Business and society have begun to talk a little less about sustainability and more about climate change - what many consider to be the defining issue of our time. It’s true here at the Foundation, too, where we have begun to think about everything we do - including our investments (which are divested from fossil fuels) and our grants - in terms of how we are helping to move the needle on climate change. In particular, we’re thinking and talking about (and investing in) solutions like Drawdown Georgia that will actually return carbon to the earth.
That’s a big concept. I liken it to how we think about paying down credit - we have to pay down the principal, as well as the interest. In other words, by burning fossil fuels these last couple hundred years, we’ve been borrowing against our carbon budget and our climate future. Trillions of tons of carbon have been spent into the atmosphere, and we now need to pay them back by returning them to the earth. Carbon neutrality is good, and going further by pursuing carbon negative technologies and solutions is even better. It’s a strategy that keeps us true to our mission and vision, and one that builds on Ray Anderson’s legacy as a captain of industry who pioneered the world of green business.
Ray was one of the early thinkers around the impact of climate change on capitalism. Ray believed that the pursuit of sustainability would not be the end of industrialism, in fact, he knew that it would end up being “a better way to make a bigger profit.” Ray made the business case for sustainability early and often: better products, designed with sustainability in mind. Higher efficiencies, attained by designing processes like Mother Nature would. Engaged employees, inspired by a mission that is bigger than making a flooring product. And goodwill from the marketplace that exceeded any amount of marketing dollars the company might invest.
From Global Warming to Climate Change
Do you talk and think about our planetary peril as global warming or climate change? It has shifted a lot over the years, and at the Foundation, we’ve settled on climate change as our vernacular. We were interested, then, to read in 2019 that the Guardian, one of the world’s preeminent journalistic sources for news around climate change, actually amended its own style guide to reference instead “climate crisis/emergency/breakdown” and “global heating.” We’ve learned over time that semantics are important in how we talk about the topic, and as Guardian Editor Katharine Viner, said at the time: “We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue. The phrase ‘climate change,’ for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is catastrophe for humanity.” If you hear it more and more, remember that it’s not some arbitrary evolution of language.
A lot has changed, too, since 2016 when I reflected on whether climate change was and is to blame in communities whose existence is threatened by the changing climate.This is no longer only about polar bears clinging to icebergs in the remote arctic or famine in Africa. It is quickly becoming about our homes, communities, and livelihoods. That shift, in a relatively short time frame, could seem alarming, but I prefer to see it as raising awareness and hopefully, action -- not just on climate change itself, but also towards the injustices that stem from it.
A study in 2017 uncovered the disproportionate negative economic impact of climate change on the “Old South,” and the data was sobering. At the time, our friend and a guest columnist for our Ecocentricity blog Jim Hartzfeld said, “In the tradition of “all politics are local,” it’s time for a new, local conversation in the South about the impacts of climate change in our own backyard.
We’re still measuring greenhouse gas emissions, but we’re increasingly focused on the low carbon economy.
Talking to Your Kids About Climate Change
Depending on your age and what you do every day, you may have conversations about climate change all the time … or maybe, never. But if you’re like most people, it’s somewhere in between. Whether you’re talking about weather impacts and their increasing severity, about the toll that climate change is taking on people and species, or about the opportunities that climate change presents to be innovative and to think differently, odds are that you’re talking about it at least some of the time.
But have you talked to your kids about climate change? Again, depending on your age and stage in life - and their age - they may actually be the ones schooling you! We’ve thought a lot about how we talk about it at our house, which includes my wife, Chantel, and our two young children, especially because of my work but also because the world they will inherit will look very different from the one we grew up in. I want to be proactive in talking to my kids about climate change. I want to teach them the science for sure, but I also want them to feel like our family is already making a difference. I want them to understand that climate is our reason for driving an electric vehicle, for grilling plant-based burgers in the summer, and for composting our food waste. If it’s scary for them, I will want to comfort them and give them hope. And as a family of faith, I want to pray about climate with them – that we might be successful in reversing global warming, and that we might care for our neighbors when they bear the burdens of our changing climate.
