(OPINION) Our thirteenth year of publication doesn’t look lucky. But luck is for the ill-prepared.
Each Earth Day, which is the anniversary of the founding of Energy Priorities, I hope it will be the year when sustainable energy policy will live up to the unbridled optimism I felt in 2004. I have been scrounging in recent months for ways to restock that optimism, and I found plenty.
Sustainable energy has survived retropolicy administrations before. Everyday environmentalists don’t remember the incoming George W. Bush administration as being so threatening because we didn’t have Facebook and Twitter back then. As expected, that administration was in the pockets of the fossil fuel industries. It was damaging, but not the end of the world.
Sustainable energy has survived an obstructionist Congress before. It was in exactly that political climate that the United States joined the rest of the world in the Paris climate accord, which large businesses including some in utilities, oil, autos and coal still defend.
“Why the US should stay in the Paris climate agreement”
Ban Ki-Moon and Robert Stavins in The Boston Globe
Granted, the outlook has taken a turn for the worst. If that wasn’t evident on inauguration day when the Republican administration’s “America First” philosophy put sustainable energy last, then it is evident today as that embryonic government tries to back out of the Paris Agreement and dismantle renewable energy subsidies, the EPA, and Energy Star.
Gloomy headlines notwithstanding, here are five reasons I feel optimistic for sustainable energy this year:
Businesses and consumers are global.
Not only is the rest of the world way ahead of the United States on sustainability, it is not slowing down. U.S. businesses are working to minimize that gap because being behind will limit growth. Outside this country there is no uncertainty or doubt about global warming; corporate silence on greenhouse gas emissions is complicity in the status quo.
Today it is hard to find a business of any size that confines its businesses within our borders. (My college advisors found it curious, decades ago, that I wanted to study small business and international business. Because, I said: soon all business would be global.) Globalism is real, it benefits Americans, and it’s here to stay.
Many major U.S. companies have embraced sustainable energy as part of broader efforts to bolster their triple bottom line. They see that their global marketplace is made up of consumers who prefer and, in the long run, will demand responsible products made by sustainability-minded businesses.
“Is American Enterprise More Powerful Than The President Of The United States?”
Ken Silverstein in FORBES
Investors hold the purse strings.
Even if environmental policies are rolled back, investors have shown that they won’t stand for giving businesses carte blanche to disregard environmental governance. Pension fund investors and university stakeholders have demanded divestiture from polluting businesses. Some of the largest funds have championed responsible investing for a decade or longer. Activist investors, even conservative institutional investors, can do the same in any public company including utilities.
“Investors Sharpen Focus on Social and Environmental Risks to Stocks”
Randall Smith in The New York Times
States are stepping up climate policy.
States have financial influence on the national stage. Some states will meet climate action commitments without the Paris agreement, which is good PR for Governors.
The states, not feds, make utility regulatory decisions about how much to support renewables and efficiency. And utilities always think far beyond the current administration, often planning 40 to 60 years out.
Governors can insist that “investing in American infrastructure” includes sustainable energy and a smarter grid. Or at least refuse to participate in building dead-end fossil fuel infrastructure like oil pipelines and coal terminals.
States also have legislative options including taxation. State-level carbon tax policies are an option for financially strapped states. A well crafted price on carbon applied to energy production and transportation fuels should be possible in several states.
To “backstop” is to pass state regulations replicating hard-earned federal regs that the GOP administration may let backslide by reversing or simply not enforcing them. And as new fed standards stall, states can set their own efficiency standards, for example forcing old energy-hog versions of appliances and machinery off the market.
Why did I prioritize businesses before the states? For one simple reason: states court businesses to locate and stay in their states. When big business talks, governors listen.
“With Trump in White House, states must take the lead on climate change”
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder in The Denver Post
Cities are where we live.
People find it easier to support hometown initiatives that affect them and people they know directly. And it’s easier to communicate about those initiatives to a city-scale audience with a shared experience.
In Seattle, my home city, we identify with our city and feel proud of it, even when life isn’t peachy. Residents of most cities can say the same. There’s a sense of bonding together against a harsh world – or, at least, against competing sports teams.
If you’re a behavioral psychology nerd this is the in-group, or if you read a lot of Cialdini you know it as a unity principle.
Taken to the city council level, low-income communities can have outsize influence on clean energy, air and water. Watch what is happening with environmental justice communities, e.g., WE ACT in New York.
City policies can champion ideas that spread around the globe. Copenhagen taught the world how to do bicycle lanes, and Paris launched bike sharing, both of which have sprouted in other cities around the world. City ideas can champion policies that spread, too. Mayors should stand up for a good idea, even if they think it’s impossible in their city, because other cities will be inspired.
“Under Trump, look to cities and metros to power America forward”
Bruce Katz on Brookings.edu
Positioning is flexible.
The Republican administration will work to position renewable energy and efficiency as parts of a liberal climate conspiracy. That position can be counteracted.
Repositioning allows you to change the message without changing the end goal. How should sustainable energy be repositioned? Two important marketing lessons apply today more than before.
Solve the right problem.
First, we learned people buy what they want, not what companies wish they wanted. Case in point: Prospects for home energy efficiency respond better to messages of comfort than energy savings.
That’s an example of a principle that says businesses and consumers ultimately strive to make progress toward their ideal world. Their buying decisions are tightly coupled with the next step in that direction. For some it’s simple — saving money, or keeping up with the Joneses — but for many it is more complex.
Marketing messages can be constructed to appeal to multiple drivers. Businesses justify decisions based on factors such as revenue protection, building brand loyalty, or reducing compliance risk, as well as industry-specific financial metrics. Energy efficiency can be positioned to align with all of those.
Speak the right language.
Second, we mustn’t ignore that portion of the market that says they don’t care about the environment. George Lakoff explains very well why conservatives who disavow any belief or complicity in climate change will justify buying solar panels because they want to be energy independent.
That independence aligns with their inherent need to feel personally responsible. They might never believe that global warming is anthropomorphic, but they will believe that their utility is under attack by liberal policies and cannot be relied on to supply energy.
I am not suggesting that you launch any conspiracy theories. What I recommend is to look at the language you use in marketing sustainable energy and consider how to match benefits with conservative value drivers like responsibility, self-reliance and fatherhood.
Happy Earth Day. Keep up the good work. Look away from the daily drumbeat of negative headlines and focus on preparing for the retropolicy of the next four to eight years. Luck hasn’t created a national permanent shift to cleaner energy, but your perseverance will.
Comments? Please include your colleagues in your comments on social media by sharing this. Our social links are on this page including our LinkedIn Group and Facebook Page. On the other hand, if launching social media draws you down a rabbit hole of pessimistic headlines, you’re welcome to e-mail me instead.