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Can global warming really be reversed? Maybe so, and Paul Hawken shows how

Paul Hawken

If somebody told you it is possible to reverse global warming, starting at midcentury, with a suite of currently available, economically viable solutions — no new carbon tax needed, nor a hundred more nuke plants a year — wouldn’t you want to know more?

I did, and so on Tuesday I got a copy of the new book, “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.”

Provocative title, and then there’s the byline: Paul Hawken, the accomplished and respected thinker/entrepreneur who has written from the crossroads of commerce and environmental responsibility for nearly 40 years.

His books “Natural Capitalism” (co-authored with Amory Lovins)  and “The Ecology of Commerce” inspired important change in certain business and policy sectors. “Blessed Unrest” made a persuasive case that truly sweeping change can be a bottom-up enterprise of small players loosely joined, succeeding with or without the blessing of governments and corporations.

Hawken acknowledges that his superlative claim for “Drawdown” might be considered brash, then justifies it:

In 2001 I began asking experts in climate and environmental fields a question: Do we know what we need to do in order to arrest and reverse global warming? I thought they could provide a shopping list. I wanted to know the most effective solutions that were already in place, and the impact they could have if scaled. I also wanted to know the price tag.

My contacts replied that such an inventory did not exist, but all agreed it would be a great checklist to have, though creating one was not within their individual expertise. After several years, I stopped asking because it was not within my expertise either.

It was still outside his expertise in 2013, when increasingly dire climate headlines of the “game over” theme moved him to launch the Drawdown project, which would eventually engage more than 200 climate scientists, engineers, economists, public-policy analysts and other experts in scribbling one highly strategic shopping list of 80 workable, compatible solutions.

No pipe dreams here. No celestial pies. No necessity to sharply lower living standards. Above all, no reliance on a massive shift of government policy or surge of multinational cooperation of the kind we used to hope might drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed, a key appeal of the Drawdown strategy is that it assumes no breakthrough in reducing industrial emissions via government dictate. Instead, it emphasizes voluntary reductions for which there is already a strong business case, and — more importantly, more creatively — on ways to pull emissions back out of the atmosphere.

There is money to be made in most of these 80 endeavors (family planning is an exception). There are new jobs to be filled. Many bring ancillary enhancements to the quality of life on the only planet we’ve got.

Absent from the list are giant, gazillion-dollar air-filtration facilities to strip carbon from the air by force, and sky blankets of reflective aerosols that could cool the climate to the point of disaster.

Using moderate projections on the pace of possible adoption, and conservative calculations of atmospheric impact, the Drawdown experts conclude that levels of CO2 can be made to decline starting in 2050 or so — a little later if efforts lag, a little faster if they accelerate.

They resist organizing them into a master plan, because the point is not to prescribe an overall fix  — only to demonstrate that one is possible, and practical.

80 items in the toolbox

It is difficult to summarize the 80 options on the Drawdown list, but a look at the top 10 — ranked high to low by potential to reduce atmospheric CO2 — will give you a sense of the range the Hawken team endorsed:

  1. Replacing fluorocarbons used in refrigeration and air conditioning equipment with atmospherically benign alternatives like propane and ammonium.
  2. More electric generation from onshore wind turbines.
  3. Reducing food waste by one-half worldwide.
  4. Shifting more of the global diet from meat to plants.
  5. Restoring tropical forest on about half the degraded acreage identified as plausible reforestation locales.
  6. Assuring 13 years of schooling for girls around the world, especially in the poorest countries, as the surest path to voluntary population control.
  7. Encouraging family planning, with enhanced access to contraception, as a corollary effort.
  8. More utility-scale “solar farms.”
  9. Silvopasture — the integration of trees into livestock acreage — to yield resilient landscapes that are healthier for both animals and plants, reduce farmer/rancher costs, preserve land, and sequester a lot more carbon.
  10. More rooftop solar power modules everywhere — on and off the grid, in urban and rural areas, in rich countries and poor.

Some of the other 70 are less familiar but fascinating examples of what innovators around the world are already doing with geothermal, in-stream hydro and tidal power; improved rice cultivation and regenerative agricultural practices that restore land while raising crops; advanced composting and irrigation practices; fitting out buildings with smart glass, heat pumps, green roofs and “alternative cement.”

And when I wrote a moment ago about the exclusion of gazillion-dollar carbon-stripping air-filtration plants, they’re in the book, too — but on a second list of 20 “coming attractions” that right now fall on the far side of current practicality and/or robust data as to performance potential and cost. But, down the road a bit, who knows?

