Climate of hope

Global warming is the worst news of our time. But pessimism saps our will. It's time to embrace the challenge, and call boldly on Americans to win the fight of a lifetime.

By Kevin Sweeney
April 4, 2006 2:33PM (UTC)
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Earlier this year in San Francisco, I was lucky enough to sit in on Al Gore's slide show on global warming. It's the most brilliant articulation of climate science I've ever seen. With time-lapse photography, excellent graphs and charts, snippets from cartoon shows, and vivid examples, the former vice president makes it easy to grasp the scale and the urgency of the climate crisis. His delivery is perfect -- he roams the stage, sometimes whispering and sometimes shouting. It's enthralling.

Gore's slide show is the subject of a forthcoming documentary and book, both titled "An Inconvenient Truth." It's also a welcome sign that climate change is finally a blinking red light of concern on the American radar screen. Two new books with rich and heartbreaking details -- Elizabeth Kolbert's "Field Notes From a Catastrophe" and Tim Flannery's "The Weather Makers" -- also deliver an exceptionally clear picture of how global warming is already on us and what disasters lie in wait should we fail to act.


All of this should be good news because it offers Americans a better handle on climate change. But it's not all good news, largely because it's all bad news. Really bad news. Something is missing from all of these stories: hope.

I left the Gore event more energized than I had been in years. But I also left feeling a bit angry. Gore spent 91 minutes describing the crisis and six minutes on closing remarks intended to be hopeful. He described how America previously addressed seemingly insurmountable challenges -- ending slavery, enacting women's suffrage, winning two world wars -- to suggest we could solve problems that today appear even more daunting. And he offered a checklist of programs various governments had implemented.

The ending felt like an add-on, as if to say, "Now that the real show is over, let me give you a few quick ideas so you don't think all is lost." A storyteller that good -- and Gore has become a brilliant one -- should do more than find a glimmer of hope. The challenge is to find it, develop it and build on it.


The facts of climate change can be overwhelming. I recently observed focus groups in South Carolina, part of an effort to create messages to help moderates and conservatives understand the urgency of climate change. I saw lively conversations progress to a point when, abruptly, some of the participants began to shut down. As they grasped the urgency, they couldn't envision solutions or the political will to bring them about. They looked depressed.

Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist, wrote, "It is hope, not despair, which makes successful revolutions." While this is a notion most American generations haven't needed to understand -- ours has been a fortunate history -- it may be time for us to learn it. When we tell stories of potential desperation, we must also find ways of offering hope. Always.

How would such a hopeful story go? There can be many versions, just as there are many cultural variations of the hero myth. The best stories will vary in style and tone, but all will be ambitious. Hugely ambitious. Admitting that ambition is not always linked with skill, Ill offer my own stories to show how hope might be distilled from the news about global warming.


The horror movie

Those of us who give slide shows about climate change can frame the presentation in ways that evoke familiar movie dramas. We can tell audience members they are about to be treated to the scariest movie they will ever see. Ever.

But we can also remind them of the familiar plot points in horror movies. The protagonist is given a challenge or burden that looks insurmountable -- there's no way out. But in that challenge, or in the sadness and fear associated with it, we gain a window into the heart and soul of the protagonist. It is the key to their greatness. We find out things the protagonists didn't even know about themselves. We see -- they see -- their courage and their depth. What looked to be a static or end-of-life stage is revealed as a chrysalis; the hero begins to emerge.


That is the story line we use -- before, during and after -- the slide show. We help the audience see what might happen along the way. Some of those present will come away with a new mission in life, with a sense of destiny -- for themselves, for their generation, for our country. The more people hear about climate change and really begin to understand it, the more they are willing to commit. And amazing things happen to us when we commit -- as individuals and as a people.

We state boldly -- with courage, not fear -- that climate change is the biggest challenge the world has ever faced. We state boldly that we can and will address it successfully. We will do so because we must, because we can, and because we're Americans. We admit it will take massive changes in our country -- far bigger than the changes we made during World War II -- but we also state with confidence that we'll be stronger for having made them.

I think back to the day when Neil Armstrong walked the moon. I was 11 and filled with pride. I watched the entire drama unfold -- the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo launches. I was a spectator. The astronauts would succeed whether I cared or not. With climate change, our country can again do unimaginably wondrous deeds. But this time I won't be mere spectator. None of us will be. We will all participate, all do our share. Think of how that will feel.


