Hot Ideas on Climate: Three Unique Approaches to Sustainability

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Calfing Glacier in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

flickr / drurydrama under Creative Commons

Calfing Glacier in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

As stated by Mina Gull during the “Hot Ideas on Climate” session at the 2013 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions, there is unfortunately no magic bullet to relieve all our environmental woes. There are, however, countless people working across disciplines to produce technologies, environmental education models, and businesses that facilitate climate change adaptation, shift outdated thought patterns, and drive progress through consumer-centered innovations. Here’s a look at three of the most promising.

The Climate Change Researcher

“As demonstrated by recent extreme weather events, I think it’s too late to avoid all negative effects of global warming,” began Laura Petes, a representative from the WEF’s Young Scientist community. Petes works as an Ecosystem Science Advisor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Program. Her job is to collaborate with policymakers across the United States to prepare vulnerable communities for climate-related impacts.

“We need more flexible scientific tools like sea level rise visualizations and Digital Coast,” Petes continued. As introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier in 2013, Digital Coast promotes the preservation of coastal areas and the mitigation of crises like Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Coast Oil Spill. Through top-of-the-line remote sensing, satellite imagery, and photography, Digital Coast enables the NOAA to more accurately map the U.S. shoreline and track changes in aquatic ecosystems.

In addition to the Digital Coast project, Petes sees promise in harnessing combinations of green and gray infrastructure. An alternative to traditional slabs of steel and concrete, green infrastructure achieves similar results using natural resources like forests, coral reefs, and wetlands. Key innovations in green infrastructure include green roofs, which manage wastewater and clean the air we breathe, and sea walls, natural coastal defenses that protect human activities from the destructive effects of waves and tides.

So much effort goes into educating the general public about making smart consumer and lifestyle choices that we often forget about researchers like Petes who are already one step ahead of us. While we spend our valuable time debating whether climate change is actually happening, they spend theirs readying us for its present and future consequences.

The Environmental Educator

Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability and Director of the Institute for Sustainability and Leadership at the University of Cumbria, believes that society needs a massive fundamental change.

“The latest research on pro-social and pro-environmental behavioral change shows that whether you’re positive or negative with people so much doesn’t matter,” said Bendell. “The big emphasis is on why it is important for the individual to change their behavior – to buy this product, not that one or to take public transport instead of drive.”

A critic of green marketing, Bendell accused the environmental movement of promoting extrinsic values like “coolness” or cost savings. Appealing to individuals’ higher moral consciousness and sense of empathy, said Bendell, generates a far more long-lasting impact.

“In experimental conditions, psychologists have found that if people…are shown social and environmental products, those that use the money they’ve been given to buy the social products are more likely to lie and steal right afterward than those who were not exposed to such information before making their purchasing decision. This can be explained because people feel like they’ve done their bit.”


Bendell continued, “When I do my speeches now, I tell how people how they can reclaim the monetary system…” Citing Couchsurfing, an organization that encourages locals to host travelers in exchange for cross-cultural dialogue, and ride-sharing programs like Zipcar, Bendell identified the sharing economy and alternative currency as ways to attach value to services without feeding people’s insatiable thirst for commodities.

As for dealing with people in the environmental profession, Bendell advocated a different approach.

“The science tells us it’s too late to stop catastrophic climate change. In 1987, the UN General Assembly agreed that climate change is real, that we’re causing it, and that it’s a problem,” said Bendell. “There have been lots of efforts, but if you look at all the graphs, it’s had zero impact on carbon emissions.” Although a message of “it’s too late” is unlikely to mobilize the general population, realism is the point from which experts and business leaders need to start talking.

While Bendell’s opinions may seem radical, he is one of many thought leaders trying to bring Petes’ scientific insights into popular conversation and generate measurable outcomes.

The Social Entrepreneur

Social entrepreneurs are disrupting every industry, and environmental sustainability is no exception.

As a Princeton freshman, Tom Szaky launched TerraCycle, a social venture that turns waste materials into consumer goods. Originally, Szaky started with the end result in mind, conceiving a design for fertilizer or a birdfeeder and then finding garbage that could make those products. “We shifted our focus about five years into the business,” explained Szaky. Today, the TerraCycle team first recognizes problems, such as pollution from gum wrappers and chip bags, and turns the trash into reusable lunchboxes, office supplies, cleaners, and garden tools.

How it Works Arrow

“The actual byproduct of our business is the product,” said Bendell. “We’ve kind of flipped the system.”

The field of social entrepreneurship contains very promising solutions to waste management and carbon emission reduction. In contrast to nonprofit organizations, social enterprises are financially self-sufficient and highly flexible. As proven by TerraCycle, they can also change to focusing on broader social needs with less bureaucracy than government-run institutions. For example, TerraCycle now has “exported” upcycling programs to college campuses and created hands-on curricula to educate children on the materials cycle and the tragedy of the commons.

TerraCycle is not the only organization yielding both financial and environmental returns. Also represented at WEF was, founded by Matt Damon and Gary White in 2009, which uses microcredit to finance water sanitation projects and provide clean drinking water in the developing world.

“There are…really cool concepts out there,” said Szaky, citing the Rainforest Alliance and various fair trade companies as examples. “It’s in every different sector. It’s companies that advise other companies on energy use or how to make better packaging… Companies care. The goal is to continue to grow [that capacity] by having more innovation.”

Another view: The World Economic Forum’s ‘Hottest Ideas’ for Climate Change are Tepid at Best

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