Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Make climate action cool

Making climate action cool
Intervention at UNEP workshop on the
Trade and technology nexus to achieve
Agenda 2030 goals for developing countries

1.     As you may know, the Earth spins on its axis at 1600 kilometers per hour. Its orbital speed around the sun is of 108,000 kilometers per hour. Now, as some of you may know, last July NASA achieved the remarkable goal of putting a spacecraft in Jupiter’s orbit. By the name Juno, it launched from Earth on August 2011. In October 2013, it encountered Earth’s orbit again and used it as a slingshot to gain significant speed on its travel voyage towards Jupiter. Five years and 2.8 billion kilometers later, Juno slowed down to avoid crashing against Jupiter’s gravity forces and enter into orbit, which was achieved successfully. A remarkable fact is that the top speed it reached on this trajectory was 265,000 kilometers per hour, or more than twice the orbital speed of Earth around the sun. Another remarkable fact is that it traveled all this distance and reached this astounding speed using solar energy as predominant source. What NASA has done is commendable indeed: they have made aerospace science and exploration cool. If someone like me can share this story with you is because I was drawn into NASA’s social media outlets and explanations for the non-technical public. Bravo, NASA!
2.     I am from Costa Rica, and it is a country that has a very cool brand. We are a sought-after destination for ecological tourism, we generate 100% of our electricity from renewable sources, our economy has tripled in the last 30 years and in that same period of time our forest coverage has doubled, representing a unique case worldwide in the last 50 years. This can be considered a good example of regenerative development, where growth is both in financial and natural capital simultaneously. We have learned throughout the decades that there is a virtuous spiral between renewable energies, environmental conservation, forest coverage, biodiversity, ecological tourism, services, jobs, and wellbeing. This is a recipe we believe can be considered by countries with similar geographical location and climate, many of which face considerable developmental challenges. May I remind you about the billion people worldwide without access to electricity; the two billion people without access to drinkable water; the three billion people without access to three meals per day; and the four billion people without access to the Internet.
3.     Regarding Sustainable Development Goal 13a., related to the creation of a Green Climate Fund that hopes to raise US$100 billion/year to finance mitigation efforts in developing countries, it is a fact that globally we are spending US$1.5 trillion/year in military equipment. Only a 6% reduction in this expenditure would provide all the cash required by the Fund. Let’s choose our battles wisely!
4.     One of the most important lessons learned from the Paris Agreement is a successful mindset that positively affected the attitudes and behaviors of key participants in the process. This included optimism to always expect a brighter future; imagination to create an innovative agreement; vision to have a broader, more long-term approach; strategic thinking to prioritize actions with key stakeholders; and the ability to design a critical path to take the necessary steps to make it work.
5.     Regarding the Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA) currently under negotiation at the World Trade Organization (WTO), it is an agreement whose aim is partially assisting climate change mitigation and adaptation, partially improving insertion into Global Value Chains (GVC), and also fostering innovation. Costa Rica can share the success story of the Information Technology Agreement (ITA) signed in 1996, which allowed the country to attract an important investment like the manufacturing plant of INTEL, which at its peak of production was exporting from Costa Rica 99% of all server microprocessors used worldwide. This created a high-tech cluster that triggered the development of multiple small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that engaged in GVCs through innovation and high competitiveness. INTEL decided in 2014 to transfer its manufacturing plant from Costa Rica to Asia and decided to leave in Costa Rica an innovation lab. This means that Costa Rica has moved, in 20 years, from agricultural production to high-tech manufacturing to high-tech innovation, creating enormous value for the company, its suppliers and the world in general. The most important aspect of this success story is that education has been at the core of it, from school preparedness to the ability to develop public-private partnerships with higher education institutions to adapt to the needs of foreign multinationals, to being able to develop world-class talent to operate at the highest level of performance.
6.     Another important topic related to trade and climate action taking place at the WTO is the leadership of the group of Friends of Fossil Fuels Subsidy Reform which seeks the elimination of these subsidies that, according to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, amount to US$500 billion/year. Furthermore, they have calculated the social cost of these subsidies at US$4 trillion/year. Reducing them would immediately create incentives for renewable energies by proving fossil energy not cost competitive without such subsidies.
7.     Clean technology offers the possibility to address different needs through different solutions. For example, geothermal energy should be prioritized wherever there is an accessible volcano. Solutions should grow organically from there. Is it towards clean tech manufacturing clusters or towards agriculture or towards ecological tourism? It will depend on each case. It is important to consider a different paradigm when thinking about clean tech. For example, an electric car is a great solution to a particular problem of carbon emissions, but better than an electric car is an electric bus that can provide massive, public and clean transportation.
8.     Innovation requires that we identify the constraints within which we must innovate. For example, why do researchers work on the vaccine of a disease they are not suffering? They have the constraints and they look for potential developments that will advance the knowledge and science and technology frontiers organically in a variety of directions depending on the findings and additional constraints incorporated along the way.
9.     Humanity has put a satellite on Jupiter’s orbit powered with renewable energy. We have the challenge to make climate action cool. Millennials know what is cool, not only because they are young and in every generation it is the youth who determine what is cool and what is not, but because millennials are not motivated by money or power or glory, but by purpose. We are not rocket scientists but is this the best we can do to make climate action cool? If we don’t do it, then who? And if we don’t do it now, then when? Thank you. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

