On the first Earth Day in 1970, environmental sentiment was proudly worn and fiercely optimistic. It tapped into a deep concern for our future shared by young and old; rich and poor; left, right, and center. Now, as the world faces an accelerating global climate crisis, political will has faded – and divided. Grand bargains are far from view. And failure to find common ground and cut carbon pollution could tank the biosphere in ways we can’t imagine.
And yet, today, I’m hopeful.
Even though almost all climate scientists agree that human activity is warming the planet, climate change remains politically divisive. But the same can no longer be said of climate solutions. A growing body of evidence suggests that people everywhere, of every political stripe, want to use less energy derived from fossil fuels. And now, technology, economics, and science are aligning behind them.
If the public and private sectors can work together and seize this moment, millions of Americans will soon have powerful new tools to reduce their energy consumption and curb our carbon emissions. The four big ideas below outline the space where consumers and companies, government and industry, left and right find that their common interests – saving energy and money – align to help save the planet.
1. Not everyone cares about carbon, but everyone cares about saving energy.
On April 23, 1970, The New York Times wrote of the original Earth Day: “Conservatives were for it. Liberals were for it. Democrats, Republicans, and independents were for it. So were the ins, the outs, the executive and legislative branches of Government.”
Today, I’m not sure you could write the same sentence. But you could about energy efficiency. Our behavior as energy consumers is nearly universal; we don’t like waste. We don’t like throwing money out the window. We want to be good neighbors and good citizens. As it turns out, these things mean as much to people in red states as they do to people in blue states.
There’s plenty of data to prove it, but it’s easier to look at our statehouses. Even at a time of profound political division, energy efficiency laws have quietly swept across more than half the union – from North Carolina to Texas to California. Everyone agrees we shouldn’t be wasting energy, and nearly everyone agrees we should be doing something about it.
2. Information unlocks behavioral change.
History shows that information, well timed and thoughtfully delivered, is what helps society make great environmental decisions. Today, we know more about the science and impact of sharing information than ever before.
For example, one recent study revealed that if you want people to save energy at home – whether they’re green-living gurus, penny-pinchers, or otherwise – you won’t get far by simply telling them they’ll save money or help the planet if they use less energy. What does work, and very well, is showing them data that their neighbors are acting to save energy, too.
Now, creative thinkers are using normative comparison – that “keeping up with the
Joneses” effect – to get more people to reduce their emissions, pay their taxes, recycle, you name it. Their success is proving that tough-sell behavioral changes aren’t just possible, they’re relatively easy, and people want to make them.
3. We can scale up solutions as never before.
Thanks to modern technology and the Internet, we have unprecedented capacity to crunch data and share it worldwide. And we can harness these tools to change energy-use behaviors as never before.
For example, utilities are using cloud-based analytics to inform families how much energy they’re using compared with their neighbors. That tiny behavioral cue, given to millions, is yielding massive energy savings. Rolling out behavioral energy efficiency programs like that nationwide could abate 10 million metric tons of carbon emissions every year – and put $2.2 billion back in consumers’ pockets.
4. If we can do good, we can do well.
When the Clean Air and Clean Water acts became law in the 1970s, businesses responded to new environmental standards by revamping their processes and inventing new, cleaner products. They made a lot of money doing it.
The same thing is happening today. US automakers are thriving as hybrids and plug-ins take the market by storm. Investments in clean energy and energy efficiency are creating jobs and pouring money back into local economies. Environmentally responsible companies are finding that adopting a “second bottom line” – that is, measuring their environmental performance as carefully as their financial performance – doesn’t hold them back; it propels them forward.
Going green is great business, it turns out. That wasn’t part of the Earth Day message in the 1970s, but maybe it should have been.
What you can do
Yes, the moment is dire, and the hour is late. Confronting the environmental issues we face won’t be easy. But that knowledge shouldn’t feed our cynicism. It can and must inspire us toward bold action.
Business owners: Take on a second bottom line because it will strengthen the future of your company. Lawmakers: Ramp up efficiency programs because it will win you votes and grow our economy. Energy users: Look for ways to save, but also let your utilities and your leaders know that you want to, because it’s good for your pocketbook and good for the planet.
And if that doesn’t move you: Embrace energy efficiency, because your neighbors are doing it, too.
Alex Laskey is president and founder of Opower, which provides cloud-based software for the utility industry. He was featured in Fortune’s “40 under 40,” has been a Technology Pioneer at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and serves as a commissioner on the Alliance Commission on National Energy Efficiency Policy. Mr. Laskey also serves on the board of the Conservation Lands Foundation.