By Nilesh Murali
Normalization. The word may strike a nerve because we are all guilty of it in some measure.
I was ‘shook,’ as they say, from my bland apathy when former Executive Director and Chairman of the Sierra Club Carl Pope dissected climate change at the Commonwealth Club of California in February, at a panel event co-hosted by the America India Foundation. A chemical engineer two years-deep in the solar industry, I’m a committed environmentalist-evangelist, but with every (justifiably) frightening headline, I had internalized the message that the consequences of climate change were inevitable and that we, as a civilization, were beyond redemption. A changing climate, a less hospitable climate, was the new reality. Until Carl Pope, Michael Bloomberg, and a ‘Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet,’ dispelled the climatological miasma.
In an expertly moderated hour by Grist CEO Brady Walkinshaw, Pope artfully scrutinized the myths shrouding climate change, detailing the process of distilling a complex issue with co-author Michael Bloomberg, CEO of Bloomberg L.P. and former New York mayor, into actionable, even hopeful, takeaways. The talk was punctuated with a discussion of Scott Pruitt, that also laid the groundwork for a bipartisan approach to climate change reversal.
It was refreshing to the say the least. Pope pulled relevant facts and figures seamlessly from his memory to illustrate the perils of doing nothing, while ultimately focusing on an upbeat message. According to his research, for example, food waste in the US represents up to 5% of our GDP. That’s food that takes resources to grow and fuel to transport and dispose of, creating greenhouse gas emissions in the process. It was an astonishing fact and yet the fixes were pretty straightforward – more efficient distribution systems, more online ordering – and were in-sync with market forces.
Some of Pope’s anecdotes revolved around how something that has become a partisan football like climate change (with much hand-waving, outright denial, and ‘Hail Marys’) has actually spurred bipartisan action when stakeholders have realized an economic and political benefit. With the rapid growth of renewable sector jobs, for example, many conservative states now pursue green business-friendly policies as these jobs start driving local energy economies.
“It’s a very partisan issue at the national level. But if you get down to the local level and you look at which cities are choosing to embrace clean energy, it turns out the first big American city to say it was going to be a 100% renewable was San Diego, which has a Republican mayor. Another big city that has said it’s going to go 100% renewable is Salt Lake City, the largest city in the reddest state in the country.”
As the world continues to globalize and China and India continue to carry millions out of poverty, an inescapable topic is the needs and demands of these behemoths, specifically with regards to energy and food consumption. Here too, Pope had a message of hope and mild admonishment. With disastrous air quality in China and India’s major cities, governments have gone into overdrive to cut pollution and reign in associated healthcare costs. In India, coal-fired power plants are now regularly underbid by solar farms and biomass-burning cook-stoves are giving way to cheap, safe gas alternatives. On the food production- and consumption-side, China’s national obsession with pork and India’s national obsession with veggies may well ensure environmentally sustainable dining.
Which brings us back to the US. The information that elicited low groans from the studio audience was the outsized role of beef and dairy production in global warming – and the therefore relatively less impressive contribution of cars. While the effects of cow-farting (methane) and cow-raising (water and feed) are often brought up in mainstream articles on the topic, Pope really underscored the magnitude of both the problem and the very human element of food consumption. As he put it, our relationship with food is primal and culturally specific. Pope has a weakness for shrimp. America has a weakness for steak. Even here, Pope argued that sensible policies like removing cattle subsidies that artificially stimulate beef consumption were efficient, cost-effective solutions.
Which isn’t at all to say that Doomsday is unavoidable. But Carl Pope brought a jaded, weary audience to a raucous standing ovation. A perpetually overheated earth doesn’t have to be the status quo. In fact, with our business and personal choices, our economic and political votes, we global citizens do not have to be passive victims of the new normal. Pope gave us hope and for that, I’m truly grateful.