A Conversation on Climate: Is It “Game Over” — or “Game On” — for the Planet?

As part of HKS Green Week 2018, we sat down with HKS Chief Sustainability Officer Rand Ekman and Green Week keynote speaker Dr. Katharine Wilkinson of Project Drawdown, the non-profit behind a New York Times best-selling book proposing 100 solutions to reverse global warming. Her suggestions are based on meticulous research that maps, measures and describes the most substantive solutions that already exist.

Rand Ekman:  Where did the idea of Project Drawdown come from?

Katharine WilkinsonPaul Hawken, Drawdown’s executive director, simmered on the ethos and idea for a long time.  The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) synthesizes the incredible science defining the problem statement of climate change — that human activities and resulting greenhouse gas emissions are changing our planet in very damaging ways.

When Paul poured through the 2001 IPCC Assessment Report, he was struck by the absence of attendant, corresponding work on the side of solutions.  There was no comprehensive, apples-to-apples list of technologies and practices that reduce emissions and address the challenge.  Paul suggested the idea of creating such a list to various well-funded organizations, but there were no takers. The IPCC reports kept coming; the body of climate science got better and even more irrefutable.

Then in 2012, environmentalist Bill McKibben published a seminal article in Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”  It sounded serious alarms about the world’s known fossil fuel reserves — what already sits on the balance sheets of oil, gas, and coal companies — and what burning those reserves would mean for our heating planet. The bottom line: the resulting emissions would be five times more than the earth can handle, in a best-case scenario. A lot of fear and resignation set in. Longtime climate activists were saying, “We tried. It didn’t work. Game over.”

But is it really game over, or could it be game on? That was Paul’s question, and the question our nonprofit, Project Drawdown, was founded to answer—to do another kind of math on what’s possible. Our work is rooted in hard science and focuses on solutions we already have in hand, to reduce emissions and reach the point of “drawdown” (when the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere peaks and begins to decline year over year). We also keep our eye on emerging solutions, what we call “coming attractions.”

In our book Drawdown, we paint a picture of possibility, with footholds of action for every individual and every institution on this planet. So much of the climate change content you come across today is dry, wonky, and impenetrable. We’re aiming to spark action with wonder and inspiration, with joy and purpose.

RE:  There is a delightful and inherent optimism in Drawdown. Can you share any insight into this?

KW:   The future we may face with climate change is terrifying.  The problem is so harrowing and overwhelming that many people feel paralyzed in the face of it, and the way it’s been articulated — with doom and gloom, threat and fear — has often deepened that paralysis. At Drawdown, we didn’t set out to do an optimism project.  We set out to “do the math” and find out where we stand.  That math turns out to be a counterweight to panic or paralysis, because we actually do have a path to get to drawdown. But that possibility has real urgency. Timelines are tight, so we need urgency with agency. We already have every tool we need to solve the issues we’re faced with. Each one of us is empowered personally, professionally, and in civic life to take action.

Climate change has and will continue to create great suffering, even as we move toward drawdown. It can be easy to focus on the story that humans are terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, greedy, lazy, and incompetent. The other side of the human story is that we are capable of being gutsy, generous, collaborative, creative, and even brilliant.  It’s who we can be, but inherently, it’s who we already are. This is the story we really need to tell and own.

RE:  I first met you at GreenBiz18, the annual gathering of global sustainable business leadership. What are your thoughts about the role of business in resolving the challenges of this century?

KW:  What an incredibly exciting opportunity climate action is for business.  Business has talent, resources, infrastructure — so much potential waiting to be tapped. How empowering it is to realize how much business can do to move the needle on global warming.

And yet, most conversations in business around climate are still very incremental. Yes, corporate boards beholden to shareholder interests creates an institutional drag. Business, like government, can sometimes feel like righting a listing barge; it’s not as nimble as we’d like.

But business can rewrite this story. The crisis of workforce disengagement is one side of the same coin as climate disruption — feedback that the status quo isn’t working. Employees want to be part of something good, something meaningful; they want to address company, human, and planetary needs at the same time. We must have leadership in business to create a regenerative future and solve this century’s challenges. Much of business is idling right now, but the opportunity to lead, to stand out — it’s right there and waiting to be claimed.

RE:  Your response got me thinking about the need to address incremental thinking and approaches to climate. The strategies are so comprehensive. Do you have any thoughts about how an architectural firm might apply the thinking?

KW:  My goodness, talk about having within your immediate grasp so many interesting solutions to make a lasting impact. There are meaningful consequences and potential outcomes that are intimately shaped by architecture and design — that’s empowering and exciting. The architecture and design community gives me reason for hope because it’s a field of incredible creative horsepower. You have a unique, even enviable nexus of creativity and practicality and influence.

My grandfather (Edwin A. Keeble) was an architect. He designed the Life & Casualty Tower in Nashville in the mid-1950s, with passive solar design. Of course, clients didn’t want to hear about that then, so he did it surreptitiously.  Today, architects can and must lead more vocally, more boldly. The L&C Tower was built 60 years ago.  Many of the solutions we explore in Drawdown, they’ve been around for a long time. There’s nothing to wait for but us.

RE:  From my own perspective, as architects we struggle frequently with feeling like we need to ask our client’s permission to design sustainably. And yet your grandfather just did it.

KW:  Yes, he did! I never knew him, but I don’t think asking for permission was his style. He also designed several buildings at Vanderbilt University, his alma mater. With his design for Memorial Gymnasium, he oriented the basketball court unlike others of the era. He took advantage of natural confluences, including the sun’s path. Nature was a design partner, not an obstacle.

RE:  That’s leadership, and that’s precisely the thing we need to be doing.

KW:  It would be easy to say my grandfather was ahead of his time, but I’d counter that his approach is the way design was meant to be all along.  I imagine him telling his clients, “Come.  Come along for the journey (laughs).”  The architecture and design space is incredibly well equipped to lead, to bring people along toward a vision of the future.  I’d like to see some architects enter politics and wield influence in policy as well.

RE:  Speaking of policy, climate has unfortunately become a highly polarizing issue.  What is Drawdown’s approach to our current ideological and political tone?

KW:  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t heartbroken about the current political moment in our country, especially around the environment, but that doesn’t mean I’m not holding space for possibility. I’m grateful for our Climate Mayors, keeping things moving through city leadership, and God bless the lawyers and NRDC, trying to keep key protections in place.

What we’re finding at Drawdown is that the solutions are magnetic, and emissions are just one piece of that. Jobs, health, beauty, livability, equity—there are so many reasons to pursue them, so many positive ripple effects. The solutions create incredible pull and open up space to find common ground.

My gut intuition is telling me that we’re on the precipice of change, of new ways of seeing and acting.

A regenerative consciousness is being born at scale, and the tension we are experiencing right now may actually be evidence of this change.  The shift is partially driven, I think, by the reality of the problem (climate change) and the way it’s manifesting in the physical world; we can’t ignore or deny it any longer.  This helps advance the implementation of solutions and creative problem solving.

I think a harbinger is that the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum has switched to solar power.  Maybe it’s a talisman.  It’s time.

HKS would like to thank Teknion, Tarkett, and USG, the signature sponsors of Green Week 2018. Green Week is HKS’ annual celebration of sustainable, resilient design, a weeklong forum providing educational opportunities and inspiration.