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Paul Hawken: How to Reverse Global Warming

Posted by Sara Gutterman

Feb 15, 2018 12:42:55 PM

At Green Builder Media’s recent Sustainability Symposium 2018, sustainability pioneer Paul Hawken delivered a rousing keynote outlining a comprehensive plan to reverse global warming.

Paul Hawken is considered to be one of the fathers of sustainability. His early work, including the bestselling book Ecology of Commerce, effectively launched the corporate sustainability movement, inspiring business leaders across the globe, like Interface CEO Ray Anderson, to make major course corrections and craft blended strategies that took into account people, planet, and profit.

At Green Builder Media’s recent Sustainability Symposium 2018: Champions of Change, Hawken offered an impassioned keynote that was as entertaining as it was astute, laden with sage advice that stemmed from decades of experience.

He started his presentation by recognizing the reality of climate change.  “We’re told that the level of carbon in our atmosphere is 407 parts per million (PPM),” he said.  “But the 407 PPM measurement only includes carbon dioxide, and when we add other greenhouse gases like methane, we’re actually closer to 490 PPM.  Humans never existed over 300 PPM until 1939, so this is Terra Nova—we don’t know what’s going to happen to us at these levels.” 

He laments that, today, our goal for addressing climate change is mitigation.  “Mitigation means less bad—to reduce the pain and seriousness of something.  What an underwhelming goal.”  

While he recognizes that small steps—like moving closer to work, using less energy, and consuming less stuff—are important, he emphasizes that they’re really inadequate for the massive task at hand.  He contends that our goals should be much more aspirational.

In that light, he started Project Drawdown, a non-profit that has created what he calls the most comprehensive plan ever to reverse global warming, based on years of scientific research conducted in partnership with a bevy of world-class universities, scientists, and subject matter experts.

Hawken was inspired to start working on Project Drawdown in 2001 after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a strikingly bleak climate assessment report. At that time, he wanted to know where we stood relative climate change and if there were feasible solutions that would enable us to appropriately address it.

At the onset of his research, Hawken realized that if something wasn’t done—quickly—it would be game over.  Rather than being deflated, he was inspired.  “We couldn’t simply give up.  When people say game over, it’s actually game on…  We had to come up with a real solution for actually reversing global warming.  Any other goal would have been avoidance and denial.”

To create an authentic, credible plan, Hawken brought together hundreds of research fellows, advisors, scientists, reviewers, and subject matter experts of all shapes and sizes (and very large brains) from across the globe to model 100 solutions in areas like transportation, land management, renewable energy, agriculture, waste reduction, and recycling.  In order to be selected, the solutions had to exist; they had to be growing on an annualized basis; and they had to had to have robust scientific, peer-reviewed literature to measure their impact.

The researchers then projected the impact of each solution over 30 years to determine how influential each one was relative to reducing carbon emissions and saving money when compared to our status quo.

“We did the math.  That’s all we did.  Drawdown reflects back to the world what we are doing and what we know.  We’re not trying to be right or be advocates.  We’re simply showing the impact of what we’re doing.”

The research found that refrigerant management is the single most impactful solution.  “That’s kind of a bummer,” says Hawken with a smile, “because it’s not really sexy.”

When analyzing the solutions by category, food (including food production, reducing food waste, and eating a plant-rich diet) came out on top.  Right now food production and transportation is the world’s largest source of emissions, however, by shifting our approach to food, we could actually sequester carbon dioxide. 

Electricity generation (with wind and solar at the top of the list) is the second most impactful category, and land (including reforestation and proper land management) ranks third.  The education and empowerment of women and girls is number four, followed by materials; buildings and cities; and transportation.

Hawken reports that there were some unexpected, standout results.  For example, Project Drawdown researchers found that women “smallholders” (who own 5 acres or less) produce over 70% of the world’s food—as opposed to big-ag, which only produces 25%.  “I don’t know about you,” Hawken says, “but ever since I was little, I was told again and again that without big-ag, the world would starve.”

“Let’s stop there,” Hawken continues.  “What does big-ag produce?  It produces cancer, strokes, heart disease, diabetes, and heart attacks, and it’s the biggest source of global emissions in the world.  So, what do women smallholders have to do reversing global warming?  A lot.  Do the math—40% of smallholders are women, and they produce more food than big-ag.  And their food isn’t poisonous.  This has a big impact.”

After doing the math, Hawken is optimistic.  “Humanity is on the case,” he insists.  “Washington is not emblematic of what’s really happening in the world—not at all.  These solutions show the ingenuity and creativity of the global population.  There is so much that is happening and on the horizon, and it’s extraordinary.”

Take, for example, marine permaculture.  “Scientists have created recycled PET structures that they’re inserting into the deep ocean, with tubes that go down 300 feet that pump up cold, nutrient-laden water to create phytoplankton, algae, kelp, feeder fish—the entire food chain.  There is no downside to this type of solution.  It de-acidifies the water and reduces coral bleaching.  It can produce millions of tons of protein in places that have been fished out.  99% of tropical oceans are now marine deserts—they’re dead.  But this solution uses the principles of life to restore life.”

Hawken says that almost all of the solutions researched by Project Drawdown are no-brainers for humanity.  “98 of the 100 solutions are no-regrets solutions.  They have so many benefits—even if we had no clue about climate change, we would want to implement these solutions to enhance our future, irrespective of their positive climate impact.”

While Hawken is convinced that we have the collective intelligence to reverse global warming, he questions if we are accelerating fast enough.  He is certain that we can reverse global warming by 2045 if we switch to 100% renewable energy.

He encourages us to change our language when it comes to climate change.  “We don’t need to fight or combat climate change.  The climate is supposed to change.  We’re supposed to transform our behavior accordingly.  We need to stop talking about the causes, and talk about the cures.”

Hawken ended his presentation by referencing the movie The Martian.  “The movie is a metaphor for what we’re doing on Earth,” Hawken says.  “Matt Damon is on Mars, which is a closed loop system, and he blows out his atmosphere, like what we’re doing here.”   At the end of the movie, Damon addresses a group of aspiring astronauts and says “Listen up, because this could save your life.  When you’re up there, you think you’re going to die.  What do you do?  You can either accept that, or you can do the math.  And you solve one problem, and then you solve another problem, and if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

“And that’s really what we’re talking about,” Hawken concludes. “Let’s come home.  This excursion of humanity—it has been interesting, but let’s come home.  We do that by not dividing ourselves, by not blaming or demonizing each other.  We do that by acting, doing, and showing.  We do that by doing the work, joyously.  Let’s celebrate.  We are winners, because we’re on the side of life.”

Hear, hear, Paul Hawken.  You are a true Champion of Change.

Click here to watch Hawken’s riveting presentation, and click here to read more about the Sustainability Symposium 2018: Champions of Change, generously sponsored by Ingersoll Rand, Emerson, Bosch, Panasonic, Uponor, Samsung, Siemens, and OUC.

Got ideas about how we can reverse global warming?  Write to me at sara.gutterman@greenbuildermedia.com.

Want to read more?  Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.  For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit Green Builder Media at www.greenbuildermedia.com, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter for regular updates and breaking news.

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