We Need to Start Celebrating our Progress on Climate Change

Climate change news coverage is predominantly doom & gloom and finger-pointing. Real progress towards decarbonisation is being made: we need to widely share and celebrate it! This will create positive reinforcement and help us shift the debate from fear, confusion, and apathy to understanding, possibility, and action.

“They didn’t know it was impossible, so they did it” — Mark Twain

Did you know that:

I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t — positive climate change news isn’t getting the coverage it ought to.

In this post I’ll go through:

  1. Doom & gloom: how the most vocal figures on climate change appear to only cover negative news.
  2. Positive reinforcement: why I think it’s critical that we start sharing and discussing the progress made, to create positive reinforcement and change attitudes.
  3. Progress: examples of the progress we’re making, and reasons for celebration.

Doom & Gloom 😒

Let’s take three very popular figures in the global climate crisis discourse.

First, Greta Thunberg, the Swedish 16-year-old activist recently crowned TIME person of the year. Thunberg is doing a good job sounding the alarm, and it’s impressive to see such dedication at such a young age.

However, in everything I’ve read and heard from Thunberg, there is not a single piece of good news or praise for a third party effort.

For example, in her op-ed announcing the new world-wide climate strike. Thunberg opens with the following (highlight mine)

Unfortunately, the rest of the article remains equally one-sided.

Thunberg’s speech at the UN climate action summit is similar. There was not a single call-out or mention of any positive climate progress. Only accusations and threats.


Second, we have Zion Lights, spokesperson for the Extinction Rebellion. Lights recently appeared on BBC’s Andrew Neil show around the time the movement was protesting in London. Great! Eight mins to make her case to the country on prime-time national TV.

Watch the interview here

Here is the part that shocked me:

Neil: the agreed [IPCC] policy of is to try to cut carbon emissions by 2030, and go to 0 net emissions by 2050. But you want 2025 for 0 emissions, only 6 years away. What would that require?

Lights: I’m not here to give you solutions and to tell you what we should be doing.

To be fair, Lights does go on to say that she believes we need to listen to experts on their recommendations, and that her group is protesting because that’s not happening right now.

However, Lights, if you really wanted to see change happen, surely you would have a few of these recommendations ready to relay to the public? Or perhaps you could take a second to praise a company, group, or country that is leading the way to encourage others to follow suit?


Finally, let’s look at David Wallace-Wells’ book, The Uninhabitable Earth. This is the #2 best-selling book in the climate category on Amazon. Wallace-Wells paints a comprehensive picture of what we’re in for if we don’t de-carbonize fast enough. The book is well-researched and Wallace-Wells covers areas that are not discussed enough, such as mass population migration due to climate change.

A Story of the Future* (*good bits not included)

However, just like Thunberg and Lights, Wallace-Wells barely covers the hopeful news. Instead, here is how he opens a meager 14-page chapter on the promise of technology (out of the 320-page book) to help fight climate change (emphasis is mine):

“Should anything save us, it will be technology. But you need more than tautologies ”to save the planet, and, especially within the futurist fraternity of Silicon Valley, technologists have little more than fairy tales to offer. Over the last decade, consumer adoration has anointed those founders and venture capitalists something like shamans, Ouija-boarding their way toward blueprints for the world’s future. But conspicuously few of them seem meaningfully concerned about climate change.”

Wallace-Wells goes on to say that Silicon Valley seems more focused on the world of bits, not atoms — for instance AI and transhumanism over cleantech — so we can’t count on the Valley to help us. He then seems content to transfer this lazy dismissal to all technologists who, of course, include but aren’t limited to Silicon Valley.

“The main lesson from the church of technology runs in the other direction, instructing us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to regard the world beyond our phones as less real, less urgent, and less meaningful than the worlds made available to us through those screens, which happen to be worlds protected from climate devastation.”

Wallace-Wells thinks climate change is likely to make us extinct (!) and maybe the answer to Fermi’s paradox (i.e. why, given the size of the universe, we haven’t seen anyone out there yet).

I take the view that in a book that is so thorough in laying out the disaster scenarios, the author has an obligation to thoroughly cover the progress we’re making!

Where’s the positive reinforcement? 😟

To be clear: I agree with Thunberg, Lights, and Wallace-Wells on the need to sound the alarm, and I welcome their involvement and passion.

