What To Do About Global Weirding?

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My mother-in-law phoned Tuesday. It was sunny and headed for about 60 degrees in Iowa. “It’s really weird. But I like it!”

Thursday’s Environmental blog from The Guardian opened with this paragraph:

2012 has begun where 2011 left off with weird weather in Europe and the Americas, Arctic ice at almost its lowest extent ever recorded in midwinter, disastrous droughts and searing heat in Africa and Latin America, and one of the world’s biggest insurance companies warning that climate change will increase damages.

Friday’s New York Times featured photos of Jan. ’11′s snow-covered Central Park and this month’s grassy green lawn. And then there’s the 18 feet of snow in Alaska. There’s a reason some call global warming “global weirding.” Who knows what we’re in for?

Last quarter at the University of Washington, I taught the Environmental Innovation Practicum for the first time. A series of fantastic speakers came in to talk to the class including Michael Potts, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI); David Allen, executive VP of McKinstry; and James Billmaier, author of “JOLT!: The Impending Dominance Of The Electric Car And Why America Must Take Charge” (a terrific book! I highly recommend it).

We used “Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era,” a brand new book from RMI Co-founder, Chairman and Chief scientist Amory Lovins, as our course text. It was a little tricky since it was only available in ebook format when we started the quarter. Format aside (it wasn’t the most elegant electronic rendering), I like it a lot.

Continuing my quest to educate me on climate change and global warming, I also read “Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth” by journalist Mark Hertsgaard and “But Will the Planet Notice?” By Gernot Wagner, an environmental economist for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Yes, it was all enough to make my head spin. But the different approaches to the problem we’re facing were also simultaneously eye-opening, depressing and inspiring.

Hertsgaard exposes the reality that global warming is arriving about 100 years sooner than published predictions. He calls his young daughter’s generation “Generation Hot” because they’ll be the ones who really get to deal with the aftermath of our current lifestyles, particularly if we, as a global community, continue to do nothing to mitigate the problem. Hertsgaard argues we have to get off the stick on mitigation (reducing emissions) but we also have to get quickly on board with adaptation (dealing with the inevitable sea level rises and regional climate changes), because even if we suddenly did all the right things today (as if that’s possible!), there’s already too much CO2 in the atmosphere to manage an about-face. We have to adapt to changes we can’t avoid.

Hertsgaard also taught me the difference between global warming and climate change, which I’d used interchangeably, like everyone else. Global warming, he writes, is the man-made rise in temperatures caused by excessive amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate change refers to the effects these higher temperatures have on the earth’s natural systems and the impacts that can result.  So global warming is what we’ve done to the atmosphere. Climate change is what global warming is doing and will do to the earth.

Wagner’s book takes a different tact. He states that personal actions – while noble and cumulative if we all do them – are individually irrelevant to the global climate. The planet won’t notice. He believes only smarter economics will be able to mitigate climate change. He expresses hope because, he writes, smarter economics saved us before – from acid rain. “The solution is clear,” he states, “put the right incentives in place.” He advocates cap-and-trade as a market. He writes:

As much as this issue has been politicized, this is not about right versus left, Republicans versus Democrats, conservatives versus conservationists, or markets versus the environment. This is about liberating markets and consequently turning each and every one of us into a force for good; it’s about making sure that increasing GDP, gross domestic product, does not decrease collective well-being.

It’s about taking personal responsibility for costs we now socialize and impose in society and the planet as a whole. Our choices are already being influenced by forces much larger than ourselves. They always have been and will be. The question is whether the nudge we submit to is guiding us where we want to go, preserving life and the rotation of the planet as we know it.

“Reinventing Fire” is another animal all together, which is why I chose it for class. While Lovins acknowledges the hurdles to reinventing how we power everything from buildings to buses and power plants to planes, “Reinventing Fire” is about hope, about using what’s already available and working, and about how businesses can make a lot of money in a clean fuel world. That’s not an argument you often hear for ditching fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, I saw countless stories and blog posts about the challenges of getting people to accept, care about and act on global warming.  I get the frustration – and the confusion.

In marketing, we talk about “FUD” – fear, uncertainty and doubt. It’s called the FUD factor. You can read quite a bit about it on Wikipedia, if you’re interested. Sometimes marketers battle it; sometimes marketers create it on purpose. Proponents for change, including both environmental groups and advocates for new technologies like electric vehicles, wind and solar power, smart grid, composites and myriad other exciting new developments, not only battle the complexities of talking about some of these innovations and issues, but FUD marketing budgets of entrenched industries whose very survival rests with a global majority making no changes in how they do anything.

I’ve been toying with a number of posts on this, so expect you’ll see me write more about it later. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about your experiences with FUD and the environment!

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