Fossil fuels = slavery?

If you have any doubt about the power of messaging, consider how we talk about renewable energy.

If you want someone to oppose renewable energy, talk about dollars. If you want someone to embrace renewable energy, try comparing fossil fuel use to slavery. Point out how our stubborn consumption parallels history’s reluctance to relinquish the most horrifically cost-effective of all labor.

Dollars: The New York Times just published a withering story on how the relatively high cost of renewable energy is delaying and scuttling wind and solar projects. By cost, we mean the price you pay a utility for power generated by that means. In this light, renewables are a luxury we can’t afford. (Of course, rates never account for the long-term cost of climate change, including health care impacts, nor God forbid, ecocide. Nor do they account for the cost, in dollars and lives, of foreign wars to keep our oil coming.)

Now consider slavery: That’s right. Purely economic arguments sustained slavery, as they do unfettered fossil fuel consumption, long after it should have ended, University of Michigan Professor Andy Hoffman points out. Hundreds of businesses had vested interests in the continuation of slavery. Apologists for slavery warned that abolition would end our “way of life” and crush the economy. They argued for self-regulation and quotas under the premise that capping the quantity of enslaved human beings would somehow mitigate the disgrace.

You see parallel arguments today in the crusading defense of ratepayers against even the slightest increases, the fetishizing of big vehicles (that thing got a Hemi?), and merely token investments in renewables.

Writes Hoffman:

Just as few people saw a moral problem with slavery in the 18th century, few people in the 21st century see a moral problem with the burning of fossil fuels. Will people in 100 years look at us with the same incomprehension we feel towards 18th-century defenders of slavery? If we are to address the problem adequately, the answer to that question must be yes—our common atmosphere will no longer be seen as a free dumping ground for greenhouse gases and other pollutants. (via

True? Melodramatic? Hyperbolic?

Oil fatigue and making ourselves care

Who really cares? That’s a vital question, maybe the question, in clean tech communications.

You can sit in a conference room all day hashing out your product positioning, but if you can’t get your audience to feel, you’ll never get them to act.

This truth concerns me from a life-or-death perspective as some of the most concrete, tangible, visible symptoms of our planet’s problems – the things that make us care – are fading away. We, the audience, care just a little less each day.

The BP well has stopped spewing, so the underground oil cam is boring. Tony Hayward has sailed away from the executive suite, taking his $18 million and our anger with him. The oil slick is … well, where the hell has it gone?

Climate change is at least as frustrating as oil fatigue because it’s an abstraction even as it suffocates the planet. Although it’s sweltering here in New England, global warming will seem pretty academic in December. And while the slow implosion of the ocean’s food chain isn’t as jarring as the pothole on your street, ocean warming is being blamed for a 40 percent decrease in the ocean’s algal biomass.

Plastiki gets the art of caring. The sailboat, made of 12,500 reclaimed plastic bottles, just arrived in Sydney after 128 days crossing the Pacific and spotlighting the blight of plastic trash in the ocean. It was an inspired communications gambit that has successfully given compelling physical form to an environmental concern we hardly see.

The vessel was years in the making. Sometimes it takes that kind of effort to make people care. Keep that in mind when you’re fighting the good fight for clean technology.

Sadly, bad news can be easier to care about. Although the plankton decline isn’t so scary, when Louisiana’s seafood restaurants become pasta joints, that will certainly get people’s attention.

It’s official: Climategate undermined trust in scientists

If you can’t trust scientists about climate change, who can you trust?

Americans lost faith in scientists and grew more skeptical about the reality of global warming following Climategate, according to a compelling new report, “Climategate, Public Opinion and the Loss of Trust,” by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

Climategate refers to the e-mail leak heard around the world in November 2009. Skeptics claimed it as smoking-gun evidence that climate scientists are exaggerating global warming, suppressing research they don’t like, and hiding information from the public.

The report, released on Monday, shows that Americans surveyed just after Climategate broke were significantly:

  • More doubtful that global warming is really happening,
  • Less likely to blame humans (as opposed to natural causes) for global warming,
  • Less trusting of scientists. (Scientists, however, remained much more trusted than weather reporters, President Obama, Al Gore, religious leaders or the mainstream media.)

An individualistic world view and a conservative ideology were the best predictors of a survey respondent’s loss of trust in climate scientists, the report said.   Other factors that may have contributed to the decline in belief, trust and worry around global warming include the moribund economy, the new administration and Congress, media coverage and abnormally cool weather.

Whatever your belief, the safe bet is planning for the worst and hoping for the best.

What if we could cool the planet?

Manmade carbon dioxide emissions are knitting a wooly blanket around the planet at a time when we really need to throw off the covers. Yet even if we could stop driving, manufacturing things and producing dirty power, it may be too late: climate scientists agree that without major intervention, existing CO2 will keep warming the planet for the rest of the century.

A potential solution is geoengineering, says Jeff Goodell, who appeared at RiverRun Bookstore Wednesday for his new book “How to Cool the Planet.” The Rolling Stone/New York Times Magazine contributor’s previous book is “Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future” (2006).

