Social Entrepreneurs Show Climate Change Prevention Does Not Have to Compromise Growth

At the end of 2012, the east coast was hit by the disaster of Hurricane Sandy. Billions of dollars barely supported recovery efforts as the federal government and charities continue to raise funds.

Scientists cannot definitively link the recent extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy to human activities, but uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions can increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Hurricane Sandy is a potential glimpse into our climate future without preventative efforts. The most vulnerable populations to climate change impacts are the most economically and socially disenfranchised. In countries without resources for disaster recovery, famine, property and crop destruction, and drought will create a population of climate refugees seeking asylum from environmental disasters.

The global community, through the United Nations, aims to mitigate and adapt to these impacts. Countries have agreed to develop a legally binding climate change treaty by 2015, and enforcement in 2020. Ideally, a Green Climate Fund (GCF), with investments from wealthier nations and private donations, will support mitigation and adaptation projects in developing nations. Just last month, negotiators continued discussions on the treaty and the GCF in Doha, Qatar. While international, top-down funds are necessary for handling global problems like climate change, the fund faces issues on increasing pledges (to $100 billion by 2020), and follow-through on those commitments.

In the meantime, Ashoka Fellows are innovating at an on-the-ground level to reduce environmental impact by engaging their communities. Under a framework of sustainable development, Ashoka Fellows are creating comprehensive initiatives to handle not only environmental impact, but also the needs of their communities. Climate change prevention is often portrayed as a choice between economic development and environmental protection. These social entrepreneurs provide innovative solutions that integrate both, respecting the environment’s resources that build our society.

As they tackle environmental challenges, Ashoka Fellows engage immigrant and refugee populations, or seek to repair environmental damage from rural migration. Daniel Ross, along with Puerto Rican migrant farmers in Massachusetts, founded Nuestras Raices (“Our Roots”) to grow fresh produce for participating families. Today, Nuestras Raices maintains a 30-acre urban farm and 10 community gardens throughout Holyoke, Massachusetts. The farms provide an avenue for economic development through small loans for new farmers and space for small business ventures, and an apprenticeship program offers opportunities for inner-city youth to gain job training, and education on food systems and environmental impact.

In Brazil, Lilian Silva aimed to fight youth poverty while rehabilitating environmental conditions in the northeastern region. She founded Acreditar, a youth-run microfinance organization. Young entrepreneurs can apply for loans by presenting business plans that focus on low-environmental impact agriculture rather than sugar cane monocultures. The organization has supported over 600 small businesses in seven cities.

In Thailand, Poonsap Suanmuang,, works with women in rural communities to create economic opportunities and prevent forest destruction. Through Appropriate Technology Association, Poonsap trains weavers to recognize and catalogue plants and trees that produce natural dyes. The women use these forest resources in an ecologically sustainable way to create naturally dyed, cloth-woven products. They then market their own products and develop relationships with customers. This process also protects human health, as chemical dyes can cause burns when handled by workers, and create environmental pollution when dumped into rivers and lakes. Over 500 people in more than 20 villages work with Poonsap, providing women with additional income rather than relying only on remittances from relatives in urban areas.

These social entrepreneurs empower communities and individuals to address environmental degradation and strengthen their local economies. Climate change is a multifaceted and complex problem, but Fellows’ on-the-ground projects provide inspiration with effective change.