On life management

On life management, I don’t know enough but I have experimented with a few tips that became habits and are now methods to deal within this complex system we call life.

To begin with, on life-work balance (note the change in order of the first two terms), I am here to live, I’m not here to work. I live 24 hours a day but only work a fraction of that. If I want to be at my prime performance, I need to sleep eight hours per night, every night of the week. I also need to spend some essential time “sharpening the saw” to remain effective at what I do. Things like exercising, reading, writing, connecting with others (not least my two year-old toddler and my lovely wife) make me a better person, a better professional, a better househusband.

I like to apply the Pareto principle to my productivity: to achieve 80% of the impact of my work in 20% of my time. It both means that I, like everybody else, have peaks of hyper-productive performance, and also that, in the near 33% of my day that I have left for work, 60% of it should render that level of desired impact. I have the fortune of not being hand labor as it was conceived in the XIX Century, where productivity was a function of repetitive tasks over a prolonged period of time. We are mind workers on a knowledge-based economy. At least that’s where most of new value comes from these days, from our minds and not from extraction of natural resources as it was last century.

Second, optimism is an attitude. This means that you can choose it at any given moment. If you every feel anxious, or fearful, or regretful about anything, especially regarding the use of your time that is already gone for good, interrupt that thought and spend ten minutes doing something you consider as productive. Set a timer for those ten minutes and go at it. I guarantee you will feel different when the alarm goes off because nothing is more motivating than action. It is important not to confuse optimism with delusion. It is also important to be realistic. But this is something one can only be here and now. And optimism is definitely better than any of its alternatives when it comes to visualizing a greener, more prosperous path ahead.

About those ten minutes, I imagine life broken into multiple ten-minute slots. Everything you do is pretty much constrained into one or a few of these pockets of time-energy. You can achieve remarkable things if you dedicate ten minutes per day during 30 years to pretty much anything. For example, it is said that one can learn the basics of a language with 300 hours of study. That is 1800 10-minute pockets, or roughly five years if you practice 10 minutes per day. This means that in 30 years of studying 10 minutes per day you could learn the basics of five languages. How come not everybody at the age 60 speaks at least five languages?!

Third, I beg to differ from His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, when he suggests that the purpose of life is to be happy. Happiness is an individual accomplishment. I believe we are intelligent, social beings and our role as members of humanity is to aspire for prosperity, which is a collective achievement. What good would it make to be the only happy person in your community, or the only happy nation in the world? We need to ensure our neighbors and fellow citizens of the world enjoy prosperity too. In that regard, prosperity is the collective attitude of optimism.

