The Planet Fixers

A corporate executive, an environmental engineer, an evangelical-
Christian scientist, and a youth organizer join NBC moderator Tom Brokaw for a spirited debate on solutions to climate change.

By Andrew CutraroAug 8, 2011 5:00 AM
photograph by Andrew Cutraro | NULL


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On a January evening in New Haven, Connecticut, Discover teamed up with NBC, Citizen Science, Yale University, and the National Science Foundation to convene a town hall meeting on the implications of rising global temperatures. The frigid weather outside was not helping the cause. Just weeks earlier, record amounts of snow had buried the Northeast, leaving millions of people snowbound. Most climate researchers regard epic snowstorms as perfectly consistent with the predictions from their models: Warmer temperatures lead to wetter air, which in turn can lead to more snow. But for many Americans, the blustery weather cast doubt on warming claims: How could the planet be heating up when it’s freezing outside? The confusion underscored the difficulty climate researchers face in communicating their findings to the public. A Gallup poll conducted in March indicated that 18 percent of Americans doubt global warming will have any impact at all—nearly twice the number that felt this way three years ago. Even scientists stand divided on the best way to deal with the threat. Should we tax carbon emissions? Push for radical efficiency standards? Is it possible to address global warming without harming the economy?

Inside Yale’s Kroon Hall, four panelists tackled these questions from widely varying perspectives. Billy Parish cofounded the Energy Action Coalition, the world’s largest youth climate-advocacy organization. Linda Fisher is the chief sustainability officer at DuPont, which has increased profits by reducing its emissions and selling more environmentally friendly products. Rajendra Pachauri is chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007, and director of Yale’s Climate and Energy Institute. And Katharine Hayhoe, a professor of geosciences at Texas Tech University, is an evangelical Christian who addresses common misconceptions about climate change from a religious as well as scientific perspective. NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw moderated the event in front of an audience of college and high school students—people who will spend the next few decades living with the consequences of the policy decisions we make right now (click here for video of the event).


photograph by Andrew Cutraro | NULL

LINDA FISHER is the chief sustainability officer at DuPont, one of America’s oldest chemical companies and the source of modern marvels such as neoprene, Teflon, and Lycra. Fisher, a lawyer, guides the company’s safety, health, and environment programs. Before joining DuPont, she spent 12 years at the Environmental Protection Agency, where she helped develop the agency’s first study of climate change. Fisher has also served as vice president of government affairs for Monsanto and as counsel with the law firm Latham & Watkins.

RAJENDRA PACHAURI is one of the world’s leading climate scientists. As chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize–
winning United Nations Inter­govern­mental Panel on Climate Change, he plays a critical role in providing nations with objective science on global warming. Among other positions, Pachauri also serves as director of Yale’s Climate and Energy Institute and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in India. He has written 23 books and holds Ph.D.s in economics and industrial engineering.

KATHARINE HAYHOE is an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University, where she studies climate modeling and the regional impacts of global warming. She is also CEO of ATMOS Research, a scientific consulting firm that assesses the potential future impacts of climate change on ecosystems and human welfare. Her debut book, 
A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, uses scientific information to challenge popular misconceptions about global warming.

BILLY PARISH began his career as a climate advocate after dropping out of Yale in 2002. “I felt like the world was burning and I needed to do something about it,” he says. Parish is the cofounder of the Energy Action Coalition, a consortium of 50 youth-led groups that motivate young people to advocate for a clean-energy economy. The group’s historic Power Shift conference in 2009 amassed 12,000 youth activists. Parish is also the cofounder and president of Solar Mosaic, an online platform to develop and fund solar installations, and Green Owl Records, an environmentally friendly label under the Warner Music Group.


Tom Brokaw: We know that 2010 was tied for the hottest year on record, but we’re sitting here now in snowy New Haven. It’s been a long, cold winter in New England and across much of America. How does this fact relate to climate change?

Rajendra Pachauri: The reality is that what we see today is not merely a smooth and steady increase in temperatures. We’re really disrupting the well-balanced climate system of the globe, and this leads to an increase in floods and droughts, heat waves and extreme precipitation.

Brokaw: Last year was also the wettest year on record. As Discover recently reported, the combination of hotter temperatures, rising carbon dioxide levels, and heavy rains may be spurring a rise in allergies and asthma worldwide. Katharine, you’ve studied the impact of climate change on specific locations around the world. What do you see as the impact on our overall health as a result of the changes going on in the climate?

Katharine Hayhoe: People are very sensitive to extremes, both cold and hot. We know that the world’s high-temperature extremes are increasing, while some of our cold-temperature extremes are decreasing. Back in 2003, Europe experienced a huge heat wave. The death toll from that event reached 70,000 people in three weeks. We’ve had similar heat waves in Chicago and elsewhere in the Midwest. In the future, we will see those heat waves recurring more and more frequently. By the end of the century, if we continue on our current path, we could see heat waves like the one in Chicago in 1995 occurring three times every summer.

