“Brilliant” is the word one source used to describe Project Drawdown’s ranked list of 100 climate change solutions, begging the meta question, should the list be on the list.
Having a variety of climate change solution options is only useful if everyone who should know they exist does know, making a credible list of climate solutions potentially as important as the solutions on the list
In 2017, Project Drawdown, published the New York Times bestseller Drawdown, edited by the founder, Paul Hawken, 72. (Be sure to watch the full interview with Hawken in the player at the top of the article.)
Mehjabeen Abidi Habib, the author of Water in the Wilderness, based in Pakistan, the seventh most vulnerable country to climate change effects, serves on the Project Drawdown advisory board. She sees the effort as evidence “that it is not too late to make choices to change our world view and the actions that arise from the current paradigm.”
Jason F. McLennan, founder and chair of the International Living Future Institute and CEO of McLennan Design has known Hawken for years and notes that his work was mentioned in Drawdown. “I think it’s brilliant is the short answer,” he says. “It doesn’t spend time and energy on pointing fingers or criticizing things. It focuses on positive solutions.”
Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH) who counts Hawken as a friend notes that the project is intended “not just to slow down climate change but reverse it.”
Daniel J. Siegel, MD, author of Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence and a clinical professor at UCLA School of Medicine agrees with the Congressman, adding, “My take on Project Drawdown is that it is a scientifically solid, insightful guide to some of the most important and effective steps we are taking to reverse global warming.”
Habib highlights the optimism embedded in the project. She notes that Hawken says in the introduction that climate change is “happening for us” to help us create a better world.
Credibility from Sound Science
Project Drawdown is no mere journalistic attempt to document and prioritize the science of climate change. It is a serious, multi-year, ongoing scientifically-driven research project to identify the most impactful climate change interventions, ranking them according to their potential to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, with the goal in mind to ultimately draw down the levels of atmospheric carbon and reverse climate change.
Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, serves on the board, bringing political clout. “We [Hawken and I] had worked together on every State of the State I gave as Governor of Maryland from 2010 to 2015. Paul kindly asked me join the Drawdown Board in 2016.”
John Elkington, founder and chief pollinator for Volans, says, “Critically, the mathematical modeling involved has given the rankings far greater credibility than other initiatives.”
“As a scientist, the strategy of Project Drawdown is an important approach to seeing how we can find a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and reverse the direction of climate change from the disasters that await to a more promising future,” says UCLA’s Siegel, approving of the approach. Pakistan’s Habib also approves. Fearing that the approach might be US-centric, she was pleased to see “the universality of its priorities.”
Hawken explains the approach, “Project Drawdown gathers and facilitates a broad coalition of researchers, scientists, graduate students, PhDs, post-docs, policy makers, business leaders and activists to assemble and present the best available information on climate solutions.
A bestselling author, Hawken is himself a highly regarded climate voice, frequently being quoted as an expert in the media. He points out that the Project Drawdown team is not doing primary research, rather they are aggregating and reviewing published data. “There is the data. You can find it yourself,” he suggests, arguing for the objectivity of the approach.
Governor O’Malley explains the potential impact of Project Drawdown, “There is a management wisdom ‘things that get measured are the things that get done.’ But when it comes to reversing global warming no one before had done the basic work of measuring the potential impact of the range of human solutions to this human-caused problem. Drawdown has now done that.”
“Project Drawdown reminds us to never underestimate what we can do,” says Betsy Taylor, president of the consulting firm Breakthrough Strategies. “Together, we can address the climate threat and make everyone safer.”
As a clear sign that the work is being taken seriously, Penn State is launching two programs based specifically on Project Drawdown, according to Tom L. Richard, director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment there. First, is an undergraduate “Drawdown Scholars” program over this coming summer with 40 student-faculty teams working to improve and enhance the analytical models for implementing the solutions. The second is to host an international conference called “Research to Action: The Science of Drawdown.”
The impact of Project Drawdown isn’t just academic or theoretical. In Pakistan, Habib notes action is being taken based on the list. Noting that the most impactful item on the list is refrigerant management, caused the government to prioritize this by policy. “Just today, a project preparation grant has been received to help Pakistan prepare to phase out old refrigerators and phase in energy efficient refrigerators.”
