Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming | Paul Hawken
This keynote talk was given at the 2019 Bioneers Conference.
The visionary goal of Project Drawdown, founded by Paul Hawken, is to actually reverse global warming by drawing carbon out of the atmosphere back down to pre-industrial levels. All the practices and technologies documented in Paul’s best-selling Drawdown book are already commonly available, economically viable, and scientifically valid. The true power of Drawdown is its holistic nature. Doing what’s right for the climate means doing the right thing across the board and will also create abundant, meaningful jobs and a vibrant green economy. For over 30 years, Paul has been at the forefront of transformative solutions for people and planet, including his highly influential books The Ecology of Commerce, Natural Capitalism and Blessed Unrest.
Read the full verbatim transcript of this keynote talk below.
Introduction by Kenny Ausubel, Bioneers CEO and founder
So Paul Hawken truly needs very little introduction, but I’m going to make this minimalist because Paul asked that we show a short three-minute video that we constructed from a talk he gave here 10 or 15 years ago that is more visionary than ever. So we’re going to intro with that.
Paul first spoke here in ’94, and he doesn’t just see around corners, he somehow manages to find the wormholes in the space-time continuum that open up parallel worlds of possibility, that somehow soon start to migrate here onto Earth One.
He’s written a string of incredibly influential, really transformative books, from Ecology of Commerce; and Natural Capitalism with Amory and Hunter Lovins about the transformation of business, which is an agenda yet to fulfill, but the map is there; to of course Blessed Unrest, which chronicles Bioneers world, the rise of social movements and civil society all over the world to become the biggest movement in the history of the world, helped us to see ourselves more clearly; and then most recently, of course, he’s done Project Drawdown, which to me is the absolute North Star of goals and possibilities, and exactly where we need to be heading here.
Paul’s intention is to actually change the climate in a much better way, that’s conducive to life. So thank you, Paul, for dreaming up these parallel worlds of possibility that can liberate this world and help us see ourselves so clearly.
So we’ll show the video and then Paul will come on. Thank you so much.[VIDEO PLAYING] [APPLAUSE]
I want to ask you a couple of questions. The first question is: How many of you – just raise your hand – how many of you are freaked out about the climate crisis and climate change? Just raise your hand. Alright. Did anybody not raise their hand? I want to see. [LAUGHTER] Okay. Talk to me afterwards. I want to know what you know, because we obviously don’t, and that would be great. [LAUGHTER]
The other is: How many don’t believe in climate science or there’s anthropogenic climate science? Just raise your hand. [LAUGHTER] None this time. Actually it’s not meant to be a trick question, but it is. It’s like we all should have raised our hand because science is not a belief system. And it’s evidentiary. And that question or that dynamic was created by Frank Luntz and Karl Rove, and that—their intention was to make the people who were literate and understand the threat that climate change poses were believers, and that they were the rational people who don’t believe it. And it’s interesting because it’s the other way around. They are the true believers. They believe that the climatic stability of the Holocene period is going to persist for hundreds of years into the future, and there’s not one single shred of science to support that view. And so I’ll return to this in a minute later, but I mean, our languaging and how we talk to each other and about this is crucial and is critical.
The origin—I didn’t use slides today. If you come to the workshop this afternoon, lots of pretty pictures and things like that, so—And I’m also going to talk about my next book, which I won’t this morning. And I invite you to come to that. But this is really about Drawdown, the book and the project.
Its origin goes back to 2001, and it goes back to the same things that Valarie talked about. I mean, Bill talked about too, but 2001 was a strange year – 9/11 happened. And when 9/11 happened, I don’t know what happ—We all remember where we were, and after that, all’s I knew was that the world had completely changed. I didn’t know how it changed and where it was going to go and what was going to happen, but I had—was clueless. But I thought about what I was doing, and I realized that what am I going to do for the rest of my life. And I thought, I’m going to judge it by one question: Is it helpful? That’s all. I just wanted to be helpful.
There’s a definition of leadership which I love, which is leadership is actually the capacity and ability and desire to listen to all the voices, to hear and listen to all the voices. And I don’t know if I was or wasn’t then, or even I am now in some respects. I hope I am, but that is what I dedicated my life to do.
