In Our Hands
In Our Hands
Ep. 22. Nigel Sizer on Navigating the Nexus of Pandemics and Climate Change

Ep. 22. Nigel Sizer on Navigating the Nexus of Pandemics and Climate Change

Ramanan Raghavendran speaks with Nigel Sizer, executive director of the Preventing Pandemics at the Source initiative.

In this episode of In Our Hands, Ramanan Raghavendran speaks with Nigel Sizer, executive director of the Preventing Pandemics at the Source Initiative, former president of the Rainforest Alliance, and global director of the Forests Program at the World Resources Institute. Sizer is also an ecology, forest climate change, and development policy expert.

They discuss the connection between pandemics and climate change, emphasizing the risks posed by deforestation and the wildlife trade. This episode sheds light on the urgent need to address these issues to prevent future pandemics.

Time stamps and the full transcript are below. This episode is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

In Our Hands is a production of Amasia. Follow these links for more about our firm, the Amasia blog, our climate fiction podcast, and Ramanan’s blog.

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Show Notes

(01:47) From Cambridge Ecologist to Global Pandemic Prevention Leader

(09:52) Debunking COVID-19 Lab Origin Theories

(16:15) Pandemics, Politics, and Climate Change Interconnections

(23:20) Preventing Pandemics by Protecting Natural Habitats and Regulating Animal Agriculture

(25:50) What Should We Be Focusing On?

(29:38) Assessing the Most Threatened Rainforest Regions Globally

(32:33) Pandemic Preparedness and the Challenges of Political Leadership

Nigel (00:00): What does climate change add to this mix? These animals start to need to live somewhere else because the weather's changing, right? So their ranges shift and they start mixing with species and other things and other viruses that they have not mixed with before. They claim that that is, in their view, the greatest risk driving future spillover viruses and pandemics.

Ramanan (00:30): Welcome to In Our Hands, a podcast about the challenges and opportunities presented by the climate crisis. Each episode features a new thinker at the front lines of the battle to save our planet. Join us as we delve into the complexities of this global challenge and seek actionable ways to build a sustainable future.

Hello and welcome to our next exciting episode of In Our Hands. We have today, Nigel Sizer, who is a globally recognized authority on ecology, forest, climate change, and development policy. He currently works at the Rainforest Alliance as Chief Global Alliances Officer and is also executive director and co-founder of the Preventing Pandemics at the Source Initiative with Dalberg Catalyst. He has spent significant amounts of time in other roles for the Rainforest Alliance, World Resources Institute and the Nature Conservancy.

Much of his work takes him overseas and focuses on integrating large-scale rainforest conservation alongside empowering local communities and protecting human rights. He's currently not in the rainforest, he's in New York State. Nigel, could you talk us through your life and career? What inspired you to enter tropical conservation as a life endeavor? And give us some lessons you've learned.

Nigel (01:47): Yeah, hi, Ramanan. It's great to be with you. First, I'm sorry, I'm going to just correct your introduction. It was all right, except I am not at the Rainforest Alliance anymore, and that's a whole big part of the story-

Ramanan (02:03): I love it.

Nigel (02:05): ... right because when the pandemic started, I was helping to run Rainforest Alliance. I had been the CEO for a few years, and when the pandemic started, one of our board members called Sonila Cook, who's the CEO of an amazing organization called Dalberg Catalyst, she called me up and she said, "This is crazy. We know a lot about where these viruses come from. What do you think about trying to do something about that so that this doesn't happen again?"

And you can imagine if you're sitting at home in a pandemic, kind of freaking out and feeling a little bit useless, to be honest, right? Maybe a bit depressed, I think most of the world was. It was like, "Oh my God, we could reduce the risk of this ever happening again." That's what really, yeah, we could actually, because we do know a lot about how these things start because they start with viruses and wildlife. And I'm an ecologist.

(03:09): So I left Rainforest Alliance helped me get this started, and then it was so interesting, I transitioned out. So I left Rainforest Alliance a couple of years ago to focus completely on preventing pandemics. And this comes at the end, well, hopefully not the end, in the latter part of a career, which for the last 35 years has been-

Ramanan (03:31): But just so we’re clear this -

Nigel (03:34): ... various nonprofits. Yeah, go ahead.

