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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. 
[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.


[iv] Jennifer Marlon, Peter Howe, Matto Mildenberger, Anthony Leiserowitz & Xinran Wang (2019). Yale Climate Opinion Maps. 


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3. Just Published: Lead for the Planet

Yesterday at Walden I got into conversation with a thoughtful young marketing expert who pointed out that, "Science doesn't lead...people lead." Thank you, Erica...Great summary! My new book helps concerned citizens do exactly that. 


To address the climate crisis, explore the intersection of human nature, leadership practice, and climate science. We're a destructive and innovative species. Therefore...


Read all about it on my homepage.



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2. What Would Thoreau Do?

Walden Pond 2020

These days we would call him an entrepreneur. From the day he started writing books to his later years in manufacturing, Henry David Thoreau was ambitious and innovative. Not in the sense of building a company and an empire, but in the sense of making a living through excellence. At Walden Pond he set out to create a literary work of art, distilling two years of experience into one year for the ages. (In his day, writing well was a good way to make money.) Living on the Pond, he also made extensive observations of the natural world that scientists still use. When he eventually moved on to traditional commercial life in his family's factory, he designed what today we might call an innovative communication tool (then, an improved lead pencil and the machine to manufacture it). Read more in Robert Sullivan's illuminating book The Thoreau You Don't Know: The Father of Nature Writers on the Importance of Cities, Finance, and Fooling Around.


To read Thoreau's Walden; or, Life in the Woods is to discover the eloquence of nature and the beauty of a contemplative life. Yet, to understand it fully is to realize that in his day the Pond was a commercial site. A railroad ran next to the pond (it still does), and Thoreau built his cabin from the remains of a railroad worker's shanty along with other locally recycled materials. Companies made good use of the site: Ice Fort Cove, a few hundred yards from Thoreau's cabin, was named after a large commercial operation that, before refrigeration, cut blocks of ice from the pond and shipped them by rail and sea to places as far away as India. Also, near the Pond was the woodlot for the town of Concord, which is less than 2 miles away. To throw at this scene some modern interpretive jargon, we might say that life at Walden was embedded then as now in a broad set of human and ecological systems.


Of course, Thoreau never heard of global warming.  Yet if he were with us today, I have no doubt that in his roles as innovator, entrepreneur, writer, citizen scientist, businessman, and respected family member, he would be doing everything in his power to stop it. And so should we.


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