Blame It On Rio
In June of 1972, some 35 years ago, a group of future-thinking leaders met in Sweden for the first United Nations Convention on the Human Environment. By the end of a whirlwind week, they had issued the Stockholm Statement, established what is now known as UNEP, and given birth to the modern field of international environmental law.
Twenty years later, in June of 1992, just one month before he would be chosen as Clinton’s running mate, Al Gore was scheduled to present as the head of the Congressional Delegation at the NGO “Global Forum” at the Earth Summit, an event that spawned the Convention on Climate Change, the precursor to the Kyoto Protocol.
Unknown to Gore, a group of 30 rabble-rousing teens and 20-somethings were waiting for him the day of his talk. Organizing themselves into “U.S. Youth at Rio” — in Brazil to push for Bush I to sign the Biodiversity Convention and to call for real leadership on the environment — they somehow got to Gore’s staffers and asked, quite audaciously, to be allowed to introduce him.
One 22-year-old in particular, Aimee Christensen, was up the night before, working with her colleagues to write the statement they hoped to give. By the end of the all-night session, Aimee was chosen to give the speech.
When Aimee arrived at the venue the next day, she was told that due to limited time, the introduction was a no-go. Undaunted, Aimee was waiting when the 44-year-old Senator from Tennessee arrived at the venue. She introduced herself with speech in hand to ask for five minutes to speak and introduce him. Al Gore thought about it long and hard, and then — amazingly — said yes.
Gore took the stage, thanked the audience, and let them know that he was going to let a group of young Americans speak before him. He wasn’t sure exactly what they were going to say, but they were passionate about it.
Aimee and the group of U.S. youth took the stage and proceeded to give their speech to an audience of 600. They were interrupted frequently — not by critical adults, but by loud applause — and finished to a standing ovation.
The Law of the Few
This past Saturday night things came full circle — nearly 15 years later, Aimee again gave an inspirational talk to introduce Mr. Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth at the 17th Annual Conference of the National Association of Environmental Law Societies (NAELS) at George Washington University Law School.
In the past decade and a half, Aimee has built on her revolutionary beginnings to make a big impact in the public, private, and governmental sectors — most recently as the new “Climate Maven” at Google.org. Apparently, her boss called her that one day and they went with it.
The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, describes Mavens as the information specialists, one of three key ingredients — along with Salespeople and Connectors — in helping social epidemics reach a critical tipping point.
Gladwell calls this his Law of the Few, as in there are a select few who really move society to the tipping point. To understand Gladwell’s concepts and these three types in my own language, I have chosen mental representatives.
In my mind, the Maven is a smarter Cliff Claven — not just in possession of knowledge, but excited by the data and eager to share what they know. And that is an accurate description of Aimee. Every time I meet with her to talk about new ways to address the climate crisis, I come away with pages of notes and several hours of online research.
But to call Aimee a Maven is to sell her short. She is also a Connector.
According to Gladwell, the Connecter is a special type of person with a knack for bringing the world together. The Connecters are the Laurie Davids of any group. And that is also Aimee. With most of my colleagues, there is usually an exchange of contacts, as we share our social data in a somewhat open-source network. But when I talk with Aimee, it is all take and no give on my part.
Last April, the head of the NAELS Board held a small dinner and reception for Nobel prize winner Wangari Maathai in conjunction with the 2nd California Campus Climate Neutral Summit. I was lucky enough to get an invitation to attend both events, and thought this was finally my chance to pay Aimee back for all of her support.
“You should come down to Santa Barbara,” I wrote her. “We are putting together a fantastic event and would love to have you speak. If you need an incentive, you could meet an inspirational Nobel winner!” “Thanks,” she responded. “Your event looks fantastic and I hope to make it. As for Wangari, I’ll be seeing her up here on the Google campus next week.” Foiled again!
But perhaps the most applicable title for Aimee is Salesperson, someone with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing.
I have always thought of the Salesperson as the Lee Iacocca of the group — somehow able, as a new CEO, to sell Congress on supporting a flagging Chrysler company in 1979 with a $1.5 billion loan guarantee, just as they had supported airline and railroad bail-outs in the past.
Aimee’s salesperson personality hit home last week. Although I have considered becoming both a vegetarian and vegan several times, and even had a short stint as a vegetarian (to impress a girl) in high school and college, I have not been basing my food orders these days on those principles.
Enter Aimee this past week. During our first meal together at a Vietnamese restaurant in Georgetown, Aimee gently but firmly convinced me to reconsider the carbon impact of the food I eat, and urged me to order lower on the food chain. At Bertucci’s Saturday night I got the minestrone and salad.
The Law of the One
So, with all due respect to Gladwell and his Law of the Few, it is time to recognize the Law of One. As it turns out, Aimee is the Tipping Point.
As a first-year law student at Stanford in 1999, before climate change was on most of the world’s radar, she ran a successful campaign to get the school to commit to a responsible climate investment policy.
As a founding Governing Board member of the National Association of Environmental Law Societies (NAELS), Aimee brought in some heavy hitting speakers to a Seachange Conference at Stanford Law School in Palo Alto and recruited more for the initial NAELS board.
As a driving force behind Environment2004, Aimee connected the environment and climate change with voters’ values and concerns several years before most others did.
As the founder and director of Christensen Global Strategies, Aimee created something our of nothing, connecting to top level clients and helping to solve some of the country’s most advanced environmental problems.
And now, at Google.org, Aimee will see the world’s top projects come across her desk. She will see the seeds of projects from the next generation of Edisons and Einsteins. And I have no doubt she will play a central role in giving the best and brightest projects and young entrepreneurs the support and funding they need to change the world.
Creating a 10-90 Googol of Aimee’s
And the difficult but obvious task for Google, the country, and the globe is how to mass produce Aimee Christensens — and the other tipping points like her out there — and send them out to learn, teach, and connect people, while persuading them and helping them change their lives.
And through one tipping point that moves 10,000,000,000 people, or 1,000 tipping points that move 10,000,000 people each, or 10,000,000,000 individual tipping points, we must figure out how to sustainably support 10 billion people on this planet by the end of the next half century and beyond.
So good luck to Aimee, Google.org, and all of us! And I will close with words from Aimee herself, delivered this past Saturday night, fifteen years after her bold introduction of Al Gore half a world away:
“Global Warming is the first most clear impact of our unsustainable path to date, and the good news is that with our climate system, as well as on other ecosystems, reducing our impact on nature will also create many co-benefits like better health, better jobs, greater income (from sustainable livelihoods), and improved quality of life.”
A recent report by the Global Footprint Network and World Wildlife Fund found we are consuming the planet’s resources 25 percent faster than the earth can renew them, a rate unprecedented in human history. To keep it up, ‘we’ll need two planet’s worth of natural resources by mid-century.'”
I see our planetary degradation as an opportunity for us — we can make the world a better place, we can come together to fight against the common challenge to which no one is immune.
This is the chance for all of us to be activists, all of us to be advocates. Those of you who are law students have incredible opportunities to make a difference right now — and you will have many opportunities coming your way as attorneys. As law students you can join with Campus Climate Neutral, bringing together business and engineering students and show your universities and communities how to go carbon neutral and save money. You can lobby for investment responsibility policies to minimize the extent to which your university’s endowment is financing further global warming. And you can engage our political leaders at the local, state, and federal levels.
To all of us, it’s time for more.
Don’t be afraid to be an advocate.