We know where to start — we need massive policy changes, fast and at-scale deployment of renewable energy and carbon capture, a swift pivot away from fossil fuels, and even reduction of livestock. We have the technology and know-how to take these crucial first steps. So, what’s stopping us?
The first major obstacle is pushback from vested stakeholders who feel threatened by reform for a healthy climate. The other is far more complicated and less researched than renewable technologies or carbon pricing: human psychology.
There’s a body of work among sociologists, psychologists and political scientists that suggests feelings, more than science or logic, are the crux of our decision-making. Dr. Renee Lertzman is one such proponent. A ‘climate psychologist,’ Renee has worked with organizations including the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Columbia University to unpack the link between the human mind and climate change; and why we, as a species, struggle with facing such an enormous and pressing problem.
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I spoke with Renee to explore how this study can give essential insight into corporate sustainability and the 2016 election, and what it’s going to take to build a broad movement to address climate change in a meaningful way.
Empathy is a learned skill
Many have experienced tough, raw feelings since the advent of the Trump administration, both at home and abroad. I asked Renee what she recommends to the average citizen, activist or corporate sustainability executive who may feel pessimistic or even despondent about the future of climate action. She advised that people be real with the unpleasant experiences of sadness, grief or fear; and to practice patience and resilience by working with and through those experiences:
“Our whole range of experience about what's happening is actually where we draw our strength and our power from, so that's number one: to work actively on giving ourselves and one another permission to feel however it is we're feeling; to not force ourselves to move into feeling suddenly active or motivated when we might just need time to just take stock in whatever way makes sense for us. Trust that in doing so we will be so much more effective and capable of meeting what comes ahead, because we will in fact be more resilient.”
Throughout the election, we heard a lot of talk about how parts of America feel left behind — by government, by the left, by cultural hegemony. Especially in communities built on mining or oil drilling and refining, advancements in emissions regulation, renewable energy and automation only strengthen this feeling, which can manifest as any combination of anger, sadness and resentment. In my view, the climate movement has unintentionally alienated potential allies in climate solutions; coal-mining communities are great examples. I asked Renee, how did ‘green’ groups lose these communities and is it too late to bring them back into the movement?
“People don’t just kind of magically, instantly become compassionate and have genuine concern and empathy for others,” she pointed out. “That’s something that actually needs to be taught, and trained, and there’s established practices for doing that. And that’s what we need to be doing.
“When I think about raising capacity within the progressive left community — especially for those working on environment and climate change protection — one of the most important things we could be doing right now is figuring out how to raise those capabilities to be able to be more tuned in. It's really hard because, as I mentioned earlier, the stakes are very high, and it’s hard to go there if you feel like we’re fighting a war. But right now, we have to become more like martial artists.”
How we do humanity
Much of the post-election discussion has centered around how voters don’t feel heard by Washington elites — one factor contributing to this feeling is how often policymakers seem to ignore popular opinion. When it comes to climate and energy, the difference between public opinion and policymaking is especially striking: polling shows that rural, conservative America tends to support renewable energy across the board, almost as much as people on the left. The same goes for limiting emissions on power plants. I asked Renee if she sees this as a good sign, and how can we harness this to make progress.
“It’s a powerful signal; it’s an area to really focus on and support. I think it demonstrates that there’s a lot of contradiction and irrationality around the climate issue, and that’s a huge part of what my work addresses — trying to understand the irrationality. It has a lot to do with what brings up people’s anxieties, what feels safe and appropriate to go to. And renewable energy is sort of on its own — it’s not really attached to as much of a sense of threat as other aspects of climate change might be.”
Renee cautioned against skirting the hard stuff to focus on positives, emphasizing that broad support for renewable energy does not provide a pass to bypass the unpleasant realities of climate change. We can’t have our cake and eat it, too.
“What I was hearing in the interviews with Republicans is that when we only focus on framing things like, ‘Let’s just talk about renewable energy and not talk about all the other stuff,’ it’s patronizing and not very emotionally tuned in,” she asserted. “I think there’s a lot of really important ways to acknowledge the situation we’re in, in skillful ways that don’t activate people’s defenses. The typical approach to framing around positive solutions is [with] an inclusion and acknowledgment that we are in a situation that will require us [all] to change on many levels.”
Basically, we need a collective focus-shift away from the symptoms of climate change to the deeper, systemic causes of inaction: We can encourage people to support solar panels all day long, but that doesn’t solve the larger climate crisis at the speed and scale we need. Renee suggested shifting the tone from crisis management to conscientious engagement, counter to recent messaging trends around climate.
