Joel B. Stronberg
My mission in creating Capital Ideas is to stimulate the dialogue surrounding climate change in the hope of spurring action. Lest there be any question as to my perspective on the matter I unapologetically believe in the reality of climate change, that it is largely the result of human activity and that the failure to act quickly and collectively to address the issue will have catastrophic economic and social consequences within a generation.
The changing nature of Earth’s climate is dire; it is not, however, hopeless. Therefore, I equally believe in the world’s collective ability to rise to the challenge and that rising to the challenge carries with it enormous economic and social opportunities for all of its inhabitants. Human activity, e.g. our energy choices and the manner in which we have chosen to extract and use the planet’s ultimately limited natural resources, has gotten us into this mess; our capacity to change and to innovate can get us out of it.
I have chosen the title Capital Ideas because of the three meanings I attribute to the word “capital.” The first is political in the sense that much of what is needed is the responsibility of governments, e.g. early stage research and investment programs, national energy policies and regulations which wean us off of fossil fuels and require the sustainable use of resources. The second is financial in that the development and application of the technological solutions necessary to make the transition to a sustainable world requires public and private investment. The third is simply based on my definition of the term “capital” as a synonym for the word “good”, i.e. what a capital idea it is to increase the efficiency of the way resources are used or replacing the use of fossil fuels with clean energy alternatives.
The recently concluded Rio+20 Conference offers the most current example of the failure of political leaders to step up and to do what is doable. The most memorable quote coming out of Rio was uttered by Kumi Nadoo, the Executive Director of Greenpeace International, who called the Conference’s final report the “longest suicide note in history.” In the twenty years between the first and last “Earth Summit” the greatest thing that has changed has been our proximity to the pending disaster.
The suicide note of Rio+20 was a diplomatic communiqué that recognized the existence of the problem and then made excuses and offered apologies for the failure to commit to the actions required to immediately begin implementing solutions. Recognition of the problems is important but it is no substitute for action. In truth a formal agreement between all nations is not as important as a series of coordinated and integrated actions by a large variety of public and private sector organizations and individuals. These actions can be on a large scale like a multi-lateral agreement between nations to establish energy efficiency standards for ships through the International Maritime Organization (a U.N agency), on a corporate scale like the commitment of Coca Cola to reduce significantly its carbon footprint, on a regional, state or community level as with the construction/expansion of public transit systems or the enactment of energy efficiency building codes or, on a personal level as when a homeowner installs a rainwater capture system for watering her garden. Collectively all of these actions serve to address positively the problem of climate change.
Global climate change is not just the purview and responsibility of public and private institutions. The search for solutions must be opened to all. Social media, for example, has been used successfully in recent years to usher in political, cultural and technological change on a global scale and within time spans once thought impossible. Gamers, for example, have been able to produce an enzyme in days which researchers could not produce in a decade. I n 2008 President Obama parlayed social media into an electoral win and in the past two years politically oppressive regimes in the Middle East have been toppled in significant measure because of the Internet and smart phones. The cell phone has possibly become the most effective campaign tool for branding, financing and changing society on a global scale.
Increasingly social media (crowdsourcing) is being used by governments, research institutions, corporations and entrepreneurs to speed the development of products and technologies and to obtain monetary support for social projects, e.g. providing solar power to remote villages in Africa, and corporate start-ups. Even the U.S. Department of Defense has reached out to the collective through social networks to seek solutions to logistical supply problems that have cost lives in conflict zones.
Crowdsourcing has begun to be used to address global climate change but it is far from reaching its full potential. As global climate change is everyone’s problems, it is natural to believe that through the crowd the political actions, technological breakthroughs and investments needed to address the climate challenge and to bring the world back from the brink of environmental catastrophe in a timely manner can be found.
Like harnessing the power of millions of computers, it is possible to harness the power and imagination of millions of minds. Surely, we can accomplish more together than we can individually.
Capital Ideas is premised on a number of simple principles, among them are:
- Action comes in multiple forms and everyone has an obligation to contribute to the solution;
- Sustainable development represents a cultural change and as such requires an understanding of the culture being changed;
- Time is of the essence;
- Successfully meeting the challenge will only occur when people collectively rise up in large enough numbers to prompt the public and private sectors to take the necessary actions and to make the required investments;
- The transition to a sustainable world is a continuous top down and bottom up process;
- Clean energy sources and environmental technologies are significant source of economic growth both in the near and long terms;
- Environmental sustainability involves more than just reducing and ultimately eliminating the use of fossil and nuclear fuels by replacing them with clean energy alternatives; it includes such things as: manufacturing processes; agricultural practices; energy efficiency; creating/
expanding public transportation systems; the type of materials used in manufactured products; how we use and re-use precious natural resources like water and metals; and, waste disposal practices;
- Government laboratories are not the exclusive domain of innovation; universities, private laboratories/corporations and individual inventors/entrepreneurs should be encouraged and supported in their efforts to solve real world problems and to assist in the creation of government research agendas;
- Integration of programs and policies across agencies will reduce costs, increase the rate of success and the pace of innovation;
- Greater public investment should be directed towards business incubators and clusters to encourage and capture important synergies, attract private investors and serve as a source of candidates for early stage public capital investments;
- Responding to the climate change challenge must transcend partisan politics;
- The transition to a sustainable world economy requires stable commitments by the public and private sectors and cannot be subject to the ebb and flow of support which has characterized it in the past, as under such circumstances planning becomes futile and private investors resistant;
- Markets are dynamic, therefore, change is to be embraced rather than resisted;
- Innovation is not without risk, the failure of public or private programs or policies to achieve their intended results or research to meet its endpoints should be an opportunity for learning from mistakes not an excuse to stop trying;
- If a policy, program or investment is not working, stop doing it and try something else;
- Developed nations in fact bear a responsibility to assist the developing world through the transfer of financial and intellectual resources; and,
- Climate change impacts the health, safety, economy and security of the entire world; there is no down-side risk to making the world a healthier, safer, more secure and prosperous place.
Finally, I do not presume to have all the answers. Through Capital Ideas, however, I hope to provoke debate, offer useful insights, ask hard questions of public and private sector policy makers, promote action, educate my readers and lend support as best I can to individuals and organizations working in support of sustainability.