And at the same time in that year, the third assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out, and as every assessment has been before and since, each sequential assessment is more dire than the prior one. And that’s because it’s based on “consensus science.” There is no such thing as consensus science. Science is not a consensual process. You don’t watch your functional medicine guy talking to the allopathic guy, and saying let’s have a compromise here about your disease. I mean, you don’t compromise science. You may not agree. That’s different. But there’s no such thing. The consensus is being tamped down by the Saudis, by the Russians, by the Venezuelans, by the Chinese. We’re suppressing the science, and that was considered consensus science. Not at all.
And even then, though, it was dire enough, and I read the summary report, and I wanted to know a very simple thing, and I think all of us have that question, which is: Well, what to do. I get it. Science is fantastic. What to do?
And at that time, there came out that carbon mitigation initiative out of Princeton University with the stabilization wedges, the eight stabilization wedges that had 15 solutions. And everybody was sort of yeah! Good ole Princeton. Science. And I—Me too. I thought fantastic. Stabilization, wedges, whatever those are. But it sounded good. [LAUGHTER] And my grandmother made great pies. We thought of wedges too. [LAUGHTER] And apple, cherry, she—apricot pie was the best. But—And here are the stabilization pies, and… [LAUGHTER] and I looked at the solutions that basically infused them, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. And 11 of the 15 solutions could only be adopted by large multi-national corporations, eight of them being coal, gas and oil companies, nine being utility, 10 being a car company, and 11th being an appliance company. And there was only really one thing you could do, which was to drive less. And I thought, This is the solution?
And what was left out? What was left out was affordability. Every one of these things was deeply underwater financially, so these corporations were never going to do it. Second was left out was consumption, materialism, that was left out, not even discussed or addressed. Population was left out, completely. No one talked about population or how many or why. No discussion or the role of women, which [INAUDIBLE]. None. That’s been a hallmark of the climate movement is to pretend another gender doesn’t exist. And there was no discussion of agency, which is that, okay, this is what corporations can do, but what about individuals, what about cities, what about towns, what about farmers, what about community colleges, what about schools, what about buildings. I mean, you can go on and on, all the different levels of agency that we occupy as human beings.
There was no mention of a goal. What’s the goal? Stabilization at 550 ppm in 2050 is not stabilization. We already see at 415 ppm how unstable the climate is becoming, and we could stop right there and the instability is going to increase in the geometric not in a linear form.
And finally, there was no mention of indigenous people or people of color or diversity. I mean, it was so exclusive and occluding that I then went around and started to say to NGOs and institutions, Can we make a—understand what it is we need to do, because I don’t get what we need to do from this, and I don’t know what I can do from this thing from Princeton. And that’s—And I said, Can we also name the goal, because the goal—and to this day the goal is a verb. It’s like mitigation, fight, combat, tackle. Those aren’t goals. Those are verbs. I’m an English major. [LAUGHTER] I mean, you need a noun to have a goal. And so I wanted to–[LAUGHTER] to name it, and so that’s when I started asking for drawdown. Let’s figure out how we can stop where we’re going and go back the other way. In other words, how can we reverse global warming not stabilize it. Okay? [APPLAUSE]
And so what I did is just ask, as I said, institutions, NGOs. They all said, What a great idea. Not all of them said that actually. Some of them said, What are you talking about? But some of them said, We don’t do that, or why don’t you do that. I said, If I knew how to do it I wouldn’t be asking you. And—Or we don’t have funding for that, or that’s not on our program, or philanthropy…we don’t fund those kind of things. Okay?
And so I want to just acknowledge Bill McKibben because he really started Drawdown unknowingly when he published in 2013 in Rolling Stone his piece called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” I’m sure many of you read that. And what that was based on is Mark Campanale’s work at Carbon Tracker in London, who is a financial analyst who came over to our side, so to speak, and he analyzed the balance sheets of every coal, gas, and oil company whose balance sheet he could get a hold of, and basically coined the term unburnable carbon, which is that the oil and gas and coal companies were calling their in-the-ground assets assets, in other words, their reserves assets. And he said, I don’t think so because…And if you burn them, there is no life on this planet, so how come these are assets? You know? These are liabilities.
