Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reducing Energy Demand: It’s Not Only About Technology And It Doesn’t Always Require Experts

In transforming our world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions there’s room for the creativity of all of us.

In our simulation modeling of the transition to a low-carbon economy, we find plenty of policies and actions with huge potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon prices, investment in renewable energy, and investment in a new energy infrastructure all have a part to play. But most of the successful scenarios we find in our simulation runs also have another element – reductions in energy demand.

Technology, from more efficient appliances to highly fuel efficient vehicles, has a lot to contribute to reducing energy demand.

But that is only part of the story.

People are also, without any new technologies or inventions, coming together to create systems that accomplish the same goals with less use of energy.

One of my favorite examples from recent months was reported in the Washington Post.
A class of second-graders, concerned about climate change, looked at the line of cars picking up children in front of their school each afternoon. If only we could make the pick-ups go more quickly, they reasoned, there’d be less idling, less waste of gas, and less greenhouse gas pollution.

Thinking and learning together, the kids came up with a system where pick-up times were staggered, every few minutes, based on the first letter of a family’s last name. Not only did the amount of idling decrease, but parents reported less hassle and less stress from waiting in long, slow-moving lines of traffic!

There are similar examples in most communities, if we’d just take the time to stop and look. In my neighborhood, for instance, we use an email listserve, which often has requests for “anyone going grocery shopping who could pick up one thing”, cutting done the number of trips by car we all need to make.

Urban design that makes cities more walkable. Bike sharing systems that make it easier to get around without a car. Ideas like these don’t need scientific breakthroughs (although we could use a few of those too). Thinking smarter about our energy use mostly requires imagination and a willingness to experiment.

And, if the quotes from the second-graders are any indication, we might just discover that coming up with new ideas is very fun and satisfying too!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Three Reasons To Keep On Working on Climate Education and Energy Policy

“Wow.  I just want to cry.  Please tell me we are making a difference.”’
Those were the words of a colleague today after she watched a  video illustrating a recent Bill McKibben essay about a rising tide of climate change symptoms around the world.
Many months have passed since the disappointments of Copenhagen and the failure to pass climate legislation in the United States.
Facing urgency from the planetary physics and gridlock in the political process, it is probably natural to feel discouragement at times.

But there are good reasons to believe we are making a difference, and good reasons to keep on going.

Here are three that keep me going: 
While it may feel like time is running out, time is also on our side.
  1. Climate symptoms will become stronger and more convincing with the passage of time, and so will the lessons from those trail-blazing communities that have already leaped into the transition to clean energy and begun to reap the benefits in cleaner air and better jobs. If we keep moving ahead and doing our best, the dynamics of the system are destined to provide us with lift and support. Keeping going means that we are planting our seeds, strengthening our networks and building our capacity to seize the moments that a changing climate and cutting edge energy experimenters will offer as time passes
  2. No one can predict the evolution of attitudes and beliefs.
    Just like the climate system, human systems of attitudes and beliefs are complex and non-linear, with tipping points where change becomes unstoppable. If you made a graph of these patterns there would be a long, flat ‘tail’ rising suddenly and steeply when a critical threshold is passed. We can’t know where those thresholds are until we’ve crossed them, but they are one reason to keep on writing, speaking, teaching, analyzing, organizing, voting, lobbying, and doing whatever we can. Keeping going means adding, little by little,  to the cumulative total of small actions that could someday carry us over a critical threshold.
  3.  There isn’t a point where it makes sense to stop trying, saying ‘all is lost.’
    Every tenth of a degree of temperature increase prevented means better odds of survival for some species somewhere, or some community sometime in the future. When it comes to climate change, making a difference isn’t so much a matter of solving the problem once and for all as it is tilting the odds and keeping more options open.
So there you are, three ideas that keep me going, convinced we are making a difference. Without doubt there are more than these three.

What are some more? Why do you keep going?

Friday, February 25, 2011

In place of certainty - learning

I've spent the past weeks deep in data and competing theories on the transition to clean energy.  So many people are so certain they know what is needed, but the more I learn, the more humble I feel.

Depending on which report you read, we need everything from technical brilliance and breakthroughs to new definitions of happiness. We need political reform and the removal of money from politics. We need  behavioral change or a massive build-out of a 'smart grid'.  We need to redesign cities, cut the price of renewable energy, or charge the full costs of polluting energy sources. Or maybe we need to electrify transportation, redesign the electric grid, change our habits, invest in clean energy R&D.

