Co-founder of the first Earth Day, Denis Hayes, says we need solutions to climate change yesterday.

edqahayes.jpg Courtesy of Denis Hayes

Denis Hayes left his graduate studies at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to help organize the first Earth Day in 1970. Twenty years later he took the movement worldwide and established the first international Earth Day. Today, Hayes is the president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, a Seattle-based environmental foundation aimed to protect the natural environment of the Pacific Northwest. He’s also served on the board of a number of environmental organizations including, Greenpeace USA, World Resources Institute, The American Solar Energy Society, The Energy Foundation and the League of Conservation Voters.

How urgent of a problem is climate change?
It transcends urgency. We began the transition to a super efficient renewable-based economy, with several faltering steps, back in the Carter administration. And if we had kept on going forward and achieved the goals laid out back then—20% was the low goal, 25% was the high goal for the nation’s energy taken from renewables by the year 2000—then today we would have a good head of steam and momentum and we would have begun to lead the world in a transition to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Instead, we’ve moved aggressively in the wrong direction, dramatically increased our energy use and become ever more dependent on forms that are not only vulnerable to geopolitical factors but are climatically catastrophic. It’s now too late to avoid Katrinas and desecration of farmlands in many parts of the planet, spreading deserts and coral bleaches and all the other phenomena. Everybody says “When is it too late?” It’s too late to avoid some things, but it’s never too late to avoid the ultimate catastrophe, one hopes.

What do you think of the Bush administration response to the environment?
Well, it’s overall response on environmental issues, with very few exceptions, has been to move aggressively in the wrong direction: From loosening environmental standards, dramatically relaxing enforcement, trying to sell off many of the treasures of our public land. Not only refusing to participate in that feeble first step of Kyoto, but aggressively trying in international conferences to undermine the ability of the rest of the world to do so. It’s hard to imagine how it could have performed worse. With regard to its energy plan, some of its rhetoric was very attractive, and one hopes that it eventually will be reflected in new budgetary priorities. But nothing meaningful has happened thus far.

What’s the biggest priority to address regarding the environment?
In some sense, I guess, I try to define the priorities in terms of opportunities instead of what are the greatest threats. Implicit in solving the climate problem is making a transition to a new set of resources, many of which are at the cutting edge of intriguing fields of science. I mean, to move into increasing reliance on photovoltaics is to move to some of the most sophisticated energy sources out there. Once you’ve actually manufactured them, they are simplicity itself; they simply lay in the sunshine and produce electricity. But driving them down the cost curve, following the paths of the semiconductor industry, figuring out how we get them integrated into existing control systems for utilities, solving the storage problem—these are the kinds of things that can be an intellectual challenge akin to an Apollo project or Manhattan Project. To get there in the next 30 years would require a mobilization effort akin to the mobilization for WWII.

The disconnect between the seriousness of the problem, the size of the opportunities presented and even the boldest plans being advocated by our political leader is more staggering than any other time that I’ve been involved in environmental issues.

How do you do your part in healing our relationship with our planet?
I’d say the most important single thing a person can do on the planet and in the US: I chose to have only one child. It’s an underappreciated environmental issue, but if the population continues to grow, we might as well throw in the towel on anything else. I drive a Prius, I drive it as little as possible—I probably average 4,000-5,000 miles per year. I do a lot of biking and walking.

Is the public responsive to environmental issues?
Where we’ve been, where we build the most vital organizations are when people are trying to stop a freeway from cutting through their neighborhoods or local chapters of some organization are trying to create a new trail through a green space that’s nearby: Stuff that hits close to home; that they can touch with their hands and see that they are affecting themselves; that they can derive personal benefit or avoid personal threat.

We’ve got to get somehow that same motivation and deep passion of caring attached to issues that are national, regional and global. I guess if I were looking at the last 35 years I’d see what is a failure of environmentalism: to create the level of concern that is necessary for people who happen to be born on the other side of some border from the view that we are all in this together.

Are there any leaders or people that you see?
The environmental movement is more anonymous; we have organizations. People know the Sierra Club. Few people know Carl Pope. People know the NRDC. Few people know John Adams and on and on. What we’ve done is produce a movement that has a great deal of strength and resilience in the fact that it is identified with organizations. And even when the heads of those organizations occasionally make mistakes or get into trouble, it doesn’t hurt the group so much or the movement. I’m guessing if you took a poll of Americans today and asked them to identify an environmentalist, probably the person who would get the most attention would be Al Gore.

What do you think the earth will look like in 100 years?
If we are lucky, the average temperature will be no more than about a 1.5, 2° C higher than it is right now. There will be more frequent storms. Hopefully the epidemic of extinction will not be more than 20 or 25 percent of the species that are currently on the Earth. This is if we make a heroic effort at this point to turn things around by 2050 and convert three-quarters of all the commercial energy use on the planet to things that are not net carbon contributors to the atmosphere.

What is the biggest detriment to the environmental movement as a whole?
I guess if I were trying to come up with one, it would be that we’ve gotten bogged down in complexity. When environmentalists tend to talk about problems, it becomes a very science-based, economics-based, policy-based movement in a way that doesn’t resonant with folks on the street. The strength of environmentalism has seldom been to produce a brilliant policy assessment that convinces the intellectual and power elites of a country to voluntarily bring top down change.

What are you going to do for Earth Day?
In some sense contradict everything I just said—though we are going to buy green tags to make the whole thing carbon neutral. But I’m afraid I’m making my contribution to the climate problem: I’m going to give a talk at Duke University. [Then, I am going to] fly to Holland, where we are doing something that’s talking about the unique climactic threats that are facing a country that is almost entirely below sea level. And finally, I’ll close it off in Kiev in the Ukraine on the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl [Aprl 26th].

Originally published April 21, 2006


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