Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Making Climate Change Relevant

I was part of a focus group tonight for the Commonwealth Club's Climate One initiative.  My biggest takeaway was that those of us who attended the focus group and the rest of the Climate One talks are not thought leaders on the subject of climate change.  This program is well-regarded and ought to have national attention, but many attendees (including me) may come away without clear calls to action.  I can only wonder how a national audience reacts to the subject.  Remember that this is America, land of the provincial and home of the naive.

Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying that if he had one hour to save the world, he would spend almost all of that hour defining the problem and whatever remaining time finding the solution.  Some versions of that quote can't agree on how many minutes Einstein would commit to each phase.  Maybe that's why Harvard Business School says we shouldn't use Einstein's pithy sayings to guide innovation.  Let's instead start with first principles.  What problem do humans solve by exploring climate change?  If periodic climate change is a normal part of this planet's biosphere, then humans must adjust to it as they did during the Medieval Warm Period.  If human activity is measurably accelerating climate change, then humans must either reverse such activity or manage the consequences.  Either direction requires major changes in consumption patterns, lifestyle expectations, development incentives, and the resulting physical infrastructure humans erect on this planet's surface.

Most humans are incapable of acting on a problem unless they believe they will personally experience the consequences of inaction.  The logic of Pascal's Wager is relevant to framing this problem.  Acting to please a posited supreme being was Blaise Pascal's insurance policy in case such a being exists.  The teleological price to pay for mitigating climate change is moderate inconvenience for most people if climate change turns out to be overblown.  This is a small price to pay compared to the cost of being wrong and failing to prepare at all.  Scientific arguments do not resonate with pre-scientific thinkers, like those troglodytic Americans who prefer creationist cosmologies.  Religious arguments like Pascal's Wager will close the sale with them instead.  The role of elite classes in civilization is to instruct the masses in moderate behavior, with nods to Leo Strauss and Carroll Quigley.  Elites must get the climate change message out to the masses using religious imagery if that is what it takes.  The Alliance of Religions and Conservation and the Cornwall Alliance are appropriate vehicles for crafting a message.  The World Bank published a report on faiths and the environment, with helpful links to more marketing channels (ahem, faith-based organizations).

Environmental damage intersects economic development and technological progress.  The Rocky Mountain Institute thinks we can have it all and I totally agree.  This does not mean humans will have unlimited options.  Our choices are constrained by existing infrastructure, much of which is automobile-centric and crumbling from overuse by humans who believe easy motoring is a birthright.  Technocratic elites floated trial balloons this past decade of the hydrogen economy and the glucose economy, neither of which have materialized due to the high switching costs of existing petrochemical infrastructure.  Those two approaches may yet have boutique applications but they are not perfect replacements by themselves for a portfolio of approaches civilization will need.

Climate scientists need to clean up their own act to maintain credibility with a gullible public.  The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report was marred by errors that made climate change an easy target for skeptics.  The Fifth Assessment Report at Climate Change 2013 is in progress and the scientific conclusions do not give rise to alarmists' doomsday scenarios.  Radicals on either side plot their next move.  Scientists make room for uncertainty but a non-scientific audience does not think probabilistically.  This is why scientists need help from marketers in creating a salable product, namely a report that policymakers can use to form reasonable calls to action.

I maintain that the participation of the finance sector is indispensable to addressing climate change.  There's money to be made.  Investors like to buy Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREBs).  Wall Street likes to sell municipal bonds that back infrastructure projects, and soon renewable energy projects will be bundled in REITs.  I've mentored entrepreneurs in the Cleantech Open who are ready to get rich while they save the planet.  Once again, the enthusiasm of thought leaders in finance and business doesn't translate to the lumpen Americans who tremble when things change.  Elites must find ways to explain to ordinary Americans that renewable portfolio standards (RPS) will indeed raise the cost of new housing in exchange for enhancing the lifespan and resale value of the housing stock.  There is no easy way to explain carbon sequestration or emissions trading regimes unless Americans understand how much money they can make personally by participating in those markets.  Regulation does add costs to the economy but Americans must be told that it also opens up value-added jobs and makes room for entrepreneurial disruption.

It's very easy for enlightened San Franciscans to overlook the difficulty that car-fixated Californians will have in adjusting to climate change mitigation.  I don't think the California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) subsidies for low-income households are financially sustainable in this state, even with the ARB's cap-and-trade revenue.  That revenue will inevitably end up in the general fund as state politicians are tempted to close our persistent budget deficits.  It would be nice if it went to subsidize clean tech R&D but I won't hold my breath.  Low-income Californians will simply have to reduce consumption and live where they work, which will limit many families' upward mobility.  Energy use and automobile ownership may very well become upper class status symbols and California will become a test bed for this sea change in American culture.

I've said throughout this piece, in various ways, that climate change and its consequences for the ordering of human civilization must be explained to the low-information proletariat in terms they understand.  Most people won't lower their expectations in life voluntarily.  Messages that use fear and religion will work best in reaching the masses.  I believe Climate One can test drive those messages and find willing messengers.