“Preventing climate change and adapting to it are not morally equivalent”

With every ton of carbon we emit, we add incrementally to the total concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That total is what determines the effects of climate change. By emitting ton of carbon we are, in a tiny, incremental way, harming all of humanity, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.

Dave Roberts, Grist, (9/16/14)

Yale’s opportunity to break the cultural gridlock on climate

Science writer Elizabeth Kolbert (’83) writes “Rethinking How We Think About Climate Change” in a new report from the Audubon Society. One of the researchers Kolbert refers to is Dan Kahan, at Yale Law School. Another is Kari Norgaard, whose book Living in Denial observes people in a small town in Norway unable to speak openly about climate change, even though they believe it is happening.

Norgaard argues that it’s hard even for people who are privately worried about climate change to discuss the issue in public, because they feel guilty about the situation and, at the same time, helpless to change it. ‘We have a need to think of ourselves as good people,’ she says. The lack of discussion about the issue feeds itself: People believe that if it really were a serious problem, others would be dealing with it. ‘It’s difficult for people to feel that climate change is really happening, in part because we’re embedded in a world where no one else around us is talking about it,’ Norgaard says. ‘It becomes a vicious cycle between the political gridlock and the cultural and individual gridlock.’

Yale’s opportunity to lead as the US and China negotiate

Andrew Revkin in the NYT blog Dot Earth discusses US/China relations on climate, sparked by a new Rolling Stone article about the same, “China, the Climate, and the Fate of the Planet.”

At the end of Revkin’s essay, he quotes Zou Ji, a Chinese climate strategist, commenting on energy-intensive lifestyles in the US:


‘China needs to do its part, but right now the U.S. still has huge potential to do more,’ he says forcefully. ‘I have lived in the U.S., where everyone has a clothes dryer and an air conditioner and a big refrigerator and a big house and a big car. In the EU and Japan, they also live well, but people there only consume half the energy Americans do. You do have the capacity to live at the same standard and consume far less – if you choose.’

Decarbonization challenge, original proposal (April, 2013)

(a pilot program proposed for YANA fellows and alumni in partnership with on and off campus organizations)


Of the world’s major economies, the US has the largest per capita CO2 emissions. (US, 2009: 17.2 metric tons per person; Germany: 9.0 per person; Japan: 8.6 per person; China: 5.8 per person)

To keep the level of CO2 in the atmosphere within limits recognized as safe, the world, led by the US, needs to rapidly decarbonize its energy use. High emitters in the wealthy countries of the West will need to be the leading edge of this change, as developing countries are only just beginning to achieve a modern lifestyle and are still far below the per capita emissions of the US. Solutions will require both enormous investment in new energy systems — renewables and likely nuclear — and in profound behavior change by Americans. (For more information, see video references, and review the science.)

The political system in the US is currently paralyzed because of the lack of public resolve on climate and the polarization between the two parties.

Our premise: the future apparently demands a massive effort in both engineering and behavior, and to support this rapid change, we need Yale students and they need us. How can we offer social and economic incentives to a group of natural leaders to inspire new behavior, and then create a positive cascade by their example? (Providing a response to the call from engineers and leaders like Saul Griffith, Kevin Anderson and Stephen Emmott.)

Can we create a catalyst to collectively help people arrive at the answers they seek?

The chart below shows the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario outlined by the IPCC. In other words, for this to come true, all we have to do is nothing.




The Yale Decarbonization Challenge (YDC) is inspired by this brief report from the accounting firm Pricewaterhouse. Pricewaterhouse summarizes the problem described above by stating that the global economy now needs to decarbonize by 5.1% per year. [Update: September 2014 estimate revised to 6.2% per year.]

Our goal is to decarbonize virtually all Yale alumni lifestyles by 8% per year. (A big number, but doable, particularly in discretionary choices like vacation travel — short trips, or fewer, are immediate successes. Even the attempt would be notable and would put Yale on the map for leadership.)

