Each year the Heinz Awards go to 10 headliners in a wide variety of disciplines the arts and humanities, public policy, science and economics ranging from writers like Dave Eggers to doctors like Paul Farmer. "We wanted to identify people who were full of promise," says Teresa Heinz, who created the awards after her then husband, Pennsylvania Senator John Heinz, died in a helicopter crash in 1991. "We wanted to continue John's work."
But this year Heinz decided to focus the awards on a single issue rather than recognize many. The winners of each $100,000 award, announced on Sept. 15, were acknowledged for their work toward one cause: protecting the environment. The idea was to highlight that in this moment in the run-up to the all-important U.N. climate-change summit in Copenhagen at the end of the year we're reaching a turning point for the planet. "This is absolutely the issue that defines us," says Heinz. "We wanted to make a statement that across America, there are people taking on these problems and that it's something we can all do."
Of course, the winners of the Heinz Awards do a bit more than the average person. Recipient Christopher Field is the founding director of the Carnegie Institution's department of global ecology and a biology professor at Stanford University who shared in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. In recent years, Field has become the go-to scientist in his field, the one who perhaps understands and can explain best how man-made global warming will change our planet and the life that depends on it.
Scientists make up the bulk of the other award winners: Dee Boersma, a marine biologist at the University of Washington who found that the effects of climate change force penguins in Antarctica to swim 25 extra miles for food, putting them in greater danger of extinction. Ashok Gadgil, an environmental engineer at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, won for inventing simple, inexpensive water-purification systems and stoves for use in the developing world. Kirk Smith, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, was recognized for his work connecting indoor air pollution mostly from cooking to the premature death of women and children in developing countries. But scientists weren't the only winners: Joel Salatin, a pioneering sustainable farmer in Virginia, and Chip Giller, the publisher of the green website Grist.org, both won for changing attitudes in mainstream agriculture and the media.
For Heinz, the point of the awards isn't just handing out money although a six-figure check goes a long way in the weakly compensated world of environmental science and activism. Rather, she wants us to see those winners as role models at a time when news of the environment can seem unremittingly dark. "This is a message of hope," says Heinz. "I want this to push people into action."