Brokaw: It is the underdeveloped countries and the emerging nations that are really being hit hardest by all of this, isn’t it?

Pachauri: Absolutely. We just don’t have the health-care infrastructure in a number of developing countries. Just consider the breeding of mosquitoes and the diseases they carry. Farming is another big consideration. There are about a billion people, largely in the developing world, who are dependent totally on rain-fed agriculture. With changes in precipitation levels and the availability of water, their livelihoods and their ability to stay on the soil that they’ve been tilling will be affected badly. What are they going to do? They’re going to stream into towns and cities to pick up any kind of job that they can get. There will also be illegal immigration. These problems will not remain confined to certain parts of the world; they are going to become global problems that could rise to the level of a crisis.

Audience question: How will climate change affect the cost of health care?

Pachauri: The cost of health care will certainly go up because the incidence of disease will go up. That’s why we have to look at the balance in terms of what is cheaper: Can we reduce emissions of greenhouse gases today so that we can stabilize the earth’s climate, rather than adapt to the impacts of climate change and incur much higher costs over a period of time? This is an economic issue quite apart from an ethical and equity issue. Decision makers and the public at large have to consider this very carefully.

Brokaw: There are hundreds of millions of young Chinese who are moving from the rural areas into the urban areas (pdf). A lot of them have been living simple lives. Now they have their first shot at owning a motorcycle or a car or having all the toys that we take for granted here. Do you think they are going to be an easy sell on climate change?

Billy Parish: Part of the answer is smarter design. We can design technologies—motorcycles, for example—that are sustainable. But I also think we all need to learn how to live in a healthier, more sustainable, more balanced way.

Brokaw: Linda, I was very struck by one statistic I saw from your company that DuPont has reduced its energy consumption by approximately 20 percent in 20 years.

Linda Fisher: Today DuPont is running about 19 percent lower in terms of energy use than it was in 1990. We’ve grown the company during that time by about 21 percent, and we’ve saved more than $5 billion along the way. It’s really what we’ve learned from reducing our own greenhouse gases that started to get us interested in what we could do for our customers.

Brokaw: Do young people see an opportunity to develop another Silicon Valley? Only this time it’s not about a computer in every home but about renewable energy in every home.

Parish: Absolutely, and a number of us have been advocating for opportunities that expose young people to clean-energy technologies and endow them with the skills they need to put solar panels on roofs or retrofit people’s houses, for example. We need to give young people an on-ramp to the green economy.

Audience question: What are some ways of promoting a green economy without relying on government subsidies?

Parish: The most important thing to do is put a price on carbon. That’s a policy that can generate huge revenues, which can then be put into clean-energy research and development and programs to get more renewable fuels out there. We need to tax what we burn, not what we earn. We should be taxing the things we want less of, like pollution, not the things we want more of, like wages.

Fisher: There is certainly a role for subsidies as we bring new technologies to market. Today photovoltaic cells cannot compete with electricity in terms of price per kilowatt-hour. We need the government subsidies until we can produce them at a cost-competitive price, and then the subsidies should go away. Biofuels are the same way. There’s a huge up-front investment that industry has to make. We need government help because we don’t know which of these technologies are going to be completely successful.

Audience question: How do you think global warming will affect my generation when it grows older?

Pachauri: We need to look at population as well as consumption patterns. One American consumes 40 times as much as one Bangladeshi. The rest of the world can’t possibly emulate the patterns of consumption in the United States. We have to find a different route, a different path.

Brokaw: That’s a tough sell in this country. Americans like to have their toys, even though they may intellectually understand the demands of climate change.

Hayhoe: It’s true. We have many things that the rest of the world does not have. How can we sit here and say that you cannot have what I have? At the same time, to be told that we have to put away our iPhones, get rid of our cars, stop taking a shower every day—that is not really a very popular message. And I don’t think it’s the message we need. I think this is about learning to do the things that we already enjoy in better, smarter ways that improve the quality of our lives, with cars that are faster and cooler than the cars we have today, computers that are much more efficient than the ones we have today, new and more sustainable products that allow us to do more than we can do today.

Pachauri: If we just started by addressing the enormous amount of waste in the world, we wouldn’t need to make huge sacrifices. We would actually be able to improve our living standards because we would have less waste to manage. We can do things in a much smarter way without having to live in caves or wrap ourselves in sheepskin.

Brokaw: Coal still has a hold on a lot of America. Can it be a safe source of energy?