Students and recent graduates will team up to direct the program, while also helping to inform participating alumni on what they are doing and why. Behind this design is a stream of recent research showing that social connections (even alumni/student connections) can help people think about a positive future, which in turn makes it easier for people to act.

A fundamental part of this solution will be to strengthen the relationships that can make it work — between students, from students to alumni, and between alumni themselves. New relationships are themselves rewarding, and provide positive incentive to the people in program, and to those around them outside of the program.

What is decarbonization?

The MIT-trained engineer Saul Griffith provides a lucid and helpful explanation in this excellent 30 minute video, which covers both the big picture and the steps to decarbonize that he adopted in his own life.

Most of the energy we use at home or for travel comes from fossil fuels, so by using less energy in our daily life, we decarbonize. For someone seeking an 8% cut, that could mean mass transit instead of driving to work, and choosing a vacation nearby over one that involved intercontinental air travel. Other alumni steps might include installing solar panels on one’s house, exchanging one form of energy for another. Our possessions also represent the cost of the energy of their manufacture, so reducing consumption of new material goods is another way to decarbonize. The good thing is that many of the pleasures in life (music, cultural experiences, friends and family) are less affected and perhaps enhanced, except for the travel aspect.

Why do we want to do this again?

MIT has a game showing the path we need to take to keep our habitat functioning well through the lifetimes of current Yale undergrads. To see the simulator game in context: 350 ppm of CO2 is NASA’s top scientist’s recommendation for the upper limit (which we are already past today, at above 395). 450 ppm is the UN politically-agreed-upon upper limit, which was hoped to keep the planet at or below a 2° C rise in temperature, which is a level where climate disruptions to crops and coastlines were expected to be tolerable. At temperatures above that level, the economic and social costs are expected to become severe. [Flash is required to play the game. If you can’t see it, here’s a screengrab and explanation.]

When you play the MIT game (click ‘Experiment 2’ and select ‘20 year delay’ for accuracy) pulling down the arrow controlling carbon intensity is equivalent to gradually parking all our gas-powered cars, rapidly substituting nuclear power or renewables for coal power plants, relying on biofuel for air travel, and also simply using less energy in our lifestyle. (Learning to play the piano rather than flying to Bali for vacation. Or — sailing to Bali, which would be a zero-carbon method, on a very long vacation.)

You can see how hard it is, even as you pull down the arrow, to keep from bumping up above 500 ppm or beyond, because of our energy-intense current lifestyles and the rapid growth of emissions across the world as hundreds of millions of people begin to copy us. (Pulling the arrow down fast essentially assumes you put all new drivers into electric cars. Or onto mass transit, which is even better.)

Here’s my best try. Maybe you can do better — try it! (And if you do better, please take a screenshot!)

In the end, a global agreement will be necessary, and as a precursor, public opinion (in our case, led by a collaborative effort of Yale alumni!) will need to move quickly on this issue to push things forward.

Remember, MIT’s Experiment 2 shows the pace of change necessary. Early intervention is rewarded.

From my effort, it looks like we can’t wait for a later generation to fix this; it looks like we can’t even wait for another graduating class from Yale. Action should start with students that are currently enrolled, because the path moving down works best if it starts virtually immediately.

Here are some tools that guide decarbonization:

http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/carboncalculator (perhaps this one is the best for students to work with)


Here is a video of a kid in Nepal practicing decarbonization on his family, which by American standards, probably only has a tiny footprint to begin with. He hasn’t even gone to Yale (yet), and he seems like he’s got the message.

Here are more video resources on a page, including some that may work as learning tools for the program.


Practical notes on structure (this is a work in progress, and suggestions are welcome!):

In the spring of 2014, the YDC team developed a pilot campaign to match students and recent graduates with alumni of all ages. Students made calls to a test group of alumni to figure out their current emissions, explain the issue, and advise on how to reach or exceed the 8% target.

The spring 2014 campaign has been a pilot project with the goal of expansion to the broader alumni community. The experience of running this campaign would be discussed at a ‘symposium on the future,’ developed by the same organizers and held at Yale in October 2014.