Some of the proposals make more sense to me than others, especially those that influence the core structures of systems - internalizing the price of greenhouse gas pollution for example or restoring health to democracies in order to produce better decisions for the long-term and the common good. But I find myself with less and less faith in any proposal or plan. For better or worse, in this interconnected world it begins to feel impossible to predict what will happen next, let alone try to direct events toward a specific end result. Technical breakthroughs in China ripple through to mix with political factors in the US, to combine with attitudes about mountaintop removal, to mix with revolution in the Middle East and the changing price of oil, to combine with falling costs of renewable energy, to mix with rising evidence of climate change to produce conditions never seen before in the world. Who, really, knows whats coming next?

In uncertain times it is so tempting to try to discern the right course of action and to denounce all the other possibilities. But, because of the very uncertainty of these times, I suspect we need to cultivate the opposite response. We need to pursue our piece of the puzzle with focus and determination,while  remaining aware of and grateful for all the other paths. When the activists change the political landscape the engineers need to stand ready with the clean technology. Or maybe its the other way around, when the engineers have their breakthrough, the activists need to be organized to take it to scale.

We also need, it seems to me, openness to possibility, willingness to experiment, willingness to be wrong, and wilingness to share what we are learning. We need tools to track how we are doing, tools that help us see the collective impact of all the little local changes that are happening, tools that play out the trends into future, illuminating not specific predictions but a general sense of direction.

I'm biased of course, because those are exactly the sort of tools our team has been producing for years, but, still, I feel grateful that my day's work doesn't ask me to pronounce what we should do, but rather asks me to help people look forward into all the futures that could emerge from this moment and connect those futures to the choices we have before us today. Step by step, if we take the next hundred years on that way, looking far forward and doing what we can with what we have at hand today, perhaps we will learn our way into a sustainable future and something that might even come close to wisdom.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lessons From Climate Change - One

When I started this blog, I decided to call it "Climate Teacher" largely to remind myself of my belief that as much as it is a problem to solve,  climate change is also a teacher for humanity, reflecting back to us important lessons about our own nature and the nature of our home, the Earth.

Yesterday, snowshoeing through our woods in the midst of snow flurries and wind, I decided that, with the start of the new year, it would be a good time to reflect on and try to articulate some of those lessons, at least as I see them.

Here's the first one:

Climate change teaches us that the destinies of all people and all nations are tied together. 

When Brazil cuts is deforestation rate we all benefit by the additional carbon dioxide that Brazil's forests can sequester. When the US misses the opportunity to adopt climate legislation that could have catalyzed the beginnings of a clean energy revolution, the whole world suffers from the additional greenhouse gasses that will be emitted in the coming years and decades as a result.

One thing that people always discover when they test emissions reductions scenarios with our climate model, C-ROADS, is that without every region of the world participating, its not possible to limit emissions enough to keep future temperatures within safe bounds.

In the old world, the world before climate change, it might have been better if nations worked together, but they didn't HAVE TO. In the old world, nations expected to solve their own problems.  Climate change is a challenge that solve together or not at all.

In the process, our attitudes and our institutions will need to slowly (or not so slowly!) shift until they come to reflect the physical truth that our single atmosphere, for better or worse, ties us all together.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Visions, Part Two

Photo credit:Wikipedia
Here's what can happen with visions:

In a previous post, I wrote about time spent  thinking and sketching about a flower garden in need of rejuvenation and a new goal of making space for more medicinal plants, including the European black elderberry, whose flowers and berries can be used to make a tincture which really helps fight off colds and flu. Right now we buy our elderflower extract from Israel, and I've been thinking that it would be another step towards meeting our own family's needs more locally to grow our own. Plus elderberry bushes are beautiful, and attract pollinators and butterflies.

So, there on my little map of the north garden sits a single circle where the elderberry, once we find it, will someday grow. Some years ago when we tried to start a black elderberry bush, seedlings were very hard to find. The more common Canadian elderberry was easy to find, but not the black variety, which is another species.

But, just one day after my sketching and dreaming, Phil tells me he has some news. He decided to go looking online for black elderberry and found a source right away. And, you can't plant just one black elderberry, it turns out. First of all, every plant needs a companion for pollination if you want to harvest any berries. And then, there are varieties to try, with interesting foliage and different growth habits. So we need at least three. And, did I realize, they grow to be 10 feet high?

So now we will have elderberries in the spring!  But not just one, and not in the spot I imagined, which is much too small for a full grown bush. I'm not sure we have room for three, but maybe a neighbor will want to experiment with one of them.  Now there are conversations to have and sketches to redraw.

