Sunday, September 26, 2010

Work at

I perceive high affinity between this job and my core competencies.

As a Costa Rican, I understand the value of living in peace with nature. This requires both ecological restoration and innovation on renewable energies. Most importantly, sustainability is a matter of ethics to do good while doing well.

I envision a future where different corporate sectors and world cultures contribute their best practices towards the global transformation of green business: United States’ remarkable entrepreneurial ability to leapfrog technology through innovation; China’s massive funding of renewables; Brazil’s environmental superpower status; Australia’s clean energy potential; Africa’s and Latin America’s potential for organic agriculture and eco-tourism; European Union’s virtuous legal implementation to tackle climate change through a culture change.

Moreover, I consider the coming decade as crucial to reach the necessary tipping point to guide humanity from a degrading lifestyle to a restorative one. Therefore, identifying the key stakeholders at a global level and the best scenarios to engage them in conversation and to broker deals with them will be elemental.

I pay close attention to Brazil as my wife is from there. Apart from the media coverage that the country’s development is having in recent years, it has started to become clear that it is, by far, the world’s environmental superpower and it is playing an aggressive role as world leader in the field. Its private sector is powerful in terms of finances and innovation, and also in social responsibility and environmental friendliness.

In the coming years, Brazil will host the two largest sports events in the world: the football (soccer) World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. This represents a remarkable opportunity to showcase policies, products, partnerships, and lifestyles of a new, green cultural paradigm.

I am willing to relocate, to Oakland or Brazil or elsewhere, the same way I have lived in Costa Rica, Norway, China and Australia. I have been looking for the perfect job that will fulfill my three main interests: to be passionate about it, to contribute the most according to my competencies, and to be well remunerated for the effort. I feel I may have found it at

My full-time academic program at Carnegie Mellon Australia will finish in early December. As of now, I have no scheduled commitments afterwards and am currently searching for a full-time job.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Climate Change: A Conflict Transformation Approach

Part II: Intentional Transformation

There are many instances that provoke a negative impact on our global ecosystem. Many forms of consumption, production, and disposal of essential and non-essential goods in our everyday lives take a minute toll on the ecosystem. All of them added together represent a burden to heavy to carry for the planet.

In accounting terms, we would say that the planet does not have the possibility to reach or maintain a “break-even quantity” (BEQ) of natural resources depleted and natural resources renewed by the planet itself. For example, it would take millions of years to replenish oil reserves. It can be said that it is not indispensable for life on the planet to have those reservoirs. It is precisely the opposite which could be a more determining factor: when was the last time that those fossil reserves were living organisms roaming the planet? Millions of years ago. As most living organisms grow and thrive with the energy from the sun, it can be said, as some experts have analyzed, that petroleum is sunlight that is kept in storage under the earth’s surface. When we transform it into carbon dioxide, we are pouring into the atmosphere the equivalent of ancient sunlight, as if the sun would suddenly warm up and produce more or warmer rays towards the Earth.

In ecological terms, the problem is referred to as carrying capacity: the planet is not being able to renew the resources that we are extracting from it, be it renewable or nonrenewable, such as forests or minerals.

So far, the problem is almost invisible –except for highly contaminated cities like Beijing, Los Angeles, or New Delhi- difficult to measure, and very hard to tell the extent of the consequences of this uniquely human action.

It is not uniquely human to generate carbon emissions. Every time a living organism expires, its decomposition entails releasing a fair amount of carbon into the atmosphere. This explains why, before the Industrial Revolution, it is said that as much as 280 particles of carbon per million were present in the atmosphere. It also includes volcanic eruptions and other forms of gaseous releases around the planet, like gas columns from the ocean floor or geysers.

Since the Industrial Revolution, this amount has climbed to some 380 ppm, and experts forecast that it will reach 450 ppm by mid century. The situation aggravates when considering the sink of carbon from the atmosphere back into the ground, which is a process that is predominantly reliant on forests and other living organisms consuming carbon material. In a way, a human being is a large sink of carbon, and a large consumer of it too. The problem is that most of the carbon we take in, we also release back after transforming it into energy. It is forests which become larger and larger as their carbon intake increases. When forests are cut down at the fast pace at which we are doing it, then we are affecting the demand side of the carbon equation, hence hampering the planet’s carrying capacity even further.