Sid Kumar, board member at YAANY, suggested framing the challenge as a competition — ideally, for instance, as a contest with Harvard alumni. (If there was a banner saying “Beat Harvard!” across the top of the main webpage, no explanation about decarbonization, climate or the future would even be necessary, perhaps? Add Princeton too.)


In the first version of this idea, we considered having the students contact alumni and offer a gift of $100 in return for participating in the experiment important to their future. The experiment itself would entail having the students do an energy/lifestyle audit of the alumnus/a, and then make recommendations for an 8% (or greater) cut over the following year, to be self-reported, and presented by the team in the spring of 2015. Perhaps with quarterly check-in points along the way.

The alumnus/a receiving the $100 would be free to keep it, but if they felt the whole project was interesting and important, they could decline the gift, and instead support the project by contributing $200, which in turn would provide gifts for two more alumni. Thus participation would scale the project.

As an added benefit, we could allow alumni to choose one of the two prospects for the next round. (This might be popular, as people undergoing their own audit would have a chance to aim the students at friends from their class.) I am certain I can raise a block grant of a few thousand to start with. Whether student participants should receive stipends is another question. Their work would be worth paying for.

How should the student/alumni interaction work? This is an area that would benefit from creative thought. How should the students interact with the participating alumni? We leave open for students, recent graduates, and YANA members to consider. Alumni can look at online footprint tools themselves, so there needs to be ‘value added’ in order to make the bonding process work. There should be a script for the students, that they can improve on, but that provides a consistent set of goals and points.


Perhaps we can have participants keep journals and collect them on the new service, Medium.com

(There are many sites that might be interested, like Huffington Post. But Medium has a very clean format.)

Constant problems in climate communications:


problem: people self-select into small groups that care a great deal, while the general public remains indifferent, and also feels disengaged from the issue. A fault also known as: ‘preaching to the choir.’

The consequences are described here:

See Obama’s comments to environmental donors (NYT 4/4/13)

Nicholas Lemann, “What Happened to the Environmental Movement” (New Yorker, 4/15/13)

Charles Blow, “Young People’s Priorities” (NYT 4/27/12);

solution: one method is unexpected messengers. In the NY State campaign for gay marriage, the organizers drew on NHL and NFL athletes to broadcast their message. Demonstrate broad social commitment, so the herd instinct moves people — as detailed in the British report, “I will if you will.”

Recommended messenger: Yale football players past and present. And this year’s hockey team.

Mike Richter, goalie for Yale and for the New York Rangers, in the NHL Sustainability Report


problem: people choose symbolic solutions that are too tangential or modest to have an impact in time, and which draw attention and resources away from the fundamental broad behavior change required to have impact. Frankly, people spend too much time doing things that are not relevant. (I find this true of myself, and true of many of our stories in City Atlas.)

solution: try to delineate high-value areas. Where can the maximum return be found? There are four key areas that consistently turn up. Because we are in an emergency, all four of these should be pursued aggressively, though the alumni decarbonization concept only addresses the first, which is both critical and accessible. The others could be discussed at the symposium, though:

1 – Cultural leadership, particularly with real metrics and outcomes (YDC being one potential prototype).

It’s important to understand that even failure at this option is better than success at almost any other option, simply because it is the honest crux of the challenge. Failure or partial success will still locate attention where attention needs to be directed.

2 – R & D, deployment, and finance of energy technology (Mosaic)

3 – Improving the democratic process in the US (note political scientist James Fishkin’s research; this goal is slow, frustrating, but necessary to support whatever positive results are found elsewhere on this list).

4 – Educating young women and girls, globally (multiple benefits, as cited in climate scientist Eugenia Kalnay’s proposal)


FAQ (in progress):


Q. Isn’t 8% like a flat tax? What if some alumni already have a very small footprint, while others are much bigger emitters?

A. The answer there is that 8% is a start. It may not be perfectly fair, but actually the goal is to engage exactly those high-emitters, and help create a new image of wealth. (Ultimately for people in China, Brazil or India to have something positive to compare to.)

