KC Golden Lights A Fire For Sustainable Action

Last Thursday (12/17) we got a lucky break—KC Golden (Policy Director at Climate Solutions, Seattle Magazine’s #1 Eco-Hero and GoGreen Seattle 2010 keynote speaker) took time out of his slammed schedule in Copenhagen to have a chat with us via Skype. Sitting in a Danish coffee shop 5000 miles away, KC gave us the lowdown on the urgency surrounding a binding climate change agreement, what we have to accomplish on the homefront and where we need to be by 2020.

GG: You’re in Copenhagen right now—what issue keeps coming up, what’s the trending topic (other than we need to get this done)?
KCG: We won’t know until it’s all said and done. It looks discouraging right now, but that’s pretty typical for the late stages of these type of negotiations. Most of what you hear publically is the political posturing and positioning. The head’s of state are just starting to arrive, so the real decisions won’t happen until then.

What we hope we’ll see is the infrastructure of a commitment from the whole world to do what right and necessary, and reduce emissions to safe levels in order to stabilize the climate. Under that promise is also a commitment for clean development—most urgently in the global south, where poverty is rampant. But it’s also important in developed countries that need to transition their economy from a fossil fuel-based economy to a clean energy economy, based on efficient use of renewable energy resources. That has enormous implications for lifestyle, for urban design, for the way we get from point A to point B, and for the way we live our lives. It has to be a whole-scale transition.

I heard a remarkable speech by, of all people, United States Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, who is a very sharp, practical, level-headed, numbers guy. But in his speech, he laid out a really powerful vision for a major transformation in our economy. Locke said that it’s not just about a couple of windmills and solar plants here and there— it’s about a completely new model for economic prosperity. He talked about re-tooling and re-fitting every industrial activity. He wants to see a profound and systemic change in the global economy, which will open up a world of opportunity for green business, for job creation and for making our communities healthier, more productive, more neighborly places.

GG: Are you sensing that everyone at Copenhagen is invested in getting these goals accomplished or is there still reluctance to change?
KCG: There’s still political reluctance to change—there’s fear of domestic politics and how that will constrain our ability to make good commitments where we need them on the international stage.

But I would contrast that political fear with a lot of confidence and a lot of enthusiasm and forward momentum among civil society participants, the NGOs and businesses who are here—and chomping at the bit to start this clean energy economy—and among the mayors, state and local elected officials. There is a real sense of eagerness, readiness and hunger to begin this transition.

Everyone knows that it’s difficult to do that at-scale; it’s difficult to take the full measure of that opportunity and do what we must do to stabilize the climate without an international agreement and the nationalized laws that must support such an agreement. That’s where we run into the political fear and resistance, which could keep us from reaching a satisfying and adequate outcome.

GG: So what happens if our governments don’t reach the agreement that we’re all hoping for in the private sector? How do we continue to pressure them?
KCG: We’ll have the opportunity in January when the U.S. Congress reconvenes—though, I have to say the failure of the United States Congress to deliver a national climate policy before the Copenhagen Summit is a real cloud hanging over the international effort. People are so frustrated that America hasn’t come to the table to get a legally binding deal, because our Congress didn’t act.

I had a woman from Japan grill me last night in broken English on how the Senate and the House work—and what are the committees, and why does it take so long and why do we have to keeping waiting? It feels like the entire world is being held hostage by 100 senators from the United States. The world is not pleased about that.

We have to do whatever it takes in the next three to four months to get our Congress to move after the conclusion of this conference. And it will be a battle—it’ll be tough, but we absolutely have to do it, we have to turn the heat up. And the perfect place to focus your energy is on your United State’s senator.

Now if we don’t get a meaningful international agreement here, businesses will continue to move forward because of the economic imperatives to reduce fossil fuel dependence and increase efficiency. States and cities will continue to move forward, civil society will continue to move forward—but we will not be moving forward on a path that prevents catastrophic climate destruction. We just won’t be able to do it at the level or with the urgency and coherence that’s required to reduce emissions by 90 percent in the developed world, which is what we have to do.

