Earlier this week in his State of the Union address, President Obama made what was arguably the strongest statement about climate change that has ever come from the leader of the free world when he proclaimed that, “Climate change is a fact!”
Sustainability advocates across the globe breathed a huge collective sigh of relief when those words were spoken. Obama’s emphasis on clean energy and transportation was encouraging. His focus on strengthening policies to protect our air, water, natural resources, and pristine federal lands was rousing. And, his words about unleashing the next big discovery, stopping subsidies for fossil fuels in favor of investment in fuels for the future, and creating a clean energy policy that creates both jobs and profits for our country were downright exciting.
But, words are empty until they are backed up with action. I’d like to believe that just by saying the words, the President’s vision for a more sustainable future will materialize. But those of us in the trenches know all too well that, as the President himself said when he quoted wounded veteran Cory Remsburg, “nothing in life that is worth anything is easy.” Our efforts are no exception.
While we’re undeniably making progress towards greater sustainability, the work is slow, the road is long, and the real, long-term results can be difficult to measure. Certainly, individual awareness about the importance of climate action and sustainability continues to grow, and the global community is more cohesive and united around the issue than ever. The risk that we now face is not whether we will evolve our thinking, but how quickly that transformation will happen.
Despite the President’s clear message about his desire for climate action, it’s evident that tide-turning change isn’t going to come from the public sector. Fortunately, there is no need to wallow in Washington’s ineptness—there are plenty of individuals who have taken the proverbial reigns and are driving transformation.
Proof positive: international economist and Columbia University Professor Graciela Chichilnisky, who has dedicated her career to sustainable economic development. She authored the carbon market for the UN Kyoto Protocol, which became international law in 2005. She also created the concept of Basic Needs, a global sustainable development model used by the UN, and she acted as a US Lead Author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which received the 2007 Nobel Prize.
Chichilnisky believes that the chasm between our urgent environmental needs and the slow rate of our systemic change can be attributed to a disconnect between the cause and effect of climate change.
In an enlightening recent interview, Chichilnisky explained the logic behind this theory. “We’re in a fascinating moment of time, when capitalism is transforming.” she said. “At the end of World War II, we formed the IMF, World Bank, and other organizations to increase global trade. Global trade between nations grew since then 350% compared with growth of the global economy itself. This is the meaning of globalization. Capitalism inherently is a good system, but what we’re practicing today harkens back to Neocolonialism, a system in which rich nations (which represent just 20% of the global population today) demand the over-extraction of natural resources from poor countries.”
Chichilnisky asserts that “The cause of climate change is our extraction-based economy, but the effect is not just economic, it’s also physical and geological. But scientists, engineers, geologists, and environmentalists can’t affect any kind of real change without help from economists.”
In order to match the cause and effects of climate change, Chichilnisky advocates for placing a price on carbon and creating active markets that provide incentives for clean energy. “This is the carbon market of the Kyoto Protocol, in a nutshell. By putting a price on emissions, we make dirty energy undesirable and clean technology profitable. In so doing, we reconnect economics with physics and geology, matching economic problems with economic solutions.”
As the population grows and developed countries continue to increase their standard of living, our global electricity demand is projected to double over the next 20 to 30 years. This will put unbearable stress on our environment and economy. Chichilnisky is convinced that the only way we reach a sustainable future is by dealing with power plant emissions, building clean power plants across the globe, particularly in developing countries. “If we do this, we can mitigate the worst risks of climate change.”
Chichilnisky was therefore encouraged by the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the Executive rights of the President and the EPA to put limits on power plant emissions (which account for 45% of total global emissions). She feels that this action was a keystone in what she hopes will become the transformation of our economy from Neocolonialism to a form of capitalism that incorporates environmental externalities.
Professor Chichilnisky isn’t just lecturing about taking action. She has co-founded Global Thermostat, an emerging company that has developed a low-cost way to simultaneously generate clean energy and remove carbon from ambient air. GT’s “carbon negative technology" can be integrated with legacy power plants, renewable energy plants, and manufacturing facilities. “This is the real way to assimilate carbon markets into our economy—by figuring out how to make money from the capture of carbon. In this way, we’re turning our worst enemy into our best friend.”
Chichilnisky has earned her place on the global stage. While her work isn’t done, she has already created a lasting legacy. She is case in point that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world. She is a reminder that we don’t have to wait for Congress to act—we hold the power to transform the economy in our own hands.
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