By having one decarbonization goal across the entire group, it simplifies the message and makes it faster to get with the program. For people who have taken very very steep cuts already (ie. living in a monastery), even if they can’t fully get to another 8%, their stories can be an inspiration to everyone else, and perhaps we should account for that in some kind of networking tool like journals. Though in fact the more valuable stories may be from people at the high end.


Q. Is 8% too much, or not enough?

A. Pricewaterhouse calls for 5.1% 6.2% worldwide. To meet the same target, Kevin Anderson’s analysis is that the wealthy countries thus need to decarbonize our richer lifestyles at a rate of 10% per annum. 8% is probably not perfect, but close enough to get started.


Q. What about buying offsets? Can’t people with resources just choose to buy offsets and become carbon neutral?

A. Offsets have had measurement and fraud problems, and so they have acquired a bad reputation, or at best a reputation for ineffectiveness — particularly as a compensation for air travel. As a result, I don’t know of any climate scientist who uses them. Andy Revkin at the NYT also disavows offsets. I would avoid offsets for those reasons. Ideally, real, measurable emission cuts are our goal. This question can be open to subsequent student research, but I believe even less success with real cuts would be better than promoting an illusion through use of offsets.

We might be able to look into clean energy investments though — not as a replacement for meeting everyone’s 8% target, but as an added service and communal effort.

It would be very interesting to form a team of Yale alumni that could examine and maybe invest in Billy Parish’s solar funding initiative Mosaic. (Billy Parish dropped out of Yale in 2003 to become a leader in climate activism and renewable energy.)

A reason to be optimistic: all we have to do to make this work is to get alumni to begin to copy what is already happening in Copenhagen.

Video references

A graphical representation of decarbonization

Comments and feedback

Site mock-up


Richard Reiss | original draft April 11, 2013; updated August 2014



“The Narrative of Leadership”

A conversation between Eric Holthaus, David Wei (’00), Richard Reiss (’81) and the students of the Yale Decarbonization Challenge. (1/23/14)

Eric Holthaus: I just announced today that I’m going to be a new full-time writer for Slate.com. In the past I’ve written for The Wall Street Journal and Quartz. I used to work at Columbia, at the Earth Institute, at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

David Wei: I’m a climate diplomat. I work at a nonprofit called Independent Diplomat, we provide pro-bono diplomatic services. And in that capacity, I work for the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Alliance of Small Island States in the UN Climate Change Negotiations.

Yale Decarbonization Challenge: We’ve been working this semester to increase energy literacy on campus and among alumni as well. We’ve been doing calls and research and making sure that alumni are on a path to improve their carbon footprint, trying to decarbonize by eight-percent, that’s our goal.

Richard Reiss: [to Eric] Something that made it seem like a really great idea to have you speak to these guys as they try to explain to alumni, who are probably more affluent than average and using a lot more energy—just because that’s what you do when you’re affluent—is how you came around to deciding you wouldn’t fly and what the experience has been like. You’re sort of an early adopter, or dis-adopter.

Holthaus: We moved last year, my wife and I moved to a small town in Wisconsin. And I don’t think that I’ve ever really said this publicly before but we’re really honestly worried about the future of our country, saying that we are gonna have a big problem with climate change even here. So, water resources, food resources, all those things, we want to say that we’re doing the best we can to live in a small, sustainable community where we can all help each other, and live low-carbon lifestyles together. I kind of see that as the future of where we’re all headed.

New York City is probably per capita the most carbon efficient city in the world. You don’t have to live in a small town, you can live in a city and still have a very low-carbon lifestyle. Very few people in New York City own cars, almost everyone uses public transportation, it’s cool to be vegetarian there. There are a lot of things that you can do no matter where you live to reduce your carbon footprint. And it doesn’t all have to come with cold showers, wearing a sweater like Jimmy Carter did in the ’70s.