Fourth, every pocket of time has an opportunity cost. In fact, the costs are infinite if you consider everything else you could be doing during that same time. It would drive us crazy to think about this all the time. Instead, think about the big bang-like potential that every pocket of time has for you. In my case, I would say spending time with my wife doing whatever is a hundred times more enriching and nurturing than if I were alone. Similar to what I believe is my role as a father. I have perhaps three ten-minute pockets of time per day with my daughter. If I regard her unconditionally and positively for those minutes, interacting with her in the most engaging, constructive manner I can, I will be performing my duties as her caretaker and “universe discovery process” facilitator, which is what parents should be anyway. Most likely, I hope, there will be no room for regrets in 20 years time.

Finally, start with why, as Simon Sinek suggests. Find your purpose, or that thing you would like to be considered an expert at in 30 years from now, regardless of your age. Who knows, you might get there, so you might as well have spent a good 10,000 hours doing something you particularly like that gives you a sense of purpose to make this a better place to live, if only as selfishly as for yourself, but hopefully for a larger potion of humanity.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Three ideas on climate action

A few interesting ideas have come up in the last few days regarding the link between trade and climate action. The first one is the possibility of having a mechanism similar to Aid For Trade that could allow to more effectively channel cooperation from the Green Climate Fund to those countries that need it most. This fund has been agreed by global consensus through the Paris Agreement and will consist of US$100 billion/year from 2020. Aid For Trade has been an effective mechanism making impact investment in least developed countries (LDCs) to help them improve their trading capabilities, infrastructure, policies, etc. In fact, one good question to ask is how versatile is the Aid For Trade mandate to adapt to climate priorities being financed by the Climate Fund.

The second one was an idea elaborated at a clean energy technologies forum, which argued that technology was the main cause of climate change and, therefore, the main force for transformation. I found the argument very interesting because it removed the typical “blame game” that usually points fingers at developed countries or fossil-dependent economies and moved it towards technology, which all nations alike use one way or another. Most importantly, it points the critical route of action in the direction of all the new technologies –some which don't even exist yet – and the fast deployment and implementation that we all have to go through, developing and developed countries alike. Something resonated in my head and it was the idea that a fossil-based economy’s wealth comes to the detriment of everyone’s (environmental) poverty. Pollution makes us poorer.

The third idea came up at a conversation among a few friends of the WTO in which there was a tit-for-tat kind of discussion. If major subsidizers of domestic agriculture do not acknowledge the need to reduce those subsidies themselves, then the rest of the world won’t do anything to eliminate such subsidies for themselves. The prisoner’s dilemma in its clearest form: who moves first? It is very important to understand that the currency that makes the world go round in every civilized human interaction we experience is trust. Without it, not even a stoplight works. Not even buying groceries. We trust each other predominantly in everything we do. We buy a drink trusting it will not be toxic, or a car trusting it will be safe. But when it comes to multilateral negotiations, mistrust is the name of the game.

My opinion is that we can’t wait for the largest polluters to discipline their transition to a low carbon economy. We are not continuing our discussions at the WTO as a follow-up for what the ministerial conference at Nairobi was or was not. We are now in a post-Paris Agreement scenario, where all hands are on deck to make the swift transformation required to avoid a global warming beyond a maximum 2C over the long-term average.

In that same way, we cannot wait for subsidizers to eliminate their domestic support unilaterally before we take action about it. We can make economic or legal or political sense of the different arguments to bring people around the table. Most importantly, this conversation is absolutely ineffective to the most critical and urgent global the table. Most importantly, this conversation is absolutely ineffective to the most critical and urgent goals our planet faces. If we can’t overcome prisoners’ dilemmas in trade negotiations, we might have to shift the purpose of why we are doing this ultimately: for life to thrive on Earth. Otherwise, there is no business in a dead planet.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Only real win-win scenario