If we embrace this challenge as our own, if we choose to take dramatic steps to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we create a new sense of national spirit. We will find ourselves at a point where Americans are meeting our great potential. We haven't done this often, but we we can do so once again. The world will be surprised. We'll be surprised.

The C-word

This story line evokes the yellow wristbands now worn by tens of millions of people around the world. It can help people see that sometimes our problems hold the key to our salvation. Our experience with climate change may help us find a new level of greatness.


Lance Armstrong has said many times that getting cancer was the best thing that ever happened to him. The course of his recovery -- the changes he made in his lifestyle and training, the immediacy with which he approached decisions and tasks -- is what enabled him to win the Tour de France seven times. It made him a better cyclist and, he suggests, a better man.

That's what we're dealing with here. Climate change can kill us or it can save us. As we deliver the diagnosis -- as Gore, Kolbert and Flannery do so effectively -- we share news that is every bit as devastating, as immediate, as powerful as the word cancer. But many cancer survivors will tell us, as Lance has told us, that the disease itself changed their lives in positive ways. It helped them find greater levels of commitment, of satisfaction, of spirituality. Their recovery helped them achieve great things.

This illness -- climate change -- may do the same thing for America. It will test us, threaten us and scare us, but it may also transform us. If we deal with it seriously, we will be a stronger and better country.

I don't mean to paint a rosy picture of cancer. I've lost dear friends to it, and it is horrible. But I do mean to point out that most people who receive a diagnosis with that key word -- the C word -- live through it. And their lives are often better because of it.


So when we give the diagnosis of climate change, we must pair it with a look-me-in-the-eye style of communication that says, yes, we can do this if we work on it together. Before the diagnosis, we frame it with the prospect of hope. After the diagnosis, we shift back to hopeful messages, as a means of inspiring quick action.

Oncologists understand this clearly; they don't wait a few weeks to give a sense of hope. They articulate it immediately, concurrent with the bad news. They know hope is a significant additive to the medicine, treatment and lifestyle changes required to survive cancer.

Silicon Valley 2.0

Because emotional language will not work for many audiences, we can weave a powerful economic story. Nearly every nation on earth has ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty proposing action on climate change. The key exception is the United States, where political fears and alliances ended any serious discussions before they began. If we view this issue not through a political lens, but a commercial one, some of our fears may shift.


The Kyoto Protocol isn't merely a political document -- it's the equivalent of market research. Viewing the protocol from this perspective, we see that most of the world's nations believe climate change is real and urgent and are attempting to do something about it. That allows the commercially inclined among us to move on to the wonderfully crass questions about what products we might sell them. We start to ask: Whose appliances will the world buy? Whose fuel cells and photovoltaic panels? Whose light bulbs? Whose cars?

This basic market intelligence may be the single most important key to thriving in a new economy. There is money to be made here -- lots of it. There are jobs here -- lots of them. This is Silicon Valley 2.0. We thrived with the information revolution, developing computers and software to change how the world works and plays. We can thrive again with a clean energy revolution, changing the way the world finds power for electricity and transport. But we can only thrive if we lead, if we take action now.

We all know one of the essential axioms of business: the customer is always right. Somehow, we appear to have forgotten this. Americans are saying that global customers are wrong, that oil is still king. If the world wants products to help reduce carbon emissions, then why aren't we making them? It may well be that our supposedly business-friendly political leaders are letting their political views interfere with business.

Orienting our country around a new energy revolution can be about many things -- like renewing the American spirit. It is also about renewing the American economy.


A little bit of hubris

How can we create an honest picture of what it would really take to address the climate crisis? By starting with the heroic embrace of the challenge involved. We make it clear that we're not talking about a laundry list of proposals. We make it clear we are not willing to accept solutions beneath our destiny. We refuse to stand back and wait for others to lead. That would only hide the best in our character. The heroic starting point is essential because of what comes next. We put everything on the table. Everything.

Our federal government can commit to massive purchases of solar power: $1 billion in solar panels in the first year, $2 billion in the second year, and $5 billion in the third and fourth years. These investments will pay for themselves over a 20-year span. They will also change the marketplace. With these long-term commitments, we let investors know the demand will be there. The increasing supply and competition will drive down prices. We'll get much greater value for our purchases in the third and fourth years because prices will have dropped in half. Solar roof panels will finally be cheap enough for many Americans to put on our homes; many of us will get to do our part.

