Back in the mid-1980s dozens of high-profile music artists from the United Kingdom, United States and Canada got together in their respective countries to raise awareness and stimulate discussion of famine in Ethiopia.
Bono, David Bowie and Sting helped lead Band Aid, the U.K. supergroup that created the song Do They Know It’s Christmas? This was followed by USA for Africa’s We Are The World, which included Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
Canada’s contribution was Northern Lights’ Tears Are Not Enough, featuring heavyweights Bryan Adams, Neil Young, Anne Murray and Geddy Lee.
In all, the three songs resulted in the sale of more than 35 million copies worldwide and shined a bright light on an issue that had received little attention by the mainstream media, politicians and the general public.
I couldn’t help but recall the impact of these songs, and the phenomenon of celebrity influence, while listening earlier this week to Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson, who spoke at an event at the University of Toronto co-hosted by several community groups, including the Citizen’s Climate Lobby and Post Carbon Toronto.
I’ll make the link between star power and Jacobson later in this column, but first some background on the good professor.
Jacobson is a bit of a rock star himself in academic circles, at least when it comes to another problem that’s putting millions – potentially billions – of lives at risk. He has spent his career trying to understand the global impacts of air pollution and climate change, as well as how to quickly and responsibly transition from our dependence on fossil fuels to a world powered by renewable energy.
“Air pollution alone kills 2.5 to 3 million people at least a year worldwide,” he told those gathered to attend his Toronto lecture. He then rattled off a list of other problems associated with fossil fuels—rising global temperature and sea level, record Arctic ice loss, more frequent extreme weather events, and volatile energy prices, to name a few.
“These are drastic problems that require drastic solutions, and we think they need to be addressed immediately. We can’t wait 20 or 30 years, which is why we’ve really got to focus on technologies that exist today, that can be implemented for the most part right away, and that can be implemented at large scale.”
Jacobson caught people’s attention three years ago with his co-authored article A Plan To Power 100 Percent of the Planet With Renewables, which was the cover story for a 2009 issue of Scientific American.
Many roll their eyes at the suggestion that renewables can do it all for us, but one by one Jacobson’s article dispelled many myths about green power and convincingly argued that wind, water and sun could do the heavy lifting if we had the collective will power to make it happen.
It analyzed the impacts of each type of “clean” energy source independently, including land and water footprint, the materials required to make it, how much pollution would be created during its full lifecycle, and overall contribution to global warming.
Wind turbines, various forms of solar technology, hydropower and geothermal plants, and to a lesser extent wave and tidal energy, got top marks. Nuclear, coal with carbon capture and storage, natural gas and biomass didn’t make the cut.
In the area of transportation, he favoured electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles over those that used compressed natural gas or biofuels such as ethanol.
“Why not natural gas?” he said last week. “Because it releases at least 50 to 70 times more carbon and air pollution than wind energy per kilowatt-hour generated… It’s a bridge fuel to nowhere.”
Jacobson has calculated that a world where all industry and transportation is powered by renewables would require installation of 3.8 million wind turbines, 1.7 billion residential and commercial rooftop solar systems, about 90,000 solar plants each 300 megawatts in size, 5,350 geothermal plants 100 megawatts in size, and about 1.5 million wave and tidal devices.
It seems like a lot, but it’s all relative. Consider the estimated 20 to 30 million abandoned oil and gas wells worldwide, or the many millions of smokestacks that dot our city and urban landscapes. Considers that the planet is wrapped in a mesh of more than two million kilometres of pipeline infrastructure, enough to stretch to the moon and back nearly three times.
His renewables plan, he pointed out, would take up less than 1 per cent of land space on the planet.
Now comes the star power. Jacobson has teamed up with the greenest, most powerful ally one could imagine: the Incredible Hulk. Well, actually actor Mark Ruffalo, who played the Hulk in The Avengers movie.
They’re leading an initiative called The Solutions Project, which is trying to bring together high profile scientists, business people, investors, movie makers and Hollywood stars in an effort to drive home the message that 100-per cent renewable energy is not only doable, but should be done.
Their first effort, to be announced shortly, will be to develop a comprehensive green plan for New York State, followed by other states and eventually other countries.
Actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson are lending their star power to the cause, along with documentary movie director Josh Fox, celebrity entrepreneur Elon Musk, and philanthropist Eileen Rockefeller.
Jacobson and Ruffalo, who co-authored an article for Huffington Post that appeared in June, said their goal is to “inspire millions to take part in an energy revolution.”
“Today, with social media and the reach of pop culture, we can educate people and achieve what was unthinkable five years ago,” they wrote. “It is up to us to grab hold of our potential and change our world for the better.”
Individual tweets from Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are not going to change things. Having celebrities join forces with scientists and policymakers against a global threat like climate change, as they did for African famine in the mid-80s, just might.
For this reason, Jacobson is on the right track.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.