Also in this set: driverless cars and smart highways; microbial farming, marine permaculture and industrial hemp; solid-state wave energy, hydrogen-boron fusion and the power-producing artificial leaf. Also, the obscurely labeled “enhanced weathering of materials,” which takes  crushed silicate rock from mine tailings and spreads it on land or adds it to surface water to absorb CO2 from the air.

Greeted with murmurs so far

I think “Drawdown” is an important book and deserves to be an influential one, but as yet it has attracted strikingly little notice in the mainstream press — or in specialty publications devoted to environmental subjects — since its publication April 17.

Though I wade daily in coverage of global warming and climate change, I first learned that “Drawdown” was out when my friend Jim Davis pointed out a piece about it in Tricycle, a Buddhist journal that is maybe not the first place we expect to find news like this.

Tricycle’s Q&A with Hawken includes a question about whether “Drawdown” is a strategic effort to motivate people with a message of hope rather than one more warning of doom. A fair Q that produced a provocative A, excerpted here:

The implication of the news is you’re causing global warming — it’s your car, your house, the way you eat, the way you travel, and what you buy. So people feel guilt or shame inside. They may not even acknowledge it, but it’s often there. When you mix fear and doom with guilt and shame, you get apathy. That’s Psych 101.

People who are literate in the science may feel disempowered or think that what they do to address the issue is meaningless in terms of making an impact. That is because we are focusing on what “you” can do. We can instead focus on what “we” can and are doing.

If you Google the top ten solutions to climate change — which I recommend you do — you get phrases like “forego fossil fuel,” “upgrade the infrastructure,” “move closer to work,” “consume less,” “be efficient,” “eat smart,” and “stop cutting down trees.” These aren’t solutions; these are proverbs. You can’t argue with proverbs.  But they don’t necessarily give you hope.

On the other hand, our approach was not about engendering hope. From my point of view — which, I suppose, is informed by Buddhism — hope is the pretty mask of fear.

You can’t have hope without fear, whether you’re aware of it or it’s subconscious. What we need to be is fearless, not hopeful, because to be hopeful means that our actions are based on fear. No action based on fear — except running away from a bear — has a good outcome. In fact, you shouldn’t run away from a black bear; you should stand tall.

The anchor of apathy

In the course of 20-some years of investigating and writing about global warming I’ve become all too familiar with that dynamic of gloom/doom/shame/fear/apathy, and I think Hawken has put his finger on exactly why we haven’t made more policy progress.

The biggest anchor dragging behind this boat isn’t climate denial or even indifference but, I suspect, the almost unspeakably deep, defeatist conviction that no response really matters because we are already so thoroughly screwed. I’m vulnerable to that despair at times and maybe you are, too.

If so, read this book — not just as an antidote to fear and despair but as foundation for understanding and supporting the kinds of change that really could be coming, and at every scale from your household to your company, your community, your county and state and national government.

As for hope … well, with or without fear, it usually shows up for me as attachment to some outcome I can’t control. Buddhists believe it’s important to do the right thing for its own sake, without being invested in a particular result — but doing the right thing, and seeing others doing the same, can maybe lead to something like optimism.

We can all stand more of that.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Richard Kooi on 05/04/2017 - 12:03 pm.

    Global Warming FACT

    The Earth has heated and cooled throughout its history
    – climate change is a natural phenomenon.
    Humans have had nothing to do with it in the past, this current warming is just a natural fluctuation.

    the Earth’s climate has changed many times over the course of millions of years as part of natural environmental processes.

    But the scary thing is that this particular warming phase,
    over the last 50 to 150 years, has occurred much faster than ANY OTHER TIME in history.

    Climate change skeptics often argue that CO2 emissions from human activity alone
    could not influence the Earth’s climate to such an extent.
    They point to the fact that CO2 emissions also come from other sources such as volcanoes,
    and that high levels are naturally controlled by plants and the permafrost cycle.

    (( Humans are Dumping 135 TIMES MORE CO2 & gasses into OUR atmosphere
    than ALL of the Volcanoes on Earth….COMBINED….Each & Every Year ! ))

    The problem is that our greenhouse gas emissions disrupt the existing balance,
    whereby the planet is unable to absorb and release the CO2 as it normally would.
    This problem is made even worse due to increased deforestation.

    An increase in carbon emissions caused by burning fossil fuels has caused an imbalance in the Earth’s atmosphere

    The IPCC considerers it “highly probable” that human influence has been the primary cause of global warming
    since the mid-20th century.
    Since 1750, the concentration of CO2 has increased by 40 percent, and methane by 150 percent.

    Although skeptics also often try and highlight the 3 percent of scientists who are not certain that human activity
    is driving climate change, these researchers are frequently from conservative think tanks such as the Cato Institute,
    which is funded by companies such as Volkswagen and other groups that rely on the CONTINUED USE of fossil fuels.

