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NEW YORK, Dec 1 2013 (IPS) - Watching the colossal destruction of Typhoon Haiyan over the past month, Columbia University Professor Graciela Chichilnisky knows one thing for sure: climate change will likely result in more of these massive storms, threatening the very existence of humanity.
As one of the world’s foremost experts on climate change and creator of the carbon market enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol emissions treaty, Chichilnisky also knows this is nothing new.
“What the world needs now is solutions,” she told IPS. “If we can create the right institutions now we can solve energy and climate issues. For the first time, with the release of the official IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report, there is one very important paragraph: there are potential solutions, and the IPCC report talks about carbon negative technology.”
Chichilnisky, a world-class economist and mathematician, has also searched for the answers, published in much of her academic work that consists of 14 books and 250 articles in leading academic journals.
Despite overwhelming evidence detailing the costs of inaction, the outlook is increasingly dire: a recent U.N. climate change report forecasts a profound decline in the world’s food supply, increases in violent conflicts, poverty, flooding, heat waves, droughts, and disease.
Three of the diplomats who led the U.N. global warming talks have said that future climate treaties will not prevent the world from overheating. Two weeks of climate talks in Warsaw last month produced dismal progress.
Despite these obstacles, Chichilnisky remains tenacious. Jigar Shah, former CEO of Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room, notes her lifelong efforts. “Graciela is a tour de force,” he told IPS. “She has been working on climate change for the better part of her life and has figured out how to inspire people with her messages. She can include that in her legacy.”
Indeed, Chichilnisky helped put the issue on the map from the very beginning, something recognised by the international community. She is seen as a key player in creating an international climate change framework as the Argentine-born U.S. lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
Today, Chichilnisky is most concerned with finding ways to avoid, or at least ameliorate, the catastrophic impact climate change will have on humanity and the planet. She believes there is a way forward.
The goal of recent U.N. negotiations has been to keep warming below two degrees C by the year 2020. This may be possible using markets and technology, Chichilnisky says.
One compelling instrument uses a carbon neutral technology, which became the cornerstone of a company called Global Thermostat, which she founded with Dr. Peter Eisenberger, who also founded the Earth Institute at Columbia University.
The company got a loan from Goldman Sachs, and six years ago, the technology caught the eye of Edgar Bronfman Jr., former CEO of Warner Music and Seagram. He is the lead investor in Global Thermostat, and later became executive chairman.
Bronfman told IPS that Chichilnisky brings a combination of vision, intelligence, determination and gravitas to the table.
“She is prepared to see things that not everyone can. I think the fact that she is a woman that has succeeded in her career means she is more determined and resourceful than most people,” he said.
“The work in the Kyoto Protocol lends credibility to Global Thermostat, which may seem to be too good to be true at first,” he added.
The company’s technology, which is targeted at power plants, refineries and other industries, captures and stores carbon dioxide emissions. Bronfman likens it to a “giant dehumidifier”.
“What we need is to take carbon down from air to close the carbon cycle, which means whatever we put up, we bring it down,” Chichilnisky said.
In short, the catastrophic risks of climate change require a fundamental transformation in the production and use of energy. The challenge is to increase the world’s energy supplies while also reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, she said.
The company has commercial deals with several of the biggest players in the market, including Corning. Some of its products feed CO2 to algae that turn it into clean fuel. There are two plants in Silicon Valley, California and one in the U.S. state of Alabama.
Chichilnisky insists the receding goal of staving off a two-degree C increase in temperature remains possible, especially with the use of proper technology. Most importantly, by showing the effectiveness of technology in combating the problem, she hopes to raise the political stakes.
“Right now, most politicians do not understand what is at stake. Few people understand that you can reduce carbon in a way that helps the economy. If you can reduce carbon and create jobs, then politically it would become possible. It will happen,” she said.
What is really needed is a war on all fronts, with everyone participating, she said. “It is an effort like going to the moon – it’s a global effort. Can we do it yes? Do people know how to do it – no,” she said, adding that: “We are in this all together. For the first time in history we are facing a problem that is sink or swim.”
The carbon market is 250 billion dollars a year in the European Union and has gone live on four continents. The market changes the numerical value of all energy, and with it clean energy becomes more profitable, which causes a shift in global energy markets.
“If you make money out of cleaning the atmosphere, improvements will happen. The carbon market provides for an improvement to happen. The market values a clean atmosphere at one trillion dollars a year,” she said.
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