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Photograph courtesy of Sailesh Rao
Nominated by the 100 People Foundation
Climate Healers Fun Facts
Sailesh Krishna Rao, Ph.D.
Sailesh Rao has come up with an idea that we think could change the world. 2 billion people in the world rely on wood to fuel their cooking needs, which has been a significant contributor to deforestation and, by extension, climate change.
What if people could find a different way to cook? Everyone has access to the sun, which is an abundant and plentiful energy source. Sailesh and his organization Climate Healers distribute solar cookers to families in remote villages in India, at no cost to the recipients. As an incentive to transition away from using wood, the families are also given a cell phone, and are rewarded with free talk time the more they use the solar cooker.
This project has already proved to be enormously successful. It only takes about 4 years for a forest to regenerate once it is left alone. Their goal is to reforest one sixth of the earth's ice-free land area so that world CO2 emissions turn negative.
An interview with Sailesh Rao:
100 People: Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
Sailesh: I grew up in the city of Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu on the East Coast of India. My father was a Librarian at the British Council Library in Chennai and he made sure that I had steady access to books from the library as I grew up. I have three brothers and a sister and I was the middle child.
We lived in various apartments in the city as I grew up, but I always seemed to have a place to play cricket in the evenings. Cricket is a game similar to baseball and it is very popular in India. I also loved to read books, especially novels and short stories by P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham and others. They were mostly British authors due to my father's affiliation with the British Council.
Every summer, my parents used to send us children to Mangalore to be with our grandparents. Both sets of grandparents were rice farmers and they lived about 20 miles apart from each other. Mangalore is in the Western Ghats of India at the edge of a tropical rain forest, which is now designated as a U.N. Biodiversity hotspot. I loved playing with my cousins, walking through the woods and the rice fields, listening to the birds and the insects, picking berries and fruits and eating them.
100 People: What kind of school did you attend as a child?
Sailesh: I attended a Montessori school until my 5th grade and a public school for my 6th through 11th grades. The elementary school was called the Bhuvaneswari Montessori School and it was basically one large room split into classrooms with thin wooden screens. The children used to sit on long wooden benches and write on long wooden desks. If you climbed on the desk, you could look over the screens and see the other classes. We could hear the lessons from the neighboring classes, but we had to block that out in order to hear our teacher. If another class became rowdy and made a lot of noise, it would become difficult to concentrate, but we had a strict principal who could control the rowdy class well.
I attended Hindu High School for my 6th through 11th grades. It was a very large, well-reputed school which had been started by the British when they ruled India. There were 12 sections in each grade and each section had about 50 students. In 3 of those sections, the kids were taught in English and in the other 9 sections, the kids were taught in Tamil. I was in an English medium section throughout, but I studied Tamil as a second language and spoke Kannada at home. Therefore, I became fluent in three languages as I grew up.
After graduating from high school, I got my Electrical Engineering degree from the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai and then came to the U.S. for my graduate studies.
100 People: Was there a turning point at which you decided to focus on the problem of global warming?
Sailesh: One day, in December 2005, I came home from work and turned on LinkTV on our satellite dish and watched Vice President Al Gore standing before a screen talking about global warming. He was making his slide show presentation before a small audience in San Francisco and LinkTV had taken a video of it and was broadcasting it. I was so shocked by what he was saying that I decided to study the literature and try to find out if he was right. After about a month, I came to the conclusion that the problem was worse than what Mr. Gore had portrayed because his slide show material was a little old. At that point, I decided to stop working at my job and focus on the problem of global warming full time.
I wrote to Mr. Gore immediately asking how I could be of help to solve this problem and he invited me to come to Nashville and get trained to give his slide show to my friends and neighbors in New Jersey. I got trained in December of 2006, and gave the slide show about 15 times in the next year. In 2007, my wife and I moved to California to take care of my sick mother-in-law and I decided to start a non-profit called Climate Healers in order to work on solving the problem instead of just talking about it.
100 People: How does a solar cooker work and why is it part of the solution?
Sailesh: A solar cooker works by collecting the solar energy falling over a small area and concentrating it at its center. On a sunny day, in most parts of the world, the solar energy falling on a 5ft by 5ft area exceeds the energy that is delivered in a typical gas stove at its highest setting. If we can collect all that energy and concentrate it on one spot, then we can create the cooking capacity of a gas stove without burning any fuel.
Climate Change is caused mainly by humans burning fuels for energy. In affluent communities, we burn fuels like coal, oil and gas for our energy needs. In poor communities, people burn wood, cow dung and crop residues, mainly for their cooking needs. Both communities can help solve climate change if they stop burning fuel and tap into solar energy for their needs.
100 People: Why did you choose October 24th as the date to deploy the solar cookers and what is 350.org?
Sailesh: On October 24, people from all over the world are planning to take action to raise awareness of climate change issues. There are well over 1200 events registered to take place on 350.org and many more are getting registered every day. The intention of the Oct. 24 event is to raise pressure on world leaders to come to an agreement and take action on climate change during the December Conference of the Parties-15 (COP-15) meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark.
350.org is an organization created to highlight the fact that 350 parts per million (PPM) is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to a number of leading scientists. In 2009, the carbon dioxide levels reached a peak of 391ppm. Coincidentally, there are 391 households in the two villages in which we are deploying the solar cookers, Karech in Rajasthan, and Hadagori in Orissa, both in India. We are raising funds from 350 individuals and organizations to support these 391 households thus tying the two significant numbers together.
You can see our action web site at http://350.org/ClimateHealers
100 People: How can students get involved in your project and what small steps can they take in their local communities and schools to reduce carbon emissions?
Sailesh: Students can form a campus club dedicated to supporting Climate Healers and participate in nationwide contests to help fund raise and increase excitement about Climate Healers.
Students can make change happen by showing their schools and communities that they want change. Carbon emissions are about the impact we have on the planet and there are lots of things that you can do to reduce that impact. The simplest and most important thing you can do to reduce your impact on the planet is to eat more fruits, vegetables and grains and less animal products. Start a group to help the school recycle more of its trash, or even start a composting program on campus for all the extra lunch food. Talk to your teachers and principal about using better toilets and faucets in school bathrooms, and make sure that your school is using compact fluorescent light bulbs (the twisty ones) rather than the old kind. Get some of your friends together that live in the same area and tell your parents you'd like to carpool - I'm sure they'd love to hear that. Ride your bike to go meet up with your friends, and at the end of each month, have all your friends get together and buy an ice cream for the one friend that biked the most. You can even help out with Climate Healers. Tell the adults you know about it and why you think it's a really good idea - they'll listen to you. And if you can bake up some brownies, there are lots of great charities out there - besides Climate Healers - that would love any money you could raise by a bake sale. Use your imagination, because there's so much that you can do.
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