An urgent appeal to people working with social and behavior change communication
By Tomas Jensen
As climate change accelerates and its impact on the planet worsens every day, we, as a species, must act quickly and smartly to bring about massive social and behavior changes that will counter the damage being wrought – and even imagine restoring the equilibrium that is the miracle of planet Earth.
Most people are now aware of the problems. Many are affected personally by the mayhem that is being unleashed. But the potential solutions are many, and we still lack clarity on which ones to pick. We lack systems for application of the right knowledge and take to scale the effective solutions to reduce carbon emissions in the effort to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. Implementing the Paris climate accord requires dramatic behavior changes and urgent action involving all of us.
The current prediction is that we as a civilization are on track to blow past the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold for global warming that scientists stress as being catastrophic for life as we know it. The polar ice sheets are melting. The permafrost of Siberia is thawing, releasing an unfathomable amount of heat-trapping gasses. All over the world species are becoming extinct at alarming rates. Mega cities are reeling from water shortages and rural life threatened by prolonged droughts. Our forests are burning, and our oceans are becoming barren. We no longer can afford the dubious luxury of debate about this reality.
There are no easy solutions. Switching to clean energy and eating less meat are popular proposals. Not so easy. Many Governments that tout climate change action still spend more on subsidies to fossil fuel industries than they invest in innovating and scaling up clean and renewable energy solutions. The complex politics of combating climate change are fraught with misperceptions as much as they are twisted by deliberate misinformation and denial.
Many global citizens think that we will be OK. There are solutions; we are innovative; and we will use technology to win the fight, they argue. I hope they are right, but surely this will not just happen out of the blue. Our innate capacity to innovate tends to destroy and degrade, perhaps more than to preserve and to protect.
This tendency is illustrated by the short-sighted actions of the people of Easter Island, whose society collapsed in the 19th century in large part due to their deforestation of the island.
Imagine for a moment that the young generation on Easter Island had been blessed with the possibility to use social media and artificial intelligence to challenge the existential gamble of their leaders, and to come up with the technological solutions to regenerating their forests and livelihoods in time to save their civilization.
On “pretend” Easter island, imagine you are a parent, or elder, caught between those who want to cut down the last trees to erect sacred stone monoliths, and your children who possess the transformative powers. Surely, they need your help to use this power wisely, and surely you do not have all the answers. But try to help you must, and time is not on your side.
Today, on our Easter Island planet, we all need to work with speed, in everything we do, and that means letting go of outdated and incremental methods to collect and analyze data. We need to rapidly assess the evidence and ideas we have, tap into big data, and we must accept that acting on it will be risky. But the alternative, to let the fear of being wrong and making mistakes stifle us, is not an option. We must use what we have and make the best-informed choices we can. Now. Move.
To put our informed choices into action, we must depart from resource intensive and bureaucratic processes for over-planning and controlling everything. We need simple and agile planning to move forward quickly; our plans need to be so flexible that they can be rapidly updated. This is hard to keep in mind, but our current leaders are already on the way to cut down the “last trees” and we cannot afford to spend time overthinking how to stop them.
We must engage in a multi-pronged approach in real time to reverse the willful destruction of the planet. We must use social media to organize all young people and their elders to keep the loggers from getting to the trees. We also need to sift through and curate available information and create new knowledge to inform the best action that we can take to nurture and fertilize the remaining land before it turns to desert. This means rapidly synthesizing new knowledge and best practices and apply them to every aspect of our lives, our education, and the community’s day-to-day behaviors. All these approaches should be applied simultaneously, with absolute trust in all stakeholders to innovate and contribute with solutions in real time.
Our dilemma today requires that we confront those multiple forces that are plundering our precious, life-sustaining resources. Like the Easter Islanders, time is not on our side. And there is no Planet B. We will not survive in hot deserts surrounded by dead oceans.
Our reality is also that we do not have enough people to curate, to innovate and to apply all the proposed solutions at the scale required. Fortunately, by leveraging technology together with artificial intelligence, we may have the solution to address this shortcoming. We have the technologies to automate and take solutions to scale. And we have the solutions to do this in harmony with people and nature and in the most transparent and empowering ways imaginable.
The digital revolution and the emergence of transformative tech are very much in the hands of the young generation of today – the future leaders of our global civilization. The transformative power they bring is accelerating too, at a pace that, I believe, can easily overtake that of climate change.
In order to do all this, however, we must proceed immediately. We must learn, apply, fail and get up again and keep going at it. With speed, with purpose and with agility. Together with our children, our young people, the robots, and yes – with the trees, the animals and all of nature. After all, it is what’s given us life, and what’s needed to keep us alive.
Tomas Jensen is Rain Barrel’s Senior Advisor on Social and Behavior Change Communication: He is based in Cairns, Australia, around 10,400 km (6,500 miles) west of Easter Island.
Are you interested in SBCC and climate smart solutions? He’d love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rain Barrel Communications is a global network of communication and social change professionals, promoting social justice and climate-smart solutions in everything we do.