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Mar 8, 2013

Waves of Change

 

One staffer on his personal motivations behind the work we do at RMI.

One recent evening, driving home after having dinner at a friend’s house—at which we discussed our day jobs and our respective work weeks—my wife, Kelli, turned to me and told me how proud she was of the meaningful work I do at RMI. She’s right; it is meaningful work. My time at RMI is about more than a paycheck; there’s a personal gratification that comes with doing good in the world, about being personally driven by a motivation that goes beyond the financial. But when I think about why I’m so drawn to this work, I find there’s no single driving force behind it.

I’m the father of two young daughters, currently ages 4 and 2.5, and like many parents, I care about the world I’m leaving to them … economically, environmentally, socially.

As an avid mountaineer, I’ve seen the high alpine environments I love so much impacted by global warming—mountains and climbing routes rendered unsafe by rock and ice fall, glaciers shrinking at alarming rates (such as in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real, where my wife and I climbed in 2007), the way Colorado’s marmots and pikas are being forced up into isolated islands in the sky, as warming has pushed them to higher elevations in the Rocky Mountains in search of cooler climes.

There’s an undeniable economic thread as well. I grew up not at the poverty line, but closer to it than our single-parent household would have liked. Money was tight, though I didn’t appreciate this until much later. If the work I do at RMI can help families like the one in which I grew up—by easing their burden at the fuel pump through drastic improvements in fuel efficiency and vehicle electrification that foregoes the pump entirely in favor of cheaper electricity and more efficient electrified powertrains; through reducing the cost of the utility bills they pay to stay warm in winter through better home energy efficiency, such as via portfolio-scale retrofits in our nation’s affordable housing stock—I will have measurably and positively impacted people’s lives.

But above all, I feel compelled to point to recent Superstorm Sandy.

As a native of New York’s Long Island, I grew up within a bicycle ride of the Atlantic Ocean on the island’s south shore. I spent my days surfing, fishing, boating, swimming, playing in the sand at the beach, watching the shore birds and sea life. In my three and a half decades on the earth, it’s an environment I’ve come to know intimately.

I’ve seen it weather hurricanes before—Gloria in the 1980s comes immediately to mind. And I was in New York when Sandy hit.

In fact, two days before Sandy made landfall, I surfed the building waves that signaled the impending arrival of the storm. In the short hour and a half between when I went in the water and when I got out, the ocean had risen from the tops of the wooden docks to in the parking lot where I left my car. The water was rising fast, even days before the storm. This was going to be bad, and as we all now know, it was.

Though Sandy ultimately made landfall along the Jersey coastline, the storm packed a special punch for Long Island’s exposed coastal areas. There was the storm surge, and the prevailing winds pushing that surge into the south-facing beaches, and the high tide that coincided with the storm’s arrival, and the full moon that exacerbated it all. Journalists sometimes write about a perfect storm; this was it.

The story of Sandy’s landfall is familiar to many—the physical devastation, the millions without power, the fuel shortages at gas stations, the lives altered.

My family escaped the coastal flooding that devastated so many; some of my friends weren’t so lucky. But my family was without power … for a long time. My childhood home—where my mother still lives—was dark for 12 days. Others on the island were out for many weeks. People fought in long lines at gas stations, everyone in a frenzy to fill their gas-guzzling cars.

Then, two weeks after Sandy, I started as RMI’s new editorial director in Colorado.

Fast forward to Christmas 2012. I was back in New York to be with family for the holidays, and once again I returned to my beloved beach, both to surf the winter waves and to see first-hand the devastation I knew Sandy left in her wake.

Over the years I’ve learned well how Long Island’s beaches are a changeable and ever-changing landscape. The south shore is lined with narrow strips of sandy barrier beaches that separate the island’s mainland and bays from the open ocean. Winter Nor’easters have breached those beaches before. From one season to the next, you see the beach subtly—and sometimes, obviously—change character. The sand bar that marks the eastern edge of Fire Island Inlet grows and shrinks, for example, never a constant.

But I’ve never seen the beach change like it did with Sandy.

The beautiful dunes and their sand and grasses were simply gone in places. The beach was a small remnant of its former self. The eastbound lanes of Ocean Parkway closed, damaged by the waves and requiring repair.

As I sat bobbing in the water, waiting for the next set of waves, the experience was familiar. The ocean was still the ocean. The barrier beaches, though deeply altered, were still there. I still paddled around, floating on my surfboard and riding the waves. Yet, Sandy had fundamentally changed things. And on a personal level, she gave my work at RMI a defining focus.

I now also see my work at RMI as a solution to both the cause of a problem and the outfall from that problem. RMI’s work in energy—with its focus on climate-friendly energy efficiency and renewables—is a form of mitigation for climate change. But RMI’s work in energy is also a way to make our infrastructure—the electricity grid, our homes and offices—more reliable and resilient, more able to withstand an onslaught like Sandy, and better able to cope with and recover from her effects if they cause a blackout. In other words, my work at RMI may help to prevent a future Sandy, and will help the communities (and others like them) to which I remain connected.

Energy, ever more so in our increasingly technological society, is a common thread that weaves between all—our transportation system, our homes, our electricity system, our telecommunications. It’s hard to think of ways in which RMI’s work doesn’t positively impact things that are important to me. I’m here at RMI because the work we do matters, plain and simple.

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Images courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

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