June 5, 2022 marked another World Environment Day.
According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, the world still isn’t doing enough to combat human-induced climate change.
We shouldn’t be surprised.
The report follows John Kerry’s worries about the emissions consequences from a Russian war against Ukraine and the international community’s paltry promises at the most recent COP26 conference on climate change.
This is part of a pattern.
A top-down approach that asks people to make sacrifices is unlikely to gain traction and build the political support that leaders need to achieve climate goals.
Until combating climate change aligns with the progress that people are trying to make in their daily lives—from feeding their families and staying warm to traveling for work and fun—the efforts to change how we consume energy will be futile.
This reality calls for a bottoms-up approach to tackling climate change that’s led by entrepreneurs and the pursuit of opportunity, not government action based on coercion and threats.
Why leaders consistently fail to meet lofty climate goals
It’s not for a lack of effort, research, or talking about the importance of reversing climate change.
Today, more than 99% of scientists agree that climate change is serious and that humans are accelerating it, up from 97% in 2013.
Leaders will host the 27th UN Climate Change Conference, COP27, this November. Yet since the first COP in 1995, annual global CO2 emissions have risen by 55%, from 21.3 Giga tonnes to 33 Giga tonnes.
Taking climate action relies on changes in consumer and industry behavior, not on governmental promises and policies.
The evidence shows that even if they are concerned about climate change, individuals aren’t prioritizing change. In September, 2021, a Statista Research Survey found that just 4% of U.S. respondents felt that dealing with climate change was the most important problem facing the country. Issues such as immigration and the state of the economy ranked higher.
Addressing climate change just isn’t an urgent priority for most.
Climate change proposals today equate to spending more money or raising the costs to consumers of products. But for almost 40% of Americans, an unexpected $400 expense poses a serious challenge. They would either have to borrow from a friend, sell something, or put it on a credit card and pay over time.
That’s symbolic of what concerns tens of millions of Americans. When they wake up every day, they struggle to make rent, afford their health expenses, and pay for food, gas, and diapers.
In less wealthy countries, that struggle is greater. They prioritize climate change even less.
Reframing climate change from a threat to an opportunity
There are only so many ways one can say the world is burning and not get the world’s attention. Threats alone aren’t working.
Research by Clark Gilbert, the former president of BYU-Idaho, demonstrates that when organizations offer new teams the ability to reframe problems as opportunities instead of threats, they can use the required resources to develop innovative solutions that work. In contrast, solutions that stem from viewing something as a threat are rigid, top-down, and ineffective.
We must now reframe climate change as an opportunity.
Entrepreneurs should develop green innovations that help people make progress on the things they are actually prioritizing. Doing so will have a much higher chance of success than enacting policies that will help the environment but not people’s living conditions.
Entrepreneurs shouldn’t seek to cram in innovations that are more expensive or less efficacious than current solutions but rely on government subsidies to survive. They should instead follow the laws of innovation and take one of two paths.
First, innovations can improve upon existing technologies to help people better take care of what they are prioritizing. These sorts of innovations have led to more efficient goods that help explain the lowering of emissions output in wealthy nations.
An example is Nest thermostats. By improving the thermostat, Tony Fadell created a tool that has led to demonstrable savings in both energy and costs. According to Nest, the Nest Learning Thermostat saved households roughly 10% on heating and 15% on cooling—or $131 to $145 a year. That success is paving the way for even more innovative programs that dynamically price energy and incentivize families to save money and consume less energy. No sacrifices required.
The other path for entrepreneurs is to create new markets that have not yet existed. By investing in green market-creating innovations, all the new technologies will have to do is compete against the alternative—nothing at all, against which they can gain traction and steadily improve to help people make daily progress against more complicated problems and tasks.
D.light, based in India, took this approach. Over 2 billion people live without reliable access to electricity worldwide. D.light initially created durable, solar-powered lamps fit for consumers’ energy requirements, which were small—often around 0.5 watts. From there the company has expanded to serve over 100 million individuals and offset 23 million tons of CO2.
Another company, M-KOPA, enables millions of African families to gain access to solar-powered products, such as TVs, refrigerators, and fans. It has prevented more than 2 million tons of CO2 emissions.
These companies by themselves won’t solve the climate challenge. But the principles behind their success can.
Given this, global leaders should stop talking about the importance of climate change and setting goals that will be missed. They should focus more on helping people.
Rather than rail on the selfishness of individuals unwilling to make sacrifices in their desires to achieve more stable, prosperous lives, leaders should inspire entrepreneurs to create solutions that fit into those desires for progress. That has a much greater likelihood of leading to progress than more empty promises.