Posts from October 2010

Time is Running Out

"What we need more than anything else is a mass movement of young people," Peter Goldmark, director of EDF's Climate and Air Program, who recently announced his retirement at the end of the year. "In American culture, it is youth that sets the agenda. It's always been this way.  Think who was driving change in the anti-Vietnam war movement, in the civil rights era. They have to mobilize, now, and demand action against global warming."

The wheel of change is turning in spite of our government's inactivity

We are sitting in Goldmark's small, spare office at EDF's Manhattan headquarters. He has had a distinguished and varied career, which included stints as Director the Port Authority of New York, President of the Rockefeller Foundation and publisher of the International Herald Tribune. I've come to talk to Goldmark, as he prepares to leave EDF, about what he has learned during his tenure. He speaks angrily of the "shameful paralysis" of the U.S. Senate, and says his focus is now is almost entirely on the next generation.

"My generation has failed," he says flatly. "We are handing over the problem to our children. They—and their children—will live with the worst consequences of climate change. Make no mistake, global warming is happening right now. It is only going to get worse."

In a 2003 paper, "Before the Storm," he wrote: “We are, I believe, living in the time before a storm of historic proportions, a period of searing difficulty for the peoples of the world and the planet itself."

Peter GoldmarkGoldmark: A tough negotiator who draws inspiration from a Chinese poet.

But the world, Goldmark added, was failing that challenge: "We all—citizens, governments, and foundations—face in common the imperative to respond constructively to the crises of our times. And we are not responding. We are drifting."

That drift continues, he says. Nor does he expect the marketplace to solve the crisis of climate change for us. Markets, he notes, may respond to social agendas, but they do not set them. But Goldmark isn't entirely disheartened. "When historians look back at this decade, from 2000 to 2010, they will see that the wheel of change began turning in spite of our government's inactivity," he says. "We have begun a very slow transition to a low carbon, high efficiency energy system." The problem is that we are not moving fast enough.

What Goldmark—along with all leading authorities on climate change—fears most is that we still do not understand the urgency of the problem. "When I think about how I would address a group of young people, my message is not a gentle one," he says. "This is the hardest, most terrible, thing to say to a young person, but we have no choice: it is five minutes before midnight. Time is running out."

That means we no longer have the luxury of polite, time-consuming public debate on the issue. "We have to be much more aggressive about pinpointing our enemies, and doing it early—showing how and where they are spending their money to undermine our efforts," he says. "We need to learn how to inflict pain on the opposition."

The environmental movement must also do a better job of linking climate directly to shrinking harvests, falling water tables, receding glaciers, extended droughts and more violent storms. Already, food, water, and climate problems are simultaneously hitting many nations. It's happening now, and we need to connect that to climate change in the minds of all people.

Environmentalists also need to reach small and medium size businesses with this message. We've done well in educating the GEs of the world, but we need to convey the urgency of climate change to the people who run or work at the smaller enterprises, because their numbers, and their voices, carry influence. That's what made the Chamber of Commerce such a powerful voice against progress in the Senate debate on climate change.

While at EDF, Goldmark has traveled the world with his message and helped to extend the organization's global reach. He has worked on projects in India, Mexico, Brazil, and China, as well as in the United States. Everywhere he went, he tried, indefatigably, to raise the awareness about the need for prompt action.

There is, he emphasizes, "no such thing as an American solution to global warming." Slowing global warming down demands international efforts to reduce carbon emissions. "Either we all get there together, or no one does."

The need for global solutions is another reason Goldmark is now putting his hope into a youth movement. "Young people are already transnational thinkers. This is one of the great gifts of the Internet culture. Fifteen to 35 year-olds are used to thinking globally. They are the ones who are going to insist that the United States get on board with international solutions."

Unfortunately, Goldmark believes that the United States will continue move slowly on climate legislation. "We will need other countries to lead the way," he says. "We even have to remain open to the possibility that China will emerge as at least a co-leader once others begin to move. China is choking on its economic boom supported by conventional, high carbon energy, and the pollution is getting worse daily. Even though the country is investing heavily in alternative energies—and threatening to penalize heavy polluters—we have not yet seen them move off reliance on coal."

I ask Goldmark about hope, a subject much on my mind these days, as science delivers ever more bad news about the condition of the planet. It's a question he gets asked a lot.

Goldmark begins by noting that the world still has enough time to draw down carbon emissions to forestall the consequences of climate change. Also, there is much we do not know about how climate change will unfold, he points out. This reminds me of a recent conversation on the subject with Jeremy Grantham, Chairman of the Board of GMO, a Boston-based fund, who told me, "While we deal in probabilities, there is hope. It is only when we deal in certainty that things become hopeless. And the outcome is not yet certain."

Goldmark agrees, and points out that countless polls show that Americans understand that climate change is a problem, and want it addressed. The problem is only that it is never high on anyone's agenda.

"It has got to be said, over and over again," Goldmark says, "this is an urgent situation. We must act."

In his work with EDF, Goldmark has done more than most to get us closer to solving the climate crisis. Yet he hesitates to predict what is going to happen. "I do the best I can, without being able to see how it is going to come out."

