June 3, 2011

Shaking things up at the Aspen Environment Forum

In the face of a growing population, declining world resources, and a rapidly changing climate, how do we make life on Earth sustainable?

This is the critical question and awesome challenge we have been grappling with over the last three days at the Aspen Environment Forum, held in the incredible mountains of Aspen, Colorado.

I have been meeting people from around the world and the country that work on population, reproductive health, water issues, and climate change. All of these do not have easy solutions, so we are discussing how to address these problems on an international and national level.

I have met people from all over the world; a former President of UN General Assembly; the CEO of Duke Energy; Carl Pope from Sierra Club; city official from Oregon; a teacher from Oberlin; and a mother of two from Denver that just wanted to know more about climate change and population growth and how to communicate that with her daughters.

On Monday night I spoke on a panel with young leaders from around the world, including Jamaica, India and fellow Power Shift-er, Juan Martinez from Los Angeles. The panel was moderated by, Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, who is the former Deputy President of South Africa. The organizers of the forum wanted to bring a younger voice into the mix, and also wanted us to shake things up a bit.

I think we did just that. Our youth panel reflected the true diversity of our generation, something not fully reflected anywhere else in conference, and got the attention of the other participants.

We talked about need for young people to play a larger role in the discussions that are happening. I talked about our meeting with President Obama during Power Shift 2011, and the need for all of us to challenge those in power to be better.

The message we all tried to deliver was the need to build a more diverse movement in every sense of the word. To us on the panel, while we care about the particular issue we organize around, we also see the world in a more global perspective. We know that to achieve true success, we must to find a better way to collaborate across issues and organizations. I talked about the need for the environmental community to collaborate more with front-line communities and with other non-traditional enviro orgs, labor, women’s orgs, the NAACP, etc.

One of the more interesting discussions I attended was a plenary session with Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy; Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM); Dan Kammen, a leading expert on renewable energy and efficiency working with the World Bank on these issues; and a Shell Oil VP Russ Ford.

Ford talked about something that was not surprising but honestly, really freaked me out: Shell is moving 50% of their exploration and extraction portfolio to natural gas. In a surprising twist, Jim Rogers questioned Shell about natural gas and spoke about the uncertainty with safety and water contamination, saying they should be careful as they move forward. Ha! It was certainly fascinating to watch. Here is the thing, natural gas is clearly a competitor for Big Coal, but it was interesting to see him call out the environmental questions around it the way he did.

As I was listening to a U.S. Senator, an academic and two of the largest polluting industries speak, I started to go a little crazy. If Shell is about to invest so large into natural gas, what is stopping them from investing in wind or solar? So, I asked.

Ford’s response: money. They want to make the most amount of money possible, and that overrides everything else. Not surprising, but it’s incredibly frustrating that they don’t see the opportunity for long-term financial gain from renewable energy.

To sum up: Interesting sessions, and interesting conversations with a broad range of folks. Continually, I am having people talk with me about the need to support the work of young people. They are excited, now we just need to show folks a plan and execute it. The thing that is clear is we need to change things up a bit. We need to organize differently, and that is a critical role that Power Shifters must play in the coming years. This gathering is validating what we are doing even more. Let’s keep it up.