THE BLOG
06/01/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

People Won't Risk Climate Action Unless They Feel Secure

When I was 22, I embarked on what was to become a seven year trip around the world. The initial plan was to study in Europe. But once I got there, a job offer followed, then a transfer to Asia, then another transfer to... well, you get the point.

I returned from my voyage invigorated, confident in my abilities, and ready to throw myself at virtually any challenge. It was an incredibly positive, transformative experience.

And it just about didn't happen.

Truth is, I was a quivering mess when I boarded that first flight. The only thing that got me aboard was my parents' reassurance -- if anything went wrong, they had a plane ticket waiting to bring me home.

Today, all of us are standing at the airport, about to embark on a journey into the unknown world of sustainability. President Obama's pending fight for climate action will certainly include putting a real price on contaminating 'externalities' like air and water. The EU's carbon trading program has already been running a few years. In North America, three separate carbon trading programs are setting regional caps in areas that include half the US population, and three-quarters of Canada's. And the mayors' Climate Protection Agreement is setting real rules that municipality will have to abide by.

Our lives will change. They need to. And that's a scary proposition.

The Forces of No

There will be vigorous opposition to these changes -- especially from businesses tied to fossil-fuel intensive industries. Companies that lag in green efficiency will suddenly find themselves uncompetitive. Same for companies that continue to produce energy intensive products.

We can expect this opposition to get ugly. Remember what happened when big tobacco came under fire, fueling a massive campaign of denial and misinformation? Today, many of these same lobbyists are on the payroll of big oil and coal companies, seeding confusion about climate change to immobilize citizens.

What we need to engage in positive action isn't the rebuttal of climate scientists. Fear soundbites always make better headlines than complex explanations validating science.

Instead, we need to think on a much more fundamental, human level.

Understanding Human Nature

As humans, we're hard-wired for anxiety. There's a prehistoric, reptilian part of our brain (brilliantly described by Dan Baker in his book What Happy People Know) that's obsessed with survival. Essentially, it floods us with adrenaline and puts us in 'fight or flight' mode. This may have been useful when we were dodging sabre-tooths, but it does more harm than good today.

That's because we can't fight, or run away from the climate challenge. We have to accept it, weigh our options, and act rationally.

Fear of change triggers our prehistoric, reptile brain. It will cause us to 'freeze' or panic, rather than acting with a clear head. It simply can't handle ambiguity or risk (nicely described by the Ellsberg Paradox).

So how do we calm down our inner reptile? We can begin by putting climate action into context.

Chances are, the only story we've been given to this point is a bleak, apocalyptic one. The sort of story that creates fear and inaction.

Certainly, there are folks like Guy Dauncey who describe a future that looks much brighter, based on taking positive action today. But their voices have not been harnessed to communicate this story on a large scale.

For green innovators, painting a picture of a better future will reduce ambiguity among shareholders, stakeholders, and (most important) anxious consumers.

Communicating the Way Forward

Communication is key to successful innovation (we describe it as one of the 3 essential elements for bringing ideas from mind to market).

When it comes to green innovation, the role of communication will only become more important.

As Nicholas Parker, Executive Chair of the Cleantech Group noted at Globe 2010, "Failure to imagine the future possible" is the problem we all face.

The only way we'll be able to imagine that future is by communicating assurances that we can, in fact do this.

Envisioning a future possible will be our proverbial plane ticket home. Once we know it's there, we'll feel confident moving forward.