Book review | Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming

The single biggest challenge for recruiting and sustaining climate change activists is sustainability. Not sustainability in the environmental sense, but in the emotional and applied work drive of the activists themselves.

We have to care enough—but not too much.  To look at the raw numbers for costs and carbon measures—but not get lost in the minutiæ. To pressure the not–yet–committed, but not do it so stridently it backfires.

The good news

Fortunately, we have what’s close to a magic bullet for this. It’s a remarkable book released this year called DRAWDOWN: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. The book’s authors are 70 researchers, engineers and applied scientists drawn from a spectrum of disciplines. The editor is eco–celebrity Paul Hawken.

As this collection demonstrates, the engineering and science to beat climate change exist. Much of it’s been proven for decades, some of it for centuries.  Drawdown presents 80 of those existing methods (related to management, stewardship, distribution techniques and technologies). For each method, team members have modeled the amount of carbon reduced by 2050. They’ve also modeled the dollar effects of each method against status quo choices, with projected trends. They measure the dollars both in net addition to status quo costs and net savings relative to status quo choices.

A diversity of methods

Each of the 80 methods gets its own section under one of seven categories. The methods are quite diverse–– in some cases, new materials or feedstocks (like #51, using perennial plants instead of annuals, or #21, using Clean Cookstoves in the third world). Some rely on recently deployed or highly improved technology, such as #26, Electric Vehicles and #57, Smart Thermostats. Some are an approach to existing problems, such as the #1 carbon–reduction method, Refrigerant Management. And some deploy socio–cultural change, such as #6, Educating Girls; or #39, Indigenous Peoples’ Land Management. There are also 20 techniques Drawdown calls “Coming Attractions,” which are not part of the model but that could contribute benefits before 2050.

Surprises in the numbers

The book offers an epiphany for readers. While the public debates and dominant power–bases focus 70% on energy generation, the model here relies on shifting to renewables for less than 24% of the drawdown scenario target. Beyond hard data that supports a hopeful and sustainable attitude, what I like best about this reference book is that it offers new data, new methods, new insights that even someone who pays a lot of attention to solutions will have not discovered yet. It’s provocative while entirely sensible. For example, the three largest categories by carbon savings are Energy (obvious), Food (sure), and empowering Women and Girls (which, while seen as absolutely the right thing to do by a vast majority of acceptable humanoids, is not universally viewed as climate–saving).

The arguments are well reasoned and presented with supporting data.  I like the way it quantifies the brittleness of the campaign to reduce carbon by turning to nukes. Drawdown shows that nuclear power generation (#20) —often touted by a bipartisan cadre of corporatists from Barack Obama to Mitt Romney as a key solution—has roughly 1/5th of the carbon reduction benefit of solar and 1/4th the gross dollar return.

What’s Missing

What I like least about the book is the absence of access to the underlying model. As of this writing, the central organizing body for the effort, Drawdown.Org, hasn’t given the general public an interactive model to play with. If they did, constituents could sit down with elected officials and corporate plutocrats to talk through deployment scenarios and budgets, show how meeting reduction targets can profit the plutocrats while buffering the planet in the near term. We could model the budgets linked to carbon drawdown over time by adding or removing methods, turning the conversations from emotional to “how–to” and “when.” We could model the carbon output over time with or without nukes and measure if unsubsidized spending on reactors actually does outweigh the quotidian and catastrophic risks.

Better financial returns from lower–carbon alternatives

Some big changes that require big capital are already winning hearts and wallets because they offer higher profit than the status quo. Case in point: the 2017 “Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis” by globalization–humping and corporate–favorite Lazard. The study indicates that even without subsidies, lower–carbon alternatives such as wind power and many types of solar photovoltaic electrical generation outperform coal in profitability for utilities. Those renewables plus geothermal beat even nukes and most natural gas on price as well.

The Lazard study doesn’t stand alone. The flow of reporting on better–return–on–investment benefits from renewables relative to burning fossils has been around for at least three years. Even the most sociopathic corporate executives outside the fossil sector are taking some actions that favor carbon emission reduction.

“The market” is not a good enough decision–maker

Alone, that trend is not remotely close enough to “let the market decide.” We already know that the reduction–by–80% models we see touted are probably not enough to put the Earth in a happy climate space. To put us on a truly healthy footing, we’re going to have to achieve “drawdown” where greenhouse gas concentrations begin to go down every year. This collection provides a path to that goal.

But getting there will take constant application of political force, science and engineering understanding and that the rarest of resources in contemporary First World power structures, systems thinking. As environmental activists and would–be allies, we need to engage beyond emotional passion. We need to analyze, document and drive realistic, measurable options for the future based on the actions we can push and deliver today. Only then can we mobilize and in a sustainable way, engage in the long fight ahead, overcome passivity and its polar opposite, burnout.

Buy the book for your favorite politician

Even if that heady engagement and dialogue with key officeholders and hedge–fund freeloaders doesn’t happen, reading Drawdown plants a seed of realistic hope and equips climate activists with the numbers to convert the passion into focused action. It’s a great seasonal gift for allies. And as my wise ally Cliff Wilkerson noted, a copy of Drawdown belongs on the reading shelf of every officeholder who has even a speck of leverage to affect climate action.

DRAWDOWN: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, by Multiple Authors, Edited by Paul Hawken, Introduction by Tom Steyer. $22.  ISBN-13: 978-0143130444. Generally in stock at Orca Books. Some content on-line at Drawdown.Org

Jeff Angus is a former US Senate legislative aide specializing in renewable energy, environmental policy and Native American affairs. He sat on the board of Earth Second Research Institute and has written for the The New York Times, Washington Post, and more importantly, Shelton–Mason County Journal.

 

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