That's how it goes with visioning, at least in my experience. The simple act of stating what I would like to see happen opens possibilities and and quickly presents new questions. It works that way with little visions, for bushes and gardens, and with bigger ones, for revitalized economies and cooperation on global challenges. One needs to be willing to work with whatever comes our way, be it three ten-foot shrubs, or three new partners from across the world.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Looking for Hope? A Book Recomendation

In a time of environmental crisis, how can we live right now?

That's the question posed by editor Martin Keogh in a new collection of essays, Hope Beneath Our Feet, that I've been reading, bit by bit, since I unwrapped it Christmas morning.

The book is full of beautiful, short, often meditative essays, by well known writers like Barry Lopez, Bill McKibben, Barbara Kingslover, Michael Pollan, and Vandana Shiva, and others who aren't quite household names, but have an important message to share, like my friend Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees, or fellow Vermonter (and recent candidate for governor) Susan Bartlett.

As I make my way through the essays in this book each one so far has spoken to me, offered me a little gift, an insight  or a reminder of something important..

One of the themes of the essays gathered here is acceptance. The Earth is changing, by virtue of human activities. We can accept the changes, see the resilient ways in which the earth rebalances itself, and do our best to work along with that power. Opeyemi Parham puts it well in the closing words of her essay, Waking Up From Despair: "I choose to feel power in the earth as it responds and reacts to humanity's actions. I choose to take my fear and breathe it into excitement. The earth, older than I can even imagine, is reshaping itself."

Another theme is the clarity that can emerge for us in facing up to the extent of our current crisis. We are being forced to choose to recognize our interconnection and interdependence. In her essay, Do the Will of God, Come What May, Alice Walker writes that "our suffering on this small planet is about learning enjoyment. Choosing peace over pain and destruction. Growing into a
comfortable universality. Letting go of pettiness. Dissolving tribalism, nationality, speciesism."

And several of the essays remind us that nothing, including dire predictions of our failure to meet the current challenges, is certain. Historian Howard Zinn puts it particularly well in The Optimism of Uncertainty, "We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people's thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible."

I'm going to keep this book handy this year, as the kind of antidote to discouragement and cynicism and as a reminder that it's not over until it's over and that none of us are really alone in these challenging times.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Visions, for gardens and for the world

My sister-in-law and brother gave me a journal for Christmas. They know that this is one of my favorite things, all those blank pages, waiting to be filled in with notes, or observations, or new ideas. A blank journal, to me at least, is ripe with possibilities.

Today, I initiated my new journal. On the first page is now a (long) list of 2011 projects. They range from the very practical and urgent (paint the house, fix the rotting board by the basement door) to the more optional and fun (build a wood fired oven for baking bread). Following the list are sketches of gardens and plans for changing and improving them (fewer perennial flowers in the north garden, more berries and medicinal herbs, more cooking herbs, closer to the house).

The list is, without doubt, much more ambitious than one family could accomplish in one year. Based on past growing seasons and past lists, we'll take care of some items, do some things that never made it onto the list, and carry some things forward to 2012. The vision of fewer flowers and more berries and herbs will be a gradual transformation that will unfold over several years. But having the ideas in my head and the sketches in my journal helps me work with the gardens and see the possibilities. The iris that have spread out of control are really in the cranberry bed, I see that now from my afternoon's sketching, and when the snow melts and the ground thaws, I'll know what to do. And I now know to keep my eyes open for a black elderberry seedling, which is hard to come by, and I know where I will plant it when I find it.

My friend and teacher, Donella Meadows, said that she never started a project, whether it was a sweater to knit, a book to write, or a garden to plant, without first envisioning the finished project in her mind. Her devotion to the practice of visioning influenced me, and I try to hang on to that practice, not just for gardens, but for the projects we undertake at Climate Interactive, and for the world that those projects are aiming to contribute to.

For me, visioning is easiest for gardens, and still pretty easy for grant reports or model sectors (though neither the gardens nor the models ever come out looking exactly like my vision for them; both gardens and computer models are not, it turns out, precisely controllable).

I have to work harder and look deeper to imagine a sustainable world, to envision the world that I and so many others are working to create. But it's not actually that hard. The seeds of the future are, after all, around us all of the time. Out of the  actions of the young people I met in Cancun I can see the wave of grassroots organizing that could produce the political will for change. Watching my neighbor Stephen drive the horses across new snow I see the revitalized agro-economy of our region. Warmed by wood heat, my computer powered by electricity made from cow-manure, I see and sense the renewable energy revolution.

I've never yet pictured perfectly the finished garden from the depths of winter, and I don't believe I or anyone else can really see how a sustainable world will look and work. But even in dark times, one doesn't have to look that far to see seeds of possibility, calling for our energy and attention. And those are good starting points, for choosing next steps, for little garden plots, and for big wishes for the future, too.