Solving Climate Change – For Real
The problems – and the possibilities – inherent in climate change came into bulls-eye focus for me in one 24-hour period, the first day of September 2017. I live in the moderate Mediterranean climate of the San Francisco Bay Area. That day the temperature outside was 107 degrees and the temperature inside the house was 97 degrees. Hurricane Harvey had just dumped a record-breaking 50 inches of rain onto parts of Houston, TX, causing flooding, destruction of homes and businesses, and death. That day wildfire were destroying habitats in northern Los Angeles and in Oregon. And that was just what I knew about happening on the planet that one day.
And that day I picked up the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken. Drawdown hit the New York Times bestseller list in its very first week of publication, and for good reason. The solutions proposed there are the focus of this newsletter.
I picked up Paul Hawken’s new book Drawdown because I had read about it in “The Climate Change Issue” of Dumbo Feather magazine, which had arrived in my mailbox the day before. (Dumbo Feather: Conversations with Extraordinary People is just the best resource of inspiration for “Passion – Purpose – Community” ever; published in Australia.) That coincided with the arrival in my mailbox of the “Freedom and Fairness in Renewable Energy” issue of Yes! Magazine: Journalism for People Building a Better World.
And suddenly I had in my awareness the devastating impacts of climate change and in my hands hundreds of bona fide strategies for shifting from depleting and “dirty” fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) to clean and renewable fuels (solar, wind), and the accounts of thousands of people around the globe working hard to implement them.
Blown away. By the synchronicity. And by the very real shift from doom and despair to let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work because this really could work.
And, of course, the shift from disaster to possibility is at the core of resilience.
May these perspectives and stories be inspiring to you and yours.
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming is encyclopedic in scope, yet all the data are presented with such clarity and ease of understanding, I read it cover to cover like a novel. And editor Paul Hawken’s intention was to present the 100 positive, thoroughly researched, workable solutions focusing on real stories of real people implementing these solutions. The aim of these proposed solutions is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and “draw down” carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to levels that will reverse global warming, save our climate and save our planet.
These solutions focus on reducing the use of fossil fuels (being depleted at astonishingly rapid rates anyway) and increasing the use of renewables – solar and wind power (already becoming a cheaper – and limitless – source of energy anyway). The solutions offered by this paradigm shift of generating energy are then applied to food, buildings and cities, land use, transport, and materials. The “most comprehensive plan ever proposed…”
And sprinkled throughout are factoids we can all understand:
Just as mobile phones leapfrogged installation of landlines and readily provided communication services in undeveloped countries, off the grid rooftop solar panels can bring electricity to rural parts of low-income countries; affordable, clean electricity becomes a powerful tool for creating local jobs and eliminating poverty.
Wind energy is now the least expensive source of new electricity capacity and the use of wind turbines is expanding exponentially around the globe
Livestock such as cows generate the potent greenhouse gas methane as they digest their food. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the worlds’ third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
Methane digesters turn the inevitable rotting organic waste from food production, plant and animal, into biogas, a clean source of energy, and nutrient-rich fertilizer. Methane digesters are ranked #30 (out of 100 proposed solutions) because methane molecules in the atmosphere create a warming effect 34 times stronger than carbon dioxide.
Multi-strata agroforestry – raising low-growing grains, herbs, fruits, coffee and cacao among higher growing trees would save $700 billion in agricultural costs by 2050 while reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 9.28 gigatons. Raising cows among trees – silvopasture – is ranked #9 (out of 100 proposed solutions) saving $650 billion in agricultural costs while reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 31 gigatons by 2050.
The clear message of Drawdown is to move out of denial or despair into hopeful action fueled by real possibilities. See Exercises below for some down-to-earth, practical affordable things you can do right now, easily, to contribute to the solutions to climate change.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE[All quotes from Livia Albeck-Ripka’s interview of Paul Hawken in the third quarter 2017 issue of Dumbo Feather, “The Climate Change Issue.”]
The way climate change has been communicated is guaranteed to make most people feel like there’s not much they can do – that it’s too complicated. The science is extraordinary but the way the science has been communicated has been inept because the emphasis has been on fear, dread, and gloom.
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“Eat smart, live closer to home, forgo fossil fuels, eat less meat” are what you will find if you Google the top solutions to climate change. These are proverbs, not solutions, and it doesn’t mean they’re not good things to do. Proverbs generally are. But they don’t give anybody a sense that their action is going to accumulate into a sufficient difference that will counter what scientists are predicting…patterns of drought, torrential rainfall, heat waves, disruption, changing ocean currents and 500-year floods every 15 years.
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All of the solutions in Drawdown, with a couple of exceptions, regenerate human, ecological and economic wellbeing. They’re the same thing. Regenerating atmosphere is what happens when you regenerate a village, a fishery, a forest, a farm, a city, a transport system and the ocean. They’re all interconnected. We would want to do virtually every one of the solutions detailed in Drawdown even if there was not climate science, because they make things better on all levels.
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Somehow we’ve gotten our shoelaces tied together such that we can’t imagine an economic system that offers full employment, that provides a sense of value, self-worth and dignity to every human being. Climate change offers us that possibility.
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I doubt that Syrian refugees understand that they are in the plight they’re in because of the failure of the wheat crop caused by the drought that lasted over four years. You step back and you look at the deracination of the agricultural community in Syria causing tens of thousands of unemployed impoverished young men to go to the city. That’s incendiary tinder for terrorism and demagoguery. Jobless, hungry youth looking for identity against a corrupt regime. But nobody [will say directly] that the Syrian refugee crisis was due to climate change.