Ramanan (03:36): I want to come back to the career, which you're going to walk us through in excruciating detail, but-

Nigel (03:40): I'm not.

Ramanan (03:42): So you are now full-time executive director of the Preventing Pandemics of the Source Initiative. Do I have that right?

Nigel (03:49): I spend about four days a week on this. I spend a little bit of my time doing some really interesting work for corporations, advising them on sustainability issues.

Ramanan (04:00): Oh, okay. Well, now can we step back and get the life overview?

Nigel (04:06): I'll be very brief, so if you want more details, you just jump in. I was born in ... No, just kidding. I started off in England, working-class family, single mother, worked all her life as a shop assistant, grew up in Peterborough, and was a hard-working kid and managed to get to Cambridge, where I studied natural sciences and became a biologist and an ecologist. And while I was there, became friendly with some of the professors, and ended up as one does in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest, doing a Ph.D. in tropical rainforest ecology by the time I was in my early 20s.

(04:50): And through those connections, connected to folks on the US side, I'd never been to the US; ended up at the Smithsonian on a fellowship, and my first job after my Ph.D. was with what at that time was, and I would say to some extent still is the world's leading think tank on environmental policy, which is the World Resources Institute in Washington D.C. So they were quite small then.

They were doing pioneering work on climate change and forests and energy issues and so on. Less than a hundred staff. They now have over 2,000 staff. So I joined them as my first job in 1992. It was very exciting. Bill Clinton had just been elected. We worked with the White House and the State Department on global environmental policy, which I knew almost nothing about. They trained me. I learned a lot. It went well, but that wasn't really where I wanted to be.

(05:43): So, eight years later, I took a job with the Nature Conservancy and moved out to Indonesia. They said, "You can go anywhere you want in Asia, help us protect forests in Asia." I said, "I want to go to Indonesia. That's the toughest place, most interesting place." So I ended up in Jakarta and was there for most of the next 10 years, developing and working on large-scale conservation work, illegal logging, corruption issues, and the timber trade, all sorts of crazy stuff, tremendous experience.

Then, moved over to marine work and joined a much smaller group called Rare, working on community-based conservation. So we developed some really pioneering work on marine conservation and fisheries management with local communities across Asia. That expanded globally.

Then, I came back to the US, actually back to World Resources Institute, did a second round there, knowing a lot more this time, lots of exciting stuff. We set up something called the Global Restoration Initiative, Global Forest Watch, which over 7 million people have now used that platform to see what's going on with forests globally.

(07:01): And then, moved to Rainforest Alliance to be their CEO. And then, the pandemic happened, got together with a bunch of friends and 20 organizations, and we formed Preventing Pandemics at the Source to work at the intersection of ecology, animal health, and human health to prevent spillover of viruses from wildlife and livestock into humans to the extent that we can to reduce the risk of future epidemics and pandemics, which is what I now focus my time on.

Ramanan (07:36): That's unbelievable. Well, we're going to talk a little bit about tropical forests, but we are going to end up spending a bunch of time on pandemics. And well, let me ask this question. What do you think of David Quammen's book, if you've read, called Spillover?

Nigel (07:53): Well, I've read all his books. Which one?

Ramanan (07:56): Spillover.

Nigel (07:57): Great.

Ramanan (07:58): Which he wrote-

Nigel (07:58): Spillover.

Ramanan (07:59): Which he wrote in many-

Nigel (07:59): It's right here. Here it is. Look, it's within reach literally.

Ramanan (08:08): A well-thumbed copy, no doubt.

Nigel (08:12): It is, but I'll tell you, the one you should read-

Ramanan (08:16): He was prescient about-

Nigel (08:17): This is his book that you should read, it’s his new book, Breathless, by the way, for your listeners, Breathless by David Quammen, which is all about COVID. David has become a friend and an advisor to our work. I think his book on spillover was, I mean, that was brilliant even before COVID. He's such a good science writer.

