Going to town for climate solutions: Powering the new energy future from the ground up

July 18, 2012

“Global warming” is like a general anesthetic.  Yes, it accurately describes the trend in the global average temperature.  But nobody lives in the global average temperature.  Nobody works or plays in the global average temperature.  Nobody gets anything done in the global average temperature.

(Is “global warming” better than “climate change”[i]?  Enough already.  See footnote.)

The warming may be global, but the action is local.

The impacts – the flooding, the extreme weather, the fires – hit home, not the “globe.”  We cause the problem locally, primarily with our energy and transportation investments and choices.  And most importantly, when you roll up your sleeves and get real about solutions, many of the key decisions are local:  infrastructure investments, transportation options, energy choices.

I don’t mean to say for a minute that we don’t need state and national policy and international agreements; we desperately do.  But while we’re clearing the path to those policies – and after we succeed – we can and must put shoulder to wheel in our lives and communities.

We must be, you might say, Powering the New Energy Future from the Ground Up.

And in communities across America and the world, we are.    The successes and challenges of 22 of these communities are profiled in a terrific new report from the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and Climate Solutions’ New Energy Cities program, available here.

These stories aren’t from the big, well-known leadership cities like Portland, Seattle, and New York.  They’re from small and medium-sized communities.  Many of them emerged from individuals and grassroots collaborations among community organizations.  They employ local regulation and voluntary action.  They feature broad local partnerships with utilities, businesses, workforce organizations, schools, and non-profits.  They got a boost from federal recovery investments, and are developing their own funding models.  They started with low-hanging fruit, and are building toward long-term energy transformation strategies.

They are – geographically and substantively – all over the map.  That’s a good thing.  Not all of them are motivated by climate.   These cities, and thousands of others, are demonstrating that the clean energy transition is a solid foundation for building healthier communities and stronger local economies.   Living, breathing local examples of that proposition can take us a long way toward embracing the imperative for climate solutions.

Check ‘em out.

[i] In a “secret” 2003 polling memo, conservative pollster Frank Luntz advised Republicans to use “climate change” instead of “global warming.”  Clever (kinda) climate communicators, said “aha, then ‘global warming’ it is!”  Frank Luntz knows that nothing like that stays secret.  He’s had a decade of laughs watching us argue over which is better, knowing full well that they are both profoundly useless – abstract, disengaging, completely outside the psychological scope of human agency.  Both terms work splendidly, if your goal is to avert action.  I’m going with “climate disruption.”

MORE sex is better with energy efficiency

July 9, 2012

My first foray into this topic, “Sex is better with energy efficiency,” was warmly – aye, steamingly – received.  (We are a simple people, no?)  So let’s dive deeper…

First, for the record:  Jimmy Carter is a great man, a courageous humanitarian, and a vastly underappreciated former President.  It’s not his fault.  But one of the founding myths of the modern energy efficiency “movement”, if we can call it that, is that his “moral equivalent of war” speech and his fireside chats on energy were a huge cultural setback for conservation.

By framing energy conservation as a moral proposition (goes the myth) he made it somehow trivial, sentimental, insubstantial.  In order to elevate energy efficiency to its proper place as a big manly energy alternative, we must think of it not as a lecture, not as a lifestyle admonition, but as an energy resource — just like a power plant.   We must never, ever call it “conservation,” because that smacks of moralism; we must call it “efficiency” in order to underscore its practical, effective, hard-nosed utility as an energy option.

I wish to explode this myth.

The problem wasn’t that Jimmy Carter framed conservation as a moral issue.  It IS a moral issue (AND our largest, cheapest, most important energy resource). The problem, in a nutshell, was The Sweater.

To observe that The Sweater was profoundly unattractive is to dwell on the obvious.  But the issue goes well beyond the butt-ugliness.  The problem was that The Sweater, and its wearer, came to symbolize national impotence, and the weakness rubbed off on energy conservation.  Look at that damned cardigan; a bald eagle wouldn’t be caught dead in that thing!  It’s fuzzy and pathetic and yella!

Once again, Jimmy Carter is a great man and it wasn’t his fault, but his Presidency occupies a place of doubt and deprecation in an American myth that celebrates exceptionalism and virility.  That he was followed by the strapping, ruddy, anti-ambivalent  Ronald Reagan was no accident.  “Morning in America” was the light at the end of the dark tunnel of national tentativeness for which the Carter era is (inaccurately) remembered.  The cardigan became a pathetic symbol of that, and the “malaise” oozed out all over energy conservation.

Which is why, inspired by a great upwelling of national pride, or something, I googled up these images.  I think you will agree that they illustrate a keen grasp of marketing on my part.

(Important preliminary research finding:  Penelope Cruz apparently does not wear sweaters.)

It may take another blog post to get to it, but there is actually a point to all this.  And it’s not just that we need to make energy efficiency sexier.

It’s that the clean energy transition must be enormous and robust.  And it must be accelerated in an era when large public institutions are increasingly prevented from doing much of anything, let alone enormous, robust things.

