October 13, 2010
“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.”
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.”
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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