Something remarkable is happening around the world. On September 24th, 2011 tens of thousands of people joined 2000 marches and rallies in over 175 countries to call for a move beyond fossil fuels. The event, called "Moving Planet," was organized by the environmental group 350.org.
My ten-year-old son, four-year-old daughter and I led a "mini-ride" of cyclists through New York City to the local rally. With my son on a trailer cycle and my daughter in a bike trailer, our rig was plastered with Moving Planet stickers and stretched over fifteen feet. Our unusual set-up drew appreciative comments from many pedestrians we passed, especially kids.
As our group of cyclists approached the rally at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, near the United Nations Secretariat, a police officer told me that bikes were not allowed on the plaza. I glanced around uncertainly for a place to lock up our long bicycle train, and he took pity on me, "Park your bikes next to my police van over there." He smiled at my kids and added with bravado, "Don't worry. I'll make sure nobody touches them."
350.org's name refers to the upper limit (in parts per million) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere considered most compatible with human existence on the planet. It has risen rapidly from 315ppm in 1958 to over 385ppm today. If the earth continues on this trajectory, it will heat up to a point at which there is literally no ice left on the planet. This has happened before in earth's history, but humans have never experienced -- or survived -- it.
Dr. James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the speakers at the Moving Planet rally in NYC, has spent his career studying the climatic changes under way on our planet. One of his key points, which unfortunately has not yet entered the popular consciousness, is that we simply cannot afford to extract and burn all the fossil fuels in the earth. Many people worry about when we will run out of oil or coal. But the real worry is what will happen to our climate if emissions from all that oil and coal are released into the atmosphere. Instead of worrying about when we'll run out, we should be talking about how to keep as many fossil fuels in the ground as possible.
Many people profit from selling oil, removing mountaintops to get at coal seams, and extracting crude bitumen from tar sands. Some ignore or belittle scientific research that doesn't conform to business as usual, and use the political system to ensure that no substantive action is taken to alter this unsustainable path. But eventually the obvious will no longer be deniable, even to those who profit from the status quo: we have to move beyond fossil fuels.
While I am inspired by and support events like Moving Planet, I think the private sector, with supporting governmental policies, has the greatest opportunity to solve the crisis. When I worked in Intel Corporation's venture group, I spent a lot of time with entrepreneurs developing technologies and business models to promote adoption of alternative energy and energy efficiency solutions. Rather than harangue oil company executives with moralistic lectures, these entrepreneurs understood that moving off fossil fuels requires co-opting the very greed that got us to this point. The key is to develop innovative products and business models that disrupt inertia-bound incumbents. This model works in the world of high technology and has the possibility of creating a sustainable energy sector.
I believe that when there is more money to be made in alternative energy than fossil fuels, the arguments we hear today against taking action to address climate change will disappear. That's why it is so important for the U.S. to eliminate the massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, which stifle innovation and provide an unfair advantage over alternative energy solutions like wind and solar.
In 1987, Ronald Reagan opined that, despite the deep mistrust between the two super powers, the U.S. and Soviet Union would certainly unite to fight off an alien invasion. Well, something remarkable is happening around the world: we now have a genuinely global threat analogous to Reagan's imaginary one. And people across the globe are uniting behind a vision of a world in which we have finally broken our addiction to fossil fuels.
At the rally, my children ran through the crowd handing out Moving Planet stickers, making friends with other kids and treating the entire event like a big carnival. Perhaps some day they will tell their children how they were there when things began to change. The worldwide populist sentiment evident in the Moving Planet rallies and practical alternative energy solutions being developed by entrepreneurs offer genuine promise. And what other issue has united people in over 175 countries on the same day? Remarkable...