Thinking about Earth Day, I did a Google search for “global warming solutions.” Up popped a slew of “what you can do” lists from leading scientific and environmental organizations. When I dug in, however, I found the suggestions rather general — “reduce emissions,” “stop deforestation,” “consume less,” “be efficient,” “eat smart.” The lists were also mainly about what we ought to do, rather than about what people are doing, where we are seeing progress and how we might build on those opportunities. I wondered: How do we translate these imperatives into action for people in different fields and positions?
One important source of guidance is Project Drawdown, a global coalition of researchers, scientists, economists and others, that, in recent years, has built a model to evaluate and rank the top active solutions to global warming, based on their actual impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
I spoke with Project Drawdown’s executive director, the environmentalist and author Paul Hawken, about this initiative and where he sees it heading.
Paul Hawken: Back in 2001, the Carbon Mitigation Initiative came out of Princeton with the famous eight global wedges comprised of 15 solutions that if adopted would stabilize emissions by 2050. I didn’t share the same enthusiasm as other environmentalists because 11 of the 15 solutions could only be implemented by the boards of directors of very conservative, large corporations, and every solution was financially underwater.
In 2013, Bill McKibben wrote his piece in Rolling Stone “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” where he showed that if we burned all the coal, gas and oil that was in reserve on fossil fuel companies’ balance sheets, we’d be Venus. At that time, activist friends came to me and said: “It’s game over. There’s nothing that can be done.”
D.B.: Clearly you didn’t think it was game over.
P.H.: I did not. I asked colleagues: “Do we actually know what we can do with respect to addressing global warming? Can we make a list of things that we are already doing and measure their greenhouse gas impact, along with the cost or savings if any?”
I gathered a small group of friends to see if we could map, measure and model the 100 most substantive solutions to reverse global warming. I wanted to name the goal: “Drawdown” — the first time on a year-to-year basis that greenhouse gases peak and go down. It is the only goal that makes sense for humanity and civilization. And larger goals create a greater sense of possibility.
D.B.: How did you figure out the solutions and rankings?
P.H.: We put the word out to universities around the world, seeking research fellows who would do a master’s thesis on one of the solutions for the princely sum of $1,000. We were overwhelmed with applications from Rhodes scholars, Fulbright scholars and White House fellows. We chose nearly 70 fellows. We used Zoom night and day to collaborate with colleagues from 22 countries. We added 120 advisers and 40 outside expert scientific reviewers of the model itself.
D.B.: How did you decide which solutions to include?
P.H.: We modeled solutions that are in place, practiced, understood and about which there is peer-reviewed science with respect to impact and robust economic data with respect to cost. To source economic data, we used highly respected international institutions, including the International Energy Agency, World Bank, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and Bloomberg Energy. We erred on the side of conservatism on all data.