Guest Opinion: Will 'clean tech' deliver us from global warming? | November 28, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 28, 2007

Guest Opinion: Will 'clean tech' deliver us from global warming?

by Michael Closson

In case you haven't noticed, a "Clean Tech Revolution" is sweeping Silicon Valley and other centers of innovation around the globe.

Spurred by mounting concern about global warming and overall environmental deterioration, a legion of entrepreneurs is developing an array of new green products and services.

This emerging technology sector is sparking a good deal of enthusiasm not only among entrepreneurs but also venture capitalists. Worldwide demand for clean and green technologies is growing rapidly.

Effectively meeting the demand could be highly profitable, especially for people in centers of innovation such as Silicon Valley. In fact, the recently released "California Green Innovation Index," produced by Next 10, documents that California is the focal point of "the next wave of green innovation."

Reflecting this trend, in early November, Palo Alto's Chamber of Commerce sponsored a forum entitled, "Building a Sustainable Cleantech Economy," featuring a panel of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The bulk of the program was devoted to a discussion of emerging technologies -- renewable energy, advanced transportation and energy efficiency -- that have exciting potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly and lessen other human impacts on the environment while creating new jobs and considerable wealth.

The very last question to the panel stimulated an all-too-brief but critical discussion that framed the topic in broader perspective:

"Why are you shying away from discussing technologies and strategies that emphasize changing personal behavior?"

The panelists' responses were eye opening but disappointing. One said, "It's not clear to me that we need to change consumer behavior."

"Practicing abstinence is not a winning campaign," another said.

"We need to make it easy for the consumer to adapt, otherwise we'll have very small markets" for new technologies, a third added.

In sum, the panelists appeared to believe that forthcoming technological innovations will enable us continue living much as we have in recent decades and still dramatically reduce our impacts on the environment.

They also seemed to believe people are not prepared to make significant personal changes to combat global warming. These assumptions are debatable.

Human-induced global warming is a planetary emergency like none we have faced before. The just-released final report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints a stark and frightening picture of a chaotic world -- rising sea levels, droughts and water shortages, heat waves, severe storms, spreading tropical diseases and extinguished species -- unless we humans rapidly reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions.

Climatic changes already are underway. We need to move fast to avert disaster. The U.N. panel says we must cut our greenhouse gas emissions substantially within the next eight years -- by 2015 -- to prevent extremely serious climate disruptions.

Successfully and rapidly addressing this awesome threat will require both new green technologies and significant changes in personal behavior on the part of millions of people -- especially those of us in the "developed world."

Each of us can take personal steps to reduce our "carbon footprint," the basis of greenhouse gases. We also can urge our employers, our local governments and our state and federal officials to implement policies that reduce emissions. We can help create momentum for other far-reaching systemic changes. This bottom-up "citizen leadership" process is already underway. In fact, it has been underway for several years in the Palo Alto/Stanford area. But we need to do more, push harder for rapid change than we thought just a few months ago.

On the personal level, it helps to be strategic in our choices by asking questions such as: "What personal changes can I make that will significantly reduce my carbon footprint?" and "How can I help others reduce their carbon emissions?"

Some personal changes that reduce greenhouse gas emissions are one-time actions such as installing compact fluorescent bulbs, programmable thermostats and solar panels -- or purchasing a hybrid vehicle.

Other steps require changing our habits. While such changes can make the greatest impact they can be difficult to sustain. Two high-impact changes are simply driving and flying less -- ask yourself, "Is this trip really necessary?"

In addition, eating primarily locally produced food can contribute greatly to reduction of emissions. Some are suggesting foods (and bottled water) be labeled with how many hundreds or thousands of miles they traveled to get to you. Eating less meat, turning down the thermostat in winter and up in summer, line-drying laundry and buying less stuff, especially new stuff, are important steps when done by many of us.

Helping others reduce their carbon emissions is particularly important. People tend to emulate the behavior of those around them, so being a visible change agent -- taking a friend to a farmers' market, traveling by train to San Francisco for an outing, hand-mowing the lawn (or replacing it with drought-tolerant native plants) -- can serve as examples to others and have a ripple effect far beyond the one act.

Making such personal behavior changes in order to counter climate change will not necessarily be easy. Breaking old habits rarely is.

But global warming presents us with an opportunity as well as a threat. We can use this crisis to live our lives in a more conscious manner. Assessing our travel practices, our eating habits, our consumption patterns and our lifestyles in general provides us a chance to cut through the clutter and live higher-quality lives more in harmony with the natural environment, locally and globally.

Yes, we greatly need new clean and green technologies. But they are only part of the solution to global warming. Our times call for heroic personal actions as well.

Michael Closson is executive director of Acterra: Action for a Sustainable Earth. He can be e-mailed at


Posted by David Smernoff, a resident of Portola Valley
on Nov 29, 2007 at 6:28 pm

Bravo Michael! It needs to be said that we all live massively over-consumptive lifestyles. Global warming must be countered at all levels, starting with the personal change you describe. Technology is only part of the solution, meaningful personal change is the real driver that will combat global climate change.

Posted by hmm, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 29, 2007 at 6:42 pm

What would really make sense is to live without the stuff that we all accumulate in our lives. Most of us use garages, guest rooms, or even paid storage, to keep stuff we don't use often and are not sure what to do with.

