Open Minds and Optimism: Keys to Solving the Climate Crisis
In February 2022, the world’s leading climate scientists released the most urgent warning on climate change to date. The report, released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), describes the implications of our current warming trajectory, including dire food shortages, large-scale human migration and crises like increasingly extreme weather events, which many of us have experienced first-hand. In 2018, the U.S. published its 4th National Climate Assessment forecasting “growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth” linked to the changing climate. The 5th National Climate Assessment is now being written, and we expect the results will be dire.
These reports are frightening, but they must not be paralyzing. Rising to the challenge of climate change, never more urgent, is still within humanity’s reach. In fact, as The Optimist Daily team wants to argue, beyond the doom and gloom talk of climate change and global warming, humanity is already successfully working on solving the problem.
Solutions include transitioning off fossil fuels as quickly as possible, reducing food waste, eating more plant-based foods and less red meat, capturing carbon with new technologies, and figuring out how to capture other dangerous greenhouse gasses. For example, it is possible to capture substantial amounts of methane with coffee grounds—the waste from the cup of coffee you drink. In a paper published in Nanotechnology, researchers report that heating coffee grounds with potassium hydroxide creates a material that can store methane.
These are, obviously, random, discrete solutions to a major problem. But there’s one more “solution” that is probably the most important one of all: We need open minds. Disaster news tends to make people afraid about the future. Fear closes minds. One thing we know is that humanity is the greatest problem-solving machine that ever existed and we have the responsibility to keep dreaming the impossible dream because the people who came before us were the ones who changed our lives. There are more and better solutions for the climate challenge waiting to be discovered if we are able and willing to keep our minds open.
In the face of all this, we believe people like you — all over the world — deserve the information needed to improve public discourse, make more informed decisions and fight for a better future. Because the future doesn’t just happen. We create the future. With that in mind, we are excited to refresh one of our classic articles from the archives: Solutions Thinking and Climate Change. In case you missed it, this article discusses some of the solutions already combating the changing climate and invites readers to explore additional resources to stay even more informed. Our hope is that, like us, you’ll come away with a sense of optimism and promise, dispelling thoughts of doom that we can’t solve the climate crisis.
Humanity is on the case: 100 Best Climate Solutions—And Why They’re Going to Work
An interview with the environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken
Assessments from scientists about the consequences of climate change are increasingly dire. They say we only have a few years to try to avert the most catastrophic consequences of a warming planet. But what can we do?
Project Drawdown tries to answer that question. An outgrowth of the best-selling book Drawdown, the organization ranks the best ways to limit and eventually decrease the amount of greenhouse gases released into the earth’s atmosphere.
The Optimist Daily co-founder, and former Editor-in-Chief Jurriaan Kamp spoke with Paul Hawken, author of Drawdown, a book and digital platform that maps, measures, and models the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming.
Each of the 100 solutions falls under one or more categories of the three things we can do about global warming: stop the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; change to renewable energy low in carbon emissions; and sequestration, bringing carbon back to the earth through photosynthesis. Of the three, sequestration is probably the least understood but most important when it comes to achieving the goal stated in the project’s name: drawdown. According to Paul Hawken, “drawdown is that point in time at which greenhouse gases peak and begin to decline on a year-to-year basis.” Hawken’s goal of the Drawdown project was to identify, measure, and model substantive solutions to determine how much we could accomplish within three decades.
What emerges from this list of solutions is some clarity about the path forward on global warming, which, in a media landscape that tends to exacerbate fear and despair around this topic, is a real reason for feeling optimistic. “Beyond the doom and gloom talk of climate change and global warming, humanity is already successfully working on solving the problem,” says Kamp. “This is not wishful thinking, rather a conservative analysis of what’s already happening,” Kamp continues. “There’s a credible path towards a just and livable world. This book offers empowerment and even a happy smile.”
Find one thing you can do, do it, and then find another. By such incremental steps are long journeys made. Consider how, in the end, daily decisions got us to this place, and daily actions will get us out.
Jurriaan Kamp: So what is the message of Drawdown?
Paul Hawken: The very first message is: Name the goal! If you don’t name the goal, you have a fat chance you are going to hit it. Our goal was to see whether we can achieve a reversal of global warming—drawdown. Climate mitigation, CO2 reduction, stabilization or zero emissions are not goals for me. You don’t stabilize the climate by limiting the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million (ppm) of CO2. There’s probably no stabilization at the moment around 400 ppm. So we want to name the goal.