We can change our tax code to drive people away from fossil fuels. It won't happen overnight, but over a period of five years, we can tax less of America's hard work (which is what we do when we rely solely on income taxes) and more of its fuel consumption.

In the first few years of a carbon tax, an average family would pay roughly the same amount in federal taxes that it pays now. Over time, as this family reduces its use of fossil fuels, it will pay less in taxes; if not, it will pay more. It will be essential to consider the impacts on families or businesses that rely heavily on fossil fuels -- a family living in a frigid, rural area, for example. (Many communities have worked out challenges like this in times of drought, requiring relative reductions in water use.) Likewise, we will consider impacts on regions where the extraction of fossil fuels powers the local economy.

Taxes are a scary topic in politics, which is why the dramatic story line about leading a new American charge is essential. We showed our hubris in changing the climate: We'll need more of it to bring about solutions.

We can increase the CAFE standards -- fuel economy standards for auto fleets -- from the current 22 miles per gallon to 40 miles per gallon, and do it within 10 years. American automakers will claim this is impossible, that it will lead to bankruptcy. But if we tax carbon use, American consumers will have a much greater incentive to buy fuel-efficient cars.

We can offer loan guarantees and other financial incentives to states so they can encourage their own clean-energy programs. This effort doesn't need to be government-driven or based in Washington; it should be driven by entrepreneurs, wherever they live. The federal government's role can be as lead investor.

With these and similar steps, we will eliminate our reliance on foreign oil within 10 years. Not reduce -- like going halfway to the moon -- but eliminate. It may sound absurdly ambitious, but it isn't. Technologically, it's an easier target than John Kennedy's claim that we would reach the moon by the end of the '60s. When it comes to our lifestyles, it requires fewer sacrifices than Americans made during World War II. Previous generations have stretched; now it's our turn.

Climate change should be the primary driver in our biggest decisions over the next 20 years. It should define our major economic investments, tax policies and foreign policy. It is that big. It is that big of a threat, that big of an opportunity. It is not merely one of many important issues -- it is the issue that will define our generation. It is our destiny.

The focus on climate change does not stop us from dealing with other issues. A need to encourage greater innovation from American businesses may require changes in our healthcare policies. Many Americans stay in jobs they don't like because they need healthcare, a fact that kills productivity. Many Americans can't take risks with new businesses because they fear losing their healthcare, a fact that kills innovation. So we don't push away other issues; we simply consider them in a context defined by climate change.

If and when we deal with this challenge successfully, we'll be an economic power because we will have led a transformation of the global energy system. We'll be respected around the world because we'll have engaged with our global partners in a respectful way. We'll be safer because we're less isolated. We'll be a fulfilled nation because every American will have taken part in this reinvention. We will have done something amazing. We will be tested, surely, but our character, and our greatness, will be revealed.

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In the end, the stories I've offered, and the solutions I've proposed, are not enough. Not nearly. But I return to them because I can't accept the shutdown that I see so often in others, and that I often feel in myself. The fear of climate change grabs our attention, but we need to offer hope if we expect people to change.

I appreciate the major obstacles Americans have overcome. I like hearing stories about the Apollo mission, World War II and other amazing moments in our history. But we must look ahead. Kennedy didn't describe past American achievements; he created a specific target and helped us see how and why we would reach it. It is more effective to help people visualize exactly how we can make changes, and exactly how it will feel when we get there.

Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence was a screed, a long list of grievances. But he opened with a vision of a better future. He gave us our historic challenge by claiming that equality was a self-evident truth. Martin Luther King Jr. never failed to call racism by its ugly name, and he described the nightmare it inflicts. But he also took time to describe the dream of equality. He told us what it looks like from the mountaintop. These quintessential American leaders understood the strategic value of hope.

That's the challenge for environmentalists. The screed should go on, and the climate-change nightmare should continue to be described in excruciating detail. But the description of success -- and what it might look like from the mountaintop -- is equally important. Hope is not like a soil nutrient, added only to foster growth in the spring. It is far more important. It is the seed. It is life.

Kevin Sweeney

Kevin J. Sweeney, an environmental consultant in Piedmont, Calif., served as press secretary to former Sen. Gary Hart.

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Al Gore Environment Global Warming