One Problem With Many Solutions
“This is an impressive project, but what is perhaps most striking is the sheer diversity of the solutions available to us, from converting to green-energy technologies to transitioning to healthier plant-rich diets,” notes Congressman Ryan. “Project Drawdown reminds us that although the challenges we face are great, they come with exciting opportunities to change the world for the better.”
Project Drawdown ranks 80 existing interventions that are already being scaled by their potential for carbon impact. The list also includes 20 additional interventions that are proven but are not yet scaling.
Commenting on the wide range of solutions listed by Project Drawdown, Robyn O’Brien, vice president of replant Capital, says, “None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something. It allows you to pick something that you are passionate about, to leverage it with what you are good at and drive change.”
“I think the list of climate interventions also highlight surprising things that need their due. The focus on women and girls is huge. So, too, is the focus on food waste. These are things we need to solve for multiple reasons,” says McLennan, whose work on living building is included in Drawdown. Noting that refrigerant management is number one and is “something we can address without too much difficulty,” he says, is an example of the “mundane” on the list.
The list isn’t just interesting or clever in its diversity. “Project Drawdown’s comprehensive framework is proving a powerful lens through which to focus our university’s research, education and outreach expertise on this critical issue,” Richard says.
Similarly, Governor O’Malley says, “So instead of merely connecting the scientific dots that take us all straight to hell, we can now combine that science with current technical know-how to measure, model, and map our way to a future where we Drawdown more carbon from the atmosphere every day than we pump into it.”
The List Changes Perceptions
One way that the list is having an impact is changing perceptions of both climate activists and so-called “climate deniers.”
“The ranking has proved to be a very powerful way of challenging people’s preconceptions of how we impact the climate – and of where the most powerful leverage points are for reversing global warming,” Elkington says.
UCLA’s Siegel says, “As a psychotherapist, I see one of the most powerful contributions of Paul Hawken and Project Drawdown as being the way we can have realistic hope instead of the doom and gloom one often hears when people speak of climate change.”
Penn State’s Richard says, “Project Drawdown offers a positive vision of the future; that the widespread implementation of these solutions can lead to a world of health and abundance rather than one of poverty and insecurity.”
A New View of Climate Economics
Several of the people reached for comment, noted that Project Drawdown provides a refreshing view of climate economics.
McLellan noted, “that doing the right thing can be great economically for the world.”
Hawken explains that implementing wind power will have a positive financial return for the world of over $7 trillion over 30 years for that single intervention.
He notes that the estimate for this and other interventions improves over time as technology progresses and data grows, even since the book was published in 2017. “About 70% of the solutions are actually very profitable and the other 20% are breaking even and 10% cost money,” Hawken says. “I think what people say is, ‘Well, my god, it’s a cost, you know, we can’t afford it.’ We say, ‘We can’t afford not to,’” he says.
Challenges and Limitations
Despite the praise, it is clear that Project Drawdown is not a climate cure-all. “
The key question now is whether we can muster the political will to advance Project Drawdown’s inspiring set of solutions,” points out Taylor.
John Wick, founder of the Marin Carbon Project, spoke with me at length. He is both a fan of and a collaborator with Project Drawdown. Still, he notes that there is still work to be done.
“I would say that that first draft the first list was a proof of concept and that there are other things that that are possibly even more exciting and more will more directly result in wholesale carbon harvesting from the atmosphere and stabilizing the climate. But they weren’t ready for primetime,” he says. “And so what we did with Project drawdown was establish a process whereas new things can come in to this process. And as we perfect the modeling I expect that the [final] draft results will be different.”
O’Malley notes that realizing the potential impact of Project Drawdown will require local adoption. “The global macro-model was a needed and important breakthrough, but success will depend upon our ability to make that model actionable in the small places close to home all over the globe. Cities, towns, and farmlands. Counties and States.”
Implicitly making the case for including the Drawdown list on the list, Hawken says, “ We solve [climate change] by creating the tools, knowledge and capacity for self-organization to address these issues worldwide. ” Whether the list should be on the list or not, here’s to effective self-organization.