Contemplating Melting Icebergs in Sunny Florida

DATE: Nov. 30, 2016, on the road to Ft. Lauderdale
FORECAST: Unseasonably warm
MISSION: Attend the Companies vs. Climate Change Conference

When I had first registered for the conference, way back in August, I had imagined a significantly different future than the one I was living in as I made the three-hour drive to Ft. Lauderdale. The trip gave me plenty of time to contemplate what the general sense of the gathering might be.  I imagined I would be joining a group of people feeling, much like me, disoriented and uncertain. I anticipated a sullen group, filled with despair and even hopelessness, as they considered a future with a climate change denier as President.

I arrived late, in the middle of a session. Onstage, a CSR exec for a major financial institution was exhorting the audience, with almost religious fervor, not to despair; “Whether the federal government addresses climate change or not, business will not retreat from its efforts.” Speaker after speaker echoed those same sentiments. By the time the cocktail hour rolled around, I was starting to believe that there might still be hope for an optimistic futurist.

As the conference unfolded over the next couple of days, that optimism was tested. Certainly, not by the facts and figures shared from the stage. There was plenty of evidence that businesses were making progress in substituting renewable energy sources for fossil fuels, reaching impressive levels of energy efficiency, and, they couldn’t emphasize this last one enough, doing it all while improving the bottom line.

What was missing? Was it the natural waning of the endorphin high we had all shared that first day? Simply my own conference ADD personality? Or was there something fundamental being lost in all the charts and graphs?

I was still contemplating these possibilities when we finally made it to the second day’s cocktail reception. (I wonder if anyone has ever survived a conference without cocktails?) Curious how others might be feeling, I asked one of the younger attendees what she thought of the proceedings. Like most millennials her response was direct;

“We use to talk about the importance of saving the planet, and we got beat up for being hippie tree huggers. We’ve overcorrected. Now all anyone can do is talk about the numbers. Everyone is obsessed with making the economic case for saving the planet.”

So, it wasn’t just my chronic conference ADD. The speakers had lost sight of the larger, more important goal; the need to weave all that data into a positive story about a better tomorrow.

It was time to whip out the old soapbox and begin preaching the gospel of strategic narrative. For the rest of the cocktail reception, every subsequent “networking break” and even on Twitter during the sessions, I made my argument.

All the shiny data in the world isn’t going to be enough to create the kind of widespread change we need to reverse our trajectory toward climate disaster. What is essential is a compelling, intellectually sound, positive narrative about a post- fossil fuel world. It comes down to simple human nature. People will only embrace massive change if they are given a vision of tomorrow that is better than their present situation not less bad than some future feared for disaster.

These sermons were met with polite acknowledgments of the need for “better communication,” but I could sense that I wasn’t making many converts. Maybe it was bad pitch on my part, or maybe it reflected a deeper issue. Had these sustainability leaders lost the capacity to imagine a better tomorrow? Had the “movement” become so obsessed with apocalyptic warnings and imagery of doom that the very best any can hope for is a future that is a little less horrible than our worst nightmare?

For decades, we have focused on climate change as a global issue. That focus has, perhaps unintentionally, created a narrative where success seems almost impossible. Imagining a realistic way to accomplish change on such a massive scale is a challenge for even the most optimistic storyteller. No matter how impressive, a single company’s 5% improvement in efficiency does not provide much basis for a strong, positive narrative about saving an entire planet.

Overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem, we work harder, shave another percentage point or two off our carbon footprint, become even more shrill in our warnings. We become even more distressed that some people still don’t share our sense of urgency.

Maybe, instead of demanding Herculean efforts of imagination from others, we should simply refocus our narrative. Every initiative being talked about at this conference, even those backed by large multinational corporations, was based in a specific locality (be it a business segment or geographical). These successes reconfirm what we have always known, but only now are starting to express, climate change is a local problem, spread wide. The best solutions will be the ones designed and executed locally. Yes, it will require thousands of these local solutions to address the global impacts of climate change. But here is the kicker; local solutions, by their very nature, are more likely to be part of a broader vision for a positive future. Theses visions can express a community-wide effort to build a better tomorrow, with sustainability just one element in a larger tapestry.

Considered in this way, Mr. Trump and his cabinet of billionaire climate deniers might actually be a huge boon to our efforts. As we abandon any expectation that the problems created by climate change will be solved from the top down, we will redouble our efforts to find more local partnerships, local solutions, and ultimately local narratives that inspire action.

The conference ended.
I headed back north.

This time I avoided the clogged South Florida interstates and drove along AIA, enjoying the ocean breeze and occasional glimpses of the beach between the rows of massive condos. That billion-dollar wall of development is a stark reminder of just how difficult a challenge we face, but also an image of the potential power of communities to shape the future. Every locality that faces the threat of climate change is filled with people from all walks of life that love and cherish their homes. If we can offer them hope for a better tomorrow, then we have a fighting chance to save the planet for all of us.