This is a really complex area, and he does a very good job of explaining that complexity in depth and objectively he finds the top scientists, he interviews them. He goes through that material. So his book on spillover really helped me understand the bigger picture and his sleuthing on COVID-19 and its origins, and the politics around that as well, I think is an extremely important documentation actually of what has happened with COVID. That's the best documentation I've read of this story so far.

Ramanan (09:17): And shame on me for not knowing about Breathless because I keep mentioning Spillover to everyone I can find. When did Breathless come out?

Nigel (09:26): Not long ago. It was last year, I think. Let's have a look. Here we go. 2022 is the publication date. I read it last year. In about 300 pages or so, he takes you through COVID from the very, very beginning, right back at the beginning, right through to when it was published.

Ramanan (09:50): Amazing.

Nigel (09:52): And he tells the story, and what I didn't expect, I didn't realize until I got to the end, was that he really digs into the origin story, which is of course what I'm most interested in as well, and is most important for our work and around which there has been so much controversy and conspiracy theory and conjecture and politics and so on.

And he goes through all of that in great detail, gives his opinion. I think it's very convincing. It's certainly consistent with what we understood, but he goes into so much depth. I think it's very valuable piece of work.

Ramanan (10:29): All right, well, having said all that, we have no choice but to become the center of an international controversy. So was it a lab? Tell us everything.

Nigel (10:42): So the simple answer to that is nobody knows.

Ramanan (10:48): No one knows.

Nigel (10:50): If it was a lab, then maybe somebody knows, right? And they're not telling us, but basically, we don't know is the very simple answer. But remember when I'm answering that question, I'm answering as a scientist, right? And scientists basically don't know a lot of stuff, but that doesn't mean they don't have really strong hypotheses and lots of evidence that lead them to believe, as in this case that it is highly unlikely that this originated in a lab, but it could have. So let's acknowledge that. David's book is just a brilliant description of why that is so unlikely.

The first thing to think about is, well, we know a lot about the previous pandemics and many epidemics that didn't become pandemics. None of them originated in labs. They almost all originated with spillover of viruses from wildlife directly to humans like HIV AIDS or via livestock from wildlife to chickens and pigs and from them into humans like the flu viruses do. So it would be very unlikely to start off with that this came out of a lab.

There are no characteristics of the virus or the genome of the virus that suggest it came from a lab, despite what you hear. If you talk to the genomics experts, they'll say, "No, that doesn't make sense." People point to the furin cleavage site and the code and this and that. So that doesn't actually stand up. There's a lot of hype around that.

We know that the early cases of COVID that are documented, and there was a lot of work by scientists that went back and re-examined that very carefully because there was some mistakes made initially. On careful re-examination, there's an incredible clustering of the early cases around the market there-

Ramanan (12:54): In Wuhan.

Nigel (12:54): ... in the city of Wuhan. And in that market, we know that there was wildlife that would be considered high risk as reservoirs, what we call reservoir species of these viruses, especially coronaviruses. And we know that they were being kept in conditions that would greatly increase the risk of spillover. Basically, highly stressed, injured, sick, hungry animals. Like us, when an animal gets stressed and sick and it's put in a cage and transported hundreds of miles, its immune system doesn't do very well.

When we get tired and stressed, we get sick. Same thing happens to a raccoon dog, which is one of the suspects as the host species here. Now, we know that these animals were in tight confines with hundreds of people walking around them, very close to them. We know that the early case was around there. So there's a very substantial amount of good evidence that this most likely started in the market with one of those animals.

(13:59): One of the issues, and David explains this very nicely in his book, and he and I have talked about it is that as soon as this started, the officials in the town went and cleaned up the market. And so it was very hard to actually gather any evidence. You would go around and swab and collect stuff off the floor and the cages and the people.

They went and cleaned all that up because they were afraid that they would get in trouble because this animal trade was illegal. So senior officials swoop in from Beijing or whatever, "Oh, what market animals? No, nothing. No, no. Yeah, come on. It's the lab. It's probably the lab up the road." I mean, goodness knows. You can imagine those conversations. So that made it a lot harder.

(14:53): One of the really striking things about this whole story, which I heard firsthand from people at a conference in Singapore a couple of years ago was when SARS-CoV-1 happened, the earlier SARS epidemic in 2003, if people remember that the original SARS, which is a very similar virus that happened, there was no politics.