For me, I think deciding not to fly is actually increasing our quality of life here, because it helps you connect more with your neighbors, and connect more with your community, and if we’re honest with ourselves, there are certain parts of our lifestyle in this day and age that are just not going to be able to continue in the future, because it’s not practical to go for a weekend vacation in Thailand. It’s just not going to be possible anymore.

You know, once in a lifetime that’s totally fine. But you can’t do it every year, you can’t do it every month, you can’t have business trips cross country from New York to San Francisco each week, which a lot of people do now. I think this a brief moment in our history that we’ll look back on and say, “That was awesome,” but we’re also trying to work towards preserving any kind of quality of life for the future, and that is going to require a quick change I think.

YDC: So Eric, how have you found the experience of trying to communicate that to audiences as a journalist, especially audiences that might have different scientific backgrounds or different political views, might bring different perspectives to the table.

Holthaus: Sure, I think that it has been actually easier than I expected. On Twitter there are a lot of people that, just like all of us, we follow the people on Twitter that we agree with and we don’t follow people that annoy us. I think that that’s kind of where the climate change movement is going, is just speaking to the choir almost, to say, we know that so much has to be done, now, in such a short amount of time.

I’m not going to waste my time with the Rush Limbaughs of the world anymore, it’s just not worth it. I don’t want to engage in debate anymore about things that are already settled. I know that it’s a waste of my time. So I think what we need to do as a community is to try to motivate people that fundamentally agree with us to take action, and to take action as quickly as possible, and to the greatest extent possible.

Reiss: So if you had the assignment to talk to Columbia alums?

Holthaus: Yeah, I think what I would do is to just kinda speak from the heart, because I think people need to hear emotion at this point, you know, we’ve convinced our brains, now it’s time to convince the rest of us to take action, because I think they’re a lot of people that are just having this internal debate.

If I was a Yale student calling alumni, I would just think about what does this problem mean to me and then just try to get across that point, that this is something that I’m deeply concerned with. You can feel however you want to feel about it, but this is how I feel.

YDC: Do you think climate change, you think it’s gonna increase occurrence of droughts in Ethiopia. You know because it’s hard to feel the impacts when we’re so far away. Can you tell us what the landscape’s gonna look like?

Holthaus: The project that we’re working on at Columbia University was on weather-based insurance for subsistence farmers in Ethiopia, so this is a way that we can try to adapt to increasing weather and climate variability. I think it’s kind of fundamentally unfair to have people in developing countries pay literally for the insurance policies that are protecting them from climate change when they did absolutely nothing to cause the problem. So that’s where I would argue that at the international scale we need to have a multi-billion dollar fund per year to pay for these kinds of climate change impacts that are happening right now.

This past year, even adjusted for inflation, 2013 had, I think it was, 41 billion dollar disasters around the world and it’s the most that has ever happened. We had the typhoon in the Philippines, we had massive flooding in Europe, we had ongoing drought in the western United States, drought in China. You know, it’s happening pretty much in every country every year now.

YDC: David, if you like it’d be great to hear from you, because the one thing that crosses my mind in our talks about this loss of the natural world is of course the very desperate threat that the Marshall Islands faces from climate change.

Wei: Sure, I mean I think I’m going to sort of stick with what Eric has said. I do want to say that when I found out that he had given up flying it was first of all, it’s beautifully ironic because climate diplomats fly everywhere.

I fly probably 15 times a year, and we are incredibly aware of the hypocrisy of having to fly everywhere to meet each other to discuss how to resolve climate change. Ironically I actually also live in New York City, so my other emissions are quite controlled, except for the crazy flying everywhere.

But I think part of the narrative that I think Eric sort of exemplifies is the narrative of leadership, and that is, in fact, it is the one that for example the Marshall Islands are trying to establish. The narrative of leadership is a “Stop pointing at each other. I’m just going to go first.”

At least with the Marshall Islands, it’s the kind of narrative where you say, “We are just doing what you, China, will also have to do, we know that, but we’re just going to go first, because we will lead and we will sleep well.”