Our second message is that we have the means at hand to achieve the goal within a reasonable amount of time. And finally: We didn’t make this plan. It’s a map of what’s happening. It’s here and it’s scaling. We are used to hear that we are failing and falling short. The reality is that underneath all that, humanity is mobilizing to seriously address climate change and global warming.
The subtitle of Drawdown reads: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. That’s quite a claim.
We are 40 years into global warming. It is the most serious problem humanity has ever faced. We have created it and the authorities in the field cannot name the top-5 solutions. That’s an astonishing anthropological fact. There is no plan. The situation looks like the time before we had a map of the world. People went sailing not knowing where they were going. Some of them thought they might reach the edge of the world. There was no map. And slowly that map emerged and that changed everything. The same applies now: Drawdown presents a map of where we are. Now we can discuss priorities, investments, education, awareness et cetera.
One of the 100 solutions presented in Drawdown stands out: Nuclear energy. Reversing global warming with nuclear energy seems like solving one problem while creating the next?
We are not advocates. We are measuring what exists. The fact is that today nuclear energy generates 11 percent of electricity worldwide and that share is growing. Our job is to model the impact when we use certain technologies or when we make certain choices. We are not a pressure group. We are not putting our beliefs into the world. Then our objectivity is gone. If you ask my personal opinion? Well, I think that nuclear energy is absolutely the most idiotic way ever developed in the world to boil water. It’s absurd.
Solar energy only comes in at the eighth place in the Drawdown list while most people see solar as the ultimate response to global warming?
We know that the combustion of fossil fuels has been the biggest cause of CO2 in the atmosphere. So the usual response is: We need to replace oil, gas and coal with renewable, low-carbon sources of energy. The mantra has been that we could solve the problem if we implement solar and wind, replace combustion engine cars with electric vehicles, eat less meat and don’t cut trees. Our data don’t support that perspective. There are many other—and better—solutions to reduce the amount of energy we need. That said: It is also a fact that everybody has been wrong about solar for 20 years. The most optimistic projections for solar have always been too low.
CO2 is not our only problem. As the world gets warmer the permafrost in places like Siberia melts and that releases methane, an even worse greenhouse gas. What does Drawdown say about methane?
If the permafrost melts, it is like a Permian extinction [the period some 250 million years ago known as the “Great Dying,” according to Kamp]. However, if drawdown succeeds—and it can—global temperatures won’t rise further, or will even come down, and the permafrost will not melt. Moreover: There is a scientifically proven approach to repopulate the ‘mammoth steppe’ with animals who protect the permafrost and help to reverse the warming trend. It’s like a huge ‘reforestation’ project and the first ‘coming attraction’ in our book. So there are no projections for this solution in our model, but this could be the single largest solution of the 100 we present.
Can politics create obstacles for the promising message of Drawdown?
Governments can accelerate, be neutral or they can delay. We spent two and a half years with our nose in the numbers. We looked at money, not just carbon, and we saw that fossil fuels are economically dead. That has nothing to do with ideology or with ‘green’ commitments. I don’t know how many more years it will take but there will be a collapse in the market value of energy companies as it will become clear that they have stranded assets. These assets will never come out of the ground, or be sold or combusted. They will simply be too expensive. Renewable energy will be cheaper, more efficient and better for human health. In the Trump administration you see a sunset effect of the old guard of the fossil fuel industry.
Has the Drawdown project made you an optimist about the future?
I don’t think that way. I’m not interested in hope. Hope is the mask of fear. And fear has been the methodology of the communication about climate change. You mix fear with doom and gloom and stir well with shame and guilt and you have apathy. That has not worked! That’s why we created a book with solutions that are surprising, interesting, accessible, and delightful; and a goal that is aspirational but also meaningful and possible. We caused global warming and we can undo it. And when we undo it, we will create a world that is so much more interesting and kinder to each other and to all living things than the world we live in right now. If you think that global warming is happening to you, to your family and your country, then you become a victim and you are disempowered. If you think it’s happening for you, you take 100 percent responsibility. You are not blaming anyone. You are devoting yourself to solving the problem. And our book shows that we know how to solve the problem.