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Although Drawdown is fact-based and laden, it’s full of stories about real people in the world, like the man who stopped the desert, Yacouba Sawadogo in Burkina Faso. There’s the story of Alexander von Humboldt who first described climate change in 1831. Stories about the first solar panel being installed in 1884 in New York City. If we didn’t have facts it wouldn’t be credible; however facts provide structure for narrative.
I think we’re going to be shocked at how fast some of these solutions grow and replace fossil fuels. The rate of change is exponential right now with respect to many of the technologies. I think we’re going to surprise ourselves with how quickly we’re making this transition from non-renewable to renewable. The electric grid companies are looking a bit worried because their business model may be gone in 20 years due to home energy storage combined with solar. Let’s say you live down the street from other people who are generating their energy. If they decide to link their systems together, swap each other’s energy as needed, the utility business is gone. That’s what’s coming.
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
“The Man Who Stopped the Desert”
Drawdown offers this story excerpted from Mark Hertsgaard’s book Hot: Living through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. The hero in this story is Yacouba Sawadogo and his use of tree-cropping to stop the desert in Burkino Faso, Africa. Further excerpted here:
Yacouba Sawadogo was not sure how old he was. With a hatchet slung over his shoulder, he strode through the woods and fields with an easy grace. But up close his beard was gray, and it turned out he had great-grandchildren, so he had to be at least sixty and perhaps closer to seventy years old. That means he was born well before 1960, the year his country now known as Burkino Faso gained independence from France, which explains why he was never taught to read and write.
Yet despite his illiteracy, Yacouba Sawadogo is a pioneer of the tree-based approach to farming that has transformed the western Sahel over the last twenty years. His farm in northern Burkina Faso was large by local standards – fifty acres – and had been in his family for generations. The rest of his family abandoned it after the terrible droughts of the 1980’s, when a 20% decline in annual rainfall slashed food production throughout the Sahel, turned vast stretches of savanna into desert, and cause millions of deaths by hunger. For Sawadogo, leaving the farm was unthinkable. “My father is buried here,” said simply.
“In the drought years, people found themselves in such a terrible situation they had to think in new ways, “said Sawadogo, who prided himself on being an innovator. For example, it was a long-standing practice among local farmers to dig what they called zai – shallow pits that collected and concentrated scarce rainfall onto the roots of crops. Sawadogo increase the size of his zai in hopes of capturing more rainfall. But his most important innovation, he said, was to add manure to the zai during the dry season, a practice his peers derided as wasteful.
Sawdogo’s experiments proved out: crop yields duly increased. But the most important result was one he hadn’t anticipated: trees began to sprout amid his rows of millet and sorghum, thanks to seed contained in the manure. As one growing season followed another, it became apparent that the trees – now a few feet high – were further increasing his yields of millet and sorghum while also restoring the degraded soil’s vitality. “Since I began this technique of rehabilitating degraded land, my family has enjoyed food security in good years and bead, “ Sawadogo told me.
Farmers in the western Sahel have achieved a remarkable success by growing trees. Not planting trees. Growing them. What is known as agro-forestry. The trees’ shade and bulk offer crops relief from the overwhelming heat and gusting winds. The trees leaves act as mulch after they fall to the ground, boosting soil fertility. Leaves also provide fodder for livestock in a season when little other food is available. The improved planting pits developed by Sawadogo and other simple water-harvesting techniques have enable more water to infiltrate the soil and water tables have been rising.
Trees can be harvested – their branches pruned and sold – and then they grow back, and their veneftis for the soil make it easier for additional trees to grow. Wood is the main energy source in rural Africa, and as he tree cover expanded, Sawadogo sold wood for cooking, furniture making and construction, thus increasing and diversity in his income. Trees, Sawadogo says, are also a source of natural medicines, so small advantage in an area where modern health care is scarce and expensive.
“I think trees are at least a partial answer to climate change, and I’ve tried to share this information with others,” Sawadogo added. “My conviction, based on personal experience, is that trees are like lungs. If we do not protect them and increase their numbers, it will be the end of the world.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
Installing a roof-top solar grid (from Drawdown)
The mysterious waves and particles of the sun’s light continuously strike the surface of the earth with an energy more than ten thousand times the world’s total use. Small-scale photovoltaic systems, typically sited on rooftops, are playing a significant role in harvesting that light, the most abundant resource on earth. When photons strike the thin wafers of silicon crystal within a vacuum sealed solar panel, they knock electrons loose and produce an electrical circuit. These subatomic particles are the only moving parts in a solar panel, which requires no fuel.
Rooftop solar panels have experienced exponential growth over the last decade. Transforming a square meter of rooftop into a miniature power station is proving irresistible. Small scale photovoltaics already generates electricity more cheaply than it can be brought from the grid in some of parts of the United States, and in Australia, Denmark, Germany, Italy and Spain. (My friends Marianne and Stan reduced their monthly electricity bill from $400/month to $30/month when they installed rooftop solar on their home.)
And solar panel generates electricity without emitting greenhouse gases or air pollution.
To learn more about installing solar panels in your own home or business, check out this helpful fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Energy;
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken. Penguin Books, 2017
Dumbo Feather magazine: Passion-Purpose-Community: Conversations with Extraordinary People. “The Climate Change Issue” Issue 52, third quarter 2017. St. Kilda, VIC, Australia
Yes! Journalism for People Building a Better World, magazine. “Freedom and Fairness in Renewable Energy” issue, No. 83, Fall 2017