(Hunter Lovins answers Reader Questions)
8 January 2013
Late last year, Sustainable Industries’ Ilana Lipsett & Zach Sharpe interviewed Hunter Lovins, and invited you to participate in the conversation. Lovins responds to your questions below, addressing the US military and its energy efficiency advances, divesting from polluting companies, who is winning the solar race, and where to find daily inspiration to continue this work.
Reader Question: I’ve studied and followed sustainability for years now and am fully on board. It strikes me though that so much of the ideas almost seem common sense, and certainly logical. Why is there such resistance to the idea? Does it require a belief and understanding of our interconnected nature?
As a follow-on, I (and I know thousands of others too), want to work in the sustainability field. I am ready to give up a lucrative and specialized set of knowledge to work in this arena. However, it strikes me that really anyone can do this type of work. From a career perspective, am I looking at this all wrong, is it silly to give up a specialized skill set and get into this field (even if just to see if I like it)? –Anonymous
Hunter Lovins: Yes, much of sustainability is common sense, though as has often been remarked, that is an uncommon commodity.
Why the resistance? Margaret Mead once said that the only person who likes change is a wet baby. And I’d argue that the baby squalls all through the process. Humans delight in change and fear it, all at once.
Change that is painted as a sacrifice, as much of the environmental movement has portrayed the shifts necessary, is particularly unpalatable. The corporate interests, who, as Bill McKibben has pointed out in his excellent Rolling Stone interview, Exxon and the other fossil fuel companies have a business model that rests entirely on roasting the planet. It is very much in their interest to portray any changes that dampen their sales as extremely distasteful, even un-American.
All of us who use their product must make it clear through our behavior that we demand that they change their business model. Companies respond to – and shape –the market through their advertising, lobbyists, and campaign contributions, which totaled more than $150 million in 2012.
How will I change my behavior? My next car will be a plug-in hybrid electric that I will run off the solar panels at my ranch.
Bill McKibben has laid out the math: “To prevent the two-degree Celsius rise in temperature that even the most conservative governments on earth have committed to avoiding, scientists tell us we can burn enough coal and oil and gas to produce 565 gigatons of CO2. Unfortunately, the planet’s fossil-fuel companies, and the countries that operate like fossil-fuel companies (think Venezuela and Kuwait), have five times that much in their reserves. It’s what their share prices are based on; they obviously plan to burn it; indeed, they spend hundreds of millions of dollars daily looking for more. If their business plan is carried out, the planet tanks.”
McKibben calls them “Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.” Can we and can they change in time? This is a testable hypothesis. But a good start would be to capture all of the energy efficiency measures that are profitable now, whose capture increases our quality of life, cuts out costs, and make good business sense.
Those of us who are inadvertent investors in the oil companies (if you are a taxpayer you are one) should put a stop to the unaffordable subsidies we continue to pay to the fossil industries, estimated by the International Energy Agency at over $550 billion every year. The same idiots who wring their hands over unaffordable help for the wind industry and refuse to cut the far greater subsidies to the oil, gas, coal and nuclear lobbies should be ashamed of themselves.
The investment community can make it clear that corporate investments in fossil fuel has a cost. Bill McKibben and 350.org launched a campaign on college campuses to have university endowments divest ownership fossil companies. Students on more than 190 campuses with $400 billion in fossil investments have joined the campaign – the largest student movement in decades. Unity College in Maine and Hampshire College in Massachusetts have already committed to divesting. The Mayor of Seattle and various religious organizations have also directed their financial managers to divest.
Will such a campaign bankrupt the fossil industry? Clearly not. They will continue to make their obscene profits so long as we all buy the gasoline they are selling. Exxon was making $104 million dollars a day in 2012 according to one report.
But no company can long withstand delegitimization. Bishop Desmond Tutu likens the student campaign to the efforts to end racial discrimination, saying “Climate change is the great moral issue since apartheid, and we need the same kind of tools to bring it to people’s attention.”
If we can make it sufficiently uncomfortable for the fossil companies, they will begin to make alternative investments. They won’t want to; they will be able to make more money incinerating the planet, but in the end, this is what we as consumers and as voters must achieve.
And c’mon over to this work. For those of you who want formal training, I teach in the MBA program at Bainbridge Graduate Institute in Seattle and at Bard MBA in New York City. Natural Capitalism also offers the Sustainable Leadership and Implementation Certificate at the University of Denver.
But you can begin this work wherever you are. Every company, every organization can become more sustainable. Look around you wherever you are, find the ways that your operation is wasting resources and begin fixing that.
Don’t delay, we need you.