Still, he adds, history shows that people have a remarkable ability to blunder into solutions. Several days after our talk, he sent me a poem about hope, written by the Chinese poet, Lu Xun.

Hope is like a path in the countryside.
At first there is no path.
And then, as people are all the time coming and walking in the same way,
a path appears.

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Biodigesters in Bangladesh

By Peter Goldmark

I'd like to invite you to take a little walk with me.

It's hot where we’re going…really hot. We're in a rural area but it's fairly densely populated…it's clear the people are very, very poor. This is low-lying country, most of the land is really not much above the rivers and the sea at all. See those levees and small mud dikes over there? See the huts clustered on those mounds? That's to try to escape the water when it floods—which is often.

We're in Bangladesh—the largest poor country in the world, or, if you prefer, the poorest large country in the world. The bay out there is the Bay of Bengal.

We walk now into the home of the Rayak family. We are here to see their biodigester.

Their what?

BiodigesterWith microfinancing for projects like biodigesters (above), farmers in Bangladesh are helping reduce global warming and avoiding illness. Credit: David Yarnold.

This is a cement vat that holds their animal waste. Actually that odor you're smelling is unmistakable, so you know darn well what it holds. In this case, it's not cow dung, it's poultry waste…chickenshit, to use the vernacular.

It's a three- cubic-meter tank. (This is a relatively large, souped-up biodigester model, so to speak, like a car with an overhead cam or turbocharged engine.) The waste runs from under the laying area of the chickens through a banked cement funnel into the biodigester, where it…ferments. I believe that's the word the connoisseurs use. It ferments anaerobically, and presto! It produces…methane. A fair amount of it. This is trapped under pressure beneath the lid of the biodigester, and it is piped, in a simple plastic line hung from the trees, right into the Rayaks' home. The methane is used for cooking and lighting. It's essentially natural gas–clean, odorless.

The Rayak family is moderately prosperous by Bangladesh standards, although you would find them very poor. I saw at least six children, there may be more. They have a serious chicken farm. And now that they have clean energy, they're no longer chopping down trees and shrubs for fuel, their children don't have respiratory disease, and people emitting carbon in far away places like you and me are helping them to buy the biodigester – by buying the credits for avoided carbon generated by the Rayaks, aggregated by our partner Grameen Shakti, bought and underwritten through our partner E&Co and marketed to corporate buyers by one of our other partners, Ecosecurities. (And Grameen Bank is making a micro-loan to the Rayaks to help them finance the purchase of the biodigester.) It's really quite a virtuous cycle, if you break it down and look at it closely.

Here is a family that either used expensive, carbon-emitting kerosene, or burned wood from shrubs and trees that also emitted carbon, and — worse — filled the house with smoke and particulates, putting the children at serious risk of ARI. Now they have clean, affordable energy – that emits a fraction of the carbon that was emitted before. So let’s add this up:

  • healthier children
  • less deforestation
  • less carbon emitted
  • cheaper energy for the family
  • the residue is a very powerful fertilizer, which the family can use or sell
  • and indirect benefits: higher literacy, lower fertility

Now maybe you begin to understand why EDF is working in this village with Grameen, helping monetize the avoided carbon to make the biodigesters cheaper and more acceptable – and using carbon financing to help Grameen take the whole system to scale.

But wait. Look overhead. Right there, on the tree branch over the biodigester — do you see the plastic lines? I see 14 lines spreading out through the trees overhead…What is going on, Mr. Rayak, I ask? It turns out that Mr. Rayak – who as you may recall had a deluxe, V8 turbocharged jumbo-sized biodigester, is selling methane to 14 other families. He has become, in fact, a clean energy entrepreneur. No one has anticipated this.

When I have dinner with my old friend Mohammed Yunus, the founder and head of Grameen next evening, he smiles knowingly and instructs me that this is not at all surprising…that of course, we were trying all along to tap into the initiative of the poor, that they are good credit risks (he slips into his basic Grameen shtick). I think he is full of…well you know, what we were talking about it earlier, and politely I tell him so. "Come on, Yunus, neither of us saw this coming." He beams, and we both laugh. We both like this unanticipated dividend to our project.

Does all of this seem far away? Not much to do with cap-and-trade? Hard to fit the Rayak family and you and I into the same frame?

But that's the whole point, isn't it? The Rayaks and you and I are all in the same boat. That is the crux, the brutal reality of the enormous adventure on which we have embarked: a race to see if we can get enough carbon out of the human economic enterprise to allow the atmosphere to stabilize before the most catastrophic consequences of global warming occur.

Seeing all of these pieces — the huge oil majors; Gazprom; the automobile industry; the assembly-line of Chinese coal plants; buildings around the world that leak huge amounts of energy; the vast deforestation underway in Indonesia protected in some places by the army; and the Rayak family, and his 14 neighbors who are buying methane from him — seeing all of this in the same frame – that's what's required, isn't it?

We are trying to convince, coax and cajole six billion people to get on the same road and face together in the same direction: to choose the road of low-carbon, high efficiency, economic growth and individual opportunity.

If you tell me that this is difficult, I will nod in grim agreement.

If you tell me that it is idealistic, I will tell you that it is essential.

If you tell me that it is romantic, I will tell you that no door ever opens unless you knock.

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