Prior to elaborating public policy suggestions, it is important to consider three non-constraints that are sometimes confused in the discussion about Climate Change.

First, as it has been stated above, there has always been and always will be carbon particles in the atmosphere. Moreover, there have been episodes in the Earth’s history when CO2 ppm has been far greater than it is now or will be during the rest of the century. Of course, there is a tipping point beyond which life as we know it, with large species of reptiles and mammals on the surface of the planet may not be possible. But life will not be extinguished and the life cycle of the planet will not terminate because of excess carbon emissions generated by humans. Again, it could be that human life is compromised by excess carbon particles, but the planet has proven to be self-sufficient at taking care of itself.

Second, and again related to the planet’s life cycle, there is sufficient evidence that there are temperature cycles of heating and cooling every 10,000 years called ice ages. Australian aborigines are believed to have survived the last five ice ages, as they are believed to have settled and roamed this land since some 60,000 years ago. So, a dramatic increase in atmospheric temperature that would trigger a massive melting of poles and glaciers, consequently bringing a surge in ocean levels flooding millions of square kilometers around the planet, both inhabited and uninhabited, would, in turn, force a sudden reduction in human behavior that generates emissions (think, for example, of oil fields being flooded, together with lowlands where rice and beef and sugarcane and soybean are grazed, all existing ocean ports being destroyed, and tens of millions of people in rich and poor countries being displaced or killed by hundred-meter waves all of a sudden). Although it sounds like a cataclysm, it is an event that can be predicted in the following way: there is a temperature tipping point beyond or after which ice melts or freezes. All ice that is warmed up and brought to a constant temperature above 0 ÂșC will become water. If such temperatures are achieved, then all ice in a particular region of the planet will melt irremediably and fairly quickly, not in a matter of years, but in a matter of weeks. In turn, this water surge around the planet will destroy existing vegetation but will promote the growth of new vegetation that, in the course of decades and centuries, will help sink carbon from the atmosphere, therefore reducing global temperatures, forcing ice caps to form and grow around the poles and in high altitude regions in the form of glaciers or lakes.

Third, it is important to refer to the thermodynamics principle of entropy that explains how energy will naturally tend to flow from higher to lower temperatures. Similarly, as this principle explains, it is impossible to convert 100% of the energy of a system into work. So, some of the energy will be liberated from the system in the form of heat. This means that no matter how much we try to reduce human-generated emissions, there will always be excess energy from human action. A growing population means a growing bulk of heat emissions that alter the planet’s temperature.

With these three non-constraints in mind, the idea is to create policy recommendations that would enhance the quality of the ecological cycle of life on the planet, so that living beings can thrive in greater happiness.

One, the measure of economic growth in GDP and dollar terms seems to be unsustainable. Although wealth can be created from intellectual innovation, industrial manufacturing still requires natural resources and the process of depletion of those resources has a limit. This means that not all countries can expect to have a per capita GDP like the United States or other rich countries. In order for that to happen, we would exhaust supplies of some raw materials essential for some of those industrial processes.

Two, population growth has been exponential, partly because quality of life and access to health systems allows humans to live far longer than we did only a century ago. This means that, even in poverty-stricken societies, human populations have grown dramatically, putting pressure on local natural resources for those communities to utilize.
Three, attempting to cut carbon emissions drastically could have a negative effect, both in terms of economic impact affecting the most vulnerable communities in their supply of basic goods and their sources of employment, as well as in terms of cost-effectiveness of the measure. This means that if a million dollars will be used to cut down emissions from a particular system, that will result on an economic surplus that might not reach an equivalent accrued social value.

Four, conducting intelligent investment in raising awareness about the problem and its solutions. The most cost-effective way to do this is investing in education, more concretely, in research, development and innovation of new procedures and technologies to improve the generation and consumption of energy, both as individuals as well as communities around the world. As a matter of illustration, we became aware of computers and how they could enrich our lives only when they became widespread in the 1990s. They only became widespread when further research and development that led to greater and faster innovation made them accessible for the masses. At constant prices, computers sold in 1980 would be unaffordable for a high percentage of the population that today owns or has access to computers. Similarly, in the 2000s, telecommunications suffered a similar boom as more money was put into research, development and innovation of new technologies, making them cheaper, better, faster, more accessible.

