Sustainability Doesn't Need Rock Stars; We Need Unsung Heroes

05/22/2015 02:34 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016

Remember the Y2K programming shortcut? That was the way that programmers shortened the year to the last two digits, with the 19__ being assumed. Then, as the year 2000 (Y2K) approached, suddenly fears erupted about everything from word processors being unable to 'auto-insert' the correct date to major systems like air traffic control, the financial markets and the electrical grid collapsing.

None of that happened. Why? Some will argue because dedicated programmers and IT professionals toiled anonymously and without fanfare in businesses and government agencies; putting in hours and hours of overtime and hard work to 'work around' the problem.

Others maintain that the entire issue was manufactured (well, the programming was done deliberately) in order to sell updated software and computers.

Still others claim it was never a problem in the first place.

The real lesson, however, from Y2K is that business (and government agencies acting individually) were convinced that the problem was real and sought individual solutions, hiring contractors, updating software and operating systems and the like.

And in the end, there were only a few minor 'glitches' and disaster was averted. Or, if one is cynical, people spent a lot of money - estimates are as high as $300 billion worldwide - 'solving' a problem that did not exist.

Does this sound familiar? If we look at the issue of climate change we have the same three camps:

  1. Those that claim it was deliberately (and deviously) created and demonize those they hold responsible
  2. Those who claim the problem does not exist and
  3. Those who think that it is being exaggerated and that 'no one' needs to do anything about it.

Scientists - the majority of whom believe (and have the data to support that belief) - that climate change is real, and that we must develop new industries and mechanisms to power our civilization without destroying our environment - are faced with a real dilemma. How to reach beyond those who do - or claim to - understand the issue and convince billions of people to 'update their software' when the expense is seen to be high and - and this is the real difference - there is no clear replacement emerging as the 'solution.'

And this is where the problem becomes clear; as long as advocates continue to argue whether or not the problem exists, many businesses will not invest in developing solutions for which there may be no market, and governments will not act to either incentivize solutions (investing in or offering tax incentives) or to limit damages (carbon taxes, fines, restrictions and the like.)

Advocates have done us - and themselves - no favor by repeatedly declaring the 'tipping point' and then resetting it when action is not taken. Why? Because their job is to demonstrate a compelling case for action - just as they did for Y2K - but not to 'solve the problem (they're not the ones feverishly spending night after night at the keyboard coding and testing new software). Sadly, if they do not convince more people to take action (that the problem represents an opportunity for those who come up with solutions) the power of capitalism will not be leveraged to solve this problem.

And we - like all those programmers whose efforts many do not acknowledge - have to be ready, willing and able to have climate change skeptics and denialists say 'I told you so' if we do solve climate change.

Because that is what success will ultimately look (and sound) like.

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