I do want to also make a comment on how touching it is to see genuine leadership from an individual, and that’s not just Eric, that’s also all of you at the YDC.

I think part of it is that it’s very obvious when someone is not being hypocritical. It’s very obvious when someone removes that from their own actions and behaves in accordance with their actual beliefs. And to be honest, I think that as affluent Americans, you are the right people to do this.

There is, in my eyes, I’m unabashed in now saying that the most important country in international climate diplomacy up until we try to aim for a global treaty in 2015 is the United States. The United States is the largest mover in the last six months. There’s no question that it’s on Kerry and Obama’s radar. We see the State Department moving in all sorts of ways, trying so hard to look good even though they’re very bound at home by domestic politics. In this context…I think to have Americans lead by example is particularly useful, outside of course being very moving to have anyone lead by example.

I do want to, before I stop talking, raise just one more thing, which is you may be aware that in Europe, that Ban Ki-moon has called a climate summit. It’s on the 23rd of September of this year, this is sort of the Last Chance Dance. I mean, this is where all the leaders who are already going to be in New York and, in fact, the part that I want to talk about with you is not the leaders being in New York. There is going to be a lot of diplomacy, there will be a lot of talk. There is also the inklings now of a kind of mass mobilization on the ground in New York City. And I was speaking this morning, for example, to someone who was imagining a photograph of 200,000 people in Central Park rallied on climate change. And if you just imagine that photo, and again apologies for being tactical, but if you just imagine that photo, that is not the kind of narrative that you see coming out of the United States right now.

YDC: A lot of this narrative about environmental change is preaching to the choir, and that could be really effective, and you also mentioned not wasting your time with the Rush Limbaughs of the world and that makes sense too, but what is an approach that you would take to someone who is on the fence about environmental change?

Holthaus: If you were the person doing the talking, I would just try to speak from what you think is important. Obviously everyone in this room, everyone on this call right now, are very extremely committed to making as big a personal difference in your own life as you can. You’re going to devote a good part of your life to this problem, so just say that.

Say “This is a problem that is so important that I’ve committed my life to it, and I know that this is something that is not going to go away unless people like us change our lifestyle.” And it’s not a guilt trip, it’s just the pure reality of the problem is that Americans, like David said, have the highest carbon footprint of any country in the world, any major country in the world, and if it’s Americans that are leading the shift to low-carbon lifestyles, that’s going to compel the rest of the world to act. So it’s not really hyperbole or any stretch of the imagination to think that Yale alumni would be some of those people that could bring about shift for the rest of the US, and the shift in the US could bring about change in the rest of the world.

If you’re talking to someone say, “You can be the start of that. Why would you not want to be the start of that?”

Wei: I just wanted to add that I do think it’s very, I’m a Yalie, when I found out about the YDC, I was really very happy about it. There’s something to be said again, you guys can decide the messaging, isn’t there something to be said for just saying, “You know, I recognize this as the problem of our generation. I have chosen to act for it, and as a fellow graduate of this school I’m asking you to do the same.” It can be very personal in that way. I actually think, thinking about my own class and my friends from Yale, I think many would at a minimum be touched by it. I’m not certain you would then convince them to decarbonize their lives by eight-percent, which is of course the heart of the sale, but it’s a close community. The alumni of many schools are closely tied to the students and I think Yale is a good example of that.

Reiss: They call it in the RSA, the Royal Society of Arts has this report, where they call it stealth denial, which is people who accept climate change as a problem but manage to figure out how not to do anything about it.

Holthaus: I think that’s everyone.

Reiss: That’s everyone? Yeah. I think people are ready to actually hear this message and if it’s coupled with the idea of leadership, that’s effective.

Holthaus: I think we need to try to paint a picture together of that future that we’re fighting for. Paint a picture of an amazing world that you want to help build together.

YDC: Thank you so much Eric, thank you David, thank you Richard, just for being on this call. It was good to have you guys speak from a place of experience, it’s good to have figures of authority speaking. So thank you so much for joining us on this call.