As the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris convenes, it’s impossible to underestimate the importance of government policy-level agreements on climate change. The world’s poor communities — whose lives and livelihoods are tied most directly to local natural resources — are already feeling the impact of climate change. They are suffering now from diminished access to energy and clean water, food deprivation, deforestation and other habitat loss, the spread of tropical diseases, and other threats to their health and livelihoods.
Promoting climate resilience by social enterprise blends the sensibilities and goals of social action with the rigor and financing structures of business.
Climate resilience means the ability for a community or region to keep functioning in the face of the negative impacts of climate change, and to adapt to future impacts of climate change by creating more sustainable social, ecological, and economic systems. Climate resilience encompasses areas such as off-grid clean energy, safe drinking water, and sustainable agriculture and forestry.
And here’s a crucial point: Promoting climate resilience among the global poor is not simply some do-good exercise to help us more fortunate world citizens to feel better. We in the developed world are far more sheltered than the poor from the direct impacts of climate change, at least for the time being. Look no further than the current Middle East refugee crisis to get a glimpse of how quickly things can change.
If people are driven from their homes because their crops are flooded or fail from drought — because water sources become too polluted or scarce to drink, or because it’s no longer possible to find enough fuel for cooking, heating, and lighting — what choice do they have than to flee their unlivable homes? And where will they seek food and shelter? Most likely, in areas of the developed world that are habitable and hospitable.
Even without the specter of millions of climate refugees flooding across borders, we of the global north have a moral responsibility to take action on behalf of the poor. As Pope Francis noted in his Laudato Si encyclical, those of us who are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change have accrued an “ecological debt” to the global south, where those least responsible for climate change are suffering the majority of its ill effects.
Social entrepreneurship works
Social entrepreneurship holds special promise for helping to repay our ecological debt. It also provides pathways to address the newly adopted U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, which include taking urgent action to combat climate impacts; protecting, restoring, and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems; sustainably managing forests; combating desertification; halting and reversing land degradation; and halting biodiversity loss.
Companies of particular note include:
1. Solar Sister — Networks of women entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa distribute solar lamps using an Avon-style, direct-sale approach. Both the entrepreneurs and their customers are the women who are the primary users and consumers of household energy.
2. Sistema Biobolsa (sustainable rural development) — Sales of a prefabricated biodigester system to small and medium-scale farmers in Mexico are transforming ubiquitous piles of livestock manure into a renewable, methane-rich biogas for use in cookstoves, as well as into a potent natural fertilizer.
3. PRODECOOP (water) — Innovative water recycling systems are allowing coffee producers in Nicaragua to share water and improve their food security. Before using this system, women and children walked, sometimes for miles, with buckets of water drawn from polluted community wells.
4. Komaza (sustainable rural development) — African dryland farmers, the poorest people on earth, are working out of extreme poverty through innovative forestry: Families plant trees for a dollar that are later sold for $30.
5. Nazava Water Filters (water) — Selling a highly effective low-cost household water filter allows households in 50 areas of Indonesia to filter their own tap, well river, or rain water — to enjoy clean, bacteria-free water using no electricity, and replacing the need to boil or treat water.
6. Empower Generation (energy) — Women entrepreneurs in Nepal are empowered to sell solar technology solutions. This approach builds a clean energy market for Asia’s energy poor, uses market-based approaches to enable the widespread adoption of clean energy solutions in remote areas, and offers sustainable employment to women otherwise vulnerable to slavery.
These real-world examples of social enterprises promise unquestionable progress in generating climate resilience among the world’s poor. As they demonstrate, social entrepreneurship offers creative, life-enhancing, fiscally sound, and environmentally healthy approaches to achieving true climate resilience among the world’s poorest people.
Thane Kreiner is executive director at the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship since 2010. He is also professor of science and technology for social benefit at Santa Clara University. He holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, a Ph.D. in neurosciences from Stanford University School of Medicine, and a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Texas, Austin.
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