What’s Next: Climate Entrepreneurs

March 10, 2009 | Teryn Norris,

This post is a contribution to the Special Breakthrough Issue, "After Power Shift: What's Next?"

By Morgan Goodwin

Power Shift brought together the youth climate movement and let us feel how powerful we are. More of us share a strategy of how to move forward and build our power. And we see how far we still have to go in building a clean energy economy and stopping global warming.

We must accomplish the two major goals of passing bold climate legislation and stopping dirty energy. And then we must become the builders of the clean energy economy by starting innovative businesses and working in companies that drive our goals forward.

We are going to pass bold national climate legislation in 2009, and it's going to take a lot of our work to make it happen. Our planet's ecology and energy supplies shorten the timeline to solve our energy problems, but our world's political processes give us an exact number: 41 weeks. The US must go to Copenhagen ready to lead, with all the moral conviction that our nation used to command.

To do this, we need bold national legislation from Congress, signed by the president. It must have a mechanism to directly regulate the amount of emissions across all sectors. It must support the development of new energy technology and rapidly expand the opportunities for work installing the energy solutions we already have. And it should leave no doubt about the direction of our energy economy by banning all new construction of fossil fuel burning power plants.

To compliment and enforce national legislation, we the people must win hundreds of fights across the country to prevent or shut down fossil fuel based energy. Many of these fights are based on laws which are not being enforced, and civil society has an obligation to hold companies and governments accountable to the rule of law. Mountain top removal coal isn't a cheap source of energy, it's an illegal one.

Stopping coal and passing legislation is a monumental task, but it is only part of the solution. The third part, the part that I am calling on us all to consider, is how we can put ourselves to work in rebuilding and re-powering America.

OK, that's a lot of talk about the big picture; lets talk about you. Lets say you're a college senior and you're trying to find a job. The economy sucks, the non-profit you were hoping to work for can only give you an unpaid internship and your parents are leaning on you to get a 'real' job. But, through the climate movement you have a wealth of knowledge about energy savings, solar panels, local food and those new-fangled light bulbs. What do you do?

Young people should be jumping into the green wave. We should be joining renewable energy companies and starting our own. We should be finding new ways of selling energy efficient products, and putting our valuable knowledge to work. We should be taking risks because we are young and ambitious and supported by our peers. We can take the risks that could potentially pay off very well for you and for the climate. In short, we need to become an army of climate entrepreneurs.

There are two kinds of green tech, one that young people are sometimes suited for and one that we're always suited for. The first is high-tech; silicon valley VC firms investing in the next breakthrough that will shake up the industry and redefine energy in some sector. If you have the background to make that happen, please go for it. For the rest of us, where physics and chemistry don't come as easily as heat from the sun, we can build the businesses that can make these solutions into a reality in every city, every small town of this country.

High-tech business needs a national or global scope. The investment is too large and the breakthrough hopefully too significant to be limited to a regional context. On the other hand, business models that look for every opportunity for energy improvements are collectively knocking on the door of a hundred billion dollar market, and decades of work to go with it. Young people of today are poised to combine technical skills and college educations, work with people from diverse backgrounds, and re-think economic models for the good of communities. Green collar jobs, created by climate entrepreneurs, will create a new American prosperity, but only if we are willing to make it happen.

I recently began working at a small solar company on Long Island. It's a youth-driven business that is installing solar panels with the same fervor as activists rallying to stop a coal plant. And we're reducing carbon emissions by running a successful business. I don't have the expertise to make a new solar panel, or to design a system for a huge industrial complex. But there are 110 million homes in this country, and there is work that needs to be done on every one of them.

A world serious about solving climate change has a lot of work to be done. That work can be found in every nook and cranny of our country, from old homes to subway systems, from skyscrapers to farms, and from factories to classrooms. We are not afraid of the mountain of work before us. In fact, we embrace it. This is the work that will put our children through school and put good food on our tables. Fossil fuels allow us to export our manufacturing, export our problems and ignore our own communities. A green economy brings those issues home where we can see them, feel them, solve them and thrive.

Let's stop the use of fossil fuels, let's pass bold national climate legislation, and then let's begin the real job of re-powering our country with green collar jobs created by us, the climate entrepreneurs.