Session Description: A leading voice on climate change, energy, and sustainability explains how tech tools, including privately owned satellites, empower us.

The session transcript is below with a PDF version available here.

The Fourth Wave of Environmentalism

(Transcription by RA Fisher Ink)

Kirkpatrick: One of things I meant to mention at the beginning, you might have noticed both Josh and I are wearing these very attractive pins. You know, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are a big part of the way we’ve been focusing our own work and thinking about what really are the topics that we want to think about at Techonomy.

Our next speaker, Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund, who is one of the great leaders of environmentalism, is somebody who really is exemplifying that way of thinking, and the issues he’s talking about are very central to the Sustainable Development Goals. So Fred, tell us what you’re doing.


Krupp: We have a big problem on our hands with global warming. A lot of people, probably many of you, are watching that destruction happen, wanting to help, but feeling little hope for real change in our lifetimes. You’ve seen the floods and the droughts, the storms, the fires. When I leave this stage today, I don’t want you to have hope. I want you to have certainty, real certainty, that we can make a dent in this problem of climate change and live to see it. I want to give you a vision of what that would look like.

We’re going to launch a rocket. And on that rocket will be a satellite. That satellite will measure data about a pollutant that’s been warming our planet. We’ll put that data in the hands of people who can make some simple fixes that will change the course of global warming in our lifetimes.

Now, maybe that’s a lot to take in. I’ll back up. First, let me introduce myself. I’m Fred. I’ve been an environmentalist since I was a kid, when I watched the fish and the frogs in my neighborhood pond die from a chemical spill. That bothered me. Later, a college professor inspired me to think about environmentalism differently. How the best solutions come from answering people’s aspirations for prosperity, to be safe and healthy and thriving in this world.

So I joined the Environmental Defense Fund to build those kinds of solutions and I’ve worked my whole career for a moment like this. The moment when we can stop fighting the headwinds that have slowed environmental progress and start to have the wind at our backs because of the power of information, information from technology that is coming down in price and going up in precision.

Now, there’s something about global warming that we didn’t really grasp only a decade ago. There was so much focus on carbon dioxide that the world overlooked another important gas. We didn’t appreciate methane. It turns out that methane pollution is far more potent than carbon dioxide. It causes one quarter of the climate change that we’re experiencing right now. In fact, it’s 84 times more potent over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide, which means we have to keep cutting carbon dioxide for the long term and start to tackle methane pollution to reduce the warming that we’re experiencing right away.

Now, one of the world’s largest sources of methane is the oil and gas industry. But that’s not obvious because methane is invisible. Let’s take a look at this natural gas storage facility outside of Los Angeles. Can you see the methane? Neither can I. How about now? We shot this using an infrared camera from the same spot, exposing one of the worst methane leaks in U.S. history. That’s a very different picture.

So on the one hand, natural gas is decreasing our dependence on coal, which emits far more carbon dioxide. But natural gas is mostly methane. And as it’s produced, processed, and transported to homes and businesses across America, the methane escapes from wells, from pipes, and from other equipment. It gets up into the atmosphere where it contributes to the disasters that we’re now experiencing. That does not have to happen.

But nobody had paid much attention to it until we launched a nationwide study to understand the problem. We collected data using drones, planes, helicopters, even Google Street View cars. And what we found out is there’s far more of this methane pollution than the government is reporting. And we also found out that when we find where the natural gas is being vented and leaked, almost all of those sources can be fixed simply and inexpensively, saving natural gas that would be otherwise wasted.

Lastly, we learned that when we put data like that into people’s hands, they act. Leading companies replaced valves and tightened loose-fitting pipes. Colorado became the first state in the nation to enact methane standards. California followed suit and the public joined in. Tweets started flying: #CutMethane. Everyone’s paying more attention. We’re doing it because we can’t wait for Washington. Especially not now. In fact, it’s time to take what we’ve done so far and aim higher, to the sky.

The United States has only about one-tenth of this methane pollution, so we need to go global to find the rest. Remember that rocket I mentioned? It will launch a satellite to do what no one’s been able to do up until now, measure methane pollution worldwide from oil and gas facilities with exacting precision. Its data stream will allow us to map the pollution so people can see it. Then it’s all about turning the data into action just as we did in the United States.

When presented with hard data, we’ve shown that many oil and gases will reduce their emissions. Government will tighten standards. Citizens will help make it all happen. And by making all of our data free and public, there’s transparency. We will all be able to know how much methane is being reduced, and exactly where.

That leads me to our goal, cutting this pollution by 45 percent by 2025. That will have the same near-term climate impact as shutting down 1,300 coal-fired power plants. That’s one-third of all the coal plants in the world. Nothing else will have this kind of near-term impact at such a low cost. This is our chance to create change in our lifetimes and we can do it now. Thanks to the generous giving from the Audacious Project, successor to the TED XPRIZE, the TED Prize, we’re on a path toward liftoff.

Now, my time is almost up, and I promised you a vision of what a critical piece of the solution could look like. Can you see it? Can you see how this satellite leverages the best of science, data, and technology? Can you see that we’re entering a new era that is supercharging progress on environmental issues? I call it the “Fourth Wave of Environmentalism,” and you can read more about it in Techonomy Magazine.

Now, we’ve set an aggressive goal of 36 months until takeoff. And when the satellite is ready, we’ll have a launch party. A literal launch party. Imagine a blue-sky day, crowds of people, television cameras, kids staring up at a thing that will change their future. What an amazing day that will be. What a big opportunity we have. I can’t wait. Thank you.


Kirkpatrick: Don’t go anywhere. So that’s so good, Fred. And we did write an article about this in our Techonomy Magazine, thanks to my longtime editor, Eric Pooley, and friend, who now works for Fred. But, quick question: The Paris Accords. Can we actually meet these goals? And how do you feel about the ability of the world, writ large, given what you’re telling us and everything else you know, to really push back against climate change? How optimistic or pessimistic are you, in the aggregate?

Krupp: You know, David, there’s something that I learned from a professor, another professor, David Orr: that there’s a difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is a prediction. “Everything’s just going to be fine. Relax, let’s go have a beer.” Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. What choice do we have but to keep hope and keep on finding the tractable pieces of climate change and getting after them. There’s no choice. We’re not going to leave our kids a disastrous future.

Kirkpatrick: Good. Okay, that sounds optimistic, I think. Okay.


Good. Thank you so much, Fred. Really good to have you.

Krupp: Thank you, David.