Business and non-profit leaders, innovators, academics, policymakers, and concerned citizens gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last week for the Climate CoLab’s Crowds and Climate: From Ideas to Action conference.
A project of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, the Climate CoLab uses a technology-enabled, crowd-based approach to tackle climate change by dividing the problem into sub-challenges, running contests that address key issues, and allowing its growing international community of more than 30,000 members to develop solutions. The interactive two-day conference provided a forum for attendees to see presentations by and then collaborate with the 34 contest winners.
“Harnessing the power of people all across the country and around the world toward climate solutions is exactly the kind of initiative we need,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a keynote speaker at the conference. He referred to the Climate CoLab as “a 21st-century approach to solving these kinds of problems.”
The winners came from more than 17 countries and represented a diverse set of ideas, including a U.S. carbon tax that uses the revenue to benefit poor households, reduce corporate income taxes, and reduce the federal deficit; educating building technicians to take advantage of the often unused energy-saving potential of sophisticated heating and cooling systems; and radio programs to help residents of coastal areas in Tanzania and other developing countries adapt to changing weather and other effects of climate change. To see all winning proposals and read stories about their work, visit the Climate CoLab website.
Thomas Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and the principal investigator for the Climate CoLab, encouraged the 200 people in attendance and more than 1,000 participating online to use the conference as an opportunity not only to learn from the proposals developed on the Climate CoLab platform, but also to “find something that you personally can do to help move these ideas to action."
Conference participants also heard from and engaged with leading climate-change experts through a series of plenary panels. The first focused on creating transformational change in the private sector to respond to climate change.
“About 87 percent of our environmental footprint occurs during the product-use phase,” said panelist Matthew Swibel, director of sustainability strategy at Lockheed Martin. “We are working on demonstrating the total systems value and the total footprint to our customers, who are increasingly concerned about the resources required to operate the products we are delivering. Systems thinking is the holy grail.”
Victoria Mills, managing director at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), spoke about how EDF was one of the first environmental groups to work with corporations to find and implement environmental solutions that make sense for a business’s bottom line.
Mills also called for corporate leaders to take action outside their own organization. “The next frontier of corporate leadership is engaging in policy,” she said, encouraging executives to talk with their elected representatives about carbon and methane emission regulation. “Businesses voices need to be much stronger in the policy conversation.”
To speak further about the policy initiatives needed to address climate change, the second panel brought together experts from all levels of government.
Curt Spalding, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) New England Region, spoke about the EPA’s recently announced Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut carbon emissions from the country’s electric power plants.
“[The plan] has been very well received throughout the country,” Spalding said. “But it is a disruptive event when it comes to the economy. Whenever you do disruptive things, there are great challenges.”
Brian Swett, chief of environment, energy and open space for the City of Boston responded that, “what is disruptive is the do-nothing scenario. Of the 20 largest cities in the country by gross domestic product, 10 of them are coastal. And they represent 30 percent of the U.S. economy. [Climate change] is a national economic issue and national security issue.”
Thursday’s keynote address was given by Leiserowitz, who spoke about the state of the public's understanding of climate change.
“Four out of 10 adults on the planet have never heard about climate change. That’s almost 2 billion people,” he stated. He then presented the five key facts he and his team think are the most important for people to understand: “It’s real. It’s us. It’s bad. Scientists agree. There’s hope.”
Friday consisted of a plenary session on grassroots, community-based efforts to address climate change. Gary Langham, vice president and chief scientist at the National Audubon Society, is working on one such campaign focused on something millions Americans care about deeply: birds. Bird-watching is the number-two hobby in the United States, and Audubon’s recent report shows that without urgent action, half the birds in North America will be severely threatened by climate change.
"One of the things about birds is that they are apolitical,” Langham said. “This gives us an authentic way to enter into the conversation with folks and makes it easy for them to talk about this issue with their neighbors and their communities.”
The conference’s closing keynote was delivered by Jeremy Grantham, co-founder and chief investment strategist at Grantham Mayo van Otterloo (GMO) and founder of the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment.
Grantham provided a thorough review of what he sees to be the most pressing climate change issues: methane cathrates, topsoil erosion, and running out of the phosphorus that supports current “big ag” farming. He also spoke about the trends that he sees working in our favor, such as the recent drop in fertility rates and unprecedented progress in the development of renewable energy technologies. To win what he called the “race of our lives” against pressing environmental threats, Grantham said humanity will need “talent, money, and a fire in the belly.”
Thomas Malone closed the conference by sharing his aspirations both for the Climate CoLab and for humankind. “My hope,” he said, “is that we will be able to use our global collective intelligence to make choices about our environment that are not just smart, but also wise.”
Grand prize award, honorable mentions, and 2015 contest
During the conference, Malone also awarded the Climate CoLab’s $10,000 grand prize to Danielle Dahan for her proposal, "Improve Building Energy Performance: Green Job Skills Training," which addresses the shortage of qualified personnel to maintain the increasingly sophisticated heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems installed in green buildings today.
“As high-performance green buildings increase in complexity,” Dahan writes in her proposal, “we need to give building technicians the skills to maintain buildings and achieve high performance energy goals.”
Honorable mention awards were given to three proposals:
- "A Carbon Tax in Pro-Growth Fiscal Reform," by Adele Morris, fellow and policy director of the Climate and Energy Economics Project at the Brookings Institution. She proposes a carbon tax that creates pro-growth tax reform, while also protecting the poor and reducing the deficit.
- "A Collaborative Solutions Community Platform," by Anne-Marie Soulsby and Mandolin Dotto Kahindi of Tanzania. The proposal presents "Tunza Kwa Faida" ("Benefits for All"), a platform that combines a radio show and two-way text messaging to help coastal Tanzanians increase their resilience to climate change.
- "Democratic Finance: Energy of the People, By the People, For the People," by Job Taminiau, Gordon Schweitzer, Kathleen Saul, and Sardar Mohazzam, a group from the United States, Pakistan, and the Netherlands. They propose installing community-funded solar projects on unused federal rooftop space, which, they predict, could mitigate millions of tons of CO2 emissions.
These proposals were selected by a prominent team of experts that included: Robert Armstrong, director of the MIT Energy Initiative; Hazel Markus, the Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University; and Richard Schmalensee, the Howard W. Johnson Professor and emeritus dean at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
The first 2015 contests, run in collaboration with the City of Cambridge and the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange, are open for submissions and can be found on the Climate CoLab's website.