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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

Auto Industry Market Leaders Validate Car Sharing

[fa icon="calendar'] Oct 25, 2011 6:15:44 PM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

2128017818_af64ea8e1d_o (1)In the early 2000s, car sharing was a small-time counter-cultural service offered by community organizations in liberal and university markets. You heard about bigger companies tip-toeing around the market. Enterprise quietly started renting its cars by the hour to local residents in 2007.

Then suddenly, beginning right around Labor Day, concrete announcements from market leaders in cars and car leasing are everywhere.

Ford announced it would supply 1,000 Focus cars to ZipCar, hoping ZipCar’s young customers would eventually buy the cars. GM partnered with start-up RelayRides to allow GM car owners to share their cars using a cell-phone app and GM’s pre-installed OnStar system to unlock cars.

My favorite headline appeared in the New York Times on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. A small article in the “In Transit” section reported just the kind of anti-consumerist shift that some hoped the attack would provoke: “Hertz on Demand Enters the Car-Sharing Race.”

As green pundits bemoan our consumer society, the culture is quietly morphing to slow the amount we buy. We can first thank the recession. An article in the Wall Street Journal covers a new phenomenon of repairing appliances rather than replacing them and how businesses are adding help lines to aid home repairs. Sales of smaller cars  surged in April due to the high cost of gas, which spurs sales of hybrids and electric cars, which slows the amount of gas we consume. Houses are built smaller. Young people value having less stuff.

Many of us, young and old, are realizing that ownership is a time-sink. Unless you are a natural mechanic, carpenter, electrician, plumber, techie and tinkerer, taking care of things is a largely unpleasant task. And if you think hard about this new way of thinking about possessions, you just might see a whole raft of new business opportunities.

And what better example than car sharing? I first heard about the concept when a board member of City CarShare (CCS), a not-for-profit start-up in San Francisco, asked me to help them. Funded by state and local grants and given free space to park its cars, CSS was a community service organization whose purpose was to reduce traffic in San Francisco and reduce the growing parking problem. CCS was founded in 2001, when a raft of city-specific car sharing services were sprouting up in small- and mid-sized cities.

At a time when CCS was losing members due to cost and operational problems, its primary positioning was the “strong sense of community” it shared with its members.  How could it beat back ZipCar, the aggressive start-up intending to steal the market with lower rates, an array of cars including hip luxury models, better online app design and a more streamlined process?

In the end, there was room for both. CSS is still flourishing in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area. CCS’ latest coup was accomplished in partnership with City government: On-street parking that will provide CSS cars downtown. ZipCar is still in San Francisco, but has also expanded way beyond. After a successful IPO earlier this year, the company now has 600,000 members in the US, UK and Canada.

But as exciting as the evolution from public to private “self-sustaining” car-sharing was, it is positively thrilling to see the big players jump in – in spite of the fact that they will lose business to this new industry. The research firm Frost and Sullivan estimates that that every ZipCar replaces 15-20 autos.

So why is Detroit embracing this trend? Maybe the bailout made them more willing to try new ideas. Or the Prius encouraged them to jump on new markets. Or possibly they heard that corporate fleet managers have approached ZipCar.

Or maybe it really is a change in the culture. ZipCar now has locations in Laurel Heights, the shopping district for San Francisco’s posh Pacific Heights, and in New York’s Upper East Side, home to Gossip Girls. Hertz claims one of its advantages is that their cars are not branded with car sharing labels the way that ZipCars are. And maybe that will work better for the matrons of Laurel Heights. But for the new generation, ZipCar may be the new iconic car brand.

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 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

Image courtesy of akseabird via Flickr (CC).


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[fa icon="comment"] 3 Comments posted in car sharing, corporate social responsibility, CSR, Enterprise, Ford, GM, Uncategorized, socially responsible investing, sustainability, ZipCar, Carol Pierson Holding, carsharing, City CarShare, corporate responsibility, CSRHub, Hertz, SRI

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