Image capture from on December 31st, 2015, at 18:00 GMT.
Another year has passed with a gigantic human footprint on the planet, unfortunately a very negative one. Yet, there are reasons to revitalize optimism in the wake of 2016. By some accounts, 2015 saw a worldwide reduction in carbon emissions in relation to economic growth, which would confirm a tendency already suggested in 2014, when emissions remained constant even though the global economy grew. But that’s not the point. The point is that we are still pouring 35 billion metric tons of a highly toxic gas that will remain in the atmosphere for centuries, as a result of aggregate human activity in all corners of the planet. [To put this figure in perspective, a metric ton of carbon fills up a sphere that is 10 meters in diameter and if we would enter in it, we would die in less than 10 minutes.]

At this stage of the XXI Century, no one can deny, question or pretend to ignore the effect civilization has on the atmosphere, precisely the bubble that holds the conditions to support life on Earth, the only planet in the known universe of which we have scientific proof that life exists.

It is urgent for our generation, as it starts to take the lead worldwide in high-impact, public and private decision-making, to place, atop our list of strategic priorities, innovation and design to reinvent all human endeavors and channel them towards a new paradigm of regenerative development. It suggests to create and distribute wealth while recovering natural capital, which is the source of all inputs and raw materials used in agricultural, industrial and digital production and provision of services, and, at the same time, enables the flourishing and coexistence of all life forms that precisely enrich and feed back into that very capital. This is the only real win-win scenario there is.

I am not suggesting abandoning capitalism, consumerism or hedonism. Each person must be individually responsible for his or her ideologies, ideals and values. It is, nevertheless, absolutely mandatory, to unconditionally comply with the ethical maxim of sustainability, so that all life forms fit in the planet forever. There is no business on a dead planet and we have no plan(et) B.

The climate action required by the Earth is not a responsibility or interest of a few of us. Everyone, without exception, is a crew member on this spacecraft that travels at a very high velocity around the sun, within the solar system, inside a galaxy among billions in a universe that keeps expanding into the vast unknown. We must learn fast and implement public and private policies that result in regenerative development, since there is nothing more important for any rational, sensible and sane human organization –be it a corporation, school, cult or family— to guarantee its existence beyond the lifespan of their current members.

More of this is what we need urgently, and I mean, a matter of life or death. I know 2016 will bring greater climatic challenges and a more shocking reality, but also a more authentic and effective leadership in search for solutions. It is not difficult to achieve the required transformation, but it is certainly impossible if we do not try.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The dynamics of terror

An act of terror is inflicted upon all of humanity, regardless of whether we are direct or indirect victims. Some victims don't live to tell what they went through; others carry the trauma throughout their lives; the rest, who are the vast majority of us, become overwhelmed by fear. Terrorism is powerful because we let it be.

It would be pointless to try to comfort survivors or the relatives of fatal victims of a terrorist attack by saying that we all feel the same, that this pain and suffering has equally fallen upon us. It simply hasn't.

In truth, terrorism does not have the purpose to cause the most damage possible. It has only one objective, which is to inflict as much fear to as many people for as long as possible. In that sense, millions and millions of people are victims for the rest of their lives.

Only in 2015, there have been almost 10,000 gun murders in the United States. It is more than three times the number of deaths by terrorism on U.S. soil since September 11th. This other kind of random violence also inflicts fear among the entire population and even beyond their borders.

The origin of fear is fairly simple: we are exposed to certain information about something undesirable that has happened to someone else, and we project it as something that is likely to happen to us in our future. As fear increases, so does our level of certainty about this sinister occurrence.

One of the negative by-products of globalization has been religious terrorism. Some claim that one could go as far back as 500 years, when in the name of a Christian god millions of people were "baptized to death" during days of European kings in their overseas colonial adventures. The last 20 years, the kind of terrorism we have seen, the one that is broadcast day and night on TV and social media, has made us all so very fearful. We have been terrorized, especially in Western cultures, where several generations of us had never been exposed to such levels of despicable violence close to us. And the more terrorized we become, the more we want to consume that featured terror, even on a mobile device near you.

