In Wednesday’s SXSWECO keynote with U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, Jigar Shah urged the crowd to “find some _____ inspiration!” You can guess what was left out. Shah argued much of what the environmental movement lacks in strategy, it can make up with focused rage. If you left the keynote inspired and looking for ways to get involved, Thursday’s session, “Freeing Ourselves From A High Carbon Future,” was a great place to reinvigorate the rage.
Moderated by Kelly Rigg, executive director of the Global Campaign For Climate Action, the talk brought real substance to the often cloudy world of climate activism. Panelists Andrew Behar of As You Sew, Sarah Hodgdon from the Sierra Club, and Tim Nuthall of the European Climate Foundation were on hand to share how their organizations are reshaping some of the narrative around cleaner energy and climate change.
The Carbon Bubble
Rigg opened the session with a few slides that set a sobering backdrop for the discussion. The first was an excerpt from the Carbon Tracker project, showing how much carbon will be “unburnable” if reduction efforts aren’t accelerated. It could be as high as eighty percent if we achieve only twenty percent of our reduction goals.
With reserves driving so much of an oil company’s value, it’s easy to see how models built on extraction could suffer.
Just as provoking was another slide (below) on the “450 scenario,” referring to the need to limit the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to around 450 parts per million of CO2. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that without action, in half a decade we could approach the 450 ratio. “At some point, we’re going to have to start decommissioning things,” said Rigg. “Nobody wants to do that.”
The Coal Fight
Sarah Hodgdon turned the discussion to some of Sierra Club’s work around its Beyond Coal campaign, and showed perhaps the slide of the session (below). Almost 170 coal plants have been defeated so far according to Hodgdon, a feat she attributes to the combination of grassroots political savvy, smart legal strategy, and effective communication.
“All those things working together have helped us get one win after another,” she said.
And with coal’s percentage of electricity at its lowest in 30 years, Hodgdon emphasized the need to defend the production tax credit (PTC) along with State renewable energy standards.
She also mentioned how Sierra engages with local communities as renewable solutions continue to supplant coal production.
“We’re also supporting communities affected by coal by helping them make a smooth economic transition as plants close across the country.” Even with Beyond Coal’s success, there’s more collaboration that’s needed.
“It feels like what we’re missing though is a movement, where we’re connecting the dots between the coal and oil efforts.” When asked what was holding up those efforts, she thought much of the policy was in place, but that local issues were soaking up resources and time.
“People are working hard locally, so at times it’s hard to have the cohesion you need at the national level,” she explained.
Andrew Behar with Bay Area non-profit, As You Sow, is attacking the climate issue by targeting corporate shareholders. With a combination of advocacy and litigation, his team approaches the process both strategically and tactically.
“One of the ways we can make change is to file a shareholder resolution,” said Behar. “We target certain companies and you have to get through the SEC, so often it’s very complex.” And the companies As You Sow is battling are some of the largest in the world. Getting a seat at the table is only half the battle. “When you sit down with these companies — you have a human being there. We get to ask them, do you have kids, do you have grandchildren,” said Behar.
He also mentioned the firm’s focus on divestment, which essentially redirects assets to companies that support cleaner policies and more social responsibility. “You see a lot of activity on campuses, but the thing about these campaigns are they’re very complex.” Behar says many of the investments and funds are shielded under layers and layers of bureaucracy, so enacting change can be cumbersome.
But whether it’s a divestment campaign or simply filing a resolution, Behar stressed the importance of a multi-faceted campaign.
“These companies like Duke Energy and First Energy, they’re the guys that control what’s on the ground. They don’t see things in a short window of time,” he explained. “The key is coordinating all the pieces in a strategic way.” As You Sew says it boils down to five things: grassroots efforts, consumer awareness, litigation, policy and shareholders. The next deployment for Behar’s group will likely be the fracking battleground.
“We think stopping the building of gas plants will be the next big fight, you just can’t do coal anymore because the price isn’t viable. Strategically we need to get the price of gas up. That’s what we’re working on.”
A European Perspective: Roadmap2050
Tim Nuthall with the European Climate Foundation had a hopeful, if not fascinating look at the Roadmap2050 project, aimed at helping move along Europe’s goal of 80-90% emissions by 2050. He was armed not just with data, but visually appealing data. Understandable data. For once, it looked like the environmental coalition had more resources than its usual opposition.
“What was impressive was the coalition that stood behind it. McKinsey did the analytics and KEMA led credibility to the solutions which got us into the meetings,” said Nuthall. For visuals, the group worked with a notable architect which he says helped the conversations live well beyond a project that was started in 2010.
As for mobilizing the effort, Nuthall says they ran a number of different models and all of them came to the same conclusion.
“Not surprisingly, what we found was that we needed to decarbonize our power sector.” The analysis looked at the costs of replacing carbon with renewable energy in various increments, from 20% all the way up to a complete phase out. He said the differences were accounted for by using carbon capture and storage (CCS) and nuclear. “We could use both CCS and nuclear because our goal was simply to reduce carbon, rather than single out any one technology,”he explained.
“What we found was the cost of those various scenarios are the same. It was technically feasible and financially doable,” he said. When asked about the political ramifications, he mentioned the data from their energy roadmap was used by the European commission to relay part of its own findings. “So from a political outcome perspective, it was a solid result.”
With a deep political focus, Nuthall’s team covers multiple fronts and is well-versed in what characterizes much of the denier mentality.
“In an European context, I’d characterize the deniers in three ways — disgruntled, ideological, and paid. Quite a heady mix,” he said.
“We’ve seen skepticism be very effective. Look at Poland, a country where 95% of its power runs on coal.” He says opposition to renewables has stood in the way of their proposal, essentially grinding it to a halt. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that power generation in Poland is owned by the government. “In the EU, we need rage in Poland.”
“One Thing As A Game Changer”
Rigg closed the session by asking the panelists to identify the one thing that could be a game changer for connecting the dots. In her view, there aren’t any technology barriers to fixing the problem, it’s political will. “We need to figure out how everyone that takes action in this movement has a way to connect with elected officials. We need to say we will make this an election issue,” she said.
For Hodgdon, it was how activists and environmentalists talk about their work, something she described as “drawing things together under the national narrative.” She urged fracking activists to bridge their communications with other groups targeting coal or oil.
Andrew Behar might have had the most disruptive suggestion, saying he wants to tie sustainability initiatives to executive pay. “Executives today are focused on keeping stock prices stable, quarter-to-quarter. If we have sustainability goals that look two, three, or five years out, corporations would start to shift. Right now it’s a total disconnect.”
Nuthall mentioned a few things. The Poland fight is obviously a big one, as he again mentioned more “rage” is needed. Effective grids was another key point, something that would be critical to keep renewable integration moving forward. Lastly, was a quote that could have been the bumper sticker for the session. “We have to stop taking a spreadsheet to a knife fight. We have to stop fighting ideology with policy.” In other words, the movement needs to get a helluva lot smarter. And fast.