For the past nine years I’ve been working in the space of something called REDD+. REDD+ is an idea that came to life in the United Nations and is an acronym for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation plus the enhancement of carbon stocks and sustainable forest management.
Are you still reading?
Does that even make sense to you?
If it doesn’t, you are not alone.
My work suffers the same fate as so many environmentalists. We over-complicate, over acronym-ate, over-explain, and generally make something so naturally beautiful as nature wholly unrelatable.
In my opinion, REDD+ is one of the best ideas ever. REDD+ creates a financial incentive that makes living forests more valuable standing than processed or cleared. How cool! We all have some sense that forests are good for us, and we’ve all heard that tropical rainforests are disappearing at alarming rates – a football field per minute. Why? Largely in the service of making stuff for us like beef, palm oil… This is classic enviro-speak, but given that we still keep clearing forests, apparently this way of talking isn’t very effective at changing our behavior.
How is it possible that humankind nearly universally ‘loves’ ‘Nature’ and yet continues to be willfully oblivious to the negative impact it is having on the planet?
Environmentalists will explain to you that it is because human beings, evolutionarily speaking, have a high discount rate.
It means we tend to worry more about the present or near-future than about the long-term future. Parents worry about their kids, young people worry about getting a job, we all worry about having enough of something – love, money, food – to ensure we’re ok. So when we hear catastrophic projections about climate change, we look out the window and instantly make a calculation – is the slow, but steady shift in our climate more important to me right now than the fact of student loans, unemployment, or heartbreak?
Outgoing CEO of Conservation International, Pete Seligmann, recently said to GreenBiz: “We need to use language that people understand — that actually relates to their concerns. I often say to the people that I work with, that what we say is not as important as what people hear.”
And it made me wonder what people are hearing when NGOs and environmental activists communicate. Because they’ve been doing it for decades, and it hasn’t translated into a society that respects and values the planet properly.
But the truth is there is a lot that can and should be done, and it’s pretty incredible to see the amazing and unexpected things some individuals, small businesses, and large corporations are doing. And they’re doing it for entirely new reasons – businesses of all sizes are doing it because they’re thinking about environment and climate in a language that matters to them.
For example, did you know that Disney and Microsoft already tax greenhouse gas emissions in their companies? They are not required to do this by any government and yet these businesses are taking action because they understand that climate change presents a real strategic and financial risk to their businesses, including changes to the physical environment, international climate policy and increasing regulation, and changes in consumer preferences toward more responsibly and sustainably produced goods. Any business that wants to be relevant in the coming decades needs to be thinking about these changes now.
And last year, Chinese e-commerce giant AliBaba and its online payments platform AliPay founded Ant Forest in partnership with the UN Environment Program. Ant Forest is a game/app that enables users to track the climate impact of their consumer choices. Good choices are rewarded with ‘green energy’ which grows a virtual tree on that user’s account. The virtual tree is linked to the planting of an actual tree and the associated greenhouse gas emissions reductions. This ‘gaming’ of reducing one’s environmental footprint has resulted in pretty stunning success. In the first six months, 200 million Chinese AliPay users voluntarily signed up for the app, avoiding over 150,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by planting over a million trees.
Looking at companies like Disney, Microsoft, and AliPay, it is clear that many people and businesses can and want to be part of the solution to climate change. But the way we’ve been asking people and businesses to engage for the past several decades has missed the mark. Perhaps we environmentalists need relationship counseling because we seem to have missed the point that communicating isn’t about getting someone to listen to what we have to say or finding a big enough platform from which to shout. Its about finding a common language so that we can get something done.