But, political change is not linear. To be honest, it’s hard to see a path through the political obstacle course right now. Unfortunately, we are going to continue experiencing tragic and enormous costs associated with our fossil fuel dependence in the path we’re on now—more Katrinas and natural disruptions, more disruptions to oil supply, more events like 9/11, which I don’t think many people think would have happened if Saudi Arabia’s principal export been broccoli.

A lot of these truly disruptive events in the pipeline are associated with our fossil fuel dependence and they’re going to keep whacking us over the head until we do something different. If we don’t get a meaningful deal out of Copenhagen and/or a good bill out of this Congress, we’ll just keep experiencing those costs.

Washington State’s economy lost $60 Billion last year to import fossil fuels and Oregon lost about $9 Billion. Those are huge holes in the bottom of our economy! We have to do something different if we ever want to plug those holes.

Eventually we will. Humans are a little slow on the uptake—but we’re not suicidal. We’re going to keep getting signals to change course until we change course with more ambition and more aggressively. In the meantime, all the great things that people and businesses and cities and states are doing are going to prepare us well for the moment when we’re really ready to turn the corner.

GG: So what do you do at Climate Solutions to encourage that kind of behavior? To push government to act in order to turn the corner and more quickly reach a tipping point?
KCG: We are trying to replace the vicious circle of denial and inaction with a virtuous circle of good public policy and accelerated private investment solutions. Let me put a little more substance to that. The vicious circle is that the more we remain in denial about the problem, the less we act. The less we act, the longer we stay in denial about the problem. We had someone tell us once that she didn’t think that [climate change] was that big of a problem because nobody was doing anything about it.

We expect our leaders to respond to really big problems. When our leaders don’t, it confuses us about the severity of the issue. That’s the vicious circle we’ve been in. What we aim to replace it with, at Climate Solutions, is getting more and more people actively engaged in implementing and delivering practical and economical attractive solutions to global warming.

There is so much of that going on, particularly in the Pacific Northwest—which is great because the more people are engaged in being a part of the solution in their business, homes, lifestyles and government agencies, the stronger the constituency and confidence becomes for passing public policy that we need to accelerate the coming of the clean energy economy.

When we pass those policies, we make it more economically feasible and desirable for people to engage in the solutions. That’s the circle that we’re working to build at Climate Solutions. We do a lot of work on creating the public policy infrastructure and incentives, and encourage the rapid accelerations of a clean energy economy to replace the fossil fuel economy.

GG: What are your goals, coming into a new decade?
KCG:
Beyond what we get done in Copenhagen, we absolutely have to set a fire under the United States Congress to both raise the bar on what they will do to promote America’s clean energy economy and get a bill passed so we can get the show on the road. That’s the objective for the immediate foreseeable future.

By 2020, we should have reduced our carbon pollution in the Northwest by 40 percent. We should have dramatically reduced our consumption of fossil fuels for transportation by electrifying the majority of our transportation and also by developing advanced, sustainable bio-fuels—plus using sustainable alternative transport rather than cars. We should have de-carbonized our electric power system. We should no longer have any coal plants operating in the Northwest. And our communities, our homes and our lifestyles should have a much lower carbon footprint and much more community oriented and conducive to a good lifestyle where we engage our friends more, eat more local food, ride our bikes more, waste less and waste less time on inefficient transportation modes.

KC Golden is a keynote speaker at the GoGreen Conference 2010 in Seattle, Washington. GoGreen 2010 Seattle is a full-day sustainability conference geared towards businesses seeking actionable steps to greening their operations. The conference takes place April 21, 2010 at the Olive8 at the Hyatt (LEED certified Silver). Early Bird tickets are on-sale now through April 1, 2010. Tickets are $175 each for single Early Bird Full Day Admission and $150 Early Bird Full Day Admission for Groups of 2 or more. More information can be found at: http://www.seattle.gogreenconference.net/registration/

For more information about KC Golden and Climate Solutions, please visit: http://www.climatesolutions.org/

Join the GoGreen Conference on Twitter:@gogreenconf. We’re also on Facebook!

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