As the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen take center stage this month – bringing what I fear will be much media nattering about perceived failures of those talks – I’m going to be thinking about people like Rachel Barge of San Francisco and the team of Gerard ter Beek and Trudy Veldhof of Oldenzaal, The Netherlands. These are innovators who I’ve met in the past month that give me great hope for the future of the clean-tech revolution, regardless of what the world’s leaders do or don’t do on the global stage in Denmark.
Rachel and Gerard and Trudy, separated by several decades in age and several thousand miles in distance, are among the thousands who wake up every day with a mission and passion for change. Through technology, policy, finance, advocacy, media or other avenues, people like them are laying the foundation for long-term, fundamental change in the way the world creates and uses energy. On the eve of the 21st century’s second decade, they embody the famous quote from IT pioneer Alan Kay that’s cited like scripture in Silicon Valley: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
But first a quick word about Copenhagen and my “failure” comment above. I don’t mean to throw cold water on negotiation hopes before the talks even begin; I just want to put Copenhagen, and more importantly the (mostly mainstream) media coverage of the event, into perspective. The talks are hugely important, but not the make-or-break moment for the future of climate action or the clean-tech industry.
Indeed, President Obama and other world leaders already lowered the expectations bar in mid-November, kicking a binding emissions deal down the proverbial road to a more realistic possibility at a 2010 summit. There’s obviously much more to be discussed and hammered out over the 12 days of negotiations, and the participation of Obama and all of his first-string climate and energy team gives the United States a chance to show long-overdue leadership. But there’s a lot more to the picture than a simple deal-or-no-deal by December 18.
Rachel Barge, who will be in Copenhagen, knows this. Barge, 23, is an engaging and articulate leader of what’s known as the youth climate movement. As an undergrad at UC-Berkeley, she helped create The Green Initiative Fund (TGIF), a $5 per student fee that Barge’s referendum campaign got passed in 2007 with 69 percent of the student vote. TGIF raises $200,000 a year for sustainability and clean-energy projects on the Berkeley campus. But Barge didn’t stop there. After seeing the interest that TGIF generated at other universities around the country, she created Campus InPower to replicate the model nationwide, with some colleges creating their own innovative finance models like revolving loan funds. In the 2008-09 academic year, Campus InPower helped raise $15.5 million in “green funds” at more than 70 U.S. colleges and universities.
Since graduating (and winning a prestigious David Brower Youth Award in 2007), Barge has brought her passion for clean energy and climate action to the business world. She’s program manager of the Business Council on Climate Change, an emissions-reduction partnership of more than 100 Bay Area companies including Accenture, Autodesk, Cisco, Gap, and Webcor Builders. Barge also worked on the 350.org International Day of Climate Action in October, with events held in 181 countries — what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.”
Barge knows that this type of groundswell won’t be derailed by any potential disappointment in Copenhagen. “Some people will cast U.N. negotiations as the be-all and end-all, but I think that’s a narrow way to look at it,” she says. “A lot more countries are coming forward on climate action, and there’s a lot of funding going toward clean energy technologies worldwide. It’s not just about setting an emissions target.”
Over in Holland, Gerard Ter Beek and Trudy Veldhof aren’t worried too much about global climate politics either, even though their products reduce energy and emissions every day. After each completing 40-year business careers, this couple now spends their “retirement” running Hydro Systems Holland, whose HSH-Fiwihex low-temperature heat exchangers heat and cool homes, schools, greenhouses, hotel rooms, and even cattle sheds using only water and air — with 70 percent less energy and emissions than the conventional HVAC systems they replace. Ter Beek and Veldhof, both in their 60s, not only run the company; they have invested most of their retirement savings in it as well.
“We are not the type of persons who like to demonstrate and we are not activists,” says Veldhof. “But we know what is necessary for the environment and we like to work in silence to make a better world.” Hydro Systems took home the annual Innovation award in November from a local organization called Pioneering, a consortium of local business, academic, and government leaders seeking to make clean tech a cornerstone of the economic future of the eastern Netherlands. I met this inspiring couple while attending and speaking about clean tech as a driver of economic development at Pioneering’s awards event in the city of Enschede, a kind of mini-Clean Tech Open gathering that drew some 300 people.
This month, Copenhagen will undoubtedly be the big story. But I firmly believe that the smaller stories — the ones being created across the globe every day by people like Rachel Barge, Gerard ter Beek, and Trudy Veldhof, are collectively just as important. Do we need serious, multi-national agreements on carbon reduction targets to drive clean tech forward? Absolutely. But we also need the energy, passion, and drive of committed activists and entrepreneurs working hard at what matters to them, far away from the global headlines. No matter what happens in Copenhagen, that’s what inspires me as the new decade begins.
Wilder is Clean Edge’s contributing editor, co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution, and a blogger about clean-tech issues for the Green section of The Huffington Post. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.