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Google Flights will show users what the carbon emissions would be for a trip

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Big Tech is now trying to help fight climate change after a raft of bad publicity. This past week, YouTube and Google announced they will be blocking ads from appearing next to content denying climate change in order, they say, to stop bad actors from making money. And Google is also now making it possible for travelers to learn how big their carbon footprint will be when booking a flight, for example. It's being touted as a way to help people cut greenhouse gas emissions. Katharine Hayhoe is chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy and a professor at Texas Tech University. She joins us now to talk about these moves.

Hello.

KATHARINE HAYHOE: Hi. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many critics say it's about time that Big Tech actively fought climate misinformation on their platforms. But I want to look in particular at the Google Tools because a lot of what I hear people say is that, I feel powerless in the face of climate change. What can I do in the face of climate change? Do you think these tools will help?

HAYHOE: Well, you're absolutely right. When you survey people across the United States, 50% say that they feel helpless and they don't know where to start, so every little bit counts. And often, when we make personal choices, the biggest impact that has is that changes us and our perspective on the world, and it gives us something to talk about with other people. So they've done experiments before where they've shown that if you just give people information - information on how many calories we're consuming or how much electricity we're using - simply having that information makes us more conscious of it and makes us able to make better choices.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You seem to be saying that this is a good idea in principle, but do you really think it can change people's habits? I mean, a first-class seat has a higher footprint than economy, but will people that might fly first class really choose the environment over comfort?

HAYHOE: I'm not sure that they will, but this will give people at least the information that they did not have before. And, you know, companies are starting to transition to electric planes for short haul flights. That's going to be coming in the next decade. Some companies, like United, are already using biofuels, like when they fly out of the LA airport, and that cuts down on their carbon footprint too. So this is a way that will allow companies that are making changes to have those changes immediately obvious to the consumer in a way that would not otherwise happen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the case of the flight search tools, though, you'll now see a green badge next to flights with lower emissions than others on the same route. Do you think it will force the hand of the way airlines do business? I mean, they are already changing the way, but it's still a way off before electric planes.

HAYHOE: It is. I mean, they're already starting to sell them commercially, but it's a way off before they become standard. And we want to make sure, too, that this is not yet another excuse on the behalf of industry to push off the responsibility to individuals. When we look at global carbon emissions, for example, a third of global carbon emissions have been produced by 20 companies since 1965. Ninety companies are responsible for two-thirds of all carbon emissions since the dawn of the industrial era, so there is a long history of companies pointing the finger at individual consumers when the companies are the ones that need to be making the changes. But with this tool, consumers will be able to see which companies are making the changes, hopefully, so it isn't just about the shortest route that produces the least carbon. It will hopefully be about companies who are making real changes to significantly cut the carbon of the flights.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last question - the fact that Google is now doing this, YouTube also blocking ads from appearing next to content denying climate change, I guess the question is, why didn't they do this sooner?

HAYHOE: Oh, I do not know the answer because I have the same question. I know that for years on YouTube, if somebody went to YouTube and watched one of the "Global Weirding" episodes that I do with PBS, immediately afterwards, they would be offered a video by a denial organization that said exactly the opposite with no scientific basis. A colleague of mine at Texas Tech University, Ashley Landrum, has studied how YouTube is primarily responsible for the spread of the flat Earth conspiracy theory. So it is past time for social media to take responsibility for the fact that it is not creating but playing an active role in disseminating false information.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Katharine Hayhoe is chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy and a professor at Texas Tech University. Her new book is "Saving Us: A Climate Scientist's Case For Hope And Healing In A Divided World."

Thank you very much.

HAYHOE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.