Op-Ed Columnist


Published: February 14, 2009

New Delhi

So I am attending the Energy and Resources Institute climate conference in
New Delhi, and during the afternoon session two young American women — along
with one of their mothers — proposition me.

“Hey, Mr. Friedman,” they say, “would you like to take a little spin around
New Delhi in our car?”

Oh, I say, I’ve heard that line before. Ah, they say, but you haven’t seen
this car before. It’s a plug-in electric car that is also powered by rooftop
solar panels — and the two young women, recent Yale grads, had just driven
it all over India in a “climate caravan” to highlight the solutions to
global warming being developed by Indian companies, communities, campuses
and innovators, as well as to inspire others to take action.

They ask me if I want to drive, but I have visions of being stopped by the
cops and ending up in a New Delhi jail. Not to worry, they tell me. Indian
cops have been stopping them all across India. First, they ask to see
driver’s licenses, then they inquire about how the green car’s solar roof
manages to provide 10 percent of its mileage — and then they try to buy the

We head off down Panchsheel Marg, one of New Delhi’s main streets. The
ladies want to show me something. The U.S. Embassy and the Chinese Embassy
are both located on Panchsheel, directly across from each other. They asked
me to check out the rooftops of each embassy. What do I notice? Let’s see
… The U.S. Embassy’s roof is loaded with antennae and listening gear. The
Chinese Embassy’s roof is loaded with … new Chinese-made solar hot-water

You couldn’t make this up.

But trying to do something about it was just one of many reasons my hosts,
Caroline Howe, 23, a mechanical engineer on leave from the Yale School of
Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Alexis Ringwald, a Fulbright scholar
in India and now a solar entrepreneur, joined with Kartikeya Singh, who was
starting the Indian Youth Climate Network, or IYCN, to connect young climate
leaders in India, a country coming under increasing global pressure to
manage its carbon footprint.

“India is full of climate innovators, so spread out across this huge country
that many people don’t get to see that these solutions are working right
now,” said Howe. “We wanted to find a way to bring people together around
existing solutions to inspire more action and more innovation. There’s no
time left to just talk about the problem.”

Howe and Ringwald thought the best way to do that might be a climate
solutions road tour, using modified electric cars from India’s Reva Electric
Car Company, whose C.E.O. Ringwald knew. They persuaded him to donate three of his cars and to retrofit them with longer-life batteries that could
travel 90 miles on a single six-hour charge — and to lay on a solar roof
that would extend them farther.

Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 5, they drove the cars on a 2,100-mile trip from
Chennai to New Delhi, stopping in 15 cities and dozens of villages, training
Indian students to start their own climate action programs and filming 20
videos of India’s top home-grown energy innovations. They also brought along a solar-powered band, plus a luggage truck that ran on plant oil extracted from jatropha and pongamia, plants locally grown on wasteland. A Bollywood dance group joined at different stops and a Czech who learned about their trip on YouTube hopped on with his truck that ran on vegetable-oil waste.

Deepa Gupta, 21, a co-founder of IYCN, told The Hindustan Times that the
trip opened her eyes to just how many indigenous energy solutions were
budding in India — “like organic farming in Andhra Pradesh, or using neem
and garlic as pesticides, or the kind of recycling in slums, such as
Dharavi. We saw things already in place, like the Gadhia solar plant in
Valsad, Gujarat, where steam is used for cooking and you can feed almost
50,000 people in one go.” (See: )

At Rajpipla, in Gujarat, when they stopped at a local prince’s palace to
recharge their cars, they discovered that his business was cultivating worms
and selling them as eco-friendly alternatives to chemical fertilizers.

I met Howe and Ringwald after a tiring day, but I have to admit that as soon
as they started telling me their story it really made me smile. After a year
of watching adults engage in devastating recklessness in the financial
markets and depressing fecklessness in the global climate talks, it’s
refreshing to know that the world keeps minting idealistic young people who
are not waiting for governments to act, but are starting their own projects
and driving innovation.

“Why did this tour happen?” asked Ringwald. “Why this mad, insane plan to
travel across India in a caravan of solar electric cars and jatropha trucks
with solar music, art, dance and a potent message for climate solutions?
Well … the world needs crazy ideas to change things, because the
conventional way of thinking is not working anymore.”