We have the technology, he says. We can brighten clouds or blow tiny sulfur mirrors into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight from the earth’s surface. Deflecting 1 to 2 percent of sunlight would offset the warming effect of doubling today’s carbon emissions. We can also sequester CO2 by tossing iron in the ocean, thereby feeding plankton that will consume CO2 in photosynthesis and sink to the ocean floor. Oh, and there are tree-like machines that suck carbon from the air.

So how does this sound? Like a quick fix? Like Star Wars (the missile shield)? Like a threat to our spiritual integrity?

“Reaganesque,” said one young man in the audience, almost certainly born after the 40th president left office.

Goodell understands the anxiety. He’s conservation-minded himself and, in fact, headed to the Arctic Circle this weekend to better understand the warming threat. Geoengineering was “science fiction writ large” until he talked to enough smart people to conclude that we don’t have the luxury of being properly appalled. We’re staring down calamity.

Some of his conclusions:

Geoengineering is dangerous politically. A quick fix is precisely what some people like. As the ink on the book dried, he got a delighted call from the nation’s biggest fossil-fuel lobbyist. “We love your book!” Gulp.

Worse, geoengineering could enable rich individuals or states to act unilaterally to manipulate the climate. It’s like nuclear weapons: “How do you keep the crazy person’s finger off the trigger?”

Geoengineering will happen sooner or later. We’re in a position where we’ll have to consider this at some point, he says. We should start talking about it now.

Worse than technological hubris is human apathy. “The real risk is being fat dumb and stupid a lot longer and riding into this superheated world without any heed,” he says.

Ultimately, Goodell concludes that we are, like it or not, a species that manipulates our environment. Do you own an air conditioner? Do you like heat in the winter? He works another metaphor beautifully: I’ve discovered that the people who understand this best are gardeners. I’m not much of a gardener myself, but I am married to one. My wife, Michele, is happiest when she has dirt under her fingernails, and one of her highest aspirations in life is to grow all our own food. It’s because of her that our kids have such a heightened sensitivity to the freshness of green beans that they can take one bite and tell you, with a good chance of being correct, whether the bean is store-bought or homegrown.

My wife’s garden is, by any standard, a product of human artifice. There is nothing “wild” about it, nothing undisturbed, nothing left alone. She has planted every plant and mixed the soil to her liking with imported alpaca manure. The garden is entirely organic – she’s no more likely to use Miracle-Gro than she is to dye her hair pink – but it is also entirely human. It is an artifact, but it is a living artifact. You do not walk through her vegetable garden and admire the basil and the asparagus an feel that nature has been banished.

Compelling thought indeed, but still, it’s just Goodell’s backyard.

I want to learn more. And as a professional communicator, I’m eager to see how geoengineering alights on our national radar screen. I cringe at the possibility (certainty?) that politicians and pundits will get hold of this and club one another silly with it, as with health care. And despite my status as a card-carrying independent, the possibility (certainty?) of the profit motive getting further entangled with the fate of the planet concerns me.

Can we start a conversation on geoengineering? Should we start one? If so, how?

Our planet’s situation: ‘crisis’ or ‘quest’?

How we brand environmental challenges may have a big impact on our planet’s fate.

So suggests New York Times “Dot Earth” blogger Andrew C. Revkin. “If I had to choose one of two bumper stickers for our car — CLIMATE CRISIS or ENERGY QUEST — I’d choose the latter,” he says. “This doesn’t mean I reject the idea that we face a climate crisis. I just don’t think that phrase is a productive way to frame this challenge, particularly as defined over the last few years in the heated policy debate.”

If we must consider ourselves in crisis, he says, let’s define it right. Citing a colleague’s argument, Revkin views crisis less as catastrophe or cause for alarmism than a crucial or decisive moment, a turning point. This approach seems to cool passion without sacrificing urgency. And though Revkin sees a need to act immediately, he wants to focus on the positive.

I’m talking about a sustained quest, from the household light socket to the boardroom, the laboratory to the classroom, the smart post-industrial American city to the struggling, (literally) powerless sub-Saharan village. This is not some onerous task, but an active, positive assertion that the ways we harvest and use energy — an asset long taken for granted and priced in ways that mask its broader costs — really do matter. Dry places do this with water all the time. In Israel, there is no toilet without two flush options. It’s not some goofball green concept; it’s just the way things are done.

The TriplePundit blog’s Deborah Fleischer has some complementary ideas for effective sustainability communications. Although the post has corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports in mind, the principles can apply to any communication.

Tell positive stories about specific challenges and successes.

Make a specific request. Instead of calling for a new green mindset, for example, suggest specific actions like printing on double sides or reusing water bottles.

Engage people’s emotions. Data and logic are great, now bring it home. How many trees does that equal? Present a photo of a forest as big as the thing you’re talking about, or work in three dimensions by, say, creating a sculpture from all the plastic water bottles you’ve collected in your office. For mind-blowing, emotion-charged examples of consumption run amok, see artist Chris Jordan’s portraits of mass consumption.

Finally, use non-controlling language. Try please think about and please consider instead of you should.

Whether your planet or your business is at stake (somehow I believe they’re interconnected), how you say it is important.