  2. Submitted by Tom Karas on 05/04/2017 - 01:09 pm.

    Atta Boy Ron-

    For continuing to bring forth the important information well beyond the shiny object of the day. WE can accomplish this, it has been known for a long time now how simple things like family planning can have giant impacts on our Earth. Cheap clean energy became a reality faster than anyone expected, let that be an example of what can be accomplished when WE just push ahead toward a unified goal.

  3. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/05/2017 - 07:28 am.

    Thank you, Mr. Meador, for bringing this book to readers’ attention. Of course, it doesn’t fall into “the sky is falling” category (AKA “global warming is the greatest threat to mankind”) which is why it was not publicized in the media, to answer your question. People who believe in global warming’s immediate danger don’t want to know that we can live our lives and still fix the problem, without big government dictating what to do (for the same reason people were cancelling NY Times subscription after it dared to publish a piece which was not exactly “global warming friendly” even though it never questioned any science). Nothing should be done out of fear – I have been talking about that for a while.

  4. Submitted by Monte Castleman on 05/05/2017 - 12:45 pm.

    People aren’t going to accept eating lima beans and tofu in place of nice, juicy hamburgers and ribeye steaks any more than policies than they would a carbon tax.

  5. Submitted by Tom Jablonski on 05/05/2017 - 04:03 pm.

    Pipe bombs and pipe dreams.

    There are some interesting concepts highlighted in this article, some that I have been dabbling with myself as I experiment with scaling back my own personal footprint on the planet. However, in and of themselves, I have to hold onto my pessimism that they can change the trajectory we are on when it comes to reversing scary things like climate change.

    As I see it, climate change is not a result of using wrong technologies – for example switching from fossil fuels to solar energy, or using the wrong chemicals – switching from fluorocarbons to propane and ammonia, or making our production processes more efficient – reducing food waste 50%. This substitution logic ignores the reality that the substitute will also impact the ecosystem in some way as well. Perhaps it will not be in the same way that the original method did, but it will have an impact. And as the economy continues to grow, the impacts will grow proportionally. And increasing efficiency usually means more to invest in growth needed to produce more stuff.

    And converting sunlight to electricity via a solar panel in and of itself does not release greenhouse gases, but building the new solar infrastructure will require mining of materials like sand, aluminum and copper, which will more than likely still require the use of fossil fuels to power the mining equipment and convert the raw materials into usable panels. Building the solar farms will require land to place the panels on, and this land will not be available for the plants and animals or people that used to live or grow there. How many solar panels will we need and how much land will be needed to place them on and where will all this land come from? I also think it is an error to assume that releasing large amounts of propane or ammonia into the atmosphere to replace fluorocarbons would not have some future affect; in the same way it is naive to assume that releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide or methane into the atmosphere would not have an effect on climate. And making lightbulbs more efficient, only means people have more money to install more lights that can now be turned on for less money.

    I believe that climate change is a symptom (like other symptoms of dead zones in the oceans, impaired rivers and lakes, or extinctions of large number of plant and animal species) of how our culture sees itself in relation to the planet, and how that appearance influences how we interact with the ecosystems that make up the planet. An overly simple model of that view might be the “sustainability” model that shows three circles intersecting, with the one circle being the “economy”, another “environment”, and the third “human society”. I think that the solution proposed in the article assumes that as long as the three separate entities remain in balance with one another, via changing how we do the same old things, that we can essentially just keep doing the same old things using new “green” methods. I don’t think slapping a coat of paint on our problems will make them go away. It may give an initial appearance of making them go away, but in the end the failing system that drives it all will show though the falling paint.

    I think at the core what is needed first is that we need to revise this view of how we see ourselves in relation to the planet. A much more realistic, but perhaps still naively simplistic model would be to at least admit that we live on planet with finite dimensions. Human beings and human society is simply one part of many complex systems that depend on this planet in order to exist. And that allowing an economic system that requires continuous growth to dominate our behaviors on this finite planet is like waiting for a pipe-bomb to explode in a closed room.

    So I don’t think the solutions to our environmental (or social) problems will come about by simply swapping out technologies, chemicals – or improving efficiencies. It will take a re-evaluation of our relationship to the planet and how we live on it. It will take us to stop asking what is it that we want from our economic markets, and instead ask what is that we need to thrive on this planet we call home. Jumping on the band wagons of substitution or more efficient technologies will only hasten our fall over the upcoming cliff.

    My dark thoughts on this sunny spring day, for what they are worth.

  6. Submitted by rolf westgard on 05/19/2017 - 07:32 am.

    All good ideas

    But they won’t affect g;obal surface temperatures. The earth has been slowly warming since the end of the Little Ice Age. It will cool again as it has several times in the past.

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