RQ: Love the article. As Hunter says there have been many steps forward in sustainability, but also many setbacks. With such scary corporate abuses and depressing climate and environmental data coming out every day, it is easy to want to give up and call it a day. What keeps you going? Guessing the whiskey in the picture might help. –Anonymous
HL: It is all too easy to give into despair. As my dear friend, Dr. Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers Without Borders once put it, “It’s daunting to try to save the world.” I focus on the great work being done, and don’t pay much attention to all that is happening that I can’t fix yet. It’s why I am writing this from a hotel room in San Diego, about to board the Semester at Sea boat. I’ll be mentoring in the Unreasonable at Sea program, where young social entrepreneurs take their ideas to the world. My trip will end in Hawaii, and I return to California to give a speech on profitable sustainability to farmers, ranchers and business people convened by Pacific Gas and Electric. I then journey on to teach at Bainbridge, then to Bhutan at the invitation of the King as part of an international working group seeking to transform the global economic paradigm.
Yes, whisky is clearly part of the answer, but having a heck of a good time doing this work is even more important.
RQ: As a writer (and researcher) I began looking at climate change years ago. The media is beginning to publish online and in print more and more about climate change, but all too often it still lags behind. We need to concentrate on creating a unified chorus that cannot and will not be ignored. There still remains a vast portion of the public who hear little or nothing of the positive changes, applications and systems that are being put into practice. –Sam Crespi
HL: We seem to have turned a corner in media coverage of climate change. Perhaps that’s because it is hard to argue with reality. Joe Romm of Climate Progress, one of our best bloggers…about the issue, points out that 2012 saw 362 all-time heat records, but zero all-time record low temperatures. The Mid-western drought, Colorado fires, Superstorm Sandy (though as McKibben says, if there was poetic justice it’d be called Hurricane Exxon or Peabody) are part of a pattern that saw every state in the nation impacted by extreme weather. It’s becoming harder for ordinary people to deny global warming. I’ve had cowboy friends, who previously ridiculed Al Gore, ask me what we can do to deal with the heat and drought that ruined their hay crops.
It would help if the daily visitors to homes of citizens – weather forecasters – could be educated about the reality of climate change. There are vast numbers of households in the US without computers or high-speed internet connections. In the very near future the latter may also suffer from long rolling blackouts, as we saw with Sandy. This has meant that much of the ongoing environmental media flow has been distributed and shared online.
Bottom line, as it was in Germany and historically in the US, the kind of movement we need toward positive outcomes depends on the will of the people. We do seem to be gathering momentum, but without a well thought out and focused strategy for engaging the media, it’s going to take longer than we wish.
The US military is a big polluter, but they are also invested in developing and employing alternative energy. Little of that is known by the greater public. Since the 70’s, many of the current and retired upper echelon have been gaming climate change effects on food, flash migration, water and unrest both globally and internationally. As large portions of Americans are invested emotionally in this branch of the government, targeting former or currently serving military influencers to help inform the public through media could be effective. With two degrees of warming and the affect that will have on food sources and potential unrest, initiating alliances will offer the opportunity to build alliances that could promote more positive change.
If you’d told me 10 years ago that the two entities on the planet doing the most to drive sustainability forward would be Walmart and the US Military, I’d have offered to eat my hat. But here we are.
Following on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis showing why the military should boost its overall readiness for and understanding of the threats that a disrupted global climate could pose to US national security, the Army issued request for proposals for $7 billion in renewable energy. Under Secretary Ray Mabus, the Navy is building the Great Green Fleet. Stating, “We simply have to figure out a way to get American-made, home-grown fuel that is stably priced, that is competitive with oil,” Secretary Mabus has announced the intent to have half the Navy powered by renewables by 2020.
But as we wrote in the 1981 book Brittle Power, genuine national security requires communities where power cannot be cut off by tree limbs falling and taking out much of the Northeast, or hurricanes leaving thousands of people without power months after the event. Only diverse, distributed, renewable power can deliver such resilience. Despite advances in installing solar in the area impacted by Superstorm Sandy, it did local residents little good, because the systems depend on grid power to function.
RQ: Some people are saying that the Goldman Sachs and other studies on the value of corporate sustainability point to a correlation, not causation. Is there a causal relationship? –Zach
HL: You are correct that no one study can prove causation. But our report Sustainability Pays profiles 40 such studies. At what point will you believe that there there’s a cause? Companies are coming to believe it. A recent report, Power Forward, found that over half of the Fortune and Global 100 companies, including AT&T, DuPont, General Motors, Google, HP, Sprint, and Walmart have set carbon reduction goals. More importantly, companies are finding that cutting their emissions is a route to enhanced profitability. The companies in the Carbon Disclosure Project’s Carbon Disclosure and Performance Leadership indices had nearly twice the average total return compared to Fortune’s Global 500 from 2005 – 2011. Around two-thirds of emissions reduction projects reported by companies to CDP this year exceeded a 30 percent return on investment, and 88 percent of projects exceed firm-level return on invested capital.
