Jane Goodall Says 2024 is the ‘Most Consequential Voting Year’

Jane Goodall Says 2024 is the ‘Most Consequential Voting Year’

When I caught up with Jane Goodall in 2019, she was calling on consumers and businesses to make responsible choices and protect the natural world.

Now she is telling people something much more simple: vote.

The celebrated primatologist thinks governments around the globe are not working hard enough to combat climate change. And in a year when more than 40 countries — including the United States, India and South Africa — will be electing their leaders, Goodall is telling anyone who will listen that the health of Earth itself is on the ballot.

“Half of the population of the planet is going to be voting,” she said on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos last week. “This year could be the most consequential voting year in terms of the fate of our planet.”

As my colleague Manuela Andreoni wrote last week, the leaders elected this year will face consequential choices on energy policy, deforestation and emissions reductions. In the United States, Republicans are planning to undo environmental regulations if former president Donald J. Trump wins re-election. In Mexico, the favorite to win the presidency in June is Claudia Sheinbaum, a climate scientist who is now mayor of Mexico City and has vowed to take action to reduce emissions.

Goodall noted that the outcomes of national elections can have profound and immediate impacts. She pointed to Brazil, where two years ago, voters ousted the far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro, and brought back President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Overnight, Lula abandoned Bolsonaro’s laissez-faire approach to environmental regulation and redoubled efforts to protect the Amazon rainforest.

Similar swings in policy will reverberate around the world as people go to the polls in the months to come, Goodall said: “Every vote matters, more this year than perhaps any time in history.”

Goodall refrained from endorsing specific candidates.

But she believes that as extreme weather batters every corner of the globe, more voters were coming to understand that climate policies matter.

“When climate change began to make itself known, it was Bangladesh and the poorer countries that were suffering,” she said. “Now the wealthy are being hit. The industrialized countries are being hit where it hurts them economically.”

In the United States alone last year, there were 28 storms, wildfires or other disasters that each cost at least $1 billion or more in damages, my colleague Christopher Flavelle reported this month.

“There are floods in New York, floods in Britain, floods in several parts of Europe, unprecedented heat waves killing people in France,” Goodall told me. “It has changed.”

Yet in what is expected to be a tight race between President Biden and Trump, climate is not one of the dominant issues of the campaign. Inasmuch as it is a factor, it is often invoked by activists who believe the Biden administration is not doing enough to curb emissions, or by Trump with promises to expand oil and gas drilling.

Goodall also expressed hope that companies could do more to reduce emissions. Just as voters might respond to climate crises at the polls, she said corporations might begin funneling their lobbying dollars toward candidates who prioritized climate issues.

“I’m hoping that because companies are being hit economically, some of them will think, ‘Well, we better put a bit more money into the right politicians,’” she said.

Goodall, who turns 90 in a few months, was in Davos talking up her efforts to educate young people about the plight of the natural world — and to bend the ear of the policymakers and C.E.O.s who sought her out for selfies.

Elections, she said, matter to the degree that they help preserve the natural world.

“The ecosystem is this tapestry of interconnected plants and animals, and each single one has a role to play,” she said. “When a species becomes extinct, it’s like pulling a thread. And if enough threads are pulled, the tapestry hangs in tatters. The ecosystem will collapse.”

Goodall, who spent decades living in the jungle studying chimpanzees, is not dogmatic in her approach to fighting climate change.

“We need the technology,” she said. “We need transfer to renewable energy. We need to stop subsidizing fossil fuel companies. We must think about human population with its cattle. It’s an all-of-the-above moment.”

But she said those policies will only be enacted by leaders who appreciate the gravity of the crises facing planet Earth.

“We’ve got to get the message out there for people to understand, and then they’ll vote in the right way,” she said. “Then they’ll understand how important it is for their children, and their children’s children.”

To slash carbon emissions, a growing number of colleges and universities are digging deep, using underground pipes to heat and cool their buildings without burning fossil fuels.

Princeton University is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new system that will heat and cool buildings using a process known as geoexchange.

It starts with a big, muddy mess, as thousands of boreholes are drilled around campus. But the holes will eventually be undetectable, and able to perform an impressive sleight of hand. During hot months, heat drawn from Princeton’s buildings will be stored in thick pipes deep underground; in the winter, the heat will be drawn back up again.

“This is what saving the planet looks like,” said the aptly named Ted Borer, head of energy plants at Princeton. “It’s hugely chaotic. It’s messy. It’s disruptive.” But, he added, “There’ll be kids playing Frisbee here a year from now.”

Among the colleges where geoexchange or geothermal systems are being tested, installed or are in use are Smith, Oberlin, Dartmouth, Mount Holyoke, Carleton College, Ball State University, William & Mary, Cornell University, Brown University and Columbia University.

Many of the colleges are using their projects as a classroom, conducting educational seminars and tours.

Lindsey Olsen, associate vice president and senior mechanical engineer at Salas O’Brien, a technical engineering firm, said five years ago, the company was working on two or three campus geothermal projects at one time. That figure has grown to between 20 and 30 projects, she said.

Around the country, geoexchange systems are generating enthusiasm from students, faculty, staff and alumni.

“I’m not always the person they’re applauding at a faculty meeting,” said David DeSwert, executive vice president for finance and administration at Smith College, where a geothermal system is expected to cut carbon emissions by 90 percent. “When we were presenting this, they were extremely, extremely happy.” — Cara Buckley

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