Top green tech links for the week of 3/22

  • The Green:Net conference announced its Top 10 LaunchPad green startup company winners. My favorite: ecoATM, which pays you cash for your old electronics through an automated kiosk. (Via GigaOm)
  • Egg-beater-style windmill maker says it can double wind farm output by creating mini-tornados. (Via GreenTech Media)
  • Vegan buzzkill: Study says cutting back on animal products won’t have a major impact on global warming. (Via Green Car Congress)
  • Environmental journalist Marc Gunther calls out Corporate Responsibility Magazine for numerous implausible winners and ommisions in its Top 100 Best Corporate Citizens list. (Via
  • If you’re not a big fan of blowing up mountain tops for mining, you’ll enjoy the video of “Rev. Billy” dumping a wheelbarrow load of mountain blow at one of the mining company’s bank investors. Can I get an amen? (via TreeHugger)



A few environmental predictions worth checking out

Forecasting anything except the weather in Antarctica is a low-margin game, at best, so I usually discount forecasts and predictions (including my own) at a hefty rate. Having said that, however, the American Society of Landscape Architects recently wrote some environmentally-related predictions that were engaging enough that I hope they come true – or in a few cases, don’t come true.

Aside from the subject matter itself, the thing I like about the ASLA’s predictions is that they communicate well. What I mean is that most of the predictions describe changes that would be very visible in the average person’s life – the proliferation of bicycles for commuting, or the growing cost of fuel making urban agriculture economically viable again. Check out the predictions on the ASLA’s “The Dirt” blog. What do you think?

2009: Looking back at the year in environmental issues

The scribes at here at CleanSpeak central have written about everything from wind, to solar, to endangered natural landscapes, to endangered McMansions, to Christmas trees, to hybrid vehicles this year. We decided to take a look back and nominate our own slate of candidates for the Top 5 Environmental Stories of 2009.

  1. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. It included $80 billion for green/sustainable initiatives like a smart power grid, renewable energy technology, home heating efficiency and green job training programs. If the American economy is going to be more sustainable, it’s going to take this kind of government leadership.
  2. The Copenhagen Climate Conference. It didn’t accomplish much of substance, but all of the major players were in one place duking it out, which at least elevates the issue of climate change to a more prominent place in the public eye.
  3. Boeing gets the 787 jet liner off the ground. The 787 Dreamliner, with a composite rather than aluminum skin, represents a future of more environmentally friendly air travel. With its more efficient engines and lightweight construction, the Dreamliner can make long hauls on less fuel than any of its forerunners or its ostensible competitor, the oversized Airbus A380.
  4. More polar bears are going hungry. Polar bears might be to this generation what the canary in the coal mine was the previous generations. Scientists in 2009 announced that the number of under-nourished bears has tripled in the last 20 years. The culprit is warmer global temperatures that are shrinking the ice masses where the world’s largest land predator hunts for seals.
  5. Chevrolet officially unveils the Volt. General Motors is staking a lot of its future on the plug-in hybrid, which is its long-delayed answer to hybrids from Toyota, Honda, Ford, and now Mercedes. That’s quite a turnaround for the company known for environmental nightmares like the Humvee, which gets about nine yards per gallon if it has a good tail wind.

There were, of course, innumerable other environmentally tinged stories this year. Any thoughts on what should have made the list? Let us know!

Maibach says climate change is about you & me, not plants & polar bears

Ed Maibach had an epiphany while mountain hiking in 2006. Walking with Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber – Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research – he realized that while climate change is the ultimate threat to the public’s health and well-being, the vast majority of us don’t realize it.

This inspired him to refocus his work on prevention and adaptation, joining George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication in 2007.

Ed Maibach – Center for Climate Change Communication“Climate change is associated with all kinds of things, from alarmists to demonstrators to extremists to it being a ‘Democratic issue.’ Fundamentally, it’s been framed as an environmental issue, but it should be a human, public health issue,” Maibach told me in a recent get together.

But how do we get people to understand climate change is fundamental to the survival of human civilization – to you and me? Maibach’s working on a few very interesting communications initiatives involving people who are innately trusted by the general public. Two examples he cited (there are many other possibilities) are local TV weather forecasters and pediatricians.

“People like this are right here in our local community. We see them or hear from them often. We rely on their judgment and have a relationship with them. They could become a trusted conduit to educate people about the human impact of climate change.”

So let’s say you bring your child to the pediatrician and the subject of an extreme weather event comes up in a passing conversation. This moment can become an opportunity for the pediatrician to very casually connect this with global warming and the impact on your child. No dissertation, slide show and long discussion; just a simple, quick comment connecting effect with cause. It’s subtle, real-time and authentic.

Maibach said he’s securing funding from the National Science Foundation and will be testing this local trust concept with a CBS TV affiliate weathercaster in Columbia, South Carolina. If it goes well, the idea may scale nationally.

“People can’t grasp climate change. We need them to understand that global warming is (A) real and (B) bad for people.”

By subtly educating people through trusted connections, Maibach says, “We’re finding a way to fly this topic under the perceptual radar screen. If we can get your local pediatrician to explain what’s going on, then we’re letting what they say into our heads and hearts.”