Pachauri: We can bring about improvements, yes. We need to intensively develop technologies to capture and store carbon. But there are no silver bullets; we need a whole range of technologies. And we need time to transition to them. As somebody once said, the Stone Age didn’t end because there were no stones left on the earth. This is where R&D is particularly important. BP is paying more than $16 billion to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, if that kind of money had gone into alternative-fuel research, we probably wouldn’t have needed to go out into that depth to produce oil.

Brokaw: DuPont generated almost $7.5 billion in revenue from renewable sources in 2009 alone. Linda, how much did you have to change your R&D budget to achieve that?

Fisher: We definitely shifted it. Today we are investing about 85 percent of our R&D dollars into improving our ability to grow food, decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels, and protecting people and the environment. That includes investments in better materials for photovoltaic cells and alternative fuels.

Brokaw: Do you get resistance from shareholders? If you put DuPont forward as an innovative company when it comes to developing alternative energy, do they ever ask why you’re doing that?

Fisher: For a while there was some concern about whether DuPont’s commitment around sustainability was really going to be a growth strategy. I think that has changed. First of all, we are starting to make a lot of money. Our photovoltaic business this year is $1 billion; we think it will be $2 billion in just a couple of years. We’re seeing some tremendous growth that perhaps two or three years ago you didn’t see. Shareholders are also beginning to see the market change. For example, people are choosing different kinds of automobiles. Today there are about 20 different hybrid cars on the market; in five years that number is expected to jump to 60. That makes shareholders understand this as an opportunity.

Audience question: Big oil and big coal argue that the transition from a fossil fuel–based economy to a clean-energy economy will come at a severe economic cost in the form of jobs. Their message particularly resonates in states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Louisiana. How do you tell Americans to make that transition at such a high economic cost?

Pachauri: Actually, the truth is just the reverse. Look at the true cost of producing fossil fuels. Everyone knows there are lots of hidden subsidies. Suppose oil prices go up to $150 a barrel. What would be the implications of that? When we mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions, we also create huge co-benefits in the nature of energy security, because if we continue to increase our consumption of fossil fuels, we’re really going to put pressure on limited resources of these fossil fuels. There is now adequate empirical evidence available around the world: Wherever people have brought about more efficient use of energy and greater use of renewable energy, you generate many more jobs than if you were to continue with conventional technologies and fossil fuels.

Brokaw: Here is a number to think about. How much do you think we spend every week on importing oil to the United States? It’s $5 billion every week that we’re spending.

Audience question: We are coming out of a really difficult recession right now. How do you balance the moral imperative of environmental conservation with short-term economic growth in communities in the United States where green jobs really are not yet a part of the economic landscape?

Hayhoe: What we have to realize is that it is fundamentally a myth that we have to choose between the planet and better lives for ourselves. Having a better environment with cleaner air, cleaner water, and more natural resources available to us benefits all of us. So it isn’t “Help the planet or help ourselves”; it’s “Help the planet and help ourselves.”

Audience question: We had severe climate changes before our time. Take the Ice Age, for example. Someone somewhere survived; other­wise, we wouldn’t be here. Why are we so worried now?

Pachauri: The issue that we really should be concerned about is the rate of change. The climate has always changed on account of natural factors. What we human beings have done is to superimpose a set of forces that are now bringing about climate change much faster than has been the case in the past. Also, remember that during those periods of, say, the Ice Age, there was enormous hardship. A lot of people died, and a lot of species were affected. We certainly don’t want that this time around.

What is happening today is an extremely rapid disruption of the climate system. There are more floods, more droughts, more heat waves, more extreme precipitation events. All of this certainly has major impacts on human society, and it imposes costs. Every time you have an extreme precipitation event, whether it’s rain or snowfall or whatever, look at the cost of cleaning up. Look at the cost of managing that mess. Look at the heat waves that affect human lives. The argument that we survived in the past doesn’t mean we can shut our eyes to that kind of hardship, to the kind of loss of life and property that would take place if we continue with business as usual. Business as usual is just not acceptable.

Hayhoe: To put it in perspective, after the last Ice Age there was about a thousand years for the world to warm. A thousand years is a really long time to adapt—you know, to pick up your house and move it. But what we’re looking at is a similar magnitude of change happening in less than a hundred years. The other difference today is that humans are in the driver’s seat. For the first time we are controlling the fate of the climate, and we’re not too good at controlling things that big.

Brokaw: Let’s say all the theories and all the facts about climate change are wrong. What’s wrong with going to another way of living? What’s wrong with getting ourselves off an oil diet of some kind? What’s wrong with having more efficient transportation or better food production? What’s wrong with lowering the chances that we’re going to have infectious diseases? It’s another way of looking at all of this. We only have this one precious planet, and we have to be aware that we are the stewards of it.

