November 10, 2010

Reality is Overrated as a Motivator

Right before the big election last week, I found myself thinking about beliefs and what people are absolutely sure they know, regardless of the facts. Two stories that appeared on the front page of the New York Times on the same day, demonstrated Americans' remarkable ability to kid ourselves.

- First, a story about how virtually everyone in America — and especially the anti-tax advocates — thinks their taxes have gone up or stayed flat under President Obama. They don't realize that taxes actually went down for, as the article says, "95% of working families." That cut to nearly everyone's withholding tax was a pivotal part of the stimulus bill.

- Second, a story titled, "In Kansas, Climate Skeptics Embrace Cleaner Energy," about a Midwestern non-profit, the Climate and Energy Project, that has gotten people to reduce energy use and emissions...by not mentioning climate at all.

The first story is a microcosm of every accomplishment the Democrats managed to keep hidden from the American public, but I'll leave real comment on that phenomenon to the politicians and economists.

But the second story is right up my alley — it's about how to motivate people to pursue the societal and economic benefits of going green. The Climate and Energy Project is cleverly avoiding the climate debate and thus any discussion at all that triggers arguments about the really bad misinformation out there (the article, for example, points out the shocking statistic that only 48% of people in the Midwest agree that there is actually warming going on — whether you think it's human-caused or not, temperature measurements are clear on this point).

Instead, Nancy Jackson, Chairman of the Climate and Energy Project, has hit on three alternative arguments to going green: personal thrift, the benefit to the community of promoting green jobs, and a religious appeal to "creation care." The program has targeted everything from home weatherization to getting the community to lobby Siemens to build a wind plant in the region. They've also gotten towns to compete with each other to save energy.

Their success has been remarkable; according to the Times, "energy use in the towns declined as much as 5 percent relative to other areas — a giant step in the world of energy conservation, where a program that yields a 1.5 percent decline is considered successful."

This group's work goes to the heart of a critical debate moving through the climate policy world. I recently took part in a meeting of green thought leaders to discuss why the climate bill in the U.S. failed this summer and what we can learn. We all asked ourselves, what's the right messaging to reach Americans? The only real divide in the room was over the question of whether to talk directly about climate change.

On the one hand were respected thinkers who said, "You can't solve climate without talking climate." On the other side came the argument that talking about saving money, jobs, the economy, and other drivers of action would do the job. Although I think that we probably have to talk climate change to policy makers, when it comes to reaching everyday Americans, I tend to fall into the latter group (see "8 Reasons You Should Cut Carbon (Aside from Climate Change)").

The lesson in Kansas is clear to me: it does not really matter if you believe in climate change. The logic of decoupling our country, our businesses, our communities, and even our homes from carbon, and from oil in particular, remains incredibly strong. At the macro level it's about national competitiveness, national security, and not relying on declining, ever-more-expensive resources.

But this applies on the personal level as well. Who doesn't want to save money and use less energy? Who wouldn't want their town to depend on locally-created, free energy?

For businesses wondering how to promote their green initiatives and products, I see lessons in how to talk to both consumers and employees. For employees, the best motivators are proven cost savings, good data, and competition. The Kansas program used all of these to great effect.

When talking to consumers, the lesson seems to be to use whatever combination of these works, plus throw in some values and religious mores, if that fits the audience. A call to save mother earth for purely environmental reasons might work well in Berkeley, but in Kansas make the subtle shift to talk about creation care, or don't go down that road at all.

So even though I titled this piece a bit sarcastically, the Kansas program works so well because it IS based in reality -- the savings you can yield, the jobs you can attract to your town, and the connection to religious values you can feel are all real. It's just not the reality of climate change.

The end result is the same — people are saving money and energy and starting to build a new economy. And if we move down the path to a cleaner world, who really cares how?

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

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