Pivoting from Problems to Solutions

I recently traveled to Cleveland, Ohio for the annual meeting of the Climate and Energy Funders Group, an association of philanthropic organizations whose funding supports clean energy and climate-related initiatives.

Most foundations represented at this conference dwarf High Meadows, both in size and in scope of work – many fund nationally and across many issue areas. However, there was common ground in a proposition that emerged during many of the sessions I attended:

The environmental community needs to pivot from focusing on problems to focusing on solutions.

There is, of course, no shortage of problems to address when it comes to the environment, and a few that came up during the conference included:

  • The coal industry, responsible for the most carbon intensive form of energy production in the world, is fighting tooth and nail to maintain political and economic clout despite its declining value as an industry;
  • There is a widespread perception that environmentalism and economic prosperity are mutually exclusive; and
  • Governments from around the world have yet to make meaningful, binding, or coordinated commitments toward mitigating anthropogenic contributions to climate change.

Much of the fight against fossil fuel incumbency, economic conservativism, and political inertia has required articulation, for such problems cannot be addressed if they haven't been defined. But such articulation, often implied as reason enough to act given the apocalyptic predictions of the scientific community, has yet to inspire large-scale, paradigmatic change. To the bewilderment of many, communicating sustained and unambiguous urgency has not catalyzed meaningful action.

Fiscal conservatives have fueled society's collective dithering by vehemently rejecting environmentalists’ foremost premise: Namely, humans are unduly contributing to the changing climate and should thus change their behavior. Lending credence to such a proposition, the argument goes, risks negatively affecting job growth and the economy, for it would open the door to large-scale economic intervention and regulation by government.

Such willful obliviousness and denialism, aired by major news outlets as legitimate perspectives worth entertaining, has entrapped the environmental community in a perpetual state of defending all but incontrovertible scientific evidence. With so much of the movement’s bandwidth devoted to fighting a cyclical battle, it is little wonder attempts to delegitimize the fossil fuel industry, to establish the fiduciary defensibility of socially responsible investments, and to spark global environmental action have struggled to gain currency.

The speakers and panelists in Cleveland called attention to this losing cause, suggesting a louder and longer drumbeat does not, in fact, encourage more coordinated marching. Nor does repetition of the same command incite new action. This isn’t a war of attrition, they implied, it’s an arms race.

Conversations about what it means to divest an individual’s, university’s, or public pension’s holdings of coal stocks need to be just as much about what it means to reinvest that money in promising clean energy technology.

Arguments about the short-term uncertainties of shifting to a clean and equitable economy need to be reappropriated to reflect the significant value, and security, in adopting a triple-bottom-line approach to doing business.

The idea of reaching a global climate accord can no longer be painted as a concessionary exercise; it needs to be reshaped as a political race to the top whereby swiftly acting governments will be lauded and rewarded for their leadership.

Until we shift our collective attention from risks to rewards, from problems to solutions, environmentalists’ hopes for the future will remain doomed to elusiveness. It isn’t too late to recast the die, and doing so may well mean the difference between the presently prophesied gloom and the untold possibilities of a progressive, innovative future.

Stu Fram
May 2014