What will happen, then, when technologies to harvest renewable sources of energy will become as widespread as computers and telecommunications? Could we as policymakers provoke a coordinated effort in that direction? Today, renewable energies are as unaffordable as were computers in 1980 or do not exist like many telecommunication platforms prior to the turn of this century. Government spending can lead to greater research and development of innovative technologies to make energy a lot cheaper than it is today, but most importantly, more renewable, causing a natural shift from contaminating sources like coal and oil to less contaminating sources like solar and wind energy.

Five, implementing coordinated and restorative action towards ecosystems around the planet. It is believed that 95% of forests existing in the United States 400 years ago have disappeared. What would happen to the planet if we continue this trend in Africa, Latin America and South Asia? The question to ask is “what will we say the day we cut down the last tree?” as Jared Diamond provocatively asks in his book Collapse. To make sure we never get to that point, we should think in terms of planting more trees, repopulating forests, afforesting regions that have a greater vocation for forest growth, and preserving nature as an invaluable –in fact, priceless- treasure in our planet.

Six, promoting change in the way we deal with residues in human systems, from water to food rests to plastic containers, paper and metals, without forgetting other more toxic components like radioactive waste or low biodegradable materials, like cement. The principle is to change the mindset from “waste” to “input”, so that anything we discard today in the form or leftover or waste can be used in some other process as input, either through recycling or reusing or transforming.

Seven, raising global awareness at an international policy level about the positive externalities that nature offers in economic terms. To begin with, what would be the cost for human industries to purify and clean all the water and air we consume on a daily basis? In turn, this would become food for thought in terms of the negative externalities that represent the pollution from human behavior on the natural environment. If these elements are brought into an economic equation that can be of common agreement to policymakers with the help of the scientific community, supported on civil society organizations for promotion and spread of the word, then it would be expected that many more people will reduce their material consumption, or will reuse the things they buy in creative and non-contaminating ways, or even profit from the economic value of recycling many products that are gone to waste in large communities worldwide.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Climate Change: A Conflict Transformation Approach

Part I: Diagnosis

“Peace is the ability to transform conflicts creatively, empathically and nonviolently.” (Johan Galtung)

Conflict can be defined in very simple terms as an incompatibility of goals. These two definitions allow us to reach two preliminary conclusions: one, that Climate Change is a conflict; and two, that the transformation of this conflict may be reached by increasing degrees of peace at a global scale.

Regarding the former, the incompatibility seems to be relatively simple to identify: our depletion of renewable and nonrenewable natural resources has reached a level that does not allow nature to regenerate them for our use in a sustainable manner. The conflict can increase in complexity if we include all other living beings that are being pushed to extinction, mainly due to two overarching constraints: first, habitats of some endemic species are disappearing faster than inhabiting species can adapt or migrate; and second, pollution is altering the sanity of some marine and terrestrial ecosystems beyond species’ ability to cope with such contamination.

Part of the problem that Climate Change poses is the difficulty to portray the holistic dimension of the conflict. It has been reduced to a political conversation of a few international leaders that most likely will not be occupying those roles in ten years. We have also narrowed down the causes that have led to this conflict to the mere carbon emissions.

It is clear that combustion of fossil fuels is provoking a global effect on the planet. This offers two interesting propositions: first, that fossil fuels are carbon-rich residues of decayed organisms that lived on the planet millions of years ago. Those organisms grew, fed and reproduced using sunlight, pretty much in the same way we do today. Everything we eat is carbon-rich. Our bodies and those of all other living beings is carbon-rich, from a whale to a tree. If we burn a tree today, the smoke it generates is carbon dioxide (CO2) that goes into the atmosphere. So, burning hydrocarbons like petroleum and natural gas implies releasing very ancient sunlight that has been stored into the crust of the earth and underneath the ocean floors a very long time ago. In other words, carbon emissions are adding ancient sunlight into our present-day atmosphere. The design of the atmosphere precisely assists in the capture of temperature to make sure some of the light received from the sun remains and makes the planet a livable one.

The second proposition is that, if greenhouse gases (GHG, where CO2 is the most abundant one, but certainly not the only one and far from being the deadliest) remained at surface level instead of rising up into the atmosphere, many of us would not be here as we would have already died from toxic poisoning. The same way as we would not want our children to stay inside a closed garage where a combustion engine is on because it is life-threatening, it would also represent a fatal risk to live where millions of tons of toxic gases remained at the surface level where we live, walk and work.