Can You Have Your Bike and Ride It Too?

Environmentally conscious drivers can now choose from a sizable selection of low-emissions cars, including the hybrid Toyota Prius and the all-electric Nissan Leaf. But much of the country (and the world) commutes on two wheels, and the options there are expanding too. Although the big-name motorcycle companies are sticking with gasoline-fueled bikes, a few lesser-known manufacturers are quietly introducing hyperefficient electric motorcycles.

In many ways, motorcycles are a lot more practical for electric propulsion than cars: They are small and light and lack energy-hogging features like air-conditioning and entertainment systems. Nissan’s Leaf has a 660-pound battery that requires a 220-volt outlet and takes seven hours to recharge fully. In contrast, electric motorcycles from companies such as Zero Motorcycles and Brammo use much lighter batteries—one of Zero’s weighs just 48 pounds—that can charge from a wall outlet in four hours or less. And whereas many traditional motorcycles can achieve a respectable 50 miles per gallon at a driving cost of about seven cents per mile, an electric bike uses the energy equivalent of about 420 mpg at an operating cost of two to three cents per mile. It also produces zero tailpipe emissions.

According to Scot Harden, Zero’s vice president of global marketing, electric motorcycles are becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Harden won’t reveal numbers but credits more efficient, powerful batteries and, perhaps most important, a growing perception that electric motorcycles deserve the “motorcycle” name. “In the past we were making a hybrid between a mountain bike and a motorcycle,” he says. “We were neither fish nor fowl, so no one knew how to look at it.”

California-based Zero’s newest offering, the $7,995 XU, is the first street-legal electric motorcycle to carry a removable battery. An urban commuter can easily zip off to work, carry the battery into his or her workplace to juice up, and ride home fully charged. The XU has a range of 25 miles and a top speed of 51 miles per hour. Two other Zero models offer better range and speed but no swappable battery pack. Zero’s main competitor, Oregon-based Brammo, just released a $13,995 electric motorcycle with a top speed of 100 miles per hour and a 100-mile range. The performance boost comes at the expense of convenience, however: The Brammo’s bigger battery takes 10 hours to recharge.

Electric motorbikes have a long way to go before they can match the raw performance of a 675-pound Harley V-Rod Muscle, one of Harley’s most powerful bikes, just as the Leaf cannot run with a Ford Mustang GT. But Harden asserts that many Zero buyers consider that a good thing, saying that they always wanted to ride a motorcycle but were intimidated by the speed, weight, and noise of conventional offerings. The modest price does not hurt either: The federal government offers a 10 percent tax credit on most electric motorcycles, and California’s separate credit can shave another $1,500 from the total.—Andrew Grant

A Mixed Bag

While chemical manufacturer DuPont has quietly managed to sell its shareholders on the sustainability message, the Frito-Lay division of PepsiCo is finding that consumers can be a much tougher group to please. Last year, in an effort to capitalize on the growing demand for eco-friendly products, the potato chip giant began aggressively marketing a new, compostable bag for its flagship "green" brand, SunChips, only to suspend the product a few months later due to slumping sales. The problem? Noise complaints. Crinkling the packaging produced about 85 decibels, a sound level roughly equivalent to the rumbling of a subway train.

After five years of R&D, the bag was supposed to be a double win. Manufacturing it emits half as much greenhouse gas as making a conventional bag does, and it breaks down in a compost bin, reducing the amount of trash going into landfills. Instead, backlash over the cacophonous packaging burned up the blogosphere and inspired several viral YouTube videos. "I don't know what this bag is made out of, but it's literally the loudest material known to man," complained one video blogger. Frito-Lay got the message loud and clear: The world's first compostable chip bag was a commercial disaster.

The company has since debuted a new version of the bag that is half as noisy, putting it on par with Frito-Lay's noncompostable packaging. The solution turned out to be a softer adhesive to glue together the bag's two layers of polylactic acid film, a plastic that is derived from corn rather than the usual petrochemicals.

It remains to be seen whether consumers will embrace the new bag, let alone compost it. As with its predecessor, the bag is fully compostable, but only in a bin of at least 21 cubic feet, which generates sufficient heat to decompose the plastic. You can't just toss the bag in the dirt and walk away. Unfortunately, that is essentially what most consumers do. Less than 9 percent of waste in the United States is composted; bags that wind up in the trash head for a landfill, where they sit indefinitely.

Frito-Lay says continued use of the new packaging and expansion to other products will largely be determined by consumer demand. But the strategy raises the question: Should the decision to manufacture products more efficiently hang on fickle consumer opinion? Perhaps it is better to simply go green quietly, in ways that the consumer never sees—or hears.—Brooke Borel

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