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A Little Bit of Optimism- 5 Pieces of Climate Hope in the US Today

This week world leaders met in Bonn, Germany to discuss the international climate accords that came out of the 2015 conference in Paris. Recent reports that world C02 emissions have not yet peaked, and that the world is far off from the stabilizing the its temperature leave things looking a little bit bleak. Add to that the withdrawal of the United States from the agreement, now the only country in the world  not committed, it’s easy to feel pure despair. When non-sensical non-science  climate policies have arisen at the federal level and American  institutions and values  are under threat, here are a couple rays of hope.

1.     Data: Steady Access to News & Current Information  

In a time when it is increasingly difficult to find non-partisan, fact-based information there is still a steady stream of critical data coming out of key government institutions, and news organizations.

Most notably, the Energy Information Agency (EIA) reports monthly on a breadth of subjects related to the power sector and its intersection with the economy (industry, transportation etc). The EIA reports are accompanied by backup data to support the results and analysis, and they provide the contact information for the data analysts. The analysts take responsibility for the data ad I have personally contacted them. This promotes accountability and reminds me that people in some areas of the government are doing their job well. What’s best is that the site lists when the next report will be released, again promoting transparency and accountability.

The EIA in conjunction with organizations such as Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Greentech Media, and academic institutions provide quantitative data that propel the energy industry forward, and enable climate action.

2.     Academic Institutions Are Sending Green Signals to the Next Generation

Across the United States higher education institutions are creating environmental, climate, and sustainability focused programs and degrees that train in both the social and  hard sciences. They are training the next generation of professionals and leaders in all fields, and integrating stewardship and environmental management into those discussions.  

What’s more, this commitment goes beyond the classroom. Universities are practicing what they preach by “greening” their energy portfolios. One of the most impactful trends is the procurement of renewable energy. Harvard, The George Washington University,  and American University (just to name a few) have invested in solar and wind farms to power their institutions for the long term. Universities are many times bureaucratic risk adverse institutions, but as large and long-standing energy consumers they have harnessed the economic benefit of renewables and chosen to advance the clean energy industry.

3.      Cities & States Are Flexing Their Muscles

Since the United States pulled out of the Paris climate accords, there have been a slew of leaders from states and cities that have reinforced their independent commitments to the accords and to facilitating a shift to a clean power grid. The Governor of Massachusetts, Republican Charlie Baker  quickly signed on after the United States withdrew. The C40- Mayors are dedicated to creating sustainable cities powered by renewable resources. There is a list of towns, counties, cities, and states committed to that goal. And it’s growing.

4.     Cross Sector Action- Private Sector & Non Profit Partnerships

Big tech companies have dedicated resources to understanding where their power comes from, and securing their power supply with reliable renewable resources. They do this for their own economic benefit and security, but most companies  also have created energy teams or subsidiaries that explore ways to diversify and strengthen their energy baskets. They communicate about their decisions, which advances the industry altogether. Nearly every Silicon Valley company- Amazon, Google, Apple has its hands in the energy game, and many are encouraging a conversation about supply, and the role of  electricity  in climate change.  Global Power Watch, an Electric America partner, is an initiative by the World Resources Institute to map and provide information on all of the power plants throughout world. That initiative is funded by Google.

5.     The “Clean Energy Economy” is a powerful force.

Not only is the clean energy economy a thing, but it’s a documented and impactful phenomena. In 2016, the Department of Energy put out its first jobs report, the U.S. Energy and Employment Report (USEER)  characterizing jobs by industry. It noted whether jobs fell into the category of “Traditional Energy and Energy Efficiency," and which ones contributed to low carbon electricity production. The report ties together in one place the carbon and economic impact of the energy industry. The solar and wind energy trade organizations, SEIA and AWEA, are also reporting on jobs growth.  In January 2017 the second annual report was released. As of the 2017 report, 800,000 Americans contribute to low carbon electricity production, and about 32% of the U.S. construction industry work in energy building efficiency projects, totaling over 2 million Americans.

Do you have other optimistic tidbits? Comment below. 



Optimism and Criticism, Two Peas in a Climate Pod (A Climate March Anthem)

In fall 2015, I received a paper cutout article from New York Magazine in the mail entitled “The Sunniest Climate Change Story You’ve Ever Read” (read it here).  It was the type of note that could only come from a grandmother, one who is constantly on the lookout for things that relate to her grandchildren. Good news and climate?! I immediately devoured the content and pinned it behind my desk. 

