Solving climate change will require technological and political innovation

This article was originally posted on DemWorks.org.

The earth faces unprecedented ecological challenges. Human activity has now pushed the earth beyond four of the nine planetary boundaries first identified in 2009 by Johan Rockström, a recognized expert on natural resource management from Stockholm University. Breaking through one or more of these boundaries, Rockström says, may be catastrophic because it triggers abrupt environmental degradation at a continental or even global scale.

Time to throw up our hands in despair, right? Wrong.

The earth is also at an important moment for technological innovation. Renewable sources of energy, like wind and solar, which were seen as a pipe dream just a few decades ago are becoming increasingly competitive with fossil fuels, and battery technology, a barrier to the viability of renewable energy in the past, is improving at an equally rapid rate.

But technological innovation is just one part of the solution. To overcome these challenges, technological innovation must be paired with political innovation at every level of government.

At the international level, a new global compact to fight climate change is taking shape. Professor Jeffrey Sachs, a development economist at Columbia University, has called 2015 a key year for global action on climate change. A series of high-level international negotiations between now and December will “reshape the global development agenda, and give an important push to vital changes in the workings of the global economy,” Sachs writes.

Political innovation will also be required at the local level, where the impacts of climate change are most acutely felt. Citizens and governments will need to work together to effectively mitigate and adapt to the localized impacts, and causes, of environmental degradation.

In the Chure mountain range of the outer Himalayas, for example, citizens struggle with landslides triggered by deforestation and repeated flooding. These natural disasters have taken a heavy toll on lives and property. A recent initiative, carried out with NDI assistance, enabled 11 members of the Nepali parliament (including five members of Nepal’s Environmental Protection Committee) to travel to Kailali, a district in the Chure range, to learn about these environmental challenges.

The officials connected with local experts, who briefed them on environmental changes in the Chure range, and constituents adversely impacted by mudslides. The delegation presented its finding and recommendations to the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation, which amended its policies to, among other things, immediately stop the felling of trees in the name of “scientific forest management,” which had been taking place across the country.

Simply developing new technology to replace fossil fuels will not save the planet. Technological innovation needs to be matched with political innovation that both lifts the global consciousness and responds to the needs of everyday citizens.

Here goes something

Driving to the airport this morning, a massive cloud burst drenched the road about 15 miles around Boulder. Torrents of water gushed over the highway making driving difficult. After a week of sunny weather while visiting family in Colorado, I could only imagine that this was Mother Nature’s way of giving me a reality check on what to expect for the rest of my summer working and traveling in Colombia.

Having my mom with me on the morning drive to the airport has become somewhat of an unofficial tradition. The last time we made the trip together I was on my way to the concrete jungle of New York City to begin my first semester at Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs (SIPA). This time I’m off to another sort of jungle – the mangrove forest that surrounds Bahía Málaga, Colombia.

As we drove through the downpour I could tell that my mom, a world traveler and adventure seeker in her own right, was trying not to be too nervous for me. “Well, it’s not like we haven’t prepared you for this sort of thing,” she said more to calm herself than to reassure me.

Since as long as I can remember my mom, a retired school teacher, would take her summers off to travel with me. Unlike many tourists who go to Central America to stay in gated resorts, we would stay in the eight-dollar-per-night hostels and travel by local bus, seeking authentic foreign experiences off the “gringo trail.”

“Mom,” I replied, “I think you’ve actually pre-disposed me to this sort of thing.”

(Don’t worry dad, our backpacking trips in the Colorado wilderness and on the Appalachian Trail are also to blame.)

I’d be lying, however, if I failed to admit that I am also a bit nervous. My summer field placement (aka internship) will begin with a week-long orientation at the University of the Andes. My visit will then take a swift and decisive turn off the gringo trail. From Bogota, I will fly to Cali (home of the once-notorious Cali Cartel), take a bus to Buenaventura (Colombia’s most important port city and also one of its most dangerous), hop two boats to Bahía Málaga (a secluded bay that is visited by more humpback whales than tourists). My final destination is close to a Colombian naval base that features relics of the increasingly high-tech illegal drug trade. Progressively more complex boats and submarines, built by drug lords to smuggle cocaine, are displayed like rotting carcasses – a testament to Colombia’s decades-long internal conflict.

Hidden along the banks of the various tributaries that funnel into the bay are numerous afro-Colombian communities. Bahía Málaga is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet due to the high number of endemic species, but the people who live there are also among the poorest – with poor infrastructure, low numeracy and literacy, and high maternal mortality.

These afro-Colombian communities primarily subsist through agricultural and extractive activities (mining, logging and fishing), but the pristine natural environment that surrounds them provides enormous potential for ecotourism – not to mention that Bahía Málaga is the number one calving ground for humpback whales in the world. The goal of my field placement is to identify and develop opportunities to grow the ecotourism industry as a source of income for local communities.

I can’t begin to describe how I feel about the opportunities, challenges, and uncertainties that undoubtedly await me…nervous is an understatement, but with the help of my colleagues (Yoon – a fellow SIPA student – and Rosangela – a Colombian student) I’m confidant that we can make a valuable contribution to the sustainable development of Bahía Málaga.

It’s times like these that I’m reminded of the final Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, and Calvin’s last words: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes ol’ buddy…lets go exploring.”

Calvin and Hobbes

I won the lottery

Last week I won the lottery. No, I’m not a multi-million dollar Powerball winner. I won the opportunity to see former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan speak at Columbia University.

Secretary General Kofi Annan at SIPA

Secretary General Kofi Annan Speaks at Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs

The discussion ranged from the UN’s failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide – which Secretary Annan blamed on a lack of international political will following the “Blackhawk Down” incident in Somalia – to the current crisis in Syria.

Annan briefly touched on his resignation as UN special peace envoy to Syria, blaming UN’s failure to broker peace on the international community’s failure to close ranks against the Assad regime (specifically blaming China and Russia’s intransigence). Annan mentioned his successful mission to Kenya as an example of what the international community can accomplish when it speaks with one voice. As chief negotiator in 2008, he successfully brokered a deal between President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga to form a coalition government. Still, I can’t help but wonder if Annan was the best choice in Syria given the context. Simply put, Annan is not a muslim and does not carry the same authority in the Middle East as he does in Africa.

What are your thoughts on this? Let me know in the comments section below.

Participating in this event was an amazing opportunity that I doubt I would have had at any other school. That said, I was so drained from my statistics midterm the day before that Annan’s quiet and monotonous voice nearly put me to sleep during his opening remarks. Note to self: drink more coffee.