My own personal view, is that this time of year is partly responsible for the clutter and consumerism it comes from. Do we need to buy sweaters for relatives who will hate them, in return for the sweaters they buy us which we equally hate. Do we need to buy the latest electric gadget for aging parents in the misguided view that it will make their lives easier. Do we need to buy gift hampers of food for those who will already be going out and buying much too many goodies for themselves at this time of over indulgence.

If we all managed to give thoughtful gifts rather than stuff, we could simplify our lives enormously. How about gifts of babysitting to young parents, coupons for yard work or garage clean up where we can get together with relatives for a fun day of hard work clearing up. How about inviting family for a hike in the forest with deli type sandwiches and hot soup for afterwards.

If we all managed to give of ourselves and our time, rather than more stuff, we would avoid lots of the extras we just don't need.

The only real problem with this, is that the economy would suffer and then what?

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 29, 2007 at 9:06 pm

"The only real problem with this, is that the economy would suffer and then what?"

Not necessarily. The more egregiously stupid parts of our economy would suffer, replaced by new goods and services. Health care costs would probably go down, too.

Good ideas!

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2007 at 8:59 am

It's too late. I don't think there is the political will to make the cuts in emissions necessary to avert a 2-3 degree C temperature rise.

It's time to consider active measures such as reducing the solar radiation which reaches the earth. Conservation is important and necessary but more is going to be required to reduce climate change.

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 30, 2007 at 9:12 am

Anonymous, I tend to agree, as the actual tipping point into palpable consequences has just begun to be felt.

As for political will, we probably won't see that generated here unless we feel the direct impact of warming, in a way that really hurts - in the pocketbook, or otherwise.

We are essentially leaderless in all of this, in spite of good intentions on the part of some policy makers, the big questions - the hard political challenges - continue to be ignored, especially at the national and international levels (and to some degree, at the municipal level, even in communities that consider themselves "green".)

We have to do more, and there will be pain involved in doing so, before we come out the other end inn a way that puts our world, region, and city on a sustainable path.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 30, 2007 at 10:35 am

Even more efficient if we were all to live in barracks and march to our assigned jobs. It was tried and it didn't work.

Posted by perspective., a resident of Midtown
on Nov 30, 2007 at 12:37 pm

To make changes because it is a good idea to stay as clean as possible is good, simply because of the common sense notion that we don't want to mess with our air, our water, our ground and our seas...yes.

But, I am instantly turned off by anyone promoting an idea based on the ludicrous notion that we can "fight global warming". This is using fear to promote and agenda.

Anyone who thinks that we can do anything at all to stop the cyclical changes in our climate has no sense of historical climate changes or scientific perspective.

Regardless of the propoganda having been promoted, especially by certain "documentaries'...about 90% of the Greenhouse Gases is....water..the rest are various other gases including CO2, a natural part of our atmosphere. We, through our fossil fuels, contribute absolutely no more than 25% of the accumulated CO2 in our atmosphere..after the math that is less than 2.5% of all "greenhouse gases" coming from us.

Web Link The OTHER science petition and peer-reviewed research. The LAYMAN's science site.

So, please, garner support for clean tech, which is great and I fully support, but do it on realistic assessments of consequences, not fear mongering. All it does is lessen your credibility.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2007 at 1:34 pm


How's that smoking habit going? Still reading from the same sources, heh? Here's an article from the Union of Concerned Scientists how Exxon is using the same tactics and same firms for spew disinformation as the Tobacco companies.

Web Link

Posted by RealityCheck, a resident of another community
on Dec 6, 2007 at 3:17 pm


Wow, the "Oregon Institute of Science & Medicine" - sounds impressive - but not exactly! Check out their research building - looks like an old converted garage (or horse stable)! And it's address - a PO Box in some one-horse town in Oregon called Cave Junction. Real cutting-edge research being done there, no doubt!
Web Link

For more info on them check out:
Web Link

By the way, I'd say they chose their name based in part on trying to confuse people with a legitimate institute - Oregon Health & Science University.

And as far as "Junk Science" goes - it's a one-man operation by Steven Milloy who I notice is now promoting himeslf off as a "publisher" (likely because he had to self-publish his books since no one else wanted them) - he's actually a former PR hack who has created a dubious career by calling everything "junk science" and thus has "earned" a spot as a Fox News columinist (surprise, surprise).
For more info on him and "junk Science," see:
Web Link

Anyone who takes those two sources seriously has to be figuratively "deaf, dumb and blind."

Posted by hmmm, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 7, 2007 at 6:15 pm

A quote from the site given above, which was meant to discredit the "other" petition

"Several members of the Institute's staff are also well known for their work on the Petition Project, an undertaking that has obtained the signatures of more than 19,000 American scientists opposed, on scientific grounds, to the hypothesis of "human-caused global warming" and to concomitant proposals for world-wide energy taxation and rationing. The Petition Project does not utilize any Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine resources or funds. It also has no funding from energy industries or other parties with special interests in the "global warming" debate. Funding for the project comes entirely from private donations by interested individuals, primarily readers of the newsletter Access to Energy that is independently published."

Posted by dueling degrees, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 7, 2007 at 6:20 pm

Sourcewatch,by the Center for Media and Democracy, dares to say that Steve Miloy, of Junk Science, isn't actually a scientist...the only science degree he got was a BS in Natural Science ( and a Master's in Biostatistics)..
umm, can somebody please find Gore's science/mathematical degrees, any years in science?

Posted by deaf, dumb and blind, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 7, 2007 at 6:21 pm

The "Deaf,dumb and blind" comment was such a persuasive debate technique!!