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Shaping a collective future with clean energy-and treehouses

By Allison Archambault

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report outlining global climate damage scenarios. Also in 2018, two American economists won the Nobel Prize for their work on climate change, innovation, and sustainable growth.

The upshot of all of this in 2019 is twofold: The bad news: We are already feeling the effects of climate damage. At the rate of current emissions, we are on track to blow through our 'carbon budget' in as little as 12 years. The international process is not really on track.

The good news: The future will be amazing! (if we have enabling policy and people actively engaged in building the future we want.)

Keeping climate change within the bounds of what many perceive as the maximum 'safe' limit would require "rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society," the IPCC wrote. They continued: "With clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems, limiting global warming...could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society."

Ending poverty and solving climate change are largely the same work. Our urgent problems are also our unprecedented opportunities.

With recent wildfires, hurricanes, emissions growth, and politics in mind, it's easy to feel downhearted, but core to both the IPCC report and the Nobel-winning work is what one of the laureates, Dr. Paul Romer, calls "Conditional Optimism." Romer writes: "There are two very different types of optimism. Complacent optimism is the feeling of a child waiting for presents. Conditional optimism is the feeling of a child who is thinking about building a treehouse. 'If I get some wood and nails and persuade some other kids to help do the work, we can end up with something really cool.'"

I love this notion of conditional optimism, the sense that we can participate in the building of something really great. In addressing climate change and extreme poverty, solutions won't magically arrive, but we can solve this—ith the tools we already have—if we roll up our sleeves and get to work. "I think people are grossly underestimating how rapidly we'll start to de-carbonize once we put our minds to it," Romer said after winning his prize.

Working with communities in rural Haiti to envision and build transformative clean energy infrastructure from scratch, I feel the joy and the hard work of conditional optimism every single day.

Recently, my job took me to the United Nations climate conference in Poland. One strong theme was the notion of a "Just Transition", the assertion that the best climate solutions build not only a cleaner economy but a more fair and inclusive world. From coal miners to communities that have never before had electricity, a Just Transition means that prosperity is possible as we collectively transition away from fossil fuels.

Unlike some who claim that fossil fuels are necessary to solve energy poverty, EarthSpark has evidence to the contrary. The first year of EarthSpark's inaugural microgrid was over 98 percent powered by solar energy, directly from the panels and from solar energy stored in the system's batteries. The remaining ~1.5 percent of the power was provided by our backup diesel generator, but we are working towards phasing out fossil fuels entirely since the full costs of logistics and management are quite high compared to solar and other efficiencies we can achieve through smart metering and user participation.

The climate conference concluded in December with hard-won progress in the world of international treaties. The progress is great news and also totally insufficient. Being there made it clear that all actors—individuals, businesses, organizations, and governments—need to push for progress on solving climate change. When we do, we enable others to also advance.

One final note on optimism and action: with the new U.S. Congress now in place and with rumblings of a Green New Deal afoot, those who work in clean energy in the U.S. have a big role to play in encouraging big-thinking, inclusive climate leadership. Policy and prosperity are closely linked, and governments' failure to build effective climate policies risks counter-balancing a lot of progress.

In actions and advocacy, now more than ever, we each have a powerful role to play in shaping our collective future.

Ready to build some treehouses?

Allison Archambault is President of EarthSpark International, a nonprofit organization building smart solar microgrids in rural Haiti. In December 2018, EarthSpark won a United Nations 'Momentum for Change' award for what UNFCCC Secretary General Patricia Espinosa described as "real world examples of what scalable climate action looks like." Learn more at www.earthsparkinternational.org.