Courtesy Marcia McNutt

“We have to make doing the right thing easy.”

We speak to one of the Nobel Prize Summit organisers, Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, about the summit and what she believes we need to do to tackle the climate crisis.

What kind of collaborations do you think that are needed for us to solve the global challenges we are facing?

Marcia McNutt: The National Academy of Sciences is thrilled to be collaborating with the Nobel Prize on this summit. It turns out that I think just about all of the Nobel Prize laureates are members of the National Academy of Sciences regardless of their nation of origin. We feel a close kinship with the Nobel Prize.

I think that this is a very good marriage because of the great megaphone that the Nobel Prize has through its rewarding of excellence. People who are not scientists who do not follow science everywhere know the Nobel brand and they know what it stands for. With that megaphone, to be able to broaden the input of science to solve these challenges in sustainability makes this a terrific marriage.

What I’ll say though is that we need other partnerships as well. We need partnerships that go well beyond science. They have to reach into industries that are both part of the problem, but also can be part of the solution because we have to change basic business models and how we’re producing energy, how we’re producing our crops, how we’re supporting education globally. We have to change all of these if we’re really going to make a dent in the problem. I honestly feel that while policies that are adopted by government can be important in motivating the right behaviour, unless industry embraces this as part of their core values, we’re not going to have any success.

What relationship do you have to the Nobel Prize?

I believe I have known about the Nobel Prize for almost as long back as I can remember. The very first time I ever had the opportunity to attend a Nobel Prize ceremony was when I was Editor-in-Chief at Science magazine. I have to say I was so impressed with the way the entire nation of Sweden turns out for its Nobel Prize laureates. The only similar kind of national celebration that I could think of in the US is the way sports fans celebrate the super bowl or the way the people celebrate the awarding of the Academy Awards in a film. There’s really no celebration nationwide celebration of science in the US that comes anywhere close to the Nobel Prizes. I just loved the way average people in Stockholm knew exactly the names of the Nobel Prize laureates that year. How average citizens would have their own Nobel Prize parties and they would watch the grand banquet and the awarding of the prizes, and they themselves would dress up too. It’s really something very special.

Why do you think it’s important that we have this summit?

I think it’s important to have the summit to make very clear statements about what the science says about this and the urgency with which scientists are telling the global community that action is needed on all of these aspects of sustainability, but particularly climate change, inequality, the pandemic and other types of black swan events that can emerge from our deforestation and disrespecting of natural systems.

Then also to highlight how innovation is the solution that can bring us out of this downward trajectory that we’re currently in. I honestly believe that science is the only human endeavour that has ever allowed us to avoid the zero-sum game. That is in the zero-sum game for someone to have more resources, someone has to have less resources.

What do we need to do to solve our climate crisis?

One thing we’ve learned from the long history of changing human behaviour is that if you make the right behaviour easy and the wrong behaviour difficult, then society adapts, and it can adapt quite quickly. I’ll give an example. Decades ago it was confirmed by scientists that tobacco was the leading cause of lung cancer. And lung cancer was becoming a leading cause of premature death, where people were dying in their fifties, before they needed to, because of lifelong habits of smoking. Even scientists just saying that smoking causes lung cancer and causes an agonising horrible premature death was not enough to stop people from smoking. So if the threat of your own early horrible death is not enough to change behaviour, clearly telling people that burning fossil fuels and other deforestation practices are causing climate change that’s going to have no effect, but what did have an effect in the smoking case was making it difficult.

Once restaurants and workplaces started saying, “We don’t want you smoking in here because scientists have also shown that you’re not only affecting your own health, you’re affecting other people’s health through secondhand smoking. You have to go step outside.” Suddenly it became difficult for people to do it. It became more difficult to buy cigarettes. So they made it difficult to do the wrong thing. They made it easy to do the right thing by developing patches that allowed people to give up smoking and the smoking rates in the US plummeted within a decade.

So that’s what we have to do in terms of climate change as well. We have to make doing the right thing easy.

Finally, what more do you think we need to do in order to create a sustainable planet for future generation?

I think we have to do is concentrate on the developing world because we have so many opportunities in the developing world to leapfrog technologies, to jump right from having nothing, to having the sustainable choice. As a good example, when Africa started bringing communications to everyone, they didn’t do what the US and Europe had done. They leapfrogged immediately to cellular technology. In energy, I still see too many coal-fire power plants being built to bring cheap electric power, to those who are power starved. When in essence, we could be leapfrogging them to renewable energy sources with storage, such that they have the same benefits without installing these power plants. Because honestly, these power plants have a very long lifetime. They have a 30 or 40 year lifetime, and we don’t have 30 or 40 years to wait for them to go out of service.

Register now for the Nobel Prize Summit, taking place on 26-28 April 2021.

To cite this section
MLA style: “We have to make doing the right thing easy.”. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2021. Fri. 24 Sep 2021. <https://www.nobelprize.org/we-have-to-make-doing-the-right-thing-easy/>