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'Get to work': Climate leaders push solutions and urgency at Miami conference

The inaugural Aspen Ideas: Climate conference, a four-day event that began Monday, attracted hundreds of scientists, policymakers, activists and business leaders.
Image: Aspen Institute Hosts Aspen Ideas: Climate Event In Miami Beach
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sits with Susan Goldberg, Vice Dean and professor of practice at Arizona State University, during a conversation held during the annual Aspen Ideas Climate Conference at the The New World Center on May 9, 2022 in Miami Beach, Fla.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Hundreds of scientists, policymakers, activists and business leaders are descending on South Florida this week to discuss how best to tackle the most pressing aspects of the climate crisis.

The inaugural Aspen Ideas: Climate conference, a four-day event that began Monday, focuses on solutions and adaptations to global warming and how they can be implemented both locally and around the world.

The summit is being hosted by a city that is often called “ground zero” for climate change in the United States, and talks are being held against the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic and a growing energy crisis stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Experts say these pressures have added a renewed sense of urgency to the climate fight and are driving calls for aggressive action across all sectors of society.

Here are five of the biggest themes and trends to emerge from the conference so far.

‘We’re ready to get to work’

An undercurrent of optimism has flowed through many of the sessions at the Aspen Ideas: Climate conference, with speakers and attendees emphasizing that it’s not too late to take action.

Dan Porterfield, president and CEO of The Aspen Institute, the international nonprofit organization that oversees the conference, said the goal was to gather people from diverse industries and backgrounds to push beyond the “doom and gloom” and focus on issues of adaptation, sustainability and resilience.

“We wanted to create something that was solutions-oriented, very inclusive and participatory,” Porterfield said. “The hope is that people go home feeling activated and energized.”

And after the coronavirus forced many other conferences to be postponed or canceled, there’s palpable enthusiasm over addressing these challenges in person, said Helen Mountford, president and CEO of a climate philanthropy organization called ClimateWorks Foundation.

“There’s this feeling that we have some solutions and we can do this,” she said. “We’re ready to get them out there. We’re ready to get to work.”

Tech ready 

It became something of a refrain for speakers at Aspen Climate: The tech is here. 

Solving the riddle of climate change — in many parts of the economy— is no longer a question of developing new technology, speakers and panelists said. Instead, it’s become a question of political and social will.

Image: John Doerr, Ryan Panchadsaram
John Doerr, chairman of Kleiner Perkins, center, holds a chart detailing steps that need to be taken to reach net zero, cutting greenhouse gas emissions close to zero as possible, during the Aspen Ideas: Climate conference on May 9, 2022, in Miami Beach, Fla. At left is engineer Ryan Panchadsaram. Lynne Sladky / AP

If we can decarbonize a single, individual building, we can decarbonize communities across the nation, said BlocPower founder Donnel Baird, a startup aiming to bring green technology to underserved communities.   

“That’s not Silicon Valley bulls---,” Baird said in a panel discussion. “That’s something we can do with the technology and financing now.”

The challenge is finding the technologies that can be implemented fastest and connecting them with investment capital. 

“We have most, if not all, of the technologies that we need to address climate change and to decarbonize our economies 100 percent,” said Jan Vrins, a partner at the consulting firm Guidehouse. “It’s all about scale.” 

Green hydrogen 

Utilities and governments are increasingly looking to green hydrogen as a way to decrease the amount of natural gas in the energy mix. The technology — which is enabled by cheap renewable power — had some attendees buzzing. 

When asked onstage if he planned to decrease the amount of natural gas in his utility’s energy mixture, Florida Power & Light CEO Eric Silagy said yes — “if we can get green hydrogen to work.” 

The utility plans to mix hydrogen with piped natural gas, or methane, to supplement its system, though Silagy acknowledged technical hurdles remain. 

Reducing reliance on methane — which is as much as 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the near term — has become a recent international focus.

And while enthusiasm marked the conversation on clean-burning hydrogen, some sounded caution about how the technology is scaled up. 

“Companies that are now building this infrastructure need to measure hydrogen leaks so we don’t make the same mistake we made with the natural gas infrastructure,” said Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, noting that leaking hydrogen can contribute to global warming.

Ukraine has focused efforts 

The specter of the war in Ukraine hung over conversations about the energy transition. 

“Is anything worse for the environment than war?” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who described allegations of barbarism by Russian troops and discussed her recent visit to Kyiv.  “People can’t get away with that kind of behavior. And they cannot be financed and doing it by our dependence on fossil fuels.”

New urgency to reduce demand for Russian oil and gas could push Europe toward a more sustainable energy system quicker than expected.

“Obviously, it’s very, very sad — horrible and horrific, but I actually do think it’s going to accelerate things in Europe a lot in terms of energy independence from carbon fuels, oil and gas…” Vrij said.

The canary in the coal mine

The conference venue is playing an important role in the proceedings, with local policymakers, academics and community leaders sharing how Miami Beach is both a cautionary tale about the impacts of climate change and a model for the way forward.

From workshops on resilient architectural design to preserving the area’s natural ecosystems to strategies to combat more frequent and severe heat waves in the region, the city is functioning as a living laboratory for climate adaptations.

“#MiamiBeach has emerged as a leader in showing other coastal communities the way forward through planning, science, and engineering in addressing the challenges posed by sea level rise,” the city’s mayor, Dan Gelber, tweeted Monday at the start of the conference.

Hosting the conference in South Florida was important, Porterfield said, because it’s an area that can’t afford to take a wait-and-see approach. 

“Being here in the Greater Miami area, the setting is the topic,” he said.