and many more unpredictable impacts. We have to adapt our society. I want my listeners to know that the people I interview are doing things today to deal with these issues (and I hope some of my listeners join the fray!). Adapting deals with issues like managed retreat (we’ll have to abandon some cities near the coast, but hopefully in a managed way), maladaptation, and nature-based solutions. There’s a lot of exciting work going on and the people I interview are doing it! I want my listeners to feel empowered that in the face of climate change, which typically has such a negative narrative around it, there’s stuff that we can do.
Why is the podcast format a good venue for climate storytelling?
A lot of people are audio learners, so podcasts are are great medium for that. I think each of us gets comfortable with our favorite podcasts because of the style of the host or the show format. It’s like an old, comfortable blanket. And so if we can learn a bit about climate change on such a platform, then all the better. Since it’s so easy to record these podcasts with people all over the world, that accessibility makes it easier to share this knowledge. It’s not like making a good TV show or a movie, which usually requires a lot of people and a lot of resources. Podcasts can be developed by a single person (I guess some movies can too). It really is empowering to know that you can produce something on your own, get it published relatively cost-free, and if it’s great content, people around the world are going to find it and find value in it. That is just an amazing thing. I’ve had a listener in Mongolia contact me and tell me she really enjoys the show. Didn’t see that coming.
Please tell us about your work with Cimpatico. How does it extend the work you do on America Adapts, and how does it differ?
Cimpatico is a new tech startup out of San Francisco. Think Twitch meets LinkedIn. They recruited me to be their first host and partner. They’ve created a whole climate adaptation channel where I get to interview people from around the world working on climate issues. It’s a bit broader than the podcast in that I talk to people engaged with a wide spectrum of climate-related topics like renewable energy, carbon reduction, and other areas of climate mitigation that I don’t cover in the podcast. It’s been interesting to expand the spectrum of experts I get to talk to. I’ve done over 170 interviews with a lot more planned. We’re looking at building a community around these issues as we do these interviews. At the moment, we’re focusing on being more like a TV production studio but looking to expand the community in the coming year. I thought the podcast exposed me to some really cool work but the team at Cimpatico has been recruiting guests from around the world. Its goal is to expand into all sorts of different topics like robotics, public health, insurance and much more.
What does the future of climate podcasting look like from your perspective? Is this a space that’s growing? Is there a growing audience for these kinds of podcasts?
I recently had a conversation with Amy Westervelt of the Drilled podcast about this topic. We both observed that there are a lot more climate podcasts that have come around in the last year. (Staying home during a pandemic drove some of this). She and I are old-timers in that we’ve been doing it for three to four years. I think you’re going to get a lot more diversification in the type of podcasts out there. Maybe we’ll get some regional podcasts that focus on climate impacts in a particular area. Maybe we’ll also get an urban planner starting their own climate podcast, a farmer focusing on the agricultural sector, or an artist starting their own climate podcast. Climate change is going to touch us in ways we can’t even predict, and I think podcasts are flexible enough to allow new voices to come online. I think with the Biden administration coming into power, there will be more focus in general on climate change, so we’re likely to see a lot more people coming into the climate podcast space to talk about what’s going on. I think that’s all very encouraging because we need more voices out there. The reality is that very few climate podcasters make it to a huge audience, just because it’s a complex issue and can easily turn into a doom-and-gloom topic. Hopefully, we’ll see some more voices come online who can make the issue relevant to people while also inspiring them.
What’s next for you?
As with everyone, I’m looking forward to the end of the pandemic so I can start traveling again. I publish every two weeks and it’s always kind of exciting to see what things pop up out of the blue. I hope to have you on again to update my listeners on the latest climate fiction! Having a new president who cares about climate change will inevitably influence the content of my podcast. I’ll also be doing interviews on Cimpatico and looking forward to how that expands. I encourage your readers to check out the podcast on their favorite podcast app and let me know what they think!
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.