As things stand we are on track for a 3.2°C rise in temperatures by the end of the century. This level of warming will see more frequent and intense heatwaves, more damaging storms, higher ocean levels that will drive mass population migration and species extinction.

As a result, I implore us to discuss how we might drive the most positive behavioural change towards decarbonisation? Is it by:

  1. Publicly lamenting how far there is to go and shaming those that aren’t meeting their targets and helping the cause? Let’s call that the “doom & gloom” approach.
  2. Publicly praising and celebrating those that are making progress? Let’s call that the “positive reinforcement” approach.

The unfair advantage of doom & gloom

Doomsayers who stick to negative news and aren’t “in favour” of anything have a sure way to look wise and protect their reputation. By not promoting any concrete project or way forward, they aren’t putting their reputation on the line if that project fails or becomes obsolete.

Saying “we want a better world” and “look at all these problems happening” is impossible to disagree with, signals virtue, and keeps reputation risk all the way down.

It’s also a great way to be heard in this day in age. Good news doesn’t monetise (and therefore travel) nearly as well as bad news.

So, unfortunately, it seems the incentives are aligned for commentators to promote doom & gloom. As Charlie Munger said: “show me the incentive and I will show you the outcome”.

Why does positive reinforcement matter?

Positive reinforcement helps us leverage our status-seeking nature. We all seek approval, recognition, and status, which is offered by our peers through positive reinforcement. By celebrating today’s successes and praising those responsible for it we will inspire others to join in to get the same praise.

Positive reinforcement invites conversations about solutions, not problems. By celebrating progress we’ll naturally discuss how the authors were able to make such progress. We’ll ask what they did differently? What they believed that others didn’t? How might we implement these learnings in our own contexts?

Ben Horowitz made a similar point in his recent book about business culture, What You Do is Who You Are. Taking the example of Don Thompson, the first African-American CEO of McDonald’s, he said:

“As a society, we often ask, “Why do we have so few African-American CEOs of Fortune 500 companies?” And we get answers like “Racism, Jim Crow, slavery, and structural inequality.” Perhaps we should be asking, “How in the world did a black kid from the notorious Chicago housing project Cabrini-Green Gardens become the only African-American CEO of McDonald’s?” If we want to figure out why inclusion hasn’t worked, we ask the former. As we want to figure out how to make inclusion work, we should ask the latter.”

We can do it! 🙌

Given the reach and popularity of the doomsayers, you might be thinking: is there even anything to “positively reinforce”? Are there any success stories to be hopeful and celebratory about?

There absolutely is!

Project Drawdown is a pragmatic climate research organisation. Drawdown is the point at which atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases begin to decline year on year. We will get to that point by:

  1. ⚛Replacing existing fossil-fuel based energy generation with clean, renewable sources
  2. ♻Reducing greenhouse-gas producing consumption through technological innovation and behavioural change
  3. 🌳Removing carbon from the atmosphere, through natural (biosequestration) or technological methods (carbon capture)

Project Drawdown have mapped 100 solutions to solving global warming, and estimated their impact (in terms of CO2 reduction) when implemented globally over a 30-year period. Here are the top 20:

Top 20 solutions outlined by Project Drawdown. Source

It’s a fascinating set of recommendations to go through.

To me, they show that the highest impact solutions aren’t obvious. We need a lively, healthy debate about these solutions (not just how screwed we are!) to decide which to prioritize. For instance: I didn’t expect to see Refrigeration top the list (phasing out HFCs, as we previously did with the CFCs which they replaced and helped start closing the Ozone layer). The list also shows that we need to model second and third-order effects, which explains why educating girls is so high on the list. We should apply methodologies from the Effective Altruism movement to assessing climate change solutions.

They also show we’re making progress. Project Drawdown considers 80 of the 100 solutions to already exist today, but they need to be accelerated.

There’s a lot to be hopeful and talk about, so I’ll just pick one per major area that will get us to Drawdown.

1. ⚛Nuclear is safe, and getting even safer

Today, we can’t fully serve our energy needs with renewable sources. Their production is too variable and we can’t store the output long enough yet. As an example, California could store its renewables output for only 23 mins even if consumers used the batteries from every vehicle in the state.

