(This is the second story in Planet Experts’ Climate Reality series. In September, PE attended the Climate Reality Leadership Training Corps seminar in Miami and interviewed several key speakers. Scroll to the bottom of this article for links to more Climate Reality interviews.)
There’s a stereotype that us environmental types are real softies: Saving whales, hugging trees, that kind of thing. Even Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States and founder of Climate Reality, with his southern drawl and slightly-embarrassed grin, seems eminently huggable. Ken Berlin, not so much.
This is not to say that Mr. Berlin is unlikeable. On the contrary, the President and CEO of the Climate Reality Project is affable, welcoming and quick to smile. But with his sharp eyes and rapid-fire speech – couched in his native Rockaway accent – Berlin has an edge that precludes an easy hug. Once you get to talking to him, you get the sense that he’d be on the winning side of any verbal brawl. And that is fitting, since Ken Berlin is recognized as one of the top environmental attorneys in the world.
“I do talk fast,” Berlin told Planet Experts in Miami last month.
Educating the Next Generation of Climate Leaders
In late September, Climate Reality hosted a three-day Leadership Corps training event in Miami, Florida, bringing together a select group of environmental experts and leaders to educate a growing, global network of climate activists. The training covered such topics as climate science, solutions to the climate crisis and effective communication skills for translating those solutions to skeptical decision-makers.
Educating these activists is one of the key roles the organization is playing in the international movement to enact climate action. “Climate Reality is a uniquely-situated organization to work effectively in trying to get us transitioned to a clean energy economy and address climate change,” said Berlin.
The organization has three main strengths, he explained. “One, of course, is Al Gore as our chairman. [He] is really the leading thinker and spokesperson on climate change in the United States and around the world.” The second is Climate Reality’s global reach, which currently comprises 10 branch offices around the world. Its last and fastest-growing branch is made up of the people being trained at its Leadership events. “We’ll be up to about 9,500 trained leaders after we finish the session we’re at today in Miami,” he said.
The Biggest Challenge Facing Climate Advocates Today
According to Berlin, the United States’ biggest challenge to climate action is the “silent majority” of Americans that have yet to make it their most important issue.
“The polls show that 70 percent or even more of people think there should be action on climate change,” said Berlin. “And they show that the majority of Republicans think there should be action on climate change. Yet we’re not getting the action we need from the legislature.”
That action will come, Berlin believes, when the constituents actually ask for it by name. “Politicians react to people who make their issue the most important issue they’re dealing with,” said Berlin, “and right now we don’t have enough people who think that climate change is an important enough issue to vote on.”
Forcing the silent majority to speak up is the most important step, Berlin reiterated – even more so than convincing the deniers. “Addressing climate denial is very important,” he said, “but the first task we have is getting the 70 percent of people who are the silent majority to become an active majority. If we do that, the climate deniers won’t matter because we’ll have enough support to get around that.”
Like Debbie Dooley, Berlin believes the argument will eventually boil down to economics. “The real hardcore deniers, I don’t think we’re going to convince them very easily. What will change denial eventually is, I think, renewable energy is gonna be cheaper than fossil fuel-based energy. And when that happens, our argument to deniers is, do you want cheap energy or expensive energy? When that happens, I think we’ll start pulling over many of them.”
On the Road to Paris, COP21
This December, diplomats from 195 nations will meet in Paris to discuss regulating greenhouse gas emissions and the establishment of an international plan to tackle climate change. The Climate Summit, known as COP21, could result in the most important climate accord since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Of course, the United States Congress refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, despite the support of President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Gore. Then, as now, Republican intransigence drastically reduced the effectiveness of international climate efforts. This year, any decision reached by the COP21 regarding climate change will absolutely need the US behind it, and China too, as combined the two countries account for about 45 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Yet despite the mounting danger to US lives, crops and real estate, Republicans are already preparing to torpedo any agreement President Obama will make.
That’s why Climate Reality initiated its Road to Paris campaign. The organization is mobilizing activists in eight pivotal countries – Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, the Phillippines, South Africa and the US – “to support practical climate solutions like renewable energy and tip the balance for a successful agreement in Paris.” As both NASA and NOAA have declared, 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have all occurred in this century. Sea levels are rising, drought is impacting both lives and the economy and several species are slated for extinction – and that’s just in the USA. In India, air pollution is so bad that children are being permanently handicapped. In China, industrial smog is so pervasive that lung cancer rates have risen over 50 percent.
“We’ve got to get every country in the world – or certainly every important country – to make a strong commitment at [COP21],” said Berlin. “When they do that, we’re going to have a very clear message to businesses, to local governments, to state governments, that they have to take action on this. And as more businesses and governments do that, then you will have more and more support for addressing this issue as we go forward.”
Ideally, nations would unanimously commit to reducing emissions enough that the average global temperature does not exceed two degrees Celsius by 2100. It seems like a minuscule figure, but such an increase in average temperatures would have devastating consequences for the planet. Unfortunately, Berlin believes COP21 will fall short of that goal.
“[The agreement] will probably only get us 30-40 percent of the emission reduction commitments we need to keep greenhouse gas emissions below two degrees,” he said. That’s according to Christiana Figueres, UN Climate Chief and trained Climate Reality Leader, who Berlin says will head the UN negotiating team. But Berlin and his organization have a plan.
“What we’re trying to do in the agreement is put in a five-year review period, so that in five years each country has to review their commitment,” he explained. “If that happens and we have a review in five years, then we get a lot of issues off the table now and we just come back in the next five years. And as the economics get better under renewable energy every year, the chance of getting the agreement we want increases.”
Climate Reality is also trying to secure a long-term goal from the agreement, such as committing nations to zero net emissions or 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. “We probably won’t get the date and it may be a little longer,” Berlin admitted, “so we’re hoping we can get the review of the goals as we go forward…”
People Want Climate Action
There are several obstacles in the way of a perfect agreement at COP21, but change is coming, promises Berlin. “Public support for this has evolved markedly,” he said. “We’ve won one of the arguments on this, which is that most people think we should take action on climate change. We won the second part of this, that we now have renewable energy that’s either cost-competitive now or will soon be cost-competitive around the world.”
What remains to be won is the “urgency argument,” said Berlin. “People have to make this a critical issue and take action now.” To do that, Berlin encourages the public to join Climate Reality, if they are able. “And if not with us, then with another group,” he added. “The really critical message is, if you believe in this then you’ve got to get involved, you’ve got to tell your representatives that you want action on climate change. They’ve got to know that you, Joe or Jane Smith, want action on climate change.”
Nicole Landers, Planet Experts’ Marketing Director, contributed to this report. Follow her @girliegreen.
More stories from Planet Experts’ Climate Reality Series: