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Getting to Drawdown: Q&A with Paul Hawken

Paul Hawken is no stranger to talking about climate change and other environmental crises. The environmental writer and activist’s 2007 book Blessed Unrest, for example, chronicled the breadth of environmental and social justice movements around the world. But his latest effort Project Drawdown, which has inspired a book and a website, tries for something different: It’s a how-to guide for not just slowing down climate change but reversing it – transforming the planet so that it pulls carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere.

To achieve this goal, Hawken and a team of scientists compiled a list of the 100 most substantive solutions to climate change. They then calculated, using computer simulations, or models, how each of those solutions could either reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions. They also included solutions that sequester carbon dioxide through land use practices by 2050. The list includes commonly-cited technologies like rooftop solar, which could reduce the worlds carbon dioxide emissions by 25 billion tonnes. But there are less well-known solutions like silvopasture, a practice of raising livestock in pastures made up of trees and grasses. Hawken’s team reports that it could capture more than 30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050.

Hawken sat down with Future Earth to talk about Project Drawdown. He also discusses why, in many cases, people who talk about climate change are "trying to go into a locked back door to human understanding."

This conversation has been edited for length and for clarity.

Daniel Strain: Drawdown is a shift from what many who work in climate change science or policy talk about today, which is mitigation or reaching net-zero emissions. What makes this a different approach?

Author and activist Paul Hawken says "You can’t fight climate change. It’s like saying let’s fight the wind or ocean currents or sunshine." Photo: Paul Hawken

Paul Hawken: If you look at the rate greenhouse gases have increased over the last 150 years, but mainly the last 20 to 30 years, it is extraordinary. Humanity – genus Homo, whether it’s Homo sapiens or Homo erectus – has never existed when CO2 levels in the atmosphere were above 300 parts per millions until around 1935. We are in terra nova, a very different earth. We don't know what’s going to happen. We can only guess and speculate.  My sense is that we are underestimating the impact on climate, weather, oceans, food and civilisation.

I believe the words mitigation, reduction, stabilisation are rather weak goals in the face of what we know, don’t know and where we are. Reduction or mitigation is like asking, “Humanity, you’re going down the wrong road. Can you slow down?” It doesn’t change the road you’re going on. It just changes the rate at which you’re going down the wrong road.

It seemed to me that we needed a new meme and that should be reversal, from reduction to reversal. That's what drawdown is about.

DS: It seems like you set up your book to be a response to the people who might say that drawdown isn’t a realistic goal.

PH: Well, yeah. For me survival is more realistic than going over a cliff. Second, if you look at NASA’s atmospheric simulation over a year, you will see a tremendous amount of CO2 being emitted in the northern hemisphere during the winter, from heating, cars,  transportation and electricity generation. Then in May-June, you start to see a change: The CO2 is reduced, and you start to see oxygen being generated because you have photosynthesis coming into full bore in the north.

We actually draw down six to seven parts per million of CO2 every year. So drawdown is not an ambitious goal. It’s what the Earth does naturally. The question is can we lower anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from human activity and land use back such that what’s drawn down is greater than the amount that's emitted? I engendered this project in order to see if that was possible within 30 years using existing practices, techniques and technologies. In other words, not a moonshot or a silver bullet, but what humanity already knows and is doing.

DS: A lot of work went into analysing those techniques. Can you tell me about the scientific team you worked with on this project?

PH: Even though climate change has been in the public realm of knowledge for four decades, no one had ever mapped, measured and modeled the 100 most substantial solutions to reversing global warming. It’s never been done, which is odd when you think about it.

We set out to do it, but it’s complicated to say the least. It involves a lot of modeling, research and math because the solutions and the causes of emissions are intricately interrelated. To accomplish this, we put out a call around the world for Drawdown research fellows and were overwhelmed by applicants – scientists in their 20s and 30s, half of whom have Ph.Ds. Seventy extraordinary scholars became our research staff, and we complemented that with 120 advisers who are experts in everything from climate, architecture, engineering, agriculture and botany. On top of those, we had 40 outside expert science reviewers to go over the check the models.

DS: For years, the most common way that many journalists, and some scientists, talked about climate change was to focus on the risks – the “doom and gloom.” But research has shown that such an approach can be counterproductive and turn people off. Do you think that focusing on the solutions to climate change can be a better way of motivating change?

PH: The idea that fear and threat and future doom would somehow awaken and activate humanity was the underlying theory, and it hasn’t worked. So now what you see is people talking about solutions. But let’s deconstruct that for a minute. What are they saying? They’re saying solar, wind, EVs, Elon Musk, don't eat so much meat. The implication is if we do these, if we put solar panels on our homes and drive EVs and construct offshore wind turbines, that we’ll get a hall pass to the 22nd Century.