Watching the news, especially videos, about terrorist attacks, reinforces the belief that something as horrible as that could and will happen to us. It triggers a permanent sensation of fear and terror. It ends up breaking us, surrendering to the slavery that comes not when a man subdues another, but when a person gives up on her own liberties.

Fear is an attitude. We can choose it or we can choose any other attitude. As simple as that. We could choose to be brave, instead. Or compassionate. Or proactive, empathic, you name it. Doing so, we would perceive different moods and other feelings, not only within ourselves but also towards others. Our impact in society would be different. Our leadership would be constructive. Our character would shine out of virtue.

Fear paralyzes. It weakens us. It steals our sense of optimism, our hope for a more prosperous future, our willingness to be good samaritans, exemplary citizens, better persons altogether.

We all hurt with terror. But if we survived, and more so if we have not even been witnesses of such unspeakable acts of horror, we must dust ourselves, wipe our tears and get back on our feet. This world needs more good people to do the right thing: to love, to care for those in need, to guide, to lead. As Edmund Burke reminds us, "All it takes for evil to prevail is for good [people] to do nothing."

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Alienation and civilization from Paris to the world

Last week, I spent a couple of hours at a restaurant in République, the Parisian neighborhood where a bar was struck by a horrific episode of brutal and lethal violence last night. This morning, I imagined myself in that same place shuffling chairs and tables trying to run away from the bullets, feeling my heart beating inside my throat, adrenaline rushing through my entire body, focused on escaping the infernal scene of madness, being reached by a deadly bullet and knowing that was the end of my story: murdered randomly, victim of the alienation that has invaded many men in my generation.

Alienation is the estrangement or loss of contact with reality. Among the many causes that may lead to it are drug consumption, sports fanaticism, fiction from books, movies or video games, religion, social exclusion, violence, and indoctrination of all sorts. The perpetrators of such heinous acts of terror, in Paris and in other places around the world, are alienated.

There is no simple cause or explanation. Some of them belong to the “lost generation”, kids that migrated to Europe at a young age and remained at the margins of society. Since September 11th, Muslims worldwide have been unfairly stigmatized as a violent culture with a violent religion. These kids grew up under the promise of a more prosperous future but the largest economic crisis in decades has kept millions of educated, healthy, young adults unemployed and unattended. They have been victims of structural violence, when a disharmonious system inflicts pain and suffering on a group of people. Violence always breeds violence. They have become ideal recruits for paramilitary organizations that are fighting a war of alienation. The so-called IS, or Islamic State, is the most notorious, structured, and powerful form of alienated organization.

Civilization is not inherent to humanity. As a species, we have evolved socio-politically until becoming civilized. Among all civilized values, I claim peace is the most precious, forged over millennia, through cultures and generations that have seen and fought lengthy, deadly wars and have been exposed to vicious degrees of violence. In this context, I borrow my definition of peace from Galtung: the ability to transform conflicts creatively and harmoniously. This is, to a great extent, the way in which many nations around the world deal with conflict. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case for all nations.  

For those of us who aspire to be civilized, we have the obligation to behave and react peacefully, that is, harmoniously even towards the perpetrators, as difficult as it may be, and creatively in search for solutions to a conflict that is deeper and more widespread than we wish to believe.

There is no difference between a shooting rampage inside a theater in Paris during a concert and at a movie theater in Colorado during a Batman movie presentation. There is no difference between a shooting inside a bar at Republique and a shooting at a kindergarden in Newtown, Connecticut. The executioners lost touch with reality. Gandhi used to say that guns were not the problem, because there was always a finger pulling the trigger. The problem lies within us, in our beliefs, in the narrow-minded arrogance that makes us interpret that we are right while others are wrong.

To say that a particular religion is to blame for this is equivalent to what Hitler did, stigmatizing and persecuting Jews during the Holocaust, a genocide that belongs to an uncivilized time of human history.