ECC Profiles: David Noble, Founder and Principal of 2degreesC
Saving the world is all about our shared values, according to David Noble. The trick is finding ways to make these values real. You’ll be lucky to catch the Fredericton, NB native at his home in Guelph, ON. The reason is that saving the world means spending a lot of time visiting and working in different parts of it.
Stephane Dion and David NobleCredit: Robert vanWaarden
If there’s anybody who understands the global scope of the climate change phenomenon, it’s David Noble. Since founding 2degreesC in 2003, the 31-year old Noble has led its evolution from a solo operation exclusively in Canada to a networked practice with partners and activities all around the world. He has provided leadership and accountability for more than 50 projects that have spanned the public, private and youth sectors, academia, and various professional sectors. He takes his company name from the “magic number” for avoiding dangerous climate change. (An increase in global mean temperature of 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels will increase the likelihood of irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.) The entrepreneur and activist, who trained with Al Gore and is a presenter with the Climate Project, has been a keynote and featured presenter to diverse audiences in 10 countries in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. In total, he has worked in nearly 20 countries on six continents.
Some of those places are a little outside of where people usually travel, too. In late 2008, Noble joined a crew of artists, scientists, designers, and innovators on the Cape Farewell art and science expedition to West Greenland. He followed this up with a voyage to West Antarctica in the spring of 2009, joining a mix of energy giants, business executives, and a group of 50 young learners on the Inspire Antarctic Expedition.
Clearly, this is a guy who has a different perspective on things.
This perspective is evident in speaking with Noble, who conveys an infectious passion and energy. He is a “believer” in his cause, but is also realistic and pragmatic. One of the remarkable things about Noble is his capacity to comprehend and communicate the difficulties of how the people understand climate change – how it affects them, and what they can do about it.
ECC’s Alex Willis spoke with David Noble in late September, 2009.
Alex Willis: Your organization has clearly grown beyond an Ontario or Canadian area of operation. Given the global scope of your business and your networks, travel seems to be an inevitable activity for you. What are the challenges to always being out on the road?
David Noble: I have no life! [laughs] Seriously, though, the reality is that I spend approximately half of my time outside of Canada. I think for two years in a row now I’ve spent between five and seven months a year outside of Canada. You know, traveling as far as I do, and then traveling back. I started to have two very separate lives. I’d have my “away life,” which was awesome – all these exciting experiences, all these exciting people, and doing all these exciting things, and it all seemed very worthwhile – but it was high energy work and it took insane amounts of my time. I’d be on the road for two weeks, three weeks, or a month, and I’d get home, unpack my bags, catch my breath, and before you knew it, I'd pack my bags and take off again.
AW: It seems to be a common delusion that anyone working in climate change has to be an altruistic hippie type. But you’re running a successful small business with a lot of buzz. Do you ever encounter any misconceptions around doing eco-agenda-driven business?
DN: Well, I am certainly mission-driven, and I think there is an altruism that is implicit in that. One of my great inspiriations often quotes the biblical passagee "From those to whom much is given, much is expected." That is a powerful philosophy that I strongly believe in. I have had every opportunity in life. A second chance at it post a serious car accident when I was five, supportive and loving family environment, a great education, caring friends and mentors, and all sorts of other things. With all this opportunity, I feel a great responsibility. How can I possibly not put that to worthwhile use?
AW: But do you ever encounter people who are surprised that you’re running a business based on these things?
DN: I sure have. I hear a couple of responses. The first would be, “Well that’s all well and good, but at the end of the day you still need to make money, right?” So there’s an adherence to the idea that the thing that drives all of us is money, and that there’s something strange in my type of business having a bottom line. And there’s a flipside to those responses. Some people wonder if the mission is somehow less sincere because I'm not a martyr for it. Both of these instances I find quite draining, frankly.
The truth is, I do what I do, and I’m trying not to go hungry doing it. So far, it’s been great.
AW: A year ago this October, you were in Greenland, as part of the Cape Farewell Disko Bay expedition. And in March and April of this year you were visiting the Antarctic with Robert Swan’s Expedition Antarctic 2009. Describe your experiences on these journeys.
DN: I was incredibly humbled to be in the company of the people on the Cape Farewell expedition. In particular, the amazing crew of artists, like Feist and Martha Wainwright and Vanessa Carlton, musicians of that calibre, and a whole group of other artists. These are people who are very good at what they do. It was an incredibly creative group.
A couple of things stood out. The first was being in the company of people who were so good at what they did. That was very inspiring. The bar was very clearly set very high, in order for me to perform at what I do as intelligently and as well as those guys. The second thing was the way they applied their work to communicating climate change – finding symbols and stories and metaphors, etc – to help us understand the climate change issue in ways that resonate with us and move us to act. So this is an issue that scientists can contribute to, that policymakers can contribute to, or that energy businesses – or any businesses, for that matter – can contribute to. It was a powerful illustration of the completely new perspectives that are still possible on this topic.