A team of international scientists, including American scientists linked to the US military were flown into China to investigate and start the research and gradually unravel and put together the story of where did that virus come from. No politics, really good science. And that was completely impossible this time. Donald Trump was pointing his finger at China. Others were different sort of ethos in the Chinese government as well, I think to start with much more inclined to not cooperate, to cover things up.

And certainly, the Chinese didn't feel any need to cooperate or collaborate on this as they don't on many other things. So unfortunately, the science didn't get done in the way that it should have been done despite some local efforts. And we may never get to the bottom of this one, but I'm hopeful that we will, as time goes by.

Ramanan (16:15): So Nigel, we'll get to the rainforest in due course. Actually, here's a good way to get started on it, can you opine on the connection between pandemics and climate change?

Nigel (16:30): Yeah, I'm doing a lot of work on that right now. It's really scary.

Ramanan (16:38): Great.

Nigel (16:39): Well, they're both scary to start with, but put them together and you get some really serious problems. We're actually working on some major research funding proposals to do some more science on this right now, which is what I will go back to when we're finished recording this podcast with collaborators at Cornell and around the world. So let's see.

So first, let's understand where the viruses are coming from and why they spill over. So they're spilling over when humans come into contact with wildlife or something that's got the virus in it that's carrying it from its reservoir species like a rodent or a primate or something that may have picked it up and be an intermediate host.

(17:26): And a lot of those species, mainly mammals, especially bats, rodents, primates, they're happily living out there in the rainforest. They're very happy. They're generally not very sick. The bats especially just don't get sick. They've got all these viruses in them and they just carry on. And there's a whole other story. You should do a whole podcast on what is so special about bats. I can introduce you to the people working on that. It's an incredible story.

Ramanan (17:53): Please do.

Nigel (17:54): Yes. So bats are really good at having lots of viruses in them and not getting sick. Think about them living with millions of little friends all close to each other. So they've got these amazing immune systems.

Ramanan (18:08): I've actually thought about that in the past, which is they appear to be riddled with these viruses, but-

Nigel (18:12): They are.

Ramanan (18:13): ... they survive and thrive.

Nigel (18:16): They have extraordinary immune systems. So that's a whole other piece of research that I'm not working on. But what makes a bat's immune system so robust that could be something very useful for us to understand. They're mammals, after all. They're not that distantly related. So there they are, happy out there in the forest and along come the bulldozers and the loggers and the farmers and the ranchers and they start clearing and chopping it down. Suddenly, you've got lots of people near the bats.

Maybe more significantly, you've got bats that are very stressed out, that are losing food sources, losing shelter, and they develop what's called a high allostatic load. They get really stressed. Their immunity is damaged, as we were saying earlier, is reduced. And the viruses then start to reproduce like crazy and they're shedding a lot more virus. So now, you've got the conditions for spillover in that ecosystem.

(19:17): The other route that they take would be through our livestock. Someone like me, I've got quail out here in my backyard. Wild birds come by, the quail catch avian flu, the avian flu mutates. And I catch avian flu and trigger the next flu pandemic globally. That's probably going to happen somewhere at some point in the next few years.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza spreading through poultry into humans. It's already spreading, but it's not evolved to spread through the humans yet. So it stops every time it infects a human, but it's killed a few hundred people in Asia already. So that's what's happening.

(19:58): So then along comes climate change. What does climate change add to this mix? Climate change-

Ramanan (20:06): Sir, destruction of habitat!

Nigel (20:10): So damage to the habitat because of droughts and rainfall patterns changing, good. But there's something else that's maybe even more significant.

Ramanan (20:18): Oh no. What?

Nigel (20:20): Yeah. Which is-

Ramanan (20:20): I'm a total failure.

Nigel (20:22): ... that these animals start to need to live somewhere else because the weather's changing, right? So their ranges shift and they start mixing with species and other things and other viruses that they have not mixed with before on a global scale. So there's been some modeling work done on this. And the people who've done that work say that they claim that that is in their view, the greatest risk driving future spillover viruses and pandemics.