How We Deliver on Creating Meaningful Change
How we talk about climate change has a lot to do with how well we understand it, and sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. If you’re more inclined to learn visually -- many of us are -- it’s worth taking a look at powerful graphics that help us understand where we are when it comes to our carbon budget. The animation I share in that blog post visualizes climate change as a filling bucket - and it’s a powerful visual image from the Global Carbon Project and Future Earth animation for the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
How we talk about climate change also comes with nuance - for example, are we communicating from a place of fear, or from a place of hope? At the Foundation, we are an optimistic bunch, funding initiatives such as:
- The Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at Georgia Tech, with a goal to empower a new generation of young adults who deeply understand the interconnectedness between business and our environment
- A groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting project called The Ray, which is a proving ground for what a zero death, zero carbon highway infrastructure might look like. From its home base in Ray’s hometown of West Point, Ga., The Ray brings high and low tech ideas and technologies to create a regenerative highway ecosystem on The Ray’s 18-mile stretch of I-85, with several pilot projects are already underway. From solar-powered vehicle charging and a tire safety check station, to solar-paved highways, pollinator gardens and the installation of bioswales, The Ray is asking the biggest questions that start with two of Ray’s favorite word, “What if …”
- Our multi-year partnership with the Biomimicry Institute's Launchpad accelerator is increasingly focused on commercializing market-ready solutions to climate change, and through this partnership and the Ray of Hope Prize®, we have been able to accelerate innovations like Nucleario, a low tech reforestation solution that is designed to be used in remote and hard-to-reach areas of the Atlantic rain forest. It is a dome shaped guard with a hole in the middle, and it helps seedlings grow without requiring human maintenance. Made of biodegradable materials, it ensures that seedlings survive by providing a barrier from ants, collecting water, offering shade, and protecting against invasive species. Another recipient of the Ray of Hope prize is a next-generation, flexible robot that inspects water pipes, locating leaks for utilities to easily fix. The robot was designed to be like a squid or gecko; it leaves behind a piece at every leak it finds in an underground water pipe. This piece has a beacon effect that allows maintenance crews to locate it with wireless scanners from above ground, pinpoint the location of the leaks, and know where to dig and fix them.
Climate Change and Drawdown: The Big Idea
When it comes to the idea of carbon, no one has done more to educate the world about the abundant opportunities we have to reverse climate change than Paul Hawken, author of the book that changed Ray’s life (The Ecology of Commerce, 1993), and more recently, author of New York Times bestselling book, Drawdown, launched in 2017. In the time since its publication, Drawdown has become a movement and as a testament to the dynamic nature of its premise, Project Drawdown released The Drawdown Review in March of 2020 to update the original game plan for scaling existing technologies to ‘drawdown’ the carbon in our atmosphere.
One of the newest frontiers for the Foundation is the underwriting of a couple of key efforts in our home state of Georgia in the name of reversing climate change:
- In 2018, we funded the creation of the Georgia Climate Project, a state-wide consortium co-founded by Emory University, the University of Georgia, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, and joined by Agnes Scott College, Georgia Southern University, Spelman College, and the University of North Georgia.
- Together they’ve built a network of experts who are improving our understanding of climate impacts and solutions and better positioning Georgia to respond to a changing climate.
- In 2019, the group hosted the first-ever Georgia Climate Conference, in Atlanta, Georgia, an overwhelmingly successful event that hosted over 400 people across three days of presentations, workshops and keynote speakers, all focused on accelerating Georgia’s climate future. In 2023, they hosted another Georgia Climate Conference in Athens, Georgia.
One of the most exciting outcomes of the Georgia Climate Project is Drawdown Georgia. Inspired by the work of Project Drawdown, we believe that humanity should set a goal of achieving drawdown, or the point at which greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere begin to decline on a year-to-year basis. Achieving drawdown at a global level is necessary for stabilizing the climate system, but progress toward mitigating climate change requires local to regional-scale effort. As Ray Anderson said, “Brighten the corner where you are” - for us, that means helping to lead the state of Georgia on a path to carbon neutrality via strategies that strengthen the state’s economy and improve the quality of life for all Georgians. That is what we mean by Drawdown Georgia.
With this in mind, the Ray C. Anderson Foundation funded research to identify the key elements of a strategy to achieve carbon neutrality in Georgia. Core to the strategy is to demonstrate the many co-benefits that come with scaling these climate solutions - from advancing equity in our communities to improving human health to providing new economic opportunities for our state. We are grateful to our partners in embarking on this bold journey - The Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University, and The University of Georgia. These three institutions are also founding partners of the Georgia Climate Project, positioning them to identify the most impactful climate solutions from across the state.
From its booming solar industry to its place among the top states for electric vehicles to ambitious efforts to make commercial buildings more efficient, Georgia has made significant gains towards a low-carbon future. The next step is leveraging the state’s vast network of academic institutions, corporate leaders, non-governmental organizations, and engaged citizens toward a common goal - Drawdown Georgia.
Drawdown Georgia’s initial work was in identifying the Drawdown solutions that would be most effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Georgia, given our unique geography, population, business, academic and environmental make-up. Drawdown Georgia was officially launched in October 2020 and the Phase One research from the university-affiliated research team was published in the Environmental Management journal in November 2020.
The Rest of the Story
When the opportunity arose to re-release Ray Anderson’s first book, Mid-Course Correction with additional chapters, along with it came the opportunity not only to bring the story of his company, Interface, current, but also to reflect on the many influences that impacted Ray’s journey. Ray relied heavily on the thinkers and doers that came before him, and their stories of science, humanity, impact and hope. When we published Mid-Course Correction Revisited in 2019, we also launched a reading list of the books that impacted Ray and myself. So much of our approach to climate change comes from synthesizing both the science and the solutions, bringing the best ideas to the forefront and giving them support, whether through grants like our Foundation’s NextGen grants or through the Ray of Hope Prize that we award with a goal to commercialize innovation in the name of climate change abatement.
We’re continuing to write the story of Ray’s legacy, and we invite you to join us as we imagine what the future looks like for Tomorrow’s Child.