And what Bill did in his article is set a match to them. He burned them. And it was terrifying. The article was aptly named. And people came to me at that time and independently, not talking to each other, and said it was game over; I’m moving up to Burnaby in British Columbia, taking my kids, and, you know, whatever. I mean, it’s over. This is 2013.
And I thought of—although I’ve never been. I probably should be, but part of an AA or Al-Anon program—but I know enough about them from friends, and there is this thing where you admit—you surrender. You give up. You know you’re not in control. Very important. And I felt like people were surrendering. The idea that it’s game over is a surrender. And from my point of view I think that was an opening as opposed to closure. Saying game over was an opening. And that’s when a friend of mine, Amanda Joy Ravenhill and I decided, well, let’s just start this thing called Project Drawdown and map, measure, and model the hundred most substantive solutions to reversing global warming. And the reason I wanted to do that is because it had never been done.
So 40 years the—in the public sphere, we’ve known about climate, climate change, and the looming climate crisis, and nobody had ever done that. And that’s an anthro—Don’t ask me why, I cannot tell you why. I still puzzle on that. I did go to Google many times and say top 10, top 20, and looked. I Googled the whole world to try to find a list that made sense, and I couldn’t find one. I mean the Scientific American said eat smart and drive less, and use cold water in your washing machine. I thought, Cool. That’s Scientific American. Union of Concerned Scientists. Their number three solution was to put a power strip in your home entertainment center. [LAUGHTER] I’m not…I don’t have a home entertainment center, so [LAUGHTER]… I have to get that first. Right? [LAUGHTER]
And it’s just astonishing really that—Because IPCC is not about solutions, it’s about impact. It did a good job. It’s studying the impact of climate change. There wasn’t—And I think because science has done such an extraordinary job in describing the potential impact on what’s happening, I think what’s also happened is we tacitly have expected scientists to have a solution, like come on. And in a way they have, I just don’t agree with it.
And what they have and people have done is talk about energy, energy, energy. And my colleague and esteemed friend Bill McKibben did it today. It makes logical sense. Almost 70% of the emissions are coming from the combustion of coal, gas and oil. No question. It’s a crucial solution to replace our energy system, okay, with renewables. It’s even more crucial to stop using so much energy, but the two go together. Right? No question about that.
But somehow the idea was that if we did solar and wind, and recently Elon Musk, that we’d get a hall pass to the 22nd century, and that is just scientifically a howler. It is not true. We can turn off all the energy today and we’re going to go right over the cliff. Okay?
And furthermore, the reason is because we are already at very elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and other greenhouse gases as well, which David Orr mentioned in the workshop yesterday, and I’ll show a slide this afternoon. But I mean, we’re at 495 ppm when you count in nitrous oxide, methane, HFCs, SF6. We’re not at 415, we’re at 495. That is from NOAA. That’s from our own government, in terms of CO2 equivalents. And this is the highest in over 20, 25 million years.
And so where we are as a people is in terra nova, a land that nobody’s ever occupied, the Earth as nobody ever occupied, a radar change that’s never occurred for as far as we know in geological history over three and a half billion years, since life started here. It’s never happened.
So this idea that we should just focus on energy didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to know what we could do to reserve global warming. Right? And so Drawdown started out with some very clear understandings, which is first of all it could not be hierarchical in the sense of hierarchies exist and that’s all very fine, but we needed to be a we to talk to the we. We needed to be a collaborative. It was a collaborative effort, and there were 60 Drawdown fellows from all over the world, almost half women, half PhDs, some meritocracy, post-docs, 21 countries, all major religions. Extraordinary. You can see them on our website, ProjectDrawdown.org. And then 128 advisors, poets, governors, activists, teachers, professors, religious scholars, very diverse. And then outside scientific advisors that really tested our models.
And what we did is we only modeled things that had extensive peer-reviewed science and extensive, robust economic data. That was the criteria and that we’re scaling. So it was very, very conservative in that sense, and we always chose a low median and we didn’t take the highest number. We took the median number. And that’s how we went about and did it.