We're not sure if we agree with that, but it's definitely an important part of the story. So stuff mixing up in different ways because of the climate changing, animals being stressed and moving around because their habitats being destroyed. And then, what's happening to the people in these environments as well and this is not what gets so much attention, right?

You've got ecologists looking at those questions and you've got social scientists and medical scientists looking at the human piece. They don't talk to each other very much, but we get them talking to each other.

(21:31): And what we realized just recently is, well actually there's exactly the same thing happening to the people. The people are forced to move around. The people in these often quite impoverished rural settings, they're already stressed. They have high allostatic load, reduced immunity. Think about the mental and physical stress you're under as a small, poor farmer. And then, it stops raining and your kids are sick. And then, along comes a bat and a virus and you are easy pickings.

So the human and animal health and stress is in parallel intersecting. So there's a whole series of factors here that climate change exacerbates. And so this is now doubly, triply concerning from where we started. Having a good day?

Ramanan (22:26): I don't know. I'm feeling sick already actually. No, hold on. So let's talk about preventing pandemics at the source because this is a segue to precisely that item. So this sounds like hell on earth. What are we doing?

Nigel (22:40): So the really good news here is that we know a lot about what to do. If we just back up to where we were on climate change, we know a lot about how to deal with climate change. I'm sure you've discussed that with others. What do we need to do? Why aren't we doing it? So this is another piece of the story that creates even more reason to address climate change.

We don't need any more reasons to address climate change. But hey, here's another one we just went through COVID. This is actually something that everybody in the world was touched by, some tragically. So let's pay attention to that.

Nigel ( 23:20): We can do a better job of protecting the habitat of the reservoir species, protect the food and the places where the bats and the primates and the rodents are sleeping and living. Leave them in peace, protect them, restore their habitat. If they're getting out into agricultural landscapes, discourage them from coming and living in our homes.

So that's relatively simple structural work on people's homes, so that you don't have ... I mean we have bats coming in our attic here, but they don't get into the house. And rabies is a risk here. That's actually a real issue.

(23:59): There have been cases here in New York of that, even deaths. So now that's more challenging in a rural, poor, tropical setting perhaps. But that's the kind of work that needs to be done and that public health agencies and others can work on. A really, really big one, which we all interact with unless we're vegans and vegetarians is livestock. So especially the pig and poultry industries. So huge numbers of animals being kept in close proximity.

Again, think about those depressed immune systems. Think about heavy use of antibiotics, which might suppress the appearance of symptoms from a viral infection as well. And you've got, again, a lot of ingredients there. So the animal agriculture industry, they have a lot to do on this.

That is really tough politically because obviously they have very effective lobbies, particularly in the US. We need a more, what we call biosafety in animal agriculture. It would cost, but the industry needs to, and government need to get a lot more serious about that too.

(25:15): And by the way, I mean the key thing right now is all those things are good to do anyway. They have all no regrets. It's good to treat the chickens and the pigs better. It's good to protect the rainforest. It's good to deal with the climate, protect the biodiversity, restore habitat.

It's good to improve primary healthcare in rural areas for local people so that they're better able to resist a new infection if it appears, that's another one. These are all no regrets that we should be doing anyway. This gives us another reason to double down on these things.

Ramanan (25:50): So just one more question on preventing pandemics at the source, and then we may sort of head in a couple of other directions quickly. What are the two or three things in this initiative that you are most focused on? Because this could be an endless list.

Nigel (26:08): Yeah, we're most focused on tropical deforestation, partly because that also is a major contributor to climate change and human rights abuses of indigenous people and so on and so on. And we believe that's probably the highest risk driver of spillover.

Ramanan (26:30): Fascinating.

Nigel (26:31): Very concerned about animal agriculture, but hard to deal with because of the politics as I was just saying. And then, the third one is the general trade and consumption of wildlife. And when I say that maybe people think first of the images from China and animals in markets and so on, but I think the largest importer of exotic wildlife in the world is actually the United States of living exotic wildlife for the exotic pet trade and other purposes.

