Climate change and actionable messages: who will tell the story right?

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After attending coincidentally back-to-back panels on global warming, clean technologies, and the requirements and opportunities in front of us (us being “the world as we know it”), I’ve gained an interesting perspective on what could be the single greatest communications challenge of the next decade.

The general populace understands that climate change is an imminent threat to civilization, yet they are not fully motivated to take action. Who will tell the story that inspires change?

There are four constituencies that can make an impact on how clean technology is adopted — government, big business, small business innovators, and consumers. Today, the story is being told in different tones from the top down and the bottom up, and the result is a confused message of urgency (from those who understand the global impact) and delay (from those who favor profits over, well, breathable air).

Notes worth calling out, first from a talk delivered by Rick Duke [pdf] of the NRDC at an event hosted by Telos client Reynders, McVeigh Capital Management:

  1. Everything drops down from federal legislation. Without a message sent by Washington in the form of a carbon “cap and trade” system, big business won’t move towards carbon reduction and efficiencies. We will watch for progress in the lobbying effort of groups like NRDC in 2009.
  2. Consumer attitudes need to change much faster than current trends indicate. The next generation is attuned to the need for change and will adopt clean technology as they mature, but waiting another decade for a widespread mindshift will be crippling.

    This is a key point for communications minds…the message needs to be refined to inspire a multigenerational span of consumers to change their buying and usage behavior in the short term. I wonder if there’s a marketing consortium working on this…anyone?

And from the finance and innovation sectors, as presented by a fascinating panel of experts hosted by Brodeur Partners:
  1. Clean tech innovation will not come from a centralized effort, but from “one hundred thousand garages” (I think this is pretty widely accepted by now).
  2. Those disparate innovators will need financing, but the current VC model is not equipped to research and invest in such a wide variety of projects — many of which cannot predict significant ROI.

    That means, according to Paul Maeder at Highland Capital, that a new model for VC will have to emerge. He suggested a fascinating scenario in which the government guides VCs to “second stage” innovators that have passed a set of viability standards. All theoretical, but something to keep an eye on. (Note: if you get the chance to hear Paul speak, I highly recommend it)

  3. Brodeur conducted a limited study on the influence of social media on traditional journalists, and the results indicate that the trend just keeps pointing to greater faith in online content. Brodeur VP Laura Taylor noted that in the clean tech and agricultural arena journalists are closely following blogs to gauge activity and attitude among their targets.
The Telos takeaway here is that the story isn’t being told on the various levels required to make the right impact. Al Gore and the IPCC did a tremendous job of convincing the United States (and the world) that global warming is dangerously in effect, and a growing percentage of the business sector has now adopted some nice, pointless, media-friendly greenwashing angles.

But moving from awareness to action is a gaping hole, and it is the job of progressive thought leaders to fill it. I believe this story will be told by the middle tier: the innovators that have poured their lives into new technology that can literally save the world. Their dedication, perspective, and knowledge will in time be the breakthrough message that turns the tide.

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