“This is a ‘Forever Play,’ featuring David Noble and an actor from the Cape Farewell expedition. They took turns carrying each other long distances, between a glacier on the one side and the ocean on the other. The dominant idea is that they’d been walking forever and had forever to go, and that the only way they would ever get there was to carry each other.” Credit: nathangallagher.com / Cape Farewell
AW: Working with that idea of new perspectives, it seems that youth efforts are an important part of your philosophy. You’ve launched or participated in the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change (2006), the International Conference of Youth (2007), the Asian Youth Climate Summit (2008), and the International Climate Champions (2009). Why is this work so crucial to your mission?
DN: I think that young people are very much exploring and forming their identity, their understanding, and how they’re going to live for the rest of their lives. So there’s a unique opportunity to identify collective responses to climate change by working with young people. There’s no other group more likely to reject the “familiar” and seek alternatives on the topic. So they’re a natural audience for exploring alternatives.
We urgently have to respond to climate change. This is a pressing issue right now. But we also have to maintain and sustain that response, over the course of our lives – in other words, to achieve a fundamentally different way of living. Young people have the greatest capacity to contribute to this sustained shift – they’re going to be around the longest. Over the next 50-60 years, the roads they take and the identities they form, are going to contribute a lot more than people who are approaching their final years. They’re essential in how we’re going to fight this battle.
AW: “Changing minds” seems to be a core part of your philosophy. On that topic, you were a contributor to and co-editor of the book Stepping Up to the Climate Change Challenge: Perspectives on Local Government Leadership, Policy and Practice, which was distributed to nearly 4,000 mayors and municipalities across Canada. Do you find it difficult convincing people, particularly at the municipal level, of the global context of local environmental efforts?
DN: Absolutely. Local politicians and local governments are under extraordinary pressure. The fact of the matter is, these global issues are a lot to wrap our heads around. So you have the dual problem of understanding the problem in the first place, and then deciding what the heck you’re going to do about it! It’s even more difficult when you have a bazillion things on your plate already.
There’s another factor at play in the “local” issue. It’s the perspective that, “Our federal government isn’t doing it – why should we?” or, “The guys down the road at the next municipality aren’t doing it – so why should we?” These responses are remarkably similar to the challenges we face as individuals in the midst of the climate crisis.
AW: Recently, you wrote that “the climate change ‘problem’ has been equivocated to being an energy problem, a policy problem, a technology problem or some combination of those. Framed as such, naturally, we looked for energy solutions, policy solutions and technology solutions. However, fundamentally, the issue is how we all live, collectively, on the planet. And that is our culture.” Describe, in your words, this “culture” issue, and how you plan to go about addressing it.
DN: Fundamentally, there’s nearly seven billion of us living on the planet, and the way it is that we’re living is too much for the planet to sustain us. Our culture is how we live -- it is the manifestation of all the influences on ways of living. It’s policy, and technology, but also fundamental issues such as our values. How do we actually translate our values into our practices? What is it that we’re striving for, really?
My sense is that our values are relatively more shared, and we do in fact value the things that are important: clean air, clean water, and all the things that make life possible on the planet. We value a sustainable climate, even though we don’t express it that way. But collectively, and I think this is quite clear in the polls, that the average person understands climate change to be a bad thing. So we have a shared valuation.
But we don't always behave in ways consistent with our believes and values. We don’t practice our living to fit in with what we value, what we believe. So there’s a sense of schizophrenia between what it is that we believe, and how it is that we behave.
AW: Is this then a question of scientific or environmental literacy?
DN: Absolutely. Others have written about this before me. Scientists have done a fantastic job producing knowledge. But there’s a huge question in the scientific community these days about what scientists are to do after that knowledge has been released, and taken up. In many ways, the climate change issue has been a very strong catalyst for the community to say, “in fact, science has a huge responsibility.” Given the frightening picture that’s emerging, it’s increasingly obvious that they have an ethical responsibility in taking positions.
AW: It also seems to be increasingly a moral phenomenon.
DN: Two years ago, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is the largest general scientific body in the world, passed a position statement on climate change that concluded to the effect of a need for leadership on the issue, and how we owe this to the next generation. This is obviously quite different than what the scientific community normally offers. This is a political position, and a clear entrance into the realm of decision-making. So it’s a group of scientists saying they’re not stopping at merely being producers of knowledge, but deciding to be active participants in putting that knowledge to good use. They’re saying there’s no ethical or moral basis in which we can justify not putting it to good use. I think that’s a pretty profound move.
AW: One of your earliest projects was a successful funding application, designed to test the capacity of Atlantic Canadian emergency health systems in response to extreme storm events. Are you still involved with any other Atlantic Canadian projects?
DN: The 2 degrees tour is taking us through Atlantic Canada. In organizing this tour I’ve been on the phone a lot with people from Atlantic Canada, and it’s great to experience that warmth and collegial feeling again. On the tour, we’re hoping to engage two kinds of audiences: young people and the general public. We’re trying to engage these in an emotional way, to really evoke in them an emotional response. It’s also to raise basic awareness, and a cognitive response, and fuse that with the emotional one. We want to inspire a higher level of commitment and enthusiasm from people.
AW: Thanks for your responses, David.
DN: It was a pleasure.
Visit 2degresstour.com for more updates on the Atlantic Canadian leg of David's tour taking place through November 2009.