This technical limitation on energy storage will improve with time but but, in the meantime, we need to complement renewables with other sources. We now know that the safest source to complement renewables with is nuclear:

We grossly overestimated the impact of the Fukushima incident. Germany and others started phasing out nuclear, replacing it with much deadlier coal. Since then, the WHO report on Fukushima concluded:

“the predicted risks are low and no observable increases in cancer rates above baseline rates are anticipated”

Newer nuclear technology is getting even safer. We’re developing plants that will be able to run on their own waste. This will make nuclear waste, which has been safely stored for over 70 years, even less of a hazard. We’re also working on running nuclear offshore, which is useful for cooling and to avoid the “not in my backyard” problem.

China, currently the world’s biggest coal energy user, understands the importance of nuclear and is building new nuclear power plants across the country:

Finally, we can be hopeful about nuclear fusion. If we make this technology work, we will effectively have a boundless, clean, and wasteless energy source. Let’s cheer-lead the two-dozen companies and governmental groups working on it!

2.♻We’re changing our diets

Livestock, including its use of arable land, energy, and the transportation supply chain, accounts for about 10% of total carbon emissions

The good news is that people increasingly know this and are adapting as a result. According to the FT, consumption of beef and pork has stopped growing in the US and Europe. Whole Foods estimates that about 15% of the Christmas dinners served in the UK this year were meat-free.

Source

Given global population growth, it’s possible that overall meat consumption is growing, but the slowdown in per-capita consumption is worth celebrating.

We’re inventing sustainable ways to produce meat or meat-replacements.

Lab-grown meat, which should have exactly the same taste as “naturally grown” meat (just without the guilt), is fast becoming cost-effective:

This is driven by lots of tech companies, including Silicon-Valley-based Mission Barns, which Wallace-Wells could have chosen to write about, instead of dismissing the whole sector!

Plant-based meat is already here. Burger King has plant-based Whoppers throughout the States, and McDonald’s is trialing vegan burger options.

This change in our diets is happening — it deserves to be celebrated and encouraged!

3.🌳Carbon disclosure and offsetting is on the rise

Companies, individuals and governments purchased a record amount of carbon offsets in 2018. This amounted to 435.7 million tonnes of CO2 sequestered or avoided, which equates to not consuming over one billion barrels of oil.

It’s now easier than ever for companies and individuals to offset their carbon footprint. Tree Nation helps companies fund and monitor reforestation projects. Project Wren helps you calculate your personal carbon footprint and offset it on an ongoing basis with projects you believe in.

Tree-nation tracks 2,114 reforestation projects funded by companies

Investors are now expecting their companies to disclose their carbon footprint and offset it. For example, $28bn hedge-fund TCI recently issued a stern warning to directors of companies they have a stake in:

TCI has warned Airbus, Moody’s, and other companies to improve their pollution disclosure or it will vote against their directors and called for asset owners to fire fund managers that did not insist on climate transparency

This increase in global demand for carbon offsetting fuels a healthy competition among different projects competing for these “offset dollars”, which in turn drives accountability and innovation:

https://twitter.com/ErnOpp/status/1170290582641631232

Conclusion 🌎

The most widely covered commentators on climate change today are doomsayers. This works for them: doomsayers avoid the reputational risk involved with publicly backing concrete solutions (which might fail), and our media infrastructure favors alarmist commentary.

To get out of the climate crisis, we need to change this narrative. While there is value in sounding the alarm, we also need to start widely sharing and celebrating the progress that’s being made. By positively reinforcing this behaviour, we will encourage each-other to do more of it.

For example, we should celebrate that:

  • Nuclear is safe, and getting even safer. China, the world’s biggest coal energy user, understands this and is building dozens of new plants.
  • We’re changing our diets. We’ve reached peak meat consumption per capita, plant-based burgers are here, and lab-grown meat is ready for the market.
  • Carbon disclosure and offsetting has never been higher. This fuels innovation and accountability in carbon-offsetting projects.

So let’s move the beyond the doom and gloom, and start discussing how we can scale the progress we’re already making!

My climate *success* scenario using the EN-ROADS tool from Climate Interactive. What’s yours?

Thanks for reading, and please don’t hesitate to reach out with responses here or on Twitter.

PS: Big thanks to Nathan Benaich and my brothers Octave and Gabriel for reviewing a draft of this post.

PPS: As I researched this post, I maintained a list of people, organisations, companies, podcasts whose views helped me the most.

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