Interview by JURRIAAN KAMP
Continue reading below for more on a possible solution to the methane problem…
Repopulating the mammoth steppe
By PAUL HAWKEN
The Yakut is a hairy, short, stocky Siberian horse that looks as if it could be cast in a Star Wars movie. With their thick layers of fat, an extraordinary sense of smell, and big, rock-hard hooves, Yakutian horses survive temperatures of minus-100 degrees Fahrenheit above the Arctic Circle by scraping away snow and nibbling tiny bits of shriveled grass in the winter darkness. In this, they offer a clue as to how to prevent the melting of permafrost.
To keep the planet cool, you want grasses in subpolar regions, not trees, and you get grasses when you reintroduce herbivores. That’s what Sergey and Nikita Zimov have witnessed in their experimental Pleistocene Park: the return of grasses and suppression of shrubs and trees. Grazing animals create pastures just as pastures create grazers. What if animals protected the permafrost and helped the Arctic region reverse its warming trend and start to cool?
Buried in the circumpolar region of the Arctic are 1.4 trillion tons of carbon, two times more than in all the forests on the planet. Permafrost is a thick subsurface layer of perennially frozen soil that covers 24 percent of the Northern Hemisphere. Its name presumes permanence—perma—a condition that is no longer true. It is thawing. At warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), permafrost will release significant amounts of carbon and methane into the atmosphere. If melting continues beyond 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the emissions released from the permafrost will become a positive-feedback loop that accelerates global warming.
When horses, reindeer, musk oxen, and other denizens of the frozen north push away the layer of snow and expose the turf underneath, the soil is no longer insulated by its snow cover and is 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit colder, a margin of safety the world needs while it transitions away from fossil fuels. The Zimovs, father-and-son scientists who direct the Northeast Science Station near Cherskii, Russia, have studied and analyzed the permafrost extensively. They created the Pleistocene Park in the Kolyma River basin of Siberia to demonstrate the conclusion of decades of research: If the diverse species of herbivores that once populated the subpolar region of the Arctic are brought back, permafrost melting can be prevented. Some perspective on the scope and implication of this proposal: If it came to pass, it would be the single largest solution or potential solution for global warming.
The road to the Kolyma River basin, the Kolyma Highway, is known as the Road of Bones. Prisoners exiled to Kolyma were expected to die during or after their first brutal winter. Besides human bones, the basin shelters the tens of thousands of bones of its prior inhabitants. Bone counts reveal the average population on a square kilometer of pasture: one woolly mammoth, five bison, eight horses, and 15 reindeer, some 20,000 to 100,000 years ago. More widespread were muskoxen, elk, woolly rhinoceros, snow sheep, antelope (saiga), and moose. Roaming among them were predator populations of wolves, cave lions, and wolverines. Twenty thousand pounds of animal life thrived on each square kilometer of pasture, an astonishingly high number that attests to the productivity of an area considered marginal and largely uninhabitable.
Today, as frozen carcasses melt under warming temperatures, swarms of bugs and bacteria devour the rotten remains. The foul odor from the melting permafrost is premonitory, an omen of greater dangers to come if melting is not prevented. Thaw ponds bubble like freshly poured soda water. If you turn a bowl or jar upside down and capture the gas, the methane can be lit up like a gas lamp. Ten-meter-deep ice-rich soils—an immense reservoir of organic matter—are heating up in much the same way. Defrosted microbes are coming back to life, releasing carbon dioxide and methane as they decompose the organic waste.
The Kolyma basin is part of a larger biome called the mammoth steppe, at one time the largest community of flora and fauna existing in any major habitat on earth. It extended from Spain to Scandinavia, across all of Europe to Eurasia and then on to the Pacific land bridge and Canada. For a hundred thousand cool, dry years, the steppe comprised mostly grasses, willow, sedges, and herbs, and was home to millions of herbivores and the carnivores that stalked them. In fairly quick succession, it changed 11,700 years ago. Temperatures rose, rainfall increased, and the woolly mammoth became extinct except for two remnant populations on islands created by the rising seas. The steppe contracted to the subpolar area, and dwarf birch, larch, moss, and berries largely replaced the grasses that had nourished animal life. Until recently, scientists assumed that the depopulation of the mammoth steppe was caused by the change of climate and the loss of pasture. Sergey Zimov has walked and explored the basin in minutiae and sees a wholly different past.