That's just not true. Each of those solutions is crucial, of course. But what can people do with those? They can’t put up wind turbines on mountains or in oceans. Individuals can’t build solar farms. They can’t make or as yet afford electric vehicles, etc. So even though people are talking about solutions, these commonly assumed solutions leave almost everybody out out in terms of agency.

DS: How are the solutions you’ve laid out in Drawdown different?

A graphic illustrating the top 100 solutions to climate change by their capacity to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Graphic: Project Drawdown

PH: When we started, we didn't know what the top solutions were. Frankly, I think if we had made a list of what we thought the top five or 10 solutions were, we would have come up with a similar list to what is being proffered. And we were dead wrong.

When you look at the solutions, what you realise is that they’re diverse and inclusive and touch on many levels of agency, not just individuals but communities and cities and companies and utilities and farmers. So it really opens up the idea of what a solution is and what it means. I think silvopasture is the number nine solution, but no one’s heard of it.

DS: In a similar vein, two of the solutions in your top 10 revolve around the wellbeing of women: “educating girls” and “family planning.”

PH: Both of them are family planning. There are just two different pathways to it. One is educating girls who are taken out of school before puberty or at puberty and are consigned to early marriage in the vast majority of cases, in which case the number of children they have is five or more. A girl who is allowed to matriculate to 10th, 11th, 12th grade makes very different reproductive choices. She earns more money. She puts those resources into two-plus children, not five-plus. So you get a very difference population number in 2050 than you would otherwise.

If you combine those two, because really they are one thing, family planning, then it's the number one solution. This all goes into what we call the “who knew?” category. It is not a population control solution. It is an empowering girls and women solution. Very different.

DS: In the sense that you didn’t know they were going to be so important?

PH: “Who knew?” in the sense that climate solutions had not been measured or presented in this way, so no one knew. Our self-imposed mandate was to do the math, without bias or belief. 

DS: How do you hope your data will get used by the sustainability community?

PH: We’re a living research project. Our goal is to make that research available to NGOs, governments, communities, businesses and groups on an ongoing, real-time basis so they can use that as a way to educate, inform and act. Good policy is based on good data. Bad policy is based on ideology or belief. Our goal is to help people who are changing policy on whatever government level to show them the economics, to show them that we’ve reached this cross-over where the profit from the solutions is greater than making profit from the problems.

And that's where we’re going, where altruism need no longer apply. It’s great if it’s there, but the economics are going to be the driver.

DS: That’s a driver. On a large-scale, what do you think are the major barriers to achieving these sorts of fundamental transformation?

PH: There are communication barriers, political barriers, corruption barriers, financial barriers and there are education barriers.

DS: Let’s talk about a few of those. What do you mean by communication barriers?

PH: The climate paradigm, how it is communicated, is really upside down and backwards. If you go to the literature or the media and read or listen about climate change, what is being said over and over? That we can’t exceed 2 degrees Centigrade in global warming or else we’re screwed. That is put out as a science-based number. Well, first of all, it’s not science-based. There’s a huge difference in climate science about when we reach that threshold in terms of further emissions. It’s a convenient, even number pulled out of thin air. Most importantly, it means nothing to 99.99% of the people in the world.

What are people around the world supposed to do with that number? What are they supposed to do with that number when they get up in the morning? How is that going to impact them? It makes no sense.

We are told over and again that the human brain is not wired to deal with long-term existential threats. True. Then why do we keep using two degrees, a long-term existential threat, as a way to motivate? We are trying to go into a locked back door to human understanding. The front door is wide open. The front door conforms to how the human brain actually does work, which is that is concerned with short term issues like security, food, warmth, jobs, income, community, self-respect. This is our way in.

We are the only species without full employment and never has so much work needed to be done. Almost every solution we model is regenerative development, and they create hundreds of millions of jobs. This is the only way we can reverse global warming. We can’t do it by being experts and meeting once a year in Paris, Marrakech or Bonn, unless those meetings include regenerative development.

DS: What about the financial barriers?

PH: Economically, the things we don’t need going forward are heavily subsidised. The fossil fuel industry is subsidised and detrimental externalities are allowed in industrial agriculture. In essence we subsidise land, marine and industrial practices that are destructive, harmful and cause emissions. The incentives or subsidies for regenerative practices are scant or not there at all.

While the subsidies may not change, the economics are. Renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuel energy in many places of the world. Within a relatively short time, maybe 30 months, renewables will be the cheapest form of energy in the world period.

DS: A lot of what we’ve talked about gets to a point that you make in your writing, which is that we shouldn’t think about “combatting” or “fighting” climate change.

PH: Exactly. Because you can’t fight climate change. It’s like saying let’s fight the wind or ocean currents or sunshine. The climate changes every nanosecond. The atmosphere is a blessing that makes the Earth the paradise that it is. Using metaphors of war and conflict represents a dual-mindedness that somehow there’s an enemy out there, that the climate is our enemy, the atmosphere is our enemy. It’s our ally. Our enemy is our thinking, so let’s not fight. Let’s change and transform.