Now—But there’s something more to it than that, which is the book itself. And how do we present this information? And the information needed to be presented to me in a different way. And I go back to what I said earlier about being an English major, which is that I had been not active in the climate movement. I’d been active in the sustainability so-called in the environmental movement for almost—virtually all my life, but climate, I felt like I ceded the high ground to Al Gore, to Bill McKibben, to Jim Hansen, to Katharine Hayhoe and other scientists and people, and I felt like they had this in hand, so to speak. But the more I looked at the language, and the more I looked at how we were talking to each other, and how the media is describing it, I became more concerned and more aware of the fact that the language we’re using to this day about it is guaranteed to disengage 99% of the people on Earth. [APPLAUSE] And that’s a fact.
Why—How could 99% of the world be disengaged about the most serious crisis civilization has ever faced? How in the heck did we do that? I don’t know. I mean, well I do know. And I think it’s the language. And first of all mitigation. I mean, mitigation. Who wakes up in the morning and says, God, I can’t wait to go mitigate today! [LAUGHTER] People don’t even know what it means. And then how about decarbonization, negative emissions, climate crusade. Yeah, that just lights me up too. [LAUGHTER] I mean, the climate crusade? Did you fall asleep during your history classes? That was a genocide. Come on.
And then war and sports metaphors and all that. Yeah. That shows you which gender was in charge of creating this movement. [APPLAUSE] Right? So… we’re going to tackle it. We’re going to fight it. We’re going to combat it. We’re going to slash emissions with our what, carbon machetes? I don’t know. [LAUGHTER]
And you may not want to do this, but if you just do this right now, I mean it feels dorky. Do it. What do you feel? What do you feel? The air, you say air. No, you’re feeling atmosphere. Everything you don’t see inside outside is the atmosphere. Now how can you fix it? That’s it. And what you don’t see…this idea that somehow we’re not influencing the atmosphere. We are right this second. I just exhaled CO2. Give me a break. It’s inextricably bound with this planet, with lives, and plants, invertebrates, and our society and our buildings in everything we do, every single moment and second. So the idea if we it it, we are othering it. If we make it other, that is the disease that caused the problem, that is the mindset that caused the problem. [APPLAUSE] Right?
We see othering, and we’ve spoken about it today and yesterday, I mean we other people. Okay? We other religions. Right? Racism is othering other people. They’re different, they must be other. Uh huh. Okay, other religions, Islamophobia, what Valarie talked about with her uncle in Arizona. Okay? Othered by a nationalist, by a white supremacist. Right? And killed. We’ve been othering women. Okay? Why is there Me Too movement? Because gendered has been othered for 2500 years, at least that we know of. Okay?
So if we use that language and that mindset to actually address the greatest crisis civilization has ever faced, we are right back at square one, do not collect 200. I mean, you’re right back where you started. It’s not helpful.
And so I wanted to change the language. And so in that book there was certain principles. I never published them. I never posted them even in the staff room, because I was the editor and I wrote most of it, I just did it. And—But the first thing was both the title of the book and the book itself, problems need to be spoken and understood in the context of solutions. Do not let–[APPLAUSE] Otherwise, we just keep hammering people with the problem, the problem, the problem. Good science, don’t deny it, but where does it leave us? It leaves us numb. It leaves us, like, Whoa, I got it. And then you’re basically a woman, your husband has left, you’ve got—you’re single, you have two children, you’re doing two jobs, and you’re[?] going to hammer you about the problem and the fate of the Earth and stuff like—What can she do? You know? Come on.
And so…That’s why the title and the book and so forth approaches that way. It’s not that the science isn’t impeccable, it’s that the communication about the science is inept. Both can be true. [APPLAUSE]
And the other thing, this surprised people, but there’s no advocacy in the book. It does not say should, must, need to at all. Ever. Why? Because we want to create the conditions in which people can make up their own mind. When’s the last time you wanted—you appreciated when somebody tried to change your mind? Somebody asked me once, What do you say to the Nascar people? He pointed like that, like [MIMICS BLAMING BY FINGER POINTING] This is at the Q&A and I was like, Whoa. I mean, that’s rude in every language in the world, to jab somebody with your index finger. At least it was the index. [LAUGHTER] And what I said was, Well, I would ask them who they favor for the championship, Chase Elliott or Kyle Busch. [LAUGHTER] I mean…what else would I say to them if they’re Nascar people, because I don’t know who I’m talking to. And it’s not my job to change somebody’s mind. My job is to change my mind, and that’s hard enough. Right? [APPLAUSE]
And so what we need to do and what we tried to do is create the conditions in which people can change their mind, the conditions for that, not knowing that we are right. And so another thing we didn’t do is say that we’re right. We said—Right in the introduction I wrote: This is not right. This book. We hope it’s approximately right. Hope. But we’re not sure. And so forth. That’s for you to decide, because as soon as you’re right, you make somebody wrong, and you’ve divided again. And this divisiveness we know is just killing us and so forth.