As an environmentalist, student of science, millennial, and rational person I am supremely concerned at all times about the state of the environment and the effects of climate change on the earth and its people. I am always looking for good news, but more often than not, I feel compelled to point out the irrational, the untrue, the problems with our action, the "negative." It's a never ending effort, noting the facts around human demolition of the natural world, and the natural world's reaction.

So can you be optimistic and a climate advocate?

It seems like a fundamental part of being a climate advocate is being cynical. The main reason why our calls for action are increasingly urgent is because there is little attention paid and minimal action- we are calling from a dire place.  We are driven to action because of the nagging feeling that we, as a society, are going down, and because of the apocalyptic vision we see.  

And, to top it, people around us are complacent, and even optimistic.  It will take care of itself; the market will do its job and make sure water stays clean and there’s enough to go around.

That’s not how markets work.  And I was compelled not to be optimistic because it seemed that so many other people were, and it was not prompting solutions.  

But I was mistaking optimism for ignorance, and criticism for cynicism.

Climate advocates are optimists by nature. They wouldn’t bother working on it if they weren’t; if they truly thought they were screwed and there is no hope in progress, they’d spend their money, live fast and die young.

When I graduated from GW, a couple of honorary doctorates were given at commencement and the recipients spoke before the headliner. I remember very few words from the day, and fewer people, but these words remained with me.

“Cynicism is the death of society.”

They were not spoken by the main speaker, Apple CEO, Tim Cook, but a woman with a background in public service. I was absolutely taken aback but her choice of topic. It was not about moving forward, or utilizing an education, it was about not being a cynic. Cynicism and optimism are choices.

Willpower is the Mark of A Human

I think we have enough money and mindpower to reduce the effects of and stymie climate change. I believe we have the capability.  We now have flying and self-driving cars, superfast trains, and 3D-printed houses. It is the ability to think and choose, our willpower and mental strength, that separate us from other species.

We need to put that to the right use. We need to develop our collective will power, and decidedly change cultural norms.  Mark Jacobson of Standford University found that we can power the entire world on wind, water and solar technology, and do so economically. The barriers are largely social and political.  They are collective choices we must make individually and together.

A choice to-

  • To conserve
  • To surrender an ability to use unfettered amounts of electricity at any given time
  • To not get 5 coffees in a day
  • To value moderation
  • To take your time
  • To use public transit; to understand and accept when someone is 10 min late sometimes because of the bus

the list goes on..

The question is- do we want to use our willpower? How do we harness it collectively? What does that look like?

Advocacy and organizing have been successful historically. Local communities in the Pacific Northwest stopped 6 of 7 proposed terminals for coal export in recent years. The March for Science in NYC on Earth Day drew thousands of scientists and everyday people. The Climate March in DC on 4/29/17 is expected to draw tens of thousands more.

But it also looks like not taking plastic bags for Chinese leftovers; noticing when a coworker down the hall brings his own metal spoon with him to lunch everyday, and joining him. It involves making a culture where environmental decisions are normal and the decision makers are not outsiders. Small actions on a grand scale invigorate communities and result in cultural revolutions. They move the climate dial forward, ultimately saving carbon and preserving species.

 We see it today in niche arenas- customers and businesses making values-driven decisions. There are coffeeshops that have pushed back against grab-and-go coffee, and the idea of coffee shops as internet cafes. They don’t provide wifi, and only give out mugs to stay. They have customers who value it for what it is, a place of community and face-to-face connectivity. That is a choice on behalf of the business, and the customer. When values are placed at the forefront, they can be very impactful and pervasive among social groups.

And it start’s with someone asking- Do I need or  do you need 15 napkins? Why am I not eating in? Do I need to drive a car this weekend? Can we go to XYZ coffeshop because it encourages reuse?

We can be optimistic and still critical of daily habits.

Optimism and criticism are two peas in the climate pod. They can and should coexist. They  are fundamental complements.

So, to everyone marching this weekend in DC in the Climate March, and all those who are not, who are reading this post and thinking critically about our collective societal actions- Keep on keeping on. Keep criticizing, and looking up. For those are the starting points of a movement.



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