When seven leading climate experts and conservation visionaries gather at Macky Auditorium on July 25, the ensuing discussion will be 30 years in the making.
According to Amy Lewis of the WILD Foundation — a cosponsor of the panel — the seed for this event was planted in 1987 when John Kineman, the current president of the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS), the second cosponsor of the panel, attended WILD’s annual World Wilderness Congress.
After the Congress, Kineman changed his career path and became an ecologist who has devoted his work life to researching how systems interact with one another. Lewis says when the ISSS annual conference landed in Boulder this year, Kineman came to WILD to ask if they could put together a “sort of star-studded panel for the public that was kind of reminiscent of what we do at the World Wilderness Congress.”
“Since the International Society for Systems Sciences conference in Boulder is about sustainable futures and bringing together interdisciplinary approaches, we made the panel on that topic and brought a spectacularly wide variety of people to share their viewpoints, perspectives and needs and how they envision a sustainable future and how pragmatically we’re going to get there,” Lewis says.
The seven panelists include Bill Becker, senior climate advisor to the Obama administration; former managing director of JP Morgan, John Fullerton; Ilarion Merculieff, a tribal leader from the Bering Sea; Jeff Orlowski, director of the award-winning documentary, Chasing Ice; business entrepreneur and author of The Blue Economy, Gunter Pauli; incoming director of Colorado’s Future Earth hub Josh Tewksbury; and Marc Bekoff, a leading animal rights author and former professor of evolutionary biology at University of Colorado Boulder.
“All of these people on the panel are on the edge of their different paradigms,” Lewis says. “They may come from an economic point of view or compassionate conservation, but each of them have been exposed to other ideas and are ready to reach across the aisle and explore how to work with others.”
Bill Becker is no stranger to “reaching across the aisle” as the senior climate advisor to the Obama administration, but it was his history of progressive thinking that landed him the job in the first place.
In the mid-1970s, Becker became the editor of the weekly newspaper in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, a small town on the banks of the Kickapoo River, a 126-mile-long tributary of the Wisconsin River.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had just proposed building an earthen levee around the town, and the people, Becker says, were not enthused.
“For one thing, the village would have had to triple its property tax revenues just to maintain the levee and its pumps,” he says.
So Becker wrote a proposal to move the town to higher ground, where it would never need federal disaster assistance again. He surveyed the town’s people and found them in favor of the idea. It took eight years, but the town moved and in the process became the first community in the nation to get most of its heating energy from passive solar systems.
“We should stop encouraging people to live in climate hazard zones, including areas vulnerable to flooding and sea level rise,” Becker says. “We should restore the ecosystems that help protect communities with these events, including wetlands and forests. We need to adopt climate-resilient building codes and modernize the nation’s infrastructure. From the standpoint of public policy, where I do my work, we must stop subsidizing the things that make climate change worse.”
Becker has publicly stated in no uncertain terms that foremost among the things we must stop subsidizing is fossil fuel extraction.
“The same spirit that drove oil exploration in the United States needs to drive our transition to renewable energy,” he wrote in a 2013 op-ed piece for The Huffington Post. “We don’t need Keystone. We need to wildcat the sun.”
Becker was already leading the Presidential Climate Action Project, or PCAP, when he wrote the op-ed for The Huffington Post. PCAP engaged hundreds of thought leaders in producing recommendations on how the president could improve the nation’s climate and energy security.
Becker recruited a large advisory committee of experts from government, academia, non-government organizations and philanthropies. Once the committee had devised recommendations for the president, Becker subjected them to extensive peer review by additional experts.
“Now, we have convened another advisory committee of prominent Republican and Democrat thought leaders to start the process all over again, but this time with the objective of finding climate and clean energy policies that resonate with both conservative and progressive values,” he says.
“But it’s important to understand two things about political polarization on climate change,” he adds. “First, the time is fast approaching when climate impacts will become so severe and ubiquitous that no rationale person will be able to deny them. Second, a majority of the American people across the political spectrum now accept that climate change is real, that it already is happening and that we must do something about it.”
While Becker brings expertise on public policy, ecologist and former CU Boulder professor of ecology Marc Bekoff is able to speak for those who cannot speak at all — animals.
Along with Jane Goodall, Bekoff co-founded the organization Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: Citizens for Responsible Animal Behavior Studies in 2000. He’s written dozens of books about animal behavior, cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds), behavioral ecology and compassionate conservation, and he has also published extensively on human-animal interactions and animal protection.
Bekoff is one of the foremost leaders in a movement known as compassionate conservation, which essentially encompasses two principles: Do no harm and every individual counts.
“Brown rats are invasive animals and some people will say there are millions of them so we can kill some,” Bekoff says. “A compassion conservationist will say the life of a brown rat means a lot to them. Just because there are a lot them doesn’t mean we can kill them.”
Bringing the concept home, Bekoff says he’s in favor of reintroducing wolves to Colorado, but only if they are granted full protection.
“I wouldn’t want to be a part of a dump and prey project,” he says. “I think that if we intentionally bring animals back, then we need to protect them, not pull them off the endangered species list if there are ‘too many.’”
Bekoff has been openly critical about collecting animals in the name of scientific advancement, whether they are kept in laboratories or zoos. He argues that when humans are forced to stop doing anything, they more often than not find creative new ways to handle problems.
But one problem he’s seen humans struggle to face is the simple fact that there are far too many of us on the planet.
“It’s about homeostasis — balance,” Bekoff says. “It’s very clear that humans have done a job on our planet and we’ve created imbalance. In my new book [Rewilding Our Hearts] I talk about the Anthropocene — the age of humanity. Well, I call it the rage of humanity. Biologists like to think about homeostatic systems, the balance of systems, and it’s the loss of homeostasis that’s responsible for climate change, the loss of species. But being out of balance is also representative of our isolation from nature. The idea of higher and lower species is a biological misnomer. Higher becomes synonymous with better, and that’s just not true.”
While Bekoff can sound jaded, he’s anything but about the future in the face of climate change.
“I’m a hopeful monster,” he says with a laugh. “I think to me the way forward comes back to the level of the individual, to rewiliding our hearts and becoming reconnected and enchanted with nature, in recognizing that every individual contributes in some way or another to the health and sustainability of the world.”
Becker, on the other hand, isn’t so sure.
“Climate change is a real-life, real-time test of our intelligence and morality as a species,” he says. “Are we willing to take action now to prevent things that will happen after we are gone? Are we willing, like past generations of Americans, to do the hard work of making the world safer and better for generations yet to come? As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out.”
On the Bill: Indigenous & Political Climate Experts Meet to Address Challenges. 7 p.m. Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder, 303-492-8423.