Rhetorically, we could claim that if such would have been the case that GHG remain at surface level, the amount of toxic gas generated 100 years ago would have already forced us to find a solution to the problem, either transforming the sources of energy, the uses of energy, the efficiency of generating it from fossil fuels, the ability to sequester poisonous residues, or any other paradigmatic change that would have dealt with the situation permanently.

Today, the problem forces us to think that, in a way, those gases are remaining at surface level. The holistic implications of the amount of GHG poured into the environment is causing enormous pressure on the entire planet, and more critically, on the global ecosystem. This global ecosystem knows no boundaries and belongs to no one. As a matter of fact, no one has control over it in terms of conservation. Not even all the efforts to preserve it and enrich it and enlarge it are being effective, because the effort we are doing together as humankind is greater, therefore the accelerating degradation of the planetary environment as a whole.

Back to the partial problem of Climate Change is precisely this: we only speak about CO2 and other GHG. As a matter of fact, there are possible future scenarios in which the GHG spewed into clean air could be taken care of by nature itself. In order for this to happen, though, the global ecosystem would have to increase in size significantly.

Vegetation –forests in particular- are absorbing all the CO2 they can. More precisely, vegetation needs CO2 to grow and flourish. This means that, not only do forests purify the planet’s water and clean the planet’s air, but they also feed of it. It is a magnificent symbiosis despite the fact that our exhaust fumes are contaminating the air we all breathe.

The problem has two vectors: one is the amount we emit, and the other is nature’s capacity to absorb it. The equation is imbalanced, and the imbalance grows every single minute, because of two opposing trends: the volume of emissions is increasing while the forest coverage is decreasing. Even if emissions would keep on growing –as they in fact are- and there was abundant forest coverage worldwide, perhaps the balanced equation would cancel out the contamination, allowing us to move on into other matters, at least temporarily.

The problem of GHG is, then, bidirectional, because by cutting our forests we are increasing the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. In pre-industrial times, it is calculated that the atmosphere held approximately 280 particles of carbon per million (ppm). Today, this number has climbed to 380, and forecasts estimate that, given the unwillingness and inability to reduce carbon emissions, this figure may reach 450 ppm by 2050 (Jeffrey Sachs, “Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet.”) As a mere illustration, the White Paper on Environment Policy published by the Chinese government in 2008 shows a commendable effort to transform the energy mix to renewable sources by 2050. They estimate their capability to transform up to 20% of the energy they will require 40 years from now. The remaining 80% will still come from hydrocarbons. To put this number into perspective, it does not mean that they will burn fossil fuels at 80% of today’s levels, but at 2050 levels, when China will have grown many times the size it has today. Therefore, 80% of carbon emissions in 2050 are equivalent to many times today’s emissions.

A similar scenario can be depicted for Russia, United States, India, Australia, and perhaps even the European Union, whose environmental policy on Climate Change is decades ahead of that of other continents.

Going back to the GHG problem, policymakers and international leaders have focused solely on this issue. This does not allow room to look up, pause and think about the underlying causes of the conflict. As a matter of illustration, some of the GHG is the residue of heat to stay warm during winter and to prepare food. Another larger portion of GHG is the residue of transportation of commodities and consumer goods from one place to the other, and to commute people from one city to another, and from home to work and back. Yet another portion of GHG is the residue of industrial manufacturing of many different things we buy. Much energy is generated worldwide from fossil fuel combustion. The energy is then used to manufacture textiles, electronic appliances, cement, vehicles, and basically all other product we purchase on our everyday lives.

Sadly, most of those goods are disposable, whether in one use or a few, whether they last a year or several. The problem is that we are not discarding them properly. Proper discarding of our residue is making sure it becomes input of some other process or system. For example, if all the plastic containers we throw away that are non-reusable and non-recyclable, were melted together to construct highway divisions to contain cars that drive out of control. This would even prevent deaths making life safer on our roads; or if all food leftovers could be sent to composters that will transform it into organic fertilizer. It is essential that we shift the way we think about garbage because this is one of the critical issues that makes Climate Change an incremental conflict. Exhaust fumes are the residues of combustion, and it is not feeding any other process or system. So it represents millions of tons of toxic gases that we are dumping into clean air, without any regard about who will deal with it, how and when.

