December Climate Papa of the Month: Jon Isham

t-and-j-at-climate-actionWe are thrilled to introduce you to our Climate Papa of the Month, Jon Isham. Jon and his wife Tracy live in Vermont and are the proud parents of three wonderful girls. In his “spare time” Jon not only trains future and current leaders of the climate change movement, but is a nationally recognized leader himself! In addition, Jon is an environmental economist, an Associate Professor (on academic leave), with the Department of Economics and Program in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and the author of Ignition: What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement. Jon is also one of the founders of, a company which helps individuals manage and mitigate their environmental footprint!

Please join us as Jon shares his insights on the climate change movement as well as his hopefulness in the face of increasingly sobering data. As well, we know you will be moved by Jon’s thoughtful and thought provoking personal narrative, as he shows us how key moments and experiences in our lives can encourage us all to “reach for the stars” and strive to make a difference.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, the steps you took, life events, decisions you made, that helped you arrive at where you are at today?

I was always sure, in some way, I would end up teaching. This was always a vision for me. In a related fashion, I was also sure that, in a broad sense, I would try to lead a life of service.

I grew up in suburban Connecticut, in a school that was shaped by the societal changes of the 1960s and 1970s. As a nine-year-old, I was one of the 20 million Americans who participated in the first Earth Day. In eighth grade, under two visionary teachers, I studied society in a very contemporary way: we read pieces from Dr King, learned about cultures in the developing world, researched the modern prison system, and were generally made aware that society’s ills were great and that we had to be part of the process of finding solutions.

I ended up at Harvard and then was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin, helping to design and build cook-stoves that could reduce fuel-wood consumption. After a stint in Oakland for the East Bay Conservation Corps – early leaders in what we now call ‘the Green Jobs’ movement – I ended up living in Washington, DC, where I began by getting an MA in international studies and then consulting for the World Bank.

In terms of ending up in Vermont, at Middlebury College, the key decision was made while walking to work one morning in December 1992, in downtown Washington. I had already been accepted to Ph.D. programs in economics, but I had put off my decision to go. That morning, seemingly out of nowhere, I said to myself, ‘Do it!’ So several months later, I left my job at the World Bank for the long, hard slog of being a graduate student.

It matters that at the same time, I had started to date Tracy Himmel: the two of us were to be engaged 15 months later, and married in the summer of 1995. All told, I think it was her new presence in my life, on that December morning, that allowed me to take a leap and commit to the risky pursuit of a Ph.D. Indeed, the central message of my life’s narrative is that everything changes when you find a partner whom you love, building on the love from your own family that nurtured your growth.

Somewhere along the line, while getting my Ph.D at the University of Maryland, I guess I became an environmental economist! It was thanks to that credential, and my life experience to date, that I was offered a faculty position at Middlebury in 1999. Tracy and I have been here ever since.

What inspires you to keep going, to keep fighting this challenging battle against climate change?

It’s immensely meaningful and satisfying, … which is of course a paradox. The specter of runaway climate change­—alas a very real prospect these days—would at first glance suggest that one should act out of fear. I am frightened of what may come, but like so many leaders of the climate movement with whom I have had the honor to work over the last several years, I do this because it’s very gratifying. I love the opportunity to be part of something much bigger than myself, to try to steer, in my own humble way, the process of social change in real time.

And since I am so lucky to be a college professor, I get to do all this from the classroom. I am surrounded by amazing young people whom I watch as they learn, grow, and quickly become leaders—in many cases on national and global scales, as with the founders of Step It Up and—I can’t help but think of John Lewis, Diane Nash and the other college students who, in the late 1950s, acted on their vision of a better world to become the fiercely-dedicated leaders of the civil-rights movement.

What are the three greatest challenges you feel the world faces with climate change?

1. As of late 2009, I believe we are meeting the first: changing the rules of the game, locally, nationally, regionally and globally, to make carbon-based sources of energy relatively more expensive compared to clean-energy sources. This has been, to put it mildly, a long hard slog. But as I write this in October 2009, there are good signs that we will have, soon, a serious climate bill out of Washington DC and a positive outcome at the December climate negotiations in Copenhagen. And even if those don’t fulfill expectations in the next few months, the global public groundswell is unstoppable: thanks to current and emerging new laws and treaties, we have begun the process of slowly moving away from coal, oil and even natural gas. It will take time, but we have begun.

2. The next great challenge, for many environmentalists in particular, is to embrace technology. While it is obvious that technology has its dark side-through one lens, that’s why we ended up in this mess!-improved technology is the engine that has driven modern human history, and we are all much better for it, in a way that would have been unimaginable to, say, our great-great grandparents. Thanks to medical, energy and communications technology, among others, most of the world leads much longer lives than their forefathers and mothers, with a fraction of the deaths in childbirth and suffering from the most painful, brutal diseases. We have attained an astounding level of knowledge about how the world works, and can share most of that knowledge at the push of a computer or cell-phone button with most of the rest of the world, instantaneously! Economic growth-which at its heart, is about technological advances-has enabled much of the world to live in safe shelters and to pursue fulfilling lives. Technology has not eliminated poverty—it never will—but overall, it has transformed the human condition for the better, big time.

I write all of this then to make this case: that technology will surely be the engine for building a new low-carbon global economy. This prospect should be comforting: new modes of energy production, of carbon capture (Sir Richard Branson is right, we need to invent new, low-cost ways to take carbon dioxide out of the air), of energy efficiency will transform the human condition once more. Environmentalists, in my opinion, should be become the biggest pro-technology people out there.

3. Finally, and in a way that may seem contradictory to my previous point, humanity need a new organizing principal, because not only does economic growth in its current form have such a downside-we economists call them negative externalities-it gets too much emphasis as a measure of how we are doing, of what brings meaning to life. This is hardly a new observation from me: for at least two decades, there have been calls for alternatives to GDP. But some of my work at Middlebury now is trying to dig deeper. I am developing the idea of ‘aspirationalism,’ whose central tenet is that a person’s set of aspirations critically shapes their identity and their social relations. More on this to come

Do you see any hopeful signs that people are waking up to the dangers of climate change?

Of course. Recent polls from ABC/Washington Post, Zogby, and the Center for American Progress, for example, all suggest that here in the US, people are ready for climate legislation. And look at what happened on October 24th ; over 5200 events on climate change around the world—in over 181 countries!—together pushing for the strongest possible societal changes. The climate groundswell has produced a tsunami!

What advice would you give to other Climate Mama’s and Papa’s, steps they can take as individuals and collectively to help change the course we currently find ourselves on with climate change.

As my co-author and I write in the first chapter of Ignition: What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement, engage your family members friends and neighbors about the challenges we face; organize and join – or if necessary, create – networks for change; push your elected officials to change the rules; and make a commitment to helping, in the words of Thomas Paine, to ‘begin the world all over again.’

Other thoughts or ideas that you would like to pass on to our community?

Become a member of (a company I co-founded with two former students), which will help you to manage and mitigate your environmental footprint!

Contact information or website you would like us to list with the article?

jisham at

Favorite book or movie?

Whatever I am reading at the moment; The Great Escape

This entry was posted in Climate Mamas & Papas. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *