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  • Charlotte Owen-Burge

Denis Hayes: If you’re wrong on climate, get out of office and put in someone who will act


Denis Hayes, now CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, was a 25-year-old student at Harvard Kennedy School when he quit studying to coordinate a one-day gathering to raise awareness of environmental threats. Earth Day, as it came to be known, attracted 20 million people from towns and cities across America. Fifth Avenue in New York was closed, Congress shut down as two-thirds of its members spoke at events, and thousands of schools and colleges took part.


Its legacy has been monumental, igniting the environmental movement and catalysing pivotal environmental legislation that has endured to this day. The events of 22 April 1970 proved that change didn’t have to come from political leadership; it could come from demands down at the grassroots.



The difference between anything you do in the computer world and a million people on the national ballroom in Washington DC, carrying torches and pitchforks, is stark. As indicated by the Black Lives Matter movement, the mass demonstration has an impact that nothing else can have.


But what’s hard about Earth day is that it’s a date, like a holiday. The upside is that teachers and schoolrooms worldwide put it on the calendar and plan for it. But spontaneous demonstrations and passionate outpourings on the streets? That’s hard to do.


The big challenge is getting people to care passionately about what happens in some other part of the world; for the UK to care about a hurricane which devastates the Caribbean or the US to care about Australian bushfires that kill a billion animals. Well, mother nature promises to give us a number of those kind of events in the future. These events tend to be localised, but they’re part of a global phenomenon, and yet somehow, we haven’t managed to marry that into the public consciousness yet.


There’s clearly a winning side to history

But this assimilation can happen and in two ways. One is an overnight phenomenon. Who would have guessed that Greta Thunberg would become an international celebrity until it happened? But phenomenon is unpredictable and certainly not organisable.


The more common thing is that something begins as a belief, with data and research to support it, held by a small number of people that slowly grows as more people become exposed to it. It insinuates itself into the public consciousness. That’s what’s happening with climate as an issue. Every year a more significant percentage of the global population begins to understand these realities. I don’t believe this percentage has shifted the other way; there’s clearly a winning side of history on this issue.


But it is happening at a glacial pace. I gave my first talk on climate change and solar energy in January 1980, and it has been a frustrating forty years watching this infiltration reach people. But it is growing and picked up enormous momentum in 2019 as people took to the streets.


One of the most challenging things to accomplish is getting people’s attention. Hundreds of issues are fighting to be heard that need to be solved. But the climate crisis is one that needs to be solved immediately. And this is where rambunctious street demonstrations can come in; stopping traffic, causing inconvenience and doing things that are very photographical and capable of hitting the evening news. Once you see a billion animals dying in fires in Australia, one billion of anything gets people’s attention. And we’re getting more of these events that will add to the momentum with which public consciousness changes and intensifies.


With democratic countries, this should become a voting issue. Voters should have such a passion that if candidates are not committed to fighting climate change, the rest of their record is negligible. They should say: “If you’re wrong on climate, get out of the office and put in someone who will act.” But we’re not there yet.


I’d like to think that over the next two or three years, we can be moving in a very progressive direction

In the US, we have a pendulum effect where once any extremism comes into national politics, the pendulum tends to swing back in the other direction. Never in the history of the US has the pendulum pulled as wildly over to the radical right as under Donald Trump. This means we have an opportunity in the next administration to push very far in the other direction, and because the US Senate has been enabling Trump, I think there’s a good chance we’ll be flipping the Senate as well.


So suddenly, you have a Democratic president, who’s not Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but a person capable of being educated and somewhat supported in this field. And finally, if, unlike the last several quasi-progressive administrations, the administration doesn’t get bottled up entirely by healthcare and puts climate and the Green New Deal at the forefront, I’d like to think that over the next two or three years, we can be moving in a very progressive direction.


So much also depends upon the attitude of a handful of people at the very top of the pyramid. But a top-down authority, if it decides to, can move at remarkable speed. And nowhere is this more apparent than in a place like China, where there’s not even the pretence of a democratic polity. When they decide to do something, they have a reasonably impressive track record of getting it done. In 10 years, they have gone from not manufacturing solar to manufacturing more than the rest of the world put together by far. The consequence of driving the price down has been dramatic. From starting at $5 kWh (£3.75), solar is now priced at $0.2c kWh (£0.15).


I’m not a hypocrite

Of course, the planet needs such developments as these; huge political changes, impressive technological innovations, and enormously increased efficiencies. But at the same time, among the greatest lessons over the last few thousand years is if you want people to embrace their overall fate, the most important thing you can change is their behaviour.


When the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened in 1989, a huge amount of attention was generated from it, and it helped reinvigorate the environmental movement. Night after night, week after week, the news was filled with coverage of the oil spill. But the EPA did a study of people who changed their own motor oil in their automobiles, who went straight to the nearest storm sewer and poured the old dirty motor oil into it. Their study suggested that per year Americans pour 13 Exxon Valdez's into storm sewers where it goes into vulnerable ecological areas. So, you take your motor oil, and you think, jeez, that’s nothing, that’s just a couple quarts of oil, big deal. But when you aggregate that individual behaviour, it’s massive.


It turns out, in climate, although we’re not going to solve the crisis through a bunch of individual choices by some fraction of the population, playing a role in fighting it does two things.


The fact that I get all my electricity for my house and vehicle from the solar panels on my roof (in the cloudiest city in the continuous 48 states) shows, I can contribute: I’m not producing greenhouse gases through my building and transport. Secondly, it’s telling everybody that encounters me that I’m not a hypocrite. I’m calling for these things on behalf of society, and I’m trying to do that in my own life.


The same applies to diet; it applies to buying the most energy-efficient appliances, office equipment, and energy-efficient of everything you can. And when that all gets aggregated up it can be massive. In the process of aggregating it up, you are creating a movement that tells everybody else we’re not hypocrites. Living a life you are proclaiming and trying to win other people over is very important.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity - 9th July 2020

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