Welcome to the AFS Youth Assembly podcast! Today’s episode will be a real treat for everyone passionate about the environment and taking climate action. Our guest is Laur Hesse Fisher, Program Director at MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI). MIT ESI is a Knowledge Partner for our Youth Assembly this year, spearheading great program content in the climate track. Laur talked to us about how to avoid hopelessness in climate work, the intersections of policy, technology and humanitarian crises with climate change, and many other things she is excited about in advance of the AFS Youth Assembly.

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Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your work at MIT ESI?

Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here and to be talking about the work that we’re doing and also AFS is up to. Basically the way that I can describe what I’m up to is I lead MIT’s climate engagement program. I’m all about how we help people think smart about climate change and climate solutions. That starts with feeling these audiences, feeling like information about climate change is accessible, it’s relevant. They can understand it, it addresses the things that they’re most concerned about.

The MIT ESI website offers so many great resources about climate, including a podcast, explainers, references. What motivates you to work on climate and how did you even get into this field? What is it that you’re hoping to achieve? 

Those are really easy, simple questions to answer, I’m excited to talk about it. And thank you also for referencing the work that we do through our program. For the listeners today, you can check out climate.mi.edu to access our explainers, and we answer reader’s questions about climate change. We have a podcast and a lot more.

So I remember when I was in high school, I took a class and I learned about solar power, and I remember thinking, oh, this is so obvious. Why aren’t we doing more of this? This just makes sense. And that really opened up a pathway for me and thinking about environmental solutions and what do we actually want to create? What kinds of technology and what kind of actions do we want to create? I ended up doing a self major at college, and I called it “applying sustainability.” I didn’t really want to do biology or ecology. I really wanted to get my hands in the thick of it. If we’re talking about these big practices, these big principles of living lighter on the earth, et cetera, how do we do that in real life? And I remember very distinctly, I had just learned about carbon pricing and putting a tax on carbon as a way to, they call it “internalize the externalities of climate change.” Basically, it’s like if companies have to pay for pollution, well, they’re not going to pollute. They’re going to find a way to get out of it, but in a good way. But we’re not doing that right now. So it’s free for people to pollute. So how do we change that? That’s the idea around carbon pricing. And I remember I was talking to somebody in my life about it who is very close to me, a family member who had different political views than me, and they were asking all of these questions and really smart, good questions, and I realized I didn’t have an answer.

At that moment, I realized, oh, I had gotten on board with a concept, a solution that I didn’t actually fully understand. That really started opening up my mind about how I really want to understand what I’m talking about before I advocate for it. This self-reflection and self-checking, ended up as a transformative moment for me. I’ve been registered as a democrat, a republican, an independent. It has really opened up an opportunity for me to specialize in thinking about this across the political spectrum as well. My career since then has actually always been environmental sustainability, climate focused. It’s something that I have been really passionate about. I’ve done all different kinds of things. I bet there are a lot of young people listening to this who might be thinking about their own careers and what’s next for them.

My advice is always just get one step closer. It can be hard to know in this big world of so many options where you can do so many things, what to do and what to choose to do. And I founded my career. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I kind of had a feeling when something was presented in front of me, and I always just tried to get one step closer. So for example, I’ve worked in waste management, I’ve worked in green building education, I’ve worked in eco municipalities, I’ve worked in carbon accounting. I’ve worked at collective intelligence on climate change. I’ve done all different kinds of things, and I really feel like it’s kind of led to me to where I’m at right now, which is this perfect intersection of things that I’m very passionate about, which is the climate change space and environmental space, and making smart decisions, going all the way back to my high school experience, but then also doing it in a way that’s thoughtful and inclusive of how different people think. And that goes back to my experience working in a cross partisan way.

It comes together in a logical way upon reflection. It’s kind of like I looked back at my career and I’m noticing some themes here. As I was doing that reflection and identifying those themes, that allowed me in my next step to try and get one step closer in whatever I’m doing in my career to double down on those themes and start talking about those with other people. So it’s this collection of action, but then also reflection, which supports whatever next step I’m going to take. So definitely, my twenties were a difficult time for me. I didn’t always have it perfectly planned out. It really was stumbling and fumbling and figuring things out and then taking a look at the path I had taken.

I’m sure that this is something that would resonate with a lot of the Youth Assembly Delegates working on their passion projects. The last time you attended and spoke at the Youth Assembly people actually got the chance to connect with you and really hear your thoughts and input. What was that experience like for you? What was it like for you to join the AFS Youth Assembly?

The Youth Assembly was one of the first events I attended as a post-covid big event. I also had recently had two kids, so it was kind of coming out of a shell for me. And let me tell you, that’s the kind of event you want to come to if you’re trying to come out of a shell because you have around 700 people from all around the world who are leaders in whatever they’re doing or aspiring to be leaders. They have this energy, they have this passion, they have this commitment, and some of them are already doing incredible work. And you get to learn and be inspired by how young people are really leading in this moment. And you have other people who aspire to that, right? But they’re hungry for it. They’re there, they’re asking smart questions, they’re trying to figure out what’s next for them. To be able to be in that space and that energy and that aliveness and that commitment to action was fueling, right?