We can’t give up on large institutions – we must redemocratize them.  But we also need to drive the clean energy revolution up from the bottom.  Powered by distributed technology, connected by interactive media, and affirmed by new cultural norms and rewards (including but not limited to sex; but hey, might as well start with sex), the clean energy revolution is gaining inexorable momentum, even though it remains formally undeclared.  And we have to lean into that cultural transition, not run away from it.

Moral imperatives and psychosocial rewards CAN go together….just not in a yellow cardigan.

We’ll shoot to get more GRIP on that down the road.

Frog soup

July 3, 2012

Reality may not be a fashionable messenger.  But it is extremely patient.

“Still don’t believe in climate change? Then you’re either deep in denial or delirious from the heat,” said Eugene Robinson in yesterday’s Washington Post, as the nation’s capital dug out from the freakish windstorm that left nearly half the area without power.

Jeremy Symons has good play-by-play on the unfolding apocalypse at his National Wildlife Federation blog.

Not to worry, though, ExxonMobil’s CEO says we can just adapt.

Where’s Winnie when you need him?  Churchill famously said,  “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences.”

What he didn’t seem to anticipate is that the “soothing and baffling” expedients, etc., might not “come to a close.”  They can persist and grow more baffling, deeper and deeper into the period of consequences….

Why our biggest moral challenge doesn’t act like one

July 2, 2012

Al Gore tried to invoke the moral imperative for climate action.  “It’s not about right and left;” he said, “it’s about right and wrong.”  Climate deniers cynically pounced on Gore’s leadership as an opportunity to assert the exact opposite.

(Really, it’s about both, but we’ll get to that later.  See footnote if you can’t wait.)

Why don’t Americans accept the climate challenge as a moral imperative?  University of Oregon researchers Ezra Markowitz and Azim Shariff tackle the question in Nature Climate Change.  Markowitz blogs their conclusions here.

Their analysis draws insights from broader research on “the moral judgement system – the set of cognitive, emotional, social, and motivational mechanisms responsible for producing our perceptions of right and wrong.”  They describe why our moral discriminators have a hard time grokking climate disruption, and offer potential strategies for activating moral intuition.  It’s interesting stuff, worth a look.  Their blog post is a good summary; I’ll just poke at couple of themes that seem to need poking.

The Guilt Trip –  Climate disruption is like my (dear) Jewish mother; it makes people (and especially Americans, say the authors), feel guilty.  From the Nature Climate Change paper:  “To allay negative recriminations, individuals often engage in biased cognitive processes to minimize perceptions of their own complicity.”  From my adolescence:  “I can’t hear you Mom!”

This makes sense (we are guilty!), but it downplays the importance of efficacy in the development of moral responsibility.  Bob Doppelt makes the case that motivating big changes in human behavior requires dissonance, efficacy, and benefits.  Lack of efficacy often seems like the bottleneck when it comes to moral engagement on climate.  The strategies within any actor’s scope of effectiveness are not scaled to the problem.  No use accepting guilt, let alone responsibility, if you can’t do anything about it.  “May I be granted serenity…,” etc.  Moral intuition finds no traction where there is no efficacy.  (This is why we do what we do at Climate Solutions.)

The Co-benefit Conundrum –  This cartoon is a staple of climate advocacy:

To build support for climate solutions, we focus on “co-benefits” – often going so far as to shun discussion of climate altogether (which, as I’ve harangued, is a big strategic mistake.)  There’s no denying the effectiveness of this approach in building bridges to new constituencies for action.  Air quality, economic opportunity, and transportation choices are intuitively positive, accessible, tractable.  Stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of GHGs is not, not, not.

But the focus on co-benefits can have a perverse effect on moral intuition – like saying “Do this because it will feel good.”  The pitch allows us to infer that we don’t need to do it unless it feels good.  Or if some other thing feels better, we can just do that instead.  It’s morally disengaging.

In a classic of motivational speech, Winston Churchill said, as he was rallying the Brits to war with Germany, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” It is the stark and pointed absence of co-benefits that underscores the necessity for action and makes the rap so powerful.

Hmmm.  Big climate advocacy problem:  Either we  a) keep pumping co-benefits, even at the expense of suppressing moral intuition, because it’s an effective way to build a broader political constituency for climate solutions, or b) downplay co-benefits and just bum folks all the way out, to make the moral imperative as naked and absolute as it must be to drive climate action at scale (the Churchill approach).

Both these options suck.  I’m no Churchill, and climate disruption seems to lack the fear-focusing power (though certainly not the destructive potential) of the Third Reich.  So I’ll keep selling co-benefits, while taking every opportunity to press the case that climate action is a moral imperative, not an amenity.  But I won’t try to reconcile this tension with handwaving about “balance” between moral urgency and marketing co-benefits, at least not today.  For now, let’s just leave it hanging out there as the conundrum it is.

Footnote:   Naomi Klein makes the case that it IS about right and left, but only the right gets that.  Radical conservatives view climate change as the ultimate Trojan Horse and organizing principle for progressive ideology.  Progressives don’t think about it that way at all.  It’s the right, Klein argues, who got the memo:  the only way to seriously tackle climate disruption would be with a broad, sweeping societal mobilization, built on a foundation of progressive values and ambitious government action.  The right can’t have that, and the left isn’t really pushing for it.