So we're not talking about poor people in traditional communities, who are consuming wildlife as a source of protein. Yes, that does create some risk, but those people are quite adapted to those environments. They probably have significant immunity. We're talking about large-scale commercial exploitation of wildlife, including large-scale farming of wildlife and so on in China, in the US, in Europe. Mink farming, just one very specific, I think it's ridiculous-

Ramanan (27:45): I didnt't even know that was a thing.

Nigel (27:47): Mink farming, right?

Ramanan (27:49): Where?

Nigel (27:51): For coats in the US, in Europe, wild mink are farmed. Early on in COVID, it was discovered that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID really likes mink and reproduces very well in those mink farms. And a bunch of mink farms were closed down and mink were culled and so on. It was like crisis panic. "All right, we can't do that." Well, are we doing it now? Yes, there's been an effort to outlaw it in the US, but it has not been. I mean, do we really need to do that?

These are the perfect conditions for the virus that we have just come through. And many of us are still suffering with long COVID and many are still dying from new infections; 1,000 or so, how many is it a day now, is still around 1,000 a day I think Americans are dying from SARS-CoV-2.

So meanwhile, we're allowing mink farming in the US, where the virus will circulate in the mink. And guess what? It'll evolve. It can evolve, it can reinfect humans. It's in contact with humans. It comes back in a different and worse form. It's called spillback.

Ramanan (29:06): I'm never leaving my house again.

Nigel (29:09): You should leave your house, but do not buy a mink coat.

Ramanan (29:13): Or approach a bat.

Nigel (29:15): You shouldn't approach a bat, leave the bat alone. The bat does not want you to approach it. It's very happy out there, flying around and it's doing so many good things. It's eating the mosquitoes, it's pollinating the flowers. It's part of the ecology and great.

Ramanan (29:30): I'm extremely, extremely bat friendly. I have a strong pro-bat stance.

Nigel (29:33): That's good. I saw that flip-flop there. That was good.

Ramanan (29:38): Okay. So coming back to the thread of your life. So tropical rainforests for many in the US, it's taken on some of the appeal of charismatic megafauna, right? It's a lot easier to get excited about the rainforest than it is about scrubland in this isle or whatever. What is the most at-risk area in terms of the rainforest? Meaning, which part of the world do you view as most under threat?

Nigel (30:07): Right. Well, so there are other habitats that are at greater risk because there's just not much, there never was very much of them and it's being threatened. So that's another question. But the example that comes most to mind because I did some work on this is it's actually a temperate rainforest. Thank you, temperate coastal rainforest, the California Coast of the US.

Ramanan (30:34): Oh wow.

Nigel (30:34): Seattle, British Columbia, temperate rainforest is extremely special and far more threatened than tropical rainforest because there's much, much less of it. And it's been and still is in some places heavily logged. It's down in southern Chile as well. But if we come back to the rainforest where you've got three really big areas still remain, right? The Amazon, which is shared by eight countries, that's number one. The Congo Basin shared by half a dozen countries in Central Africa. And then you've got Indonesia, Southeast Asia, the biggest chunks left there are in Papua, on the island of New Guinea, also some other big pieces in Kalimantan or Borneo.

(31:19): And then, as you go down the list, you get some really interesting places that get much less attention like parts of West Africa, think Sierra Leone, Liberia, Myanmar or Burma, parts of Cambodia, Thailand and even Southern China for sort of subtropical rainforest. And in each of these places, you've got different things going on. Generally, forests continuing to be cleared.

In the Amazon, it's mainly driven by the expansion of cattle ranching for beef production and road building and so on. In Central Africa, it's more small-scale agriculture, mining, and logging. In Indonesia, it's palm oil and agriculture for other products, mining, and so on, small-scale and large-scale. A lot of it in Asia and Latin America is very large-scale industrial activity, clearing large areas of forest for mass-market commodity production. And we're all connected to that probably in one way or the other through different commodities and supply chains that we're on the end of as consumers.

Ramanan (32:33): And which of these areas is getting ... This is like everything is under siege, is there one that's getting more of your attention than others for any number of reasons, including receptivity?

Nigel (32:47): Well, the one I've worked the most on of my whole career is the Amazon region. It's the one that really stands out in terms of its scale and significance. So much of what needs to be done depends on politics, right? We see that dramatically in this country on a whole range of issues. Elections matter, who's in power matters.