When you’re sitting alone and you’re thinking about big world issues, global issues or national issues, or even city issues like climate change is one of them, and if you don’t have a community of people that you can engage with, it can be debilitating, and you can feel really down and despondent about it. And once you start learning though about the other smart, committed people that are out there in the world really taking action and thinking very intelligently about this, and then get exposed to those people and what action is really happening, it really can change your mind. If you’re already wanting to be a leader, this is a great networking opportunity for that as well. It really was an invigorating experience, and that’s why I wanted to join and help shape the next year’s session.

Like you said, this August, we’re all coming together again, but this year we have you and your colleagues from MIT ESI as our Knowledge Partner. You’ll have an even bigger role to play in shaping how we talk about climate and the environment and what can be done about it. Can you share a little bit about your expectations for this year? What do you hope to go away with from this event? 

When we were coming up with the topics for the Climate Track, we came up with quite a number of topics and we’re like, how do we decide between these? Because there’s just so much that we could talk about here. And so we put a poll out to the community, maybe people listening to this podcast episode filled out that poll, and we heard back from people. The answers were actually maybe different than what I would’ve thought, which is wonderful, right? That’s fantastic. It means that we’re really choosing some topics that are of the most interest to the people who are going to be coming.

One of the topics we’re going to be talking about is the interplay of policy and technology. Some people believe that technology will kind of solve it all, but then also there’s this big question about political will. The only thing we need is political will. Well, actually, in reality, when you look at it from a different perspective, neither one of those is completely true. It’s somewhere in the middle. So we’re going to unpack and open that up. What does that mean and how do we need to think about that and what are the most important leverage points we need from a policy and a technology side?

The other conversation is going to be around the kind of overlap of climate change with other issues that are being faced in the world right now, in particular around humanitarian crises. So as we’re thinking about the conflicts and the situations that are being faced in different countries, how do climate solutions offer an opportunity for us to be thinking about those things differently?

We also want to provide some kind of solutions that have “co-benefits” or solve multiple problems at the same time, also called “multi-solving.” So how can we multisolve some of this? Throughout all of it, it is easy to get caught up in some of the negative discourse and how bad things are around climate change. But frankly, as everybody knows, you can get caught up in bad discourse about anything. You can get caught up in bad discourse about yourself and what you look like or how your career is going or kind of anything. It’s a practice for us to take what’s true, to separate it from what our thoughts are about it, and then take action to move towards something to create what we want. And that’s going to be a part of the theme of this conversation as well, we’re going to be real about what is actually happening in this space and what the science is telling us, but of course also what the human experiences are. How do we move toward a place of action and let’s talk about the action that is already happening. How do we leverage that to create the world that we want?

What advice do you have for the young people who are working in this field and thinking about what they do next?

A question I often get is, what are you hopeful about? Or how do you avoid hopelessness? Or do you see the future as optimistic or pessimistic or what? And someone recently framed it this way, and I love it, is not to look at the future in terms of optimism or pessimism, but in terms of conditional meaning, we have a say.If you have a dream about something that you want to do in your life, you can kind of sit and feel upset about it or you can work toward it. There is nothing more motivating, more empowering, nothing that feels better than working towards your dreams.

There’s an international dream of staying below 2 degrees C and 1.5 degrees C if we can. But there’s this international dream of staying on this climate target, and we have millions of people all around the world. A lot of them are going to be at the AFS Youth Assembly, but there are so many people around the world who are thinking about it and doing incredible work. You can be a part of that, whether it’s going to the Youth Assembly or getting involved locally, getting connected, starting to have conversations with people. You also can be a part of taking action toward this international dream. When you think about the agency that we have to actually work towards our dreams, it will completely change your mindset and your ability to participate in this.

There are a lot of negative narratives out there, but there’s also been incredible progress on climate change. I mean, the one that’s most often cited is the cost of low carbon energy. Yes, we are still emitting a lot of carbon dioxide. Look at the UN IPCC reports of volunteer scientists from all around the world, the top of their field from 2015 or 2014 report versus the reports that have come out in the last few years: the progress is staggering. We’ve made a lot of progress on climate change.

Do we have a lot to do? Yeah, we do. We have technological challenges, we have challenges of adaptation, we have societal challenges, and one of the big things that I wrestle with is the trade-offs of climate solutions and making sure that they meet other important needs that society has as well. So if we can focus on the trajectory that we’re on, that there has been incredible progress that has been made, and it’s up to us and the people listening and the people of the most power to think about what we can influence to actually move us to this next stage and achieve this dream.

Let’s do as much as we can. One of the things we can do is have this conversation at the Youth Assembly in August and see where that takes us. I look forward to it. It’s a great energy.