Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Upward Spirals

Teaching about climate change – whether its the science behind the target of 350 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere or watching as people play the "350-challenge" (using the Pangaea simulator developed by our team from SI, Ventana Systems and MIT to discover what level of emissions reductions will be needed to bring C02 levels down to safety within the century) – means watching the expressions that cross people's faces as they begin to take in exactly where 'business as usual' is carrying us and how much emissions must be reduced to bring the climate system back to something near balance.

I saw it on the faces of Dartmouth students where I was a guest teacher recently. I heard it in the words of new staff members at SI who had their first chance to explore Pangaea the other day.

Reduce emissions by 6 or 7 percent per year around the world? Starting as soon as possible?

If that's what its going to take to stabilize the climate you must be kidding, the faces say.

And then the words begin. Look out the window - where I used to live in New Jersey, in the dorm where nobody seems to care, over in China with one new coal fired power plant following the next.

This feels impossible, the faces say. Please, tell me that it's not.

In these moments, the impulse to making everything all right, to explain how a combination of technology and hard work and co-operation can turn the trends, is close to overwhelming, especially when the faces looking out at me are young ones, the faces of people who will live the longest with the consequences of a changing climate.

What do you say in these moments? I asked my colleague Drew the other day. As he shares Pangaea with groups around the country and around the world he sees the kinds of faces I'm talking about on a regular basis.

His response: I show them pictures of my house. I show them graphs of our energy use. I show them what happened when we insulated, and when we installed the solar water heater. It's my own personal vision of 80% reductions by 2050.

I think Drew's answer is a brilliant one. Whether we think about our challenge as 80% by 2050 or 6% per year, the only place to start is where we are, using what we have at hand.

The real hope and possibility lies in the cascade of change those first steps can ignite - the economies of scale, the waves of innovation, the new ways of thinking and relating that can be unleashed when your neighbor (or your competitor, or a neighboring nation) takes a risk and tries things another way.

The other day I stumbled across some notes SI's founder and my teacher, Dana Meadows, left behind. Even as rough notes, meant for a later expansion that she never had the time to complete, they convey something very important about where our small first steps can lead:

"Greater energy efficiency makes better the greenhouse problem, urban air pollution, and acid rain. At the same time it reduces military and defense expenditures for the Persian Gulf. Enormous amounts of capital are released both from defense and from further construction of energy generators.

In the Third World that capital can be invested in human services, health and education, which brings down the birth rate. In the industrialized world it can be invested in research and development of renewable energy sources -- which further bring down pollution –- and in materials recycling- which saves still more energy and pollution by reducing the demand for primary materials. The mindset of materials cycling takes hold, creating new designs, new markets, and new jobs in materials handling and re-preparation. The careful re-use of wood and paper allow the restoration of forests, which conserve water flows, build soils, and provide habitats for wild species. The improved water regimes improves agriculture, as does the recycling of organic wastes into soil-amending compost.

As agriculture becomes both higher yielding and less dependent on imported chemicals the balance of trade of the Third World improves, debts become payable, incomes rise, further reducing birthrates, further raising income. As capital stops flowing out of those countries for debt repayment, it can invested in education and in new productive activities, energy efficient, material efficient, and with proper pollution controls. As physical constraints and economic problems ease, more and more people could have the freedom to explore who we could be and what we could do if we didn't have to grow."

Imagine that. The tiny steps of my tiny household, or Drew's, or yours, linked to global spirals of solutions. It's not just our problems that are interconnected, but also our potential to solve them.


Anders Vesterberg said...

I found out about Pangaea, Climate Interactive, SI and your blog some days ago. Fantastic work! I am very interested in climate issues and also in the simulator idea. Can I find Pangaea somewhere and test it?
/Anders Vesterberg

Kern Beare said...

Why no recent posts? Has the blog moved?