Ramanan (33:10): 100%.

Nigel (33:10): And Brazil has been through the home for about 60% of the Amazon Rainforest, has been through, like here in the US, this dramatic swing of politics for ... In the early 2000s, Brazil instituted a number of reforms that led to a very dramatic reduction in forest clearing in the Amazon. They actually reduced deforestation by 80%. Massive reduction greenhouse-

Ramanan (33:39): Wow.

Nigel (33:39): ... gas emissions. It was the biggest contribution any government has ever made anywhere to reducing greenhouse gas emissions; was controlling deforestation, the Brazilian Amazon around the period of 2005 to 2012. And then, the government changed and it flipped around and went the other way with Bolsonaro, who was Trump of the tropics, actively anti-environmental, quite corrupt. So agricultural interests and so on were able to influence that agenda. And now, it's swung back the other way with a big effort now with Lula being re-elected and his team coming in to protect forests. So there's real progress in the Amazon.

(34:27): You've had tremendously good leadership on this in Colombia as well. Bolivia has not been good. Peru's been up and down. Venezuela's obviously got other issues. These are sort of the other Amazon countries. Indonesia, which is where I've lived and worked on the ground the most on these issues is actually a success story.

Currently, they have reduced deforestation steadily over the last several years. However, there was recently an election there and let's just say it's quite unclear what direction that policy will take. Some are very concerned, we just don't know yet. We haven't heard from the incoming president what his priorities are going to be.

I'm cautiously hopeful that he will continue a strong forest protection agenda, but he may not. And there will be a lot of eyes on that aspect and what he does on climate change and so on as well. Indonesia is a very large country, doesn't get discussed much in the US, but a very significant player on these issues globally.

Ramanan (35:37): Yeah, well I have spent a lot of time in that country, so I can relate to all of this. And it turns out that we've gone way over our standard time for an episode and that too, in discussing things I did not think we were going to discuss. So this is all kinds of awesome. So I'm going to attempt to wrap us up here. What's next for Nigel? How long do you think you'll be doing this?

Nigel (36:01): I've given up answering that question over my career. I used to think I knew, but I now know from looking back that often my career and life takes very dramatic turns every five to 10 years. And I really embrace and love that. The pandemics work is actually really hard because no one wants to talk about it. Apart from you, no one wants to talk about pandemics these days.

Ramanan (36:28): Really?

Nigel (36:30): It's the opposite. People do not want to talk about it and think about the psychology, they got through it, "I just want to forget that ever happened." People who've lost loved ones, of course-

Ramanan (36:42): But it could happen again tomorrow.

Nigel (36:44): Always going to remember, it could happen again tomorrow. But you look at the politics on this, political leadership, they do not want to talk about it. They've got stuff going on, they work on it. There's more work going on than there used to be. But finding the resources and the political leadership to move this agenda forward is now shockingly difficult.

It fell off a cliff sort of around the time that President Biden said, "The pandemic's over." And in some ways, it was, but it's not. And it could happen again at any moment and it could be worse. So we need to keep ... I mean that in a way that says, okay, even more important to keep working on this. I hope I can keep working on this, but there's only so much of pushing pieces of string up hills that you can do. And there might be other things that need more attention and more tractable. So we'll see. I don't know.

Ramanan (37:44): Right. Well, all we can say is you're doing incredibly important work and now our podcast will help make a few more people aware of it. So I want to wrap us up here by saying thank you. Our apologies for not getting this right, but it's just turned out to be this amazing thing in which we've discussed existential issues for humanity that also involve climate. Nigel, thank you. And hopefully, we'll have you back here soon.

Nigel (38:13): Thank you, Ramanan. It was great pleasure.

Ramanan (38:29): Thank you for listening. Please email us at with any suggestions or ideas and visit for the full transcript of this podcast and other information.


In Our Hands
In Our Hands
In Our Hands is a podcast series featuring interviews with climate and sustainability experts on the front lines of climate action, emphasizing behavior change. Guests include researchers, journalists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, authors, and more.