Another thing we didn’t do is no fear. No fear at all. Like I mean, fear, as Frank Herbert said years ago in Dune, is the mind killer. It kills the mind. It lights up the amygdala, it shuts down the prefrontal cortex, the weakest part of the brain, by the way, the prefrontal…the newest part too, and still kind of getting its sea legs there, and the amygdala is our old part, which is, Oh my God, what’s going on here. You know? So fear is really not the way to do it.
Science is important to talk about. What I loved about Ice on Fire, the latest movie by Leila Conners and Leonardo DiCaprio was that most of the scientists were women talking about the problem. And I don’t know how they did it, but they talked about it in a way that’s clean, clear, succinct, and you got it. Thank you. And that’s what we need to do. We need to know the science, but we don’t need to bash ourselves on the head with it…So we didn’t—We didn’t blame anybody. We didn’t shame. We didn’t demonize. We didn’t fingerpoint. Why? Because it goes right back to you, really.
And the thing is, we have to ask ourselves whether this is something happening to us or for us. Is this a blessing or a curse? And I say global warming is a blessing. It’s feedback from this extraordinary system we call planet Earth, and anytime you ignore feedback, basically, you—a system dies. Right? That’s what feedback is for, it’s how life sustains itself and grows and changes.
Everything had to be basically science-based for sure. No scientific gotchas ever happened on the book. No moonshots, no bs, no silver bullets, no like…We basically reflected back to the world what we know and what we’re doing. It wasn’t us telling the world what we think it should do. We didn’t do that. Very important. And that’s why there was a woman yesterday at the workshop who said that she was trying to get her county commissioners to get a climate plan, a climate action plan for a long time and getting nowhere, and then she just decided to give them Drawdown, and within two months they were working on a climate action plan.
And I’ve heard this again and again about the book, which is that, especially—it’s all women who have told me this—but they’ve given it to their fathers who are deniers or indifferent, and then said, Here, take a look, and they loved the book because it’s about stories, it’s about narratives. And it creates – and this is very important – about spaciousness. You want to create spaciousness, so that the revolutionary love that Valarie’s talking about can be engaged, so people can come in, so that we can actually listen to them, engage, and find out what they’re thinking, what their beliefs are based on. Again, when people ask me about what do you say to others. My brothers are deniers, what do you say to them? I said, Be curious, ask, inquire. How interesting. How could you be a denier at this point in time? It’s so interesting. I find that fascinating. And rather than being defensive or fearful or angry, that doesn’t work, and so forth. So the book tried to embody that.
And finally, many voices – Michael Pollan, Pope Francis, Andrea Wolf, Anne Bicklé, David Montgomery’s wife and David Montgomery. To have many voices participating. There was 60 Drawdown Fellows who wrote the basic text of all the solutions, and as you know, when it was published, it really surprised people. It took the climate establishment and rocked them back on their heels. In fact, a lot of them said they couldn’t criticize the methodology, because methodology was straight up vector analysis models, using inputs from the IEA and IPCC, etc. and science, but the fact that the number one one was refrigerator management, number three was reduce food waste, number four was plant-rich diet, number six was educating girls, number seven was family planning, six and seven together was the number one solution, was the empowerment of women and girls. Okay? [APPLAUSE]
But that wasn’t—That’s math. We just did the math. We weren’t trying to come out with any way of—We didn’t have something in mind, or if we did, it didn’t matter.
Anyway, thank you so much. [APPLAUSE] Thank you.
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