“I think it’s incredibly important that we frame our situation as an opportunity for humans to show up and be the problem-solving beings that we are,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean having to be positive. I really find the focus on solutions can be extremely counterproductive. This is an opportunity for us to try to practice more of an authentic way of communicating and engaging with people.”
This summed up why I want to work with climate and the environment: Compared to other global issues, the sheer scale, urgency and difficulty of climate change gives us an opportunity to reshape how we do humanity. Can we go forward and work with each other in a way that’s compassionate and engaged with the world around us? This is what lies at the heart of the climate discussion, more than energy technology or infrastructure or anything else. It’s about creating a better future, not just saving it.
For younger generations, there’s a lot at stake. I asked Renee about the differences between Millennials and older generations when it comes to relating to climate change.
“There’s a massive difference — it’s about how young people experience time and the future differently than older people,” she said. “It’s about having a whole different set of memories and associations and experience to draw on — generational memory, something a researcher at the University of Washington, Peter Kahn, called ‘generational amnesia**.’** Environmental change happens so quickly, within a lifespan, that my grandparents can remember swimming in Lake Michigan when it was still safe and you could fish, and their kid is going to have no recollection of that.”
Giving permission to change
“One of the projects I’m working on right now is with an organization who’s training young people in high school to have conversations with their parents about climate change,” Renee told me. “One of the most important aspects of that is recognizing how the parents experience and relate to the issues is fundamentally different from the young person. It’s really important to open up intergenerational conversations about that — to begin creating context and opportunities for that to happen, where people really have a chance to share what their experiences are with the spirit of really wanting to understand, as opposed to trying to get anyone to do anything differently right off the bat.”
The bulk of our work at Future 500 is to help our corporate partners achieve their sustainability goals while mitigating brand risk. We work to bridge divides between corporations and advocates or other stakeholders, breaking the traditional “name, shame and blame” cycle.
Since the election, we’ve seen hundreds of companies directly address President Trump and publicly commit to stay the course on climate no matter the regulations. Public skepticism of these commitments is often deserved; there are innumerable examples of corporations polluting, greenwashing, and using the power of the dollar to steer policy away from climate action.
There are good examples, as well. At Future 500, we identify and assist many companies and their employees in realizing a genuine approach to doing things right. I was interested in Renee’s take on how we can break down skepticism and encourage companies to focus their enormous resources on solving climate change — without rubber-stamping greenwashing.
“The most important thing that any company, corporation or leadership can do is to practice being authentic with its stakeholders. The only way to combat greenwashing is by not greenwashing, that companies demonstrate what I’m calling **‘**emotional literacy’ is absolutely essential.
“Dove is an example of a company that does this in a pretty major way with their self-esteem campaign. Years ago, they were advised by psychoanalytic researchers like myself to do that campaign. It’s a nice example of what it looks like when a company takes it on fully and does something different from what they’re used to doing.
“It is a delicate line, and I don’t want to gloss over the fact that it’s fraught with potential minefields and issues around the very real contradictions that a lot of companies and corporations are having to live within and dwell in. The most powerful thing that brands can do right now is to begin to really be attuned and authentic with people — and that includes being transparent about what we know and don’t know. It’s like taking the same principles that apply to any really good, strong, healthy relationship and seeing how those can translate, which is a pretty radical shift from the way that companies are used to doing things.
“This is the time for the business sector to step it up and to be more open to experimenting and innovating on what engagement means. This is the opportunity to do things differently.”
I was curious about how much sustainability efforts by corporations, particularly consumer brands, actually affect the consumer — are they making people more interested in protecting the environment?
“If we continue to look to the consumer to drive change, we’re going to be waiting a really long time and we don’t have time for that,” Renee said. “The one thing that I see brands have the capacity to do is to give people permission to go to a place that they would not ordinarily go to by making it acceptable.
“In psychology there’s a term, ‘ego psychology,’ that relates to when things fit with our sense of who we are and when they don’t — there’s ego-syntonic and ego-dystonic — so, brands can make “going there” ego-syntonic by basically bringing people along with them. The main thing that a corporation needs is to genuinely invite people to be part of what you’re doing. Acknowledge where the contradictions might be, acknowledge where people could be feeling wary or skeptical; don’t sugarcoat it or try to skip over it. There’s so much at stake for everyone and that’s where the need is for more experimentation, for piloting, being more innovative. I talked about giving permission — well companies need to be given permission to do that, as well.”
Our survival as a species isn’t a partisan issue. It’s time for a new strategy: new ways of talking, thinking about, and solving perhaps the greatest threat of our lifetime. Authenticity and courage in the face of what’s difficult are key to figuring out how. Tools and technology are the “easy” part; the real challenge is mustering up the courage, drive and compassion to meet the challenge in front of us.