Another part of the conflict is that the global atmosphere, like most of the planet’s ocean waters and the global ecosystem, belongs to no one. So, no one is responsible, no one is in charge of enforcing it preservation, and no one is punished for polluting the air that we all need to live. This paradox has been referred to as the Tragedy of the Commons, or the unsustainable condition that common goods that have no owner suffer, which leads them to exhaustion or extinction. If no one owns a river, a factory can dump toxic chemical waste into the river. This will harm the river’s ecosystem and biodiversity, and eventually will cause a severe and permanent damage on the ocean or lake where the river flows. Such is the case of the Gulf of Mexico, that has a dead zone along the United States coast as a result of millions of tons of toxic waste dumped upstream the Mississippi river by numerous factories.

This paradox can be extended into a different dimension that could allow for a greater comprehension of the dimension of the conflict of Climate Change. Let’s call it the Tragedy of the Unaware. A person buys a product unaware of how much residue was generated to produce it. She discards the product unaware of how it will be disposed of, either by the system in charge of dealing with garbage or by nature itself. For example, a person purchases a mobile phone, uses it until it is time to replace it, and gives it away or throws it away. Many cellular batteries end in garbage dumps where the battery will leak toxic residue for decades, contaminating the ground and possibly underground aquifers or nearby masses of water for a very long time.

A tentative question to raise is if that person is to blame or should be held liable for her unawareness. The answer is no, but she should. No, because her unawareness is partly the result of a producer willing to sell a product that does not observe quality controls in environmental terms, both in the residues generated to produce it, as well as in the residue it becomes once disposed of by the customer. This paradox is referred to as an information asymmetry. It is a behavioral principle that states that if a person had more information, her decision-making process may differ. For example, if a product had a label that disclosed the environmental impact the product has generated in its production process, and what is the expected environmental impact it will have when discarded, then the customer might not buy it. This could potentially lead many industries to bankruptcy. Instead, they are getting away with it by concealing some crucial information and this is leading the global environment to bankruptcy, or something equivalent.

A possible solution to this problem would be, as suggested by Daniel Goleman in “Ecological Intelligence,” that all producers of consumer goods be forced to disclose a precise measurement of environmental impact when producing a good, and that it offers clear instructions as to how to dispose of the good properly. The European Union has environmental policy that effectively makes obligatory for all producers to give consumers an instruction about how to return the product to the company when discarded, so the company itself deals with it properly. This may mean reusing, recycling, or refurbishing some components, or to classify residues in an environmentally sustainable manner.

A reflection is necessary at this point regarding humankind’s habits of consumption. The impact that our behavior is having on the global ecosystem is so large that we could say that we are working to earn money to spend it on garbage, whether in the form of GHG, a toxic chemical that is the residue of mining, or a plastic bottle that will probably find its way into the Eastern Garbage Patch, a floating garbage dump mainly of plastics that occupies an area twice the size of Texas on the Pacific Ocean. It is estimated that this garbage dump contains “three trillion pieces of plastic debris” (Thomas M. Kostigen, “You Are Here.”)

Paradoxically, we are not only generating a lot of garbage with our modern lifestyle, but we are not generating a proportional degree of happiness. It is revealing, from the Happy Planet Index (, that the happiest nations are not the richest. In fact, most of them are among the poorest. These two contradicting trends signify that the more we buy, the unhappier we become. Perhaps it is something that should lead us, as a civilization, to revise bad habits we have adopted in recent decades, when consumption became more important than happiness.

The complexity of the conflict of Climate Change increases to far greater levels when we stop to realize that the group of international leaders that concentrate most of the decision-making power for an effective transformation process are the political leaders of the so-called G-20, the 20 largest economies in the world, which, much to our dismay, are precisely the 20 that pollute and contaminate the most. This contamination is not only in GHG emissions, but also in resource depletion from other countries that, being poor, are led into commercial deals for their natural resources, be they minerals, forests, or arable land, which, in turn, is causing greater environmental degradation onto the planet’s ecosystem.

In other words, the G-20 has self-appointed itself to deal with a conflict that they have predominantly created, and the way to deal with the conflict is to self-regulate themselves. Does this sound like a sustainable system? Does this sound like a governance principle that would make geopolitics a more just system? Is this an enforcement of the rule of law? Is this bridging the divide between public opinion and public policy?