Helene Costa was devastated by the October report from international climate scientists that spelled out a dire future for Earth absent dramatic cuts in greenhouse gases. So after taking it all in, she went in search of a happy distraction. She and her husband, Raoul, found one in the more uplifting announcement of the annual Nobel Prizes, which were awarded the same week.
That’s when the proverbial light bulb went off. (LED, not fluorescent, to be sure.)
There’s a growing urgency for the world to take action to reduce the amount of climate-warming gases in our atmosphere, which will require innovation and dramatic, planet-wide shifts in behavior. At the same time, the Nobel Prize shines a light on “achievements that have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.”
The two should really go together, the Seattle couple realized.
“What kind of work can create more benefit to humankind than to reduce and remove the emissions from the atmosphere?” Helene Costa said. “It’s really aligned 100 percent with the [Nobel] mission statement.”
Helene, Raoul and their two small children didn’t have any direct connections with the folks at Sweden’s Nobel Foundation in Stockholm. But Helene was feeling emboldened by the success of her first startup, GarageHop. The Seattle-based business sought to help people find parking, thereby reducing pollution from people circling around searching for parking and by highlighting spots near park-and-ride lots that connect with public transportation (this month GarageHop was acquired by Toronto’s WhereiPark).
She and Raoul, who works on emerging products at Amazon, decided to start an online petition. They’re collecting signatures worldwide to encourage the Nobel Foundation to create a new prize for the fight against climate change.
“I don’t think I would have had the courage or think of doing the petition if I had not had my startup experience,” Helene said. It helped her realize, “if you don’t make a reality what you have in your mind, no one will do it for you.”
The Costas came up with the notion on a Friday, and by Sunday evening launched their petition on Change.org. They’ve collected more than 27,000 signatures and translated it into multiple languages including Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Arabic and French.
Gregg Small, executive director of Climate Solutions, a Washington-based nonprofit, said it was great idea. Climate change can be so overwhelming that people are paralyzed by the scope of the problem. An award like this would highlight successful efforts to address it.
If an award is created, “it will provide hope that there are solutions,” Small said.
In 1895, Alfred Nobel signed a will that funded prizes to be awarded in five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. In 1968, Sweden’s central bank created a sixth prize in economic sciences in Nobel’s memory. After that addition, the Nobel Board decided there would be no additional prizes. But Helene reasons that nothing prevents the board from changing its mind some six decades later.
The Costas propose that a public fund could raise the $1 million given with the award.
“It will provide an opportunity to reshape the conversation around climate change, and make the conversation focus on the actions that we are taking to get to zero emissions,” Helene said. “It would raise additional awareness in an inspirational way.”
The Nobel committee has awarded prizes for people working on climate-related issues. In 2007, it jointly awarded the peace prize to the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for its research on global warming and former Vice President Al Gore for his work in climate education. Last year the organization awarded the economics prize to researchers studying the economics of climate change.
News out this month revealed that Americans increasingly understand that climate change is happening and are personally feeling its effects. On the heels of year that brought disastrous wildfires, hurricanes, flooding and other record-setting extreme weather events, the U.S. survey found that 73 percent of Americans say global warming is happening.
The Costas are trying to get the word out about their effort, and hope to gather 1 million signatures internationally. Helene has worked on other climate endeavors, including as a carbon market officer for the French government and an expert for the French negotiating team at United Nations climate talks, including in Copenhagen.
The IPCC report from October concluded that significant cuts in greenhouse gases are needed over the next 11 years to avoid devastating harm. A report from U.S. agencies released the month after also gave grim warnings and called out the economic threat posed by warming.
“Unlike what people were thinking even 10 years ago, our children will be bearing the consequences of our mess, not the children of our children,” Helene said. “This is a future I don’t want for my children. I don’t have any other alternative, and I have to act and do what I can.”