Zimov believes the theory of extinction is upside down and backward. Before the end of the Ice Age, approximately thirteen thousand years ago, hunters spread across Eurasia and into the Americas. Animals were tracked down for food and extirpated. Within a relatively short time, fifty species of large mammals were hunted to extinction in Russia, North America, and South America—in particular, the slow-moving and meat-abundant woolly mammoth. Once the grazers and ruminants were gone, the flora of the steppe changed. Away went the grasses, and in their place came the dwarf trees and thorny shrubs that are inhospitable to grazing herbivores.
To Zimov, it was obvious that the mammoth and herbivores were extirpated first, thus altering the landscape. Because the depopulation of the mammoth steppe took place so long ago, his conclusion is a theory. However, it is one based on decades spent walking and exploring the icy regions of Siberia. Alexander von Humboldt’s description of climate change in 1831 was concluded after a long journey through Russia and Eurasia, not a theory based on a hypothesis. In observational science, what something means is less important than what has happened or is occurring. You figure out what something means after you have thoroughly examined, surveyed, and become more intimate with a phenomenon, species, or ecosystem. Sergey Zimov is precisely such a scientist. As fellow scientist Adam Wolf observed, Zimov’s peregrinations and excursions in the mammoth steppe were not tainted by groupthink or published papers about what happened there. He could see that the theory that climate change precipitated the extinction of the woolly mammoth was incorrect. A mammoth’s weight and inertia could crush larches, bramble, and dwarf birch, and along with herbivore pressure, would have prevented changes in the composition of flora.
The northward spread of the taiga, the coniferous boreal forests, is changing climate dynamics. Instead of heat being reflected back into space by snow, trees and leaves soak it up and reradiate it to the soil. Although the atmosphere is warming evenly at sixty thousand feet, at ground level the Arctic regions are warming much faster than temperate and equatorial regions, and changes in flora are a cause.
To populate the Pleistocene Park, Sergey has had to beg, borrow, and buy. The woolly mammoth was wiped out long ago. The Beringian bison and native musk oxen are likewise missing. He brought in the Yakutian horses from the south. The Canadian government donated bison. He hopes to secure reindeer from Sweden and more musk oxen from Alaska. He purchased an aging Russian tank. Driven in the preserve, it crushes the shrubs and larch as a mammoth would and produces a grassy trail of brome for the years that follow. Zimov would like a shipload of five thousand Canadian bison and a worldwide carbon tax that would finance the repopulation of the mammoth steppe. At the low price of $5 per ton of carbon dioxide, the frozen mammoth steppe is worth $8.5 trillion.
As with advanced multipaddock grazing and regenerative agriculture, the Zimov proposal to repopulate the mammoth steppe is a land-use practice that reverses a long-term trend of degradation. It is difficult to imagine that the wildness of the subpolar regions is actually a degraded landscape, but that is what Zimov has shown. Today, the biomass of all the animals being raised, most of which are entrapped and caged in industrial factories, totals close to one billion tons. The cost: vanishing resources, loss of biodiversity, degraded soils, unhealthy meat, and a changing climate. Repopulating the mammoth steppe may appear to be an esoteric pursuit at first glance. Actually, it is no different from other restoration practices — just bigger. Regeneration of the land can be brought about by rewilding the abandoned lands of the north, returning the animals that created the great, once-dominant, carbon-sequestering grasslands. When herbivores were free to roam, the earth supported twice the number and weight of animals that humans raise today in ranches, feedlots, and animal factories. In the mammoth steppe, considered unlivable to all but a hardy few, the benefit of returning it to its wild origins would be immense.
About Paul Hawken
Paul Hawken has written seven books published in over 50 countries in 29 languages including four national bestsellers, The Next Economy, Growing a Business, and The Ecology of Commerce, and Blessed Unrest. Natural Capitalism, co-authored with Amory Lovins, was read by several heads of state including Bill Clinton who called it one of the five most important books in the world. He has appeared on numerous media including the Today Show, Larry King, Talk of the Nation, Charlie Rose, and been profiled in articles including the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Washington Post, Business Week, and Esquire.
His writings have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Resurgence, New Statesman, Inc, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Mother Jones, Utne Reader, Orion, and other publications. He founded several companies including the first food company in the U.S. that relied solely on sustainable agricultural methods. He has served on the board of several environmental organizations including Point Foundation (publisher of the Whole Earth Catalogs), Center for Plant Conservation, Trust for Public Land, and National Audubon Society.
[Note: this article has been updated from our “Best of 2018” series.]