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Climate Leadership Now

7. To Confront the Climate Crisis, Team Humanity Must Rely Less on Cooperation and More on Innovation

 

Building leadership to address the climate crisis requires focusing on what people can actually do to make a difference. We want Team Humanity to succeed, not just talk. As I discussed in my previous post, a major theme in Lead for the Planet is how social science can help.

 

In that earlier post I discussed why leaders are not likely to beat global warming by appealing to the human propensity for cooperation. Decades of failures to cooperate regionally and internationally on climate change (and also on other wicked problems like Covid-19—see below) support this conclusion. There have been many significant attempts to get people to cooperate – including the Kyoto agreement, the US government's 2010 attempt to establish an emissions trading system, and the 2015 Paris accords. They have all failed to motivate meaningful actions to reduce fossil fuel usage. From a psychological perspective, Kyoto failed because it punished countries financially for not meeting emissions reductions targets. The US government failed because the members of Congress could not cooperate well enough to pass climate legislation. Although it encouraged global communication and some funding to reduce carbon emissions, the Paris agreement failed because it holds no country accountable to actually do those things. Such failures suggest that members of key organizations--political parties and countries-- are neither trusting enough nor altruistic enough to cede their sovereignty to a superordinate organization, even if the intent of that organization is noble.

 

If relying on cooperation is not the answer, is there an alternative?  Fortunately, human beings are blessed with many other useful traits, like curiosity, imagination, assertiveness, competitiveness, and energy. These are found in abundance in the human propensity to innovate, which characterizes many scientists and engineers and also the entrepreneurs who support them.

 

Entrepreneurs demonstrate originality, motivation to achieve, tough-mindedness, and competitiveness.[i] These are also prized across the business sector. Team Humanity should draw on these traits to pursue research in all sectors that burn fossil fuels--energy production, manufacturing, buildings, agriculture, and transportation.

 

For example, we need to improve renewable energy technology, enhance energy storage, and capture carbon dioxide emissions. To pursue these long term goals, we must apply best practices for rewarding risk-taking researchers and entrepreneurs.  For instance, we must pair them with high net worth investors who eschew short term profits in favor of longer term, visionary goals. We should integrate the public and the private sectors to both develop research and turn it into practical action.

 

Worldwide, research on energy is significantly underfunded. Bill Gates, catalyst and founding member of the Breakthrough Energy group, summarizes the energy research problem succinctly: "Huge uncertainties, huge underinvestment."[ii]  To address this concern, in 2015 two dozen countries and the European Union joined together in project Mission Innovation to promote more research funding.

 

Innovation by Heliogen is a recent success story. Breakthough Energy Ventures, the investment arm of Breakthrough Energy, invested nearly a decade ago in this company, which has been working to improve solar concentration technology.  In 2019, Bill Gross, the company's CEO and founder, announced a new solar technology that can concentrate solar power to temperatures of more than 1000 degrees Centigrade.   Previously, only burning fossil fuels could produce such high temperatures, which are necessary for industrial processes like making steel and cement. For instance, Gross estimates that if all cement kilns ran on solar, his new technology would reduce cement's carbon footprint by 40 percent.[iii] Talk about making a difference!

 

Climate leaders can pursue cooperation and innovation simultaneously, and they should, with each leader acting according to their talents and opportunities. Citizen support for innovation may help: In 2019, 82% of Americans supported funding research into renewable energy resources.[iv]

 

Yet Team Humanity has fewer than 10 years remaining in a carbon budget that holds global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Like the Covid pandemic, the climate crisis is a wicked problem in which many parameters are unknown, issues are intertwined, and outcomes are uncertain. By demonstrating the limits of cooperation and the hope for a scientific solution to such problems, the Covid pandemic may hold a major lesson for climate leaders: To address the climate crisis, Team Humanity should place a major bet on innovation.



[i] Sari Pekkala Kerr, William R. Kerr, Tina Xu (2017).  Personality Traits of Entrepreneurs:

A Review of Recent Literature. Harvard Business School, Working Paper 18-047. https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/item.aspx?num=53682 
 
[ii] David Wallace-Wells, (2019, Sept. 17). Bill Gates: 'I Don't See Anything Worthy of the Word Plan' to Fight Climate Change.  New York Magazine.


[iii] https://www.wired.com/story/a-solar-breakthrough-wont-solve-cements-carbon-problem/


[iv] Jennifer Marlon, Peter Howe, Matto Mildenberger, Anthony Leiserowitz & Xinran Wang (2019). Yale Climate Opinion Maps. https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/. 

 

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6. To Confront the Climate Crisis, Team Humanity Must First Confront Itself

 

Here are some mainstream recommendations on how to address the climate crisis. What do you think they all have in common?

·       The countries of the world must come together to address the climate crisis.

·       World leaders should create an organization devoted to climate change and empower it to hold countries accountable for their carbon emissions.

·       In the United States, the major political parties must unite behind a carbon fee.

·       China and the United States could lead the world by jointly reducing their own carbon emissions and influencing other countries to do the same.