RQ: Will we ever see the business community pushing for climate change legislation? President Obama just announced that climate change will be one of his top priorities in his second term. What are the top three things he could do, from your Presidential Climate Action Report or otherwise, to encourage sustainability in the business community? –Zach
HL: I am very hopeful that Mr. Obama will finally fulfill his campaign promises…and put a priority on climate. But time is very short. Dr. Fatih Birol, the Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency, has stated that unless we put in place climate protection policies by 2017, we will lose the opportunity to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius.
He should call a national summit to make such findings more public. The iMatter Campaign – young people working to raise awareness that unchecked global warming means they do not have a future – is calling for Mr. Obama to convene such a national summit on climate change in the first 100 days of his new term. I’m helping them involve business leaders who understand that cutting emissions is just better business.
There are two national policies that would be particularly helpful: restoring Property Assessed Clean Energy financing (PACE) and instituting a national Clean Local Energy Accessible Now (CLEAN) contract program.
PACE…allows local governments to put together a pool of money to loan citizens and small businesses to implement energy efficiency in their homes and offices, and to install local, renewable energy. It is one of the biggest job generators that we have.
How do I know that? Because it’s been done. In 2009, Sonoma County, California put together such a fund. In the first nine months of the program — right at the peak of the recession —construction trades in the County went up 8.4 percent. In neighboring Napa County, which did not have this financing program, jobs went down three percent, as they did for the Bay Area as a whole.
PACE was set to roll out across the country; communities everywhere were setting up such financing programs. And then those paragons of financial rectitude, Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac — both bankrupt — said they would redline any jurisdiction that implemented PACE financing. So far, nobody has slapped them down. A Congressional effort in 2012 sought to forbid Fannie and Freddie from interfering. This would be an excellent thing for the new Congress to pass. Many jurisdictions are going ahead anyway, clear that this program delivers real jobs and greater security in their neighborhoods. A number of states have passed legislation authorizing PACE financing.
The second policy, Clean Local Energy Accessible Now (CLEAN), is a variant of the legislation enabling Germany to transition from dirty energy to their goal of being 100 percent powered by renewable sources, which they should achieve before 2050. The new book Clean Break describes this amazing transformation and the policy tool driving it. Germany is rejecting coal and nuclear and investing in renewable energy. This clean energy economy is driving their prosperity, leaving them the only country in Europe in a position to bail out the southern European nations.
In 2011, cold, cloudy Germany installed 28 times as much solar as California did, despite the fact that California gets 70 percent more sunlight. The German CLEAN contract, called a feed-in tariff, mandates that utilities pay anyone who generates green electricity a fair price for what is produced for 20 years. Germans are installing renewable energy everywhere, much of it owned by the local communities, enhancing their prosperity. Wildpoldsried, Germany generates 321 percent more energy than the town uses. They sell the excess, earning $5.7 million a year for the community. An increasing number of towns in German are becoming 100 percent renewably powered by solar, wind, and biofuels.
Deutsche Bank studied the economics of the German feed-in-tariff experience. They found that in the first five years the program delivered 480,000 new jobs. It did raise electricity rates: two to three Euros a month, $50 a year for a total of 8.6 billion Euro more a year. That may sound like a lot, but Deutsche Bank found that had the Germans done nothing—just kept burning coal, they would have paid 9.4 billion Euro more. Coal costs are going up about 10 percent a year…We ought to try it here.
There will come a realization in which business and government join together to defeat this crisis. I’d like to see a federal effort to unleash the green economy, perhaps a modern-day variant of the old Atoms for Peace program in which the US and other governments pledged to deliver nuclear power to any country that pledged not to use the technology to build bombs. What if the US, Germany, China, India, maybe Brazil—the countries now leading in solar manufacturing—pledged to meet the energy needs of the rest of the world through renewable energy? The panels, wind turbines and such would be manufactured in our countries, creating jobs at home. Use the billions now being spent to make the fossil technologies look cheaper than they really are; use the World Bank’s coal expenditures. We’d meet our various development pledges to emerging nations, and by getting the volume production of these technologies up, we’d drop the prices so that the technologies would then sweep the global economy.
Oh, and we’d solve the climate crisis in a way that would lift the world’s economy into prosperity.
As President Kennedy said of poverty, we created these problems—we can solve them.