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Climate Change Superheroes: Divesting Coal in India, and Saving Forests

05/07/2014 07:50 pm ET | Updated Jul 07, 2014

The recent 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony had its share of celebrities that night. Robert Kennedy Jr. exuded a fiery eloquence worthy of his family's political forebears as he equated large scale environmental destruction to the large scale subversion of democracy.

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Soledad O'Brien hosted the Goldman 2014 Awards ceremony; Robert Kennedy Jr gave an inspiring speech there. Source: Goldman Environmental Prize Foundation (GEP).

Soledad O'Brien, our radiant mistress of ceremonies, shared some green gossip with me: her husband is a great fan of solar, and they're looking into putting solar panels on their recently remodeled home. Her children, who really understand that climate change threatens their future, inspire her.

But the brightest celebrities that night were the winners themselves. Especially for those of us continually immersed in writing about the big challenges to humanity's survival, it was incredibly inspirational to hear stories of success, and the human beings behind them.

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The 2014 Goldman Prize winners. Source: GEP

These heroes are just like you and me. But in each one of them, a point was reached where they decided they were going to make a difference, to right an injustice. They persevered and succeeded.

Although the prize focuses on environment and human justice, the work of several of these heroes illuminated two pathways important for solving climate change: stopping the mining of fossil fuels, and preserving our carbon-storing forests.

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Helen Slottje, 2014 Goldman Prize winner. Source: GEP

I wrote recently about the North American winner, Helen Slottje, who forged a legal mechanism enabling nearly 200 New York communities to repel fracking. Her award will help expand aid to other states; the publicity will increase focus on the questionable value of fracking. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," she smiled to me.

Ultimately, "We ALL need to be environmental activists," she noted in her acceptance speech.

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Ramesh Agrawal, 2014 Goldman Prize winner. Source: GEP

Ramesh Agrawal of India had watched large coal and oil businesses invade rural areas, polluting communal resources and destroying natural habitats with little regard for local communities.

What surprised him was the extensive governmental corruption that allowed this, and how little interest anyone showed in stopping it, for coal supplies much of the growing energy demand of India.

As the owner of an internet café, though, he understood the transformative power of information. He educated villagers about the effects of mining on their resources, and informed them of their rights to resist.

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Coal Mining in India: whether above or below ground, it ultimately pollutes vital community resources. Source: Reuters.

Whenever people were informed, the result was pretty universal: no one wanted mining. A major success was stopping a large proposed coal mine. His daily struggle to walk is a poignant testimonial of his success -- he was shot and left for dead by adversaries.

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Coal mining pollutes water vital to farming in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere in India. Wikipedia.

Ramesh remains undaunted, however, and will continue to expand his work. If everyone decides to resist coal mining, he noted, India will be pressured to find cleaner energy alternatives.

"Let us all set aside our personal benefits and work collectively to save the environment," he urged us all.

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A biologist who grew up in Sumatra, Indonesia, Rudi Putra is a slight man of passionate intensity, all of it directed towards saving the Leuser Ecosystem, the only remaining tropical forest shared by the Sumatran elephant, rhinoceros, and tiger -- all rare and endangered animals -- and the increasingly rare orangutan.

The big motivation to stop deforestation, though, notes Rudi, is that it disrupts water supplies, which have become limited all over Indonesia as human populations expand.

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Leuser Ecosystem is a tropical forest that reflects what much of Sumatra's forests once looked like - a haven for Sumatran tigers, elephants, and rhinos, now all endangered. Sources: Groundreport.com, WWF Indonesia, and Bill Konstant/International Rhino Foundation.

On an island where finite resources become ever more precious, unguarded forests are treasure chests for profiteers: mining, logging precious lumber, and using the cleared land for palm oil plantations.

Palm oil is in high demand globally, but it's a land-hungry crop: at least four acres of palms are needed to produce a commercial volume of oil. It requires little maintenance, meaning one can farm furtively, with just weekly visits -- and not pay anything for land use.

Yet this changes the land and water cycle: a forest, functioning like a sponge, is replaced by a monoculture crop requiring water, but unable to store much, or support the rich tapestry of life that once lived there.

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A palm oil plantation scars the forest landscape. Credit: Rhett Butler at Mongabay.com

While a few profit from an oil plantation, many others lose needed water and the moist local climate that a forest provides. From a global perspective, deforestation diminishes the cheapest way to slow global warming, by keeping carbon stored in lush forest vegetation.

More fundamentally, deforestation -- indeed all environmental destruction -- is spiritually corrosive: just as a society is judged by the way it treats its poor, a species can be judged by the way it treats its fellow species, many of which go extinct as we destroy their habitats.

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Not just in Sumatra, but throughout Indonesia, orangutans are dying as their forests are destroyed. Source: National Science Foundation.

Rudi organized teams of locals committed towards preserving the forest, using them to remove illegal palm oil plantations as he convinced legal farmers to stop encroaching on the forest. It amazed him how committed and productive these teams were: even when funding was cut, they continued as volunteers.

The 2014 Goldman prize winners and their teams provide many important services for all of us: ways to slow global warming; maintaining healthy diverse ecosystems that provide good climate and water for many; and finally, heighten the spiritual worth of humanity on this planet. Thanks to all of you!

Want to thank them yourself? You can, here.