 

These recommendations are all macro level interventions that require humanity – Team Humanity  – to organize together to address climate change. In my work as an organizational psychologist, I often apply the lens of social science to evaluate collective behaviors like these. In this case I observe that all of these recommendations operate across societies and at the highest level of societies, and they all require people to cooperate. They are also aspirational: if they would only work, Team Humanity could save the planet.

 

For my new book Lead for the Planet, I searched the social sciences for best practices on climate leadership. I looked for answers to questions like "What does social science suggest about Team Humanity's ability to cooperate? What does it say about people's ability to trust each other, help each other, and make sound decisions together, all of which are prerequisites for global cooperation?" Fortunately, research in such disciplines as psychology, sociology, and anthropology does offer some actionable answers. However, it also challenges some cherished assumptions about how societies change.

 

Consider first the human propensity to trust— and, especially, to trust macro level institutions. Leading trust researcher Dr. Charles Heckscher, author of Trust in a Complex World: Enriching Community, points out that, on the positive side, it is indeed possible to build trust when people have a collaborative purpose.  On the other hand, he finds, doing this is both challenging and unreliable. Heckscher argues that because today's complex problems require specialized knowledge and the commitment of many stakeholders, achieving the needed level of trust is not likely.  He concludes that, "We are not likely to be able to get the nations of the world to work together on climate change or the reduction of inequality; neither the needed attitudes nor skills are widely enough distributed."[i]

 

In related research on trust we learn, not to our surprise, that the higher the level of government, the less likely people are to trust it. For example, in the US, citizens trust local government more than state government, [ii] and local and state government more than federal government.[iii]  They hold these beliefs even though they see and accept that national, state, and local governments have different responsibilities.  In sum, Team Humanity's ability to trust others—a prerequisite to achieving cooperative global solutions—is weak.

 

Consider next the human inclination to help each other, commonly referred to as altruism. Certainly, the members of Team Humanity can be situationally altruistic, as when an individual risks their own life to save that of another. However, the social context of this sort of behavior matters a great deal and often creates limits on altruism. When studying altruism across groups, social scientists often refer to parochial altruism, the act of being unselfish toward in-groups while at the same time being aggressive toward out-groups. They point out that even human brain patterns reflect this human tendency. The brain patterns for empathy and concern for one's in-group members are strong when the group is threatened by an out-group, and at the same time the individual's tendency to act aggressively toward the out-group grows.

 

Interestingly, competitive individuals are more likely to engage in parochial altruism. Being in competition with other groups motivates them to perform, and it also encourages them to become especially cooperative with their own group members. Parochial altruism is especially strong in individuals who have high levels of testosterone. Toward their own group such individuals express high levels of solidarity, but when threatened by another group they are likely to escalate hostilities. Of course, these behaviors constitute what we informally refer to as tribalism.

 

Given the psychological influences of tribalism, it may well be that individuals and nation states that compete for resources will not be able to cooperate to fix the climate problem. Some highly competitive individuals do not even think cooperation is a desirable goal. Some even tend to dislike soft-hearted people.  Individuals who score high on the personality trait of competitiveness see relationships in terms of power. They like to win,[iv] and they are likely to want their business sector to win. Assuming that individuals in the highly competitive energy sectors are also competitive, these tendencies suggests that they will be loyal to their own tribes and aggressive toward the others. They are not likely to be part of a global climate solution.

 

Finally, social science research also suggests that, historically, Team Humanity has failed to make the right decisions and has often crashed whole societies because of environmental problems and resource shortages. Societies make bad decisions because they fail to anticipate or even perceive a problem, or fail in their attempts to solve it, says geographer Jared Diamond.  Will the climate interventions currently proposed by Team Humanity be enough? Diamond asserts societies must learn to embrace long-term thinking and reexamine their core values, even though evidence shows this is very difficult. He puts Team Humanity's choice this way: "A lower-impact society is the most impossible scenario for our future—except for all other conceivable scenarios."[v]

 

Climate leaders should consider these and the many other relevant findings from social science in order to make the best possible decisions for the planet. Often research results feel counterintuitive, yet paying attention to them is crucial for making effective decisions about which goals to pursue and how humanity should organize to pursue them. In particular, as the research cited here suggests, climate leaders should think carefully before defaulting to solutions that rely heavily on cooperation.

 

In my next post I discuss an approach that, based on further social scientific analysis, may be more fruitful.



[i] Charles Heckscher (2015). Trust in a Complex World: Enriching Community. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 169-170.

 
[ii] Justin McCarthy (2014, September 22).  Americans still trust local Government more than state. Gallup. http://www.gallup.com/poll/176846/americans-trust-local-government-state.aspx. Accessed May 25, 2017.
 

[iii] Gallup (2016). Trust in government. http://www.gallup.com/poll/5392/trust-government.aspx. Accessed May 25, 2017.

 
[iv] Rae André (2008). Organizational Behavior: An Introduction to Your Life in Organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 43.

 
[v] Jared Diamond (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York, New York: Viking Penguin Group, 522-524.

 

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