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Is Environmental Pessimism on the Wane?

[fa icon="calendar'] Apr 30, 2013 9:21:58 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

In March, I attended a pancake breakfast with residents of NYU’s Green House, a small Gen X protestordorm set aside for upperclass students who want to “shrink their environmental footprint.” I asked one future biochemist what she thought about NYU’s environmental program. Her bright young face turned sour as she complained that her environmental studies were dominated by disaster science. Where was the hope, she wanted to know?

Her complaint explained a lot of what I was seeing. Interest in climate change is low among the Gen X cohort. Environmental protests have fewer young people than older. Low demand for slots at environmental graduate schools holds acceptance rates at an average 50% of applicants. How awful to hear it confirmed by a current member of this cohort: the message of climate change urgency is failing.

In his article “Pessimism Is Impeding Environmental Advocacy,” Richard Matthews explains the phenomenon:

Decades of research show that appeals to fear can easily backfire causing recipients to reduce the fear without reducing the danger, perhaps by denying that there is anything to fear or concluding that the fear appeal was a manipulation attempt by an untrustworthy source.

 

Paul Bain (School of Psychology, University of Queensland) and his colleagues conducted a study that shows that informing people about the expected impacts of climate change had no effect on their positions. What did change the positions was thinking about how limiting greenhouse-gas emissions might promote interpersonal warmth and scientific and technological progress. …Bain’s research shows that approaches based on hope work far better than fear.

Sandy hit New York on October 25, 2012. The pancake breakfast was over four months later. It seemed at that moment as though all the attention brought to climate change by the Superstorm might be feeding fear and not, as we had hoped, igniting interest in remediation.

But then, just this week, the zeitgeist seems to have altered.

Maybe it’s only a series of coincidences, but all sorts of mainstream and even conservative media has jumped on the good news about climate change

Bloomberg released its projections for renewables, citing 230% growth by 2030. Bloomberg’s chief executive of New Energy Finance Michael Liebreich adds, “What it suggests is that we are beyond the tipping point towards a cleaner energy future.”

Forbes Magazine published a statement from Ceres President Mindy S. Lubber about how corporations are connecting sustainable models to their own long-term self-interest. She cites Ford as an example: “Ford is on the leading edge of the development of a new generation of hybrids and electric cars. It is challenging Toyota’s dominance in this market in part.”

[csrhubwidget company="Ford-Motor-Company" size="650x100" hash="c9c0f7"]

A report released by Carbontracker warns investors of a carbon bubble: “Greater understanding of the uncertainty and risk around fossil fuels can help the redistribution of these funds towards alternatives more attractive.”

Even the left-leaning media seem more optimistic. David Roberts writing for Grist writes “Solar panels could destroy U.S. utilities, according to U.S. utilities,” quoting an electrical industry report that compares utility delivery of energy to phone wires and predicting a similarly rapid rate of consumer switching. Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that a Beaverton start-up has created a floating "lily pad" that uses solar-activated nanotechnology to break down water contaminants.

And the web site that straddles both profit and planet, TriplePundit, headlined its April 22 edition with this: “Climate Change is Finally Real for the American People.” I urge you to read it. The author, Rosana Francescato, buttresses her argument that we’ve reached the tipping point on climate change with facts from opinion polls and quotes from military and finance leaders.

All this change in less than two months? Of course not. As Francescato says, “Belief in climate change has been progressing for years. Now we’re at the point where some of our most sober institutions are on board to deal with it, and they’ll be backed by increasing public support. With all these sectors of society working on the problem, we have a much better chance of solving it.”

I hope the message is getting to young people like my Green House friend. Climate change will definitely be the greatest challenge of their generation and even more galvanizing than sending a man to the moon. They’ll certainly have my gratitude.

Photo courtesy of macinate via Flickr CC.


Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 7,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 7,000+ companies from 135 industries in 91 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 200 data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

 

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[fa icon="comment"] 4 Comments posted in Bloomberg, Carbon Bubble, Carbontracker, Forbes, Ford, Millenials, Uncategorized, Paul Bain, Michael Liebreich, Mindy Lubber, New Energy Finance, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Rosana Francescato, Sandy, Triple Pundit, Carol Pierson Holding, Cered, David Roberts, Grist, NYU Green House

Capitalism to the Rescue?

[fa icon="calendar'] Feb 5, 2013 9:32:58 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

Like many people, my faith in capitalism was badly shaken by the crash of 2008 and its caraftermath. I sat by, appalled as some capitalists denied climate change and used the economy as an excuse to continue their planet-destroying practices.

I rooted for regulation, until Obama, who once seemed to be the environmentalist’s last great hope, declared his second term energy policy would be “all of the above.”

Given this lack of resolve, I was surprised to read in last week’s environmental website Sightline’s that US oil consumption is actually falling:

US Energy Information Administration suggests that total oil consumption in the United States fell by about 1.5 percent last year — meaning that the country as a whole used about as much oil in 2012 as it did in 1994… (even as) population grew 19%.

How can this be?  Since the comparison goes back to 1994, we can’t credit the recession. The large bulk of oil consumption is from transportation, and as laid out in painful detail in SmartPlanet, the drop is not due to greater vehicle efficiency. So what is driving this drop?

The timing suggests the drop is price-related: per capita oil consumption has fallen most dramatically since 2004, when oil prices started rising sharply.

To the planet’s everlasting gratitude, higher oil prices lasted long enough this time to launch a revolution in transportation. Think about what’s happened just over the last few months:

  • Car-sharing moved into the mainstream. Avis, which leads the industry in CSRHub’s social responsibility ratings, paid $500 million for the largest car-sharing company, Zipcar.
  • United Airlines completed its first all biofuel jet flight. The company subsequently placed an order large enough for biofuel companies to scale to cost effective levels.
  • The Department of Defense, the world’s largest consumer of energy consuming $17 billion of fuel in 2011, is courting Cleantech venture capitalists. Washington’s Clean Technology Alliance hosted a conference last week in Seattle that featured Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense and Sharon Burke, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy. Why are these heavyweights giving their time to a Cleantech meeting? Price instability puts its budget at risk; far worse, having to move oil in battle zones creates human risk. Solar-powered mortar pits were Burke’s exemplar, formerly fueled by highly dangerous helicopter missions.
  • Most exciting, the driverless car is road-ready. As described in Chunka Mui’s outstanding series for Forbes Magazine, this innovation could save 1.9 billion gallons of gas/year and their resulting emissions in the US alone, at a cost to consumers that is somewhat less on average than owning and operating a car. The technology has been road tested by Google for 300,000 miles as well as several car manufacturers and is looking for a market.

And U.S. consumer acceptance is “closer than you think,” according to Mui, who sites the younger generation’s comfort with technology and population segments such as the elderly and the disabled who are unable to drive themselves. The early forces that held back air travel – fear of crashes – are also selling points for the driverless car, which promises to reduce accidents by 90%.

These examples are democratic capitalism at its finest. After 50 years back-and-forth on conservation and environmentalism, gas prices creep out of America’s comfort zone and national public opinion shifts. Over the next few years, investors get serious. Bedrocks of conservatism like the DOD, the airline industry and car-makers find the will to act.

Climate change has found a potentially scenario-changing champion in capitalism.

Am I just the relentless optimist to think that capitalism can save us? I’m all for increased regulation of the capitalist money machine to control unfettered greed. But here is the free market system at its best. Makes you want to believe again, doesn’t it?

Photo is courtesy of griffithchris via Flickr CC


Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on nearly 7,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.



CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on nearly 7,000 companies from 135 industries in 82 countries. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in Avis, capitalism, car sharing, cleantech, climate change, Environmentalism, Forbes, Google car, Sharon Burke, US Energy Information, vehicle efficiency, Uncategorized, Obama, oil consumption, Robert Gates, solar, United, Biofuel, Carol Pierson Holding, Chunka Mui, CSRHub, driverless car

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